Sergius Bulgakov on Evolution and the Fall: A Sophiological Solution

by Charles Andrew Gottshall


As John Milbank perceptively pointed out in his paper “Sophiology and Theurgy,” the Russian sophiologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were far ahead of the West in theologically responding to modernity, including forging a renewed intersection of science and faith. From the mystical poet and father of Russian Sophiology, Vladimir Solovyov’s profound and penetrating writings on the cosmogonic process in its incessant struggle to incarnate the divine principle in matter, to the otherworldly intellect of the polymath Pavel Florensky—the Russian da Vinci—in his vastly ranging reflections on dreams, psychology, physiology, physics, biology, evolution, geometry, general relativity, etc., to the towering dogmatic theologian, Sergius Bulgakov’s meditations on the metaphysical foundations of science, the essence of the economic process, the nature of miracles, and his focused, but brilliant ruminations on original sin and evolution, the integration of science and faith is indubitably one of the august hallmarks of Russian Sophiology. The latter is an important, but lamentably neglected theological voice, whose two trilogies are among the greatest accomplishments of twentieth century systematic theology. Bulgakov deals most comprehensively with original sin in his magnum opus, The Bride of the Lamb, where he provides a supratemporal and sophiological solution to the problem evolution poses to the traditional understanding of original sin as a historical act of the primordial pair of humans in a paradisal garden in the Ancient Near East. I realize that the fall is a difficult and controversial matter in our times, and all the more so in the work of Sergius Bulgakov with his views on Sophia and the world soul (i.e. Sophia in its creaturely aspect), without which his elucidation of the doctrine make little sense. Nonetheless, I think he provides a cogent account of the fall that takes the doctrine seriously, that makes sense of our phenomenological experience of the world, and that is not only consonant with, but also supplies a metaphysical and theological rationale for the evolutionary process itself.

Distinguishing between dogmatic and theological achievements, as Bulgakov often did, one can say that while Christian thought from the beginning has possessed the correct dogma or doctrinal convictions concerning the fall—broadly understood as human (and angelic) agency as the cause of evil and death in humanity and all of nature—only in recent generations has a truer and fuller elucidation of the doctrine emerged. In what follows of this two-part paper, I will begin with a historical–theological vignette of various views on the fall in order to set the context for my discussion of Sergius Bulgakov’s contribution to theological speculation on the matter. Additionally, I’ll offer my own corrective of Bulgakov’s position, which at one point, I believe, devolves into internal contradiction with disastrous theological implications.


The intellectual landscape of Christian thought has, at its best, always claimed a universal domain. This comprehensive vision arises from the conviction that the created order is an intelligible and integral expression of Divinity; the whole of it points beyond itself to the invisible God in whom all things “live, and move and have [their] being (Acts 17:28).” Thus theology is not and can never merely be one discipline among others, for its “object” is Infinite. Operating as a sort of formal and final cause, theology in-forms and directs all disciplines of knowledge back to their supersensible Source from which they originate, on account of which, no separation of thought into secular and religious spheres is finally possible. The contemporary split between science and faith is merely a cultural and contingent pathology of our age, a falsehood that Christianity can serve only to its utter detriment. Pavel Florensky prophetically attested to this a century ago in his brilliant work, At the Crossroads of Science & Mysticism (i.e. the English translation of part of his multi-volume project, At the Watersheds of Thought). Although there are serious questions that theology must attend to, especially the plethora of moral and metaphysical questions that surround evolution, these can become epiphanic occasions for heavenly light to descend anew upon age-old theological doctrines. Some of these questions have already been sufficiently answered. Conor Cunningham and Michael Hanby, for instance, have masterfully demonstrated that evolution and creation are not in the least antithetical, given that ecclesial dogma constrains Christian theology to profess creatio ex nihilo, which merely expresses the difference and dependence of creation on the Creator.1 This is a metaphysical rather than an empirical claim about the world’s relation to God, not a scientific theory of the processes by which life unfolds within a finite universe. Furthermore, they have exposed the self-destructive philosophical presuppositions often undergirding evolutionary accounts. Evolutionary processes cannot be coherently understood or defended within the mechanistic or materialist philosophies in currency, for a mindless, fortuitous process could never produce an intentional and rational consciousness within which the theory of evolution could itself be comprehended or trusted. This is only one of many insurmountable problems that arise from reducing being to a random coalescence of natural forces, the blind interaction of stochastic processes, or to a fortuitous concrescence of disparate components. The very possibility of evolution presupposes that the order of finite existence is ontologically insufficient to produce or sustain itself; or stated positively, contingent being is radically dependent upon Absolute Being. And thus we have circled back to the understand­ing of creation as an ontological relation of reliance on God, not a physical or empirical theory of how life emerges or ascends within a contingent order, which the doctrine of creation is manifestly not.

In contrast with the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of the fall still poses major questions for theology, and inevitably theodicy along with it. It is often assumed that the question of the fall, and the presence of evil in nature, is a more difficult problem today than it was in pre-modern times before the scientific revolution, and in particular, prior to the discovery of evolution. But this is a fata morgana, a mirage in the theological desert. While the fall of mankind, and nature along with it, did occupy some great speculative minds such as Origen, Augustine, and Maximus the Confessor, it did so with great difficulty and, arguably, with as much detriment as benefit to theology. Origen, or more probably, his infamous followers,2 despite correctly perceiving the fallenness of matter, falsely concluded that the physical world constituted a diremption from fleshless bliss, a realm to which the soul was destined to return after ages of purification. Augustine, although rightly but dimly perceiving all of humanity’s participation in Adam’s sin, constructed his hideous doctrine of the inherited guilt of Adam’s lineage, and arbitrarily deduced from this the just damnation of the vast majority of the race, unelected by grace to inherit the kingdom. Maximus, although brilliantly intuiting that motion and not stasis belongs to the original state of creation and that the fall took place virtually simultaneous with the act of creation, imprudently inferred—following Gregory of Nyssa—that the bifurcation of humanity into male and female genders was merely a divine provision for the preservation of the race due to God’s foreknowledge of the fall. Each of these towering figures saw different aspects of the fallenness of the world and humanity both correctly and defectively with differing theological implications. But conspicuously left unexplored was the metaphysical connection between the fall of humanity and the presence of evil in nature (except to some extent, in Origenism), yet even if it had been no viable solutions could have been proposed within the static cosmology and biology of the ancient world. The insurmountable theological difficulties the antique worldview raised can be ascertained from the heretical views of the garrulous rhetorician and apologist Arnobius of Sicca. Although a stranger to orthodoxy, Arnobius evinces an enormous sensitivity to the presence of evil in the world, which led him to conclude that God was not its Creator.

We … deny that flies, beetles, and bugs, dormice, weevils, and moths, are the work of the Almighty King. Without incurring criticism we can be ignorant as to who gave them their beginning and at the same time maintain that not by the Higher God were they brought forth such useless, pointless, purposeless creatures.2

As mundane as Arnobius’ ruminations might appear, his moral and metaphysical intuitions are doubtless rightly guided and pose a serious question to dogmatic theology. Can the presence of evil in creation be due to an isolated act of disobedience in a perfect world, and if so, how to explain such “pointless, purposeless creatures?” The static view of creation implied that God had immediately created all species, but the theological implication of this—that God thus was the direct Source of a defective world—was left unacknowledged, or at least remained unnoticed. But common sense indicates that the world we inhabit simply cannot be the direct creation of the Absolute, which appears devastatingly imperfect and thus irreconcilable with God’s goodness. Faced with such a theological difficulty the Origenist understanding of the fall of souls into heavy material bodies, and the creation of the physical world to lead them back to celestial unity, makes much sense as a way of reconciling how the Absolute could also be the Creator of the physical world. Further removed from Christian orthodoxy, these problems provide a partial background to the Gnostic myths of the creation of the world by a malevolent demiurge, and the Platonic myth, Timaeus, of the creation of the world by a benevolent demiurge, who, working with matter incompetent to assume the perfection of the eternal forms, absolves the Good of the world’s inherent deficiencies and intrinsic distortions. Of course, one could also have recourse to voluntarist explanations that picture God as a vindictive anthropomorphic deity who becomes enraged with the primordial pair of humans in their act of disobedience, and so arbitrarily decides to curse them, their progeny, and the entire creation. Such a picture of God is metaphysically incoherent and morally loathsome, while the Origenist account slanders God by understanding the finite, physical world as a declension from a more original, pristine condition unburdened by physicality, whereas the Gnostic and Platonic subordinationist accounts—obscuring an originary antimony between the finite and the Infinite—posit a secondary cause for the creation, falsely thinking that the First Cause will thereby be exonerated. All of these options are ultimately untenable for Christian theology, which understands the creation of the world to be an act of freedom and love on the part of a Creator who has no need for a finite order to fortify his infinity. Given that creation—not in its foundation, but in its manifestation—is quite obviously not a perfect origination from the Absolute, the static ontology of the pre-modern world is irreconcilable with a Christian understanding of creation. Only a dynamic ontology can lead us to an explanation of the universal presence evil in creation, and subsequently to humanity’s connection with it. Origenism was somewhat close to coming up with a dynamic ontology, insofar as it posited a defectiveness in creation as a departure from a truer form of existence to which it was necessary to return, but it ended with dualism, while subordinationism, as a theory of the world’s creation, sought simply to deflect the dilemma raised by the presence of evil in nature given the infinite goodness of God, whereas the implicit voluntarism of what is arguably the traditional perspective was largely content with its dogmatic convictions without seeking a proper theological explanation that went beyond voluntarism to establish an integral metaphysical connection between the presence of evil in nature and the fall of humanity. Despite the latter’s widespread currency in theological tradition, it seems logically impossible to think of the created order as originating in universal perfection, directly departing from God, only then to be universally shattered by an isolated act within its seamless whole. Such a view is now entirely untenable given the discovery of evolution (not merely biological, but the evolution of the entire universe). As Vladimir Solovyov so well expresses the matter:

