The Sophiology of Death as Explanation of Salvation and Trinity

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going.” Ecclesiastes 9:10

There is nothing more personal than death. Death is a failure of personhood, a loss that cannot be abstracted, as it happens to concrete persons who can only know of this pervasive reality as it happens to “me.” Death isolates and individuates so that we all die alone. While life and love are shared experiences, death is the opposite. Death is a pure negation, a complete absence, a total loss. It is a loss of connectedness, of love, and obviously of life and the effort and struggle of life. As Koheleth records, struggle with all your might now, for the grave ends all possibility of strategizing. Death, in the small doses that we all experience it, is familiar. The moments of shame in life are small bits of dying, while the total loss that is the shame of death is an undoing and loss beyond comprehension. We cannot think our own dissolution and undoing, and so denial of death is not a conscious choice but an inevitable orientation, but this orientation comes at a price in its reifying and absolutizing of the finite and mortal. The transcendent and immortal cannot be accommodated in the “immortalization” of the mortal. The incarnate and fleshly, immortalized, is a refusal of the world – a striving toward the disincarnate – and this is dying. The dying begins where embodied, incarnate, fleshly living, is refused. Struggle then with all of your life against death – this is dying. So, death is not simply a problem at the end of life, but an ending that pervades all of life. This orientation to death marks all of life as a dying. The unconscious struggle to have life, to hold onto life, to gain a fulness of life, as an insurance against the grave, is to submit completely to the orientation to death.

This orientation and this dying are against God and his intention for humans: “God didn’t make death. God takes no delight in the ruin of anything that lives. God created everything so that it might exist. The creative forces at work in the cosmos are life-giving. There is no destructive poison in them” (Wisdom 1:13-14). God permitted death, which means he permitted free will refusal of himself and of life and of love. He permitted sin, and death entered in through sin. It is not that all sinned in Adam, in spite of the Latin translation of Romans 5:12. Rather: “just as sin entered into the cosmos through one man, and death through sin, so also death pervaded all humanity, whereupon all sinned” (Rom. 5:12, DBH). For Adam, the order was sin to death, but for the rest of sinful humanity (which is not all of humanity in Paul’s explanation – Rom. 5:14) it is ordered from death to sin.

As Sergius Bulgakov describes, “Death entered the world through the path of sin, which destroyed the stability of human existence and as it were separated within man the uncreated from the created. The created, since it did not possess in itself its own power of being, became mortal, having acquired an undue independence from the uncreated. Such is the nature of death.”[1] This “undue independence” is nothing short of a lie. It is the presumption of life where there is death and the presumption of being where there is nonbeing. The separation of the created from the uncreated is an unreality. As Jordan Wood has summarized Bulgakov in conjunction with Maximus: “Rational creatures by definition actualize themselves in the mode of self-determination, of freedom, and somehow that mode can and is in fact misdirected to absurd and absolutely irrational proportions: we make ourselves unmade, we incarnate pure fantasy, we interpret the world and give our very selves, parasitically, to breath (sic.) life into a world that is against the divine will; and anything against the divine will is no creation of the divine will.”[2]

Jordan recognizes in Bulgakov the same refusal of abstraction as he found in Maximus. There is no dying in the abstract – it is always personal. “So the ‘problem’ of sin and its wages is that actual persons are in an actual state of pseudo- and anti-actualization, ‘discarnate or ‘anti-incarnate.’” The work of fallen humanity in its pursuit of life through death (the disincarnate) is countered by the work of the Trinity which, always and in all things, is Incarnation. The work of Incarnation counters the anti-incarnate or false incarnation which is the lie of sin. Incarnation always and in all things (or recapitulation) meets “the actual persons to be saved precisely where and how they are: in a state of anti-incarnation.”[3]  

It is not as if death has the final word, as in the image of Ecclesiastes. In Christ the limitation of the power of death is disclosed. As Bulgakov describes it, Christ’s death reveals the limitation of death: “Death is neither absolute nor all-powerful. It can only tear at and fracture the tree of life, but it is not invincible, for it has already been conquered by the resurrection of Christ.”[4] To realize this defeat of death in the resurrection of Christ, the death of Christ must become the manner of one’s life. He took our death upon himself, so that the “death of humanity is precisely Christ’s death, and we must take part in the fullness of this death, just as he partook in our death after becoming enfleshed and human.”[5] Death and dying and thus living become His manner of death and life.

Bulgakov pictures the full realization of Christ meeting us in death as occurring only in our actual dying. He ends his article on the Sophiology of Death with a description of his near-death experience due to cancer, and then in the pain of having his throat sliced open without anesthetics, having the feeling of being suffocated. The feeling of complete helplessness that is the experience of dying, is the place Christ meets us. The place we would refuse, out of fear, is the place of revelation.  

