Written by Vladimir Moss


The Russian Church schism of 1927 associated with the name of Metropolitan, later Patriarch Sergius (Stragorodsky) of Moscow was the greatest ecclesiastical tragedy of the twentieth century, and probably the greatest disaster to befall the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church since the fall of the Roman papacy in the eleventh century. Moreover, all the Local Orthodox Churches have remained in communion with the schism to this day, becoming complicit in its crimes and falling under the same condemnation. It is therefore a matter of the greatest importance that the real nature of the schism, and its roots in the personal, social and theological consciousness of its leading protagonist should be thoroughly understood.

At its simplest, the tragedy may be described as the fall of Metropolitan Sergius from the confession of Christ under the pressure of the God-hating atheists and “for fear of the Jews”. Just as the lapsed in the early Christian centuries fell away by sacrificing to idols, or buying certificates to the effect that they had sacrificed, so Metropolitan Sergius, in his notorious “Declaration” of 1927, fell away from the faith by sacrificing on the altar of the atheist revolution, calling its joys the Church’s joys and its sorrows – the Church’s sorrows. However, if the matter were limited to the fall of Metropolitan Sergius alone, it would be a tragedy, but only a personal one. What made the tragedy so massive was the fact that the majority of the Church’s clergy felt compelled to follow Sergius in his apostasy, agreeing with his justification of his act on “canonical” grounds, and condemning those who refused to follow him as “schismatics”. At this point their apostasy became, in the words of Archbishop Vitaly (Maximenko), “dogmatized apostasy”: the sergianists not only sinned, they made “excuse for excuses in sin”, providing what was in essence a heretical underpinning to their apostasy.

The first bishop formally to break communion with Metropolitan Sergius was Archbishop, later Hieromartyr Victor (Ostrovidov) of Vyatka. Not only was he the first to break with him: he was also the first to see the full horrific depth of Sergius’ fall, calling it “worse than heresy”. Moreover, he provided the first clue as to why Metropolitan Sergius, in spite of his reputation as a brilliant theologian, should have fallen away so disastrously. The clue he found in certain theological errors in Sergius’ master’s thesis, entitled “The Orthodox Teaching on Salvation”.[1] As he wrote to his friend, Bishop Abraham of Urzhuma: "His errors with regard to the Church and the salvation of man in her were clear to me already in 1911, and I wrote about him [under the pseudonym ‘Wanderer’] in an Old Ritualist journal [The Church], that there would come a time when he would shake the Church..."

A little later, in January, 1928 Bishop Victor clarified his remark in the first two replies to fifteen questions put to him by the Vyatka OGPU:

“How would you interpret, from the civil and ecclesiastical points of view, the appearance of the new church tendency – the platform of the Declaration of July 29, 1927?”

From the ecclesiastical point of view: as an incorrect teaching on the Church and on the matter of our salvation in Jesus Christ – an error of principle by Metropolitan Sergius…

“How do you look at the ‘Declaration’? etc.”

The ‘Declaration’ is a separation from the truth of salvation. It looks on salvation as on a natural moral perfection of man; it is a pagan philosophical doctrine of salvation, and for its realization an external organization is absolutely essential. In my opinion, this is the same error of which, as early as 1911, I accused Metropolitan Sergius, warning that by this error they would shake the Orthodox Church. I said this in the article, ‘The New Theologians’, signing it with the pseudonym ‘Wanderer’. They knew who printed this, and for a long time I experienced their ill disposition towards me. By dint of this error of theirs, they cannot think of the Church without an external organization.

Now the phrase “it looks on salvation as on a natural moral perfection of man” sounds as if Hieromartyr Victor is accusing Sergius of something similar to the heresy of Pelagianism; for the essence of that ancient heresy consists in ascribing the primary cause of our salvation to our own natural will, and not to the Grace of God. However, neither in the Declaration of 1927, nor in his master’s thesis of 1895, does Sergius deny the necessity of the Grace of God for man’s salvation. Nor does he deny original sin, the other hallmark of the Pelagian heresy. Nor is it immediately obvious that Pelagianism, even if it could be ascribed to Sergius, leads necessarily to the conclusion that for salvation “an external organization [for the Church] is absolutely essential”. I believe, however, that a closer examination both of Sergius’ 1895 thesis, and of the comments of his examiners on the thesis (Archimandrite Anthony (Khrapovitsky) and Professor V.A. Sokolov), and of Hieromartyr Victor’s 1911 article criticising it, will show that Sergius did indeed espouse what might be called a twentieth-century variant of Pelagianism, and that this insight helps us to understand his heretical ecclesiological views and thereby bring us closer to the heart of his and the Russian Church’s tragedy…


