Hidden & Revealed: The Doctrine of God in the Reformed & Eastern Orthodox Traditions: A Review

Hidden & Revealed: The Doctrine of God in the Reformed & Eastern Orthodox Traditions by Dmytro Bintsarovskyi. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Academic Press, 2021, $29.99, 376 pp.

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” The most famous line from Cool Hand Luke is directed at a recaptured prisoner by the warden, and then repeated by that same prisoner after another (failed) escape attempt. While the relationship between the Reformed and Orthodox traditions certainly is not as strained as that between warden and prisoner, there has nevertheless been failure to communicate—failure which Dmytro Bintsarovskyi aims to correct.

And rightly so: the Reformed tend either not to know key differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, or, when they know a “distinctly” Orthodox doctrine (such as the Essence-Energies distinction), the depth of understanding is shallow. Conversely, the Orthodox are often unable to distinguish the various strands of Protestantism, or, worse still, lump them all with Catholicism in one monolithic tradition that could be called “Western.”

Bintsarovskyi, a Reformed theologian whose ancestral homeland is Ukraine (a majority Orthodox country), is well-positioned to charitably compare Reformed and Orthodox theology on the doctrine of God in his recent work Hidden and Revealed: The Doctrine of God in the Reformed & Eastern Orthodox Traditions. Since “Reformed theology,” “Orthodox theology,” and “doctrine of God” are each unmanageably large topics, Bintsarovskyi wisely narrows his comparative work to Herman Bavinck and John Meyendorff. He focuses specifically on the ways in which both theologians speak of God as both hidden and revealed–or, as the author puts it, “what God is in himself and what he is for us” (3n6). Specifically, Bintsarovskyi assesses God’s hiddenness and revelation in the theologies of Bavinck and Meyendorff by three criteria: how well each preserves “God’s incomprehensibility,” “the reality of union with God,” and “the oneness of God” (32).

Bintsarovskyi comprehensively covers first Bavinck’s and then Meyendorff’s theology in these areas, justifying why these thinkers were chosen to represent their respective traditions by systematically working through what each wrote on God’s hiddenness and revelation, before concluding with compelling interpretations of their articulations. In the final chapter, he also notes how each directly interacted with the other’s tradition. In short, Bintsarovskyi finds in Bavinck a sophisticated treatment of analogical reasoning about God (which Bintsarovskyi himself favors) that genuinely reveals God while simultaneously preserving his transcendence (due to the creaturely limits of any analogy). Bintsarovskyi finds in Meyendorff a rich exposition of the Essence-Energies distinction: the Divine Essence secures God’s hiddenness by being utterly transcendent, and the Divine Energies (for those unfamiliar with the Greek term energia, when it appears in the New Testament, it is typically translated as “operation” or “activity”; importantly, it is not the same as the English word “energy”) reveal God by being God’s activities or operations (be they, as Bintsarovskyi distinguishes, internal or external to God).

As an Orthodox Christian, I especially appreciate three pitfalls in reading Meyendorff that Bintsarovskyi skillfully avoids that many (including Orthodox) do not. First, he flags, without casting judgment, simplistic caricatures of Western and Eastern theology. An example from the West would be Théodore de Régnon’s thesis that Western trinitarian theology goes from nature to person whereas Eastern goes from person to nature; or, from the East, Vladimir Lossky’s generalization that Western theology is “rational” whereas Eastern theology is “mystical.” Bintsarovskyi simply notes the influence of such theses on Meyendorff without assuming they are true when it comes to his own conclusions.

Second, Bintsarovskyi does not read his own definitions into Meyendorff. This typically happens when someone who knows Scholastic terminology reads that Meyendorff says both that the Essence-Energies distinction in God is a real distinction and that God is simple. Obviously, by Scholastic definitions, this is a contradiction, and whereas lesser scholars would (and have) stopped there, assuming incoherence in Meyendorff’s thought, Bintsarovskyi digs deeper to argue to his Reformed audience that actually what Meyendorff means by “real distinction” is not what a Reformed thinker would mean, and, in fact, Meyendorff’s account of divine simplicity is coherent.

