A Note on the Heresy of Name-Worship
A number of individuals have recently requested information on the very curious heresy of name-worship, especially given the misleading information, not to say propaganda, to be found about it on the internet.
Name-worship (in Russian, imiaslavie or imiabozhie, and also known by the Greek translation of onomatodoxy) is a heresy which was condemned by both the Russian Orthodox Church and the Patriarchate of Constantinople at the beginning of the twentieth century. However, it is still promoted among a few modernist, Gnostic, protest groups on the fringes of the Church. Under Protestant influence, these are composed of a few intellectual, pro-Origen and so Neo-Platonist elements, loosely associated with the late Fr Sergius Bulgakov of the Paris-based ‘Exarchate of Parishes of the Russian Tradition’ and St Vladimir’s Seminary near New York, and also an anti-Church sect in Russia.
Name-worship began in 1907 with a book written by an ill-educated hermit, formerly a monk of Mt Athos, called Fr Hilarion. In this book, a work of his imagination which was clearly infected by spiritual delusion, Fr Hilarion spoke of the prayer of the heart and wrote that, ‘The name of God is God Himself and can work miracles’. By 1909 this phrase, further distorted and made into a new dogma by Fr Hilarion, had become popular among some Russian peasant monks on Mt Athos.
Some of these fell into a sort of obscurantist superstition, claiming that the name of God must have existed before the world was created and that therefore His name cannot be anything but God Himself. They asserted, as a form of fetishistic idolatry, that the name of God is God Himself, hence the title ‘name-worship’. Among other things, this was thought to mean that the mere knowledge of the name of God allows one to work miracles. Paradoxically, this attracted not only uneducated and unscrupulous charlatans, but also esoteric, intellectual philosophers (in fact intellectual charlatans), who saw in it a form of Neo-Platonism - which it is.
The Heresy Condemned
Obviously, for the Church, name-worship is a form of superstitious paganism, which is quite incompatible with Christianity. Since, before the Creation, God did not need a name, so a name was created, a created sound which has no mystical power in itself whatsoever. The main proponent of name-worship was a Russian Athonite monk, a disgraced former cavalry officer whom some considered to be mentally deranged, called Fr Antony (Bulatovich). The Church responded to him and his fanatical peasant followers in no uncertain terms through the highly-educated Patristic figure of Archbishop Antony of Volhynia (later Metropolitan of Kiev and first candidate for Patriarch). He rightly called name-worship a heresy. Naturally, he was supported in this by the monks of Optina (including St Barsanuphius) and Glinsk, by the Russian Holy Synod and, in 1912, by Patriarch Joachim of Constantinople.
However, in 1913 Russian name-worshipping monks on Mt Athos became more and more violent. They began assaulting the other 4,500 Russian Orthodox monks there (among them the future St Silvanus, in Russian Silouan) and threatening to kill them. The new Patriarch of Constantinople, Germanos V, condemned name-worship as pantheistic. Acts of fanatical violence and the persecution of Orthodox monks became so dreadful that the Greek authorities proposed sending in troops and removing all Russian monks, with the secondary aim of hellenising Mt Athos completely. As a result, in June 1913 the Russian government was obliged to send three small ships to Mt Athos to rescue the Orthodox from the violence, taking the name-worshippers off Athos and back to the Russian Empire. In all 840 monks were transported back to Russia in July 1913. In reality, as the name-worshippers themselves admitted, only some fifty were actually leading the new sect. The others were simply pious and zealous, but uneducated. The leaders were defrocked for their violence towards the Orthodox monks, but the vast majority later repented and were received back into the Church.
The Later Attraction of Intellectuals
After these tragic events, His Holiness the Patriarch, St Tikhon of Moscow, was quite firm in his condemnation of name-worship, signing a document to this effect in October 1918. In January 1919 the wealthy landed leader of the name-worshippers, Antony Bulatovich, broke away from the Church, before being murdered on his estate in December 1919 by robbers or soldiers of the Red Army. Most of the proponents of name-worship were uneducated and often illiterate peasants, attracted to the crude and materialistic idolatry of a name. However, after the Revolution two philosophers, who had by then entered the Church and been ordained, though never fully Churched, Fr Paul Florensky and Fr Sergius Bulgakov, both later considered heretics, supported name-worship.
Part of the attraction was without doubt the ‘romantic’ propaganda put about by the eloquent ringleader, Antony Bulatovich. He set himself up as an unjustly deposed victim. It corresponded to the secular and self-justifying spirit of those rebellious times and that of those who rebelled against the discipline of the Russian Church in Paris and later in North America. Since the 1930s, both in Paris and New York, the name-worship heresy has attracted the sympathy of modernists and two academic theses were written by intellectuals in both places in the 1980s. As recently as 1999, the youthful, Oxford-trained Bishop (now Metropolitan) Hilarion (Alfeyev) made the following surprising statement: ‘Even though the movement of name-worshippers was crushed at the beginning of the century by order of the Holy Synod, discussion of the subject regained momentum in the years before the Moscow Council (1917–18), which was supposed to come to a decision about it but did not succeed in doing so. Thus the Church's final assessment of name-worshipping remains an open question to this day’.
The abuse and misunderstanding of the so-called ‘Jesus Prayer’ (the prayer of the heart or noetic prayer, in traditional language) has caused it to be compared to Buddhism (so attractive to intellectuals because it is so easy and involves no change of way of life) and also to Hindu and Muslim practices. However, perhaps it is closest of all to Protestant pietism, with its ‘Jesusism’ and doctrine of automatic ‘personal salvation’ on confession of the Name of Jesus. It is perhaps in this context that we can understand its attraction to Neo-Platonist philosophers and intellectuals on the fringes of the Orthodox Church. The attraction of the unChurched to something as easy as repeating a prayer, without living in the Church context of discipline, the liturgical cycle, repentance, confession, prayer and fasting, is clear.
Thus, certain modernists under the influence of the name-worshipping heresy insist that ‘Jesus’ (or ‘the eucharist’) is at the centre of the Church. (They also tend to despise the non-eucharistic services of the liturgical cycle). That Christ is at the centre of His Church is of course true, but it is a one-sided truth. For example, it could also be said that repentance (to paraphrase St John the Baptist) or the Holy Spirit (to paraphrase St Seraphim of Sarov) are at the centre of the Church. Today, a criterion of Orthodoxy is to be opposed to the heresy of name-worship, for its supporters are always marginal, heretical and even open enemies of the Church. However, the danger of personality cults developing around such practices and making illusory claims of holiness for their leaders, as happened on Mt Athos one hundred years ago, is still a real one.
I am indebted for details on this topic to the excellent recent Russian-language book by Igumen Peter Pigol, ‘An Athonite Tragedy. Pride and Satanic Designs’. Moscow 2005. This is also available in Russian on the internet at: http://www.blagogon.ru/biblio/211/.