Ways of Russian Theology

Metropolitan Filaret of Moscow

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Metropolitan Filaret of Moscow.

Filaret wrote very little. The circumstances of his life were unfavorable to writing. Only in his youth could he give himself to scholarship without too much interference. But he was compelled to work hastily. These years were actually more devoted to study than to independent creativity. Soon called to serve in the upper hierarchy, Filaret thereafter had neither the freedom nor the leisure to systematically investigate and study theology. And in his mature years, Filaret was able to be a theologian only as a preacher. In fact, his Sermons and Addresses [Slova i rechi] remains his principal theological legacy. Filaret never constructed a theological system. His sermons are only fragments, but they contain an inner wholeness and unity. It is not a unity of system, it is a unity of conception. These fragments reveal a living theological experience tormented and tempered in an ordeal of prayer and vigil. Filaret of Moscow was the first person in the history of modern Russian theology for whom theology once more became the aim of life, the essential step toward spiritual progress and construction. He was not merely a theologian, he lived theology. From the ambo or his episcopal seat in the cathedral, he firmly and judiciously taught the lessons of faith. Filaret was a disciplined speaker. He never simply spoke, but always read or followed a written text, an oratorical requirement from his school days.

As a theologian and teacher he was above all a Biblicist. His sermons dwelled most frequently on the Word of God. He did not consult Holy Scriptures for proofs: he proceeded from the sacred texts. In Bukharev's 146 apt phrase, for Filaret Biblical texts “were the thoughts of the Living and All-wise God emanating from his unknowableness for our understanding.” His thoughts lived in the Biblical element. He pondered aloud while sifting the nuances of a Biblical image or story. Filaret, notes Bukharev, never allowed his theology to become a “legal investigation governed by a dogmatic code of laws,” as was usually the case before Filaret's time and as too often recurred during the epoch of the “return to the time of scholasticism.”

During his first few years of teaching, Filaret worked out a general plan for a course in theology, A Survey of Theology [Obozrenie bogoslovskikh nauk, 1814]. It was a very characteristic plan, for it was a course in Biblical theology. In Filaret's view, the aim of a theological system was to “link in their proper order” the individual facts and truths of Revelation. A “system” of theology was something fully dependent and derivative. History came before system, for Revelation was given in history and events.

The formalism of the “old Protestant” theological school in which Filaret was raised and educated exercised a strong influence on him, especially in his younger days. He did not at once formally break with the Russian tradition of Prokopovich. A great deal in his definitions and manner of expression was suggested by, or he simply copied from, Protestant books. He refers to such books in his Survey; hence the incompleteness and scholastic imprecision of Filaret's early formulations. He had the habit of referring to Holy Scriptures as “the sole pure and sufficient source of teaching about faith” and added that “to grant the unwritten Word of God equal weight with the written, not only in the functioning of the Church, but in its dogmas is to subject oneself to the danger of destroying God's commandment for the sake of human tradition: ' This was said, of course, in the heat of polemics. But it does seem that if he did not deny it, then Filaret minimized the importance of Tradition in the Church. He shared and reproduced the Protestant idea of the so-called “self-sufficiency” of Holy Scripture. In his early work, An exposition of the differences between the Eastern and Western Churches in the teaching of faith [Izlozhenie raznostei mezhdu Postochnoi i Zapadnoi tserkvi v uchenii very] written in 1811 for the Empress Elizabeth Alekseevna and even in the early editions of the Catechism, Filaret says very little about Tradition or traditions. And in the final redaction of the Catechism during the 1830's, the questions and answers about Tradition were added at the prompting of others.

Yet this was more a fault of the peculiar language of the period than an actual mistake or error. In any case, Filaret never looked upon Scripture abstractly or in isolation. The Bible is given to and is maintained in the Church. The Church gives it to the faithful for reading and guidance. Scripture is written Tradition, and as such it is a witness to the living knowledge and understanding of the Church. Scripture is the record of Tradition, not ordinary traditions of human recollection, but Holy Tradition. To put it another way, it is the sacred memory embodied in writing “for the uninterrupted and uniform preservation of Divine Words.”

