Infants Sharing in the Lord’s Table

Re-posted, with permission, from the excellent blog Orthocath, some history and other information on the Orthodox Christian practice of infant communion, in continuance with the ancient Church:

Visitors from other Christian groups to an Orthodox Divine Liturgy will often find some similarities to their own religious services along with some major differences. For example, visitors from other liturgical Churches will recognize the Epistle and Gospel readings, the Alleluia, and the Anaphora or Canon before the distribution of the Eucharist. One major difference, however, is the Orthodox belief that there is no minimum age requirement for the reception of Holy Communion. Orthodox children, including infants, who have been Baptized and Chrismated (Confirmed), are welcome at the Lord’s Table.

For example, here is a video of an Orthodox infant, who having just been Baptized and Chrismated (Confirmed), receiving Holy Communion.

This is quite different from the Christian West. In Roman Catholic theology, for example, there is an emphasis on children understanding what the Eucharist means before they are permitted to receive the Eucharist. Most Protestant Christians have inherited this viewpoint. However, historically, this restrictive view that infants and children should not be welcomed to the Lord’s Table only developed in the Western Church and dates only from about 800 years ago. All the Christian Churches of the East (including Coptic, Armenian, Syrian, Byzantine Orthodox, etc.) have maintained the earlier tradition of giving the Eucharist to infants as well as adults. In fact, infant Communion was also practiced as a norm in the West up until about 1200 A.D.

St. Augustine of Hippo bears testimony to the practice in the Western Church of infants receiving from the Lord’s Table:

“Those who say that infancy has nothing in it for Jesus to save, are denying that Christ is Jesus for all believing infants. Those, I repeat, who say that infancy has nothing in it for Jesus to save, are saying nothing else than that for believing infants, infants that is who have been baptized in Christ, Christ the Lord is not Jesus. After all, what is Jesus? Jesus means Savior. Jesus is the Savior. Those whom he doesn’t save, having nothing to save in them, well for them he isn’t Jesus. Well now, if you can tolerate the idea that Christ is not Jesus for some persons who have been baptized, then I’m not sure your faith can be recognized as according with the sound rule. Yes, they’re infants, but they are his members. They’re infants, but they receive his sacraments. They are infants, but they share in his table, in order to have life in themselves.

Augustine, Sermon 174, 7

Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. (who was on the faculty of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome) explains about the history of infant Communion in the Western Church in an article entitled “Liturgy in the Life of the Church” :

“The practice [of communing infants] began to be called into question in the 12th century not because of any argument about the need to have attained the “age of reason” (aetus discretionis) to communicate. Rather, the fear of profanation of the Host if the child could not swallow it led to giving the Precious Blood only. And then the forbidding of the chalice to the laity in the West led automatically to the disappearance of infant Communion, too. This was not the result of any pastoral or theological reasoning. When the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) ordered yearly confession and Communion for those who have reached the “age of reason” (annos discretionis), it was not affirming this age as a requirement for reception of the Eucharist.

“Nevertheless, the notion eventually took hold that Communion could not be received until the age of reason, even though infant Communion in the Latin rite continued in some parts of the West until the 16th century. Though the Fathers of Trent (Session XXI,4) denied the necessity of infant Communion, they refused to agree with those who said it was useless and inefficacious — realizing undoubtedly that the exact same arguments used against infant Communion could also be used against infant baptism, because for over ten centuries in the West, the same theology was used to justify both! For the Byzantine rite, on December 23, 1534, Paul III explicitly confirmed the Italo-Albanian custom of administering Communion to infants….So the plain facts of history show that for 1200 years the universal practice of the entire Church of East and West was to communicate infants. Hence, to advance doctrinal arguments against infant Communion is to assert that the sacramental teaching and practice of the Roman Church was in error for 1200 years. Infant Communion was not only permitted in the Roman Church, at one time the supreme magisterium taught that it was necessary for salvation. In the Latin Church the practice was not suppressed by any doctrinal or pastoral decision, but simply died out. Only later, in the 13th century, was the ‘age of reason’ theory advanced to support the innovation of baptizing infants without also giving them Communion. So the “age of reason” requirement for Communion is a medieval Western pastoral innovation, not a doctrinal argument. And the true ancient tradition of the whole Catholic Church is to give Communion to infants. Present Latin usage is a medieval innovation.” (Emphasis added) (Text from here.)

Eastern Catholics (those Catholics which celebrate other liturgies such as the Byzantine, Armenian, Coptic or Syrian liturgy) generally adopted the later Roman practice of delaying communion until “the age of reason” once they entered union with Rome (1500 – 1700s A.D.) and thus discontinued infant Communion. This is explained by Pope Benedict XIV’s encylical Allatae Sunt (On the Observance of the Oriental Rites), given 26 July 1755. First, Pope Benedict XIV explains that:

24. For several centuries the practice prevailed in the Church of giving children the Eucharist after the sacrament of baptism….For the last four centuries, the Western church has not given the Eucharist to children after baptism. But it must be admitted that the Rituals of the Oriental churches contain a rite of Communion for children after baptism. Assemanus the Younger (Codicis Liturgici), bk. 2, p. 149) gives the ceremony of conferring baptism among the Melchites. On page 309, he quotes the Syrians’ baptismal ceremony as it was published by Philoxenus, the Monophysite Bishop of Mabbug, and on p. 306, the ceremony from the ancient Ritual of Severus, Patriarch of Antioch and leader of the Monophysites. He gives also the ceremonies of baptism observed by the Armenians and Copts (bk. 3, p. 95 and 130). All of these ceremonies command that the Eucharist should be given to children after baptism.

