The Conversion of St Vladimir and Orthodox Apologetics

The commemoration this past Monday, July 15 (O.S.), of the holy prince Vladimir, Equal to the Apostles and Enlightener of Russia, has given me occasion to consider once again the account of St Vladimir’s conversion and baptism, which may be found in the Russian Primary Chronicle by St Nestor the Chronicler.

In an earlier post entitled The Search for an Orthodox Apologetics, I quoted a larger fragment from the Chronicle containing the celebrated report of St Vladimir’s envoys to Constantinople, in which they describe their experience of the otherworldly beauty of Orthodox worship. As I noted there, this episode is almost universally known to English-speaking Orthodox, though not from the primary source, but from the retelling found at the beginning of Chapter 13 of Timothy [now Metropolitan Kallistos] Ware’s classic book, The Orthodox Church. There His Eminence begins his summary of the story as follows:

“There is a story in the Russian Primary Chronicle of how Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, while still a pagan, desired to know which was the true religion, and therefore sent his followers to visit the various countries of the world in turn” (page 264).

As it stands in Metropolitan Kallistos’ book, then, the story begins with St Vladimir’s desire (“out of the blue,” so to speak) to know the truth, and his sending envoys on that basis to ascertain which was the true religion. But surely this is only an economic measure on His Eminence’s part: as is plainly seen from the extended quotation in my earlier post, St Vladimir is not said to develop an interest in the matter spontaneously, but rather as a result of a series of visits from emissaries from a number of religions (and kingdoms) in a concerted effort to gain his spiritual (and political) allegiance:

Vladimir summoned together his vassals and the city elders, and said to them: “Behold, the Bulgars [i.e., a Turkic people of Muslim faith] 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.” (Read the whole.)

Note, then, that St Vladimir’s interest in the “God of the Greeks,” and the chain of events that lead to the sending of the envoys and culminated in the Baptism of Rus’ in AD 988, was sparked by an apologetic discourse which included a disputation against the errors of the other faiths, a thorough exposition of the history of salvation, and a very clear exhortation to conversion. This runs counter to an attitude often encountered in certain circles that emphasizes the experiential aspect of encountering Orthodox worship, to the detriment, not of polemics (for there is far more of that floating around than is useful or necessary), but of proclamation. (Or to put it another way: such an attitude forcefully underscores “Come and see,” but criminally neglects “I will remember the deeds of the Lord” in preaching and catechesis.) The story of St Vladimir’s conversion in the Russian Primary Chronicle is often cited in support of this understanding of the matter; clearly, however, those who do so have not bothered to look at the primary sources for themselves, but rather rely on a truncated, popularized retelling to draw their questionable conclusions. To apply a much needed corrective to the uninformed speculations that often attend to this matter, I have long wanted to make available the entire text of this narrative, which as far as I knew, was not readily available in any currently published source. I was therefore most pleased to recently find out that the magazine Christian History and Biography had published a significant portion of the narrative, and had made it available online. In addition to the extended quote available in my earlier post, then, one can also read the Chronicle‘s relation of the visits from the emissaries from various religions, which make up the first half of the narrative. From that text I excerpt the following, in which we meet the “scholar” sent to Vladimir from Constantinople:

Then the Greeks sent to Vladimir a scholar, who spoke thus: “We have heard that the Bulgars came and urged you to adopt their faith [i.e., Islam], which pollutes heaven and earth. They are accursed above all men, like Sodom and Gomorrah, upon which the Lord let fall burning stones, and which he buried and submerged. The day of destruction likewise awaits these men, on which the Lord will come to judge the earth, and to destroy all those who do evil and abomination. For they moisten their excrement, and pour the water into their mouths, and anoint their beards with it, remembering Mahomet. The women also perform this same abomination, and even worse ones.” Vladimir, upon hearing their statements, spat upon the earth, saying, “This is a vile thing.”

Then the scholar said, “We have likewise heard how men came from Rome to convert you to their faith. It differs but little from ours, for they commune with wafers, called oplatki, which God did not give them, for he ordained that we should commune with bread. For when he had taken bread, the Lord gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘This is my body broken for you.’ Likewise he took the cup, and said, ‘This is my blood of the New Testament.’ They do not so act, for they have modified the faith.” Then Vladimir remarked that the Jews had come into his presence and had stated that the Germans and the Greeks believed in him whom they crucified. To this the scholar replied, “Of a truth we believe in him. For some of the prophets foretold that God should be incarnate, and others that he should be crucified and buried, but arise on the third day and ascend into heaven. For the Jews killed the prophets, and stills others they persecuted. When their prophecy was fulfilled, our Lord came down to earth, was crucified, arose again, and ascended into heaven. He awaited their repentance for forty-six years, but they did not repent, so that the Lord let loose the Romans upon them. Their cities were destroyed, and they were scattered among the gentiles, under whom they are now in servitude.”

