The Ecumenism of Fr. Georges Florovsky


A short piece on the ecumenism of Fr. Georges Florovsky has been written by Florovsky scholars Fr. Matthew Baker and Seraphim Danckaert and published in Orthodox Handbook on Ecumenism: Resources for Theological Education. It’s brief but fascinating it its detail. Here are a few highlights:

Georges Florovsky (1893-1979) was the leading architect of Orthodox ecumenism in the 20th century. He combined magnanimity towards non-Orthodox with staunch adherence to patristic Orthodoxy, exhibiting the courage to challenge any interlocutor, whether Orthodox hierarch or WCC secretary general. Florovsky maintained lasting ecumenical commitments, but warned against any ecumenical endeavor that would settle for doctrinal minimalism or privilege common action over theological confrontation.

In Florovsky’s account, the main ecumenical problem is the “paradox” of schism. The Church is one — the Christian world lies in division. Faith in Jesus as God and Savior creates a real ontological bond. Yet the divisions are no less ontological — marking separations, not only in love and creed, but the very experience of faith. In the phrase “separated brethren,” the adjective weighs as heavily as the noun. True ecumenism demands a “theology of the abnormal.”

While Florovsky pushed the ecumenical conversation towards ecclesiology, he underscores nonetheless that existing divisions concern the whole of faith, involving doctrines of God, Christ, Mary, man and — not least — the understanding of history implied in these. Florovsky observes a certain “hyper-historicism” in Roman Christological consciousness — as if the Ascension marked Christ’s exit from history, leaving his deputy behind to govern.

In Protestantism, conversely, Florovsky detects a “hyper-eschatological” reduction of history: human striving is undervalued; sacraments become nearly Old Testament signs; the Church’s historic visibility is not fully recognized. The Reformation divorce of “Jerusalem” from “Athens” marks yet another departure. It was in defending Christian metaphysics against the perceived fideism of early dialectical theologians that Florovsky introduced his call for return to the “Christianized Hellenism” of the Fathers of both East and West.

Florovsky regarded the recovery of patristic theology as ecumenically crucial. It is in this light that his 1937 masterwork, Puti Russkogo Bogoslovija — a book meant for Russian readers, which Florovsky intended to revise for translation — must be understood. His sharp critique of Westernizing “pseudomorphosis” was aimed, not at the West per se, but at a Russian theology alienated from its own liturgical sources and unmoored from its roots in patristic theology, as well as a spirit of “servile imitation” that made real ecumenical confrontation impossible. Florovsky’s alternative is not isolation, but “free encounter with the West” — conducted on the common recovered ground of patristic and classical conciliar theology, which Orthodoxy claims as her own. It was this vision that accompanied his concepts of “neo-patristic synthesis” and “ecumenism in time” which, he stressed, were closely correlated.

“Ecumenism in time” searches the shared past of apostolic tradition, seeking recovery of a “common mind.” Florovsky celebrated the decision of Lund 1952 to retire the confessional method of “comparative theology” in favor of this more historical approach. Florovsky’s goal, however, is “ecumenical synthesis,” rooted in the Fathers but responsive to questions surrounding present divisions. Such synthesis presumes discrimination: not every belief can be reconciled. Agreement in truth requires conversion, response to a divine gift. The Orthodox uniquely remind all Christians of the faith of the “undivided Church.” Culturally speaking, however, the East too is a
“fragment” and must also enlarge its theological vision, avoiding exaggerating local particularities. Christian unity understood as “universal conversion to Orthodoxy” entails neither submission to the East nor rigid uniformity, but rather “agreement with all the ages” and “mutual acknowledgement in the truth.”

Read the full piece.


  1. This is a superb article, and the approach taken by Florovsky is one that I wholeheartedly embrace.

    Regarding the WCC, and its deterioration, I increasingly feel that the WCC has interfered with ecumenical reconciliation between the Orthodox and the West far more than it has helped. Romanides wrote an interesting article, which if I am reading it correctly, seems to imply that the WCC effectively sabotaged the initial process of reconciliation between the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox by introducing the fallacious idea that this reconciliation had to be accomplished on the basis of dogmatic compromise, as opposed to the previous progress made in 1964, which Romanides interpreted as indicating that in fact the Orientals were in full agreement with the Byzantines. One might speculate that such an action would seem logical to the managerial class that Florovsky here decries within the WCC, as part of an effort to dissuade the Eastern Orthodox from their view that dogmatic compromise was, in all cases, unacceptable, and to instead embrace the lowest-common-denominator approach the WCC used to reconcile various mainline Protestant churches (which in view of the decline of these denominations, both in terms of membership and in terms of the embrace of various heretical views in recent years, one might consider in hindsight to have been disastrous).

