Bulgakov and the Foundations of Creaturely Freedom

by George Repper

Fr. Sergei Bulgakov was a significant, and controversial, figure within 20th century Ortho­doxy. He is most famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) for his systematic account of his doctrine of Sophia, which earned his work several synodal analyses in the 1930s on suspicion of teaching heresy.1 Sophiology is a theology that is often misunder­stood and maligned for how odd it sounds and to an extent how unusual the language is in Bulga­kov’s works, in combination with his rather critical approach to the Church Fathers. But at the same time his work draws heavily from the Fathers, and most importantly his sophiology contains an important intuition that is thoroughly Patristic: that creation is not something fundamentally outside of God. Despite the chasm that exists between uncreated and created being and the complete and absolute dependence of creation on God, we can­not deny crea­tion its proper place within God’s life and being. As such, central to theology is the question of God’s relationship to creation. For Bulgakov, Sophia is the means by which he explores this relationship of, on the one hand, the ontological poverty of creation compared to God and on the other why this necessitates that creation is, in Bulgakov’s words, ‘a creaturely divinity, . . . God’s self-positing to extra-divine being.’2 Central to this idea is the dignity of creaturely being; by this I mean its real, authentic ontology, its own causality, and its own freedom. Dignity is not a term used by Bulgakov to refer to creation, but I use it because I think it captures the important Christian perception that creation is not God’s puppet, nor is it something that asserts itself rebelliously before God (innately at least), but that it is something that exists alongside God, with its own freedom and founda­tion. All of this is possible only because creation is rooted in God and in a sense is indistin­guishable from Him, and this divine dependence is what gives creation its independence and freedom. How it is the case that this state of affairs not only allows but is necessary for creaturely freedom is the subject of this essay.

The doctrine of creation is a huge topic to consider when looking at Bulgakov, because it is involved in every facet of his thought and therefore is spread throughout all of his works, of which there are many, and his opinions and terminology shift between them.3 Nonethe­less, I will focus on the particular discussion of this theme in the third work of his great trilogy: The Bride of the Lamb (with some nods to his much earlier work The Unfading Light). This work I believe is the most relevant for this discussion, as it contains his most systematic expression on the topic of freedom and Sophia as a foundational system.

The Roots of Creation in God

The Divine Sophia is a concept that has many different applications in Bulgakov’s sophiol­ogy. According to the general 4th century view, God’s Sophia or Wisdom was equated with the Logos. One only has to look at the discussions that surrounded Proverbs 8:22 during the Arian controversy to see that the identification of Wisdom with the Logos was effec­tively a given. Bulgakov took the line that whilst Sophia is primarily associated with the second hypostasis of God, the two cannot be equated without denying Wisdom to the Father and the Spirit in their hypostatic being. Wisdom is something common to all three, rather than just the one. But what then is this Wisdom? At the risk of being overly reduc­tive, the clearest, and I think most useful and developed, way to think about Wisdom in Bulgakov’s theology is that she can be roughly equated with the concept of the Divine Ideas.4 This is not an exhaustive analogy, but based on how he deploys Wisdom/Sophia in his metaphysics the identification is apt. Following this, the Divine Sophia is the blueprint of creation and contains the prototypes of creaturely being. The important point is that these are not arbitrary ideas and do not exist apart from God; the Divine Sophia is eternal and integral to God’s being, as to say otherwise would be to introduce changeability into the essence of God. That is, God as the Creator would be different from God ‘before’ preparing creation, as the ground of creaturely being as well as creation itself would be something new for God.5 Bulgakov is emphatic that the title and property ‘Creator’ is proper to God as He is in Himself, and there can be no question of God deciding not to create. There is no distinction between God’s being and God’s will, and so God’s ‘decision’ to create must be rooted in God Himself in such a way that creation is integral to Him, not something ad hoc or new.6

As odd as this sounds, theologically this must be the case, and one must maintain a fine balance in order to preserve God’s integrity as God. On the one hand the divine ideas must be eternal and immutable in order to preserve God’s own eternity and immutability. On the other hand, if this is the case we run the risk of introducing necessity into God; creation becomes an act of will concerning something outside of Himself that is not freely decided by Him but is in a sense forced. However, without the ‘necessity’ of the divine ideas and God’s act of creation, arbitrariness would be introduced into the Godhead, thereby rendering creation an act with no apparent cause or grounding in God. Likewise, God cannot be said to deliberate between many options (i.e., whether to create or not create), as to do so would bring in unrealised possibilities, potentiality, into God. We can see the philosophical mine­field that has to be walked when discussing creation, as any path we take risks undermining some aspect of God that must be preserved. In the end, Bulgakov asserts that God’s will is not a deliberative one between multiple options like in humans, but fulfils one absolute and invariable desire. In this sense, God freely creates, but in accordance with His nature which is complete and absolute with no room for lack or unrealised potential; He is pure act without limit, unlike humans.7 The fact that God creates means that there can be no question of the inevitability of His desire and decision to create. However, whilst the pursuit of desire can be regarded as free (otherwise one would have to use a definition of freedom that involves no causality), it is still rooted in nature and so can be misconstrued as necessary, as forcing God’s hand from within. Why this natural decision to create avoids the trap of necessity will be explained later on.

