The Body of the Living Christ: Ecclesiology in the Thought of Father Georges Florovsky

g_florovskyAn excellent essay by Father Matthew Baker, presented at Princeton Theological Seminary in February, 2012:

The Body of the Living Christ: Ecclesiology in the Thought of Father Georges Florovsky


As one recent commentator has remarked, “attempting to remain firmly within the Orthodox tradition, Florovsky, in facing new situations of the early twentieth century, came to a novel and creative formulation of the Church.” And yet, “understanding Florovsky’s ecclesiology is not easy.” This is so, not only because his exposition was so sketch-like and occasional, but also, I might add, for Orthodox, because so many of his creative formulations have now become – albeit sometimes in vulgarized form – standard expressions.

My aim here, therefore, is to draw out some of the unique context and accents of Florovsky’s creative formulation of the doctrine of the Church, in hope of encouraging your own fresh reading. First, some little-known background in Russian cultural debates of the early 1920’s. Second, some key ecclesiological themes as they are developed in Florovsky’s essays from the late 20’s through the 1960’s. Finally, in closing, I comment briefly on Florovsky’s contribution to Orthodox and ecumenical ecclesiology today.

Ecclesiology Emerging: Church, Politics and Culture in the Eurasian Controversy

The more I study Florovsky, the more I am convinced of the importance of his early involvement with a movement which most theological treatments of his thought ignore. I refer here to Eurasianism. Though Florovsky’s Eurasian involvement was brief (only three years), some of his earliest articles were published in Eurasian anthologies between 1921 and 1923. Pre-dating his turn to patristics, Florovsky’s Eurasian engagement contains a key background to his later ecclesiology.

The Eurasians were a group of the Russian emigre intellectuals formed in the early ’20’s in Sofia under the leadership of Prince Nikolai Trubetskoi, Peter Suvchinskiy, and Florovsky’s brother-in-law, Peter Savitsky. Drawing from the Slavophiles, the Eurasians held that Russia represented a unique cultural type, standing between the two civilizations of Germano-Latin West and Far East. They queried the deep cultural sources of the Bolshevik Revolution within the broader schemes of historical development in both Russia and the West.

Eurasianism was a theory of cultural autonomy and anti-Europeanization. Borrowing a scheme from Nikolai Danilevsky’s 1869 work, Rossiya i Evropa, Trubetskoi (in his book Evropa i Chelovnost) expressed a theory of cultural morphology according to which the multi-ethnic civilizations of Russian Eurasia and Western Europe were radically incommensurable. Under the impact of Oswald Spengler’s influential book, Der Untergang der Abendlandes, some Eurasians, most notably Lev Karsavin, developed the idea that each cultural type possesses the closed unity of a distinct organism, unfolding in history according to its own immanent, pre-formed developmental laws. Any cross-civilizational hybridization here could only be an organic aberration, a freak of nature – in Spenglerian terms, a ”pseudomorphosis.” For the Eurasians, it was precisely such pseudomorphosis of Russian culture under the impact of Western rationalism that had brought about the Revolution.

Florovsky shared the Eurasian critique of Western rationalism as a cause of cultural crisis. Right away, however, he rejected, as a form of determinism, the idea of ”organic” cultural ”types” held by other Eurasians. In his 1921 essay on ”The Eternal and the Temporal in the Teaching of the Russian Slavophiles” [”Vechnoe i prehodyashchee v uchenni russkih slavyanofilov”], he diagnosed Danilevsky’s concept of cultural types as a reductionistic empiricism, a theory of culture based, not on the revelation of the highest spiritual values, but nationalism. Trubetskoi’s localism also he criticized for its cultural relativist tendencies. True, ”every ‘genius’ speaks the language and images of its environment and era, yet ‘something’ makes it transcend time and space in general.” That ”something” is the expression of the highest universal values. False nationalism lacks faith. One must follow the “lure” of the “tree of the cross,” taking one’s stand, not on the past of national tradition, but on the promise of Christ: “Be of good cheer, I have conquered the world.”

The Eurasianists were anti-communist. However, some – notably, Karsavin and Savitskii – came to support the Soviet state in hope that it would eventually shed its Marxist atheism, making the revolution but a necessary stage in the development of a new national Orthodox ”ideocracy.” Florovsky rejected both this political stance and the historical determinism used to justify it. Yet while admiring the heroism of the ”White” monarchists during the Civil War, he was also critical of their attempt to restore the pre-Revolutionary political arrangement. In a published 1922 letter to his friend Peter Struve, he described the essence of his position as the primacy of cultural consciousness over politics. Bolshevism is a cultural perversion, and thus can be overcome only by cultural means; a solution in terms of political ideology, right or left, would only be utopian and ”spiritual suicide.” Cultural resurrection could only come by the preaching of personal responsibility and inward spiritual rebirth.

