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Fr. Georges Florovsky on “The Lost Scriptural Mind”

Georges Florovsky

Fr. Georges Florovsky

Father Georges Florovsky (1893–1979) was an Eastern Orthodox priest, theologian, and historian. Expelled from Russia in 1920, he became a professor at Orthodox seminaries in Paris and New York, then a professor at Harvard University and Princeton University. In this excerpt from a 1951 essay titled “The Lost Scriptural Mind,” Florovsky argues that the fathers of the Christian church are more relevant than modern theologians. You can read the full essay here.

Christian ministers are not supposed to preach their private opinions, at least from the pulpit. Ministers are commissioned and ordained in the church precisely to preach the Word of God. They are given some fixed terms of reference — namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ — and they are committed to this sole and perennial message. They are expected to propagate and to sustain “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” Of course, the Word of God must be preached “efficiently.” That is, it should always be so presented as to carry conviction and command the allegiance of every new generation and every particular group. It may be restated in new categories, if the circumstances require. But, above all, the identity of the message must be preserved.

One has to be sure that one is preaching the same gospel that was delivered and that one is not introducing instead any “strange gospel” of his own. The Word of God cannot be easily adjusted or accommodated to the fleeting customs and attitudes of any particular age, including our own time. Unfortunately, we are often inclined to measure the Word of God by our own stature, instead of checking our mind by the stature of Christ. The “modern mind” also stands under the judgment of the Word of God.

Modern Man and Scripture

But it is precisely at this point that our major difficulty begins. Most of us have lost the integrity of the scriptural mind, even if some bits of biblical phraseology are retained. The modern man often complains that the truth of God is offered to him in an “archaic idiom” — i.e., in the language of the Bible — which is no more his own and cannot be used spontaneously. It has recently been suggested that we should radically “demythologize” Scripture, meaning to replace the antiquated categories of the Holy Writ by something more modern. Yet the question cannot be evaded: Is the language of Scripture really nothing else than an accidental and external wrapping out of which some “eternal idea” is to be extricated and disentangled, or is it rather a perennial vehicle of the divine message, which was once delivered for all time?

We are in danger of losing the uniqueness of the Word of God in the process of continuous “reinterpretation.” But how can we interpret at all if we have forgotten the original language? Would it not be safer to bend our thought to the mental habits of the biblical language and to relearn the idiom of the Bible? No man can receive the gospel unless he repents — “changes his mind.” For in the language of the gospel “repentance” (metanoeite) does not mean merely acknowledgment of and contrition for sins, but precisely a “change of mind” — a profound change of man’s mental and emotional attitude, an integral renewal of man’s self, which begins in his self-renunciation and is accomplished and sealed by the Spirit.

We are living now in an age of intellectual chaos and disintegration. Possibly modern man has not yet made up his mind, and the variety of opinions is beyond any hope of reconciliation. Probably the only luminous signpost we have to guide us through the mental fog of our desperate age is just the “faith which was once delivered unto the saints,” obsolete or archaic as the idiom of the Early Church may seem to be, judged by our fleeting standards.

Preach the Creeds!

What, then, are we going to preach? What would I preach to my contemporaries “in a time such as this?” There is no room for hesitation: I am going to preach Jesus, and him crucified and risen. I am going to preach and to commend to all whom I may be called to address the message of salvation, as it has been handed down to me by an uninterrupted tradition of the Church Universal. I would not isolate myself in my own age. In other words, I am going to preach the “doctrines of the creed.”

I am fully aware that creeds are a stumbling block for many in our own generation. “The creeds are venerable symbols, like the tattered flags upon the walls of national churches; but for the present warfare of the church in Asia, in Africa, in Europe and America the creeds, when they are understood, are about as serviceable as a battle-ax or an arquebus in the hands of a modern soldier.” This was written some years ago by a prominent British scholar who is a devout minister too. Possibly he would not write them today. But there are still many who would wholeheartedly make this vigorous statement their own. Let us remember, however, that the early creeds were deliberately scriptural, and it is precisely their scriptural phraseology that makes them difficult for the modern man.