Given the unity of God with His act of creation in His nature, it is vital to identify what the ontological relationship between God and creation is after this fact, so to speak. That is, creation may be something that is freely created by God in accordance with His eternal desire, but what is the medium by which creation was made? The Christian answer to this is the dogma of creation out of nothing; creation is not co-eternal with God, nor is it made from God Himself in such a way as would essentially identify the two. But this question is not as simple as it first appears, even if it has been answered decisively for 18 centuries, because the answer is purely apophatic. It’s all well and good to say that creation isn’t this or that, but then what is it? There needs to be a somewhat coherent idea of what creation is in relation to God and what God is in relation to creation. This answer must then also work through the implications concerning what creaturely life is like, as creation is not a one-off act by God but co-exists with Him, even if we were to assume the role of pantheists where God is creation, or deists where God is radically distinct from or non-interactive with creation. In every case, the nature of how we experience the world as free or independent beings must be established.

The premise from which Bulgakov starts is that God is the only uniquely existent ‘being’. If we speak of a hypothetical ‘before creation’ (which doesn’t make any literal sense but it’ll have to do), there is strictly speaking only God and nothing else. And the corollary to this is that there is absolutely nothing else, not even nothingness itself. Creation out of nothing cannot be creation out of some pre-existent substantial ‘nothing’ that exists apart from God as a limit to His being; there is only God as limitless being:

‘Out of nothing’ means, after all, that there is no matter or force that could contain the possibility of the world and could assure for the world a place alongside God, outside of or apart from God. The existent God has being, that is, essence and existence. The trihypostatic Person of God has His own nature or His own divine world, and all belongs to this life and world. Therefore, the assertion that there is nothing apart from God is only a negative expression of this positive conception. In fact, such an extra-divine nothing simply does not exist. It is by no means the limit to divine being. Divine being is limitless. Nothing is by no means like an ocean that flows around this being. Rather, it is divinity itself that is an ocean without any shores. A limit is only a postulate of our thought concerning relative, bounded existence, but not concerning the absolute, limitless being of God.8

This is crucially important for an accurate conception of creation, for if there is no sub­stan­tial nothing out of which creation is made, then creation must be made from God Himself in some way. This is because creation cannot exist truly parallel to God with its own existence separate from God’s. Existence is not a category under which God and the universe fall but is synonymous with God who is the only genuinely existent entity. This is the significance of the ‘nothing’, or lack thereof, out of which creation is made. By rejecting the concept of pre-existent matter in the pre-Nicene period, Christian theology held up God as the Absolute, the ground of any and all being.

It seems here that Bulgakov is eliminating any distinction between creation and God in order to preserve the metaphysical integrity of God. The question then arises: what is the difference between this and emanationism or pantheism? There is a tension here between identifying God with Being, of which creation is a derivative, on the one hand, and main­tain­ing the division between God and creation that Christian dogma dictates on the other. But Bulgakov’s rejection of pantheism is not simply dogmatic. If the world is an emanation of the Absolute/God, then true relativity and plurality disappears. No explanation is given as to how the waves of relativity and changeability come about from the Absolute in systems such as Neoplatonism. Likewise, if we say that the Absolute is the aggregate of relative moments, that the relative exists as different modes of the Absolute, such as in Spinozism, then that evades the question. One ends up with an Absolute that is subject to relativity, changeability and evil, and so isn’t really an Absolute in any meaningful way.9 If, however, we say that the Absolute actively permits the existence of the relative, then we start to approach a more coherent, and Christian, idea of God’s relationship to the world. A major premise of Bulgakov’s argument in favour of this is that the world is not passive:

In the doctrine of emanation (e.g., in Plotinus), nonbeing, which receives this emanation, the darkness which surrounds light remains completely passive, mirror-like, dead; it comprises only a certain minus; it conditions the waning state of the Absolute…According to the idea of creation, it is precisely nonbeing, the ‘nothing’ out of which the world is created, that is organized and receives life. The creative let there be does not leave it a fortuitous receiver or passive darkness, but makes it a world-forming principle with its own particular creaturely center, ‘the absolute in process’ (according to the expression of V. Soloviev). Therefore in the opposition of creation and emanation the principal debate is not about God but about the world, not about the divine foundation of the world, but about its creaturely nature. Is the world only the medium that passively diffuses and weakens the rays of divine light, or does it by itself gather, reflect, and manifest them? [Emphasis mine]10

This sentiment is the key to understanding Bulgakov’s concept of a dignified creation. In our experience creaturely being is not simply passive but is active in its orientations and in its will. This is precisely the major issue with emanationism or strict forms of pantheism: that it either denies true creaturely causality or fails to explain it. There is no room for a creaturely principle that mediates between God and creation and in some sense protects creation from the metaphysical juggernaut of God’s being in which there could be no dis­tinction between Creator and creation. As such, the world cannot be either the Absolute itself, nor can it be the passive ‘edge’ of the Absolute as it decreases in intensity through its own self-dilution. Instead, creation is an active principle; one that depends on the Abso­lute for its existence completely, but because it is created it is given within itself its own principle of autonomy. It is not a dilution of the Absolute, but a self-positing of it. In other words, it is the Absolute as it exists apart from itself but in a way that establishes the creative and self-forming nature of creation, rather than one of passive reception:

