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The Ancient Church

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 THE ANCIENT CHURCH

In the history of the Greek Orthodox Church four stages of development can be distinguished. The first three centuries, through the age of Constantine the Great constitute the apostolic and ancient period. The medieval period includes almost ten centuries, to the fall of Constantinople. The age of captivity starts, roughly, in the fifteenth century and ends about the year 1830. It is followed by the modern period.

Soon after its inception, Christianity was promulgated in the Greek-speaking world of the Roman Empire. It was propagated through the medium of the Greek language; it was interpreted and clarified by the Fathers of Christianity, who were either Greek in origin or Hellenized and who spoke and wrote in Greek. Christian creeds and canons were written and codified in the Greek language by local and ecumenical synods as well. The New Testament books themselves and much of the important literature of the Christian religion of the first ten centuries were written in Greek. Greek philosophical thought and learning were utilized in defining Christian doctrines. Even Western Church Fathers such as Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine, who wrote in the Latin language, reveal the influence of Greek thought in their writings.

Following three centuries of underground existence and persecution in the Roman Empire, it was again the Greek Church, the Greek language, and Greek missionaries that carried the Christian message in both the East and the West. The Latin element emerged as a major factor in the history of Christianity only in the West and as late as the fifth century. It is significant that Saint Paul, writing to the Church of Rome, did not use Latin but Greek. The early Church in Rome was Greek-speaking, and the Church in the West was an extension of the Church in the East. The leading Roman Catholic theologian Tomas Spidlik, a member of the Society of Jesus, is quite right when he writes: "We must stress one principle and stress it hard, that the Latin Church originated from the Greek Church as a branch grows from a tree trunk. The Church was implanted by the Greeks and expressed itself in the Greek language until the end of the fourth century."

Christianity is Greek not only in form but to great degree in content as well. As we have seen, Greek religious and philosophical thought had penetrated into the mind and thought of later Judaism and Greek thought had thoroughly imbued the whole of the Roman Empire. The fusion of Greek classical and religious material was present not only in theological and philosophical writing but also in mystical and spiritual. Christian thinkers were in constant dialogue with ancient Greek thought and religious experience. Hellenization affected every aspect of early Christianity including worship.

For several centuries the worship of the Christian Church in the Roman Empire including the Latin speaking West was in Greek. Writing about the Roman Liturgy, C.E. Hammond, a renown liturgiologist of the last century adds: "it is, we believe, acknowledged on all sides [history, archeology, literature and criticism] that the language of the early Roman Church, i.e. of the first three centuries, was Greek." In full agreement he cites his contemporary ecclesiastical historian Henry Hart Milman who writes: "For some considerable (it cannot but be an undefinable) part of three first centuries, the Church of Rome, and most, if not all the Churches of the West, were, if we may so speak, Greek religious colonies. Their language was Greek, their organization Greek, their writers Greek, their scriptures Greek; and many vestiges and traditions show that their ritual, their Liturgy, was Greek."

The tremendous progress in various theological disciplines in the twentieth century, confirms the views of their colleagues of the previous century. Concerning the Hellenization of Christianity, scholars of different fields (history, philosophy, patristics and biblical studies) seem to agree that far from being a corruption of Christianity, Hellenization secured its survival and universality. In a recent scholarly review of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Jesus – God and Man and Revelation as History, David W. Tracy has summarized the scholarly opinion of recent years as follows: "In fact, Pannenberg’s position not only allows, but also insists, that the Hellenistic tradition provided the necessary conditions of possibility for a clearer affirmation of the divinity of Jesus Christ and the universality of the eschatological self-revelation of God in the face of Jesus."

