Revisiting Harnack (Part II)

HarnackNOTE : This is a continuation from the previous post so it is best to read the first part for the entire context. And I believe that Harnack is very fair in these lectures, showing not only the negative but also the good of Greek Catholicism. A person can certainly know God in Greek Catholicism, as can anyone in any orthodox Christian Tradition. Why? Because God saves and not our religion. Glory to God. I only post this because despite the delusion of “rose-coloured spectacles of present (and prospective) Protestant converts” (of which I was one) no tradition is without it’s faults.
LECTURE XIII.

So far we have established the fact that Greek Catholicism is characterized as a religion by two elements : by traditionalism and by intellectualism. According to traditionalism, the reverent preservation of the received inheritance, and the defense of it against all innovation, is not only an important duty, but is itself the practical proof of religion. That is an idea quite in harmony with antiquity and foreign to the Gospel ; for the Gospel knows absolutely nothing of intercourse with God being bonded up with reverence for tradition itself. But the second element, intellectualism, is also of Greek origin. The elaboration of the Gospel into a vast philosophy of God and the world, in which every conceivable kind of material is handled ; the conviction that because Christianity is the absolute religion it must give information on all questions of metaphysics, cosmology, and history ; the view of revelation as a countless multitude of doctrines and explanations, all equally holy and important-this is Greek intellectualism. According to it, Knowledge is the highest good, and spirit is spirit only in so far as it knows ; everything that is of an aesthetical, ethical, and religious character must be converted into some form of knowledge, which human will and life will then with certainty obey. The development of the Christian faith into an all-embracing theosophy, and the identification of faith with theological knowledge, are proofs that the Christian religion on Greek soil entered the proscribed circle of the native religious philosophy and has remained there.

But in this vast philosophy of God and the world, which possesses an absolute value as the ” substance of what has been revealed ” and as “orthodox doctrine,” there are two elements which radically distinguish it from Greek religious philosophy and invest it with an entirely original character. I do not mean the appeal which it makes to revelation-for to that the Neoplatonists also appealed but the idea of creation and the doctrine of the God-Man nature of the Savior. They traverse the scheme of Greek religious philosophy at two critical points, and have therefore always been felt to be alien and intolerable by its genuine representatives.

The idea of creation we can deal with in a few words. It is undoubtedly an element which is as important as it is in thorough keeping with the Gospel. It abolishes all intertwining of God and world, and gives expression to the power and actuality of the living God. Attempts were not wanting, it is true, among Christian thinkers on Greek soil just because they were Greeks-to conceive the Deity only as the uniform power operating in the fabric of the world, as the unity in diversity, and as its goal. Traces of this speculative idea are even still to be found in the Church doctrine ; the idea of creation, however, triumphed, and therewith Christianity won a real victory.

The subject of the God-Man nature of the Savior is one on which it is much more difficult to arrive at a correct opinion. It is indubitably the central point in the whole dogmatic system of the Greek Church. It supplied the doctrine of the Trinity. In the Greek view these two doctrines together make up Christian teaching in puce. When a Father of the Greek Church once said, as he did say : “The idea of the God-Man nature, the idea of God becoming a man, is what is new in the new, nay, is the only new thing under the sun,” not only did he correctly represent the opinion of all his fellow-believers, but he also at the same time strikingly expressed their view that, while sound intelligence and earnest reflection yield all the other points of doctrine of themselves, this one lies beyond them. The theologians of the Greek Church are convinced that the only real distinction between the Christian creed and natural philosophy is that the former embraces the doctrine of the God-Man nature, including the Trinity. Side by side with this, the only other doctrine that can at most come in question is that of the idea of creation.

If that be so, it is of radical importance to obtain a correct view of the origin, meaning, and value of this doctrine. In its completed form it must look strange to anyone who comes to it straight from the evangelists. While no historical reflection can rid us of the impression that the whole fabric of ecclesiastical Christology is a thing absolutely outside the concrete personality of Jesus Christ, historical considerations nevertheless enable us not only to explain its origin but also even to justify, in a certain degree, the way in which it is formulated. Let us try to get a clear idea of the leading points.

