08 July 2017

The theological sources of Kievan Rus’

I’ve recently been reading The Russian Religious Mind, by the great religious historian Gyorgi Petrovich Fedotov. According to him, after the Christianisation of Kievan Rus’, the following books were the most important:
It is not certain whether ancient Russia possessed the whole Bible; there is no copy of the Russian Bible in one manuscript before 1500. All sacred books circulated separately for both liturgical and private use… In Russia, the notion of the Biblical canon, distinguishing strongly between the inspired Holy Scripture and the works of the Fathers, never existed. All religious writings were called sacred and divine if they were not heretical.

The Holy Scriptures, together with the apocrypha were equalled or perhaps surpassed by the lives of the saints in popular favour. The latter afforded religious elevation, moral lessons, even the thrill of romance. Very few Greek legends of saints were not translated or known in Russia. Among the passions of the martyrs the most popular were, naturally, those of the ‘megalomartyrs’, enjoying the solemn veneration of the Church, such as Saint George, Saint Theodore (or rather, the two Saint Theodores), and Saint Demetrius of Salonika. These legends gave birth, later on, to popular songs in honour of these saints…

Among the third category of the Greek saints, that of canonised bishops, no one had such fame or enjoyed such veneration as Saint Nicholas. He became at once Russia’s national saint. His legends were supplemented in Russia by new miracles. Two things in the figure of the saint most impressed them: the superhuman power of miracles, an almost Godlike domination of the elements, and the charitable trend of his heroic activity. Saint Nicholas lives in the imagination of Christendom not as a hero of asceticism, but as a pattern of compassionate love.

After the lives of the saints the next most important subject matter in Russian manuscripts is the vast and vague literature of sermons, admonitions and moral treatises. But this leads us into the field of the Patristics and raises the question of how much of the immense theological library of the Greek Fathers was accessible to the Russians… Very few of the classical works of Greek theology were known in Russia. Most of the translations pursued merely practical and edifying aims…

A selection of sermons from Gregory of Nazianzus represented for the Russians the summit of Greek theological thought. The sermons were saturated with high dogmatic ideas construed upon Platonic metaphysical background. Unfortunately, they were translated in Bulgaria in such an involved style, word for word, that they were hardly understandable without the Greek original. Even in Greece they demanded the work of commentators to explain their elevated and highly rhetorical language to the mediæval reader. In Russia they were studied and admired by the most learned men, and difficulties occurring in them provoked disputes among the readers. One of the Byzantine exegetes [of Gregory], Nicetas, was translated as well.

For general summaries of Christian doctrine the Russians could use two expositions, one of the earliest and one of the latest summaries of Greek theology:
The Catechetical Sermons of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem in the fourth century and the Exposition of the Orthodox Faith by Saint John of Damascus in the eighth century. The latter work was translated only in an abridged form, with the exclusion of many philosophical and dogmatic developments. These two works were, by themselves, sufficient for an introduction into Orthodox dogma. Unhappily, they did not belong to the popular writings in Russia. Practically none of the Latin Fathers were known in Russia or in Greece either…

There were, however, among the ancient Fathers, two men whose spirit deeply influenced Russian Christianity. It can be said that these two men represented for the Russian people the whole Patristic tradition. They were John Chrysostom and Ephrem the Syrian. More than two hundred sermons of Chrysostom were spread in pre-Mongolian Russia, in manifold editions, partly united in collections under different titles:
Chrysostom, Golden Stream, and Margarite. The selected sermons of Saint Ephrem bore the Greek name of Parænesis which was interpreted in the Slavonic text as ‘parable, comfort, prayer, instruction’. What is common to both authors is their practical, moral purpose combined with high impressive eloquence. Ephrem the Syrian was a poet in the true sense of the word. Even the double translation into Greek and Slavonic could not efface his artistic spirit.

In content and inspiration the two authors were very different. Chrysostom, through his brilliant Hellenistic rhetoric led directly to the Gospel and dwelt not upon its symbolic-mystical but upon its ethico-religious meaning. He was the teacher of
agape, of caritative love, especially of the social aspect of it, defender of the poor, and an inveigher against the rich. A courageous prophetic spirit emanated from his writing as well as his whole personality. In spite of his moral severity he represented the bright side of Christianity, the joy and hope of redemption.

The Syrian poet, whose language was imbued with Biblical lyricism, struck another chord: he was a prophet of repentance. His predominant attitude was the contemplation of the sin and death reigning in the world. With prophetic power and artistic vision he pointed to the final coming of the Lord and His Terrible Judgement. His tone was dark compared to the brighter Chrysostom. But this darkness was saturated with emotionalism and warmed by tears. The Russian people have never abandoned these first two teachers of their Christianity, their spiritual leaders through a thousand years. Russian legends tell about two celestial birds singing in Paradise; Sirin and Alconost, the bird of Joy and that of Sorrow. They could well be an emblem of the two poet-preachers: Saint John and Saint Ephrem…

With these great names the Russian Patristic library was by no means exhausted. Its main content was not that of books, in the modern sense of separate literary works. There was a large mass of anonymous writings often circulating under false authorship, of fragments and even simple sentences whose attributions are a puzzle for literary criticism. Among this heterogeneous material one finds exegetic commentaries (particularly to Psalms), and sermons on feast and fast days of the Calendar. Under the names of ancient Fathers, Saint John, Gregory or Cyril, some later Byzantine homilists found, in this disguise, their way into the Russian Church. The remainder was a formless mass of so-called articles or chapters of various contents, which fills the Slavonic

As a result of this brief survey, we can draw some conclusions. At first the main bulk of the translated literature belonged to the Christian antiquity of the fourth and fifth centuries. The purely Byzantine theological and mystical tradition was rather weak, but the overwhelming mass of this literature pursued practical, moral and ascetical aims. Beyond the practical sphere, religious needs were satisfied more by apocrypha than by works of dogmatic theology.
This is an interesting overview of the resources available to Kievan Rus’, and it’s worth noting that this corpus of Orthodox spiritual writings is fairly limited. One real religious philosopher (Gregory of Nazianzus), two catechists (Cyril of Jerusalem and John of Damascus), two preachers (John Chrysostom and Ephrem the Syrian) and a ‘formless’, variegated literature of hagiographies, chronology, sayings and aphorisms, apocalyptic literature.

As you can read, gentle reader, Fedotov states all this fairly matter-of-fact. But it’s still impressive that such a limited exposure to the depths of Greek theology, coming from a handful (admittedly, of the greatest) intellectual and spiritual luminaries of the Eastern Roman Empire, could preside over a veritable explosion of religious feeling that sustained the religious culture of the Kievan Rus’ and its offspring principalities for the better part of four centuries. Profusions of liturgical creativity, a great wealth of inspired holy people and martyrs, the creation of a radically-humane legal structure.

It’s more than a bit awe-inspiring. And these great saints of the Church have it very much to their credit!

From left to right: Ss. Gregory Nazianzen, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, John of Damascus, and Ephrem the Syrian

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