THE FIRES OF INTOLERANCE
by Gleb Yastrebov
Nezavisimaia gazeta--religiia, 15 July 1998
A brief history of the burning of books
When we speak of the attitude toward the burning of books in the history of the church it is possible at the outset to distinguish two categories. The first of these we meet already in the Acts of the Apostles. "Quite a few of the [residents of Ephesus] who had been involved in magic collected their books and burned them in front of everyone" (Ac 19.19). In our days also in the West, for example, some who have converted to Christianity have thrown away literature they had regarding magic or even burned it. This has happened more often not in public but at home, as a sign of renunciation of the former life. At the time of the Jesus Revolution in the 1970s in America and somewhat in England new converts destroyed works of occultic writers and also some rock music recordings.
It is another matter whether a Christian can burn books which profess faith in Jesus Christ. From the very start we see exceptional tolerance toward diversity of thought within the church. Some Christians could continue strict observance of Old Testament commands (Ac 21.21-26) while others did not consider this necessary (Ga 5.1). As contemporary biblical scholars have shown, in the Corinthian church there were ever nonorthodox tendencies (apparently "gnostic"), but the apostle Paul did not declarethis opponents false Christians; he reproached them only for a lack of love (acknowledging them as members of the body of Christ). For New Testament Christianity an extraordinary multiplicity of forms was characteristic. "Each person's work will be made manifest, for the day [i.e., judgment day] will declare it, because it will be revealed in fire, and fire will try each person's work, of what kind it is" (1 Co 3.13). It will be tried not in the flame of the fires of the inquisition, but the flame of God.
In the undivided church. Subsequently the approach to diversity of thought became much more brutal. But for a very long time the burning of even heretical works was a rarity in the Christian church. A serious test began with the recognition of Christianity by state authority, in the time of Constantine the Great, and there arose the attempt to shut the opponents' mouth with the aid of violent measures. In the fourth century Constantine ordered the surrender of all Arian books under threat of death. But, it seems, no one was punished in this way. In 435 Theodosius II and Valentinian III ordered burning of Nestorian books; another law followed to surrender Manichaean books.
On the whole, such incidents may be counted on one's fingers. As Saint John Chrysostom said: "He [the Lord] does not want to have his servants against their will and by compulsion; but he wants for all to serve him freely and voluntarily and to know joy in his service." The fathers of the church could express opinions which by our standards were nonorthodox. Did not Saint Gregory the Theologian call the priests who gathered for the second ecumenical council a "swarm of wasps"? Isn't Saint John of Damascus' "Concise statement of the Orthodox faith" full of astrological signs and planets? Didn't Saint Gregory of Nissa deny the eternality of the torments of hell? These are nothing essential, of course. But let an Orthodox priest nowadays repeat any of these ideas and he will be looked upon askance and perhaps his books will be burned.
As regards Byzantium, persecution of heretics sometimes arose (such as the beating of the Paulicians under Empress Theodora) but burning their books was not usual. Even books of the Bogomils were not suppressed and apocryphal literature was treated quite calmly. In 1054, after the dispute of Cardinal Humbert and Nicetas Stethatos, the anti-Latin work of the latter was burned: the emperor ordered it because he did not want controversies with Rome. (The text of the work, incidentally, has been preserved and even is a part of the Russian Book of Canons [Kormchaia kniga].) The separation in the church nevetheless happened and thereafter the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches developed more or less on their own.
Europe in the flame. In the West the rooting out of all possible diverse thought soon began to be approached very decisively. One of the main means was, as is known, the bonfire. The indictment of Jan Hus is quite significant: the eighteenth point charged him with teaching in his pamphlet "Concerning the church" the impermissibility of surrendering heretics to civil authorities for the death penalty. Hus himself was burned at the stake. However cruelty and necrophilia at that time were objects of the special sentence.
We are interested in books that at any time were committed to the flame in large quantities. In the first place this pertained to texts of holy scripture. In the Catholic church the Latin text was used; it is a very beautiful and melodious translation but, unfortunately, for many it is not comprehensible. In order to read it the peasant had to master Latin: Pope Gregory VII, having recognized it as the church language, forbade the use of vernacular languages in Bible reading. Special prohibitions on reading the Bible in the vernacular were issued by the councils of 1215 (Lateran), 1229 (Toulouse), and 1233. It can be said with confidence that the cause of this was not "conservatism" alone. In reading scripture the discrepancies between regular western church practices and New Testament commands would be too clearly discovered. A council in 1234 declared heretical everyone who within eight weeks did not surrender for burning Bibles that had been translated into the vernacular (if they had them). Later in connection with the protestant reformation Rome had to make concessions and even began to publish translations of the scripture itself.
