2008: Finding Evidence for Ancient Christianity in the Russian Orthodox Church / Marvin VanDam

This interesting article from Meridian Magazine continues to show that similarities between Eastern Orthodox Churches and the restored gospel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are numerous, and should be understood, appreciated, and acted upon by scholars in the two traditions and regular members of the churches.
See the original article by Marvin VanDam, written in May 2008, in Meridian Magazine at this link.

Thanks much,
Steve St.Clair

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Finding Evidence for Ancient Christianity in the Russian Orthodox Church
Marvin VanDam

The Split Between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism
The Christian Church, beginning in the fourth century, suffered increasingly from internal arguments concerning doctrine and leadership. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory I of Rome, who strove to entice pagans (non-Christians) to join the Church, accepted certain pagan beliefs and practices on the condition that “the barbarians” would accept Christ.

Some pagan festivals, symbols, and rituals were consequently made a part of Christian worship. (See History of Creativity, by Strong & Davis.) Wikipedia Encyclopedia states:

He [Pope Gregory] appears in his writings as a superstitious and credulous monk, hostile to learning, crudely limited as a theologian, and excessively devoted to saints, miracles, and relics.

St. Basil’s cathedral was completed in1561 by Czar Ivan the Terrible. It was erected to celebrate the capture of the Mongol stronghold of Kazan in 1552, and is located beside the Kremlin at the far end of Red Square. The box-style sandstone building to the right is Lenin’s mausoleum. It contains the embalmed body of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in a transparent glass coffin, which is on display to the public.

It was during this process of apostasy from the church established by Jesus Christ and the apostles, and in response to that continuing apostasy, that the Orthodox Church, to the east of Rome in Constantinople, assumed a separate identity and ultimately severed its ties with the Roman Catholic Church.

“Orthodox” is defined as “conforming to established religious doctrine” — thus asserting that original doctrine is adhered to without modification. The word “Catholic” asserts universality — “the one and only true church.”

Among the doctrines espoused by the orthodox churches as they rebelled against the Roman church were that the pope of Rome is not infallible; that three-dimensional graven images, if used in worship, are heresy and idolatry; and that priests should not be required to be celibate — that is, that priests may marry.

Centuries of dispute over doctrine and the control exercised by the pope of Rome finally resulted in a complete schism in 1054 AD between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches. Today’s loosely knit family of Eastern Orthodox churches, including such as the Russian, Georgian, Armenian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian Orthodox churches, profess a common origin with the apostolic church of Christ. Each Orthodox church is presided over by a country “patriarch” who does not exercise autocratic authority over the church, as does the Catholic pope in Rome.

It is not believed that any one of the Orthodox Churches is the only true and saving church. Each one is of the family of “Orthodox Apostolic” churches that all are believed to have power to save inasmuch as their priests are believed to be descended from Christ’s apostles.

Orthodox Church Doctrines and Practices
It is thus not surprising, and it is of particular interest, that some teachings and practices of the Orthodox churches today are similar to those of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which prophet-led church, raised up by divine revelation and restoration, is an extension in time of the original Church of Jesus Christ. A look at the Russian Orthodox Church is instructive.

The front alcove of a Russian Orthodox church is separated from the congregation by a screen — a highly gilded and icons-covered partition with doors, formerly a cloth veil. The priest spends much of his time during the worship service performing chants and sacramental procedures behind the screen. The secluded space there represents the presence of the Lord — the “Holy of Holies”.

When an adult person is baptized, the baptizee will be drawn by the priest’s hand through the veil (usually now through the icons-covered doors) into the sacred inner sanctum, for the purpose of “presenting the new initiate to the Lord.”

Once each year, at Easter, the holy doors are opened to the congregation, symbolizing Christ opening the gates of salvation to mankind.

Babies are baptized by immersion as soon as possible after birth. Adults are baptized by sprinkling — unless the priest, for more money, is willing to do it by immersion.

Common to the Orthodox churches is the ordinance of chrismation, the confirmation of just-baptized infants. The infant is anointed with consecrated oil while the priest speaks “the words of sealing with the gifts of the Holy Spirit.” The anointing with holy oil is done in the sign of the cross on the forehead, and then on the eyes, ears, nostrils, breast, back, hands, and feet. (See Chrismation, Wikipedia Encyclopedia)

One pays for all personal ordinances — baptism, marriage, burial, and so on. One can also pay the priest to say prayers for one’s home, car, business, factory, vacation, and other things.

Upon entering a church, one buys and lights candles (slender, brownish-yellow, wax-candles of different heights, the height dictating the price). One lights candles for the benefit of others — the living and the dead. (If you write a deceased relative’s name on a paper and give it to the priest with money, he’ll say a prayer for the relative.)

In every church there is a shop, kiosk, or desk, depending on the size of the church, just inside the main entry, where one can buy candles, icons, ribbons, medals, pictures, and other holy items. By buying such worship items, one evidences repentance of sin. Religious items bought in the church, if placed in one’s home or car, will also afford blessing and protection.

The process of repentance further involves kneeling before the priest at a certain point in the worship service before the administration of the sacrament — confessing to him, receiving his blessing (the priest places an elaborately embroidered cloth and his hand on the confessor’s head), kissing the priest’s crucifix, and leaving money at the priest’s feet or beside the confessional lectern he has come down to.

(The holy inner sanctum behind the screen is elevated several steps above the stone or tiled floor of the congregational area.)

The church is thus funded by ordinance charges, candle purchases, and the sale of religious items. A system of tithing was in force until the 19th century.

