Sergius Bulgakov: Eschatology and Orthodoxy

Fr Sergius Bulgakov’s presentation of the Last Things is a masterpiece of dogmatic and mystical theology. Here is no mere reiteration of opinions from the past. Bulgakov is convinced that the Church has only begun to reflect deeply on the eschatological mysteries. With the exception of the resurrection of Christ and his return in glory, both mentioned in the Nicene Creed, “the Church has not established a single universally obligatory dogmatic definition in the domain of eschatology” (The Bride of the Lamb, p. 379). Most of the Church’s eschatological beliefs have yet to be subjected to the free and substantive biblical and theological reflection that must always precede dogmatic definition. (Needless to say, Bulgakov does not see the second millennium Latin dogmas as possessing ecumenical authority.) Bulgakov thus rejects as erroneous the popular assertion of a firm tradition that authoritatively binds the conscience of Orthodox Christians. “Aside from the fact,” he writes, “that this tradition is insufficient and disparate, the most important thing here is the absence of a single tradition” (p. 380). At least two traditions exist side-by-side in the Church: the doctrine originated by Origen, corrected and stabilized by St Gregory of Nyssa, and the widespread doctrine centered on the assertion of eternal damnation and their everlasting conscious torment, virtually imposed upon the Eastern Church by the Emperor Justinian. Bulgakov acknowledges the influence of St Augustine on Latin Christianity but puts his beliefs to the side because of “the originality of his worldview.”

Given such a situation, it would be erroneous to maintain that the dogmatic doctrine expounded in the scholastic manuals represents the authoritative and obligatory dogmas of the Church, and to demand subordination to them as such. In response to such a demand it is necessary to establish decisively and definitively that this is an exaggeration and a misunderstanding. The doctrine expounded in the manuals can by no means be accepted without inquiry and verification. It only expresses the opinion of the majority, corresponding to the current status of theological thought on this subject, no more. Characteristic of a specific period of the past, this doctrine is losing its authority more and more at the present time and at the very least requires revision. There is insufficient justification to accept theological opinions as the dogmatic definitions of the Church, especially when these opinions are proper to only one type of thought. Eschatological theology remains open to inquiry even at the present time. To be sure, this does not hold equally for all the aspects of eschatology, but it does hold for its most fundamental and crucial aspects. (p. 380)

One might object that Bulgakov has overlooked the rejection of apokatastasis by the Fifth Ecumenical Council in A.D. 553. Appealing to the scholarly work of Franz Diekamp (1899), Bulgakov maintains that historical inquiry has demonstrated that the condemnations against Origenism were not in fact formally issued by II Constantinople, nor did the council explicitly condemn St Gregory of Nyssa’s formulation of apokatastasis (see “The Heresy That Never Was“). Hence the proposal of universal salvation remains open for Orthodox Christianity. Bulgakov’s judgment has been supported by Met Kallistos Ware and Met Hilarion Alfeyev (see “Orthodox Hell“). It may also be noted that recent scholarship on Origen confirms that Origen did not, for the most part, hold the opinions attributed to him by Justinian and his theological advisors (see, e.g., Mark J. Edwards, Origen Against Plato, and Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis). Hence even if the Justinian anathemas did originate with the Council of II Constantinople, “they would still require interpretation and very careful commentary” (p. 482).

Bulgakov is scathing in his criticism of manual theologians who seek to pass off their “pseudo-dogmas” of retributive divine punishment and everlasting hell as the irreformable teaching of the Orthodox Church. They are guilty, he says, of the same kind of rationalism and dogmatic maximalism as practiced by the Roman Catholic Church. “Eschatology,” Bulgakov concludes, “remains a domain of theological inquiry on the pathways to a future dogmatic definition, which will be realized in the life of the Church when divine providence decides” (p. 382).

In my subsequent articles I will attempt to describe the eschatological views of Bulgakov; but I must offer the following caveat: Bulgakov is a complex and difficult theologian. As is well known he was a strong proponent of Russian sophiology, which I do not yet really understand. My postings, therefore, should be received as only tentative reflections, open to correction by those who have a much better grasp of Bulgakov’s work than I. Bulgakov has been accused of making the divine Sophia into a fourth person of the Holy Trinity; but this seems to be a misunderstanding of his mature work. Thus Rowan Williams asserts: “Sophia is definitely not any kind of person but a characterization of divine action itself as realized in all three persons of the Trinity” (quoted by Aidan Nichols, Wisdom from Above, p. 309). Bulgakov himself believed that his sophiological beliefs were consonant with the teaching of St Gregory Palamas on the divine energies: “This distinction between God as a triune hypostasis and divinity, Sophia, was primarily what St Gregory Palamas had in mind in his doctrine of the ‘uncreated energies,’ which, like lightning flashes of divinity, penetrate into the world” (Bride, p. 309). Whether Bulgakov was correct in this assessment must be judged by future scholarship and the discernment of the Church.

