Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Russian Orthodox Church to the Nineteenth Century

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background

It would seem that in most western seminaries and schools of theology little (in some cases nothing) is known of, or taught about, the Orthodox Church. For many, Christianity is either Roman Catholic or Protestant. Some scholars know of the Protestant, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox Churches and not much more. There is a broad ignorance of the rich tradition of Christianity in the east. The ignorance is further compounded with regard to the Oriental churches. Our study here must begin even if briefly by attempting to understand what separates the Eastern Orthodox from the Roman Catholic Churches.

The various fragments of the current Christian church came to be so in three major stages over several hundred years. “The first stage in the separation came in the 5th and 6th centuries when what are known today as the Oriental Orthodox churches became divided from the main body of Christians. The Orthodox Churches which became divided from the main body of Christians fall into two groups: the Churches of the East (mainly in Iraq and Iran, sometimes called “Assyrian”, “Nestorian”, “Chaldean”, or “East Syrian” churches) and the five non-Chalcedonian churches (Monophysite): the Syrian Church of Antioch (Jacobite), the Syrian Church in India, the Coptic Church in Egypt, the Armenian Church and the Ethiopian Church.” (Ware, 3) These are called the Oriental Orthodox. Then there is the Eastern Orthodox who are “Christians in communion with the ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.” This separation does not concern us here. The second separation is what is called the Great Schism of 1054. This divided Christians into two: in Western Europe the Roman Catholic Church under the pope; in the Byzantine Empire the Eastern Orthodox Church. The third separation was between Rome and the reformers in the 16th century. This separation does not concern us here.

Bounded in the east by the Oriental Churches and in the west by the Roman Catholic Church the Orthodox Church expanded to the north. In 863 St. Cyril and St. Methodius, the apostles to the Slavs, traveled northwards to undertake missionary work beyond the frontiers of the Byzantine Empire leading to the eventual conversion of Bulgaria, Serbia, and Russia. As the Byzantine power dwindled these newer churches of the north increased in importance and on the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 the principality of Muscovy was ready to take Byzantium’s place as the protector of the Orthodox world.”

It is this principality of Moscow, which developed into the Russian Orthodox Church. 

2. Works (Selected List)


3. Themes

Reasons for the Great Schism

Although the schism is dated as occurring in 1054 (10th June or 16th July) the events of 1054 were preceded by other issues.

Christians had been living under intense persecution till 312 when, as he was riding through France with his army, Emperor Constantine looked up into the sky and saw a cross of light in front of the sun with the inscription: In this sign conquer. As a result of this vision, Constantine became the first Roman emperor to embrace the Christian faith. By 324, he moved his capital to Byzantium, which he named after himself: Constantinopolis. #8220;He wanted a new Rome since to him the old Rome was too deeply stained with pagan associations to form the center of the Christian empire which he had in mind” (Ware, 19). By 325, he called the first General or Ecumenical Council of the Christian church in Nicea to elaborate the content of the Christian faith. The Third General Council of Chalcedon (451) assigned to new Rome the place of honor next to old Rome.

1. Papal Supremacy

The Orthodox believe that among the five patriarchs (of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem) a special place belongs to the pope. Though the Orthodox Church does not accept the doctrine of papal authority she does not deny to the Holy and Apostolic See of Rome a primacy of honor – first among equals, primacy not supremacy. The Orthodox attitude to papal supremacy is expressed by Nicetas, Archbishop if Nicomedia:

My dearest brother, we do not deny to the Roman Church the primacy among the five sister patriachates and we recognize her right to the most honorable seat at the Ecumenical Council. Bust she has separated herself from us by her own deeds when through pride she assumed a monarchy which does not belong to her office… How shall we accept decrees from her that have been issued without consulting us and even without our knowledge? If the Roman pontiff seated on the lofty throne of his glory wished to thunder at us and, so to speak, hurl his mandates at us from on high and if he wishes to judge us and even to rule us and our churches, not by taking counsel with us but at his own arbitrary pleasure what kind of brotherhood, or even what kind of parenthood can this be? We should be the slaves not the sons, of such a church and the Roman see would not be the pious mother of sons but a hard and imperious mistress of slaves. (Ware, 50)

2. Filioque

On the procession of the Holy Spirit, the original Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed read:

I believe … in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and together glorified…

However the West inserted an extra phrase “and from the son” (in Latin filio-que). So the creed now reads #8216;who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” We shall not explore the long and subtle history of this phrase. Suffice to say that it probably originated in Spain as a safeguard against Arianism and was interpolated at the Third Council of Toledo (589), spreading from Spain to France, to Germany, welcomed by Charlegmagne, and adopted at the Council of Frankfort (794). Since this was not adopted at a General Ecumenical council its spread was gradual until writers at Charlemagne’s court made it into a controversy by accusing the Greeks of heresy for not including the filioque in the creed. “Rome continued to use the creed without the filioque until the start of the 11th century. In 808 Pope Leo III wrote a letter to Charlegmagne that although he believed the filioque to be doctrinally sound, yet he considered it a mistake to tamper with the wording of the creed.” (Ware, 51). Thus Rome played a mediatory role between the Franks and the Byzantines.

