The Eastern Church

The Eastern Church


THE history of the Reformation gave but minor occasion for any reference to the Eastern branches of the Church. In connection with this field, therefore, we unite the preceding with the present period, and briefly note the principal events which took place in the first two centuries of the modern era.


The futility of the union scheme, which was wrought out with so much pains at the Council of Florence, did not discourage effort at Rome for gaining jurisdiction over the East. Much attention was given to Russia, and to the districts under Polish dominion in which the Greek communion was largely represented. Leo X. in 1519 endeavored to convince the Czar that union with Rome would be a great blessing to his realm. Clement VII. took pains in 1524 and 1526 to repeat the representation. In 1581 Gregory XIII. sent the Jesuit Possevin to Moscow to work in the interests of the papal supremacy. A friendly reception was accorded to the ambassador by the Czar, but no favor was shown to his project. 1 P. Strahl, Beiträge zur russischen Kirchengeschichte; Philaret, Geschichte der Kirche Russlands ins Deutsch übersetzt von Dr. Blumenthal, i. 285, 286. The advantage which was gained under the false Demetrius, about twenty-five years later, proved to be unsubstantial, and vanished with the overthrow of the usurper. In Poland and Lithuania, on the other band, the Roman emissary was able to inaugurate a work that secured considerable accessions to papal rule. A plan of union was devised which allowed thous brought up in the Greek communion to retain their rites, only requiring them to acknowledge the supremacy of the Pope. This scheme left to its own merits would have made little headway. But the King of Poland, the Sigismund to whom Sweden denied her crown, was a zealot for the Romish faith, and was ready to use the power of the State in the interests of propagandism. Russian historians speak with great bitterness of the violence with which he persecuted the "Orthodox" till the end of his reign. Thus Philaret says: "Up to the death of Sigismund the Orthodox were pursued with all the blood-thirstiness of the Spanish Inquisition, to bring them under the Pope. It is not surprising that the use of such means, during a period of forty years, caused half of the Orthodox in the four millions of inhabitants of Lithuania and White Russia to pass over to the Union or the ranks of the Latins."

Geschichte, ii. 611, 66. It appeared subsequently that the acceptance of the papal headship did not result in any thorough fusion with the Latins. After the partition of Poland a way was opened for the return of the Uniates to the Greek communion. In 1839 a million and six hundred thousand of them were incorporated with the Russian Church. (Mouravieff, History of the Russian Church, appended notes, p. 391.)
Under Vladislaff (1632-1648) a milder policy was adopted. Still complaints of unjust pressure were called forth in this and also in later reigns.


The negotiations with the Coptic communion in Egypt availed as little for Rome as did her embassies at Moscow. While the Coptic representatives who visited the Western capital (1561, 1594) seemed to grant all that the Pope desired, the event proved that their words were simply Oriental rhetoric, covering designs to make use of the papal friendship rather than to surrender to papal rule. In dealing with the Armenians some gain was realized. The loose connection which previously had been formed with a fraction of the Armenian communion acquired more the character of a real union in the course of the seventeenth century. 1 Gieseler, § 64.


To Protestantism the Greek Church in all its branches remained almost wholly impervious. While the Orthodox who had to contend against the aggression of the Polish government were ready to unite in a political alliance with their persecuted neighbors of the Protestant faith, they had very little leaning toward a religious union with them. Russia, with its mediæval life and worship and modes of thought, had of course no understanding for Protestantism. A rejection of the adoration of images and of saints could mean to the average Russian nothing less than a rejection of religion itself. First in the time of Peter the Great, when there was a considerable influx of foreigners, the doctrines of the Reformers began to win converts. The fire spread far enough to excite public attention at the principal centres, but was speedily stamped out by the authorities. 2 Mouravieff, pp. 272, 273; Philaret, ii. 106, 107.


The means taken in the sixteenth century to acquaint the Patriarch of Constantinople with the nature of Protestantism--such as the transmission of the Augsburg Confession by Melanchthon (1559), and the friendly communication of the Tübingen theologians Andreä and Crusius (1574) -- were without noteworthy result. In the early part of the next century, however, Protestantism had its representative at Constantinople; and that representative was none other than the highest dignitary of the Eastern Church. Cyril Lucar, who was made Patriarch of Alexandria in 1602, and of Constantinople in 1621, instead of treating Protestantism with the haughty indifference and ignorant contempt congenial to hierarchical assumption, gave it an earnest and candid examination. The result was a pronounced conviction that it had Scripture and reason on its side. As appears from his Confession, published at Geneva in Latin in 1629, and again in Greek in 1633, he adopted a creed substantially identical with the main articles of the Reformed theology. The genuineness of this creed has indeed been called in question. In 1672 the Council of Jerusalem (sometimes called that of Bethlehem), while condemning the doctrines of Cyril's Confession, rejected the conclusion that it was from his hand or expressed his views. The same opinion has been entertained in the Greek Church down to a recent date, as appears from the language of Philaret and Mouravieff. But this negative verdict, while not unnatural, must give way before known facts. To say nothing about the testimony of contemporaries who were acquainted with Cyril, the correspondence of the Patriarch with various representatives of the Protestant Churches proves conclusively that he had embraced such doctrines as are contained in the Confession bearing his name, and had no wish to conceal the fact.

