Raskol: The Schism of the Old Believers

The raskol, or great schism, of the Old Believers, or Old Ritualists, from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1666-7 is one of the most important events in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church. As the only major schism in the history of Russian Orthodoxy, the raskol has had a significant effect on the self-image of the Russian Orthodox Church. In addition, a study of the history of the schism is also helpful in illuminating certain aspects of the nature of faith and worship in Eastern Orthodoxy as a whole.

Beginning early in the 17th century, leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church recognized the need for a reform of morality and liturgy in Russia. Just as in most of Europe, in spite of “the political successes of Christianity and the Church … the inculcation of Christian belief among the people” remained incomplete in Russia throughout the Middle Ages.1 This incomplete Christianization, according to historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, led the “the often less than knowledgeable laity” in Russia as elsewhere in Europe “to mix Christian and traditional folk beliefs and practices.”2

In attempts to address this problem, reformers such as the Archpriest Avvakum “sought to improve the celebration of the liturgy and to bring a higher moral and spiritual tone to parish life.”3 Known as “the Zealots of Piety,” “they advocated better preaching, proper celebration of the liturgy, and bringing the moral teachings of Christ into everyday life.”4

To this end, the Church began to use the new technology of the printing press to print and disseminate educational materials for Russian Orthodox Christians, including prayer manuals and service books. A concern developed, especially in the light of certain differences between the Russian and Greek practices, that these new printed books be as accurate as possible. As historian of Russia Bernard Pares points out, if there were any errors in the Russian practices these “errors would become far more harmful from the moment when they were widely circulated in print.”5

“The matter” of correcting the service books “was taken up … with great vigour by the Patriarch Nikon.”6 In 1653 and 1654, Nikon led the push to correct the Russian service books, bringing them into conformity with contemporary Greek Orthodox practice. Among the changes made were altering the way the sign of the cross was performed by a believer from using two fingers to using three, changing the number of loaves of bread used for the Eucharist from seven to five, changing the way that bows and prostrations were done during prayers, and altering the Russian spelling of the name of Jesus.

These changes in important and common Orthodox practices such as the sign of the cross and the sacrament of the Eucharist caused a major backlash among many Russian Christians. Reformers like Avvakum, who had formerly seen Nikon as an ally, now turned against him and particularly against his heavy-handed implementation of the new practices. Finally, in 1666 and 1667, church councils were called to consider the matter. While ruling against Nikon, they ruled in favor of his reforms. Simultaneously, Nikon was deposed from the Patriarchate and the schism of the Old Believers, those who refused to accept the new service books, was solidified. A widespread and harsh persecution of the Old Believers promptly followed the decisions of the councils; even Avvakum himself was burned at the stake in 1682.7

“The raskol,” because it “constituted the only major schism in the history of the Orthodox Church in Russia,” has had a profound impact on the self-image of the Russian Orthodox Church.8 A clear example of this impact can be seen in a passage from the still widely popular early 19th century Russian spiritual novel The Way of the Pilgrim. In the passage, the anonymous pilgrim encounters a Raskolnikov, a member of one of the Old Believer sects who launches into a criticism of the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church, alleging that their liturgy is filled with distractions, distortions, and disorder, concluding that “in your Church it is not clear whether one is in the house of God or at a market!”9 The pilgrim’s response is, interestingly, not to argue; instead, he writes,

When I heard all of this, I realized that the man was an Old Believer, but because he spoke to the point I could not argue with him or try to convert him. I only thought to myself that at this time it is impossible to convert Old Believers to the true Church. First we must improve our church services, and the clerics especially should take a lead in this. The Old Believers are preoccupied with the external aspects of worship and they don’t seem to be aware of the interior man, while we are careless about the externals.10

This new self-awareness following the raskol allowed the Old Believers, in the eyes of Russian Orthodox, to act in a manner similar to the “virtuous pagan” in medieval Christianity, as a source of inspiration through shame which should prompt the Christian to better behavior.

That the Old Believer could be seen in such a way is due to the peculiar nature of their schism, a nature which also highlights important aspects of Eastern Orthodox faith. In contrast to Christians “in the West” at the same time as the raskol who “turned against their ecclesiastical authorities because they wanted changes; in Russia, believers revolted because they refused to accept even minor modifications of the traditional religious usage.”11 In other words, the Protestant schism from Roman Catholicism was a schism of those who wanted significant changes in their Church’s beliefs and practices, whereas the schism of the Old Believers from the Orthodox Church was a conservative one in protest against changes; they held “that it was the Church which had departed from them and not they from the Church.”12 This difference in the nature of two contemporary Christian schisms highlights the conservative nature of Orthodox belief as one that intrinsically resists change. In another example of the kind of self-awareness fostered by the schism of the Old Believers, and still present today in the Orthodox Church, Timothy (now Metropolitan Kallistos) Ware uses the example of the Old Believers as a warning against allowing conservativism to lead to stagnation in his book The Orthodox Church, stating that they “fell into an extreme conservativism which suffered no change whatever in traditions” that were of relatively little importance.13

That most of the changes against which the Old Believers caused a schism in protest were so apparently miniscule is another element of the raskol which helps to shed light on Eastern Orthodoxy as a whole. The importance of liturgy and ritual can be seen throughout the history of Russian Orthodoxy and of Eastern Orthodoxy in general. The root words for the Greek word “orthodox” are “orthos,” meaning “right,” and “doxa,” which can mean both “belief” and “glory.” This latter meaning of the word “doxa” is reflected in the Slavonic translation for the word “Orthodox”: “pravoslavie,” meaning “right praise.” Similarly, it is significant that the story most commonly told about St. Vladimir’s decision to convert Kievan Rus’ to Orthodox Christianity is a story about Orthodox worship.

This focus on correct worship in Orthodoxy, and especially in its Russian tradition, seems also to be reflected in the schism of the Old Believers. If theirs was indeed pravoslavie, right praise, then these changes must of necessity, they thought, be wrong praise. Any of even the slightest change in the manner of worship is ultimately a change in the faith itself, hence why they called themselves “Old Believers” rather than “Old Ritualists” as their opponents referred to them. A passage from Avvakum’s autobiography demonstrates this understanding; according to Avvakum, he was brought before a group of bishops who appealed to him:

“Why are you stubborn? All our people of Palestine, and the Serbs, and the Albanians and Valachians and Romanians and Poles, all cross themselves with three fingers. You alone in your obstinacy cross yourself with two fingers. This is not fitting.” And I, miserable wretch, how bitter I felt! But I could do nothing. I reproved them as well as I could, and my last word was: “I am uncorrupted, and I shake the dust from my feet, for it is written: ‘Better is one that feareth God, than a thousand ungodly.’”14

It is only with an awareness of the profound importance with which the act of worship is regarded by Eastern Orthodox believers that passages like this and the raskol as a whole become understandable, and the raskol in turn highlights this aspect of Eastern Orthodox faith just as it highlights its essentially conservative nature. The Old Believers, in all of this, have been able to act as a mirror for the mainstream of the Orthodox Church by which it has been able to measure itself in comparison. Their continued existence in Russia and elsewhere to this day continues to allow them to be seen this way by the mainstream of Orthodox Christianity.


1 Andrew Sorokowski, “Christianization, De-Christianization, Re-Christianization,” RISU, 20 January, 2011 (accessed 18 February 2012) http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

2 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia, Eighth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 196.

3 Ibid., 197.

4 Ibid.

5 Bernard Pares, A History of Russia (New York: Dorset Press, 1953), 164.

6 Ibid.

7 Riasanovksy and Steinberg, 199.

8 Ibid., 200.

9 Helen Bacovcin, trans., The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 112.

10 Ibid.

11 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 200.

12 Pares, 167.

13 Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church: New Edition (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 198.

14 Thomas Riha, ed., “Avvakum’s Autobiography,” Readings in Russian Civilization, Volume 1: Russia Before Peter the Great, 900-1700 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969), 139.


Bacovcin, Helen, translator. The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way. New York: Doubleday, 2003.

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

Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia, Eighth Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Riha, Thomas, editor. Readings in Russian Civilization, Volume 1: Russia Before Peter the Great, 900-1700. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Sorokowski, Andrew. “Christianization, De-Christianization, Re-Christianization.” RISU. 20 January, 2011 (accessed 18 February 2012) http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

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

The African Roots of Christian Spirituality

Today, Christianity is generally thought of as a largely European and, due to European immigration and influence, North American religious and cultural movement. Christianity’s recent and ongoing remarkable growth in the so-called “Global South” of Latin America, Africa, and southern and eastern Asia, however, coupled with a significant decline in adherents to Christianity in Europe, poses a significant challenge to that assumed European hegemony of Christendom.1 There are many new questions that have arisen as a result of these recent changes, including what the decline of Christianity in Europe means for the future of the Western Civilization which it shaped and what new forms Christianity will take as it becomes fused to new cultures. The most central question being asked by Christians from both Europe and Africa is whether these forms will be faithful to the Christianity the world has known for the past 2000 years or will become something else entirely.2

Too often overlooked in these discussions are the monumental contributions that non-Europeans have already made to the Christian faith, even in its supposedly European forms. This is especially true of Africa, whose residents played a central role in Christianity’s first several hundred years. Great early and early Medieval Christian figures like the apologist Tertullian, the first Christian to write extensively in Latin, Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, whose Christology became the dominant understanding of the nature and role of Jesus to the vast majority of Christians throughout the world, and Augustine of Hippo, arguably the single most influential Christian thinker after the apostle Paul, were all Africans.3 The greatest contribution that Africa made to Christianity, though, was in the practice, piety, and intense devotion of the pioneers of Christian monasticism. Men and women like Anthony the Great, Pachomius the Great, and Syncletica of Alexandria, remembered by subsequent generations of Christians as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, developed a unique ascetic and mystical approach to Christianity which has been a major influence on all subsequent Christian history and continues to shape Christian practice, belief, and culture today.

The roots of Christian monasticism, a dedication to the practices of ascetic struggle and constant prayer coupled with a rejection of normal social expectations like marriage and family life, reach back to the faith’s earliest days and even beyond. Judaism, from which Christianity emerged as a new religion, already possessed monastic traditions “like the Essenes or the group at Qumran from which the Dead Sea Scrolls come, or the Therapeutae of Egypt described by Philo of Alexandria.”4 It is not to be overlooked that the latter monastic group was specifically located in Egypt, near Alexandria, the same geographic location in which Christian monasticism would first spring up in its fullest form.

In writings that would later become part of the New Testament, the apostle Paul, writing in the middle of the first century, counseled widows, virgins, and unmarried men to remain unmarried and to use the freedom this afforded them to serve and worship God.5 Bart D. Ehrman, a scholar and professor of early Christian writings, suggests “it may have started with Jesus himself, who anticipated that this world and life as we know it would all come to an abrupt end when God appeared in judgment to overcome the forces of evil in control of this earth and set up his own Kingdom.”6 “If this world is soon to disappear, why be attached to its pleasures?” Ehrman goes on to ask, inviting us into the thought of the early Christians, and concluding, as many of them did, “It is better to prepare for the coming Kingdom, living simply and humbly in expectation of that final day.”7 This was certainly the thinking that led Anthony the Great, the earliest major figure of Christian monasticism, to take up the ascetic way of life.

According to the biography of Anthony written by Athanasius of Alexandria, an influential fourth century bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, Anthony entered into a church one day, “and it happened the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, ‘If thou wouldest be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor; and come follow Me and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.’”8 Antony, so Athanasius relates, went out of the church immediately and gave away the entirety of the inheritance he had received from his parents, who had recently died, commended his young sister into the care of an order of Christian virgins in Alexandria, and sojourned to the wilderness to take up the life of a hermit and ascetic.

