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Augustine in Russia

Melissa Jones

Editor’s note: The first portion of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report 16 (Summer 2008), 1-3.

Free Will and Original Sin

Unimpeded freedom of will is an essential ingredient in Orthodox theological anthropology, and Orthodox theologians have generally held that salvation is dependent upon a combination of God’s grace and human freedom. The fall restricted human freedom because it limited the human condition and brought death into the world, but it did not “darken the will,” as Augustine asserted. Most Eastern theologians would agree that humans are able and expected to seek perfection, and that God’s grace is an aid to that effort. Augustine’s premise that humans are not able to not sin (non posse non peccare) is foreign to Eastern Orthodox thought. The strict doctrinal formulation of Augustine’s concept of original sin was also foreign to Eastern Orthodox tradition. The accepted Eastern view of original sin was never formulated as systematically as it was in the West. This is not unusual in that Eastern Orthodox theology uses reasoned arguments, but depends instead mainly on tradition and the authority of the Church Fathers in making arguments, while the Latin West uses a more analytical, systematic style that is dependent on logical proofs.

Western and Eastern Understandings of Grace

In order to avoid a paralyzing pessimism, Augustine’s views regarding the corrupt nature of humanity went hand-in-hand with an elaborate theory of grace. Eastern Fathers generally had taken a positive view of human nature and grace. Eastern theologians tended to see the incarnation and death of Jesus as an event that freed all of humanity from Adam’s sin, granted all of humanity grace, and established freedom to choose either right-action or sin. The West, particularly after the acceptance of Augustine’s ideas of original sin, held a more juridical view of sin and atonement that required a careful balance of grace versus sin to attain salvation.

Augustine’s teachings on the subject of grace, coupled with the generally accepted doctrine of divine foreknowledge, led him to a doctrine that has been referred to as “double predestination” because it divided humanity into two classes, those who were destined to receive grace and therefore would have the capacity to be saved, and those who would not receive grace and were therefore ultimately damned.1

Nuanced Russian Critiques of Augustine

Russian scholars such as D. V. Gusev and I. V. Popov did not blindly accept Augustine’s ideas of original sin uncritically. Nor did they reject them as heretical products of the West. Rather, they attempted to put Augustine in a context of time and place to help understand how and why his ideas developed. Popov even suggested using Augustine’s experience with the Donatists to help discern how best to deal with certain sects of Old Believers.2

Other scholars like L. I. Pisarev, K. Skvortsov, and E. N. Trubetskoi, were able to unabashedly criticize some of Augustine’s ideas, while still accepting other aspects of his work that they believed to be useful in the Russian context.3 These secondary works by Russian theologians show that lively discussion was taking place in the theological academies during the last half of the 19th century. The numerous German and French works cited in their articles and monographs show that an exchange of ideas was taking place, and that the Russian Academy could no longer be perceived as an intellectually isolated purveyor of stale theology. In conclusion, it can be seen that a return to patristic studies, and the resulting Kievan translations of Augustine into Russian, made his writings widely available for analysis, thus helping to enliven Russian theological discourse.

The Hostile East-West Background

At first glance, the 19th-century focus on Augustine’s work by Russian church leaders seems surprising. The relationship between the Latin church of the West and the Greek Eastern church has always been strained. Even from the early centuries of Christianity, differences in language and culture created misunderstandings and disagreements that eventually erupted into the schism of 1054. The Russian church, as inheritor of Byzantine culture and religion, also inherited many of the resentments and prejudices against the Latin Catholic church that were based on events occurring even before Russia’s official acceptance of Christianity in the 10th century. This history of conflict would lead to the expectation of a very grudging acceptance by Russian churchmen of any Western theologian, let alone Augustine, a quintessential Western thinker who promoted a theological anthropology that stood counter to the Eastern patristic tradition.

