[St. Pachomius Library]

Greece, Greeks, and Hellenism

The culture of the Roman Empire --- its literature, art, philosophy, and social mores --- was essentially Greek, and ancient elites as far away as India also adopted Hellenic fashions. Because of this, Hellenism has an unusual role in Orthodox history. On the one hand, it was the way of thinking with which the gentile Church mostly had to contend --- "Greek" and "pagan" remained synonymous for some Orthodox writers (including Greek Orthodox ones) as late as the XIX Century. On the other hand, the success of the Apologists in finding what was already or potentially Orthodox in Greek thought and the use of Greek philosophical terminology as the official vocabulary of Orthodox theology, not to mention the adoption of Christianity as the state religion of the Empire, meant that Hellenism and Orthodoxy soon developed a far less adversarial relationship. The Church transformed classical culture deeply from within, but classical culture also more superficially came to pervade the Church; barbarians adopted the Faith in part to enjoy the benefits of a more advanced civilisation. In the West, the Latin Church acted as the main custodian of that civilisation after its secular embodiment disintegrated; in the East, the Greek church adopted a less rigidly classical stance, allowing the use of vernacular languages, but in fact secular Hellenic values were invariably and inevitably transmitted alongside Christian ones, mostly to the great benefit of the converted peoples. The fall of the Eastern Empire, the emergence of a new Western culture, and the ascendancy of Westernising emperors in Russia changed this situation somewhat in the Orthodox world at large. In Greece itself, nationalist writers drew on the pagan and Byzantine past in equal measure, and the unique role of Hellenism in Orthodox history has given a special character to the Greek versions of those nationalistic and phyletistic tendencies which have arisen in the all national Orthodox churches. Nevertheless, it remains true that the best aspects of the Hellenic inheritance are part of the universal Orthodox heritage and Greece's particular gift to the Church.

Norman Hugh Redington


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