I recently finished reading Orthodox Constructions of the West, a collection of essays edited by George Demacopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou. One of my favorite essays in the series comes from Paul L. Gavrilyuk. He notes how much the Orthodox historian George Florovsky’s project is methodologically similar to the Protestant Adolf von Harnack, an ironic parallel with important implications for the way Protestant converts to Orthodoxy treat the tradition.
Harnack claimed that Christianity must be purged of its Hellenistic influences and return to the simple faith preached by Jesus, a message of the fatherhood of God and the kinship of humanity. If only those damned Greeks had not come along with their philosophy and screwed everything up with all this trinity and other such nonsense! Florovsky, on the other hand, argued that Orthodoxy must return to the fathers in order to escape its corrupting captivity to western thought. It is important to differentiate Florovsky from Florovsky lite, which you can hear when modern polemicists talk about the church fathers and mothers as if they all basically agreed with each other. Florovsky knew it was more complicated than that. Rather, he stressed learning “the mind of the fathers,” which meant to be shaped by the Holy Spirit into a people who are able to participate in a critical-constructive dialog with modernity, but without being swallowed by it.
Gavrilyuk points out that both Florovsky and Harnack posit a kind of “golden age” of church doctrine – a normative period of history and narrow range of texts that become the litmus test for true Christianity. Furthermore, Harnack wanted to purge Christianity of Hellenism, but Florovsky stressed the importance of Christian Hellenism, which was a particular way of approaching religion and the world. Thus Florovsky is basically Harnack backwards.
Many of us Protestant converts have a tendency to talk about the Orthodox tradition as if it were clear, consistent, and fully known to the faithful. We talk about the faith “once-for-all delivered to the Apostles” as if they had scrawled the Nicene Creed onto their forearms and practiced reciting it in the upper room before going on their separate missionary journeys.
I live in the South, where primitivist forms of Christianity are common here. Christian primitivism was an attempt to return to the “New Testament Church.” Movements like this gave rise to the Churches of Christ, and there has always been a strong primitivist ethos in the Southern Baptist churches. A lot of folks around here have a reflex to imagine a golden age. But if you look at some of the things the Apostles scolded the churches for in scripture (like incest), then it becomes pretty clear that a golden age never existed. Even if it did, the past is gone from us. The desire for a golden age tends to be self-serving. To paraphrase something Albert Schweitzer said in another setting, we look down into the well of history and discover our own reflection. The conceptual pull of confirmation bias is hard to overcome, so hard that often our “spiritual growth” ends up being whatever it was we believed before, only with more accoutrements. For Protestant converts who talk about “the west” as if they were not hopelessly western themselves, I wonder if they really have seen “the true light” and “found the truth faith,” as the faithful sing after the Eucharist. Maybe they have just found their old primitivist tendencies. Only gaudier.