    There is also something that troubles me about the WCC’s website and official publications; there is a sort of touchy-feely-squeezy aspect to it, particularly in some comments that express the regret of the WCC at the fact that certain denominations do not participate in it; I personally find this a bit evocative of Mormonism, the EU and Scientology, in terms of expressing great sadness that someone is too shortsighted to buy into the grand vision the WCC seems to offer.

    That said, I am a proponent of ecumenical reconciliation, and I personally like to think of it as an obligation on the part of the Orthodox to rescue Western Christians and to repair and refurbish Western Christianity. To this end I support the Western Rite movement, pray that the Roman Catholics will accept the very generous offer made to them at Ravenna (while remembering it might now be too late due to Moscow’s concern), and lament the failure of dialogue with the Anglicans and Old Catholics, due to the modernist takeover of those groups.

    1. Good thoughts, William. Can you give me the bibliographical info for Fr Romanides’ article on the dialogue with the Non-Chalcedonians? I read an article by him on that topic years ago, but found his solution to that question somewhat wanting — it basically consisted of arguing that the the Orthodox and the Monophysites could unite over their common theology of essence and energies, via a common rejection of that arch-villain Augustine and his interpreter Leo, who was in cahoots with the heterodox Theodoret of Cyrrhus! But that may have been late in Romanides’ career, when his theories of Romanity overshadowed some of his earlier constructive work in patristics. I don’t think it was the one you read, though, because I don’t remember him discussing the effect of the WCC on the dialogue.

  2. The articles in question are on the romanity website; the piece criticizing the role of the WCC in interfering with the dialogue was actually written after the piece you refer to. By the way, it should be mentioned that the Oriental Orthodox explicitly reject the Monophysite heresy and take offense at being called “Monophysites”; their theology is more accurately described as miaphysite.

    I personally have a great deal of love for the Oriental Orthodox and agree with Romanides to some extent, in that in many respects Leo prefigured the later schismatic papacy (although his successors in many cases did not; one can find no fault whatsoever with Gregory Dialogos, for example), and his actions may have contributed to the growing resentment in the Coptic Church about the apparent backpeddling on Cyril’s Christological formula, which in turn led to the disastrous schism. Together with John X of Antioch and Kallistos Ware, I pray that this schism may be immediately repaired and communion restored, on the basis of a shared faith in the essential dogmatic definitions of the seven ecumenical councils, and I for one hope this work is completed at the upcoming Pan-Orthodox Council in 2016.

    If I’m interpreting Romanides correctly, his point was that this reunion would already have been accomplished, on the basis of the shared faith in the seven councils which was apparent to both sides at the initial conference in 1964. The WCC then contributed to promoting the idea, through a liberal Orthodox theologian who was very much in their camp, that this reunion “must” take place only on the basis of the first three councils. This idea was a horrible thing to even suggest, in that it inevitably led to the emergence of a hardline anti-Byzantine faction (primarily in the Ethiopian church) in the OO church, and also conveyed the fallacious notion, that the initial conference of 1964 had dispelled, that the faith of the Oriental Orthodox, at least in their present state, is not compatible with the latter four councils.

    The reality is of course, the reunion must take place on the understanding that the miaphysitism of the Oriental Orthodox is in fact Chalcedonian, differing merely, as Kallistos Ware has helpfully suggested, on the grounds of terminology (and as Romanides suggested, a reaction to the apparent Nestorianism of Leo I). Both communions have always insisted that Christ’s humanity and divinity exist without change, confusion or division, and this clearly averts both the Monophysite heresy condemned at Chalcedon, which posits change and confusion, and the Nestorian heresy, which is curiously enough more pronounced in modern day Calvinism than in the Assyrian Church of the East, which introduces an unnatural division in the Person of Christ, implicitly creating in effect two Persons (even though most Nestorians, possibly including Nestorius himself, do not understand how Nestorianism requires this).

