A Review of
Understanding Time in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition
Reviewed by Daniel Greeson.
For those of us who are monoglots it is always an occasion of rejoicing when the theological works of some of our favorite theologians are released in our mother tongue. New City Press has done the English speaking world a great service by translating some of the Orthodox Francophone world’s great authors. This is especially felt as one ingests the great spiritual feast that is the work of Olivier Clément.> Reading Transfiguring Time: Understanding Time in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition feels similar to entering an Orthodox Church and encountering the entire drama of salvation history; the tense battle between God and the forces of darkness and emptiness, the beauty of the interplay of light, darkness, incense within the womb of an iconographic program, and the attendant emotions of loss, joy, fear, and the unique sense of restorative hope.
Entering into this text one may resonate with some of his thoughts due to previous exposure to the Orthodox theological tradition. Clément’s thought was heavily shaped by the fruitful convergence of the immigrant Russian Orthodoxy community’s encounter with the French intellectual and theological community of the early and mid-20th century. Several names from this encounter will be readily recognized by those invested in ecumenical theology and the broader Christian spiritual trends of the past century. Names such as Nikolai Berdyaev, St. Maria Skobtsova, Vladimir Lossky, Sergius Bulgakov, Georges Florovsky, Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov, and Paul Evodkimov come easily to mind.
I mention these names and this context also as a point of reference when coming to this text. This book bears the particular contexts of the intellectual milieu in which Clément wrote. This is especially evident in the beginning of the book which is engaged with a reading of “archaic” religion’s understanding of time. As I am not a specialist in ancient Greek religions or other religious traditions I am not equipped to evaluate whether or not Clément’s engagement, reading, and critique of these traditions understanding of time would hold up with current interpretations of these varied traditions. So for the first section of the book one may read these with these contingencies in mind.
This context is also evident in the sustained reference and engagement with the work Christ and Time by the Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullmann. So, is this text more of a text for historians and those interested in the development of the theological dialogues and debates of the 20th century? No. In short, Clément offers an insightful “mini-dogmatics” that reflects upon the always contemporary problematic of the tension between creation and the eschaton. What is the meaning and purpose of time and, especially, its relationship to salvation?
To accomplish this Clément does an incredible job of fleshing out some of the deep theological insights of the 20th century; namely personalism and the underlining of the importance of eschatology for theological method and interpretation. Within this text we encounter deep philosophical engagements with the philosophy of time, a running explication of the Book of Revelation, a steady theological interpretation and engagement with the Old Testament, poetic and liturgical accounts of the Christian ascetical struggle and engagement with the broader world, and the development of the particular insights of Vladmir Lossky and the broader “neo-patristic” renaissance. All of this is done with great attention to the theological tradition as found within the works of the Greek Christian patrimony, especially flowing from the work of Origen as refracted and reconstituted in the work of Gregory of Nyssa and others.
Structurally the book shows the fingerprints of Lossky’s famous work, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Parts two and three of the text reflect Lossky’s tactic of discussing the distinct economies of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Part two is a sustained reading of the Old Testament and their fulfillment within the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Especially insightful is his discussion of typology, a hermeneutical strategy employed by the early Church which was heavily debated in the 20th century. Part three is a wonderful exposition of the Holy Spirit’s accomplishment of molding and forming Christians into close conformity with the kenotic nature of the Son.
I must admit that I am always enamored with beautiful accounts of the Christian life done with a theological depth and an eye to contemporary problematics. This is indicative of the best works of the 20th century’s movement to retrieve the insights of the first millennium of Christian thought. In this case Clément’s work has been some of the most lyrical and encouraging theology I have read in some time. Keeping in mind the context which bore this text I would still highly recommend this book to all those interested in Greek patristics, nouvelle théologie, Russian Orthodoxy, and systematic or dogmatic theology written with soul and insight.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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