The Absolute, without losing its absoluteness, places in itself the relative, as an independent being—a real, living principle. Thereby duality is intro­duced in the unity of the indistinguishable and in it the coincidentia oppositorum [coincidence of opposites] ascends to the throne: in the Absolute the distinction of God and world appears; it becomes correlative to its very self as to the relative, for God is correlative to the world. Deus est vox relativa [God is a relative voice] and in creating the world the Absolute places itself as God.11

The flip-side of identifying creation with God in Christian theology is that in creation there is an ontological ‘lack’ of sorts. Creation is not God, it is not divine, as if creation was another mode of coming forth like begetting or processing as is the case with the Son and the Holy Spirit respectively. Creation is the relative Absolute because it is mixed with nothingness. His language concerning this is quite stark in ‘The Unfading Light’, where Bulgakov speaks quite freely of creation being a mixture of Being and nothingness, which introduces the category of ‘becoming’.12 In fact he even goes so far as to say that ‘nothing’ protects creation from being submerged into or consumed by God and allows it to exist autonomously. ‘The Bride of the Lamb’ is much more cautious about its discussion of ‘nothing’. Instead, Bulga­kov emphasises a kind of distinction within God between the Divine Sophia on the one hand and the creaturely Sophia on the other. This is an impor­tant and necessary development of emphasis, as within any metaphysics of creation one must avoid two traps: treating ‘nothing’ as if it were a substance or co-existent principle alongside God, and treating creation as if it were a co-existent principle alongside God. In other words, creation cannot be something that is impenetrable and limiting to God in an ontological sense. For all of the qualifications with which we justify how creation is not God, one still has to keep in mind that this justi­fi­ca­tion must still incorporate the fact that God is Absolute Being, and so any ‘thing’ that exists apart from God is still a participant in that Being with the fullness of its own existence, because any aspect of a thing’s being that does not participate in God simply does not and could not exist. This is not to say that Bulgakov doesn’t use language describing creation’s extra-divine character as the submer­gence of being in nothing. But the emphasis is on creation as something existing alongside God that is nonetheless distinct in a qualitative way that prevents it becoming a second God.

Fichte and Divine Self-Positing

Working from this principle, Bulgakov asserts that the way in which creation exists extra-divinely through a distinction within God between Himself and His Sophia. It was ex­plained above how Bulgakov’s concept of Sophia can be roughly equated with the Divine Ideas. However, one other significant element of this is that Sophia is the divine ‘world’ or nature. He means this in both the classical sense of ousia, that is, that nature is what makes God what He is. But he defines it with a further addendum inspired by the German Idealist philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte concerning the relation of the subjective ‘I’ to both the world outside of itself and the givenness of its own existence. Fichte’s system of idealism revolves around the idea that the free subject, the ‘I’, posits itself and the objective world and gives it meaningful content. Fichte followed Kant and accepted the Kantian system, but rejected his insistence on the inaccessible ‘thing-in-itself’ as dogmatic and contradictory. Fichte interpreted Kant as saying that the noumenal world (the world of inaccessible ‘things-in-themselves’) played a role in causing empirical sensations, or the phenomenal world. This would be a contradiction given Kant’s view that empirical experience is possible only through an imposition of our mental concepts on the world, whilst ‘things-in-themselves’ remain inaccessible. In other words, a completely mind-independent realm cannot feed into a partially mentally created world, and furthermore there is no reason to assume that such an absolutely mind-independent realm exists anyway. Instead, we should build a view of reality upon the subject, partially through a rejection of the Kantian ‘thing-in-itself’, but also through the reality of the freedom of the individual. If the subject is dependent upon the objective world of law and necessity, then the moral freedom of the subject is illusory, whereas to base the objective on the subjective preserves the human experience of freedom as we know it.14 However, as we also know from experience we do not live in a state of perfect freedom regarding either the conditions of the world around us nor even ourselves. To explain this, Fichte states that the ‘I’ also posits the objective world as a limiting force, the ‘not-I’. It is a world of, on the one hand, necessity and impenetrability and so limits the ‘I’, but on the other it acts as a stage for the moral purification of the self, and it is wholly reasonable and accessible to the ‘I’ as a hypothetical ideal, as its structure stems from the structures of our concepts vis-à-vis Kant.