Vladimir then inquired why God should have descended to earth and should have endured such pain. The scholar then answered and said, “If you are desirous of hearing the story, I shall tell you from the beginning why God descended to earth.” Vladimir replied, “Gladly would I hear it.” Whereupon the scholar thus began his narrative: “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth on the first day…”

[Continuing is a description laced with Scripture references and interesting extra-biblical interpolations, this narrative continues for 12 pages, moving through the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, the calling of Abraham and Israel, the Egyptian captivity, the Exodus, the taking of the land of Canaan, the Davidic dynasty, the apostasy of Israel, the sending of the prophets with their messianic predictions, the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the spreading of the gospel throughout the world. The scholar concludes thus:]

“Now that the apostles have taught men throughout the world to believe in God, we Greeks have inherited their teaching, and the world believes therein. God hath appointed a day, in which he shall come from heaven to judge both the quick and the dead, and to render to each according to his deeds; to the righteous, the kingdom of heaven and ineffable beauty, bliss without end, and eternal life; but to sinners, the torments of hell and a worm that sleeps not, and of their torments there shall be no end. Such shall be the penalties for those who do not believe in our Lord Jesus Christ. The unbaptized shall be tormented with fire.”

As he spoke thus, he exhibited to Vladimir a canvas on which was depicted the Judgment Day of the Lord, and showed him, on the right, the righteous going to their bliss in Paradise, and on the left, the sinners on their way to torment. Then Vladimir sighed and said, “Happy are they upon the right, but woe to those upon the left!” The scholar replied, “If you desire to take your place on the right with the just, then accept baptism!” Vladimir took this counsel to heart, saying, “I shall wait yet a little longer,” for he wished to inquire about all the faiths. Vladimir then gave the scholar many gifts, and dismissed him with honor. (Read the whole.)

The polemic statements with which the scholar starts, complete with their (mis)characterization of his theological opponents, are the kind of thing that we encounter routinely in ancient and medieval texts. It is not the flawed content, then, that need concern us here, but instead the extent of the use of polemics: note how they occupy a mere two paragraphs (about three-fourths of a page), whereas the proclamation of salvation history occupies a full twelve pages! It is clear to which of the two the narrative gives greater weight. It is clear which of the two stands at the very heart of Apologetics.

Starting next week, and thanks to the invaluable bibliographical assistance of my godson David, I will start to transcribe on this blog the twelve pages omitted from the selection above. In doing so, I hope not only to fulfill my longstanding desire to make this oft quoted but little known text available in full, but also to thereby explore the shape of an Orthodox approach to salvation history.

Summer Book Notes

I

New Testament Perspectives, a fine blog which I saw for the first time yesterday, has an interesting interview with Bob and Bill Mounce about the making of The Zondervan Greek and English Interlinear New Testament, their most recently published joint effort. (Samples here and here.) One of the more attractive features for me is that they depart from the standard “interlinear translation,” offering instead the elder Mounce’s more idiomatic, contextual rendering under the Greek text. Says Bill Mounce:

“Dad wrote (sic) a great translation that isn’t wooden; it is readable and shows young Greek students how translation should be done. It is a great teaching tool. For an interlinear, it is quite dynamic. For example, it does not use the same English word for the same Greek word but translates according to context. Some conjunctions are translated as punctuation, all as it should be. Typographically, when you are reading Dad’s translation, if you just ignore the superscript italicized words the English makes great sense.”

I was unaware of this new volume, so many thanks to Matthew Montonini for securing and posting the interview!

II

Biblioblogdom is abuzz with news and reviews of the NLT Study Bible (sample here). I’m glad to note that I’ve been intimately acquainted with the New Living Translation since its release in 1996: I bought a copy hot-off-the-press, and used it in short order as my teaching text for a Bible study on Acts that I lead that year. I had a rather decent reading knowledge of Greek by then, and I was consistently impressed by how well the NLT rendered St Luke’s narrative—lively, engagingly, idiomatically, and above all, accurately. Eventually I found a copy of the NLT in a “Catholic Reference Edition” including the deuterocanonical books accepted by Roman Catholics; this I have kept close at hand ever since. (And do take note of this, Bible watchers: in stark contrast to the IBS and Zondervan’s apparent resistance to produce a TNIV Apocrypha, Tyndale has already published an edition containing many of these books. Surely they could be persuaded to produce in time a full NLT Apocrypha, as well! In the end, it seems to me that this kind of flexibility on Tyndale’s part is an important reason behind what Rick Mansfield has termed the “rise of the New Living Translation.”)

