Dr. Serge Verhovskoy

Dr. Serge Verhovskoy

Provost, Professor of Dogmatics

The falling asleep in the Lord, following a prolonged illness, of its retired Provost and Professor of Dogmatics Professor Serge Verhovskoy (1907-August 4, 1986), marked the end of what can be called the "founding period" for St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

Serge Verhovskoy emigrated with his parents and sisters in his early youth following the Revolution; thus, his entire upbringing took place in Prague and Paris, in the milieu of émigré intelligentsia, which strove to preserve its Russian identity while remaining open to European culture and education.

Serge’s deep interest in theology began with his participation in conferences hosted by the Russian Student Christian Movement. His marriage to Olga Chetverikova, the daughter of the well-known priest Fr. Sergius Chetverikov, solidified his faith. Father Sergius, who died as a monk at Pochaev Monastery following World War II, was the long-time chaplain of the Movement, a graduate of a Theological Academy, and the author of a book on Paisy Velichkovsky.

Serge studied at St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris from 1932-36, developing critical stances towards the "sophiology" of St. Sergius Dean Fr. Sergius Bulgakov and the existentialism of Berdyaev. Both were popular among the Russian intellectual emigration in Paris. He was constantly seeking theological concepts and formulations that could be called "true" as God's revelation, and as such he was drawn to the work of Florovsky.

Verhovskoy was also a moral perfectionist. Seeking a faith which beyond "ritual," he visualized Christian ethics, together with doctrinal truth, as the absolute demand of authentic Christianity. Sometimes criticized as a "naive realist," or as a "Protestant," because of his Scripture-oriented thought  with its heavily moral overtones, he always fought back with conviction and an authentic desire to convince, with obvious love both for the truth itself and for his interlocutors. As Chairman of the "Brotherhood of Christ the Savior," he read and discussed St. Paul with both wit and conviction, tirelessly calling for a wholesome and serious acceptance of the New Testament message by Orthodox theologians.

Serge Verhovskoy also paid his dues to philosophy. His graduation thesis at St. Sergius dealt with "The Theory of ideas in F.A. Standenmeyer" and was later published in Pravoslavnaya Mysl' ("La Pensée Russe," vol. VII, 1949, p.32ff).

Following his graduation from St. Sergius, Verhovskoy for a while held a secular job, then he was called to teach at the Institute in 1944 by his friend Fr Basil Zenkovsky, the newly appointed dean. He began teaching in the area of ancient and medieval philosophy (he had shown interest and competence in a critical study of Thomism), then he moved on to the field of Moral Theology. During that period, two of his major studies appeared in Russian, published in the periodical Pravoslavnaya Mysl': "On the names of God" (vol. VI, 1948, p. 37-55) and "Theological issues related to the dogma of Chalcedon" (vol. XI, 1953, p. 31-42).

In those fruitful years, which marked the beginning of his academic activities, he was something of a star-performer at meetings with Roman Catholic theologians (rare occurrences in those days), where his articulate and creative presentations of Orthodox Trinitarian theology impressed all present. (The text of one such presentation, "La Procession du Saint-Esprit d'après la Triadologie orthodoxe," appeared in Russie et Chrétienté, 1950, No. 3-4, p. 197-210).

A totally new period of his life began in 1952, when he disembarked in New York harbor with his wife and three daughters to begin teaching dogmatics at St Vladimir's. Then headed by Dean, Fr Georges Florovsky, the seminary was located in Manhattan. The first challenge it offered Verhovskoy was linguistic. He had to improve his English in order to lecture. This he did—not with great perfection, but with great zeal, reflected in his total dedication to the young, missionary community of American Orthodoxy. Continuing to write in Russian, he published Bog i chelovek ("God and Man") in 1955 through the Chekhov Publishing Company, with which he also edited a collective volume, Pravoslavie v zhizni ("Orthodoxy in Life"), in the same year. His major articles were published in English by the Seminary Press in 1982, under the title The Light of the World.

The resignation of Fr Florovsky in 1955 rather unexpectedly projected Verhovskoy into the position of being the real head of the school for a period of several years. He then bore the titles of provost and dean of students, and was successful in providing a quality of leadership which assured responsible continuity and progress. After 1962, with Fr Alexander Schmemann as dean, Professor Verhovskoy continued as provost, assuming responsibility for personnel, finances, and plant operation of the new campus located in Crestwood. He held this position until his retirement in 1981.

It is impossible to define, in a few words, the full extent of his responsibilities and actual contributions to the life of the seminary, to which he devoted practically all his time, even at the expense of further research and writing. He loved to teach, and he spent hours in meeting students. While the loss of his wife Olga made his last years much more difficult, he was still surrounded by visiting former students or immersing himself in the writings of St. John Chrysostom.

Adapted from article by Fr. John Meyendorff, St Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 30/iv (1986), 283-287.