And to the extent that we know, or rather, will know our own particular death, in it and through it shall we know the death of Christ too. But until we have reached the very threshold of death and have drunk the cup of death, we can only foreknow our death, and in it and through it Christ’s death as well. Such foreknowledge is accessible to us and necessary, for it reveals to us our own— as well as Christ’s— humanity, in its depths and in its terrible abyss; in the light of death it manifests to us our very selves. And to whom it is granted by the will of God to approach this edge of the abyss, let him from thence become a herald, that thence which for each person will at some point become a thither and a there.[6]

The mystery of God and the incomprehensible mystery of death are conjoined in the God-man. In his humanity there is the dying, but his humanity is completely united with his deity. Our dying with him is not a point of separation, isolation, and forsakenness, because he has taken upon himself forsakenness and defeated it. Thus, that which defeats and destroys God’s good creation becomes the point of life, love, and being joined to God. “The God-man dies in the image of man, and man dies in the image of the God-man, in a marvelous mutuality.”[7]  This “impossibility” that God would die in Christ – this point of incomprehension in which incomprehensible death and incomprehensible God takes up dying, this becomes the moment of enlightenment and comprehension. Jesus meets us at the edge of the grave. He is there in the dying and this is the assurance that imparts a new form of living.

This is salvation, atonement, expiation and new life. His being poured out, his kenotic self-giving, is organically tied to the problem and its resolution. His incarnation and dying joins him to the dying of all persons. “(If) Christ redeems and raises every person, then it is only because he co-dies in every person and with every person.”[8] His being with us in his humanity is the point in which he imparts the uncreatedness and life of his deity. “Clearly, we can speak here of “dying” only in a completely unique sense, different from human death; specifically, it is some kind of passivity, an inactivity, which permits the death of the human nature on account of a certain incompleteness in the latter’s divinization.”[9] Christ undertakes divinization in his life’s journey, through death and resurrection, and imparts to all the path he has taken. “Divinization comes into its fullness only in the resurrection and is accomplished only by the Father’s power through the action of the Holy Spirit.”[10]

Bulgakov approaches the possibility of the death of the God-man, the possibility of human entry into the divine, and the divine entry into the human, in his picture of Sophia (wisdom) or what he calls Sophiology. The Psalms picture wisdom as consisting of both a created and uncreated aspect: “The LORD created me as His first course, before His works of old. From everlasting I was established, from the beginning, before the earth began” (Psalms 8:22-23). Wisdom, in both of its forms, according to Bulgakov, is Wisdom embodied in Christ.

The humanity of Christ is created Sophia, permeated by Divine Sophia and in this union with it already pre-deified. . .. Created Sophia, as the human nature of Christ, admitted of further sophianization or divinization, which is exactly what was accomplished through the resurrection of Christ and in his glorification. The latter is the fullness of divinization, the sophianization of created Sophia in Christ, its full penetration by Divine Sophia, perfected divine-humanity.[11]

The course of Christ’s life bringing about the fulness of the Divine Wisdom in his life contains the order and course of the universe – “the union of eternity and time, of fullness and becoming.”[12]

Bulgakov, like (or with) Maximus, not only avoids abstraction surrounding death, but also abstractions which would explain the humanity and deity of Christ. Theoretically or abstractly deity and humanity, time and eternity, God and death, cannot be joined, but what are opposites theoretically are brought together concretely in the person of Christ. The theoretically impossible is not impossible in Christ. Bulgakov expresses this in terms of the peculiarity of what has occurred in Christ. This human and divine life and death is one of a kind. The kenosis of Christ is a possibility for divinity but it is temporary and transitory, and it is a death like no other. Bulgakov admits that the decaying condition, of being turned over to the grave is an impossibility in the death of the God-man. He is susceptible to dying but: “Nevertheless, this dying, while not representing the genuine death of decay, is still that condition of death in which the Lord rests in the grave. The God-man fully experiences death, he partakes of it, although he is not handed over to its power in his divinity and in his divinized humanity. His divine-humanity enters into the fullness of power and glory precisely through dying.” The manner of his death is not being left in a state of death, though he is turned over to the power of death but death cannot hold him.

