Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Palamas, Florovsky, Bulgakov, and Sophiology

On this feast of St George we should also remember the faithfully departed who bore his name. I take this occasion to post a short excerpt from a paper I wrote some years ago about Protopresbyter Georges Florovsky and St Gregory Palamas, which concludes with my translation of a letter from Fr Florovsky to Fr Sergius Bulgakov concerning Sophiology that has never before appeared in English:

Although it was Fr. Georges Florovsky [1] who coined the expression “neo-Patristic synthesis” and in many ways epitomized the “patristic revival” among Orthodox theologians, he published only one short essay on Palamas, originally delivered on the occasion of the six-hundredth anniversary of the repose of St. Gregory Palamas celebrated by the University of Thessalonica, at which Florovsky was awarded an honorary doctorate [2]. The starting point of Florovsky’s essay is in the clarification of the correct understanding of the phrase “Following the Holy Fathers.” According to Florovsky, this expression is not simply an appeal to antiquity or to “some abstract tradition, in formulas and propositions,” but rather primarily “an appeal to holy witnesses” [3]. The Church is not only “Apostolic,” but also “Patristic”; the Fathers are “not only witnesses of the old faith, testes antiquitatis” [4] but especially “witnesses of the true faith, testes veritatis” [5]. It follows that the “Age of the Fathers” does not refer only to the past, to a body of literature to be cited; instead, one should follow the Fathers by acquiring their mind, their phronema [6]. The theology of the Byzantine period was an organic continuation of the so-called “Patristic age,” and the Fathers of this period, as for instance Sts. Symeon the New Theologian and Gregory Palamas, “are still authoritative masters and inspirers of all those who, in the Orthodox Church, are striving after perfection, and are living the life of prayer and contemplation, whether in the surviving monastic communities, or in the solitude of the desert, or even in the world” [7]. St. Gregory Palamas, in Florovsky’s words, “was not a speculative theologian” but rather “a monk and bishop” who was therefore not “concerned about abstract problems of philosophy,” and as a theologian “was simply an interpreter of the spiritual experience of the Church” [8].

Although suspected of “subversive innovations by his enemies in his own time,” and often by western critics to this day, “St. Gregory was deeply rooted in tradition" [9]. Most of Palamas’ views and motives can be traced back to the “Cappadocian Fathers and St. Maximus the Confessor, as well as to Pseudo-Dionysius” [10]. Nonetheless, the theology of St. Gregory Palamas was in no way a “theology of repetition,” but rather a “creative extension of ancient tradition,” the starting point of which was “Life in Christ” [11]. Although it has been suggested that the theology of Palamas “should be described in modern terms as an “existentialist theology” [12], in fact “it differed radically from modern conceptions which are currently denoted by this label” [13]. The starting point of Palamas’ theology was “the history of salvation,” for which reason, in imitation of St. Irenaeus, one may call the theology of St. Gregory Palamas a “theology of facts.” “In this connection,” Florovsky concludes, “we may regard St. Gregory Palamas as our guide and teacher, in our endeavor to theologize from the heart of the Church” [14].

