“I Stand at the Door and Knock”: Sergius Bulgakov and Encounter Between Divine and Human Personhood

Sergius Bulgakov’s description of the image of God in humans fulfilled can be captured in the movement between Romans 7, with its depiction of the image as an unfulfilled trinitarian potential, and Romans 8 with its depiction of participation in the Divine reality. The former, or created Sophia in Bulgakov’s description, is meant for the latter, uncreated Sophia or direct participation in Trinitarian reality. Created Sophia, apart from the fulfillment of this potential, still contains the infinite but as in a Lacanian psychoanalytic understanding, it is a bad infinite. This bad infinite, as with Friedrich Schelling and Jacques Lacan, is nothingness taking the place of divine reality. This dynamic of nothingness, that choice posed in creation ex nihilo (God or nothing), is a non or anti-reality serving in place of the positive reality of God. It is not that anyone can truly be alone or remain solitary. There is no complete separation from God – deism or atheism notwithstanding. Even in humankind’s imagined aloneness God provides for the integrity of human personhood, in that he does not overwhelm or violate or overpower, but as Christ says, “I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come into him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3: 20). God convinces “not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit” (Zech. 4: 6). He convinces by Divine love, which presumes the freedom of the person. As Bulgakov writes, “The freedom of the person remains inviolable and impenetrable even for God. Voluntarily, by His kenosis of Creator and Provider, He suspends His omnipotence before the person.”[1] God comes to us in Christ presuming that the image in which we are created is already correlated, already desirous, already made for Divinity.

In Bulgakov’s depiction, the displacement of the Divine image (unlimited sophianization always approximating – participating – mirroring the divine image) can never lead to a complete break or to a “complete fading of the image,” as it always “bears the stamp of eternity.”[2] This “creaturely eternity,” in and of itself, may not be open to explanation apart from recognizing that for which it was made, which is to say the bad infinity of Romans 7 or the isolated psychoanalytic subject, is an impenetrable mystery, if explanation is sought within itself. Just the notion of the limitlessness of eternal life contained in the image, creates a series of paradoxes or antinomies, if explanation for this limitlessness is sought within finite possibilities.

The impossibility of the infinite in the finite, or the negative mystery which this creates, can itself become the lure (the lure of the obstacle cause of desire). For example, sexual difference, or loading infinite weight on male/female difference, creates an obstacle to fulfilment. As Bulgakov puts it, creation “contains infinite possibilities of ascending and descending motion, of deceleration and acceleration,” in which, apart from grace or providential interaction, there is incompleteness – but “dissatisfied with itself” the created “thirsts for fulfillment” in the divine for which it was made.[3] The human image is a receptacle for union with God, but plugging other things into this receptacle creates a short circuit or a bad infinity, in which absence and nothingness are invested with infinite weight (see my two blogs on Bulgakov tracing why antinomies? here and here). We may be familiar with the short circuit (picturing Romans 7 as the norm), but this creaturely infinity only finds fulfillment, according to Bulgakov, in being joined to the Divine.

As Bulgakov notes, this being joined to God or the “sophianization of man by grace,” which is called salvation, is not simply a by-product of the fall of man. “It is generally thought that salvation is something extraordinary that comes from outside, that it transcends man’s natural vocation, his creaturely sophianicity.” But this “salvation” or deification “is predetermined by the very creation of man in the image of God.” Being created in the image of God, means humankind was made to be joined to the Divine, in the manner in which Christ brings together Divine and human in his person. It is not that the individual becomes something other than herself, but she becomes fully herself. Christ’s Divine-humanity is the pattern set for all of humanity. The incarnation of Christ, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the world, are not counter to the individual or her image, but the correlate of what it means to have been created in that image. This possibility is contained in the image, and the fall is not the explanation for the need for grace, but the image itself calls for the fulfillment of its potential in the work of Christ. “The fall of man here signifies only deviation from the straight path of his ascent, which leads him to deification, or sophianization, by virtue of the image of God in him. Man’s state before the fall does not in any way correspond to the postulates of deism concerning the total separation of man’s life from God and the abolition of God’s leadership.”[4]

The joining of the Divine and the human was not complete with creation, but in the Genesis scene, the image was already dependent upon God’s presence and participation. Genesis indicates the necessity of a synergistic relationship as God’s breath is breathed into the first man. The tree of life (or tree of breath) pictures this synergism as not only present in the the original image but also dependent on the necessity of its fulfillment outside of itself (through access to God or the tree of life). Bulgakov’s project aims to return, through his doctrine of Sophia, to an understanding of the human image as a “co-imagedness, since the creature contains the living image of the Creator and is correlated with Him.” The repetition of God in the human image calls for continued life and repetition. Prior to setting forth his notion of this co-imaging human capacity, Bulgakov makes the case that the failure of Western theology in regard to the most basic questions in regard to cosmology and ontology, is itself an argument. It is, he says, “a negative argument in favor of the sophiological statement of this question as the only possible statement for overcoming the aporias” in Western theology.[5]