Bulgakov draws an analogy between creaturely self-positing and Divine self-positing along these lines. Creaturely self-positing and the existence of the ‘not-I’ is limiting for creatures and acts as some­thing given to them. The world of nature and the ‘not-I’ exists as some­thing to be overcome by the creature. In God there are no such limitations, including by His own nature. Rather, God’s nature is something completely porous to Him, and, as there is no passivity within God, His nature is fully actualised by Himself; God’s nature is His Divine life rather than a ‘thing’ or ‘fact’ given to Him by virtue of being God. This is the Divine Sophia; it is the ‘object’ to God’s ‘subject’, the divine world, but without the baggage and constraints that we find with such a distinction in creaturely experience.15 The reason that Bulgakov draws heavily from Fichte here is that Fichte’s initial premise is that the self is free and creative (including wholly self-creative) and there is nothing inherently given for it outside of what it itself posits. Importantly, Fichte avoids objectifying the ‘I’. The ‘I’ is not a thing that posits either itself or the world, but is a pure act that gives normative being to both itself and the world outside itself. This is because, according to Fichte, in the world there are only ‘facts’ without value. Someone needs to attach meaning to statements or states of affairs, otherwise they just simply are. The same goes for the ‘I’, which for Fichte has to be posited by itself for it to be able to start attaching normative value judgements to things beyond itself, expressed in the formula I=I. Tautological statements such as A=A are not foundational according to Fichte, they are value judgements of given logical premises or facts (if A is posited, then A). I=I is foundational because it is an act; it is an act of self-positing that legitimises any other judgements, including the self’s ability to make such judgements in the first place.16 It is the self’s authorisation of itself to attach meaning to facts, and therefore this self-positing is the heralding of Reason itself. In other words, for Fichte the basis of knowledge and judgement concerning things cannot itself be a thing, a substantial self, akin to that of Descartes. Rather, it must be an acting and self-creating self that does not exist before its own act of self-positing (even signifying the self as a self in this context is somewhat misleading as we are tempted to think of a substantial self which then acts, or an act that gives rise to a self. This latter approach is true to an extent insofar as the self does determine itself and therefore becomes objectified after its self-positing, but the basis of the self cannot be like this. Instead, we should think of the ‘I’ as the act itself, as only by this can the ‘I’ be a true non-determined subject which then determines itself and the world it inhabits).17 So, in Bulgakov’s theological reformulation of this principle, God is rendered absolutely free even regarding His own nature. Fichte allows Bulgakov to assert an inseparable distinction within God between freedom and necessity, God and Sophia, subject and object, that can serve as the foundation for His act of creation, whilst also emphasising that the basis of this act is not simply that God willed it, but rather stems from the creativity and dynamism inherent in being an ‘I’. That is, creation is not necessary as God is perfectly free and creative in all things, including the positing of Himself and His own nature, but at the same time it is not arbitrary as God’s creativity is ontologically rooted, and so creation itself is rooted within this initial self-positing of God. As we will see later, Fichte’s conception of the ‘I’ is also vital for Bulgakov’s idea of creaturely freedom.

The Positing of the Creaturely Sophia

Through the use of Fichte’s Ich-Philosophie, Bulgakov is able to avoid drawing too radical a distinction between God’s natural being and God’s will. The major division that he is keen to avoid is God as He is in eternity and God as Creator. Bulgakov complains often over what he sees as an attempt within scholastic theology to render creation radically arbitrary to such an extent that God could have not created the world if He had so chosen, and to maintain this one must create a division between God Himself as a natural being and God as a free being who can choose between multiple, potential options.18 This kind of division is acceptable for creatures, but not with God. Instead, Bulgakov sees God’s being creator as just as ‘necessary’ as any other aspect of God, but as was stated in the previous paragraph, every element of God’s nature is borne out of freedom in an organic way. Being the Creator is proper to God, but this does not introduce necessity, either external or internal, into God. Creating is part of God’s life.19 As such, creation itself is also a part of God’s life:

Once it is given that God is also the Creator, and that the Creator is God, our thought must be governed by the inclusion of creation in God’s own life, and this inclusion must be on completely equal principles of divine necessity in freedom or of freedom in necessity. This means that the world’s being must be included in God’s own life, must be correlated with this life, must be understood not only in its own being for itself, but also its being in God, in divine being. In the contrary case, we fall into an unconscious dualism, more or less pronounced and consistent, according to which the world, as an autonomous principle of being, exists alongside God, limiting Him. To be sure, such a coexistence of the world with God is characteristic of the world’s being . . . in the latter’s permitted, God-given autonomy. However, this is God’s work in the world. In a certain sense, this is a self-determi­na­tion of intra-divine life, not a special, independent principle of being, existing alongside God.20

This second principle of being that creation brings into existence is Sophia’s creaturely mode, as opposed to her Divine mode:

The creation of the world is, first of all, a self-positing of God, which exists in God together with His sophianic self-revelation. In essence, the creation cannot, of course, differ from this sophianic self-revelation. The creation of the world is included in God’s sophianic self-positing and consists in the fact that the Divine being in Sophia receives another being in the world. The Divine Sophia exists in a dual mode: in her own mode, which belongs to her in eternity; and in the creaturely mode, as the world. Only such an identifi­ca­tion of the two modes of Sophia, with their simultaneous differentiation, can explain why, although God is the Creator, this does not change his divinely sophianic being or introduce in the latter a non-divine or extra-divine principle.21

