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Ivan M. Andreyev
Orthodox apologetic theology

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  • 24. The essence of Christianity.
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24. The essence of Christianity.

Many opinions have been expressed in regard to the essence of Christianity. But nobody has been able to define this essence in such a convincing way as it is defined by the Orthodox Church. First of all, the complete inability to resolve this question in only a rationalistic way should be noted. For rationalism, Christianity will forever remain an insoluble puzzle to this greatest world phenomenon. Among rationalistic attempts to make clear the essence of Christianity, two basic tendencies should be noted: 1) to reduce the whole essence of Christianity only to its moral principles, and 2) to represent Christianity in the form of a system of abstract ideas.

            A striking instance of the former is the opinion of Christianity held by the well-known German philosopher Immanuel Kant. According to Kant, Christianity differs from all other religions only in its moral superiority over them. According to this reasoning, Christ is the ideal type of moral perfection. His precepts are the most complete and perfect expression of the morally ideal demands of man’s nature. His Church is a society where ethical good is accomplished. The whole nature of a Christian is in his ideal system of morals. However, the dogmatic teaching of Christianity has no special meaning. In general, the whole objective meaning of the Christian religion — the Redemption of mankind for its salvation and eternal blessedness — is denied by the system of Kant as transcendent and not essential to man’s life on earth. Such reasoning is deeply mistaken. In the presence of an attentive attitude toward Christianity, it becomes deeply clear that it is not possible to view it as morality without dogma (as Buddhism may be), since the moral teaching of Christ is found to be in more than just an external, formal bond with religious doctrine. Christianity is not restricted, like some systems of ethics, only to a tendency to justify ethical demands with religious sanction and to base the ethical obligations of man on the will of a higher Being. All Christian morality is founded on dogmatics, and lacking these it loses its full meaning.

            The dogmatic teaching on the most holy and undivided Trinity, the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Redemption of the race of man and its salvation, has, in Christianity, not secondary but fundamental meaning. Dogma does not appear in Christianity simply to add a higher authority to moral teaching. On the contrary, it is the center of all Christian religion, and the morals result from it.

            Christian morality, even deprived of its dogmatic roots, without a doubt represents the same enchanting, attractive, and fascinating phenomenon which cannot be compared to any other system of morality, excelling them all by its fullness, simplicity, and persuasiveness. And this one circumstance directs the thought to the divine origin of such ethical teaching. With deeper penetration, however, into the roots of this system of ethics; that is, into the dogmatic meaning, which illuminates like the sun all the harmony of the whole and the endless diversity of the parts, the ethical teaching of Christianity completely transforms man’s soul and reveals to it the possibility of seeing, here on earth, the rudiments of that blessed eternal state which is prepared by God for man in another, better, eternal world.

            Only by this eternal root is it possible to explain the undying attraction of the Christian ideal of morality which has passed the test of time, gaining with every success of man’s spiritual culture a new beauty and strength, contributing its charitable influence into all phases of life. Only Christianity is capable of kindling love toward Truth, for the sake of Truth itself, without which no real spiritual progress of man is possible. The undoubted ethically charitable influence of the ethical Christian ideal on all mankind is one of the most convincing proofs of its divine dignity.

            From the Gnostics of the first centuries of Christianity to Hegelianism in its contemporary currents, the essence of Christianity is treated as an abstract system of higher knowledge, as an abstract philosophy theoretically solving the problems of cosmogony and theogony. But the most important side of Christianity, without which it is nothing — the fact of the Incarnation of the Son of God and the Redemption by Him of sinful mankind; that is, that unusual phenomenon of history eternally issuing from a series of ordinary historical phenomena — has been relegated to the domain of myths by the rationalistic school from antiquity to the present. For example, the pastor and professor Arthur Drives came to this when he wrote the book, The Myth of Christ.

            Feuerbach, a leftist Hegelian, wrote a long investigation, About the Substance of Christianity. Contrasting the essence of Christianity with the essence of paganism, Feuerbach came to the conclusion that in Christianity, subjectivity predominates over objectivity; the heart and imagination over intellect. He sees in Christianity a system or world-view for which the external world with all its laws of nature has no meaning. As a result, Feuerbach finds in Christianity a hostility to intellect, knowledge, and all progress: social, scientific, political, economic, etc. The teaching of Feuerbach penetrated into Marxism and, through it, into Bolshevik communism, becoming the state irreligion in Soviet Russia.

            The gross mistakes of Feuerbach are completely clear to genuine critical thought. Firstly, Christianity, as we pointed out earlier, was never hostile to genuine intellect, genuine science, and genuine knowledge. But Christianity has never rated human intellect higher than spiritual development. Without humbling the intellect, it only placed the latter in a harmonious relationship with other spiritual forces. Christianity does not make a god of man’s intellect, but regards it as a talent given by God which should be applied to life, and encourages knowledge which serves as a weapon in the search for and service to Truth, goodness and beauty.

