Ways of Russian Theology



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Konstantin Ostrozhskii.


Prince Konstantin Ostrozhskii (1526-1608), founder of the Ostrog community, and later the monk Vasilii, was a controversial figure. He was above all a politician and a diplomat, if not a statesman. His approach to religious problems was pragmatic and cultural, rather than theological. As a native of Lithuania, Ostrozhskii was more “westernized” than his friend Prince Kurbskii, who despite his virulent distaste for political and cultural trends in Moscow, and however much his scholarship relied on Latin texts and western publications, remained even in Polish exile an adamant Muscovite and ardent Graecophile. Of the two, Ostrozhskii's cultural horizons were probably the broader, but there was less coherence in his views. He was prone to adjustment and compromise, and his politics frequently vacillated. Without question a staunch defender of Orthodoxy, at the same time he played a role in preparing the way for the Unia, which gave cause to those who would brand him a sympathizer.

In a sense Prince Ostrozhskii can be regarded as the first East Slavic “ecumenist.” He had a deep interest in the reconciliation of all Christian communions in Poland and Lithuania, if only to secure order in the realm. He pleaded with Christians to cooperate and to live in honest co-existence. Even his personal position was curiously involved. Though a firm adherent of the Orthodox Church, Ostrozhskii was married to a Roman Catholic and kept close family connections with Calvinists and Unitarians. His eldest son, Prince Janusz, was baptized according to the Catholic rite, and of his other children, only one remained Orthodox, but even he had a Roman Catholic wife. 77

The ecumenical interests of Ostrozhskii raised suspicion in several quarters. He was first of all accused of excessive sympathy for the Socinians, who themselves claimed that inwardly he shared their convictions: “quamvis religionem Unitariam, quam in corde amplectebatur no sit professus, Unitariorum tamen Fautor et Patronus fuerit.” 78 It is true that Ostrozhskii admired their educational system and commitment to cultural values. And he did not hesitate to turn to them for help. On behalf of the Orthodox he commissioned the Socinian Motovila 79 to write a refutation of the famous book of Peter Skarga, On the Unity of the Church of God under One Pastor [O iedosci kosciola Bozego pod iednym pasterzem y o Greckim od tey iednosci odstapieniu, z prezest oroga y upominaniem do narodow ruskich przy Grekach stojacych, Vilna, 1577] 80 with which the Jesuits launched their literary campaign to win the Orthodox in Poland to union with Rome. 81 Kurbskii was incensed with Ostrozhskii's act. Motovila was to him “a deputy of the Antichrist” and a follower of the impious Arius, 82 Photinus, 83 and Paul of Samosata. 84 “Christian leaders have gone to such extremes of insolence and foolishness,” he decried, “that not only do they shamelessly harbor and nurture these poisonous dragons in their homes, but they employ them as defenders and assistants. And what is even more astonishing, they summon them to guard the spiritual Church of God against satanic spirits and commission them to write books against the half-Christian Latins.” Probably Kurbskii's intransigence was shared by only a few, with many more grateful to Ostrozhskii for also enlisting “heretics” in the Orthodox cause. To hesitate or to linger out of scruple was too high a risk in this struggle.

Ostrozhskii's “ecumenical” overtures were not limited to Protestants; they reached to Roman Catholics as well. On a number of occasions he conferred with the famous Jesuit missionary Antonio Possevino, 85 as he did with the Papal Nuncio Bolognetti. 86 Both reported to Rome that he was about to be converted. Ostrozhskii brought along to these deliberations a number of laymen and clergy and when the matter of Church unity came up even the king, Stephen Batory, was included. It was at this time also that Ostrozhskii considered obtaining Greek Uniates from St. Athanasius College in Rome to teach at Ostrog, even though according to his plan the Ostrog school was to remain a stronghold of strict Orthodoxy. Later he persuaded Adam Pociej (Potiy), 87 future Uniate metropolitan and the real architect of the Uniate Church in Poland, to take holy orders, and then, even though Pociej's Roman leanings were no secret, sponsored his promotion to the episcopate.

Ostrozhskii actually had his own scheme for reunion with Rome and was prepared to go to Rome to confer with the Pope. But when union finally came, Ostrozhskii did not follow, and at the Council of Brest convened in 1596 to promulgate reunion, he led the forces of opposition which disrupted the proceedings. For years there after he was recognized as a leader of the Orthodox resistance movement which sprang up in the western lands. Ostrozhskii was not inconsistent in these acts. His vision of unity was quite different from that negotiated at the Unia. Everything there had been accomplished by the local bishops acting clandestinely and alone. This directly countered Ostrozhskii's plan for a thorough and common discussion of all the issues involved and prior consent from the Churches of Moscow and Moldavia. When in the aftermath of the Council, the Orthodox Church was outlawed in both Poland and Lithuania, Ostrozhskii mounted a fervent campaign to get the decision rescinded. Basing his struggle on the right and necessity of “religious freedom,” he once again found himself drawn toward the Protestants, who for some time had suffered discrimination under the law and whose threat to Orthodoxy was now eclipsed by Roman Catholicism.

