Fellowship Hour in the Ancient Church

Theodoret of Cyrus (d. 457AD) commented on what for him was an ancient practice of the Christians sharing a meal together after their Eucharistic celebration.  He saw it as a wonderful opportunity for the wealthy to share with and minister to the poor and needy members of the Christian community.  He presents this as normal and expected behavior for the local parish.

They were in the habit in the churches, in fact, after the eucharistic ritual, of eating in common, rich and poor alike, and from this practice great consolation derived for the needy; the affluent brought provisions from home, and those in the grip of poverty shared in the good cheer on account of their participation in the faith. (Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, p. 205)

Teachings from the Didache

One of the earliest Christian writings which despite its ancient origins did not get included in the Christian Scripture is the writing  known as The Didache.  It was written probably in the late 1st Century, shortly after the other New Testament books were written.  In it we see some of the focus of early Christians and their thinking on how to live the Christian life in world which was often hostile to the Christians.  Here is a brief excerpt from The Didache:

   There are two ways; the one is that of life and the other is that of death. There is a great difference between the two ways. The Way of Life is this: first, you shall love the God Who made you; second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Everything that you do not wish to be done to you, do not do to another!

Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies. Fast for those who persecute you, for what grace would you receive if you love only those who love you back? Even the heathen do that. Love those who hate you, and you will have no enemies. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also, and you will be perfect.

You shall not be rapacious and always want to have more, or be deceitful, or malicious, or imagine yourself to be great. You shall not plot evil schemes against your neighbor. You shall not hate any man. You shall admonish people, you shall pray for people, and you shall love man more than your own life.

Do not grumble, for this leads to blasphemy; do not be self-willed or evil-minded, for all these things breed blasphemy. Be gentle-minded, for those of a gentle mind shall possess the earth. Be patient and have a loving heart. Be guileless, quiet and good, trembling in all things at the words you have heard. You shall not exalt yourself or allow your heart to be bold or presumptuous. Your heart shall not cling to the high and mighty on earth but to the good and humble folk. (George Grube, What the Church Fathers Say About…, pp. 137, 138, 139)

Holy Monday (2017)

The services of Holy Week evolved through the many centuries of the Church’s existence. In keeping Holy Week we are joining our Christian forefathers and mothers from as far back as the Third Century in honoring Jesus as Lord.

“A fast of six days before Easter was common by the mid-third century, and towards the end of the fourth century Great Week or Holy Week was beginning to be established in Jerusalem under the influence of its bishop, St. Cyril (Bishop of Jerusalem c. 348/50-386/7).

Under the inspiration of the Emperor Constantine and his mother St. Helen the area known as Golgotha or Calvary was greatly modified to allow the sites of the crucifixion and the burial to be integrated into one complex of buildings capable of accommodating large numbers of pilgrims. Here by the late fourth century the Good Friday liturgy included lengthy readings from the Gospel accounts of Christ’s Passion and death, and the veneration of the Cross of Christ, which had been discovered by St. Helen; the burial of Christ was then commemorated in the church of the Anastasis (Resurrection).

The pattern of Holy Week ceremonies that developed in Jerusalem gradually influence observances elsewhere in the Byzantine Empire and by the ninth century the more dramatic Jerusalem ceremonies replaced other rites in Constantinople. Also in the capital there was a great devotion to the Sacred Lance which had pierced the side of Christ; huge crowds were attracted to Hagia Sophia to venerate the lance and other relics of the Passion but by 1200 this popular devotion had declined, and no longer took place in Hagia Sophia.

Another significant development in Constantinople was the growth of intense devotion to the Passion of Christ in some of the smaller monasteries during the twelfth century. At this time there was an increasing interest in human psychology and emotion, and this led to reflection on the relationship between the Theotokos and Christ during the last stages of his earthly life. Much poetry was written on the subject, and some has found a place in the liturgical texts for Good Friday and Holy Saturday. This in turn had its influence on icon painting.”   (John Baggley, Festival Icons for the Christian Year, p. 102).

How services have been done for Holy Week have changed and evolved through the centuries.  We are not simply trying to imitate the past in keeping Holy Week, we are entering into Christ’s own life, death and resurrection. We do this also in baptism where we die with Christ and are resurrected with Him. Holy Week is another way we experience and reflect on our own baptism each year.  Below is one hymn from Holy Monday in which we see clearly how we are moving between considering the historic events of Christ’s crucifixion and how we live that crucifixion in our own lives today.