In an article in the 1922 Eurasian volume, Na Putyakh, ”On Patriotism Righteous and Sinful” [”O patriotizme pravednom i grehovnom”], Florovsky urged his fellow emigres to accept the Revolution and the changed circumstances it brought as historical fact. Yet what was fact should not be approved as moral value. The Revolution was the ”result of spiritual perversion,” the progressive alienation of culture from the holiness of the Church, and the curtailing of Church activities by the post-Petrine state. So also, its devastation could be “conquered only by spiritual rebirth, only when the foundation for construction will be based on new principles.” These principles would have to be found in a new philosophical synthesis of Orthodox patristics and Western learning. Here in 1922, we see, in earliest form, the basic thesis of Florovsky’s 1937 masterwork, Puti Russkogo Bogosloviya and the germ of his later idea of neopatristic synthesis.       

The significance of ecclesiology in all this can begin to be seen in Florovsky’s last Eurasian publication. In ”Dva Zaveta” [”Two Covenants”], published in the 1923 volume Rossiya i Latinstvo, Florovsky departs from philosophical-cultural analysis to his first real ecclesiological meditation. Sounding a note he will repeat in nearly all his later ecclesiological essays, he stresses that neither Fathers nor Councils give us a complete definition of the Church. The experience of the Church is broader and deeper than defined doctrine. The Church is a new creation – an eschatological reality. To confess faith in the Church, then, is to confess this invisible new creation. But this invisible is not separated from the visible Church. The Church visible – including hierarchy and sacraments – is the historical revelation of the ”Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of Truth.”

This revelation is characterized by unity in freedom and love. Florovsky contrasts two ideals of historical unity: one, the ”unity of the Spirit,” characterized by free, personal, heroic daring; two, the ‘attempt to create ”a magically error-free organization in external obedience to a universally valid, abstract norm.” The unity of mankind in the Church stands against all grand political schemes for human transformation, which are but a ”vain deceit after the elements of this world, and not after Christ.”

It is not hard to see in this essay a growing frustration with the increasingly political direction of Eurasianism, with its idea of cultural renewal through an authoritarian ideological state. To Florovsky, the aim of translating Christian unity into a political ”the brotherhood of peoples” and ”perpetual peace” was sheer apocalyptic fantasy, a utopianism which drowned out the hope of eternal life and exposed the essentially secular nature of the ”religious social ideal.” The Slavophile dream of a homogeneous Orthodox society; the Ultramontane statism of French theocrat Joseph de Maistre; Polish national messianism; Vladimir Soloviev’s conception of ”free theocracy”: all these were a kind of socialist chilasm, an attempt to plan the kingdom of God on earth, a temporal pre-empting of the day when God will be ”all in all.” Here eschatology is reduced to a natural stage in the evolutionary logic of history; in place of personal responsibility is ”Christian politics.” As Soloviev also finally recognized in his last work, The Tale of the Antichrist, this was “the third temptation of Devil”: the reduction of the Christian hope to the “narrow circle of the visible world – limited to ‘the expectation of a complete transformation of society’.”

In contrast, Florovsky underscores, “The Christian hope is directed entirely to the Second Coming.” The Gospel cannot be deployed in a legal code regulating an ideal society. The image of God is revealed in the individual man, not the state. Yet none of this means indifference or inactivity in the world. On the contrary, the Christian hope is expressed in the love of neighbor – not only as personal deed, but also public act. Florovsky invokes the charitable examples of Sts. Juliana Lazarevskaya and Tikhon of Zadonsk: such are the carriers of religious culture, “the only possible ‘theocracy.’” This is a normative task of personal creativity, a standard – not a “system” that has ever been realized forcibly. The apostolic Church sets an example of love for enemies, kindness – not persecution – towards the heterodox. It is this that distinguishes the genuine ecclesial spirit from all authoritarian religious-political schemes. But this love is not that of a natural organism; it is the fruit of the Spirit, giving form to a ”divine-human organism.” And it is not utopian, for with hope of the Second Coming comes also acute recognition of evil. The Church knows her children wrestle not against flesh, but principalities and powers; before the judgment, she cannot imagine that God is ”all in all.” There is a real father of lies, to be driven out finally only in the ”last days,” expelled now only “by prayer and fasting,” sacraments, selfless love for others – the unity of the sacrifice on Golgotha, the unity of the one Mediator. The visible Church, the germ of the city of God, is built up in history through sacraments. ”Not ‘Christian politics,'” Florovsky concludes, ”but the ministry of the sacraments is the way of the dispensation of the kingdom of God.”

Florovsky broke with the Eurasian group in August 1923, at a meeting in Berlin. In his own words, he was ”sickened” by their ”spirit of intolerance” and ”political intrigue.” In an article of 1928, “Evraziskii soblazn” [”The Eurasian Temptation”], he registered his final critique, focusing especially on the cultural determinism entailed in the Eurasian historical morphology. The Eurasians treat each civilization as a “cultural personality” [kulturolichnost], fixed even from eternity with particular tendencies and revealed organically in the life of a people in successive incarnations, each equally natural and necessary. For Florovsky, this was a loss of the Christian philosophy of history, for which culture should be understood as revealing a people’s free spiritual life, its structure and destiny — a “morphology” for which people are creatively responsible. A philosophy marked by genuine “Christocentricism” encourages a “sensitive responsiveness to authentic historical dynamics . . . not only the organic gyre, but also creativity and sinful decay.” Such philosophy could never say that the Christian West is alien to Orthodox Russia, even with the tragic realities of schism and heresy.

