Achieving Synthesis Between Religious Studies and Sociology with Sergius Bulgakov

Aristotle’s cosmology is nothing but a sophiology, but a sophiology that is deprived of its trinitarian-theological foundation. This sophiology is a doctrine of divinity without God and apart from God, of divinity in place of God, in the capacity of God. We have said the same thing about Platonism as a theory of self-existent ideas, of Divine Sophia in herself. The entire difficulty and, in a certain sense, the impotence and indefensibility in this form of Plato’s theory of ideas consist in the separateness of the Divine Sophia from the creaturely Sophia as well as in the ungroundedness of the world of ideas.[1] Sergius Bulgakov

A doctrine of divinity without God or self-existent ideas absent divinity. Doesn’t this more or less cover the range of possibility within human thought and religion, absent Trinitarian reality? There is a separation focused, either on the transcendent or the creaturely. There is either Plato or Aristotle, Mircea Eliade or Peter Berger. Religion is either beyond study or it reduces to sociology. The dialectic may favor the transcendent or the immanent, the practical or the philosophical, the creaturely or divine, but there is an absolute separation, in which the divide is the constituting factor in the opposites. All that can be said never attains the essence of things, and one can focus on one or the other (the sayable or the essence). Sergius Bulgakov’s critique of Aristotelianism and Platonism might be stretched to roughly serve alternative approaches to religion. Bulgakov foresees modern religious studies and sociology, as founded by Mircea Eliade and Peter Berger (respectively), in that religion reduces to the absolutely transcendent and ineffable or it is fully explained by the sociological.

Eliade creates a unified category for study, not through any positive statement about the substance or content of religion, but by deeming all religion, in its essence, as that which is noumenal or sui generis. Eliade held that religious experience is distinct from historical pressures and influences and that religious experiences are their own cause and belong to their own unique category. Religion shares the Kantian characteristic of being beyond definition, yet all “religion” somehow pertains to what is most real. As I have described it (here), for religion to be an object of study, Eliade’s paradigm must be the case. If there is no unique essence to religion, then psychology, history, or sociology can explain religion.  The problem with Eliade’s paradigm is that a sui generis experience cannot be studied. By definition it is beyond study as it is distinct, it transcends historical, social, and psychological, causality and arises as its own cause.  Religious studies reduces to studying religion as the reaction and interpretation of an essence which is not itself open to examination.  This theoretical stance predetermines that the religious perspective is essentially free of social, economic, and political interference.  Religion arises from a reality which falls outside of historical factors and cultural values.  Even the psychological phenomena of religion are an after-effect of a reality that does not make itself directly available.

Here the problem is that of Platonism, in that there is no actual object to study, nothing in which to ground the study, as the essence of religion is completely removed from its manifestations. The articulation and striving of religious practices can only point toward its object, and there is no ground but only endless gesturing. In the words of Bulgakov, “The entire difficulty and, in a certain sense, the impotence and indefensibility in this form of Plato’s theory of ideas consist in the separateness of the Divine Sophia from the creaturely Sophia as well as in the ungroundedness of the world of ideas.”[2] It is impossible to bring the creaturely and divine into relationship or union, and thus there is a vague encompassing of every possibility, or every form of religion. “This world is not unified; it is not even subsumable in a higher unifying principle. The world therefore turns out to be only a speculative projection of pagan polytheism.”[3] While Bulgakov means this as a criticism, for Eliade, this is his point of departure for studying religion.

On the other hand, Peter Berger poses the Aristotelian possibility, of finding the transcendent fully explained in the immanent, but as Bulgakov notes, Aristotle is simply filling in the other half of an inevitable dialectic divide. Plato gives us the “fleshless abstractions” and Aristotle puts flesh on these ideas but only by saturating them and reducing them to the concrete and impersonal. Just as Eliade leaves us with pure abstraction devoid of empirical reality, just so, as with Aristotle, Berger reduces religion to an empirical “sacred canopy,” providing a groundless ground for sociology. That is the sacred canopy is fully explained by its empirical necessity in holding society together. Berger, the good Presbyterian, is not refuting religion, but as with Eliade, there can only be a “rumor of angels.”

In Bulgakov’s explanation, “What Aristotle did was transpose ideas from the domain of the Divine Sophia to the domain of the creaturely Sophia. He proclaimed the being of the latter without the former, as if in separation from it. He thus reduced ideas to the empirical, taken only in the category of universality (which would also require special explanation).”[4] Neither Berger nor Eliade are able to distinguish God from the world. For Berger, “God” or the sacred is constituted by the world, and for Eliade only the world is available for observation. What they both lack is the Personal God.

Just as Aristotle transposes Plato into the empirical, so too Berger transposes Eliade, but both (Berger and Eliade) reduce religion to a set of practices (and in both, the practice is removed from the divine), reproducing the divide between the abstract and concrete. Religious studies and the sociology of religion build upon and generate the difference between Plato and Aristotle, but this difference is not so much a problem, as the engine, of dualism. The divide between heaven and earth, theory and practice, creator and creation, body and soul, religious studies and sociology of religion, perform the same trick of turning the problem into the solution. To bridge the gap, close the divide, or overcome the dualism, would undermine the foundation generating the predominant form of understanding.

The thesis and antithesis of the divide condition the answer on either side of the divide but, contrary to what Aristotle or Berger or the host of pragmatists and materialists might imagine, they cannot replace or explain away the transcendent (without themselves appealing to it in the process). On the other hand, it is also true that ideas exist only in things or in the world, though the world does not exhaust or explain or displace ideas (mind or theory). “Plato and Aristotle are both right, and both wrong, in their one-sidedness of thesis and antithesis. They each postulate a synthesis, which is not contained in their theories but which must be found beyond and above them.”[5]

The Greek unmoved mover, Eliade’s sui generis, and Berger’s sacred canopy, all fit Bulgakov’s description in which God “can be likened to the line of the horizon where the earth and sky meet and appear to join.”[6] In each case, God disappears and is replaced by the world, and the divide between heaven and earth is foundational, for both religious studies and Christian theology.

Eliade needs Berger, the transcendentalists need the pragmatists, the study of religion and the sociology of religion need each other. “The creaturely Sophia is the manifestation and reflection of the heavenly Sophia. Nevertheless, sophiology, as the doctrine of the supramundane principle of the world, must incorporate these great sophianic insights of ancient thought.”[7] However, none of these systems has the means of synthesizing with or accounting for its opposite. The question of synthesis, as it applies to the study of religion, is not only an issue of bringing sociological insights to bear on the study of religion, but it pertains to Christian theology.

As I have stated it (see the above link), the sui generis reading of religion is not unrelated to sui generis notions of Christianity: that the Church somehow exists apart from a particular society and culture and that culture has its own innate essence apart from Christ.  This disembodied, transcendent notion of Christianity reveals itself in an incapacity to imagine a real-world kingdom on earth.  In this form of thought the Church cannot itself be a holistic, immanent reality, constituting its own culture.  The body of Christ is spiritualized, too otherworldly, and culture is too much the essence of this world’s reality to have the two realms intersect.