1 See Thomas Smith, Miscellanea, Narratio de Vita, Studiis Gestis, et Martyrio D. Cyrilli Lucarii; Kimmel, Monumenta Fidei Ecclesiae Orientalis, Proleg.; J. M. Neale, History of the Eastern Church, The Patriarchate of Alexandria, vol. ii. Neale gives a favorable estimate of the character of Cyril Lucar, though, in accordance with his High Church standpoint, he cannot think of his lapse into Protestantism as anything else than a frightful apostasy.


The talents of Cyril Lucar were such as naturally to win respect and command influence. But he needed vastly greater support than was available in order to sustain himself with his innovating sentiments. Under the Turkish despotism, the position of the Patriarch was in any case a precarious one. How uncertain then must have been that of Cyril, who was watched not only by jealous foes in his own communion, but by representatives of Romish propagandism, more especially the Jesuits and the French ambassador. These understood that the temper of Cyril was utterly inconsistent with their schemes, and were bent on accomplishing his overthrow. For a time, being aided by the friendship of the English and Dutch ambassadors, the Patriarch was able to hold out against attacks, though at the expense of frequent banishments. But finally, in 1638, slanderous charges had their designed effect. Cyril was secretly executed by order of the Sultan, and his body was cast into the sea. His career makes a singular episode in the history of the Eastern Church. Without forerunners and without successors, he appears a solitary figure. So far as can be discerned, his testimony found no lodgement with his people. The result was rather a reaction against the Reformation, as may be judged from such creeds as were promulgated in the ensuing years.

1 The Orthodox Confession of Mogilas, drawn up in 1640 adopted in 1643 by a synod of Greek and Russian clergy, and confirmed by the Synod of Jerusalem in 1672; the Defence or Apology of Orthodoxy, published by the Synod of Jerusalem in 1672; the Confession of Dositheus, adopted by the same Synod.


The interior history of the Russian Church records two constitutional changes of special note between the era of the Reformation and the closing years of Peter the Great. The first was the elevation of the Metropolitan of Moscow into Patriarch of Russia. This took place in 1588-89 by the consent of the Patriarch of Constantinople, whose headship had been recognized up to that time, but who had in fact, since the enthronement of the Turks at Constantinople, exercised but little control over Russian affairs. The advancement which the patriarchal standing secured to the Metropolitan of Moscow was more in the line of dignity than of authority. His functions remained essentially what they had been previously. The second change, which occurred in 1721, consisted in the abolition of the patriarchate and the location of the supreme authority in a synod.

The Synod at first consisted of four archbishops, seven archimandrites (or abbots), and two archpriests. A ukase in 1763 limited the composition of the Synod to three archbishops, two archimandrites, and one archpriest. (Philaret, ii. 173.)
The prerogatives of the Holy Synod, as it is called, are thus described: "It is its duty to care for purity of doctrine and good order in worship; to oppose heresies and schisms; to prove narratives relating to the saints; to root out all superstitions; to watch over the preaching of the Divine Word; to select men for the chief pastoral positions and to install them; to give such the needful counsels in doubtful matters, and to pass upon the complaints of those who are dissatisfied with the management of their ecclesiastical superiors. In particular to it belongs supervision over all institutions for the education of the clergy, the censorship of religious writings, the critical inspection of relics and miracles, as also the associated function of canonizing. Their jurisdiction covers doubtful marriages, or those contracted within the forbidden degrees, and likewise cases of divorce. In general, whatever pertains to the doctrine, worship, and administration of the national Church falls under the care and judgment of the Synod." 1 Philaret, ii. 174 It only needs to be added, that in Russia the Byzantine idea of the relation of Church and State has always been dominant. A few instances may indeed be pointed out in which the ecclesiastical head has ventured to rebuke the Czar. Thus Philip, the Metropolitan of Moscow, courageously reproved Ivan the Terrible (1533-1684) for his cruelties, and won in consequence the honors of martyrdom. But instances like this of reproof for personal misconduct are quite different from deliberate attempts to antagonize a governmental policy. The Czar in fact has held much the place of an autocrat in the Church as well as in the State. This does not imply that he has had any special theological significance, since doctrine has been in the Russian Church a mere matter of inheritance.


