Fr Georges Florovsky: What Is the Authority of the Church Fathers?

Feast of the Righteous Fathers Sergius and Herman, Founders of Valaam Monastery

Florovsky_Square_3.jpgDEAR FATHER [Dobbie Bateman], [...] My remark on the preference for “settled problems”, in the article on Old Russia, was not just a casual remark. This preference is still the major predicament of modern man. It is so conspicuous in the theological field. Just yesterday the question was put to me, in my Patristic seminar, by one of the participants: we enjoy immensely, he said, the reading of the Fathers, but what is their “authority”? Are we supposed to accept from them even that in which they obviously were “situation-conditioned” and probably inaccurate, inadequate, and even wrong? My answer was obviously, No. Not only because, as it is persistently urged, only the consensus patrum [consensus of the Fathers] is binding—and, as to myself, I do not like this phrase. The “authority” of the Fathers is not a dictatus papae [dictate of the pope]. They are guides and witnesses, no more. Their vision is “of authority”, not necessarily their words. By studying the Fathers we are compelled to face the problems, and then we can follow them but creatively, not in the mood of repetition. I mentioned this already in the brief preface to my Eastern Fathers of the IV Century, and provoked a fiery indignation of the late Dom Clement Lialine. So many in our time are still looking for authoritative answers, even before they have encountered any problem. I am fortunate to have in my seminars students who are studying Fathers because they are interested in creative theology, and not just in history or archaeology.


I have sent you a new article of mine on Tradition. Next to me you will find also an article of Allchin, on the same subject. The magazine is Lutheran, and the manager is a pupil of mine, a bright scholarly minister.

~Fr. Georges Florovsky, Excerpt from Dec. 12, 1963 letter; originally published by Anastassy Brandon Gallaher


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