Here, Pope Benedict XIV dates the time the Latin Church stopped giving the Eucharist to children to 400 years earlier — in the 1300s. He recounts how the practice of the Eastern Church still gave testimony to Infant Communion and then notes the various Eastern Catholic synods which stopped the practice in imitation of the Latin Church from the 1500s to the 1700s. The specifics of the removal of Infant Communion can be read in the link to Pope Benedict XIV’s encyclical above. Eastern Orthodox Christians maintained the historic tradition, however.

However, in the past 15 years or so various Eastern Catholic Churches have started to restore infant Communion with encouragement from Rome. The first indication of this was in 1990 with the publication of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (Eastern Catholic Canon Law). Canon 710 of that law stated:

With respect to the participation of infants in the Divine Eucharist after baptism and chrismation with holy myron, the prescriptions of the liturgical books of each Church sui iuris are to be observed with the suitable due precautions.

This was further strengthened by in section 51 of this Vatican document. It was also mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a norm in the Eastern Catholic Churches:

“In the Eastern rites the Christian initiation of infants also begins with Baptism followed immediately by Confirmation and the Eucharist…” (Section 1233)

However, there is no uniform practice yet among Eastern Catholics on infant Communion. When my two children were Baptized and Chrismated (Confirmed) in the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Church in 1994 (ages 5 and 3), they were the first children in our Eparchy (Diocese) to receive the Eucharist at the time of their Baptism/Chrismation. The Ukrainian Catholic Church decided in 1997 to begin the restoration of infant Communion. Some parishes have implemented the change, but many have not. The tradition of “First Communion” dies hard in some places. The Melkite Greek Catholics (also in union with Rome) have generally restored infant Communion. According to this source, this has happened since about 1969, but many parishes have retained a “First Solemn Communion” that reflects the “First Communion” experience from the Latin Church.

The vast majority of Protestant churches do not practice infant Communion, though a few Protestant churches do practice or tolerate it. It enjoys limited support by some Reformed writers and has been debated in the Episcopal Church. It has also become an issue for several Lutherans who are contemplating converting to Orthodoxy. Some Lutheran writers have also correctly noted that the discontinuance of the practice of communing infants in the Western Church dates from about the twelfth century. Since 1997, some parishes of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) now practice infant Communion.

Meanwhile, the Orthodox Christian East has retained this ancient tradition of the undivided Church of the first millennium.

λόγος from Heraclitus to Christianity

The Greek word λόγος (pronounced and hereafter spelled logos) is primarily the equivalent of the English word “word.” Since its introduction into the lexicon of Western philosophy by Heraclitus in approximately 500 BCE, however, it has been procured by and passed through a variety of philosophical schools, including especially those of the Stoics and Philo, acquiring new meanings and nuances while losing others along the way. Finally, beginning with the writing of the Gospel of John near the close of the first century CE, the term was adopted by Christians, who both significantly altered the use of the word and simultaneously drew and elucidated upon previous definitions. Within the early Christian movement, logos would take on the most central and expansive role in the history of its use in philosophy.

The logos as a philosophical concept was first used by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus in about 500 BCE. Heraclitus, like most pre-Socratic philosophers, sought to explain the world in terms of some material element as the generative and operative agent. For Heraclitus, this element was fire, and fire Heraclitus associated with the logos, “the rational principle governing the cosmos.”1 Heraclitus saw all things as being in a constant state of flux, an eternal back and forth movement between opposing forces; the logos was the universal law and reason that stood behind this perpetual push and pull and, ultimately, the unifying principle of the universe, which combined these opposites into one harmonious whole. In the philosophy of Heraclitus, “God is the universal Reason (λόγος), the universal law immanent in all things, binding all things into a unity and determining the constant change in the universe according to universal law.”2 Heraclitus himself summarized the unifying and harmonizing work of the logos very simply: “listening not to me but to the logos it is wise to agree that one is all /all is one.”3

Man, according to Heraclitus, should strive to live in accordance with the logos. As the logos, the eternal and ultimate principle of Reason, is “manifest in the human being’s power of reason,”4 so “man should therefore strive to attain to the viewpoint of reason and to live by reason.”5 To live in accordance with the logos was to attempt to see the world the way the logos does, understanding that existence is necessarily in a constant state of flux and being content with this ever-changing reality and one’s place within it.

This notion of seeking to conform oneself with the universal and inflexible law of the logos and to seek after equanimity within the station one was allotted lent itself naturally to the philosophy of the Stoics which developed about 200 years after Heraclitus. “In the Stoic view,” says Richard Tarnas, “all reality was pervaded by an intelligent divine force, the Logos or universal reason which ordered all things. Man could achieve genuine happiness only by attuning his life and character to this all-powerful providential wisdom.”6

The Stoic conception of the logos included the former understanding inculcated by Heraclitus, as is clear from Stoic writings like this from a poem written by the early Stoic philosopher Cleanthes in about 300 BCE:

Chaos to thee is order: in thine eyes
The unloved is lovely, who did’st harmonise
Things evil with things good, that there should be
One Word [logos] through all things everlastingly.7

The Stoic ideas also expanded upon the Heraclitean logos significantly, however. While drawing upon the idea of Heraclitus that the universal Reason is the source of and is manifest in each individual human reason, the Stoics went a step further. Richard Tarnas explains:

The existence of the world-governing reason had another important consequence
for the Stoic. Because all human beings shared in the divine Logos, all were members of a universal human community, a brotherhood of mankind that constituted the World City, or Cosmopolis, and each individual was called upon to participate actively in the affairs of the world thereby fulfilling his duty to this great community.8

Cleanthes explains in another portion of the same poem:

We are thy children, we alone, of all
On earth’s broad ways that wander to and fro,
Bearing thy image wheresoe’er we go.

