I am going to argue that Fr. Georges Florovsky’s famous “Neopatristic synthesis” was also his political theology. This synthesis integrated two concepts, which in Florovsky’s interpretation were opposite: “Christian Hellenism” and the “Western captivity” of Orthodox theology. This “captivity” has led to what he called “pseudomorphoses” or distortions of the presumably genuine Eastern theology. “Churchified Hellenism” was for Florovsky beneficial for the church—in contrast to the “Western captivity.” The latter became amalgamated in the scholasticization of Orthodox theology. In his opus magnum, The Ways of Russian Theology, Florovsky used the word “scholastic” and its derivatives around seventy times—always with negative connotations. He has effectively created a myth of scholasticism, which still frames modern Orthodox theological thinking.
However, can this myth survive the test of historical evidence? I am going to argue that scholasticism was not a Western design. It was transplanted to the West from the East. It was originally constructed in the East as an attempt to synthesize the Christian Revelation and the Greek philosophical traditions, primarily the Aristotelian dialectical component in Neoplatonism.
I would define scholasticism as a systematic effort to identify and conceptualize commonalities, which assist the human mind to comprehend the dizzying variety of particular phenomena—be the latter divine or profane. Aristotle is credited with making a quantum leap towards making such an effort successful, by introducing what he called “things that are said” (τὰ λεγόμενα) and “predicaments” (προσηγορίαι). In later commentaries on Aristotle’s works, they became known as “voices” (φωναί, voces). In modern scholarship, they are usually called “categories”—after the treatise in which Aristotle discussed them most, “Κατηγορίαι.”
This treatise became the most commented upon among the entire Aristotelian corpus by the later generations of philosophers, primarily from the Neoplatonic school. Because of such interest in the categories, this school can also be called “scholastic.” The most famous Neoplatonic scholastic was Porphyry of Tyre, who flourished in the second half of the third century AD. His Introduction (Εἰσαγωγή) to philosophy was received as the most popular handbook of scholasticism from the period of Late Antiquity through the Middle Ages.
Christian theologians accepted Porphyry’s scholasticism enthusiastically, even though he had been a virulent anti-Christian. Indeed, in the entire period of Christian Antiquity, we can hardly find a pagan thinker who would be as anti-Christian as Porphyry was. Nevertheless, Christians embraced the scholasticism that Porphyry had promulgated and made it the primary logical tool to articulate their Trinitarian and Incarnational theology. No one accused them of “pseudomorphosis” for doing that.
What Fr. Georges Florovsky believed to be the genuine patristic theology had been constructed on the foundation of the Neoplatonic scholasticism. This theology, therefore, can be considered scholastic as well. Inherently scholastic, for example, is the differentiation between the categories of commonality and particularity. This differentiation dominated the taxonomy of logical categories in both Aristotle and Porphyry. Basil of Caesarea adopted and adapted it to distinguish between hypostasis and ousia. The latter two categories became central in Christian theology, in the same way as their originals, the “first” and “second” ousiai, had been central for the classical scholastics. Can one imagine in the entire Christian theology a term more scholastic than hypostasis?
Ironically, the modern Orthodox antic-scholastic campaign weaponized the term “hypostasis” against scholasticism itself. Fr. Georges Florovsky was amongst the most outspoken activists of this campaign. It has become a common point that Orthodox theology can be purged of the presumably “Western” scholasticism through the concept of person/personality, which is often believed to correspond to the classical logical category of hypostasis. Such an assumption is based on the misunderstanding of the origins of both scholasticism and the category of personhood. Scholasticism is originally Eastern and was received in the West during the Middle Ages. The category of person/personality is originally Western and was received in the East in modern times.
To use the words of Fr. Georges Florovsky, it is not scholasticism, but personalism, which is the Western “pseudomorphosis.” Moreover, I would argue that the point of Fr. Georges, who was a personalist, about scholasticism as “pseudomorphosis” is itself a “pseudomorphosis.” Scholasticism as “pseudomorphosis” contradicts Fr. Georges’s idea of “Christian Hellenism” because scholastic theology constitutes the core of such Hellenism.
Indeed, when Origen, Apollinaris of Laodicea, or the Cappadocians carried out their grand projects of synthesis between Christianity and Hellenism, they took care to separate the polytheistic metaphysics from what they considered to be helpful in the pagan wisdom. Categories-based logic constituted the most helpful part of pagan philosophy. After the Church Fathers distilled this logic from the pagan Neoplatonic spirituality, it was dry, unspiritual, uninspiring—in other words, very scholastic. Such tastelessness of the scholastic substrate extracted from contemporary Neoplatonism made it usable in Christian theology. In other words, scholasticism was appropriated by the Church Fathers because it was scholastic, i.e., metaphysically neutral, spiritually flavorless, and intellectually dry.
Now the question arises: what made Fr. Georges look at scholasticism as a distortion of Orthodoxy? I believe the residues of his ideological bias affected his optics and prevented him from seeing the contradiction in the concept of “Western Scholasticism” as opposed to “Christian Hellenism.”
From his mid-twenties through his mid-thirties, young Florovsky was involved in the Eurasian movement, which evolved around the idea of Russia’s civilizational uniqueness. The Eurasians, including Florovsky, believed that Russia should walk its own historical path different from the West. In the late 1920s, however, Florovsky denounced Eurasianism. Nevertheless, it seems he did not discard all Eurasian ideas completely. Some of them stayed in his project of “Neopatristic synthesis.”
Although this synthesis should not be identified with Eurasianism, there are some similarities between them, such as speculating about a unique civilization different from the West. In the “Neopatristic synthesis,” Fr. Georges effectively substituted the Eurasian civilization with the Hellenic one and rearticulated the Eurasian anti-Westernism. The assumed Western scholasticism became the main pretext for his assaults against the West.
This hidden anti-Western and civilizational agenda of Florovsky’s “Neopatristic synthesis” suggests another paradox in his theological project, the last one that I am going to propose here. Although after renouncing Eurasianism and delving into theology Florovsky declaratively distanced himself from ideological and political programs, he continued ideologizing and politicizing, now under the guise of his new project of “Neopatristic synthesis.” While abstaining from formulating his political theology explicitly—in the way his opponent Fr. Sergius Bulgakov was doing—Fr. Georges Florovsky implied a political theology in his seemingly a-political writings. Not surprisingly, his theology was in many points opposite to Bulgakov’s. In contrast to Fr. Sergius, Fr. Georges promoted conservatism and anti-Westernism. These ideological programs also underpinned the development of theology and church life in many Orthodox churches during the twentieth century.
The alignment of Florovsky’s “Neopatristic synthesis” with the conservative ideology popular in the Orthodox world, explains his outstanding popularity among many Orthodox Christians even in our time. However, those espousing this ideology do not always understand that, even though Florovsky’s project was crypto-ideological, it was more than that. He tried to escape the ideological frameworks popular in his time, even if not always successfully. His idea of “synthesis” was an instrument used both for building a bridge between dominant ideologies and for eventually transcending them. While he failed in the latter task, we should not be discouraged from following in his steps.
Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun is a Professor in Ecclesiology, International Relations and Ecumenism at the University College Stockholm.