As the Lord was going to His voluntary passion, He said to the Apostles on the way: ‘Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man shall be delivered up, as it is written of Him.’  

Come, therefore, let us also go with Him, purified in mind.  Let us be crucified with Him and die through Him to the pleasures of this life.  Then we shall live with Him and hear Him say: ‘I go no more to the earthly Jerusalem to suffer, but to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.  I shall raise you up to the Jerusalem on high in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

The hymns often call us spiritually t0 live the events of the life of Christ in our own lives.  What happened liturgically over time is that the services got changed into re-enacting the life of Christ, rather than calling us to enact Christ’s life in our own lives.  As St. Paul put it, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Some of the currently most popular Holy Week rituals are not the oldest practices, and many are relatively new in Orthodox history.  The Holy Week services are at heart simply the daily liturgical services (Vespers – evening worship and Matins – morning worship) modified with additions for the days of Holy Week.  But their original place and purpose in Holy Week has now been altered so that commonly  Matins (morning worship) is served in the evening and Vespers (sunset worship) is served in the morning.  The services of Holy Friday and Saturday have become increasingly dramatizations of the last days of Christ’s life.  Liturgy is always living and changes to meet the needs of the Church and its members.

The Moscow Council of 1917-18

Moscow CouncilThe recent Holy And Great Orthodox Council in Crete inspired me to read about another Orthodox council, THE MOSCOW COUNCIL (1917-1918) from a book written by Hyacinthe Destivelle.   This Council was held in the midst of most interesting and tumultuous times as Russia was in the spasms of its revolution which would overthrow the dominant social order of their empire.  The Church leaders and membership at times resisted the changes, at times prompted the changes and at times were pushed and carried along by the changes.

The Council was being considered and planned for a number of years before it actually took place.  The outbreak of the Russian revolution actually catalyzed the Church into action.  And while the Church leaders meeting were often inspired with creative thinking and were willing and able to look at issues the Church had not given serious consideration to in the past, ultimately the Church found itself chasing the retreating waters of history and then being smashed by the incoming tsunami called Bolshevism.

The Russian Church for years had been seeking to be freed from its enmeshment with the state, but was totally ill prepared for the collapse of the Russian state and the rise of the Bolsheviks.  And while the atheist Soviet state might seem to be the very government that would have also wanted a church-state separation, it instead decided that controlling the Church as the Russian state had done since the time of Peter the Great was actually to its own advantage.  Rather than ignoring the Church it no longer believed in, the Soviet State attempted to dominate and then destroy the Orthodox Church.  The Council members were trying to delineate (from the Church’s point of view) what the role of the Orthodox Church would be in a society in which there was a separation of Church and state, but history was passing them by and they didn’t realize the arising state had no interest in giving the Church freedom to realize its mission.

ww2russiaWhile these events were just beginning to unfold, we can see the ambivalence or even confusion expressed by the Council as to what the Church’s relationship to the state should be.  “… the Church, although it aspired to independence, did not have the intention of renouncing its privileged relation with the state or of separating itself from it.” (p 183)  The Council members believed the Church had a privileged position and used demographics to bolster their belief.  Stating that since factually “the larger majority of the population” (p 138) claimed membership in the Church it therefore was entitled to an advantaged position in the land, the Council members never envisioned that the Church might lose that majority position or that for the Bolsheviks such thinking meant nothing.  They seemed not to have realized how unaffiliated many (most?) of the population really was with the Church.  It was a state religion, cultural religion, but didn’t have the sincere loyalty of the hearts and minds of many in the Church.  The masses (what the Church believed were their faithful members) did not rise to the defense of the Church.

That the Council members continued to believe in

“The ‘juridical status of the Orthodox Church of Russia’ shows that the ideal of a ‘symphony of powers,’ formulated by Justinian I (527-65), clearly takes precedence over their separation.  In the name of its historical, sociological, and perhaps theological primacy, the Russian Orthodox Church claims a status that would unequivocally assure a privileged place – not only with respect to other confessions but as regards all other Russian institutions.  By claiming this preeminence, the council sometimes seems to resist the idea of separation from the state – especially in its insistence that the principal political leaders profess the Orthodox faith.”  (pp 140-141)

So, on the one hand, the Council believed that in order for the Church to fulfill its true mission, there must be the separation of Church and state.  They knew the disadvantages of being not only wedded to the state but controlled by the state. They wanted the Church to be released from the stranglehold of the Petrine Russian State, what they didn’t realize is what government was coming in Russia intended to fully strangle the Church.