Though not the first to retreat into the deserts of Egypt, Anthony’s example gained such reverence and notoriety that he inspired thousands more to imitate him. After the legalization of Christianity by the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine I, in 313 and the elevation of Christianity from the status of a persecuted minority religion to that of one with official imperial favor throughout his reign, which lasted until his death in 337, and beyond, ever larger numbers of former pagans began to flock to the churches for conversion. Very often, perhaps more often than not, these conversions were halfhearted and for the purpose of attaining political, social, or economic gain, keeping up with the changing times and trying to remain with the “in-crowd,” rather than being inspired by any real adoption of or devotion to the tenants of Christianity.9 According to Michael A. Smith, a scholar of early Christianity and Baptist minister, this dramatic “growth in numbers was accompanied by a lowering of standards.”10 “The monks,” on the other hand, “aimed to live the Christian life to the full, and felt that continued residence in the ‘world’ hindered this. They tried to achieve a pure Christianity and a deep communion with God which they considered unattainable in the existing churches.”11 According to scholar and philosopher David Bentley Hart, “enthusiasm for the monastic life became so great that, as a famous quip put it, the desert had become a city.”12

One of the most incredible features of this new enthusiasm was the nature of the practices which so many flocked to the Egyptian deserts to engage in. According to Athanasius, Anthony

kept vigil to such an extent that he often continued the whole night without sleep; and this not once but often… He ate once a day, after sunset, sometimes once in two days, and often even in four. His food was bread and salt, his drink, water only… A rush mat served him to sleep upon, but for the most part he lay upon the bare ground.13

The monks who followed Anthony’s example sought to imitate his extreme asceticism. According to Smith, “the main routine of the hermit was prayer and meditation, supplemented by reading of the Bible. Fasting was also important and they attempted many other rigorous feats such as standing for hours while praying.”14 This “extreme deprivation taught self-mastery, and was itself a physical form of prayer.”15

In addition to continuing the typical Christian prayer practices, such as the recitation of psalms and liturgical Eucharistic rituals, however infrequently the monks were able to gather for the latter, the monks also developed a new form of prayer, to which they attributed especially great spiritual efficacy. This new method of prayer was first fully described by John Cassian, a European Christian who traveled to Egypt to speak with the monks there, in the late fourth century. In his Conferences, a record of interviews he conducted with some of the most renowned monks of Egypt, Cassian wrote that “every monk in his progress towards continual recollection of God, is accustomed to ponder” a short prayer, “ceaselessly, revolving it in his heart.”16 Though a variety of short prayers were used by the monks, the most commonly used in Cassian’s time in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, according to Cassian, was the opening verse of Psalm 70: “O God, make speed to save me; O Lord, make haste to help me.” The monks recited this and other short prayers like it continuously as they worked and ate, and even spoke, read, and slept. The purpose of the extreme ascetic practices, they said, was to train the body in order to make this continuous repetitious prayer possible, “for he cannot possibly keep his hold over it unless he has freed himself from all bodily cares and anxieties.”17

The final goal which the monks set before them was one of union with God via continuous and automatic prayer and recollection of him. In the words of Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, “Anthony – and others like him – sought the shape of his own soul, hoping to accept the terrors and ecstasies of direct and unremitting encounters with himself and, having mastered himself, to discover his relationship to the Infinite God.”18 This was, ultimately, the purpose behind the asceticism and constant prayer of the monks. John Cassian related that the monks believed that through these practices

our mind will reach that incorruptible prayer … [which is characterized by being] … not merely not engaged in gazing on any image, but is actually distinguished by the use of no words or utterances; but with the purpose of the mind all on fire, is produced through ecstasy of heart by some unaccountable keenness of spirit, and the mind being thus affected without the aid of the senses or any visible material pours it forth to God with groanings and sighs that cannot be uttered.19

One of the stories of the Desert Fathers, recorded in one of the several collections of the sayings and doings of the early Egyptian monks which made very popular reading throughout the Middle Ages, records an even more vivid description of the spiritual goal the monks set forth for themselves. According to the dramatic short story,

Abba20 Lot went to Abba Joseph and said, ‘Abba, as far as I can, I keep a moderate rule, with a little fasting, and prayer, and meditation, and quiet: and as far as I can I try to cleanse my heart of evil thoughts. What else should I do?’ Then the hermit stood up and spread out his hands to heaven, and his fingers shone like ten flames of fire, and he said, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’21

The effect that this vibrant new Christian spirituality, intensely ascetic and mystical, had upon the popular consciousness, faith, and practice of Christians of later generations cannot be overstated. The Egyptian monks provided inspiration to men like Benedict of Nursia, whose Rule, based in large part on the ways of the Desert Fathers as recorded in the collections of their sayings and in the writings of John Cassian, became the standard monastic discipline in Western Europe through the Middle Ages and beyond.22

Their influence extended well beyond the cloister as well. Their technique of repetitious prayer gave birth to the Rosary and the Jesus Prayer,23 popular extra-liturgical devotional practices in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity respectively, both involving the repetition of short prayers whose number is tracked by counting on a set of beads, in the case of the former, or knots in a rope, in the case of the latter.24 In addition to this outward introduction of new practices into the repertoire of Christian spirituality, the Desert Fathers also had a remarkable impact on Christianity’s core, centering the goal of the Christian life in inner prayer, stillness, and mystical union with God.25 This emphasis on the mystical side of Christianity had a great impact on such influential Christian mystics as Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, George Fox, Seraphim of Sarov, and Thomas Merton; in fact, the mystical tradition of which these and dozens of others were a part and the monastic tradition of which all but one of these was a part would not have existed at all had it not been for the influence of the Desert Fathers.

In addition to their impact on Christian spirituality, the Desert Fathers also had a significant impact on European popular culture throughout the Middle Ages and later times. According to Benedicta Ward, herself a Christian nun in the Anglican tradition, “they have inspired poetry, drama, opera and art as well as withdrawal into solitude and prayer.”26 Whereas the first several centuries of Christians had found both inspiration and entertainment in the accounts of the deaths of the martyrs, such as the famous account of The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas, perhaps written by the African Christian apologist Tertullian in the early third century, after the legalization of Christianity and the end of the age of the martyrs, the sayings and hagiographies of the Desert Fathers and other monastic saints who followed in their footsteps became standard Christian literary fare.27 Throughout the Middle Ages, the sayings and lives of the great monastic saints were popular Christian literature. “The first and most influential of such biographies” was, according to scholar Jaroslav Pelikan, “Athanasius’s Life of Saint Anthony,” the original fourth century account of the original Desert Father.28

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of the place of the Desert Fathers in more recent European popular culture is the 1647 painting of The Temptation of St. Anthony by the Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger.29 Though Teniers’ painting is one of the most famous, this same scene has also been depicted by such great artists as Fra Angelico, Hieronymous Bosch, Michelangelo, and Salvador Dalí. The Temptation of St. Anthony also became the title and subject of a novel by the famous author Gustave Flaubert and, more recently, an opera, based upon Flaubert’s book, by Bernice Johnson Reagon.30

The Egyptian monks and their brand of Christian spirituality have also shown up in some rather surprising places in Western popular culture. One very recent example is the 1961 novel Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, the author most famous for writing The Catcher in the Rye.31 In the novel, Franny, one of the title characters, carries around a copy of the 19th century anonymously written Russian book The Way of a Pilgrim, a story of a wanderer who travels throughout Russia reading and discussing the writings of the Desert Fathers and practicing their method of repetitive prayer;32 Franny also reveals that she herself prays the Jesus Prayer in a search for mystical experiences and spiritual enlightenment.

The Desert Fathers also had a number of unintended and unexpected effects on the subsequent developments of Christian theology. The most significant of these indirect consequences of the early Egyptian monks’ pioneering ways may be the conversion to Christianity of Augustine of Hippo, one of the most important and influential Christian thinkers in all of Christian history, and himself a fellow African. Augustine, whose theology would later become the standard understanding of the Christian faith for the majority of Christians, originally struggled with acceptance of Christianity, wavering in his decision to join the Church. He was deeply impressed, however, by the example of Anthony. He relates his own reaction to first hearing about Anthony in his Confessions, writing as if speaking to God that “we were amazed, hearing Thy wonderful works most fully manifested in times so recent, and almost in our own, wrought in the truth faith and the Catholic Church.”33 Later, in deep emotional turbulence over his indecision in his religious beliefs, he recalled the example of Anthony. According to Augustine,

I had heard of Anthony, that, accidentally coming in whilst the gospel was being read, he received the admonition as if what was read were addressed to him, “Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” And by such oracle was he forthwith converted unto Thee. So quickly I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I put down the volume of the apostles, when I rose thence. I grasped, opened, and in silence read that paragraph on which my eyes first fell.34

The passage which Augustine opened up to and read, Romans 13:13-14,35 struck him deeply and finally convinced him to convert to Christianity. The Desert Fathers, then, were indirectly responsible for inspiring one of the most important figures in Christian history to become a Christian in the first place.

The Desert Fathers also served the world indirectly by creating a system which would ultimately save European literature, heritage, and culture from destruction. After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, the monasteries of Europe became repositories of learning, preserving art, literature, and the art of literacy through a period of rapid and dramatic European cultural decline and rampant warfare.36 It was because of the monastics in Europe, part of that tradition founded by their forerunners in Africa, that Europe was able to save the Classical heritage of the Romans and Greeks from being destroyed.

The Desert Fathers were a ragtag group of men and women who came from a variety of backgrounds and had a diversity of characteristics and personalities, as can easily be seen from the titles attached to the names of many of them, such as John “the Dwarf,” Moses “the Strong” (also known as Moses “the Robber” and Moses “the Black”), and Paul “the Hermit.” Some, like Moses, had been outlaws before venturing into the monastic life in the desert, others, like Abba Arsenius, had been educated men of the Roman upper classes, others, like Pachomius, had been soldiers and civil servants, and still others, like Anthony the Great, had been peasants and farmers. As diverse a group as they were, what they all had in common was that they retreated into the deserts of southern Egypt in a search for a more intimate and personal relationship with their God and, in so doing, pioneered a new Christian way of life, one that would spread out through and from Africa and conquer the whole of the Christian world.

The Christian monastic, mystical, spiritual, and devotional traditions of today all trace their lineage back directly to these men and women in the deserts of Egypt in the fourth and fifth centuries. As Christianity continues to dwindle in numbers in Europe, with which continent it has come to be associated in the modern mind, and rises in prominence and numbers in other places in the world, especially Africa, it is in fact not going somewhere new but returning home.

1 Philip Jenkins, “Believing in the Global South,” First Things, December, 2006, accessed 11 November 2011, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/01/believing-in-the-global-south-17.

4 Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York: Dorset Press, 1986), 176.

5 For instance, 1 Corinthians 7.

6 Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 44.

7 Ibid., 45.

8 Athanasius, “Life of Antony,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 4: Athanasius: Selected Works and Letters, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2004), 196.

9 Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 113-4.

10 Michael A. Smith, “Christian Ascetics and Monks,” in Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity, ed. Tim Dowley (Herts: Lion Publishing, 1977), 205.

11 Ibid.

13 Athanasius, 197-8.

14 Smith, 205.

15 Frederica Matthewes-Green, The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2009), 4.

16 John Cassian, “The Conferences,” part 10, chapter 10, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 11: Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lerins, John Cassian, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994), 405.

17 Ibid.

18 Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 82.

19 John Cassian, 408.

20 “Abba” is the word in many Semitic languages for “father.” It is still used by most Middle Eastern Christians as a form of address for their priests and monks and is the origin of the English word “abbot,” used for the head of male monasteries.

