The Central Problematic of Sophiology

by Fr. Sergius Bulgakov

The following essay by Fr. Sergius Bulgakov is taken from a paper presented in England in 1936.1 The full essay begins with an exposition of sophiology as refracted through various dogmatic arenas: theology; cosmology and anthropology; Christology; Pneumatology; and ecclesiology (the reader can find much fuller exposition of sophiology in light of these topics in the dogmatic trilogy On the Divine-Humanity). Bulgakov then establishes sophi­ology as a theological viewpoint and not a new teaching or a new heresy (the controversy over Bulgakov’s ecclesiastical condemnations in 1935 can be heard in the background here). Rather, Bulgakov explains, sophiology is like Thomism in Catholicism or Barthi­anism in Protestant theology: simply a way of understanding the totality of accepted Christian dogmas in one consistent worldview. And one of this Christian worldview’s greatest strengths is that it provides a dogmatic foundation for the nascent ecumenical movement’s emphasis on “practical” or “social” Christianity as promoted by the 1925 World Conference of Life and Work in Stockholm. It is in this light that Bulgakov, in the rest of the essay translated below, develops the distinctive features of sophiology as a “theologoumenon” intended to respond to the crisis of secularization in the West and to the promise of greater unity among the Christian churches.

Text

The central problematic of sophiology is the question of the relationship between God and the world, or, what is essentially the same thing, between God and man. In other words, sophiology is a question about the power and meaning of Divine-Humanity; that is, not simply of the God-Man qua incarnate Logos, but rather of Divine-Humanity precisely as the unity of God with the entire created world—in man and through man. In this question, a millennia-old battle wages within the heart of Christianity: the battle between dualism and monism, whose resolution consists in the truth of monodualism, that is, in Divine-Humanity.

In the Christian worldview there are two extreme poles, both false in their one-sidedness. One is a world-rejecting Manicheism which establishes an unbridgeable chasm between God and the world, thereby abolishing the Divine-Humanity. The other pole is pantheism or cosmo-theism, which takes the world as it is, divinizing it, in effect, even if only in the form of “secularization.” The first worldview we find in differing and often unexpected writings, primarily where the intensity of religious feeling and the (immediate) feeling of God puts before man the following alternative: God or the world. Thanks to this, man, in being directed towards God, is simultaneously turned away from the world, scorning its values and works and leaving the world, in its isolation from God, to its own fate. We can find such acosmism or even anticosmism in the history of the Church, on the one hand, in Eastern Christianity in its pervasive monastic worldview; on the other, we can observe it in orthodox Protestantism, which also claims that God is absolutely transcendent to the world, thereby rendering the world godless. The second worldview, the secularization of life, is maintained in the context of the universal paralysis of contemporary Christianity, which has lost all power of serving as a guide for life and which has itself become subject to this life. If salvation is taken to mean flight from the world accompanied, on the other hand, by slavery to this world, then that same world will increasingly turn away from such a Christianity and will take itself and its own life to be ends in themselves. Contemporary godlessness, which in reality represents the divinization of nature and man, is thus a special form of paganism.

This paganism is by no means an areligious reality, as it takes itself to be, but is rather only the rejection of Christianity. Yet Christianity proves powerless in contemporary life to over­come this secession of religion from the world, for this secession is taking place not outside the church but within it. Attempts to unite Christianity and the world by making the world subject to a powerful ecclesiastical organization (as occurs in Romanism) lead only to the extrinsic union of schismatic potencies which cannot maintain their unity, for both of these in their striving for totality mutually exclude the other. It is in this tragic state of impotence that “social” Christianity abides, insofar as it constitutes merely an appendage [to society] and an opportunism of sorts, with no awareness of its own dogmatic foundations. It wants to be “practical Christianity,” a Nicaea of ethics.2 But this applied character [of social Christian­ity] testifies much more to the complete absence of the dogmatic Nicaea, to the transactions of sorts it has made with life, to its acquiescence and compromises, than it does to creative leadership and inspiration. Christianity (alas!) only follows life and even lags behind it, but it does not lead it. For how could it possibly lead anything in life without understanding it, without believing in it, assuming instead the position merely of a missionary appendage, of philanthropy and moralism? The social ecumenical movement, completely occupied with its practical goals, has not yet become aware of its own theological problematic. And the latter is this: the justification of the world in God as opposed to the secession of the world from God, which in practice is preached and confessed in different types of Christian thought, as much in Orthodoxy as in Protestantism.