Third, Bintsarovskyi never assumes that Meyendorff, or any single Orthodox writer, represents the entirety of the Orthodox tradition. He carefully notes how Meyendorff’s articulation of the Essence-Energies distinction differs from other Orthodox theologians, and is even controversial among some. Likewise, he is rightly critical of Meyendorff’s reading of Pseudo-Dionysius, noting how poorly Meyendorff interprets the Neoplatonic tradition as a whole.

Throughout the Meyendorff chapter, Bintsarovskyi consistently represents him fairly, and even later lavishly praises his Essence-Energies distinction as providing “greater precision” in distinguishing between the hiddenness and revelation of God (285). Without being unfairly sidetracked into tangential issues, my greatest quibble with the Meyendorff chapter is that Bintsarovskyi sides against those who read the Essence-Energies distinction as being historically rooted in the Cappadocians (209n302), but then notes about twenty pages later that, for Basil the Great, we don’t have access to the essence of anything, only to energies (228). According to Bintsarovskyi’s own research, Basil affirms the Essence-Energies distinction, at most the corrective being that he applied it to all things and not only to God—but then, applying Bintsarovskyi’s own analogical reasoning about God, it would seem fair to say that the way in which the Essence-Energies distinction applies to God would not be exactly the same as found in creatures.

While the greatest strengths of the book are Bintsarovskyi’s outstanding research and in-depth understanding of Bavinck and Meyendorff, the greatest weakness is the lack of a comparative methodology. In the final chapter, no theological comparative methodology is argued for or even mentioned. Instead, the measure for comparison appears to be Bintsarovskyi’s own theological commitments. The same level of research and argument poured into choosing and articulating the theologies of Bavinck and Meyendorff needed to be poured into constructing a comparative methodology: listing topics or criteria is not a method for comparing different systems.

Unfortunately, this lack of clear comparative methodology opens Bintsarovskyi up to critique. What begins as a controlled and narrow topic broadens exponentially sas the reader begins to wonder why Bintsarovskyi (as opposed to Bavinck or Meyendorff) holds this theological position rather than that. Suddenly, Bintsarovskyi himself is on the hook for a much fuller treatment of these issues than can possibly be done by researching two thinkers, however important they are for their respective traditions.

For instance, Bintsarovskyi claims, “the very need to become ‘uncreated’ for real communion with God to occur cannot be properly substantiated from Scripture,” (312), which reads like a thesis for an entirely different book (312). Perhaps it’s true, but there is no engagement with Orthodox readings of Scripture (which, for the curious, on this topic would begin in Genesis). Likewise, with no argument, he asserts, “The distinction should be drawn not between God’s unknowable essence on the one hand and his knowable acts on the other, but between his inexhaustible essence and inexhaustible acts on the one hand, and our limited capacity to understand them on the other” (305). Established comparative methodology would have allowed statements like this to be made unproblematically, but if the measure is Bintsarovskyi himself, he would need to argue against the traditional Platonic arguments for why God’s transcendence is not merely epistemological (if only God created us with greater minds) but ontological (God transcends even being). As with the scriptural claim, such an argument would likely have to be a separate book.

Even accounting for the lack of an established method for comparing different theologies, Bintsarovskyi succeeds in bringing scholarly rigor to a comparison between Bavinck and Meyendorff over how God is hidden and revealed. His knowledge of both figures is unquestionable, and he avoids the usual pitfalls that have trapped lesser scholars who are outsiders to Orthodox theology. Through his charity, fairness, and scholarship, Bintsarovskyi helps the Reformed and Orthodox break free from the prison of miscommunication.

Dr. Nicholas C. DiDonato is an Upper School History and Theology Teacher at Delaware Valley Classical Christian School.


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