21 Benedicta Ward, tr., The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 131.

22 Ibid., xx.

23 “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”

24 Matthewes-Green, 5.

25 Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 122.

26 Ward, xxii.

28 Ibid., 135.

29 Hart, 58.

30 Lydia Mann, “Toshi Reagon: Music for Your Life: Temptation of St. Anthony” (2011) http://www.toshireagon.com/parisTemptation.shtml (accessed 12 November 2011).

31 J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey (New York: Back Bay Books, 2001).

32 Helen Bacovcin, tr., The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way (New York: Doubleday, 2003).

33 Augustine, “The Confessions of St. Augustin,” Book 8, Paragraph 14, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1: The Confessions and Letters of Augustine, with a Sketch of his Life and Work, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994), 122.

34 Augustine, Book 8, Paragraph 29, 127.

35 As quoted by Augustine in his Confessions, “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.”

36 Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York: Anchor Books, 1996), 159.


Athanasius of Alexandria. “Life of Antony.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 4: Athanasius: Selected Works and Letters. Editors Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2004.

Augustine of Hippo. “The Confessions of St. Augustin.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1: The Confessions and Letters of Augustine, with a Sketch of his Life and Work. Editors Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994.

Bacovcin, Helen, translator. The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way. New York: Doubleday, 2003.

Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization. New York: Anchor Books, 1996.

Cassian, John. “The Conferences.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 11: Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lerins, John Cassian. Editors Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994.

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

Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Jenkins, Philip. “Believing in the Global South.” First Things. December, 2006. Accessed 11 November 2011. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/01/believing-in-the-global-south-17.

Mann, Lydia. “Toshi Reagon: Music for Your Life: Temptation of St. Anthony” (2011) http://www.toshireagon.com/parisTemptation.shtml (accessed 12 November 2011).

Matthewes-Green, Frederica. The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God. Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2009.

Pagels, Elaine. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

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

Salinger, J.D. Franny and Zooey. New York: Back Bay Books, 2001.

Smith, Michael A. “Christian Ascetics and Monks.” In Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity. Editor Tim Dowley. Herts: Lion Publishing, 1977.

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

Ware, Bishop Kallistos. The Orthodox Way. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995.

The Conversion of Kievan Rus’

The decision of St. Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kiev, to convert both himself and his people to Orthodox Christianity in 988 is arguably the most important event in the history of Russia and one of the most important in the history of Christianity. Vladimir’s conversion, ostensibly the result of an exhaustive search for truth and a prolonged deliberation, altered the course of the history of Russia by fundamentally metamorphosing the culture of the East Slavs. In so doing, it also significantly affected the course of Christianity’s history in a number of important ways.

Early in his life and reign as Grand Prince, Vladimir was, in the words of historian Bernard Pares, “a savage and zealous heathen” who “began his reign with an orgy of paganism,” building statues of and temples to pagan gods throughout Kiev and ordering lavish pagan festivals.1 In addition to his devotion to the pagan deities, his appetite for cruelty and for worldly pleasures was insatiable. According to John Julius Norwich, he “killed his own brother and … boasted at least four wives and 800 concubines: a fact which in no way discouraged him from creating havoc among the matrons and maidens of any town he happened to visit.”2

What caused Vladimir to abandon the Slavic paganism he passionately practiced early in his reign in favor of a very different faith is a matter of debate among historians. Pares locates the primary impetus in a particular incident not long after Vladimir’s accession. To celebrate his triumph, Vladimir ordered the sacrifice of nearly a thousand people to the pagan gods. One victim chosen as a sacrifice was the son of a boyar, a member of the Kievan aristocracy, who had converted to Christianity. The child’s father vehemently protested and refused to hand over his child to be sacrificed, mocking and deriding the pagan gods. The offended pagan crowd responded by killing both the boyar and his son in an angry frenzy. After witnessing this, according to Pares, “Vladimir himself came to be convinced of the need of choosing a new faith.”3

Whether or not it was indeed this particular event that prompted Vladimir to search for another faith, the story does contain some clues as to what was going on in Vladimir’s mind. Kiev stood at the crossroads of a variety of nations which had adopted various forms of ethical monotheism, including the Judaism of the Kazars, the Roman Catholic Christianity of the Poles and the Germans, the Islam of the Volga Bulgars, and the Orthodox Christianity of Byzantium. Just as with other pagan religious systems which had disappeared before it, Slavic paganism, as a loose set of semi-mystical superstitions and coarse rituals with no developed theological, moral, or philosophical system, could not long survive under the pressure of these more highly-developed ideas. Vladimir seems to have recognized this and saw the need for a new direction for his people.

Whatever the impetus, in 987 Vladimir set out earnestly on a search for “a respectable religion” “for himself and for his people.”4 In addition to inviting missionaries to his court to plead their case, according to the famous account of the Russian Primary Chronicle, he also sent out emissaries to the nations around Kiev to witness their religious practices and investigate their beliefs. In the course of their research, Vladimir and his agents found reasons to reject each faith about which they heard, except for one.
Vladimir immediately rejected the Jews as a stateless people, concluding that their loss of their homeland meant they had been abandoned by God. He found the Muslim bans on pork and alcoholic beverages objectionable, as well as the Islamic practice of circumcision. In describing their religious rituals in the mosques, Vladimir’s emissaries said that the Muslim at prayer “bows, sits down, looks hither and thither like one possessed, and there is no happiness among them, but instead only sorrow and a dreadful stench.”5 They concluded, “their religion is not good.” After visiting the Bulgars, the emissaries continued on to observe the Roman Catholic religious practices of the Germans. While there, the emissaries reported, they “saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples; but we beheld no glory there.” Finally, they traveled to Constantinople where they attended the Divine Liturgy with the Byzantine emperor. While there, they told Vladimir,

we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore we cannot dwell longer here.6

Though Vladimir responded favorably to his emissaries’ impressions, he continued to wait to accept baptism.

The Russian Primary Chronicle seems to record some hesitation or perhaps indecision on Vladimir’s part following the reports of his emissaries. On three separate occasions over the succeeding year, the Primary Chronicle records, Vladimir agreed to accept Christianity contingent upon some desired event. During the siege to take the city of Cherson, he prayed that if he were granted victory he would be baptized. Later, in a dialogue with the Byzantine emperor, he agreed with him to be baptized if the emperor would give his sister, Princess Anna, to be Vladimir’s wife. And yet again, after the arrival of the Byzantine princess, he stated that he would finally believe in the God of the Orthodox Christians if his baptism cured him of a disease of the eyes from which he had begun to suffer. All three requests were granted and Vladimir converted to Christianity.

When he did finally accept baptism and the Christian faith, there can be little doubt that he did so sincerely and that he practiced his new faith with at least as much zeal as he had formerly indulged in paganism. After his own baptism, he sent out the priests who had accompanied Princess Anna to “immediately set about proselytizing and converting towns and villages en masse.”7 He also knocked down and destroyed the numerous pagan idols he had erected early in his reign, replacing them with “monasteries and a great many churches, some of them quite magnificent.”8

The remarkable change in Vladimir’s character following his acceptance of Christianity is also noteworthy. He renounced “the previous wives and the concubines,” taking Princess Anna as his only wife, and “henceforth he was to spend his time supervising conversions, standing godfather at baptisms and building churches and monasteries wherever he went.”9 According to David Bentley Hart, he also

built schools, hospitals, almshouses and orphanages; he established ecclesiastical courts and monastic shelters for the aged and infirm; he instituted laws designed to protect the weak against the powerful; and he came to be known as a friend of the poor, a just and gentle ruler and a fervent champion of the faith.10

According to Timothy (now Metropolitan Kallistos) Ware, “nowhere else in medieval Europe were there such highly organized ‘social services’ as in tenth-century Kiev.”11

The conversion of Vladimir and his subjects also prompted what can only be called the first flowering of knowledge, culture, and the arts among the Slavs. As the historian Fr. George Florovsky, himself a Russian Orthodox priest, pointed out, “Christianization was the awakening of the Russian spirit.”12 Vladimir “devoted himself quite earnestly to creating a Christian Kievan culture on the Byzantine civic model.”13 In addition to building numerous churches and importing the Byzantine iconographic tradition, according to the Primary Chronicle, immediately after ordering his people to be baptized, “he took the children of the best families, and sent them to schools for instruction in book learning.”14 The results of this “book learning” as well as its Christian inspiration are apparent in the archaeological record; the oldest surviving manuscripts in Church Slavonic, the language of the period of Kievan Rus’, both date from shortly after the time of Vladimir and both consist of portions of the Bible.15 As historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg point out, “Kievan written literature … developed in close association with the conversion to Christianity.”16

Riasanovsky and Steinberg also claim, however, that “theology and philosophy found little ground on which to grow in Kievan Rus and produced no major fruits. In fact, Kievan religious writings in general closely followed their Byzantine originals and made a minimal independent contribution to the Christian heritage.”17 On the contrary, according to historian Jaroslav Pelikan, though “at first” Russian “religious culture … continued to be heavily dependent upon Byzantium,” ultimately “something new came into existence when Byzantine Christianity was exported to Russia.”18 Just as with Russian architectural developments, which “follow[ed] their Byzantine models in their basic form” but developed uniquely Russian traits from a very early point and more over time,19 Russian theology and philosophy relied upon its Byzantine predecessors, but developed into something new to the history of Christianity and with a uniquely Russian character. This indigenous Russian Christianity, initiated by, as he is remembered by Russian Christians to this day, St. Vladimir the Great, continued to thrive for many centuries afterward and to, in turn, exert its own influence on other Christian cultures in the same way that Byzantium had influenced it during its own infancy. Vladimir, in a search for faith, had created a new, powerful, and perennially influential culture.


1 Bernard Pares, A History of Russia (New York: Dorset Press, 1953), 30. 

2 John Julius Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 208.

3 Pares, 31.

4 Norwich, 208.

5 Russian Primary Chronicle, year 6495 (987), tr. Samuel H. Cross, University of Kansas, http://web.ku.edu/~russcult/culture/handouts/chronicle_all.html (accessed 10 February 2012).

6 Ibid.

7 Norwich, 210-1.

9 Norwich, 211.

10 Hart, 132.

11 Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church: New Edition (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 78-9.

12 George Florovsky, Ways of Russian Theology (Paris: St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute, 1937), 4.

13 Hart, 132.

14 Russian Primary Chronicle, year 6496 (988).

15 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 80.

16 Ibid., 50.

17 Ibid., 47.

19 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 52-3.


Florovsky, George. Ways of Russian Theology. Paris: St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute, 1937.

Norwich, John Julius. A Short History of Byzantium. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

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

Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Russian Primary Chronicle. Translator Samuel H. Cross. University of Kansas. http://web.ku.edu/~russcult/culture/handouts/chronicle_all.html (accessed 10 February 2012).

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

War in Popular Music

War is an experience that has shaped societies for all of written history. Many of the oldest surviving stories of mankind, such as the epic works of Homer and the narratives of the opening books of the Bible, relate tales of men at war and the impact that war has had on civilizations and on individuals. Recent decades have been no exception to this rule, as the experience of two world wars, the Vietnam War, and, most recently, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have worked to shape the culture of the United States and other countries involved in these conflicts. The popular culture of the United States is steeped in the experiences of its citizens at war, and, vice versa, the various mediums of popular culture have shaped the American experience of war, including both shaping the events as they occurred and, after the events, crystallizing the collective memory of the experience (Naddaff-Hafrey and Trodd, 2010, p. 257). Music, as one of the most popular and powerful of these mediums of popular culture, has served as one of the primary means by which opinions on war have been voiced and has had an especially significant influence on Americans’ perceptions of war.