Before long the Orthodox and the Protestants sought to join forces in their common struggle for religious freedom. The only hope for success lay in concerted action. Having confederated their own forces in 1570 through the Sandomierz Confession [Confessio Sandomiriensis], 88 the Protestants in 1595 at the end of the Synod of Toruri took up the issue of closer cooperation with the Orthodox. Ostrozhskii, in a letter, warned this body that a Roman-Orthodox union was in preparation and proclaimed his own solidarity with the Protestants. He declared that, in his opinion, the Orthodox were distant from the Romans but close to the Evangelicals (i.e., Calvinists). 89 In 1599 a joint conference met in Vilna, with the Orthodox represented by a small group led by Ostrozhskii. 90 The immediate order of business was to formulate a common policy in the struggle for religious freedom. But once the two groups were together, the idea of unity readily arose. To this the clerical members on the Orthodox side proved reticent and evasive, if not openly hostile. Chief spokesman for union in the Protestant delegation was Simon Theophil Turnovskii, president of the Czech [Bohemian] Brethren in Poland. 91 He argued that under certain conditions Protestants and Orthodox could unite, and cited the negotiations held in 1451-1452 between the Calixtins of Prague and the Church of Constantinople, which ended in agreement. 92

Following the Vilna conference, certain Protestants drafted a memorandum, which prominently listed points of agreement between Evangelicals and Orthodox and placed items requiring further discussion in an appendix. This was forwarded to Constantinople. Although the Orthodox did not share in this action, Ostrozhskii seems to have sympathized with it. Meletius Pigas, patriarch of Alexandria and locum tenens of the ecumenical throne, acknowledged receipt of the missive, 93 but, reluctant to interfere in Polish affairs, he kept his reply evasive and noncommittal. Meletius did authorize his exarch, Cyril Lucaris, then residing in Poland, to discuss the proposal at local levels. Apparently nothing was done. All in all, it was utopian to expect that an Orthodox-Evangelical union could be formed to counter the Brest Union. Still, the whole episode was of sober significance for the future. During the negotiations between the Protestants and the Orthodox, the question of union was posed in terms, which defined “unity of faith” as common opposition to the Latin faith. As a consequence the Orthodox found themselves in a position where their own standpoint had to be worked out within the frame of the western tension: Rome or Reformation.

Although the plan of doctrinal agreement put forward at Vilna received no further development, Orthodox-Protestant cooperation continued. Orthodox polemists made extensive use of Western anti-Roman literature, especially on the question of papal supremacy, where they regularly utilized arguments advanced at the great Reformation councils of Basel and Constance. 94 Quite popular was De republica ecclesiastica, the famed book of Marco Antonio de Dominis (1566-1624), one time Roman Archbishop of Spalatro, who left the Church of Rome and then for a period held a position in the Church of England. In translation, his book was widely circulated in manuscript form among Slavs of West Russia. 95 But perhaps more typical of the polemical literature adopted by Orthodox writers at this time was the Apokrisis, published in 1597 under the name of Christopher Filalet (Philalethes). It was intended as a reply to Skarga's book on the Council of Brest. Claiming that his book was a translation, which probably fooled only a few, the author disguised himself (in a manner frequent among Socinians who came to the defense of Orthodoxy) behind a Greek literary pseudonym, even though it seems his identity was known to many contemporaries. Current scholarship has established, though not with final certainty, that he was neither an East Slav nor an Orthodox, but the Calvinist Martin Broriski, a Polish diplomat who for a while served as Stephen Batory's secretary. 96 He was also an active participant in the meetings between Evangelicals and Orthodox and a close friend of the Ostrozhskii family. 97 If indeed Broriski was the author of the Apokrisis, then it is highly plausible that Ostrozhskii for a second time was instrumental in enlisting a Protestant to counter Roman Catholicism “on behalf of the people of the Greek religion.” 98 The author's aim in the Apokrisis was to analyze the proceedings of the Council of Brest from a legal and canonical point of view. Readily discernible in his work, at least in key parts, is the influence of Calvin's Institutiones Christianae. 99 Protestant bias is most obvious in the emphasis on the rights of the laity in the Church and the minimal authority of the bishops. A somewhat similiar bent characterizes the closing section of the treatise, devoted to the papacy. Here the author made extensive use of a new and voluminous book by the Dutch scholar Sigrandus Lubbertus (1556-1625), entitled De Papa Romano (1594), in which the pope is identified with the Antichrist. 100 Apparently Lubbertus' book, too, had wide circulation among the Orthodox, with several important writers putting it to use: Meletii Smotritskii, 101 in his Lamentation for the One Ecumenical Apostolic Eastern Church [Threnos, 1610]; Zakharii Kopystenskii, in his Pali nodiia; Stephen Zizani, in his “Sermon of St. Cyril of Jerusalem on the Anitchrist and his times.” 102