The NLT appeared in a second edition in 2004, which was further fine tuned in 2007; it is this latter text that is used in the new NLT Study Bible. I have seen neither of these, but I understand that the revisions represent a significant improvement of the translation. Further, according to Sean Harrison, general editor of the NLTSB, the focus of this new study Bible may be described as follows:

“[T]he NLT Study Bible focuses on the meaning and message of the text as understood in and through the original historical context. I don’t see other study Bibles focusing so fully on that. Some study Bibles focus on helping people to accept a particular doctrinal system, while others focus on “personal application.” Others simply provide interesting details about the context, language, grammar, etc., without asking how that information will impact people’s understanding of the text. Still others focus on a particular type of study methodologytopical study, word study, etc. Our goal, by contrast, was to provide everything we could that would help the readers understand the Scripture text more fully as the original human authors and readers themselves would have understood it” (emphasis his).

Needless to say, this all sounds very promising, and one hopes that these goals have been carried out as thoroughly as possible (but note that David Ker, who already has his hands on a copy, finds an unduly devotional bit in the notes to Genesis!). This would be much in the NLTSB’s advantage: a consistent, “hard” emphasis on hermeneutics and exegesis would make this volume useful even to readers beyond Protestant tradition(s) who may appreciate the NLT. In any case, taking advantage of the announcement on the NLT Blog, I requested an advance preview copy; just yesterday I heard from Laura Bartlett at Tyndale, who informed me that she will be sending me one in short order. Many thanks to her for this; I’m already looking forward to sharing my impressions on this volume here.

III

Thanks to the links in Matthew Montonini’s above mentioned blog, I came across Douglas Moo’s Biblical Studies webpage, where I read that among Moo’s future projects is “a commentary on Galatians (for Baker in their BECNT series).” Now, it was my understanding up until now that the Galatians volume in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament would be written, in fact, by none other than the infallible Moisés Silva himself. This would not be the first time a commentary series replaces the author of one of its projected volumes, of course; but I find the change a bit disappointing, given Silva’s lifelong project to write a commentary on Galatians. But of course, the matter may only be that Silva’s manuscript, like Hoehner’s on Ephesians, has grown beyond the editorial limits of the BECNT and will require publication as an independent volume (or volumes). This would undoubtedly be the happier scenario: commentaries by both Moo and Silva would offer rich exegetical fare to their readers, and each book would significantly contribute to the literature on Galatians. Here’s hoping! [UPDATE: There are apparently a few other potentially excellent commentaries on Galatians in the works: Robert Van Voorst, for the Eerdmans Critical Commentary; D. A. Carson, for the Pillar New Testament Commentary; and Thomas Schreiner for the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary. H/T: Parableman.]

IV

Daniel, a catechumen in our parish and my good friend, gave me last week his copy of the first edition of Craig Blomberg’s book, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. I’m very thankful for this because, although I dutifully read Blomberg’s book a little over 10 years ago, I didn’t own a copy. I must say that revisiting the book after so many years has been a very strange experience, almost like taking a step back in time. As is well known, this book, published in 1987, embodies the Evangelical critical consensus on the historicity of the Gospels as reflected in the 6-volume Gospel Perspectives (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980-6), a project of Tyndale House in Cambridge. As such it became de rigueur reading in Evangelical academic circles, and thus it was enormously influential—indeed a mainstay of many a scholarly and ministerial library. However, a great deal has changed—in hermeneutics, in Jesus and Gospel studies, and in Evangelical biblical studies themselves—since the solutions proposed in it were researched and formulated; as a result, many of the arguments now appear stilted or unnecessarily belabored. I was not surprised, then, to find out after looking around a bit that earlier this year IVP released a second edition of this book (with nearly double the number of pages!). I wonder, though, if this revision didn’t come just a beat too late: after all, as Scot McKnight has noted, Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd’s book The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007) seems to have quickly become the “Blomberg” of a new generation. I have not yet seen either of these books, but I would very much like to have a chance to do so sometime in the near future.