Scripture, as Filaret explained it, is “only the continuation of Tradition and Tradition's unalterably constructed form.” When he spoke of Scripture as the “sole and sufficient” source of teaching about faith, he did not have in mind a book with leather covers, but the Word of God which lives in the Church, and awakens in each living soul that which the Church acknowledges and teaches. Scripture is Tradition. Furthermore, true and holy Tradition is not “simply the visible and verbal tradition of the teachings, canons, ceremonies, and rituals, but it is also the invisible and actual instruction by grace and sanctification.” It is the unity of the Holy Spirit, the communion of the sacraments. And for Filaret the main thing was not historical memory, but the uninterrupted flow of Grace. Therefore, only in the Church is authentic tradition possible. Only in the Church does the Grace of the Holy Spirit pour forth revealed truth in an unbroken stream and admonish with it.

Filaret's intense Biblicism was intimately and deeply bound up with his conception of the Church. This was a return to the patristic style and habit in theology. At the same time Filaret emphasized that modern philological studies must provide a precise definition for the “formal meaning” of Scripture. Scripture is the Word of God, not merely the word about God spoken or recorded at one time. It is the efficacious word acting eternally through the ages. It is a certain Divine mystery, the unalterable appearance of grace and power. “Light is concealed in every trace of God's Word, and wisdom is heard in every sound.” And Filaret added, “the authenticity of Holy Scripture extends beyond the limits of our reason.” It is a kind of Divine treasury: the unceasing, creative, life-giving Word. And the Church is that holy treasury in which this word is preserved. It is a special construction of the Spirit of God.

Authentic and undoubted, Holy Tradition is the indisputable “source” of faith. But the question remains, how does one recognize and discern this “undoubted” tradition? How is the tradition of faith distinguished from the traditions of the schools? It was precisely this question which constantly occupied Filaret's attention. He was reluctant to discuss appeals to tradition, not what constituted Tradition. He protested against the scholastic custom and habit of establishing or proving doctrinal propositions with a simple selection of texts or authoritative testimony. He emphasized that it was impossible to equate any non-Biblical testimony with that of the Bible, and the realm of direct Divine inspiration is precisely described by the boundary of canon. “Is it possible to define precisely that moment when a church writer becomes a saint and is no longer simply a writer subject to the usual human weaknesses?” Filaret did not place limits on the educational authority of the Church. He only limited the authority of the schools.

Historical tradition, in any case, is subject to confirmation, and Filaret had a lively sense of history. It was this sense, which separated him from later scholastics with their logical pedantry and from the mystics such as Speranskii, Labzin, and Skovoroda earlier for whom the Bible became an allegory or a symbol. For Filaret the Bible was always and above all a book of history. It begins with a description of the creation of heaven and earth and concludes with the appearance of a new heaven and earth, “the entire history of the existing world ,” Filaret remarked. And this history of the world is the history of God's covenant with man. It is also the history of the Church which begins even earlier. “The history of the Church begins simultaneously with the history of the world. The creation of the world in itself may be seen as a kind of preparation for the creation of the Church because the purpose for which the kingdom of nature was made resides in the kingdom of grace.” The world was created for the sake of man, and with the creation of man came the original Church, founded in the very image and likeness of God. Man was introduced into the world of nature as a priest and a prophet, so that the light of Grace would reach out through him to all the created world. In freedom, man was called upon to answer this creative love, “and then the Son of God would reside in men and reign openly and triumphantly throughout the world. Heavenly light and power would pour down ceaselessly on earth until at last the earth was no longer distinct from heaven.”

The heavenly Covenant with God was abrogated by the Fall; the original Church was destroyed. Man stifled within himself the eternal life-giving attention of Divine glory, and he likewise blocked the flow of grace to all the world. In the fallen world, however, creative Divine purpose continued to operate. It acts as a promise and a calling. And the created world (submerged beneath the abyss of Divine infinity and hovering above the abyss of personal non-being) preserves the Word of God.

All history is the journey of God toward man and the journey of man toward God. This holy pulse of time and history especially can be felt in the Old Testament. That was a time of messianic expectations and preparations. Mankind awaits and expects the promised Savior, and God equally expects the exercise of human freedom and love. For that reason there is a tension in time: “the created world moves in definite cycles by necessity and cannot be hurried.” The Old Testament was a time of prefigurations and premonitions; a time of multiple and multiform Epiphanies, and at the same time it was a returning of the chosen among men to an encounter with the approaching God. “The common ground of Epiphany, especially in its human dimension, is the Incarnation of the Son of God, for the root and foundation of His holy humanity is found in men from the time of the very first progenitors.” In this sense, the Old Testament is a genealogy of the Savior.