But what seems clear to me at this point is that Bulgakov’s eschatological vision is principally determined, not by his idiosyncratic construal of the divine Sophia, but by his Orthodox apprehension of the Holy Trinity as a mystery of Love. Holy Scripture is his decisive authority, read through the liturgy and iconology of the Church, and the two most important patristic influences in his interpretation of the eschatology of Scripture are St Gregory Nyssen and St Isaac the Syrian.

(Go to “The End of the World is Nigh”)

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15 Responses to Sergius Bulgakov: Eschatology and Orthodoxy

  1. ddpbf says:

    15 Anathemas, are in fact verbatim quotin Evagrius of Pontus.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I know very little about Evagrius, though I just read Archimandrite Gabriel Bunge’s book on Evagrius and ascedia a couple of weeks ago. Right around the same time I read this interview with Augustine Cassiday on Evagrius: http://goo.gl/dc6cRe.

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    • Father Gregory says:

      Some, not all, of the 15 Anathemas have been attributed (first to Origen but more recently) to Evagrius but that is questionable and needs to be proved. In order for the KG2 to be accepted as Evagrius *real* work vs. KG1 one needs to prove that KG2 and not KG1 fits Evagrius’ theology and time. KG2, as Casiday, points out very forecfully, does not the time of Evagrius (KG1 does) but rather fits the 6th centurt debate very well and are like 6th century adaptations of the Evagrian original.

      Dr. Casiday spells this out in his recent work “Reconstructing the Theology of Evagrius Ponticus.” The book isn’t cheap, but is an excellent and in depth study that deserves wide readership (inter library loan is a precious gift! ).
      http://www.amazon.com/Reconstructing-Theology-Evagrius-Ponticus-Augustine-ebook/dp/B00CMNTE1O/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1404666969&sr=8-4&keywords=Casiday+Evagrius

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Thanks for pointing us to Cassiday’s new book. Given Ramelli’s discussion on Evagrius in her book, I was wondering if Evagrius’s might have suffered a bit during the 6th century debates.

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      • ddpbf says:

        Well, its not easy to find english speaking literature in Serbia, but I hope I will have chance. Thanks, father. There is interesting fact, Church of East and Coptic Church recognise him as Saint.
        PS, by KG you mean Kephalaia Gnostika?

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        • Father Gregory says:

          KG = Kephalaia Gnostica. There are two versions of its S1 and S2. The latter is the one quoted by Justinian, the former (S1) is almost never referenced or used. Guillamont assumed – rather than proved – that S2 is the true version because it is the source of Justinian’s anathemas. But the literary correspondence between S2 and the 15 anathemas do not establish that S2 must be the real Evagrian version and that S1 is expurgated. It could also be argued (and Casiday does so convincingly) that S1 is the real Evagrian version (it agrees with Evagrius’ other known works more easily than S2) and that S2 is a revised document originating from within the 6th century heretical Origenist circles.

          An extra bonus to Casiday’s book is that he also provides a very thorough reading of Evagrian Christological texts and (to my mind) satisfactorily explains how Evagrian Christology actually works. S2 having fallen away as an Evagrian source makes Evagrius’ Christology much more consistent throughout the rest of his works. Iow Casiday makes a good case that whatever was condemned in the anathemas is likely contemporary Origenism rather than 4th century thought from Evagrius. This would also explain why Evagrius plays NO role at all in the “First Origenist Controversy” (proving Fr. Bunge’s insights correct).

          G+

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          • ddpbf says:

            But, there is fact that Evagrius is condemned on V council, regardless of 15 anathemas. (I am not trying to dispute Cassidy here, I didnt saw book, yett, and I am not patrologist specialist), just pointing this.

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          • Father Gregory says:

            As I remember it, there was a rumor Evagrius was condemned at the 5th Council. I skimmed through the Capitula of the Council and cannot find his name there. But even so, if it can be established (which i think it can) that Evagrius did not teach what he is condemned for the condemnation is incorrect in its attribution. I do not think it needs pointing out that the heresies condemned are still condemned heresies.

