June 15, 2010

Georges Vasilievich Florovsky: Philosopher of the Orthodox World (5 of 8)

Continued from Part Four

In the years before the war, Florovsky continued his travels throughout Europe to teach, to lecture, and to participate in ecumenical encounters. When the war broke out, the Florovskys were in Switzerland where they lingered for a while, awaiting developments. Finally, they opted to go to Yugoslavia and spent the war years in Belgrade. When the Florovskys managed to get back to France after the war, Paris was still recovering from the war, and life there was difficult. By now the Russian émigré community there was diminished, confused, and severely altered. Back at St. Sergius Institute, while circumstances had changed considerably, Florovsky was able to resume his teaching duties and to continue his travels lecturing and attending conferences as before. Once again he toured England and many other university centers in Europe. One of these post-war travels on behalf of the Ecumenical Movement brought Florovsky to his first visit to America in Buck Hill Falls, Pennsylvania, to prepare for the World Council of Churches.

During these post-war years Florovsky was immersed in ecumenical work and his writings reflect the central theme on the agenda of the approaching constituent Assembly of the World Council of Churches: “The Church: Her Nature and Task,” and “Le corps du Christ Vivant: une interpretation orthodox de L’Eglise.” In these and many other essays, using the approach of his “Neo-Patristic Synthesis,” Florovsky presented the Orthodox doctrine of the Church to an ecumenical audience. “The Church, as the Body of Christ, stands mystically first and is fuller than Scripture.... Christ appeared and still appears before us not only in the Scriptures; He unchangeably and unceasingly reveals Himself in the Church, in His own Body.... The Church acted according to the spirit of the Gospel, and... the Gospel came to life in the Church, in the Holy Eucharist. In the Christ of the Eucharist Christians learned to know the Christ of the Gospels, and so His image became vivid to them.” On the opening day of the Amsterdam Assembly in 1948, Florovsky had been chosen to be the theological spokesman for the Orthodox delegation and to deliver his address on “Ecumenical Aims and Doubts.” In this address, as in many of his other ecumenical documents,11 Florovsky spoke eloquently about the problem of longstanding Christian disunity and separation, noting always the apparently insurmountable obstacles that are not just a misunderstanding or a disagreement among Christians. He also concluded with a word of hope for the essential reunification of Christendom that is really grounded upon divine grace. “Christians are united not only among themselves, but first of all they are one in Christ, and only this communion with Christ makes the communion of men first possible in Him. The center of unity is the Lord and the power that effects and enacts the unity is the Spirit. Christians are constituted into this unity by divine design; by the will and power of God.”

In his ecumenical encounters, Florovsky sought to depict in clear and uncompromising terms the Orthodox position on basic theological issues, in contradistinction to other points of view. At one point, he even challenged the legitimacy of the very name of the new Council having the word “Churches” in the plural. He proposed that the following statement be inserted in the formal documents: “Even the name of the World Council of Churches implies a situation which should not be; we agree to call our denominations ‘Churches’ in a sense which the New Testament could never allow.” In a later report on his rejected statement, he was even sharper in his phrasing: “The separated ‘confessions’ do not have the right to call themselves ‘Churches.’” Obviously such language derived from a very specific New Testament understanding of the Church as the one Body of Christ and as the Una Sancta of the Orthodox Creed. The body of Christ is one, and therefore the Church is one. From this Orthodox Christian point of view, it is as impossible to have more than one Church as it is to have more than one body of Christ. What we have in fact is a breach in Christendom, a breakdown of Christian unity on essential doctrines of faith that bring about divergences and separations. Florovsky’s work at the Amsterdam Assembly, a culmination of all his previous efforts, had clearly established him as a theologian of world renown and the leading Orthodox voice in the world movement for the reunification of Christendom. Soon after the Amsterdam Assembly, in September 1948, when Florovsky and Xenia Ivanovna departed Europe to begin a new phase in their life in America, he was clearly destined to continue in this role in the new world.