If we consider the terrestrial world as it is and especially its geological and paleontological history, so well documented in our days, we find depicted there a laborious process determined by heterogeneous principles which do not achieve a firm and harmonious unity except after much time and great effort. Nothing could bear less resemblance to an entirely perfect work issuing directly from a single divine artificer. Our cosmic history is a long and painful parturition. We see in it clear signs of internal struggle, of shocks and violent convulsions, blind gropings, unfinished sketches of unsuccessful creations, monstrous births and abortions. Can all these antediluvian monsters, these paleozoa—the megatherium, the plesiosaurus, the ichthyosaurus, the pterodactyl and so forth—form part of the direct creation of God?4

Leaving aside Solovyov’s understanding of the fall because of its correspondence with Bulgakov’s, it is important to consider an important viewpoint that has attempted to reconcile the theological issue of evil in creation with the goodness of God in the context of an evolutionary or dynamic ontology. One option that has arisen in modern Christian thought for understanding the fallen condition of the world is that, owing to its finitude, the world must pass through the fires of temporal sorrow, privation, and loss, the narrow and necessary path of creation groping its way to the everlasting kingdom. In essence, although perhaps not in theological consequence, this view must be properly distinguished from the Calvinist notion of the fall (election aside, which has different implications) as an eternal decree enfolded within the divine council that unfolds with unobstructed necessity in time. The obvious problem with this view, observed, for instance, in the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, is that the goal of creation is necessarily realized through processes of death and decay, and thus is only possible through the emergence of evil. His famous essays on original sin are essentially reducible to the claim that the shadows of evil, darkness, and death are the inevitable barnacles that anchor themselves to the vessel of finitude in its initial stages of becoming, futilities unavoidably fastened to the world process until the fullness of time when they will be broken off at the end of history.5 The theological implications of this view are quite severe if carried through to their logical terminus. Evil becomes necessary for God’s greater ends and glory in creation, the dark underground that must accompany the expression of divine goodness upon the surface of finitude. And the bad dream grows more gruesome, quickly turning into a nightmare haunting every conceivable corridor of theological consciousness. Sin and death become not the self-enslavement of humanity to its vices and lust, but inexorable consequences of its existence as such, of its creatureliness. Salvation ensconces the dark face of God; the economy of redemption veils divine caprice, for God becomes, in some sense, directly responsible for our moral and biological death, and thus salvation is no longer deliverance from the regime of creaturely rebellion, but from the condition in which God defectively created us. The Incarnation and the cross are reduced to emptiness, for the world is constrained to its “bondage to decay” on account of its finitude, and then summoned to rise again from the ashes of time’s relentless vagaries and vanities into the beauty of infinite bliss. The outcome may be glorious, but the kingdom is purchased at the monstrous price of a hellish torture chamber; the creation is subjected to futility and vanity, and history to unimaginable wreckage and carnage, the necessary birth pangs of the world writhing in labor, before true life is born. And thus Paul’s rapturous truth is reduced to a falsehood: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is revealed to us (Rom. 8:18).” An incompetent demiurge, or, still worse, a malicious demon replaces the Creator of infinite goodness, for creation is only possible through temporal devastation before its eternal elevation. Such is the insufferable cost for eliminating original sin. It pains me to criticize Chardin so harshly given the immensity of his contribution to the intersection of science and faith, and the exquisite grandeur of his masterpiece, The Phenomenon of Man, which has justly been lauded as one of the greatest spiritual works of the 20th century. Nonetheless, it seems impossible to emerge with a different theological outcome. Although Chardin’s portrait of the world comprises an indispensible and dynamic ontology and teleology, it becomes quite revolting lacking a true notion of the fall conditioning the entire process. Simply stated, it is inconceivable that the universe could only unfold from the Absolute, who is infinite Goodness and Triune Love, in such violent spasms through a long, tortuous history of sin, death, and evil. The actual history of the world appears as a false pathway to the kingdom, a contingency that need not have arisen. The protological path the world has taken cannot be the course that God intended creation to tread in its march towards eschatological consummation.

Each of the views explored above, while having a degree of merit, pay the miserable price of either forfeiting the goodness of finitude or sacrificing the goodness of the Infinite. 1) That the world fell through the primordial progenitors of the race in a historical moment in paradisal garden in Mesopotamia some millennia ago accords neither with the actual history of the world, where man arose last in the evolutionary process, and thus enters the world already fallen, nor with a coherent metaphysical understanding of the matter: such a universal rupture of the created order is logically impossible as an isolated event in the history of our world. Patristic and medieval theologians were largely unable to conceive of the metaphysical connection of humanity’s fall and the presence of evil in nature leading either to dualism or voluntarism. 2) On the Gnostic fringes of Christian thought, and on the Platonic purlieus of pagan philosophy, subordinationism was unwilling to acknowledge the Absolute as the Creator, and thus was unable to proclaim the inherent goodness of finitude. 3) If it was somewhat inevitable that the antique world would be unable to provide an adequate theological explanation of the fall, given the intrinsic limits and distortions of ancient cosmology, the discovery of evolution and the fact of humanity’s appearance in the last stage of the world process has enabled the doctrine of the fall and the presence of evil in nature to be seen in a radically different light, from an angle that exposes all the more clearly the insurmountable problems that arise from understanding the fall as an isolated, historical act in a perfect world. Hence, with the indispensable dynamic ontology posited by Chardin an answer lies closer at hand, but without a doctrine of the fall his account ends up with catastrophic theological consequences. 4) While it is permissible, and even advisable, for religious thought—in divining the truth—to maintain allegiance to the doctrine of the fall while remaining agnostic on the adequacy of its various theological explanations, this is impossible for dogmatic thought, which must seek rational ratification of religious intuition of truth. Therefore, another solution is required. The biblical accounts of the fall of rational creation, and with it of the whole created order—read within the Christian exegetical tradition in contrast with historical-critical findings—attest to a supra-historical fall that is clothed in the language of history, a metaphysical rupture of the entire created order wrought by humankind.


It is, of course, possible to recapitulate the crude, and at times irrational, invectives against Sergius Bulgakov’s manifold deployments of sophiology to dogmatic questions, and in particular to dismiss his account of the fall as the construction of a metaphysical mythology, a peculiar and pathetic attempt to save the doctrine by conveniently sequestering the fall of rational creation behind the curtain of history, and thus safely outside the bounds of empirical research and, to wit, of falsification. Such dismissive reactions belong to the fabulous and odious lore that collects around Russian Sophiology, bedizening it with gilded and gaudy accusations, such as inducting a fourth member into the Trinity, fashioning a theological system that is little more than a thinly veiled pantheism, or worse, worshiping a literal eternal feminine in a form of syncretistic, Christian paganism. These adornments are unbecoming raiments cloaking a philosophical epoch that sought to array itself in the manifold splendor of divine Wisdom. However, serious engagement with Bulgakov’s thought, and Russian Sophiology more generally, indicates a profound endeavor to penetrate into the essence of Christian dogma in order to respond to the range of questions posed by modern philosophy and science. What emerged, at least as an ideal, was a renewed Christian synthesis not only of faith and reason, but of theology and science. One of the great theological achievements of the Russian sophiological synthesis is the clarification of the metaphysical connection between humanity and creation, the former being the spiritual conductor of the latter’s principles, the choragus of creation’s manifold themes. Accordingly, Sergius Bulgakov’s (following Vladimir Solovyov) theological explorations into the essence of the fall in relation to evolution comprise what is possibly an unprecedented attempt to elucidate how it is that the fallen, physical condition of nature and the fallen, moral condition of rational creation are ineffably wedded. The fall of humanity (and the angels) in Christian thought is the cause for the lamentable state of creation, but how this is so has not received adequate theological explanation. The question has become ever more present and palpable, as it was, to some degree, prompted and brought to the fore by the advancement of scientific knowledge. We will presently explore Sergius Bulgakov’s supratemporal and sophiological solution to the matter, while also altering his account slightly, but significantly, to save it from internal contradiction.