The Eurasians did recognize “valuable aspects of Christianity” in the West. However, these were, in their view, “’alien to the Orthodox people” — relevant only to “Romano-Germanic” peoples. As Florovsky charged, the Eurasians feel no fraternal concern for the needs of western people, “no sense of religious and historical mutual responsibility,” being content rather with a “self-satisfied demand of ‘repentance.'” There is a real schism; yet, Florovsky stresses, one “must firmly remember the name of Christ connects Russia and Europe.” The Eurasians with their pan-Slavic/pan-Mongol attempt to form an political bloc with the non-Christian peoples of central Asia, forget this: “They are too fond of natural, geographical and ethnic lines.” In the final analysis, the Church for them resides in the state: “ecclesia in res publica, not res publica in ecclesia.”
In all this, we see Florovsky underscoring the distinction between Church and world, grace and nature, and the purely graced relation of persons to God. Organic ties of blood and culture must be, he says, “canceled” and “transubstantiated,” in a new adoptive birth within the Church. That flesh and blood cannot inherit eternal life concerns also culture. In the populist identification of Church with nation, in the notion of naturally evolving Christian culture, Florovsky sees Pelagian heresy. A culture may have Christian origins, yet “Christianity cannot be absorbed into the bloodstream.” The “churching” (ottserkovlenie) of culture is a command not achievable by any natural principle. And not everything in so-called Christian culture will find itself in the Kingdom: much will “get a share in ‘pitch darkness.’” Certainly, the Church is the goal of social development, but a goal “not of this world.” The distinction between Greek and Scythian has been removed — in baptism; the distinction between churched and un-churched world remains.

As Sergei Horuzhy has observed, it was precisely in rejecting the Eurasian temptation that Florovsky formulated his crucial distinction between the ”organic” and the ”historical,” later developed at length in his important 1930 article, ”Evolution und Epigenesis (Zur Problematik der Geschichte).” For Horuzhy, this represents a profound transformation of the secular theses of the Slavophiles and Eurasians towards a genuine Orthodox theology of culture. I would add also: towards an emerging ecclesiology. Already in these early essays, we find a Christocentric vision of the Church as a divine-human organism able to generate culture precisely and only as she transcends the natural realities of race and nation – through her purely graced, baptismal sacramental foundation, her universal scope, and her eschatological orientation towards the Kingdom of God. This vision upsets every scheme of determinism, encouraging a personalist historiosophy in which cultures are understood as being continually created through the free spiritual activity of human persons. Closely allied to this is an ecumenical concern for the unity of all those who confess the name of Christ.

Ecclesiology Made Articulate: Florovsky’s Essays on the Church

Florovsky’s first strictly theological article, ”Dom Otchii” [”House of the Father”], written in 1926, the year Florovsky began teaching patristics at St Serge, is essentially a re-write of his 1923 Eurasian essay, ”Dva Zaveta.” Yet the revision marks a significant turn. Where the earlier essay quotes Bulgakov, Schelling, and Scottish Enlightenment thinkers alongside Scripture, the 1926 essay replaces these with Church Fathers and liturgy, signaling a new, more ecclesiastical-historical approach.

A second change would follow quickly after. Upon arriving in Paris, Florovsky joined Berdyaev’s ecumenical colloquium. There he aired his first theological productions before leading Roman Catholic thinkers (Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Gabriel Marcel), and, briefly, Protestant theologians as well. Here forward, with few exceptions, all his essays on the Church were written for ecumenical audiences: from 1928, for the St. Alban-St Sergius Fellowship; from 1937, for Faith and Order; from 1948, for the WCC. His longest ecclesiological essay, ”Le corps du Christ vivant”, was an expansion of his paper for the 1948 Amsterdam Assembly, ”The Church: Her Nature and Task.”

These two elements – the mining of patristics (what Florovsky would call ”ecumenism in time”) and conversation with the Christian West (what he would call ”ecumenism in space”) – mark the emergent context of Florovsky’s ecclesiology. And yet, precisely in this new mode, he develops themes already apparent in his early cultural criticism.

Central here is the Christocentric approach to the problem of organic unity. In his first review after moving to Paris (April 1927, Put’), Florovsky turned to the early work of the 19th century Tübingen Roman Catholic theologian, Johann Adam Moehler (1796-1838), Die Einheit in der Kirche. Florovsky praises Moehler as rediscovering the patristic sense of catholicity, an overcoming of time in which believers of all ages become contemporaries, no longer isolated in their own period. The Church, and only the Church, is an organic whole: one great body held together by love and joined in union by the Holy Spirit. Moehler describes the unity of the Church in terms borrowed from Romanticism. Yet unity for him is no facet of “organic historicism,” but a fruit of Pentecost. It is this, says Florovsky, that separates Moehler from every sort of ”romantic ‘modernism’.”

