It was fitting that the Architect of the works of creation should come and raise up the house that had fallen and that the hovering Spirit should sanctify the buildings that were unclean. Thus, if the Progenitor entrusted the judgment that is to come to his Son, it is clear that he accomplished the creation of humanity and its restoration through him as well. He was the live coal, which had come to kindle the briars and thorns. He dwelt in the womb and cleansed it and sanctified the place of the birth pangs and the curses. The flame, which Moses saw, was moistening the bush and distilling the fat lest it be inflamed. The likeness of refined gold could be seen in the bush, entering into the fire but without being consumed. This happened so that it might make known that living fire which was to come at the end, watering and moistening the womb of the Virgin and clothing it like the fire that enveloped the bush.

Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron I.25, quoted in Arthur A Just (ed), Luke, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament III, (Intervarsity Press, 2003) 18-19.


Cardinal Newman in his admirable “Letter addressed to the Rev. E.B. Pusey, D.D., on occasion of his Eirenicon” (1865) says very aptly: “Theology is concerned with supernatural matters, and is ever running into mysteries, which reason can neither explain nor adjust. Its lines of thought come to an abrupt termination, and to pursue them or to complete them is to plunge down the abyss. St. Augustine warns us that, if we attempt to find and to tie together the ends of lines which run into infinity, we shall only succeed in contradicting ourselves…” (Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, 5th ed., page 430). It is widely agreed that the ultimate considerations which determine a true estimate of all particular points of the Christian tradition are doctrinal. No purely historical arguments, whether from antiquity or from silence, are ever decisive. They are subject to a further theological scrutiny and revision in the perspective of the total Christian faith, taken as a whole. The ultimate question is simply this: does one really keep the faith of the Bible and of the Church, does one accept and recite the Catholic Creed exactly in that sense in which it had been drafted and supposed to be taken and understood, does one really believe in the truth of the Incarnation? Let me quote Newman once more. “I say then,” he proceeds, “when once we have mastered the idea that Mary bore, suckled and handled the Eternal in the form of a child, what limit is conceivable to the rush and flood of thoughts which such a doctrine involves? What awe and surprise must attend upon the knowledge, that a creature has been brought so close to the Divine Essence?” (op. cit., page 431) Fortunately a Catholic theologian is not left alone with logic and erudition. He is led by the faith; credo ut intelligam. Faith illuminates the reason. And erudition, the memory of the past, is quickened in the continuous experience of the Church.

Georges Florovsky, Creation and Redemption(Nordland Publishing Company, 1976) 185-186.

The whole dogmatic teaching about our Lady can be condensed into these two names of hers: the Mother of God and the Ever-Virgin, – qeoto/kov and a0eiparqe/nov. Both names have the formal authority of the Church Universal, an ecumenical authority indeed. The Virgin Birth is plainly attested in the New Testament and has been an integral part of Catholic tradition ever since. “Incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary” (or “Born of the Virgin Mary”) is a credal phrase. It is not merely a statement of historical fact. It is precisely a credal statement, a solemn profession of faith. The term “Ever-Virgin” was formally endorsed by the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553). And Theotokos is more than a name or honorific title. It is rather a doctrinal definition – in one word. It has been a touchstone of the true faith and a distinctive mark of Orthodoxy even before the Council of Ephesus (432). Already St. Gregory of Nazianzus warns Cledonius: “if one does not acknowledge Mary as Theotokos, he is estranged from God” (Epist. 101). As a matter of fact, the name was widely used by the Fathers of the fourth century and possibly even in the third (by Origen, for instance, if we can trust Socrates, Hist. Eccl., VII, 32, and the texts preserved in catenas, e.g. In Lucam Hom. 6 and 7, ed. Rauer, 44.10 and 50.9). It was already traditional when it was contested and repudiated by Nestorius and his group. The word does not occur in Scripture, just as the term o_moou/siov does not occur. But surely, neither at Nicaea nor at Ephesus was the Church innovating or imposing a new article of faith. An “unscriptural” word was chosen and used, precisely to voice and to safeguard the traditional belief and common conviction of ages. It is true, of course, that the Third Ecumenical Council was concerned primarily with the Christological dogma and did not formulate any specifically Mariological doctrine. But precisely for that reason it was truly remarkable that a Mariological term should have been selected and put forward as the ultimate test of Christological orthodoxy, to be used, as it were, as a doctrinal shibboleth in the Christological discussion. It was really a key-word to the whole of Christology. “This name,” says St. John of Damascus, “contains the whole mystery of the Incarnation” (De Fide Orth., III. 12) … The Christological doctrine can never be accurately and adequately stated unless a very definite teaching about the Mother of Christ has been included. In fact, all the Mariological doubts and errors of modern times depend in the last resort precisely upon an utter Christological confusion. They reveal a hopeless “conflict in Christology.” There is no room for the Mother of God in a “reduced Christology.” Protestant theologians simply have nothing to say about her. Yet to ignore the Mother means to misinterpret the Son. On the other hand, the person of the Blessed Virgin can be properly understood and rightly described only in a Christological setting and context. Mariology is to be but a chapter in the treatise on the Incarnation, never to be extended into an independent “treatise.” Not, of course, an optional or occasional chapter, not an appendix. It belongs to the very body of doctrine. The Mystery of the Incarnation includes the Mother of the Incarnate. Sometimes, however, this Christological perspective has been obscured by a devotional exaggeration, by an unbalanced pietism. Piety must always be guided and checked by dogma. Again, there must be a Mariological chapter in the treatise on the Church. But the doctrine of the Church itself is but an “extended Christology,” the doctrine of the “total Christ,” totus Christus, caput et corpus.