On the other hand, they still wanted to draw upon entitlement from the state.  They expected the newly emerging Russia would give the Church independence while at the same time using all of its civil powers to keep the Church in a entitled position.  It wasn’t to be, for what emerged in Russia was a state freed from the powers of the Church but totally willing to dominate and abuse the Church hoping to eradicate it altogether.

As events in the emerging Soviet society were moving rapidly toward an anti-Church position, the Council frequently ended up responding to the ever changing events rather than leading the Church to help shape the nation.  For example, the Council promulgated in the face of communities losing not only the sacred liturgical objects but their church buildings that

“’The sacred vessels… may be without any ornamentation, and the vestments may be made from a common linen.’  The council gives a spiritual meaning to this persecution that forces the Church to become poor and simple and a better witness ‘so that it may be known to all that the Orthodox Church appreciates its holy objects because of their inner significance, rather than for the sake of material value, and that violence and persecution is incapable to deprive the Church from its chief treasure – its holy faith, the pledge of its eternal triumph, for ‘this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith’ (1 John 5:49”  ( p 150)


It was, apparently, the revolution, not the Council, that  was forcing the Church to abandon its excesses in order to hold on to what is important and essential to Christianity.  The Church is not about gilded ornamentation but about the Gospel of a poor and humble incarnate God.  The Church is about God not gaud.   The Church was forced to embrace the poverty that Christ lived and taught.  It was the loss of its material treasures that caused the Church to remember its true treasure – Jesus Christ.  This certainly turns out to be a case in which the enemies of the Church in stripping away from the Church its possessions and privileges returned the Church to its fundamentals – the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the living faith of the people.

As the Council proceeded it made more decisions which were direct responses to the unfolding events of the Russian revolution.  Critics of the Council began to complain that the Council members were being overly influenced by secular law and the demands of the moment.  But the Council noted quite correctly that “…the fathers of the first councils had been influenced by Roman law…” (p 179)  The Church has never existed in a vacuum.   Indeed the Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils did often accept Roman civil law and structures in shaping the Church in the Roman Empire.   That the Russian Council had to take  the new Soviet law into account is a sign of the incarnational nature of the Church.  Christians from the time of St. Paul had prayed for their civil leaders, even when they were not Christian or even hostile to Christianity.

“This is why the Council of 1917-1918 still interest us: it reminds us that the Church, in every epoch, even the most troubled, can only be built up again by posing apparently ancient questions in order to find new answers and thus pour an ever-new wine into ever-new wineskins, the wine of its own marriage feast.”   (p 190)


A Brief History of the Feast of the Transfiguration

In the book, LIGHT ON THE MOUNTAIN (Translated by Brian Daley)  there is some information about when the Feast of the Transfiguration was first served in the Church and how it became a universal and Major Feast of Orthodoxy.  The Feast commemorates the events in Christ’s life described in Matthew 17:1-8 (and parallel passages in Mark and Luke).

“… the Transfiguration was first celebrated liturgically in Jerusalem and in the Churches of Palestine and Syria. . . .  the Greek Church in Jerusalem from the mid-seventh century, lists Scripture passages for August 6th as specific to ‘the Transfiguration of the Savior, which took place on Mount Tabor’; this is the earliest attestation of such a feast within the Chalcedonian Churches.”  (p 19)

“The Georgian calendar of Jerusalem, which represents the liturgical celebrations of the Church in Palestine in the middle of the seventh century, already lists a feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord for August 6 … The celebration was adopted throughout the Eastern Empire, at the latest by the time of Emperor Leo the Wise (886-911)…”  (p 161)

“The celebration of the feast on August 6, first attested for Jerusalem in the mid-seventh century, apparently had spread widely through the Church of the Eastern empire in the century that followed, and seems to have been universally accepted in the Greek-speaking Church by the end of the ninth century.”  (p 180)

“… Nikon of the Black Mountain, and Patriarch Nicholas III of Constantinople (1084-1111) – tell us that people had begun, during Leo the Wise’s reign, to interrupt their preparatory fast for the feast of the Dormition on August 15 in order to celebrate the Transfiguration on August 6.  Some have seen here evidence that Leo himself introduced this feast, originally celebrated in Palestine, to the Church of Constantinople…” (p 234)

In many ways, I’m surprised about how late in history this Feast first appears and how late in history it is before it spreads throughout the Orthodox world.  It is a feast which theologically seems to lend itself so well to viewing salvation as deification.  I would think it fit well with hesychast tendencies as well, but perhaps rather than feeding hesychast tendencies, it grew slowly along with them which led to its rise in importance in the feasts of the Church.

