A Eulogy to Fr. Georges Florovsky (1893-1979)

By Archimandrite [now Archbishop] Chrysostomos

Webmaster's note: Between 1972 and 1974, Archbishop Chrysostomos, then a Preceptor in the psychology department at Princeton University, took part in an exchange between the late Hieromonk Seraphim Rose and the late Protopresbyter Georges Florovsky, then a Visiting Professor in the department of religion at Princeton and an adjunct professor at the nearby Princeton Theological Seminary. His Eminence later composed a short eulogy to Father Florovsky, at the request of Father Seraphim, for The Orthodox Word. The original title of this piece was, "A Flower on an Icon." When it was published in The Orthodox Word under a different and rather negative title, His Eminence expressed some dismay to the editor in a letter of protest which was, however, never printed. Archbishop Chrysostomos asked that I add this note, when I asked for his permission to post this now dated eulogy.

A HOLY STRUGGLER once described love: Love is to find a leper, give him your body, and then willingly take his body as your own. Before such love, which of us does not tremble with awe and shame at the poverty of what the world receives today as Christian love? Fasting perfectly, in the imagery of St. John Chrysostom, we devour others with our foul tongues. Holding to the steadfastness of the letter, we lose our grip on the fragility of the spirit. Hastening to correct the one who errs, we lose ourselves in error. Beholding the splinter in the eye of another, we turn from the beam in our own, as our Lord spoke of the loss of love in judgment.

So it is that the recent passing of Father Georges Florovsky went by, in traditionalist Orthodox circles, without great notice for the most part, and with lamentably negative attention in some instances. So "perfect" in our Orthodoxy have many of us become that we lose not only Christian love, but the compassionate sense of honor that the Church has always reserved for those who, though they may have imperfectly served the Church, nonetheless served Her with their hearts. Feeling so convicted, then, we wish to make a few humble comments about Father Florovsky and ask that now, hopefully finding himself near the "bosom of Abraham," he will forgive our reception of his work and passing and thereby accept our sincere private prayers for the rest of his soul.

Father Florovsky was above all a scholar. Indeed, his scholarship, many have charged, seemed to dwarf his priesthood. In this sense he was not free from the taint that mere intellectual knowledge of the Holy Church casts on a man. But at the same time, Father Florovsky conveyed to any objective and sincere observer a certain sweetness from the Fathers that he so assiduously studied. Such an image is tragic, to be sure. In his writing, Father Florovsky crystallized this tragic contradiction. He wrote on subjects of critical importance to contemporary Orthodoxy: on the Eastern Fathers of the fourth century and the Byzantine Fathers of the fifth to the eighth centuries, from whose writings the quintessence of the historical expression of Orthodox spirituality can be gleaned. Even to devote particular attention to these Fathers is to open oneself to the most deeply hidden message of early Patristic thought. His contribution in this area was so decisive that, before their projected formal translation into English, manuscripts of these two works in crude, typewritten form, only roughly translated, circulated among scholars. His collected works, an on-going publication project, include perhaps the most superb volume on the Orthodox view of Scripture and Tradition that can be had in English; it is nothing less than a compendium of Patristic thought on these subjects.

Yet Father Florovsky could not, in these valuable gifts of wisdom to the Orthodox world in the West, come to a full, uncompromised statement of Orthodox Truth. Nothing better illustrates this than his otherwise brilliant commentaries on St. Gregory Palamas, where, with peculiar timidity, he so cautiously presents the notion of man's "deification" by Divine Grace that the notion itself loses its remarkable and tremendous impact. He succumbs, it seems, to the Western resistance to Palamite thought, rather more by understatement than by disavowal.

In his personal life, Father Florovsky's timidity once again evokes an atmosphere of tragedy, of contradiction, and paradox. For one so Patristic in his outlook and scholarship, he was surprisingly reticent in his condemnation of the heretical Sophiology of Bulgakov. Though he openly criticized Father Paul Florensky's "psychological-esoteric" Sophian theories and rightly saw them as anti-Christocentric and Florensky as a "stranger to the Orthodox world," Father Florovsky was unwilling to lend his scholarly abilities and insight into the Fathers to the refutation of Bulgakov's far more popular (and thus more dangerous) heresies. And at the same time, when we realize that Father Florovsky refused to attack Bulgakov in the atmosphere of academic pride and out of respect for Bulgakov's friendship with him, we see in Florovsky a sense (albeit a misguided and misplaced sense) of Patristic humility and compassion. We can marvel, too, that Florovsky was to remain for the greatest part of his priesthood (having been ordained into the "Paris group" of Bishop Eulogius) under the Ecumenical Patriarch, expressing the unfortunately extreme ecumenist tenor of the Patriarchate, but nevertheless insisting, as he so often expressed it, that charity (ecumenical compromise, we might say) should never supersede the demands of Truth. Moreover, his idea of ecumenism was that it should be nothing less than a statement of the precepts of Apostolic Orthodoxy. He was a constant spokesman for the teaching of the Patristic philosophy of the Church and saw in this philosophy the complete Truth—indeed, the singularly unique Truth. Still, sadly enough, his very presence in their ranks gave to certain ecumenists, who had gone beyond the bounds of the Orthodox expression of ecumenical (that is, universal) truth and who advocated union with the heterodox at the expense of the Truth recognized by Florovsky, the weight of his influence. Indeed, his statements came to be misused and misunderstood and he failed at elevating his conceptualization of Orthodox Truth beyond the realms of academic philosophy.