Approximately 300 years after the foundation of Stoicism, in the first century CE, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria drew upon these Stoic understandings of the logos in the formulation of his own Hellenic-Jewish philosophy. Like the Stoics, “Philo conceives the Logos as the pilot of the Universe and, in full accord with Stoicism, as ‘warm and fiery.’”9 Philo also expanded upon the Stoic ideas and combined them with Plato’s conception of a universal mind which contained the perfect ideals of all things, equating the logos of the Stoics with the universal mind of Plato:

As therefore the city, when previously shadowed out in the mind of the man of architectural skill had no external place, but was stamped solely in the mind of the workman, so in the same manner neither can the world which existed in ideas have had any other local position except the divine reason [logos] which made them; for what other place could there be for his powers which should be able to receive and contain, I do not say all, but even any single one of them whatever, in its simple form?10

As a Jew who attempted to synthesize his Judaism with Greek philosophy, Philo also made the remarkable step of attempting to find the logos within the scriptures of the Jews. He claimed, for instance, that “this divine Logos inspired and informed Moses’ status as king and god of creation, lawgiver, high priest, prophet, miracle worker, ascetic, and philosopher.”11 Unlike the Stoics, however, Philo did not identify the logos with God; he instead “seems to have wavered between conceiving the Logos as an aspect of God and conceiving it as an independent being.”12 For instance, “when the Old Testament mentions the angel of God in describing the theophanies, Philo identifies the angel with the Logos.”13 Frederick Coplestone explains that “this Logos is an incorporeal substance, the immaterial Word or Voice of God” an assertion by Philo in which there is yet another departure from Heraclitean and Stoic ideas in favor of Platonic ones, “but, in so far as it is conceived as really distinct from God, it is conceived as subordinate to God, as God’s instrument.”14

The use of the word logos to translate phrases like “the word of God” in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures which was considered divinely inspired and used by the majority of Jews in the first century CE, also played a significant role in the growing Jewish-Hellenic synthesis of which Philo’s philosophy was a major part.15 For instance, Psalm 147:4 in the Septuagint version says that “He [God] sends his oracle to the earth: his word [logos] will run swiftly.”16 Several of the Old Testament prophets wrote about the “word [logos] of God” speaking to them. Ezekiel 29:1 in the Septuagint claims, for instance, that “the word [logos] of the Lord came to me.”17 Passages like these would play an increasingly important role as the Jewish-Hellenic philosophical movement culminated in the advent and development of Christianity.

No matter what one’s own personal religious persuasion, the opening verses of the Gospel of John, the first Christian writing to discuss the concept of the logos, can be seen as nothing less than a brilliant masterpiece of world literature. In them, the author poetically and skillfully brings together the Jewish and the Hellenic into one seamless philosophical and theological whole. The author, writing in about 95 CE, begins:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.18

No Jew of that period, reading those verses, could fail to notice the reference being made to the opening verses of Genesis in the Septuagint, which recounts the creation of the world by God. The words, in Greek, Ἐν ἀρχῇ (“in the beginning”) in John’s Gospel would immediately draw to mind the same words in the opening of Genesis: “In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth.”19

Similarly, no one, Greek or Jew, familiar with Greek philosophy would miss the importance of the Word, the logos, in John’s writing. John is clearly identifying the logos concept of Heraclitus and the Stoics with the God of the Old Testament, a step that even Philo, with all of his Hellenizing tendencies, was not willing to full take.

And John continues to shock as he goes on. The most shocking statement of all comes in verse 14: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”20 John has not only identified the logos with the Jewish God but, in words that would be equally shocking and appalling to both Greeks and Jews, now claims that this Logos-God became a human being!21 The most important unique contribution of Christianity to the development of the philosophical concept of the logos was not only to identify the logos with the God of the Old Testament but to simultaneously identify both the logos and the Jewish God with the historical human person Jesus Christ. This unique understanding of the logos would become a central feature of later Christian philosophical and theological development. John Behr, a scholar of Christian patristics, summarizes the centrality of the identification of the logos with Christ:

In the term “Word” (λόγος) there are at least two interconnected ideas, that of revelation and that of the revealer, and these should not be separated too hastily. Christ is the Word of God, who, as such, exists before the world, with God, and is, to use later imagery, spoken out into the world; he is God’s own expression in the world. The function of revealer is so closely bound up with the person of Jesus, that he is, in fact, the embodiment of the revelation: he is the Word made flesh. Not only are his words revelatory, but he is revelatory in himself, coming into the world from above, a divine self-revelation.22

What this revelation consisted of could only but add to the shock of both Greeks and Jews at the Christian ideas already discussed. While the apostle Paul was not referring to the conception of Christ as logos specifically in his statement, his words in his first letter to the Corinthian church adequately express the reaction that non-Christians of that period had to the Christian beliefs about the logos: “We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness.”23 Jaroslav Pelikan, a scholar in Christian history and theology, explains that

what made this portrait of the Logos as Cosmic Christ special was the declaration that the Word had become flesh in Jesus and that in Jesus the incarnate Word had suffered and died on the cross.24

From these ideas of the logos, some of them derived from the thought of other philosophical schools and others entirely uniquely Christian, Christians continued to explore their own theology and to ferret out its implications. Most important among these elements of Christian logos theology were the unique Christian ideas about the relationship of the logos to mankind.

The most obvious, and most uniquely Christian, implication of the relationship of the Christian conception of the logos to man was encapsulated by the apostle John in what is probably the most famous verse from his Gospel:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.25

The word here translated “world” is, in the original Greek, κόσμος (kosmos), the same word used by previous Greek philosophers to refer to the harmonious order of all of material existence. For Christians, then, the logos was not just the generative principle behind existence who directs it into a harmonious order, the logos in fact became a part of the created order and gave himself for it to save it because of his love for it.