There is a singular synthesis of creator and creation, of the immanent and transcendent, of God and human. Jesus Christ, the God/man synthesizes what cannot otherwise achieve synthesis. This is not an end point, but the beginning presumption, not just in apprehending Christianity, but in understanding religion. Plato and Aristotle, or Eliade and Berger, do not have the resource for appropriating the other (none of the dualisms do), but the Christian synthesis brings together and utilizes the opposed pairs. “The dialectic of Platonism and Aristotelianism in the theory of ideas is synthesized in the Christian revelation of the divine-creaturely, or divine-human, character of being, of the sophianicity of creation.”[9] Faith and practice, doctrine and action, heaven and earth, Creator and creation, and sociology of religion and religious studies have a Subject.

The end result is something on the order of James McClendon’s practical theory of Christianity and religion, in which religion is not believed, apart from practice.  It is is embodied and practiced so that it is a conviction that shows itself in a form of life.  In this “practical understanding” doctrine or belief discloses its meaning only within the practices and convictions of the culture that embraces it. This provides both a theology, and as our upcoming class on religion demonstrates, it provides an alternative ground for understand the world’s religions.

(Register now for the class in World Religions and Cultures starting the week of January 22nd: Go to https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings to register.)


[1] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (p. 11). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition. Thanks to Matt Welch for his constant inspiration, which stands behind this blog.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bulgakov, 12.

[5] Bulgakov, 12.

[6] Bulgakov, 14.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bulgakov, 14.

[9] Ibid.

Sergius Bulgakov and David Bentley Hart on World Religions

The brilliant Russian Theologian, Sergius Bulgakov, captures both the truth in the world’s religions and the possibility that, perhaps for this same reason, the various religions may hold, at a minimum, a pedagogical danger (missing the uniqueness and finality of Christ), and at a maximum may threaten captivity to the demonic (though he constantly and at length qualifies the nature of this danger, and even maintains that to reduce pagan religion to the demonic is blasphemous). David Bentley Hart, largely inspired by Bulgakov, captures the positive moment in world religions and shared humanity, but Hart is not concerned to highlight the uniqueness of Christ in comparison to the religions, and does not warn, as does Bulgakov, of the danger of misapprehension. As a result, Hart’s abstractions float free of the intimate Christocentric and Trinitarian Personalism, which pervade the work of Bulgakov. Nonetheless Hart, (in his book The Experience of God )[1], waxes so eloquent on the divinely inspired element in human religion, thought, and experience, that his work may be irreplaceable. The two thinkers, taken together, offer a balanced, broad, and generous assessment of human thought and religion. Given Bulgakov’s grounding of this understanding in Christ and Scripture, and Hart’s expansion on Bulgakov’s understanding (in my reading), this makes for a profound theology of religion and anthropology.[2]

Their shared starting premise is summed up by Hart: “God is not only the ultimate reality that the intellect and the will seek but is also the primordial reality with which all of us are always engaged in every moment of existence and consciousness, apart from which we have no experience of anything whatsoever.”[3] As Bulgakov states it: “There is no place and can be no place of its own or independent ground for the world which would belong to it alone. If there is such a place, it must be established by God, for there is nothing that is outside of or apart from God and that in this sense is not-God.”[4] Human experience, at its foundation and in substance, is living and moving and having being in God. According to Augustine (and cited by Hart), God is not only beyond our highest thoughts but is more inward to me than my inmost thoughts.

Bulgakov ties the substance of human experience, not simply to an abstract concept of God, but directly to Christ, in that all of humanity shares in the experience of the first and second Adam: “The new Adam redeemed the whole old Adam and in this sense replaced him with himself. And no pars pro toto, or series of successive and partial redemptions, could correspond to this task, which is a universal one.” Adam, “necessarily presupposes the existence of an integral all-humanity, which is redeemed by Christ in its entirety and not only in its individual parts or persons.”[5] Bulgakov pictures this as working in two directions, from Christ to each person and from each person to Christ. In the Incarnation, “The Lord took His humanity not from impersonal nature but from each of us personally. He thus became one with His humanity, introducing it into His own hypostatic being. And only on this basis can it be said: ‘Christ lives in me.’”[6]

Bulgakov grounds the most abstract concepts in the Person of Christ (personhood itself), in which Christ’s Personhood is a summing up and ground of each individual person. Christ as the all in all, is what I am most intimately in myself, and he is what I am becoming.

Every person is a point on the surface of this sphere, connected by a radius to the center. The whole and a particular variant, the genus and an individual, exist with one existence, are inwardly one. The historical chain of individual human lives with all its diversity manifests the multiplicity of the genus; far from abolishing the multi-unity, it even presupposes it. Thus, each human individual, being a generic being, is at the same time personal and all-human.[7]

Hart describes this finite experience of the eternal as the guiding substance and quality of thought, experience, and desire: “The vanishing point of the mind’s inner coherence and simplicity is met by the vanishing point of the world’s highest values; the gaze of the apperceptive ‘I’ within is turned toward a transcendental ‘that’ forever beyond; and mental experience, of the self or of the world outside the self, takes shape in the relation between these two ‘supernatural” poles.’” Rational experience continually goes beyond the immediacy of finite experience and objects, comprehending them in “more capacious conceptual categories.” The mind conceives of the world only “because it has always already, in its intentions, exceeded the world. Consciousness contains nature, as a complete and cogent reality, because it has gone beyond nature.” [8] The values providing impetus to thought and judgment cannot be accounted for within the material world, a fact immediately available in experience, which Bulgakov explicitly identifies with the deity and humanity of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Bulgakov, through a careful exegetical process, arrives at the universality of experience with which Hart begins. He poses as his point of inquiry a refutation of the notion that pre-Christian paganism was lacking in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, making the case that paganism consists of a “natural old testament” and that all people, in the words of Romans know of God: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead” (Rom. 1:19–20). To imagine that paganism was totally deprived of the Holy Spirit and even the spirit of God, is contrary, as Bulgakov demonstrates, to both the Old and New Testament.[9] “In conformity with the spiritual maturity, particular gifts, and historical destinies of paganism, the knowledge of God is realized in it in multiple and manifold ways; and this knowledge is possible only because the Holy Spirit ‘bloweth’ also in the unrevealed (and in this sense) ‘natural’ religions.”[10]

We know that God has been preparing and speaking to all peoples, as the Word of Christ translates into every culture and tongue. On the day of Pentecost “every man heard [the apostles] speak in his own language” (Acts 2:6). There is a deep grammar, or a shared Spirit (the Old Testament “spirit of God”), giving rise to every culture and religion. As Hart puts it, there is “a sort of universal grammar of human nature, which makes it possible to overcome any cultural or conceptual misunderstanding; and, without discounting the immense power of culture to shape and color our encounter with the one world that we all together inhabit, I also believe there are certain common forms of experience so fundamental to human rationality that, without them, we could not think or speak at all.”[11]

According to Bulgakov, not only Judaism, but the religions and cultures of the nations have prepared for Christ “by a special mode of knowledge, by their own gift, by a language proper to this natural Pentecost.” The historical religions and cultures of the world have also been “touched” by the Spirit of God, and for this reason it should not surprise us that they have something to teach, and that “we directly experience this breath of the Spirit of God” through them. “[W]e should not shy away from this experience because of an unjustified fear that the uniqueness and truthfulness of our Revelation will be shaken. On the contrary, one should rejoice in the gifts of the Spirit of God bestowed upon these ‘prophets’ as well, who came ‘from the river’ like Balaam, or upon the ‘wise men from the east,’ who came to worship Christ.”[12]

