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"Following the Holy Fathers":

Father Georges Florovsky and the Patristic Mindset

Following the Holy Fathers... It was usual in the Ancient Church to introduce doctrinal statements by phrases like this. The great Decree of Chalcedon begins precisely with these very words. The Seventh Ecumenical Council introduces its decision concerning the Holy Icons even in a more explicit and elaborate way: following the Divinely inspired teaching of our Holy Fathers and the tradition of the Catholic Church (Denzinger 302). Obviously, it was more than just an appeal to "antiquity." Indeed, the Church always stresses the identity of her faith throughout the ages. This identity and permanence, from Apostolic times, is indeed the most conspicuous token and sign of right faith. In the famous phrase of Vincent of Lérins, in ipsa item catholica ecclesia magnopere curandum est ut id teneamus quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est (Commonitorium c. 2-3). However, "antiquity" by itself is not yet an adequate proof of the true faith. Archaic formulas can be utterly misleading. Vincent himself was well aware of that. Old customs as such do not guarantee the truth. As St. Cyprian put it, antiquitas sine veritate vetustas erroris est (Epist. 74). And again: Dominus, Ego sum, inquit, veritas. Non dixit, Ego sum consuetudo (Sententiae episcoporum numero 87, c. 30). The true tradition is only the tradition of truth, traditio veritatis. And this "true tradition," according to St. Irenaeus, is grounded in, and guaranteed by, that charisma veritatis certum, which has been deposited from the very beginning in the Church and preserved in the uninterrupted succession of Apostolic ministry: qui cum episcopatus successione charisma veritatis certum acceperunt (Adv. haereses IV. 40. 2). Thus, "tradition" in the Church is not merely the continuity of human memory the permanence of rites and habits. Ultimately, "'tradition" is the continuity of divine assistance, the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. The Church is not bound by "the letter." She is constantly moved forth by "the spirit." The same Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, which "spake through the Prophets," which guided the Apostles, which illumined the Evangelists, is still abiding in the Church, and guides her into the fuller understanding of the divine truth, from glory to glory.

Following the Holy Fathers... It is not a reference to abstract tradition, to formulas and propositions. It is primarily an appeal to persons, to holy witnesses. The witness of the Fathers belongs, integrally and intrinsically, to the very structure of the Orthodox faith. The Church is equally committed to the kerygma of the Apostles and to the dogmata of the Fathers. Both belong together inseparably. The Church is indeed "Apostolic." But the Church is also "Patristic." And only by being "Patristic" is the Church continuously "Apostolic." The Fathers testify to the Apostolicity of the tradition. There are two basic stages in the proclamation of the Christian faith. Our simple faith had to acquire composition. There was an inner urge, an inner logic, an internal necessity, in this transition from kerygma to dogma. Indeed, the dogmata of the Fathers are essentially the same "simple" kerygma, which had been once delivered and deposited by the Apostles, once, for ever. But now it is this very kerygma—properly articulated and developed into a consistent body of correlated testimonies. The apostolic preaching is not only kept in the Church: it lives in the Church, as a depositum juvenescens, in the phrase of St. Irenaeus. In this sense, the teaching of the Fathers is a permanent category of Christian faith, a constant and ultimate measure or criterion of right belief. In this sense, again, Fathers are not merely witnesses of the old faith, testes antiquitatis, but, above all and primarily, witnesses of the true faith, testes veritatis. Accordingly, our contemporary appeal to the Fathers is much more than a historical reference—to the past. "The mind of the Fathers" is an intrinsic term of reference in Orthodox theology, no less than the word of the Holy Writ, and indeed never separated from it. The Fathers themselves were always servants of the Word, and their theology was intrinsically exegetical. Thus, as has been well said recently, "the Catholic Church of all ages is not merely a child of the Church of the Fathers, but she is and remains the Church of the Fathers." [6]