We saw in a previous lecture how it came about that the Church teachers selected the conception of the Logos in order to define Christ’s nature and majesty. They found the conception of the “Messiah” quite unintelligible ; it conveyed no meaning to them. As conceptions cannot be improvised, they had to choose between representing Christ as a deified man, that is to say, as a hero, or conceiving his nature after the pattern of one of the Greek gods, or identifying it with the Logos. The first two possibilities had to be put aside, as they were ” heathenish,” or seemed to be so. There remained, therefore, the Logos. How well this formula served different purposes we have already pointed out. Did it not readily admit of being combined with the conception of the Sonship, without leading to any objectionable theogonies ? It involved, too, no menace to monotheism. But the formula had a logic of its own, and this logic led to results which were not absolutely free from suspicion. The conception of the Logos was susceptible of very varied expression ; in spite of its sublime meaning, it could be also so conceived as to permit of the bearer of the title not being by any means of a truly divine nature but possessing one that was only half divine.

The question as to the more exact definition of the nature of the Logos-Christ could not have attained the enormous significance which it received in the Church, and might have been stilled by various speculative answers, if it had not been accompanied by the triumph of a very precise idea of the nature of redemption, which acted as a peremptory challenge. Among all the possible ideas on the subject of redemption-forgiveness of sins, release from the power of the demons, and so on-that idea came victoriously to the front in the Church in the third century which conceived of it as redemption from death and therewith as elevation to the divine life, that is to say, as deification. It is true that this conception found a safe starting-point in the Gospel, and support in the Pauline theology ; but in the form in which it was now developed it was foreign to both of them and conceived on Greek lines ; mortality is in itself reckoned as the greatest evil, and as the cause of all evil, while the greatest of blessings is to live for ever. What a severely Greek idea this is we can see, in the first place, from the fact that redemption from death is presented, in a wholly realistic fashion, as a pharmacological process -the divine nature has to flow in and transform the mortal nature-and, in the second, from the way in which eternal life and deification were identified. But if actual interference in the constitution of human nature and its deification are involved, then the redeemer must himself be God and must become man. It is only on this condition that so marvelous a process can be imagined as actually taking place. Word, doctrine, individual deeds, are here of no avail -how can life be given to a stone, or a mortal made immortal, by preaching at them ? Only when the divine itself bodily enters into mortality can mortality be transformed. It is not, however, the hero, but God Himself alone, who possesses the divine, that is to say, eternal life, and so possesses it as to permit of His giving it to others. The Logos, then, must be God Himself, and He must have actually become man. With the satisfying of these two conditions, real, natural redemption, that is to say, the deification of humanity, is actually effected. These considerations enable us to understand the prodigious disputes over the nature of the Logos-Christ which filled several centuries. They explain why Athanasius strove for the formula that the Logos-Christ was of the same nature as the Father, as though the existence or non-existence of the Christian religion were at stake. They show clearly how it was that other teachers in the Greek Church regarded any menace to the complete unity of the divine and the human in the Redeemer, any notion of a merely moral connexion, as a death-blow to Christianity. These teachers secured their formulas, which for them were anything but scholastic conceptions ; rather, they were the statement and establishment of a matter of fact, in the absence of which the Christian religion was as unsatisfactory as any other. The doctrines of the identical nature of the three persons of the Trinity-how the doctrine of the Holy Ghost came about, I need not mention-and of the God-Man nature of the Redeemer are in strict accordance with the distinguishing notion of the redemption as a deification of man’s nature by making him immortal. Without the help of the notion those formulas would never have been attained ; but they also stand and fall with it. They prevailed, however, not because they were akin to the ideas of Greek philosophy, but because they were contrasted with them. Greek philosophy never ventured, and never aspired, to meet, in any similar way by “history” and speculative ideas, that wish for immortality which it so vividly entertained. To attribute any such interference with the Cosmos to an historical personality and the manner in which it appeared, and to ascribe to that personality a transformation in what, given once for all, was in a state of eternal flux, must necessarily have seemed, to Greek philosophy, pure mythology and superstition. The ” only new thing under the sun” must necessarily have appeared to it, and did appear, to be the worst kind of fable.