Alexei Klimoff argues that this essay is linked to his polemic with Bulgakov, as he “seeks to reaffirm the place of Palamas within mainline patristic tradition, in this sense refuting Bulgakov’s claim that St Gregory can be seen as one of the originators of Sophilology" [15]. In the following letter written to Bulgakov on July 4/22, 1926, Florovsky argues that acquaintance with Palamas would have made his Sophia unnecessary:
As I have been saying for a long time, there are two teachings about Sophia and even two Sophias, or more accurately, two images of Sophia: the true and real and the imaginary one. Holy churches were built in Byzantium and in Rus’ in the name of the former. The latter inspired Soloviev and his Masonic and western teachers -– and goes right back to the Gnostics and Philo. Soloviev did not at all know the Church Sophia: he knew Sophia from Boehme and the Behmenists, from Valentinus and Kabbalah. And this Sophiology is heretical and renounced. That which you find in Athanasius relates to the other Sophia. And one may find even more about Her in Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, from which there is a direct line to Palamas. The very terminology – ousia and energeia has its beginning in Basil the Great. I see no difficulty in this terminology. Aristotle has nothing to do with this. The basic thought of Cappadocian theology can be reduced to a precise distinction of the inner-divine Pleroma, of the Triune fullness of all-sufficient life, and it is this that is the ousia, pelagas, tis ousias in Damascene, – and: the “outward” [vo vne] direction of Mercy, Grace, Love, ActivityEnergeia. The entire question (speculatively very difficult) is in this distinction. In the perceptible sense, this is the explanation of the very idea of creation, as a Divine plan-will about the other, about not-God. Ousia – according to Basil the Great and according to Palamas – is unreachable and unknowable, it is “in light unapproachable.” But “the very same God” (Palamas’ expression) creates, that is, offers another, and for that reason is revealed “outward” [vo vne]. It is this that is “Energy,” “Glory,” “Sophia” – a non-hypostatic revelation of “the same” God. Not “essence,” not “personhood,” not “hypostasis.” If you like, yes, – Divine accidentia, but accidentia of “the very same” God or God “Himself.” And it is precisely to this that Palamas’ thought leads – the accent is on the fullness and full meaning tis Theotitos. If you like, Sophia is Deus revelatus, that is, Grace. Grace – this is God to the world, pros ton kosmon (and not pros ton Theon, as in John 1:1 about the Logos). Sophia is eternal, inasmuch as it is thought – the will of the Eternal God, but it is willed – a thought about Time. There is much on this theme in Blessed Augustine. Sophia – is not only thought, “idea,” kosmos noitos, but is will, power… And in God there is not, God does not have non-eternal powers and wills, but there is will about time. Sophia never is world. The world is other, both in relation to grace and in relation to the “original image.” Therefore “pre-eternity” and “pre-temporality” of will – thoughts about time does [sic] not convert time into eternity. “Ideal creation,” “pre-eternal council,” toto genere is different from real creative fiat. Sophia is not the “soul of the world.” This negative statement distinguishes the Church teaching about Sophia from the Gnostic and Behmenist teachings about her. Sophia is not a created subject, it is not a substance or substrata of created coming-into-being [stanovleniia]. This is gratia and not natura. And natura = creatura. Sophia – is not creatura. Along with this, it is not hypostasis, but thrice-radiant glory [16].
[1] On Florovsky, see Andrew Blane, ed., Georges Florovsky: Russian Intellectual and Orthodox Churchman (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993). [2] Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. I (Belmont, Mass.: Nordland Publishing Company, 1972), 105-120. [3] Ibid., 106. [4] Ibid., 107. [5] Ibid., 109. [6] Ibid., 112. [7] Ibid., 114. [8] Ibid., 114. [9] Ibid., 114. [10] Ibid., 114. [11] Florovsky is here likely referring to Meyendorff. [12] Ibid., 119. [13] Ibid., 120. [14] Ibid., 120. [15] “Georges Florovsky and the Sophiological Controvery,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 49:1-2 (2005), 96. [16] “Pis’ma G. Florovskogo S. Bulgakovu i S. Tyshkevichu,” Simvol 29, September 1993, 205-206.

See also my somewhat related post from last year: The Paris School: Myth or Reality?

Photograph: Fr Georges Florovsky, March 1946, Life Magazine.


solzemli said...

I will have to put some time aside to read Fr. George's letter closely. But it was wonderful you took the time to put this post together, Felix.

Felix Culpa said...

Don't worry, it was purely cut-and-paste! But the letter does require real attention if one is to make sense of it.

solzemli said...

haha- My style exactly. :)

Carving Ben said...

That post sheds more light on Sophia than anything else that I have seen.
But I am a dilettante. Thank you for posting it.