Book Reviews

Discerning the Signs of the Times

By Elisabeth Behr-Sigel

eds. Michael Plekon & Sarah E. Hinlicky

St. Vladimir’s Press, 2001, 148 pp, $13.95

While many Orthodox may have dismissed this book due to its anticipated subject matter, the ordination of women to the priesthood, it would be a shame if we did not take time to read the bouquet of essays written by an experienced and wise theologian addressing a breadth of timely themes.

The ten essays range from biographies of St. Maria Skobtsova, Alexander Buhkarev, and Behr-Sigel’s own autobiography, to lectures on Orthodoxy and peace, sources of ecclesial authority, the self-emptying or kenotic Christ, and women’s relationship to Jesus, Mary, and the Orthodox Church. The leitmotif throughout is the difficulty of maintaining the Church’s fidelity to its ancient Tradition, while properly “discerning the times” and living this same Tradition in the modern world.

She writes, “Orthodox theologians must develop the capacity to discern, in a spirit of freedom, humility, and brotherly love between authentic Tradition, the mystery that transcends history while illuminating it, and that which, in the empirical life of the Church, is only a residue, often acceptable but sometimes noxious of a past that is over and gone.”

In some of these essays, Behr-Sigel ultimately follows this challenge through to the problem of women’s participation in the ministry of the Church, in which she draws on her experience in the ecumenical movement and the stumbling block this issue has become to it. Behr-Sigel discusses the freedom and responsibility given to women in the Gospel, to Mary as she freely agrees to become God-bearer, and to others as Jesus shocks his friends and enemies by his respect for and attention to women.

While this is certainly not the theme of each essay, and not the primary theme of the book, it is an important one, challenging the reader to face with integrity and honesty the participation of women in the Church of the twenty-first century.

Behr-Sigel is described in the introduc tion as “determinedly moderate, even-handed, unpolemical, and wisely reserved.” This aptly describes the author’s tone and approach, providing the reader with a historical sense of the issues facing our times — not surprising, since her life spanned the turbulent twentieth century.

While Behr-Sigel does not provide the concrete criteria for discerning between Tradition and the residue of the past, she instead lays a path of stepping stones for others to tread upon, examining recent saints who lived the ancient Tradition in the modern world as they met the particular needs of their times, and examining themes — authority in the Church, theological formation, kenosis, ecumenism — that pertain to modern realities.

Behr-Sigel challenges us to follow after her, sometimes walking the path she provides, leaving plenty of room for deviation, but never allowing us to use the Church as a means of evasion.

– Sheri San Cherico

The Church of the Ancient Councils

by Archbishop Peter L’Huillier

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press

ISBN 0-88141-007-1, 352 pp, $21

“Just as the four books of the holy gospel, so also I confess to receive and venerate four councils.” With these words Pope St. Gregory the Great of Rome expressed his respect for the authority of the four most ancient ecumenical councils. These not only defined Trinitarian and Christological dogma in terms which ever since have been regarded as normative by the major Christian confessions of East and West. They also laid down canons and disciplinary decrees which constitute a milestone in the history of church order, signaling as they do a shift from the multifarious customary law of earlier centuries to a written law applicable throughout the Church.

These ancient canons have more than merely historical interest. Their continuing influence can still be felt in the modern codifications of the Roman Catholic Church and elsewhere among Western Christians. For the Orthodox East, their importance is even greater. They remain the primary point of reference for our institutional life.

Given the great importance of these canons of the ancient ecumenical councils, what precisely do they say and mean? What was the intention of their authors, the fathers of those councils?

With the present work, the author provides authoritative answers to such questions. After providing an historical overview of each of the councils, he examines their canons, translating them into readable English; he explains the sometimes ambiguous terminology of the original texts; he explorers the historical circumstances which gave rise to the canons; and he indicates some of the ways in which they have been reinterpreted (and sometimes misinterpreted) in later centuries.

The author does not claim to give answers to all the questions which we today might wish that the ancient canons addressed. Rather he seeks to engage others in the challenges which honest scholarship poses, to lead them into the world of the ancient councils, and to discern the significance of the ancient canons for the life of the Church today. The result is a critical study which will long remain an essential reference work.