Bulgakov compares world religions and experience to Judaism, referencing the “pagan church” found in the ancient liturgy. This “pagan church” or “natural old testament,” reached a fullness or maturity, that enabled acceptance of Christ, proving “the gifts of the spirit can be present in paganism too, gifts that are diverse and ascend from measure to measure.”[13] As he argues, the gospel is founded upon the notion of its universal reception and receptivity, meaning all have been prepared by God. “What does this calling of the Gentiles, of paganism, signify? Is it merely an act of divine arbitrariness and coercion, as it were; or does it have sufficient inner justification, in virtue of which the Gentiles turned out to be receptive to the preaching of Christianity, and even more so than the Jews, except for the chosen? And how should one understand this receptivity if one believes that paganism is a realm of demonic possession?” He maintains this does not fit with biblical testimony, and “it contradicts the fact of the conversion of the Gentiles, their reception of the Spirit, the openness of their hearts to Christ.”[14]

In making his case for this universal preparation of the nations, through the Spirit, Bulgakov turns to the books of Acts and Romans. “This marvelous testimony of the apostle Paul about the common seeking of God on the part of all the brothers by blood of the one human race places before us not only the fact of the divine election of the chosen nation but also the fact of a universal divine vocation: ‘we are also his offspring’ (Acts 17:28).”[15] It is not that paganism is equal to Israel, as she is His special “vineyard,” but she too, like the pagan nations has obscured the truth with sin and “pagan contaminations”: “when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful” (Ro. 1:21). Israel may have received a purer revelation but as Paul notes in Acts, God is working with all peoples and nations: “[God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him; and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:26–28). Bulgakov notes the contributions of the Gentiles to philosophy, art, science, and providing the “wise men,” which means “this is not foreign to the spirit of God.” “There should be no doubt about this, just as it should not be doubted that the founders of the great religions and their books were, to some extent, divinely chosen and even divinely inspired.”[16]

While the Jews may have been “chosen,” Bulgakov points out that theirs is still part of a universal experience in Paul’s description. “Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil; of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile.… For there is no respect of persons with God.… For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which shew the work of law written in their hearts” (Rom. 2:9, 11, 14–15). As Bulgakov sums up, “Without in the least diminishing the election of the Jews, the Apostle equates here in a certain sense the Jews and the Gentiles as equally needing salvation and equally called to salvation.”[17]

The gospel, in Bulgakov’s estimate, is premised on this fact of a universal “accessibleness” to God and the Holy Spirit, and at the same time the “abolition of Judaism” indicates that both Judaism and paganism are limited. “It is noteworthy that the Acts of the Apostles, which tell about the establishment of the New Testament church by the action of the Holy Spirit, end and are inwardly summed up, as it were, by the definitive abolition of Judaism, which stopped being the Old Testament church.”[18] In turn, he notes that with the inception of Christianity, paganism also, poses a peculiar danger. “It became an anti-Christianity.” That is, like a Judaism which would refuse its synthesis and completion in Christianity, paganism also posed as a competitor (where its inadequacies were not acknowledged). Thus, much like Judaism in Bulgakov’s estimate, “Paganism is justified only as the past of a religion which does not yet know Christianity but which is preparing to know it.” Just as there may be a necessary separation from Judaism (as an end in itself), so too the early church and Christian apologists felt the need for a complete break from pagan religion: “The fate of the pagan old testament is the same as that of the Jewish Old Testament. Just as Judaism, not recognizing its proper fulfillment in the person of the Messiah, was transformed from a divinely revealed religion into a fierce anti-Christianity, so the natural religions too become anti-Christian in proportion to their conscious rejection of and opposition to Christianity.”[19]

Unlike Hart, Bulgakov combines deep appreciation for world religions with the sense that they pose a danger, not so much because they are demonic or untrue, but because they contain a powerful truth which should rightly find its end in Christ.

(Register now for the class in World Religions and Cultures: Go to https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings to register.)


[1] David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, (Yale University Press. Kindle Edition, 2013).

[2] At least that is my presumption in the upcoming class being offered through Ploughshares Bible Institute, which will incorporate both Hart and Bulgakov’s reading. Go to https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings to register. Hart does not seem to share Bulgakov’s sense of the danger of pagan religion. On the other hand, philosophical atheism is his primary target (in The Experience of God).

[3] David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God (p. 10). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (p. 6). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[5] Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, 111.

[6] Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, 109.

[7] Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, 110.

[8] Hart, 244.

[9] Sergius Bulgakov, The Comforter ( 233-234). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition. He does a great deal of work with Melchizedek, and sights the case of the pagan prophet, Balaam.

[10] The Comforter, 239.

[11] Hart, 15.

[12] The Comforter, 239.

[13] The Comforter, 242.

[14] The Comforter, 235-236.

[15] The Comforter, 233-234.

[16] The Comforter, 239-240.

[17] The Comforter, 234.

[18] The Comforter, 235.

[19] The Comforter, 241.

“Maranatha”: Praying in the New Year with Sergius Bulgakov

He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)

“Come, Lord Jesus!” Maranatha, in the Aramaic and transliterated into Greek, is the conclusion of the whole Bible and of the New Testament in particular. The response given to “the Spirit and the Bride” is “surely I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:17,20). The early church understood this quickness in coming as ushering in the end of all things. According to Sergius Bulgakov, for us who live two thousand years after Christ, this coming “quickly” must be regarded ontologically rather than chronologically.[1] I believe this prayer calls for the Parousia, that is for the presence of Christ in the world even before His second coming.

This is a prayer of turning the world into the New Jerusalem, the Church. The prayer is both personal and cosmic, to “let God be all in all” in me and the world.[2] Christ is present in the Church, but at the same time is called on to come. The second coming of Christ is not merely a future event or goal. This coming of Christ into the world is an avocation or calling for all Christians. This eschatological event is to shape the direction of our life and it captures the meaning of time and history. Christ is coming, and Christians and the Church are ushering in Christ to the world. John tells us in Revelation history has an eschatological goal, and we are to play our creative part in this goal. History is a means of fulfillment of an eschatological anticipation, which human effort and individual and corporate human lives are bringing about. “Come Lord Jesus,” is our effort and prayer. The immanent outworking of our time, our lives, and of history, is the means of the coming of Christ. The coming of Christ is being realized not only beyond history, but also through history. The prayer “Maranatha” is not a task beyond our strength, it is an inner conviction prayed in unison with the prayer to the Holy Spirit: “come and dwell within us.” Through this eschatological understanding, history is seen not merely as a time of waiting for the second coming of Christ. Rather, history is a positive path, which has to be walked. History, therefore, is determined by the “readiness” and “expectation” of what is already present but still to come. We are living in this tension of now, but not yet.[3] “Come, Lord Jesus! Maranatha!” This prayer for salvation implies both the end of the world and the way to this end. We are to bring about and accomplish this end in our lives.

The entire creative activity of life, that is, the whole of human history to which God called the human race is accomplished by this creative inspiration. Our prayer, our life, our creativity, moves history toward eschatology, but at the same time does not deny history, but serves as its inner fulfillment.

