This following article was written by the Russian Orthodox Philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, soon after his friend Fr. Sergius Bulgakov received his first condemnation from the Moscow Patriarchate, on September 7th of 1935. It was published in the December issue of the Russian emigre journal, The Way (vol. 49). It must be said upfront that Bulgakov would not have shared Berdyaev’s ideas on the criteria for theological judgment, or his estimations of the concepts of ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heresy.’ I myself do not share them. Nonetheless, the article contains much of value, especially on the relationship between faith and reason and the necessity of free inquiry for the theologian—particularly when the theologian is working in arenas not already bounded by dogmatic definitions.
In light of the ongoing controversy surrounding the publication of Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart’s volume, That All Shall Be Saved, I thought it appropriate to bring again into the public sphere this historically important and ever-relevant reflection on the freedom of the Orthodox theologian. Questions present in the article concerning the nature and extent of dogmatic definition within Orthodoxy—especially in contrast to the answers provided to those questions in Catholicism and Protestantism—prove especially timely in light of contemporary discussions on universal salvation. These issues have certainly not disappeared since the time of Bulgakov’s ecclesiastical condemnations, and they deserve continued engagement from theologians both within and beyond Orthodoxy.
—Roberto de la Noval, Ph.D.
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The Spirit of the Grand Inquisitor:
On the Ukaz of Metropolitan Sergius
Condemning the Theological views of Fr. Sergius Bulgakov1
by Nikolai Berdyaev
“The princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them,
and they that are great exercise authority upon them.
But it shall not be so among you.”
~ Matthew 20:25
“We are not with you, but with him: that is our secret.”
~ Dostoevsky, “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor”
The ukaz of Metropolitan Sergius [Stragorodsky] which condemns the views of Fr. Sergius Bulgakov has a much wider significance than just the dispute over Sophia. The destiny of Russian religious thought is affected, it becomes a question of freedom of conscience and of the very possibility of thought in Orthodoxy. Is Orthodoxy a religion of the freedom of spirit or an inquisitorial torture-chamber? Since Metr. Sergius, clearly, recognizes an infallibility for himself and for his Synod that far surpasses the infallibility of the pope, and since he wants to introduce the Catholic practice of the index, the issue here is the nature of Orthodoxy. The value of the ukaz condemning Fr. S. Bulgakov is not only extremely compromised but also completely annulled by the fact that Metr. Sergius has not read Fr. S. Bulgakov’s books and has composed his condemnation on the basis of statements from a certain Mr. Stavrovsky2 and communications from the Brotherhood of St. Photius, that is, on the basis of a delation.3 If in scholarly or philosophical literature someone puts together a judgment of the views of an author while not having read his books, this is called lack of conscientiousness and is morally condemned. But in adminstrative-ministerial literature, be it ecclesial or governmental, quite often judgments are based on delations and spy testimony; there the ethics, clearly, are different. There is no charism that grants [a cleric] judgment of books he has not read.
We are dealing here with a phenomenon characteristic of our era. This is ecclesial fascism. Fascism is the dictatorship of the youth over thought. If fascism with its violence and its disrespect to the dignity of man is repulsive in political life, then even more so is it disgusting in ecclesial life. From the ukaz itself I got a whiff of that musty, damned seminarianism, and I understand how difficult must be the conflict between Fr. S. Bulgakov, a man of high intellectual culture, and that old, damned seminarianism which simultaneously rejects thought and demands unthinking faith, faith in authority, and is also drenched in the most vulgar rationalism. In the ukaz, with its censure and condemnation, Fr. Bulgakov is called a “true member of the intelligentsia,” and to this, apparently, are ascribed his “heretical” inclinations. If Fr. S. Bulgakov had been a shopkeeper or a consistory official, then, clearly, there would have been revealed to him the secrets of Orthodoxy which are hidden from a man of the intelligentsia. Orthodoxy, apparently, is understood as a religion of rank and class. Everyday Orthodoxy has always had a particular draw for merchants and the petit bourgeois. Fr. S. Bulagkov hails from the religious estate: he is the son of a priest and grew up in the seminary, but he has great intellectual experience, has passed through a complex path of searching; his name is written in the history of the Russian intelligentsia, and this is something that will not be forgiven him by the old classist, petit-bourgeois Orthodoxy. But it is just this that makes Fr. S. Bulgakov a man of important destiny. It is unacceptable to relate to such a person in the way seen in the ukaz, absent any Christian love or any grace. It is absolutely clear that Metr. Sergius denies theological thought, denies not just freedom of thought, but thought itself. Theology must be reduced to the writing of seminary textbooks. Fr. S. Bulgakov understands Christianity somewhat differently than the seminary textbooks. But the understanding of Christianity in the spirit of these seminary textbooks was one of the essential causes of the fall away from Christianity by a significant portion of humanity. With such a slavish and dark religion a more developed human consciousness and conscience could not reconcile itself.