Another important aspect of the relationship of the logos with man in Christianity was similar to, but not identical with, the ideas of earlier philosophers who had used the concept of the logos. This idea was first enunciated by the second century Christian philosopher Justin Martyr in about 150 CE. Similar to the claim of Heraclitus and the Stoics that the eternal Reason is manifested in the reason of individuals, Justin claimed that “the seed[s] of reason” have been “implanted in every race of men” by the Supreme Reason, the logos.26 Later, in the fourth century, the Christian bishop and mystic Gregory of Nyssa expressed much the same idea at greater length, saying:

And if you were to examine the other points also by which the Divine beauty is expressed, you will find that to them too the likeness in the image which we present is perfectly preserved. The Godhead is mind and word [logos]: for “in the beginning was the Word [logos],” and the followers of Paul “have the mind of Christ’ which “speaks” in them: humanity too is not far removed from these: you see in yourself word [logos] and understanding, an imitation of the very Mind and Word [logos].27

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, a modern Eastern Orthodox bishop and scholar, explains the same point in words heavily reminiscent of the writings of Heraclitus and the Stoics, but without reference to them:

As the Word or Logos of God he is also at work before the Incarnation. He is the principle of order and purpose that permeates all things, drawing them to unity in God, and so making the universe into a “cosmos”, a harmonious and integrated whole. The Creator-Logos has imparted to each created thing its own indwelling logos or inner principle, which makes that thing to be distinctively itself, and which at the same time draws and directs that thing towards God. Our human task as craftsmen or manufacturers is to discern this logos dwelling in each thing and to render it manifest; we seek not to dominate but to co-operate.28

With this statement, one sees the culmination of the philosophical tradition of the logos in its fullest development. The concept of the logos had certainly come a long way from its roots in the philosophy of Heraclitus in 500 BCE, where it was identified with the material element of fire and remained rather underdeveloped and vaguely defined. As it entered Stoicism, it took on new meanings, especially in its identification with God, and in the implication that mankind is a brotherhood of children of the logos, subject to its providential care. In the philosophy of Philo of Alexandria, the logos was stripped of the gross materialism that had previously weighed it down and brought into contact with the philosophy of Plato as well as with the theology and tradition of the Jewish Bible. Finally, the logos became man, or at least became identified with a certain man, in Christianity, and so became a historical figure as well as a personal and loving savior. Through all of these quite different philosophical contexts, however, the concept of the logos never lost its central meaning of which Heraclitus first spoke. It remained the Supreme Principle directing the order of the cosmos and the source of human reason to which human beings must conform themselves or perish. On the contrary, the movement of the concept of the logos through time and through various philosophical schools not only did no damage to the original concept, but in fact greatly enhanced, expanded, and deepened its original meaning. In the end, the logos was not simply a vague and abstract philosophical principle mindlessly balancing the cosmos, but a real and concrete person lovingly ordering his creation.


1 Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View (New York: Ballantine Books, 1991), 45.

2 Frederick Coplestone, A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1: Greece and Rome (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1946), 43.

3 “Heraclitus of Ephesus” (2006) (Accessed 18 Februrary 2011).

4 Tarnas, 45.

5 Coplestone, 43.

6 Tarnas, 76.

7 Coplestone, 393.

8 Tarnas, 76.

9 R.E. Witt, “The Plotinian Logos and Its Stoic Basis,” The Classical Quarterly 25, no. 2 (April 1931): 104.

10 Philo of Alexandria, “On the Creation,” 5.20, tr. Charles Duke Yonge (2010) (Accessed 18 February 2011).

11 Calvin J. Roetzel, The World That Shaped the New Testament: Revised Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 146-7.

12 Coplestone, 460.

13 ibid.

14 ibid.

15 R.M. Price, “’Hellenization’ and the Logos Doctrine in Justin Martyr,” Vigiliae Christianae 42, no. 1 (March 1988): 20.

16 “Septuagint Old Testament Bilingual (Greek-English),” tr. L.C.L. Brenton (2010) (Accessed 18 February 2011).

17 ibid.

18 John 1:1-5, King James Version.

19 “Septuagint Old Testament Bilingual (Greek-English).”

20 John 1:14, KJV.

21 John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology, Volume 1: The Way to Nicaea (Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 69.

22 ibid., 67.

23 1 Corinthians 1:23, KJV.

24 Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 70.

25 John 3:16, KJV.

26 Justin Martyr, “Second Apology,” VIII, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1: Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994), 191.

27 Gregory of Nyssa, “On the Making of Man,” V, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 5: Gregory of Nyssa: Dogmatic Treatises, Etc., eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.), 391.

28 Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way: Revised Edition (Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 32-3.


Behr, John. Formation of Christian Theology, Volume 1: The Way to Nicaea. Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001.

Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. New York: Dorset Press, 1986.

Coplestone, Frederick. A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1: Greece and Rome. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1946.

Gregory of Nyssa. “On the Making of Man.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 5: Gregory of Nyssa: Dogmatic Treatises, Etc. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

“Heraclitus of Ephesus” (2006) (Accessed 18 Februrary 2011).

Justin Martyr. “Second Apology.” In Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1: Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994.

Miller, Ed. L. “The Johannine Origins of the Johannine Logos.” Journal of Biblical Literature 112, no. 3 (Autumn 1993): 445-57.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Philo of Alexandria. “On the Creation.” Translated by Charles Duke Yonge (2010) (Accessed 18 February 2011).

Price, R.M. “’Hellenization’ and the Logos Doctrine in Justin Martyr.” Vigiliae Christianae 42, no. 1 (March 1988): 18-23.

Roetzel, Calvin J. The World That Shaped the New Testament: Revised Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

Russell, Bertrand. The History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.

“Septuagint Old Testament Bilingual (Greek-English).” Translated by L.C.L. Brenton (2010) (Accessed 18 February 2011).

Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991.

Ware, Metropolitan Kallistos. The Orthodox Way: Revised Edition. Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995.

Witt, R.E. “The Plotinian Logos and Its Stoic Basis.” The Classical Quarterly 25, no. 2 (April 1931): 103-11.

The Controversy of the Possessors and Non-Possessors in Renaissance Russia

During the years of the Renaissance, issues surrounding the relationship between the Church and the State as well as between the Church and the world at large came into high relief throughout Europe. The status quo of the Middle Ages was both widely questioned and vigorously upheld by opposing groups. At one end of the spectrum of opinion concerning these relationships were groups like the Spiritual Franciscans, who advocated ecclesiastical poverty and the renunciation by the Church of all secular power. At the opposite end of the spectrum of opinion were organizations like the Inquisition, which sought to expand the temporal power of the Church and to use that power against the Church’s enemies. One manifestation of this debate occurred in Russia, where the Orthodox Church was split between the Possessors, who advocated the ownership of land and serfs by the Church and a close relationship of the Church with the State, and the Non-Possessors, who advocated the spiritual poverty of the Church and a distancing of the Church from secular powers.

The relationship between Church and State in Russia had been a close one from the beginning of Christianity there. According to Medieval Russian Orthodox tradition, the conversion of Russia from paganism to Christianity took place in the year 988 at the behest of Prince Vladimir the Great (958-1015).1 After having himself baptized, “he then mandated the baptism of all his subjects and had all the idols of the Russian gods destroyed.”2 This mandate by Prince Vladimir is commemorated in modern Russia as the national holiday of “Christianization Day;” it is celebrated on 28 July, the same day that Prince Vladimir, a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church, is commemorated on the Church’s liturgical calendar.3

The relationship between Church and State in Russia continued to grow throughout the remainder of the Middle Ages, finally culminating in the second half of the fifteenth century with the conception of Moscow, the seat of both the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church, as the “third Rome.”4 According to Russian ideologues of the time, the first Rome, the city of Rome on the Italian peninsula and identified with the Roman Catholic popes, had fallen away from the true faith into heresy with the Great Schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches in 1054;5 the second Rome, the “New Rome” of Constantinople, had fallen into Muslim hands in 1453,6 ostensibly due to God’s judgment after the Council of Florence held in 1431-45, in which the bishops of the Byzantine Orthodox Church agreed to a reunion with the Roman Catholic Church.7 Moscow and, by extension, all of Russia, then, was the third Rome, “the sole remaining stronghold of the true faith in the world.”8

This close relationship and even identification of the Church with the State in Russia at the beginning of the Renaissance was especially facilitated by elements within the Russian monastic tradition. The figure most associated with this increasing collaboration between the monastics and the government of Russia was “Sergius of Radonezh (?1314-92), the greatest national saint of Russia.”9 Though monks, nuns, hermits, and other similar figures had existed in Russia for many years before Sergius, he is undoubtedly the most significant representative of the Medieval Russian monastic tradition. Not only did he contribute greatly to the development and spread of a distinctly Russian spirituality, but also to the development and enlargement of Muscovite Russia:

Sergius played an active part in politics. A close friend of the Grand Dukes of Moscow, he encouraged the city in its expansion, and it is significant that before the Battle of Kulikovo the leader of the Russian forces, Prince Dimitry Donskoy, went especially to Sergius to secure his blessing.10

This close relationship between the monastics of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government, as well as the close relationship of monastics with the secular world that their relationship with the State necessitated, caused a good deal of tension within the Church over the proper application of Christian values, finally leading to the outbreak of controversy in 1503.11 At a Church council held that year, Nil Sorsky (1433-1508), “one of the saintliest of Russian ascetics”12 and “a monk from a remote hermitage in the forests beyond the Volga, rose to speak, and launched an attack on the ownership of land by monasteries.”13 “Joseph of Volokolamsk” (1439-1515), also known as Joseph Volotsky, abbot of a monastery in Volokolasmk and “one of the most notable churchmen of the time,” rose to oppose him and vigorously defended the ownership of land by monasteries.14

The debate that began between the two at that council would last for another 20 years, splitting the monastics and others in the Church into two camps, that of the Possessors, originally led by Joseph of Volokolamsk, who advocated land ownership by the Church, and that of the Non-Possessors, originally led by Nil Sorsky, who opposed it. The issues at stake in the debate between the two parties naturally expanded during that period of time to include other topics connected to the two positions and disagreements necessitated by the original dispute; the overarching issues were what relationship the Church, and especially the monastic movement within the Church, should have with both the State and with the world outside of the monastery.

The dispute finally reached a boiling point in 1526 due to the actions of the leaders of the Non-Possessors after the death of Nil Sorsky; these leaders were Vassian Cross-Eye, who had been a disciple of Nil Sorsky, and Maxim the Greek, one of whose teachers during his travels in Western Europe had been the Florentine reformer Girolamo Savonarola, the leader of a movement similar to the Non-Possessors.15 In that year, Vassian and Maxim made the mistake of openly criticizing Czar Basil III for his divorce, which had been unlawful according to the canons of the Orthodox Church. As a result, the Czar imprisoned both Vassian and Maxim and ordered the monasteries which had supported them to be closed. The Non-Possessor movement was nearly crushed and never recovered its former size and strength while the Possessors were granted official favor by the government.16 Both factions, however, would leave an enduring mark on the Russian Church as well as the nation as a whole; that legacy will be examined after a discussion of the central issues which divided the two groups, the respective stances of the groups on these issues, and the place of these issues in the Orthodox Church previous to the outbreak of controversy in the early 16th century.