            Unless, of course, you are operating under the assumption that the 15 anathemas belong to the 5th Ecumenical Council. An assumption I believe to have been decisively proven erroneous by Franz Diekamp over a hundred years ago “Die Origenistische Streitigkeiten im Sechsten Jahrhundert”). There is, of course, yet another (earlier) list of anathamas (ten yrs before the 5th Council) which were in fact passed by a Local Council in condemnation also of Origenism. Interesting fact here is that the “Origenist” Bishop Theodore Askidas unhesitatingly condemned the Origenism as expressed in the anathemas put in front of him. Perhaps “Origenism” is a flexible term which can be adapted for use in order to tar an opponent more effectively (like “Pelagianism” in Western Christianity). I am no expert on this stuff either, but it does seem to me that matters are not as clear cut as they are often presented in our seminary courses!

            Dr. Casiday does not – far as I know – dispute the historical record of Evagrius’ condemnation (Evagrius’ name is mentioned in a later Council’s anathema together with Origen and Didymus the Blind), he merely points out that there is simply no evidence in the corpus of writings from the hand of Evagrius that he taught the Origenist doctrine condemned in the 15 anathemas.

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          • ddpbf says:

            Council of Trullo interprets, V Council as explicitly condemning Evagrius and Didym with Origen. I had this in mind. Quintsex is recognised as Ecumenical Council, by Eastern Orthodox Church. I understand what professor Casidy holds, I just expressed concerns Orthodox theology has about Evagrius.

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          • Father Gregory says:

            That’s fine. I understand you are expressing concerns about Evagrius’ theology. Let me be clear: the theology condemned is not what I or Dr. Casiday are trying to exonerate. Rather what seems to be the case is that Sixth Century Origenism is not identical with the actual theology of Evagrius (or Origen for that matter).

            The condemnation of Evagrius is based on an assumed shared identity between Sixth Century Origenism and the fourth century monastic theology of Evagrius. Trullo, Quinesext Councils affirm the condemnations of Sixth Century Origenism and name three figures which have become identified with the condemned heresy. What I am trying to say is, at least in Evagrius’ case: the attribution of Sixth Century Origenism to Evagrius is almost certainly a mistake. I appreciate your concerns and I understand the role Councils play in Eastern Orthodox theology it is not my intention to undermine that. Also, for what its worth, Dr. Casiday is himself an Eastern Orthodox Christian.

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  2. ddpbf says:

    Also, with all due respect Ilara Rameli, I am not sure how she could prove points from I and Ⅶ were not held by Origen. As, far of Bulgakov, well, I hate to be voice of Theological conservativism… but, he is at least controversial. In fact, fr. Georges Florovsky started studing Theology, to disaprove frs Pavel Florensky and Sergiy Bulgakov. Saint John of Shangai did write against sophiology, and Bulgakov.

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  3. Lucian says:

    virtually imposed upon the Eastern Church by the Emperor Justinian

    As he also “imposed upon the Eastern Church” the teaching about Christ being one person in two natures. Like Saint Constantine “invented” the Holy Trinity at Nicaea, etc.

    Why would someone who took his own temporary life rejoice in the resurrection to life eternal ? If a kid throws away even a little candy, why would anyone be of the opinion that he would be made happy by inheriting an entire mountain made of chocolate ? And how can God’s love redeem such a soul ? Love is present on this side of eternity as well, and if such a person were to have found pleasure and joy in giving it, no one and nothing could have stopped them from living in it, and from filling their hearts with it. So what can God actually offer to this person ? Nothing. His divine pockets are empty. Dreadful is the whole which not even God can fill ! That despicable and mind-harrowing darkness.

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    • jrj1701 says:

      Lucian, I would have to disagree with you on that point, the biggest reason being that you ain’t God and cannot decide where and when He will cease extending His healing grace and mercy. Those that complete suicide ain’t just these selfish spoiled brats throwing away a gift, they suffer from a mentally illness, and NOBODY can say when the eleventh hour is no longer attainable except Christ. The good thief confessed Christ from the cross and did Christ deny him and tell him “oops too late, shoulda thought of that before you were tacked up here, you are right, you deserve everything you are getting and will spend eternity in hell for your sins’.? No, Christ told the thief “surely this day you will be with me in paradise.”

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    • brian says:

      You are aware that this is a fallen world, full of grief and sorrow? This earth is both beauty and shadow. I do not agree with the Cathars and the Manichees, those who propose a metaphysical dualism to explain evil in this world, but I certainly understand why one would consider that option. George MacDonald pointed out in one of his sermons that the man who wants his life to end doesn’t really want less life, but more. What we experience here is far from the flourishing of life. Apparently you have not had to wrestle with depression. If you were sensible to the chiaroscuro of temporal existence, you could never have written with such lack of compassion and with such blithe talk of “candy.” What is truly despicable is to presume upon God’s inventive capacity for victorious Love.

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