The Pilgrim Continues His Way in America

Unlike some of their previous moves, the Florovskys emigrated to America voluntarily. Florovsky was invited to teach and serve as dean at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary that was just ten years old in 1948. It should be noted that, after the 1917 Revolution in Russia, the hegemony of the Russians in American Orthodoxy, dating from 1766, when Alaska and the Aleutian Islands were formally annexed to the Russian Empire, came to an end. A series of ethnic Orthodox jurisdictions began to develop, strengthened considerably by the great influx of more and more immigrants from Europe after World War II. In his new post, Florovsky sought to build up the prestige of St. Vladimir’s Seminary as an academic institution responsible for the training of future priests in the Orthodox Church in America. He emphasized the English language, higher academic standards, a strengthened faculty, and a broader and deeper curriculum. In his strong appeals for this innovative program, Florovsky spoke of Orthodox Christianity as a universal truth, as an authentic presentation of the eternal message of God, which cannot and must not be reduced to a nationality. The School, he believed, must create prophets with spiritual and intellectual strength, with burning convictions and the power of persuasion, able and willing to bring the true knowledge and the true understanding of Christianity to an ecumenical world. The message of Christ, while eternal and always the same, must be proclaimed in a creative way, reinterpreted again and again so as to become a challenge to every new generation. The legacy of the past must be presented as a living reality to each new generation. The glory of Orthodoxy should not be seen merely in the legacy of her past, but in the privilege and the responsibility which Orthodox Christians have for the present and the future, working diligently to make the Orthodox Faith deeply rooted in the life of their American homeland. To achieve this goal the use of English in the classroom and gradually in the liturgical worship was necessary and imperative, not only for the Russian community, but also for the other ethnic communities of Orthodox Christians in America.

In the United States, Florovsky was soon heavily involved not only in the educational work at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and the Russian Orthodox community but also in other academic institutions. He taught regularly at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary, and was frequently invited to lecture at Boston University, Episcopal Theological School, Andover-Newton Theological School, Harvard University, University of Washington, and at many other institutions. In addition he was also active in various learned societies and congresses, including his ongoing participation in the Ecumenical Movement, which increased steadily and involved frequent travel to serve on commissions, study groups, consultations, and editorial committees. His personal participation was mostly in “dialogue and confrontation,” as he often admitted, working with small “molecular” groups to formulate common understanding or agreement on key contemporary theological issues.

One of the most central and contentious issues in the Ecumenical Movement was still “the nature of the unity we are seeking.” Even from the time of Edinburgh in 1937, with Florovsky playing one of the leading roles, it had been established that the ecumenical goal was the realization of “the idea of the Church as one living body, worshipping and serving God in Christ.” This called for both an inner spiritual unity and an outward unity as well, expressing itself in mutual recognition, cooperative action, and corporate unity. In the Third World Conference of Faith and Order, held in Lund, Sweden in 1952, Florovsky welcomed the final report stating that “We agree that there are not two Churches, one visible and one invisible, but one Church which must find visible expression on earth.” Florovsky again warned that the way to one visible Church on earth would not be easy or quick. While he spoke about the “ecumenism in space” that had to date been achieved to a certain extent in the broad ecumenical involvement, he also urged that what the separated Christians must now achieve was the distant goal of visible unity for which he coined the phrase “ecumenism in time.” This meant for him a serious evaluation of the historical process of Christian thought and devotion, particularly that of the first millennium, which, he urged, must not be simply ignored. Current Christian convictions must be submitted to the test of the Sacred Tradition of the Church, which, in the midst of all conflicts and dissensions through the centuries, still survives and still continues in Orthodox Christianity. In the view of Florovsky, this theological evaluation of the historical process of Christianity was now the only secure way to recover a sense of true direction for the present and the future; this had now to become the essential task of the Ecumenical Movement.

There were many who yearned to end the centuries old scandal of Christian dis-unity by simply allowing the World Council of Churches to acquire some form of ecclesial definition. This approach was sternly resisted by the Orthodox with Florovsky as their forthright spokesman. “The World Council of Churches is not and must never become a Super-Church,” he would argue. The purpose of the Council is clearly “to bring the churches into living contact with each other.” Membership in WCC “does not imply that each church must regard the other member churches as churches in the true and full sense of the word.” Later on, in subsequent conferences such as the one in Montreal in 1963, he would continue to argue the same point that “the Council is not the Church; it is not seeking to be a church or the Church; it offers itself as a servant of the churches and of the Church.”

Continued...Part Six