It would be interesting to trace the dependence and divergence of Bulgakov’s account of the fall from those of Friedrich Schelling and Vladimir Solovyov who exerted great influence on his thought, but to do so would take us too far afield. Still worth mentioning is that both of these figures posit an ontological rupture of humanity—or at least the world soul in the case of Solovyov in his revolutionary Lectures on Divine Humanity, and the primordial “will” concealed from Eternity in the case of Schelling in his unfinished masterpiece, Ages of the World—at the foundation of creation, not as a historical event, but as a supratemporal event above time, conditioning and permeating the entire world process. This gives the fall the universal character that a historical fall could not.6 At any rate, Bulgakov’s thoughts on the matter are more systematically and dogmatically developed than his philosophical forebears. Perhaps Maximus the Confessor was also somewhat close to conceiving the fall of humanity in these terms, but his account remained underdeveloped, as his crucial concern was to combat Origenism, and not to explain the universal effects of the fall or its relation to historical time.

In order to understand how Bulgakov connected the fall of rational creation and its universal implications for all of nature, we must trace back his thought to that misty morning of creation in the primordial past, into a “time” before time when the first light of creation was just dawning. Here at the foundations of all becoming lie the answers to the metaphysical enigmas that impose themselves upon the consciousness and conscience of all humanity. Why is the world thus? How is it that the entire creation was ontologically torn asunder, its metaphysical seams unraveled? From whence does this immense sense of guilt derive, and from wither does this inexplicable feeling of responsibility for the world’s past and future arise? These interrogative intuitions arise in the soul of all, even if only breaking forth to the forefront of consciousness in a few. This universal intuition of creation’s fragmentation is the existential discovery of Sin slumbering in the bosom of our being, and sickness in the womb of the world, the recollection of an act of humanity as a whole that occasions the birth of all into sin, and induces the groans and labor pains of all creation (cf. Rom. 8:22).7 This act lies above our world and for this reason it contains force for the whole world. The current condition of our world has its causal roots “in the beginning.” Bulgakov posits a dynamic understanding of the creation of the world as an act in which creatures themselves participate. When God called all things forth from nothingness the world received itself actively or with active receptivity. The world determined itself in relation to the gift of its own being, and without this response to the Creator, the world would not exist. This determination is the condition of creation’s incarnation in time, and thus can only take place on the border between eternity and time, in a liminal supra-temporality. This is the “frame of time”8 in which the fall occurs, the “event” in which becoming comes to be in a false and fleshly manner. (Bulgakov states that the angelic fall occurred in time in distinction from humanity’s supra-temporal fall, but angelic temporality is more a “series of inner events” and “self-determinations” due to the difference of angelic nature from human nature.9 I’ll briefly touch on that matter below.)

For Bulgakov, there are essentially three created realms: the angels or fleshless spirits, humanity as the hypostasis of the world soul, and the world soul itself, or creaturely Sophia, which is the non-hypostatic, productive and unitive life force of the world that contains within itself all the diverse principles of nature. Because creation is not a dead mechanism, it can only come to be by a synergistic act. The world is summoned into being by the divine call, and the world exists as a response, is its response; love answers Love. In order to emerge from nothingness, each of these three spheres of creation must actively determine themselves in relation to God’s creative act, but only the first two (humanity and the angels) can determine themselves rationally or morally in relation to the Creator. The angels, the fleshless spirits, were created with a relative fullness and maturity, lacking the element of discursivity characteristic of humanity, due to their nature as created intelligences. The nature of their being is to be immersed in Divinity, submerged in ceaseless participation in the eternal glory of God. Thus, their fall could not be occasioned by deception or error; their fall takes place with full knowledge as pure rebellion, the dark flame of self-love. Their fall, according to Bulgakov, takes place within angelic time, an inner temporality that is distinct from but connected to the temporality of the physical world. Humanity, on the other hand, was created with a dual nature, which bestows upon its active reception of the creative act a dual character. Having its roots in both eternity and time, spirituality and physicality (unlike the angels), there lies within humanity the possibility of deception, the lure of looking to the lower world in seeking to satisfy its nature. Illusion can arise within an untested humanity not knowing how to stand in both worlds at once, the prospect of a choice wherein the divine summons to life hearkens unto humanity as an inner call pulling its spiritual principle upward in the direction of the higher world, as a principle of unity for the lower, while its physical principle pulls its gazes downward, desirous of the fruit of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” Upon this threshold of time and two worlds the destiny of humanity and nature is determined. “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil (Deut. 30:15).” In this state at the foundation of creation, all humanity is present as a multi-unity, as Adam, the all-human. Humanity, for Bulgakov, shares a single nature, which is hypostatically realized or actualized in the entire race. The individuality that we know after the fall is unnatural, egotistical, whereas true personhood and individuality is found only in community, in multi-unity. Here lies the possibility of original sin as the universal transgres­sion of all humanity. Adam, as the fullness of race, the pleroma, is every individual, whose lapse from multi-unity into ego-centricity, from sophianicity into cosmicity, is the act of all alike. Humanity, in a single, supra-temporal determination of its existence, which had the force of fate for the whole natural world, forsook “the tree of life” for the forbidden tree and fell into error and fragmentation, and thereby subjected the world to futility (cf. Rom. 8:20). Humanity’s bond with nature, the world-soul, was ruptured; instead of subduing nature as creation’s king, it became its slave, being subjected to the shackles of nature’s pitiless processes of life and death, eventually emerging within the evanescent cycles of evolution.

The metaphysical connection between the fall of humanity and the presence of evil in nature can only be understood in the context of humanity’s relation to the world soul, or “creaturely Sophia,” to use Bulgakov’s alternative expression. The notion of the world soul, the anima mundi, is often either ignored or considered an un-philosophical musing of mystical mythology, but Bulgakov understood it as a necessary metaphysical presupposition for the integral unity of the created order. As the world is a unified and interdependent system, an organized whole that arranges itself by mysterious, autopoetic forces rather than a lifeless mechanism composed of disparate parts, the world is, in some sense, a single organism. Creaturely Sophia comprises the content of all creation, and is the productive and unitive force, suffusing all matter. “She is the life of the world.”10 The world soul is the life-giving Wisdom of God in creation. The temporal world is modeled on the eternal world; creaturely Sophia is the resplendent reflection of Divine Sophia, which is the non-hypostatic nature of God, the content and glory of Divinity possessed by each of the three co-eternal, consubstantial Hypostases. Analogous to non-hypostatic divine Sophia, Bulgakov maintains that creaturely Sophia is a non-hypostatic life force. Lacking its own volitional center the world soul is incapable of both rebellion and deception, and to a large degree is characterized by a sort of innate striving, an instinctive drive, which can be possessed by demonic malice and poisoned by human sin. Presently, the ontological connection between humanity and the world soul is faintly perceptible because the spiritual powers of humanity over nature were weakened in its fall and nearly reduced to a state of potentiality that is unnatural and catastrophic for both humanity and the world. The hypostasis of the world soul is humanity, the spirit of nature, the coryphaeus of creation, whose fall left the world soul “orphaned,”11 abandoned to blind striving, gradually and laboriously realizing the divine principles of creation through evolutionary processes. Humanity was to subordinate the world soul to the divine principle (the Logos acting upon the world in the power of the Spirit by the will of the Father), and so lead creation out into life and liberty, to hypostasize the world soul transforming nature into a universal organism.12 The fragmentation and heaviness of matter, its impenetrability for spirit is the non-spiritual or fallen condition of matter, its “bondage to decay” that shall prevail until the fetters that bind humanity’s freedom are broken. The transfiguration of the world is impossible apart from the redemption of humanity, and only thus will creation be “set free… and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:21).” Without its human hypostasis, “the guardian of the universe,”13 the world soul wanders in the dark and nature turns wild. Bereft of its glory and sophianicity the world became a wilderness for humanity, a place of spiritual exile where even God and the fall can be doubted; creation as a region of life and light became a realm of moral depravity and physical mortality. Instead of obtaining its body in spiritual manner from nature by subduing the creative principles of the world soul, by exercising dominion over nature, humanity became enslaved to its lower principle and thus emerged within the evolutionary process as natural, fleshly humanity in an un-spiritual state. So shall it be until the end of this age, and we must live with the haunting truth that “the whole world would be other if it were not for the sin of Adam.”14

The only major difficulty I perceive with Bulgakov’s account of the fall of humanity—one that I did not highlight above—concerns its relation to the world soul, and specifically humanity’s arrival at the end of evolutionary history to hypostasize the world soul. In The Burning Bush, Bulgakov sets forth a systematic anthropology wherein he rightly shows how the sin of humanity and the presence of evil in nature are inextricably interwoven. But this account lacks the integration of evolution into the doctrine of the fall and original sin,15 which is set forth in The Bride of the Lamb, chapter 3. There he introduces what I think to be a serious contradiction into his account that leads to monstrous theological implications. On the one hand he holds to a supra-temporal fall, but on the other he holds that evolutionary history up until the arrival of humanity was the natural course of the world—and he does not consider this a fallen state.

