The Central Problematic of Sophiology

by Fr. Sergius Bulgakov

The following essay by Fr. Sergius Bulgakov is taken from a paper presented in England in 1936.1 The full essay begins with an exposition of sophiology as refracted through various dogmatic arenas: theology; cosmology and anthropology; Christology; Pneumatology; and ecclesiology (the reader can find much fuller exposition of sophiology in light of these topics in the dogmatic trilogy On the Divine-Humanity). Bulgakov then establishes sophi­ology as a theological viewpoint and not a new teaching or a new heresy (the controversy over Bulgakov’s ecclesiastical condemnations in 1935 can be heard in the background here). Rather, Bulgakov explains, sophiology is like Thomism in Catholicism or Barthi­anism in Protestant theology: simply a way of understanding the totality of accepted Christian dogmas in one consistent worldview. And one of this Christian worldview’s greatest strengths is that it provides a dogmatic foundation for the nascent ecumenical movement’s emphasis on “practical” or “social” Christianity as promoted by the 1925 World Conference of Life and Work in Stockholm. It is in this light that Bulgakov, in the rest of the essay translated below, develops the distinctive features of sophiology as a “theologoumenon” intended to respond to the crisis of secularization in the West and to the promise of greater unity among the Christian churches.


The central problematic of sophiology is the question of the relationship between God and the world, or, what is essentially the same thing, between God and man. In other words, sophiology is a question about the power and meaning of Divine-Humanity; that is, not simply of the God-Man qua incarnate Logos, but rather of Divine-Humanity precisely as the unity of God with the entire created world—in man and through man. In this question, a millennia-old battle wages within the heart of Christianity: the battle between dualism and monism, whose resolution consists in the truth of monodualism, that is, in Divine-Humanity.

In the Christian worldview there are two extreme poles, both false in their one-sidedness. One is a world-rejecting Manicheism which establishes an unbridgeable chasm between God and the world, thereby abolishing the Divine-Humanity. The other pole is pantheism or cosmo-theism, which takes the world as it is, divinizing it, in effect, even if only in the form of “secularization.” The first worldview we find in differing and often unexpected writings, primarily where the intensity of religious feeling and the (immediate) feeling of God puts before man the following alternative: God or the world. Thanks to this, man, in being directed towards God, is simultaneously turned away from the world, scorning its values and works and leaving the world, in its isolation from God, to its own fate. We can find such acosmism or even anticosmism in the history of the Church, on the one hand, in Eastern Christianity in its pervasive monastic worldview; on the other, we can observe it in orthodox Protestantism, which also claims that God is absolutely transcendent to the world, thereby rendering the world godless. The second worldview, the secularization of life, is maintained in the context of the universal paralysis of contemporary Christianity, which has lost all power of serving as a guide for life and which has itself become subject to this life. If salvation is taken to mean flight from the world accompanied, on the other hand, by slavery to this world, then that same world will increasingly turn away from such a Christianity and will take itself and its own life to be ends in themselves. Contemporary godlessness, which in reality represents the divinization of nature and man, is thus a special form of paganism.

This paganism is by no means an areligious reality, as it takes itself to be, but is rather only the rejection of Christianity. Yet Christianity proves powerless in contemporary life to over­come this secession of religion from the world, for this secession is taking place not outside the church but within it. Attempts to unite Christianity and the world by making the world subject to a powerful ecclesiastical organization (as occurs in Romanism) lead only to the extrinsic union of schismatic potencies which cannot maintain their unity, for both of these in their striving for totality mutually exclude the other. It is in this tragic state of impotence that “social” Christianity abides, insofar as it constitutes merely an appendage [to society] and an opportunism of sorts, with no awareness of its own dogmatic foundations. It wants to be “practical Christianity,” a Nicaea of ethics.2 But this applied character [of social Christian­ity] testifies much more to the complete absence of the dogmatic Nicaea, to the transactions of sorts it has made with life, to its acquiescence and compromises, than it does to creative leadership and inspiration. Christianity (alas!) only follows life and even lags behind it, but it does not lead it. For how could it possibly lead anything in life without understanding it, without believing in it, assuming instead the position merely of a missionary appendage, of philanthropy and moralism? The social ecumenical movement, completely occupied with its practical goals, has not yet become aware of its own theological problematic. And the latter is this: the justification of the world in God as opposed to the secession of the world from God, which in practice is preached and confessed in different types of Christian thought, as much in Orthodoxy as in Protestantism.

Does there exist a ladder between heaven and earth, by which the angels ascend and des­cend? Or is there only a springboard which must be used by those wishing to “save them­selves”: a springboard, in other words, to escape the world? Is the Ascension of the Lord the final, and, so to speak, encompassing act of our salvation, or is it followed by a new coming of Christ—the Parousia, which will constitute not only judgment but also the beginning of a new, eternal advent of Christ on earth? The answer to this question was already given long ago in Christian faith, but it has hardly been paid sufficient attention. The answer is the foundational dogma of Christianity, the dogma of Divine-Humanity, of the created world united with the divine world. In the divine Wisdom, heaven has stooped down to earth. The world exists not only in itself, but also in God, and God abides not only in heaven, but also on the earth—in the world and in man. Christ said of Himself: “All power is given to me in heaven and on earth” (Mt. 28:18). Divine-Humanity is the dogmatic summons to spiritual ascesis as well as to creative work, to salvation from the world as well as to the salvation of the world. This is that dogmatic preaching which, in all its power and glory, should be proclaimed by Christ’s Church.