Before the official suppression of the Non-Possessors in 1526, three issues in particular had been at the heart of the debate between the two groups: property ownership by monasteries, the proper relationship between Church and State, and the correct treatment of heretics by the Church.

The initial issue of disagreement, as has already been seen, was the question of whether the Church, and especially the monasteries, should own property. Nil Sorksy and the Non-Possessors who followed in his footsteps argued that the “monk’s primary task is to help others by praying for them and by setting an example.”17 The monk should not involve himself with worldly concerns, such as land ownership and the obligations of management that result, but should pursue God in prayer and silent meditation. Any engagement with the world, according to Nil Sorsky, was hazardous to the spiritual health of the monk. “When one allows any distraction to disturb the mind,” he wrote, “such draws the mind away from silence.”18

Nil’s disciple Vassian wrote even more vehemently against those monasteries who took part in the system of serfdom in Russia through the acquisition of land and peasants, demanding of them:

Where in the traditions of the Gospels, Apostles, and Fathers are monks ordered to acquire populous villages and enslave peasants to the brotherhood? … We look into the hands of the rich, fawn slavishly, flatter them to get out of them some little village … We wrong and rob and sell Christians, our brothers.19

Joseph of Volokalamsk, as leader of the Possessors, argued equally vehemently for the opposite position. Monks serve social functions, he said, in addition to the spiritual ones spoken about by the Non-Possessors; not only do monks pray for the world and set an example for nonmonastic Christians, they also have the obligations of charity, nursing the sick, hospitality, and teaching.20 How, Joseph and the Possessors asked, could monks fulfill these functions if they did not have the material resources necessary to do so? Joseph and his followers adopted for themselves the slogan, “The riches of the Church are the riches of the poor.”21

At the root of the debate on the ownership of property by monks was a difference in perspective between those monastics who adopted the cenobitic, or communal, way of living in a monastery and those who adopted the eremetic, or hermit, way of life in a skete or hermitage. It is significant that the leader of the Possessors, Joseph of Volokolamsk, as well as his followers were cenobitic monks whereas Nil Sorksy and the rest of the Non-Possessors were eremetic monks.22 Their respective ideas reflect the tendencies inherent in each form of monasticism and are also reflective of differences that had existed between the two Orthodox monastic traditions from their beginnings in Egypt in the fourth century.

Anthony the Great (251-356), one of the first Christian hermits, often credited with being the founding figure of Christian monasticism, wrote, in a passage which sounds very much like the words of Nil Sorsky quoted above, that

Fish die if they stay on dry land, and in the same way monks who stay outside their cell or remain with secular [non-monastic] people fall away from their vow of quiet. As a fish must return to the sea, so we must go to our cell, in case by staying outside, we forget to watch inside.23

According to those monks who followed this way of life, the primary tasks of the monk were those laid out by the Non-Possessors: praying for the world and setting an example.

In the monasteries, among those monks who adopted the cenobitic way of life, first founded by the monk Pachomius (292-348), however, the attitude was somewhat different. It was recognized from an early date that a communal way of life would necessitate not only increased interaction between the monks but an increased interaction with the world outside the monastery. As a result, more emphasis was placed on charity, care for the sick, hospitality, and related works. The monks of Pachomius’s monastery, for instance, saved the leftovers from each of their meals for “the sick and aged, because the neighborhood is poor and populous.”24 That there were leftovers to be had from meals, indicating that the meals must have been of a sizable portions, and that there was apparently a neighborhood nearby the monastery are both substantial differences from the way of life recorded concerning the contemporary eremetic monks. This focus on charitable activities, it was recognized very early, required that monasteries have a certain measure of material resources. In the same ancient work already quoted on Pachomius’s monastery, for instance, it is recorded that the monastery included “fifteen tailors, seven smiths, four carpenters, twelve camel-drivers, and fifteen fullers” among its monks, indicating that the monastery must have also had the materials necessary for these jobs. The same work goes on to say that “they keep pigs too.”25 The controversy between the Possessors and the Non-Possessors on the issue of property ownership is reflective of this difference, and resultant tension, between the cenobitic and eremetic schools of monasticism, the foundations of which were laid in Christian monasticism’s earliest days.

The second major issue dividing the Possessors and the Non-Possessors was the nature that the relationship between the Church and the State should assume. This issue was closely related to the issues of land ownership and monastic relations with the world and, like those issues, was an enduring source of tension in historical Christian thought that came to the forefront of controversy throughout Europe during the Renaissance.

The Possessors advocated a close relationship between the Church and the State, following the Byzantine model, with Church and State acting in a symbiotic manner; the idea of Moscow as the third Rome held a particular and very real importance for the Possessors.26 The Non-Possessors, on the other hand, argued for a stricter separation of the two; “in general Nilus drew a clearer line than Joseph between the things of Caesar and the things of God.”27

The third issue, that of the proper treatment of heretics, gave concrete implications to this difference between the two groups on the issue of Church-State relations. Joseph of Volokolamsk argued vehemently in favor of the use of power by the State against heretics, demanding that the czar have them burned at the stake after they had been convicted by a Church tribunal, in much the same fashion as the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church functioned in Western Europe.28 “Supported by Grand Princess Sophia, he secured the condemnation and burning” of the leaders of a popular heretical group in 1504.29 Nil Sorsky, on the other hand, “condemned all forms of violence and coercion against heretics.”30 He argued instead that the Church should work to win them over through persuasion and compassion.