When approaching representations of war in American popular music, one of the most noticeable features of the content of the songs is that remarkably few feature pro-war themes. On the contrary, the vast majority of songs are overtly antiwar while a significant minority are not incontestably antiwar but focus on topics which tend to inspire and reflect antiwar sentiments, such as the untimely deaths of young men.

Although such antiwar themes and views have come to dominant popular music, this has not always been the case. Some of the earliest popular songs about war enthusiastically express support for the wars to which they pertain. In fact, songs were often specifically created and distributed for the purpose of pro-war propaganda during World War I (Wells, 2004). The popular song “Over There,” written by George M. Cohan about World War I and recorded by Billy Murray in 1917, for instance, is exuberantly patriotic and encouraging toward the war effort, and was designed both to encourage recruitment and to raise funds for the war effort (Cohan, 1917). “Johnny,” the fictional subject of the song acts as a stand-in for all American soldiers and, by extension, for all American males as potential soldiers. In the course of the song, he is urged to “get your gun,” to “hurry right away, no delay, go today” to win the war “over there,” and “make your mother proud of you / and the old red, white, and blue.”

There is little deviation from this decidedly pro-war stance of the music of World War I when the music of World War II is examined. There is, however, a discernable change in style which may reflect the greater awareness of the costs of war which Americans had gained during their experiences in World War I. One of the most popular songs of World War II, for example, “This is the Army, Mister Jones,” by Irving Berlin, lists the hardships men entering the military will encounter in transitioning from civilian life (Berlin, 1943). The hardships listed, however, do not include physical injury, psychology trauma, or death, but cleaning the barracks and lacking common luxuries like personal rooms, and the overall mood of the song is playful. It seems, indeed, that the realities of war are actively avoided in the lyrics of the song.

The first popular song about war which I encountered in my research that mentions a soldier dying is Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets” (Sadler, 1966). This song is also unique in that it is the only song which I could find that appeared actively supportive of the American war effort in Vietnam and the only one I could find that was written by a soldier who had fought in the war. Sadler, with Robin Moore, wrote the song while recovering from a wound incurred in combat in Vietnam. Sadler, in the final verses of the song, sings that “back at home a young wife waits” but her husband, a member of the Green Berets, “has died for those oppressed.” He quickly transforms what might otherwise have led naturally to an expression of antiwar opinions into pro-war bravado, however, going on to say that the dying Green Beret left a final request that his wife direct his son to also become a Green Beret. The effect is somewhat muffled and the final stanza, expressing the Green Beret’s wishes concerning his son, is a bit awkward in the light of the preceding verses. The end of the song seems naturally to make the listener wonder why a man would want his son to “win the Green Beret” given that it means he’ll be one of the “men who fight by night and day,” as the singer describes the Green Berets, and could very likely meet a fate similar to his father’s.

Nonetheless, “The Ballad of the Green Berets” is the last overtly pro-war popular song I encountered. From that point on, popular songs about war take a clearly antiwar stance and frequently express pessimism and disillusionment with the motivations and establishments that lead to wars. This is probably reflective of the unpopularity and imminence, the latter caused by the institution of the draft and more pervasive news media, of the Vietnam War. The war in Vietnam came, especially for young Americans, to symbolize war in general and displeasure with that war translated into sentiments against war in general.

For example, following “The Ballad of the Green Berets” in 1966, the next song explicitly about war that made it into the top ten most popular songs for its year of release was Edwin Starr’s “War” in 1970 (Whitfield and Strong, 1970). In the song, Starr asks repeatedly “war / what is it good for?” to which a chorus of singers replies emphatically “absolutely nothing.” Throughout the song, Starr details the evils of war, including “tears to thousands of mothers’ eyes” and the fact that a “young man” could be “disabled” or die. He tells us that “the point of war blows my mind” and questions the methods and motivations of those who “say we must fight to keep our freedom.” The disaffection expressed by Starr pervades nearly all popular songs about war which were created during or after the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam War, in fact, inspired such overwhelmingly negative impressions among Americans that songs continued to be made about it and against it well after it had ended. Alice in Chain’s grunge rock song “Rooster,” for instance, released in 1993, nearly 20 years after the end of the Vietnam War, discusses the horrors of war in vivid detail and with a great deal of emotion in the lyrics, enhanced by the hard-driving guitars of the band (Cantrell, 1993, track 6). The singer, for instance, tells us all at once that he’s “got my pills against mosquito death / my buddy’s breathing his dying breath / oh God please won’t you help me make it through.” “Rooster” goes even further than most of the songs about the Vietnam War made at the time of the Vietnam War in not only its exploration of war itself but of the treatment of war veterans upon their return home to the United States. He tells us, for instance, that ‘they spit on me in my homeland.”

What is remarkable about the circumstances surrounding the production of “Rooster” is that the writer, Jerry Cantrell, wrote the song about his father’s experiences during the Vietnam War. The song is about an experience of the previous generation, yet the writer is able to make the experiences of that generation present and relevant through his lyrics. According to Rick Berg (1986), “the music industry sings its sad song of Vietnam to a generation that … knows little more about Vietnam and its victims than the media’s revised images” (p. 94).

The stamp of the Vietnam War and the tragedies that accompanied it on the American consciousness are evident even today in popular music. The ghost of the Vietnam War pervades the 2010 country song “Raymond” by Brett Eldredge, for instance, in spite of the song’s subject matter not being war (Eldredge, 2010). In the song, “Catherine Davis,” an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s, mistakenly refers to the singer, one of her caretakers, by the name “Raymond.” We find out near the end of the song that “there’s a small white cross in Arlington / reads Raymond Davis, ‘71.” The implication, which is allowed to go unstated because of its obviousness to an American living in the post-Vietnam War era, is that her son was a soldier who had been killed in Vietnam in 1971.

The Vietnam War’s effect on the American consciousness is also evident in the treatment of the United States’ most recent wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in popular music. It is worth noting here that I could not find any popular songs which overtly expressed support for either of these wars. There are some that appear to do so, such as Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American),” often thought to be a pro-war anthem and frequently played as such (Keith, 2002, track 1). Keith himself has stated on several occasions, however, that he has never supported the war in Iraq and intended “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” and other songs he has made in a similar vein to be expressions of support for American soldiers rather than the wars they are currently engaged in fighting (Morales, 2009).

This differentiation between the soldier and the war the soldier is fighting has become a staple of recent antiwar music, whereas many earlier songs and other expressions of antiwar sentiments did not make such a distinction, or at least did not make it clearly. This new awareness of and focus on that distinction is largely the result of the abuse, such as that mentioned in the song “Rooster,” directed at returning veterans by antiwar individuals.

Some recent songs have even gone so far as to couch their antiwar message in a description of the thoughts of soldiers. One such song is Everlast’s 2008 folk/hip-hop song “Letters Home from the Garden of Stone” (Schrody, 2008, track 10). In the song, the singer explores themes that include fear, confusion, and patriotism in warfare, all expressed through the façade of a letter home written by a soldier at war in Iraq. Near the end of the song, Everlast seems to turn the patriotic pro-war bravado of George M. Cohan’s popular World War I song “Over There” on its head. Where Cohan tells his soldier to “make your mother proud of you / and the old red, white, and blue,” as cited previously, Everlast’s soldier seems to answer directly back to this charge when he asks his mother, “Do you think I should be fighting? / Ma, are you proud? Are you ashamed? / Really I’m trying to do the right thing / I hope my government can say the same.”

The gung-ho “Johnny” of “Over There” and the Green Beret who wants his son to grow up to be a Green Beret as well of “The Ballad of the Green Berets” has become the reluctant but good-intentioned doubter questioning his own participation in the war in “Letters Home from the Garden of Stone.” This new, somewhat ambivalent approach to songs about war is reflective of a generation of young men who have become soldiers but have been raised in the shadow of the Vietnam War. As a result, they view all war through the lens of the Vietnam War, including its tragedies and its ultimate failure in the eyes of the American public, which view permeates popular culture. The unpopularity and loss of the Vietnam War seems to have permanently altered the approach taken to war in popular music and popular culture in general to such a point that it is no longer possible to make a clearly pro-war song at all. The pro-war must instead be cast as pro-soldier while only the antiwar is allowed to be explicit. The experience of the realities of war has informed popular culture, which has in turn redefined perceptions of war among the public at large. This process by which events shape popular culture and popular culture then shapes perceptions and events has permanently altered the way that Americans view and engage in war in the modern world.


Berg, R. (Spring, 1986). Losing Vietnam: Covering the war in an age of technology Cultural critique, 3, 92-125.

Berlin, Irving. (1941). This is the army, mister jones [Recorded by Irving Berlin].

Cantrell, J. (1993). Rooster [Recorded by Alice in Chains]. On Dirt [CD]. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

Cohan, G. (1917). Over there [Recorded by B. Murray].

Eldredge, B. (2010). Raymond [Recorded by B. Eldredge]. On One way ticket [CD]. Nashville, Tenn.: Atlantic Nashville.

Keith, T. (2002). Courtesy of the red, white, and blue (The angry American) [Recorded by T. Keith]. On Unleashed [CD]. Nashville, Tenn.: DreamWorks Nashville.

Morales, T. (February 11, 2009). Toby Keith: Being Honest. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/11/05/earlyshow/leisure/music/main582006.shtml

Naddaff-Hafrey, N. and Trodd, Z. (2010). The turnaround point: Vietnam movies, protest literature, and the feedback-loop of contemporary American identity. In L. Wilson (Ed.), Americana: Readings in popular culture (2nd ed.) (pp. 249-263). Hollywood: Press Americana.

Sadler, Barry and R. Moore. (1966). The ballad of the Green Berets [Recorded by Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler]. On The ballads of the Green Berets [Vinyl record]. New York, New York: RCA.

Schrody, E. (2008). Letters home from the garden of stone [Recorded by Everlast]. On Love, war and the ghost of Whitey Ford [CD]. New York, New York: Martyr, Inc.

Wells, K.A. (2004). Music as war propaganda: Did music help win the first world war? Parlor Songs. Retrieved from: http://parlorsongs.com/issues/2004-4/thismonth/feature.php

Whitfield, N. and B. Strong. (1970). War [Recorded by E. Starr]. On War & peace [Vinyl record]. Detroit, Mich.: Gordy.

The Origins of Atheism in the Enlightenment

While skepticism and doubt have had a presence in human thought for nearly as long as religious faith has existed, they have had a place within religious thought rather than in opposition to it for the vast majority of their existence. Doubt was generally employed by religious thinkers for the purpose of strengthening and explaining their faith, as can be seen in the numerous “proofs” for the existence of God formulated by the great theologians of the Middle Ages, such as Thomas Aquinas and Anselm of Canterbury. With the new science and philosophy of the Enlightenment, however, unbelief began to be seen as a viable alternative option that stood in opposition to faith. In addition to the popular deism of the Enlightenment, espoused by such important figures as Voltaire and Maximilien Robespierre, atheism also found its first explicit adherents among such figures of the French Enlightenment as Baron d’Holbach and Jacques André Naigeon. This new view of disbelief would have a major influence on subsequent generations of thinkers in the West as proponents of religion now had to contend with disbelief as a rival system of thought and many of the most influential philosophies, such as those of Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Jean Paul Sartre, supported and often assumed atheism. Among the numerous new concepts introduced by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, one of those which has had the longest lifespan and the greatest impact has been the introduction of disbelief as a viable alternative position to religious faith.