By 850 the Greeks reacted sharply to the issue on two grounds: “1) that the creed is the common possession of the Church and if any change needs to be made it should be only by an ecumenical council. By altering the creed without consulting the east, the west is guilty of moral fratricide, a sin against the unity of the church. 2) That the filio-que is theologically untrue. They hold that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the father alone.

The filioque controversy was to play out in the missionary endeavors of the Eastern and German (western) missionaries in Bulgaria during the reign of Pope Nicholas 1 and St. Photius the Great in the East. In the struggle between German and Greek missionaries in Bulgaria, Pope Nicholas 1 took sides with the Germans in demanding insertion of the filio-que in the Bulgarian church. Rome was now no longer neutral on the question. Alarmed by this development St. Photius wrote an Encyclical Letter to the patriarchs of the east denouncing the filio-que and charging those who used it with heresy.

Photius’ letter charged the Roman Church with five distinct heresies, formulating the differences that still divide the churches: (Heard, 4)

That the Romish church erroneously fasted on the Sabbath or seventh day of the week.

That in the first week of lent it wrongfully permitted the use of milk and of food prepared from milk

That contrary to scripture it prohibited priests from marrying, and separated from their wives such as were married when they took orders.

That it uncanonically authorized bishops only to anoint baptized persons with the holy chrism, withholding that authority from presbyters.

That it had sacrilegiously interpolated the filio-que in the creed of the Council of Constantinople and held the heretical doctrine of the procession of the Holy Ghost from the son and from the father.

Photius followed this letter by summoning a council in Constantinople which declared Pope Nicholas 1 excommunicate terming him “a heretic who ravages the vineyard of the Lord.”

Suddenly Photius was deposed in 867 by the emperor. Ignatius was restored as Patriarch and communication with Rome was restored. In 869 an anti-Photian council was held in Constantinople. In the years that followed Ignatius and Photius reconciled and when Ignatius died in 877 Photius succeeded him as Patriarch.

The filioque controversy erupted again in 1014 when the papacy adopted the addition at the coronation of Emperor Henry II in Rome.

3. 1054

The final clash came in 1054. While the Normans were forcing the Greeks in Byzantine Italy to conform to Latin usage, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularis, demanded Latin churches in Constantinople to adopt Greek practices and when they refused, in 1052, he closed them. This was the situation when “one summer afternoon in the year 1054, as the service was about to begin in the church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sofia) in Constantinople, Cardinal Humbert and two legates of the pope entered the building and made their way up to the sanctuary…. They placed a Bull of Excommunication upon the altar and marched out. … A deacon ran after (them) in great distress and begged him to take back the Bull, Humbert refused...” (Ware,43). It is this incident that marks the beginning of the Great Schism between the Orthodox East and the Latin West.

These constitute the broad outlines of the circumstances surrounding the separation of the Greek east from the Latin west.

This spirit of loving arguments for argument’s sake and general disputations on theology were not limited to theologians and learned church dignitaries alone. It pervaded all classes of society. According to Gregory Nazianzen (4th century):

this city is full of mechanics and slaves who are all of them profound theologians and preachers in the shops and in the streets. If you ask a man to change a piece of silver, he informs you wherein the Son differs from the Father, if you demand the price of a loaf, you are told by way of reply that the Son is inferior to the Father, and if you inquire whether the bath is ready, the answer is that the Son was made out of nothing. (Heard 8,9)

Conversion of the Russians

By 955 the Russian Tsar Vladimir’s successes in war spread his renown, and as a rapidly expanding and powerful empire his allegiance was courted and attempts were made to convert him.

Emissaries came to him from Mohammedan Bulgaria and the Khorazian Jews, from the Latin Christians of Germany and France and from the Greeks in Constantinople. To each he had a response. To the Muslims he said the pleasures of Mohammed’s paradise were tempting but he refused to be circumcised or to abstain from pork or wine ‘for drinking is a delight of Russians nor can we live without it’. Of the Jews he asked, ‘where is your country?’ and when they acknowledged that for their sins God had driven them forth and scattered them over the earth, he indignantly rejoined ‘do you, whom your God has forsaken and dispersed, pretend to teach others and would you have us share your fate?’ The western doctors were dismissed with scant courtesy, as coming from troublesome neighbors; ‘our fathers have never believed in your religion,’ he said. He listened more attentively to the Greek who alternately aroused and soothed his superstitious fears by eloquently depicting the future torments of the wicked and the rewards of the righteous. Enforcing his words with pictures representing the judgment day. ‘Tell me more,’ said Vladimir, ‘happy are those seated on the right, wretched the sinners on the left.’ All the mysteries of the Orthodox faith were explained. He was deeply moved...(Heard, 17).

