A Churchman & A Prophet
Georges Florovsky: Russian Intellectual, Orthodox Churchman
reviewed by Brian McDonald
Genius has been defined as the capacity to hold contradictory ideas together for an extended period of time—without going mad. The late Fr. Georges Florovsky, the greatest theologian of twentieth-century Orthodoxy, had more than his share of this paradoxical capacity. The two major commitments of his long and fruitful life—an unwavering belief in Orthodoxy as the true Church of Christ and a deep devotion to the ecumenical movement—would seem to be in utter contradiction to one another. It is a tribute to his success in holding these antinomies together that he won the admiration of both the narrowest of traditionalist true believers and the broadest of mainline ecumenists—groups not otherwise noted for their capacity for making common cause with just anything or anybody. Georges Florovsky: Russian Intellectual, Orthodox Churchman, edited and co-authored by Andrew Blane, emeritus professor of Russian history in the City University of New York, thoroughly explores the character and thought of Florovsky and lays bare the unity beneath these apparent contradictions.
This third, long overdue volume of a 3-volume Florovsky Festschrift contains three extended essays: a comprehensive biographical study by Blane; an essay exploring Florovsky’s role as a Russian intellectual historian; and a study of him as the leading advocate of the “neo-Patristic synthesis” that sought to re-root modern Orthodoxy to the ancient tradition of “Christian Hellenism.” The latter two articles are written by Russian expert Mark Raeff and Harvard Professor George Huntston Williams. An extensive bibliography of Florovsky’s works fills out the volume. Taken together, these three articles help us understand how this staunchly Orthodox pillar of the ecumenical movement could combine his traditional Orthodox convictions with an appreciation for idiosyncratic and variant expressions of truth. Florovsky, indeed, could attack modern speculative departures from the ancient patristic tradition of the Church while maintaining close friendships with figures such as Berdayev and Bulgakov, who seemed to be more infected with the speculative virus.
Blane’s biography indicates that both Florovsky’s confident, strictly Orthodox faith and his capacity to engage non-Orthodox perspectives had their roots in his childhood. The fifth child of an Orthodox priest and educator, Florovsky’s early experience of the Church was “wholly positive.” The intellectual content of the worship gripped the boy and turned him into a budding “church” theologian as he learned early that “there is no tension between worship and theology. Rather they belong together.” His early grasp of the faith can be attributed both to his natural brilliance and to a sickly childhood: lengthy periods of recuperation enabled him to read serious books “much earlier than would be usual.” And in the erudite Florovsky household, serious works covered areas much broader than parochial Russian interests. He developed a passion early for English-speaking writers such as Dickens, Scott, Cooper, and Bret Harte. He also developed a lifelong love of the Greek language and Greek thought. In Florovsky’s case, clearly “the child is father of the man,” and already in his youth the major themes of his adulthood were present: confidence in the Orthodox Church, an ecumenical spirit with an Anglophile twist, and an appreciation of the Greek roots of Christianity.
From Odessa to Prague
Florovsky took his degree from Odessa University in 1916. The clarity of thought and love of the empirical that characterizes his later work (as compared to the incurable wooliness of many theologians) may be due to an appreciation of science that he cultivated at the university. Unfortunately, his further education was interrupted by the Bolshevik Revolution, which sent him and several members of his family into exile in Sofia, Bulgaria. It made no sense to remain in Soviet society where “the only acceptable teaching would be from the Marxist point of view.”
He remained only two years in Sofia, but this was long enough for two encounters, one intellectual and the other personal, which were to influence him the rest of his life. The intellectual encounter was with “Eurasianism,” a school of thought that saw in Western scientific rationalism the source of such great evils as the Bolshevik Revolution. The mostly Russian adherents of this philosophy aspired to replace corrupt Western thought with a Slavic “mystical” perception of reality. Although he ultimately rejected “Eurasianism” as extreme and unbalanced, Florovsky maintained a lifelong antagonism toward Western scientific materialism, regarding it as the source of much evil afflicting the modern world. For him, the only cure was the Christian tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy. Florovsky’s personal encounter in Sofia occurred when he met his future wife, Xenia Ivanova Simonova. Unlike his brief dalliance with “Eurasianism,” this encounter led to a lifelong commitment and a marriage of 55 years.
In 1923 Florovsky moved to Prague, where he married Xenia Ivanova and pursued his Doctorate in Philosophy. His dissertation was on the work of Russian philosopher Alexander Herzen (1812–1870), a strong indivudualist whose moral relativism, in some ways, anticipated Nietzsche. Florovsky’s unyielding commitment to Orthodox Christianity as the true starting point of knowledge caused some difficulties with his committee, but he mounted a defense with his usual brilliance and successfully achieved the doctorate.
In 1926 the Florovskys moved to Paris, where the intellectual ferment of the Russian émigré community was producing so much brilliant work. His training and abilities came to fruition as he found intellectual stimulation and lifelong friendships with the likes of Nicholas Berdayev the philosopher and Sergei Bulgakov the theologian. Bulgakov, a brilliant speaker with a large following, had founded the St. Sergius Institute the year before and soon Florovsky was serving on its faculty. A chance remark by Bulgakov proved momentous for the young Florovsky’s career: “Why don’t you turn to patristics? No one else is doing it.” Florovsky did, and by the time he finished “doing it” he had begun what is now known as the “patristic revival,” and had found what he passionately believed to be the key to authentic Christianity: “Christian Hellenism.”
