Continued from Part Two
Soon after the St. Sergius Institute of Orthodox Theology was founded in Paris on April 30, 1925, Florovsky was invited by Dean Sergius Bulgakov to join the faculty as Professor of Patristics. Florovsky’s interest in Patristics dates from his days in Odessa, but he only began to study this field seriously in 1924 when he was in Prague. In Patristics, it must be noted, Florovsky discovered his true vocation. Henceforth Patristic thought was to become his intellectual home, the foundation of his world view, the standard by which he would judge and find wanting the course of Russian religious thought and of Orthodox theology in general. In fact, Patristic theology became for Florovsky the criterion for all authentically Orthodox theology and for an accurate and comprehensive understanding of the Sacred Scriptures of the Church. Patristic theology was also the source of Florovsky’s many later contributions to and criticisms of the Ecumenical Movement. It was through his ongoing research of the original sources and his constant teaching of Patristics that Florovsky actually mastered the field. Throughout his lifetime he taught and wrote about the pre-Nicene Fathers, the golden age of the Fathers of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Byzantine theologians up to the fifteenth century, as well as the history of Russian theology. For a man of his scholarly stature and erudition, it is astonishing to note that Florovsky was an autodidact in theology and had never earned a theological degree in the strict sense. All of his many subsequent doctoral degrees were honorary, bestowed upon him, deservedly no doubt, by countless institutions of higher learning that acknowledged his singular achievements everywhere he went and worked throughout his long life.
It was during the pre-war years of the 1930s that Florovsky did a great deal of research in various European libraries and produced his most important writings. Most notable among his writings of this period were his Fathers of the Fourth Century7 and The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth to the Eighth Centuries.8 These two volumes reflect the in-depth study of the Fathers and the salient characteristics of Florovskian scholarship: judicial analysis of primary material, richly detailed factual documentation, succinct and penetrating generalizations, a broad historical perspective, a terse and compelling style, and always an extensive bibliography that invariably included his very latest reading. These works placed Florovsky at the front ranks of Patristic scholarship. While praise for their erudition and power was unstinting, they also clearly pointed out that “everything was not stable and whole from the very beginning” in the life of the early Church, as she struggled to define and defend her faith. The fact is that these writings became a turning point in modern Orthodox theology, as the sequence of events in the life and work of Florovsky clearly demonstrate.
In 1932 Florovsky accepted ordination to the priesthood of the Orthodox Church. This important decision came rather naturally for him, given his early background in a clerical family, and his responsibilities as a priest and as a pastor provided many opportunities to enrich his theological work through the liturgical life of the Church, which he so profoundly appreciated from his youth. Moreover, his experience as a priest of the Church, imbued by the spirit of worship and pastoral service, freed him from the strictures of a school theology and added a powerful dimension to his theological work and witness. In 1935 Florovsky delivered an important lecture on “The Tasks of Russian Theology” at St. Sergius Institute that critically outlined the history of Russian religious thought. A year later in Athens, Greece, he delivered at the First Congress of Orthodox Theological Professors two additional important papers: “Western Influences in Russian Theology” and “Patristics and Modern Theology.” Through these two lectures Florovsky challenged his colleagues by calling on all Orthodox theologians to overcome the so-called “pseudomorphosis” of Orthodox theology that had come about in past centuries, under both Roman Catholic and Protestant prevailing influences.
It must be remembered that the fateful Schism of 1054 had left the two major geographical areas of the Church to go their own separate ways for a very long time. The Western Church developed through Scholasticism and the Renaissance to the Protestant Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, to the Enlightenment and finally to the modern age. The Eastern Church underwent a series of historical misfortunes, brought about by the militant expansion of Islam in the Middle East and the Balkans, with the final collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453. While the Christian Empire came to an end in the East, the Orthodox Church actually survived there for four centuries under Islam. In the Russian lands to the north, the Orthodox Church even flourished, notwithstanding the Western influences she experienced. Not too long after the Balkan countries gained their independence from the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century, Russia itself experienced the Bolshevik Revolution, ushering in the anti-Christian Communist rule which gradually engulfed the countries of central and eastern Europe except Greece.
Out of this broad historical background and unlike most of his contemporaries, who drew their inspiration and influence from the more current trends in Western Europe, Florovsky reached back into the past history of Russia and beyond into the tradition of Byzantium and the Greek Fathers of the undivided Church in the East. It was from this early and normative tradition of the Church that Florovsky not only drew his inspiration but also actually established his now famous theological framework known as “the neo-Patristic synthesis.” In the long historical journey of Christendom the writings of the Fathers had to a large extent become dead historical documents, and Florovsky wanted to revive them from within, to recover the mind of the Fathers and the existential questions with which they struggled in their own time to develop their own theological synthesis. Following the Fathers, in a neo-Patristic synthesis, always means moving forward, not backwards; it means fidelity to the Patristic spirit and not just the Patristic letter. Fathers and teachers of the Church are those who, in the measure of their humility before the truth, receive the gift of expressing the catholic consciousness of the Church, and we learn from them, not only their personal opinions or conceptions, but also the catholic testimony of the Church.
By calling for a return to the Fathers of the early Church, Florovsky also called for an authentic re-Hellenizing of Orthodox Christianity. This does not mean at all an ethnic Hellenism, nor the Hellenism of antiquity with its anti-Christian elements, but a Christian Hellenism, one that has been baptized, transfigured, and incorporated into the very reality of the Church as an eternal and perennial category of Christian existence. When Christianity ventured out into the pagan world, she encountered Hellenism. The Good News of the Gospel and later the dogmatic theological definitions of Christianity became expressed and fortified precisely in the categories of a Christianized Hellenism. Biblical prophecy found its actual consummation precisely in Christian Hellenism. The truth of the Old Testament was already incorporated in the New Testament, and the New Testament as a Greek Book was already the beginning of a Hellenic synthesis that has become an inseparable part of the Church. The theological definitions of the Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils only completed an ongoing process of synthesis that has become an inseparable and essential element of the Church. Any attempts to escape from Christian Hellenism invariably become backward relapses into the untransfigured and pre-Christian Hellenism of antiquity, which was in time actually transcended and assimilated by the Patristic synthesis of Christian Hellenism that makes up the world of Orthodox Christianity.
The powerful and pioneering call of Florovsky for a creative “neo-Patristic synthesis” in Orthodox theology was heard with keen interest by Orthodox theologians in 1936, particularly by Greek Orthodox theologians, who began to take Florovsky’s thought seriously and to bring about an astonishing renewal in Orthodox theology that is continuing to the present time. Florovsky, however, cautioned that for Orthodox theology to recover its independence from Western influences it is not enough simply to return to its Patristic sources and foundations. Returning to the Fathers does not mean abandoning the present age, escaping from history, or quitting the field of battle with contemporary problems. The Patristic experience must be rediscovered, preserved, and brought into life for the present time and conditions. Independence from the influences of the now non-Orthodox West should not be an estrangement from it. A radical break with the West would provide no real liberation. It is not enough to refute or reject Western errors or mistakes; they must be overcome and surpassed through a new and creative act of encounter. Orthodox theology has been called upon to answer non-Orthodox questions from the depths of her catholic and unbroken experience, and to confront Western Christianity, not with accusations but with the testimony and the truth of Eastern Christianity. And this precisely has been the fundamental focus and abiding legacy of the thought and work of Georges Florovsky throughout his lifetime.