Thus we face the same problem again: What can we offer instead of Holy Scripture? I would prefer the language of the Tradition, not because of a lazy and credulous “conservatism” or a blind “obedience” to some external “authorities,” but simply because I cannot find any better phraseology. I am prepared to expose myself to the inevitable charge of being “antiquarian” and “fundamentalist.” And I would protest that such a charge is gratuitous and wrong. I do keep and hold the “doctrines of the creed,” conscientiously and wholeheartedly, because I apprehend by faith their perennial adequacy and relevance to all ages and to all situations, including “a time such as this.” And I believe it is precisely the “doctrines of the creed” that can enable a desperate generation like ours to regain Christian courage and vision.

The Tradition Lives

“The church is neither a museum of dead deposits nor a society of research.” The deposits are alive—depositum juvenescens, to use the phrase of St. Irenaeus. The creed is not a relic of the past, but rather the “sword of the Spirit.” The reconversion of the world to Christianity is what we have to preach in our day. This is the only way out of that impasse into which the world has been driven by the failure of Christians to be truly Christian. Obviously, Christian doctrine does not answer directly any practical question in the field of politics or economics. Neither does the gospel of Christ. Yet its impact on the whole course of human history has been enormous. The recognition of human dignity, mercy and justice roots in the gospel. The new world can be built only by a new man.

The Modern Crisis

The first task of the contemporary preacher is the “reconstruction of belief.” It is by no means an intellectual endeavor. Belief is just the map of the true world, and should not be mistaken for reality. Modern man has been too much concerned with his own ideas and convictions, his own attitudes and reactions. The modern crisis precipitated by humanism (an undeniable fact) has been brought about by the rediscovery of the real world, in which we do believe. The rediscovery of the church is the most decisive aspect of this new spiritual realism. Reality is no more screened from us by the wall of our own ideas. It is again accessible. It is again realized that the church is not just a company of believers, but the “Body of Christ.” This is a rediscovery of a new dimension, a rediscovery of the continuing presence of the divine Redeemer in the midst of his faithful flock. This discovery throws a new flood of light on the misery of our disintegrated existence in a world thoroughly secularized. It is already recognized by many that the true solution of all social problems lies somehow in the reconstruction of the church. “In a time such as this” one has to preach the “whole Christ,” Christ and the church—totus Christus, caput et corpus, to use the famous phrase of St. Augustine. Possibly this preaching is still unusual, but it seems to be the only way to preach the Word of God efficiently in a period of doom and despair like ours.

The Relevance of the Fathers

I have often a strange feeling. When I read the ancient classics of Christian theology, the fathers of the church, I find them more relevant to the troubles and problems of my own time than the production of modern theologians. The fathers were wrestling with existential problems, with those revelations of the eternal issues which were described and recorded in Holy Scripture. I would risk a suggestion that St. Athanasius and St. Augustine are much more up to date than many of our theological contemporaries. The reason is very simple: they were dealing with things and not with the maps, they were concerned not so much with what man can believe as with what God had done for man. We have, “in a time such as this,” to enlarge our perspective, to acknowledge the masters of old, and to attempt for our own age an existential synthesis of Christian experience.1

N.T. Wright on Getting It Wrong

No one will miss that when it comes to patristics I am an amateur, both in the sense that I am not academically trained in this field, and in the etymological sense that I write as a lover (amator). Doubtless, much of what I write about the fathers will therefore be amateurish, so let me adopt this paragraph from N. T. Wright as my own:

I frequently tell my students that quite a high proportion of what I say is probably wrong, or at least flawed or skewed in some way which I do not at the moment realize. The only problem is that I do not know which bits are wrong; if I did I might do something about it. The analogy with other areas of life is salutary: I make many mistakes in moral and practical matters, so why should I imagine my thinking to be mysteriously exempt? But, whereas if I hurt someone, or take a wrong turn in the road, I am usually confronted quite soon with my error, if I expound erratic views within the world of academic theology I am less likely to be convinced by contradiction. … We all have ways of coping with adverse comment without changing our minds; but, since I am aware of the virtual certainty of error in some of what I write, I hope I shall pay proper attention to the comments of those—and no doubt there will be many—who wish to draw my attention to the places where they find my statement of the evidence inadequate, my arguments weak, or my conclusions unwarranted. Serious debate and confrontation is the stuff of academic life, and I look forward, not of course without some trepidation, to more of it as a result of this project.1