Accusations of Heresy

Indeed, even modern-day Orthodox theologians continue to debate the appropriate place of Augustinian theology in Orthodoxy, and spirited disagreements on this topic have continued over the years in academic books and journals.4 An entertaining example of a modern Orthodox diatribe against Augustine was written by Michael Azkoul, now a bishop in the Antiochian Orthodox Church. In his book, The Influence of Augustine of Hippo on the Orthodox Church, Azkoul portrays Augustine as a Neoplatonic heretic who should be rejected with the likes of Nestorius and Arius.5 According to Azkoul, Augustine’s Neoplatonic premises taint every aspect of his theology: “Each doctrinal error of Augustine is consistent with all the others, stemming from principles which allowed him to elaborate a peculiar and coherent body of religious opinion.”6 Azkoul provides a well-researched, if unbalanced, review of literature attacking the use of Augustinian theology in the Orthodox church.

This controversy becomes even more heated in Orthodox popular culture. Arguments about Augustine erupt frequently in Orthodox magazines and in discussions carried over the Internet. The godfather of contemporary anti-Augustinianism in popular Orthodox thinking was the late Fr. John Romanides, an Orthodox priest who was a graduate of Harvard University, former professor at Holy Cross Orthodox Seminary in Massachusetts, and retired professor of Thessaloniki University. Romanides wrote several respected mainstream academic works, including Franks, Romans, Feudalism, and Doctrine; An Interplay Between Society and Theology, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press.7 However, his post-retirement activities appear to have been focused on producing voluminous works on an Internet web page called “Romanity” that describe in detail the damage done to Orthodoxy by Western influences. Romanides spent a considerable amount of time attacking Augustine and his influence, and he still has a loyal Internet following among those who would condemn the influence of Augustine and Western theology on Orthodoxy. Romanides’ opinions and other works criticizing Augustine were also published in The Christian Activist: A Journal of Orthodox Opinion. His contribution to this magazine was “The Fundamental Difference between the East and West,” which appeared in the same issue as a work by Orthodox priest John Reeves examining “The Price of Ecumenism Parts 1 & 2: How Ecumenism Has Hurt the Orthodox Church.”8 A later issue in this same publication carried an article by a “well-known psychologist and opponent of the mental health system,” Seth Farber, who argues that Augustine’s work inspired Luther, Calvin, and Freud to promote a “theory of human depravity.”9 While these examples may be the works of Orthodox extremists, they echo anti-Western, anti-ecumenical opinions that have existed for centuries.

Augustine Serving Russian Purposes

Thus, parochial, anti-ecumenical movements in Russia and in other Orthodox jurisdictions are able to claim that Orthodox tradition and Augustinian theology are completely incompatible. Making this claim does a grievous injustice to the many dedicated, idealistic Russian scholars like K. Skvortsov, E. N. Trubetskoi, and A. I. Bulgakov who sought to enhance the understanding of Orthodoxy by examining the works of great Western theologians such as Augustine.10 These 19th-century Russian scholars tried to expand the understanding of Orthodoxy by expanding the boundaries of Russian theological scholarship. Such men had faith in the strength of Orthodox theology and did not hesitate to compare and contrast its teachings with those of other confessions.

Professor Afanasii I. Bulgakov of the Kievan Theological Academy, for example, in addition to his translations of Augustine, wrote an objective history of Methodism, which he defended as his master’s thesis, and contributed historical essays on Anglicans, Baptists, Old Catholics, and Mormons. His work on the Anglican hierarchy was translated into English by William John Birkbeck in 1889.11 Many of today’s Orthodox critics of ecumenism do not understand that the desire to maintain a unique and creative Orthodox theology does not necessitate hostility toward theological dialogue and ideological walls to prevent contact with other religions.

In Summary

Russian interest in Augustine has been rekindled in recent years. The Library of Christian Literature, which was established in St. Petersburg in 1998 as a branch of the Moscow Library, lists several recent editions of Augustine’s works in its online catalog.12 In addition, a well-known Russian medievalist, V. V. Bychkov, has published a book on Christian polemics and apologists that features the work of Augustine.13 As the Russian Orthodox Church finds itself in increasing contact with Western confessions, it is likely to be drawn into further examinations of seminal Western theologians such as Augustine of Hippo. F

Notes:

1 Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), Vol. 1 of The Christian Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 298.

