The Theological Task of Orthodoxy – A Further Word


Last October I ran the following quote from Fr. Georges Florovsky:

Orthodoxy is summoned to witness. Now more than ever the Christian West stands before divergent prospects, a living question addressed also to the Orthodox world… The ‘old polemical theology’ has long ago lost its inner connection with any reality. Such theology was an academic discipline, and was always elaborated according to the same western ‘textbooks.’ A historiosophical exegesis of the western religious tragedy must become the new ‘polemical theology.’ But this tragedy must be reendured and relived, precisely as one’s own, and its potential catharsis must be demonstrated in the fullness of the experience of the Church and patristic tradition. In this newly sought Orthodox synthesis, the centuries-old experience of the Catholic West must be studied and diagnosed by Orthodox theology with greater care and sympathy than has been the case up to now… The Orthodox theologian must also offer his own testimony to this world — a testimony arising from the inner memory of the Church — and resolve the question with his historical findings.” – Georges Florovsky, Ways of Russian Theology II, pp. 302-304

Florovsky is arguably the most important Orthodox voice of the 20th century. He argued and demonstrated time and again what he referred to as a “neo-patristic synthesis,” a clarion call for Orthodox theology to return to its roots in the Fathers and within the Orthodox Tradition. Many would today be surprised that Orthodox theology was ever otherwise – but in Florovsky’s youth, theological academies in Russia were heavily influenced by the West (from both Protestant and Catholic directions – classes in some cases were conducted in Latin), as well as those in Greece and elsewhere. There are few Orthodox theologians writing today, who have not drunk deep from the wells that Florovsky argued for. Vladimir Lossky was a protege; Met. John Zizioulas considered himself a student of Florovsky; Fr. Alexander Schmemann was a colleague both in France and in America. The landscape of Orthodox theology at the beginning of the 21st century would likely look much different had Florovsky not lived and wrote and taught.

His own view of the role of Orthodox theology, written in the mid-twentieth century, would likely have to be revised at this point in the early 21st century, even though the task he set for Orthodox theology has never been completed (and rarely attempted). The landscape of the Church has changed. The Orthodox Church that Florovsky addressed consisted almost entirely of those who had been born to the faith. Though revolution and other circumstances had created a “diaspora,” placing many Orthodox in the West – the Church was still an Eastern Church with converts being rare and frequently turned away.

Today, Orthodoxy in America is quickly becoming “native.” Both converts whose roots have always been in the West, as well as the descendants of original diaspora Orthodox becoming “Westernized,” the Orthodox Church in many places in the West today can speak of itself as “Eastern” only as an historical artifact. Its converts have not become “Eastern” in the process of becoming Orthodox – we have not become citizens of a foreign culture. Deeply influenced and immersed in Eastern experience – yes. But I would contend that converts have become to a great extent individual examples of Florovsky’s original proposal. They are now Orthodox Christians who have personally experienced the “western religious tragedy.” As a result of that tragedy they have come to Orthodoxy, but never as a tabula rasa. Every convert who enters the Church brings with them, in some fashion, the inheritance of centuries – problems not of their own creation but inherent to the West and to the modern Western world. To a large extent the problems of the “West” have now become universal problems for the simple reason that Western culture has become the dominant culture of the world. Others have our problems whether they want them or not. As converts within the West or even just Orthodox living in the West the inner encounter between Orthodoxy and Western experience is unavoidable.

Thus I see Florovsky as a “prophet” of sorts, but with the playing field drastically changed. He did not see the consequences of an Orthodoxy that could speak English (or French, or Spanish, or any number of other “Western” languages). Interestingly, my primary dogmatics professor, when I was an Anglican seminarian, had done his doctoral work under Florovsky at Harvard. His voice and vision echoed in that professor’s classes. How many Anglicans wrote papers on St. Gregory Palamas in earlier decades? I can recall reading Palamas (who was just beginning to be translated into English) and bringing his thought to bear on the problems raised in my theology classes. It was Florovsky’s vision – but in an entirely different setting. It is not surprising that I should have eventually become Orthodox – it is where the answers to my questions had always been.