Monasticism continued to be a conspicuous feature. Besides being favored by the high estimate which the Russians placed upon asceticism, it had the advantage of being represented in the chief ecclesiastical positions. This followed from the compromise on the subject of clerical celibacy which was adopted in the Eastern Church, in accordance with which priests and deacons were expected to live in relations of marriage, but bishops were required to be celibates. Monks and widower priests, therefore, were selected for the episcopal dignity. In character the monasticism of Russia showed greater uniformity than that of the Western countries of Europe. One rule, that of Basil, governed all the societies. The main distinction concerned the degree of asceticism. The hermits were honored as exhibiting the maximum of austerity, and, like earlier representatives of the class, enjoyed special license in addressing admonitions to dignitaries.


The sixteenth century witnessed but little change in the general tone of religion in Russia. There was vastly more of religious habits than of religious life. Neither in clergy nor in people was piety ballasted with any fair degree of intelligence. In large districts preaching was a thing entirely unknown, and was even regarded as undesirable, inasmuch as it might loosen some stone in the foundation of traditional belief. "The orthodox faith," says Rambaud, "deprived of the stimulus of liberty and instruction, tended to become mere routine. Salvation was gained by hearing long liturgies, by multiplying Slavonic orisons, by making hundreds of prostrations and genuflections, by telling rosaries, and by frequenting shrines. The most celebrated centres mere the catacombs of Kief, where sleep the incorruptible bodies of the saints, and where dwell their successors without ever seeing the light of day; the monastery of St. Cyril, on the White Lake; of St. Sergius, at Troïtsa; and the cathedral of St. Sophia, at Novgorod. Men prostrated themselves at the tombs of St. Peter and St. Alexis of Moscow; before the wonder-working virgins of Vladimir, Smolensk, Tischvin and Pskof." 1 History of Russia, i. 309.


The inertia which any attempt at change or improvement encountered was several times illustrated in the course of the period. A signal instance occurred as late as the middle of the seventeenth century. Nicon, the mast energetic and vigorous personality in the list of Russian Patriarchs, undertook then a work of reform. His designs were far from being revolutionary. He wished to correct, the loose morals of the clergy, and to mend the errors which ignorance and carelessness had brought into the sacred books. In both these designs, being seconded by the throne, he was in a measure successful. Many a priest, convicted of drunkenness, felt the smart of the scourge; for Nicon had something of the temper of that barbarous civilizer, Peter the Great, who took up the reins of power in the next generation. His haughtiness and severity naturally limited the number, of his friends, and finally occasioned a breach with the Czar. But there were many to whom the savage rigor of the prelate seemed the smaller of his offenses. That he should dare to meddle with the sacred books and seek to revise the ceremonial by a comparison of the existing translations with the Greek originals was deemed by them an unpardonable sin. Errors had become so sanctified in their view that it was sacrilege to mend them. Some of them also had an obstinate preference for several infinitesimal items of ceremonial.

2 Some of the points emphasized were the following: (1) In church processions the course of the sun must be followed, and not the reverse. (2) In crossing one's self and in blessing, two fingers, instead of three, must be used. (3) Only the eight-armed cross, or that having three transverse pieces, is to be honored. (4) Only the old pictures, or those copied from them, are to be venerated. (Philaret, ii. 131.)

Out of this desperate and ignorant conservatism grew a schism in the Russian Church which has never been healed. The dissenters called themselves Starovers, or Old Believers, but outsiders have generally termed them Raskolniki, or Schismatics. They were known in later times in two main branches, the moderate and the extreme, or those with clergy and those without.


The reforms of Peter the Great, as they were a defiance in general to Russian conservatism, naturally gave a great impetus to the Raskolniki. At first the reforming Czar was disposed to treat the schismatics with much lenity, and uttered some generous sentiments on the subject of religious tolerance. But when he perceived that a refuge was offered in their midst to those disaffected with his policy in the State, he imposed special burdens upon them as the price of their continued enjoyment of special traditional customs.


Besides substituting the Holy Synod for the Patriarch, and restricting in a measure the access of his subjects to the monastery, Peter the Great interfered but little with the Russian Church. He regarded himself as its faithful upholder and protector. While he allowed resident foreigners to retain their own worship, he denied to them the privilege of propagandism. The banishment of the Jesuits is explained by their failure to keep within the restriction imposed. As Voltaire has remarked, the Czar regarded them as dangerous political enemies.