The dogma of the Divine-Humanity represents the special theme of sophiology, which is nothing other than the elaboration of that dogma in all its force. Our contemporary moment lacks the power to give a new, vital interpretation to those dogmatic formulas which the Church preserves in her Tradition, but what it can tell us is that there is not a single dog­matic problem that is not in need of such a re-examination. The center of attention [for sophiology] remains, as ever before, the foundational Christian dogma of the Incarnation: “The Word was made flesh.” We firmly adhere to that dogmatic interpreta­tion which Chal­cedon has bequeathed to us. The roots of this dogma reach to the depths of heaven and earth, to the most intimate mysteries of the Holy Trinity and of the created nature of man. Today “Incarnationism” represents the foundation of dogmatic thinking in Anglicanism as well as in Protestantism, not to mention in the ancient Eastern Orthodox and Roman Cath­olic Churches. But in affirming this, do they realize that this dogma has certain presupposi­tions? For it necessarily presupposes the doctrine of God, and the doctrines of man and of primordial Divine-Humanity. And it is precisely these presuppo­sitions which are developed in the teaching on the Wisdom of God: sophiology. To an even greater degree, sophiology concerns another dogma recognized by the Church but still less understood and developed: the dogma of the Pentecost, that is, of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the world and His abiding in it, in connection with the dogma of the Incarnation; this connection, as well as the truth of the power of Pentecost which abides in the one humanity, is also developed in the sophiological doctrine.

One of the greatest and hitherto unconquered difficulties of the ecumenical movement of our time is the fact that the Churches strive for unity while having no dogma on the essence of the Church. What is at issue here is not the external marks of church order, liturgy, and so forth, but rather what the Church is in herself and what the “union of the Churches” can mean, seeing as the Church by her nature is one and united. From the point of view [of the ecumenical movement], is the Church as the revelation of Divine-Humanity and the Wisdom of God—Sophia—a matter of mutual agreement or of reality? Until the consciousness of the Church attains the depths of self-consciousness, all ecumenical “agreements” will remain fruitless. For the individual Churches will always come up against the walls dividing them, in the tragic consciousness of their impotence, helpless­ness, and of the objective impossibility of genuine union. For there exists only one path for attaining that union: understanding the Church as the revelation of Divine-Humanity, as Sophia, the Wisdom of God.

We will not enumerate here the numerous theological problems for which the teaching of the Wisdom of God provides new illumination. We will mention only one: never before have the questions of the fate of man in history, of the creativity of man and of his responsibility to his own Divine-humanity, stood before Christian consciousness as they do today. History is unfolding for us as an apocalypse; the apocalypse as eschatology; the end as an achievement; and the second advent of Christ in the Parousia as the [Christian] expectation of Christ and as His encounter with the Church: “And the Spirit and the Bride say: come! Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” (Rev. 22: 17, 20).

How can we understand the curse of secularization and the pale sickness of a Manichean flight from the world? Are they symptoms of the impotence of historical Christianity, of its failure, or are they the fading darkness of the morning dawn which augurs the light of new day? And what is the world? Is it Divine-Humanity in the process of being realized, the Wisdom of God revealing herself, “the woman clothed with the sun” (Rev. 12:1) who enters the desert only because the dragon chases her there—or is the world itself this desert, the “empty house” abandoned by its lords?

Sergius BulgakovTwo powers are at war in this world: cosmism and anticosmism, and these are two sides of a bifurcated yet essentially united divine-human theocosmism. Histor­ically, secularization came into the European world with the Renaissance and the Reformation, two parallel streams from the same source: anticosmic cosmism, however paradoxical such a formulation may sound. Humanism’s affirmation of the world, which ascribes to the latter the right of an independent existence, is a reaction against Christianity’s rejection of the world. Here we encounter a dialectic of unconquerable contradictions which is laying waste to contemporary culture. But this unconquerable dialectic is hardly wisdom’s last word. In our posture towards the world, we must establish the right Christian asceticism which would fight the world out of love for it. We must overcome the various powers of humanism, the Renaissance and the Reforma­tion, but this overcoming must not be dialectical, that is abstract and theoretical, but rather positive, flowing from love for the world in God. But this can be achieved only through a certain metanoia, a change of our entire worldview, which can occur by sophianically understanding the world as the Wisdom of God. Only this can communicate new powers to the world as well as a new inspiration for new creative work, for overcoming the mechaniza­tion of life and of man. In the sophianic worldview lies the future of Christianity. Sophiology is the hub of all theoretical and practical problems of contemporary Christian dogmatics and asceticism. Sophiology is, in the full sense of the word, a theology of Krisis—but as salvation, not perdition.

Finally, we turn to our secularized and pagan culture, which has lost its soul; we turn to our historical tragedy, which seems hopeless. The way out can be found through a renewal of our faith in the sophianic divine-human meaning of history and of creative work. For Sophia the Wisdom of God overshadows this sinful and yet consecrated earth. And the prophetic symbol of this overshadowing is the ancient Hagia Sophia in Byzantium, in whose dome Heaven itself condescends to earth.

Trans. Roberto J. De La Noval


[1] “Zur Frage nach der Weisheit Gottes: Thesen zum Vortrag über die Sophiology vorgelegt auf der englisch-russischen Theologen-Konferenz in Mirfild.” The Society of Resurrection, 28 April 1936. Kyrios 2 (1936), 93–101. The German text can be found here:
The Russian version translated here into English was translated by Bulgakov’s student Lev Zander into Russian from the German version delivered at the conference (which itself was a translation from Bulgakov’s original Russian!). Bulgakov himself verified the final Russian version, which can be found in Vestnik, 1971, 101-102, pp. 104-108. I have compared the Russian and the German and translated the latter where necessary for clarity’s sake.

