St. John of Vishenky’s Teaching on the Church

St. John of Vishenky St. John of Vishenky     

St. John of Vishenky was an Orthodox monk and polemicist (16th-17th C.) who lived on Mt. Athos and in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. His teaching on the Church, in the context of the defense of the Orthodox Church and its structure from attacks by representatives of the Catholic church, is also valuable in our time, inasmuch as it clarifies the truth of the Church.

In his Brief Answer to Peter Skarga, a Jesuit, St. John sets out clear criteria for the true Church. These criteria were formed precisely in the controversy with the Catholic church and its attitude to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine at this historical stage. St. John’s teaching about the Church bears a polemical tinge; it is a projection of the Orthodox teaching on the Church through the prism of Catholic influence on Orthodoxy in Ukraine. In St. John’s teaching on the Church, the question of the truth of the Church is of interest.

And thus, here are the criteria of the true Church:

  1. “The first sign of the true Church of God is that the evil spirits and people who are like them rise up against it.”1 Why is this so? St. John explains that this is how it must be, according to the apostle Paul, who saw the spirits of malice of the aerial realm, that is, the evil spirits who vigilantly rise up against Orthodox Christians and neither tire nor rest in this battle. The same apostle Paul answers in his Epistle to the Ephesians how to resist these spirits: Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph. 6:10-17).

  2. The true Church will be persecuted, but it must stand firm in the truth, even if this battle is waged to the death. After all, Jesus Christ Himself, the founder of the Church, says: The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you (Jn. 15:20). And again: These things have I spoken unto you, that ye should not be offended. They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor Me (Jn. 16:1-3). And the apostle Paul writes to Timothy: Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived (2 Tim. 3:12-13).

  3. “In the final days of this age, the true Church of Christ will diminish because of the victory of the prince of this world, who will pull away a great many of those who are suitable for his work.” Here the saint also admonishes with the words of Jesus Christ: Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat (Mt. 7:13). Again, Christ repeats: “Pray that ye might be with these little ones, for there is want of the good,” and again: Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom (Lk. 12:32).

  4. “The true Church of Christ will be hated by the world and those who serve the prince of this world.” Christ says that ye shall be hated of all men for My Name's sake (Mt. 10:22). If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you (Jn. 15:19), says Christ.

  5. “The true Church of God must bear its cross and love poverty.” Jesus Christ says: If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me… He that loveth his soul shall lose it; and he that hateth his soul in this world shall keep it unto life eternal… If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in Heaven… whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be Мy disciple (Mt. 16:24, Jn. 12:25, Mt. 19:21, Lk. 14:33).

  6. “The true Church of God is, according to worldly wisdom, foolish and simple and incompetent in everything.” Because St. Paul says: For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the Gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence. But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord (1 Cor. 1:17-31); and further he continues: Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God (1 Cor. 3:18-19).

  7. The true Church of God must everywhere multiply the fruits described below, and bring forth its fruits for the disciples, adorning itself with the blessedness that Christ desired for His disciples, as He said to them: Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in Heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you (Mt. 5:3-12). These are the ripe fruits which the Church of God must always bear.

By these signs will the true Church of God be recognized.

Thus, St. John not only describes the true Church, but also shows how to withstand those who rise up against the Church.

Archpriest Andrei Ukhtomsky
Translation by Jesse Dominick


1 All of the quoted passages are from the works of St. John of Vishenky published in Moscow in 1955.

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