The image of the Mother of God is sharply and clearly etched in Filaret's theological consciousness. And the Day of Annunciation was for him the most glorious day of all. With the Annunciation in Nazareth the Old Testament ends and the New Testament begins. The tension of expectation is dissolved. Human freedom responds in the Mother of God. “She unreservedly entrusted herself to the desire of the King of Kings, and the marriage of the Divine with mankind was consummated.” And in the Birth of Christ the Church, destroyed forever by the disobedience of the earthly Adam, is recreated indestructibly and forever. The Kingdom of Grace is revealed and the Kingdom of Glory is already slightly visible.

In Filaret's view, the Church is the Body of Christ, “the unity of one life” in Him. It is not the union of all under one authority, even under the royal authority of Christ. Moreover, the Church is a continuing Pentecost: a unity in the Spirit of Christ. The sanctifying stream of grace as an unquenchable fount flows to the very threshold of the coming Kingdom of Glory. “When the mysterious body of the last Adam, composed and constituted by Him through the mutual linking of the members by the appropriate actions of each of them, grows in its composition and is perfectly and finally created, then, upheld by His Head, infused with the Holy Spirit, the image of God triumphantly appears in all its members and the great Sabbath of God and man ensues.” The circle of time is closed. The Lord Pantocrator is enthroned and the marriage of the Lamb begins.

In his theological speculations Filaret always proceeded from the facts of Revelation and moved among them. He never departed from history in order hurriedly to ascend to “the exalted heights of contemplation” by means of abstract theology. He had no love for “cold philosophy” and was guided in theology not so much by logical conclusions as by historical phenomena. He was always conscious of the Divine Mysteries in their historical manifestations and actions. And all history is revealed before him as a single great unfolding of Divine Love and Divine Glory in the created world. The theme of his theology was always the Covenant of God and man, in all the complexity and multiform character of its historical fate.

Filaret's “system” was not constructed under “influences” and “impressions,” for its inner structure is patristic (compare it especially with Gregory of Nyssa). He dwelled with particular attention on two themes: first, the mystery of the Cross, the mystery of Redemption. And second, the description of the life of Grace, the life in the Spirit Christ revealed to the faithful. Christ is the mysterious First Priest who is offered and who brings the offering. He is the Lamb of God and the Great Hierarch (see the Epistle to the Hebrews). It was the Cross of Golgotha he saw in the Gospels. It was the passion of the Savior he saw in the God-man. “The fate of the world is suspended from His cross, the life of the world lies in His grave. The Cross illuminates the weeping land of life; the sun of blessed immortality streams forth from His grave.” The mystery of the Cross is the mystery of Divine Love. “Thus in the spiritual realm of mystery, along the entire dimensions of the Cross of Christ, contemplation is overwhelmed in the limitless love of God.” On Good Friday Filaret once preached on the passage “And God so loved the world.” He urged that the ultimate meaning of the Cross be grasped. “Behold! . . . There is nothing except the holy and blessed Love of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit toward a sinful and despairing mankind. The Love of the Father in the act of crucifying; the Love of the Son who is crucified; the Love of the Spirit which triumphs by the power of the Cross.”

Filaret was completely free of any sentimental or moralistic misinterpretations of the love of the Cross. On the contrary, he emphasized that the Cross of Christ is rooted in the inscrutableness of Divine benevolence. The mystery of the Cross begins in eternity “in the sanctuary of the Tri-hypostatic Godhead which is inaccessible to the created world. Thus, Christ is spoken of in Scriptures as the Lamb of God, forewarned or even crucified from the time of the world's creation. “The death of Christ is the center of created being. The Cross of Jesus, built by the animosity of the Jews and the bloodthirstiness of the pagans, is the earthly image and shadow of this heavenly Cross of love.” In his sermons, especially on days recalling the Passion, Filaret ascended to the heights of lyrical prayer; a trembling of the heart can be heard in these addresses. His sermons are impossible to paraphrase; it is only possible to reread and repeat them. We find no integrated system in Filaret, for he always spoke “on occasion.” We do find something greater: a unity of living experience, a depth of intellectual conception, “a mysterious visitation of the Spirit.” And this is the clue or explanation for his influence on theology. He had practically no direct disciples, nor did he create a school; he created something more important: a spiritual movement. Filaret was always reserved in his theological judgments and he urged others to exercise the same responsible caution. This unremitting sense of responsibility, in which pastoral and theological motives were intertwined, was always at work on him and gave him a stern countenance. It was rightly said that “he was a bishop from morning to night and from night to morning.” This was a source of his caution. But he had another motive as well, an instinctive need to justify his every conclusion. It is precisely this need which explains all of his reservations. “Each theological thought must be accepted only in the measure of its strength.” Filaret always opposed the transformation of private opinions into required ones which might restrict rather than guide perceptive and searching thought. That is why he was such an unpleasant and impatient censor and editor. His report on Innokentii's Passion Week [Strastnaia Sed initsa] is characteristic: “I wish that calm reason might accompany the labor of a lively and powerful imagination and cleanse this book.” Filaret did not reject “imagination,” but he subjected it to strict verification, and not so much verification by reason as by the testimony of Revelation.