It has always seemed strange to me that such an important Feast of Christ was celebrated in the middle of the fast for a feast of the Theotokos.  But the two events appear to have slightly different histories and the Transfiguration was already being celebrated locally on August 6, and became a universal Feast in Orthodoxy only after the Dormition Fast had been established.

A Brief History of the Gospels

Papyrus“Nevertheless, our earliest actual fragments of New Testament writing is a small papyrus, dated ca. 125-150, containing John 18:31-33, 37-38.  

Papias (fl. ca. 125-150), an early bishop of Hierapolis, mentions Mark and Matthew in what the church historian Eusebius (ca. 325 CE) says is a reference to the Gospels (Hist. eccl. 3.39.15-16). But Papias also says that he regards the authority of the words of Jesus as transmitted by the elders from the apostles themselves to be greater than that of any information from books (Hist. eccl. 3.39.4).[…]

The earliest direct evidence for a collection of the Gospels comes from Justin Martyr (also the first to mention the Revelation of John, see Dial. 81.15), ca. 160, who makes direct reference to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and possibly John, and says that he permits the reading of ‘memoirs of the apostles or apostolic men’ (1 Apol. 66-67) in worship, one sign that the Gospels too might now be considered Christian scripture. If Justin did in fact have John, this is also the first indication of a collection of the four Gospels.[…]

The first Christian to argue for limiting the number of Gospels to four was Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 180). Irenaeus argues further that certain other accounts may not be read because they are heretical. His implied ‘New Testament’ (a term that he uses, but not clearly referring to texts) includes the four Gospels, Acts of the Apostles (the first evidence of its use), the thirteen epistles attributed to Paul, 1 Peter, 1 and 2 John, the Revelation of John, and also the Shepherd of Hermas, a work no longer part of the New Testament canon (see. e.g., Adv. Haer. 3.21.3-4).

By the beginning of the third century, the contours of a ‘New Testament’ as we know it begin to emerge. Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian in Carthage treat as authoritative a collection of Christian documents similar to that of Irenaeus. Both approve of Hebrews (Eusebius says that Irenaeus also used Hebrews, but that cannot be demonstrated from his surviving work) and both use the epistle of Jude. Tertullian treats as scripture both the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Baranbas, another work no longer part of the New Testament. He is, furthermore, the first to use the term ‘New Testament’ in a clear reference to a collection of texts (Prax. 15).[…]  Origin (ca. 185-254), whose words are preserved by Eusebius, started that there are ‘four Gospels, which alone are unquestionable’ (Hist. eccl. 6.25.4): Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.[…]

By the fourth century, the accepted list of books that were treated as the New Testament had not changed much, as we can see from Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History. Eusebius lists those book that everyone recognizes as scripture (homologoumena): four Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, fourteen epistles of Paul (the thirteen ascribed to him as well as Hebrews), 1 John, 1 Peter, and Revelation.[…]  The emperor Constantine asked Eusebius to produce fifty copies of the Christian Bible. Unfortunately, none of these copies have survived, but Eusebius must have made a decision as to which texts to include. Two biblical codices (singular ‘codex’) from the fourth century have survived. One of these, called Sinaiticus because it was discovered in St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, is the oldest complete Old (Greek only) and New Testament. Its New Testament contains all the books of the modern New Testament plus the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas.[…]

After Eusebius, canon lists, some using the term ‘canon’ are drawn up in various places by various bishops or church synods. These list the books of the New Testament for the express purpose of saying ‘these books and no others.’ One of these, the Thirty-ninth Festal Letter of Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, presents in 367, for the first time, a list of the twenty-seven books that are included in the modern New Testament.[…]Yet through this entire period, the church never adopted a set of criteria by which to determine canonicity. Although unstated, the most significant criterion for inclusion was usage and dissemination.[…]  Also important was the criterion of apostolicity, that is, whether the document emanated from an apostle or was connected to an apostolic authority (e.g. Luke and Acts was associated with Paul, Mark with Peter). On the other hand, many of the now noncanonical documents were written in the names of apostles and yet were not cited as scripture by any church father: usage (or lack of it) thus took priority over ascription to an apostle. A third criterion was conformity to the proper understanding of Christianity (the regula fidea or ‘rule of faith’) as the majority church (and certainly the majority of those in power in the church) saw it.[…]  ’Divine inspiration’ was not a criterion for acknowledging a document as scripture.” (The Jewish Annotated New Testament, pp 557-559)

Making the Sign of the Cross

Making the sign of the cross is something Orthodox Christians do frequently, and sometimes mindlessly.  There are a number of references to this practice from the early church.  The early church fathers are clearly aware of the practice, though they don’t describe the mechanics of it, so we don’t know exactly how they did it.  But the power wasn’t in how it was done, but in the cross itself.