What follows is a further, slightly confusing and dense, explanation of how creation is both completely in God and yet somehow apart from God, but confusing not in that it’s nonsen­si­cal, but in that Bulgakov has to grapple with and maintain these two antinomies of creature­ly being. As has already been stated, Bulgakov is insistent that the dogma of ‘creation out of nothing’ is not simply a negative statement regarding the non-eternity of creation, but also a positive statement that creation must be created out of God Himself in some way. This way is through the content of the Divine world. Bulgakov explains that the Divine Sophia exists for God, but it is also independent of God in a non-hypostatic way that exists as the content of the Divine world. Creation is the bringing into existence of this non-hypostatic content and giving it existence for itself. In other words, it’s analogous to making concrete the Divine Ideas. But what we find here is a tight unity between the world as it is for God and the world as it is for creation, as they both have their structure in Sophia:

The trihypostatic God has the divine world in and for Himself. But the being of this divine world contains yet another mode of its being in itself: as con­tent that is independent of its belonging to God. The divine world belongs not only to God’s being, being hypostatized in it. The divine world also exists in itself, in its nonhypostatic being, precisely as a determinate content of the divine cosmos, as the world. And this dual character of the being of the divine world in God also lays the foundation for the two modes of the world’s being in itself: as the divine world, which enters into hypostatic life, and as the world, which contains the entire fullness and richness of its own being. And to this corresponds that self-determination by which the hypostatic God, eternally possessing the divine world as His own nature, releases it from the depths of hypostatic being into self-being, makes it the cosmos in the true sense, creates the world ‘out of nothing,’ that is, out of Himself, out of His own divine content. In other words, creation is, first of all, an act of God’s own self-determination, God’s action in Himself.22

And again:

By one and the same eternal divine act, God is both God and the Creator. . . . Therefore, it is so important to understand creatures and creation not only in their temporal-creaturely being but also in their divine-eternal foundation, that is, to understand them as Sophia, as the creaturely Sophia who has her foundation in the Divine Sophia and in that sense is identical to her.2023

The created world is completely analogous to God’s world because it is ontologically rooted in God. Likewise, the primary distinction between God’s world and the creaturely world is in their mode of existence. When God posits His nature in the Divine Sophia He simulta­ne­­ous­ly posits Himself as the Creator in the creaturely Sophia.24

Creaturely Freedom as God’s Freedom

This simultaneous self-positing of God in two modes and the rooting of the creaturely Sophia in the Divine Sophia lead to creation’s freedom. The creaturely Sophia is posited in a state of ‘becoming’ as opposed to the Divine Sophia’s existence in ‘Being’. Creation is all that the Divine Sophia is but manifested as a process towards its ultimate fulfilment, which is unification with the Divine Sophia, creation’s foundation. This process towards its end is worked out in freedom and creativity.25 In other words, each creature, and creation as a whole, fulfils its ordained end with a certain degree of novelty and even resistance, which is possible only because creation itself is rooted within God’s perfect freedom and creativity. As is the case throughout Bulgakov’s explanation, creation is analogous to God in all things. As such, creaturely self-causality is possible only because of its dependence on God, not in spite of it, because it is derivative of and therefore analogous to God’s self-causality. In a more cosmic sense, drawing from St. Augustine’s concept of the ratio seminales, God implants within creation the seeds of the multiplicity of creation which then, under the guidance of providence and its own potency, plays out its life:

The creation of the world in the Beginning gives autonomous being to the creaturely Sophia, takes her out of God’s life and into her own, though, of course, it does not annul her sophianic nature, that is, her rootedness in divinity. In this first and, so to speak, fundamental act of creation, the creaturely Sophia, as the world soul, also becomes the potency of the all, the ‘earth,’ from which sprouts grow, animal life issues, and the human body is formed. This foundation has life, and this life-giving principle is imparted to this foundation by the Spirit of God: ‘The Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’ (Gen. 1:2), warming the cold of nothing with his life-giving breath. This foundation contains the ‘seminal logoses’ of being, though in a potential formlessness. The real multiplicity of diverse crea­tures, which characterizes the universe and is unified by the world soul, appears in the second creation, the Six Days. In this second creation, the universe is created by a series of God’s creative acts (which, of course, include an uncountable number of individual, particular creations). To characterize this creative act one must first note that it already presup­po­ses the presence of a universal creative potency: the ‘earth.’ This is not creation out of nothing. It is creation out of proto-matter.26