            Christianity does not at all break the ties of man to the world and does not resist the progress of genuine science. It simply points out the eternal superiority of the Creator over the world created by Him, the immortal designation of man, and the transient meaning of the material world; it points to temporal life as only a preparatory phase to eternal life. By this teaching, Christianity simply assists the spiritual development of man and his moral growth in the present temporal life. History shows how much Christianity assisted the progress of natural science, that is, that science which was especially engaged in the investigation of nature.

            Of all religions, only Christianity does not contain in its basic truths anything hostile to true progress. To nature it gives a warm and happy regard, as to a creation of God. In contrast to pagan culture which deifies the sun, moon, and stars, the Christian faith places them at the feet of the Creator. It is Christianity which liberated mankind from the degrading slavery to the elements of the world and taught man to rule over nature to a much greater degree than is dreamed of by rationalistic science (walking on water and resurrection of the dead).

            The idea of the unity and solidarity of peoples is purely a Christian idea. The great structure of international law rests on this Christian ideal. In its social relationship, the charitable influence of Christianity is irrefutable. It created Christian marriage and the Christian family. It has elevated to an extraordinary degree the ethical dignity of woman: maiden, mother, wife. In contrast to the pagan neglect of children, Christianity set up the precepts of Christ, dooming every tempter and corrupter of children’s innocence to the most bitter fate of drowning with a millstone round the neck.

            Paganism, even in the persons of its best representatives, justified and supported slavery; Christianity, however, by systematically destroying a part at a time the foundations by which it was justified in antiquity, led finally to its destruction. Christianity softened cruelty to criminals. We shall remind you that the lord Himself, while on earth, selected the disparaging calling of a workman and, by this, removed the brand of scorn from all honest labor. “To work and to pray” became the motto of Christian life. All monasticism passed its time in labors and prayer.

            In order to correctly understand and determine the essence of Christianity, it is necessary to keep in mind that it is entirely beholden for its origin to the divine Personality of its Founder and carries a vital imprint of this Personality in everything. The Christian religion, like its Founder, is first of all complete, harmonious, and all-embracing. It has no deficiencies and is not subject to improvement. It is ideal. Only the Christian himself is subject to improvement, without limits. The ideal of his perfection is endless. Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:48).

            Only the Christian religion has a complete right to be called, in the proper sense of the word, a religion, that is, a union with God. Christianity embraces our whole existence, spiritual and bodily. It enlightens all our family, social, and political relationships. It satisfies all the demands of the spiritual, intellectual and bodily life of man.

            To fully comprehend the essence of Christianity, the basic truths of the Christian religion ought to be investigated. First of all, Christianity is not so much a new system of religious and ethical doctrine as it is a new principle of life and activity of man. Although not everything is new in the New Testament or Christian religion in comparison with the religion of the Old Testament, nevertheless, even that which is taken by Christianity from the religion of Israel shines with the new light of a more profound and perfected meaning.

            Even though there are in both Old and New Testaments general dogmatic truths (of the unity of the divine Being, of divine virtues, of the origin of man, of his primal state, his fall, and others), nevertheless, these truths are presented more clearly, purely, deeply and spiritually and are more free from elements of anthropomorphism in the New Testament, while in the Old Testament, anthropomorphism veils the spiritual nature of the divine Being. The words of Christ that God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24), would be impossible to find in the Old Testament.

            Some revealed truths in the Old Testament were expressed so covertly that even some more spiritually developed Old Testament people were forced to ponder such things as the indication of the mystery of the Trinity, the mystery of the Word and Spirit of God, and others. These mysteries which were concealed from Old Testament prophets were revealed only by the Savior Himself. Present-day Hebrew scholars unjustly affirm that in the entire Old Testament there are no indications of the mystery of the Trinity. But it is impossible not to see in the Old Testament an undisclosed understanding about the special powers of God: the Word of God and the Spirit of God. The appearance of the Triune God to Abraham in the form of three angels also remains undisclosed in the Old Testament. Only in the New Testament was the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity finally revealed in all its completeness and made accessible to man’s understanding.

            The mystery of the Holy Trinity is the heart of Christian dogma! This mystery has an immense, inexhaustible meaning, purely theoretical as well as ethical. The theoretical meaning of the Christian teaching about the Holy Trinity consists, first of all, in the purification, elevation and elucidation of the idea of monotheism. The Christian teaching of the Holy Trinity is no tri-godliness or tri-theism, which is directly and decisively censured by the Christian Church. The teaching of the Trinity is a special aspect of monotheism, but very profound, lofty and pure, and one we do not meet in any other monotheistic system.