Archimandrite Sergius’ thesis is subtitled: “An Attempt to Uncover the Moral-Subjective Aspect of Salvation on the Basis of the Holy Scriptures and the Works of the Holy Fathers”.

Already in this subtitle is revealed a potential pitfall in Sergius’ approach: an incorrect understanding of the relationship between the “objective” and “subjective” aspects of salvation. The “objective” aspect is the redemptive Sacrifice accomplished by Christ on the Cross for the sins of all mankind. The “subjective” aspect is the appropriation of the fruits of that salvation by each individual Christian through faith and works. Sergius’ aim was to explicate the Orthodox doctrine of faith and works, and thereby reveal the inadequacy of the Catholic and Protestant approaches to the subject, which both suffered from what Sergius called the Roman “juridical” theory of redemption. There is no doubt that Sergius succeeded in accomplishing this aim in chapters one to three and the first half of chapter four of his thesis (entitled “the Juridical World-View before the Judgement of Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition”, “Eternal Life”, “Reward” and “Salvation”). He fluently and elegantly built up a powerful case for the Orthodox understanding of faith and works on the basis of abundant quotations from Holy Scripture and Tradition. However, by concentrating entirely on the subjective aspect, and not explaining, even briefly, its relationship to the objective aspect, Sergius ran the risk of overemphasizing the former at the expense of the latter and thereby distorting the Orthodox teaching on salvation as a whole.

That Sergius did indeed fall into this trap was pointed out – politely and gently, but tellingly – by Professor Sokolov:

“As his subtitle shows, the author placed as the task of his work the question of salvation, that is, the so-called subjective aspect of redemption. He was propelled to this formulation by the fact that it is precisely this aspect of the Orthodox dogma that, in spite of its great importance, is usually least expounded in theological systems and investigations. The author has carried out his task with sufficient breadth and solidity, successfully filling up in this way a gap that has sometimes made itself felt in Orthodox theological science. But we think that, thanks to his intense struggle against the so-called juridical theory and a certain obsession with the direction he has adopted, the author’s work is one-sided [my italics – V.M.] and for that reason produces a somewhat idiosyncratic impression on the reader. The author touches so lightly on the objective aspect of redemption that the reader completely forgets about it and is sometimes inclined to think that there is, as it would seem, no place for it in the author’s line of thought. In Orthodox theological courses we accept the expression that the Lord Jesus Christ is our Redeemer, that He brought Himself as a sacrifice for the sin of all men and thereby won for them clemency and forgiveness, satisfying the offended Righteousness of God. The Lord accomplished our salvation… as the High Priest, offering Himself in sacrifice for the sins of the world and thereby satisfying for us the Righteousness of God (Sylvester, IV, 159, 164; Macarius, III, 152, 192, etc.). Moreover, in the investigation under review this aspect of the matter is not only not uncovered, but we sometimes encounter such expressions as can give reason for perplexity to readers who are not firm in dogmatics. The author says, for example: ‘The righteousness of God does not consist in the demand for satisfaction for sins, but in presenting to each person that lot which naturally follows from the direction in life that he has accepted’ (p. 92). Of course, similar expressions in the author’s flow of thought can have a completely Orthodox meaning; but since he does not adequately penetrate their true significance, thanks to his one-sided development [of the subject], he can give cause for perplexity. – In order to avoid this, it seems to us that the author should, before realizing the main task of his work, have stopped to briefly describe the objective aspect of the dogma of redemption, and only then, having explained the significance of the private question of the personal salvation of each person in the general system of the dogma, pass on to what now constitutes the exclusive content of this investigation…”[2]

We do not know Sergius’ reaction to this criticism, but he would no doubt have pointed with disapproval to the “juridical” expressions used by Professor Sokolov, and pointed out that the whole purpose of his thesis was to reveal the inadequacy of the juridical theory. Nevertheless, leaving aside the question of the suitability of these expressions, Sokolov’s main point stands: that to ignore completely the “objective” aspect of salvation – the Cross of Christ, no less – in a long thesis on the Orthodox teaching on salvation is, to put it mildly, “one-sided”. We shall see that Hieromartyr Victor considered this fault to be much worse that “one-sidedness”; but before examining his criticism, let us look more closely at what Sergius himself says.