Does there exist a ladder between heaven and earth, by which the angels ascend and des­cend? Or is there only a springboard which must be used by those wishing to “save them­selves”: a springboard, in other words, to escape the world? Is the Ascension of the Lord the final, and, so to speak, encompassing act of our salvation, or is it followed by a new coming of Christ—the Parousia, which will constitute not only judgment but also the beginning of a new, eternal advent of Christ on earth? The answer to this question was already given long ago in Christian faith, but it has hardly been paid sufficient attention. The answer is the foundational dogma of Christianity, the dogma of Divine-Humanity, of the created world united with the divine world. In the divine Wisdom, heaven has stooped down to earth. The world exists not only in itself, but also in God, and God abides not only in heaven, but also on the earth—in the world and in man. Christ said of Himself: “All power is given to me in heaven and on earth” (Mt. 28:18). Divine-Humanity is the dogmatic summons to spiritual ascesis as well as to creative work, to salvation from the world as well as to the salvation of the world. This is that dogmatic preaching which, in all its power and glory, should be proclaimed by Christ’s Church.

The dogma of the Divine-Humanity represents the special theme of sophiology, which is nothing other than the elaboration of that dogma in all its force. Our contemporary moment lacks the power to give a new, vital interpretation to those dogmatic formulas which the Church preserves in her Tradition, but what it can tell us is that there is not a single dog­matic problem that is not in need of such a re-examination. The center of attention [for sophiology] remains, as ever before, the foundational Christian dogma of the Incarnation: “The Word was made flesh.” We firmly adhere to that dogmatic interpreta­tion which Chal­cedon has bequeathed to us. The roots of this dogma reach to the depths of heaven and earth, to the most intimate mysteries of the Holy Trinity and of the created nature of man. Today “Incarnationism” represents the foundation of dogmatic thinking in Anglicanism as well as in Protestantism, not to mention in the ancient Eastern Orthodox and Roman Cath­olic Churches. But in affirming this, do they realize that this dogma has certain presupposi­tions? For it necessarily presupposes the doctrine of God, and the doctrines of man and of primordial Divine-Humanity. And it is precisely these presuppo­sitions which are developed in the teaching on the Wisdom of God: sophiology. To an even greater degree, sophiology concerns another dogma recognized by the Church but still less understood and developed: the dogma of the Pentecost, that is, of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the world and His abiding in it, in connection with the dogma of the Incarnation; this connection, as well as the truth of the power of Pentecost which abides in the one humanity, is also developed in the sophiological doctrine.

One of the greatest and hitherto unconquered difficulties of the ecumenical movement of our time is the fact that the Churches strive for unity while having no dogma on the essence of the Church. What is at issue here is not the external marks of church order, liturgy, and so forth, but rather what the Church is in herself and what the “union of the Churches” can mean, seeing as the Church by her nature is one and united. From the point of view [of the ecumenical movement], is the Church as the revelation of Divine-Humanity and the Wisdom of God—Sophia—a matter of mutual agreement or of reality? Until the consciousness of the Church attains the depths of self-consciousness, all ecumenical “agreements” will remain fruitless. For the individual Churches will always come up against the walls dividing them, in the tragic consciousness of their impotence, helpless­ness, and of the objective impossibility of genuine union. For there exists only one path for attaining that union: understanding the Church as the revelation of Divine-Humanity, as Sophia, the Wisdom of God.

We will not enumerate here the numerous theological problems for which the teaching of the Wisdom of God provides new illumination. We will mention only one: never before have the questions of the fate of man in history, of the creativity of man and of his responsibility to his own Divine-humanity, stood before Christian consciousness as they do today. History is unfolding for us as an apocalypse; the apocalypse as eschatology; the end as an achievement; and the second advent of Christ in the Parousia as the [Christian] expectation of Christ and as His encounter with the Church: “And the Spirit and the Bride say: come! Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” (Rev. 22: 17, 20).

How can we understand the curse of secularization and the pale sickness of a Manichean flight from the world? Are they symptoms of the impotence of historical Christianity, of its failure, or are they the fading darkness of the morning dawn which augurs the light of new day? And what is the world? Is it Divine-Humanity in the process of being realized, the Wisdom of God revealing herself, “the woman clothed with the sun” (Rev. 12:1) who enters the desert only because the dragon chases her there—or is the world itself this desert, the “empty house” abandoned by its lords?

