Mar 02 2011

Part5: Historical Development: 2-Primitive Christian Element p.2, 3-The Intellectual Element

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Dr. Nos’hi Abdel-Shaheed

Part Five


Historical Development of Orthodox Spirituality (contd.)

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

2- The primitive Christian element:


+ Hope for the Lord’s coming:

One of the main characteristics that identified Christians in earlier periods was their eschato­logical hope, i.e. their fervent hope in Christ’s second coming from  heaven in great glory (the Parousia), so that they lived all their days yearning to meet Christ and getting ready for that meeting.  The Orthodox Spirituality still con­siders this hope as its most important pillar.  Daily church hymns and prayers are mixed with this hope.  We consider eternal life not as an appendix to our life on earth, but it is the real life that is free of death and corruption.  Our life on earth is an introduction and preparation for the eternal and heavenly kingdom.  It is through the strong belief in the certainty of the afterlife and through the help of the Holy Spirit who strengthens within us the hope of the Lord’s coming that we become holy and pure as He is pure.  St. John said: “And every one who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 John 3:3)

Orthodoxy is often charged with “stressing the importance of eternal life more than our present life (other-worldiness)”.  If this charge is justified, it is just such an other-worldiness as that which the first Christian generation expressed by the prayer: “Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).

3- The Intellectual Element

The School of Alexandria and its spiritual influence:

The establishment of the “Didaskaleion”, the Christian school for catechumens of Alexandria close to the end of the second century and the beginning of the third century marks the beginning of not only doctrinal elaboration but of a speculative spirituality, which left a deep stamp on the Orthodox Church.  [This spirituality owed much to another Alexandrian, Philo, who sought to combine Judaism and Plutonism.  He was the theoretician of con­templative life and of the Logos, and the master of allegorical exegesis.]1

The main features of Christian Alexandrianism are: a certain dualistic view of matter and spirit; a leaning towards dialectic; scriptural allegorism; a method of abstraction which, being apophatic (negative) theology, sees in God the supremely Undeterminate, i.e. a theologizing by the way of negation or removal of human attributes, such as saying God is incorporeal, incomprehensible, infinite, unchangeable, immortal, unlimited in His knowledge (omniscient) and with no end or beginning.  In this way God is beyond the human intellectual knowledge and you cannot know Him by your own abilities.  On the other hand, the early Alexandrian thought emphasized a quest for salvation through the knowledge of the Incarnate Logos, Christ; the divine knowledge that surpasses all human understanding, which He pours in the hearts of those who believe in Him and love Him.  This gives the knowledge of the Father just as the Lord said: “Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” (Mathew 11:27).  In this Alexandrian teaching we find all the materials of a philosophy and a theology, and of a spiritual life as well.

The great teachers of Alexandria such as Clement and Origen wanted to oppose to heretical gnosticism a Christian gnosis (i.e. a methodical knowledge of Christ).  The “true gnosis” described by Clement of Alexandria is very close to the idea of the Gospel of Christ.  He writes: “Our own gnosis … is our Savior Himself.” 2

Clement of Alexandria and Origen were not merely intellectuals and philosophers, but were strong ascetics.  Origen wrote an “Exhortation to Martyrdom” and passionately longed for such an end, but his mother hid his clothes away to prevent him from going out.  A “monk from the Eastern Church” tells us about him in his book “Orthodox Spirituality” saying: “This allegorist could be quite a literalist when practice was concerned.  Thus, having read the words “cut them off …” (Mat. 18:8) said of the members which offend, and the other words spoken of the men who “have made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven’s sake (Mat. 19:12), he deliberately mutilated himself.3 The loftiest Alexandrian speculations could make contact with popular piety.