In chapter 4 of his thesis, Sergius discusses the sacrament of baptism, and the necessity for the will of man to work together with the Grace of God in order that the sacrament should be truly effective for salvation. His teaching here is Orthodox; but it is also at this point that he begins to touch on other aspects that elicit, as Sokolov would say, “perplexity”. Thus he writes: “It is equally incorrect to represent salvation as something imputed to man from outside, and as a supernatural transformation taking place in man without the participation of his freedom. In both the one and the other case man would turn out to be only a will-less object of somebody else’s activity, and the holiness received by him in this way would be no different from innate holiness that has not moral worth, and consequently, is by no means that lofty good which man seeks… Salvation cannot be some external-juridical or physical event, but is necessarily a moral action, and as such, it necessarily presupposes, as a most inescapable condition and law, that man himself carries out this action, albeit with the help of Grace. Although Grace acts, although it accomplishes everything, still this is unfailingly within freedom and consciousness. This is the basic Orthodox principle, and one must not forget it if one is to understand the teaching of the Orthodox Church about the very means of man’s salvation.” (chapter 4, pp. 9-10)

It is true, of course, that the salvation of the individual is impossible without the active participation of the individual himself. But it is also true that the “objective” side of man’s salvation was accomplished “from the outside”, as it were – that is, without the active participation of any other man than the Son of Man, Christ God. When Christ died on the Cross, and the rocks were rent asunder, and the veil of the temple was rent in twain, and the graves were opened, and the dead that were in them arose, and the gates of hades were destroyed, and the prisoners were freed, and the gates of Paradise were opened, all this was the work of one man only, the Saviour. Nor was this a half-accomplished salvation: Christ’s last words, “It is finished”, were a precise witness to the fact: the work of our salvation was now accomplished, the Sacrifice was now completed. It remained for this salvation, and the fruits of this Sacrifice, to be assimilated by individual men through the Descent of the Holy Spirit and the repentance and good works of the men who received Him. But objectively speaking salvation was accomplished; Christ had saved us. This central fact receives no acknowledgement in Sergius’ thesis – with consequences that will be discussed later…

He goes on: “The juridical point of view presents two absurdities in the teaching on how man is saved. First, it teaches that God does not impute sin to man and proclaims him righteous at the same time that man remains the same sinner in his soul. And secondly, salvation itself – more exactly, the sanctification of man – is presented in the form of a supernatural recreation that takes place independently of the will, an almost material transformation through Grace of what is being accomplished in the soul. Orthodox dogmatics can use the same expression, but their content, of course, will be very different.” (p. 10)

Here we see the first signs of a Pelagian tendency in Sergius’ thought – not necessarily an acceptance of the British heretic’s precise formulations, but an imitation of his general tendency to overestimate the contribution of human freewill to our salvation at the expense of God’s work.

First, it is not the “juridical theory” that proclaims the baptized man righteous: it is the HolyChurch. Thus immediately after baptism the priest says: “The servant of God, N., is clothed with the robe of righteousness”. And immediately after chrismation he says: “Thou art justified. Thou art illumined… Thou art sanctified.” This justification, illumination and sanctification are objective facts accomplished entirely by the Grace of God by virtue of the Sacrifice of God on the Cross. Even if the baptized person receives this Grace with an impure heart or insincere disposition, it is a fact that his past sins are remitted, even if the sins he is now committing are not remitted, as St. Gregory the Theologian says.[3] And even if in the future he buries this talent in the ground, this talent has undeniably been received…