Georges Florovsky, Creation and Redemption (Nordland Publishing Company, 1976) 171-173.

“The Word became flesh”: in this is the ultimate joy of the Christian faith. In this is the fullness of Revelation. The Same Incarnate Lord is both perfect God and perfect man. The full significance and the ultimate purpose of human existence is revealed and realized in and through the Incarnation. He came down from Heaven to redeem the earth, to unite man with God for ever. “And became man.” The new age has been initiated. We count now the “anni Domini.” As St. Irenaeus wrote: “the Son of God became the Son of Man, that man also might become the son God.” Not only is the original fullness of human nature restored or re-established in the Incarnation. Not only does human nature return to its once lost communion with God. The Incarnation is also the new Revelation, the new and further step. The first Adam was a living soul. But the last Adam is the Lord from Heaven (1 Cor. 15:47). And in the Incarnation of the Word human nature was not merely anointed with a superabundant over-flowing of Grace, but was assumed into an intimate and hypostatical unity with the Divinity itself. In that lifting up of human nature into an everlasting communion with the Divine Life, the Fathers of the early Church unanimously saw the essence of salvation, the basis of the whole redeeming work of Christ. “That is saved which is united with God,” says St. Gregory of Nazianzus. And what was not united could not be saved at all. This was his chief reason for insisting, against Appolinarius, on the fullness of human nature assumed by the Only Begotten in the Incarnation. This was the fundamental motive in the whole of early theology, in St. Irenaeus, St. Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, St. Cyril of Alexandria, and St. Maximus the Confessor. The whole history of Christological dogma was determined by this fundamental conception: the Incarnation of the Word as Redemption. In the Incarnation human history is completed. God’s eternal will is accomplished, “the mystery from eternity hidden and to angels unknown.” The days of expectation are over. The Promised and the Expected has come. And from henceforth, to use the phrase of St. Paul, the life of man “is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3)

Georges Florovsky, Creation and Redemption, Volume Three in the Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, (Nordland, 1976). 95-96.

More than once theological and dogmatic questions were also raised with great poignancy. One should not forget the immanent difficulties or temptations of ascetic experience and thought. First of all, the question of sin and freedom arose. Connected with this was another question concerning the sacraments and prayer. In another formulation this is also a question about grace and freedom — or struggle; that is, man’s creative coming-into-being. It is not surprising that Pelagianism and Origenism — and even the heresy of the Eutychians — disturbed monastic circles.

All these individual questions reduce to one general question, one which concerned fate and man’s path. In ascetic texts we find not only psychological and ethical meditations but also the metaphysics of human life. The problems of asceticism could be resolved only in a precise dogmatic synthesis. This was clear even with St. Athanasius and the Cappadocians. Christological disputes were resolved not only by dogmatic synthesis but by ascetic synthesis as well. We find it in St. Maximus the Confessor. Dogmatics and ascetics are organically and inseparably brought together in the system of St. Maximus.

The essence of the spiritual ideal of monasticism is within Christianity from the beginning. Monasticism is not an aberration from original and authentic Christianity, not a distortion of the Gospel, of the kerygmatic apostolic deposit. Rather it is one form of Christian spirituality, a form whose essential features are found in the Gospels, the epistles of the New Testament, and in the life of the early Church. The fourth century merely begins to develop, to organize those ideals, those precepts which were always a part of the Christian message. And it is precisely here that one of the deepest problems facing the Ecumenical Movement is to be found — there are two basic and contradictory views toward monasticism. And in these two opposing views toward monasticism one clearly sees two differing views toward the essence of the Christian message, toward the Christian vision of God, man, and redemption, toward the very essence of Christian spirituality. The question must be raised. It must be confronted, not forgotten or neglected. What precisely were those essential aspects of monasticism that were contained in the Christian message from the beginning? What precisely defines the two opposing views toward monasticism and monastic forms of spirituality? Again dogma and spirituality are intertwined, are inseparable, and again it concerns the metaphysics of human life and destiny.

