In the last two blog posts I presented Father Georges Florovsky’s essay “The Lost Scriptural Mind,” which forms the first chapter to Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View.* Before proceeding to the rest of the book, I want to briefly note some points for ongoing reflection and possible discussion in this post. (I am aware that I am rather theologically out of touch, and seem to have difficulty remembering the details of historical topics I once did know something about, and am sort of thinking aloud here, so if others want to pitch in, please feel free…)
Florovsky’s Context and Ours
Reading this essay, and noting that it was published in The Christian Century in 1951, I could not help but be struck by the context in which Father Florovsky was writing. As Daniel Greeson noted in a comment here,
What is interesting to think about is the intellectual milieu in which Florovsky was moving in at the time. He would have recently moved to NYC and been moving around in the same hallways as Niebuhr and Tillich. Demythologizing would have been at its height if I am not mistaken? Publishing this in the Christian Century at that time, mighty interesting.
Add to this his involvement in the ecumenical movement and the founding of the World Council of Churches,** and we see an Orthodox theologian who was in touch with the modern western theological world. This was in keeping with his oft-quoted statement:
Orthodoxy is summoned to witness. Now more than ever the Christian West stands before divergent prospects, a living question addressed also to the Orthodox world… The ‘old polemical theology’ has long ago lost its inner connection with any reality. Such theology was an academic discipline, and was always elaborated according to the same western ‘textbooks.’ A historiosophical exegesis of the western religious tragedy must become the new ‘polemical theology.’ But this tragedy must be reendured and relived, precisely as one’s own, and its potential catharsis must be demonstrated in the fullness of the experience of the Church and patristic tradition. In this newly sought Orthodox synthesis, the centuries-old experience of the Catholic West must be studied and diagnosed by Orthodox theology with greater care and sympathy than has been the case up to now… The Orthodox theologian must also offer his own testimony to this world—a testimony arising from the inner memory of the Church—and resolve the question with his historical findings.
Reading this essay, I was struck by how Florovsky was responding to a fundamentally Protestant context that was dominated by liberalism and neo-orthodoxy, with what he saw as their respective temptations to Nestorianism and Monophysitism. And, as Dan notes in his comment, “the resonances feel different to me now.” While I agree, I am not sure how to accurately categorize current theological contexts, not only because I am out of touch, but also because they have become more diverse – and the context in which I find myself is rather different from that of many readers of this blog. However, I would tend to see liberal Protestantism as having morphed, together with some other influences, into various theologies of liberation, as well as having re-emerged, together with other influences, in some emphases on spirituality. And I wonder if its major temptation today is not to a form of monism? (As for neo-orthodoxy, I’m not really sure what’s become of it. I’m tempted to say that the “monophysite” temptation is now represented by the resurgence of Calvinism, but I’m also aware that the two cannot be identified).
However, messy as this may be, when I look around me at Christians in South Africa, I do see something that seems to line up with Father Florovsky’s two alternatives. On the one hand, there is an emphasis on “inclusiveness,” a wariness of dogma and of drawing barriers, and the desire for a “human redeemer.” And, on the other hand, there are various forms of fundamentalism and/or Calvinism (and, to give them their due, it is the Calvinists who seem to be the most intellectually serious) with their anthropological pessimism that reduce humanity to “complete passivity.”
A Renewal in Ecclesiology?
This is something that Father Florovsky only touches on in this essay, but he seemed to put some hope in a rediscovery of the Church among western Christians. Again, this reflects the context of his involvement in the WCC, and also the renewal in ecclesiology among both Protestants and Catholics in the first half of the twentieth century. Yet I am inclined to think that the results of this renewal have been rather disappointing and am not sure what is really left of it. Certainly, the trend in the WCC to becoming a parachurch movement rather than seeking the visible unity of its various members, together with the various roadblocks that bilateral ecumenical dialogues have faced, makes his optimism about it seem a little naïve. However, that does not detract from his conviction that:
“In a time such as this” one has to preach “the whole Christ,” Christ and the church – totus Christus, caput et corpus, to use the famous phrase of St. Augustine. Possibly this preaching is still unusual, but it seems to be the only way to preach the Word of God efficiently in a period of gloom and despair like ours. (16)
Does Dogma Matter?
Shining through this chapter is Father Florovsky’s conviction that it is nothing less than the historical faith of the Church that can save his – and our – era. Yet, as noted above, one of the key features of one strand of contemporary Christianity is precisely its aversion to dogma, which it perceives as oppressive and excluding. This is a topic that I have considered writing on before, but I have hesitated for I suspect that the reasons for this are complex and wide-reaching. Nevertheless, it is a question that accompanies me as I read this work, for I am convinced that one of the key challenges in “bearing witness” is to enable our contemporaries to see the truly life-giving nature of Christian dogma. And I hope that Father Florovsky’s works will help us to see that better.
* This post is part of a series in which I hope to blog my way through the Collected Works of Father Georges Florovsky, of which this book forms the first volume. Like the other volumes, it is out of print and only available at exorbitant prices on Amazon. However, there are PDFs floating around on the Internet, which I would encourage interested readers to track down.