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
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
* 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 , 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.