Reasonable Doubt in the Middle Ages

One of the most central philosophical pursuits of the Middle Ages was the attempt to reconcile faith and reason.1 Medieval thinkers had inherited both the religious tradition of the ancient Middle East, which they saw as representative of faith, and the philosophical tradition of ancient Greece, which they saw as representative of reason. In their attempts to synthesize the two, the primary question they encountered was whether the existence of God, the primary object of faith, could be proved through the use of reason alone. “Some of the greatest thinkers who have ever lived have pored at length over this question.”2

One of the most remarkable features of Medieval philosophy is the centrality of this question when compared with the apparent nonexistence of any separate class of nonbelievers. Not only are there no surviving writings by or about any person espousing outright unbelief during the Middle Ages, but according to Sarah Stroumsa, “in the discussions of God’s existence the actual opponents” of the philosophers examining the question “are not identified as individuals. As a group they are sometimes referred to as heretics, unbelievers, materialists, or skeptics.”3

Some of the greatest minds of the Middle Ages, then, dedicated large portions of their work to arguing against an entirely theoretical unbelief. When Anselm of Canterbury formulated his ontological argument4 and Thomas Aquinas formulated his famous “five ways” to prove the existence of God,5 they themselves assumed doubt in their writings in order to strengthen faith through reason and to demonstrate that faith and reason are compatible and complimentary.

Later, in the fifteenth century, however, William of Occam set about undoing the synthesis which had been accomplished by Anselm, Aquinas, and others like them. Occam believed that “logic and theory of knowledge had become dependent on metaphysics and theology” as a result of their work and that they had made reason subservient to faith.6 He “set to work to separate them again.”7 As a result of his work to separate faith and reason, according to Richard Tarnas,

there arose the psychological necessity of a double-truth universe. Reason and faith came to be seen as pertaining to different realms, with Christian philosophers and scientists, and the larger educated Christian public, perceiving no genuine integration between the scientific reality and the religious reality.8

Deism and Its Clockwork Universe

As scientific knowledge in Europe continued to increase exponentially, the gap between faith and reason continued to widen. Faith had grown detached from reason in ever more literal interpretations of the Bible and the sola fide, or “faith alone,” dogma of Protestantism, whereas reason increasingly freed itself from reference to faith and instead found its abode in the empirical sciences and “natural theology,” an approach to religion based on reason and experience rather than speculation and appeal to revelation, of Enlightenment thinkers like Descartes.9

Traditional Christianity, with its miracles and saints, came increasingly to be viewed as outdated and superstitious.10 This was especially true in the light of Newtonian physics. A mechanistic universe which operated consistently according to a standard set of laws did not allow for “alleged miracles and faith healings, self-proclaimed religious revelations and spiritual ecstasies, prophecies, symbolic interpretations of natural phenomena, encounters with God or the devil” and so on and so these ideas increasingly came to be viewed “as the effects of madness, charlatanry, or both.”11 According to Jacques Barzun, “religion as such [was] not attacked; it [was] redefined into simplicity.”12 In the light of this new scientific knowledge and the new views of religion it engendered, a new religious movement was needed.

The new religious movement that emerged from this situation was deism. Deism allowed that “one may well be overawed by the Great Archetict and His handiwork;”13 after all, “Newton’s cosmic architecture demanded a cosmic architect.”14 However, “the attributes of such a God could be properly derived only from the empirical examination of his creation, not from the extravagant pronouncements of revelation.”15 The deists also prescribed that religion include much emphasis on “good morals,” as they, like the belief in a creator, “are universal” as well.16

This rather tenuous set of beliefs, however, could not hold for long. Samuel Clarke, an early English Enlightenment philosopher, noted in a letter to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz that

The notion of the world’s being a great machine, going on without the interposition of God as a clock continues to go without the assistance of a clockmaker, is the notion of materialism and fate and tends (under pretense of making God a supramundane intelligence) to exclude providence and God’s government in reality out of the world. And by the same reason that a philosopher can represent all things going on from the beginning of the creation without any government or interposition of providence, a skeptic will easily argue still further backward and suppose that things have from eternity gone on (as they now do) without any true creation or original author at all but only what such arguers call all-wise and eternal nature.17

As more thinkers began to realize this, “the rationalist God … soon began to lose philosophical support.”18

The Advent of Athéisme

While “most of these empiricists of the first generation acknowledged God as the Creator, the Great Watchmaker, who set the cosmos in motion and then let it run on its own,” writes Barzun,

the thought then occurred that sensations imply the existence of matter; therefore ideas, feelings, knowledge – life itself – are but the interplay of bits of stuff. Matter in motion acts as cause, and the effect is another part of matter in some other motion. God has no point of entry into the relation; very likely He does not exist. There is in truth no need for Him.19

From this line of reasoning arose the first adherents to athéisme, the denial of the existence of any God at all.

The first known person to claim this position for himself was Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach. In his book The System of Nature or, the Laws of the Moral and Physical World, originally published in 1770, d’Holbach became the first Western thinker to explicitly deny the existence of God and apply the term “atheism” to his belief system.20 In the same book, he expounded a view of the universe which was very similar to that of the deists. He posited an universe which functioned entirely according to mechanical laws and free of any divine or otherwise spiritual outside intervention, holding to such a strict materialistic determinism as to rule out free will entirely. In it, d’Holbach, like the deists, also argues that religious beliefs like miracles are superstitions from a more ignorant age and the product of misunderstanding and fear. He goes a step farther than the deists, however, and includes the idea of God in his list of religious concepts in this category.

Denis Diderot, who edited and annotated d’Holbach’s volume, also came to espouse similar beliefs. Throughout his lifetime, he made “the gradual transformation … from religious belief to Deism, then to skepticism, and finally to a materialism ambiguously joined with a deistic ethics.”21 In his life and even on this latter point, ethics, Diderot passed “from critical effort based on Reason to a conception of man and society in which impulse and instinct are seen as stronger than Reason.”22

The physician and philosopher Julien Offray de La Mettrie was willing to go a step further, drawing out the logical conclusions of atheism and a determinist and materialist worldview, in his book Man a Machine, first published in 1748.23 As the title implies, La Mettrie asserted that, as man is a part of the universe and its mechanical laws, man must himself be mechanical, “an organic machine whose illusion of possessing an independent soul or mind was produced simply by the interplay of its physical components.”24 A human being was, in short, nothing more than “a chemical, glandular, and electrical machine.”25 As Richard Tarnas points out, the ethical implications of this were obvious: “hedonism was the ethical consequence of such a philosophy, which La Mettrie did not fail to advocate.”26 Atheism had grown from deism, which, in turn, had grown out of Medieval Christianity; with his rejection of Christian ethics, La Mettrie had severed the last tie between the unbelief of Enlightenment thinkers and their roots in the Western Christian tradition.

The Death of God

Disbelief was no longer just the doubt and needs for “proofs” that had been present in Medieval thought. It was no longer theoretical and it was no longer subservient to the needs of religious thinkers in their attempts to strengthen the case for faith. Disbelief had become a new and distinct religious category in its own right. Later generations of Western thinkers, drawing on the thought of the Enlightenment in religious matters just as they did in political and economic matters, carried on the Enlightenment’s new movement of disbelief. According to Richard Tarnas,

It would be the nineteenth century that would bring the Enlightenment’s secular progression to its logical conclusion as Comte, Mill, Feuerbach, Marx, Haeckel, Spencer, Huxley, and, in a somewhat different spirit, Nietzsche all sounded the death knell of traditional religion. The Judaeo-Christian God was man’s own creation, and the need for that creation had necessarily dwindled with man’s modern maturation.27

Most Western philosophy after the Enlightenment, in fact, no longer felt the need to even argue for or against the existence of God. Rather, philosophers like those named by Tarnas as well as many others simply assumed the nonexistence of God as a fact and formulated their philosophy without regard to the existence of a deity. Ludwig Feuerbach, one of these nineteenth century philosophers who built on the work of the Enlightenment philosophers, stated explicitly that

The question as to the existence or non-existence of God, the opposition between theism and atheism, belongs to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but not to the nineteenth. I deny God. But that mans for me that I deny the negation of man. In place of the illusory, fantastic, heavenly position of man which in actual life necessarily leads to the degradation of man, I substitute the tangible, actual and consequently also the political and social position of mankind. The question concerning the existence or non-existence of God is not important but the question concerning the existence or non-existence of man is.28

For the philosophers of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and even the Enlightenment, “the question concerning the existence or non-existence of God” had, of course, been seen as being of the utmost importance. Only a philosopher who lived in the wake of the Enlightenment and accepted its presuppositions in materialism and determinism would have been able to make such a statement as Feuerbach’s; his words are demonstrative of how influential the atheism of the Enlightenment had become. Though his words about himself can only fairly be applied specifically to Feuerbach and do play an important role in his unique philosophy, much the same sentiments can with confidence be assigned to the vast majority of other great philosophers who followed the Enlightenment.

The disbelief of the Enlightenment has also had a major effect on popular philosophy and religion, especially in Europe. According to the 2005 Eurobarometer Poll, approximately 18% of the citizens of countries in the European Union report that they “don’t believe there is any kind of spirit, God or life force.”29 This is a significant change, of course, from the situation in Europe during the Middle Ages, when Anselm, Aquinas, and others like them directed their arguments for the existence of God against vague, theoretical, and unnamed “skeptics” and “heretics.”

The new prominence and popularity of disbelief also had a major effect within Christianity for much the same reason. Unbelievers were now real and unbelief itself now a viable alternative to religious faith; as a result, many believers felt a need to go on the defensive. Doubt, and even any application of reason to Christianity and to issues of faith, came to be viewed as insidious enemies, not as the means to the strengthening and further understanding of faith as in previous generations.30 In removing a rational element from faith, faith came to be ever more irrational and, occasionally in later Western history, even anti-rational, as is evidenced by the growth and influence of Christian and semi-Christian sects focused on otherworldly mysticism, ecstatic experience, and emotionalism to the exclusion of logical thought and scientific knowledge in America and Europe during and following the Enlightenment. Christian apologetic also took on a more forceful character, as Christian apologists found it necessary to concede as little as possible to the unbelievers, such as defending extremely literal interpretations of the six-day creation and worldwide flood described in the biblical book of Genesis, whereas earlier generations of Christians had generally interpreted these events in allegorical and mystical terms.31 Christian apologists also found it necessary to attack their unbelieving opponents with a new zeal, labeling them as “missionaries of evil” and focusing the bulk of their apologetic efforts on disbelief rather than on other religions or Christian heresies.32 The attempts to reconcile faith and reason and the use of doubt as a faith-building tool had become things of the past.


Doubt has been implicit within and an aspect of religious belief for as long as religious ideas have existed. This is especially true of the Christian religious tradition, whose most intellectual adherents found reasonable arguments for the existence of God to be necessary in the course of their attempts to reconcile the inheritances they had received from both ancient Judaism and ancient Athens. The eventual reconciliation of faith with reason, though accomplished during the Middle Ages, fell apart as the Middle Ages ended, largely under the influence of William of Occam. With the dawn of the Enlightenment in Europe and especially the new scientific knowledge which it brought with it, the separation that had been wrought between faith and reason widened continually and ever more deeply. Deism originally rose from the “reason” side of this split as a supposedly reasonable alternative to religious superstition; it attempted to formulate a set of religious beliefs that was pared down to the basics of the existence of a creator God and a moral system he had ordained alongside the laws of the universe. As the universe and human beings themselves came to be viewed increasingly as natural machines, however, there was less and less need for the existence of a God or the plausibility of holding to a moral system based on one. With d’Holbach, athéisme found its first outspoken spokesman, extolling a worldview in which there was no God and everything that existed was part of the material world. As with much Enlightenment philosophy, this view subsequently gained such popularity and influence among philosophers that it became the assumed standpoint of later generations of philosophers. As with any great new idea, the effects became tremendous once atheism reached the ears of the people at large, reshaping the nature of both religious belief and disbelief throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and continuing through to today.