Fr. Georges Florovsky, The Byzantine Ascetic and Spiritual Fathers, chapter five.

There is much here that strikes me as important even though Fr Florovsky does not develop these two differing views, at least not here. His words remind me of a quote from Peter Brown’s The Body and Society that I once noted:

Theologians of ascetic background, throughout the fourth and fifth centuries, would not have pursued with such ferocious energy the problems around the incarnation of Christ and the related uniting of the human and the divine in one person had they not experienced it as a compelling image of the mysterious union of body and soul in themselves.

(My apologies: this is not an accurate quote as I only have access to a Dutch translation of Brown’s book and am translating it back into English. I’ll try and get hold of the original English and update this sometime!)

Mary “found favor with God” (Luke i. 30). She was chosen and ordained to serve in the Mystery of the Incarnation. And by this eternal election or predestination she was in a sense set apart and given an unique privilege and position in the whole of mankind, nay in the whole of creation. She was given a transcendent rank, as it were. She was at once representative of the human race, and set apart. There is an antinomy here, implied in the divine election. …

Her function in the Incarnation is twofold. On the one hand, she secures the continuity of the human race. Her Son is, in virtue of his “second nativity,” the Son of David, the Son of Abraham and of all the “forefathers” (this is emphasized by the genealogies of Jesus, in both versions). In the phrase of St. Irenaeus, he “recapitulated in himself the long role of humanity” (Adv. Haeres., III, 18, 1: longam hominum expositionem in se ipso recapitulavit), “gathered up in himself all nations, dispersed as they were even from creation” (IV, 23, 4). But, on the other hand, he “exhibited a new sort of generation” (V, 1, 3). He was the new Adam. This was the most drastic break in the continuity, the true reversal of the previous process. And this “reversal” begins precisely with the Incarnation, with the Nativity of the “Second Man.” St. Irenaeus speaks of a recirculation – from Mary to Eve (III, 22, 4). As the Mother of the New Man Mary has her anticipated share in this very newness. …

Mary was chosen and elected to become the Mother of the Incarnate Lord. We must assume that she was fit for that awful office, that she was prepared for her exceptional calling – prepared by God. Can we properly define the nature and character of this preparation? We are facing here the crucial antinomy (to which we have alluded above). The Blessed Virgin was representative of the race, i.e. of the fallen human race, of the “old Adam.” But she was also the second Eve; with her begins the “new generation.” She was set apart by the eternal counsel of God, but this “setting apart” was not to destroy her essential solidarity with the rest of mankind. Can we solve this antinomical mystery in any logical scheme? The Roman Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary is a noble attempt to suggest such a solution. But this solution is valid only in the context of a particular and highly inadequate doctrine of original sin and does not hold outside this particular setting. Strictly speaking, this “dogma” is an unnecessary complication, and an unfortunate terminology only obscures the undisputable truth of the Catholic belief. The “privileges” of the divine Motherhood do not depend upon a “freedom from original sin.” The fullness of grace was truly bestowed upon the Blessed Virgin and her personal purity was preserved by the perpetual assistance of the Spirit. But this was not an abolition of the sin. The sin was destroyed only on the tree of the Cross, and no “exemption” was possible, since it was only the common and general condition of the whole of human existence. It was not destroyed even by the Incarnation itself, although the Incarnation was the true inauguration of the New Creation. The Incarnation was but the basis and starting-point of the redemptive work of Our Lord. And the “Second Man” himself enters into his full glory through the gate of death. Redemption is a complex act, and we have to distinguish most carefully its moments, although they are supremely integrated in the unique and eternal counsel of God. Being integrated in the eternal plan, in the temporal display they are reflected in each other and the final consummation is already prefigured and anticipated in all the earlier stages. There was a real progress in the history of the Redemption. Mary had the grace of the Incarnation, as the Mother of the Incarnate, but this was not yet the complete grace, since the Redemption had not yet been accomplished. Yet her personal purity was possible even in an unredeemed world, or rather in a world that was in process of Redemption. The true theological issue is that of the divine election. The Mother and the Child are inseparably linked in the unique decree of the Incarnation. As an event, the Incarnation is just the turning-point of history, – and the turning-point is inevitably antinomical: it belongs at once to the Old and to the New. The rest is silence. We have to stand in awe and trembling on the threshold of the mystery.