The world soul, or creaturely Sophia, is the animating principle of creation ‘from below’. It is unconscious and non-hypostatic, but orients creation towards God as it itself has the Divine Sophia as its guiding principle. The creaturely Sophia has the capability to give rise to higher levels of life, such as plants and animals. Unconscious, yet living, forces with only the potential for life can give rise to conscious individuals with their own drive and princi­ple of multiplication.27 However, Bulgakov is clear that the creaturely Sophia cannot give rise to humanity under its own steam. The world soul can only take animal life so far, humanity requires a special intervention from God. Animal life is individual and con­scious, but it is not hypostatic, which is what sets humanity (and angels) apart. The creaturely Sophia is able to be hypostatised, but is not itself hypostatic, and so cannot create hypostases (in this instance Bulgakov means ‘hypostasis’ to mean something along the lines of ‘free self-conscious subject’ as opposed to a ‘natural individual.’ ‘Hypostasis’ is also used by Bulgakov as a synonym for ‘spirit’). Instead, God intervenes in some way to impart His hypostatic being into the creaturely Sophia, and He does this through the creation of humanity, which is created in the image of God. Humanity is the subject to creation’s object, or the ‘I’ to creation’s ‘not-I’.28 In this there is once again a comprehen­sive mirror-image between God and creation. God is His ‘I’ and posits His own nature/​world/​Sophia, and parallel to this He fashions the creaturely nature/world/Sophia into which He places hypostatic being in the form of the human and angelic ‘I’:

In the creation of the world, God repeats His own being in Sophia, as it were. He repeats His nature, the Divine Sophia, in the creaturely Sophia, or in the world. In the creation of persons, of hypostatic spirits, human and angelic, God repeats Himself, as it were, creates co-I’s for Himself in his hypostatic image, breathing into them the breath of His own divine life. He creates co-gods for Himself, ‘gods by grace.’29

The image is comprehensive but incomplete. As stated earlier, God is completely active and accessible to Himself, and the self-positing of His nature leaves no room for ignorance to the Divine self. Creaturely existence is faced with the problem of ‘givenness’. We are brought into an already existing world (and a human nature) which acts as a limiting influence upon us. We are called to act upon the world in a way analogous to the way that God acts upon His, to have dominion and to ‘humanise’ it, but this is only an ideal not just because of our fallen nature, but because of the limitations of creaturely being itself.

Despite this, the existence of hypostases in creation is significant for Bulgakov’s concep­tion of dignified and free creatures. Firstly, the human and angelic roles within creation are such that they are expected to be active participants in God’s providential governing of the world towards its prototype in the Divine Sophia. They are created subjects and hence gods, and the created world is a sort of extended body of the human self, albeit one which is yet to be fully incorporated into the human enterprise. Humanity’s role, as the one that unites the divine and creaturely worlds within itself, is to deify creation through partici­pa­tion in what Christ has already accomplished in the Incarnation: the unification of the divine and human natures, the Divine and creaturely Sophias.30 As the hypostatic principle within creation, the deification of humanity is the deification of the creaturely Sophia as a whole. Likewise, whilst the ‘givenness’ in which humanity exists is a limitation, it also provides the structure of the ‘I’s existence and the conditions in which it can flourish. Without the ‘not-I’, the creaturely Sophia with its divine orientation, the ‘I’ has no world in which to act or upon which to act, and so it has no way to manifest its freedom or creativ­ity.31 Hypostatic existence is free, but freedom can only be actualised in a teleological context.

Secondly, creaturely being is inherently consensual, and hypostatic being especially so. Bulgakov is insistent that God’s providential action in the world requires the consent of creation in order to come about, which is the doctrine of synergy. However, this extends to the very existence of creation as well. Once again putting a Christian twist on Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre, Bulgakov states that the ‘I’s creation only comes about because it agrees to its own creation, ‘before’ it came to be.32 This consent to existence is supratem­poral and is the creaturely ‘I’s self-positing. That is, the angelic and human ‘I’ consents on behalf of the whole of creation to be created, and in a certain sense they also create them­selves. At the base of Fichte’s philosophy is the circle of the self-positing ‘I’ that brings itself into existence through its own act of self-positing, and the same applies here, but with the prompting of divine power. Creation posits itself, but it is only able to do this through God’s action on ‘nothing’. Bulgakov draws an illustration analogous to the creation of the animals in Genesis 1, where God calls forth the earth to produce living creatures, to demonstrate this point. God looks and calls forth into ‘nothing’, and what He sees reflects His own hypostatic being, which responds with a ‘yes’.33 This is a further indication of Bulgakov’s radical correlation between God’s being and creation’s being. The ‘I’ cannot be coerced because it is an active subject rather than a passive object. It does not make any sense to say that it can be dragged out of non-existence without its own act of self-positing, because there is no ‘thing’ to be brought into existence as the ‘I’ is not a ‘thing’, but an act. The act of creation is synergistic, requiring the consent and active participation of the creature to its own existence.34

From its foundation in the Godhead to the moment of its existence (and beyond), Bulga­kov demonstrates that creation’s existence is not arbitrary nor borne out of necessity, nor is its ontology a dilution of God’s being on the one hand or extra-divine independence (that has to be externally reined in by God to keep it in line) on the other. Creation is made in accordance with God’s free act of self-positing in Sophia, meaning that creation is as loved by God and as integral to Himself as His own nature is. Likewise, creation is the creaturely mode of divine existence; it is divine existence as it exists in a free state of becoming and flux, which is possible only because of its deep roots in, and inseparability from, God. God is the God of the living, not the dead, and as such He is God of the active world, not the passive. This is a world that has its given telos and finds its way towards its fulfilment in freedom, from the unconscious stirrings of inorganic matter up to the self-positing existences of humanity and the angels. Bulgakov’s highest expression of this principle, and the culmination of his doctrine of freedom, is that humanity, on behalf of creation, must consent to its own existence. In this God not only respects the freedom and personal existence of His creatures by refusing to violate the principle, His principle, of the self-positing ‘I’, but also allows humanity to take on the role of the subject of the whole of creation, to be its hypostatic centre, and to mimic God’s role in relation to His own world in the Divine Sophia.



