Revisiting Harnack (Part I)

HarnackNOTE : I certainly don’t agree with everything Adolf von Harnack has written, and I am not an advocate of German liberalism. However, what Harnack states here in the following lecture is fairly accurate in regard to Greek Catholicism – both in what Greek Catholicism achieved in the past (what is certainly good and in the Providence of God) and what it is now (certainly not all Apostolic) . These things he discusses in the lecture are what I, the owner of this blog, have also surmised or sensed during the 5+ years I was in the Greek Catholic communion of local churches (today popularly – falsely I would say – simply called “Orthodoxy” mostly by its zealous disillusioned ex-Protestant defenders). This is from Harnack’s public lectures he gave at the University of Berlin in 1900 (bolds added of course and I was almost tempted to bold the entire lecture !!!).


I must invite you to descend several centuries with me and to look at the Greek Church as it is to-day, and as it has been preserved, essentially unaltered, for more than a thousand years. Between the third and the nineteenth century the history of the Church of the East nowhere presents any deep gulf. Hence we may take up our position in the present. Here, in turn, we ask the three following questions:-

What did this Greek Catholicism achieve? What are its characteristics ? What modifications did the Gospel here undergo and how did it hold its own?

I. What did this Greek Catholicism achieve?

Two facts may be cited on this point : firstly, in the great domain which it embraces, the countries of the eastern part of the Mediterranean and northwards to the Arctic Ocean, it made an end of heathenism and polytheism. The decisive victory was accomplished from the third to the sixth century, and so effectually accomplished that the gods of Greece really perished-perished unwept and unmourned. Not in any great battle did they die, but from sheer exhaustion, and without offering any resistance worth mention. I may just point out that before dying they transferred a considerable portion of their power to the Church’s saints. But what is more important, with the death of the gods, Neoplatonism, the last great product of Greek philosophy, was also vanquished. The religious philosophy of the Church proved the stronger. The victory over Hellenism is an achievement of the Eastern Church on which it still subsists. Secondly, this Church managed to effect such a fusion with the individual nations which it drew into its bosom that religion and church became to them national palladia, nay, palladia pure and simple. Go amongst Greeks, Russians, Armenians, etc., and you will everywhere find that religion and nationality are inseparable, and the one element exists only in and alongside of the other. Men of these nationalities will, if need be, suffer themselves be cut in pieces for their religion. This is no mere consequence of the pressure exercised by the hostile power of Mohammedanism ; the Russians are not subject to this pressure. Nor is it only-shall I say in the Moscow press that we can see what a firm and intimate connection exists between Church and nation in these peoples, in spite of “sects” which are not wanting here either ; to convince ourselves of it we must read-to take an instance at random-Tolstoi’s Village Tales. They bring before the reader a really touching picture of the deep influence of the Church, with its message of the Eternal, of self-sacrifice, of sympathy and fraternity, on the national mind. That the clergy stand low in the social scale, and frequently encounter contempt, must not delude us into supposing that as the representatives of the Church they do not occupy an incomparably high station. In Eastern Europe the monastic ideal is deeply rooted in the national soul.

But the mention of these two points includes everything that can be said about the achievements of this Church. To add that it has disseminated a certain amount of culture would involve pitching our standard of culture very low. In comparison with Islam, too, it is no longer so successful in doing what it has done in the past and still does in regard to polytheism. The missions of the Russian Church are still overthrowing polytheism even to-day ; but large territories have been lost to Islam, and the Church has not recovered them. Islam has extended its victories as far as the Adriatic and in the direction of Bosnia. It has won over numerous Albanian and Slav tribes which were once Christian. It shows itself to be at least a match for the Church, although we must not forget that in the heart of its dominions there are Christian nations who have maintained their creed.

II. Our second question was, What are the characteristics of this Church?

The answer is not easy ; for as it presents itself to the spectator this Church is a highly complex structure. The feelings, the superstitions, the learning, and the devotional philosophy of hundreds, nay, of thousands of years, are built into it. But, further ; no one can ‘look at this Church from outside, with its forms of worship, its solemn ritual, the number of its ceremonies, its relics, pictures, priests, monks, and the philosophy of its mysteries, and then compare it on the one hand with the Church of the first century, and on the other with the Hellenic cults in the age of Neoplatonism, without arriving at the conclusion that it belongs not to the former but to the latter. It takes the form, not of a Christian product in Greek dress, but of a Greek product in Christian dress. It would have done battle with the Christians of the first century just as it did battle with the worship of Magna Mater and Zeus Soter (NOTE : I love that line). There are innumerable features of this Church which are counted as sacred as the Gospel, and towards which not even a tendency existed in primitive Christianity. Of the whole performance of the chief religious service, nay, even of many of the dogmas, the same thing may, in the last resort, be said : if certain words, like Christ, etc., are omitted, there is nothing left to recall the original element. In its external form as a whole this Church is nothing more than a continuation of the history of Greek religion under the alien influence of Christianity, parallel to the many other alien influences which have affected it. We might also describe it as the natural product of the union between Hellenism, itself already in a state of oriental decay, and Christian teaching ; it is the transformation which history effects in a religion by ” natural” means, and, as was here the case, was bound to effect between the third and the sixth century. In this sense it is a natural religion. The conception admits of a double meaning. It is generally understood as an abstract term covering all the elementary feelings and processes traceable in every religion. Whether there are any such elements, or, on the other hand, whether they are suicciently stable and articulate to be followed as a whole, admits, however, of a doubt. The conception “natural religion” may be better applied to the growth which a religion produces when the ” natural ” forces of history have ceased playing on it. At bottom these forces are everywhere the same, although differing in the way in which they are mounted. They mould religion until it answers their purpose ; not by expelling what is sacred, venerable, and so on, but by assigning it the place and allowing it the scope which they consider right. They immerse everything in a uniform medium,-that medium which, like the air, is the first condition of their ” natural ” existence. In this sense, then, the Greek Church is a natural religion ; no prophet, no reformer, no genius, has arisen in its history since the third century to disturb the ordinary process by which a religion becomes naturalized into common history. The process attained its completion in the sixth century and asserted itself victoriously against severe assaults in the eighth and ninth. The Church has since been at rest, and no further essential, nay, not even any unessential, change has taken place in the condition which it then reached. Since then, apparently, the nations belonging to this Church have undergone nothing to make it seem intolerable to them and to call for any reform in it. They still continue, then, in this ” natural ” religion of the sixth century.