Today, in ways and in places that many would not think of as “theological” in the formal sense, Florovsky’s vision is being fulfilled. We are the West – all of us who live here and many who do not. And within our own hearts is the crucible of Western tragedy meeting the patristic synthesis of the Orthodox East. At first the encounter can feel almost schizophrenic. It is all too easy to simply be anti-Western. But this is not an answer – just a reaction. God is not anti-Western, else He would have withheld Orthodoxy from us. But He has not withheld it. He has plunged it into the very midst of our culture with the assurance that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church. And in the hearts of His people this great encounter of patristic theology – the living inheritance of the Christian Church – meets all the various forms that the “Western religious tragedy” has taken. I believe the meeting that takes place in the heart is not to condemn the tragedy (for Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world) but that through such an encounter the tragedy might be raised from its own brokenness into the fullness of the Church.

I write as an Orthodox Christian – but I cannot pretend that there is nothing “Western” in what I do. Who would I be kidding? By the same token, I daresay that no other Orthodox writer in the West, including those born within the faith, can claim to do otherwise. Florovsky’s vision is not an enterprise to be undertaken – it is a prophecy of an inevitability. It is an inevitability because God so loved the world. There are no tragedies that God does not take into Himself – no failures that he has disowned. He has become what we are that we might become what He is – and it is happening before our very eyes.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


25 responses to “The Theological Task of Orthodoxy – A Further Word”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    The photo is of All Saints of Russia Orthodox Church in Akademgoroduk outside Novosibirsk. It was built in the 1990’s. Had I not described it’s location it could easily be a picture of any number of newly built Churches in the West. Florovsky’s vision is, in many ways, very universal. Russia is being reimmersed into the Church after generations. It is more than a mere re-discovery and cannot be a mere re-discovery. It is inevitably something more.

  2. artisticmisfit Avatar

    Thank you once again for a brilliant post. This is quite encouraging. Someone once told me there is not much money in theology, someone who incidentally introduced me to Florovsky via his webpage, and sometimes it seems a worthless pursuit because of that. I try to promote modern Greek theology to my friends who are outside the Church, regardless of their religious formation, or their current abhorrence of organized religion. I still don’t know the reason for studying theology, or even going to seminary if one can not be a priest because of one’s gender, but I still feel compelled to study it and a desire to go to seminary nevertheless…

    What was your sermon on today? Do you ever publish those?

  3. artisticmisfit Avatar

    Also, I promote both the theology that comes out of the seminary in Paris and the seminary itself to my friends who are critical of Russian Orthodoxy because they see it as being backwards.

  4. Carl Avatar

    I think it wouldn’t be harmful to see the history of the Church as a recapitulation of the history of Israel. Under David, the Kingdom was united, but after Solomon’s folly, the people became divided into the North and South. Then the North was conquered, and finally the South. So too, the church was one, until the folly of filioque divided East and West. Then the West succumbed to further heresy, and the East suffered physical enslavement under the Turks. But as the people of Israel were able to return from Babylon and rebuild the Solomon’s temple, may we too be granted God’s grace to reunify the church and the world under the banner of Holy Orthodoxy, untrodden by the state and undefiled by heresy. May God grant our prayer.

  5. Jim H. Avatar
    Jim H.

    The irony of God using and redeeming so many unlikely people and situations throughout scripture gives one an appreciation for the unbelievable irony of the Eastern Church taking root in the U.S.

    I am still in the evangelical fold, but something is definitely happening out here, “before our very eyes.”

  6. fatherstephen Avatar


    Just to have conversation between the evangelical forms of Christianity that evolved largely in the US in recent decades (or lets say 2 centuries) and Eastern Orthodoxy – though not so much at a formal level is significant. I think that most of the 20th century’s history of “formal talks” have shown that they are not often the most productive model. But the “confrontation” if I can use so strong a word, that occurs between an American Church that had largely become too comfortable with a “sized down” version of Christianity and the fulness of Eastern Orthodoxy with a theology rooted in the Councils and historic liturgy, yet espousing the fundamental necessity of a living union (relationship) between God and man, is bound to yield interesting fruit. Much of that fruit, as I’ve argued above, is taking shape in the hearts of converts, but I suspect that it goes and will continue to go beyond that. Clendenin’s work is a good example.

