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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Alexander Schmemann

1. The Beginning of the Church (28 pages)

From Schmemann's A History of the Orthodox Church














Acts of the Apostles.

The Book of the Acts of the Apostles is the cornerstone of Church history. Written by the evangelist Luke as the sequel to his own Gospel, it tells us of the Church’s first years, of the initial events in her life.[1] It describes the first Christian community in Jerusalem and its persecution by the Judean authorities, the preaching of the apostles — especially that of St. Paul — and finally the spread of Christianity from Jerusalem to Rome. The historical value of this account has often been challenged; indeed, at first sight it may seem remote from the modem conception of the functions and methods of history.
There are many “blank pages” in Acts, many things passed over in silence.
Sometimes it is more like a commentary than a simple narrative of events. But in reading it we need to remember that, just as the content of the Gospels is not exhausted by the description of the life of Christ, so Acts was not intended to be merely a historical chronicle.

This account, later a book in the New Testament, was written at a time when the Church, after emerging from the first stage of her development and establishing herself in many major centers of the Roman Empire, was already fully conscious of her mission and was beginning to crystallize in writing her earliest experiences. St. Luke, more than all other New Testament writers, may be called a historian in our sense of the word; nevertheless, he did not focus his attention on history alone, or on history as such. His theme is the Church, as the culmination of the New Testament, as the fulfillment in the world — that is, in human society and in history — of the work Christ has accomplished. The subject of Acts is not simply the history of the Church, but her essential nature and living image as they were revealed in the very first years of her existence. The book also contains the first doctrine of the Church, with the facts of her life as illustrations; it therefore includes only facts that are of service to this teaching and vital to its understanding. All succeeding generations of Christians have interpreted this book doctrinally, for they have seen in the community at Jerusalem, in the apostles’ preaching, and in the life and teaching of St. Paul the pattern that set the standard of Church life for all time, and the inspiring beginning that laid the foundations of the Church’s entire subsequent history.

Acts begins its account with events which, for the historian, are still only on the threshold of Church history: the Ascension and Pentecost. But in St. Luke’s perspective the Church is based on these events; they are what gives meaning to her existence, which the succeeding chapters of Acts portray.

A small group of disciples — fishermen (“simple men, without learning” as St. Luke describes them), women, a few relatives and friends of the Master — here in its entirety was the “little flock” left behind after Jesus of Nazareth. What is it that will make them fearless preachers and lead them to the ends of the world? It is the descent of the Holy Spirit, the mysterious transformation after which all that Jesus did and taught will become their own strength. Thereafter He Himself will act through His disciples and in them His presence on earth will continue.

But what is the content of this witness? Before beginning the actual history of the Church, we should recall to mind — in very general terms, of course — that Gospel, or “good news,” which is the basis of Church life and Christian preaching to the world. In the days of His earthly ministry Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God to men. And the meaning of His preaching and His works was this: that His coming is also the beginning of this kingdom, that the Son of God has come to reveal the kingdom to men and bestow it upon them. Although they have been torn away from God by sin, have been subject to evil and death, and have lost their true life, through faith in Christ men may again come to know the one true God and His love for the world; in union with Him they may inherit the new, eternal life for which they were created. Jesus taught that the world does not accept the kingdom of God, because the world “lieth in evil” and has loved the darkness more than the light. The Son of God, therefore, has brought to men not only true doctrine and knowledge of the kingdom, but also salvation. He has conquered evil and sin, which ruled over mankind.


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Schmemann, A History of the Orthodox Church: Table of Contents

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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

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