Ways of Russian Theology

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Artemii and Kurbskii.

The strength of the Protestant impact on Orthodox circles in Poland and Lithuania cannot be accurately assessed. It seems to have been considerable, especially in the middle decades of the sixteenth century. And its challenge had to be met. Significantly, the first Orthodox writers in these lands to respond were two fugitives from Moscow, the hegumen Artemii and the celebrated Prince Andrei Kurbskii.

Artemii, whose dates are uncertain, was at one time hegumen of the Trinity monastery. In 1554 a council in Moscow sentenced him for alleged heresies (“certain Lutheran schisms”) to confinement in the Solovkii monastery, from which he subsequently escaped into Lithuania. The record of the trial proceedings does not show any heresy. It seems that the real reason for his condemnation was his ideological allegiance. Whereas the leaders of the council belonged to the dominant Josephite party, Artemii adhered to the Transvolgan tradition. Heretics, in his view, should be exhorted rather than persecuted.

Once in Lithuania, Artemii was drawn to the defense of Orthodoxy against the inroads of Protestants and Antitrinitarians. He settled on the estate of Iurii, Prince of Slutsk, where his contacts soon included those tempted or converted by Protestant preaching. For his labors there Artemii would earn the high praise of Zakharii Kopystenskii, 20 a distinguished Orthodox thinker of the next century, who speaks in his Book of Defense of the Holy Catholic Apostolic Ecumenical Church [Palinodiia] of “this blessed monk, who with the help of God, turned many in Lithuania away from the Arian and Lutheran heresies, and through whom God dispelled the danger that all Russian people there might be perverted into these heresies.” 21 Artemii's approach to dissenters was as much pastoral as polemic. His writings are notable for their humane attitude towards opponents. He deals with them in the spirit of tolerance and true evangelical charity, virtues reminiscent of the Transvolgan elders, but rare in the polemical literature of Artemii's day.

A number of Artemii's epistles have been preserved. 22 They reveal the Orthodox point of view on the issues at stake. Of special interest are two missives to Szymon Budny, an influential Calvinist preacher who later went over to Socinianism and joined its most radical wing (the non adorantes). 23 In 1562 Budny published a treatise in the Vernacular, The Justification of a Sinner Before God [Opravdanie greshnago cheloveka pered Bogom], and his Catechism [Katekhizis]. 24 He also won renown for his Polish translation of the Bible, which appeared in 1572. Budny sent his books to Artemii. They prompted Artemii's epistles, which, though vigorously attacking Budny's heresies, sought to persuade and to convert. Artemii addressed Budny as “brother” on the grounds of their “common humanity,” but he made no effort to conceal his detestation of “the evil faith of false reason” to which Budny was committed. Of necessity large parts of Artemii's letters were devoted to rites and external observances, since the Protestants rejected them. But his heart was else where. Christianity was for him first and foremost an inner reality, a spiritual discipline, “the Cross in action,” i.e., an ascetic exploit, the way of silence [hesychia], and spiritual concentration. Artemii was rooted in the patristic heritage. His sources were traditional: St. Basil the Great, 25 St. Isaac of Nineveh (or “the Syrian,” as he is usually called in the East), 26 also the Areopagite 27 and St. John of Damascus. 28 Like St. Nil of the Sora, 29 he contended that these sacred writings should be used not by rote but with discernment. It was Artemii who first called Kurbskii's attention to the patristic sources. 30

Prince Andrei Kurbskii (1528-1583) was a distinguished military leader and statesman. Although a refugee from his own country, he readily found a place among the local nobility of Volynia where he was granted honors and privileges. It is not clear how he acquired his wide erudition. But he emerges from his famous and vehement correspondence with Tsar Ivan IV and from his History of Ivan Iir [Istoriia o Velikom Kniaze Moskovskom] as a skillful writer, a powerful polemist, and a man of great intelligence. 31 In no sense was he only a spiteful and venomous pamphleteer bent upon voicing his passions and pleading the cause of the boyars against a tyrannical tsar. He was also a man of broad culture and an ardent supporter of the Orthodox tradition. In Moscow he had been close to the circle of Maxim the Greek 32 whom he acknowledged as his “most beloved, teacher” and whose biography he later compiled.

Disturbed by the growth of “foul heresies” in Poland, Kurbskii was no less dismayed by the negligence and indifference of the Orthodox community there: “we are inept and indolent in study and too proud to ask about that which we do not know.” He sought to spread learning among the Orthodox. He urged them to return to the primary sources, to the very springs of faith and knowledge. Kurbskii had a special love for the great patristic tradition, and he voiced chagrin and irritation that the Orthodox people around him knew so little of the Fathers and scarcely read them. “Foreigners take delight in our teachers, whereas we, looking at our own, waste away with spiritual hunger.” He was amazed that not all the patristic writings had been translated into Church Slavonic, and he expressed dissatisfaction with existing translations. Accordingly, he decided to translate anew.