  7. neil Avatar

    Jim, and others,

    I’d like to believe that “something is happening out here, before our very eyes” but sometimes I just don’t know. I am currently in-between the cultures (for lack of a better word). I come from an Evangelical background and am heading into Orthodoxy, and I’ve seen this happen with some of my peers, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s just other people like me. In other words, I’m dying to know if it is happening or is even noticed by the classic Evangelical pastors of my youth, or some of the other folks from my history — I’m 38 years old and have moved, it feels, a distance from those times, in my wolrdview, as well as geographically.

    What are the signs that you’re seeing?

  8. fatherstephen Avatar


    I would not look for the signs in the leadership and in the most obvious places. In many ways those places cannot afford to do much other than what they are doing now. But you yourself are an example of things happening before our eyes. The inner engagement both with Orthodox tradition as well as the “Western religious tragedy” takes place within you and is in thousands of others.

    I don’t think we have to see a map, or necessarily even know where all this leads. But it was not happening when Florovsky wrote, or barely. And it is happening now. Conversion of folks in the West to Orthodoxy, is not simply a movement from one ecclesiastical group to another, but a meet of two worlds. And it is significant. My point in the post is that this encounter is taking place, but not so much on the formal level as on the level of the heart.

    The influx of evangelicals into the Antiochian Archdiocese changed many things for that Orthodox jurisdiction. The fact that today we have things like Ancient Faith Radio, that Orthodoxy is speaking as publicly as it does and with an ear that is aware of American religious issues is quite significant – though how you would measure it would be beyond me. At this point I note only that it is happening. God alone knows its outcome or its measure.

  9. neil Avatar

    Good words, Fr Stephen.

    I am too often looking for circumstances to point to for my family’s sake, you know, in an effort to create a solid case or to legitimize what I’m doing, etc. Same old Evangelical tactic. I guess I’d be better off concerned with the state of my heart, since that where it happens, and really the only territory I can claim as my responsibility.

    Thank you.

  10. Jim H. Avatar
    Jim H.

    Neil — Yesterday at my large evangelical church, the wife of a friend whispered to me her husband was “taking a break” from church for awhile. I looked around the room and noticed that there are very few men in their late 30’s and 40’s. I can only assume the disappearing husbands and dads are the result of the same restlessness I’ve been experiencing for years.

    I am also surprised by how much talk I hear of “Family Integrated Churches” and home churches in general. As Barna documents in his 2006 book “Revolution,” there’s a growing acceptance that it’s OK to leave organized church. Home churches are popping up all over my hometown.

    I am in the PCA, where an ugly rift has broken out amongst a group Reformed Sacramentalists, and the leadership of the denomination, which is aggresively responding (one pastor has been indicted) to a group of pastors who believe in padeo communion and are sympathetic to N.T. Wright’s New Perspective on Paul. This is very nasty and bitter. See here:

    More and more churches in the PCA are practicing weekly communion, including one influential “flagship” church. This is not even noticed by many , and indeed churches are still being planted, but my guess is that longevity is declining.

    I have many Baptist friends who admit that they are in total disarray. One pastor I know sneaks off to charismatic conferences and is talking alot about prophecies and dreams. It’s the Baptists who are starting up most of the home churches.

    The solution proposed always seems to involve how we need to change to meet the needs of the people, who need to be “fed.” Our church is conducting one of those lengthy online surveys, querying members about how they feel the church works. In a couple of months, they’ll announce that results have been tallied, prompting the hiring of a worship arts pastor! (or something like that!)

    I joke about it, but I confess to being in a spiritual depression and I know that I am not alone.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is clearly a version of the “Western theological tragedy” that Florovsky would never have imagined. It is today complicated by market-driven theologies and the politicization of theology in America (at least obscuring many things). The “market-driven” theologies have, in my opinion, created the “thinnest” version of Christianity ever to have existed. There is a need to engage Christ in His fullness that the market would never dream of suggesting no matter how many times it is queried.

    The only query that I recall Christ making was: “Who do men say that I am?” and at the time only one man answered correctly. Statistically insignificant – but not insignificant to God. God is deeply at work in our culture – but on a level and in a place that may never reach anyone’s survey. God alone knows.

    What would our nation look like if all we could see was the condition of the human heart?