The Greek Church still entertains the conviction to-day that in these doctrines it possesses the essence of Christianity, regarded at once as a mystery and as a mystery that has been revealed. Criticism of this contention is not difficult. We must acknowledge that those doctrines powerfully contributed to keeping the Christian religion from dissolving into Greek religious philosophy ; further, that they profoundly impress us with the absolute character of this religion ; again, that they are in actual accordance with the Greek notion of redemption ; lastly, that this very notion has one of its roots in the Gospel. But beyond this we can acknowledge nothing ; nay, it is to be observed (i.) that the notion of the redemption as a deification of mortal nature is sub-christian, because the moral element involved can at best be only tacked on to it ; (ii.) that the whole doctrine is inadmissible, because it has scarcely any connection with the Jesus Christ of the Gospel, and its formulas do not fit him ; it is, therefore, not founded in truth ; and (iii.) that as it is connected with the real Christ only by uncertain threads, it leads us away from him ; it does not keep his image alive, but, on the contrary, demands that this image should be apprehended solely in the light of alleged hypotheses about him expressed in theoretical propositions. That this substitution produces no very serious or destructive effects is principally owing to the fact that in spite of them the Church has not suppressed the Gospels, and that their own innate power makes itself felt. It may also be conceded that the notion of God having become man does not everywhere produce the effect only of a bewildering mystery, but, on the contrary, is capable of leading to the pure and definite conviction that God was in Christ. We may admit, lastly, that the egoistic desire for immortal existence will, within the Christian sphere, experience a moral purification through the longing to live with and in God, and to remain inseparably bound to His love. But all these admissions cannot do away with the palpable fact that in Greek dogma we have a fatal connexion established between the desire of the ancients for immortal life and the Christian message. Nor can anyone deny that this connexion, implanted in Greek religious philosophy and the intellectualism which characterised it, has led to formulas which are incorrect, introduce a supposititious Christ in the place of the real one, and, besides, encourage the delusion that, if only a man possesses the right formula, he has the thing itself. Even though the Christological formula were the theologically right one-what a departure from the Gospel is involved in maintaining that a man can have no relation with Jesus Christ, nay, that he is sinning against him and will be cast out, unless he first of all acknowledges that Christ was one person with two natures and two powers of will, one of them divine and one human. Such is the demand into which intellectualism has developed. Can such a system still find a place for the Gospel story of the Syro- pheenician woman or the centurion at Capernaum ?

But with traditionalism and intellectualism a further element is associated, namely, ritualism. If religion is presented as a complex system of traditional doctrine, to which the few alone have any real access, the majority of believers cannot practice it at all except as ritual. Doctrine comes to be administered in stereotyped formulas accompanied by symbolic acts. Although no inner understanding of it is thus possible, it produces the feeling of something mysterious. The very deification which the future is expected to bring, and which in itself is something that can neither be described nor conceived, is now administered as though it were an earnest of what is to come, by means of ritual acts. An imaginative mood is excited, and disposes to its reception ; and this excitement, when enhanced, is its seal.

Such are the feelings which move the members of the Greek Catholic Church. Intercourse with God is achieved through the cult of a mystery, and by means of hundreds of efficacious formulas small and great, signs, pictures, and consecrated acts, which, if punctiliously and submissively observed, communicate divine grace and prepare the Christian for eternal life. Doctrine as such is for the most part something unknown ; if it appears at all, it is only in the form of liturgical aphorisms. For ninety-nine per cent. of these Christians, religion exists only as a ceremonious ritual, in which it is externalized. But even for Christians of advanced intelligence all these ritual acts are absolutely necessary, for it is only in them that doctrine receives its correct application and obtains its due result.

