Centenary of the Archdiocese of Orthodox Churches of Russian Tradition in Western Europe

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Archpriest Georges Florovsky

Georges Florovsky

Auteur inconnu — Domaine public

Georges Florovsky is born on August 28, 1893, in Elizavetgrad (now Kropivnitskyï, Ukraine) but when he was 6 months old his family moved to Odessa. His father, Vasily, was a priest and Rector of the Cathedral in Odessa. Both his father and his mother, Klavdia Popruzhenko, were of clerical families. Georges started intellectual life already at a very young age. During his earliest childhood his health was rather weak and until his 12th year he was confined to his bed for long periods of time. As a result, he started reading serious books at a young age. Another important factor in his childhood was the Church. He loved to go to church, but did not serve in the altar, like most children of priests usually do. His father told him : « Just pray and listen ». And he discovered already at a young age that liturgical texts are full of theology.

In 1911, after his secondary education, Florovsky enrolled at the University of Odessa. He was first of all attracted to philosophy, in particular the history of philosophy. But one of his philosophy professors, who was a positivist, encouraged him to study also the positive sciences. He saw that the young student was interested in metaphysics and religion, but he said to him : « You may study religion and metaphysics only after having made a thorough study of positive sciences, such as physics, chemistry, etc. » That is what Georges did, and one of his earliest publications was a scientific article on « salivary secretion », which was published in a scientific bulletin at the recommendation of Ivan Pavlov, the well-known Russian physiologist.

In 1920 the Florovsky family left Odessa because of the political events, and settled in Bulgaria. Georges’ father served as a priest in Sofia, until the end of his life in 1928. In Bulgaria George met his future wife, Xenia Ivanovna Simonova. In 1921 they left for Prague, due to a scholarship which was offered to him. Here he was in the company of other Russian intellectuals who were forced to leave Russia in the spring of 1922 : Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, the Losskys, Peter Struve… He found a job as a teacher and finished his Thesis on « The Historical Philosophy of Alexander Herzen », which he defended in 1923.

In September 1926 Florovsky and his wife moved to Paris, at the invitation of Fr. Sergius Bulgakov and Professor Basil Zenkovsky, in order to teach at St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute, which a year before had been founded by Metropolitan Eulogy. He was given the chair of Patrology. Also in his teaching of the Church Fathers, Florovsky remained at the same time a historian. Florovsky’s courses on Patrology were published later on in Russian. But his most important book which was published during these early years at St Sergius Institute, in 1937, was his « The ways of Russian Theology » (Пути Русского Богословия). This work would create many conflicts and tensions with his colleages at Saint Sergius. For its main thesis was that academic theology in Russia was, in fact, a deviation from Patristic theology. This « Western captivity » or « pseudomorphosis » of Orthodox theology had started in the 17th century at the Academy of Kiev, founded by Metropolitan Peter (Mogila), where theology was taught in Latin and modelled on Roman Catholic handbooks of theology (Ukraine was dominated by Poland at the time). In particular there arose at Saint Sergius a theological controversy on « sophiology », a theological and philosophical system which had its roots in German philosophy and mysticism (Friedrich Schelling, Jacob Boehme), and was developed in Russian religious philosophy (Vladimir Soloviev, Pavel Florensky, Nicholas Berdiaev). According to this system, creation existed already in God before the actual creation of the world and of man. Florovsky noticed that in this kind of thought there is no longer a clear distinction between God and His creation, and that it leads to pantheism. It is remarkable that Florovsky in his book never directly attacks Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, whose theological works were deeply influenced by sophiology. That is to be explained by the fact that he kept a deep personal respect for the Dean of the Institute. Moreover, Bulgakov was greatly respected in the milieu of the Russian emigrants and was in that time the major representative of the « Russian Religious Renaisance », which had started in Russia by the end of the 19th century. Is is significant that Florovsky (unlike Vladimir Lossky), when sophiology was formally condemned by the Russian Orthodox Church and the « Russian Church Abroad », refrained from taking part in this controversy on the sophiology of Bulgakov. But his writings on « creation » are nevertheless an indirect rejection of sophiology.

Florovsky called for a return of theology to the « mind » of the Fathers, for which he used the terms « neo-patristic synthesis » and « hellenism ». That is to say, for him the task of theology is to enter into the « style of thinking » of the Fathers, in particular the Greek Fathers. That is not the same as just quoting Patristic texts or a « fundamentalist » approach to the study of the Fathers.

In 1932 Georges was ordained a priest. When World War II started, the Florovskys were in Switzerland, and they decided to go to Yugoslavia. In 1945 they returned to Paris. Meanwhile at Saint Sergius the chair of Patristics had been taken by Fr Cyprian Kern. But Florovsky was offered the chair of Bulgakov (Dogmatic theology), who had passed in 1944.

When the World Council of Churches was founded in Amsterdam in 1948, Florovsky was seen as the main theological spokesman among the Orthodox delegates. That same year the Florovskys left for the United States, at the invitation by the faculty of St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York, where Fr Georges was given the chair of Dogmatic theology and Patristics. It is curious that Fr Georges in his English writings always continued the French spelling of his first name. From 1950-1955 he held the post of Dean. One of his first tasks was to order that the courses, and the liturgical Services, be held in English. Also, Florovsky endeavoured to raise the academic standards of the school. A « College Degree » (diploma of Secondary School) was required for those who wanted to enroll at the Seminary. The study of Ancient Greek was now required. All this was not always appreciated and Florovsky was accused of « hellenizing » a Seminary of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is to be noted that Fr Georges all his life would remain faithful to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Within the Seminary tensions arose because of Fr Georges’ somewhat authoritarian character, which led to conflicts between him and the students. Fr. Alexander Schmemann, who had joined the Faculty in 1950 and held also the post of « inspector », took the side of the students. This led to a tragic rupture between the two theologians, which would remain until the death of Florovsky, as we read in Fr Alexander’s Journal. It was tragic, because Fr Alexander has always had a deep respect for Fr Georges as a theologian. The recently published correspondence between Fr Alexander and Fr Georges, which covers the years before their « rupture », bears witness to this.

This all led to the regrettable departure of Fr Georges Florovsky from the Seminary in 1955, after he was asked by the Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America to « lay down the Deanship ». In 1956 Father Georges received a post at Harvard University to teach Eastern Church History which he held until his retirement in 1964, while also continuing to give courses at Columbia University and the protestant Union Theological Seminary in New York. In 1959, at the commemoration of the sixth centenary of the death of the great Byzantine theologian St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) in Thessaloniki, Fr Georges Florovsky delivered in Greek the main lecture. Also, he remained active in the Ecumenical Movement.

In 1964, after his retirement from Harvard, Fr Georges and his wife moved to Princeton. where he taught some courses at the Department of Slavic Studies and Religion.

Fr. Georges Florovsky died on August 11, 1979, in Princeton.