Secondly, this is indeed “a supernatural recreation that takes place independently of the will” – and there is nothing “material” about it. Or does Sergius seriously think that the will of the man being baptized accomplishes his own salvation?! But the Prophet David says: “A brother cannot redeem; shall a man redeem? He shall not give to God a ransom for himself, nor the price of the redemption of his own soul, though he hath laboured for ever, and shall live to the end” (Psalm 48.7-8). It is Christ Who offered the ransom for man, and the Holy Spirit Who descended into the font to sanctify the water. In neither of these acts does the individual to be baptized play any part. His part lies in his preparation for the gift in the period before baptism, and in his cultivation of the gift after baptism. Sergius is right to emphasize the important of this prior preparation and consequent cultivation of the gift of God’s Grace, without which the gift is ultimately lost, and salvation with it. But the gift itself is God’s alone. More precisely, it is God alone, since the Grace of God, as St. Gregory Palamas teaches, is God Himself.

Sergius continues: “After our explanation of the Orthodox understanding of the righteousness of God, of the reward, of the essence of salvation, we must not suppose that at the moment of baptism or repentance some kind of non-imputation of sin is accomplished, some kind of proclamation or ‘pronunciation’, as the Protestants say, of man as righteous. According to the Protestant teaching it turns out that God was always angered against man, and could never forgive that offence that man inflicted on Him through sin. Then, suddenly, seeing the faith of man in Jesus Christ, God is reconciled with man and does not consider him to be His enemy any longer, although man can sin after this, but now with impunity. Here is clearly revealed the basic principle by which the juridical world-view lives: everything is constructed on offended self-love – once self-love has been pacified, sin, which before had been condemned and cursed, loses its sinfulness. The Orthodox Church does not teach this.” (p. 10)

Of course, the Orthodox Church does not teach this parody. When the holy Apostles and Fathers of the Church speak about the wrath of God, or of offences to His Majesty, or of the satisfaction of His offended Righteousness, they use images taken from the ordinary life of sinful men – but purge them of all sinful connotations. The fact that some Catholic and Protestant writers appear not to have purged their minds of these sinful connotations is not a fault of the “juridical theory” itself, but of those who interpret it too literally – and these over-literal interpreters appear to include Sergius. Of course, it was not offended self-love, but a supremely dispassionate love of man, that led the Holy Trinity to plan the Sacrifice of the Son of God on the Cross. The Sacrifice was necessary because only in this way could sin be paid for and justice done – but justice understood, not in a sinful, human way, but as the restoration of the Divine order of things. So the Sacrifice demonstrated perfect love in pursuit of perfect justice; and it is this “satisfaction” of justice in love that saved us.

“Can we imagine,” continues Sergius, “that God was at enmity with man for his sin, and that God could not be reconciled with man even if he thirsted for God with all his soul and prayed for communion with Him? Remaining faithful to the Word of God and the teaching of the Fathers, we can only say: no. To be convinced of this, let us open the Bible and there, on the very first pages, we shall find a refutation of this Protestant view, although the Protestants praise themselves that they believe only what the Bible teaches.” (p. 10)

But what does the Bible in fact teach? It teaches that before the Death and Resurrection of Christ, every single man who lived and died on this earth went to hell. And not only the great sinners, not only those who were drowned in the flood of Noah, or who were burned in Sodom and Gomorrah, but even the most righteous of the patriarchs and prophets. Thus the Patriarch Jacob, on hearing of the supposed death of his son Joseph, cried: “I will go down mourning to my son in hell [hades]” (Genesis 37.34). Even the great Moses was not allowed by God to enter the Promised Land, both literally and figuratively; and when he appeared with the Lord at the Transfiguration, he came, as the Holy Fathers explain, from hell. These great men most certainly thirsted for God with all their soul – “as the hart panteth after the fountains of water, so panteth my soul after Thee, O God”, says David (Psalm 41.1) – but they did not receive what they desired. Indeed, as St. Paul says, all these great ones of the Old Testament, in spite of “having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us” (Hebrews 11.40), the New Testament Christians. Why? Because in the Old Testament, justice had not yet been done, the great Sacrifice for sin had not yet been offered and accepted. So faith was not enough, the desire for God was not enough, a whole life spent in labours and struggles was not enough. For even the most holy man “shall not give to God a ransom for himself, nor the price of the redemption of his own soul, though he hath laboured for ever, and shall live to the end” (Psalm 48.7-8). That ransom, that price for the redemption of the souls of all men, was given only by Christ on the Cross.

