Eighteenth Century

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By: Fr. Thomas Hopko
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Eighteenth Century

In the course of seventy-three years in the eighteenth century, the patriarchial throne of Constantinople changed occupants forty-eight times. Some men held the position of patriarch as many as five different times. This is indicative of the horrible conditions in which the Christians were living under Turkish domination. Although some Serbians did manage to migrate into Austria and Hungary where they were given their own dioceses, for those Christians who remained under Turkish control this was the darkest hour. This time was the period when there lived three of the greatest saints of modern times.

Saint Cosmas Aitolos

Saint Cosmas Aitolos (d.l779) has been called the greatest missionary of modern Greece and the father of the modern Greek nation. St. Cosmas was a monk of Mount Athos who left the Holy Mountain in order to spread the gospel of Christ among the Greeks living under Turkish subjugation. The saint left no writings of his own. However, he was an outstanding preacher and teacher whose words have been recorded: He also was a wonder-worker. Saint Cosmas died a martyr’s death at the hands of the Turks.

Saint Macarios of Corinth

Saint Macarios of Corinth (d.l805) was the younger contemporary of Saint Cosmas. He spent time on Mount Athos where he defended the strict observance of Orthodox liturgical practices. He was a missionary preacher who was elected bishop of Corinth, but who was unable to function in the position. He is most famous for his insistence on the necessity and propriety of the regular and frequent reception of Holy Communion. The saint wrote many spiritual writings, many of which are on this very theme of the need for the faithful to participate in the Sacraments.

Saint Nicodemas the Hagiorite

Saint Nicodemas the Hagiorite (d.l809) was in the same spirit as Saints Cosmas and Macarios. He was also a monk on Mount Athos where he was one of the leaders of the spiritual revival of Greek Orthodoxy under Turkish domination. He is best known for his editing of spiritual writings, including those of Saint Macarios of Corinth. His most famous work is the Philokalia, a collection of spiritual and ascetical writings of the fathers of the Eastern Church.

Russia: The Holy Governing Synod

The eighteenth century was a period of grave difficulty for the Orthodox Church in Russia. Peter the Great ruled until 1725, taking the title of emperor. He ruled the church with great power, submitting it totally to his personal demands and desires. When Patriarch Adrian died in 1700, Peter appointed the ambitious bishop of Novgorod, Stefan Iavorskii (d. l772) to hold the office, promising an election. In 1 721 , Peter issued the Ecclesiastical Regulation. It was written by the protestantizing Ukrainian Theophan Prokopovich (d.l738), and it officially abolished the patriarchate of the Russian Church. The Holy Governing Synod was put in its place.

The Holy Synod was made up of bishops, priests, and laymen appointed by the emperor and subject to him through its secular head, the government official called the ober-procurator. The Holy Synod was patterned to conform with the administrative system of the protestant churches of the West which Peter admired and envied. This radical violation of traditional, canonical Orthodox church order in Russia – imposed on the church by the emperor – was formally ratified and recognized by the Eastern patriarchs. It lasted until 19 18 when a patriarch was once again elected for the Russian Church and the unorthodox method of ecclesiastical administration was abolished.

The first president of the Holy Governing Synod to be appointed by Peter the Great was Stefan Iavorskii, the Latinizing Ukrainian. Its designer, as we have seen, was Theophan Prokopovich, a man of Protestant inclinations, from the westernized south of the country. This situation of leading Orthodox churchmen, both in Russia and under Turkish domination, being either pro-Roman or pro-Protestant, defending either Latin or reformed positions in theology, piety and church administration , was typical of the time. The living tradition of the Church was lost through historical circumstances. The leaders of the Orthodox Church were forced to choose and defend positions which were alien to the spirit and content of traditional patristic and conciliar Orthodoxy.

Russia: The Petersburgh Imperial Era

The decadent period of the Petersburgh imperial era of Russia which lasted until the twentieth century was a time of spiritual regeneration in the Church. This began with the first rediscovery of traditional Orthodox sources within monastic circles. Paisii Velichkovskii ( d.l794 ), a Moldavian monk, travelled to Mount Athos and returned to Russia with the treasures of the Philokalia. The monk translated the anthology into Church Slavonic. From his beginnings, the Russian tradition of spiritual guides called startsi or elders developed. The most famous blossoming of this development came in the nineteenth century in the Optina monastery.

The most famous saint of the Russian Church in the eighteenth century was Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk (d.1783 ). Tikhon was the ruling bishop of Voronezh who gave up his episcopal office – perhaps as much from despondency and frustration as from ill health – in order to live the monastic life. He was deeply immersed in the holy scriptures and the writings of the church fathers, particularly Saint John Chrysostom. He knew, as well, the pietist writers of the Christian West. Saint Tikhon wrote many books, including On True Christianity, and he had a great correspondence of spiritual direction and pastoral counselling.

The leading Russian hierarch of the century was Metropolitan Platon of Moscow (d.1812), the author of theological textbooks; the promoter of historical studies; and the architect of plans for the return of the Old Believers to communion with the Orthodox Church.

Alaskan Mission

During the eighteenth century Russian missionaries began to move across Siberia. In 1794 monks from the Valaam monastery in Russian Finland arrived on the island of Kodiak in Alaska. In this first missionary party to reach North American shores was Saint Herman of Alaska, the first canonized saint of the Orthodox Church in America.

The West

The eighteenth century in the West was a time of revival and missionary expansion. John and Charles Wesley (d.l791 and 1788) began the Methodist movement in the Church of England which carried over into the first “great awakening” in America. The “awakening” was a revivalist movement dedicated to the breaking down of divisions between the various protestant churches. All protestant believers were called to unity through faith in Jesus as one’s personal Savior. Jonathan Edwards (d.1758) and George Whitefield (d.l770) were the leaders of this revivalist movement” in America.

At the same time deism was popular in Europe and America. Deism was an outgrowth of the period of the enlightenment, and of romanticism, which affirmed the existence of a Supreme Being detached from the world, not self-revealing, and not involved in the affairs of men.

David Hume (d.l776) in England and Immanuel Kant (d.l804) in Germany developed the philosophy which removed God, freedom, and immortality from the realm of human reason. Thus Christianity was reduced to a religion of personal faith, pietistic devotion, and ethical action.

This enlightenment philosophy was the direct forerunner of the liberal protestant theology of the nineteenth century. This theology was led by its “father,” Frederich Schleiermacher (d.l834 ), who wrote his discourses to the “cultured unbelievers” of the time calling them to a religion of “feeling” … the greatest expression of which was the religion of Jesus. The most inspiring spiritual achievement of Western Christendom in this century was the music of J. S. Bach (d.l750), G. F. Handel (d.l759), W. F. Mozart (d.l791) and L. von Beethoven (d.l827).

The Roman Church of the eighteenth century experienced both a great missionary expansion and a great conflict with the enlightenment spirit which led to revolution against both church and state in Europe and America. In 1773 the Jesuit order was dissolved by the pope under secular pressures. Many of the Jesuits took refuge in the Russia of Catherine II the Great. She was a devotee of the French enlightenment spirit, closing half of the monasteries during her reign. She confiscated all monastic properties, and gravely limited by administrative and legal measures the number of monastic vocations in the church.