In 987, he sent counselors to examine the religion of different countries. At Constantinople the Russian emissaries were dazzled by the magnificence of the court and transported by the splendor and imposing ceremonies of the ritual. They said:

When we stood in the temple we hardly knew whether or not we were in heaven for, in truth, upon earth it is impossible to behold such glory and magnificence; we could not tell all we have seen; there, verily, God has his dwelling among men and the worship of other countries is as nothing. Never can we forget the grandeur which we saw. Whoever has enjoyed so sweet a sight can never elsewhere be satisfied, nor will we remain longer as we are (Heard, 18).

Eventually in 988, Vladimir accepted to be baptized and commenced, with characteristic energy, the propagation of the new faith. He commanded that his twelve sons and all his people should be baptized; “idols were overthrown, the great statue of Peroun was cast into the Dnieper river and the entire nation with a unanimity and suddenness that have no parallels in the religious history of Europe turned from paganism to Christianity at the bidding of its prince.” (Heard, 19)

The Russian church came to represent the protector of the Orthodox faith with the fall of Constantinople. It became the third Rome and assumed a messianic mission developing the concept of holy Russia.

Some historians have claimed a dearth of data concerning the development of theological and philosophical thought in Russia because of Turkic-Mongol control of the territory. But this is partially flawed because in the Turkish Empire the Muslims saw the church as an imperium in imperio. Muslims regard Christians as people of the book, believers in the same God even if the Christians were misdirected by Christology - Jesus as Son of God, his death and resurrection. The Turkish Empire on the whole left the Christians alone and since theological disputation was an intra-Christian affair, Christian theology flourished even under Turkish control.

According to Ware (87),

the Muslims in the 15th century were more tolerant towards Christianity than western Christians were towards one another during the reformation and the 17th century. Islam regards the bible as a holy book and Jesus as a prophet. Thus Christians were not treated on the same level as pagans. According to Muslim teaching, Christians are to undergo no persecution but may continue without interference in the observance of their faith, so long as they submit quietly to the power of Islam.

For the Greek Church, Turkish rule meant survival, hence conservation, as Greek thought underwent ossification and hardening. The church faced with social pressure simply repeated accepted formulae. They took as their guide Paul’s words to Timothy “Guard the deposit keep safe what has been entrusted to you (1 Tim 6:20). Furthermore under Turkish rule Greeks who wanted higher education had to go to the west. This western education affected their interpretation of Orthodox theology.

Although reforms stopped at the borders of Russia and the Turkish Empire, so that the Orthodox Church has not undergone either reformation or counter-reformation, the movement still influenced orthodoxy. In 1573 “a delegation of Lutheran scholars from Tubingen led by Jakob Andrea and Martin Crusius visited Constantinople and gave Patriarch Jeremia II a copy of the Ausburg confession translated into Greek. Though Crusius wrote that “If they wish to take thought for the eternal salvation of their souls they must join us and embrace our teaching or perish,” Jeremia III’s three answers to the Tubingen theologians adhered strictly to the traditional Orthodox position and showed no inclination toward Protestantism. In his third letter he concluded ‘Go your own way and do not write any more on doctrinal matters, and if you do write, then write only for friendship’s sake.’ Jeremia’s correspondence with the Protestants dealt with such issues as free will and grace, scripture and tradition, the sacraments, prayers for the dead, and the invocation of saints” (Ware, 93).

As is the case in times of persecution and social pressure, the Orthodox Church under Turkish rule maintained the tradition of Hesychasm particularly at the holy mountain - Mt. Athos. The spiritual renewal of the 18th century was predicated on the reasoning that too many Greeks were fully under the influence of the Western enlightenment, but the regeneration of the Greek nation would come not through embracing secular ideas fashionable in the west but through return to the roots of Orthodox Christianity - rediscovery of patristic theology and Orthodox liturgical life, frequent communion, daily if possible, rather than 3-4 times a year.

One form of this spiritual renewal is the appearance of the Philokalia, a vast anthology of ascetic and mystical texts dating from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries. The Philokalia is devoted especially to the theory and practice of inner prayer and in particular the Jesus Prayer. The publication of the Slavonic translation in Moscow in 1793 was to bring the Philokalia to the forefront of Christian spirituality in both east and west.

