Dec 28 2010

Part4: Historical Development: 2-Primitive Christian Element p.1

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Dr. Nos’hi Abdel-Shaheed

Part Four


Historical Development of Orthodox Spirituality (contd.)

The Main Elements of the Orthodox Christian Spirituality (contd.)

2- The primitive Christian element:

By primitive Christian element we mean the Christian life and testimony of the three first centuries.  This element includes the complex of ideas and feelings proper to the Apostolic Fathers (disciples of the Apostles, who lived with them and received their faith and experiences of life in Christ directly from them) and the Apologists (who wrote defending Christianity) before the great conciliar and dogmatic period of the fourth and fifth centuries (the period of the first great three Ecumenical Councils).  Such writings as the Didache and the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the “shepherd” of Hermas, the early passions of the martyrs and – not least – the inscriptions and symbolic frescoes of the Catacombs, help us to step into this atmosphere.1

+ Martyrdom: Martyrdom occupies a central place in Christian concepts, teachings, and experiences of this period.  The shedding of blood for the Lord Jesus’ sake is considered to be the normal and desirable completion of every Christian life.  According to Origen and Tertullian, the life of the Christian ought to be a preparation for martyrdom.  Everybody is called to be an “athlete” for the Lord.  If one has not the blessed happiness to die for His Name, one may at least suffer, be persecuted, and perhaps tortured for His sake.  One is in such case a “confessor”.  Because of the multitudes of martyrs that were martyred at the times of the atheist emperors especially in Egypt, the Church in Egypt made its “Coptic Calendar” in reference to them (the martyrs), and called each year of this old calendar “year of the martyrs”.

Actually the theme of martyrdom has never been absent in the Orthodox Church, even after the end of the era of the pagan emperors.  In many periods of history, martyrdom was found in the Middle East, Egypt, Russia, Europe, and Ethiopia, even until our present day.  And therefore many of the Orthodox Churches found themselves in the same conditions of Christian martyrdom as the primitive church in the first three centuries.

Because of the strong spiritual value of martyrdom for the love of Christ and confessing His name, the Church asks for their intercession right after the Apostles, and they are mentioned before all other saints.  But, at the same time the great value of martyrdom through the shedding of blood became out­standing, another kind of martyrdom without shedding blood started to appear in the thoughts of the church fathers and teachers.  St. Clement of Alexandria (in the beginning of the third century) conf­­irms that a true Christian is one that contin­uously lives as a martyr day and night, in his words and in his deeds, and in his speech.2  The great teacher Origen, a student of Clement, differentiates between overt martyrdom with the shedding of blood and the hidden martyrdom that is “martyrdom of conscience” which is the struggle against worldly passions and desires.  The first kind that involves shedding of blood is for some people only, but the second one that involves our conscience is for all the believers. He clearly explained that in his book “Exhortation to martyrdom”.3 In the third century A.D., St. Cyprian the bishop of Cartage made clear the difference between the two kinds of martyrdom by calling martyrdom with blood shedding “red martyrdom”, and sacrificing oneself, the acts of love, and the struggle against lusts during times of peace the “white martyrdom”.4

+ Asceticism and virginity: Therefore, the spirit of self denial for the sake of the love of Jesus that spread throughout the era of martyrdom became present even at times of quietness and absence of martyrdom.  Even if the Christian does not have the opportunity to be a martyr or confessor, he can still fight strongly against passions and desires of the flesh within himself.  In this manner what is known as the “ascetic” became recognized.  This is the serious Christian who practices self denial and fights against his lusts, following Christ, the meek and humble in heart, hating himself in this world and saving it for eternity.  Thus, the “ascetics” obtained a special place in the early church even before monasticism was born. “Ascetics” were characterized by poverty, fasting, and above all, continence (practice chastity).  As early as 110 A.D., virgins and widows are mentioned as a privileged class in the church of Smyrna.  Hermas and Justin (the martyr) at the end of the first century and in the second century spoke highly of them.  The “Banquet of the Ten Virgins” by St. Methodius of Olympus (year 311) is an exaltation of virginity.5

A ferment of enthusiasm penetrates the whole Christian life during the era of persecutions. Martyrs and confessors were upheld by the joy of Christ’s presence and He was conversing with them.  “The lord was standing near them (the martyrs) and conversing with them” as we read in the “Martyrdom of Polycarp”.6 “Another will be with me who will suffer for me” said St. Felicitas. 7

They moved in an atmosphere of prophetic visions and revelations.  Deformations of this enthusiasm appeared at that time.  The Orthodox Church fought against these excesses, but she keeps as her authentic and most precious treasure the reliance of joy in the Lord Jesus.  In those eras some extremist’s inflated ideas about sexual virginity appeared, so much as to scorn marriage.  The church excommunicated them during the Council of Ghanghara in the year 341 A.D.  The church continued her appreciation and honor for virginity and, at the same time, also the marriage in Christ, which she considers a holy sacrament in which the Holy Spirit works to sanctify the family.  The Orthodox Church was and still considers her true and precious treasure is the person of The Lord Jesus and joy in Him, and not any actions, titles or characters pertaining to the human person himself.

(To be contd.)


  1. This sentence is not in the Arabic book, but it is added from the English book by Fr. Lev Gillet.
  2. Miscell. 2:20.
  3. Exhortation to Martyrdom 20.
  4. St. Cyprian, On Works and Almsgiving 26.
  5. Ante Nicene Fathers Vol. VI, p 309-355.
  6. Martyr. Polycarp, I, 19.
  7. Ruinart, “Acta primorum martyrum sincera et selecta”, p. 53.

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