[2] In the German version, Bulgakov associates this term with Church of Sweden prelate Archbishop Soderblöm, the organizer of the 1925 Stockholm conference.

* * *

Roberto De La Noval, Ph.D., received his doctorate in theology from the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on Sergius Bulgakov and Russian Religious Thought. He has also translated multiple works by Bulgakov, with one in the most recent issue of the Journal of Orthodox Christian Studies and another (with co-translator Yury P. Avvakumov) in process with University of Notre Dame Press. He has published with Public Orthodoxy, America Magazine, and Church Life Journal, among others. My special thanks to Dr Noval for choosing Eclectic Orthodoxy for the initial publication of this piece and for the introduction. Quite a coup!

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“And so love was present under the old covenant just as it is under the new”

I know, beloved, how well fed you are every day by the exhortations of Holy Scripture, and what nourishment your hearts find in the word of God. Nevertheless, the affection we have for one another compels me to say something to you, beloved, about love. What else is there to speak of apart from love? To speak about love there is no need to select some special passage of Scripture to serve as a text for the homily; open the Bible at any page and you will find it extolling love. We know this is so from the Lord himself, as the Gospel reminds us, for when asked what were the most important commandments of the law he answered: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And then, just in case you might be tempted to search further through the pages of Holy Scripture for some commandments other than these two, he added: “The entire law and the prophets also depend upon these two commandments.” If the entire law and the prophets depend upon these two commandments, how much more must the gospel do so?

People are renewed by love. As sinful desire ages them, so love rejuvenates them. Enmeshed in the toils of his desires the psalmist laments: “I have grown old surrounded by my enemies.” Love, on the other hand, is the sign of our renewal as we know from the Lord’s own words: “I give you a new commandment—love one another.”

Even in former times there were people who loved God without thought of reward, and whose hearts were purified by their chaste longing for him. They drew back the veils obscuring the ancient promises, and caught a glimpse through these figures of a new covenant to come. They saw that all the precepts and promises of the old covenant, geared to the capacities of an unregenerate people, prefigured a new covenant which the Lord would bring to fulfillment in the last age.

The Apostle says this quite clearly: “The things that happened to them were symbolic, and were recorded for us who are living in the last age.” When the time for it came the new covenant began to be openly proclaimed, and those ancient figures were expounded and explained so that all might understand that the old covenant promises pointed to the new covenant. And so love was present under the old covenant just as it is under the new, though then it was more hidden and fear was more apparent, whereas now love is more clearly seen and fear is diminished. For as love grows stronger we feel more secure, and when our feeling of security is complete fear vanishes, since, as the apostle John declares: “Perfect love casts out fear.”

St Augustine of Hippo

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“God, Creation, and Evil” by David Bentley Hart

Readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy are well acquainted with David Hart’s 2015 Notre Dame lecture. I have read the written version of the lecture on multiple occasions, but have only listened to it once. It’s a powerful address, both in its oral and written formats. There’s something to be said about the former, and if you haven’t listened to the lecture, do yourself a favor. I know more than one person who was converted to the greater hope because of it.

Which arguments advanced in this lecture do you find most challenging, provocative, convincing or problematic?

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Justifying Justification by Faith

Let’s assume that integrating justification by faith into a comprehensive understanding of salvation would be a constructive and positive thing for Eastern theology to do. I can think of several reasons why:

  1. Justification is an important theme in the New Testament, particularly in the epistles of the Apostle Paul. At the very least the Orthodox preacher must have an understand­ing of Paul’s understanding of justification in order to preach these texts and to be able to correlate justification with other themes of salvation, such as regeneration, commu­nion, adoption, and theosis. But more importantly, the he may discover that deep engagement with the Apostle will help him to proclaim the gospel more effectively.
  2. Here in North America, Orthodoxy finds itself surrounded by people who have been raised in Protestant households. Their understanding of the Christian faith has been shaped by the language of justification. Rather than encouraging Protestant inquirers and converts to simply jettison this language, they need to be shown how it is deepened and corrected in the theology and praxis of Orthodoxy. If Orthodoxy does not thought­fully engage the task of integration, then it will inevitably give poor answers to the many questions put to it by non-Orthodox and Orthodox alike.
  3. As formulated at the Reformation, the questions justification by faith seeks to answer—how am I put right with the holy God? how may I know that God forgives and accepts me? what does it mean to say that God is love—are very human questions. They are not simply products of Western juridicism and pathology. The exegetical, theological, and spiritual struggles of the Reformers and their successors may well have something to offer to Orthodoxy.
  4. Exploration of the Reformation doctrine justification by faith will lead the Orthodox into a deeper, yet perhaps critical, appreciation of their own tradition. I’m thinking especially of the theology of St Cyril of Alexandria. In what sense, we may ask, does Orthodoxy teach that we are saved by grace?

In his book The Quest for Paul’s Gospel, Douglas Campbell examines the three dominant models for understanding the gospel according to St Paul:

  1. The justification by faith model (JF)
  2. The salvation history model (SH)
  3. The pneumatological-participatory-martyrological-eschatological model (PPME)

The Justification by Faith Model

At the heart of the heart of JF is the transfer, mediated by the faith of the believer, from a state of condemnation to a state of forgiveness and forensic acceptance (salvation). Underlying this model is the anxiety and terror of the believer standing before the Divine Judge. What works must I do to be forgiven?