With the collapse of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, only one nation was capable of assuming leadership in Eastern Christendom – Russia. (For a brief description of the fall of Constantinople on Tuesday 29th May 1453, see Callinkos.)

In 1472, Ivan III the Great married Sophia, niece of the Byzantine emperor. The Grand Duke of Moscow began to assume the Byzantine titles of autocrat and Tsar (an adaptation of the Roman Caesar) and to use the double-headed eagle of Byzantium as his state emblem. People came to think of Moscow as the “Third Rome.” The first Rome had fallen to the barbarians and then lapsed into heresy; the second Rome, Constantinople, had in turn fallen into heresy at the council of Florence, and as a punishment had been taken by the Turks. Moscow therefore had succeeded Constantinople as the third and last Rome. Writing to Tsar Basil III in 1510 the monk Philotheus of Pskov says:

I wish to add a few words on the present Orthodox empire of our ruler: he is on earth the sole emperor (Tsar) of the Christians, the leader of the apostolic church which stands no longer in Rome or in Constantinople; but in the blessed city of Moscow. She alone shines in the whole world brighter than the sun..... All Christian empires are fallen and in their stead stands alone the empire of our ruler in accordance with the prophetical books. Two Romes have fallen but the Third stands and a fourth there will not be (Ware, 103).

The Russian defeat of the Tatar troops on the banks of the River Ugra in autumn 1480 and the assassination of Ahmed, the last Khan of the Golden Horde, freed Russia from the Mongol yoke.

Possessor – Non-Possessor Controversy

We shall briefly discuss three issues with the Orthodox Church. At the church council of 1503, a division emerged in the Russian Orthodox Church that came to be known as the Possessors-Non-possessors controversy with far reaching consequences for the development of Russian spirituality. At the council, St. Nilus of Sora, a monk from the Transvolga hermitage, launched an attack on the ownership of land by monasteries, which by this time owned about a third of the land in the country. Nilus was opposed by St. Joseph of Volokalamsk. Majority of the priests sided with Joseph and those in favor of possession won the day. Nilus was supported by other Transvolga hermits and came to be known as the Non-Possessors. Considerable tension continued between the two groups and when in 1525 the Non-Possessors attacked Tsar Basil III for unjustly divorcing his wife the Tsar imprisoned their leaders and closed the Transvolga hermitages bringing a period of persecution of the Non-Possessors.

The controversy of the Possessors-Non-Possessors went beyond monastic property. They involved the relations of the church and the state. The Possessors emphasized social obligations of monasticism: it is part of the work of monks to care for the sick and the poor (at one time Joseph’s monastery fed 700 pilgrims daily); to show hospitality and to teach. To do all these they need money and therefore must own land. They argued that they really did not own the land but held it in trust to benefit the people. Joseph’s followers said, “The riches of the church are the riches of the poor.”

The Non-Possessors argued that “almsgiving is the duty of the laity while monks’ primary task is to help others by praying for them and by setting an example.” The monk therefore must be detached from anything, the care and control of which would not only distract him but also bring him into conflict with the people he is supposed to be praying for. Monk Vassian, Nilus’ disciple says

where in the traditions of the gospel, Apostles and Fathers are monks ordered to acquire populous villages and enslave peasants to the brotherhood?... We look into the hands of the rich fawn slavishly, flatter them to get out of them some little village.... We wrong and rob and sell Christians, our brothers. We torture them with scourges like wild beasts (Ware 105).

Thus it was not only ownership of land but also the treatment of peasants, who worked the land, and others who disagreed, that was at issue. Those who resisted the church’s methods were called heretics and harshly persecuted. Joseph upheld the view that if heretics were recalcitrant the church must call the civil arm and resort to prison, torture and, if necessary, fire. Nilus and the Non-Possessors opposed all forms of coercion and violence against heretics.

How the Possessors and Non-Possessors stand on certain issues:

1. On the question of heretics:

Possessors – invoke the help of secular authorities.

Non-Possessors – spiritual matter to be settled by the church without state intervention.

2. On Moscow as the Third Rome

Possessors – support the idea of Moscow as Third Rome, emphasize close alliance between church and state, active in politics, patriots and nationalists turning church into the servant of the state, blurring the distinction between God and Caesar.

Non-Possessors – focus on prophetic and otherworldly witnesses of monasticism. The church on earth is in pilgrimage. Emphasized universality and community (catholicity) of the church.

3. On Christian piety and prayer

Possessors – stress following the rules and discipline.

Non-Possessors – stress the inner and personal relationship between God and the soul.

Possessors – stress the place of beauty (in icons, liturgy, music) in worship.

Non-Possessors – stress the possibility that beauty might become an idol that comes between the monk and God.

Possessors – stress the importance of corporate worship and liturgical prayer.

