Christian Duties according to Florovsky: Learning, History & Reintegration

Feast of St Germanus, Archbishop of Constantinople

HOW MANY Christian heroes—what the Church has traditionally called a Saint or a Church Father/Mother—can you name from the first sixteen centuries (i.e., after the Apostles and before George Fox)? If you are like many twenty-first century Christians, you probably aren't able to name many. (If you are interested, you can see a list of “40 Heroes of the Faith” before the 16th century HERE.)

Why open with this question? For two reasons.

First, to identify the types of heroes you have and the role they play in our lives. How many movie stars or athletes can you name off the top of your head? I bet you can do a much better job than naming the saints. We imitate our heroes, which means that, over time, we become like them. Who are you imitating? Are you imitating and becoming more like the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us?

Second, because I want to tell you about my heroes. More specifically, I want to describe two characteristics that most of my own heroes have: they are Christian intellectuals and they have a strong sense of history. So I want to make two points: 1) Christians have a duty to learn; and 2) Christians have a duty to study history. Then I will conclude with a third point, a third duty: to reintegrate. And I want to make all three of these points using another hero of mine: Fr. Georges Florovsky.

I. Christians Have Minds: The Duty to Learn 
Why attend college, apart from a means to the end of acquiring a paying job? Why study? What is the practical value of studying the faith or of learning doctrine? Why memorize and recite a creed, as we do at all Eighth Day events and as many churches do every Sunday? If I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, is there really anything else that I need? Some would, in fact, argue that we don’t need anything else. I disagree.

There are plenty of Christian folks who have a negative view of any sort of intellectual study. Fr. Florovsky calls this a modern heresy of “gnosomachy”, which simply means “fighting against knowledge.” And it is related to an ancient, fourth-century heresy called Apollinarianism. Apollinarius (d. A.D. 390) argued that Jesus could not have had a human mind. He had a human body. He even had a human soul (the lower soul as the seat of the emotions). But, according to Apollinarius, Christ had to have a divine mind. The divine Logos took the place of the human mind. Here’s how Florovsky explains this heresy:

Apollinarianism is the negation of human reason, the fear of thought. . . . And that means that human reason is incurable—atherapeuton esti—that is, it must be cut off. The rejection of Apollinarianism meant therefore, at the time, the fundamental justification of reason and thought. Not in the sense, of course, that ‘natural reason’ is sinless and right by itself but in the sense that it is open to transformation, that it can be healed, that it can be renewed. And not only can but also must be healed and renewed.

So the Church’s condemnation of the Apollinarian heresy at the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381) is a testimony to the healing of human reason in Christ.

Can you think of a New Testament verse that affirms this? Consider Rom 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by” what? By “the renewal of your mind.”

Florovsky develops this point elsewhere in a lecture on St. Maximus the Confessor. He argues that the Holy Spirit doesn’t “abolish man’s cognitive powers.” That word “cognitive” comes from the Latin word cognoscere, which means to learn, examine, or inquire. Man’s ability to learn, to examine, or to inquire, is not abolished by the Holy Spirit. Instead, Florovsky continues, “the Holy Spirit elevates them” (CW IX., 218).

Florovsky further demonstrates his point in an early editorial for the theological journal he established at St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary. One of Florovsky’s great heroes was Metropolitan Filaret of Moscow (d. 1633). He had a favorite saying that Florovsky loved to cite: “Faith reasons.” And he would frequently remind his parishioners that all Christians are disciples. A disciple, according to the Greek root of the word (mathetes), is a student, an apprentice, one who learns. And we all know that Christ is the Teacher. So if Christ is the Teacher and we are students, then, Metropolitan Philaret concludes, all Christians have a duty to learn (Florovsky titled this editorial “The Duty to Learn”).

So the mind can and should be renewed, as demonstrated by the Incarnation. St Gregory the Theologian says that what is not assumed cannot be healed. Our human minds, then, could not have been healed if Christ had not assumed a fully human mind. By assuming a human mind, Christ healed it and demonstrated its positive value and importance. As disciples / students of Christ our Teacher, we thus have a duty to learn and reason. Our use of reason is a human vocation (from the Latin word vocare, to call).

But our use of reason can be employed in many different areas. It should be used in learning languages (especially Greek, Hebrew, and Latin), in studying Scripture, and even in areas such as astronomy and mathematics. Yes, I said mathematics. For as Simone Weil argues, the study of mathematics develops attention and attention is prayer. Our use of reason can and should also be employed in philosophy, as Florovsky adamantly argues, contrary to what most people who write about Florovsky would suggest (he’s been widely misread on this point). But for our purposes here, we want to suggest that our reason should be used in history.

II. Christians Are Historians: The Duty to Study History
The use of our God-given gift of reason must always begin with revelation. But what exactly is revelation? According to Florovsky, “Recorded Revelation—Sacred Scripture—is, first of all, history. Law and Prophets, psalms and prophecies are woven into the living historical web. Scripture is history, the history of the world created by God, and the history of man who is called to be the priest, the prophet and the king of this world.” Revelation, then, is ‘Sacred Scripture’. And Sacred Scripture is history.

The Bible is a single story, from Genesis to Revelation, i.e., it is history. It has a beginning and an end. And it has a center: the Incarnation. According to Florovsky: “The Gospel is history. Historic events are the source and the basis of all Christian faith and hope.” Elsewhere he insists that “Christianity is basically a vigorous appeal to history, a witness of faith to certain particular events in the past, to certain particular dates of history.” And he frequently refers to these events as Magnalia Dei: the Mighty Deeds of God—truly eventful and utterly momentous. (As a side note, it is also important to note that it’s not just the Bible that records these Magnalia Dei. The Christian Creed is intrinsically historic. Like the Bible, it gives us the history of salvation, from creation to the consummation of history.)