There is no sadder spectacle than this transformation of the Christian religion from a worship of God in spirit and in truth into a worship of God in signs, formulas, and idols. To feel the whole pity of this development, we need not descend to such adherents of this form of Christendom as are religiously and intellectually in a state of complete abandonment, like the Copts and Abyssinians ; the Syrians, Greeks, and Russians are, taken as a whole, only a little better. Where, however, can we find in Jesus’ message even a trace of any injunction that a man is to submit to solemn ceremonies as though they were mysterious ministrations, to be punctilious in observing a ritual, to put up pictures, and to mumble maxims and formulas in a prescribed fashion? It was to destroy this sort of religion that Jesus Christ suffered himself to be nailed to the cross, and now we find it re-established under his name and authority ! Not only has ” mystagogy ” stepped into a position side by side with the ” mathesis,” that is to say, the doctrine, which called it forth ; but the truth is that ” doctrine “be its constitution what it may, it is still a spiritual principle-has disappeared, and ceremony dominates everything. This is what marks the relapse into the ancient form of the lowest class of religion. Over the vast area of Greek and Oriental Christendom religion has been almost stifled by ritualism. It is not that religion has sacrificed one of its essential elements. No ! it has entered an entirely different plane ; it has descended to the level where religion may be described as a cult and nothing but a cult.

Nevertheless, Greek and Oriental Christianity contains within itself an element which for centuries has been capable of offering, and still offers here and there to-day, a certain resistance to the combined forces of traditionalism, intellectualism, and ritualism-I mean monasticism. To the question, Who is in the highest sense of the word a Christian? the Greek Christian replies : the monk. The man who practices silence and purity, who shuns not only the world but also the Church of the world, who avoids not only false doctrine but any statement about the true, who fasts, gives himself up to contemplation, and steadily waits for God’s glorious light to dawn upon his gaze, who attaches no value to anything but tranquility and meditation on the Eternal, who asks nothing of life but death, and who from such utter unselfishness and purity makes mercy arise-this is the Christian. To him not even the Church and the consecration which it bestows is an absolute necessity. For such a man the whole system of sanctified secularity has vanished. Over and over again in ascetics of this kind the Church has seen in its ranks figures of such strength and delicacy of religious feeling. so filled with the divine, so inwardly active in forming themselves after certain features of Christ’s image, that we may, indeed, say : here there is a living religion, not unworthy of Christ’s name. We Protestants must not take direct offence at the form of monasticism. The conditions under which our Churches arose have made a harsh and one-sided opinion of it a kind of duty. And although for the present, and in view of the problems which press on us, we may be justified in retaining this opinion, we must not summarily apply it to other circumstances. Nothing but monasticism could provide a leaven and a counterpoise in that traditionalistic and ritualistic secular Church, such as the Greek Church was and still is. Here there was freedom, independence, and vivid experience ; here the truth that it is only what is experienced and comes from within that has any value in religion carried the day.

And yet, the invaluable tension which in this part of Christendom existed between the secular Church and monasticism has unhappily almost disappeared, and of the blessing which it established there is scarcely a trace left. Not only has monasticism become subject to the Church and is everywhere bent under its yoke, but the secular spirit has in a special degree invaded the monasteries. Greek and oriental monks are now, as a rule, the instruments of the lowest and worst functions of the Church, of the worship of pictures and relics, of the crassest superstition and the most imbecile sorcery. Exceptions are not wanting, and it is still to the monks that we must pin our hopes of a better future ; but it is not easy to see how a Church is to be reformed which, teach what it will, is content with its adherents finding the Christian faith in the observance of certain ceremonies, and Christian morality in keeping fast-days correctly.