Genesis pictures the freedom to refuse the fulfilment of this relationship, but theology subsequent to Augustine, focused as it is on God’s sovereignty, does not allow for either this freedom or any significant survival of the Divine image in humanity.  That is, the significance of the human image is lost and left unaccounted for in subsequent theology. This will result in a conceptualization of salvation, peculiar to the West, which cuts itself off from understanding salvation as fulfillment of the original image and the completion of creation. As a result, sin and salvation are made mysterious. What replaces the biblical picture of personhood (the personhood of humans and the personhood of God) Bulgakov describes as something like a mechanical force. “This entire doctrine of the first and second causes, the doctrine of God as the cause of the world, which acts upon the world but also interacts with it in some way, is only a monstrous misunderstanding, a theological temptation, which replaces the revelation of the living and personal God with the doctrine of an impersonal mechanism of causality.”[6]

The Augustinian doctrine of original sin and predestination did not leave room for freedom but it really left no room for sin and salvation in conjunction with persons or the human image. The problem inherited and furthered by Thomas, in his depiction of God as first-cause, ends in a deterministic understanding in which human freedom and the divine image in man are rendered moot or inconsequential. As Bulgakov describes, there may be a semantic preservation of creaturely freedom, but there “is no ontological place in the system of determinism” for any real freedom. “If a mountain (Mt. Blanc, say) settles with all of its weight upon a thin nail that enters into a soft tree, it is meaningless to speak of the possibility of resistance or of choice for this nail: the choice of entering into the tree or of resisting. But the relation between the omnipotence of God and creaturely freedom is incommensurable even with the hugeness of Mt. Blanc in relation to the nail: creaturely freedom is simply annihilated.”[7]

Bulgakov traces the subsequent attempts to rescue human freedom, as in Molinism, but he judges this theology and philosophy a failure in its rejection of a fulsome understanding of the image. “From this point of view, the difference between Thomism and Molinism, so exaggerated in Catholic doctrine, is purely fictitious, insofar as both are forms of inconsistent determinism, trying to save themselves in different ways from their own inexorability.” Bulgakov shows that the turn to Aristotelianism in Thomism leaves theology with the problems of Greek philosophy. “Strictly speaking, there is a place here neither for the distinction between the first and second cause nor for the distinction (which is the same thing) between God and the world, since God is introduced here into the causal logic of the world and the world is absorbed by God’s being. In this monism, there is neither God nor world in their correlation.” [8]

There is no explanation of how God and world can be in relationship, without destroying or absorbing either God or the world. God does everything, in much of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, as there is a loss of the possibility of the divine image in man due to determinism. Augustinian predestination raises the specter, not only that God predestines some to heaven but its correlate, that some are predestined to hell. “To the question, What explains this election of some and the reprobation of others? Augustine responded that he did not know, referring to the unfathomability of the ways of God. The inevitable conclusion that follows and was drawn later is that Christ brought redemption and came into the world only for the elect.”[9] Augustine makes no attempt to explain, apart from the fact of God’s will. Thomas, following Augustine, offers the non-explanation that the saving of some is brought out and appreciated most fully against background of the majority being condemned: “God wished to show his goodness to people, in relation to those whom he predestined, sparing them according to grace and punishing them according to justice.”[10]

Though Augustine and Thomas will attempt to ward off the doctrine of double predestination, John Calvin fully embraces it, along with the perverse understanding of God this entails. “Having the courage of consistency, Calvinism took all the horrifying conclusions of predestination to their extreme.” Calvin refuses all the subtleties attempted by Augustine and Thomas, and enthusiastically embraces that, which apart from long religious training and attenuation must appear abhorrent – the most perverse doctrine ever formulated. “Calvin proclaims his doctrine of double predestination, to glory and to perdition, as God’s inexorable will (thereby making the Gospel approach the Koran). It is clear that such an absolute predestination completely eliminates the freedom of the will (although good works are retained), election or reprobation being logically considered an inevitable fate (Inst. 3, 22, 2).” To deny this obvious conclusion in regard to reprobation is, in Calvin’s estimate, “childishness.” This conclusion is quickly followed by the adult decision (?) that God wills evil: “’He established with the decree of his will’ the fall of the first man (Inst. 3, 23, 81). Adam fell because of a divine predestination. ‘God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him of all his descendants; he willed it’ (Inst. 3, 23, 7).”[11]

The conclusion, drawn from assuming God as cause rather than as Creator – setting both salvation and creation in a causal mode, is “a monstrous misunderstanding” in which the “living personal God,” to say nothing of living personal humans, is replaced by an “impersonal mechanism of causality.” “Here, the idea of creation, of the Creator and creation, is replaced by the concept of a well-adjusted mechanism of causes; and into the motion, established from the foundation, of the moving parts, one wishes to inject freedom. In this doctrine, neither man, the image of God, nor God, man’s Proto-image and Creator, exists.” Despite the best of intentions, freedom is lost, God is lost, and human personhood is lost, all replaced by a sovereign machine.[12] This negative argument indicates the need for a more positive development.