J. Quasten has recently shown the close links which Christian Hellenism established between the Logos theology and the symbol of the Good Shepherd.4  Clement, in the hymn which closes the “Pedagogue”, prays thus: “Be the guide, and Shepherd, of the logical sheep.”  The Logical sheep – the reasonable sheep – the sheep of the Logos.  It is difficult to realize the central place occupied by the Logos in Christian Greek thought and piety.  As has been rightly said, what “reason” was for the 18th century, “science” was for the 19th , and “life” for the beginning of the 20th century, the Logos – at the same time intellect, divine word, and first cosmic principle – was for the Hellenistic world, both heathen and Christian.  Identified with Christ, the Logos is the medium between God and man, the light of the soul, the master of the inner life.  Christian life consists in the perfect subjection to the Logos, a subjection not only of the mind but of the flesh as well.  For, through the incarnation “the flesh has become logified” (sarkos logo­theises).5

It is Saint Athanasius who speaks thus, of whom Heiler6 said: “The Christological mysticism (i.e. spirituality based on the person of Christ, the incarnate Logos) of Athanasius is the heart of the Eastern Church”.  The dogmatic Fathers of the fourth century have been, indeed, precise and safe guides of Orthodox thought and piety. Patristic Christology, in defining the relation between the divine and human natures in the Person of Christ, draws the main lines of the spiritual life of the man in whom Christ operates and who takes Christ as pattern.  Conciliar discussions about the words homoousios and homoiousios are explained by the fear of jeopardizing not only the objective truth, but also the subjective experience of that truth and so the reproduction of the Incarnation in the humblest Christian.  In other words, the importance of the “i” in “homoiousios” (which was rejected in the Nicene Council, thanks to Athanasius’ con­victions) is that it makes the Son of God just like the Father in His Divinity, rather than equal to the Father or of one essence with the Father.   Our disbelief in Christ as a true God and of one essence with the Father means that we will never receive redemption through Christ and we will never have union with God the Father, as long as the mediator, the Son of God incarnate is Himself not one in essence with the Father.  Also, He will be unable to give us eternal life i.e. God’s life since He does not have it in Him.   This is what was described by St. Athanasius in his writings against the Arians.  Also, St. Cyril the Great, the Pillar of Faith, in his dialogues against the Nestorians, explains that Christ is one through the union of His Divinity with His humanity.  This is not only to defend the true faith, but also to make sure that the Divine life that was in the “Logos Incarnate” will come upon all baptized children by their union with Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.  This is how we have eternal life through Christ.

We find the same diligence also in St. Basil, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. John Chrysostom and the other great Fathers, the teachers of Orthodoxy.

Areopagite writings that appeared in the fourth century are writings about God and the heavenly hosts and the church. These writings had a great influence on the church east and west. These writings are the first publications that introduced the expression “mystical theology”. What is meant by this expression is the knowledge of God through a supernatural illumination and unspeakable intuition.  This is quite different from talking about God through reasoning.  God is beyond the comprehension of the natural mind.  These writings develop a complete theory of the union with God (theiahenosis).  They had a great effect on Orthodox spirituality throughout the ages and to this age.  Thus, we find in the eastern spiritual fathers such as St. Makarius and St. Isaac the Syrian, and the teachers of faith mentioned above, a repetitive confirmation of the inability of the natural mind to apprehend God, and that man is given the knowledge of God by a spiritual overflow that pours over the human spirit and heart, illuminating him, and elevating him to union with God through work of the Holy Spirit.  These are still the same major principles of theological teaching that were established in the first centuries and are used now in building our Orthodox churches’ spirituality.  For example the teachings of the “homoousious” (the one essence of the Father and the Son), the union of the Logos with humanity in incarnation, and the faith in the same divinity of the Holy Spirit as of the Father and the Son, are all included in the Orthodox liturgies and all affect the spiritual building of the believers.  The Holy Spirit draws us to Christ, the only begotten Son, and the Son is the only way that leads us to the Father as sons, accepted in His Son and sanctified by the Holy Spirit (Spirit of sanctification).  And so, the teaching of the Trinity enters in the heart of Orthodox spirituality and transforms it to His Godly image.

(To be contd.)


  1. This section between rectangular brackets is not in the Arabic book, but is from “Orthodox Spirituality” (see ref. 3 below).
  2. Stromateis VI, 1.
  3. Orthodox Spirituality, by A Monk From Eastern Church, 2nd Edition, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, NY, 1996.
  4. “Der Gute Hirte in hellenisticher und fruhchristlicher Logostheologie” in “Heilige Ueberlieferung” Maria Laach (Munster, 1938).
  5. Athanasius, Orat. Contra Arianos, III, 33.
  6. F. Heiler, Im Ringe um der Kirche, 2nd ed. (Munich, 1931), p. 65.

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