Kenosis is nothing more than a state that may be adopted by divine being— temporary and transitory, as the path to resurrection. But kenosis is not mortal existence itself, which is what divine existence would be transformed into in such a case. In the depths of kenosis there is a weakening, as it were, of divinity, but only until the end of kenosis, when this weakness is overcome. Such is the immanent dialectic of kenosis in divine-humanity. In its kenosis it is capable of dying, but the death of the God-man can only be a victory over death: “having trampled death by death.”[13]  

Through Divine Sophia, Bulgakov explains the joining of deity and humanity in the person of Christ. Where otherwise one might pose some form of Docetism, or (in the case of Rowan Williams) an “asymmetrical christology” in which the deity of Christ is privileged over the humanity of Jesus. (In Williams description, the divine Word could be apart from Jesus, who “contributes nothing extra to that identifying esse” of the Word.)[14] In Divine Sophia the fulness of the humanity and deity of Christ, including the death of Christ and glorification at the right hand of God, not only exist in one person but are the constitutive aspects – the full deity and humanity – of this person. Sophia explains how, the apparent and necessary division between deity and humanity, are conjoined in a singular person:

In the divine abandonment of Christ, the Divine Sophia becomes, as it were, inactive in him; what remains in full force is only the human nature, created Sophia, although in a state of suffering and mortal frailty. This sophianic kenosis— which prima facie appears to be a division of the natures, as it were, in the humanity’s loss of divinity— is the path to their fullest union in the resurrection. Humanity, created Sophia, needed to be revealed in the depths not just of the positive power belonging to it as the image of Divine Sophia, but also in its Adamic nature, weakened by the fall and communing with death. But in this union with Divine Sophia, created Sophia communes in this divine nature, and in this union she reaches the greatest depth of kenosis: the depth of human frailty is disclosed to the utmost through Christ’s voluntary acceptance of humanity’s fall for the sake of humanity’s restoration and salvation.[15]

Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human, both divine and human natures in one person, and because this is who he is there is the possibility of restoration and salvation.  

So too, what Christ reveals about the Trinity, is that God in three persons is involved in the kenotic giving of the Son: “the Father sends the Son, and this sending is an act of Fatherly sacrificial love, the kenosis of the Father, who condemns to the cross the beloved Son, who in turn takes on himself this feat on the cross. The feat of the Son is also the self-denying love of the Father who, in ‘sending’ the Son, condemns his very self to co-suffering and co-crucifixion, though in a manner different than the Son.”[16] The Father and the Son “possess one life, one joy and suffering, although in a different manner.” The Father does not remove himself from the suffering of the Son – “both co-suffer together.” “The Son accomplishes the will of the Father, and this unity of will and of mutual knowledge (“no one knoweth the Son, but the Father, neither doth anyone know the Father, but the Son” [Matt 11:27]) testifies to the unity of life and the unity of suffering in their common— although distinct for each— kenosis of love.”[17]

The person of Jesus Christ involves the fulness of the Trinity. Bulgakov distinguishes the economic and immanent Trinity, but not so as to make a division within the person of Christ or within the persons of the Trinity:

The love of the Father through the Spirit in the life of the Son “is unbroken and there can be no room for any sort of mutual abandonment. But “economically,” in the relationship of God to the world, as Creator to creation, there occurs, as it were, a division of the hypostases because the very hypostasis of union, the Holy Spirit, in “abandoning” the Son, ceases, as it were, to unite the Son with the Father and instead remains with the Father.[18]

The Spirit, which “blows where it wills” (John 3:2), momentarily and manifestly (economically) “stops blowing on the Son.” But this death of the Son is experienced by each of the persons of the Trinity as the “Father co-dies” and the “Holy Spirit co-dies” with the Son. Bulgakov assures that this is not a division, though it has that appearance, but a union: “a union in dying for each of the hypostases in its own way, true both individually and for all of them in conjunction.”[19]

The movement of salvation in Christ is not then, an event removed from who God is, but is bound up with the Trinitarian reality. The revelation exposing the fiction of a life oriented to death, the life giving revelation, simultaneously is a revelation of God as Trinity. The one does not exist apart from the other.


[1]Sergius Bulgakov, The Sophiology of Death: Essays on Eschatology: Personal, Political, Universal (p. 117). Cascade Books. Kindle Edition.

[2] Jordan Daniel Wood, “The Lively God of Sergius Bulgakov: Reflections on The Sophiology of Death” (Eclectic Orthodoxy Blog, December 15th, 2021). https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2021/12/15/the-lively-god-of-sergius-bulgakov-reflections-on-the-sophiology-of-death/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bulgakov, 117.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 133.

[7] Ibid., 118.

[8] Ibid., 132.

[9] Ibid., 122.

[10] Ibid., 123.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 130-131.

[14] This is Jordan Woods description in reviewing Rowan Williams’, Christ the Heart of Creation. “Against Asymmetrical Christology: A Critical Review of Rowan Williams’s ‘Christ the Heart of Creation’” (Eclectic Orthodoxy, August 4th, 2019) https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2019/08/04/against-asymmetrical-christology-a-critical-review-of-rowan-williamss-christ-the-heart-of-creation/

[15] Bulgakov, Ibid., 131-132.

[16] Ibid., 124.

[17] Ibid., 125.

[18] Ibid., 128.

[19] Ibid., 129.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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