Florovsky couples Moehler with the Slavophile thinker Alexei Khomiakov (1804-1860). Both he credits for establishing the Church as an object for modern theology, bringing to the fore her organic and conciliar nature: a dynamic understanding of Church unity for which the institutional aspect is conceived as a manifestation of the her inner being, and tradition interpreted as an expression of growth and life, making the experience of the Church a source and measure for theology.

Thus, with the help of Moehler and Khomiakov, we see Florovsky here transferring the Romantic metaphor of organic unity, which he had already criticized in the Eurasians, away from the natural realities of culture and nation to the universal Church. It is this transference that explains also his own later use of Spengler’s term “pseudomorphosis” to denote the alienation of theology under neo-scholastic influence: the organism here being not national culture, but the Church, whose dogmatic consciousness is expressed chiefly in the liturgy. The language of “organism” indicates a kind of unity that is more than merely moral, legal or volitional, but ontological. And yet this unity is the sacramental work of the Spirit: it is in the Church, and only in the Church, that the ontological unity of mankind is to be found.

To call the Church a divine-human organism underscores that her unity is more than simply that of an aggregate of individuals united by common purpose, but a divinely constituted body, with definite essential structure and shape. This was a point that Florovsky would frequently reiterate especially in his ecumenical conversations with Protestants in the WCC. On the other hand, the organic metaphor contains a certain difficulty. For if the unity of the Church is not merely moral or volitional, nevertheless it does not exclude free volition of persons. In Florovsky’s philosophy of history, however, the emergence of the person, created and revealed through free historical acts, marks a hiatus between organic “nature” and “history.” The place of the person in this organic ecclesiology is therefore an open problem.

Florovsky thus makes two fundamental corrections to Moehler and Khomiakov. First of all, the unity of the Church has its principle in a person, even the Lord Jesus Christ. “The Church, as a whole, has her personal center only in Christ, she is not an incarnation of the Holy Spirit, nor is she only a Spirit-bearing community, but precisely the Body of Christ, the Incarnate Lord.” As Florovsky quotes the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Adam: “Christ, the Lord, is the proper ‘I’ of the Church.”

Ecclesiology, then, “is a chapter, and a crucial chapter, of Christology.” Florovsky asks: “Should we start just with the fact of the Church’s being a ‘Community,’ and then investigate her ‘structure’ and ‘notes’? Or should we rather start with Christ, God Incarnate, and investigate the implications of the total dogma of the Incarnation, including the glory of the Risen and Ascended Lord, who sitteth at the right hand of the Father?” Note how the ”total dogma” here includes the whole scope of Christ’s work.

Florovsky objects to the disassociation of ecclesiology from the objective work of Christ. In the tendency to begin ecclesiology with the community or with pneumatology, he says, there is a danger of collapsing into “a kind of ‘Charismatic Sociology.’”

Here his criticism is not only of Khomiakov and the early Moehler, but also of Vladimir Lossky. Reacting to the filioque, Lossky framed his ecclesiology according to a strict schematism of two economies: the work of the Son is to redeem human nature, while the Spirit sanctifies persons.

Florovsky’s objection here is that Lossky’s scheme could imply “that Christ is not dynamically present in the Church,” leading to “grave errors in the doctrine of the sacraments.” Certainly, “The Church is one in the Holy Spirit”; if her “center of unity” is Christ, “the power that effects and enacts the unity is the Spirit.” However, “the Spirit is the Spirit of the Son,” “the Spirit of Christ . . . sent by Christ from the Father,” “the Spirit of adoption” in whom “we recognize . . . that Jesus is the Lord.” It is Christ who “is continually active and acting ‘through the Spirit’ in order to recapitulate all things in himself.” “Pentecost is the mystery of the Crucified Lord.” “The work of the Spirit in believers is precisely their incorporation into Christ, their baptism into one body . . . even the body of Christ.”

Thus, Florovsky’s first correction of Romantic ecclesiology is to underscore the personal character – indeed, the corporate personality – of organic unity in the Church. Now the second correction balances this with personal diversity:

the Church is composed of human personalities, which never can be regarded merely as elements or cells of the whole, because each is in direct and immediate union with Christ and His Father – the personal is not to be sacrificed or dissolved in the corporate, Christian ‘togetherness’ must not degenerate into impersonalism. The idea of an organism must be supplemented by the idea of a symphony of personalities, in which the mystery of the Holy Trinity is reflected, and this is the core of the conception of “catholicity”.

Objectively, the Church is catholic, not quantitatively, but by nature. She is catholic because she is the Body of Christ – Christ Jesus, who is the “Last Adam,” “the measure and limit of human life,” in whom the meaning of human existence is accomplished, having “entered the pre-eternal glory . . . as Man.” Subjectively, however, catholicity remains an ascetic task, a commandment given to every Christian. “Spiritual manhood” takes the form of a “catholic transfiguration of personality,” achieved in self-renunciation, love of neighbor, and “catholic conversation with others,” in which “we enlarge our existences, we open ourselves to others, we bear them in our mind and in our heart.” Accompanying this also must be a “subjective apostolicity,” loyalty to apostolic tradition. Although Florovsky generally avoids the notion of the Church as image of the Trinity, here he suggests precisely that: in this “symphony of personalities,” in which the opposition between “I” and “not-I” is overcome, there is a created likeness of the Trinity. Those who attain to this “catholic consciousness” we call Fathers and Doctors, able to testify on behalf of all.