The first state is “legalism,” within which people try to work their way to heaven. It presupposes a judgment according to works and desert. But a sensitive conscience soon realizes that this scheme is hopeless and that, far from obtaining salvation, it only ensures one of a certain eventual fate of eternal damnation. Repeated transgressions make one liable to the just wrath of God, which will be experienced in full on the Day of Judgment. A state of anxiety and guilt therefore ensues. But this is a good thing because this phase is essentially preparatory; it is not an end in itself. At this point, the proclamation of the gospel must be greeted by great delight. If one only believes in the gospel then one is forgiven all one’s various sins and is transferred to a new state of salvation. One cannot but be interested, especially in view of one’s experience of the previous unsaved state, which resulted in guilt, anxiety and even terror. The transfer is effected, on God’s part, by a cunning piece of dual-entry accounting. The sinner’s transgres­sions are credited or imputed to Christ on the cross, and so dealt with there. And Christ’s perfect righteousness is credited to the sinner, clothing him/her with perfection (although some suggest that this second action is not strictly necessary). So God’s justice is satisfied but the human trans­gres­sor is not condemned and destroyed during the process. All that is needed for the transaction to take place is faith on the part of the indivi­dual. Faith is therefore the trigger or catalyst for appropriation of salvation by the individual.1

JF is fundamentally juridical, forensic, and transactional: because of Christ’s saving work on the cross, the sinner is acquitted of his transgressions and declared to be justified—by faith or through the means of faith or on account of faith (various theories of faith have been advanced by JF proponents).2 By faith the sinner is set right with the Almighty Creator. In one form or another JF has dominated the theology and preaching of Protestantism. Thus the Augsburg Confession:

Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. (Article IV)

And the Westminster Confession:

Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteous­ness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God. (Chap. XI)

The Protestant teaching of justification by faith is typically coordinated, though not always, with a penal theory of Christ’s atoning work. Believers are urged to put their trust in Christ and “his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world” (Book of Common Prayer). On the cross God the Son has paid the price due to human wickedness.

Back in the 1960s Presbyterian pastor James Kennedy started an evangelistic program based on the justification model. The evangelist was instructed to confront the potential convert with this question “Suppose that you were to die today and stand before God and he were to say to you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ what would you say?” (hint: there’s only one correct answer). Romans 10:9 is often quoted: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

The strength of the justification by faith model is that it gives straightforward instruction on what one must do to achieve salvation (though the same might also be said for the justifica­tion by works model popularly attributed to Catholicism); but the salvation offered is juridical, restricted to the reversal of the divine condemnation. The model assumes that God himself, manifested in wrath and judgment against sinners, is the critical problem humanity faces. By Christ’s atoning death on the cross, existentially appropriated in faith, God ceases to be the problem and instead becomes the solution. And it’s all by grace, since God is the one who has provided the means by which he has reconciled himself to the ungodly. As John Piper puts it: “Justification is the moment or the event when you put your faith in Jesus Christ and at that moment God is no longer against you—he’s for you, and he counts you as acceptable, forgiven, righteous, obedient because of your union with Christ. You are perfectly acceptable to God and he is totally on your side.” We were once children of wrath, but now we are justified.

Campbell identifies a number of theological and pastoral problems with JF, perhaps the most important being its misrepresentation of the character of God:

By orienting the model’s first phase to God’s retributive justice, the model in fact commits the entire theological programme to this basal understanding of the divine nature; if all else fails or does not unfold, God will still, at bottom, be retributively just. It follows from this that any different attributes—for example, mercy—must in effect be super-added to God’s existing nature. They are accidental or occasional qualities, while the divine justice lies beneath them permanently. Indeed, they can be exercised only if the requirements of divine justice have first been satisfied. So even divine love and grace can only operate within a just framework, if that can be provided. Moreover, any subsequent revelations cannot overthrow this basic insight into the divine nature; if they did, then the model itself would collapse. The model is locked in from the outset to this view of God.3

Nor is Campbell persuaded by the counter-argument that the attributes of justice and mercy are reconciled at Calvary. The penal construal of atonement makes justice prior to mercy: the latter can only be displayed once the demands of justice are fulfilled.

Campbell also notes an unexpected consequence of the justification model. Intended to provide a solution to a conscience burdened by guilt and anxiety, the model can also generate anxiety because of the contractual significance accorded to faith: if you believe, you will be justified. But what does it mean to believe, and how does one know when one has fulfilled the condition of saving faith? The history of Puritanism witnesses to the problem of assurance intrinsic to the JF model, a problem that is magnified a thousand-fold when the doctrine of absolute predestination is added into the mix. The conditional nature of salvation, Campbell explains, ultimately throws the sinner back on his own resources:

And even though the condition for Christian salvation has been reduced from full law-observance to faith—a generous reduction, it must be granted—this still looks forbidding to the deeply sinful person. Even faith is diffi­cult, and on certain days, nigh on impossible. We are, at bottom, utterly dependent on the reliability of our own faithful activity in the JF model in order to be saved, and yet, as human beings, we fear that all our activity is, at bottom, unrelia­ble. Hence the JF model creates a fundamental anxiety within its converts; they are radically insecure. And not a great deal of solace can be expected from the church.4

Martin Luther found his own “non-Protestant” solution to the problem of assurance: do not look within yourself but rest instead on the promises of baptism.5

The exegetical foundation for the justification by faith model is actually slimmer than it might first appear, relying heavily on Romans 1-4, Galatians 2-3, and Philippians 3:7-11. This alone has led many scholars to question whether justification by faith is as central for the Apostle as the Reformation Churches have historically maintained. But when the exegetical defects are combined with the model’s theological weaknesses, a different paradigm for understanding the Apostle Paul seems called for. Campbell goes so far as to predict that the days of the JF model are numbered.6 Scholars are just now beginning to fully understand the profound exegetical and theological flaws of the model.

