The neo-patristic movement in 20th-century Orthodoxy included a group of theologians who advocated the need of Eastern theology to return to the Fathers of the Church in order to renew itself and depart from the influences of Western scholasticism, which had permeated its ecclesiology, ethics, and spirituality for centuries. It is primarily with the name of Georges Florovsky that the neo-patristic movement is associated: in 1936 he became the first theologian to become aware of Orthodoxy’s need to (i) recover its independence from Western scholastic patterns of thought and (ii) embrace a patristic-oriented approach to theology.
For this Russian theologian from the Parisian diaspora, such a restauratio patristica in Orthodox theology was not envisaged as a servile repetition of the Fathers of the Church, but as an organic continuation of the patristic endeavour by a creative incorporation of their spiritual experience into our own lives: “‘To follow’ the Fathers does not mean just ‘to quote’ them. ‘To follow’ the Fathers means to acquire their ‘mind,’ their phronema” (G. Florovsky, “St. Gregory Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers,” pp. 109 and 113). Florovsky’s plea for the return to the Fathers was coupled with his emphasis on the permanent and eternal value of Hellenic categories for Orthodox theological thought. The call for a “return to the Fathers” has been so widely shared by Florovsky’s colleagues (Vladimir Lossky, Dumitru Stăniloae, etc.) that the search for a Neo-Patristic Synthesis in theology reached the point of dominating the Orthodox scene in the second half of the 20th century and beyond.
It is true that one can hardly deny the significant achievements of the neo-patristic movement for 20th-century Orthodoxy in theological areas such as christology, trinitarian theology, ecclesiology, anthropology, or eschatology. Yet, at the same time, one can also hardly fail to recognize that the neo-patristic movement’s emphasis on Orthodoxy’s need to liberate itself from Latin scholasticism, as well as its insistence on Hellenism as the perennial philosophical category of Christian existence, might—and actually did—induce in some circles a tendency towards ecclesial triumphalism and isolationism, as well as towards suspicion in regard to the West and to everything that could affect the “purity” of Orthodox theology and spirituality.
The Orthodox Church has been one of the main protagonists of the 20th-century ecumenical movement, and has always proclaimed the need for conversation and dialogue among various Christian denominations. Unfortunately, over the last decades the same Church has experienced—especially in its monastic milieu—a rapid growth in the number of those who adopt anti-Western and anti-ecumenical feelings. The vehement opposition of the so-called fundamentalist or rigorist groups against the ecumenical openness of the document titled “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World,” issued by the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church which was gathered in Crete/Greece in June 2016 after more than 50 years of intense preparation, shows but the proportions of this anti-ecumenical phenomenon, which seems to attract more and more adherents today.
Such a phenomenon should not be considered as having only a marginal impact, for in recent years it has stirred up a lot of ecclesial problems and conflicts in all the European countries with a majoritarian Orthodox population: Russia, Romania, Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria. This is all the more worrying given that even theologically educated people, clerics and lay people alike, start embracing anti-ecumenical and anti-Western attitudes.
There are many factors that could explain the rise of such a phenomenon in contemporary Orthodoxy. As indicated, some elements in the agenda of the neo-patristic movements are directly responsible for this anti-ecumenism and anti-Westernism promoted by some conservative circles in contemporary Orthodoxy. In order to counter such phenomena, Orthodox theologians, scholars, clerics, and teachers should, among other things, revisit the agenda of the movement and show the following:
First of all, with rare exceptions, none of the architects of the neo-patristic renewal in Orthodox theology were in fact anti-ecumenical or anti-Western: neither Georges Florovsky nor Vladimir Lossky, Dumitru Stăniloae, Nicholas Afanasiev, Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff, or John Zizioulas. For example, in a letter to his father in 1956, Vladimir Lossky even affirmed that: “I have always been a ‘Westerniser’ […] I could never have lived or worked in Russia, whatever the régime; I am too deeply rooted in the West, in France in particular” (V. Lossky, Seven Days on the Roads of France: June 1940, pp. 96 and 98). Florovsky himself made clear that “independence from the non-Orthodox West [i.e., Latin Scholasticism] need not become estrangement from it. A break with the West would provide no real liberation.” He went on to say that the task of Orthodox theology “is not to abandon” the Western tradition “but to participate in it freely, responsibly, consciously, and openly. The Orthodox theologian must not, and dares not, depart from this universal circulation of theological searching” (The Ways of Russian Theology, vol. II, pp. 301 and 303).
Second, the interaction of the representatives of the neo-patristic movement with Western theology cannot be simply reduced to their efforts to liberate Orthodoxy from the influences of Latin scholasticism. There was a keen interest on the side of Orthodox theologians not to remain hermetically closed to a genuine dialogue with their contemporary Western colleagues. It is important to note in this regard that both Florovsky and Lossky developed good relationships with the representatives of the French Catholic Ressourcement or Nouvelle Théologie: Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, and Jean Daniélou. As their French Catholic colleagues, the representatives of the neo-patristic movement fought to dethrone the influence of Scholasticism upon theology, yet they did not reject Western theology as a whole, even though in their writings one can find a valid criticism of some Roman Catholic doctrines and practices. Mutual criticism is always constructive and beneficial for an authentic dialogue between two traditions.
Third, in the works of some neo-patristic theologians such as Dumitru Stăniloae, one can easily find elements of what is to be defined as “receptive ecumenism” (Paul Murray): willingness to learn from his ecumenical partners and even to incorporate non-Orthodox themes into his theology, e.g., the Western motif of the Holy Spirit as the eternal bond of love between the Father and the Son, as well as the Western theological practice of reading back from the economic Trinity into the immanent Trinity, just to name a two of them (Theology and the Church, pp. 11-44).
Viorel Coman holds a PhD in Theology from Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium (KU Leuven), where he is an FWO (Fonds voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek-Vlaanderen, Research Foundation-Flanders) post-doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies. He explores the interaction between the Orthodox Neo-Patristic Movement and the French Catholic Ressourcement through the lens of receptive ecumenism.