As we have seen, Florovsky’s ecclesiology unifies a strong affirmation of ontological unity with equal affirmation of personal diversity, freedom, and creative activity. Practically speaking, these two elements take the form of sacramental participation and ascetic struggle. In his words: “The sacraments and the ‘ordeal’ [podvig] – these are the two indissoluble and indivisible factors of the Christian life.”

Florovsky must be counted as a key figure in the modern development of eucharistic ecclesiology. As early as the late 1920’s, he maintained that “the sacraments constitute the Church.” The catholicity of each local Church is given in the Eucharist, in which the whole Church is mystically present. Ministers act “in persona Christi . . . and in and through them, the Head of the Body, is performing, continuing and accomplishing his eternal pastoral and priestly office.” It is the ascended Jesus who is the “sole priest,” “the offerer and the offered,” who, Florovsky reminds us, remains “no less man than ‘in his days with us,’ and perhaps more.” This continuing humanity of the ascended Jesus is crucial to the unity effected in the Eucharist: as Florovsky affirms, “the true communitarian spirit is possible only through mystical participation in the humanity of the incarnate Word.”

Florovsky finds a well-defined theology of history summarized in the Eucharist. As he affirms, quoting Nicholas Cabasilas, “’introduction to the mysteries is as to a kind of ‘body of history.’” This includes the “recreation” of the Church of the Old Covenant and the events of Christ’s incarnation, mystical supper, passion and death, resurrection, ascension and second coming – an anamnesis of “the entire fullness of the deeds of Divine Wisdom.” The Eucharist is the reintegration of time and, as such, an image of the last things. Florovsky speculates that the Pauline choice of the phrase soma tou Christou for the Church was suggested precisely by this Eucharistic experience. Thus constituted in the Eucharist, the Church is the continuing presence of Christ’s person, but also “a living summary” and “recapitulation of all his work.”

Florovsky’s eucharistic ecclesiology differs from that of Nicolai Afanasiev by its stress on inclusion of each local Church in the Church universal through its bishop. For Florovsky, this inclusion has an eschatological dimension. The term ekklesia applied in the Septuagint already to the twelve tribes of Israel indicates a community called out in anticipation; the reconstitution of this community around Jesus in the persons of the Twelve in Jerusalem is a sign that the days of the Messiah have arrived. Through the bishop, each local Church is joined to this eschatological community of the Twelve. It is for this reason that, although the bishop differs from his priests only by the sacramental power of ordaining, it is the bishops alone who teach decisively on behalf of the universal Church. It is because of this eschatological dimension also that Florovsky (not unlike Joseph Ratzinger) expressed some difficulty with the choice of Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, to focus ecclesiology on the image of “People of God.” Only “Body of Christ,” Florovsky argues, expresses properly the newness and the eschatological character of the Church as the very presence of the Messiah: a newness in which, through the Twelve, the Old Testament People of God is also now included, as in one ekklesia — so that Florovsky will echo Origen in saying that both testaments are new and fundamentally one in Christ. Though anticipated in Israel and founded in the mystery of the Nativity, it is in Pentecost that the Church is properly constituted – as the Body of Christ. Nevertheless, the image of the “People of God” does still have a place, insofar as it expresses the Church’s continued peregrination through history towards the Kingdom of God.

Florovsky points especially to the Epistles to the Hebrews and Ephesians as key touchstones for ecclesiology. He repairs continually to the Pauline corpus in speaking of the Church. Ultimately, however, it is Chrysostom and Augustine who provide the architectonic signature to Florovsky’s ecclesiology. From Chrysostom’s exegesis of Paul, Florovsky borrows the description of the Church as the very “complement” and pleroma – the fullness – of Christ himself. There is no separation between the head in heaven and the body of earth; yet there is a dynamism in which the historic growth of the body represents the very completion of Christ himself. In Chrysostom’s words, “Christ will be complete when his body is completed.” There is an equal emphasis here upon both the unity of head and body and their distinction, a duality expressing the eschatological tension of Christian existence.

Yet Florovsky intensifies this motif of Chrysostom with repeated reference to Augustine’s “glorious phrase”, totus Christus, caput et corpus, a formula which finally encapsulates the ultimate design of Florovsky’s ecclesiology. It seems it was the Belgian Jesuit Émile Mersch’s study Le Corps Mystique du Christ which first alerted him, in the early 1930’s, to the importance of this Augustinian concept of the “Whole Christ.” In describing the unity of the ”Whole Christ,” at once militant on earth and triumphant in heaven, Florovsky resorts to the description of the Church living in duas vitas found in Augustine’s Tractates on John, a text which he refers to as ”one of my favorite passages in the Fathers.”’ The Church is marked by a double dimensionality,” being at once in via and in statu patriae. Florovsky correlates these ”two lives” with the forma servi and forma gloriae of Christ spoken of in Philippians 2, and both pairings together with the formula of the Chalcedonian definition. As he writes: ”the ‘two lives’ are united and interrelated in the identity of subject: unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably. There is but one Church, ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ at once, humiliated and glorious at once.’ ” Totus Christus, caput et corpus inscribes a paradox of fullness and expectation, fulfillment and historical duration.

