George Florovsky on the “Existentialism” of the Fathers

The main distinctive mark of Patristic theology was its ‘existential’ character, if we may use this current neologism. The Fathers theologised, as S. Gregory of Nazianzus put it, ‘in the manner of the Apostles, not in that of Aristotle’ -αλιευτικώς, ουκ αριστοτελικώς (Hom. 23. 12). Their theology was still a ‘message,’ a kerygma. Their theology was still ‘kerygmatic theology’, even if it was often logically arranged and supplied with intellectual arguments. The ultimate reference was there still to the vision of faith, to spiritual knowledge and experience. Apart from life in Christ theology carries no conviction and, if separated from the life of faith, Theology may degenerate into empty dialectics, a vain polylogia, without any spiritual consequence. Patristic theology was existentially rooted in the decisive commitment of faith. It was not a self-explanatory ‘discipline’ which could be presented argumentatively, that is αριστοτελικώς without any prior spiritual engagement. In the age of theological strife and incessant debates, the great Cappadocian Fathers formally protested against the use of dialectics, of Aristotelian syllogisms’, and endeavoured to refer theology back to the vision of faith. Patristic theology could be only ‘preached’ or ‘proclaimed’-preached from the pulpit, proclaimed also in the words of prayer and in the sacred rites, and indeed manifested in the total structure of Christian life. Theology of this kind can never be separated from the life of prayer and from the exercise of virtue. ‘The climax of purity is the beginning of theology’, as S. John the Klimakos puts it: Τέλος δε αγνείας υπόθεσις θεολογίας (Scala Paradisi, grade 30).

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