III. As to our last question : What modifications did the Gospel undergo in this Church and how did it hold its own? Well, in the first place, I do not expect to be contradicted if I answer that this official ecclesiasticism with its priests and its cult, with all its vessels, saints, vestments, pictures and amulets, with its ordinances of fasting and its festivals, has absolutely nothing to do with the religion of Christ. It is the religion of the ancient world, tacked on to certain conceptions in the Gospel ; or, rather, it is the ancient religion with the Gospel absorbed into it. The religious moods which are here produced, or which turn towards this kind of religion are, in so far as they can still be called religious at all, of a class lower than Christian. But neither have its traditionalism and its “orthodoxy” much in common with the Gospel ; they, too, were not derived from it and cannot be traced back to it. Correct doctrine, reverence, obedience, the shuddering’s of awe, may be valuable and edifying things ; they may avail to bind and restrain the individual, especially when they draw him into the community of a stable society ; but they have nothing to do with the Gospel, as long as they fail to touch the individual at the point where freedom lies, and inner decision for or against God. In contrast with this, monasticism, in its resolve to serve God by an ascetic and contemplative life, contains an incomparably more valuable element, because sayings of Christ, even though applied in a one-sided and limited way, are nevertheless taken as a standard, and the possibility of an independent inner life being kindled is not so far removed.

Not so far removed-entirely lacking, thank God, it is not, even in the waste shrines of this ecclesiasticism, and Christ’s sayings sound in the ear of any who visit its churches. On the Church as a Church, apparatus and all, there is nothing more favorable to be said than has been said already ; the best thing about it is that it keeps up, although to a modest extent, the knowledge of the Gospel. Jesus’ words, even though only mumbled by the priests, take the first place in this Church, too, and the quiet mission which they pursue is not suppressed. Side by side with the magical apparatus and the transports of feeling, of which the ceremony is only the caput mortuum, stand Jesus’ sayings ; they are read in private and in public, and no superstition avails to destroy their power. Nor can its fruits be mistaken by anyone who will look below the surface. Among these Christians, too, priests and laity, there are men who have come to know God as the Father of mercy and the leader of their lives, and who love Jesus Christ, not because they know him as the person with two natures, but because a ray of his being has shone from the Gospel into their hearts, and this ray has become light and warmth to their own lives. And although the idea of the fatherly providence of God more readily assumes an almost fatalistic form in the East, and produces too much quietism, it is certain that here, too, it endows men with strength and energy, unselfishness and love. I need only refer again to Tolstoi’s Village Tales, which I have already quoted. The picture which they present is not artificial. But from much also that I have myself seen and experienced I can testify how even with the Russian peasant or the humbler priests, in spite of all the Saint- and picture-worship, a power of simple trust in God is to be found, a delicacy of moral feeling, and an active brotherly love, which does not disclaim its origin in the Gospel. Where they exist, however, the entire ceremonial service of religion is capable of undergoing a spiritualization, not by any “symbolical re-interpretation “-that is much too artificial a process-but because, if only the soul is touched by the living God at all, thought can rise to him even by the help of an idol.

But it is truly no accidental circumstance that, in so far as any independent religious life is to be found among the members of this Church, it at once takes shape in trust in God, in humility, in unselfishness and mercy, and that Jesus Christ is at the same time laid hold of with reverence ; for these are just the indications which show us that the Gospel is not as yet stifled, and that it is in these religious virtues that it has its real substance.

As a whole and in its structure the system of the oriental Churches is foreign to the Gospel ; it means at once a veritable transformation of the Christian faith and the depression of religion to a much lower level, namely, that of the ancient world. But in its monasticism, in so far as this is not entirely subject to the secular Church and itself secularised, there is an element which reduces the whole ecclesiastical apparatus to a secondary position, and which opens up the possibility of attaining a state of Christian independence. Above all, however, by not having suppressed the Gospel, but by having kept it accessible, even though in a meagre fashion, the Church still possesses the corrective in its midst. Side by side with the Church the Gospel exercises its own influence on individuals. This influence, however, takes shape in a type of religion exhibiting the very characteristics which we have shown to be most distinctive of Jesus’ message. Thus on the ground occupied by this Church the Gospel has not completely perished. Here, too, human souls find a dependence on God and a freedom in Him, and when they have found these, they speak the language which every Christian understands, and which goes to every Christian’s heart.

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