1 Hans Küng, Great Christian Thinkers (New York: Continuum, 1994), 108-9.

2 William Raeper and Linda Smith, A Brief Guide to Ideas (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1997), 55.

3 Sarah Stroumsa, Freethinkers of Medieval Islam: Ibn al-Rawandi, Abu Bakr al-Razi and their Impact on Islamic Thought (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 122-3.

4 Raeper, A Brief Guide, 59.

5 Nils Ch. Rauhut, ed., Readings on the Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy, Second Edition (New York: Penguin Academics, 2007), 380-3.

6 Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 472.


Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 302.


Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 5: Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), 66.

11 Tarnas, The Passion, 303.

12 Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, 500 years of Western Cultural Life (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), 361.

13 Ibid.

Tarnas, The Passion, 308.


Barzun, From Dawn, 361.

17 Samuel Clarke, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Philosophical Papers and Letters: A Selection, ed. Leroy E. Loemaker (Norwell: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989), 677.

Tarnas, The Passion, 308.

Barzun, From Dawn, 365.

Paul Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, The System of Nature or, the Laws of the Moral and Physical World, tr. H.D. Robinson (New York: G.W. and A.J. Matsell, 1835).

21 Tarnas, The Passion, 310.

Barzun, From Dawn, 373.

Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Machine Man and Other Writings, ed. Ann Thomson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Tarnas, The Passion, 310.

Barzun, From Dawn, 367.

Tarnas, The Passion, 310.


Ludwig Feuerbach, quoted in Raeper, Brief Guide, 122.

European Commission, Directorate General Press and Communication, Eurobarometer: Social values, Science, and Technology (June 2005) http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_225_report_en.pdf (accessed 19 November 2011).

30 James C. Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 144.

Turner, Without God, 143-4.

Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, 181.


Barzun, Jacques. From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, 500 years of Western Cultural Life. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000.

d’Holbach, Paul Henri Thiry, Baron. The System of Nature or, the Laws of the Moral and Physical World. Translator H.D. Robinson. New York: G.W. and A.J. Matsell, 1835.

European Commission, Directorate General Press and Communication. Eurobarometer: Social values, Science, and Technology. June 2005. http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_225_report_en.pdf (accessed 19 November 2011).

Küng, Hans. Great Christian Thinkers. New York: Continuum, 1994.

La Mettrie, Julien Offray de. Machine Man and Other Writings. Editor Ann Thomson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Loemaker, Leroy E., editor. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Philosophical Papers and Letters: A Selection. Norwell: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition, A History of the Development of Doctrine, Volume 5: Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Raeper, William and Linda Smith. A Brief Guide to Ideas. Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1997.

Rauhut, Nils Ch., editor. Readings on the Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy, Second Edition. New York: Penguin Academics, 2007.

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

Stroumsa, Sarah. Freethinkers of Medieval Islam: Ibn al-Rawandi, Abu Bakr al-Razi and their Impact on Islamic Thought. Leiden: Brill, 1999.

Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.

Turner, James C. Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

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) http://www.philosophy.gr/presocratics/heraclitus.htm (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) http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book1.html (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) http://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/septuagint/default.asp (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) http://www.philosophy.gr/presocratics/heraclitus.htm (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) http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book1.html (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) http://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/septuagint/default.asp (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) http://rt.com/news/russiachristianization-memorable-date/ (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) http://www.hermitary.com/articles/nil_sorsky.html (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) http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/palladius-lausiac.html (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) http://nektarios.home.comcast.net/~nektarios/1571.html (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. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/palladius-lausiac.html (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. http://nektarios.home.comcast.net/~nektarios/1571.html (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. http://www.hermitary.com/articles/nil_sorsky.html (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.
http://rt.com/news/russia-christianization-memorable-date/ (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.

The Christian Rescue of the Greco-Roman Intellectual Tradition

The Christian Church of the Middle Ages has become somewhat of a boogeyman in the modern popular imagination. It is fairly typical to hear even supposedly educated individuals claim that Christianity quashed out all science, philosophy, and learning, which aspects of civilization would only reemerge from the darkness of the “Dark Ages” with the Renaissance and, still later, with the Enlightenment.1 The destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, supposedly at the hands of a violently anti-intellectual Christian mob, the gruesome murder of the Alexandrian female mathematician Hypatia, supposedly at the hands of a similarly violently anti-intellectual (and anti-woman) mob of Christian monastics, and the supposed stagnation of scientific knowledge, along with other similar examples, are paraded out as evidence for this assertion. However, many of these examples, such as the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, are myths,2 others, such as the murder of Hypatia, are vastly exaggerated and wildly misreported,3 and still others, such as the decline of scientific knowledge, are outright fabrications of Christianity’s Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment detractors such as Edward Gibbon and John William Draper.4 Contrary to the common misconception of history, the advent and eventual triumph of Christianity was a great boon to the intellectual tradition of the Greco-Roman world, as it freed this tradition from superstitious presuppositions and encouraged its proliferation within a more logical worldview.

As much as the pre-Christian scientific tradition of the Greco-Roman world has been hailed and lauded by some in the course of criticizing medieval Christians, if there is anything for which modern people can pass blame on the Christians of the Middle Ages it is that they so long held on to so many of the methods and notions of the Greco-Roman world, a world whose intellectual tradition had been on the decline for many years before the triumph of Christianity.5 As David C. Lindberg, a historian of science, observed, “It is agreed by most historians of ancient science that creative Greek science was on the wane, perhaps as early as 200 B.C., certainly by A.D. 200.”6 The field of cosmology is a notable example.

Aristotle’s model of the universe, based upon his philosophical concepts and not upon anything even remotely resembling modern scientific research, posited that the universe was composed of a series of concentric “celestial spheres” which moved in a perfectly circular motion around a perfectly spherical earth and “that the heaven as a whole neither came into being nor admits of destruction … but is one and eternal.”7 It was only with the advent of Christianity that these assumptions, now shown ridiculous by modern science, of an eternal and perfect symmetry and harmony in the universe, began to be questioned. Importantly, the questioning of these ancient pagan presuppositions was engaged in upon the basis of uniquely Judeo-Christian concepts.

The Judeo-Christian beliefs that only God is inherently eternal, that he created all that exists ex nihilo, and that all things continue to exist only because he sustains them, not because of any inherent immortality on their part, clearly stood in stark contradiction to Aristotelian cosmology. It was upon this uniquely Judeo-Christian basis that the assumptions of Aristotle and the many who had followed him were criticized by philosophers and scientists such as the Byzantine Christian philosopher John Philoponus (490-570 CE).8 Philoponus would be read, admired, and heavily borrowed from by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642 CE), whose theory of a heliocentric universe, in spite of its infamous and habitually misrepresented condemnation by the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church, would be foundational for modern scientific views of cosmology.9

Medieval Islam, by contrast, would never produce such a flowering of scientific thought as did the Christian world in spite of handling the same Greco-Roman texts and observing the same astronomical phenomena as the Christians for a nearly equal period of time. Although Muslims, such as the theologian Ghazali (1058-1111 CE), did question certain aspects of the cosmological models received from the Greco-Roman tradition, they typically did so only by arguing from another aspect of the Greco-Roman tradition.10 For instance, the Muslim polymath Averroës (1126-1198 CE) opposed the Ptolemaic model of the universe primarily by arguing for the superiority of the Aristotelian model.11

In spite of the mythology propagated by Christianity’s fashionable enemies during the Enlightenment and since and still held in the popular consciousness today, Christianity not only is not responsible for any kind of disappearance or weakening of the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition, it is in fact responsible for having saved that intellectual tradition, in many ways from itself. As the modern Christian philosopher and historian David Bentley Hart has pointed out, “despite all our vague talk of ancient or medieval ‘science,’ pagan, Muslim, or Christian, what we mean today by science … came into existence, for whatever reasons, and for better or worse, only within Christendom, and under the hands of believing Christians.”12


1 A popular recent example of such erroneous thinking can be found in Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise and Fall of Reason (New York: Knopf, 2003).

2 David Bentley Hart, The Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 Years of the Christian Faith (London: Quercus, 2007), 47.

3 ibid., 97.

4 David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. To A.D. 1450 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

5 Arnold J. Toynbee, Hellenism: The History of A Civilization (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959).

6 David C. Lindberg, “Science and the Early Church,” in God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science, eds. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 30.

7 Aristotle, “On the Heavens,” Book II, Chapter 1.

8 Alister E. McGrath, A Scientific Theology: Nature (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2001), 95-8.

9 Edward Grant, Science and Religion, 400 B.C. to A.D. 1550: From Aristotle to Copernicus (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

10 Eric L. Ormsby, Ghazali: The Revival of Islam (Oxford: Oneworld, 2008).

11 David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Ann Arbor: Sheridan Books, 2009), 59.

12 ibid., 63.

The Role and Status of Women in the Early Medieval Church

The role and status of women in both society at large and in the various Christian churches has changed much in the last several decades as a result of the radical feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s.1 In the light of these changes and the challenge they present to traditional ways of life and modes of thinking, much new scholarship has been produced reexamining the place of women in the history of Western culture and in the foundational document of Western culture, the New Testament.2 It seems that the most popular, or at least most influential, assessment has been to find oppression and repression of women in every nook and cranny of Western history and civilization.3 However, such views are inherently and fatally flawed for a number of rather obvious reasons; primary amongst these reasons is the rear-view perspective from which they are written, which leads to the strange position of judging the past according to standards which are quite different from those of the past but which themselves find their philosophical roots in that past. A more balanced approach is to allow the past to speak for itself and to evaluate the past based upon its own ideals and those that preceded it. With this approach in mind, this paper will discuss the role and status of women in the early medieval Church, roughly the period from the reign of Constantine I (r. 306-337 CE) to that of Justinian I (r. 527-565 CE), arguably the infancy years of what has become modern Western civilization. This paper will discuss the views of the Church Fathers on women, the ideals of Christian womanhood, and the roles that women filled in the Church during this period.

