More Thoughts on Eastern Orthodoxy

Catherine Tremper has brought up some interesting (and well documented) points about my post Why People Shouldn’t Become Orthodox.  So let me make some response, citing her first:

Taking the long view, Avvakum wasn’t very representative of Orthodoxy. In a long ago Russian history class I was told that early Orthodoxy in Russia focussed on ritual rather than theology. For various reasons service books came by way of the Bulgarian Church, not Constantinople. When, in the 17th century, Nikon tried to realign the Russian Church with Greek practice, many Old Believers indeed were afraid that the new practices were heretical. In addition, some have seen a kind of urge toward democracy in the Old Believer position (note 1). Also, the controversy was part of a struggle between church and state that was resolved by a church council in 1666–Nikon was demoted to simple monk, the Byzantine formula of cooperation between church and state was reasserted (as opposed to Nikon’s claims of the political superiority of the Church to the tsar), *and* Nikon’s reforms were accepted, making non-compliance with the reforms both a civil and ecclesiastical offense (note 2). Eventually, the state became predominant, at least by the time of Peter the Great. But that’s another story.

First, anyone familiar with Orthodoxy knows that the form of worship is very important, which is why Nikon’s changes were so controversial.  That’s true with any form of Eastern Orthodoxy, be it Russian, Greek, Serbian (her daughter is Serbian Orthodox) or what not.   But the fact that Nikon felt it necessary to make any changes at all calls into question one of the strong appeals of Orthodoxy, as I noted in my piece about Avvakum:

But Avvakum’s story–and that of the Old Believers in general–puts much of what many claim for Orthodoxy today into question. To their credit, Orthodox churches are beginning to realise the mistake they made in the suppression of the Old Believers. Today we see many show Eastern Orthodoxy as the alternative to the chaos that many churches find themselves in. They do this based on an absolute continuity of Orthodoxy with the faith that Our Lord laid down, both in practice and in worship. We see from Avvakum’s experience that this claim cannot stand from a historical standpoint.

I won’t argue that the Russians got their form of worship from the Bulgarians.  But the Bulgarians were (and are) right next to Constantinople.  Is it possible that the Bulgarians and Russians preserved some forms of Orthodox worship from an earlier era that the Greeks of Nikon’s (and our) day had discarded?  It’s the same problem with the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, one which the Greek Orthodox use.  Everyone (from Origen and Jerome onward) knows that, in theory, the Hebrew original is better overall.  But the Septuagint was based on Hebrew manuscripts that are older than anything we look at today, and that’s why Biblical scholars have recourse to it in their research, its manifest defects notwithstanding.

Nikon was in no position to know this kind of thing one way or another. All he knew was what the Greeks did, and that the Russians had to "keep up with the Joneses" on liturgy and practice.  Russian Orthodoxy was and is, however, the "crown jewel" of the Eastern church, and if anyone needed to keep up with the Joneses, it was the Greeks. What he put the Russian church through was, from a doctrinal standpoint, unnecessary and a blight on the history of Eastern Orthodoxy.

In case my Pentecostal and other Evangelical readers are totally lost at this point, let me include the following from Avvakum’s account:

But why be surprised at that cellarer? He had drunk of that tobaccoplant, sixty pounds of which were discovered at the house of the Bishop of Gaza, together with a lute and other objects for merrymaking. 31 I have sinned, forgive me; ’tis none of my business, but his own; let him stand or fall before his Master. I just happened to mention it. Such were the teachers of God’s law most favored among them.

Same Bishop of Gaza was one of Nikon’s "foreign experts" who was brought to help him make the reforms.  Avvakum already took a dim view of this bishop, but the fact that he used tobacco only made it worse.  The Russian Orthodox Church was, to my knowledge, the first Christian church to take a stand against tobacco.

That leads me to Catherine’s next point: the imposition of state authority to settle a theological/liturgical dispute.  It’s easy to lose sight of this, but Eastern Orthodoxy was the first to actually carry out a serious marriage between church and state in the Byzantine Empire, a pattern that was repeated in Russia.  It was only natural that, once the church had made up its official mind about things, the state would come along and enforce it.  In the version of Avvakum’s life that you cited (there are more than one,) Avvakum makes a very stirring speech about how unChristian it is to use torture and the power of the state to enforce doctrine.

As Catherine alludes to, that cut both ways: Peter the Great basically nationalised the church by abolishing the Patriarchate of Moscow and placing it under the Most Holy Synod of his own choosing, taking the cue from the Church of England.  It wasn’t until the Bolsheviks seized power that the Patriarchate was restored, but that victory was short lived.   Today, of course, we see the same pattern emerging of the Russian Orthodox Church reasserting a spiritual monopoly on Russian life with the help of the state, and Avvakum’s life and words once again haunt us.

Let’s turn to the second point:

The Mystificator from Romania seems not to know that then, and, I hope, now, Russians regard children as pure blessings from God. My former Russian history professor could explain whether that is a holdover from the days of the Dual Faith (retention of pre-Christian beliefs and practices alongside Christianity in early Russia) better than I can.

I’ve known enough Russians to confirm what you say about their attitude towards children (the ones that believe in God, at least) is correct. The problem here is a pagan carryover, but not of the kind you’re thinking about.

The sexual standards of the New Testament time amongst the Gentiles were rather "wide open," to say the least.  That led to a reaction in later Roman history, one that Christianity was at the centre of.  (Part of that reaction was to some of the onerous regulations the Romans put on marriage, but that’s another story altogether.)  The result was the general (if not very Biblical) view that sex was sinful in just about any form.  The main result of this was monaticism, but it manifested itself in both West and East.  In the West, it led to the celibate priesthood (the backwash of which plagues Roman Catholicism to this day) and such practices as the "Tobias nights," where marriage consummation is deferred.  In the East it led to a celibate episcopacy (not priesthood: Avvakum was married, for example) and regulations such as the Mystificator described.

Evangelicals, of course, can be very smug about this, but frequently tend to err in the opposite direction, which is why is can be very hard to be single in an Evangelical church (to say nothing about being single in ministry.)  What we need is a balanced, Biblical view on this subject.

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