As we usher out the old year, the year having passed through infancy to old age in the popular image, we are struck once again with the rapid movement of time. How do we view our time, our history, or history in general? Most of human history is tragic. Hegel calls it a slaughter bench, and Hegel of course, is the one who imagines that through this slaughter, progress occurs. Not an eschatological progress toward a transcendent goal, but an inner, closed, progress within time and history.  

As we pass through the feast of the slaughter of the innocents, a modern-day Herod is slaying the children of Palestine. As we witness the slaughter in Gaza, the slaughter in Ukraine, and remember the slaughter of Vietnam, Korea, the Great War, the Second World War, the Russian Revolution, the Maoist Revolution, the totality of which resulted in hundreds of millions of deaths, we recognize history is tragic.

I have just read a history of the American West, in which General Sherman, who conducted a scorched earth policy in the Civil War, and who was assigned finishing the Indian wars, describes the tragedy of history at a speech he gave at West Point: 

War is written into the human soul. Wars have been, are now, and ever will be as long as man is man. You cannot prognosticate that we are to be wiser and better than those who have gone before us, and that because there is now or in sight no just cause for war, that we are therefore to be forever exempt. Wars do not usually result from just causes, but from pretexts. There probably never was a just cause why men should slaughter each other by wholesale, but there are such things as ambition, selfishness, folly, madness, in communities as in individuals, which become blind and bloodthirsty, not to be appeased save by havoc, and generally by the killing of somebody else than themselves. This should not be, but is the fact, and we are no exception to the general rule.[4]

If corporate history is read as tragedy, we know that the senselessness of life can also be overwhelming on an individual level. As William Shakespeare puts it in Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” As Solomon puts it in Ecclesiastes (1:2): “’Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’”

History is not simply meaningless tragedy, as we know Christ has broken into history, bringing God’s eternal purposes into time, but we understand how a closed view of the world conveys this. A secular understanding, without recourse to what lies beyond history, cannot account for any apparent meaning in history, though this is the temptation. Examined within its own boundaries, even within its achievements, history turns out to be a great failure.  Christ’s entry into time and history and its rescue, is our story, the story of the Church. In the description of Bulgakov, as an inner force within history, the Church is the place for the realization of salvation – the realm of divine-human reality being joined. This reality is the moving force of history; it drives history towards its fulfillment in eschatology. Time is not “an empty passage into eternity, but is the Church’s development and completion.”[5]

History, we recognize in Christ, is open ended. It is continually open to eternity. But it is this same fact that establishes the tragedy of history when it is approached from the point of view of the expectation of its own inward progress. So too, our own lives. From one perspective every life is tragic, but from the eschatological perspective we understand life as ushering in the Parousia. History is going through a process of creation just as an individual life does. Ironically, the tragedy of life is felt because we are made for eternity. The tragedy of time is felt from an eternal perspective.

The New Testament expresses this in the notion of Kairos, the time for salvation. In Greek, the moment of Kairos was considered a particularly opportune moment for action. In Christian thinking, time is the opportunity for eternity. There is a fullness of time, a purpose for time. In Mark 1:15, for example, it is written: “And saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand’: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” Similarly, in II Corinthians 6:1-2: “And working together with Him, we also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain— for He says, ‘At the acceptable time I listened to you, And on the day of salvation I helped you.’ Behold, now is ‘the acceptable time,’ behold, now is ‘the day of salvation”” ‘The time has come’ or that ‘time is at hand’ in which eternity is breaking into time. Both imply an apocalyptic context. Our history is open to eternity, and our history is a part of the movement of Christ.

Another way to state this is, the First Adam is being fulfilled by the second Adam, and this is the meaning of history. It is the meaning of my history and corporate history.

For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.

So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.

For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. (Rom. 5:17-19)

All humanity shares in the first Adam. All share in the effects of the fall, all share the propensity for sin, and all share the Adam nature. There is a mystical unity of all humankind in the first Adam. In the second Adam, starting with the Incarnation, this mystical humanity is elevated to the notion of the Church as Christ’s Body. Every child of Adam shares a nature, which is made for redemption. This is simultaneously individual and corporate. We can glimpse how our individual humanity participates in corporate humanity and corporate salvation. We are both the subjects and objects of history.

A concrete human being cannot be conceived independently from humankind. Every human being possesses and lives in his/her own individuality and at the same time also possesses humanity in common with others, living in tension between these two realities. The human being is “as much an individual as a social being.”[6] The existence of humankind as one human family is an important presupposition for the understanding of human history as a whole. The human being is seen not only within the closed boundaries of his/her own being or as a “self-enclosed microcosm.” Rather, human beings are “a part of the whole, and form a part of a mystical human organism.”[7] Thus, Paul speaks of all humanity as the first and second Adam.

“The idea of the Church in this sense is applied to the whole world in its real foundation and aim.”[8] The Church is the meeting point of the first and second Adam, history and eschatology, that is the presence of Christ in history. But the Church exists in tension: it is within historical reality, within the first Adam, but equally in the process of transfiguration into the second Adam. This transfigured life is accomplished in history and through history. On the way to the eschaton, human history becomes the history of the Church. Not the church as an institution, but as the spiritual force of the Parousia being worked out in history. Eschatology, the coming of Christ, the coming of the Spirit, functions as the realization of history and its inner fulfillment.

As Bulgakov describes: “The Church has no continuing city on earth, but seeks one to come. Orthodoxy implies inspiration, the eros of the Church, her yearning for the Bridegroom, the feeling proper to his Bride. It is creativeness directed towards the final goal, the expectation of the End.”[9]

Thus in this new year, we pray, and creatively live out the prayer, “Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus.”


[1] Bulgakov, Apokalypsys Ioana [The Apocalypse of John]: http:// www.krotov.info/libr_min/b/bulgakovs/00_bulg.html. Quoting from Marta Samokishyn, “Sergii Bulgakov’s Eschatological Perspectives on Human History” (Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies Vol. 49 (2008) Nos. 3–4, pp. 235–262), 255. https://www.oocities.org/sbulgakovsociety/samokishyn.pdf

[2] This is Samokishyn’s characterization of Bulgakov’s work. “Bulgakov’s main ‘theological slogan,’ I would say, can be expressed in the words: ‘let God be all in all.’” Ibid. 255.

[3] Bulgakov, The Apocalypse of John. Cited from Samokishyn, 257.

[4] H. W. Brands, The Last Campaign: Sherman, Geronimo, and the War for America (New York: Vintage Books, 2023) 362.

[5] Bulgakov, Sviet Nevechernii: Sozertsanie I Umozrenie [Unfading Light] (Moskva: Isskustvo, 1999), 185. Quoting from Samokishyn, 249.

[6] Bulgakov, Sviet Nevechernii, 345. Quoting from Samokishyn, 246.

[7]Bulgakov, Sviet Nevechernii, 346. Quoting from Samokishyn, 246.

[8] Sergii Bulgakov, “Social Teaching in Modern Russian Orthodox Theology,” in Sergii Bulgakov: Towards a Russian Political Theology, ed. Rowan Williams (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 280. Quoting from Samokishyn, 258.

[9] Bulgakov, “Autobiographical Notes” in Sergius Bulgakov: A Bulgakov Anthology, 19. Cited in Samokishyn, 260.