One of the earliest references to making the sign of the cross comes from Tertullian (d. 225 AD).  He writes:

“At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign. For these and such like rules, if thou requires a law in the Scriptures, thou shalt find none: tradition will be pleaded to thee as originating, custom as confirming, and faith as observing them” (The Chaplet 3).

Tertullian is defending what has been established as tradition among the early Christians.  He admits that making the sign of the cross is not attested to in scripture, but no matter, for there is the living faith of the Christians: the things Christians can be observed to do.  Making the sign of the cross is for Tertullian something Christians do multiple times during the course of their ordinary, daily lives.

St. Cyril  of Jerusalem (d. 386AD), writing more than 100 years after Tertullian teaches the new Christian converts to continue this tradition which has come down through the centuries:

“Let us not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Let us boldly make the cross as our seal upon our brow on all occasions: over the bread we eat, over the cups we drink; in our comings and in our goings; before sleep; on lying down and rising up; when we are on the way and when we are still. It is a powerful safeguard; it is without price, for the sake of the poor; without toil, because of the sick; for it is a grace from God, a badge of the faithful, and a terror to demons; for “He made a public display of them, triumphing over them in the cross” [Col 2:15]. For when they see the cross, they are reminded of the Crucified.”  A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc.  Loc. 3498-3503)





Byzantine Orthodoxy, Hellenism and Science (PDF)

Science E OrthodoxyRecently I posted a blog series based on my reading of the book, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization , written by Efthymios Nicolaidis and Susan Emanuel.  I am always interested in understanding what the Church Fathers might have said about issues raised by modern science.  The book represents an impressive amount of research by the authors, but I didn’t feel it contributed a great deal to understanding modern scientific issues from an Orthodox point of view.  It was more an apology defending Hellenic Orthodoxy from Western critics who see little scientific interest or progress in Byzantine history.  In the end I was not convinced that the Western critics of the Byzantine heritage were exaggerating their negative appraisal.  At least in my read of the book, the earliest centuries of Byzantium saw the most creative and interesting  relationship of the Orthodox world with “secular” thinking.   Later Byzantium moved to a return to Hellenic ideas and became less engaged in the world of thought outside of Christian Byzantium.

The blog in the series is Byzantine Orthodoxy, Hellenism and Science.   The entire series of 4 blogs is now available in one document, a PDF, which can be found at Byzantine Orthodoxy, Hellenism and Science (PDF)  .

You can find links to all my blog series as PDFs at Fr. Ted’s Blog Series.

Byzantine Science (III)

Science E OrthodoxyThis is the 4th and final blog in this series which began with Byzantine Orthodoxy, Hellenism and Science.   The previous blog is Byzantine Science (II).   In this series I have been considering the relationship between “science” and Eastern Christianity through history as presented by Efthymios Nicolaidis and Susan Emanuel in their book Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization .

After the Turks conquered Constantinople and the Orthodox lands in the Balkans, responsibility for education for Christians in the Turkish empire was overseen by the patriarchs living in Istanbul.  Attitudes towards science among the Christian population of the millet followed the policies determined by the patriarchate.  As Nicolaidis and Emmanuel note, the centuries following the Turkish conquest were not particularly bright ones for scientific interests among the Orthodox population.

For example, in the first half of the 17th Century, Theophilus Korydaleus encouraged a “revival of the sciences” among the Greek population.  However his efforts did not include the ideas of the scientific revolution sweeping Western Europe.   Korydaleus  like all the Greek humanist was advocating for a return to ancient Hellenistic ideas.  “Korydaleus’s ambition was to offer a panorama of Greek natural philosophy as if the Christian religion had never existed.”   Korydaleus ignored the Patristic critique of pagan Hellenistic ideas and promoted Hellenistic philosophy as ‘science’.