The literature is vast, and I’ve been away from this subject for several years; but I would like to commend a collection of essays Rereading Paul Together. The two essays by Joseph Fitzmyer and John Reumann provide excellent exegetical analyses  from Catholic and Lutheran perspectives, and the essay “Interpretations of Paul in the Early Church” by David Rylaarsdam is one of the best patristic surveys I have come across on this topic.7

Next up: the salvation history model of the gospel.

(2 June 2013; rev.)


[1] Douglas A. Campbell, The Quest for Paul’s Gospel, p. 34.

[2] See Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei.

[3] Campbell, p. 166.

[4] Ibid., p. 172.

[5] See Phillip Cary, The Meaning of Protestant Theology (especially Part 2), and his seminal essay “Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant.”

[6] Campbell, p. 27.

[7] In addition to Rereading Paul Together (ed. David E. Aune), see Justification (ed. Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier) and Justification: Five Views (ed. James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy). For an exciting discussion by a Pentecostal theologian, see Frank D. Macchia, Justified in the Spirit. I would be remiss in not mentioning the important essay by Thomas F. Torrance: “Justification: Its Radical Nature and Place in Reformed Doctrine and Life,” Theology in Reconstruction, pp. 150-168. Building on the work of Karl Barth, Torrance offers a construal of justification grounded in the Word’s assumption and regeneration of human nature in Jesus Christ.

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Eastern Orthodoxy and the Apostle Paul: Where is Justification by Faith?

Where is justification by faith in Orthodox theology and preaching? Absolutely nowhere at all. It just doesn’t make an appearance. It’s a curious omission, given the importance of justification by faith in the epistles of the Apostle Paul. How does one preach on Galatians or Romans without proclaiming it? Its absence suggests that the doctrine is deemed pastorally irrelevant. If Paul’s formulation of justification by faith is governed by the question “Are the works of Torah binding on Gentile believers?” then his answer must disappear once the question disappears—and disappear it did. By the fourth and fifth centuries, Christians no longer worried about keeping kosher. When St Augustine of Hippo recovered for the Latin Church the language of justification, he was driven by very different concerns, while in the East deification established itself as the preferred way to speak of salvation in Christ. Justification by faith simply has no place in Orthodoxy: there’s no theological work for it to do.1

Orthodox theologian Lucian Turcescu, however, believes that justification by faith needs to be recovered. In his essay “Soteriological Issues in the 1999 Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification,” Turcescu argues that Orthodoxy should explicitly integrate justification as the first step in its ordo salutis, with deification being the second and final step. Turcescu complains that Orthodox theologians jump too hastily to the second step: before deification there must be justification—the reconciliation of the sinner with his former enemy, God.

Turcescu begins with the Gospel of John. Jesus speaks of the reconciliation between God and humanity as occurring in two steps. First, Jesus calls his hearers out of their bondage to sin and makes them his friends. Second, having become his friends, they become, with him, children of the Father:

In the Gospel according to John, Jesus spoke of two steps toward the full restoration of the broken relationship between humans and God. In their fallen state, humans find themselves in bondage to sin, and Jesus calls humans slaves or servants at this point; then, humans become Jesus’ friends; last, they are said to be adopted by God the “Father” as children. There is thus a progression from a state of bondage, ignorance, and fear that character­izes the master-slave relationship to the state of discipleship that character­izes the friendship state to that of filial knowledge and love that characterizes the parent-child relationship. The passage from bondage to friendship occurs because of reconciliation, as an enemy cannot become one’s friend unless the two have been reconciled. The passage from friendship to adoption occurs by divine initiative and human cooperation.2

Turcescu suggests that the Apostle Paul also sees salvation as a two-step process, correlated with justification and adoption: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption” (Rom 8:14-15).

I suspect that those who are well read in Johannine and Pauline studies will find the above analysis seriously flawed. Is it accurate to speak of a two-step process, as if one first is reconciled to God (justification) and then one becomes a son of God in Christ (adoption)? This just does not sound right to me. Part of the problem is that Turcescu is thinking in terms of “process,” which is unavoidable when one wants to speak of synergistic cooperation with grace (always the preferred Orthodox way of looking at these matters), rather than as divinely-effected translation into an eschatological mode of existence. I note the striking absence of Holy Baptism in Turcescu’s analysis. For the Apostle Paul, baptism marks the divine act in and by which the sinner is incorporated into Christ and his Church and thus justified, sanctified, regenerated in the Spirit, and adopted as a son of God.3 When I was preaching regularly, one of my favorite texts was Galatians 3:21-4:7:

Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not; for if a law had been given which could make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the scripture consigned all things to sin, that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no better than a slave, though he is the owner of all the estate; but he is under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; when we were children, we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe. But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir.

In baptism the convert to Christ is initiated simultaneously into the Church and the trinitarian life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s not as if one is first justified and then subsequently adopted as a child of God and made an heir to the kingdom. It all happens at the same time. As the Apostle tells his congregation in Corinth: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). The Spirit breaks into our fallen world and appropriates us to the life and worship of the Kingdom. Only on this basis does the liturgical prayer and ascetical practices of the Church make proper sense.