[1] In the end his works were censured by the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, but not by the Russian Exarchate under the Ecumenical Patriarch, under whose authority he was in the jurisdictionally colourful world of post-1917 Paris.

[2] Bulgakov, S.N. , The Bride of the Lamb (Edinburgh, UK: T&T Clark Ltd., 2002), p.196 

[3] For example, in The Unfading Light one can find Bulgakov tentatively using the term ‘fourth hypostasis’ to refer to Sophia (Bulgakov, S.N. , The Unfading Light [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012], p. 418), whereas in his later works references to a fourth hypostasis are within the context of rebuking such an idea in his theology (e.g. Bulgakov, S.N., Sophia: The Wisdom of God [New York: Lindisfarne Press, 1993], p. 55). I’m willing to interpret his more controversial passages in light of his wider, orthodox views, but I can understand why his writing often did him no favours in the eyes of his critics.

[4] The Bride of the Lamb, p.17. 

[5] Ibid. 

[6] Ibid. pp. 31-2. 

[7] Ibid. p. 41.

[8] Ibid. pp. 43-4.

[9] The Unfading Light, pp. 361-2. 

[10] Ibid. pp. 183-184. 

[11] Ibid. p. 184. 

[12] Ibid. p. 278. 

[13] Copleston, F., A History of Philosophy: 18th and 19th Century German Philosophy (London, UK: Continuum Books, 2003), pp. 3-4. 

[14] Ibid., pp. 38-9. 

[15] Bride of the Lamb, pp. 41-2. 

[16] Pinkard, T., German Philosophy 1760-1860: The Legacy of Idealism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 112-14. 

[17] Fichte, J.G., The Science of Knowledge (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 21. 

[18] Bride of the Lamb, pp. 44-5. 

[19] Ibid. p. 46. 

[20] Ibid. p. 45. 

[21] Ibid. p. 46. 

[22] Ibid. p. 48. 

[23] Ibid. p. 51. 

[24] Here, Bulgakov does not believe that creation is eternal in the sense that creaturely time is an ever-extending line with no beginning or end. However, it is eternal in its foundation because from a God’s-eye standpoint there is no before or after. God creates from eternity, but in so doing He creates temporality and so creates a world which (from our perspective) did not always exist. For Bulgakov creation cannot have a temporal beginning in the way that a piece of string has a beginning. This is because temporal beginning implies a ‘before’, which doesn’t make sense if we’re talking about the start of time itself. To emphasise this point, Bulgakov asserts that creation was not created within time, but rather that time was created within creation. The first act of creation is the eternal establishment of an ontological relation between God and creation, not a sequential act. See Bride of the Lamb, pp.73-5 

[25] Ibid. pp. 55-6.

[26] Ibid. pp. 65-6 

[27] Ibid. pp. 101-2. 

[28] Ibid. pp. 84-5. 

[29] Ibid. p. 87. 

[30] Ibid. p. 203. 

[31] Ibid. p. 133. 

[32] Ibid. p. 88 .

[33] Ibid. p. 93. 

[34] Ibid. p. 94.

* * *

George Repper has a Master’s degree in Theology from the University of Durham. He is currently residing in the, appropriately named, city of Sofia in Bulgaria. The writing of this article was fuelled by a healthy diet of local banitsa.

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15 Responses to Bulgakov and the Foundations of Creaturely Freedom

  1. Logan(mercifullayman) says:

    This was a great article. It’s intriguing to see how Bulgakov following Fichte, and then some of the other thinkers like Frank (kind of Fichte with some modifications to Kant) and Berdyaev(Kant and Schelling) all drew from differing positions to maintain the German notion of freedom in their own ways. I do see an interesting link between Bulgakov and Berdyaev here. The notion of self-positing as both revelatory and creative is a fundamental truth to existence, and indeed, may be the very aspect that holds the key to theosis writ large. The return to a properly positing I, over the freedom to posit existence as we want it. In a sense, to where the I/thou line becomes an all encompassing “I and Thou.” In a sense, the “I” that chooses to become, which in theory should always see that what allows it to become properly existent, when it isn’t erased by sensorial positing, which chooses itself. Since we are allowed to be, to determine ourselves within ourselves, we war against not the necessity that is forced by the Godhead (outside of nature that is) but rather the necessity that a myriad of choices try to bind us all too. God, as the free creator, gives us in his image, the ability to overcome what is necessary, just as he has the ability to. Yet, we only can do that when we are functioning in the way that we were intended.