Watching Oppenheimer with Bulgakov: American Prometheus or American Adam

The lesson of Genesis 3, proven in human history, is that knowledge of the good or the depth of insight into God’s good creation, is tied to evil manipulation of this insight. More than this, as in the original deception, the knowledge of good and evil was and is taken as spiritual insight (a step toward becoming god). Through the elements of the world man presumes he can ascend to deity, but the “fruit” of this insight is deadly. The fundamental elements are used by Cain to bludgeon his brother to death so that he might displace Abel in the spiritual hierarchy. Having penetrated the depths of the knowledge of good and evil he descends into the world, imagining he is ascending to deity. As Sergius Bulgavov describes the fall: “Thus the deception of Satan was a grandiose ontological provocation,” in that material means are presumed to gain spiritual ends and spiritual death is presumed to be entry into spiritual life.[1]

This might be illustrated in the history of war and science. The course of human history has been shaped by warfare (with some historians claiming history can be written in terms of decisive battles) and warfare has been shaped by technological and scientific innovation. Mathematics, engineering, metallurgy, astronomy, chemistry, navigation, have each contributed simultaneously to civilization and to warfare, with progress in the former being synonymous with the latter. This is clearly illustrated in the case of physics.

Three-hundred years of research into physics revealed in the past century that the physical universe is relative to an observer, that there is an uncertainty principle or the sense in which the universe is not a determinate structure, but is impacted by observation. The universe is not a machine, and the laws of the universe are open, pointing to atomic freedom. The indication is that there is an incompleteness to the atomic world and that there is room not only for human manipulation, but divine care. On the other hand, the culmination of three hundred years of physics, and the discovery of relativity and quantum mechanics, resulted in the atomic and hydrogen bomb.

The list of those working on innovation in theoretical physics is nearly synonymous with those who turned to working on the bomb, while those who refused this work can be counted on one hand (including, Austrian physicist Lise Meitner, who discovered nuclear fission, and Isidor Rabi, who served in a limited way at Los Alamos and was Robert Oppenheimer’s close friend). This raises the question of the connection between good and evil, in that those who peered deepest into the truth and goodness of the universe, instead of developing deep moral and spiritual sensitivity, were responsible for creating weapons of mass destruction.

We recently saw the film, Oppenheimer, about Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” who oversaw its production or invention at Los Alamos New Mexico, and its explosion at Alamogordo. The book, upon which the film was based, is entitled American Prometheus, and both the book and film convey the moral contradictions and struggle faced by Oppenheimer (brilliantly portrayed by Cillian Murphy). Maybe one of the premiere intellects of his generation, not only an outstanding scientist, but cultured and well read in a number of fields, nevertheless he may not have resembled Prometheus so much as the first man, Adam. Prometheus, the god that would civilize man by sharing fire from the sun, may be the wrong image, as Oppenheimer fails to break the bureaucratic and moral prosaicness (the whisperings of the earth-bound serpent) by which he is grounded.

As Bulgakov writes,

Prometheus symbolizes the struggle with metaphysical “petit-bourgeois” mediocrity, (this is man with a conservative imagination) with the self-satisfaction of this world. He misses the higher principle of life, the kingdom of God. The usual Luciferian “petit-bourgeois” interpretation of this symbol reduces it to the level of a struggle for the immanent empirical values of this world, whereas it actually summons man to a higher vocation, to the kingdom of God. It is this “petit-bourgeois” (conventionalism, conservatism) spirit that perpetuates good and evil in their interdependence as the sole path of life and ascent. The fallen state of man with the possibilities that it contains is therefore considered to be the supreme and unique state.[2] 

Rather than struggling against the petit-bourgeois values of his contemporaries (Bulgakov’s picture of Prometheus’ symbolism), Oppenheimer displays “satisfaction” with “immanent empirical values.” As Bulgakov notes, “Evil first presents itself before man in the guise of the natural world.” The serpent arises from the earth to engage the humans in an earthy, earth bound, and return to the earth dialogue. They confuse this earth-wisdom for spiritual insight. “The beginning of evil in man is therefore connected not with revolt or usurpation, but with misunderstanding, naivete and ignorance. Our progenitors did not know how to recognize or to terminate the poisonous conversation with the serpent.” [3] The serpent arises from the earth and speaks and returns to the earth, the earth seems to indicate he can serve as his own deity. There is a gullibility and curiosity – yet the knowledge of good and evil – continues to raise its head.

Oppenheimer is content to filter his scientific genius into building a bigger rock or larger weapon. He thus perpetuates the conventional spirit of “good and evil in their interdependence as the sole path of life and ascent.” This one, we might expect to be among the spiritually enlightened and morally adept, channels his imagination along the rut carved out by the progenitors of the race. Like Adam and Cain, Oppenheimer would employ the elementary particles to play god (as one of his contemporaries accuses). Rather than breaking free of the dance between good and evil, Oppenheimer embodies and proves the principle. Who, more than the father of the atomic bomb, demonstrated that human fallenness is as good as it gets in the petit-bourgeois value system.

So, we might picture Oppenheimer, as the American Adam, rather than as Prometheus. The knowledge of the good, of God’s good creation, is tied by Oppenheimer and his generation of physicists, to the worst sort of conventional evil. Though Oppenheimer has his doubts, and will later lay moral responsibility on the politicians, he never hesitates in building the bomb and agrees the bomb must be used on Japan (even helping in the selection of targets, and despite the fact his colleagues questioned the decision). Instead of imagining total freedom, which is one of the implications of high energy physics, Oppenheimer and his generation pick up where Cain left off. Using the most fundamental elements of the world, they bludgeon their brothers (along with their children and their wives) to death.

Instead of an enlightened, intelligent, freedom, what we get is completely devoid of this freedom.  In man is born the thought that through the elements of the world he is capable of ascending to the highest levels of spiritual life and knowledge. His consciousness of his spirituality has grown dim and the equilibrium between his flesh and his spirit has been disrupted.[4]

The universe at its core indicates both a guiding intelligence and an atomic ground for freedom but this spiritual freedom is not through the elements of the world. The descent of modern physicists into apprehending the elemental particles, the stuff of the universe, while it provided insight it also demonstrated instability or the possibility of disrupting, splitting, or exploding the world with death. Man can interfere with the world at its atomic level, but what he finds is not ascent into the spiritual. He does indeed find a gap indicating the universe marks his presence. The observer is reflected in the observation. The experimenter has to take account of himself in the experiment. But this also introduces the possibility for splitting, implosion, chain reaction and the infection of all with mortality.

The great insight into physics which is tied to most modern innovations is also tied to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the possibility of world destruction. The battle between good and evil, their necessary mutual implication is captured in Oppenheimer. The man is torn between the depth of insight into the good, and the recognition that with this knowledge he has the power of the sun – atomic power – to become the destroyer of the world. The image of the mushroom cloud over Alamogordo, and then duplicated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bears with it the image of skin melting off thousands, and hundreds of thousands of victims. People are still dying of radiation poisoning and cancer in New Mexico, and surrounding states. And every year the number of dead killed by the atomic bombing in Japan continues to increase.

