November 3, 2016

Fr. George Florovsky on the Authority of the Church Fathers

By Fr. George Florovsky

Just yesterday the question was put to me, in my Patristic seminar, by one of the participants: "We enjoy immensely," he said, "the reading of the Fathers, but what is their 'authority'? Are we supposed to accept from them even that in which they were 'situation-conditioned' and probably inaccurate, inadequate, and even wrong?" My answer was obviously, "No." Not only because, as it is persistently urged, only the consensus patrum is binding - and, as to myself, I do not like this phrase. The 'authority' of the Fathers is not a dictatus papae. They are guides and witnesses, no more. Their vision is 'of authority,' not necessarily their words. By studying the Fathers we are compelled to face the problems, and then we can follow them but creatively, not in the mood of repetition. I mentioned this already in the brief preface to my Eastern Fathers of the IV Century,* and provoked a fiery indignation of the late Dom Clement Lialine.** So many in our time are still looking for authoritative answers, even before they have encountered any problem. I am fortunate to have in my seminar students who are studying Fathers because they are interested in creative theology, and not just in history or archaeology.


* "This book was compiled from academic lectures. In the series of studies or chapters I strived to delineate and depict the images [obrazy] of the great teachers and Fathers of the Church. To us they appear, first of all, as witnesses of the catholic faith, as custodians of universal tradition. But the patristic corpus of writings is not only an inviolable treasure-trove of tradition. For tradition is life; and the traditions are really being preserved only in their living reproduction and empathy [for them]. The Fathers give evidence concerning this in their own works. They show how the truths of the faith revive and transfigure the human spirit, how human thought is renewed and revitalized in the experience of faith. They develop the truths of the faith into the integral and creative Christian worldview. In this respect, the patristic works are for us the source of creative inspiration, an example of Christian courage and wisdom. This is a school of Christian thought, of Christian philosophy. And first of all in my own lectures, I strived to enter into and to introduce [the reader/listener] into that creative world, into the eternal world of unaging experience and contemplation, in the world of unflickering light. I believe and I know that only in it and from it is revealed the straight and true way towards a new Christian synthesis, about which the contemporary age longs for and thirsts after. The time has arrived to en-church our own mind and to resurrect for ourselves the holy and blessed sources of ecclesial thought." (Preface to Eastern Fathers of the IV Century, Paris 1931.)

** Lialine criticized Florovsky's lectures as lacking a scientific erudition both in their literary point of view and their lack of concern for scholarly precisions. ('Review of Eastern Fathers of the IV Century,' Irenikon 10.1, 1933.)

Source: Excerpt from a letter to A.F. Dobbie Bateman on December 12, 1963 in ‘Georges Florovsky on Reading the Life of St Seraphim’, Sobornost, 27.1 (2005): 58-70.