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Further Thoughts on the Ecclesiology of Father George Florovsky

For years at this Web address I have had the following article on my site. It contains comments on Fr. George and his views gleaned from correspondence with Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna, who had some personal experience with him. I believed the commentary was accurate, despite being largely uncorroborated. However, at the end of 2013, after reading the persuasive comments by “Matthew“ regarding Fr. George and his famous article “The Limits of the Church,“ I have my doubts about some of the claims in ”Further Thoughts.“ Judge for yourself after reading Matthew’s comments.

Concerning “The Limits of the Church“ I suggest you also read “The House of the Father.“ Although Matthew convinced me that “Limits“ accurately reflects views that appear to have been consistently held by Fr. George throughout his lifetime, it nevertheless remains a “heuristic piece“ that to many Orthodox thinkers contains serious flaws when viewed in the light of the Patristic consensus (instead of mainly St. Augustine). Fr. George was a brilliant academic theologian, but he is not a ”Church Father;” and there is scant Patristic evidence to support his rejection of the principle of oikonomia in favor of St. Augustine’s theories concerning the ”validity” and “efficacy” of the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments) as a way of explaining the variety of Church practice in the reception of converts throughout history. For an Orthodox critique of St. Augustine’s ideas see The Unity of the Church and the World Conference of Christian Communities, by St. Hilarion (Troitsky). ~ Patrick Barnes (December 30, 2013)

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Original Webmaster Note: The following was written in response to questions concerning Father George Florovsky's early views about the boundaries of the Church, grace among the heterodox, and the ecclesiology of St. Cyprian of Carthage, in an article which he wrote some years ago, quite early in his career as a theological writer. The article in question is “The Limits of the Church” (Church Quarterly Review, Oct. 1933, pp. 117-131). This article has been cited and misused by various authorities, including Professor John Erickson at St. Vladimir's Seminary in Crestwood, NY, to justify an improper expansion of the Church's boundaries and in the defense of the economia of Chrismation as the virtual rule for the reception of heterodox Christians, rather than Holy Baptism. Since Fr. George's remarks arise frequently in conversations about these issues, Archbishop Chrysostomos, a former colleague and friend of this eminent scholar, and thus a person well acquainted with the scope of Fr. George's views, has in passing made important references to Father George's 1933 article. I have quoted a few of these below, from different pieces of correspondence from His Eminence, as well as from some of his published comments on the article and the issues related to it. I have also used some quotations from Deacon Father John Abraham, a spiritual son of Archbishop Chrysostomos, drawn from Father John's discussions with His Eminence and contained in several private letters from the former to various subsribers the to the Indiana Orthodox mailing list.

From Father Deacon John Abraham:

...Father Florovsky was once young, like all of us. But he did mature in his thought and change his mind on many issues. He was spiritual Father to both of our Bishops in this country, when they were at Princeton, and indeed advised Bishop Auxentios, when he converted, to enter the ROCA or an Old Calendarist jurisdiction which did not hold to the hard line of the HOCNA (then in the ROCA). He knew all of these people, certainly did not in any way endorse the extremists, and was not himself an Old Calendarist. The issue was not an important one for him. Neither we nor any of our clergy have ever claimed so.

At the same time, Father Florovsky was most sympathetic to the moderate Greek Old Calendarists. If you read his comments about the book on Scripture and Tradition published by Archbishop Chrysostomos and Bishop Auxentios with Nordland, you will see that he was quite kind in his assessment. Moreover, Father Florovsky lectured together with Archbishop Chrysostomos at least once, while at Princeton, in a conference on Orthodoxy and existentialism. Nor are our Bishops' contacts with and memories of Father Florovsky as clear cut, with regard to his position in the Church, as those presented in the biography by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press or certain people in the HOCNA. Of course, they both knew him at the end of his life.

In essence, the situation with Father Florovsky's scholarship and ecclesiology, as well as his jurisdictional position, is not as easy or as clear as those with an axe to grind would like to say. Most people do not even know that he was a Priest in the ROCA, while the Bishops were in Serbia. In fact the ROCA awarded him his gold Cross. He was a brilliant and complex man with complex ideas who belonged to a number of jurisdictions (ROCA, Metropolia, Greek Archdiocese, and the Ecumenical Patriarchate directly) and who held a number of views. In some sense, we must grant to him the same latitude that we must, in all charity, grant to others.

