Sergius Bulgakov: The Parousia of the Holy Spirit

Just as we may speak of the eternal Son emptying himself of his glory in the Incarnation, hiding himself, as it were, in the flesh of the man Jesus of Nazareth, so we also may speak of an analogous movement of the Holy Spirit: at Pentecost the Spirit is poured out on all flesh, uniting heaven and earth, yet he too limits himself so as to allow an indwelling of creation that is hidden and apprehended only through faith and noetic enlightenment. Sergius Bulgakov describes the similarities and differences in their respective kenoses:

The kenosis of the Son after His descent from heaven presupposes the removal of the Glory, not, certainly, in “heaven,” in the “immanent” Trinity, but in the world. It presupposes that He will appear in the world in the humble form of a man … In the kenosis of the Son according to Divine-humanity, the dyad without separation and without confusion of the Son and the Holy Spirit, underwent a kind of inner, mutual kenosis consisting of a certain separation, as it were. The Son’s glory was removed in His kenosis, and the Holy Spirit separated itself from the Son in its own kenosis. The Holy Spirit thus limited the fullness of its gifts and reduced the degree of its repose upon Christ, so to speak. … The kenosis of the Holy Spirit also began with its descent from heaven (although, according to its hypostatic character, the Holy Spirit does not leave heaven but unites heaven and earth). In itself, this descent of the Holy Spirit is a kenotic act as such, for its action in the world remains limited by the measure of creaturely reception: the world cannot experience the full force of the Holy Spirit’s action without melting and burning up. In the kenosis of descent into the world, this force limits itself and is diminished, as it were: the synergism of grace with creaturely freedom leads to such a self-limitation.

By contrast, the parousia, the coming of the Lord in glory, brings into the world, first of all, the cessation of this kenosis of glory, that is, of the Holy Spirit, which began at the Pentecost. “The Spirit of glory and of God” (1 Pet. 4:14), which already abides in the world, becomes explicit in the appearance of Christ’s glory (v. 13). The glory that accompanies the parousia not only belongs to Christ but is also communicated through Him to the world in which the Holy Spirit already abides kenotically. … In this sense, Christ’s Second Coming is also the parousia of the Holy Spirit, which only begins with the Pentecost and is concretely accomplished together with Christ’s parousia. (The Bride of the Lamb, pp. 397-398)

Bulgakov well understands the metaphorical nature of the language of descent and ascent when speaking either of the Incarnation or the Pentecost, yet I am still struck by its use here. It almost sounds as if Bulgakov literally believes that the Son “left” heaven, abandoning his divine prerogatives and properties. This passage sent me scrambling to Aidan Nichol’s primer on Bulgakov, Wisdom from Above. Nichols reassured me that Bulgakov is not reproducing the errors of the 19th century Lutheran kenoticists, that he fully affirms that the divine nature remains unchanged by the Incarnation; yet Bulgakov equally affirms that in the Incarnation the eternal Son strips himself of his glory and genuinely immerses himself in the conditions of humiliation, suffering, and death. Hence within the economy of salvation we may properly speak of a real descent, when the Eternal Son assumes human nature as the man Jesus, and a real ascent, when Jesus in his resurrected body metaphysically departs from the world into heaven, thus rendering himself inaccessible to normal physical communication.

As the eternal Son veils himself as a human being, so the eternal Spirit hides himself within the Church. Bulgakov speaks of the Spirit flaring out brilliantly in fiery tongues at Pentecost, only to disappear “as if extinguished, and the Spirit’s tumultuous breath became silent, as if dissipated in the air” (p. 399). His kenosis consists in a limitation of gifts and attenuation of energy.  The Spirit accommodates himself to creaturely finitude, thus providing space for a free human response to the Church’s proclamation of the gospel.  In the absence of this kenotic restraint, Pentecost would have been the final conflagration.

The return of the eternal Son in his deified humanity represents not only the termination of his personal kenosis but also the termination of the Spirit’s kenosis. “Christ again appears in the world, but this time in glory,” writes Bulgakov. “That is, not only does He Himself once again become visible and accessible to the world, but the glory itself becomes visible, the glory of the Pentecost, the Holy Spirit. The parousia signifies the power not only of the Incarnation but also of the Pentecost, of Christ in glory and glory in Christ, the appearance in Him, with Him, and through Him of the Holy Spirit” (p. 399).