Much worse was the fate of heretical writings. Nicholas de Rupella, a converted Jew, called the attention of the inquisition to blasphemies on Christ contained in Jewish writings. In June 1239 the pope sent orders to the kings and rulers of England, France, Navarre, Aragon, Castille, and Portugal that on Saturday of the upcoming fast, when the Jews were assembled in synagogues, their books were to be seized. After this order was fulfilled there began a long trial against the Talmud, culminating in an indictment. On 13 May 1248 in Paris the sentence was pronounced, after which fourteen cartloads of books were burned, followed by another six. We note, by the way, the date of the execution. On 14 May 1995 Fr Oleg Steniaev along with the vicar of Patriarch Alexis II, Bishop Arseney Epifanov of Istrinsk, conducted in a church yard the burning of the books of Leo Tolstoy and Nikolai Rerikh, along with the works of Vladimir Soloviev, and fathers Sergei Bulgakov, Paul Florensky, and others. That actually could be seen on TV. Did they really not notice the jubilee of the Catholic initiative? (Materials on book burning in contemporary Russia have been collected in "Nationalism and xenophobia," published recently by the Moscow antifascist center and informational research group "Panorama.")
Let's return, however, to the West where heresy had not been exterminated. In 1255 Saint Ludwig (a Moscow Catholic church is consecrated to him) ordered the lords of Narbonne province to destroy all copies of that blasphemous book. King Philip IV informed his judges of the necessity of helping the inquisition in eradicating the Talmud. As a result in 1309 in Paris four cartloads of Jewish books were burned and in 1319 another two in Toulouse. The Roman popes usually did not cut this off but more often facilitated it.
In the fifteenth century in the West books were being burning all the time--Wycliffe, Hus, and other "heretics." After the discovery of America by the conquistadores many monuments of the Indian culture were destroyed. For example, at an auto-da-fe in Mani [Yucatan], conducted by Bishop Diego de Landoy, books, vessels, and utensils were burned. Jose de Akosta in his "Natural and moral history of India" (1590) wrote about a certain preacher who after examining astronomy books decided that "all of this must be witchcraft and magic arts." These books also were burned, which, to be sure, they later regretted. Especially many books were burned in Texcoco, Mexico, and in the Yucatan. In Czech lands the Catholic clergy frequently destroyed books in Slavic in order to unify the liturgy which was supposed to be conducted in Latin. It seems, the history of the western church consists of many fires and tortures. One can recall the words of Berdiaev: "I want to unite myself with Jeanne d'Arc, but I do not want to be united with Bishop Cauchon who burned her; I want to unite myself with Saint Francis Asissi, but I do not want to be united with the church leaders who persecuted him." As we have seen, many now are ready to united not with Jeanne d'Arc but with Bishop Cauchon. Meanwhile the Catholic church has gone down a long path of arresting this evil and in the twentieth century words of repentance have resounded. For example, Pope John XXII said: "On our brows is the mark of Cain. In the course of centuries Abel has lain in blood and tears. . ." (regarding persecution of the Jews). We are recalling here these sordid times only in order the explain the sources of the present-day Russian autos-de-fe.
The East and heretics. In the East the attitude toward heretics and their works remained quite tolerant for a long time and the burning of books was a rarity, the more so in Rus where there was a virtual cult of books. It was no accident that Cyril and Methodius were canonized. Prince Yaroslav the Wise loved reading very much. Saint Cyril of Turov (12th century), the "Russian Chrysostom," cherished books and even raised them on a pedestal. The western fanaticism was unknown here for a long time. Many books suffered in ordinary fires. For example, during the attack of Batu Khan (1240) the library of the cathedral of Holy Wisdom of Kiev perished as did a great number of books in Moscow cathedrals during the attack of Tokhtamysh (1382). The Moscow fires in 1547 and 1560 brought destruction. But there were no fires to burn books themselves. There was a list of forbidden books, that is, those whose reading could be viewed as temptation. This included, for example, many apocryphal books. But they were not burned, and sometimes they enjoyed sympathy among the masses.
In 1504 there was an exceptional event: several heretics were burned in crates--Judaizers (those who followed certain Jewish customs and celebrated Old Testament feasts). But not their books! Incidentally, many did not approve the executions. The Transvolga Elders were advocates of spiritual freedom and defended the persecuted heretics. "Violence by the truth is more vile than all murders;" these lines of Maximilian Voloshin, really, express the attitude toward those who think differently of Nil of Sora, Kassian Uchemsky, and Innokenty of Komel. As regards the opposite tradition, even the stern Novgorod archbishop Gennady burned only the birch helmets of the heretics and not their works.