Man comes into the world last, on the sixth day. Prior to and without man, the world evolves toward him. All that is called into being by God bears his blessing, the divine “it was good.” But this cannot remove the limited character of the world’s proper being. This limited character can be transcended only by man. As long as the sophianic instinctiveness of the world soul reigns in creation, the latter remains unfinished, for it is incompletely humanized. Therefore, the evolution of the world within its proper limits also presupposes its relative imperfection, which by no means contradicts the “it was good” of the divine plan, the sophianic content of being. Geological periods, the “struggle for existence,” mortality in the animal world, in which there is no immortality of individuals but only of the species, could all have been present to a certain degree (a degree impossible to define with precision) in the world of the six days of creation, prior to man.16

Continuing this stream of thought, he says that un-fallen humanity arrived last on the stage of the world with an “edenic perception,”17 and that the wildness and blindness of nature was from that point on to be overcome by humanity; nature was to be humanized, that is, the world soul was to be hypostasized thereby elevating and spiritualizing matter. But instead of achieving this spiritual mastery over nature humanity fell into sin, and was enslaved along with the rest of creation to the cycles of life and death.

Two possibilities were marked out in the life of creation: (1) the “evolutionary”-instinctive development of creation before man, but one that later, under man’s rule, was to acquire the light of reason and become liberated from the power of nonhypostatic elementalness; and (2) the development of creation with man [that is, man becomes enslaved to the natural evolutionary process], who was called to become created god, the protector and cultivator of Eden. But instead of humanizing nature, man himself became the slave of nature and a prisoner to its necessity.18

The problem with this portrait is, to me at least, quite obvious and suffers from a logical incoherence. Bulgakov pictures the scenario of humanity arriving in the world to hypostasize the world soul in terms that necessitate a temporal fall, rather than the supra-temporal fall that he adamantly advocates. He here assumes (as it appears he does not elsewhere) that the world process was unaffected by the supra-temporal fall of humanity and places the supra-temporal fall at a specific point in the history of the world, i.e. in the arrival of humanity after the long evolutionary epochs of life on earth. But this is precisely to temporalize a supra-temporal “event.” This is a flat contradiction of his statements concerning humanity’s fall as determining and affecting the entire course of nature’s development, and it could not be otherwise. As the supramundane principle of the world, the hypostatic spirit of nature, it is inconceivable that the fall of humanity would have no implications for the unfolding of creation itself. Eden, as the protological purity of creation in anticipation of its eschatolo­gical perfection, must have been possible “in the beginning” as the peaceable pathway to the kingdom. Humanity, as the ontological center of the world process, was to subordinate the world soul to the divine principle, hypostasize it from the beginning. There can be no middle ground here as Bulgakov tries to establish, an eruption of Edenic humanity into a world where death and decay have already taken hold. Furthermore, this precarious move necessarily leads to undesirable theological consequences. It appears, at the last, theologically impossible to entertain the idea that evolutionary history is a natural and necessary course of development, an unbroken and un-fallen cosmic cycle, for the processes of life are intrinsically bound up with death, and thus indicate not simply a non-eschatological or un-deified state of matter, but the fallenness of matter that Bulgakov elsewhere speaks of so unmistakably. As God is in himself the Good, the order of finitude which emerges from Him, must from the beginning be capable of purity, must of necessity be able to unfold peaceably without death and decay nourishing themselves as a shadow empire in the kingdom of beauty. This possibility was foreclosed at the foundation of the world through rebellion and deception; and that world which inhabits our dreams and illumines our deepest aspirations confronts the falsehood in which the present world lies, for that world lies above ours as its unrealized ideal until the end of this age. For now the first day of creation is closed off until the last. But the glory of that first day, in all its radiance, purity, and possibility shone again in the Taboric light of Easter morning, the dawning of the last day that casts back its light on that other world that was, that should have been, the world that will be when “God will be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28).”


The ultimate rationale of this paper, and of the doctrine of the fall, is the conviction that the actual history of the world in its fallen condition need not have been, that this history of sin and death was not the only possible one. It is inconceivable that the world in its current condition conforms to the intention of God, and thus the cause of creation’s lamentable state can only be located on the side of the creature. There have been diverse attempts to capture this indispensable religious intuition in conceptual thought, but I find Sergius Bulgakov’s account of original sin most compelling because it provides a coherent explanation for the universal presence of evil in creation in relation to humanity’s sinful self-determination. Bulgakov takes very seriously the unity of the world, and the unity of humanity, neither of which are merely an aggregate of components fortuitously cobbled together, but a living organism that can only be realized as the world God intends through free union with God. Freedom truly is, for Bulgakov, the liberating principle that unifies and harmonizes the diverse principles of the world, or the enslaving principle that disintegrates and deforms it, because creation is a living unity. Despite the theological spasm that entered into his theological speculations on the fall, with devastating theological consequences, Bulgakov (and Solovyov) has arguably offered us an unprecedented panoramic view of the matter, which descends to us as a gift from the lofty heights of his colossal mind in its mighty exertions.

End Notes

[1] See respectively Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get it Wrong (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010); and No God, No Science: Theology, Cosmology, Biology (Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).
[2] It is not my purpose here to weigh in on the debates over Origen surrounding the doctrine of pre-existent souls that he purportedly espoused, but for a recent defender of Origen against such claims, see Ilaria Ramelli’s “‘Preexistence of Souls?’ The ἀρχή and τέλος of Rational Creatures in Origen and Some Origenians” in Studia Patristica Vol. LVI, ed. Markus Vinzent (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2013), pp. 167-181.
[3] Arnobius of Sicca, The Case Against the Pagans, trans. George E. McCracken (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1949), p. 158.
[4] Vladimir Solovyev, Russia and the Universal Church, trans. Herbert Rees (London, UK: Geoffrey Bles, 1948), p. 164.
[5] Chardin’s essays on original sin are collected and translated, along with many others, in Christianity and Evolution, trans. René Hague (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969).
[6] Hence, Chardin’s judgment that a historical fall, as an isolated event within a perfect world, would have had a more circumscribed scope seems certain. Cf. Chardin’s essays “Fall, Redemption, and Geocentrism” and “Reflections on Original Sin” in Christianity and Evolution. Connected with this is the fact of humanity’s arrival last in creation, instead of initially, which seems proper to humanity as the guardian and priest of the world, the hypostatic spirit of nature. This fact implies that the fall of humanity took place supratemporally. Of course, the fall could have taken place after a prolonged period of purity, and so perhaps the extent of catastrophe within the world could have been reduced, although it would be impossible to determine or quantify the concrete characteristics of such a schema. If it seems that we have here meandered into a realm pure mythology, one must recognize that the only alternative is the more haunting myth of determinism. There can be no necessity in humanity’s fall, and thus the pathways of the world in its gradual realization of union with God are contingent upon human freedom. Denial of these differing possibilities of freedom in the world process is tantamount to determinism with all of its horrific theological consequences.
[7] Anticipating misunderstanding and doubts to this supratemporal act Bulgakov replies: “But perhaps some will inquire: why then does the soul not know and not remember its own accomplished self-determination, its agreement to incarnation in a sinful body, an act of the will towards life? Is this not a fantasy and a dream? This question would be pertinent if the discussion were about a separate act of life, or its occurrence in time which could either be remembered or not remembered in a series of other events… But in the given case the discussion is not about an event but about a beginning and consequently not about a temporal act but about a pre-temporal act. It cannot be remembered as an event of the temporal life, but the soul does preserve a recollection of it, an anamnesis, and wears its seal. In this sense the soul always remembers it and unceasingly recalls it in consciousness of the impropriety and impairment of its being, of its personal responsibility for this and of its sinfulness (The Burning Bush, 31).”
[8] David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005), p. 102.
[9] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002), p. 156.
[10] Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, p. 80.
[11] Sergius Bulgakov, The Burning Bush: On the Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God, trans. Thomas Allen Smith (Grand Rapids: MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), 18.
[12] See the second section of Sergius Bulgakov’s philosophical work, Unfading Light: Contemplations and Speculations, trans. Thomas Allen Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012), II.3, where he briefly discusses the divinization of matter.
[13] Bulgakov, The Burning Bush, p. 20.
 The Burning Bush, p. 20. In chapter 2 of that book Bulgakov sets out his anthropology and has a detailed discussion of original sin, but does not speak of evolution.
[14] Cf. also Sergei Bulgakov, Philosophy of Economy: The World as Household, trans. Catherine Evtuhov (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 148-154.
[15] The Bride of the Lamb, p. 173.
[16] The Bride of the Lamb, p. 178.
[17] The Bride of the Lamb, p. 179.