How to Learn a Tradition: Daf Yomi and Patristics

A page from the Vilna Talmud

The opening page of the Vilna edition of the Talmud (Berakhot 2a)

One of the things that gave us the idea to try to organize this reading group was learning about daf yomi, a plan for studying the Talmud. My knowledge of Talmud is scanty: I’ve read the Penguin edition for an overview, and I’ve read tractate Berakhot in the Steinsaltz edition, along with some introductory works. I also owe a debt to a friend who took some time to explain a page of Talmud to me, and thus the basics of Talmud study. (Before I read some of the Talmud, I never understood what the Psalmist’s phrase, “Oh, how I love thy law!” really looked like.) In my brief excursion, though, I learned that one way many Jews study Talmud is through daf yomi.

In the daf yomi reading plan, the student studies one folio page front and back (daf) per day (yomi) of the Babylonian Talmud. Since the Talmud has 2,711 folios, the student can read the entire Babylonian Talmud in seven and a half years. If you read the Talmud in the Steinsaltz or Schottstein editions, which are translated into English with commentaries that explain the brief statements of Mishna and Gemara, you’ll read about seven or eight large pages per day. The idea for daf yomi came from the Polish rabbi Meir Shapiro in 1923. Since then, daf yomi has gone through almost twelve cycles.

Borrowing the idea of daf yomi, we wanted to come up with a comparable reading plan for Christians. The nearest thing to the Talmud for Christians is the writings of the church fathers. Seven pages per day in the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers leads to a seven-year cycle for reading a very large selection of the Christian fathers.

It’s not just the technique, but the idea of education behind daf yomi that we want to borrow, because daf yomi is a brilliant idea for educating a large number of people in a tradition. As I see it, these are the educational principles that are attractive:

  1. Learning comes from reading a foundational body of texts. You could learn from reading modern books, but there is a better way. The foundational texts are perpetually fresh, and those primary sources can be as foundational for your faith as they were for the tradition. Though the foundational texts are ancient, they are likely more accessible than modern works.
  2. Learning is therefore broad and varied. Both Talmud and the works of the church fathers are broad works encompassing a tremendous variety. They cover every topic relevant to the practice of your religion: theology, history, liturgy, apologetics, biblical commentary, and devotion, to name a few. While you could and perhaps should become an expert in some narrowly defined aspect of the tradition, it is of first importance that you become broadly educated in your whole tradition, just as life is lived as a whole and not as parts.
  3. Learning is a conversation. The first thing a beginner in Talmud (like me) notices is that the work is a conversation taking place across centuries; you can even see it in the design of the Talmud page. In Mishna, rabbis discuss the Oral Torah; in Gemara, rabbis discuss the debates in Mishna; Rashi comments on Mishna and Gemara; the Tosafists debate with Rashi; the student discusses it all with the teacher. The works of the church fathers are a conversation too: Jerome and Augustine send some heated letters back and forth; the tracts and polemics of the fathers are addressed to one another as well as to non-Christians. This conversation continues even to the present, and by studying these foundational texts, you are invited to participate (see #7).
  4. Learning is manageable. Most people are not students or scholars, and therefore do not have the opportunity of devoting their entire day to study; even fewer of us are scholars of patristics. Ideally, everyone would have the privilege of an in-depth, sustained, formative period of study at some point in their life, as the fathers demanded of their catechumens. But what we all need is a way to continue our study in a way that can fit into the rest of our lives. That’s why we’ve settled on seven pages per day (which will likely not feel manageable at first, but will become so).
  5. Learning is routine, habitual, disciplined. Discipline is the only way to learn anything, and discipline usually means routine and habit. That is why the reading is daily, and why we’ve recommended that you attach the habit of reading the fathers to some other habit, like daily prayer. Christianity is by its nature a discipline. Learning by routine and habit is thus a way of learning not just about Christianity, but of practicing it.
  6. Learning is accretive. A manageable daily portion multiplied by many days leads to a great accumulation. Slow, gradual accretion is the way of wisdom.
  7. Learning is communal. You will learn more and be more likely to succeed in being disciplined if you learn in a community. We’ve set reading the fathers to a calendar so that anyone, anywhere can be reading the same texts at the same time. That’s also why we’ve recommended that you find a study partner—a spouse, a friend, a pastor, a fellow churchgoer—with whom you can study and discuss.

