June 22, 2010

Georges Vasilievich Florovsky: Philosopher of the Orthodox World (7 of 8)

Continued from Part Six

Florovsky continued undaunted to be the great voice of Orthodoxy and to uphold the need for serious theological scholarship and discourse, as opposed to social occasions and superficial speeches. After all, he argued, it was indeed through theological discourse and study that a real ecumenical advance had actually been achieved through the devout and dedicated work of several generations of theologians. No one seriously doubts today that the new and more adequate existential understanding of the word of God, of the Holy Scriptures, is the fruit of devout biblical scholarship. Church historians, in spite of their continuing disagreements on many crucial points of interpretation, have drawn for us a new picture of the “common history” of the Church in the East and in the West, with a fuller understanding of “divided Christendom.” Patristic scholars have demonstrated the perennial value of the ancient Tradition, which is existentially valid and challenging now no less than in the past. Liturgiologists have quickened the understanding of devotional values, and even the historical soundings of this field have enriched the inner life of contemporary worshippers and believers. We find ourselves in a changed and renewed world, better equipped for grasping ecumenical problems, due largely to the indefatigable labor of those who, like Georges Florovsky, concentrated their efforts in the field of theological research and meditation.

On virtually every theological inquiry, as seen in his vast theological writings, Florovsky had the singular gift to discern the essence of the matter and, from his immense erudition, offer an authentic Orthodox response. Often enough he would take an otherwise familiar theme and offer a completely different orientation derived from the Orthodox theological tradition that so richly and fully constituted his very being. This was, after all, the essence of his programmatic Neo-Patristic Synthesis, which regrettably was never fully worked out and completed by him.

When at the age of seventy Florovsky retired from Harvard University as Professor emeritus, he soon found himself at Princeton University, where he continued his teaching and scholarly research into the final years of his life. At Princeton, as in Harvard, Holy Cross, and St. Vladimir’s, he taught many graduate students, who have become priests and scholars, theologians and professors in their own right, and who are now continuing in many parts of the world the distinctive theological work that he himself set in motion.12

Before the Vatican Council II in 1964–1965, Rome had maintained an attitude of extreme reserve with regard to the Ecumenical Movement. This Vatican Council changed all that and a Joint Working Group was established between Roman Catholic theologians and representatives of the WCC. Florovsky was encouraged by the participation of Roman Catholic theologians in Faith and Order, and saw in this great promise for serious theological discussions. From the broad historical perspective of Florovsky, the Ecumenical Movement was just getting started, and, as a veteran optimist, he saw hastiness and impatience as a very serious danger to the ponderous work of ecumenism for the reunification of Christendom.

By this time, however, a new divergence had come about even in theological thinking through various schools of thought, such as demythologization, Heilsgeschichte, existentialism, liberationism, secularism, and even the end of religion and the death of God “theologies.” This was of course the “new theology,” but at least these were theological discussions within each confession and the Ecumenical Movement as a whole. Much of this new theology was simply in opposition to the older theology, and Florovsky was especially critical of any tendency among theologians — Protestant, Roman Catholic, and even Orthodox — who started with human quarries rather than with the divine message of Revelation. To begin with “the world instead of the Word” is the wrong method, he would object strenuously.

The last major ecumenical meeting Florovsky attended was the Fifth Faith and Order Conference in Louvain in 1971, when he was seventy-nine years old. Not only was he simply there, but he was still a force, an active participant in the Ecumenical Movement, as he was for thirty-seven years. No other participant, Orthodox or non-Orthodox, had served longer. He was indeed a true veteran — a pioneer, an architect, and an ongoing builder of the Ecumenical Movement. During the last decade of his life, Florovsky was especially gratified to see the growing interest in his thought and his works that had blossomed not only among Orthodox and non-Orthodox theologians, but also among Slavic scholars interested in Russian history and culture.

His beloved wife, Xenia Ivanovna, lived until 1977 and Georges until August 11, 1979. They lie asleep in the Lord, side by side, in St. Vladimir’s Cemetery in Trenton, New Jersey, awaiting the general Resurrection.

Continued...Part Eight