Florovsky’s debt to Augustine does not stop there. In a 1933 article on the “Limits of the Church,” Florovsky argued that contemporary Orthodox theology must integrate Augustine’s views regarding the reception of schismatics and the presence of sacraments beyond the Church’s canonical borders. The organic nature of the Church means that her charismatic sacramental activity cannot be delimited strictly to canonical boundaries. The sacramental work of Jesus the high priest and of his Spirit continues even in some schisms. The essence of schism, according to Augustine and Florovsky, is not simply legal, but rather the dissipation of the bond of love. While some commentators have claimed that this 1933 essay was but a heuristic speculation, Florovsky reiterated this same position on sacraments in schism in other articles, reviews and in private letters from early to late career. Florovsky’s debt to Augustine is quite remarkable amongst modern Orthodox theologians. In the late 50’s, in an unpublished lecture which may now be found in the audio archives of the Harvard University Library, he cited the authority of St. Photius (no Latinizer he!) for the view that Augustine was “one of the greatest saints ever given by God to his Church.” In another unpublished lecture at Fordham University in 1967, no doubt with a bit of provocation, he refers to Augustine as “the greatest Father of the Western Church, indeed of the Church universal.”

I began this paper by showing how some of Florovsky’s key ecclesiological themes grew in the context of emigré debates about culture. I should note that this interest in the relation of the Church to culture did not abate after Florovsky turned to theology proper. The Church in history is marked by a “antinomic” orientation, both towards the empire and towards the desert, neither of which must be absolutized or viewed in isolation, but always held together with its opposite as expressing the tension of existence between the times. Florovsky, however, treats Christian existence in both spheres as an ascetic task: like Sergei Bulgakov, he employs the Slav word for ascesis, podvig, beyond the sphere personal acts of piety, to describe the creative act of building up of Christian culture. As he affirms, while not everything in so-called Christian culture will perdure into the eschaton, there are indeed fruits of human cultural creativity that will not be burned up by the testing fire.

Florovsky’s Contribution to Orthodox and Ecumenical Ecclesiology

After World War II, most of Florovsky’s essays were written for various commissions and studies groups of the WCC, in which he was a key player alongside Karl Barth. Seeing that we are at the illustrious Princeton Theological Seminary, I cannot fail to mention Florovsky’s challenge to Barth. Both theologians agreed strongly on the need for a strongly Christocentric interpretation of the Church. Yet it is likely that Florovsky’s 1948 essay “The Church: Her Nature and Task” was pitched in part in response to Barth’s increasing congregationalism. Responding to Barth’s paper at a 1947 meeting in Clarens, Switzerland, “The Church: The Living Community of the Living Lord Jesus Christ,” he remarked that

in Barth’s conception there really was no Church at all: the Church was de-substantialized, it happened from time to time, its existence was reduced to some moments of definite action. This     was completely unwarranted by Holy Scripture, because the whole New Testament speaks of the enduring unity of the Church in Christ its Head, not of a Christ who now and then sends his Spirit. Reconciliation is something ontological, man brought back into reconciled unity with God. Orthodox and Catholics believe that sacraments and order are of the ‘esse’ of the Church because they put their trust, not in a human institution, but in divinely constituted realities. The Church, as the Body of Christ, is an organism with an organic structure constituted, not by man, but by God.

Florovsky had similar remarks for Emil Brunner, whom he accused of docetic tendencies. As he put it,

Christian history is, as it were, atomized in his vision. It is just a series of existential acts, performed by men, and, strangely enough, only negative acts, the acts of rebellion and resistance, seem to be integrated and solidarized. But, in fact, ecclesia is not just an aggregate of    sporadic acts, but a ‘body,’ the body of Christ.

Here we see the key role that organism plays in Florovsky’s ecclesiology – underscoring the continuity of Church structure, not an extrinsic addition, but a dimension of the very work of Christ himself. The Church is history “solidarized” – an “organic” body utterly unique, composed of free and saving historical acts. To repeat again the phrase which Florovsky borrows from St. Nicholas Cabasilas: the Church is a “’body of history.’”

With the increasing drift of the WWC towards socio-political agendas and secular mores, the ecumenical landscape has shifted. The most viable dialogue of Orthodoxy today in the West is with the Roman Church. With regard to Rome, Florovsky tended to treat the filioque as an obstacle only for its unconciliar insertion into the Creed; he rejected the view Cappadocian and Augustinian triadologies were ultimately unreconciliable. As he is reported to have said at Amsterdam in 1948, “Between the two churches, Orthodox and Catholic, there is at bottom one question, that of the Pope.” The impression one gains from Florovsky is that the central problem the Orthodox have with Rome is a false teaching regarding the nature of Church unity – although he also suggests that this false teaching is rooted in a deeper defect in Christological vision. However, Florovsky never indicated clearly what an acceptable primacy might look like. He took a serious interest in Vatican II, and was positive about the move to integrate papal primacy into a doctrine of episcopal collegiality. Yet in his view, the real theological work had only just begun. In an essay on the eve of the Council, he remarked that dialogue with Rome would require of the Orthodox a fuller development of doctrine.