Like the issues of land ownership and Church-State relations, this issue also had deep roots in previous Christian thought. The prevailing attitude throughout Christian history was that expressed by John Chrysostom (349-407), Archbishop of Constantinople, very near the beginnings of the rise of the Christian Church to official status in the Roman Empire and the resultant symbiotic relationship between Church and State:

I do not persecute the heretic bodily, but I wage war against him with words — and not even against the heretic, but only against his heresy: I do not disdain the man; it is the error I hate, and I seek to pull him out of it….I am accustomed to being persecuted, not to persecute others….Thus did Christ triumph; He did not crucify, but rather it was He that was crucified. He did not smite others, but was Himself smitten.31

This attitude, however, has not always been adhered to consistently in the history of Christianity as a whole or in Orthodox Christianity specifically. The Byzantine Empress Theodora (815-867), for instance, had used the power of the State against the heretical sect known as the Paulicians, ordering the military to intervene, which resulted in the massacre of a large number of them.32

It is perhaps not ironic that the Possessors, who favored the use of State power against heretical sects and in Church matters in general, eventually became the favored party by the Russian government, whereas the Non-Possessors, who opposed State intervention in Church affairs, were eventually suppressed and had their leaders imprisoned by the government. In spite of the drastically different fates of the two groups as regards their respective official relationships with the State, however, both would have a lasting influence on the Russian Church and culture. It is especially significant in this regard that both Joseph of Volokolamsk and Nil Sorsky were canonized as saints by the Russian Orthodox Church.33

Later thinkers in the Russian Church were able to see both positive and negative aspects in the writings and ideas of both the Possessors and the Non-Possessors. The Possessors’ focus on charitable activities by the monasteries, for instance, is certainly a laudable thought. However, with too much focus on this element of the monastic vocation the Possessors came close to under-emphasizing the importance of silence, prayer, and the spiritual life for monks. On the opposite side, the Non-Possessors’ focus on the spiritual life and the practice of high ideals for monks was certainly a boon to the Russian spiritual tradition, and Nil Sorsky’s works were a major contribution to Orthodox spirituality, but simultaneously came dangerously near an individualist and quietist spirituality which ignored the need for practical work and care for others.

Similarly, the Possessors were right, if judged by the lens of previous Orthodox Christian practice, to attempt to establish something of a symbiotic relationship between Church and State in which the Church could fulfill its mission of care and service with the State’s assistance, but their ideology inevitably led to a subordination of the Church under the State, as would occur later in Russian history under Czar Peter the Great, stripping the Church of its independence and so inhibiting its mission.34 With their ideas of Moscow as a third Rome, they came very close to identifying the Church with the State as had nearly happened with the Roman Catholic Church and the Papal States in Italy at nearly the same time. And with their desire to bring the power of the State to use against heretics, they also came dangerously near replicating the activities of the Roman Catholic Church’s Inquisition.35

The Non-Possessors, on the other hand, were right to demand that the Church not use the military powers of the State and that the State not intervene in matters of the Church, but their ideas, if taken to their logical conclusion, were liable to result in an absolute separation of the Church and the State, resulting possibly in an opposition between the two and probably in a state like that which the division of the Protestants from the Roman Catholic Church caused in Western Europe, with the Church and the State often working in ways contrary to each other.36 In addition, the Non-Possessors’ adoption of spiritual poverty alongside this tendency against cooperation with the government had the risk of becoming something similar to the heretical movement of the Spiritual Franciscans in Western Europe.37

There can be little doubt that it has been a very positive influence in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church that its leaders in the centuries following the controversy between the Possessors and Non-Possessors were able to recognize both the good and the bad of each side’s teachings and to attempt to find a middle road between the two extremes. The Possessors and the Non-Possessors, like their kin in the Western European movements respectively resembling each position, each helped to shape the form that both Church and the State as well as the relationship between the two entities would take during and after the Renaissance.


1 David Bentley Hart, Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 Years of the Christian Faith (London: Quercus, 2007), 131.

2 ibid., 132.

3 “Russia to celebrate Christianization as official holiday,” Russia Today (28 July 2010) (Accessed 9 February 2011).

4 Serge Zenkovsky, “The Russian Church Schism,” in Readings in Russian Civilization, Volume I: Russia Before Peter the Great, 900-1700, 2nd ed., ed. Thomas Riha (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 144.

5 John Julius Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 229-30.

6 ibid., 372-81.

7 James Patrick, Renaissance and Reformation (Tarrytown: Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 2007), 427-30.

8 Zenkovsky, “Russian Church Schism,” 144.

9 Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church: New Edition (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 84.

10 ibid.

11 ibid., 104.

12 Bernard Pares, A History of Russia (New York: Dorset Press, 1953), 98.

13 Ware, 104.

14 Pares, 99.

15 ibid.

16 Ware, 104.

17 ibid., 105.

18 “Nil Sorsky’s Rule for Hermits,” The Hermitage (2007) (Accessed 10 February 2011).

19 Pares, 99.

20 Ware, 105.

21 ibid.

22 David Goldfrank, “Old and New Perspectives on Iosif Volotsky’s Monastic Rules,” Slavic Review 34, no. 2 (June 1975): 279-301.

23 Benedicta Ward, tr., The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 8.

24 Paul Halsall, tr., “Chapter XXXII: Pachomius and the Tabennesiots,” in Medieval Sourcebook: Palladius: The Lausiac History (September 1998) (Accessed 12 February 2011).

25 ibid.

26 Steven Merritt Miner, Stalin’s Holy War: Religion, Nationalism, and Alliance Politics, 1941-1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 16.

27 Ware, 106.

28 David Goldfrank, “Burn, Baby, Burn: Popular Culture and Heresy in Late Medieval Russia,” The Journal of Popular Culture 31, no. 4 (1998): 17–32.

29 Pares, 99.

30 Ware, 105.

31 Metropolitan Ephraim of Boston, “Do We All Worship the Same God?,” Orthodox Christian Witness (April 2007) (Accessed 12 February 2011).