So Sergius’ error here was not a small one. It involved, in effect, a denial of the necessity of the Cross for our salvation. He could not imagine that God could not be reconciled to man “even if he thirsted for God with all his soul and prayed for communion with Him”. But if simply thirsting for God with all one’s soul were sufficient for reconciliation with God, why did the Old Testament righteous go to hell? And why did Christ have to suffer?


For a deeper understanding of Sergius’ error let us now turn to Hieromartyr Victor’s article, which he entitled “The New Theologians”, referring first of all to Archbishop (as he then was) Sergius.

“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 RussianChurch. 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 transformationof 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?’”[4]


Let us now turn from Sergius’ theoretical theologising to his practical incarnation of his theology in life. And here we find a paradox. He who, in his theoretical works, emphasized that salvation lies in the exercise of will, in ascetic struggle against sin, rather than in “magical” sacramental transformations, demonstrated in his life an almost slavish subjection to the elements of the world, especially the political and social world in which he lived. And yet this paradox is easily explained. The true ascetic is not he who believes in the power of his own will, as did Sergius, but he who can say with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2.20). For as the Lord said: “My Grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12.9).

And so Sergius again and again showed an alarming “flexibility”, or ability to compromise with the prevailing ethos of democratism and socialism. Thus when Lev Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Church in 1901, Sergius joined those who defended the inveterate heretic. Again, when the revolutionary Peter Schmidt was shot in 1906, Archbishop Sergius, who was at that time rector of the St. Petersburg Theological Academy, served a pannikhida at his grave. He also gave refuge in his hierarchical house in Vyborg to the revolutionaries Michael Novorussky and Nicholas Morozov. Having such sympathies, it is not surprising that he was not liked by the Royal Family: in 1915 the Empress wrote to the Emperor that Sergius “must leave the Synod”.

Not surprisingly, Archbishop Sergius was among those who welcomed the February revolution in 1917. He was one of only two members of the Synod who approved the over-procurator Lvov’s transfer of the Synod’s official organ, the Tserkovno-Obshchestvennij Vestnik into the hands of his friend, the liberal Professor Titlinov. Lvov rewarded Sergius for this act by not including him among the bishops whom he purged from the Synod in April. He thought that Sergius would continue to be his tool in the revolution that he was introducing in the Church. And he was right in so thinking.

For the new Synod headed by Archbishop Sergius accepted an Address to the Church concerning the establishment of the principle of the election of the episcopate. This Address triggered a revolution in the Church. The revolution consisted in the fact that all over the country the elective principle with the participation of laymen replaced the system of “episcopal autocracy” which had prevailed thereto. In almost all dioceses Diocesan Congresses elected special “diocesan councils” or committees composed of clergy and laity that restricted the power of the bishops. The application of the elective principle to almost all ecclesiastical posts, from parish offices to episcopal sees, resulted in the removal of several bishops from their sees and the election of new ones in their stead (Sergius himself was elected Metropolitan of Vladimir).

Worse was to follow. When the pro-Soviet renovationist movement seized power in the Church in 1922 when Patriarch Tikhon was under house arrest, Sergius immediately joined it. Moreover, he called on “all true pastors and believing sons of the Church, both those entrusted to us and those belonging to other dioceses, to follow our example.” Sergius later repented of his membership of the renovationists (although, as Hieromartyr Damascene of Glukhov pointed out, he took his time over it). However, the people did not trust him, shouting to the Patriarch not to receive him; while the renowned Elder Nectarius of Optina said that the poison of renovationism was in him still. It was only the generosity of the Patriarch that gave him another chance. That generosity was to prove fateful for the Russian Church. For in 1927 Sergius effected the third, most successful revolution in the Church since 1917, a revolution whose leaders are still in power to this day…