On the Orthodox side, no one has contributed more to this development since than Florovsky’s student, John Zizioulas. Following Swiss Reformed theologian Jean-Jacques von Allmen, Zizioulas notes how Luke situates Jesus’ words to Peter about strengthening the brethren precisely within the institution of the Eucharist. Primacy is set in the context of communion, within the framework of an act Jesus commands be done until he comes again. As Zizioulas stresses, conciliarity, as a structure of communion, requires effective primacy: one needs a primus to convene a council. Universal conciliarity requires universal primacy. Yet this primacy must follow the same pattern as regional primacies in Apostolic Canon 34:

The bishops of each province (ethnos) must recognize the one who is first (protos) amongst them, and consider him to be their head (kephale), and not do anything important without his consent (gnome); each bishop may only do what concerns his own diocese (paroikia) and its dependent territories. But the first (protos) cannot do anything without the consent of all. For in this way concord (homonoia) will prevail, and God will be praised through the Lord in the Holy Spirit.

Zizioulas’ contribution has been decisive. In his attempt to ground ecclesiology in a Trinitarian “ontology of communion,” however, Zizioulas shows a tendency to neglect the category of act or agency in favor of the image of a perfect eternal, or eschatological, state of being. This may be one reason why Zizioulas, in contrast to Florovsky, has little to say about redeeming work of the Cross, and even less interest in integrating the ascetic dimension into his ecclesiology.

It is here we can take a major lesson from Florovsky, which I think ought to guide our thinking about the Church even further still today. Even now, one still hears some repeating the old Liberal trope that the categories of Chalcedon are too “static,” too “ontological,” too metaphysical or else too apophatic to communicate anything existentially significant to us about Jesus. Not unlike T.F. Torrance (with whom he corresponded at this time), Florovsky, however, suggested a thoroughly Christocentric and Chalcedonian ecclesiology in which the ontological terms of Chalcedon are interpreted in a more wide-ranging dynamic, soteriological sense. Being and act, person and work, nature and history, ontology and narrative – all these must be held together in unity. The whole Christ includes the whole work, inclusive of the Church. As Florovsky put it in 1955 – and here I also conclude:

It is precisely because Christ is God-man and, according to the formula of Chalcedon, is at once “perfect in His Godhead and in His manhood” that the Church is possible at all. And . . . Christ’s “identification” with man . . . was consummated in His death, which was itself the victory over the powers of destruction, and this death was revealed in the Glory of the Resurrection and consummated in the Heavenly Session. There is but one indivisible act of God. The Church is constituted in the sacraments, all of which imply an intimate participation in Christ’s death and resurrection and a personal “communion” with Him. The Church is the fruit of Christ’s redeeming work and, as it were, its “summary.” . . . Only in this perspective can the nature of the Church be fully and properly understood. The crucial point of interpretation is that of the character of Christ’s “human nature,” his own and yet “universal.” . . . [And yet] the concept of Incarnation, taken by itself and not expanded sufficiently to include the life and work of Christ up to their climax on the Cross and in the glory of the Resurrection, does not provide a sufficient ground or basis for Ecclesiology. Nor would it be sufficient to analyse the mystery of the Incarnation exclusively in terms of “nature.” . . . It must be stated therefore that no coherent Ecclesiology can be constructed unless the centrality of Christ, the Incarnate Lord and King of Glory, is admitted without any reservations.
In the final account, “Christology” and “Ecclesiology” will be organically correlated in the inclusive doctrine of “the Whole Christ”, – totus Christus, caput et corpus, in the glorious phrase of St. Augustine. . . The decisive argument . . . will be from the integral vision of the Person and work of Christ.



Staniloae’s theological universe seems drastically opposed to his Swiss contemporary Karl Barth. As we have found in chapter 2, Staniloae’s world is alive with the signs of God. This is no mere romanticism, where we find the infinite in the awesome expanses of landscapes or in the flowering of the inner recesses of the heart. No, Staniloae is representative of an older theological age – the ordered and empowered universe of the Fathers. The universe is meaningful because its creator, sustainer, and consummation is the Triune God. The infinite is bound up in every instance and in every thing.


My understanding of natural revelation has been bound my theological heritage, Western and flowing from two trajectories: Augustine/Aquinas & Barth and Post-Barth. Staniloae’s critique of Western theology I think is spot on. “Western theology has accustomed us to hold, that in natural revelation man is the only active agent. This separation of God from nature, a nature through which God speaks and works…has easily led to various kinds of conceptions that have sought to explain the world exclusively on the basis of an immanent reality” (21). I believe what Staniloae is pointing to when he characterizes Western theology as seeing man as the only active agent in natural revelation is the extreme rationalism found in “natural theology” in the West. (Not that these types of theology have not arisen in the East and/or thrive there) For example, think of the post-Cartesian search for indubitably true proofs for the existence of God. Or, think of anything like Josh McDowell and the evangelical or fundamentalist desire for truth claims based solely in amassing data or driven by an apologetics that creates an iron fortress of “t”ruth around faith. It seems to me that Staniloae sees in this a denial of the graced nature of reality. This brings us to the second half of the quote above. The natural theology that I believe Staniloae is pointing to is a theology that is purely logos and no theos.

