Aidan Nichols, O.P., Theology in the Russian Diaspora:  Church, Fathers, Eucharist in Nikolai Afanas'ev (1893-1966) (Cambridge and New York and etc.: Cambridge University Press, 1989), xv, 295 pp. Bib.


 

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light.

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

(Matthew Arnold, "Dover Beach", 1867)

 

   "For countless ages the hot nebula whirled aimlessly through space....  And now the first germ of life grew in the depths of the ocean,...  And from the monsters, as the play unfolded itself, Man was born, with the power of thought, the knowledge of good and evil, and the cruel thirst for worship....  And God smiled and when he saw that Man had become perfect in renunciation and worship, he sent another sun through the sky, which crashed into Man's sun; and all returned again to nebula...."

   Such in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief.  Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home.


(Bertrand Russell, "A Free Man's Worship", 1917)

 

That was the "world view" which the nineteenth century Russian intelligentsia understood.  It was modern, it was scientific, and it was WESTERN.  The Westernizers among the intelligentsia accepted that world view, but they also anticipated Russell's admonition:  "Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home."  Westernizers such as Vissarion Belinsky, Alexander Herzen, Michael Bakunin, Nicholas Dobroliubov, Nicholas Chernyshevsky, George Plekhanov and, yes, even Vladimir Ilich Ulianov endeavored to create a home for human "ideals" within the materialistic parameters which "Science presents for our belief".

 

Aidan Nichols, the author of the book under review, felt it was necessary to begin his study of the Russian emigre theologian, Nikolai Afanas'ev, by reviewing the Russian Slavophile roots of his theology. 

 

In the last half of the nineteenth century, some Russian intelligentsia objected to the rigidities of the Westernizers scientific parameters.  They also wished to create a home for human ideals, but they would not be limited to the world view dictated by science.  Indigenous Russian perspectives allowed for other options.  These intelligentsia, led by I. V. Kireevski and Aleksei Khomiakov, were the Slavophiles.  To a great extent, they built their Slavophile world on the heritage of Russian Orthodoxy. 

 

This Slavophile appeal was limited to nostalgic Russian intellectuals, but Vladimir Soloviev felt that "world views" should have a wider appeal.  The choice should not be between the world of science or medieval transcendentalism.  Soloviev constructed a philosophy-theology which did not do violence to Slavophile thought and yet was not dependent on a transcendental world view.  His philosophy did, however, define an extensive non-material dimension to reality, and the unifying force for his universe he named "Sophia" (Wisdom).

 

Soloviev's philosophy had a powerful impact on Russian intelligentsia who had reluctantly embraced the materialism of the scientific world.  He was also influential in the west, especially with theologians and philosophers of the Church.  Soloviev influenced several generations of creative theologians--both east and west.  Among Russian theologians, the first generation reached their maturity in pre-revolutionary Russia while the second generation became the "Theologians of the Russian Diaspora".

 

Nikolai Afanas'ev (1893-1966) was one of these second generation theologians.  He did much of his work at the Saint-Serge Institute in Paris.  This theological academy was established by the Russian Orthodox diaspora who left Russia after the Revolution.  The freedom from intellectual oversight created an environment in which such professors as Nikolai Berdiaev, Sergei Bulgakov, Georgii Florovskii (briefly discussed in the book) and several others could make major contributions to "Russian" thought in the twentieth century.  (Perhaps the setting of "freedom" should not receive all the credit for the many creative ideas of the Russian exiles.  Some of them spent time in internal exile or prison for expressing creative ideas before the Revolution as well.)

 

In the study under review, Aidan Nichols, a Dominican monk, has examined the ecclesiology of Afanas'ev and suggested that it represents the "convergence" of eastern and western theology.  He introduced Afanas'ev's thought with a knowledgeable examination of its Slavophile roots.  In the main body of the book (chapters 3 and 4), Nichols admirably summarized this ecclesiology without interjecting his own perspectives.  His summary is so concise that virtually every paragraph introduces a new and significant concept.  In the final lengthy chapter, Nichols evaluated the ideas he had so faithfully summarized in the earlier chapters.

 

Nikolai Afanas'ev was essentially a Church historian, and his approach to reevaluating the theology of the Church is essentially historical.  He reexamined the early Church, the works of the Church Fathers, and the Early (Seven) Ecumenical Councils.  Through this methodology, he demonstrated how undesirable (from his perspective) traditions developed from less than desirable circumstances.  Thus he can be critical of virtually every contemporary practice which grew out of those traditions that is inconsistent with his ecclesiology. 