The essence of Sergius’ Declaration of 1927 consisted in his exhortation to the people to be reconciled with communism, to work together with the revolution rather than against it. Soviet power, he said, was there to stay and therefore could not be opposed. “Only ivory-tower dreamers can think that such an enormous society as our Orthodox Church, with the whole of its organisation, can have a peaceful existence in the State while hiding itself from the authorities. Now, when our Patriarchate… has decisively and without turning back stepped on the path of loyalty [to Soviet power], the people who think like this have to either break themselves and, leaving their political sympathies at home, offer to the Church only their faith and work with us only in the name of faith, or (if they cannot immediately break themselves) at least not hinder us, and temporarily leave the scene. We are sure that they will again, and very soon, return to work with us, being convinced that only the relationship to the authorities has changed, while faith and Orthodox Christian life remain unshaken…”

Here we see a doctrine of faith and works fully consistent with the heretical one he developed in his master’s thesis. Here is the same lack of emphasis on the Grace of God, the same reliance on human will and human reason. Here also is the same emphasis on asceticism; but the ascetic task of “breaking oneself”, according to Sergius, consists not in the struggle against evil, but in non-resistance to it (Tolstoyism). For we must be sensible; we cannot overthrow kingdoms, we must keep in step with the times – although St. Athanasius the Great said that Christians keep in step, not with the times, but with God! “Faith and work” consists in working with the enemies of the faith, and in exhorting those who do not share this faith to “leave the scene” - in reality, as life would soon demonstrate, “leaving” meant torment and death in the concentration camps. “The relationship to the authorities has changed”, he admits, “while faith and Orthodox Christian life remain unshaken”. But how can faith and life remain unshaken when there has been a fundamental change in relationship to such an important phenomenon as the revolution, which persecutes faith and destroys0 life?

Hieromartyr Victor especially noted the phrase: “Only ivory-tower dreamers can think that a society as tremendous as our Orthodox Church, with its whole organization, can exist throughout the country hidden from the authorities of the State.” He saw in this an over-valuation of the outer, human aspect of the Church, its organization, and an under-valuation of its inner, Divine aspect, its Grace-filled life as a mystical organism.[5] The external organization of the Church is something that human will and resourcefulness can do something to save – and Sergius, with his practical, Pelagian bent was determined to do what he could to save it. The problem was that if this meant compromise with evil, then the inner, Divine essence of the Church, her Grace-filled life, would be lost. But Sergius cared less about that…

On December 29, 1927 St. Victor wrote to Sergius: “The enemy has lured and deceived you for a second time with the idea of an organization of the Church [the first time was his fall into the renovationist schism in 1922]. But if this organization is bought at the price of the Church of Christ Herself no longer remaining the house of Grace-giving salvation for men, and he who received the organization ceases to be what he was - for it is written, 'Let his habitation be made desolate, and his bishopric let another take' (Acts 1.20) - then it were better for us never to have any kind of organization.

“What is the benefit if we, having become by God's Grace temples of the Holy Spirit, become ourselves suddenly worthless, while at the same time receiving an organization for ourselves? No. Let the whole visible material world perish; let there be more important in our eyes the certain perdition of the soul to which he who presents such external pretexts for sin will be subjected.”

And he concluded that Sergius’ pact with the atheists was “not less than any heresy or schism, but is rather incomparably greater, for it plunges a man immediately into the abyss of destruction, according to the unlying word: ‘Whosoever shall deny Me before men…’ (Matthew 10.33).”

For “in truth,” as he wrote a few weeks later to Bishop Abraham, “these people [the communists] who think evil against the Church are not from men, but from him who was a murderer from the beginning and who thirsts for our eternal destruction, whose servants these new traitors [like Sergius] have become, subverting the very essence of the Orthodox Church of Christ. They have made it, not heavenly, but earthly, and have changed it from a Grace-filled union into a political organization.

“With childlike simplicity we believe that the strength of the Church is not in organization, but in the Grace of God, which cannot exist where there is betrayal and renunciation of the Orthodox Church, even if it is under the guise of the attainment of the external good of the Church. After all, here we have not simply the [personal] sin of M. Sergius and his advisors. Oh if it were only that! No! Here we have the systematic destruction of the Orthodox Russian Church according to a definitely thought-through plan, the striving spiritually to mix up, defile and degrade everything. Here is laid the destruction of the whole of the Orthodox Church.”


The most famous demonstration of Sergius’ Pelagian understanding of salvation is to be found in the interview he gave to the future leader of the Catacomb Church, Hieromartyr Archbishop Demetrius of Gdov and several representatives of the Petrograd clergy in Moscow on December 12, 1927.

