May 28, 2010

Georges Vasilievich Florovsky: Philosopher of the Orthodox World (1 of 8)

By John Chamberlain

Beyond East and West

For many, the Very Reverend Georges Vasilievich Florovsky (1893–1979) may not be a household name, and yet his singular achievement and reputation as an influential Russian philosopher and historian, and as the preeminent Orthodox Christian theologian of the twentieth century, is certainly well known within the Orthodox world, but also within the theological circles of Western Christianity. He was particularly a towering figure in the Ecumenical Movement for Christian unity, to which he devoted a major part of his long life and work as an early pioneer in the 1930s, an architect in the formation of the World Council of Churches, and an influential builder from within the Faith and Order Commission, where he made the voice of Eastern Orthodoxy heard by witnessing to the historic experience and the faith of the early undivided Church. It was Father Florovsky’s destiny to live most of his life in the West, to have an excellent command of the Western currents of thought, and yet to be and to remain profoundly an Orthodox Christian from the East.1 Because of this balanced orientation in both the East and the West and his universal recognition, Florovsky earned the reputation of being the most ecumenical teacher of Orthodox theology in the twentieth century. His theological work has provided a new orientation and a fundamental criterion for contemporary theology, including Orthodox theology.

Because of Florovsky’s work and ecumenical influence, any discussion of Christianity today with reference only to its typical Western manifestations in Roman Catholicism and Reformation Protestantism, without reference to Eastern Orthodoxy, is no longer an historically and intellectually acceptable position. In previous times it was almost routine to speak only of the Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity of the West, as if there were no other expressions of Christianity to be studied and discussed. This longstanding attitude had dismissively overlooked the Orthodox Christianity of the East, and had allowed the West to go unhindered on its own historical road, relegating to virtual oblivion the historical fact that, for the first one thousand years of Christianity, the West had actually shared the common faith and tradition of the East where Christianity had experienced its earliest beginnings and formative developments. It was Florovsky who articulated the experience and the faith of the early undivided Church through a free, responsible, and direct encounter with the West, and who persistently challenged Western theologians not only to resume in earnest the long neglected relations between East and West, but also to reclaim for themselves that common heritage of all Christians, which to a large extent had been lost for the West in the historical process but preserved in the Orthodox Churches of the East. It was Florovsky, again, who argued effectively that Western civilization, claiming continuity with ancient Hellenism, is incomprehensible without the Christian Orthodoxy of the Eastern Roman Empire that flourished for a thousand years beyond the fall of ancient Rome. Unlike the schematization of some early Slavophiles who drew a radical separation between East and West, Florovsky, as someone who was highly conscious of the importance of history and of the catholicity of the Church, defended consistently the historical fact that the East and the West are not independently whole units that can stand in and by themselves. They actually belong together as fragments of one unified world that should have never been divided. It was well after the Schism in 1054, and primarily after the Crusade of 1204, that the East and the West finally developed definitively separated and autonomous ways, and cultivated a consciousness of self-sufficiency that has proved to be harmful to both sides.

It was the life-long conviction of Florovsky that any illusion of self-sufficiency had to be transcended mutually by both the East and the West from within the historical and theological background of the early Christian unity of the undivided Church of the first millennium. By transcending this division of Christendom, the early and authentic unity and catholicity of the undivided Church in the East and the West could once again be regained and consummated. And it was to this valiant goal that he had dedicated his life and work.

Florovsky, always the consummate historian in his work, does not bring to our attention only the Western deviations in Christendom; he also unreservedly presents the fact that Orthodox theology itself, in its long historical journey, has experienced a kind of “pseudomorphosis,” and has been taken into a long “Babylonian captivity” under both Roman Catholic and Protestant influences. These influences began gradually after the fall of Constantinople of the Eastern Roman Empire to the Turks in 1453, and intensified in the following centuries, spreading also to the north in Russia with Ivan III, who drew closer to Rome and ushered in the Latin penetration during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and later with Peter the Great, who actually institutionalized Protestant influences throughout the eighteenth century.

It was Florovsky, moreover, who called for a true theological revival and a faithful reintegration in both the East and the West that would effectively unlock for our own times the truth in the Holy Scriptures and in the Sacred Tradition of the Church. He wanted to present the message of Christ creatively as a living reality by re-interpreting it to be a challenge to each new generation—just as the Fathers of the early Church did for their own time. His clarion call to “go forward with the Fathers” and his programmatic “neo-Patristic synthesis” were indeed the basic hallmarks of his own life and theological work. In time, however, Florovsky’s theological emphases became focal points, serving as an effective criterion to bring about an authentic revival of modern Orthodox theology, without Western deviations and influences, and more fully faithful to the experience and the Patristic tradition of the early undivided Church. This concern for the restoration and proclamation of the truth of undivided Christianity was and is indeed the abiding legacy of the life and thought of Father Georges V. Florovsky.

This general introduction to the life and work of Florovsky, for the benefit of a new generation of readers, is particularly timely now, some twenty-three years after his death, when more and more of his earlier works are being translated and published in English and in other languages as well, and his abiding influence and impact are becoming more and more universally recognized and appreciated in America, in Europe, and particularly in his own native Russia, where once again now her religious past is being researched and studied by the new generations.2

In the Fatherland

From his early life in the cosmopolitan city of Odessa, Russia, young Georges Florovsky, son of a Russian Orthodox priest, seemed destined for a theological service to the Church. It is significant that he entered into this field only after many years of productive study and research in various other non-theological fields, such as history, philosophy, science, and literature. His excellent humanistic studies guided his early maturation in the heady philosophical and religious atmosphere of the 1910s in Russia. He was clearly the beneficiary of a vibrant Russian educational and cultural experience which flourished toward the end of the nineteenth century and produced many gifted scholars. By the time Florovsky had entered the university at eighteen, he had already read many scholarly books on the history of Russia, on the history of the Church, and on the contemporary Russian religious thought. Nor was his early reading limited to Russian texts. His love of reading led him to other languages and literatures. After reading Walter Scott, for example, in Russian translation, Florovsky decided to learn English. In time Scott was followed by many other English authors. During these formative years Florovsky also acquired a reading knowledge of French and German as well as Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. His early linguistic prowess obviously facilitated greatly his scholarly pursuits in the years ahead. Given his fathers’s vocation, Florovsky was also enriched by making regular attendance at religious services an important part of his boyhood. He was drawn less to the ceremonial aspects of worship and more to its intellectual and spiritual content. His was definitely not a facile and uncritical religiosity. He found the liturgical books to be full of theology and profound spiritual emotion and meaning. In time he had come to know the liturgical services by heart, and was well aware that there was no tension between worship and theology, that they clearly belong together. Reflecting on his past, Florovsky would readily admit to his students: “My theology I have learned not in the school, but in the Church, as a worshipper. I have derived it from the liturgical books first, and much later, from the writings of the Holy Fathers.... I read systematically the works of the major Fathers, partly in original, partly in translations. I studied primary sources before I turned to the learned literature.”3

Continued...Part Two