From Archbishop Chrysostomos:

Father Georges was a genius. After all, he never formally studied theology (all of his degrees in that area were honorary), yet he was a theologian's theologian. As a genius, he had a wide scope of interests, often put forth views as a heuristic exercise (such as his suggestion that St. Augustine's ideas about the boundaries of the Church might serve the ecumenical movement), and never hesitated to exercise his considerable intelligence. But he was not in the same intellectual class as many of our ecumenist-minded ”scholars” today. These men, whether well-intentioned and misled or taken by self-interest, are not geniuses and are not in the class of Father Florovsky. That his thoughts have been misused and misrepresented is a terrible thing: a tragic thing. For, in fact, in all things, Father Florovsky NEVER allowed his intellectual vagaries (better, perhaps, speculations) to supplant his absolute fidelity to Holy Tradition. For example, though he often wore a beret, he was never to be seen without a rason (cassock) and did not cut his beard. Moreover, since he Liturgized for us at Princeton, we saw an expression of his Faith in the precision and care with which he conducted the Liturgy, often to the consternation of modernist Orthodox who would attend, accustomed as they were to that truncated Liturgy that has even entered the realm of what innovators call ”tradition” (by way of “liturgical books” that they have concocted themselves). Nor, despite his ecumenical activities, did he ever, whatever the rumors suggest, engage in the sharing of the Church's Mysteries. Never. He told me that this was impossible.

John Erickson* and F. J. Thomson**, in their comments about oikonomia, make some compelling arguments, misrepresenting in the process, however, the truth about this matter. Outside the Patristic consensus, that golden thread of spiritual agreement between Scripture, the Fathers, the Synods, and the Sacred Canons (none of which, even Scripture or the Synods, stands alone, but all of which are verified and sanctified by their eventual entry into the “general conscience” of the Church), there are many arguments that have validity, in and of themselves. Some are clever, others are not. But these arguments stand alone. Unless they are consistent with the consensus of the Church, with the “facts” of theology in Christian living, they mean nothing.

Thomson's views are well-expressed but deceptively arranged, doing damage to the spiritual realities of the pastoral dimension of the Church. Erickson is simply not honest in making a distinction between the consensus of the Church and exceptions and trends away from it, a distinction which he certainly knows to be misleading. In fact, in Erickson's case, I think that there is a certain distaste for Orthodoxy that taints his study of the Canons. (In this sense, his treatment, and that of others of the first Canon of St. Basil, which seems complex, are usually based on a certain disdain for St. Basil himself. Why? Because they conveniently fail to point out that the Saint, himself, interprets this Canon, and this in a way that is wholly at odds with their aims and goals, none of which is sympathetic to the consensus of the Fathers and the thought of the Saint. Again, this is a form of intellectual dishonesty, since it is not the Truth, but their vision of it as an accommodating principle, that prompts them in their research.)

In the end, oikonomia is an expression of the pastoral conscience of the Church, is not and should not be accommodated, by virtue of its very nature, to systematic schemes, and is not subject to definition, if simply because it addresses ill-defined situations. Nor should it be wholly deceptively exploited as a way to justify the reception of “sacraments” outside Orthodoxy as something valid. The consensus of the Church is that we accept, by this process, empty forms that we fill with Grace, every exceptional argument and clever restatement of this formula not withstanding.

Ultimately, what refutes the position of Professor Erickson and others of like mind—as I have tried to make clear in a number of other articles (see links below)is the very body of Holy Tradition, that is, the living expression of the Church's Eucharistic and Hesychastic tradition. Since the modernists do not consider me a baptized Orthodox Christian, but a heathen (or heretic or schismatic, among the more generous), and feel free not only to lie about us traditionalists, but to insult us, I will not cite myself and those with me. But Mr. Erickson and others are perfectly aware that on Mt. Athos, among those loyal to Elder Ephraim, and in the customs and practices of Orthodox unaffected by ecumemism, there has never been a question about Baptism as a proper form of reception for converts and Chrismation as an act of “oikonomia.” Here one has the criterion: Chrismated converts with little familiarity with traditional Orthodoxy, and sober, mature Orthodox monastics and Faithful.