But back to Turcescu:

The Greek patristic tradition and Orthodox theology have referred to human participation in the divine nature as deification (theosis), and that has become the fundamental metaphor expressing salvation in the Orthodox Church. The passage from bondage to sin to friendship with God necessitates a reconciliation between humans and God. One cannot become a friend with a former enemy unless the two have been reconciled. It is at this point that I see justification taking place, that is, the declaration by God of the sinful human person as a righteous person because of the faith a human has in Jesus and his work of redemption done freely on behalf of all humanity.4

Does Turcescu’s proposal make preaching the Epistle to the Romans any easier? I suspect not. Does St Paul actually teach an ordo salutis? I suspect not. Will it restore justification by faith to the Orthodox Church? Again, I suspect not. A bit more thought is necessary.

(31 May 2013; rev.)


[1] When justification is discussed by Orthodox writers, it is typically dismissed as a Western problematic: e.g., Valerie Karras, “Beyond Justification.” Carmen Fragapane offers a more sympathetic appraisal in his article “Salvation by Christ.”

[2] Lucian Turcescu, Journal of Ecumenical Studies (Winter 2001): 69.

[3] See Rudolf Schnackenburg, Baptism in the Thought of St. Paul, G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, and Edmund Schlink, The Doctrine of Baptism.

[4] Turcescu, p. 70.

(Go to “Justifying Justification”)

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“So you, O Christian, because you are a human being, are God’s tribute money”

In today’s gospel we find two questions: one put to Christ by the Pharisees, and the other put by him to them.

The Pharisees’ question concerns this world alone, while Christ’s has an entirely heavenly and other-worldly sense. Their question derived from profound ignorance and perversity; his stemmed from perfect wisdom and goodness.

“Whose likeness and inscription is this?”
“Caesar’s,” they reply.
“Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

To each, he says, must be given what belongs to him. This, surely, is a judgment full of heavenly wisdom and instruction. For it teaches that authority is twofold, having an earthly and human aspect, and a heavenly and divine aspect. It teaches that we owe a twofold duty of obedience: to human laws and to the law of God. The coin bearing Caesar’s likeness and inscription must be given to Caesar, and the one stamped with the divine image and likeness must be given to God. “We bear the imprint of your glorious face, O Lord.”

We are made in the “image and likeness of God.” So you, O Christian, because you are a human being, are God’s tribute money—a little coin bearing the image and likeness of the divine emperor. Therefore with Christ I ask, “whose likeness and inscription is this?” Your answer is, God’s. To which I reply, Then why not give God what belongs to him?

If we really want to be God’s image, we must be like Christ, for his is the image of God’s goodness and “the perfect copy of his nature,” and God “foreordained that those he has chosen should take on a likeness to his son.” Christ undoubtedly gave Caesar what was Caesar’s and God what was God’s. He fulfilled to perfection the precepts of both tablets of the law, becoming “obedient unto death, even death on a cross,” and he was most highly endowed, both inwardly and outwardly, with every virtue.

In today’s Gospel the reply, most wise and discreet, by which Christ sidestepped his enemies’ trap shows his great prudence. His teaching that each must be given what belongs to him, and also the example he gave by being willing to pay the temple tax and giving a shekel for himself and Peter, shows his justice. His declaring it to be a duty to pay taxes to Caesar, openly teaching the truth without fear of the Jews who would be offended, shows his fortitude. For this is God’s way, of which Christ is the authentic teacher.

Those therefore who resemble Christ in their lives, conduct, and practice of the virtues, they are the ones who truly manifest the divine image; for the way to recover this image is by being absolutely just. “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”; that is, give each what belongs to him.

St Lawrence of Brindisi

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God, Synergism, and Human Freedom: It’s More Mysterious Than You Imagine


God is the infinite source and ground of all reality: he therefore transcendently causes every­thing that is and everything that occurs. Such must be the case, for the divine act of creation is not a one time event but the eternal gifting of existence. For this reason Chris­tian theolo­gians have distinguished between the primary causality of the Creator and the secondary causality of created beings. Diogenes Allen explains:

Divine creative activity and a complete scientific account of the relations between the members of the universe do not exclude each other because different kinds of causality are involved in each case: the constant creative activity of God that gives each creature its existence and nature, and the causal relations between creatures studied by the sciences. (Christian Belief in a Postmodern World, pp. 165-166)

We now need to ask the question, How does God actualize his providential purposes in the world? If God’s purposes were restricted to physical phenomena, we could confidently declare that “God achieves God’s intentions through the natural operations of the physical natures God gives to creatures” (p. 166). But God has also made human beings in his image, upon whom he has conferred the gift of free-will, with whom he has entered into covenant, to whom he has made temporal and eschatological promises. How can God effectively fulfill his providential ends if his human agents are free to resist him and subvert his well-laid plans? What if we swamp the synergistic rowboat?

