The Search for an Orthodox Apologetics

I should like to apologize to both readers of my blog for the sparsity of my posts during the past couple weeks. Behold how I even neglected to post last week’s Saturday à Machen! The greater part of the blame goes, of course, to my beloved ISP, which for the second consecutive week elected to deprive me of service for a day or more right before the weekend, citing “fiber problems” (which to me sounds like the kind of difficulty that should be corrected by a steady intake of oat bran, rather than by interrupting my internet service).

Naturally, once the unwarranted service interruption sets in, I turn solely to my books (or at least to the miserable fraction thereof that is here and not in storage back home in Michigan)and needless to say, once I start on something, I can’t stop! This fact, then, shoulders the remaining part of the blame.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Apologetics lately, and so my reading (supplemented by John Frame’s wonderful lectures on iTunes U) has largely concentrated on this subject. Many moons ago, when Yours Truly was but a wee one, I used to have a visceral aversion to Apologetics. But in time my reading widened, and I came to realize that my antipathy was rather towards the evidentialist method (particularly in its more crass, popularized forms) than towards the field of Apologetics itself. It was also right around that time that I discovered presuppostional apologetics, which coupled with my then recent discovery of Reformational philosophy, effected such a radical, revolutionary change in my own thinking that I’ve always referred to it since as my personal Copernican revolution, my own awakening from dogmatic slumber (with apologies to Kant).

Since becoming Orthodox a number of years ago, I have pondered from time to time what might be the shape of an authentically Orthodox apologetics. (Of course, to the recalcitrant Van Tillian in me, this means something much broader than the mere formulation of a defense of the Christian Faith according to any one “system of proof.” It most certainly should seek to do this, of course, but it also should formulate a comprehensive Christian theory of knowledge and knowing, with clear implications for every field of learning and every area of lifebut I digress.) And as I read during the past few days, it occurred to me that a very rich text that might yield many authentically Orthodox apologetical insights would be the Russian Primary Chronicle, which contains a detailed (theological) account of the conversion of St Vladimir, and the subsequent Christianization of Ancient Rus’.

The report of St Vladimir’s emissaries regarding the otherworldly beauty of Orthodox worship is well known to English-speaking Orthodox and others due to its being minimally cited in Timothy [now Metropolitan Kallistos] Ware’s now classic book The Orthodox Church. I quote the larger fragment in full (rather than excerpt it) for the sake of completeness, and I have italicized phrases that may give us the apologetic pointers of which I’ve spoken. I may return to these in the future, as time permits.

Vladimir summoned together his vassals and the city elders, and said to them: “Behold, the Bulgars1 came before me urging me to accept their religion. Then came the Germans and praised their own faith; and after them came the Jews. Finally the Greeks appeared, criticizing all other faiths but commanding their own, and they spoke at length, telling the history of the whole world from its beginning. Their words were artful, and it was wondrous to listen and pleasant to hear them. They preach the existence of another world. ‘Whoever adopts our religion and then dies shall arise and live forever. But whosoever embraces another faith, shall be consumed with fire in the next world.’ What is your opinion on this subject, and what do you answer?” The vassals and the elders replied: “You know, O Prince, that no man condemns his own possessions, but praises them instead. If you desire to make certain, you have servants at your disposal. Send them to inquire about the ritual of each and how he worships God.”

Their counsel pleased the prince and all the people, so that they chose good and wise men to the number of ten, and directed them to go first among the Bulgars and inspect their faith. The emissaries went their way, and when they arrived at their destination they beheld the disgraceful actions of the Bulgars and their worship in the mosque; then they returned to their own country. Vladimir then instructed them to go likewise among the Germans, and examine their faith, and finally to visit the Greeks. They thus went into Germany, and after viewing the German ceremonial, they proceeded to Constantinople where they appeared before the emperor. He inquired on what mission they had come, and they reported to him all that had occurred. When the emperor heard their words, he rejoiced, and did them great honor on that very day.

