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.

4 responses to “The Conversion of St Vladimir and Orthodox Apologetics

  1. Despite the fact that I read at a snails pace, it was worth working through this. Thanks alot, I look forward to your contributions.


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