And so, just as Florovsky concludes that we all have a duty to learn, he also concludes that we all have a duty to study history. Before concluding with the third and final point, let me briefly touch on the way Florovsky understood history:

1) Personal: The purpose of historical inquiry, according to Florovsky, “is not in the establishment of certain objective facts, such as dates, places, numbers, names, and the like, as much as all this is an indispensable preliminary, but in the encounter with living beings. . . . History, as a subject of study, is history of human beings, in their mutual relationship, in their conflicts and contacts, in their social intercourse, and in their solitude and estrangement, in their high aspirations and in their depravity. Only men live in history—live, and move, and strive, and create, and destroy. Men alone are historic beings.”

2) Creative: People create history The Incarnation affirmed both time and history and thus gives it meaning. In Florovsky’s words, “There are no mere happenings which pass by, but rather events and achievements, and new things are coming to existence, that which never existed before.” Latin Christendom, Byzantium, Russian Orthodoxy: Florovsky sees them all as creations, as long hard roads of intellectual and historical constructions, creations of Christian culture.

3) Contingent: History is unpredictable and subject to change. It doesn’t have to be the way it is. The Roman Empire didn’t have to remain pagan…and it didn’t! American culture doesn’t have to continue declining. It’s our responsibility, with the grace of God, to change its course. We have a duty to create our own history.

We have a responsibility to reason and we have a duty to study history, history that is personal, creative, and contingent. If we take these duties seriously and take up the task of studying history, we will quickly realize how much many of us Christians have lost by neglecting the study of the Church’s history, our two-thousand year heritage. And we will realize there is much work to be done, particularly in terms of Christian division.

III. Christians Belong Together: The Duty to Reintegrate
Before the advent of the Friends Church in the 17th century, before the advent of Lutherans and Calvinists in the 16th century, before the split of East and West at the turn of the first millennium, there was one church. There was one church for 1000 years! This is not to say that there was not conflict or diversity during that millennium. But despite cultural, linguistic, and event liturgical differences, especially between the Greek East (Constantinople) and the Latin West Rome), Christians saw themselves as one. And the sign of their unity was in their Eucharistic communion.

Greek East and Latin West no longer see themselves as one. They no longer share Eucharistic communion as a sign of their unity. This is a tragedy. Indeed, according to Florovsky, this is “the major tragedy of European history, or actually of the history of Christendom.” And this tragedy was further compounded in the sixteenth century with the Protestant Reformations.

Divided Christendom is a bad testimony to the world. Christ prays that Christians would be one. To what end? So that the world might believe! And so I would argue, with Florovsky, that we have a duty to reintegrate, to restore the unity Christ prayed for. But how do we do that? Let me conclude with a few suggestions, suggestions that have guided my work at Eighth Day Institute from the very beginning, suggestions that Florovsky also offers.

Division is indeed a tragedy. But the even greater tragedy, Florovsky suggests elsewhere, is that Christians have forgotten that we belong together. We have forgotten that there was once a common ground. With Florovsky, I believe the only way we can reintegrate is by returning to that common ground. What do I mean by that? What is that common ground? First, Scripture. But much of our divisions are based on varying interpretations of Scripture. So I do not believe reintegration can be found in a return to Scripture alone. So, second, we must also return to the Church Fathers, to their biblical commentaries, their theological reflections, to their creeds and canons that were forged in the seven Ecumenical Councils. But it cannot merely be a return to their texts; it must be a retrieval of their ecclesial minds. We must immerse ourselves in the Scriptures and the Fathers to reacquire the mind of the Church, which is the mind of Christ. This is why the duty to learn, and the duty to study history are so important. It’s the only way we can make progress in fulfilling the prayer of Christ for unity.

Remember those three characteristics of history? Let's end by circling back to reflect a bit more on them.

Creative: We must believe that we have a role in history, that we can make a difference, that we can create a culture that bears witness to Christ.

Contingent: We must believe that divided Christendom is not an inevitable and ultimate fact of history. It wasn’t always this way…in fact it was united for 1000 years. It doesn’t have to remain this way

Personal: We have to study the lives of the men and women who forged our faith. According to Florovsky, “The first step to be taken is that we should learn to read and study the Fathers not merely as historical documents, as links of a ‘venerable’ but obsolete ‘tradition’, as pieces of antiquity, but as living masters from whom we may receive the message of life and truth.”

Reintegrated divided Christendom requires hard work. It will be a long, hard road of intellectual and historical construction. It will require time and effort spent studying history, the Bible, and the Fathers. It will require all of us to do it together, in dialogue. And it will require patience. Ecumenical hastiness that minimizes differences is unacceptable. A real synthesis, an authentic reintegration that has worked through the real differences is the only acceptable way forward.

Let me conclude by saying that reintegration will not come about just through the renewal of our minds, nor merely through a dedication to study history, nor just by a return to the Bible and the Fathers. It is also going to require repentance and prayer. We must repent for our sin of division. And we must pray for reintegration. We must beg God’s Holy Spirit to move us toward the fulfillment of Christ’s Priestly prayer for unity. Reintegration will be a gift from God, an answer to His own prayer. So please join me in making John 17 a regular part of your prayers.

Originally presented as a chapel lecture at Barclay College in Haviland, KS on Holy Tuesday and the Feast of St Joseph the Hymnographer, April 3, Anno Domini 2018

Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.

Eighth Day Institute seeks to renew culture by promoting the common heritage of Nicene Christianity. We are committed to facilitating a dialogue of love and truth as a step in that direction. This means we gladly allow a broad range of perspectives. But it does not mean that we agree with everything presented or published.

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