On the morrow, the emperor sent a message to the patriarch to inform him that a Russian delegation had arrived to examine the Greek faith, and directed him to prepare the church and the clergy, and to array himself in his sacerdotal robes, so that the Russians might behold the glory of the God of the Greeks. When the patriarch received these commands, he bade the clergy assemble, and they performed the customary rites. They burned incense, and the choirs sang hymns. The emperor accompanied the Russians to the church, and placed them in a wide space, calling their attention to the beauty of the edifice, the chanting, and the offices of the [bishop] and the ministry of the deacons, while he explained to them the worship of his God. The Russians were astonished, and in their wonder praised the Greek ceremonial. Then the Emperors Basil and Constantine invited the envoys to their presence, and said, “Go hence to your native country,” and thus dismissed them with valuable presents and great honor.

When they returned to their own country, the Prince called together his boyars and the elders. Vladimir then announced the return of the envoys who had been sent out, and suggested that their report be heard. He thus commanded them to speak out before his vassals. The envoys reported, “When we journeyed among the Bulgars, we beheld how they worship in their temple, called a mosque, while they stand ungirt. The Bulgar bows, sits down, looks hither and thither like one possessed, and there is no happiness among them, but instead only sorrow and a dreadful stench. Their religion is not good. Then we went among the Germans, and saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples; but we beheld no glory there. Then we went on to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore we cannot dwell longer here.” Then the vassals spoke and said, “If the Greek faith were evil, it would not have been adopted by your grandmother Olga, who was wiser than all other men.” Vladimir then inquired where they should all accept baptism, and they replied that the decision rested with him.

[From Serge A. Zenkovsky (ed.), Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles and Tales, 2nd ed. (New York:Dutton, 1974), pages 66-68. Brackets mine.]

1A Turkic people of Muslim faith; not to be confused with the Slavic Bulgarians of the Balkans. (Note adapted from Zenkovsy.)

2 responses to “The Search for an Orthodox Apologetics

  1. I find this post very interesing my brother (to whom I owe the most apology?).

    I too am thinking of apologetics lately, namely the ontological argument. What interests me is how this argument actually undermines (certain) arguments of fideism. That which nothing great can be thought is our greatest desire as creatures and in this way conditions both our will (to God’s good) and our mind (to think in a way that is open to that which is unthinkable). Fideism (and I am mainly thinking of D.Z. Phillips) is able to accomplish the conditions of the will but concedes the mind. The mind follows the will but in fideism the mind does so without “new?” reasons. Furthermore, it gives up the gift of reason or it gives up on the possibility of a gifted reason that is desirable to all–faith’s universality. I wonder if this is also a limit of presuppositoinalism? By admitting that there are certain presuppositions to thought that are necessary conditions for will to confess one’s faith are they not conceding, unfaithfully, some neutral space in the heart to attach these presupposionts? Was this Dooyeweerd’s debat with Van Till? I think that Dooyeweerd undersood that the heart can never be neutral even though, as you narrative correctly concludes, it must decide. The decisions of the heart are, however, telling. The heart in this way speaks beyond the intentions of the will and of the mind in order to confess (in its brokenness)–I’m not God but God is Love. In this way we might argue that the heart, even in its folly, is for God and Love. Love is in no way neutral here either since it is always directed to the good of the other…more than her good but still to her good.

    Just some thoughts that are eating away at me.

    Blessings my brother.



  2. Dear Esteban,
    I couldn’t find an e-mail address for you so I thought,”Here is a place to place a question with a few comments.”
    I see you had quite a realtionship to reformation theology and to Van Til before becoming Orthodox. I hud fully immersed myself in the writings of Jonathan Edwards but for apologetics I preferred Francis A. Schaeffer who has changed my life and approach to thinking. I became Orthodox in 2005 after a three year catechumenate. I still think about apologetics often but even moreso epistemology. Seeing that you have written a few intriguing aricles in this area I would like to ask if you could point me towards so good Orthodox epistemology. I am hard-pressed to find much on my own. I wrote a paper a year or so ago comparing the epistemology of Francis A. Schaeffer with St. John Chrysostom as an attempt to formulate an understanding of St. John’s epistemology in hopes of moving toward a broader understanding of epistemology in the Fathers but with minimal success. Perhaps I am approaching things the wrong way. Any pointers on your part.

    Many Thanks



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