If one wants Patristic data for my claim, he should read Father George Metallinos' book I Confess One Baptism, which reflects good scholarship and the thinking of the very witneses to whom I have referred. I have read it in both Greek and English (the English text, incidentally, is not as good as it could be). In this I find nothing but a clear response to Erickson, whose comments in a recent St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly about Father Metallinos' scholarly position are hardly becoming a ”scholar” or a Christian.

As for Father Florovsky's article from 1933, unless I knew a Florovsky whom his present “friends” in the OCA did not, the best response to his article is his own thinking on ecumenism. If you will look at the back of Orthodox Tradition, you will find that we have published an excellent summary of his thinking by Constantine Cavarnos (Father Georges Florovsky on Ecumenism [Etna, CA: The Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1992]), drawn not from one article written early in Fr. George's career, but from a number of his writings. As for his personal testimony about this article, it was offered not just to me, but to many of those in the OCA who now exploit the article in question. I attended not just one theological conference, when we were both at Princeton, where this was the case. He saw this as a heuristic piece and presented it as such. Those who make more of it than that are guilty of academic dishonesty.

From Father Deacon John Abraham:

As Archbishop Chrysostomos notes, Father Florovsky's 1933 article equivocates, is far more conservative in its final points, and certainly dismisses such innovative things as the Branch Theory of the Church. Using it to settle disputes over contemporary practice is thus strange, since many today do not differentiate all of these issues. As well, he wrote what he did for the sake of bringing people into Orthodoxy in the 1930s, at a time when almost all Christians were more conservative than today. And it is not right to use his past views to contradict what he later modified, as witnessed by the very reception of Bishop Auxentios (a former “baptized” Protestant). It is too bad that the opinions of Father Florovsky in a single article, as though he did not write volumes of material, are used in a debate which should center on the Fathers, the Canons, and so on, in today's context.

It goes without saying, too, that Father Florovsky's opinions do not hold greater weight than living Tradition or the teaching of the Fathers. As for those who say that Father Florovsky is the nearest thing that we have to a Father of the Church, I would say that we have many, many Fathers. And in this century, there are very prominent Saints and authorities to whom we can turn. We should be a little cautious about these kinds of bold statements. Theologians are not to be used as “Fathers” when their opinions agree with ours and “simple thinkers” when they do not.

[Father John expressed these same thoughts in the following open letter to another individual. His restatement is worthy of reproduction:]

As for Mr. _____ references to Protopresbyter George Florovsky’s article on the boundaries of the Church, it should be pointed out that this was written at a time when Father Florovsky was not only young in his experience of ecumenism (more than sixty years ago), but represents a view which he later disavowed and which is not, in fact, consistent with his mature understanding of the Church. It was a heuristic piece by a young man who came to far different views later in his career. Not only did he support St. Cyprian’s ecclesiology in later works, but he also later expressed critical conclusions about the ecumenical movement and misgivings about a wider view of the Church’s boundaries. I should also say that, great though this wonderful theologian was, he is NOT a Father of the Church, and his opinions, while worthy, are not definitive or dogmatic. This is a dangerous error to make: setting the speculation of a theologian against the ecclesiology of a Father whose views were ratified by an Ecumenical Synod.

From Archbishop Chrysostomos:

... I should add that I am not above speculating about the boundaries of Orthodoxy. Despite the shameful epithets and lies told about me by Bishops who claim that I am somehow a hypocrite and act not out of conscience but out of “traditionalist” politics and in response to “astronomical” concerns, I am indeed concerned about the heterodox and my non-Christian brothers and sisters. Like Father Florovsky, I would like to find ways to reach them by expanding the borders of the Church; but this for the purpose of bringing them into Orthodoxy, not for that of taking it upon myself permanently to redefine or to distort those boundaries, as ecumenists now so boldly do. This has nothing to do with the reception of converts, which is a pastoral matter. Applying theological speculation to pastoral practice is not unlike reducing, as some modernists do, our resistance movement to a matter of astronomy. This is an insult and is wholly dishonest.

Endnotes

* The Challenge of Our Past (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1991), Ch. 8, “The Problem of Sacramental 'Economy'” (originally published in St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 29 [1985], 115-32).

** “Economy. An Examination of the Various Theories of Economy Held Within the Orthodox Church, With Special Reference to the Economical Recognition of the Validity of Non-Orthodox Sacraments,” Journal of Theological Studies, vol. XVI, (1965), 368-420.