“Little by little, the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church came around to the idea of teaching ancient natural philosophy independently of the teaching of Creation. This acceptance was prepared by the idea—increasingly widespread in the seventeenth century—that Orthodox believers were the heirs of Greek splendor and learning. This idea was a comfort to the Orthodox of the Ottoman Empire, who felt subjugated to the Muslim state and, at the same time, threatened by the specter of Uniates, meaning Orthodox believers who had converted to Catholicism. Without political power, and wedged between Islam and Catholicism, the Orthodox Church sought support. Because the Greek heritage provided such a support, Greek philosophy could therefore gradually assume its place in the education controlled by the Orthodox Church.”   (Kindle Loc. 3069-74)

Seeking comfort in what they saw as the Golden Age of Greek thinking, the Orthodox in the Ottoman Empire embraced ancient Hellenistic philosophy, avoiding the new ideas of science coming out of Western Europe.  Not until the middle of the 18th Century did the Greeks begin to consider the heliocentric ideas of Copernicus.

The book tends to be very Greek-Hellenistic in its orientation and gives only slight attention to Orthodoxy beyond the Greek world.

Outside of the Ottoman Empire, the main Orthodox population was in the Russian Empire.   From the book’s viewpoint, the Russians having inherited Christianity from the Byzantines, followed Byzantine thinking in many areas of life.  The Russians accepted and followed the mystical theology of the Greeks, but did not have the deep abiding love of the Pre-Byzantine Hellenic culture.  Nicolaidis and Emmanuel write that “the ancient Greek scientific corpus was almost unknown in Russia until” the 17th Century.   Additionally the Russians holding strongly to the mystical tradition were dubious of any scientific culture whether Western or Byzantine.   The Russian Orthodox disinterest in scientific knowledge and technology would be confronted by Russian church and secular leaders and intellectuals who became increasingly enamored with Western ideas and alarmed at the backwardness of Russia when it came to science and technology.  The reforms of Patriarch Nikon and the vision of Emperor Peter the Great both were greatly influenced  by Western educational, scientific and technological progress.

And while Western church ideas would come to dominate the Eastern Church leading to what some theologians called a “Western captivity of the Eastern Church”, the Orthodox lagged far behind in scientific thinking as compared to the West.  An example in the book of the state of “science” in the Greek Orthodox world is reflected in the comments of Metropolitan Paisios of Gaza who gave a sermon series in Jerusalem.  As Nicoliadis and Emmual report it:

“Paisios began by comparing the twelve signs of the zodiac with the twelve major festivals of Christianity, showing off his knowledge of astrological signs. In his History of the Condemnation of Patriarch Nikon, he gives a description of Nikon that is based on astrology, palmistry, physiognomy, and dream interpretation.”  (Kindle Loc. 3198-3200)

The effects of the discovery of the New World and the new scientific ideas which swept through Western Europe were slow moving into the Orthodox world, according to the Nicolaidis and Emmanuel.

Christopher Columbus contemplating the new world.

The new science was revolutionary and the Orthodox leadership under the Turks was committed to its ancient Greek roots.  Additionally the Turks had no interest in revolutionary ideas of any kind moving through their Christian subjects.  The seeds of restlessness were still sown in the Orthodox populations under Muslim domination.  Eventually revolution broke out and the Orthodox overthrew their Turkish oppressors.  Even so, the Greeks continued to mostly look to their ancient Golden Age of philosophy for scientific ideas and inspiration.  In 1895, a Greek philosophy student in a funeral oration which was soon published denounced Western scientific ideas, especially of evolution, as “supreme treason to Greece” and called for the death penalty for anyone teaching such ideas.

As the book points out the ideas which the  Greek church advocated regarding science in the modern Greek state usually reflected the ideas of the Greek government.  When the conservative government saw “science” as a tool of communism, the church too denounced scientific ideas.  The intermixture of church and state which were part of the Byzantine symphony continued in the modern Greek Church experience.  For me, this was one of the things disappointing in the book: the the view of the authors was sometimes myopic, reducing “Orthodoxy” to mean “Greek” or Hellenic.  The Orthodox experience worldwide and through history was greater the Byzantine experience.  Orthodoxy is not coterminous with being ethnically Greek.   So, we read as part of the book’s conclusions :