It may appear strange that Kurbskii chose to translate the Greek Fathers from Latin texts, since for that purpose he had to learn Latin. 33 But many of the writings that interested him still remained to be published in the original, and to obtain and use all the Greek manuscripts was too difficult a task. Kurbskii himself worked from the Venetian translations. His library contained the complete works of Chrysostom, 34 St. Gregory of Nazianzus, 35 St. Cyril of Alexandria, 36 and St. John of Damascus, 37 as well as Nicephorus Callistus' Historia ecclesiastica. 38 Kurbskii had been impressed by a story told by Maxim about the zeal of Venetian scholars at work translating the Greek Fathers. 39 Apparently he also came to believe that after the catastrophe of Byzantium, those Greek manuscripts, which had been saved, were taken to Italy and stored in the libraries of Venice and Padua. 40

The fall of Constantinople was a true apocalyptic disaster for Kurbskii, a time when “Satan was loosed from his bonds.” With Byzantium in the hands of the Infidel, he had to look to the West. Kurbskii had no sympathy for Rome, however. The Council of Florence had been, in his phrase, “a true tragedy, with evil and sad consequences.” From his contacts on Mt. Athos he sought and obtained copies of the polemical writings of Cabasilas 41 and others directed against the Latins. Kurbskii's cultural horizon was typically Byzantine. Indeed, with his love of learning and penchant for study he can be properly described as a “Byzantine humanist.” Patristic theology and the “wisdom of the Greeks” (i.e. Greek philosophy) were in his eyes an indivisible cultural whole. “Our ancient fathers were trained and adept, in both natural philosophy and the sacred Scriptures.” Kurbskii consequently sought to combine study of the Fathers with that of the classical philosophers. Of the latter, he mainly read Aristotle (Physics and Ethics), probably under the influence of St. John of Damascus and Cicero, from whom he derived a Stoic conception of natural law. 42

Kurbskii drew up an ambitious program of translation: all the Fathers of the fourth century. As part of the project, he gathered around him for classical studies a band of young scholars, or baccalaurei as he styled them. And he sent a relative, Prince Mikhail Obolens to learn the higher sciences in Cracow and in Italy. It was not easy for Kurbskii to find enough people fluent in Latin who were also at home in literary Slavonic. He himself did not have complete command of Slavonic. But he was averse to translating the Fathers into the cruder colloquial. Indeed, it was probably at his suggestion that a member of the wealthy Mamonich family in Vilna 43 in 1581 published a Grammar of the Slavonic Language [Gramatika slovenskaia iazyka].

Only a small part of Kurbskii's translation project was ever accomplished. In addition to the sermons of Chrysostom, with which he began, Kurbskii managed to translate the basic works of St. John of Damascus, including the Dialectica and De fide orthodoxa and some of his lesser writings. 44 They already existed in part, but in an archaic translation of John, Exarch of Bulgaria 45 Kurbskii checked John's text against certain Greek and Latin editions, revised it, and added translations of the missing chapters. To Damascene's Dialectica he also appended an introduction On Logic, based on the Trivii Erotomata, published by Johann Spangenberg in 1552 and 1554 in Cracow 46 Apparently Kurbskii intended this work to be a textbook. In 1585 Kurbskii printed in Vilna a translation of John of Damascus' A Disputation between a Saracen and a Christian. But of the other Fathers, he succeeded in translating and publishing only a few sermons and homilies. 47 To advance his dispute with the Arians (his major preoccupation), Kurbskii also compiled, and where necessary translated, several exegetical anthologies: The Interpreted Acts and Epistles [Tolkovyi Apostol'], including a special selection of Patristic texts; An Abbreviated Interpreted Book of Prophets [Sokrashchenie tolkovykh prorochestv], which also contained Patristic commentary; 48 and an Interpreted Psalter [Tolkovaia psaltyr'] in which, in addition to the basic commentary taken from Theodoret of Cyrus 49 and from Pseudo-Athanasius, 50 he included a number of rich and apt choices from the other Fathers. In all of this work Kurbskii manifests a vital dogmatic interest and a sober and clear faith.

However modest Kurbskii's achievements were in comparison with the scale of his original plan, that he even conceived such a comprehensive scholarly program is of signal importance. The scheme itself reveals a clear conception of religious culture, grounded in the tradition of a Slavono-Hellenic culture. He opposed this to “Polish barbarism.” This was no mere rhetorical phrase. The Polish language was at the time just coming into use for scholary purposes, and Polish literature was still in statu nascendi. In contrast, Church Slavonic literature had existed for centuries and had developed its own elaborate style and tradition. Kurbskii had reason to contend that an accurate translation into Polish from Greek or Slavonic, or even Latin, was impossible. The meaning might be rendered, but the style would be lost.

Far more than a scribe or a dry scholar, Kurbskii had a living feeling for his time. His aims have often been criticized as old-fashioned and out of date. In fact, they were prophetic. He strove for a creative renewal of the patristic tradition, a revitalization and continuation of the Byzantine heritage in the Slavic world. The future of Orthodoxy, he believed, depended upon its faithfulness to the tradition of the Fathers.

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