Some people believe that Fr. George Florovsky’s article “The Limits of the Church” was written in response to Fr. Sergius Bulgakov’s article “By Jacob’s Well”. “By Jacob’s Well” expounds an “Eucharistic Ecclesiology” which makes intercommunion as a part of the Christian reunion process rather than the end result of a union. “The Limits of the Church” is often used today in relation to the Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement as a justification of this participation. On the website of the World Council of Churches it is included among the Crete documents and has added to the beginning an introductory explanation which says that it expounds the idea that sacramental grace exists beyond the canonical limits of the church. While this can be interpreted from the article, the introduction fails to note that the article denies that grace can save those outside the canonical limits of the church. In all essentials, then, Florovsky’s article lays down a Cyprianic ecclesiology in opposition to Bulgakov’s Eucharistic ecclesiology.

In “The Limits of the Church” Florovsky explores Cyprianic ecclesiology and Augustinian ecclesiology. His own sympathy lies with Augustine, and he disagrees with Cyprian on the conclusions of Universal ecclesiology. Florovsky is not willing to say that outside the canonical limits of the Church grace does not exist. In fact, so he argues, it does exist outside these canonical limits. However, outside these canonical limits the existing grace does not save. It is not efficacious. This position, according to Florovsky, is the position taken by St. Augustine. 

It may seem that Augustine and Cyprian are at opposite sides on this issue, but Florovsky will argue that this is in fact not the case. In his work against the Donatists, Augustine defends Cyprian by what he thinks is an abuse of Cyprianic ecclesiology by the Donatist schismatics. The Donatists are schismatics and as such they are outside the Church. This is in full agreement with Cyprian’s idea of the unity of the Church. Either you’re in or you’re out. 

However, the sacraments celebrated in these non-churches are of the Church. And this makes all the difference. For Augustine, the orders and sacraments of schismatics is not lost, but retained, but, and this is key, it is not the schismatic group to whom the sacraments and orders belong, but to the Church. The grace of the sacraments as it exists in the Church is therefore the grace that exists in the sacraments outside the Church. When schismatics are received into the Church they are not to be baptized. The baptism they received in the schismatic group is the baptism of the Church, but by being restored to the Church the sacramental grace of baptism first becomes efficacious. Before their restoration to the Church the grace was present but not efficacious, grace was received but it did not save. 

Florovsky largely agrees with this Augustianian ecclesiology. Sacraments exist outside the limits of the canonical Church, but they do not save. They are the sacraments of the Church, but they are not efficacious. Sacraments save and are efficacious exclusively within the canonical limits of the Church. For the World Council of Churches to introduce this article as saying that sacramental grace exists outside the canonical limits of the Church, and stopping there, is misleading. It may give the impression that the article presents the idea that they also work outside the canonical limits of the Church, and in fact, it is my perception some Orthodox who participate in the Ecumenical Movement use this article in this way. 

This article by Fr. Florovsky is important because it is used to justify Orthodox participation in the Ecumenical Movement. On the basis of this article, however, Ecumenical activity is not a dialogue among equals. It is a dialogue between those who are being saved by the grace of God, and those who are not saved by this grace due to their separation from the Church. In essence, then, ecumenical activity is missionary activity. The outcome can only be that the non-Orthodox convert to Orthodoxy.

Florovsky avoids the radical conclusions of St. Cyprian, in that he does not claim that sacraments outside the canonical limits of the Church are demonic frauds, but he does seem to agree with Cyprian that outside the Church (despite the presence and reception of true sacramental grace) there is no salvation. The difference between Cyprian on the one hand and Augustine and Florovsky on the other, is one in nuance. In essentials they all agree. All three uphold a Universal ecclesiology excluding schismatics radically, and differ only in whether or not sacramental limits coincide with canonical limits.