The ukaz of Metr. Sergius wants to return Russian Orthodoxy to this state of absence of thought in which it found itself in the old Muscovite tsardom, he wants to cross out Russian religious thought of the 19th and 20th centuries, the only thought which existed in Orthodoxy after Greek patristics and the Byzantine currents of the 14th century. All Russian religious thought from the point of view of this ukaz must be recognized as unorthodox, it all contains one form or another of “heretical” inclinations. The condemnation of Fr. S. Bulgakov is simultaneously a condemnation of Khomyakov, of Bukharev, of Dostoevsky, of Vl. Soloviev, of Nesmelov, of N. Fedorov, despite the great differences among them. What remains is a desert. In making no distinctions between dogmas and theological teachings—which is the Catholic tendency—Metr. Sergius is forced to deny any theological creativity. Creative thought requires talent, given from God, and there exists ressentiment towards this talent. This is Orthodox nihilism, enmity towards culture. There exist not only obligatory dogmas of the Orthodox Church, but there exists also the obligatory, sole theological doctrine of the Orthodox Church and the infallible guardian of this theological doctrine is Metr. Sergius and his synod. It is unclear where such an understanding of Orthodoxy comes from. In Orthodoxy there are not even obligatory “catechetical” books. Fr. S. Bulgakov can take comfrot in the fact that there has never been one teacher of the Church who was not accused of some heresy. Any creative manifestation of theological and religio-philosophical thought, any new problematic, is met with accusations of heresy. I understood the ukaz as coming from the religion of the synagogue, the religion of scribes and Pharisees. Christianity in history has constantly been remade and degenerated into a religion of legalism. Orthodox metropolitans, even if they set themselves in contrast to Catholicism, have nonetheless constantly sought infallibility, a collective papism which is much worse than individual papism. The sinful will to power, to ruling and to tyranny, has been a constant torment for Christian history and is explanatory of much of it. And right here it is time, finally, to correct this injustice towards Catholicism.
When the Orthodox used to criticized Catholicism, they normally accused it of authoritarianism, of denying freedom of conscience and thought, of inquisition. Tyutchev wrote of the pope: “These fateful words, his downfall: ‘freedom of conscience—what nonsense!'”4 The Slavophiles, Dostoevsky, and even all official theologians who wrote against Catholicism, denounced Catholic clericalism, the violence of a hierarchy thinking itself infallible and placed above the conscience and thought of the faithful. It was presuppposed that in Orthodoxy there is a greater freedom of spirit, no clericalism. But that was only while they were attacking Catholicism. When they turned to the inner life of the Orthodox Church, then no such freedom proved to exist; there was less of it than in Catholicism. Khomyakov, who taught that freedom was the foundation of the Orthodox Church, was not able in Russia to publish his theological works; he had to publish them in French. Bukharev underwent a genuine persecution. Nesmelov had to rework the conclusion of his dissertation on St. Gregory of Nyssa to a contrary position so that it would be accepted at the Theological Academy. Vl. Soloviev was not able to publish much in Russia and was always under suspicion.
The ecclesiastical censor made impossible the development of Russian theological thought in Russia. Let no one appeal to the dependence of the Church on the government. The episcopate was always distinguished by its sycophancy towards governmental power. But if bishops had had their way, then the spiritual oppression would have been even greater. Freedom has been upheld not by official Orthodoxy, not by the ecclesial hierarchy, but by Russian Orthodox “modernism” which is more faithful to the roots of Christianity. It is completely the same with respect to sobornost’. In Khomyakov we find genius intuitions concerning freedom and sobornost‘, but they did not correspond to the factual situation of the Orthodox Church. Sobornost’ existed in thought but not in practice. We must decisively state that among Catholics there is much more freedom of thought than among the Orthodox, and precisely not as an abstract concept but in practice. For this reason, in Catholicism a rich and diverse theological literature is possible—and that is not even mentioning the Western Middle Ages, when freedom of thought in Catholicism was greater, more extensive, than in modern times. Thus in the Middle Ages there was a flowering of very diverse and mutually contending theological, philosophical, and mystical schools. There was nothing equivalent to this in the Orthodox East. And now Catholic thought finds the possibility of movement, of responding to the problems of our era without being decisively suffocated. So it is, for example, that among the French Catholic Thomists, that is, people who prize orthodoxy, there has arisen an entire movement of neo-humanism, very radical in social and cultural questions, standing at the height of the contemporary problematic. In this movement we find even priests, monk-Dominicans and others, participating. And they are left in peace. It is impossible to imagine something similar in the Orthodox world, among Orthodox clergy and monks who are especially in need of culture and enlightenment. The same obscurantist clericalism is increasing among the Orthodox. Among us there are only solitary figures who find themselves in a tragic situation.
