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Early Religious Writings, 1903-1909 by Pavel Florensky

12 January 2018

Hugh Wybrew revisits a Russian thinker

PAVEL FLORENSKY was one of the most remarkable of the Russian Orthodox theologians of the first half of the 20th century. He was, too, a philosopher and a scientist. Ordained priest in 1911, he remained in Russia after the October Revolution of 1917, and wore his cassock even when working for the Soviet authorities.

In the 1930s, he was sentenced to the labour camps, and was shot in 1937. In 1982, the Russian Orthodox Church included his name in the list of New Martyrs. Florensky is best-known for his philosophical work, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, published in 1914, though mostly completed by 1908.

This book brings together eight of Florensky’s shorter works, mostly written while he was studying theology at the Moscow Theological Academy in Sergiev Posad. There he met Fr Isidore, and one of these essays, “The Salt of the Earth”, is a study of this famous starets. Another, “The Prize of the High Calling”, is about the philosopher-monk Serapion Mashkin, with whom Florensky felt a close affinity, although the two never met.

“Questions of Religious Self-Knowledge” is a study of how ordinary believers understood the power and meaning of the sacraments, while “Orthodoxy” describes the characteristic Russian Orthodox preoccupation with ritual rather than doctrine and morality. Both these essays illuminate aspects of popular religion, another of which is touched on in “Superstition and Miracle”.

“Dogmatism and Dogmatics” is a critique of what he calls the “stifling dogmatism” of official church teaching, contrasted with authentic dogmatics, defined as the principles and motives of Christian faith. “The Empyrean and the Empirical” argues that only Christianity can be the basis of an integral world-view, because only Christianity possesses the Absolute Truth, while “The Goal and Meaning of Progress” argues that theocracy would be the ideal order of society were it not for the perversity of humankind.

Admirably translated by Boris Jakim, these essays illuminate the thought of an outstanding figure in the Russian religious renaissance in the years before the Revolution, and shed light, too, on aspects of Russian Orthodox church life at that time.


Canon Hugh Wybrew was formerly Vicar of St Mary Magdalen’s, Oxford.


Early Religious Writings, 1903-1909
Pavel Florensky
Boris Jakim, translator
Eerdmans £29.99
Church Times Bookshop £26.99

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