Orthodox Christianity

A Very Short Introduction

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A. Edward Siecienski
Very Short Introductions
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     144 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Orthodox Christianity: A Very Short Introduction, A. Edward Siecienski provides a concise overview of a vast and complex field. With somewhere between 250 and 300 million adherents, Orthodoxy remains the world’s second largest Christian denomination. Most adherents live in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Greece, with sizable communities in north Africa and the Levant (1). Less hierarchically structured than the Roman Catholic church, it is organized into fourteen (or sixteen, if one counts the Orthodox Church of America [OCA] and Ukrainian Orthodox Church) self-governing (“autocephalous”) churches. While in theory “Orthodoxy is supposed to be a ‘communion of local churches united in love,’” the situation is different in practice. As Siecienski wryly remarks, “it more often resembles a dysfunctional family squabbling over Christmas dinner” (3).

From the perspective of the West, this group of denominations appears behind a veil of mystery. Siecienski sets out to lift this veil from his position as a member of the Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross in Medford, New Jersey. The “exotic” nature of Orthodox Christianity has helped to motivate a conversion movement to Orthodoxy, especially among evangelicals in the US, who sought a return ad fontes and the more “spiritual” nature of Orthodox liturgy. Thus, dealing with Orthodoxy today has become a vital part of engaging with contemporary Christianity.

Siecienski divides his account into eleven chapters, the first four of which constitute a well-written tour de force of the history of Christianity in Europe. The first chapter, entitled “‘In the Beginning,’” details the early history of Christianity in Europe up to the 8th century. Chapter 2, on “Byzantines and Franks,” describes how the iconoclast and filioque controversies of the 8th and 9th centuries led to the Great Schism of 1054 following the expansion of Christianity into Slavic lands, and despite the attempt to bring East and West closer together in the Crusades (17–25). Chapter 3, “Constantinople and Moscow,” details the eastward shift of the heartland of Orthodoxy after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 and the subsequent rise of Muscovy to the status of the “Third Rome” and Byzantium’s true successor. Siecienski stresses that the Orthodox catechisms of this time “sounded and looked very Catholic” (30), showing how political events had led to what most Byzantines since the Council of Lyons in 1274 had regarded as a “wholesale surrender of the Orthodox faith to the heresies of the Latins” (26). This reinforced the estrangement of Orthodoxy from Protestantism and contributed to the rise of the Eastern Catholic or “Uniate” Ukrainian church (31). This served as a model for later deals between Rome and other local Orthodox churches and subsequent assertions of independence, giving the impression of ethnic churches despite the rejection of  “ethnophyletism” (from the Greek ethnos for “nation”) as heresy in 1872 (35). According to Siecienski, as a result of this (mis)understanding, “the structure of the Orthodox Church in the West is remarkably confused” (37).

“Persecution and resurrection” is the title of chapter 4, which describes the period of Orthodoxy’s “captivity” to Western thought from the 17th to the 19th century (32). In 1700, Tsar Peter the Great decided that the office of the patriarch would be abolished and there would be no successor to the deceased Patriarch Adrian (a decision he announced only in his Spiritual Regulation of 1721). Tsar Peter’s effectively becoming bishop of bishops within his empire nonetheless led to a spiritual renaissance and renewal of theological education, giving rise to saints from the starets (elders), who would later figure in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The reestablishment of the Patriarchate of Moscow following the end of Tsarist rule in 1917 was overshadowed by the revolutionary repression of the church in the hands of the newly organized Soviet state. This led to Orthodoxy’s own dark ages, marked by political tension, persecution (millions of Orthodox Christians are believed to have died during the Soviet period), and exile, a remarkable history to which the recent conversion of the Hagia Sophia from Ataturk’s museum into a mosque adds another chapter.

In his analysis of “Sources of Orthodox Thought” in chapter 5, Siecienski examines the full implications of “Tradition” (with a capital “T,” following Jaroslav Pelikan’s definition, 42). Consequently, “the most damning criticism the Orthodox can make is to call something ‘new’” (43). Orthodoxy distinguished itself from the Catholic and Protestant churches by insisting on understanding Scripture within the context of Tradition (44), a fact reflected in Orthodoxy’s liturgical dogmatics (47). The last five chapters focus on divine inscrutability and Orthodoxy’s central theological principles, the filioque and theosis (chapter 6), permanent prayer (embodied, for example, in the Russian 19th-century classic The Way of a Pilgrim) and icons (chapter 7), church community, the church as mystery, and Orthodox–Roman Catholic dialogue (chapter 8), the liturgical nature of Orthodox worship and the liturgical year (chapter 9), the mysteries (or sacraments) of the Orthodox Church (chapter 10), and the present role of Orthodoxy, including Catholic and Protestant conversions and the religious side of the struggle for Ukraine (chapter 11). He closes with the interesting plea that today Orthodoxy “provides millions of Christians throughout the world with their spiritual home and continues to shape world events, especially in places like Ukraine and the Holy Land. It cannot and should not be so easily dismissed” (106).

In its deeply informed and concise synthesis of chronological narrative and topical analysis, this well-structured volume may serve as a model for future historiography. It contains a useful glossary, lists of illustrations and references (by chapter), a short bibliography and an index (107–25). Siecienski has made available an expert introduction to Orthodoxy that should be read by everyone interested in religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Philipp Reisner is visiting lecturer in American studies at Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf and Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Germany.

Date of Review: 
February 16, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

A. Edward Siecienski is Associate Professor of Religion and Clement and Helen Pappas Professor of Byzantine Culture and Religion at Stockton University, and the author of The Papacy and the Orthodox: Sources and History of a Debate and The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy.


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