  12. neil Avatar

    Hungry. Or desperate and confused? Or ignored and left to shrivel up? I’ve experienced all three, I think.

    Jim — All that sounds familiar. In my own walk through the array of evangelical church expressions, I particpated in much of what you describe and more. One of my last flings before seriously pursuing Orthodoxy was a house church, part of the “Emergent Church,” that was very deconstructivist and critical in weekly discussions, though the pastor tried her best to help us all to reconnect with Jesus in a variety of creative arts ways. They now consider themselves a new urban monastic community of sorts. Several years ago when I was still part of that group, I particpated in lectures on how to use the arts for the making of an authentic Christianity in our lives, city and world. I was so hungry for what I’ve discovered was the Orthodox Way along. And I got tired of feeling like I had to apologize if things seemed to churchy. I’d still feel that way, I think, if I were trying to live an authentic Protestant evangelical life, because it all seemed so “thin” to borrow from Fr Stephen.

    Now the only “thin” I have to worry about is my own distracted heart. Even just a taste of the Ancient Church path — which can be very current, timeless, in fact, with no apologies necessary — has given me enough to start with, as far as authentically making sense of my faith, who I am, who God is, etc. I thank God for this and am constantly in need of His mercy.

  13. neil Avatar

    Jim — I looked into the link you gave and some of the other thoughts in your comments above. (Insert whistle of amazement here), it’s all mind boggling to me. I’m pretty simple as far as theological discussions go (back in my Baptist days, I never did figure out the finer points of the pre-trib/post-trib debate, and it all seemed so ridiculous to me). In my fantasy world, I would step into discussions like these and hand the particpates a copy of the Nicene Creed and a few choice works by the Early Fathers and expect it all to clear up. But that’s why they call it fantasy.

  14. Jim H. Avatar
    Jim H.

    Neil — when I talk about these kind of conflicts, the typical response is that, as long we agree on the essentials, it’s OK. They are not “salvation matters,” but of course they absolutely are.

    There is simply no way those in the aforementioned blog debate can claim to be in communion with each other.

  15. neil Avatar

    That’s the kind of response I’ve gotten recently from my mom and my sister, to a degree. I love that they are concerned (my mom) and interested (sister), but it’s difficult to give them insight into what I’m learning about the Orthodox Church w/o sounding arrogant, even on the rare occasion I know what I’m talking about. Or maybe especially when I know what I’m talking about.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    I look (from time to time) for language that can say what I want to without sounding arrogant. It’s why I prefer “fullness” to “One True Church,” or even the language I’ve used about 2 storey universe stuff. I listen and think, because I believe what I want to say is worth saying and worth hearing – and if possible worth pushing past the arguments. God gives grace and sometimes the right words come.

    My parents were chrismated at age 79.

    My father-in-law, who was a devout Baptist, and perhaps one of the most holy men I’ve known, towards the end of his life, when asked about two of his children being Orthodox, simply replied, “Yes, that’s the original Church.”

  17. neil Avatar

    Encouraging words, thank you.

    I have found that “fullness” incites less of a struggle in a conversation. I always wonder, though, whether it is received with agreement because of some understanding or as a relativistic concession. I guess it’s not for me to know what goes on in the hearts of others. As I’ve stated before, I’ve got my plate more than full with my own heart. Lord have mercy.

    In some instances, though I have found that explorations of many different spiritual paths will draw not so much as a skeptical nod from my family and others, while Orthodoxy —or at least, presented by my words — draws concern and chatter behind my back. My father-in-law is apparently concerned by the books I’ve been reading. (Titles like “The Orthodox Way,” and “Orthodox Spirituality”) It is frustrating to me that people (my own family!) can “turn a blind eye” to much that is done, even when it is clearly erroneous, sinful, etc, but then be startled awake by something so good, probably just because it looks different to their narrow American vision… Honestly, what do they think people of other cultures do w/o a 3 hymns and a footbal analogy in a sermon every Sunday?

    Obviously, this strikes a chord with me, forgive me for the rant.

  18. mrh Avatar

    You’re so fortunate. The reaction from my family was pretty consistent across the board: “oh, so you had a midlife crisis and joined some weird church, huh? Okay. Coulda been worse.”