The main distinctive mark of Patristic theology was its "existential" character. The Fathers theologized, as St. Gregory of Nazianzus put it, "in the manner of the Apostles, and not in that of Aristotle," alieutikos ouk aristotelikos (Hom. XXIII. 12). Their teaching was still a "message," a kerygma. Their theology was still a "kerygmatic theology," even when it was logically arranged and corroborated by intellectual arguments. The ultimate reference was still to faith, to spiritual comprehension. It is enough to mention in this connection the names of St. Athanasius, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Maximus the Confessor. Their theology was a witness. Apart from the life in Christ theology carries no conviction, and, if separated from the life of faith, theology may easily degenerate into empty dialectics, a vain polylogia, without any spiritual consequence. Patristic theology was rooted in the decisive commitment of faith. It was not just a self-explanatory "discipline," which could be presented argumentatively, i.e., aristotelikos, without a prior spiritual engagement. This theology could only be "preached," or "proclaimed," and not be simply "taught" in a school-manner; "preached" from the pulpit, proclaimed also in the word of prayer and in sacred rites, and indeed manifested in the total structure of Christian life. Theology of this kind can never be separated from the life of prayer and from the practice of virtue. "The climax of purity is the beginning of theology," in the phrase of St. John Klimakos (Scala Paradisi, grade 30). On the other hand, theology is always, as it were, no more than "propaideutic," since its ultimate aim and purpose are to bear witness to the Mystery of the Living God, in word and in deed. "Theology" is not an aim in itself. It is always but a way. Theology presents no more than an "intellectual contour" of the revealed truth, a "noetic" testimony to it. Only in an act of faith is this contour filled with living content. Yet, the "contour" is also indispensable. Christological formulas are actually meaningful only for the faithful, for those who have encountered the Living Christ, and have acknowledged Him as God and Saviour, for those who are dwelling by faith in Him, in His Body, the Church. In this sense, theology is never a self-explanatory discipline. It appeals constantly to the vision of faith. "'What we have seen and have heard, we announce to you." Apart from this "announcement" theological formularies are of no consequence. For the same reason these formulas should never be taken out of their spiritual context. It is utterly misleading to single out certain propositions, dogmatic or doctrinal, and to abstract them from the total perspective in which only they are meaningful and valid. It is a dangerous habit just to handle "quotations" from the Fathers and even from the Scripture, outside of the total structure of faith, in which only they are truly alive. "To follow the Fathers" does not mean simply to quote their sentences. It means to acquire their mind, their phronema. The Orthodox Church claims to have preserved this mind and to have theologized ad mentem Patrum.

At this very point a major doubt may be raised. The name of "Church Fathers" is normally restricted to the teachers of the Ancient Church. And it is currently assumed that their authority, if recognized at all, depended upon their " antiquity," i.e., upon their comparative chronological nearness to the "Primitive Church," to the initial or Apostolic "Age" of Christian history. Now, already St. Jerome felt himself constrained to contest this contention: the Spirit breathes indeed in all ages. Indeed, there was no decrease in "authority," and no decrease in the immediacy of spiritual knowledge, in the course of Church History—of course, always under the control of the primary witness and revelation. Unfortunately, the scheme of "decrease," if not of a flagrant "decay," has become one of the habitual schemes of historical thinking. It is widely assumed, consciously or subconsciously, that the early Church was, as it were, closer to the spring of truth. In the order of time, of course, it is obvious and true. But does it mean that the Early Church actually knew and understood the mystery of the Revelation, as it were, "better" and "fuller" than all subsequent ages, so that nothing but "repetition" has been left to the "ages to come"? Indeed, as an admission of our own inadequacy and failure, as an act of humble self-criticism, an exaltation of the past may be sound and healthy. But it is dangerous to make of it the starting point of our theology of Church History, or even of our theology of the Church. It is widely assumed that the "age of the Fathers" had ended, and accordingly should be regarded simply as an "ancient formation," archaic and obsolete. The limit of the "patristic age" is variously defined. It is usual to regard St. John of Damascus as "the last Father" in the East, and St. Gregory the Great or Isidor of Seville as the last in the West. This habit has been challenged more than once. For instance, should not St. Theodore of Studium be counted among the Fathers? In the West, already Mabillon suggested that Bernard of Clairvaux, the Doctor Mellifluus, was actually "the last of the Fathers, and surely not unequal to the earlier ones. " [7] On the other hand, it can be contended that "the Age of the Fathers" has actually come to its end much earlier than even St. John of Damascus. It is enough simply to recall the famous formula of the Consensus quinquesaecularis which restricted the "authoritative" period of Church History actually to the period up to Chalcedon. Indeed, it was a Protestant formula. But the usual Eastern formula of "Seven Ecumenical Councils" is actually not very much better, when it tends, as it currently does, to restrict the Church's spiritual authority to the eight centuries, as if the "Golden Age" of the Church had already passed and we are now dwelling probably in an Iron Age, much lower on the scale of spiritual vigor and authority. Psychologically, this attitude is quite comprehensible, but it cannot be theologically justified. Indeed, the Fathers of the Fourth and Fifth centuries are much more impressive than the later ones, and their unique greatness cannot be questioned. Yet, the Church remained fully alive also after Chalcedon. And, in fact, an overemphasis on the "first five centuries" dangerously distorts theological vision and prevents the right understanding of the Chalcedonian dogma itself. The decree of the Sixth Ecumenical Council then is regarded just as a kind of "appendix" to Chalcedon, and the decisive theological contribution of St. Maximus the Confessor is usually completely overlooked. An overemphasis on the "eight centuries" inevitably obscures the legacy of Byzantium. There is still a strong tendency to treat "Byzantinism" as an inferior sequel, or even as a decadent epilogue, to the patristic age. Probably, we are prepared, now more than before, to admit the authority of the Fathers. But "Byzantine theologians" are not yet counted among the Fathers. In fact, however, Byzantine theology was much more than a servile "repetition" of Patristics. It was an organic continuation of the patristic endeavor. It suffices to mention St. Symeon the New Theologian, in the Eleventh century, and St. Gregory Palamas, in the Fourteenth. A restrictive commitment of the Seven Ecumenical Councils actually contradicts the basic principle of the Living Tradition in the Church. Indeed, all Seven. But not only the Seven.

