Saturday, 28 January 2017

Holy Russia and Christian Europe, by Wil Van Den Bercken

Wil Van Den Bercken, Holy Russia and Christian Europe, 1998 SCM

This book is a fascinating history of the national religious identity of Russia. Russia is often thought of as having a religious evolution very separate to that of western Christendom, but Van Den Bercken finds points of contact and similarity between Russia and western Christendom.

Our author begins with the conversion of the Rus via St. Vladimir. He points out that the accounts of Vladimir's conversion have been interpolated to include an anti-Latin polemic which would have been foreign to the pre-schism Church which received Vladimir and his people. Later in the book, Van Den Bercken examines the notion that the conversion of Russia was unique among Christian peoples. He finds parallels between the conversion of the Kievan Rus and the conversion of Hungary, the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes.

Van Den Bercken identifies an important landmark in the theological work of Ilarion of Kiev in the eleventh century. His work on 'Law and the Grace' offered a theme of the universality of the Christian faith, embracing east and west. Our author sees this as being almost the last moment of unity in Christendom before the terrible schism. Moving into later history, he explores the history of the idea of Moscow as the 'Third Rome.' I am always wary of people talking about the Third Rome idea, as this was never officially accepted as the ideology of the Tsarist regime and was much more important to the Old Believers, a truth that Van Den Bercken certainly acknowledges and he explains why the Old Believers treasured the idea. During the reign of Peter the Great and the founding of St. Petersburg, he finds Russia returning to the idea of a New Rome, but this time the model is not Byzantine Rome, but Classical Rome, the first Rome. Coming into the 19th century, he looks at how Russian thinkers evaluated western European civilization and the development of Slavophile thought. I would have liked him to have said more than a paragraph about Vladimir Soloviev, but he states that Soloviev's 'philosophical professionalism' is outside the scope of the book.

This book should be of interest to all who lament the division between Eastern and Western Christendom.

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