For this painful theme I consider most shocking the destiny of the “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.” It was warmly greeted by K. Pobedonostsev5 whom all of thinking Russia considered the Grand Inquisitor. This misunderstanding was possible only because he related the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor exclusively to Catholicism and did not permit the idea that it could refer to Orthodoxy also. Apparently even Dostoevsky himself insufficiently understood what he had written in the genius Legend, and perhaps he would have feared its logical conclusions. In reality, in the Legend Dostoevsky revolted against all religious authority as the temptation of the antichrist, wherever and whenever it might appear. This was an unprecedented hymn to the freedom of Spirit, the most extreme form of religious anarchism. The Legend has a Catholic guise, but it refers not only to Catholicism, it refers to Orthodoxy too, just as it also refers to the authoritatian religion of atheistic communism. Authority in religion for Dostoevsky is the spirit of the antichrist, the acceptance of the temptation rejected by Christ in the desert. And to this temptation all the churches in history have been subject. And they always justified themselves as the Grand Inquisitor does, with concern over “these little ones.” The ukaz of Metr. Sergius is full of the Spirit of the Grand Inquisitor, but without the poetry and melancholy of the latter. We must stop accusing Catholicism—better to take a look at ourselves. If a resurrection awaits Russian Christianity, then it must overcome its self-satisfaction, its musty provincialism, its unchristian nationalism, it must enter the greater world.
I am not a cleric, nor a dogmatician or a theologian; I am a private philosopher, and therefore in my criticism of the ukaz of Metr. Sergius I will stand on different ground than that on which Fr. S. Bulgakov must stand. Disputes about heresy are something I do not accept, and I attempt to give my own psychological and sociological analyses of the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy. It struck me, as a philosopher, that Metr. Sergius speaks of Plato and Plotinus, the greatest philosophers of antiquity. He considers damnable that Fr. Bulgakov appeals to Plato and Plotinus, and he finds in this evidence of the sources of the theological “heresies” of Fr. Bulgakov. It seems to him clear that in these souces we find pagan philosophy. We must decisively express our protest against the expression itself that reeks of seminarianism. The philosophy of Plato and Plotinus is not pagan philosophy but rather simply philsoophy. It is unclear what philosophy Metr. Sergius would consider acceptable—not the philosophy of Kant and Hegel, and likely not the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. It is clear that he rejects philsoophy in general and considers it an impious thing. But for the same reason he should reject theology too, since theology is impossible without philosophy, without the categories of thought worked out by philosophy. It is no secret that Greek patristics were drenched in Greek philosophy, in Neoplatonism; St. John Damascus, the greatest authority in Orthodoxy, was permeated by Aristotelianism, as were the Western scholastics. Certainly Metr. Sergius does not think that Orthodoxy is pure fideism or something like religious feeling? Then he is must closer to certain Protestant currents (Schleiermacher, Ritschl) than to the Greek teachers of the Church.
It is indisputable that Fr. S. Bulgakov is a Platonist. I myself am not a Platonist and in the eyes of Metr. Sergius I profess a far worse philosophy than Platonism. But it would be interesting to know since when being a Platonist is a heresy and crime? Of course the theology of Fr. S. Bulgakov is gnosis, religious knowledge, and not an administrative synodal ukaz. But this does not mean that it has anything in common with Valentinus or Basilides. I think they have nothing in common. The gnostics had a dualistic tendency that is completely opposed to sophiology. But beyond that, what is known about the gnostics apart from what their enemies wrote about them, distorting their ideas? I fear that they know as much about the gnostics as Metr. Sergius learned of the ideas of Fr. S. Bulgakov through the statements of Mr. Stavrovsky. But in free and civilized governments, those zealous for orthodoxy are not given the right to destroy the works of those they accuse of heresy. Notwithstanding the confusion of theological ideas expressed in Metr. Sergius’ ukaz, one thing is clear: it stands exclusively on soteriological ground, that is, it allows thinking related only to salvation. This is quite characteristic and completely comprehensible. An exclusively soteriological, that is, utilitarian understanding of the incarnation, the reduction of the entire Christian worldview to soteriology, allows for the possibility of fortifying the organization of power. Hidden behind this are the instincts of rule and power. Those who hold in their hands the keys of salvation exercise power over human souls. This is the advantage of the Grand Inquisitor’s theory. In the ukaz, Fr. S. Bulgakov is accused of denying even the eternal torments of hell, although there is nothing about this in his books. But this is a beloved motif of soteriological currents. It is precisely the teaching of the eternal torments of hell that has always been the main support of power, rule, and religious tyranny. In the dispute of Metr. Sergius with Fr. S. Bulgakov, what appears most important is not the question of Sophia but rather the question of the incarnation. Is the incarnation exclusively a matter of salvation or is it the continuation of the creation of the world? Is the humanization of the Son of God accidental, elicited by sin, the correction of a mistake, or does it enter into the plan of the world’s creation? And is not the incarnation a universal divine process? Metr. Sergius denies the foundational idea passed on by all Russian religious thought, the idea of Divine-Humanity. He denies the correspondence btween Divinity and humanity, the humanity of God and the humanity of Christianity, and thereby he returns to a pre-Chrisitian consciousness which, in fact, has always played a great role in official Christianity.
