The Bible and Culture

The Bible and Culture

Tolstoy and the Orthodox Church— a Continuing Tragedy



For those of you who know the literary works or life of Tolstoy, you will find this story from the NY Times this week rather depressing.  The Orthodox Church, in its wisdom, still can’t seem to practice that quintessential Christian virtue, forgiveness, when it comes to one of its greatest Christian writers.  Even if you have only seen ‘The Last Station’  this story should resonate.  See what you think.

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posted January 7, 2011 at 8:07 am

An interesting article, much of it new to me. It is clear that the Russian Orthodox Church considers Tolstoy to have contributed directly to the stream of thought that became Bolshevism – a movement that meant bloody repression for the church and people of Russia. Are they confused on this matter? I guess I’m just curious if we would expect the same public forgiveness and rehabilitation by the Western church for individuals it sincerely believes laid the intellectual foundation for, say, National Socialism in Germany. Respectfully, Ray

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posted January 7, 2011 at 11:00 pm

I couldn’t access the link, unfortunately, but as someone very interested in Eastern Orthodoxy in general, I researched this quite a bit awhile ago and came to the conclusion that the Russian church has on the whole made the right decision. You said in an earlier post on Tolstoy that the church was mistaken in considering Tolstoy heretical, but Tolstoy, as far as I can tell, taught that all church hierarchy was wrong, that any doctrine surrounding the sacraments were absurd, that “Jesus not only did not recognize the resurrection but denied it everytime he met with the idea,” that “Jesus never asked men to have faith in his person,” and that he alone had discovered the real truth of Christianity that had been hidden for nearly 1800 years. (The quotes are from Tolstoy’s writings, but I don’t know the context – they were taken from a page of A.N. Wilson’s literary biography of him that can be accessed on Google Books). Given all these teachings, as well as the public split from the Church initiated by Tolstoy himself, I don’t see how the Russian church could say in good faith that he counts as genuinely Orthodox. I am curious if you have any comments about this, and about whether he really held heretical views?

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ben witherington

posted January 9, 2011 at 8:03 pm

Thanks for these comments. First of all, it is not true that Tolstoy was a founding father of bolshevik ideology. He was a Christian pacifist. Secondly, Wilson has not fairly represented Tolstoy who was reacting to the hugely overly dogmatic Orthodox tradition that would excommunicate someone for being what we would call a thoroughly orthodox (with a little o) Christian person but disagreement on some small matter of church tradition (e.g. how the Holy Spirit relates to the celebration of the Eucharist), a quarrel that has no basis in the Scriptures. If you read Tolstoy’s life of Christ you get a clearer view of his views.

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posted January 27, 2011 at 5:19 pm

Tolstoy was excommunicated because his expressed beliefs were not considered Orthodox. As the Orthodox church explained, excommunication is not a punishment, it occured because Tolstoy’s beliefs were not in keeping with an Orthodox Christian’s – perhaps a Christian of another church, but certainly not Orthodox. Thus, like Christians of other church’s, and non-Christians, he was no longer “in communion” with the Orthodox church – in this sense, he had excommunicated himself already. The formal excommunication reflected what had already happened in reality. It isn’t about lack of forgiveness, it’s simply based on facts. Tolstoy can’t be considered Orthodox, now as then, any more than you could call any other non-Orthodox person, no matter how noteworthy, an Orthodox Christian. George Washington, Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X….you get the picture.

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