Non-Possessors – stress the importance of mystical prayer.

As is evident, these two trends were not mutually exclusive. As a matter of fact for the church to be effective in the world a delicate balance must be found between the positions of Joseph and Nilus. Both are so right and so relevant in their claims that the Russian Orthodox Church canonized both of them - St. Nilus of Sora and St. Joseph of Volokalamsk.

The Schism of the Old Believers (Old Ritualists)

The 17th century in Russia opened with a period of confusion and disaster known as the ‘Times of Troubles’ when the land was divided against itself and fell victim to outside enemies. But the country experienced sudden recovery and embarked on reconstruction and reform in all branches of national life. The role of the church in this was exceptional and unique because at this time Philaret, the Patriarch of Moscow, was also the father of the reigning Tsar. Following on the teachings of Joseph of the Possessors they began to build a highly disciplined, even regimented, society “They believed in authority and discipline and saw the Christian life in terms of ascetic rules and liturgical prayer. They expected not only monks, parish priest and laity - husband, wife, children - to keep the fast and to spend long periods at prayer each day, either in church or before the icons in their own homes. Their program made few concessions to human weakness and was too ambitious to be completely realized. At the palace banquets of the Tsar liturgical readings and readings from the lives of the saints took the place of music. Moscow around 1650 went far to justify the title “Holy Russia.” Orthodox brethren from the Turkish Empire were amazed by the austerity of the fasts, by the length and magnificence of the services. Even today the services last about three hours in churches without any provision for seating except for the elderly and the infirm. The whole nation appeared to live as “one vast religious house. The Tsar and the whole court attended services lasting seven hours or more. They were so strict that they permitted for “no mirth, laughter and jokes, no drunkenness, no opium eating and no smoking. For the special crime of drinking tobacco they even put men to death’ (Ware, 110).

This was the state of affairs when Nikhon became Patriarch in 1652 and decided to change things - the liturgical books to conform to Greek books, forms of worship, etc. Though Nikhon emerged from the Josephite tradition, the Josephites considered his reforms a threat to Moscow as the Third Rome and Russia as stronghold and norm of Orthodoxy. While they respected the original Byzantine church, the mother of Russia's faith, they did not have the same respect for contemporary Greeks. They thus refused to accept the changes being imposed by Nikhon. Hence the controversy of the Old Believers, (better translated Old Ritualists). The controversy of the Old Ritualists was not about theology or doctrine but about ritual. Their distinctive feature is making the sign of the cross with two fingers rather that the newly introduced three fingers.

Tsar Alexei wanted to unite the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Churches under the patriarchate of Moscow but the Ukrainians were using Greek practices and books. Nikhon was impatient with the Old Ritualists.

Soon the Old Ritualists turned their wrath upon the Tsar for supporting Nikhon. They proclaimed him a servant of Satan. The Tsar responded and by the end of the 17th century 20 Old Ritualist leaders were burned at the stake or otherwise executed. Many more were held prisoner in monastic prisons. About 20,000 however burned themselves to death in mass immolation believing that the age of the antichrist had arrived and seeking to die a martyr’s death for Jesus.

Let me mention some other changes. Nikhon became so powerful that he overshadowed the Tsar by his active involvement in secular affairs. Furthermore he wasted to establish the supremacy of the church over the State. Things had gone too far and when Peter the Great ascended the throne in 1682 he did not want any more Nikhons and therefore abolished the office of Patriarch and set up a commission - a spiritual college or holy synod - in its place. This spiritual regulation saw the creation of the Ministry of Religion, and the church not as a divine institution but a department of state. The reign of Tsar Peter the Great was marked by the westernization of Russia.

In the field of theology, 19th century Russia broke away from its dependence on the west. According to some historians the greatest event in the intellectual development of Russia in the 19th century was the Decembrist conspiracy. Previous Tsars had tended to be conservative and though Peter the Great opened the door to the west, it was not until Tsarina Catherine that the influence of the enlightenment reached their height. This led to such social unrest and intellectual ferment that the doors were once again shut with Russia forbidding travel abroad. Tsar Alexander re-opened the floodgates. He had to, because Russian armies fought in the west against Napoleon. “Among the army officers the contact with western Europe stirred a powerful ferment and thus came into existence a matter of active protest which culminated in the Decembrist rising.” This was a secret officer’s society which attempted a rebellion in the name of radical social change in December 1825, taking advantage of the dynastic confusion after the death of Alexander 1. The Decembrists wanted the whole ruling dynasty to be physically exterminated and a virtually totalitarian political system installed in Russia. The Decembrists profoundly affected the entire Russian society. The very brutal response of Nicholas 1 in suppressing the movement paralyzed the intellectual life in Russia. Nicholas reorganized the universities between 1828-35, and since there was staffing shortage, encouraged students to study abroad. Most went to Germany and were influenced by German philosophy, returning to Russia bringing with them ideas of Hegel, Schelling, Fichte, etc. Hegel’s and Schelling’s philosophy of history was soon reflected in Russian historical studies. Thus while Russia was shifting away from enlightenment ideas it was developing interest in German Romanticism. In 1823 a group of young men who called themselves “Wisdom Lovers” formed a secret society based on Schelling’s philosophy of nature and of art (Leatherbarrow and Offord, 61).