Before the role and status of women in the infancy of the Christian Roman Empire can be examined and evaluated, it is important to note, as was said above, what the role and status of women consisted of in the previous era of the pagan and pre-Christian Roman Empire. According to historian of ancient Rome Marcel Le Glay,

Freeborn women … scratch[ed] out a living as laundresses, weavers, butchers, and fishsellers, or in one of the occupations that are recorded on inscriptions at Pompeii: bean-dealer, nail-seller, brick-maker, even stonecutter. A number of poor women worked as waitresses in taverns, where they were probably expected, or obliged, to engage in prostitution on the side. In fact, for a lot of unskilled working-class women, prostitution was the only way to make a living, however inadequate. Many worked out-of-doors in the public archways (fornices). Slave women were employed mostly in the homes of the wealthy, cooking, cleaning, weaving — in short, doing whatever they were told to do, which sometimes meant submitting to the sexual demands of their owners. … It is reasonably clear also that daughters were abandoned more often than sons, perhaps because they might some day need a dowry, and could therefore be seen to be a potential drain on the family’s financial resources.4

In spite of this bleak picture, describing the role and status of women in the first centuries of the Roman Empire, roughly from the first century BCE through the second century CE, the lot of women in nearly all sectors of society, but especially amongst the upper classes, had improved significantly by the time that Constantine I, the first Christian Roman emperor, began his reign in 306 CE.5 Beginning in the middle of the second century CE, Roman women gained a number of privileges they had not previously possessed, including the rights to own property separate of their husbands and to initiate divorces.6 During this same period, the interest and interaction of women in philosophical inquiry, which had previously been the privilege almost solely of men, also increased significantly, as did the appreciation of the role of women in religious activities both at home and in the temples.7

In order to be understood and evaluated in context, however, it must be realized that these gains for women were not, as it may appear at first glance, the product of any organic growth from pagan thought or of a natural shift in attitudes amongst Roman pagans. On the contrary, these advances were made largely as a result of exposure to, and often as a reaction against, Christian ideas concerning women and the attraction that these ideas held for women.8

In the words of Thomas Cahill,

Christianity’s claim that all were equal before God and all equally precious to him ran through class-conscious, minority-despising, weakness-ridiculing Greco-Roman society like a charged current. It is no wonder, really, that the primitive church seemed an almost fairyland harbor to women, who had always been kept in the shadows, and to slaves, who had never before been awarded a soupçon of social dignity or political importance.9

Though the estimated proportions of female to male converts posited by various scholars differ, what is agreed upon universally is that in its first several centuries “Christianity seems to have been especially successful among women” specifically because, in sharp contrast with the pagan Greco-Roman civilization and all other religions and cultures of the ancient world, “Christians believed in the equality of men and women before God.”10 “It was often through the wives that it penetrated the upper classes of society in the first instance,”11 and it was through this penetration into the upper, governing classes of the Roman Empire that Christianity was eventually, in 313 CE,12 legalized and, in 381 CE,13 made essentially the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Fathers of the Christian Church of the first centuries after this legalization and official adoption of Christianity continued to emphasize the early Christian tradition, unique, radical, and unprecedented in world history, that all human beings, male or female, are inherently equal.

While various quotes and misquotes of the Church Fathers are often touted about for the apologetic purposes of those who would like to indict Western civilization for its supposed inherent sexism, most of these quotes are, if authentic at all, wrenched out of context.14 In addition, the choice of these quotes reflects a lopsided selectivity which leads to a biased and unbalanced view, unrepresentative of the rather balanced views of the majority of Church Fathers.15 While it is beyond the scope of this paper to examine each individual quote and to present the relevant counter-quotes to establish a more balanced view of the Fathers, a single example, from the writings of Gregory Nazianzen, a very important fourth century Christian bishop, is sufficient to demonstrate the views of the early medieval Church Fathers in general on women.

Gregory Nazianzen, who was Archbishop of Constantinople, the capitol of the Eastern Roman Empire and one of the most important ecclesiastical sees in medieval Christendom, during the years 380-383 CE and who presided at the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 381 CE,16 wrote on the equality of the sexes and the injustice of the unequal pagan law still in force in the Roman Empire, condemning the latter by reference to aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition,

What was the reason why they restrained the woman, but indulged the man, and that a woman who practices evil against her husband’s bed is an adulteress, and the penalties of the law for this are very severe; but if the husband commits fornication against his wife, he has no account to give? I do not accept this legislation; I do not approve this custom. Those who made the law were men, and therefore their legislation is hard on women, since they have placed children also under the authority of their fathers, while leaving the weaker sex uncared for. God does not do so, but says Honor your father and your mother, which is the first commandment with promise. … See the equality of [God’s] legislation. There is one Maker of man and woman; one debt is owed by children to both parents.

… How, though you are equally a body, do you legislate unequally? If you inquire into the worse — The Woman Sinned, and so did Adam. The serpent deceived them both; and one was not found to be the stronger and the other weaker. But do you consider the better? Christ saves both by His Passion. Was He made flesh for the Man? So He was also for the Woman. Did He die for the Man? The Woman also is saved by His death. He is called of the seed of David; and so perhaps you think the man is honored; but He is born of a Virgin, and this is on the woman’s side. The two, He says, shall be one flesh; so let the one flesh have equal honor.17

Given that this quote from a single Church Father provides an accurate summary of the views of the early medieval Patristic consensus and that it indeed represents a significant departure from Greco-Roman pagan attitudes towards women, it is safe to say that a statement like that of Norman F. Cantor that “the teaching of the fourth century church fathers on sex and marriage was the first and very modest stage in the emancipation of women in western civilization”18 is itself too modest a statement.

Gregory Nazianzen’s reference to the birth of Jesus Christ from “a Virgin” in the quote above is very significant in examining the status and role of women in the early medieval Christian Church. Elizabeth Sarah Cowie succinctly summarizes the ideals of womanhood, and the model of those ideals, held by Christians in this period:

The Mother of God is the model of married women and mothers in her life with Joseph and her bearing Christ. She is the model for monastics and celibates (as well as their abbess), in that she is ever virgin and attained to perfect spiritual union with God. … The Mother of God is the ideal of Christian womanhood for all women. She embodies every virtue.19

Even the terminology that Cowie uses here to refer to the Virgin Mary, “Mother of God,” is significant and indicative of the attitude of early medieval Christians toward women. The title “Mother of God,” in Greek Θεοτόκος (“Theotokos”),20 for the Virgin Mary, although long in use amongst Christians, was officially recognized and endorsed by the Church at the Third Ecumenical Council held at Ephesus in 431 CE.21 “When the decision was announced, whoops and cheers filled the night, and torchlight parades began, led by women chanting hymns to the Theotokos.”22 The effect of this decision, essentially an official endorsement by the Church of the popular veneration of Mary that had been an unofficial aspect of Christian doctrine and piety since the religion’s earliest days, should not be underestimated.23 By the early medieval era, Mary was nearly universally regarded by Christians as the entirely sinless Mother of God. This view of Mary, coupled with the early Christian and medieval doctrine of recapitulation, largely forgotten by Western Christians in the later Middle Ages in favor of Augustinian soteriological views,24 had great ramifications for the Church’s view of women. Even as early as 180 CE, Irenaeus of Lyons, a Christian bishop in Gaul, could write that,

The Lord then was manifestly coming to His own things, and was sustaining them by means of that creation which is supported by Himself, and was making a recapitulation of that disobedience which had occurred in connection with a tree, through the obedience which was [exhibited by Himself when He hung] upon a tree, [the effects] also of that deception being done away with, by which that virgin Eve, who was already espoused to a man, was unhappily misled,—was happily announced, through means of the truth [spoken] by the angel to the Virgin Mary, who was [also espoused] to a man. For just as the former was led astray by the word of an angel, so that she fled from God when she had transgressed His word; so did the latter, by an angelic communication, receive the glad tidings that she should sustain (portaret) God, being obedient to His word. And if the former did disobey God, yet the latter was persuaded to be obedient to God, in order that the Virgin Mary might become the patroness (advocata) of the virgin Eve. And thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so is it rescued by a virgin; virginal disobedience having been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience.25

It was in the fourth and fifth centuries especially that these earlier seeds of Marian piety and doctrine, including this recognition of her role in the redemptive activity of Christ through recapitulation, began to be fully explored by the Church Fathers; the selection from the writings of Gregory of Nazianzen quoted earlier is an example of the thinking that this reinvigorated theological exploration produced.

According to the doctrine of recapitulation, Christ “passed through every stage of human growth, hallowing each and redeeming each.”26 Essentially, Christ, in being simultaneously a sinless human being as well as God incarnate, perfected each stage of human life by passing through it perfectly, undoing the sin and corruption introduced by Adam; his perfect death on the cross was the culmination of this process of recapitulation and his resurrection was the fulfillment of the process. Similarly, Church Fathers such as Irenaeus and Gregory posited, the Theotokos, in being simultaneously a sinless human being as well as the Mother of God incarnate, also served the same purposes in roles unique to women, undoing the sin and corruption introduced into womanly nature by Eve. It was this exalted view of the role of the Virgin Mary in the scheme of redemption, which included her perfection of both motherhood and virginity, that informed the roles of women in the early medieval Church, as the Virgin Mary acted as the ideal and the example for women who chose either possible course in life: the family life of motherhood and marriage or the monastic life of prayer and virginity.

Naturally, the most common course for a woman to choose was the former of the two options; the vast majority of women chose to take a husband and have children. The family life being the most frequently chosen lifestyle, the amount of material written by early and medieval Christians on the subject is enormous. It is sufficient to say that the ideal marriage was that inculcated by the apostle Paul in Ephesians 5:22-29 (NKJV):

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church.

Of course, it is no understatement to say that the reality of marriage more often than not fell far short of such a lofty ideal, as is evidenced by the regulations imposed by various Church councils as well as the frequent admonitions of the Church Fathers. It is indicative of the overall view of the Church Fathers on the relationship of men and women that these regulations and admonishments were more often directed to men than to women. For instance, the bishops gathered at the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon in 451 CE forbade the practice of kidnapping a woman and forcing her into marriage, imposing a stiff ecclesiastical penalty on violators:

The holy Synod has decreed that those who forcibly carry off women under pretence of marriage, and the aiders or abettors of such ravishers, shall be degraded if clergymen, and if laymen be anathematized.27

Another example of this attitude toward relationships between men and women, this time more specifically within a legal marriage, is the homily of John Chrysostom, a famous fourth century preacher and Archbishop of Constantinople during the years 398-404 CE,28 on the passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians quoted previously. Addressing the husbands of his congregation, Archbishop John expounded:

Thou hast seen the measure of obedience, hear also the measure of love. Wouldest thou have thy wife obedient unto thee, as the Church is to Christ? Take then thyself the same provident care for her, as Christ takes for the Church. Yea, even if it shall be needful for thee to give thy life for her, yea, and to be cut into pieces ten thousand times, yea, and to endure and undergo any suffering whatever,—refuse it not. … Yea, though thou see her looking down upon thee, and disdaining, and scorning thee, yet by thy great thoughtfulness for her, by affection, by kindness, thou wilt be able to lay her at thy feet. For there is nothing more powerful to sway than these bonds, and especially for husband and wife. A servant, indeed, one will be able, perhaps, to bind down by fear; nay not even him, for he will soon start away and be gone. But the partner of one’s life, the mother of one’s children, the foundation of one’s every joy, one ought never to chain down by fear and menaces, but with love and good temper. For what sort of union is that, where the wife trembles at her husband? And what sort of pleasure will the husband himself enjoy, if he dwells with his wife as with a slave, and not as with a free-woman? Yea, though thou shouldest suffer anything on her account, do not upbraid her; for neither did Christ do this.29

For those women who did not desire the family life, monasticism was allowed by the Church as an alternative.