Revelation is not something completely alien to humanity. We swim in a world alive with the glory of God. It is either the hardening of our hearts through an over attachment to the lust of the eyes and flesh (which I would argue is not just due to individuals but also emanates in cultures), or the separation of God from the world through the intellect (again, also a cultural emanation as well). Staniloae’s whole cosmology is then quite different than many modern conceptions. There is no supreme gulf between humanity and God – in fact, in Staniloae’s understanding God is constantly present to us, it is the fault of our darkened hearts and weakened wills that we are unable to commune with him personally. We know this because we feel the pangs of regret (18) in our conscience and because we innately pursue meaning (15). We learn a lot about God through natural revelation but it is only through supernatural revelation that the truth of God and our end within Him is clear.

Staniloae’s characterization of Western theology as making natural theology bereft of God may seem odd to those on this side of the 20th century – but if we are aware of the nature and grace debates within Roman Catholic circles and of certain aspects of Lutheran and Reformed theology this characterization stands. I began with mentioning Karl Barth because of his notoriety for rejecting natural theology and the tone that this set for later 20th century theology (Protestant & Catholic (Von Balthasar). Staniloae is not afraid of natural theology because he does not see “natural theology” in the way that Barth and others do. Staniloae is aware of these debates and comes to them from a serious immersion in the fathers of East. Especially important here is St. Maximos the Confessor, who is mentioned multiple times within the second chapter. St. Maximus’s Christo-centric cosmology takes to heart the Pauline and Johannine ideas of Christ as Logos and Mediator and systematizes them in a magnificent way. The salvific economy of Jesus Christ is to come into the world and to raise it back into communion with the Triune God. As the Spirit rests upon the Son in eternity so the Spirit rests upon the Son in His actions for our salvation. The Son has plunged fully into the material world in taking upon himself human nature and has therefore, through the power of the Holy Spirit, confirmed and fully revealed the meaning of creation (35). Nature is not at odds with God but is the very material through which God communicates and communes. Let us not think of “nature” as those with the low-fi vision of scientism do. Rather, nature is creation – not inert matter ready to be poked, prodded and organized. Instead, it is ultimately to be consecrated, elevated, and consumed as our eucharist. Reality now has meaning, not plagued by death or fatigued by an abyss of meaninglessness, but is an eternal communion of love between humanity and God.

How could we dispense with natural theology if this is a key way in which God brings us up in the ways of our Lord? “…the revealed Christ remains and goes on working within creation, that is, he makes the entire revelation perpetually effective to lead believers towards union with himself and towards deification” (36).

On another front – I find it extremely interesting that Staniloae begins his dogmatics by discussing revelation. This fact seems to indicate that Staniloae is quite aware of modernity’s challenges while at the same time not capitulating to modernity’s terms. I mean specifically the modern desire to place an incredible weight on epistemology – how we know what we know – without addressing other issues – e.g. ontology – what is. Again, to bring Barth back into the conversation, we find in Barth’s theological trajectory an intense focus on God revealing God’s self in the face of historicism and modern skepticism. Barth’s move is to abdicate the world of any of God’s presence (at least the earlier Romerbrief Barth). It would then become necessary for T.F. Torrance (referencing Fr Aidan’s comment on Chapter 1) to bridge Barth’s lacunae. Let me quote it here:

I do not deny that there is a proper place for rational argumentation in what is traditionally known as ‘natural theology’, for I find it contradictory to operate with a deistic disjunction between God and the universe, which presupposes belief in the existence of God but assumes at the same time that he is utterly detached and unknowable. Genuine argumentation must take place within the active interrelation between God and the universe, and is argumentation in which theoretical and empirical components in knowledge operate inseparably together, much as they do in the indissoluble fusion of geometry and physics in a ‘relativistic’ understanding of the universe. This demands of us, doubtless, a proper natural theology in which form and content, method and subject-matter, are not torn apart–that is, not a ‘natural theology’ as an independent conceptual system, antecedent to actual or empirical knowledge of God upon which it is then imposed, quite unscientifically, as a set of necessary epistemological presuppositions! (Space, Time and Resurrection, p. 1)

It would also be the impetus as to why Sarah Coakley would argue that if Barth lived now he would not have rejected natural theology.

For Orthodox theology it would be impossible to be faithful to the faith of the Fathers and put aside some form of natural theology. Because of the challenge of scientism, atheism, nihilism, and our generally materialistic society Staniloae’s work is essential for modern Orthodox to engage with in order for us to be able to adequately engage with our challenges now. Or so it seems to me.




Chapter four of Theology and the Church by Staniloae entitled “Revelation Through Acts, Words and Images” would be quite beneficial to read alongside these chapters on revelation here in the first volume of the dogmatics.