* * *

Andrew Gottshall is a graduate of Beeson Divinity School and is presently working on his doctorate at Durham University.

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42 Responses to Sergius Bulgakov on Evolution and the Fall: A Sophiological Solution

  1. Morgan Hunter says:

    An extremely thought-provoking essay! I’m still a bit puzzled by the idea of a supra-temporal decision by humanity to turn away from God–doesn’t this imply a kind of pre-existence of the soul, or at least of a sort of collective soul of the species?


    • Robert Fortuin says:


      My understanding based on Gregory of Nyssa’s protology in On the Making of Man is that the fall is indeed temporal, but that God foreknew of it and as such the fall was supra-temporal (i.e. before the actual creation). Hope that helps.


    • Andrew Gottshall says:

      Thanks for your engagement, and sorry to just get back to you.

      Regarding the supra-temporal fall, Bulgakov distinguishes it sharply from the idea of the pre-existence of the soul because the latter entails a previous life. What Bulgakov is advocating is what he calls “ontological sin” in distinction from “historical sin.” He believes that the creative act is complex, and that because God creates secondary causes, they are involved in the act of their own creation, receive it reflexively if you like. This is an act above history, but without which history would not exist. Thus creation is mysteriously both created by God and also autopoetic. In other words this self-causation implanted in the world by God can be poisoned by human freedom. It’s probably important to note that Bulgakov’s idea of a supratemporal act that is the pre-condition to existence is derived from German idealism, and more importantly from Soloviev. All things arise already in evil, the cause of which appears nowhere in the causal nexus of empirical history. Thus it’s the very forces of finite existence which have been corrupted, but again not in another time or another world, but as the act from which finite arises and is conditioned. I hope this helps!


  2. Iain Lovejoy says:

    If everything about creation that we point to to say it is fallen (suffering, death etc) was present prior to man’s existence, is it possible or coherent to suggest that the fall of creation and the fall of man are two different events? Genesis has man removed from the world into an Eden confined with walls, which leads to the question as to what is outside those walls that man needs to be protected from.

    If Christ is to be made man, this requires the existence of man, and the evolutionary history of man becomes part of God’s saving plan, as much as the history of man from Adam to Christ. The fall of man in Genesis is then a fall of man only, who in his original creation by God from the dust of the earth (via evolution) had God’s spirit breathed upon him to make him in the image of God and free from the death of the fallen world from which he came, but he falls back into it and is expelled out of Eden into the fallen world he was taken from, necessitating his salvation by Christ and with man, the rest of creation too.


    • Andrew Gottshall says:

      Great question! I think you’re right. The fall of nature and man are connected not separate. Bulgakov bases his understanding of man as being spiritual and material on the basis of God being tri-hypostatic and possessing a nature, or incorporeal divine world/Sophia. The interesting thing about this is that hypostases, both divine and creaturely, are the spiritual principles or organizing forces of unity. Bulgakov says this is true not simply for humans but also for God, otherwise God wouldn’t be a true and living unity, a barren desert and. It the living God. Whereas in God this unity is eternally actual, in humanity it is a task. If humanity is truly the spiritual principle of nature who can unite all its forces into a living unity, then it would seem that the fall of man would break apart his world. In other words, I think the fall of nature and humanity are more interconnected than we can imagine.


  3. Mike H says:

    Very interesting. A few random thoughts:

    (1) Thought this was a compelling line of thought – “As the world is a unified and interdependent system, an organized whole that arranges itself by mysterious, autopoetic forces rather than a lifeless mechanism composed of disparate parts, the world is in some sense, a single organism.” Leads naturally to the idea that “true personhood and individuality is found only in community, in multi-unity.” Salvation” is not a solo-act

    (2) Have to admit, I’ve no idea what the “world soul” actually is. It’s referred to in a variety of ways – as “humanity’s bond with nature”, also as “the life-giving Wisdom of God in creation”, etc.

    (3) As I understand this, an angelic Fall had nothing to do with “the way things are” in the world. (Side note – a “free-will” fall from “perfection” still seems like a problem.) So the history of death, predation, suffering, etc. is laid squarely at the feet of human volition. It’s just that this event is “supra-temporal”. This sounds tidy, I suppose, but is it not entering the realm of some sort of “pre-existence” that’s in the same ballpark as the Origenism it’s seeking to distance itself from?

    (4) “… by conveniently sequestering the fall of rational creation behind the curtain of history, and thus safely outside the bounds of empirical research and, to wit, falsification.” (near the top of section II)

    Actually, it seems to me that this account does actually originate “behind the curtain of history and thus safely outside the bounds of empirical research”. Seems to be the whole point….


    • Andrew Gottshall says:

      Thanks for your comments.

      For Bulgakov the world soul is created Sophia, the divine nature in a finite mode of becoming (To answer Fr. Kimel’s question as well). Bulgakov has an extended discussion of this in Bride of the Lamb, 79-103.

      As for an angelic fall I don’t discount it. Although I’m pondering what effects that has on the created order, but I think the effects are directed towards man, and through man to the rest of nature. This is purely based on a hierarchical principle.

      In Origenian, pre-existence see above. And although yes this account does claim that the fall is beyond empirical research, it’s the empirical experience of the world that leads to the principle of a metaphysical fall. Hope his is beneficial.


  4. Mike H says:

    Father Kimel, may I suggest adding a ‘Category’ for this particular topic? I don’t know what you’d call it – Origins…Protology…Science, History & the Fall… – but you (and guest authors) have had some good stuff.


  5. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Thanks, Andrew, for this article. Can you explain for us what Bulgakov means by “world soul.” Is it identical to created Sophia?


  6. brian says:

    I very much appreciated this article. I believe that Bulgakov does indeed indicate a fruitful way for Christian theology to contemplate the mystery of the Fall. Surely, the essay is correct to highlight the metaphysical implications of separating death in nature from the consequences of sin. In that respect, Bulgakov’s expression in The Bride of the Lamb should be taken as a corrective to earlier speculation. While I greatly admire Bulgakov and agree with the sentiments of the article that the typical accusations against Bulgakov’s sophiology do not stand up to scrutiny, there remain some ambiguous areas — the queries regarding the status of the world soul touch upon them.

    Does it make sense to speak of a non-hypostatic divine nature? Does one introduce a distinction that amounts to an ontological distance between the nature and the hypostases of the Triune God by doing so? With regards to creation, does Sophia become a “third category” that allows one to span the gap between creation and nothing? Does Sophia then become a necessary mediator separate from the Logos? To be clear: I am not implying a negative answer to these questions. I merely indicate the need for extreme care in teasing out the metaphysical implications and the proper manner of articulation. For myself, I incline towards the view that almost all of Bulgakov is a creative expression of orthodox Christian doctrine.

    While Solovyov and Florensky are distinct figures, Bulgakov’s was certainly influenced by their thought. In any event, this is my justification for including the lengthy excerpt below which is from David Hart’s introduction to Solovyov’s Justification of the Good:

    The figure of Sophia, admittedly, arouses more than a little suspicion among even Solovyov’s more indulgent Christian readers, and some would prefer to write her off as a figment of the young Solovyov’s dreamier moods, or as a sentimental souvenir of his youthful dalliance with the Gnostics. To his less indulgent readers, she is something rather more sinister. And indeed it is difficult to know what exactly to make of the two visions of Sophia that Solovyov had in 1875–the first in the British Museum, the second in the Egyptian desert–or the earlier vision he had at the age of nine. But it is important to note that, in Solovyov’s developed reflections upon this figure (and in those of his successor “Sophiologists,” Pavel Florensky and Sergei Bulgakov), she was most definitely not an occult, or pagan, or Gnostic goddess, nor was she a fugitive from some Chaldean mystery cult, nor was she a speculative perversion of the Christian doctrine of God. She was not a fourth hypostasis in the Godhead, nor a fallen fragment of God, nor a literal world-soul, nor an eternal hypostasis who became incarnate as the Mother of God, nor most certainly the “feminine aspect of deity.” Solovyov possessed too refined a mind to fall prey to the lure of cultic mythologies or childish anthropomorphisms, despite his interest in Gnosticism (or at least in its special pathos); and all such characterizations of the figure of Sophia are the result of misreadings (though, one must grant, misreadings partly occasioned by the young Solovyov’s penchant for poetic hyperbole).