According to the Wisdom Lovers,

nature was not an objective, mechanical and material entity separated from consciousness and subject to rational comprehension, but rather nature must be seen as the outward physical manifestation of the spirit which informs and unifies all being. ‘All creation, including consciousness, thus forms an organic whole comprehensible only through intuitive and supra-rational modes of cognition.’ They also argued that in art inspiration is afforded a means of transcending the material world. (ibid.)

This view of nature was applied to a romantic philosophy of history. “This Russian idealists in their flight from materialism spurned the view that history was the physical laws as these were understood by man and subsequently applied to the natural world. To them history obeys metaphysical laws; it was, in Belinsky’s words, Thought thinking itself.” (ibid. 62) - betraying the influence of Hegel and his Absolute Spirit.

In the philosophy of the Wisdom Lovers, the events of history were outward symptoms of the growth of a unitary universal purpose. True enlightenment consisted not in the rational analysis of and mechanical interference in the growth of this organism, but in the intuitive grasp of the process and one’s role in it whether as individual or nation.

Thus a sense of romantic nationalism arose in Russia which Nicholas 1 exploited to promote the most reactionary chauvinism and bolster his oppressive regime, which propagated a theory of Official Nationality. Its central tenets were delineated by Uvarov in 1833:

Our common obligation consists in this: that the education of the people; be conducted in the joint spirit of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality... In the midst of the rapid collapse in Europe of religious and civil institutions at the time of a general spread of destructive ideas, or the sight of grievous phenomena surrounding us on all sides; it is necessary to establish our fatherland on firm foundations upon which is based the wellbeing, strength and life of a people. It is necessary to find the principles which form the distinctive character of Russia and which belong only to Russia; it is necessary to gather into one whole the sacred remnants of Russian nationality and to fasten to them the anchor of our salvation (Russian Thought, 63).

While this theory of Official Nationality was being propagated Pyotr Chaadaev (1793-1856) published his first Philosophical Letters. Chaadaev was a brilliant intellectual who had fought in the Napoleonic campaigns and had studied in Germany and met with Schelling. His experience in the west made him aware of Russia's cultural isolation and backwardness. Chaadaev’s Philosophical Letter lambasted the whole theory of Official Nationality so brilliantly that he was officially pronounced insane and kept under house arrest. Alexander Herzen likened the Letters to a pistol shot ringing out in the dark night of Nicholaevan Russia (ibid.).

In the letter Chaadaev presented a devastating critique of Russia and her history which challenged the basic assumptions of Official Nationality. According to Chaadaev,

Russia's isolation from other cultures and lack of historical continuity were the inevitable concomitants of an “inorganic” culture, based wholly upon borrowing. Cut off from European cultural growth by the adoption of Byzantine Christianity, Russia had contended herself with the wholesale appropriation of the superficial products of other cultures. She had contributed nothing distinctive to the universal history of mankind. If Russia was to play a positive role in the history of the world she must rejoin the European cultural organism and repeat, if need be, the whole history of that world. This could be said to be a prophetic statement for Russia always seemed to want to jump around foreign ideas without following the laid down course of history.

Though Russia jumped capitalism to socialism, now she is condemned to return and repeat that history even as the rest of the western world consolidates and progresses on solid capitalist and democratic principles towards supra-nationalism. The same applies to economic union with the fourteen other republics that constituted the former Soviet Union. Now she has to start all over while Europe boldly moves to union.

Chaadaev’s critique of Russia is rooted in a philosophy of history which affirms the centrality of the principle of unity. History is unified in its articulation of the designs of a single divine idea, which Chaadaev calls Providence and which is represented on earth in the unity of the Roman Catholic Church.

Chaadaev’s relegation of Russia to the dustbin of history and his affirmation of western cultures created widespread resentment. So severe was the response that Chaadaev wrote Apologia of A Madman in 1837 in which he concluded that Russia's backwardness was not Russia's fault but the place determined for her by Providence.