Yet where we speak of the second coming of the Ascended Son into the world (or more accurately, into the new world), we do not properly speak of a second coming of the Spirit: the Spirit has already been poured out upon creation and has never departed from it. Bulgakov prefers to speak of parousia as a tryst—the glorified Son descending to meet the Spirit in the world. Yet with this qualification he also speaks of a new sending of the Spirit by the Father, for when the risen Christ comes again in glory he necessarily brings with him the glory of the Spirit who rests upon him. The parousia is thus the revelation of the Spirit as glory. Pentecost is fulfilled, and the power of the Spirit is unleashed for the glorification of all creation. The following paragraph beautifully summarizes Bulgakov’s understanding of the parousia:

The Incarnation is accomplished in the Church and through the Church, the body of Christ in the world and the temple of the Holy Spirit. However, prior to the parousia this sanctification and deification remain incomplete and preliminary, for the action of the Holy Spirit is as yet kenotically limited. But this kenosis of the Holy Spirit ends with the parousia; the whole power of the Pentecost is revealed to the world. The world is sanctified, deified, and glorified by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the parousia arrives by virtue of this action of the Pentecost. It is impossible to say what comes before and what comes after, for this is a single act that occurs both in heaven and on earth, signifying the end of God’s kenosis and the beginning of the world’s deification. The Father sends the Son into the world and, secondarily as it were, He sends with Him the Holy Spirit for the joint accomplishment of the parousia and the transfiguration of the world. The Son wills again to carry out the will of the Father, this time by a conclusive and universal act, in order to accomplish the salvation of the world and to “unite the things of earth with those of heaven,” as the liturgical hymn says. Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit accompanies the descent of the Son from heaven, surrounding Him with glory, which is the same both in heaven and on earth and which existed before the foundation of the world and is now proper to Him. The world is now ready to receive this glory, for it has already received and has Christ and the Holy Spirit who reposes upon Him. (p. 404)

In the parousia the Holy Trinity is perfectly and indubitably revealed: the Father sends the Son; the Son descends in brilliant, incandescent glory; the Son meets the Spirit in the world for the making of the new creation.

(Go to “The Parousia of the Theotokos”)

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18 Responses to Sergius Bulgakov: The Parousia of the Holy Spirit

  1. John M says:

    Considering the Hersey of Bulgakov’s Sophiology I think we should be very circumspect and skeptical about anything he writes concerning the Third Person of the Trinity!

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      John, given the seriousness of the charge of heresy, I’d like to ask two questions:

      1) What specifically is heretical about Bulgakov’s understanding of sophia?

      2) How does his understanding of sophia distort his understanding of the person and work of the Spirit?

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  2. John M says:

    Diefying the Mother of God and basically that is what Bulgakov does with his Sophiology negates everything we believe as Orthodox; The loving relational participation in the Incarnation by we humans via XC’ mom. There is always the RC’s if that is what one is interested in. They basically deified the MOG on 1853 turning their version of Christianity into a polytheistic religion but who’s counting!!!!!

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  3. John M says:

    In the words [of Fr. Sergius Bulgakov], when the Holy Spirit came to dwell in the Virgin Mary, she acquired “a dyadic life, human and divine; that is, She was completely deified, because in Her hypostatic being was manifest the living, creative revelation of the Holy Spirit” (Archpriest Sergei Bulgakov, The Unburnt Bush, 1927, p. 154). “She is a perfect manifestation of the Third Hypostasis” (Ibid., p. 175), “a creature, but also no longer a creature” (P. 19 1)….But we can say with the words of St. Epiphanius of Cyprus: “There is an equal harm in both these heresies, both when men demean the Virgin and when, on the contrary, they glorify Her beyond what is proper” (Panarion, “Against the Collyridians”). This Holy Father accuses those who give Her an almost divine worship: “Let Mary be in honor, but let worship be given to the Lord” (same source). “Although Mary is a chosen vessel, still she was a woman by nature, not to be distinguished at all from others. Although the history of Mary and Tradition relate that it was said to Her father Joachim in the desert, ‘Thy wife hath conceived,’ still this was done not without marital union and not without the seed of man” (same source). “One should not revere the saints above what is proper, but should revere their Master. Mary is not God, and did not receive a body from heaven, but from the joining of man and woman; and according to the promise, like Isaac, She was prepared to take part in the Divine Economy. But, on the other hand, let none dare foolishly to offend the Holy Virgin” (St. Epiphanius, “Against the Antidikomarionites”). The Orthodox Church, highly exalting the Mother of God in its hymns of praise, does not dare to ascribe to Her that which has not been communicated about Her by Sacred Scripture or Tradition. “Truth is foreign to all overstatements as well as to all understatements. It gives to everything a fitting measure and fitting place” (Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov).”[6]

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I was wondering, John, if you were relying on St John Maximovitch’s article on the Theotokos. I mention his article in my earlier blog in the series. St John has simply misunderstood Bulgakov. In his book The Burning Bush, Bulgakov is explicit and clear that the Blessed Virgin is a creature and not a fourth person of the Trinity. All he is saying is that she now enjoys in heaven a deified existence to the maximal degree. I presume that all Orthodox Christians would affirm this. After all, do we not acclaim her as “more honorable than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim”? She is, after all, the only saint who has been literally raised from the dead, in anticipation of the parousia. It’s easy to get lost in Bulgakov’s language, and he does like to push the rhetorical enveloped; but he isn’t saying anything about the Theotokos that St Gregory Palamas didn’t say 700 years ago.