    Liked by 1 person

    • brian says:

      Nice, Logan. (The glitch that periodically prevents me from liking a comment is in effect, apparently.) “Both revelatory and creative” is key, imo. I also think pace Jennifer Newsome Martin that one should read Berdyaev generously and more in line with Bulgakov’s manner.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Logan(mercifullayman) says:

        I think they are the balance of Russian silver age work. I think Bulgakov is “Alexandrian” very top down. I think Berdyaev is very “Antiochian.” They need each other. Both grasp being in different ways that amplifies the other. It’s almost like they had to appear at the same time to balance each other out, even down to their readings of Soloviev. When I had Twitter, I actually, spoke to her about Berdyaev. It’s an interesting take, and as you’ve mentioned, there are holes…..but the issue at stake was that, and I’d argue like JDW might (not to put words in his mouth) we’ve done a good job of being top down philosophically, but there is a balance of bottom up that is needed. Someone like Berdyaev, and even Hegel (minus some points) bring us back to a true center. We need them all. And I’d argue they’re both correct….but as one half of the coin.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. brian says:

    One might pursue a path both “existential” and “Platonic,” though I think Plato is never actually a simple top down fella. My old professor, Robert Wood at UD, argues he is a proto-phenomenologist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Logan(mercifullayman) says:

      I could see this, although, I think Plato would still be understood as defining a world in which there is a reversal of sorts. It can be phenomenological in experience but in actuality is a top down trickle effect that we are putting the definitions too, hence the neo-platonic efforts to talk about descent and ascent later. But I definitely could see that, one might argue that even some of the pre-socratics…especially Heraclitus, are no different.


  3. brian says:

    I agree with a number of JNM’s criticisms, btw, just not with the manner in which she contextualizes the argument, polarizing differences too much so that Bulgakov is presented as the acceptable “orthodox” representative, whilst Berdyaev stands in as the heretic who is off the rails.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Logan(mercifullayman) says:

      I enjoyed my conversations with her about it. I think she says that about him because in effect, he says it about himself in a couple of places. He’s more saying that if a heretic has to move us towards a truer expression of the “real” so be it. The label didn’t really scare him. He has a long excursus in “Dream and Reality” about this very label. I think they were also a product of their times too…Berdyaev railing against what he was seeing as the church kind of teetering and compromising itself to survive. Bulgakov trying to save the church and keep it moving in the best way he knew how, especially early on. Perspective for them drew them apart early on I think, even in have a unified cause for the Put. But, much like I mentioned about Origen and Theodore, sometimes you have to have two polar ends to generate the exact balance that’s needed. You wind up in the same place via differing roads that amplify one another. It’s an “And/Both” world instead of “Either/Or.” And I can give you a recommendation for once, for the way you tend to view things, if you haven’t read S.L. Frank’s “The Unknowable” you should.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. brian says:

    EO has been obstructive with my attempts to interact recently. Refused to post my thanks for the S. L. Frank recommendation. I liked The Meaning of Life quite a bit so I expect his other works are worthy. I’ll certainly look into it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • brian says:

      Ah, there it is. Weird delay. As far as Plato goes, of course, I wouldn’t truly disavow the priority of the “ideal” as transcendent source. D. C. Schindler argues for a “third way” which as far as I can tell wants to establish the temporal as more than licit, but as somehow contributing to the plenitude of the formal. He talks about it a bit, especially in the introduction to Plato’s Critique of Impure Reason.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Logan(mercifullayman) says:

        Thanks for this! I think where you also can find a unique tie between Bulgakov and Berdyaev is that while they may find weird ways to the same use of the beautiful. The most free act for the creature is also that which is also the most beautiful. Now, Bulgakov would disagree that the beauty transcends the highest of the transcendentals, like goodness or truth, where Berdy would say beauty is the highest (in his Schillerian/Schellingian way) but at the end, the actual act is only ever the most beautiful when it is the most free. So the most free and creative act, within the self positing I, is also the generated act of the Good, the very thing that makes creation “good” in the opening lines of Genesis, is just that. It’s a view where I and thou bind together into a real singularity. I could be off on that, but that’s the way I’ve read these two guys the last couple of years.

        Liked by 1 person

        • brian says:

          On this, I am generally a traditionalist, arguing for the convertibility of the transcendentals, though in some sense, requiring exposition, I agree with George MacDonald that mere justice is inhumane; love perfects justice. Analogously, there is a sense in which beauty is the glory of all the transcendentals.

          Liked by 3 people

  5. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    George, your article generated a question on Twitter. I encouraged the individual to come here and post his question, but I guess he got cold feet. Basically, it’s this: If the divine being is simple and identical to the divine will, then how can God’s act of creation be free and not necessary? What are your Bulgakovian thoughts on this question?


  6. Calvin says:

    “On the other hand, if this is the case we run the risk of introducing necessity into God; creation becomes an act of will concerning something outside of Himself that is not freely decided by Him but is in a sense forced.”

    Question: what would be bad about introducing necessity into God? We already say that he cannot, for example, lie. Nor is there any possibility that he ever could have been, or could choose to become, a liar. He is, by necessity honest, and we do not say he is less for this. If creating is an aspect of goodness and he is goodness, then we must say that in some sense he is necessitated to create, in the same way honesty is good and hence he must be honest.


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