Hieromartyr St. Victor (Ostrovidov) of Vyatka, in a 1911 article, published under the pseduonym “The Wanderer”, criticized the views being promoted by then Archbishop Sergius (Stragorodsky) and Archbishop Anthony (Khrapovitsky). The article was called “The New Theologians”. Contrary to what some say, the article was, in fact, written by St. Victor, as he affirmed in both a letter to both Bishop Abraham of Urzhuma and as he wrote in his interrogation replies to the Soviet Secret Police. I could not find the article as I remember it in an old “Orthodox Word” publication, so, the first four paragraphs are translated by myself from the Russian, while, the remaining derives from Vladimir Moss’ translation in the article “The Pelagian Roots of Sergianism“. Nevertheless, we can see from St. Victor’s attitude, as well as many other Church teachers (such as Abp. Theophan of Poltava, Abp. Seraphim (Sobolev), etc), saints and martyrs, that they reacted quite negatively to the new attempt to re-interpret the teachings on salvation and atonement, and rejected the belief that they had all been simply deceived in the preaching for generations.–Hmk. Enoch
The New Theologians by Hieromartyr Victor of Vyatka
The Russian Church has recently seen the creation of a new theological direction, the cause of which was the desire to somehow revive in the minds of the faithful dead theological science, freeing itself from the “obscure formalities” of the Christian Faith. The main creators of this school of direction are Archbishops Anthony (Kraphovitsky) and Sergius (Stragorodsky), whose “scientific works” can supposedly be considered a genuine revival of patristic teaching.
“We need to” —says the theologians of the new direction– “show how the theoretical position of the Christian religion and all its tenets, which now appear only as indifferent metaphysical subtleties, can have a deeper impact on the practical sense of believers. While we neglect to show the close relationship between the Dogmatic Truths of the Orthodox Faith and virtuous life, we cannot resist and sop the falling away of the children of the Church.”
According to this statement, the theologians are really trying to show that the tenets of the Christian Teaching are necessary for human life, not because the whole content is the Great Truth of God for the salvation of the world, but because everyone one of them, supposedly, can serve as the principle of exciting and strengthening in a person the instinct and desire to do good. From the bishop teachers there is an attempt to find any “moral ideas”, consisting of Church Dogmas, and then showing, so to speak, the vital need now in the moral tenets of human development.
In addition to this seeming ‘abstraction’ and ‘lifelessness’ of the Orthodox Doctrine, there is anger by the spirit of the new theologians since they say it presents the salvation of man ( a supernatural element), as something dead in relation to human life. The supernatural beginning, supposedly, as well as the value of the personal volition of man, is destroyed, and replaced in life with moral exploits of ‘magical effects on man’, which inevitably destroys salvation, making it identical to moral perfection. This ‘magical element’, is evidently found in the doctrine of the Holy Sacraments of the Church, and is, according to the new theologians, simple an inadvertent confusion of the Faith of the Church with the West. Meanwhile, according to their new theological reasons nothing supernatural can take place in the salvation of man, and the Christian Faith faith really has only one true purpose: to strengthen the moral self-activity of man. Hence it is natural for the new theologians to imply the non-necessity of some Sacraments of the Orthodox Church, as serving no relevant purpose, such as Matrimony, Holy Unction, and others. Hence, speaking modestly, it found to be strange to their minds that the basic preaching of Christianity is that only Christ’s Death on the Cross in itself, brings a person the atonement need for him, and that Baptism into Christ’s Death really gives the Baptized instant true regeneration, making him a join heir with Christ. It turn out, according to the new theologians, that neither the Suffering, nor the Death Itself of the God-Man have any value, in Itself, independent for the salvation of man, but are only simple evidences of God’s love for man. The Saviour of the world is transformed into a “witness,” and the necessary cause of the suffering is to be a “witness”; in the new theology it can be assumed that for the person it is not easy to get used to doing good, and it required that you should always have before you the sight of His ready ideal of suffering for the good, to draw strength from it yourself. Leaving the theological writings of Archbishop Anthony, the main idea of which have been precisely specified, and which themselves are noted by professors reviewing Abp. Anthony are said to have a great deal that is of original ‘foolishness’, seeming like a novelty, and the destruction of the teachings of the Church, we will now focus on the teaching of Archbishop Sergius about the Holy Sacrament of Baptism.