At this point controversial words like “determinism” and “predestination” immediately come to mind. Eastern Christianity has traditionally rejected all formulations of predesti­nation that seem to compromise or violate the freedom of the human agent. The following patristic quotations may be deemed representative:

We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punish­ments, chastisements, and rewards are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Otherwise, if all things happen by fate, then nothing is in our own power. For if it be predestined that one man be good and another man evil, then the first is not deserving of praise or the other to be blamed. Unless humans have the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions-whatever they may be. (St Justin Martyr, I Apol. 43)

This expression “How often would I have gathered your children together, and you would not” [Matthew 23:37] set forth the ancient law of human liberty, because God made man a free [agent] from the beginning, posses­sing his own power, even as he does his own soul, to obey the behests of God voluntarily, and not by compulsion of God. For there is no coercion with God, but a good will [towards us] is present with Him continually. (St Irenaeus of Lyons, Adv. Haer. IV.37.1)

We ought to understand that while God knows all things beforehand, yet He does not predetermine all things. For He knows beforehand those things that are in our power, but He does not predetermine them. For it is not His will that there should be wickedness nor does He choose to compel virtue…. Bear in mind, too, that virtue is a gift from God implanted in our nature, and that He Himself is the source and cause of all good, and without His co-operation and help we cannot will or do any good thing. But we have it in our power either to abide in virtue and follow God, Who calls us into ways of virtue, or to stray from paths of virtue, which is to dwell in wickedness, and to follow the devil who summons but cannot compel us” (St John of Damascus, Expos. II.30)

We might describe the position expressed in these citations (and dozens more could be easily provided) as a commonsensical understanding of the relationship between divine causality and human freedom. The authors posit a conflict between the action of God and the free actions of personal agents. Free-will requires the restriction of God’s omnipotent activity. Paul Evdokimov was fond of quoting this patristic saying: “God can do everything, except constrain us to love him.”

We need a definition of a free action. Perhaps the following might pass muster with most of the Church Fathers: an action by a human agent is free if it is caused by the agent him­self and not by any thing else. If someone slips a drug into my Coca-Cola, and I start to do strange and uncharacteristic things, like running naked down the street, my actions are judged not to have been done freely. I am acting under the influence of the drug. If some­one puts a gun to my head and commands me to give him all my money, the transfer of funds is judged not to have been a free and meritorious action on my part. It was done under the threat of violence. I am morally responsible only for the actions I have volun­tarily chosen. I may thus be said to have acted freely if, and only if, I do something and nothing else made me do it. Free actions are self-determined and uncoerced.

One might even say that a free action is uncaused, in the sense that it is not caused by a power or agency external to the person. This does not mean, however, that a free action is unmotivated. Herbert McCabe elaborates:

There are always reasons and motives for free actions. You can say why Fred did this. We can even in English say ‘What made him do it?’ meaning what reason did he have for doing it. When we speak of what made him do it in that sense we are certainly not denying that he did it freely. To assign a reason or motive to an action is not, however, to talk about the cause of the action; it is to analyse the action itself. An action that was caused from outside could not be done for a reason, or at least not for the agent’s reason. If by devious chemical or hypnotic means I cause Fred to eat his left sock, then he does not have a reason for doing it (though he may think he has), it is I who have a reason for his doing it, for the action is really mine, not his. Free actions, then, are uncaused though they are motivated and done for reasons; and these motives and reasons do not take away from freedom but rather are essential to it. (God Matters, p. 13)

I do not know how contemporary philosophers would assess this construal, but it seems to accord with the patristic affirmation of free-will. But there’s a problem. Do you see it? If you don’t, you might want to go back and re-read the articles on double agency and synergism.

Zimzum01X_zps3e1b5556.jpg~original.jpegOkay, here’s the deal. We assume that personal freedom requires independence from God’s direct causal activity. To be free is to be autonomous. If God were to cause humans actions, human beings would be reduced to automata. Perhaps we even start imagining scenarios where God restricts his omnipotence and creates a space (let’s call it a freedom-zone) within himself for human beings to freely live and be.  With Jürgen Moltmann we might even appeal to the Kabbalistic concept of the Tzimtzum to secure creaturely independence.

It just seems so obviously correct that God cannot cause our freely chosen actions. Yet when we posit the metaphysical incompatibility between divine agency and human agency, we are ultimately treating God’s creative action as external to the human agent, as a violent move­ment that would compel him or her to do something or become something against his or her will. In essence we are introducing God’s transcendent causality into the finite field of interacting causalities? Yet as we have seen in this series, that is precisely not how we want to think about the inconceivable relationship between divine and human agency!

I feel like I am now treading onto thin Orthodox ice, but perhaps only because Orthodox philosophy has not devoted much time and energy thinking about this specific dimension of human freedom. In the first millennium the Eastern Church needed to confront and deny pagan fatalism—hence its joyous proclamation of human freedom. But to be honest, Eastern elucidations of synergism have been historically superficial. As Robert W. Jenson (unfairly?) jibes, Byzantine and Orthodox theologians just stopped thinking about the subject. The Latin Church, on the other hand, needed to confront Pelagianism and assert the priority and gratuity of divine grace and has therefore addressed the question of divine and human agency in great depth—but unfortunately St Augustine took a wrong turn and dragged the Western Christianity down the dark road of the massa damnata and absolute predesti­na­tion. Calvin’s decretum horribile a thousand years later was but the logical conclusion.

Fr Patrick Reardon states that the synergistic theology of St Maximus the Confessor, canonized at the Sixth Ecumenical Council, recognizes “the logical impasse inherent in the concept of freedom.” Eastern theology has thus prudently steered away from trying to figure out what cannot be figured out. “If the freedom of man is inherently mysterious (indeed, aporetic),” he asks, “what shall we say of the freedom of God?” The caution may be prudent, but is it always helpful? It becomes unhelpful, I submit, when it hinders us from recognizing the divine causality that necessarily underpins divine-human synergism. Reading popular Orthodox treatments of synergy one discerns little mystery if any at all—just two personal agents rowboating together to accomplish a common goal.