Among the Zyrians there was a legend that under Ivan the Terrible certain books of Bishop Stefan of Perm were committed to the flame. But it seems this is not confirmed by documents. The situation changed somewhat after the Time of Troubles. In 1601 a boyar was forcibly shorn a monk (with the name Filaret) who was the eldest son of Nikita Romanov. Earlier he practically had become tsar and Boris Godunov feared him as a legitimate heir to the throne. Later Filaret was made patriarch. In the history of the Russian church he is a somewhat ominous figure. For example, he ordered the rebaptism of Belorussians (Russians from Latvia and Poland) who were considered Orthodox in their homeland. In 1627 by his order were burned "for heretical style and contents lying in a book" sixty copies of "Instructional New Testament" by Kirill Trankvillion Stavroretsky. In 1633 he ordered the removal from all churches and monasteries copies of the church Typikon published in 1610 (which Filaret himself had used) and their transmittal to Moscow for burning ("these texts were printed by a thief, the drunken monk Login of the Saint Sergius Holy Trinity monastery").
According to Russian witnesses, in the same seventeenth century some Slavonic books were burned at Mount Athos because of their errors. But this information is dubious.
Western customs. To be sure, the nineteenth century provided an example of auto-da-fe when the question arose about a Russian text of the Bible. Properly, the holy scriptures were spread among the common people by protestants, which evoked dissatisfaction with the church hierarchy. But at the time the Russian Bible Society (RBO) was engaged in the translation of the Bible. Incidentally, in the apartment museum of Dostoevsky in St. Petersburg there is a text of the New Testament in the RBO's 1823 edition, with notes by the writer, who used this translation. But some highly placed persons were displeased, such as Admiral Alexander Shishkov, minister of public education. He declared that there is no Russian language at all but only a slavic that could be elegant or vulgar. It turned out that the Bible had been surreptiously translated into the vulgar dialect. Besides, if the Old Testament were translated directly from the ancient Hebrew there could be discrepancies with the Church Slavonic text. Shishkov wrote: "In all of this excess and, it is possible to say, universal flood of the books of the holy scripture, where will there be a place for the apostolic canons, works of the holy fathers, decress of the holy councils, the tradition, ordinances, and church customs, in a word, everything which til now has served as the foundation of Orthodoxy? All these things will be smitten, trampled, and submerged." It is startling that he is so unsure of the "ordinances and church customs" if he fears they could be "submerged" simply by reading holy scripture (which, incidentally, had been preserved by the fathers of the church). After all, for the admiral reading the Bible turns out to be "much more dangerous than all the earlier ideas of the masonic and Carbonari lies." He also had other fears: if the Bible appeared in every home its pages could be used as scrap paper. Considering these circumstances, it was decided to burn the translation of the Pentateuch that had been printed. As a result in the spring of 1825 several thousand copies of the translation fell into the ovens of a brick factory.
Incidentally this was not the only case of the burning of pages of the text of scripture in Russia by church men. For example, in February 1997, in the settlement of Semkhoz near Moscow (where Fr Alexander Men once lived) the priests Georgy Studenov and Vladimir Rigin burned around 300 children's Bibles distributed by Baptists (which it is possible to buy even in Orthodox churches) along with other Baptist literature. Although Saint Clement of Alexandria taught to use spiritual riches irrespective of the source.
As regards the burning of books by Orthodox priests. It seems to me that it is possible to draw a definite conclusion: we see a tendency that is not distinctive of Orthodoxy nor the Russian spirit but which really is a betrayal of the Russian church tradition. We face what Dostoevsky warned about in his "Legend of the Grand Inquisitor." This is a threat to the spiritual rebirth of Russia: a struggle with the West bound to western methods--the worst, which even the Catholics have long ago denounced. Shouldn't the example for a Russian priest be Nil of Sora or Serafim of Sarov rather than Bernar Gi or Torquemada? We also have a biblical example: Jeremiah, who denounced and called to repentance. His preaching was written down and taken to King Joachim. The king ordered to read them aloud. The courtier Jehudi began reading: "When Jehudi read three or four columns, the king cut them with a pen knife and threw them into the fire in the brazier until the whole scroll was destroyed in the fire which was in the brazier" (Jer 36.23). Of course, at the time of Jeremiah's preaching they were not a part of holy scripture and they seemed only bothersome, violations of tradition and order, and even arrogant.
I shall end with the words of Filipp de Komin: "One of the best means for a person to become wise is to read ancient history and to study the past events and example of our ancestors. How to behave and what to avoid in order to be wise. For our life is so short that we do not have enough time for gaining experience in so many things." Learning from mistakes is useful not only for Catholics. (tr. by PDS)