“The most significant characteristic that differentiates the history of science in the Eastern Orthodox world from what happened in the Latin West (through the nineteenth century) is the East’s continuing pride in its ancient Greek patrimony. Although “Hellene” was synonymous with “pagan,” the Greek fathers based their Creation exegesis on their Greek education; later, Byzantine scholars (most of whom were clerics) regarded it as an honor to be “Hellene.” Greek Orthodox communities of the Ottoman Empire, seeking a national identity, claimed their affiliation with the ancient Greeks. Through the centuries, this affiliation gave rise to a relatively stable relationship between Eastern Orthodoxy and science, during which the Orthodox Church accepted and taught science.”  (Kindle Loc. 4208-13)

At least from this book, my impression of the history of the Eastern Church, is that after the early Patristic creative engagement with the pagan culture and an effort to form a particularly Christian perspective on nature and science, the Greek Church slowly reverted to Hellenic ideals.   Byzantium through time got reduced to a Greek state, and the Orthodox Church in this state became largely fixated nationalistically on an ancient Golden Age of Greek thinking.  It becomes disappointingly obvious through the book, that it was more fixated on the Greek church’s attitude toward Hellenic culture than it was on an Eastern engagement with ideas of modern science.   In the end the book did not provide a great deal of insight into how contemporary Orthodox can deal with the modern worldview in the age of science.  The books wants to proudly show that despite a modern Western bias against Byzantine culture, that Greeks engaged “science” throughout their history.  While the book’s scope is truly impressive, it did not convince me that the Western critique of Byzantine culture as being seriously deficient in scientific thinking is mistaken.  The later Byzantines and the Greek Orthodox of the modern Greek state have been far more interested in promoting a golden age of Hellenic thought than in engaging modern science.  In this sense, modern Greek Orthodoxy is not at all like the early Patristic period in which the Orthodox thoroughly knew the scientific debates of their day and actively engaged in those disputes.  Rather it appears in the book that the Greek Church is more interested in heralding a nostalgic golden age of Hellenic culture while mostly ignoring the scientific culture that dominates the world today.

Byzantine Science (II)

Science E OrthodoxyThis is the 3rd blog in this series which began with Byzantine Orthodoxy, Hellenism and Science.   The previous blog is Byzantine Science (I).   In this series we are looking at the relationship between “science” and Eastern Christianity through history as presented by Efthymios Nicolaidis and Susan Emanuel in their book Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization.

 “As we have seen, Byzantine scholars constantly taught, studied, and commentated on Greek science. However, the direct connection between ancient and Byzantine scholarship had been broken during the iconoclast period, which marked the entry of the Byzantine sciences into the Middle Ages. … During the renaissance of scientific education in the ninth century, Byzantine scholars declared themselves to be the heirs of the ancient Greeks. Little by little, the term Hellene, which had had a negative connotation in the texts of the church fathers because it referred to pagan philosophers, became a positive notion for the erudite; henceforth, it referred to the ancient Greek scholars who built the foundation on which Byzantine science rested. Though sometimes contested, this ancient knowledge became a precious source of national pride. Thus, Byzantines continued the ancient tradition of differentiating between Greeks and barbarians, a difference evidently founded on language, the vehicle of Hellenic culture. Throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, Byzantine scholars regarded the sciences of other peoples (έθνη) as inferior, even bordering on charlatanism. Nevertheless, Byzantine scholars were soon taking an interest in certain aspects of the science of Islam, notably in the “technical” skill of Arab astronomy and its astronomical tables. The prime reason for this interest was that the planetary positions calculated following the Ptolemaic tradition (especially the Handy Tables based upon the commentaries of Theon of Alexandria) were, over time, presenting significant systematic discrepancies. … Byzantine savants increasingly eyed the Islamic side, if only for practical reasons: the Islamic tables were easier to use. Despite the fact that this science came from “unbelievers,” using Islam’s astronomical tables or its constants was a lesser evil for Byzantine savants. Indeed, the measurement of constants was founded on the observations so scorned by Byzantium, and the tables could be characterized as a simple technique not involving philosophical discussions on the world.”  (Kindle Loc. 2466-87)

In the 14th Century Nikephoros Gregoras, a noted astronomer and churchman,  recognized that the Byzantine calendar was incorrect and in need of reform to bring it in alignment with astronomical reality.  Two hundred years before Pope Gregory XIII pushed the same calendar reforms Gregoras called upon the Empire to correct the calendar.