The one theologian I have found most stimulating on this question has been Herbert McCabe.  He makes two points critical for our reflection. First, God transcends all creaturely activity, absolutely and infinitely:

God’s activity, then, does not compete with mine. Whereas the activity of any other creature makes a difference to mine and would interfere with my freedom, the activity of God makes no difference. It has a more fundamen­tal and important job to do than making a difference. It makes me have my own activity in the first place. I am free; I have my own spontaneous activity not determined by other creatures, because God makes me free. Not free of him (this would be to cease to exist), but free of other creatures.

The idea that God’s causality could interfere with my freedom can only arise from an idolatrous notion of God as a very large and powerful creature—a part of the world. We see an ascending scale of powerful causes. The more powerful the cause, the more difference it makes. And we are inclined to locate God at the top of the scale, and to imagine that he makes the most difference of all. But God does not make the most difference. He makes, if you like, all the difference—which is the same as making no difference at all. (Faith Within Reason, pp. 75-76)

And again:

So neither motives nor dispositions are causes of action; it remains that a free action is one which I cause and which is not caused by anything else. It is caused by God. From what we were saying last time it will, I hope, be clear that this is not the paradox that it seems at first sight, for God is not anything else. God is not a separate and rival agent within the universe. The creative causal power of God does not operate on me from outside, as an alternative to me; it is the creative causal power of God that makes me me.

Consider how we decide whether or not Fred acted freely in eating his left sock. We look round to see what might have accounted for his behaviour by acting upon him, we look for drugs and hypnotism and infection of the brain, we look for blind powers operating from below the level of con­scious­ness. What we don’t do is look for God. And this is not just because we have forgotten him or don’t believe in him; it is because it would be irrele­vant. To be free means not to be under the influence of some other creature, it is to be independent of the other bits of the universe; it is not and could not mean to be independent of God.

It is, of course, our image-making that deceives us here. However hard we try, we cannot help picturing God as an individual existent, even an indivi­dual person, making the world or controlling it like the potter making a pot or as an artist making a statue. But the pot is in the same world as the potter, the statue shares a studio with the sculptor. They interact with each other. To, to put it the other way, the potter is outside the pot he makes, the sculptor is outside the statue. But when we come to the creator of every­thing that has existence, none of that could be true. God cannot share a world with us—if he did he would have created himself. God cannot be outside, or alongside, what he has made. Everything only exists by being constantly held in being by him. (God Matters, pp. 13-14)

The proposition that God limits his omnipotence in order to secure the possibility of human freedom is a logical impossibility. If omnipotence means anything it means that God ulti­mately causes everything that actually happens. We may wish to make a distinc­tion between God’s ordaining will and his permissive will; but we must not overlook the most obvious consequence of the creatio ex nihilo: everything that happens happens because God wills it to be; otherwise, it would not happen at all. I suggest that the idea that God can restrict his omnipotence has more in common with 18th century Deism than with the transcendent, sovereign monotheism of catholic Christianity. God is God, not a being.

Second, God directly causes the free actions of humanity.  We come now to the most important and incisive passage in McCabe’s writings on God and human freedom:

I am free in fact, not because God withdraws from me and leaves me my independence—as with a man who frees his slaves, or good parents who let their children come to independence—but just the other way round. I am free because God is in a sense more directly the cause of my actions than he is of the behaviour of unfree beings. In the case of an unfree creature its behaviour is perhaps its own (in the case of a living thing—for this is what we mean by a living thing), but is also caused by whatever gave it its structure and what­ever forces are operating on it. We can give an account of the behaviour of the dog (or we would like to be able to give an account of the behaviour of the dog) in terms of such causal factors. And may we could go back and explain these causal factors in other more general terms of physics and so on. It is only at the end of such a long chain that we come to the end of this kind of scientific explanation and ask the most radical question of all: yes, but how come any of this instead of nothing? God does bring about the action of the dog, but he does so by causing other things to cause it.

God brings about my free action, however, not by causing other things to cause it, he brings it about directly. The creative act of God is there imme­diately in my freedom. My freedom is, so to say, a window of God’s creating; the creativity of God is not masked by intermediate causes. In human free­dom we have the nearest thing to a direct look at the creative act of God (apart, says the Christian, from Christ himself, who is the act of God).

We are free not because God is absent or leaves us alone, we are free because God is more present—not of course in the sense that there is more of God there in the free being, but in the sense that there is nothing, so to say, to distract us. God is not acting here by causing other things to cause this act, he is directly and simply causing it. So God is not an alternative to freedom, he is the direct cause of freedom. We are not free in spite of God, but because of God. (God Matters, pp. 14-15)

I can tell you I have mulled on this passage for several years. I invite you to mull on it, if not for several years, at least for a few days and weeks. I know all the questions that are popping into your mind—how does this impact the Orthodox, Catholic, Arminian, and Reformed understandings of human cooperation with divine grace? what does this mean for predes­tination? how do we reconcile this with the reality of evil?—but I suggest that you tempo­rarily put those questions to the side and just ponder on McCabe’s key claim:

God’s is the direct, unmediated, uncreated cause of human freedom and therefore the direct, unmediated, uncreated cause of all free human actions.

Human Freedom is mystery grounded in transcendent Mystery.

(3 February 2014; rev.)

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Don’t forget the Neoplatonists!

The important Neoplatonist constituency is always overlooked during Presidential campaigns!

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