For the most part, the interiors of the Russian Orthodox Church do not have three-dimensional carvings and statues of Christ, Mary, the apostles, and the saints. To pray to statues of that kind would violate the commandment not to worship graven images. This is why Russian icon paintings are two-dimensional. (An icon is a religious image that is painted on wood and used in religious devotions. Although they are not worshipped per se, the faithful do cross themselves in front of and kiss the icons.

Priests of the white order (white robes) may marry and have families; they can attain heaven. But celibate “black priests” (unmarried priests in black robes) qualify for a higher degree of heaven.

The more you suffer in life, the higher will be your reward in heaven; one must accept suffering. This doctrine of submission, teamed with Russia’s harsh winters, the country’s exposure to foreign enemies over the centuries, the oppressive regimes of the czars since the middle ages, and the recent horrors of Soviet communism have deeply affected the Russian psyche. Russians, typically, are “great sufferers.”

Orthodox Worshipers and Onion-Domed Churches
The Russian Orthodox Church and its relationship to the Russian people has changed little over the centuries. The local priests, in their richly adorned, golden finery, chant, pray, and wave incense in the costly, resplendent, onion-domed churches (the domes are most often overlaid with gold).

The local priest is the church to the faithful who attend the several-hours-long standing mass. (There are no chairs in Russian Orthodox churches.) The people participate almost mystically in the non-intelligible rituals conducted by the priest. (Such rote worship was a source of frequent criticism by count Leo Tolstoy, who wrote harshly against the spiritual and financial enslavement of the people by the Church.)

Practicing Russian Christians are scarce, and very few of them have any real understanding of Christ and the atonement. Most know little if anything about the Bible, and to them the church is a mystical tradition of onion-domed chapels, painted icons of Christ, Mary, and the saints, and rituals and chants performed by the elegantly robed priests who for money hear confessions and perform ordinances.

Doctrine isn’t taught the people. Believing Russians know that Christ brought the resurrection and salvation, but little more than that.

There is no special regard for a Sunday sabbath in Russia, although the word for “Sunday” in the Russian language has survived as “Vaskreshenya” — which literally means “resurrection day.” One can go to church any day of the week; services are held several times a day. But since Communist times, few people any more attend services, although many still attend on the high holy days of Christmas and Easter.

Bible reading by Orthodox Church lay members is discouraged. The priests have studied for the ministry, including memorizing established chants and prayers in the 12th century Old Slavonic language that is used exclusively in the churches but which is not understood by the people. The priests counsel the people and answer their questions. There is no Sunday school, no learned catechism, and no formal preparation for ordinances or the coming of age.

The ubiquitous onion domes of Russian churches are descended from Eastern Orthodox Christianity’s beginnings in medieval Constantinople, now Turkey.

Soviet Times and their Tragic Legacy
The Russian national church was severely punished and diminished during Soviet times. (The church had sided against the Bolsheviks of the 1917 revolution, which ended czarist rule and brought about communism.)

According to Wikipedia online encyclopedia’s entry on the Russian Orthodox Church:
In the period between 1927 and 1940, the number of Orthodox Churches in the Russian Republic fell from 29,584 to less than 500. Between 1917 and 1935, 130,000 Orthodox priests were arrested. Of these, 95,000 were put to death, executed by firing squad.

The magnificent Church of Christ the Savior on the Moskwa River near the Kremlin in Moscow, for long the patriarchal home of the national church, was blown up by Stalin and replaced by a swimming pool. It was recently rebuilt at enormous cost and is now again the seat of the Patriarch.

St. Isaac’s Church in St. Petersburg, arguably one of the most elegantly appointed churches anywhere in the world, was converted by the communist regime into a Museum of Atheism.

A tragic legacy of the communist era is that most of today’s Russians grew up learning that religion is “the opiate of the masses” (Karl Marx), a system designed to enslave the people spiritually and obscure their sense of reality. The result is a mostly atheistic society today notwithstanding the many centuries during which the Russian church, the Russian state, and the Russian people were fused in tradition, concept, and identity.

Today, the greatly diminished number of Russian churches is sparsely attended by worshipers. Most who do attend are older believers who spiritually survived the doctrinal purges of communism. But an increasing number of young people are now beginning to visit the churches, most, however, in search of their traditional Russian roots and identity rather than Christian religion.

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2 Comments

Filed under Eastern Christianity, LDS Conservative Christian Dialog

2 responses to “2008: Finding Evidence for Ancient Christianity in the Russian Orthodox Church / Marvin VanDam

  1. Anonymous

    In the Orthodox Church, baptism is never done by sprinkling, but always by immersion whether adult or infant. When people are sprinkled with water in the Orthodox Church, it is a way of blessing people, it isn’t baptism. Also paying priests to baptize people is not a regular custom, but in some countries, that is the only way a priest makes money. Getting baptized and doing confession is also free.

  2. Anonymous

    Another thing, where do you get the idea the Orthodox Church discourages us to read the Bible? It may not be widely read in Russian culture, but much of that is due to low literacy rates of the past (and present). If an Orthodox Christian were to attend every service held in one year according to the liturgical calendar, they would have heard the entire Bible read aloud liturgically. If they went to just went to major services such as Saturday nights, Sundays, and Holy Week, they would here the whole Gospel, most of the New Testament, and much of the Old Testament. About 1000 years ago in the Byzantine empire, which was more advanced, the Orthodox Church was able to make much more copies of the Bible. Instead of just having one monk spend a lifetime copying down scripture like in the West, Byzantine monks would have someone read scripture orally while about 200 monks would copy down what he said. Thus being able to make 200 copies of scripture instead of 1 within a lifetime.

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