    In truth, the divine Sophia is first and foremost a biblical figure, and “Sophiology” was born of an honest attempt to interpret intelligibly the role ascribed to her in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, in such a way as to complement the Logos Christology of the Fourth Gospel, while still not neglecting the “autonomy” of creation within its very dependency upon the Logos. Solovyov’s Sophia stands in the interval between God and world, as an emblem of the nuptial mystery of Christ’s love for creation and creation’s longing for the Logos. Sophia is the divine Wisdom as residing in the non-divine; she is the mirror of the Logos and the light of the Spirit, reflecting in the created order the rational coherence and transcendent beauty in which all things live, move, and have their being. She is also, therefore, the deep and pervasive Wisdom of the world who, even as that world languishes in bondage to sin, longs to be joined to her maker in an eternal embrace, and arrays herself in every palpable glory and ornament to prepare for his coming, and by her loveliness manifests her insatiable yearning.

    Another way of saying this is that Sophia is creation–and especially human creation–as God eternally intends, sees, loves, and possesses it. The world is created in the Logos and belongs to him, shines with the imperishable beauty of the Father made visible in him, and in the Logos nothing can be found wanting; thus one may say that he, in his transcendence, eternally possesses a world, and that the world, in its immanence, restlessly longs for him. And yet another way of saying this is that Sophia is humankind (which contains within itself all the lower orders of creation) as God eternally chooses it to be his body, the place of his indwelling, and in his eternity this humanity is perfect and sinless, while in our world it is something toward which all finite reality strives, as its eschatological horizon. One can thus speak of an eternal Christ: the Logos as forever turned toward a world, a world gathered to himself from before all the ages just as–in time–we see the world gathered to him in his incarnation. Here Solovyov is following a line of thought with quite respectable patristic pedigrees: seen thus, as the body of the Logos (the totus Christus in its eternal or eschatological aspect), Sophia is scarcely distinguishable from the eternal Anthropos of whom Gregory of Nyssa writes in On the Making of Humanity. She is not another hypostasis as such, but is the personal and responsive aspect of the concrete unity of a redeemed creation united to–and so “enhypostatized” by–Christ; or, looked at from below (so to speak), the “symphonic” totality of created hypostases perfectly joined to Christ. She is thus indeed a kind of intelligence in the created order (analogous to the intelligence of the spiritual world of which Augustine speaks in The Confessions), and she is beauty, and order, and eros, but only insofar as she personifies the answer of creation to God’s call, the beloved’s response to the lover’s address; far from a kind of Romantic pantheism, what she represents is creation’s desire for God, its insufficiency in itself, its eternal vocation to be the vessel of his glory and the tabernacle of his indwelling presence. She is, in other words, a figure for the active longing of creation and for its accomplished rest; she is both passion and repose, ardent expectation and final peace. She is still God’s Wisdom, but as mirrored in the intricacy, life, unity, and splendor of created being, and in the unity and love the Church.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Agnikan says:

      Sounds like Sophia is similar to the Teilhardian cosmos once it enters into union with the Omega Point.


    • Morgan Hunter says:

      Very interesting! Would you say that Sophia is similar to the Jewish concept of the Shekinah (the immanent aspect of God, referred to under feminine images)? Or to those Syriac Christian traditions that used feminine language to refer to the Holy Spirit? (Even though non-hypostatic, there is a certain similarity of role here, with the idea of the Holy Spirit as God’s immanent presence dwelling in the Church and the creation as a whole.) And is there some connection between Sophia and God’s energies? I know that Hart is very skeptical of the essence-energies distinction (on the grounds that it introduces a mediator besides the logos, the aspect of sophiology that he expressed reservations about here.) Given his interest in Indian religious traditions, he’s undoubtedly familiar with the Hindu concept of God’s mediating Shakti (“Energy”), imminently present in the world and personified as feminine. Anyway, just throwing out what randomly came to mind…


  7. Andrew Gottshall says:

    Thanks for this Brian. Perhaps, the response to Iain above is a partial answer to the question about the divine nature. Also, Milbank’s essay Sophiology and Theurgy, deals with mediation in Bulgakov’s sophiology.


  8. Ben Jefferies says:

    ***Evolutionary processes cannot be coherently understood or defended within the mechanistic or materialist philosophies in currency…***

    I am not sure philosophy is actually about *explaining* anything, as it happens. At least since the later writings of Wittgenstein had any impact (on at least English language schools of philosophy), we have tended to see our purpose as therapeutic (as guiding to a clearer understanding and thus clearing of confusions bound up in the relationships of word and world) rather than explanatory in this sense.


    • Robert Fortuin says:

      sub ‘philosophy’ with ‘ideology’


      • Ben Jefferies says:

        I would be interested if you might expand that.


        • Ben Jefferies says:

          This is only one of many insurmountable problems that arise from reducing being to a random coalescence of natural forces, the blind interaction of stochastic processes, or to a fortuitous concrescence of disparate components. The very possibility of evolution presupposes that the order of finite existence is ontologically insufficient to produce or sustain itself; or stated positively, contingent being is radically dependent upon Absolute Being. And thus we have circled back to the understand­ing of creation as an ontological relation of reliance on God, not a physical or empirical theory of how life emerges or ascends within a contingent order, which the doctrine of creation is manifestly not.

          This is an absolute travesty of current thinking about evolution – as well as a rather poor defence of intelligent design.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Andrew Gottshall says:

            Ben, to clarify: quotation above isn’t addressing current evolutionary theories, rather the mechanistic metaphysics on which it depends. I think I’m rather clear about this.

            I’m not sure where you would get the idea that I believe in intelligent design. To be honest I don’t find ID to have a traditional understanding of God or creation, but is more akin to deism and the world as mechanism. Michael Hanby’s book No God, No Science deals very well with this topic.

            Lastly, a little charity goes a long way. It’s always great to receive pushback and criticism, but only when it’s constructive and helps one to test their ideas in order to refine or reconsider other lines of thought.


        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Ben it seems to me that ‘ideology’ is a better choice of words, closer to intended meaning by the author (if I understand him correctly). No need to get hung up on the meaning and function of philosophy, that is my larger point.


          • Ben Jefferies says:

            Well, my “hang up” is philosophy!

            On a side issue, given an earlier (last year) article on Severus of Antioch, I take it you have read Wear and Dillon on Dionysius the Areopagite and the Neoplatonic Tradition?

            On the same article here on Severus, I heartily concur with your view that VC Samuel took a rather blunt butcher’s cleaver to Leo’s Tome. In Samuel’s work on Chalcedon he repeats the odd allegation that Leo’s knowledge of Greek was somehow faulty. This hardly bears inspection – we know Leo served as a senior official to the imperial court from the Italian lands for quite some time, and would have been fully fluent in both conversational Greek and in the technicalities of Greek as the medium of theology.

            Severus’ distinctions between prosopon and hypostasis are useful here. I was surprised when I read Samuel, a huge enthusiast of Severus, that he appears to not deploy these in his discussion of Chalcedon with any real force.

            And finally, it is a real shame that this otherwise quite generous Eastern Orthodox account of Severus seems to miss his debt to the same neoplatonic education as motivated Pseudo-Dionysius (who, as Wear and Dillon neatly point out, Severus almost certainly knew in person – as well as quoting favourably in at least one important place). See,

            But that is me, way off topic. Apologies.


  9. Ben Jefferies says:

    ***Evolutionary processes cannot be coherently understood or defended within the mechanistic or materialist philosophies in currency…***

    The coherence of assertions is neither a necessary not sufficient guarantee of their validity. And what do you mean by coherence here?


  10. mlcampbe says:

    This is a wonderful article. I (fortuitously!) stumbled upon it a couple days ago after just having finished Elizabeth Johnson’s newest work, Ask the Beasts – a text which asks, and seeks to answer, an admittedly somewhat different set of questions than the ones proffered here, but one which nonetheless got me thinking about the cosmogenic process of evolution and the presence of suffering, death, and evil in the world.

    One of the issues that kept cropping up for me as I was reading Ask the Beasts was Johnson’s insistence that the evolutionary process as it has traditionally been articulated – in all its death-leavened detours – is precisely as God intended it from the beginning. In other words, Johnson seems to want to suggest that the pain of evolutionary striving, of which the extinction of whole species necessarily and intrinsically forms a part, represents a good: death, temporality, creaturely suffering, and so on, are “natural” (and hence divinely “ordained”) features of the created order as it moves along its emergent arch towards higher forms of unity/complexity. She even explicitly states at one point that the traditional view of the immortality of Adam and Eve, pre-Fall, represents a kind of fanciful theologico-rhetorical device and should in no-wise be taken literally.