Chaadaev’s philosophy fuelled the great philosophical debates of the 1830s and 1840s in Russia, sharply dividing intellectuals between Westernizers and Slavophiles. The Westernizers agreed with Chaadaev, the Slavophiles “asserted that Slavdom constituted a world by itself and that its institutions and culture must perforce be measured by its own and not by alien standards; and that by any such test Slavic culture was superior to western.” (Tompkins, 647)

The early Slavophiles were clearly a definite group and they shared a common core of convictions which extended the Westernizers-Slavophile disagreement beyond the immediate question of Russia's relationship with western Europe and induced profound debates on such fundamental issues as the value of religion, whether material or spiritual values should form the basis of society and how the concepts of freedom and authority should be understood. The Slavophiles advocated a specifically spiritual as opposed to materialist culture and they considered that the principles of such a culture, now hopelessly deformed in the west, had survived in pre-Petrine Russia and could still be discerned beneath the thin European veneer of the Petrine state. (Leatherbarrow and Offord, 64)

It was in this atmosphere that arose one of the most brilliant minds in Russian philosophy - Alexsei Stepanovich Khamyakov (1804-1860), founder, leader and philosophical voice of the Slavophile movement.

Khamyakov had profound knowledge of Orthodox theology and also German romantic thought. His worldview is presented in his fragments “Notes on Universal History.” He contends that “freedom and necessity constitute the hidden principle around which all human thought is in various ways concentrated.” (Russian Thought 65). Human history illustrates the opposition of these principles: some nations are founded on the principle of necessity; which Khamyakov terms “kushite”; others on the principle of freedom which he terms “Iranian”. The western nations embody the principle of Necessity, for their societies are based on upon rigid laws which are external to man, the laws of nature, reason, science and society, all demanding obedience. Russia however is an Iranian nation its society relations are based not on Necessity but on the sense of free organic unity, not on an extraneous law, but on an inner moral law, shared by all men. This sensed inner moral law defines Russia as a religious culture quite distinct from the essentially secular and contractual societies of Western Europe. Khamyakov used the term sobornost (conciliarism) to describe this sense of communality and unity freely acknowledged rather than externally imposed and he defended it as a feature of Orthodox nations. Sobornost reconciles those human aspirations towards unity and Freedom, which are mutually exclusive in catholic and protestant Europe. He insists that Catholicism offers unity at the expense of freedom and Protestantism offers freedom at the expense of unity.. In Russia however the Orthodox Church and social institutions such as the peasant commune testify to the nation’s instinct for communality without the sacrifice of personal freedom.

Khamyakov’s close friend and fellow Slavophile philosopher Kireevsky used Khamyakov's historical view to construct a critique of western culture. Kireevsky sensed in the west a “purposelessness, lack of conviction and moral apathy which he attributed to the ‘painful inadequacy’ of European abstract thought and the ‘one sided, deceptive, corrupting and treacherous’ rationalism visited upon western civilization by the three influences of Roman Catholicism, the primitive barbarian world which destroyed the Roman empire and the ancient pagan, classical world. These led to the triumph of formal reason over all other modes of cognition. Without rejecting the value of reason, Kireevsky argued that it must be supplemented by other forms of perception to achieve the ideal of ‘integral knowledge.’ Alone it could yield only disillusion and despair, Russia's role was to afford a new religious culture combining the fruits of knowledge and faith (Ibid., 65)

Aksakov (1817-60) the third major proponent of Slavophilism attempted to draw from Slavophile ideology conclusions about Russia's social and political structure. His work serves to explain the political failure of Slavophilism for the theological and epistemological roots of the movement could translate only into the most naive political philosophy. Aksakov's work provides a political utopia, an idealized vision of pre-Petrine Moscovy as a land where the people do not aspire to political power but enjoy unlimited freedom, where the monarch rules not despotically but as a benign, paternalistic custodian and where the relationship between ruler and people is based on the principle of non-interference. Such a mythical vision did not fit an emerging modern nation which had survived the reaction of Nicholas 1 and which was on the brink of political and social reforms, which were to make political revolution inevitable.

Although remnants of the influence of Slavophilism persisted in Russian intellectual circles, overall classical Slavophilism departed the political arena with the death of its leading proponents.

One could argue that Khamyakov did not influence, but only described the prevailing circumstances of the political psyche that made it possible to establish communality and communism in Russia more effectively than anywhere else did. It could also be argued that had communist leaders studied Aksakov, communism would have been well suited to the Russian cultural personality. Finally, the Russians have always been proud of their heritage and it can be argued that Slavophilism was an underlying current that sustained communism; that desire to claim to be best in the whole world (samii lyuch vo vsom miri), to be first in the world (pervi vo vsom miri). The two-fold argument here is that Slavophilism described and also influenced Russia.

To understand Orthodoxy one must first understand the important claim that “the Orthodox Churches throughout the east and north alone now form the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ, the pillar and ground of the Truth.” (Bishop, 27). This claim underlies all Orthodox theology and philosophy. As the defender and protector of this faith tradition, Holy Russia, through Moscow, the Third Rome, was guided by the same principle. The greatness of Russia, even under the communists, is influenced by this claim, which has been the basis of all philosophy and theology in Russia.