For Bulgakov, the turn from God as cause to God as Creator is the means of rightly understanding personhood and the possibility of God entering into creation and his creatures. As he sums it up, “In the creation of the world, God, in becoming the Creator, repeats or doubles his own being beyond the Divine Sophia in the creaturely Sophia.”[13] The illustration of what Bulgakov might mean, is found in the divine breath repeated by and in the first man. This repetition of the breath or life of God in the man, gives man his own life, which is indistinguishable, in certain aspects, from the life of God. The man has personhood, free choice, a capacity for relationship, and a capacity to name, order, and exercise his will on the world. Of course, with the fall, there are delimitations set upon this life and personhood, but the original image, in its direct association with God, remains. Just as with the breath, repeated in the Hebrew poetry of Genesis (in God, in the man, in the tree) so too “the creaturely Sophia is the self-repetition, as it were, of the Divine Sophia outside of divine being, in the “nothing” “out of” which or in which God created the world. Having the force of divine being, the creaturely Sophia, in herself, as the “Beginning” of creaturely being, does not need a “first” cause and cannot even have one.”[14]

Bulgakov pictures the human person as retaining the eternality of the divine image, such that birth, or parentage, or physical origins, do not explain personhood. The origin of humans is the eternal image shared by all of humanity, and this eternality is reflected in the repetition of the divine image in the multiplicity, becoming, or potentiality of all human persons. Even the recognition of finitude (mortality and death) points to an eternal reflexive capacity – an infinite capacity for reason and for choice. Thus, the confrontation with Christ does not describe a passive relinquishment of will, personhood, and reason, but their active engagement. “By their very nature, precisely by virtue of creaturely freedom, creatures cannot receive their being in a purely passive manner. They are endowed with free activity and are individually qualified in the reception of their being. They absorb grace, and this absorption of grace is an ongoing sophianization, actualization of image in likeness.”[15] We must imitate Christ, walk as he walked, exercise active choice (opening the door) in following and reflecting to a greater degree his likeness – forever completing our own image. “Creaturely freedom, modal yet authentic within its limits, encounters divine suggestions which graciously flow into it and are ‘synergistically’ united with it. Man wrestles with God, like Jacob, in his freedom, but he also asks for and receives God’s blessing, also like Jacob.”[16]

In the passage from Romans 7 to Romans 8, it is not that human will or personhood are relinquished or absent in either case, but in Romans 7 the misdirected will is split, frustrated, and caught up in death (the infinite turned in upon itself). There is a threefold absence in the I, of Trinitarian proportions. The law serves in place of the Father, meaning the divine-human relation is disrupted. The ego or I serves in place of being in Christ, such that the reflexive image only reverberates in the interior dimension. This refracts into “the body of death” such that the I is an antinomy, split from within. Chapter 7 is filled with the peculiar suffering of the psychoanalytic subject. The individual is driven by jealousy (7:7), a living death (7:9), deception (7:11), bondage (7:14), frustrated willing (7:18), summed up in Paul’s cry of agony: “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (7:24). This is not someone devoid of eternity in their hearts, but haunted by it and yet unable to grasp it. The answer to this eternal, agonizing suffering, is found in Christ. In Romans 8 the person is redirected: “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (8:6). The incapacity exposed in 7, “not doing what I want” (7:15) is displaced by an ability to walk “according to the Spirit” (8:4), and the relation with the law is replaced by a relationship with the Father: “you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, Abba! Father!’” (8:15). The synergistic relation is restored as one dwells in Christ and the Spirit melds with the human spirit: “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him” (8:16-17). In the language of Bulgakov, created Sophia (the created image) is filled with Divine Sophia (the person of God) in and through the love of God fulfilling the human image. The created image is melded with the Divine image and here is predestination of holistic, choosing, free, persons (8:29-30).

[1] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition) 226.

[2] Ibid, 203.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 203-204.

[5] Ibid, 221.

[6] Ibid, 220.

[7] Ibid, 208.

[8] Ibid, 211-212.

[9] Ibid, 214.

[10] Quoted in Bulgakov, 216.

[11] Ibid, 217.

[12] Ibid, 220-221.

[13] Ibid, 222.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, 225.

[16] Ibid.

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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