I now proceed to the foundational question of orthodoxy and heresy. For me it is absolutely clear that the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy bear a sociological character. “Orthodoxy” is the religious consciousness of the collective and behind it is hidden the rule of the collective over its members. This is the organized domination of the genus over the individual. The nature of orthodoxy and heresy is quite clear in Russian communism. Every Soviet Communist philosophy stands under the banner of the difference between orthodoxy and heresy and not between truth and error. Through orthodoxy the central organs of the Communist party rule over human souls. This is also a unique anti-Christian soteriology. Heretics are doomed to perdition. This is an imitation of what was earlier held in the religious sphere. Behind the search for and condemnations of heresies were always hidden the instincts of power and instincts of sadism which have generally played a massive role in religious history. The entire teaching on hell is the spawn of the sadism of some and the masochism of others. The condemnation of heresies has always had ecclesio-political motives and behind them malice was always hiding. It is completely mistaken to think that the pathos of orthodoxy is the pathos of truth. Orthodoxy and truth are completely different concepts and behind them stand different motives. The pathos of orthodoxy is the pathos of rule, domination, and compulsory unity, but not the pathos of truth and understanding. Orthodox doctrine is not understanding and it denies understanding. It always has a utilitarian character. Better that the conservative orthodox not appeal to the love of truth—this does not suit them. It is precisely they who not only reconciled themselves with an unconscionable perversion of historical truth perpetrated by church historians, but they also excommunicated those who defended historical truth. German Protestant schoalrship has tremendous religious merits precisely because it seeks truth. The falsification of history is the special product of orthodoxy. Marxist orthodoxy on this point is no different than religous orthodoxy.
The truth is disclosed only in freedom and not through authority that suffocates thought. Rule in the Church bears a social character that is in all points similar to the rule in the government or in primeval hordes and tribes. Everything here is opposed to the Gospel, opposed to the Kingdom of the Spirit, everything is based on disbelief in the Spirit. Christian reform demands a conclusive overcoming of the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy as having a manifestly social and utilitarian character; it demands the replacement of them by the concepts of truth and error or lie. Truth grants freedom, it liberates, but orthodoxy produces the inquisitorial torture-chamber and grants freedom only to the sadistic instincts of those who rule. Christ said of himself that he is the truth, but a system of concepts thirsting for power says it is orthodox. Christ also said that he is the way and the life. But orthodoxy denies the way and the life. If this word should ever be used, then the only real heresy is heresy aginst Christian life, and not heresy against doctrine or this or that system of concepts. The ukaz of Metr. Sergius is exactly this heresy against Christian life. Precisely due to the pursuit of truth and from love for truth, a person may reject a system of concepts that proclaims itself orthodox but that is irreconcilable with an awakened conscience, with intellectual integrity. Dogmas are only symbols of spiritual experience and of the spiritual path, not a frozen system of concepts, not intellectual doctrines which always belong to a certain time and which change. Religious truth can be accepted only actively by the entire spirit of a person, by his enlightened reason and conscience.
No one except a slave can accept a doctrine imposed by authority. Authority exists if people believe in it. But this means that it is faith, instead of authority, to which primacy belongs. And in the Catholic world, when authority attempts to force itself on the conscience and the consciousness of Catholics, no one really accepts this force. Either they keep quiet and hide their views or they break away. Religious life concerns the spiritual plane of being and therefore nothing in it has meaning without freedom. But authority tries to dominate through the terror associated with the threats of damnation and eternal hell. In this lies its baseness that empties the spiritual life of any value. This is religion on the social but not on the spiritual plane. In the ukaz of Metr. Sergius I see the same disbelief in spirit, the same faith in mediation, similar to the mediation of government, taken from the world of the social relationships of domination that exist in all ecclesio-administrative and governmental acts. People of ecclesial authority are people of little faith, they deny the spirit, they believe only in the world of visible things and its methods. The Spirit of God acts only through the Spirit. There can be no criteria for the Holy Spirit taken from the lower spheres of being; the Holy Spirit is His own criteria.