I have, however, advisedly spoken of the Church in its external form. Its complex character is partly due to the fact that we cannot arrive at its inner condition by simple deduction from its outer. It is not sufficient to observe, although the observation is correct, that this Church is part of the history of Greek religion. It exercises influences which from this point of view are not easily intelligible.

We cannot form a correct estimate of it unless we dwell more closely on the factors which lend it its character.

The first factor which we encounter is tradition, and the observance of it. The sacred and the divine do not exist in free action-we shall see later to what reservations this statement is subject-but are put, as it were, into a storehouse, in the form of an immense capital. The capital is to provide for all demands, and to be coined in the precise way in which the Fathers coined it. Here, it is true, we have an idea which can be traced to something already existing in the primitive age. We read in the Acts of the Apostles that ” They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine.” But what became of this practice and this obligation  Firstly, everything was designated “apostolic” which was deposited in this Church in the course of the succeeding centuries ; or, rather, what the Church considered necessary to possess in order to suit the historical position in which it was placed, it called apostolic, because it fancied that otherwise it could not exist, and what is necessary for the Church’s existence must be simply apostolic. Secondly, it has been established as an irrefragable fact that the “continuing steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine ” applies, first and foremost, to the punctilious observance of every direction as to ritual : the sacred element is bound up with text and form. Both are conceived in a thoroughly antique way. That the divine is, so to speak, stored up as though it were an actual commodity, and that the supreme demand which the Deity makes is the punctilious observance of a ritual, were ideas that in antiquity were perfectly familiar and admitted of no doubt. Tradition and ceremony are the conditions under which the Holy alone existed and was accessible. Obedience, respect, reverence, were the most important religious feelings. Whilst they are doubtless inalienable features of religion, it is only as accompaniments of an active feeling quite different in its character that they possess any value, and that further presumes that the object to which they are directed is a worthy one. Traditionalism and the ritualism so closely connected with it are prominent. characteristics of the Greek Church, but this is just what shows how far it has departed from the Gospel.

The second point that fixes the character of this Church is the value which it attaches to orthodoxy, to sound doctrine. It has stated and re-stated its doctrines with the greatest precision and often enough made them a terror to men of different creed. No one, it claims, can be saved who does not possess the correct doctrine ; the man who does not possess it is to be expelled and must forfeit all his rights ; if he be a fellow-countryman, he must be treated as a leper and lose all connection with his nation. This fanaticism, which still flares up here and there in the Greek Church even to-day and in principle has not been abandoned, is not Greek, although a certain inclination towards it was not lacking in the ancient Greeks ; still less did it originate in Roman law ; it is the result, rather, of an unfortunate combination of several factors. When the Roman empire became Christian, the hard fight for existence which the Church had waged with the Gnostics was not yet forgotten ; still less had the Church forgotten the last bloody persecutions which the State had inflicted upon it in a kind of despair. These two circumstances would in themselves be sufficient to explain how the Church came to feel that it had a right of reprisal, and was at the same time bound to suppress heretics. But, in addition, there had now appeared in the highest place, since the days of Diocletian and Constantine, the absolutist conception, derived from the East, of the unlimited right and the unlimited duty of the ruler in regard to his “subjects.” The unfortunate factor in the great change was that the Roman Emperor was at once, and almost in the same moment, a Christian Emperor and an oriental despot. The more conscientious he was, the more intolerant he was bound to be ; for the deity had committed to his care not only men’s bodies but their souls as well. Thus arose the aggressive and all-devouring orthodoxy of State and Church, or, rather, of the State Church. Examples which were to hand from the Old Testament completed and sanctified the process.

Intolerance is a new growth in the land of the Greeks and cannot be roundly laid to their charge but the way in which doctrine developed, namely, as a philosophy of God and the world, was due to their influence ; and the fact that religion and doctrine were directly identified is also a product of the Greek spirit. No mere reference to the significance which doctrine already possessed in the apostolic age, and to the tendencies operating in the direction of bringing it into a speculative form, is sufficient to explain the change. These are matters, as I hope that I have shown in the previous lectures, which are rather to be understood in a different sense. It is in the second century, and with the apologists, that Intellectualism commences ; and, supported by the struggle with the Gnostics and by the Alexandrian school of religious philosophers in the Church, it manages to prevail.

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