Georges Florovsky, Creation and Redemption, Volume Three in the Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, (Nordland, 1976). 176; 178; 181-183.

I took this book out of the library ages ago and have recently been thinking that it’s really rather unrealistic to expect to get to it in the foreseeable future. But, today being the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, I decided to read the chapter on the Mother of God and, well, it really does look as if the whole book would be very worth reading. Oh dear.

The tension between the two visions, Hellenic and Biblical, was sharp and obvious. Greeks and Christians were dwelling, as it was, in two different worlds. Accordingly, the categories of Greek philosophy were inadequate for the description of the world of Christian faith. The main emphasis of Christian faith was precisely on the radical contingency of the cosmos, on its contingency precisely in the order of existence. Indeed, the very existence of the world pointed, for Christians, to the Other, as its Lord and Creator. On the other hand, the creation of the world was conceived as a sovereign and “free” act of God, and not as something, which was “necessarily” implied or inherent in God’s own Being. Thus, there was actually a double contingency: on the side of the cosmos —, which might not have existed at all; and on the side of the Creator — who could not have created anything at all. God would be God whether he created or not. The very existence of the world was regarded by the Christians as a mystery and as a miracle of Divine Freedom.

Christian thought matured gradually and slowly, by a way of trial and retraction. The early Christian writers would often describe their new vision of faith in the terms of old and current philosophy. They were not always aware of, and certainly did not always guard against, the ambiguity, which was involved in such an enterprise. By using Greek categories Christian writers were forcing upon themselves, without being consciously aware of it, a world, which was radically different from that in which they lived by faith. They were therefore often caught between the vision of their faith and the inadequacy of the language they were using. This predicament must be taken very seriously. Etienne Gilson once suggested that “la pensee chretienne apportait du vin nouveau, mais les vieilles outres etaient encore bonnes” [“Christian thought brought the new wine but the old skins were still good enough.”]. It is an elegant phrase but is it not rather an optimistic overstatement? Indeed, the skins did not burst at once, but was it really to the benefit of nascent Christian thought? The skins were badly tainted with an old smell, and in those skins the wine acquired an alien flavour. In fact, the new vision required new terms and categories for its adequate and fair expression. This problem is apparent in the earliest Christian literature — if the Apologists are understood from within the mind of the Church, it is clear about, which they are speaking. But as soon as one attempts to understand the Apologists “from without,” from categories other than the apostolic deposit, one can read into their thought many things, which they would have rejected. It was an urgent task for Christians “to coin new names, as St. Gregory of Nazianzus was to point out — το καίοτομεϊν τα ονόματα.

Fr. Georges Florovsky, The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth Century, chapter nine.

This isn’t new of course and echoes themes that I have encountered in Zizioulas’ Being as Communion (which I have not abandoned, despite all appearances to the contrary) on the relationship between Greek thought and the biblical witness. But it also raises the question for me of the extent to which our current thought processes and cultural and philosophical assumptions enable or hinder the expression of faith.

Perhaps I noticed this particularly because I recently came across the website of a theological college that I once had contact with. Reading its mission statement, I was struck not just by the emphasis on contextuality in theological education, but that this involves allowing the tradition to be transformed by the context. Now there was a time when I was involved such academic circles – and I remain committed to some of their concerns – but it now strikes me as being insufficiently critical of the factors operating in the contemporary context, and of the extent to which they form us and condition our responses.

“Theology” is not an end in itself. It is always but a way. Theology, and even the “dogmas,” presents no more than an “intellectual contour” of the revealed truth, and a “noetic” testimony to it. Only in the act of faith is this “contour” filled with content. Christological formulas are fully meaningful only for those who have encountered the Living Christ, and have received and acknowledged Him as God and Saviour, and are dwelling by faith in Him, in His body, the Church. In this sense, theology is never a self-explanatory discipline. It is constantly appealing to the vision of faith. “What we have seen and heard we announce to you.” Without this “announcement” theological formulas are empty and of no consequence. For the same reason these formulas can never be taken “abstractly,” that is, out of total context of belief. It is misleading to single out particular statements of the Fathers and to detach them from the total perspective in which they have been actually uttered, just as it is misleading to manipulate with detached quotations from the Scripture. A dangerous habit “to quote” the Fathers; is, to quote their isolated sayings and phrases outside of that concrete setting in which only they have their full and proper meaning and are truly alive. “To follow” does not mean just “to quote” the Fathers. “To follow” the Fathers means to acquire their “mind,” their phronema.

Fr. Georges Florovsky, The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth Century, chapter 3, which is available online here, together with other very worthwhile works of Father Florovsky.