“A brilliant astronomer, he proposed around 1326 a reform of the calendar. Because of the roughly approximate length of the year (365.25 days) of the Julian calendar used by the Byzantine Empire, the equinoxes were already eight days behind the true equinoxes, something that posed various problems, including determining the day of Easter. Although the context (a renaissance of the sciences, an enlightened emperor) appeared favorable for a change to a more correct calendar, the moment was not propitious. The Orthodox Church, suffering from the shock of the aborted union with Rome and from restlessness among the monks and lower clergy, refused to endorse the proposed reform.”  (Kindle Loc. 2171-77)

Gregoras, who “considered himself heir of both Aristotle and Plato,” was a contentious fellow.   He engaged in anti-Latin polemics against Barlaam of Calabria, but then also openly opposed Gregory Palamas and hesychasm.   This would prove his downfall as Byzantine Orthodox embraced Palamas and rejected Gregoras who continued to oppose hesychasm until his own death.  According to Nicolaidis and Emanuel,  Palamas was not opposed to science but rather was influenced by his understanding of science.

 “Hesychasts believed that a man through prayer and ascetics could have a vision of God and thus that true knowledge comes from this spiritual effort and not from acquiring secular knowledge. However, the ideological father of this movement, Gregory Palamas (1296–1359), based his ideas on the science of Aristotle and the geometry of Euclid in order to cogitate on locating the centers of the spheres of two elements, earth and water. What this movement seemed to be advocating was far from absolute hostility toward profane science. In effect, the Hesychast leader did not deny the utility of the sciences; he was more distrustful of the place granted to them by Byzantine power, seeing it as one of the causes of the secularization of high clergy.”  (Kindle Loc. 116-21)

Nicolaidis and Emanuel note that Gregory Palamas and Thomas Aquinas share one idea in common that in their time was considered scientific, both believed “that the existence of God could be demonstrated, the former by reason and the latter by experience.”  In this both rejected the thinking of  Barlaam of Calabria who  “following Aristotle and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (late fifth century CE), maintained that theological truths could not be demonstrated.”    Thus the debates between Palamas and Barlaam were part of the Byzantine wrestling with ‘science.’  However, the hesychasts were so heavily into mysticism that they turned against the secular scientific side of ancient Hellenism.

 “What matters most to Palamas is precisely to show that the ancient philosophers, despite the fact that they described the physical reality of the world, were not able to do so completely and exactly, for they could not accede to the true wisdom that is offered only through the methods of Hesychasm. More than being simply ignorant compared to Christians, Plato, Socrates, Plotinus, Proclus, and Porphyrus were under the influence of the devil. Socrates, although judged to excel in wisdom, was possessed his whole life by a demon who had convinced him. For this reason, he taught things contrary to true wisdom, as with his cosmology or, still worse, his ideas on the soul of the world, at least as presented by his pupil Plato in Timaeus.”   (Kindle  Loc. 2371-77)

As the Christian West was embracing the ancient Greek thinkers and entering into the Renaissance, the Christian East under the influence of hesychasm became increasingly anti-Western.  As the scientific mind would emerge from these ideas in the West, Byzantium was distancing itself from the West and these novel scientific ideas.  The West would undergo a complete shift in its thinking about science and the solar system, moving from geocentric thinking to heliocentric thinking.   The discovery of the New World further eroded trust in traditional ancient philosophic and Christian assumptions.  The scientific revolution was accompanied by a whole host of new ideas and paradigms in the West.

Then in 1453, Mehmed the Conqueror captured the city of Constantinople.  Endeavoring to pre-empt any efforts by the Christian West to attempt to retake the city, Mehmed and his successors encouraged the anti-Latin sentiments of the hesychasts among their conquered Greek population.

“The hold of the most fervent anti-unionists over the Patriarchate of Constantinople, as well as the inevitable withdrawal of the Orthodox Church after the Ottoman conquest, distanced the church from secular learning. … the most zealous anti-unionists believed that the Greeks were paying for their sins, including their connivance with the West and their involvement in Hellenistic learning.”  (Kindle Loc. 2830-32)

Many in the Orthodox population in their anti-Latin feelings came to reject the new science coming from the West.  “Science” was sometimes identified with Latin culture and thus seen as being anti-Greek.

“The sciences and secular learning in general did not figure among the preoccupations of the Orthodox Church from the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 to the start of the seventeenth century. In fact, for a century and a half, the Patriarchate of Constantinople had a policy of teaching only what was useful for the renewal of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.”  (Kindle Loc. 2951-54)

Next:  Byzantine Science (III)