Greek and Pride

I was chatting a few days ago with a good friend of mine who was telling me about a small group discussion in which he regularly participates. My friend, who is both a rather accomplished Hellenist and an exceedingly humble man, expressed some benign but genuine shock that the group leader, who only has a year of Greek under his belt, finds it necessary to constantly make reference to the language in the course of group discussions. I replied to him that, in the words of the infallible Moisés Silva, many approach the study of Greek “looking forward to the possibility of accomplishing great feats of exegetical prestidigitation,” and that in my experience, very few outgrow that expectation. Revisiting Silva’s book God, Language and Scripture, where the quote above is found, I came across the following further comments which are much to the point:

“Quite possibly, [….] the most significant benefit of acquiring a knowledge of the biblical languages is intangible. Most of us are conditioned to think that nothing is truly valuable that does not have an immediate and concrete payoff, but a little reflection dispels that illusion. Consider the teaching we all received from birth. Has most of it been immediately rewarding? We are simply not conscious of how deeply we have been molded by countless experiences that affect our perspective, our thinking, our decisions. Similarly, a measure of proficiency in the biblical languages provides the framework that promotes responsibility in the handling of the text. Continued exposure to the original text expands our horizon and furnishes us with a fresh and more authentic perspective than that which we bring from our modern, English-speaking situation.

“In my own preaching during the past twenty-five years, explicit references to Greek and Hebrew have become less and less frequent. But that hardly means I have paid less attention to the languages or that they have become less significant in my work of interpretation. Quite the contrary. It’s just that coming up with those rich ‘exegetical nuggets’ is not necessarily where the real, susbtantial payoff lays.” (Moisés Silva, God, Language and Scripture: Reading the Bible in the Light of General Linguistics [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990], page 144.)

Quite so. In the end, as Bill Mounce has noted in a couple different places, it isn’t a little bit of Greek that is dangerous, but rather a little bit of arrogance, a little bit of pride. And when it comes to pastoral situations (though not, of course, in academic contexts), it is often the case that the number of cryptic references to Greek slipped in is directly proportional to a teacher’s amount of pride, while at the same time inversely proportional to his or her actual level of skill in that language.

Thank You, Rob!

I owe a long overdue thank you to Rob Bradshaw for sending along a surplus copy of Volume XVIII of the journal Vox Evangelica, which contains the following articles:

  • David F. Wright, “One Baptism or Two? Reflections on the History of Christian Baptism,” Vox Evangelica 18 (1988): 7-23.
  • Michael Parsons, “‘In Christ’ in Paul,” Vox Evangelica 18 (1988): 25-44.
  • Jonathan Terino, “A Text Linguistic Study of the Jacob Narrative,” Vox Evangelica 18 (1988): 45-62.
  • Howard C. Bigg, “The Present State of the Q Hypothesis,” Vox Evangelica 18 (1988): 63-73.
  • H.D. McDonald, “The Symbolic Christology of Paul Tillich,” Vox Evangelica 18 (1988): 75-88.
  • Michaels Parsons, “Slavery and the New Testament: Equality and Submissiveness,” Vox Evangelica 18 (1988): 90-96.

Rob is currently engaged in the digitization of the entire run of this journal (1962-1997), which is sure to enrich his already quite solvent digital archives:

Each of Rob’s sites is a veritable treasure trove of digital articles, together with bibliographical items and links to other materials onlinein short, a researcher’s paradise! So again, many thanks to Rob for his kindness in sending me this number of Vox Evangelica, and indeed for his indefatigable labors to make everyone’s research a little easier. And if you, O reader, wish to lend Rob a hand in his herculean endeavors, check out the painless ways in which you can support his sites.

Theology and Praxis (Or, No Wonder I Understand Nothing at All!)

One of the differences between the eloquent philosophy of the Greeks and the Christian Faith is that the whole of Greek philosophy can clearly be expressed with words and comprehended by reading, while the Christian Faith cannot be clearly expressed by words and even less comprehended by reading alone. When you are expounding the Christian Faith, for its understanding and acceptance, both reading and the practice of what is read are necessary. When Patriarch Photius read the words of Mark the Ascetic concerning the spiritual life, he noticed in the author some unclarity that, he wisely said, “does not proceed from the obscurity of expression but from that truth which is expressed there; it is better understood by means of practice (rather than by means of words), and that cannot be explained by words only.” And this, the great patriarch adds, “is not the case only with these homilies nor with these men, but rather with all of those who attempted to expound the ascetical rules, passions, and instructions, which are better understood from practice alone.”

(From the Prologue from Ochrid, reflection for June 24)

I’m Back!

In a comment posted earlier today, Jim West states that his presumption of my death appeared to be correct after all, and asks me to pass on his greetings to Zwingli in the other world. Setting aside my shock that Jim, a Baptist, is given to the practice of necromancy, I’m sorry to disappoint him (and others): I am alive and well, I have arrived safely in Puerto Rico, and like Mark Twain, I find that the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated!