Orthodox and other leading non-Orthodox Christian theologians agree on the close relationship between Christianity and Greek thought. The late Russian-American theologian Georges Florovsky observes that "Hellenism has placed its eternal character upon the Church. It has become an inseparable part of her very being and as such every Christian is, to some extent, a Hellene. Hellenism is not simply a phase in the history of Christianity but a cornerstone in its life… There is no Catholic Christian theology outside of Hellenism." Florovsky refers, of course, tot he period of Christian antiquity, which developed under the influence of the Greek language, thought, piety, mysticism, and ethos. Christianity and Hellenism emerged as new synthesis in the Greek East and the Latin West of the Roman Empire.

A. Cleveland Coxe, editor of the American edition of the Ante-Nicene Fathers Series, wrote about the Greek character of early Christianity: "Primitive Christianity was Greek in form and character, Greek from first to last, Greek in all its forms of dogma, worship and policy."

Arthur P. Stanley, a distinguished professor of ecclesiastical history at Oxford, some hundred years ago wrote in even more lively terms:

The Greek Church reminds us of the time when the tongue, not of Rome, but of Greece, was the sacred language of Christendom. It was a striking remark of the Emperor Napoleon that the introduction of Christianity itself was, in a certain sense, the triumph of Greece over Rome; the last and most signal instance of the maxim of Horace, Graecia capla ferum victorem cepit (captive Greece took its rude captor captive). The early Roman Church was but a colony of Greek Christians or Grecized Jews. The earliest Father of the Western Church wrote in Greek. The early popes were not Italians but Greeks. The name of the pope is not Latin, but Greek, the common and now despised name of every pastor in the Eastern Church. ….She is the mother and Rome the daughter. It is her privilege to claim a direct continuity of speech with the earliest times; to boast of reading the whole code of Scripture, Old as well as New, in the language in which it was read and spoken by the Apostles. The humblest peasant who reads his Septuagint or Greek Testament in his mother-tongue on the hills of Boeotia may proudly feel that he has access tot he original oracles of divine truth which pope and cardinal reach by a barbarous and imperfect translation; that he has a key of knowledge which in the West is only to be found in the hands of the learned classes.

Modern theologians echo Stanley’s thesis. Hugo Rahner, a leading Roman Catholic theologian, adds that "God spoke his revelation in the world of the Greek spirit and the Roman imperium and the Church guards this truth framed in the Greek speech of her sacred Book…The Church will continue to speak Greek even if…Hellas descend into the abyss of utter oblivion." And Georges Florovsky adds: "The task of our time, in the Orthodox world, is to rebuild the Christian-Hellenic culture, not out of the relics and memories of the past, but out of the perennial spirit of our Church, in which the values of culture were truly christened. Let us be more Hellenic in order that we may be truly Christian." The Greek spirit and culture and permanently wedded to the Christian faith, neither of which can be separated from the other without deforming itself. Indeed, "the heritage of the Greek spirit only attains immortality within the shrine of the Logos whose words are recorded in the tongue of Hellas."

While Tertullian, the second-century Christian apologist, scornfully satirised those who "advocated a Stoic or a Platonic or a dialectic [Aristotelian] Christianity" and Christianity wrestled for several centuries with Tertullian’s question, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?", Greek Christianity had achieved at an early age a balance between the wisdoms of two cities, the thyrathen, that is, the Hellenic, and the Sacred.

The early Church arrived at the conclusion that the study of Greek wisdom was both useful and desirable provided the Christian rejected evil and retained all that is good and true, "for the good wherever it is found is a property of the truth," as Sokrates, the ecclesiastical historian, writes. But as a whole the Fathers and writers of the Greek Church did not seek to borrow essence and content from ancient Greek thought, for those they possessed in their sacred revelation. They sought to borrow methodologies, technical means, terminology, and logical or grammatical structures in order to build up the Christian edifice of theology, of doctrine, and thought.

As ancient Greek religion encompassed the whole of man and was concerned with the totality of man by having elaborate rituals for different occasions of his life – for rain and harvest, for the ill and the traveller – so the Orthodox Church is likewise very much concerned with the whole of man, body and soul. Thus she has rituals, prayers, and festivities for every significant event of man’s life. As the ancient Greeks "never felt any limitation to their religious imagination and curiosity," likewise the Christian Greeks enjoy a variety of religious events and expressions.