The Seventeenth century was a critical age in the history of Eastern theology. The teaching of theology had deviated at that time from the traditional patristic pattern and had undergone influence from the West. Theological habits and schemes were borrowed from the West, rather eclectically, both from the late Roman Scholasticism of Post-Tridentine times and from the various theologies of the Reformation. These borrowings affected heavily the theology of the alleged "Symbolic books" of the Eastern Church, which cannot be regarded as an authentic voice of the Christian East. The style of theology has been changed. Yet, this did not imply any change in doctrine. It was, indeed, a sore and ambiguous Pseudomorphosis of Eastern theology, which is not yet overcome even in our own time. This Pseudomorphosis actually meant a certain split in the soul of the East, to borrow one of the favorite phrases of Arnold Toynbee. Indeed, in the life of the Church the tradition of the Fathers has never been interrupted. The whole structure of Eastern Liturgy, in an inclusive sense of the word, is still thoroughly patristic. The life of prayer and meditation still follows the old pattern. The Philokalia, that famous encyclopaedia of Eastern piety and asceticism, which includes writings of many centuries, from St. Anthony of Egypt up to the Hesychasts of the Fourteenth century, is increasingly becoming the manual of guidance for all those who are eager to practice Orthodoxy in our own time. The authority of its compiler St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mount, has been recently re-emphasized and reinforced by his formal canonization in the Greek Church. In this sense, it can be contended, "the age of the Fathers" still continues alive in the "Worshiping Church." Should it not continue also in the schools, in the field of theological research and instruction? Should we not recover "the mind of the Fathers" also in our theological thinking and confession? "Recover," indeed, not as an archaic pose and habit, and not just as a venerable relic, but as an existential attitude, as a spiritual orientation. Actually, we are already living in an age of revival and restoration. Yet it is not enough to keep a "Byzantine Liturgy," to restore a "Byzantine style" in Iconography and Church architecture, to practice Byzantine modes of prayer and self-discipline. One has to go back to the very roots of this traditional "piety" which has been always cherished as a holy inheritance. One has to recover the patristic mind. Otherwise one will be still in danger of being internally split-between the "traditional" pattern of "piety" and the un-traditional pattern of mind. As "worshipers," the Orthodox have always stayed in the "tradition of the Fathers." They must stand in the same tradition also as "theologians." In no other way can the integrity of Orthodox existence be retained and secured.

It is enough, in this connection, to refer to the discussions at the Congress of Orthodox theologians, held in Athens at the end of the year 1936. It was a representative gathering: eight theological faculties, in six different countries, were represented. Two major problems were conspicuous on the agenda: first, the "External influences on Orthodox Theology since the Fall of Constantinople"; secondly, the Authority of the Fathers. The fact of Western accretions has been frankly acknowledged and thoroughly analyzed. On the other hand, the authority of the Fathers has been re-emphasized and a "return to the Fathers" advocated and approved. Indeed, it must be a creative return. An element of self-criticism must be therein implied. This brings us to the concept of a Neopatristic synthesis, as the task and aim of Orthodox theology today. The Legacy of the Fathers is a challenge for our generation, in the Orthodox Church and outside of it. Its recreative power has been increasingly recognized and acknowledged in these recent decades, in various corners of divided Christendom. The growing appeal of patristic tradition is one of the most distinctive marks of our time. For the Orthodox this appeal is of special urgency and importance, because the total tradition of Orthodoxy has always been patristic. One has to reassess both the problems and the answers of the Fathers. In this study the vitality of patristic thought, and its perennial timeliness, will come to the fore. Inexhaustum est penu Patrum, has well said Louis Thomassin, a French Oratorian of the Seventeenth century and one of the distinguished patristic scholars of his time. [8]


6. Louis Bouyer, Le renouveau des etudes patristiques, in "La Vie Intellectuelle." Fevrier 1947, p. 18.

7. Mabillon, in the Preface to Bernard’s Opera, n. 23, Migne, P.L., CLXXXII, c. 26, quoted recently in the Encyclical of Pope Pius XII, Doctor Mellifluus (1953); English translation of the Encyclical in Thomas Merton, The Last of the Fathers, N.Y., 1954.

8. L. Thomassin, Dogmata theologica, vol. I, Praefatio, p. XX.

Originally published in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky (Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishing Co., 1987), Vol. IV, "Patristic Theology and the Ethos of the Orthodox Church," Part II, p. 15-22. This is an excerpt from an approx. 20 page article and thus the reason for the footnote numbering beginning with #6. The title is my own.