2 See Appendix III, “Nineteenth-Century Russian Secondary Works on Augustine,” in Melissa Ann Jones, “Augustine in Russia,” Ph.D. dissertation, Arizona State University, 2000, 165-70.

3 Ibid.

4 For example, Reinhard Flogaus provides a scholarly, balanced examination in “Palamas and Barlaam Revisited: A Reassessment of East and West in the Hesychast Controversy of 14th-century Byzantium,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 41 (No.1, 1998), 1-32. This same volume also carries a discussion of the venerable Fr. John Myendorff’s thoughts regarding Augustine and original sin: Boris Bobrinskoy, “The Adamic Heritage According to Fr. John Meyendorff,” 33-44.

5 Michael Azkoul, The Influence of Augustine of Hippo on the Orthodox Church (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990), 128-79.

6 Ibid., 221.

7 John Romanides, Franks, Romans, Feudalism, and Doctrine; An Interplay between Society and Theology (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1981).

8 John S. Romanides, “The Fundamental Difference Between the East and West,” The Christian Activist: A Journal of Orthodox Opinion 9 (1999); http://www.philthompson.net/pages/library/eastwest.html (accessed 5 April 2008). The same issue carried “The Price of Ecumenism, Parts 1 and 2: How Ecumenism Has Hurt the Orthodox Church” by John Reeves. This article is available at the Orthodox Christian Information Center website: http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/tca_priceofecumenism.aspx (accessed 5 April 2008).

9 Seth Farber, “The Reign of Augustine,” The Christian Activist: A Journal of Orthodox Opinion 13 (1999), 1-20.

10 See Jones, “Augustine in Russia,” Appendix III, 165-70.

11 See “Bulgakov, Afanasii I” in Pravoslavnaia bogoslovskaia entsiklopediia, ed. by A. N. Lopukhin, Vol. II, St. Petersburg, 1902, 1183-84. The Bulgakov work translated by Birkbeck was a vindication of the legitimacy of the Anglican hierarchy from an Orthodox point of view. It was published as The question of Anglican orders in respect to a “vindication” of the papal decision, which was drawn up by the English Roman Catholic bishops at the end of 1897, trans. by W. J. Birkbeck (London: S.P.C.K., 1899).

12 The St. Petersburg Library of Christian Literature [Biblioteka Khristianskoi Literatury] lists the following works in its electronic catalog: Avgustin, Cvety blagodatnoi zhizni, 1997; Avgustin, Ispoved’ [Confessions], 1997; Avgustin, O grade bozhiem: Kn. 1-13 [City of God], 1998; Avgustin, O grade bozheim: Kn. 14-22, 1998; Avgustin, Tvopeniya [Works], 1998; Avgustin, Ispoved’, 1999; Avgustin, O predopredelenii svyatyh [On the Predestination of the Saints], in electronic format, http://www.lcl.spb.ru:8084/archiv/.

13 V. V. Bychkov, Aesthetica Patrum. Estetika Ottsov Tserkvi: Apologety. Blazhennyi Avgustin (Moscow: Ladomir, 1995).

Edited excerpts published with permission from Melissa Ann Jones, “Augustine in Russia,” Ph.D. dissertation, Arizona State University, 2000.

Melissa Jones is an adjunct faculty member of religious studies at Chapman University College, Irvine, California.

Selected Russian Translations of Augustine

Bogoslovskiia razmyshleniia o blagodati bozhiei i o vole chelovecheskoi [Theological Reflections on the Grace of God and Human Will]. St. Petersburg: Matvei Ovchinnikov, 1786.

O grade bozheim [The City of God]. Moscow: Moscow Typographical Company, 1786.

Blazhennago Avreliia Avgustina Ipponiiskago episkopa Ispovedaniia [Confessions of Blessed Augustine, Bishop of Hippo]. Moscow: Moscow Typographical Company, 1787.

Ispovedy [Confessions]. Kiev: Kievan Theological Academy, 1866-69.

O grade bozhiem [The City of God]. Kiev: Kiev Theological Academy, 1885-87.