“Christian Hellenism” meant for Florovsky that the dogmatic decrees, liturgical decisions, and general patterns of thought developed by the predominantly Greek Fathers of the Church provided a permanent norm that could be used to judge all subsequent developments in church life. It is important to emphasize the phrase “patterns of thought.” For Florovsky, Christian Hellenism meant far more than a mindless repetition of formulas from the Fathers. Rather it meant acquiring a “patristic mind” that could apply the spirit of the Fathers to the problems and issues of each new age. Perhaps influenced by his earlier scientific studies, Florovsky disciplined his thought with a strong empirical knowledge of the facts and movement of history. He never let himself become involved in speculation that drifted too far from the experience of the Church as it moved through time.
It is ironic that this Christian Hellenism, firmly rooted in historical experience, led Florovsky into conflict with the very man who had recommended patristic studies to him. The Romantic, Slavophilic speculative philosophy of Bulgakov, especially his notorious “Sophiology” was the antithesis of everything Florovsky believed. Florovsky tried to avoid open conflict with his beloved mentor and friend, but in the 1930s his bishop ordered him to serve on a panel to examine certain of Bulgakov’s ideas. Florovsky gave his assent to the condemnation issued by the panel. Incredibly, however, his friendship with Bulgakov survived the “heresy trial”—a tribute to the largeness of heart that characterized both men.
How could Florovsky simultaneously embrace the thinker and the man Bulgakov, and passionately reject his most fundamental ideas as wrong and harmful to the Church? An understanding of this will help us grasp Florovsky’s later career as an utterly Orthodox churchman who was nevertheless a devoted “ecumenist.” The secret lies in Fr. Florovsky’s “personalism.” Truth for him was far more than the objective norms of Church Tradition. It was the process by which individual men, in a free and utterly personal way, encountered the living God who calls each by his own name. The goal is for each person to embrace God freely and personally in the full Tradition of the One True Church. The process of reaching that goal, however, may well mean that some individuals find themselves wandering down highways and byways that ultimately lead to dead ends. But the process of exploration must go on. Florovsky realized that Bulgakov’s speculations, though full of error, were held humbly as his theological opinions and not as dogma. Furthermore they were held by one whose heart was on fire with the living God.
It was this same sense of a free “stumbling” into relationship with God that allowed Florovsky later to engage so passionately in the ecumenical movement while retaining complete certainty of the truth of the life, liturgy, and dogmas of the Orthodox Church. George Huntston Williams’s essay stresses that Florovsky’s “serene confidence” in the truth of Orthodoxy, far from contradicting his personalism, was the very basis of it. Williams writes that it was “precisely because of his theology of the freedom and dignity of the individual person” that he was driven to dialogue and solidarity with others with whom he was in strong, and perhaps profound, disagreement. All men (including those who “have the truth”) are stumbling, erring, seeking creatures who may help one another in their struggles toward God, who guides the paths of those who “fear Him and work righteousness.”
Debunking Utopianism & Historical Determinism
Florovsky’s personalism affected not only his interpersonal relationships, but also his understanding of the nature of history. Mark Raeff, in his article, explores Florovsky’s rejection of the notion, so fashionable since the nineteenth century, that history unfolds according to necessary laws of development. Raeff summarizes Florovsky’s perspective:
This apocalyptic tragedy—the Bolshevik Revolution—resulted from “a distorted sense of history based on a false analogy with the physical universe” and shows the evil of all utopianisms. Florovsky, rejecting the notion of historical progress as it was found in the rationalistic ideologies, commended instead the Orthodox idea of ascetic spiritual struggle. History, as the indeterminate creation of free human decision, may move forward or backward, but there is neither inevitable progress nor inexorable decline. History, he felt, moves discontinuously, by creative breaks. Because of the “surprise factor” of divine and human freedom, therefore, we cannot know in advance whether certain courses of action are “useful” or not. Logically speaking, participation in an ecumenical movement with those whose views are the opposite of one’s own may make no sense. But breakthroughs could occur unexpectedly by the grace of God and by the actions of free and responsible human beings. This personal, volitional understanding both of individuals and of history itself balanced his equally passionate conviction of Christian Hellenism as the perennial philosophy of Christianity, and helps to reconcile what might otherwise seem to be a contradiction at the heart of Florovsky’s life and thought.
It also explains Florovsky’s lifelong and passionate hatred of “utopianism” in all forms. After the brutality and genocides produced by twentieth-century utopianism—Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism, and so forth—Florovsky’s articulate defense of freedom is like a deep draught of cold water in an arid desert. But Florovsky can give us more than “refreshment.” He clearly grasps the essence of the utopianism that is so deadly to freedom and that makes the ideologies and “isms” of our day so evil. They are evil because they rigorously subordinate human freedom and spirit to deterministic “laws” of development. Those who supposedly know what should happen are willing to crush and destroy those who “get in the way” of the program. When, on the other hand, in humility and in recognition of human freedom we refuse to know in advance what will occur; when we recognize that history is continually being “improvised” out of human freedom and divine grace; then we will treat each other as persons instead of as mere cogs in a historical machine. Florovsky’s love for English and American democracy apparently arose from his belief that these cultures had the clearest understanding of the freedom of the human spirit and of history, and had built their societies around this idea.