32 Norwich, 140.

33 Ware, 107.

34 Ware, 114.

35 Edward Peters, Inquisition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 40-74.

36 Leo Pfeffer, Church, State, and Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), 509.

37 David Burr, The Spiritual Franciscans: From Protest to Persecution in the Century After Saint Francis (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001), 1-10.


Burr, David. The Spiritual Franciscans: From Protest to Persecution in the Century After Saint Francis. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.

Erlinger, Rachel. The Unarmed Prophet: Savonarola in Florence. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1988.

Goldfrank, David. “Burn, Baby, Burn: Popular Culture and Heresy in Late Medieval Russia,” The Journal of Popular Culture 31, no. 4 (1998): 17–32.

Goldfrank, David. “Old and New Perspectives on Iosif Volotsky’s Monastic Rules,” Slavic
Review 34, no. 2 (June 1975): 279-301.

Halsall, Paul, tr. “Chapter XXXII: Pachomius and the Tabennesiots.” Medieval Sourcebook: Palladius: The Lausiac History. September 1998. (Accessed 12 February 2011).

Hart, David Bentley. The Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 Years of the Christian Faith. London: Quercus, 2007.

Kharkhordin, Oleg. The Collective and the Individual in Russia: A Study of Practices. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Medlin, William K. and Christos G. Patrinelis. Renaissance Influences and Religious Reforms in Russia. Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1971.

Metropolitan Ephraim of Boston. “Do We All Worship the Same God?” Orthodox Christian Witness. April 2007. (Accessed
12 February 2011).

Miner, Steven Merritt. Stalin’s Holy War: Religion, Nationalism, and Alliance Politics, 1941-1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

“Nil Sorsky’s Rule for Hermits.” The Hermitage. 2007. (Accessed 10 February 2011).

Norwich, John Julius. A Short History of Byzantium. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.

Pares, Bernard. A History of Russia. New York: Dorset Press, 1953.

Patrick, James. Renaissance and Reformation. Tarrytown: Marshall Cavendish Corporation,

Peters, Edward. Inquisition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Pfeffer, Leo. Church, State, and Freedom. Boston: Beacon Press, 1967.

Pospielovsky, Dimitry. The Orthodox Church in the History of Russia. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998.

“Russia to celebrate Christianization as official holiday.” Russia Today. 28 July 2010. (Accessed 9 February 2011).

Sorsky, Nil. Nil Sorsky: The Complete Writings. Edited and Translated by George A. Maloney. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2003.

Ward, Benedicta, tr. The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church: New Edition. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Zenkovsky, Serge. “The Russian Church Schism.” Readings in Russian Civilization, Volume I: Russia Before Peter the Great, 900-1700, 2nd ed. Edited by Thomas Riha. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

What I do in my room alone at night

When evening arrives, I return home and go into my study, and at the threshold, I take off my everyday clothes, full of mud and filth, and put on regal and courtly garments; and decorously dressed answer, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, lovingly received by them, I feed myself on the food that is mine alone and for which I was born, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them about the reasons for their actions, and they, in their humanity, respond to me. And for four hours at a time, I do not feel any boredom, I forget every difficulty, I do not fear poverty, I am not terrified at death; I transfer myself into them completely.

Niccoló Machiavelli, letter to Francesco Vettori, in The Prince and Other Writings, pg. 151

Restoration works complete at the Hagia Sophia

After nearly twenty years, the restoration project is complete on this great jewel of Byzantine architecture in Istanbul.

Wonderful news! Now if they’d just make it back into a church all would be well…

This major restoration project began back in 1993, a few years after the Hagia Sophia was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site together with the rest of the historic centre of Istanbul. It wasn’t until last year, when the city was designated European Cultural Capital 2010, that the works were hurried along and finally finished, after nearly 20 years.

It was Ataturk, founder of the modern Republic of Turkey and the country’s first president, who decided that this beautiful monument should be neither mosque nor church, but a museum open to the general public. The main focus of the restoration work was to restore the splendour of the building’s immense sixth-century dome, an architectural wonder measuring 31.5 metres in diameter whose innovative design is largely responsible for the mystical quality of light for which the Hagia Sophia is famous. To clean and restore the golden mosaics that cover the dome, the craftsmen had to work on scaffolding at heights of up to 55 metres.

Besides the new dome, the basilica also debuts the opening of the baptistery atrium which was previously closed to tourists. Soon it will be possible to visit the baptistery itself, which houses a sixth-century baptismal font carved from a single block of marble. The baptistery, which is outside the Byzantine church, was used as a mausoleum for Ottoman sultans because Sultan Mustafa I and Sultan Ibrahim were not considered worthy of a separate mausoleum as they had been ousted from the throne. 

Inside the monument, a total of 600 square metres of mosaics have been restored, together with Islamic calligraphy that decorates the walls and medallions; in addition, the mosaic of the face of one of the winged seraphim of the four main dome supports has also been uncovered. Outside, the facades have been cleaned and the roofs of the domes have been reinforced with 50 tons of lead.

It has only been a partial restoration project, however, and there are still visible stains and chipping in some areas of the Hagia Sophia due to the humidity of Istanbul, the city on the Bosphorus. Realistically, a complete restoration is probably impossible, and reconstruction has been an ongoing task since the original church was erected in the year 360. 

The current building dates from the reign of the Emperor Justinian, who decided to build a third church which would be both more splendid and more robust than its two predecessors. To this end, he had the finest of materials brought from the far reaches of the Byzantine Empire: green marble from Thessaly, porphyry from Egypt, black rock from the Bosphorus and even the columns of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. 

The current Hagia Sophia was inaugurated at Christmastide in 537. Since then it has stood its ground despite earthquakes, fires and ravages during the Crusades, all of which badly damaged the building structure. In 1453 it was converted into Mosque and in the nineteenth century Sultan Abdulmecit ordered important restoration work.