History of the Orthodox Church in Russia

Pospielovsky, D.  St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Mostly excellent account of the Church’s life in Russian history. It is somewhat marred by dated accounts of Constantine (as a nominalist tyrant) and a tendency to see fascists behind every monarchist.

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He begins in Byzantium. Gives a surface-level history of the Byzantine empire. Almost hostile to Constantine. He makes a number of assertions which not only does he not prove, but he refutes a few pages later. For example:

“That heresy [caesaropapism] is popularly associated with Eastern Christianity” (Pospielovsky 2).

Okay, that’s standard historiography. It’s hard to make that claim after Meyendorff’s Byzantium and the Rise of Russia. Pospielovsky is certainly aware of Meyendorff, as he uses M’s arguments on p.42. But then Pospielovsky (correctly) points out:

“[T]here were moral limitations to their [emperors] arbitrariness…[political monasticism] sets serious moral limits on the monarch” (5, 6).

Fascinating missionary tidbits, noting Nestorian Christianity spread to Japan (17).

Good speculation that had St Vladimir converted to Islam, Europe would have faced a three-pronged Islamic threat (Balkans, Russia, Northern Africa) and would not have survived. Russia’s conversion to Christianity saved Europe (21)

The heroes of this book, rightly, are the Old Ritualists. *Up to one-third of the population of Russia might have joined the Old Ritualists (73).

**With the loss of the Old Ritualists, the church lost its ability to resist absolutism (76).

***These persecutions were probably the causes of the collapse of the monarchy in 1917. As natural conservatives and deep patriots ready to die for their country and religion, Old Ritualists were the natural stuff for the most dedicated support of the Crown. Yet the Crown forced them into opposition, radicalized them, alienated them (77).

Post-Reform

The story of Russian church after the 1730s or so can be summarized by two points: ecclesiastical incompetence of the highest order and heroic, missionary evangelism

Pospielovsky gives a rather skillful handling of the 1880s Russian intelligentsia. Dostoevsky and Solyvyov acted as middlemen to make the Russian faith acceptable to its “cultured despisers.”

Communism

Very good section on the church under Communism, especially during WW2. Posp. feels the pressure of trying to explain how Orthodox churches under Nazi-occupied areas thrived vs. those in Soviet areas. One suspects that this is part of a larger anti-ROCOR narrative within American Orthodoxy.

The Soviets didn’t have an irrational hatred of the church. Nor were they scared of counter-societies, as some Anabaptists claim. It was just simple Marxism. Marx said religion functioned upon a material superstructure. Remove that and religion falls, which it must in a Communist society. The problem became apparent when the Church was gaining and Marxism was losing.

Conclusion:

While it is true that there is an ugly side to Fascism, Pospielovsky almost never defines what he means by that word or to whom it is applied. He also backs far away from any historical claim that secular Judaism had a role in the Revolution. And he is oddly silent about Dostoevsky’s criticisms of the Jews.

Aside from that, it is an excellent surface level account.

About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
This entry was posted in Book Review, Church History and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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