Granted that Father Florovsky's most distinguished accomplishments were academic and not wholly spiritual, those accomplishments were none the less impressive and deserve acknowledgement. He taught in professorial posts (from assistant to full professor) at the University of Odessa, the University of Prague, St. Sergius' Orthodox Theological Institute, Columbia University, Union Theological Seminary, and the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological School. His most distinguished positions were at Harvard University and at Princeton University. At Harvard he held the chair in Eastern Church history and was proclaimed professor emeritus on retirement. Following his retirement from Harvard, he went to Princeton and taught in the now defunct Slavic Studies program, in the Department of Religion, and at the Princeton Theological Seminary. (It was at Princeton that he died.) His first publication (in physiological psychology) was presented by Pavlov to the Russian Royal Academy of Sciences; it was written in fluent English. He subsequently published scores of articles and several books in history, theology, Patristics, and philosophy, appearing in English, French, Swedish, Czech, German, Russian, and other languages. An eminent scholar, a theologian, an historian, a philosopher, and a linguist, Father Florovsky, if in no other way, through his academic eminence certainly brought great honor to the Orthodox Church. Like a flower on an Icon, his academic honor surely did not share in the essence of the spiritual tradition which he so adorned; but he added to the beauty of Orthodoxy, bringing to her the respectful attention of those who might have otherwise passed by the Eastern witness. Never consciously a missionary, his work was still supremely evangelical in scope and effect.

The tragedy of Father Florovsky: the contradiction of superb Patristic scholarship and a failure to express its application in strong witness; the paradox of a man expressing Patristic humility in the context of compromising truth; and the sad image of a man separated from the depth of what he studied, yet without question also in some way joined to Orthodoxy in a profound way—all of these elements touch on a greater tragedy in contemporary Orthodoxy. We see in many circles a "Patristic Renewal" or "Patristic Revival," a return to the Fathers. Yet this return is not producing the would-be Orthodoxy of old, fragrant with love, humility, and compassion most curiously and paradoxically joined to commitment, steadfastness, and unwavering dedication to the immutable truths of the Church. Rather, it is producing an unknown "Orthodoxy," divided between brain and heart. It is producing an Orthodoxy that knows well the message of the Fathers in words and yet cannot join it mystically in practice to the needs of the heart. This Orthodoxy is a cerebral Orthodoxy which does not compel man to draw on the Fathers as the source of action (on their theory as a guide for practical spiritual life), but which remains sterile and academic. It proffers theology without fasting, scholarship without Liturgy, description without experience, theory without practice. And it tragically leaves sincere scholars like Father Florovsky somewhere between the spiritual and the mundane, between theology as the flower of practice and theology as a blossom without roots. Father Florovsky's appearance, marked by his black rason and his blue beret, perfectly expressed this tragedy. Clothed in the Church, his head was constantly under the force of fashionable thought and academic reason.

In spite of the negative light in which some might wrongly think that his participation in a merely academic Patristic tradition seems to place him, Father Florovsky was not an example of the effete spirit of Patristic renewal. He was far more than those about whom that might be said. To know his tragedy—indeed, to know him even in a limited way—is to find something far deeper than our reason or judgment can reveal. For if we fail to see more in him, so closely joined as he was to the very words of the Fathers, then it is we who are foolish and effete. If he failed at finding the roots of practice which nourished the flower of theology that he knew so well, it is we who often, knowing the roots of practice, fail to produce and protect the sweet blossoms of compassion and love. We must look at Father Florovsky in terms of a patristic reflection given to us in the "Evergetinos." A certain elder saw, with his own eyes, a brother fall into a serious sin. Not only did the elder not criticize him, but he wept and said to himself: "He fell today and I certainly will tomorrow. But while he will no doubt repent, as for myself I am not sure." If we fear for Father Florovsky, how much more we must fear for ourselves!


Originally printed in The Orthodox Word, Vol. 16, No. 5 (94), pp. 237-242. See also: Fr. Georges Florovsky, by the same author.