    Once Chalcedon is accepted, if not in precise terminology, at the very least, in terms of the underlying dogmatic requirement of a Christology that is not Nestorian and not Monophysite, councils 5 and 6 fall into place automatically; Constantinople II being (as I understand it) largely a rejection of the resurgence of crypto-Nestorianism that arose after Chalcedon (that Romanides attributes to the actions of Leo I), and Constantinople III being a requirement of this rejection of Nestorianism, since Nestorianism is inherently monothelite. Nicea II is a non-issue since, aside from a minor problem in part of the Armenian church, the Oriental Orthodox never experienced the iconoclastic heresy (whereas it appears that, at least in the past, iconoclasm did occur in the Assyrian church; this is in my opinion a profound testament to the underlying Orthodoxy of the Oriental Orthodox churches; I believe Kallistos Ware spoke of the two groups encountering and discovering the fullness of each other’s Orthodox faith). This should not perhaps have been that much of a surprise, given that at the turn of the 19th century, the Coptic and Greek Patriarchates of Alexandria wished to merge into a single Egyptian church, but were thwarted by the Khedive, who it would seem wished to keep Christians in his realm both weak and divided.

    If Romanides was right, assuming I’m reading him correctly, which I might not (the English on is less than perfectly readable), we wouldn’t even be having this conversation, as the reconciliation would have already occurred, and there would just be one Orthodox communion now, in 2014, had it not been for meddling on the part of the WCC. I got the impression that this meddling was, as stated above, for the purpose of dissuading the Eastern Orthodox from insisting on dogmatic purity, and instead encouraging them to adopt a mindset of compromise.

    One might also observe that this is plausible from a pure managerial sense, as far as the Protestant elements in the WCC would be concerned. Now I should state this is pure speculation on my part, and I don’t wish to appear uncharitable, or appear to allege villainous intent on the part of the WCC of which I have no proof. However, if I’m reading Romanides and indeed Florovsky correctly, one could speculate that the possible reason why the WCC felt willing to take the risk of potentially torpedoing the reconciliation between the Oriental Orthodox and the Eastern Orthodox, on the grounds that the Oriental Orthodox did not matter that much to Protestants, in the grand scheme of things, whereas getting the much larger Eastern Orthodox communion to be an active participant in the Ecumenical reforms occurring at the time was of much greater import. I recall the early 20th century work Creeds of Christendom rather odiously dismissing the Oriental Orthodox (and indeed the Assyrians) as being utterly without merit as churches in their own right, and of interest to other Christians only insofar as being potentially very fruitful mission fields for conversion to Protestantism. I really do hope this was not the strategy at the WCC, of course, in that it would be highly depressing if such a large communion of tens of millions of Christians was reduced to being a mere pawn in a game of ecumenical politics.

    The underlying idea of the WCC is praiseworthy, and initially, you can see in both Romanides and Florovsky some level of enthusiasm for the project; however the actual fruits have not been as rich as those produced by, for example, the Fellowship of Ss. Sergius and Albans. Much of what the Ecumenical Movement produced from the 1970s on I feel has harmed the Protestant churches more than it has helped them; the Revised Common Lectionary and common liturgical texts blurred the distinctions between the denominations (needlessly, perhaps, since within Orthodoxy some degree of liturgical variance is entirely acceptable), and the introduction of those liturgies was in many cases highly controversial (a particular example being the 1979 Book of Common Prayer in the ECUSA). The net result of much of the activity of that period has been the emergence of the modern phenomenon of bland, liberal and fast-shrinking mainline Protestant churches. I think the point of Florovsky’s excellent paper and the related work by Romanides is that Orthodoxy must at all costs avoid being sucked into that world, encouraged as it were by the proliferation of “middle management” types at the WCC, causing the WCC to degenerate from a council of autonomous churches into a universal (but not Catholic!) super-church built atop a theology of compromise, and an ecclesiology of WCC membership. This of course is anathema to Orthodoxy as we now understand it, but one can see in the 1970s a real danger of such a view occurring (and the mere fear of it contributed to schisms such as the unfortunate situation at Esphigmenou, et cetera).

  3. By the way, I should add, if I’m completely off base in my reading of Florovsky and Romanides on this point, or indeed if my fears of where the WCC was headed, are off-base, please correct me. I am looking forward to the insight of the maintainers of this blog on this point. That said, I do hope that the position of Kallistos Ware, John X of Antioch and others, of hoping for an immediate reunion with the Oriental Orthodox on the basis of the shared faith, but not dogmatic compromise, is uncontroversial; Father Damick’s excellent book did not specifically address the Oriental Orthodox (or indeed even the Assyrians) and this is obviously an extremely sensitive area where we must strive to avoid rocking the boat; I get the impression that right now, the Oriental Orthodox, aside from some irrelevant Ethiopian holdouts, are ready for reunion on the basis of a shared faith, and this subject matter has a high place on the proposed agenda for the 2016 conference (assuming it happens, and assuming Antioch attends; both big “ifs” right now for various unpleasant reasons dealing with the nasty world of inter-church politics).