  19. Phil Avatar

    Neil – on giving people insight into Orthodoxy – I think what’s challenging is that I’ve found that it is true (at least for me) that you have to live it, immerse yourself in it, as it were.

    Now, how do you explain that to somebody that wants a 5 minute answer on “why Orthodoxy?” How do you sum up the process of going from knowing nothing of the liturgy to craving it? Or from having no engagement with the saints of our Faith to living through a year with them and starting to see, for the first time, names and stories that are now sort of familiar? Or starting to see the organic fullness of Orthodoxy that you know is there but can scarcely explain to yourself?

    The good news, I think, is that authentic life has a cadence that doesn’t conform to the “do it now” mentality of the modern world. To see that Orthodoxy has that cadence – even if it hinders an elevator speech on the thing to others – is deeply, deeply reassuring.

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    At a talk I gave last year at the Colloquim for Anglicans on Orthodoxy, I said, “You’ll be surprised to know that I am a cradle born Orthodox, who lived for 43 years in schism from myself.” It drew a laugh, though I was sort of serious. If the Orthodox Church is what we say it is, truly the Body of Christ, then it is the true home of everyone who comes into the world. So I theologically considered that and made my statement. Actually, it’s the only was to say things and be consistent when we say we found that we were “coming home” when we entered Orthodoxy. This is man’s true home. But I don’t think I’d use it in an elevator conversation.

    I do think that I might say, “I believe I have always been becoming Orthodox.”

  21. jacob Avatar

    Fr. Stephen said: I do think that I might say, “I believe I have always been becoming Orthodox.”

    That reminded me of this:

    For most of his life Dr. [Jaroslav] Pelikan belonged to the Lutheran Church, but in 1998 he and his wife Sylvia were received into the Orthodox Church in St Vladimir’s Seminary Chapel. Members of Dr Pelikan’s family remember him saying that he had not as much converted to Orthodoxy as “returned to it, peeling back the layers of my own belief to reveal the Orthodoxy that was always there.”

  22. neil Avatar

    Thanks Phil, I’ve been experiencing what you’re talking about to some degree. And yes, I can relate to the “coming home” that everyone is talking about. I feel I’ve been looking into or hungering after Orthodoxy for at least a decade and the limited exposure I had before that, though unrecognizable as the Orthodox Church at the time, intrigued me sufficiently to stand out in my memory now as a starting place. But as a starting place, I lik ewhat Fr Stephen is saying, that this is our true home from the start. I believe that, I think, though i hope and expect that it will be more revelaed as I enter in.

    Hope that all makes sense. I’m rushing to a meeting. Pray for me, a sinner.

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I don’t know “if I’ve always been Orthodox” because I was never a member of a mainline Church. I started out simply knowing Jesus is real after an encounter in 1968. I was Baptized in 1986. The only affiliation I ever had was with the Holy Order of MANS. A self-styled “new age” Christian organization. I joined them in 1973 and gravitated to the Church with most of the rest 13 years later. The theological arguments have never meant much to me. I tend toward the experiential side of the faith. But, always check the experience with the teaching of the Church.

    My first visit to a largely Arab Orthodox Church who had never known many converts blew me away. The mystical but totally real presence of both Jesus and Mary was astounding. My experience of parish life a challenge. Jesus never left us. My wife died in 2005 and my son left the Church a couple of years later
    Jesus keeps leading me into a deeper understanding and experience of Himself in the Church. He received my wife upon her death. I pray and hope for my son’s return.

    Although He blesses people outside the Church it is largely IMO, as Fr. Stephen’s story and others show, to call people to Himself in His Church.(Not just to an institution)

    After 36 almost 37 years in the Church, I am finally learning to repent and thank God for all things. Jesus has never departed.

    The Sacramental life in the Church is inexhaustibly deep. Thanks to my new wife whom I married 13 years ago, I am learning to appreciate and engage with my fellow parishoners — increasingly not Arabic.

    The chant of Isaiah 8:9 that we do at Nativity is thrilling: “God is with us! Understand all ye nations and submit yourselves for God is with us!”
    It rings in my ears and heart. It can be heard on youtube done by the choir of St Symeon Church if you search for God is with us.

    Rejoice in the Lord, always!

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman
    A link to the God is with us chant

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