The impact which Protestant literature had on the Orthodox faithful should not be overstressed. However, a “taint” of Protestantism was thenceforth to remain a part of West Russian mentality, and even the much stronger Latin influence of later years did not really eradicate it. Far more dangerous, and of greater significance, was the habit which Orthodox writers acquired of approaching theological problems in a western frame of reference. To refute Roman Catholicism is not necessarily to strengthen Orthodoxy, and many Protestant arguments against Catholicism are compatible with Orthodox principles. Nevertheless Orthodox polemists unwittingly or carelessly employed them, with the result that on a number of matters Protestant views imperceptibly took hold. There is, of course, a corollary historical explanation. Patristic literature was scarce, a circumstance compounded by the general unreliability of contemporary Greek literature. Greek theology was at the time passing through a crisis. Greek scholars themselves were studying at schools in the West, in Venice, Padua, Rome, or else in Geneva or Wittenburg. They were more often at home in modern western innovations instead of the traditions of Byzantium. In the sixteenth century they were usually of Protestant hue, whereas somewhat later they took on a Latin tint. Suffice it to name the Orthodox Confession (1633) of Cyril Lucaris, a document which was Calvinist in spirit and in letter. And the works of Lucaris were known and appreciated in West Russia. Perhaps this infusion of Protestantism was inevitable. Whatever the case, under western influence the ancient ideal of Orthodox culture began to dim and blur.

There was, however, another solution to the problem of Rome: to abandon all “foreign learning” and to abstain from discussion and debate. This viewpoint or, more properly, mood, also spread in western lands during the same period. Its greatest exponent was Ivan Vishenskii (d. before 1625). Little is known of his biography, except what can be gleaned from his numerous writings. Born in Galicia, Vishenskii apparently received little formal schooling. He must have left for Mt. Athos when quite young, and he stayed there for the rest of his life. (Once, in 1606 it seems, he returned briefly to his native land, but finding himself no longer at home there he left again for Athos). Vishenskii referred to himself as a simpleton, a “poor wanderer” [goliakstrannik] and in similar vein countered the intellectual sophistications of the West with a “dove-like simplicity” and “foolishness before God.” He should not, however, be taken too literally. Careful analysis of his writings suggests that he was fully abreast of the philosophical and literary movements current in Poland and in West Russia.

V. Peretts 103 states that Vishenskii was “endowed with literary skill and verve.” He was without question a writer of talent, forceful, direct, frequently harsh or rude, but always original and to the point. His prose is full of vigor and humor, occasionally scaling to prophetic heights. Vishenskii probably learned his manner of argument from the Fathers; certainly the Areopagitica left an obvious imprint on his style. He was deeply rooted in Byzantine soil, though not from lack of wider learning. His central emphasis was on tradition and this in its most elementary sense: go to Church, obey the canons and the rules, do not indulge in argument. Vishenskii rejected “pagan wisdom” [paganskaia mudrost'] and “ornate reason” [mashkarnyi razum] without qualification. He opposed all scholasticism in its style, method, and substance and rejected all “refinements of the rhetorical craft” and all “external and worldly sophistications.” A true monk, he had neither taste nor love for the polish and gloss of civilization. He addressed himself to lowly men: “O thou simple, unlearned, and humble Rusine, hold fast to the plain and guileless Gospel in which there is concealed an eternal life for thee.” To pagan sophistry Vishenskii opposed the simplicity of faith, the “humblywise Octoechos.”104 yet in his own way he, too, could be rhetorical. “Is it better for thee to study the Horologion, 105 the Psalter, the Octoechos, the Epistles and the Gospels, and the other books of the Church, and to please God in simplicity and thereby to gain eternal life, or to grasp the meaning of Aristotle and Plato and be, called a philosopher in this life and then go to Gehenna?” Vishenskii is here at the heart of the matter. The threat of the Unia could be overcome by inner effort alone, by a renewal and revival of spiritual life. Orthodoxy could not triumph by debates or resolutions, but only through ascetic faithfulness, humble wisdom, and intense prayer.

The difficulty with Vishenskii's position is that in the given historical realities it was impossible to avoid debate. The issues posed demanded response or else the Orthodox risked leaving the impression that they had nothing to reply. Reticence or silence was not a permanent alternative. Opponents needed to be faced, their challenges met; and the encounter had to be at their level and on their terms. Victory would not come by refraining, but by prevailing. In actual fact, Vishenskii himself did not entirely shrink from intervention. It is enough to mention his Epistle to the Apostate Bishops (1597 or 1598). 106 Still his writing is everywhere concerned with the fundamental predicament: the worldliness of the contemporary Church and the lowering of the Christian standard. Vishenskii's approach to the problem was thoroughly ascetical. The worldliness that threatened the Church he saw as coming from the West, and its antidote was to hold fast to the tradition of the East. His was not simply a call for passive resistance. It was an invitation to enter battle, but a battle of the spirit, an “unseen warfare.”




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