The consciousness of conservative Church people, especially of people of power in the Church, predates the critique of knowledge, it finds itself in the stage of naive realism. That is why they do not understand the double character of revelation: they do not understand the activity of man in the reception of revelation—the relationship between the Subject and the object of revelation is interpreted in a naive-realistic fashion. Revelation presupposes not only God but also man. There can be no revelation to a piece of wood or to a stone. The Spirit reveals Himself only to spirit, and the human spirit is always active in the reception of revelation. Revelation fractures in the human element and is conditioned by it, it is expressed in human language and in the categories of human thought. Hence the degrees of revelation; hence development; hence the relativity and conditional character of much of what was recognized as holy in the past but was bound up with human limitation. Hence the inevitability of the constant purification of Christianity. The structure of human consciousness changes, the spiritual state of man remains diverse. Man reacts creatively to what is revealed to him from above. There are placed before man, as before a free spirit, all the new problems, and an answer is demanded. There exist problems which were absolutely not posed by the ecumenical councils. The problems of the cosmos and of man, the mystery of the created world, did not face the ecumenical councils and the teachers of the Church. There are no dogmas concerning man and the cosmos, there is only the dogma of the Holy Trinity and of Christ. For this reason, theological ferment and struggle are inevitable. For complicated philosophical reasons, I am not a proponent of the teaching of Sophia, but I recognize the great significance of the problematic associated with this teaching. My trouble with the teaching on Sophia is the opposite of the trouble of the conservative orthodox, for I fear the possible conservative conclusions stemming from this teaching: I fear the sacralization in history of what cannot be sacred, for example, theocratic government, individual characteristics, the form of organic life, and the like. But I am in solidarity with Fr. S. Bulgakov in his new problematic and in his struggle for freedom of religious thought. At times it seems to me that if he had not used the Greek word Sophia but had only used the Russian word “Wisdom” [Premudrost’], then he would have been left in peace. This is an indicator of the nullity and pathetic character of human accusations.
The ukaz of Metr. Sergius presupposes that every member of the Moscow Patriarchal Church must share the theological opinion expressed in the ukaz and join in the condemnation of Fr. S. Bulgakov. In my conviction, the theme of the ukaz bears no relation to ecclesial infighting over jurisdiction. But as a member of this Church [viz. the Moscow Patriarchate], I must decisively declare that I respond to condemnation of Fr. S. Bulgakov with the greatest indignation, as towards an obscurantist coercion of thought. I not only do not share the theological ideas of this ukaz but I consider them to be on the very lowest level of thought. Let the logical conclusions be drawn with respect to me. But I must say in advance that I submit to no coercion of human conscience and thought. It is sad to think that the persecuted often become the persecutors. I remain in Christ’s Church that is founded on love and freedom. For freedom and creativity in religious life, for the dignity of the human, a heroic battle must be waged. Truth is not a thing, an object, is is not a system of concepts falling from heaven; it creatively discloses itself and it is won along the way and in life. Truth is given not to be preserved in a certain place but to be realized in the fullness of life and to be developed.
￼ Nikolai Berdyaev, “Dukh velikogo inkvisitora: po povodu ukaza mitropolita sergiia osuzhdaiushchago bogoslovskie vgliadi o. C. Bulgakova,” Put’ Vol. 49 (1935), 72-82.
￼ President of the Society of St. Photius (an ecclesial brotherhood formed in opposition to the Brotherhood of St. Sophia, to which Bulgakov belonged) and secretary to Metropolitan Eleutherius of Lithuania, who was under the Moscow Patriarchate. For more, see Antoine Arjakovsky, The Way (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 384). – Trans.
￼ The word donos regularly refers to a secret denunciation to authorities concerning someone’s activities. Given the Soviet regime in Russia whence Metr. Stragorodsky issued his ukaz, Berdyaev intends to cast the the Brotherhood of St. Photius and Stavrovsky as conspirators in totalitarian tactics. – Trans.
￼ Fyodor Tytchev, “Encyclica” (1864).
￼ The Ober-Procurator of the Most Holy Synod in the Russian Orthodox Church from 1880-1905. Infamous for having overseen the condemnation of Leo Tolstoy as a heretic. – Trans.