Man, Adam, has the capacity for depth of insight, but this capacity for truth comes with the simultaneous capacity for destruction. God called man to be fruitful and to multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it, and (to) have dominion (Gen. 1:28). But with this power to dominate and manipulate arises the power not only of good but of profound evil. The universe is such that humans can feed into it, manipulate it, control it, and destroy it. Where God brings forth the universe out of the nothingness of the Big Bang, we recognize humans can reverse the process. Man has the power to return the world to the nothingness from out of which it came, and nuclear explosion perfectly illustrates the point.

Thus, Oppenheimer’s reflection upon the success of the Trinity test is fitting: “I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad-Gita, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.” Oppenheimer, in the spirit of the first command, subdued the earth and took his place of dominion, but he too reduced it to thorns and thistles. The thorn of nuclear holocaust and the thistle of atomic power threatens to choke all life out of the world. The American Adam, like his progenitor, turned from the task of cultivating and extending the kingdom of God, to displacing it with the kingdoms of this world.

In this sense, the film Oppenheimer captures the biblical proportions of the human struggle enacted in Robert Oppenheimer and his race.


[1] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition) 162.

[2] Ibid, 189-190.

[3] Ibid, 162.

[4] Ibid, 162.

“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.

Sophia as Deliverance from the Sin of Gnosticism, Dualism, and Monism

Sergius Bulgakov defended himself against accusations of Gnosticism with the simple statement, that is definitive of his work, that he in no way endorsed dualism.[1] His utilization of philosophy has one overriding point, the point of his work – the antinomies (giving rise to Gnostic dualism and monism) which present themselves in philosophy are characteristic of the sinful human predicament. Philosophical antinomy expresses the antagonism, alienation, agonism, and violence which poses itself in the human condition (human wisdom) as ground. Gnosticism is a case in point of the human problem. His work is the resolution, not only to the Gnostic dilemma, but to the human dilemma (represented by Gnosticism) – namely, that beginning with the world, irresolvable contradiction and dualism (giving rise also to monism) are the result. This is the tragedy of philosophy, but the tragedy of philosophy is the tragedy of the human condition. Understanding the scope of the problem Bulgakov is addressing may be the prerequisite to trusting his orthodoxy, even in those daring passages which an uncharitable reading might consign to Gnostic heresy.

What we learn from Bulgakov, is not that Gnosticism per se is the human problem, though Gnosticism or some form of proto-Gnosticism or Gnostic-like understanding (the term may have limited usefulness) is the primary heresy the early church confronted and which much of the New Testament is written to combat. To call this heresy Gnosticism may be not only a historical inaccuracy but a delimitation of the human problem, which the various Gnostic cults represent, but which they in no way exhaust.  To imagine that it is Valentinian Gnosticism that is the source of Hegelianism, Russian Sophiology, or simply modern tendencies, is to get the cart before the horse.[2] Gnosticism is a case in point of the dualism which inevitably attaches itself to human thought, and Bulgakov is addressing this larger problem. He understands the problem is not simply philosophical, but pertains to events like the Russian Revolution, to world war, or to the unfolding of world history. His vision is that the pervasive manifestation of the human problem is addressed at its root in the work of Christ and the Church: “The truths contained in the revelation of Divine-humanity, particularly in its eschatological aspect, are so unshakable and universal that even the most shattering events of world history, which we are now witnessing, pale and are nullified in their ontological significance in the face of these truths insofar as we perceive these events in the light of that which is to come. And that which is to come is the Church in its power and glory, together with the transfiguration of creation.”[3] Dualism is not simply the problem posed by the abstractions of philosophy, but these abstractions articulate the moving force, the “shattering events” of world history,” which are nullified in the revelation of Divine-humanity. The philosophical arena is the prelude to theological insight in its articulation and demonstration of the problem.

Thus, Bulgakov begins his work on eschatology and ecclesiology by describing the problem inherent to taking human wisdom as an end: “it is first necessary to exclude two polar opposites: pantheistic, or atheistic, monism on the one hand and the dualistic conception of creation on the other.”[4] The nature of Sophia or wisdom in its created form, divine-like as it is, thus gives rise to the characteristic forms of human religion, philosophy, and psychology. Human identity is through sameness (monism) and difference (dualism), and these do not really constitute two alternatives, as every thesis/antithesis is aimed at its synthesis. Monism, in its materialistic form would resist (obliterate) the spiritual, and in its spiritual form it would deny materialistic reality. “On the other hand, dualistic atheism is a kind of subjugation to satanism, where the prince of this world, the black god, pretends to occupy a place alongside God.”[5] Avoiding these two extremes defines Bulgakov’s project.

Created Sophia alone, and in his estimate philosophy only has this resource, cannot account for the world and God. The Greek philosophical effort is aimed at providing an independent integrity for the world, “where the world can find existence for itself alongside God’s absoluteness. The world does not want to become nothing in the face of this absoluteness, but instead seeks its own something. It finds this something in a kind of anti-god or minus-god.”[6] There is a reification of the nothing, from out of which the world was created, or in Platonic terms the chora is the eternal ground of the world.

To posit a god alongside God, or an absolute alongside the Absolute is, in Bulgakov’s estimate, clear nonsense. “Every system of dualism falls apart from internal contradiction, is ontological nonsense, which one does not have to take into account in the general problematic of the world. It is impossible to accept that God exists and that, alongside Him and besides Him, there exists a pseudo-divine principle, a “second god,” expressly directed at the world.”[7] While religion and philosophy built upon dualism can be dismissed, what is undeniable is the goal of finding a place for the world and the problematic this poses, even for Christian theism. The tendency in overcoming dualism is to return to various forms of monism – proclaiming there is nothing outside of the world or that there is nothing existing alongside God (discounting the reality of the world). This is the problem Bulgakov addresses, which accounts for his unique approach in describing the God/world relation as that found in Creator and creation.

Either the world directly has its being in the divine act of creation or it is imagined to have its being in nothing (the contradictory impossibility implicitly posed in Platonism):

The world relates to God not as equal to Him, not as a mode of being coordinated with Him, but (if one can say this) as a heterogeneous mode of being. The world is created by God; it is His creation. The world’s existence is a special modality of being. This being is one; it is precisely divine being. And for the world there is no other ground, or “place,” of being except this createdness by God, except this special mode of divine being. And the fact that the world is created out of nothing means only that the world exists in God and only by God, for the world does not have within itself the ground of its own being. In itself, the world is groundless; it is established on top of an abyss, and this abyss is “nothing.”[8]

The created being of the world is not a fact available in the world but only through Christian revelation. Platonism has no answer as to how the “ideal, intelligible ground” of the world is connected to the world. At least, this is the Aristotelian critique of Platonism, but Aristotle then posits the unconditional eternality of the world and his Unmoved Mover as impersonal force. So the choice is a Platonic dualism or an Aristotelian monism.