Not only in good but even in bad traditions and practices there are striking similarities between the two Greek religious worlds. In ancient Greece, religion was subordinate to civil authority and the city-state was the supreme power, appointing priests as state officials and establishing and supervising temples, sacred groves, and altars. Likewise Orthodox Christianity has been subordinated again and again to civil authority, and often the state, whether in the Byzantine era, in "holy" Russia, in Romania, or in Greece, has exercised a tremendous influence upon the Church.

Furthermore, as the priests in ancient Greek religion were never the final religious authority, so the clergy in Orthodoxy are never the Church proper or the final arbiters in matters of faith, ethics, or even ecclesiastical administration. Even though Greek Orthodox Christianity subscribes to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed and to the doctrinal decisions of ecumenical synods, and at the face may appear very conservative, if not stifling, the truth is that in practice there is in Greek Orthodoxy a tremendous variety of religious expression and freedom, similar to that of ancient Greece.

There have indeed been reactions against this Hellenic infiltration not only by Tertullian, Romanos the Melodist, and Iconoclasts, but also by Modern Greek Orthodox bishops who have stressed the need to de-Hellenize and re-Judaicize Christianity. Historically, however, all such attempts have failed. Orthodox and non-Orthodox theologian and scholars believe that the Judaization of Christianity would have been fatal, while its Hellenization determined its universal appeal and its catholic character. Greek Orthodox Christianity is Christocentric and biblical, but at the same time it bears all the characteristics of the Greek genius. Christianity’s religious schemes and theological categories reveal the influence of the ancient Greek mind. There is unity, but a unity in diversity. There is canon law, but it is not always enforced. The concept of the Roman auctoritas has found little fertile ground in the Greek East. The Greek emphasis on inquiry and the continuous quest for personal understanding and interpretation constitute the background of the development of "heresies," or "choices," outside the mainstream of Orthodoxy.

The contrasts in religious styles and practices in Orthodoxy recall the contrasts in religious faiths and styles of life in the Greco-Roman world in which Christianity was born and nurtured. To be sure, there were magic and superstition and terror. But there was also "a lofty mysticism with keen critical insight and clear philosophical alignment and a high and unselfish morality." There was asceticism in ugly forms as there was an asceticism of self-denial, self-knowledge, and continuous striving for spiritual perfection. Asceticism and continence as ideals of holiness, and the longing for soteria (salvation) and theosis (deification), were adopted by early Christianity from Greek religious or philosophical practices, from Orphic, Pythagorean, Stoic, and Hermetic teachings and practices.

It is fashionable even among Greek Orthodox theologians to criticize this infiltration, the rational element and the academic arguments in Orthodox theology, and instead to stress either the simplistic biblical, or the mystical and the ritualistic approach. We would agree with a Protestant critic of the "de-Hellenizers" who writes: "If the Church had full understood and accepted the purpose and spirit of Christ, the great rational Graeco-Roman civilization so far as we can see, need not have been swept away." It was Paul who contributed greatly to the development of harmonious relations between Christianity and the Greeks. He visited and established Christian congregation in all the important Hellenic centers of the Asiatic continent and the European mainland. He further explained the "unknown God," to whom the Greeks had erected numerous sanctuaries in such cities as Athens, Olympia, and Pergamum, and the Greeks did not hesitate to become his disciples. A distinguished historian of the Greek and Roman worlds, A. H. M. Jones, rightly observes that "the strength of early Christianity lay predominantly in Greek-speaking urban areas." The name "Christian" replaced the ethnic name of the Greeks for many centuries, while their national name, "Hellene," lost its original meaning.