According to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, the holy sacrament of Baptism is the spiritual, Grace-filled birth of man from God Himself. In it man acquired the saving power of Christ’s death on the cross, that is, all the sins of man are taken upon Himself by the Saviour of the world, and for that reason man is completely cleansed from all his sins and, by virtue of this, immediately becomes a member of His Kingdom and a co-heir of His eternal glory. And this action of the holy sacrament takes place not in imagination and thought only, but essentially, that is, there takes place in very deed the renewal of man by Divine power, which directly gives to man: “the remission of punishment, the loosing of bonds, union with God, the freedom of boldness and, instead of servile humiliation, equality of honour with the angels” (St. Gregory of Nyssa). ‘The Lord voluntarily died in order to destroy sins… Sin was nailed to the cross, sins were destroyed by the cross,’ teaches St. John Chrysostom. And for that reason ‘the Saviour is the cleansing sacrifice for the whole universe, for He cleanses and abolishes all the sins of men by His voluntary death on the cross’. And every believer is made a participant of this cleansing sacrifice, and together with it – a co-heir of heavenly good things – only in the holy sacrament of Baptism. ‘In the sacrament of Baptism,’ writes Chrysostom, ‘God cleanses our very sins, for Grace touches the soul itself and rips out sins from the root. For that reason the soul of the person who has been baptized is cleaner than the rays of the sun… The Holy Spirit, remoulding the soul in Baptism, as if in a crucible, and destroying sins, makes it purer and more brilliant than any gold’.
This Orthodox teaching on the holy sacrament of Baptism is also contained in the works of many of the bishops of the Russian Church. Thus Bishop Theophan the Recluse says: ‘Having died on the cross, the Lord and Saviour raised our sins upon the cross and became the cleansing of our sins. In the death of the Lord on the cross is a power cleansing sin. He who is baptized, immersed into the death of Christ is immersed into the power that cleanses sin. This power in the very act of immersion consumes every sin, so that not even a trace of it remains. What happens here is the same as if someone were to prepare a chemical solution which, when things were immersed into it, would consume every impurity. In the same way the death of Christ, as a power cleansing sin, consumes every sin immediately anyone is immersed into this death by baptism. Not a trace of sin remains in the person who has been baptized: he dies to it…’ In this way, that is, by means of the holy sacrament of Baptism, ‘everything that is necessary for the salvation of man passed from Christ the Lord to the believer who is being baptized and he acquires this, not nominally (that is, in words), but essentially’.
That is what the Universal Church taught and teaches to the present day on the holy sacrament of baptism, but the new theologians do not want to agree with this teaching, and Archbishop Sergius tries to affirm that Bishop Theophan supposedly did not want to say what he said: ‘Here in the words of Bishop Theophan another would see the most extreme, because of its materialism, idea of the justification of man… However, all these comparisons remain only comparisons, without expressing the very essence of the matter… they do not touch the real meaning of the sacrament, for the expression of which it is necessary to abandon the scholastic formulas… For Orthodoxy there is no need to resort to a transformation of the sinner into a righteous man that is so contrary to all the laws of the soul’s life.’
“After all,’ theologises Archbishop Sergius, ‘the soul is not some kind of substance such that in it one could transform a man against his will, and man cannot be a passive object for the action of supernatural (Divine) power…, while baptism itself is not some external magical action on the person being baptized’,… it is ‘a great trial of the conscience of a man, a crucial moment in his life. After all, if the holy sacrament of baptism, in itself and through its own essence, through the faith in the Crucified One of the person being baptized or of his sponsors, could give complete renewal of life, man would turn out to be without will, the object of another’s influence, and the holiness received by him in this way would differ in no way from innate holiness having no moral worth’. ‘Man cannot undergo salvation in spite of his will, and for that reason it is impossible to imagine that at the moment of baptism or repentance there should be accomplished a certain removal of responsibility for sin, a declaration that man is righteous’ or holy, or, which comes to the same thing, worthy of the Heavenly Kingdom. ‘The essence of justification consists not in a change in his spiritual-bodily nature which is independent of his will, but in a change in the direction of his will…, while the Grace of baptism only strengthens the determination of man to such a degree that he begins to hate sin’. And so ‘justification for the Orthodox is a free, moral condition; it depends on man himself, although it can be accomplished only with the help of the Grace of God’… And ‘the forgiveness of sins does not consist in the fact that existing sin is covered or forgiven; there is no such forgiveness,’ teaches Archbishop Sergius, ‘in Christianity.’ ‘The forgiveness of sins in the sacrament of baptism or repentance consists in the fact that, as a consequence of a radical change in the soul, which is as much of Grace as of free will, there appears in man an attitude to life that is completely contrary to his former, sinful one, so that former sin ceases to influence the life of man’s soul and ceases to belong to the soul, but is annihilated.’ ‘The thread of man’s life is as it were broken, and the sinful past that was formed in him loses its defining, compulsive power… This voluntary cutting off of evil is the most essential part of justification, it is, so to speak, the very means whereby sins are forgiven to man… Man has abandoned his former sins and for that reason they are not accounted to him’, but ‘what is done remains done, it is impossible for man to forget his past sins…, the consciousness of his past sins only teaches man to understand the mercy and all-forgiving love of God’.