Upon my return, I was greeted by an exceeding great amount of mail which included a couple of items of interest:

  • Those who have been following the saga of the damaged Orthodox Study Bible over the past few months (see here, here, and here) will be delighted to learn that I have finally received a flawless copy of the OSB to replace the severely damaged one that the publishers originally sent. It bears noting that the book was packed with the utmost care, and that it was not mechanically shrink-wrapped, but rather wrapped by hand, which suggests that it was subjected to careful scrutiny before shipping. Kudos to Conciliar Press for righting the wrong! After such a display of expeditious customer service, one imagines that Kevin’s communications merely fell through the cracks. The staff at Conciliar might take note and ensure that there are no unknown technical problems causing this.
  • I have finally had the satisfaction to peruse Ben Witherington III’s Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians (vol. 1), which I bought for an exceedingly low price from Mike Aubrey a number of months ago. (Thanks, Mike!) Though unfortunately I won’t have the time to examine this commentary in detail for yet a while, I am very much looking forward to that. I must, however, mention this: while I am in awe of Witherington’s prodigious literary output and his evident scholarly powers, I can’t help but be a little amused by his (systematic?) insistence on always championing some peculiar view or another, such as the notion that St Lazarus was the “Beloved Disciple” or the authenticity of the so-called “James Ossuary.” This commentary is no exception: here Witherington appears to champion the late great C. F. D. Moule’s proposal that St Luke the Evangelist was the amanuensis for the Pastoral Epistles. However, in this case I’m very interested in following his exegetical argument through, not only because I believe these Epistles to be authentically Pauline (the term “early catholicism” means nothing at all to me), but also because my inner neo-Griesbachian is continually fascinated by the interplay between St Luke and St Paul in the biblical canon. Of course, like everything else in Pauline studies, this proposal is closely tied to questions of chronology; I’m also looking forward, then, to revisiting that vexing matter. For this, I know of no better companion than Gerd Luedemann’s Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles: Studies in Chronology, which I have placed next to Witherington’s commentary (!) in anticipation of the coming day on which I shall be able to plunge into both.

In closing, I should like to take this chance to note that the one-year (i.e., silver, in internet time) anniversary of The Voice of Stefan occurred last Sunday, July 13. A year, and still alive and kicking (death reports notwithstanding)! Many thanks to all who have taken the time to read, comment and otherwise interact with me over the past year. I can only hope that the next year will likewise be filled with your input and friendship.

Random Updates from the Northern Wilderness

  • In news that will undoubtedly cause the Irreverend Mr Ker to have a string of fits of hysteria, my venerable (and radically cool) glasses finally broke. Thanks to the good offices of Elmer’s Super Glue I have been able to salvage them temporarily, but I’m afraid that I will have to altogether replace them within the next few months. This fills me with great distress, since the last time I was at the eyeglass shop, no model like unto them could be found anywhere.
  • In news that will make Dr Defiance squee with delight, I have chosen to eliminate my signature short beard, but have kept my sideburns. I fear, however, that now my appearance resembles that of the ignoble Rev Mr Tilling (seen here in a stock photo). No matter: this is, after all, the first step of my brilliant plan to one day usurp the place of Jim West. By eliminating my beard, I have automatically made myself eligible for the position of associate pastor at Jim’s church. Once voted in (for no congregation has ever been known to resist my charms), I shall reveal myself as a BAR-loving maximalist, a rabid fundamentalist, and a believer in centralized denominationalism, all of which will cause Jim to disintegrate into the ether in his fury. After this, I shall at last be able to lay hold of the title Dr Defiance myself, and enjoy the fruit of my exploits. (In case you didn’t know, this title, which is the terror of Biblioblogdom, is passed on from generation to generation rather like that of the Dread Pirate Roberts, but by means of methods more closely resembling those that lay behind the succession of Roman Emperors.)
  • The saving grace of these internet-less hinterlands is a fantastic (if small) used book shop where I have been able to obtain a series of most interesting titles for no more than $3 USD each. Among my better finds are Douglas Bush’s older (but still authoritative) study Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry; a pristine copy of Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers; and The Groucho Letters: Letters from and to Groucho Marx. I have read the latter title with particular delight, and I foresee in the immediate future of The Voice of Stefan a feature entitled “Marxist Quote of the Week.” My impressions of yet another volume you will read in the near future.
  • My Michigan sojourn shall come to an end on Wednesday, July 16, after which date I intend to reclaim my rightfully earned place on Biblioblogs.com and Jim West’s blogroll. Of course, it may take me a few days to get down to business, as I must yet read the 1,200+ posts that you, my gentle snowflakes, have produced in the meantime. (Seriously, people!) Well, at least I have kept up with my buddy Nick Norelli’s blog, so that’s nearly 150 less messages to read (but I must yet comment!).