Two factors contributed to this change. After Caracalla’s edict in 212, all Greeks and members of other nationalities of the Roman Empire became Roman citizens. Thus, from the third century on the Greeks were referred to as Romans, or Romeoi. Furthermore, with the attempts of Emperor Julian to revive paganism, "Hellene," as an ethnic or national name, came to be identified with the ancient religious cults, the pagan gods, and the ancient classical tradition in general. Hellene and Hellenismos became synonymous with paganism. The Greeks were simply Christians of the Roman Empire. The designation "Christian" persists to a great degree even today. When a Greek inquires about someone he does not know, he usually asks not whether the person is a Greek but whether he or she is a Christian.

For historical and circumstantial reasons the Greeks for many centuries developed a supranational conscience and preferred to identify themselves solely as Christians, especially during the centuries of captivity under the Turks. It is significant that although the patriarchs of Constantinople and many bishops of the Bulgarians, Albanians, and Slavs were Greeks during the Ottoman period, they did not attempt to Hellenize their congregations: neither did they try to force them to abandon their liturgical traditions and cultures. Of course, every rule has its exceptions. The fact is, however, that the tradition of the Greek Church has been one of religious toleration rather than nationalism. If this had not been true, the Greek Church, in the Byzantine centuries and especially during the four hundred years under the Turks, could have Hellenized all the minorities under her aegis or at least a great majority of them. The Greek historian K. Paparigopoulos, known for his patriotism, blamed the Church for not exploiting here numerous opportunities to Hellenize the various Balkan peoples in a period of four hundred years, something she could have done without much difficulty.

The term "Hellene" as an ethnic name began to appear among the Greeks of the high Middle Ages, but still was not commonly used. However, all nations living outside the medieval Greek world of the Byzantine Empire, such as the Russians, the Germans, Khazars, the English, the Georgians, the peoples of Italy, and the Franks, called the native inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire "Greeks." The designations "Greek Orthodox" and "Roman Catholic" were unknown in the early and medieval Church, and they took on their distinct meaning only after the eleventh century.

Nevertheless, it was Greeks, or Hellenized missionaries, both those of the Asiatic dispersion and those of the European continent, who played a leading role in the history of Christianity. Antioch, Tarsus, Ephesus, Smyrna, Philippi, Thessaloniki, Athens, Corinth, Nikopolis, the islands of Cyprus and Crete, were only a few of the many Greek cities and territories that heard the Christian gospel. All the important churches of the first three centuries were Greek or Greek-speaking. Besides Saint Paul, other Apostles such as Andrew, John the Evangelist, Philip, Luke, Mark, Titus, labored for the Christianization of the Greeks. As early as the second century there were flourishing churches not only in the cities just mentioned but also in such lesser Greek towns as Megara, Sparta, Patras, Larissa, Melos, Tenos, Paros, Thera, and Chios.

Many of these Greek cities produced great martyrs and profound thinkers during this period. Men such as Polycarp, Ignatios, Aristides, Athenagoras, Anakletos (bishop of Rome where he is listed as Anacletus), Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory the Illuminator of the Armenians, Justin, and Melito of Sardis were either Greek or Hellenized; some were born in the city of Athens or educated there. On the other hand, the persecutions of the Christians under the Roman emperors Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Galerius, Diocletian affected the Greek East much more than the Western Roman Empire. Dionysios, bishop of Athens, Aristios of Dyrrahion, Nikephoros, Cyprian, Dionysios, Anekitos, Parilos, Leonidas, Irene, Demetrios, Catherine, Zeno, Eusebius, Zoukos, Theodoulos are only a few of the thousands of martyrs of such places as Corinth, Athens, Thessaloniki, Gortyn in Crete, Philippi, and Kerkyra (Corfu). It was their blood that nourished the Christian seed, as Tertullian observed. The first period in the history of the Church ended with the edict of toleration in 313 under Constantine the Great, which prepared the way for Christianity to become the state religion of the later Roman and Byzantine empires.

 

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