    Beyond all the sticky, morally dubious, and theologically unsound areas Johnson’s position here invariably takes us (areas that this article points out so penetratingly in regard to Teilhard de Chardin’s meditations on the whole matter), I’m left wondering about evolution itself. Bulgakov, it seems to me, still wants to maintain the fundamental integrity of cosmic and biological evolution in the context of his extended reflections on created wisdom and world soul…but if you take out death and suffering from your account of it, what you have left is an abstraction: it might be logically sound, but what you most certainly don’t have anymore is evolution as we have always defined it. Put differently, you might have an explanation of how the universe and all life in it *should, would, and could have* unfolded slowly over time where it not for the death-injection human sin imparted it, one that mirrors after a certain fashion select aspects of evolutionary theory, but you don’t have an explanation that can seriously call itself the same thing. Without natural selection, there is no evolutionary theory. And without evolution, one is left with the burden of concocting an account of ecological and biological emergence that will never have empirical evidence on its side. In other words, one’s account will be just as fanciful and hypothetical as any other.

    Am I missing something here? I would love some feedback!


    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Gregory of Nyssa (particularly in De Hominis Opificio) is worth a good look; his protological conception of a ‘double creation’ addresses the sort of problems death/suffering/evolution pose.


  11. mlcampbe says:

    To clarify: Bulgakov argues that the fall of nature and the fall of man are inextricably woven realities – and I agree with him. But what I have trouble understanding is how – since he seems to want to take evolutionary theory seriously and on its own terms – he accounts for the existence of death and predation in the world prior to the historical act of the Fall, especially if, according to the principle of natural selection, it took that very same death and predation to bring about the advent of humankind in the first place. How is it possible that the renting, fissuring reality of death entered and was operative in the cosmos prior to Adam and Eve, when it was supposedly them who introduced it to begin with?


    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Well, in part, we must let go of familiar notions of time, i.e. ‘linear’ succession of events.
      On Nyssen’s account death was introduced prior to the fall, but that ‘prior’ is not prior for God, who based on foreknowledge allowed for bisexuality, procreation, death in the second and actual creation. This second creation is a deviation, an aberration of the original ‘first’ creation.


      • Grant says:

        But doesn’t this then create a chicken and the egg situation, as it is the very predation, death etc in the process of evolution as it has unfolded (in a creation itself as it functions even prior to biological life as one that can be as hostile to life as it is accommodating) that creates an emerging humanity over the couple of million years we developed (with massive amount of biological history prior to that influence who and what we are) in which characteristics are preferred due to their being advantageous in such an environment that would make a fall of humanity inevitable (such as violent nature, a degree of selfishness, a degree of greed and self-interest extending only to the group, death a matter of the reality lived, and no doubt others).

        It’s really hard to see how humanity could turn out other than it has, so I’m not sure this fully answers the problem. I’m being to feel there really isn’t an answer we can give to it, it is a mystery and very troubling issue, one you either accept there is an answer we will eventually know and have faith that there is for other reasons (such as what we believe to see in Christ) or it will cause to you rethink your whole theological outlook on God.


        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Grant, following Nyssen I don’t see a problem here. It is ‘inevitable’ because it is the actual creation, which is the metaxu of the in between as result of the aberration of the fall; we are awaiting the full recapitulation of creation in the eschaton. Only then will it be as originally intended.

          Mystery yet, but I have yet to encounter one which forestalls reflection. I would say mystery is the beginning of true reflection.


          • Grant says:

            I guess I don’t fully follow, as it is tge actual creation, therefore it is the only one. Why then is it as it is, it didn’t need to be, and as itbis seems to create the problem it is anticipating. Which brings the fall back to God, not man or other agents, if the actual creation was other than it is, if it was true intended creation that is eventually intended then it seems to me there would be no fall, no death or evil. I don’t see an answer here, this current creates it’s own problem, if it were different it need not be so, yet the current creation is what God wishes it to be, even as only a second creation. Why have a second creation which creates the problems it anticipates and then needs healing and being furfilled. It seems pointless and cruel and completely unnecessary. It likely is I just not getting it or following the line of thought fully, but I still don’t understand the answer, as this current secibd creation is the aberration of the fall and brings it’s issues into existence and is ultimately responsible for the problem it is accommodating for.


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Yes you misunderstand. Following Gregory of Nyssa, the actual creation is decidedly not what God wishes; it is however actualized based on divine foreknowledge of the fall. The current state of creation then is a result of the fall, of creaturely agency (here we have to abandon the accustomed linearity of time, the succession in time – result after cause). It is the most superior and sublime of protologies by far. Not insignificantly, it allows for death and predation from the very beginning without ascribing it to God’s good intentions.


          • Grant says:

            To me it does the opposite of that, time is of the essential dimensions by which we exist and have and achieve our being, both individually and corporately, we are bound into it. And no matter how time is viewed humanity is connected to billion year span of life fallen with death as it’s essentially reality throughout it’s whole existence, itself bound into a creation that is also broken and fallen.

            Humanity is the product of what it is made of, it is essentially along with the whoke of creation made fallen, where death, suffering and all forms of evil are built into it. Humanity fall is already the case, and are what they are because that is how process of creation made them, gow in fact life as a whole seen as a whole is, created fallen and broken, which unsurprisingly becomes more broken. To qoute Jessica Rabbit with a slight paraphrase, ‘we’re nit bad, we are just drawn that way’. This doesn’t absolve God to me, it does the opposite, much as the Calvinist system it makes God directly responsible for every evil, He becomes the author of sin and evil, creating the situation He foreees, like some time-traveller going back to solve a problem only to find out they caused it.

            I’m not even sure in what way actualuzing a world of suffering throughout accomadates or helps with a coming fall, or help in it’s redemption, I mean how would I help a inevitable burglary by trashing the house to be burgled? Redemption now is to solve something God creates, with humanity and the whole world blameless (we are what we intended to be)

            I can’t but see a very disturbing picture of God from this, for me like every other attempt to give an explanation or reason, it makes things worse (a case of the cure is worse than the disease). Perphaps for some this is an explanation they understand or makes sense to them (and they comprehend what I do not) but this is solution I can accept, is it has implications for me that seem too horrific. I will continue to live with the unknown ambivalence of not being able to explain why the universe is full of death and suffering from the beginning and seems made to be that way with how that is contradicted by the Gospel of Christ, and believe there will be an explanation that revealed in the end that will make sense of things. At least I will try to hold onto that hope as I continue to think of such things.

            It is no longer rational, but the situation seems insane to me.


          • Robert Fortuin says:


            In no way am I denying the reality and succession of time as we encounter it. You’re missing the most important point however, which is that to God, as the creator of time, time poses no limits of linearity (or any other kind!) as it does to us. This has far-reaching implications for protology.


  12. mlcampbe says:

    Interesting! Ill look into the piece you cite above – thank you!

    I wonder though…Nyssa’s trans/supra-linear account of creation as it exists eternally in the mind of God…it raises other questions for me. You mention that in the “first” creation, not only death, but also procreation and the presence of two sexes, were absent. For a whole host of reasons I have some trouble swallowing that pill, at least initially. If procreation and bisexuality are deviations from the original plan…I dunno – it seems to take us into some pretty freaky territory. I can just imagine contemporary gender theorists laying hold of that idea and running wild with it.


    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Not so freaky and wild in light of the ‘neither male nor female in Christ’ of St Paul, and the angelic existence of risen humanity to which Christ referenced (Matthew 22:30).


      • mlcampbe says:

        Yeah I suppose…but I’m not so sure the literalist interpretation you apply to those passages in Scripture is quite on the money. The unity that Paul envisions as part of the new creation certainly admits of diversity, albeit a transfigured one. And the angelic state referred to in Matthew most definitely doesn’t mean we’re destined for bodiless androgyny in heaven.

        Which is why I still struggle with this particular line of thought of Nyssa’s. I feel like certain aspects of his vision of creation – both old and new – are (as brilliant as they are) essentially hold-overs from neo-platonic thought. All sorts of problems follow on this.


        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Nyssen certainly isn’t arguing for bodiless androgyny nor unity without diversity. Now that indeed would be a neo-platonic rendering – but I don’t think one could ascribe it the Cappadocian father (as neither we do to St Paul, or to Christ) without committing eisegesis.


          • mlcampbe says:

            Oh well that’s good! Again, I haven’t read the text you recommended yet. Come to think of it, I haven’t really read much of Nyssa at all. So I’m really in no position to critique him.

            So what does he argue for exactly?


  13. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I’ve been reading with real interest, though perhaps with limited understanding, the extended conversation between Robert and Grant. Well done, guys. I wish I had some insights to contribute, but I really don’t. My brain hurts when I think about this topic. 🙂

    Robert, you haven’t persuaded me yet that Gregory of Nyssa’s construal of divine foreknowledge provides a satisfactory solution to the problems of theodicy posed by modern cosmology and evolutionary biology. Maybe my brain is just stuck here and is failing to see the obvious (which unfortunately is happening to me more and more frequently), but this solution has all the feeling of being ad hoc. The fact that great theologians like Gregory and Maximus invoked divine foreknowledge to solve the kind of problems we are discussing doesn’t mean that it actually works philosophically.