There are two accounts of the critical part of the interview. According to the first, from the materials of Hieromartyr Demetrius’ investigation in 1929-30, the conversation went like this:

“We haven’t come to quarrel with you, but to declare to you from the many who have sent us that we cannot, our religious conscience does not allow us to recognize, the course that you have embarked on. Stop, for the sake of Christ, stop!”

“This position of yours is called confessing. You have a halo…”

“But what must a Christian be?”

“There are confessors and martyrs. But there are also diplomats and guides. But every sacrifice is accepted! Remember Cyprian of Carthage.”

“Are you saving the Church?”

“Yes, I am saving the Church.”[6]

“The Church does not need salvation, but you yourself are being saved through her.

“Well, of course, from the religious point of view it is senseless to say: ‘I am saving the Church’. But I’m talking about the external position of the Church.”

According to the second account, Sergius said: “By my new church policy I am saving the Church.” To which Archpriest Victorinus Dobronravov replied: “The Church does not have need of salvation; the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. You, yourself, Vladyka, have need of salvation through the Church.”[7]

Both accounts are instructive. In the first we see that Sergius mocked the confessional stance of the True Orthodox representatives (“you have a halo…”). There are two ways, according to him: that of the confessor and that of the diplomat. But his path of “diplomacy” involved not only non-resistance to the evil of communism, but also open lying (for example, about the non-existence of persecutions against the Church) and betrayal of those who took the path of confession (by calling them “counter-revolutionaries”).

The justification for this is that he is thereby “saving the Church”. Sergius qualifies this somewhat by saying: “I’m talking about the external position of the Church”. But this reveals still more clearly the falseness of his position. For if he can be saving the external position of the Church, this can only be – in the conditions of Soviet power – at the expense of her inner faithfulness to Christ. In conditions of the merciless persecution of the Church, the external and human can be saved (if it can be saved, which depends, not only on the will of man, but also on the will of God) only at the expense of the inner and Divine, whereas the path of Christian asceticism is always the exact opposite: the sacrifice of external comfort and peace for the sake of “the one thing necessary”, “the pearl without price”, communion with Christ…

However, it is the words of Hieromartyr Victorin that pinpoint with the greatest exactness the essence of Sergius’ fall, and the fall of the sergianist church in general. Sergius sought to save the external organization of the Church (and thereby his position at the head of it). But the Church does not need saving: the salvation of the Church was guaranteed once and for all when Christ shed His Blood for it on the Cross. This is the objective aspect of our “collective” salvation which Sergius sought to ignore, just as he ignored the objective aspect of our personal salvation in his master’s thesis. So whatever the gates of hell may hurl at the Church, the Church will remain. The only question is: who will remain in her? And the answer is: only he who believes in the Church, in her Grace-filled capacity to ride every storm and defeat every enemy, and who believes that he can be saved only by remaining loyal to her in whatever position – glorious or humble, at peace or at war – that she may find herself.

Sergius did not believe in the Church, in the complete sufficiency of her Grace-filled life with or without the external organization and material support that times of peace give her. He believed in the relative value of her external organization, and he believed in his own ability to salvage something of value from the wreckage of that organization – a faith that was shown to be woefully misplaced in the unprecedented destruction of the sergianist church that took place in the 1930s. He was like Uzzah who “put forth his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God” (II Samuel 6.6-7). Like Uzzah, Sergius forgot that God does not need the feeble hand of man to keep the ark of the Church from falling from the shaking of oxen-like men. What He does need – or rather, what we need if we are to remain in the ark, and partake of her holiness and salvation – is the bold and uncompromising confession of faith in Him and His Holy Church. Pelagian that he was, Sergius believed more in the sufficiency of his own powers than in the power of God. And so he saved neither the Church nor his own soul. For he died, not in the Ark, in the One, Holy, Orthodox-Catholic and Apostolic Church, but beside it, in a man-made church devoid of the Grace of God.

For “outside the Orthodox Church,” said Hieromartyr Victor, “there is no Grace of God, and consequently, no salvation either. Nor can there be any true temple of God, but it is simply a house, according to the word of St. Basil the Great. In my opinion, without the Grace of God, a temple becomes a place of idolatry…”

Vladimir Moss.