            The essential point in the Christian teaching about God is that, by revealing the dogma of the Holy Trinity, it both preserves the inviolability of the Old Testament teaching of the unity of the Divinity, and adds to it a special, new, exceptionally significant, highly ethical character, which was not and could not have been present in any other system of monotheism. Not without cause did Origen, Blessed Augustine, and St. Gregory of Nyssa, in analyzing the mystery of the Holy Trinity, demonstrate the Truth and divinity of Christianity.

            Strict monotheism bestows little to the loftiness and ethical worth of the religion that is preaching it; you can imagine for yourself a religion of one idol. Some of the thinkers of pre-Christian antiquity reached the understanding of the unity of the highest Being, but the idea about the inner nature of such a Being outside of His relation to the world, that is, the life of God in Himself, was incomprehensible. As a result of this, monotheism transformed itself into either pantheism, acknowledging eternal disclose of divine life and substance in the world, or barren deism.

            Only Christianity, through the disclosure of the dogma of the Holy Trinity, has given a solution to the question of the nature of the one God in Himself. Only Christianity discloses the truth that God (in His essence, one eternal Spirit) has definite realities of existence, outside His relationship to the world; i.e., in His tri-personal Being and in the eternal fullness of His inner life He is unknown to us. Not explaining the very essence of the mystery of the Trinity, this dogma clarifies for our mind something concerning the divine Being: namely, that there is in the divine Being an activity not dependent on the world, and there are conditions for its manifestation. Although an understanding of the triune God is exceptionally difficult, still, an understanding of His bare oneness is more difficult. “The Christian God is one but not solitary” (St. Peter Chrysologus, 60th Word).

            But besides its theoretical meaning, the dogma of the Holy Trinity also has an ethical meaning (The Ethical Idea of Church Dogma, by Anthony Krapovitsky). Through the mystery of the Trinity, Christianity taught mankind not only to respect God with reverence, but also to love Him. Through the mystery of the Holy Trinity a new idea was disclosed: that God is love — most lofty, ideal love, and an inexhaustible fountain of love. Blessed Augustine affirmed with profound thoughtfulness: “The mystery of the Christian Trinity is a mystery of divine Love. You see the Trinity if you see Love.”

            The mystery of the Trinity teaches us that divine Love was manifested not only in the creation and contemplation of the world, but that it appears in its most perfect, infinite fullness in the very bosom of the Divinity, where a life of love resided from eternity: the eternal communion of the holy love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Thus, it can be asserted that barren monotheism of ancient religions, not impregnated by the revealed truth of the Trinity, did not have and could not have had a true understanding of divine Love.

            The main distinction between the strict monotheism of contemporary Judaism and the Christian faith consists in the understanding of the basic divine Essence. Only Christianity, through the Revelation of Christ Himself, knows and understands the truth that God is Love and what love is! As expressed by the Christian poet, A. Tolstoy, Christsubordinated all the laws of Moses to the law of love.” To understand this idea of a God of Love is impossible in barren monotheism, for whom could God have loved except Himself? Though the mystery of the Trinity does not initiate us into the complete profundity of the essence of Divinity (being too vast for man’s mind), it alone allows us to understand that divine Love was never inactive, never remained without manifestation, and never was self-love, but points to the eternal divine communion of the Persons of the Holy Trinity.

            The complete depth of the love of the Divinity for the race of man is elucidated for us with finality in the light of the mystery of the Holy Trinity. This mystery is also the foundation of the whole Christian teaching on Redemption. The supreme example of love in the sacrifice by God the Father of His Only-begotten Son for the salvation of the race of man, in the voluntary suffering on the cross of the Son of God for our redemption; and in the descent of the Holy Spirit for our sanctificationstunning the soul of manbegets a responsive, thankful, self-denying love for God, Whom the Christian begins to understand as the loving Father of all mankind.

            If we will also meditate just as deeply upon the Christian teaching of the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, we shall see that it likewise has not only a deeply theoretical but also a universally ethical meaning. It elevated the moral conscience of man to a height which would have been impossible to reach without the aid of God. This truth was formulated by some of the ancient teachers of the Church in this way: “In the mystery of the Incarnation, God condescended to the state of man in order to raise man to God.”

            The miracle of the Resurrection of Christ is the crown of all the other miracles and comprises, according to the vivid expression of Professor N.P. Rozhdestvensky, “the fundamental stone of Christian Apologetics.” The proof of the truth of the Resurrection of Christ is exceptionally plain and very convincing. This proof comes to the conclusion that without the actual fact of the Resurrection, the following points would be completely inexplicable: the beginning of the Apostle’s preaching, the appearance in the world of historical Christianity with its martyrs, apologists, teachers of the Church and holy zealots, and, finally, the existence on earth to the present day of millions of faithful Christians, ready to give their lives for Christ.

 

 




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