Aristotle makes the supreme principle of the world, the prime mover, so transcendent that it appears to be separated from the world, above it. But at the same time, this principle is only the world, although taken to its highest power. Aristotle’s theology therefore has a cosmological character, and his cosmology passes into theology. Strictly speaking, his theocosmism has a real place neither for God nor for the world, because it does not really distinguish between them. The world continues into God, so to speak, and God descends to the world, is immanent in it, as its (impersonal) foundation.[9]

Depending upon one’s preference, Aristotelianism amounts to either a dualism between a distant God and the world or a monism in which the world includes its cause. Aristotle’s Sophiology “is a doctrine of divinity without God and apart from God, of divinity in place of God, in the capacity of God.”[10] Platonism divides created and uncreated Sophia and Aristotelianism allows for ambiguity. Bulgakov concludes:

Thus, all that both Plato and Aristotle (each in his own way and in his own language) have to report about the divine or sophianic foundation of the world is true as an intuition of human philosophy. However, this foundation remains uncomprehended and unexplained in its special nature as Sophia or divinity in relation to God. Sophia is directly equated with God here, and sophiology is considered to exhaust both theology and cosmology. Plato and Aristotle are both sophiologists, but they are unable to complete their sophiologies in a theology. Indeed, they do not even have a theology. In this they are burdened by the limitedness of paganism.[11]

The project of Bulgakov’s Sophiology is to “overcome the world’s isolation” while still distinguishing the world from God. The danger is the world will be lost in pantheism, in which God is everything, or God will be lost in the world (“abstract cosmism”).

Thomism and various trends in scholastic and patristic thought turn to the Aristotelian notion of causality (to attempt to cross this bridge), positing God as first cause or prime mover and the world is what is moved. But the unmoved mover reduces to contradiction as causality causes and is caused and a mover moves and is moved and the unmoved mover is neither moved nor moving. Causality and motion “both belong to the world of uninterrupted, unruptured, unitary being, continuous in motion and in causal connection.”[12] Cause and motion do not transcend the world. The first cause is part of a causal chain, supposedly linking God and the world, yet we do not encounter God in the world or as part of this causal chain. Either God is erased as part of a causal chain, or there is an infinite gap between God and the world. Laplace proposes there is no gap and no need for the hypothesis of God in the causal chain, and inasmuch as God is simply first cause in a series this must be true – God is not needed.  

God, however, is not simply the “cause” of the world but its creator, and this is quite different, in that he stands outside the being of the world. The world is not God and God is not present as part of the being of the world. To project the being of the world upon God, a bottom-up apologetic, inevitably reduces God to part of the furniture of the world. He is simply another link in the causal chain, and if the chain is long enough, God need not be posited as its end. Creator and creation speak of a very different sort of God/world relation. “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the visible came from the invisible” (Heb. 11: 3). Causality and motion are visible aspects of the being of the world and they do not touch upon divinity or reach the notion of creation and Creator.

The Creator is a person not merely an impersonal cause, yet the Aristotelian notion taken up by Thomas displaces God with the mechanism of cause and motion. “But God’s Person, who is a Doer, not a cause, does not fit at all into this category.”[13] The Creator-creation relationship, inclusive of the fact that God sustains the universe, sets God outside of a cause and effect or mover and motion sort of mechanics. Causality is impersonal and “dead” where the creativity bringing forth creation is “alive and life-bearing” and, far from the blind emptiness of causality, it is guided by a person and this person is working out creative goals. Creation has a telos that pulls it forward and not simply a blunt cause that pushes it along.[14]

God’s life, or who God is, is the creative force behind creation. God’s life extends into the very breath or life at the center of the universe. And here Bulgakov makes a clear departure from Thomism and much of western theology, in that he pictures creation as an essential part of God. God is not by chance or accident Creator, but Creator is God’s nature.

The roots of the world’s creation lie in God’s eternity. It is usually considered that the world’s creation is something nonessential, additional, and as if accidental in God’s being. It is thought that God did not have to become the Creator, that He does not need the world, that He could remain in the solitude and glory of His magnificence (cf. Thomas Aquinas and the scholastics; see above).[15]

Along with this notion, that God became the creator at some point in time, there is not only a positing of a time before time, but the posting of a difference between God’s freedom and any “necessity” coordinate with his nature.

 In Thomism creation is not a necessary part of God’s nature, but Bulgakov suggests this leads to contradiction in that “all such attempts to measure God’s being by time, namely before and after creation, or to define different modes of necessity and freedom in God, as well as their degree, are exposed as absurd, as contradicting God’s eternity and unchangeability. In general, the intention, in God Himself, not only to distinguish but also to separate and even to oppose God in Himself and the Creator is wholly fallacious. God’s all-simple essence is one and unchanging, and if God is the Creator, He is the Creator from all eternity.”[16] God is, as part of his essence, Creator and this means creation is included in God’s life. Creation from nothing indicates creation’s ground in the life of God. While creation may have its own sort of created being, the divine life and being are its ground. The world does not simply exist alongside God, though God has granted the world its own autonomy, but this autonomy arises directly from the work of God and arises from the intra-divine life. In turn, God is not limited by the world but who he is extends into the world.

Thus, God is both God in Himself and the Creator, with a completely equal necessity and freedom of His being. In other words, God cannot fail to be the Creator, just as the Creator cannot fail to be God. The plan of the world’s creation is as co-eternal to God as is His own being in the Divine Sophia. In this sense (but only in this sense), God cannot do without the world, and the world is necessary for God’s very being. And to this extent the world must be included in God’s being in a certain sense. (But by no means does this inclusion signify the crude pantheistic identification of God and the world, according to which God is the world and only the world.) [17]

Necessity and freedom are not opposed in God, but are inseparable. On a human scale, we come to total freedom, not through resisting the will of God, but by submitting to this will, as this is the fulfillment of our nature. This “necessity” is freedom, and there is no antagonism or contradiction. So too, the divine nature exercises total freedom by acting in accord with this nature, thus there is not a distinction in God, as he naturally is, and God as Creator. God could no more not create than he could not be God. It is his nature to create. “For this reason, we must consider inadmissible and contradictory the anthropomorphic principle that God “freely” (i.e., in the sense of the absence of necessity, not compulsory but inner necessity, of course), or accidentally, as it were, created the world, and that the world therefore did not have to be created.”[18]

This does not mean that creation “completes God” or that the world is divine in a pantheistic fashion. 

 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.[19]

Creation is founded on the wisdom of God, and this wisdom or Sophia, as in Christ, has both its created and uncreated mode. “The LORD possessed me at the beginning of His way, Before His works of old. From everlasting I was established, From the beginning, from the earliest times of the earth” (Proverbs 8:22-23). Wisdom, eternal and uncreated, first puts forth its energy in creation, then becomes incarnate and created. This wisdom is both “from everlasting” or from out of eternity, and then, in subsequent verses, it is conceived or given “birth” (ESV), or “brought forth” (NRSV). As the NRSV translates it, “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.” God creates from out of himself, or to say the same thing, from out of nothing.[20] Divine Sophia is the mode in which creation was brought forth and it is through this wisdom that the divine foundation is provided, but this ground in eternity is not itself divine.

In this sense, creaturely being exists alongside God and not in God. Being is conferred by God onto the world, and thus is laid “a foundation for being in itself.”[21] As Bulgakov puts it, “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.”[22] There is a hypostatic Sophia (joined directly to divinity), and a non-hypostatic Sophia granted being in itself.

Christ is the ideal (telos) of creature and Creator brought together, and Christ’s incarnation is the dynamic goal being worked out (it is in process) in all of Creation. Creation has its own “temporal-creaturely being” and is in the mode of becoming, but this is not alien to the divine foundation, though it is distinguished from the unchanging Being of God. In creation’s being completed the creaturely Sophia is taking on her identity with Divine Sophia.