4. Outline of Major Works


5. Relation to Other Thinkers


6. Bibliography and Cited Works

Baker, Derek. 1976. Ecclesiastical History Society The Orthodox Churches And The West. Papers Read at the Fourteenth Summer Meeting and the Fifteenth Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society. Oxford: Blackwell.

Berdiaev, Nikolai. [1962]. The Russian Idea. Boston: Beacon Press.  

Bishop, George Bernard Hamilton. 1915. The Religion of Russia. A Study of the Orthodox Church in Russia from the Point of View of the Church in England. London: The Society of SS. Peter and Paul.

Brian-Chaninov, Nicolas. 1931. The Russian Church. Translated by Warre B.Wells. London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne.

Bulgakov, Sergei Nikolaevich. 1976. A Bulgakov Anthology. Edited by James Pain and Nicholas Zernov. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Bulgakov, Sergei Nikolaevich. [1935]. The Orthodox Church. London: The Centenary Press.  

Callinicos, Constantine N. 1957. The History of the Orthodox Church: A Brief Sketch of the One Holy Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church. Translated by Katherine Natzio. Los Angeles: Prothymos Press.

Fedotov, Georgii Petrovich. 1946. The Russian Religious Mind. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.  

Fennell, John Lister Illingworth. 1995. A History of the Russian Church to 1448. London; New York: Longman.

Florovsky, Georges. 1979. Puti Russkogo Bogosloviia. [Ways of Russian theology]. Belmont, MA: Notable & Academic Books.

Giuseppe Alberigo, et al, eds. 1996. The Holy Russian Church and Western Christianity. London: SCM Press; Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books.

Gorodetzky, Nadejda. 1951. Saint Tikhon Zadonsky, Inspirer of Dostoevsky. London: S.P.C.K.

Heard, Albert F. 1887. The Russian Church and Russian Dissent, Comprising Orthodoxy, Dissent, and Erratic Sects. New York: Harper & Brothers.  

Leatherbarrow W. J and Offord, D.C., eds. 1987. A Documentary History of Russian Thought: From the Enlightenment to Marxism. Translated by W.J. Leatherbarrow And D.C. Offord. Ann Arbor MI: Ardis.  

Lossky, Vladimir. 1978. Orthodox Theology: An Introduction. Translated by Ian and Ihita Kesarcodi-Watson. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.  

Maloney, George A. 1976. A History of Orthodox Theology since 1453. Belmont, MA: Nordland Pub. Co.

Mouravieff, Andrei Nikolaevich. [1971]. Istor¯Iia Ross¯Iiskoi Tserkvi. [A History of the Church of Russia]. Translated By R. W. Blackmore. New York: AMS Press.  

Nichols, Robert L. and Stavros, Theofanis George, eds. 1978. Russian Orthodoxy under the Old Regime. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Reyburn, Hugh Young. 1924. The Story of the Russian Church. London; New York: A. Melrose.

Runciman, Steven. 1971. The Orthodox Churches and the Secular State. Auckland University Press.

Russkaia Pravoslavnaia Tserkov. 1982. [The Russian Orthodox Church] Translated by Doris Bradbury. Moscow: Progress.  

Schmemann, Alexander. 1969. Russian Theology, A Bibliographical Survey. [Richmond:] Union Theological Seminary in Virginia.

Slesinski, Robert. 1984. Pavel Florensky: A Metaphysics of Love. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

Solovjev, Aleksandar Vasiljevic. 1959. Holy Russia; the History of a Religious-Social Idea. 'S-Gravenhage: Mouton.  

Tompkins, Stuart Ramsay. 1940. Russia through the Ages: From the Scythians to the Soviets. New York: Prentice-Hall.  

Walicki, Andrzej. 1975.  W Kregu Konserwatywnej Utopii. [The Slavophile Controversy: History of a Conservative Utopia in Nineteenth-Century Russian Thought]. Translated by Hilda Andrews-Rusiecka. Oxford: Clarendon Press.  

Ware, Kallistos. 1993. The Orthodox Church. London; New York: Penguin Books.

7. Internet Resources

Official website of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Moscow Patriarchate

Official website of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia

Official website of the Orthodox Church in America

“Russian Orthodox Church,” article on Wikipedia (contains an historical overview and many useful links to other sites)

OrthodoxWiki main page

8. Related Topics

Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389)

Gregory of Nyssa (c.330-c.395)

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Georges Vasilyevich Florovsky (1893-1979)


Editor: Derek Michaud, incorporating material by Abraham Waya (2000).


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