Not much may be expected by relying on one's own philosophical reasoning for those subjects not found in life on earth. It is more fitting to follow Divine Revelation and the explanations of it given by people who have prayed, labored, cleansed their inner and outer lives more than we. The image of God is more apparent and the sight is clearer in those whose spirits here on earth border more closely on heaven than our own.

Obviously, Filaret was not so preoccupied with authority as with inner reliability.

Filaret appeared too pliable or excessively timid to others in direct proportion to his own demands and caution. Some accused Filaret of “Jacobinism in theology” 147 because he always demanded “proofs” and very cautiously distinguished between “opinion” and “definition.” “The people did not love him and called him a Mason” (Herzen). Others considered him a dark reactionary and (strangely enough) preferred Count Pratasov 148 (this applies not only to Nikanor Brovkovich 149 but also to Rostislavov). 150 Still others were confused because Filaret would not condemn the Latin faith as heresy or even as a schism, but instead he argued that it was only an “opinion” and not a ruling of the Church. In particular he tried to guard against exaggeration: “Placing the Papal Church on the same level as the Armenian Church is cruel and useless.” He seemed too cautious when he argued that the Eastern Church “does not possess an autocratic interpreter of its teachings who might give the weight of dogma to his explanations.” It seemed that he left too much to the “individual judgment and conscience” of the faithful, even though it was “assisted by the teachers of the Church and was under the guidance of the Word of God.”

Some could not find adequate words to describe Filaret's oppressive tyrannical character. In this connection, the hostile autobiographical “notes” of the historian S. M. Solov'ev 151 were especially typical. In Solov'ev's description, Filaret was a sort of evil genius, who smothered the least inkling of creativity and independence in his subordinates. Solov'ev insisted that Filaret destroyed any creative spirit in the Moscow Theological Academy. Something must be said about this later. Here it is enough to note that Solov'ev's calumny can be countered by considerable contrary evidence. One example, which is supplied by a person whom it is difficult to suspect of partiality toward Filaret, must be enough. This was the statement of G. Z. Eliseev, the famous radical and editor of Notes of the Fatherland [Zapiski otechestva].152 He was a student in the Moscow Academy at the beginning of the 1840's and then a baccalaureate and professor in Kazan'. In Eliseev's estimation, there was too much freedom and an exceptional environment of heartfelt warmth, softness, and camaraderie at the Moscow Academy.

Solov'ev was shortsighted and partial in his judgments. He was not able, nor did he wish, to find any redeeming qualities in those who did not agree with him. He was particularly irritated by people of a “restless mind,” who offended his cozy night-Hegelian worldview. Filaret was not the only one whom Solov'ev condemned in this fashion. He found only harsh and foul words for Khomiakov. 153 But Solov'ev was unfair to Filaret even as an historian. He could not and would not understand that Filaret's outward severity sprang from grief and anxiety. “This man has a hot head and a cold heart.” This characterization is a deceptive half truth. It is true that Filaret's mind was fervent and hot, and restless thoughts left a deep impress on his withered face. But it is simply nonsense and a lie that Filaret's heart was cold. It flowed sensitively and impressionistically. And it burned in an uncanny and terrible anxiety. His obvious achievements and obvious integrity could conceal this grief and anxiety, this inner suffering, only from a shortsighted observer. Filaret's difficult and courageous silence hardly concealed or quieted his uneasiness about what was happening in Russia. “It seems that we no longer live even in the suburbs of Babylon, but in Babylon itself,” he declared one day.

Khomiakov once noted that Filaret was compelled to travel by “devious routes” in order not to provide a pretext for being attacked. “Submission required detours, while his exactness perhaps made it less likely that they would be on the watch and inflict an unexpected blow,” wrote another contemporary. Filaret once wrote to Grigorii [Postnikov] : “It is a great misfortune if those against whom they seek an opportunity to attack provide that opportunity. . . .”

Filaret did not like easy and safe paths, for he did not believe that easy paths could lead to truth — the narrow path could hardly turn out to be an easy one. “I fear only that joy on earth which thinks it has nothing to fear. . . .”

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