  4. Thanks William, I can’t comment much on Fr Florovsky on this except to say that he seems to not have had much to say on the Monophysite question. He has a few pages on it in the first Byzantine Fathers volume of his Collected Works, based on course lectures he gave in the 1930s, and made some verbal contributions to the 1964 (?) informal meeting, which are recorded in a transcript published among papers from that event. I was unaware of the development of Fr Romanides’ position that you bring to light so I need to look into it more.

    Unfortunately I don’t think we are as close to the Monophysites in faith as you, and many other Orthodox, have been led to believe — which is why I continue to use the term “monophysite” rather than the solecistic “miaphysite”, although for irenical purposes I often substitute the less exact “Non-Chalcedonian.” Apart from unresolved dogmatic questions — which the dialogues in the ’60s and ’70s skated over, as is obvious when one reads the papers and transcripts of discussions — it raises extremely difficult ecclesiological questions regarding the authority of the Ecumenical Councils and outstanding Fathers such as St Maximus Confessor and St John Damascene for Orthodox identity and self-understanding. These old standards are nowadays often accused of having been misled by political conditions at the time, but this is only half-true at best; Maximus and John were particularly clear-sighted in that regard and they of all people did not let their theology be held hostage by Byzantine imperial policies. It is true that many Monophysite Christians these days use very Orthodox language, but I suspect this is largely a result of their leading theologians having been educated in Chalcedonian schools abroad for the past half-century. Or of having taught themselves from Chalcedonian ascetical texts, as the late great Coptic monastic leader, Matthew the Poor, did (but if you read some of his pamphlets, you will see that he held a very Protestant ecclesiology). That may be a good thing in the long term, but it should lead to a clear decision for the Orthodox faith rather than a muddled mixture of bad old leaven with the new Orthodox leaven. I won’t go into more details here, especially since our discussion is straying off-topic from the original post, but I hope to write more on this in the near future.

  5. William, thank you for your comments. I am glad you enjoyed the piece. My co-author, Fr. Matthew Baker, has published a much longer and more detailed article on this topic, which he will post online soon.

    In response to one of your questions: No, the agenda of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church does not include anything regarding the Oriental Orthodox. Nor will it. I am currently writing a piece for this blog, which explains in more detail what people should expect from the council, should it convene as hoped.

  6. Seems to me that reconciliation between the EO and the OO would be easiest to achieve, and could occur on the following basis:

    1. That the OO accept the orthodoxy of councils 4-7, though not their direct pastoral authority over the Orientals (seeing as how the councils were councils of the Imperial church and the Orientals were culturally and politically outside the Greco-Roman world).

    2. That all OO saints are considered to be saints of the undivided Church, with the exception of the ones specifically named as heretics in councils 4-7 (such as Severus and Dioscorus). The possibility of re-opening their cases in a future council, and possibly rehabilitating them posthumously, would remain open though.

    3. That the different OO groups can keep their existing liturgical and aesthetic heritage, as the various subgroups within EO (Greeks and Slavs) already do. Individual parishes having a mixed heritage would be free to combine elements of different traditions as they see fit (this already happens in some Antiochian parishes in the USA that have absorbed Ethiopians).

    4. That the Cyrillian and Chalcedonian formulas are both orthodox, when interpreted correctly. Christ’s natures are two (divine and human) and also one (divine and human united, by grace). Any interpretation of Chalcedon that denies theosis is rejected, as is any interpretation of Cyril that confuses Christ’s humanity and divinity or rejects the former.

    5. Monothelitism (denial that Christ had a human will, or denial that his human will was free) is rejected by both parties.

    Reconciliation with the “Nestorians” (Assyrians) could proceed on a similar basis. At least some of their church fathers were essentially Orthodox in most ways (for instance, there’s nothing particularly heretical in Babai or his Teshbokhta). Alopen could be canonized too, as he was essentially an Equal-to-the-Apostles to the Chinese.

    On the issue of Nestorius himself, we could meet halfway; they would stop venerating him, and we would remove the condemnation of him from our liturgy (leaving the ultimate judgment up to God, in pious silence).

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