Yes, the presence in a man of his former sins, as exactly defined acts of his will, are not important after his baptism or repentance, for, ‘you know, a new man emerges from the font, not by dint of the annihilation of his sins, but insofar as he determines himself towards the good…; by this self-determination towards the good or inner, freely willed revolution, man’s sinful covering is sloughed off…, whether this is original sin or the consequences of the acts of the person himself who is being baptized.’ ‘So as to come out of the sacrament a new man, he must himself strive to be new, and, insofar as he has the power, he must destroy in himself the slightest remains of his former sinful make-up…, so that the righteousness in the proper sense that man receives in baptism is rather a possibility than a reality.’ But if that is the case, ‘then even the non-reception of the sacrament in the prescribed form may not harm man, since the essence of true Christianity has been formed in him – the desire for the Kingdom of Christ.’ Hence it becomes clear that ‘if justification is not a magical, but a moral matter, if its essence consists in the change in the man’s attitude to life, a change which is only brought to completion by Grace, but is produced by the will of man’, then for the cleansing of the sins of him who is being baptized, the cleansing sacrifice of Golgotha is, of course, not required at all. For justification, according to the teaching of the new theologians, everything depends not on assimilating the fruits of the expiatory death of the God-Man, but on a moral, psychological revolution. ‘Sin is not forgotten and is not remitted to a man because of some reasons that are extraneous for the soul of the man’, and for that reason ‘if it is possible to speak of God’s remitting sin to a man, this is only as an intention from before the creation of the world of the whole economy of God concerning our salvation, an intention which brought the Son of God down to earth and raised Him onto the cross, and which, on the other hand, is an eternal earnest of mercy for us, for every sinner who comes to God.’ Every other concept of the sanctification of man and the forgiveness of sins is, in the opinion of Archbishop Sergius, a crude error of the West, and arises not because man in fact had no means of salvation, but because ‘such an error was dear to the self-loving nature of man’.
This briefly is the teaching of the new theologians, and in particular Archbishop Sergius, on the holy sacrament of baptism, from which we can gain a clear idea of their general view of God’s work of the salvation of man, which salvation in the proper sense of the word does not and did not exist, while man was only given help to accomplish his own salvation. The new theologians cannot be reconciled with the teaching of the Orthodox Church on the real significance of Christ’s death on the cross as a sacrifice cleansing sins, for such an understanding of salvation, in their opinion, by ignoring man’s own means [of salvation], is deprived of common sense, since it denies the laws of the psychological life of man, in which everything must take place in the natural order. ‘Salvation is not some kind of external-juridical or magical action, but a gradually accomplished development in man through the action of the Grace of God, since there can be degrees of redemption,’ says Archbishop Sergius.
Not having in themselves enough strength to receive the mystery of Christ’s coming into the world as a precisely defined historical act of God’s salvation of man, as a certain moment whose value lies in itself as such, the new theologians try to conceptualize Christianity in another way, that is, by adapting different dogmas of the Christian teaching to the spiritual life of man. Instead of firmly and boldly judging the whole present life by the truth of the teaching on God’s perfect salvation of the world, they conceptualize this truth in terms of its possible suitability and usefulness for the life of man. They hope somehow to link the Nicene Creed and the Sermon on the Mount, that is, the truth of the dogmatic teaching of Christianity with the voluntary life of man. And they forget that the moral content of life is for every believer only the inevitable, natural consequence of God’s determined work of the salvation of man. And thinking by means of an artificial broadening of the moral autonomy of man to enliven Christianity, the new theologians in reality only repeat in themselves the sorrowful destiny of the well-known heretics of the 16th century – the Socinians. ‘The Socinian theologians also ascribed the accomplishment of salvation to the moral forces of man himself, albeit with the cooperating Grace of God, so that the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, according to their theological ideas, was not an expiatory sacrifice for the sins of men, but only an exceptional witness of God’s readiness to forgive people all their sins and give them Grace-filled help to attain eternal life and the Kingdom of Heaven. With this idea of Christ’s work they evidently not only destroyed the Christian dogma of salvation, but also opened a broad path to a decisive rejection of the whole of Christian dogmatics; because if in actual fact God’s participation in the salvation of men is limited only to the simple demonstration of God’s readiness to cooperate with their real salvation, then for this demonstration the coming into the world of the Son of God was by no means required… And the Socianist theologians truly arrived at the complete destruction of Christianity, although in actual fact they did not think or want to destroy Christianity, but on the contrary to affirm it as the absolutely true religion.’
Such an end is inevitable also for the new theologians: for them, too, the work of Christ the Saviour in that form in which it was accomplished must without question lose, and has already lost for many unfortunates, its meaning and significance. And man again returns to the path of natural thinking and the still no more than ‘possibility’ of his salvation, and in the torments of despair he will again cry out to Heaven in the words of the Apostle Paul: ‘Wretch that am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?’”