Sergius BulgakovTwo powers are at war in this world: cosmism and anticosmism, and these are two sides of a bifurcated yet essentially united divine-human theocosmism. Histor­ically, secularization came into the European world with the Renaissance and the Reformation, two parallel streams from the same source: anticosmic cosmism, however paradoxical such a formulation may sound. Humanism’s affirmation of the world, which ascribes to the latter the right of an independent existence, is a reaction against Christianity’s rejection of the world. Here we encounter a dialectic of unconquerable contradictions which is laying waste to contemporary culture. But this unconquerable dialectic is hardly wisdom’s last word. In our posture towards the world, we must establish the right Christian asceticism which would fight the world out of love for it. We must overcome the various powers of humanism, the Renaissance and the Reforma­tion, but this overcoming must not be dialectical, that is abstract and theoretical, but rather positive, flowing from love for the world in God. But this can be achieved only through a certain metanoia, a change of our entire worldview, which can occur by sophianically understanding the world as the Wisdom of God. Only this can communicate new powers to the world as well as a new inspiration for new creative work, for overcoming the mechaniza­tion of life and of man. In the sophianic worldview lies the future of Christianity. Sophiology is the hub of all theoretical and practical problems of contemporary Christian dogmatics and asceticism. Sophiology is, in the full sense of the word, a theology of Krisis—but as salvation, not perdition.

Finally, we turn to our secularized and pagan culture, which has lost its soul; we turn to our historical tragedy, which seems hopeless. The way out can be found through a renewal of our faith in the sophianic divine-human meaning of history and of creative work. For Sophia the Wisdom of God overshadows this sinful and yet consecrated earth. And the prophetic symbol of this overshadowing is the ancient Hagia Sophia in Byzantium, in whose dome Heaven itself condescends to earth.

Trans. Roberto J. De La Noval

Footnotes

[1] “Zur Frage nach der Weisheit Gottes: Thesen zum Vortrag über die Sophiology vorgelegt auf der englisch-russischen Theologen-Konferenz in Mirfild.” The Society of Resurrection, 28 April 1936. Kyrios 2 (1936), 93–101. The German text can be found here: https://www3.unifr.ch/sergij-bulgakov/de/dokumentation/text-de.html.
The Russian version translated here into English was translated by Bulgakov’s student Lev Zander into Russian from the German version delivered at the conference (which itself was a translation from Bulgakov’s original Russian!). Bulgakov himself verified the final Russian version, which can be found in Vestnik, 1971, 101-102, pp. 104-108. I have compared the Russian and the German and translated the latter where necessary for clarity’s sake.

[2] In the German version, Bulgakov associates this term with Church of Sweden prelate Archbishop Soderblöm, the organizer of the 1925 Stockholm conference.

* * *

Roberto De La Noval, Ph.D., received his doctorate in theology from the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on Sergius Bulgakov and Russian Religious Thought. He has also translated multiple works by Bulgakov, with one in the most recent issue of the Journal of Orthodox Christian Studies and another (with co-translator Yury P. Avvakumov) in process with University of Notre Dame Press. He has published with Public Orthodoxy, America Magazine, and Church Life Journal, among others. My special thanks to Dr Noval for choosing Eclectic Orthodoxy for the initial publication of this piece and for the introduction. Quite a coup!

This entry was posted in Sergius Bulgakov. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Central Problematic of Sophiology

  1. A rather interesting thing stood out to me in this essay, since I am chasing down some other aspects of his thought, and this relates to his eschatology. Since I am still in the early phases of diving into Bulgakov, I can’t say anything with certainty since his thought is so incredibly challenging. But, one interesting connection I am seeing already in reading Lamb of God is the manner in which he connects his sophiology with chiliasm. I personally have journeyed through every version of millinerian thought from premillennialism (I was raised in a dispensational household), to postmillennialism, to amillennialism and every historicist/preterist and futurist permutation found between these views and surely these all have their helpful insights into aspects of eschatology that each school of thought overlooks, but in the end, it seems like each school of thought is a different blind man groping at an elephant trying to describe the same thing from their own perspective. However, as I have come to embrace apokatastasis, it has forced a kind me to a reassessment of these views but from a widened perspective that takes into account the aionian structure of thought found also in Origen and Evagrius, and eventually, ironically back to a kind of chilliasm that is of a wholly different order. My return to a sort of chiliasm is hopefully one that takes seriously the crippling limitations of the hot blooded world-flight found in dispensational premillennialism as well as the other important insights of other forms of millinerian thought that gives serious weight to the preterist/historicist schools that rightly draw attention to the immanent historical destruction of Jerusalem as a (and perhaps the) paridigmatic event that crystallized the eschatological vision of the early church.

    Essentially the kind of chiliasm I have in mind would probably fit well within the limited strictures David Bentley Hart speaks to in That All Shall Be Saved in his second meditation where he discusses his own views on the book of Revelation, even if he takes more of a historicist view himself. There is a coming immanent judgement of history within history that coincides with the Parousia, and then an eschatological judegement beyond history coinciding with the descent of Heavenly Zion. Here I would simply affirm that Paul in 1 Cor. 15 is essentially prefiguring in a rough sketch form concepts that John loads with all of his barouque apocolyptic imagery throughout Revelation. And while I am more inclined to follow John Behr in recognizing common Johanine authorship of both the Gospel and Apocalypse than I am to Hart’s views on the same, I think in his very criticism of chiliasm, he is actually setting out a new set of conceptual limits for a chiliasm of a different tone than what is commonly held today.