Although not formalized and standardized by the Church until the fourth and fifth centuries, female monasticism, a state of lifelong consecrated virginity or widowhood coupled with intense devotion and the practice of spiritual and ascetic exercises such as prayer, fasting, and charity, had been a popular, even if minority, option for Christian women since the Church’s earliest days.30 In a pagan world that attached a great deal of value to family ties and in which women were treated as the property of their fathers, husbands, and other dominant male figures in their lives, the celibate life had great appeal for many women who saw in it an escape from this tyrannical patriarchal system.31 “Their vows of celibacy served many converts as a declaration of independence from the crushing pressures of tradition and of their families, who ordinarily arranged marriages at puberty and so determined the course of their children’s lives.”32

In the fourth and fifth centuries, the period immediately following the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire, spiritual seekers, including both men and women, flocked in droves to the deserts of Egypt, establishing hermitages and communal monasteries across the landscape. “The enthusiasm for the monastic life became so great that, as a famous quip put it, the desert had become a city.”33 Many famous and venerated female monastics and ascetics belong to this period, including Melania the Elder, Melania the Younger, Sara of the Nile, Macrina the Younger, Syncletica of Alexandria, and Mary of Egypt.34

The story of Mary of Egypt in particular presents an illuminating example of the reverence with which these holy women were held. According to the sixth century account of Sophronius of Jerusalem, Zosima of Palestine, a hieromonk,35 encountered Mary, who was naked, shriveled, and sunbaked from her years of asceticism in the desert. Mary, recognizing Zosima as a priest, approached him to ask for a blessing, in accordance with Eastern Christian tradition. Zosima, however, recognized Mary’s holiness and instead begged for her blessing. According to the account of Sophronius,

Zosima threw himself on the ground and asked for her blessing. She likewise bowed down before him. And thus they lay on the ground prostrate asking for each other’s blessing. And one word alone could be heard from both: “Bless me!” After a long while the woman said to Zosima: “Abba Zosima, it is you who must give blessing and pray. You are dignified by the order of priesthood and for may years you have been standing before the holy altar and offering the sacrifice of the Divine Mysteries.” This flung Zosima into even greater terror. At length with tears he said to her: “O mother, filled with the spirit, by your mode of life it is evident that you live with God and have died to the world. The Grace granted to you is apparent — for you have called me by name and recognized that I am a priest, though you have never seen me before. Grace is recognized not by one’s orders, but by gifts of the Spirit, so give me your blessing for God’s sake, for I need your prayers.” Then giving way before the wish of the elder the woman said: “Blessed is God Who cares for the salvation of men and their souls.” Zosima answered: “Amen.”36

That Zosima was willing to break with Christian tradition and urge Mary to bless him, rather than bless her in accordance with custom, is indicative of the general attitude of Christians of all ranks and social classes to holy women found throughout the literature of the early medieval period.

So central was monasticism to the female experience and ideal in the Church that even the one ordained order that was open to women, that of deaconess, was very early on identified with monasticism. The other ordained roles in the Church, those of priest, bishop, and deacon, were viewed as the exclusive vocations of men largely because of an understanding and appreciation of the differences inherent in men and women and because of a view of the local church as a family under the presidency of a father with a unique sacramental role.37 The wives of these sacramental clergy filled the role of mother.38 The role of deaconess, on the other hand, was a sacramentally ordained ministry unique to women. Probably always an order which consisted entirely or nearly entirely of virgins and widows, the order of deaconesses, in the Late Middle Ages, faded from parish life and became identified with women’s monasteries. Eventually, probably in the High Middle Ages, it disappeared entirely, becoming united with the role of abbess, the head of a women’s monastery.39

Interestingly, the role of abbess would also come to include aspects of the prerogatives not only of deaconesses but even of priests and bishops.40 For instance, at some point in the Middle Ages, the tradition developed of asking for an abbess’ blessing and kissing her right hand upon greeting her, as had been the custom involving greeting priests and bishops; in the case of a priest and an abbess greeting each other, each blessed the other and kissed the other’s hand.

There is no doubt that the place of women in society had changed dramatically from the days of the pagan Roman Empire described at the opening of this essay. Inspired by ideas unique to Christianity, including the belief that all human beings are equal in the sight of God and the venerability of the Virgin Mary, the amount of respect for and equality granted to women would continue to increase throughout the Middle Ages. In the sixth century, Empress Theodora, wife of Emperor Justinian I, would enact a large body of legislation, the first of its kind anywhere in the world, for the protection of women.41 Still later, in the years 797-802 CE, Irene of Athens would be the first woman to reign as empress regnant in the Roman (Byzantine) Empire.42 She also convoked and presided over the Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church at Nicaea in 787. This growth in the status of women in society would eventually lead to the first wave of feminism in the nineteenth century. The role and status of women in the early and medieval Christian Church, as propounded in the writings of the Church Fathers and explicated in the doctrine and piety of the Church, forever changed the way that women viewed themselves and were viewed by men, inevitably leading to a view of womanhood, and an appreciation of its distinctive aspects, far different than that of the culture which the Church had emerged from and conquered. To say, as in the words of Norman F. Cantor which were quoted previously, that “the teaching of the fourth century church fathers on sex and marriage was the first and very modest stage in the emancipation of women in western civilization” is so vast an understatement as to be a lie. On the contrary, it was the teaching of the fourth century Church Fathers, radical and innovative in its time as well as inspirational and influential in all times since, that overturned and replaced the previous order.


1 Danielle Crittenden, What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999).

2 Actually a collection of 27 distinct documents first compiled as is by Athanasius of Alexandria in his Paschal letter of 367 CE. See Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

3 For instance, Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Knopf, 2009).

4 Marcel Le Glay, et al., A History of Rome, 4th ed. (Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2009), 179-180

5 Jacob Burckhardt, The Age of Constantine the Great (New York: Dorset Press, 1949).

6 Peter Garnsey and Richard Saller, The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 130-1.

7 Arnaldo Momigliano, On Pagans, Jews, and Christians (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1987), 170-1.

8 ibid., 206-7.

9 Thomas Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World (Hinges of History) (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 44.

10 Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York: Dorset Press, 1967), 58.

11 ibid.

12 Jon E. Lewis, A Documentary History of Human Rights: A Record of the Events, Documents and Speeches that Shaped Our World (New York: Avalon, 2003), 115-6.

13 Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 120.

14 For example, see Mary Daly, The Church and the Second Sex (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985).

15 Sarah Elizabeth Cowie, More Spirited Than Lions: An Orthodox Response to Feminism and a Practical Guide to the Spiritual Life of Women (Salisbury: Regina Orthodox Press, 2001).

16 John Anthony McGuckin, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography (Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001).

17 Gregory Nazianzen, “The Fifth Theological Oration,” 6-7, of “Oration XXXVII,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, vol. 7 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), 339-340.

18 Norman F. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 354.

19 Cowie, 251.

20 “Mother of God” is an imprecise but appropriate translation of the word Theotokos. A literal translation renders the word as “God-bearer.” See Jenny Schroedel and Reverend John Schroedel, The Everything Mary Book: The Life And Legacy of the Blessed Mother (Avon: F+W Publications, Inc., 2006), 58.

21 John Anthony McGuckin, Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy: Its History, Theology, and Texts (Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004).

22 Ted Byfield, ed., The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years; Darkness Descends A.D. 350 to 565 The Fall of the Western Roman Empire [Vol. 4] (Canada: Christian History Project), 183.

23 Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 55-66.

24 John Norman Davidson Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines: Revised Edition (New York: HarperCollins, 1978), 170-173.

25 Irenaeus of Lyons, “Against Heresies,” book 5, ch. 19, par. 1, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), 547.

26 Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), 144.

27The XXX Canons of the Holy and Fourth Synods, of Chalcedon,” Canon XXVII, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, vol. 14 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), 287.

28 David C. Ford, Women and Men in the Early Church: The Full Views of St. John Chrysostom (South Canaan: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1996), 5-10.

29 John Chrysostom, “Homily XX on Ephesians 5:22-24,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st series, vol. 13 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), 144.

30 Chadwick, 175-7.

31 Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity (New York: Random House, 1988), 87-9.

32 ibid, 20.

33 David Bentley Hart, Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 Years of the Christian Faith (London: Quercus, 2007), 56.

34 Margot H. King, “The Desert Mothers: A Survey of the Feminine Anchoretic Tradition in Western Europe” (2003) http://www.hermitary.com/articles/mothers.html (Retrieved 10 November 2010).

35 A “hieromonk” is a monk who is also an ordained priest. See The Orthodox Church of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, “Glossary of Terms” (2010) http://www.holynewmartyrs.com/glossary_of_terms.html (Retrieved 10 November 2010).

36 Sophronius of Jerusalem, “The Life of Our Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt” (2010) http://www.stmaryofegypt.org/life.aspx (Retrieved 10 November 2010).

37 John Chrysostom, “Treatise Concerning the Christian Priesthood,” Book 2, chapter 2, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st series, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), 40.

38 Frederica Matthewes-Green, “Twice Liberated,” in Cowie, 299-300.

39 Valerie A. Karras, “Female Deacons in the Byzantine Church,” Church History 73, no. 2 (June 2004): 272-316.

40 Protopresbyter Alexander Lebedeff, “How to Greet a Monk or Nun” (February 1999) at “Orthodox Christian Information Center,” http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/monk_greet.aspx (Retrieved 10 November 2010).

41 Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204 (London: Routledge, 1999), 11-39.

42 ibid, 73-94.


Burckhardt, Jacob. The Age of Constantine the Great. New York: Dorset Press, 1949.

Byfield,Ted, ed. The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years; Darkness Descends A.D. 350 to 565 The Fall of the Western Roman Empire [Vol. 4]. Canada: Christian History Project.

Cahill, Thomas. Mysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World (Hinges of History). New York: Doubleday, 2008.

Cairns, Earle E. Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Cantor, Norman F. The Civilization of the Middle Ages. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. New York: Dorset Press, 1967.

Cowie, Sarah Elizabeth. More Spirited Than Lions: An Orthodox Response to Feminism and a Practical Guide to the Spiritual Life of Women. Salisbury: Regina Orthodox Press, 2001.

Crittenden, Danielle. What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

Daly, Mary. The Church and the Second Sex. Boston: Beacon Press, 1985.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. New York: Knopf, 2009.

Ford, David C. Women and Men in the Early Church: The Full Views of St. John Chrysostom. South Canaan: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1996.

Garland, Lynda. Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204. London: Routledge, 1999.

Garnsey, Peter and Richard Saller. The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Gregory Nazianzen. “Oration XXXVII” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. 2nd Series, Vol. 7. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978.

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

Irenaeus of Lyons. “Against Heresies” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978.

John Chrysostom. “Homily XX on Ephesians 5:22-24” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. 1st Series. Vol. 13. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

John Chrysostom, “Treatise Concerning the Christian Priesthood” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. 1st Series. Vol. 9. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978.

Karras, Valerie A. “Female Deacons in the Byzantine Church.” Church History 73, no. 2 (June 2004): 272-316.

Kelly, John Norman Davidson. Early Christian Doctrines: Revised Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1978.

King, Margot H. “The Desert Mothers: A Survey of the Feminine Anchoretic Tradition in Western Europe” (2003) http://www.hermitary.com/articles/mothers.html (Retrieved 10 November 2010).

Lebedeff, Protopresbyter Alexander. “How to Greet a Monk or Nun” (February 1999) at “Orthodox Christian Information Center.” http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/monk_greet.aspx (Retrieved 10 November 2010).

Le Glay, Marcel, Jean-Louis Voisin, Yann Le Bohec, David Cherry, Donald G. Kyle, and Eleni Manolaraki. A History of Rome. 4th ed. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2009.

Lewis, Jon E. A Documentary History of Human Rights: A Record of the Events, Documents and Speeches that Shaped Our World. New York: Avalon, 2003.

McGuckin, John Anthony. Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy: Its History, Theology, and Texts. Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004.

McGuckin, John Anthony.Saint Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography. Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001.

Metzger, Bruce M. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Momigliano, Arnaldo. On Pagans, Jews, and Christians. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1987.

The Orthodox Church of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. “Glossary of Terms” (2010) http://www.holynewmartyrs.com/glossary_of_terms.html (Retrieved 10 November 2010).

Pagels, Elaine. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity. New York: Random House, 1988.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Schroedel, Jenny and Reverend John Schroedel. The Everything Mary Book: The Life And Legacy of the Blessed Mother. Avon: F+W Publications, Inc., 2006.

Sophronius of Jerusalem. “The Life of Our Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt” (2010) http://www.stmaryofegypt.org/life.aspx (Retrieved 10 November 2010).

The XXX Canons of the Holy and Fourth Synods, of Chalcedon” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. 2nd Series, Vol. 14. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978.