 

For example, the Eastern Church places great emphasis on the seven Ecumenical Councils.  Afanas'ev suggested that every Council was called by the secular Emperor who also exercised extensive control over the membership and agenda of each Council.  He argued that the results of such Councils should not, of themselves, be authoritative and binding on the Church.  In fact authority comes from being received and accepted by the Church, not by the origin of the pronouncement.

 

Afanas'ev also established the celebration of the Eucharist as the center of the Church.  In recent years, this concept has gained extensive support.  The Eucharist has both a material and non-material dimension.  Theologians have always suggested that the Church has a physical existence as well as a spiritual dimension.  (Augustine of Hippo in his essay on Rome and Jerusalem provided the most famous example of the dual nature of the Church, but the author does not mention that example.)

 

The Eucharist as the center of the Church provides a more flexible definition than the traditional formula linking the "City" (Polis) with the physical Church.  Numerous disputes have remained unresolved because the Church requires "One city--one Church (or one bishop)".

 

For Afanas'ev, the local Church is the highest form of the Church.  His formula is equally critical of national Churches (both autonomous and autocephalous) and papal hierarchial organization.  He is willing to grant the pope a kind of primacy, but it is only a primacy of "love" not of power.  In other words, the pope has primacy among those who accept his preeminence.

 

Afanas'ev did not hesitate to ascribe a prime role to the Holy Spirit.  His Church is a Church without human "power" (authority of leaders to impose decisions on members).  Neither councils nor popes have this power.  How then can the Church remain united?  His answer is also the title of one of his books; it is the "Church of the Holy Spirit".  His pneumatology directly challenges modern fundamentalism.  While fundamentalists ascribe a role to the Holy Spirit, they make sure that humans formulate and enforce doctrine, accepting into membership only whose who will subscribe to the "fundamentals" they have formulated.  While Fundamentalists and traditionalists alike will argue that the Holy Spirit works through "those in authority", Afanas'ev insisted that the Holy Spirit works through the members. The Holy Spirit will cause doctrine, which is authoritative, to be accepted by the members. 

 

While Afanas'ev's many other concepts are very important and well argued, they are too numerous to discuss here.  It may be useful, however, to examine the tribulations his Church endured during his lifetime and to examine how his view of the Church could have greatly eased most of the traumas and disputes so familiar to him.

 

In 1917-1918 a Russian Orthodox Synod met in Moscow and reestablished the Moscow Patriarchate.  The Patriarch was jailed by the Communist government and numerous disputes arose as to which orders (ukazi) were authoritative and which were coerced.  Afanas'ev was critical of conciliar (and synodical) authority and events seemed to justify his criticism.  The Patriarch was jailed because of his position.  Many have charged that his successor served as a tool of Stalin.  A church influenced by Stalin was the price of a synodical-patriarchal structure.  Without authority figures, the government would have had fewer targets to martyr.  The Church could have existed wherever "two or three" people were gathered together to celebrate the Eucharist.

 

The disputes which arose between the Synod of Bishops Outside Russia and the Moscow Patriarchate over the Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe and America could also have been avoided.  With Afanas'ev's ecclesiology it is impossible to have a "Church in exile".  A Church is where the people are.  The Church was never exiled from Russia.  The Russian people in exile and the immigrants to the United States established their own Church where they were.  The disputes they endured were the creation of an improper ecclesiastical structure.

 

The problems of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church should never have arisen.  By definition, the Ukrainians would have had their own Church.  (Afanas'ev objected to Churches organized and identified by nationality.)  Few would argue that the Holy Spirit joined the Ukrainian Catholic Church (in communion with Rome) to the Moscow Patriarchate in 1946.  The result appeared to be the work of Stalin's regime.  The regime murdered many of the Ukrainian Catholic Bishops and incarcerated the Ukrainian Catholic Metropolitan for 18 years before expelling him from the Soviet Union.  There could have been no such merger in Afanas'ev's ecclesiology.

 

Aidan Nichols confesses to being influenced by Afanas'ev's arguments, with some reservations about Afanas'ev's emphasis on ante-Nicean Councils and the role of councils in the church. the author would also enhance Afanas'ev's doctrine on papal primacy.  Nichols suggested that the Afanas'evan ecclesiology is part of a "convergence" of Eastern and Western ecclesiology which has become prominent in the twentieth century (and to which Nichols's Dominicans have made significant contributions).

 

The theology represented by Afanas'ev occupies a central position in twentieth century theology because Afanas'ev and his fellow theologians have provided east and west with a new context in which to examine seemingly insurmountable theological disputes.  The new context provides a supportive environment for agreement and mutual acceptance.

 

Keith P. Dyrud

Concordia College, St. Paul