Will you join us? Here is how to start reading.

C.S. Lewis on Reading the Christian Classics

Athanasius, On the Incarnation

In the coming days we’ll be posting excerpts by writers from various traditions about why you should read the church fathers. Today’s excerpt comes from the Anglican C. S. Lewis (the nearest authority to a church father for many American evangelicals). In 1944 Lewis wrote the preface to an edition of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation. (An edition with Lewis’s preface is in print from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, an Orthodox press, as part of their Popular Patristics Series. There is also an online version.) Translated by the Anglican Sister Penelope Lawson, the book was “something of an experiment,” as Lewis notes, because it was “intended for the world at large, not only for theological students.” In the preface Lewis addresses the question of what kinds of books to read, arguing that—contrary to the popular wisdom—amateurs should read the “old” books rather than the modern.

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

I myself was first led into reading the Christian classics, almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor and Bunyan, I read because they are themselves great English writers; others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were “influences.” George Macdonald I had found for myself at the age of sixteen and never wavered in my allegiance, though I tried for a long time to ignore his Christianity. They are, you will note, a mixed bag, representative of many Churches, climates and ages. And that brings me to yet another reason for reading them. The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think—as one might be tempted who read only con- temporaries—that “Christianity” is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so. Measured against the ages “mere Christianity” turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible. I know it, indeed, to my cost. In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognise, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and floral) in Francois de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim but manful) in Pascal and Johnson; there again, with a mild, frightening, Paradisial flavour, in Vaughan and Boehme and Traherne. In the urban sobriety of the eighteenth century one was not safe—Law and Butler were two lions in the path. The supposed “Paganism” of the Elizabethans could not keep it out; it lay in wait where a man might have supposed himself safest, in the very centre of The Faerie Queene and the Arcadia. It was, of course, varied; and yet—after all—so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life:

an air that kills
From yon far country blows.

We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks.

You can finish Lewis’s preface here.

Year 1 Calendar Posted

Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr (100–165), apologist. Engraving from Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres grecz, latins et payens (1584).

We have posted the finished calendar for the first year of reading the fathers. We’ve listed the readings for each day, both with a citation that can be used in any edition (e.g., Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 1–12) and with the page numbers in Ante-Nicene Fathers (e.g., ANF 1:194–200).

In first year we will read fathers from the first three centuries of the church, including the Apostolic Fathers. Here is the list of authors:

  • Clement of Rome
  • Polycarp
  • Ignatius of Antioch (and Pseudo-Ignatius)
  • Papias
  • Justin Martyr
  • Irenaeus
  • Hermas
  • Tatian the Assyrian
  • Theophilus of Antioch
  • Athenagoras the Athenian
  • Clement of Alexandria
  • Tertullian
  • Minucius Felix
  • Commodianus
  • Origen
  • Hippolytus

We were especially concerned in planning for this first year that we maintain the seven-pages-per-day pace, while still reading enough to make it through the entire set of fathers in seven years. I happy to say that our calculations show that both of those will happen. The average daily page count is about seven pages, and the total number of pages read is exactly one-seventh of the page count for the entire series.

If you’d like to look over the calendar, please let us know if you find any corrections. We begin December 2, 2012!

☛ Reading Calendar 
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