    Which brings me back to Bulgakov. I haven’t read his newly translated work on the Apocalypse of John, what I find tantalizing already in reading Bulgakov is how his Sophiology and theocosmic perspective he advocates in this essay comports well with the concept of a future earthly kingdom ruled by Christ. The tensions we find ourselves within respecting the problems of the immanence and delay of the Parousia has actually served as the historical setting in which the verdict rendered at Calvary is being woven into the fabric of history where Christ has overcome the power of Satan and his control over the secular and sacred realms. So, now, every historical failure in the human community to realize that Calvary has completely altered the cosmic landscape(in either its anticosmic or cosmotheistic/panthiestic iterateions), is simply a judgement in itself – a failure to understand that every earthly kindgom has now been circumscribed in a passing history and is being displaced by a new order because of the primary apocalyptic event – the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world and revealed in history as the Crucified Lord at Calvary. This kind of chiliasm, that includes Bulgakov’s sophianic vision, simply sees no final distance between God and the world, and envisions a historical horizon where the present distance we feel is finally eclipsed in the Parousia and shown to be the illusory unworld that this world languishes in. I am not sure how my own thought tracks with Bugakov here, but it isn’t hard to see why his sophiology and chiliasm connect.

    All to say that I do not doubt that Bulgakov’s insistence on a theocosmic vision for the contemporary church as an answer to acosmism and cosmotheism/pantheism comports well with a chiliastic view of history. It would mean that the church is building into and participating in a real future that will become a new kind of history of its own, where the partition of the saints now departed and the world will begin to be lifted. Whether or not this is a literal thousand years is beside the point, and I would not be surprised if that period isn’t a much longer epoch in history, or even a signifier of a succession of aionian ages, as opposed to ones under the present reign of chronos. But, it seems to me to be a new way of existing in the world, that is for the good of the world. Where present permillennialism is so inescapably dark, and many of the political stands its adherents take could wind up disastrously self-fulfilling in the most bitterly ironic fashion (unbridled militarism, abyssmal adventures in the Middle East because it fits their ‘prophecy time-line’), and they would be blameworthy in every respect for all of the evil that flows from this. Yet, there is, in some of the older Patristic millennialists, a more brilliant vision of a flourishing earth, and I do wonder if Bulgakov’s retrieval is one worth serious reconsideration by a church that is either exhausted by the horror-shop of popular apocalypticism so they disengage from the problems of immanence and delay and all of its apocalyptic tensions for us now and in the future, or they do retreat to the darker acosmic and anticosmic views that gives no real thought for the real world implications of the church’s earthly vocation.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. brian says:

    It’s an interesting alternative to the amillinennial position, Jedidiah. I think that translation of Bulgakov’s work on the Apocalypse of John is only in German. I’d be keen to read an English translation and have looked for one before. I would tie these considerations to Origen’s thinking of the way time is “always already” suffused by the eschaton (cf. John Behr’s introduction to his translation of On First Principles.) I am also, btw, inclined to see the same authorship for the gospel and Revelation. I suggest you may profit from a consideration of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s historiography. It often sounds like a purely immanent construal, but a more orthodoxy interpretation could easily fit into what you are proposing. In any event, Rosenstock-Huessy is brilliant, imo, and was an admirer of Bulgakov and friend of Berdyaev.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Ask and you shall receive, Brian! The English translation of Bulgakov’s essay on the Apocalypse of John was published a couple of months ago. If you were willing to write a series of reflections upon it, your fairy godfather might arrange for the volume to appear in your mailbox. 😎

      https://amzn.to/34si5iz

      Liked by 1 person

      • That would be awesome to have Brian review Bulgakov on Revelation! Not that I am trying to nudge anyone in that particular direction or anything. I do think that the antimony between immanence and delay is a vital one, and we certainly don’t have anything like Christian history without it.

        To Brian’s point about Origen and the “time between” (to use Auden’s term) being suffused already with the eschaton, I think this is where Bulgakov’s sophiology can help tease this out because it gives us a way to speak of the manner in which the Divine-world is already present in the world of our experience, yet manages to envisage a future when Creaturely Sophia is realized fully within the world. It’s an interesting approach, and a very new one to me, but I am finding in Bulgakov someone who is bringing together a lot of loose ends in my own thinking even as he opens up an entirely new set of questions as a result.

        Liked by 1 person

      • brian says:

        I did see that, Father. Somehow I surmised that was a German translation and it is not on Amazon, so far as I can tell. I’d certainly be willing to write a few articles. I just used up my book budget on the Ascetical Homilies of Isaac of Nineveh and Catherine Pickstock’s new book.

        Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.