      Several years ago I emailed Fr Andrew Louth, one of the world’s foremost Orthodox theologians, and asked him to recommend a good book on the Orthodox understanding of the Orthodox. He recommended The Burning Bush!

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  4. John M says:

    I am not relying on St John M’s article … I stand by my above reply as to “all he is saying” …

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Fair enough, John. But you have not substantiated your charge of heresy. If I thought Fr Sergius was a heretic, I would not be blogging on him. Against your allegation, I invoke Met Kallistos Ware: “While daring and at times speculative, Bulgakov was no heretic.” It should also be noted that Bulgakov’s bishop exonerated him of heresy and declared him “a teacher of the Church in the purest and most lofty sense.”

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      • John M. says:

        Fr. minds greater than ours have found his Sophiology to be heredical perhaps that doesn’t make him a heretic but as far as “While daring and at times speculative” this could be construed as softpeddling the issue.
        Anyhow I hope this at least prompts folks to “be attentive” !!! … all the best …

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  5. brian says:

    One can find discerning critics who defend Bulgakov. Lining up authorities on one side or the other isn’t particularly helpful. Of course, if one trusts a particular thinker, one is likely to side with his or her opinion. It is still the individual’s responsibility to discern the value of a particular theologian. Some fellow commented negatively about Bulgakov in an earlier comments section. He also had very negative things to say about Solovyov and basically anyone who seemed tinged with the contagion of the West. That particular kind of insular perspective is not far from simple bigotry and hatred, so far as I can tell.

    I think Bride of the Lamb is Bulgakov’s greatest work. There’s really nothing heretical there and I don’t think there’s really anything heretical in Bulgakov. He is sometimes guilty of expressing himself with less than perfect clarity, but then he is performing theology at a level of breadth and depth that most cannot even conceive. Not that everyone who advices caution is such, but many who admonish Bulgakov seem to me to be very narrow, limited souls lacking in creativity, wonder, and generosity. It is like someone who is tone deaf criticizing a virtuoso musician.

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    • brian says:

      I should add that I have a Catholic background. The charge of mariolotry is common amongst Protestants. I don’t know if it is a common prejudice of Orthodox, but it is a gross distortion to treat Catholic theology as a polytheistic religion. In my opinion, we are all destined for deification; we are certainly all called to union with God. Personally, I am not drawn to the more florid ways of talking about Mary, but I suspect that those who are offended by terms like Mediatrix simply don’t understand or accept the heights to which humans are called and that the saints more perfect participation in the life of Christ exhibits.

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  6. John M says:

    Hope you are not comparing Mediatrix with the cult of the Immaculate Conception !!!!!
    … Don’t you mean his book, Friend if the Bridegroom.

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    • brian says:

      No, but those who criticize the RC view of Mary often obsess over the Mediatrix language and use it as proof of what you accused Catholics of doing on the basis of their teaching on the Immaculate Conception.

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  7. John M says:

    …. Sorry you are right but FOTB is also interesting …

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  8. brian says:

    As you undoubtedly know, John the Baptist plays a role in Orthodox thought that is not matched in Western churches. I found the work intriguing, but it seemed tinged with elements of what Jacques Maritain called angelism. Indeed, for me, Bulgakov’s view of sexuality is one place where he loses my sympathy. I much prefer Christos Yannaras on that particular subject, but I digress.

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  9. John M says:

    Angelism, tollhouses the hierarchy established by many Russian priests within the Body of XC who contend the priesthood and monasticism are “greater” etc. ; lots of weird beliefs have been spawned by the Russian church’s more extreme devotees. In a way it has had very negative effects on Orthodoxy in America but that is another matter.

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  10. ddpbf says:

    Saint John of San Francisko was not only who criticized fr. Sergius Bulgakov. Lossky was also quite suspicious abut Sophiology.

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    • ddpbf says:

      And of course, fr Georges Florovsky. I wouldnt go to say, Bulgakov was heretic, but not exactly like he went without, quite authoritative criticism.

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