[This article has been significantly revised and republished under the title “Dogma, Damnation, and the Eucatastrophe of the Jesus Story.”]
In both The Orthodox Church and his essay “Dogma and Dogmatic Theology,” Fr Sergius Bulgakov mentions eschatology as a relatively unexplored topic of theology open to dogmatic definition, the implication being that standard Orthodox teaching on eschatological matters can only be said to enjoy the status of reformable doctrinal propositions. He elaborates upon this claim in his book The Bride of the Lamb, perhaps his greatest work. In the beginning of the section devoted to the Last Things, Bulgakov asserts:
The Church has not established a single universally obligatory dogmatic definition in the domain of eschatology, if we do not count the brief testimony of the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed concerning the second coming (“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end”), as well as concerning the resurrection of the dead and the life of the future age. These dogmas of the faith, attested to by the Creed and based on the express promises of the Lord, have not, all the same, been developed by theology. They are considered to be self-evident for the dogmatic consciousness, although that is not, in reality, the case. All the rest, referring to various aspects of eschatology, has not been defined dogmatically; it is an object of dogmatic doctrine that has yet to undergo free theological investigation. (p. 379)
Throughout the history of the Church, pastors have preached on and theologians have speculated about the ta eschata, what Bulgakov calls the final accomplishments; but except for the resurrection and parousia of Christ, the Orthodox Church has not seen the need to dogmatize upon them. The Latin Church has done so, but its dogmatic definitions do not carry authority for Orthodoxy.
Note the last sentence of the above quotation: “it is an object of dogmatic doctrine that has yet to undergo free theological investigation.” Bulgakov believes that authentic dogmas are necessarily supported by intensive study, reflection, argumentation, and debate, both before and after conciliar definition. In the absence of such research, a conciliar pronouncement is simply an assertion of power and suppression of theological liberty. Consider, for example, the Nicene assertion of the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son. In 325 the use of homousious was controversial. No one knew quite what it meant or implied, beyond excluding the position of Arius; consequently, the Council Fathers were able to sign the final document and return to their respective dioceses with very different understandings of the “dogma.” Formal subscription to the homousion was insufficient. What was needed was deeper reflection, subsequently accomplished during the next sixty years by St Athanasius, St Hilary, and the Cappadocians. Before the homoousion could be assimilated into the depths of the dogmatic consciousness of the Church, it was necessary for theologians to understand and demonstrate its ontological coherence with God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Only then could the homoousion be properly received, as confirmed by I Constantinople in 381. A process like this has not happened, however, with regard to the important eschatological questions. Bulgakov is thinking specifically of the standard teaching about everlasting damnation.
Nor will it do, Bulgakov thinks, to appeal to a consensus patrum, as if the Church has always been of one mind on these questions:
If it is maintained that the absence of an ecclesial definition is compensated by the existence of a firm ecclesial tradition, patristic and other, one must call such an assertion inaccurate or even completely erroneous. Aside from the fact that this tradition is insufficient and disparate, the most important thing here is the absence of a single tradition. Instead, we have at least two completely different variants: on the one hand, a doctrine originating in Origen and stabilized in the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa and his tacit and open followers; and, on the other hand, a widespread doctrine that has had many adherents but none equal in power of theological thought to those mentioned above. (Perhaps in this group we can put Augustine, the greatest teacher of the Western Church, but the originality of his worldview sets him apart in general, especially for Eastern theology.) As regards both particular patristic doctrines and the systematization of biblical texts, an inquiry that would precede dogmatization has yet to be carried out. (pp. 379-380)
Note the iteration of the need for theological examination of and reflection upon the sources of revelation as a precondition for authentic dogmatization. Dogmatic definition requires discernment of the intrinsic connections of a theological proposition to the gospel of Christ and the whole of divine revelation. “Dogmas possess a mutual transparence,” Bulgakov writes. “They are given not as an external listing, as in a catalog or inventory, but are internally organically tied, so that in the light of one dogma the content and strength of the other is revealed” (“Dogma,” p. 78). Exploration of the exegetical, patristic, and theological foundations of the universalist hope has hardly begun.
Critics of apokatastasis will immediately point to the Second Council of Constantinople (553): “But universal salvation has already been condemned by an Ecumenical Council! Just look at the 15 anti-Origenist anathemas!” By the time Bulgakov wrote Bride of the Lamb, however, the ecumenical authority of these anathemas had been seriously questioned by historians of dogma for a century (and this questioning continues to the present day: “The Heresy That Never Was“): “Even the definitions that condemn Origenism, which previously had been attributed to the fifth ecumenical council, have been shown by recent historical inquiry not to originate in this council” (Bride, p. 482). But Bulgakov does not put all of his eggs into this historical assessment, for “even if the anathemas did so originate, they would still require interpretation and very careful commentary” (p. 482). Even if the Fifth Ecumenical Council did condemn Origenist formulations of apokatastasis, it did not formally condemn the very different formulation that had been boldly advanced by St Gregory of Nyssa. In support Bulgakov quotes M. Oksiuk, author of Eskhatologila sv. Grigorija Nisskogo (1914): the council fathers “did not condemn the opinions of St. Gregory of Nyssa. And how could they have condemned them if, even before the third ecumenical council, this bishop was recognized by the Church as a saint?” (p. 482, n. 61). The Emperor Justinian even includes Gregory in his list of holy fathers in his letter to the council. This is the essential point, which Bulgakov repeats several times in the chapters devoted to eschatology: “The Church has not issued a precise determination on this issue, although the doctrine of scholastic theology attempts to pass itself off as such a determination. But, actually, this doctrine only expresses the ‘opinion’ of one of the two tendencies that have opposed each other and continue to oppose each other in theology” (p. 482).
Fr Sergius concludes: “On the basis of the objective situation in Orthodox theology it is at least possible to debate about whether crystallized dogmatic definitions in the domain of eschatology exist in Orthodoxy. Therefore to deny that they exist does not, in our opinion, represent a violation of regula fidei” (p. 381). The Russian archpriest is exactly right. When opponents of the universalist hope name it heterodox, and therefore its proponents as heretics, they go too far. At the very least, such naming is impolite. But more importantly, the premature appeal to ecclesial authority makes impossible the substantive research and discussion on apokatastasis that needs to happen in the Orthodox Church.