    So before I will find it persuasive, I need to see a more thorough discussion of divine foreknowledge, divine eternity, and divine creation. I keep coming back to David Burrell’s interpretation of Aquinas: God knows what God does. How is St Gregory’s view of divine foreknowledge not a form of Molinism? And does it really get God off the hook for suffering and death?


    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Fr Aidan: Whereas for Molinism divine sovereignty comes at the expense of human freedom and agency, in contrast this cannot be said of Gregory of Nyssa’s approach. It is quite the opposite – human freedom is affirmed on Gregory’s account; the condition of actual creation is as a result of (the misuse of) creaturely freedom. The divine will is detoured on account of our choice, the actual creation not as originally intended by divine will. As a result, creation from its actual beginning (which is not the original beginning as intended by God) is burdened with predation, death, suffering, etc.

      As to Aquinas – it seems to me he appropriates Nyssa in his argument that God knows actions which he does not predetermine.

      I fail to see what about this doesn’t work philosophically. Let me know where exactly you see it breaking down.

      Tom: I don’t think Gregory limits divine foreknowledge to one type only (i.e. to that which shall occur). The problematic addressed by On Infants is quite particular, and not the same as divine foreknowledge concerning protology.


  14. Tom says:

    Let’s see if I can get through this without typos and formatting mishaps.

    I have not read all the comments, so forgive me if I’m missing the point. I saw Fr Aidan’s last note mentioning Gregory of Nyssa’s view of divine foreknowledge as a solution to the problems of theodicy and thought I’d introduce one of Gregory’s own (practical/pastoral) applications of divine foreknowledge. It’s not an application I find at all helpful, but it’s interesting. In his On Infants’ Early Deaths Gregory expounds on the comfort to be derived from the providential use of divine foreknowledge. I’ll just re-present a portion of what I’ve shared elsewhere:

    More interesting, however, are Gregory’s thoughts on the providential use of such foreknowledge which he expounds at some length in his On Infants’ Early Deaths, explaining that God uses his foreknowledge of future evils to be committed by certain individuals should they reach maturity as the basis upon which to bring their life to an end while in infancy. It doesn’t seem possible that what is in fact foreknown (or timelessly known) can be the basis upon which God acts either to bring about or prevent what is foreknown (or timelessly known). What is foreknown (on the traditional view) is by definition already the result of whatever was done to bring it about or prevent it. It is that which shall occur. Gregory writes:

    “It is a sign of the perfection of God’s providence, that he not only heals maladies that have come into existence, but also provides that some should be never mixed up at all in the things which he has forbidden; it is reasonable to expect that he who knows the future equally with the past should check the advance of an infant to complete maturity, in order that the evil may not be developed which his foreknowledge has detected in his future life, and in order that a lifetime granted to one whose evil dispositions will be lifelong may not become the actual material for his vice.”

    “Therefore, to prevent one who has indulged in the carousals to an improper extent from lingering over so profusely furnished a table, he is early taken from the number of the banqueters, and thereby secures an escape out of those evils which unmeasured indulgence procures for gluttons. This is that achievement of a perfect Providence which I spoke of; namely, not only to heal evils that have been committed, but also to forestall them [foreknown evils] before they have been committed; and this, we suspect, is the cause of the deaths of new-born infants.”

    “But seeing that our reason in this matter has to grope in the dark, clearly no one can complain if its conjecturing leads our mind to a variety of conclusions. Well, then, not only one might pronounce that God, in kindness to the founders of some family, withdraws a member of it who is going to live a bad life from that bad life, but, even if there is no antecedent such as this in the case of some early deaths, it is not unreasonable to conjecture that they would have plunged into a vicious life with a more desperate vehemence than any of those who have actually become notorious for their wickedness. That nothing happens without God we know from many sources; and, reversely, that God’s dispensations have no element of chance and confusion in them every one will allow, who realizes that God is reason, and wisdom, and perfect goodness, and truth, and could not admit of that which is not good and not consistent with his truth. Whether, then, the early deaths of infants are to be attributed to the aforesaid causes, or whether there is some further cause of them beyond these, it befits us to acknowledge that these things happen for the best.”

    “The premature deaths of infants have nothing in them to suggest the thought that one who so terminates his life is subject to some grievous misfortune, any more than they are to be put on a level with the deaths of those who have purified themselves in this life by every kind of virtue; the more far-seeing providence of God curtails the immensity of sins in the case of those whose lives are going to be so evil. That some of the wicked have lived on does not upset this reason which we have rendered; for the evil was in their case hindered in kindness to their parents; whereas, in the case of those whose parents have never imparted to them any power of calling upon God, such a form of the Divine kindness, which accompanies such a power, is not transmitted to their own children; otherwise the infant now prevented by death from growing up wicked would have exhibited a far more desperate wickedness than the most notorious sinners, seeing that it would have been unhindered.”

    Besides being logically impossible, I can’t see such an explanation as a consolation to the parents of an infant who has died. “Take courage, your son was going to be a Hitler, so in his kindness God has prevented your child’s foreknown sins from being committed.” I thinking parent might ask, “Wait, weren’t those sins foreknown? And God intervened on the basis of what was to happen to prevent its happening? What just happened?”



  15. Andrew Gottshall says:

    Dear all,

    I’m very sorry to just back to his thread, but thanks for all the input and I’m delighted to see a great conversation!

    As to the Nyssa discussion, my personal view is that Nyssa allows creaturely contingency to modify divine eternity. Quite literally it would seem that in this case that God’s foreknowledge admits of change in God. One can defer to the reality that God’s knowledge is a timeless act, but that is what is precisely what’s at stake. I absolutely love Nyssa, but I believe he makes eternity here into a sort of pre-time and thus mistakenly admits time into the divine being. Strictly speaking God does not have foreknowledge, for this would imply that eternity is before time, rather than above time altogether. Furthermore, if God determines his relation to the world on the basis of his knowledge that humanity would descend into sin, the fall is given an absolute character, which I think is tantamount to affirming that God did indeed will the fall. This would seem to turn the principle of creation in God into a recalcitrant principle that must be outwitted in advance and overcome, and thus an eternal antagonism would seem to be fixed at the heart of the relation of the Creator to the creature. I personally don’t see any logical way out of these implications.

    And mlcampbe, this is a great question. Bulgakov does not see any problem with death and predation prior to the appearance of humanity in history. The last few parapgraphs of the paper is where I offer a critique of Bulgakov’s position that evolutionary history up til man is a natural and unfallen cosmic cycle. I’m not comfortable with saying this, and to be honest the evolution of the universe evokes as must horror as it does awe in me, and I take this to be fundamental awareness of the slavery of all things to death and decay. So I suppose for me it’s precisely evolution that is the problem. Evolution, as you rightly point out, is by it’s very nature a process that is predicated upon death; it is woven into the fabric of the entire universe, and yet the fragmenting force of decomposition does not appear within the causal nexus; everything arises in an evil state. This is why I don’t think it’s ultimately possible to assign a physical cause to evil, and thus it must have a metaphysical cause in the deepest roots of creaturely freedom. So, as I see it, the fall is precisely carnal embodiment as opposed to spiritual embodiment, the subordination of humanity’s spiritual principle to its material principle. And as the priestly center of the world, I believe that humanity’s supra-historical fall submerged the entire creation to a fallen process of becoming.

    The question which this all raises is: what is matter?. Evolution shows us that matter can assemble itself autopoetically into the great chain of being, from the mineral to the rational. In humanity matter is made spiritual, and further the incarnation reveals that not only is matter spirit-bearing but that it is also God-bearing. In other words, matter is capable of being deified or taking on the divine nature. This its theological definition. Yet the cosmos tells of a great struggle for matter to reach this state (which it’s only now reached in Christ, and Mary for some traditions), and viewed from its eschatological potential, the actual state of matter appears as a falsehood, lacking true spiritual embodiment. To me this is evidence (theological not empirical) that carnal embodiment would not have been had the fall not happened. The world is but a shadow of what it should be and what it will become. Spiritual embodiment is something we can at present only dimly understand, but as Bulgakov says in Sophia, it is far more real than the bodies we now inhabit. Not even the stars can last forever, and this belongs to their empirical nature of composition. Only spiritual bodies are unfading, because in them matter is entirely illumined and penetrated by spirit, as its unifying and organizing principle. How the cosmos could have unfolded in spiritual embodiment is perhaps impossible to divine, but I believe it to have been a real possibility because the incarnation discloses what matter fundamentally is: capable of free and everlasting union with God.

    I’ll leave here, because this post is already unacceptably long, but I hope it is of some help.

    Liked by 1 person

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