Although his friendship with Bulgakov survived the “heresy trial,” his relationship with many of his colleagues at the St. Sergius Institute did not. Partially to escape from the tensions between himself and others at the seminary, he accepted a number of visiting lecturerships abroad—both in the British Isles, where his work with the Fellowship of St. Albans and St. Sergius had introduced him to a wider public, and in Greece, where his idea of Christian Hellenism was welcomed. He spent the war years in Switzerland and ended the European phase of his life by accepting an appointment as Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York.
At St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Florovsky was able to put his ideas of Christian Hellenism to practical use. He was determined to turn St. Vladimir’s from a “Russian Orthodox” seminary to one that had a single-minded devotion to the patristic conception of universal Orthodoxy—and saw as its mission the communication of that Orthodox treasure to America. Shortly before assuming the post at St. Vladimir’s he gave an address in which he challenged his Orthodox audience to make their faith both universal and American:
He was largely successful in his efforts to change St. Vladimir’s into a more universally Orthodox seminary, though his firm convictions and the resistance of many to his program led to his resignation as dean in 1954.
A man of Florovsky’s stature was not destined to remain long in the academic unemployment lines. He went to Harvard in 1956 and, upon reaching mandatory retirement age, served out the remainder of his life at Princeton. In both institutions he worked hard to relate his understanding of Orthodoxy to the dominant Protestant culture around him.
The goal of relating Orthodoxy to the mainline Protestant culture during these years also had a worldwide dimension to it. Beginning with his participation in the original Faith and Order conferences in 1937, Florovsky had been an active participant in the founding and the ongoing work of the World Council of Churches. In those early meetings he struck the note that was to characterize his entire career in the ecumenical movement: “ecumenical dialogue is enhanced by a blunt and honest recognition of differences.” For Florovsky, ecumenical dialogue meant an honest, even a painful clarification of fundamental and irreconcilable differences, rather than an artificial search for unity by politely disregarding substantive disagreements. To the end of his life, true ecumenism meant the return of “separated brethren” to the “Orthodox Catholic Church,” which alone possessed the fullness of truth. This conviction created difficulties with the very name of the organization to which he devoted so much of his time and energy. Properly speaking, there could be no plurality of “Churches,” but only the one true Church of Christ. Once again, however, the “personalistic” ethic saved him from a narrow and fundamentalistic rejection of the ecumenical project and kept him charitably involved with Christians with whom he could never come to a full agreement.
His dual and contradictory concerns—making the message of Orthodoxy accessible to America, and participating in the ecumenical movement—continued with Florovsky until the end of his life. After he retired from Harvard in 1964, he and his wife settled in Princeton. The 1960s and 1970s were troubled years for them. Difficulties with his health and a sense of the downward direction of contemporary history combined to dim the luster of his final years. The utopian fantasies entertained by the youth of the 1960s, the gathering strength of leftist ideology in America, and the increasing breakdown of social stability cast the same ominous shadow over the end of his life that the Russian Revolution had cast over the earlier years of his life. Xenia Ivanova died in 1977, and Florovsky passed away less than two years later in 1979.
A Prophet Unheeded
Florovsky was not a prophet without honor, as the outpouring of heartfelt eulogies for him testified; yet he might justly be called a prophet without influence. Some of his mainline Protestant colleagues who honored him have continued their blind allegiance to the utopian fantasies against which he warned. The condition of the National and World Councils of Churches, as well as of mainline Protestantism, is far worse than at Florovsky’s death. The viruses of radical feminism and Marxist fantasies that have infected those bodies is now beginning to affect the American Orthodox Church itself. As an ancient Latin poet says, “The truth is praised and starves.”
The excellent and thorough essays in Georges Florovsky: Russian Intellectual, Orthodox Churchman give us a glimpse of the intense commitment to truth expressed in the life of this magnificent Orthodox intellect. If he has so few adherents today; and if some who praise his honesty are yet chasing after the destructive fantasies he warned so fervently against, it is not the fault of his life or his testimony. This should not surprise us. For the Master whom Fr. Georges served so ably himself said, “The gate is wide which leads to destruction, and many there are who find it; but the gate is narrow which leads to life, and few there be that find it.” It is to the credit of this great Orthodox churchman that he taught his church to open its arms wide to the rest of the world, but never to stray from the “narrowness” of its truth. May the Lord raise up more who know how to be “wide” and “narrow” after the manner of Fr. Georges Florovsky, and may his memory be eternal.
Brian McDonald teaches English in a private school in Indianapolis, where he lives with his wife and five children. They are members of Sts. Constantine and Helena Orthodox Church.
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“A Churchman & A Prophet” first appeared in the Winter 1996 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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