February 24 / March 9, 2010.

First and Second Finding of the Precious Head of St. John the Baptist.

Tuesday of the Week of the Holy Cross.







[1] The second edition was published by Kazan Imperial University in 1898. All quotations from this work here are from this edition, which is to be found at (in Russian).

[2] Sokolov, in Appendix to Bogoslovskij Vestnik, July, 1895,, pp. 4-5 (in Russian).

[3] St. Gregory, Word 40; quoted by Sergius in his thesis, chapter 4, p. 19.

[4] Hieromartyr Victor, “The New Theologians”, The Church, 1912; reprinted in the series “On the New Heresies”, Moscow: Orthodox Action, № 1 (11), 2000 (in Russian). Cf. also the analysis by Fr. George Florovsky in The Ways of Russian Theology (Paris, 1937, 1991, in Russian): “Much closer to Anthony [Khrapovitsky] is Sergius Stragorodsky, the present Metropolitan of Moscow (born 1867). In his book, The Orthodox Teaching on Salvation (1895) he stops on the ‘moral-objective’ aspect of the dogma. The Orthodox teaching is revealed in opposition to the western. It is an opposition between the moral and the juridical viewpoints. Sergius tries to exclude any kind of heteronomism from teaching and salvation. One should not ask for what man receives salvation. One should ask: ‘How does man work with salvation’. Sergius very convincingly shows the identity of blessedness and virtue, salvation and perfection, so that here there can be no external reward. Eternal life is the same as the good, and it not only is awaiting us as something on the other side, but it is also acquired already now. Sergius faithfully portrays the process of moral conversion, from sin to God. But the objective side of the process remains too much in the shade. Even Anthony in his time pointed out that Sergius spoke very carelessly about the sacraments, especially about baptism (‘or repentance’ – already this one word ‘or’ is characteristic). The impression is given that what is decisive in the sacrament is the moral revolution, the decision ‘to stop sinning’. Through repentance man is renewed, ‘the thread of life is as it were broken’. The co-working of Grace only strengthens the will, ‘the work of freedom’. Therefore the very accomplishment of the sacrament is not so absolutely necessary, ‘since this essence of the true Christian – the desire for the Kingdom of God – has already been formed in a man’. Martyrdom, even without blood, is in accordance with its inner meaning identical to baptism – ‘both the one and the other proceed from an unshakeable decision to serve Christ and renounce one’s sinful desires’. And still more sharply: ‘the essence of the sacrament consists in the strengthening of the zeal of a man for the good. We are saved by mercy – through faith. By faith we come to know mercy, we recognize the love of God, that is, that our sin is forgiven and there is now no obstacle on our way to God. We recognize in God the Father, and not the Awesome Master’… Sergius set himself the task of theologizing from experience, from the experience of the spiritual life. And this is what makes the book significant… However, it is quite wrong to reduce the whole content of patristic theology to asceticism – and asceticism, moreover, interpreted psychologically. No less characteristic for the Fathers is their metaphysical realism. Which makes it all the less possible to justify moralism and psychologism from patristics. Hardly acceptable also is the exaggerated voluntarism in asceticism itself. After all, contemplation remains the limit of ascent. And in any case, one cannot substitute asceticism in the place of dogmatics, or dissolve dogmatics in asceticism. This temptation is always an indicator of theological decline. There were elements of decline also in the Russian school of ‘moral monism’. There was no contemplative inspiration in it, and too much psychological self-analysis. This was undoubtedly a reflection of western theological moods, and of an excessive attention to the problem of justification. It was necessary to return to the Fathers more fully and with greater humility…” (p. 439)


[5] This distinction between the Church as organization and the Church as organism was developed also by Hieromartyr Mark (Novoselov) in his Letters to Friends, Moscow, 1994.

[6] L.E. Sikorskaya, Svyaschennomuchenik Dmitrij Arkhiepiskop Gdovskij, Moscow, 2008, p. 88 (in Russian).

[7] I.M. Andreyev, Russia’s Catacomb Saints, Platina, Ca.: St. Herman of Alaska Press, 1982, p. 100.

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