Bulgakov resorts to a psychological picture of this process. He pictures the I, in language that resembles Freud’s fundamental fantasy, as imagining itself without origin and as self-positing. This has a double sense, in which the self-positing I simply calls upon its own sophianic resources, and reduplicates the fall – or the attempt to have life within itself. As Bulgakov points out, the I is confronted with limitations, and thus its creaturely and divine likeness contradict one another. This contradiction is resolved only where the creaturely consents to being completed in the divine likeness – the universal consent given in Christ.[23]

Divine and creaturely Sophia are joined perfectly in Christ: “Revealed in this world are the same words of the supra-eternal Word that make up the ideal content of the Divine Sophia, the life of God: ‘All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1: 3).’”[24] The life of the Word in the Spirit pervades all of creation – giving being to the Word and through him being to the world. “One and the same Spirit of God gives them being. It is necessary to affirm and understand with all one’s power this identity of the divine and creaturely world, or (what is the same thing) the identity of the Divine and the creaturely Sophia, in their essence, and thus the eternal, uncreated, divine foundation of the world in God.”[25] This is not Gnosticism, Platonism, Aristotelianism, or Thomism, but is explanation of how Christ saves, reduplicating the hypostasis of the first born in the extended family of God.


[1] Fabian Linde, The Spirit of Revolt: Nikolai Berdiaev’s Existential Gnosticism (Stockholm University, Stockholm Slavic Studies 39, 2010) 106.

[2] See the work by Richard Lee May, Gnosticism and Modernity: An Archaeology of the Influence of Valentinian Gnosticism on Modern Systems of Thought Through the Theological Theme of Sophiology (unpublished Dissertation, Canterbury Christ Church University, 2015).

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

[4] Ibid, 3.

[5] Ibid, 5.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 6.

[8] Ibid, 7.

[9] Ibid, 11.

[10] Ibid, 11-12.

[11] Ibid, 14

[12] Ibid, 35.

[13] Ibid, 35.

[14] Ibid, 37-38.

[15] Ibid, 44.

[16] Ibid, 44-45.

[17] Ibid, 45-46.

[18] Ibid, 46.

[19] Ibid, 46.

[20] Ibid, 63

[21] Ibid, 63.

[22] Ibid, 48.

[23] Ibid, 88-89.

[24] Ibid, 50.

[25] Ibid, 50.

Bulgakov’s “The Tragedy of Philosophy” as Entry into Sophiology

MAN WAS CREATED IN THE IMAGE AND LIKENESS OF God. This means that the image of the Holy Trinity is imprinted upon every part of his spiritual nature. Let us make man in our image, after our likeness (Gen. 1:26). So says the word of God, precisely pointing, by means of this plural number, to the trihypostaticity of the Divinity and the triunity of the image of God – which after all, is also the human image.”[1] Sergius Bulgakov

To attempt to describe the atmosphere or texture of Sergius[2] Bulgakov’s theology in doctrinal terms is in danger of missing the warmth and spiritual excitement of his theological project, and yet the attempt to simply restate or summarize his theology without reference to its doctrinal significance also falls short, as he is demonstrating a revolutionary shift in the very tenor of his writing. Rather than writing analogously about God (e.g., Thomas Aquinas) he presumes to speak directly of divine love (Sophia). There is no presumed gap or distance between creator and creation as Jesus Christ brings together the divine and human (Bulgakov sees Maximus as central to this development).[3] He is doing theology in a different key, and this shows up even (or especially) in his early work laying out his Trinitarian Sophiology in contrast to the philosophical project. Even as he describes the particular failings of philosophy, the failures illustrate the necessity of the Trinitarian Personhood reflected in the human image. His philosophical critique is so interwoven with his personalism and Sophiology, that this may be the place (his The Tragedy of Philosophy) to start with Bulgakov. Rather than beginning with being (or with presumptions of the economic and immanent Trinity, his description of the western failure characterized by Thomas Aquinas) or with reason, Bulgakov’s starting premise is the Trinity or a trinitarian holism necessary for reason, which cannot be subjected or reduced to reason but apart from which reason fails.

Presumed throughout is the eternality of the humanity of Christ, so that the truth of the intra-Trinitarian relationship is the truth of God and humans, and there are not two realms of truth (the presumption not only of philosophy – e.g., noumena/phenomena, act/being, – but of western theology, e.g., economic and immanent Trinity, Creator and creation, as a divide). There is one necessary realm of truth which reveals itself in human personhood, pointing to the Divine Person. What gets obscured, according to Bulgakov, and what he aims to recover is the focus on personhood (the person of God revealed in Christ and taken up in the human image) and the manner in which the person of Jesus Christ, in particular, bridges or brings together the antinomies of creator and creation (as developed in his Sophiology).[4] He presumes to develop a Chalcedonian orthodoxy (on the order of Maximus) but to more completely illustrate and define its parameters.

 His Sophiology develops as an overcoming of the antinomies of reason as expressed in philosophy, which provides a platform or insight (negative though it is), as spelled out in The Tragedy of Philosophy. The book traces the three characteristic mistakes found in philosophy, against the background of a Trinitarian theology and dogma, which in the description sounds fairly dry, but in the execution traces psychoanalytic and experiential reality such that human thought, perception, and experience, correctly perceived, is integrated directly with the reality of the Trinity. Philosophy is a tragedy but it is a tragedy awaiting and pointing toward the particulars of a Trinitarian solution.

Bulgakov applies Trinitarian theology, very much in the pattern of Paul in Romans 7, in that the tripartite reality of human experience and the human subject, absent the Trinity, does not hold together, but chapter 7 of Romans may be the necessary prologue to the heights of chapter 8, and so too Bulgakov’s philosophical engagement opens the path to his Sophiology. Throughout Bulgakov’s tracing of the problem, the light of the answer (the equivalent of Rom. 8) shines through. As Paul depicts in Romans, one might begin with the law, with the ego, or with the body of death, but what is specifically missing, as detailed in Romans 8, is the Trinity. The negative moment points to its singular resolution in Christ. Paul fills in the functioning of the human subject as a participation in Christ, by which we realize God as Father, and thus have life and being in the Spirit. Bulgakov carries out the same project in his depiction of the three-fold mistake of philosophy, and of course this Threeness is that of the Trinity absent this acknowledgement.

The philosophical project (and the human project) is always striving to bring together that which, outside of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, cannot be made to cohere. Philosophy begins with a basic mistake, the premise of his book, in its focus on human choice (Greek hairesis), so that philosophy is by definition a heresy.  All philosophy bears the singular characteristic of “arbitrary election, the choice, of some single thing or part instead of the whole: that is precisely a one sidedness.”[5] Rather than beginning with the reality of God in Christ, philosophy begins with choices or perspectives or an elected portion of this reality. Rather than beginning with the reality of God and extrapolating reasonably from this reality, philosophy begins with reason and attempts to describe reality (inductively or deductively). As a result, there is a philosophical drive to reduce plurality (all things) to a singular thing (monothematism).

He raises the question as to why this should be, and answers, “It is the spirit of system and the pathos of system; and a system is nothing other than the reduction of many and all into one, and conversely, the deduction of all and many out of one.”[6] He describes the drive as the human sickness or a manifestation of original sin. As the title of this chapter indicates, “The Nature of Thought,” this chapter and the first portion of the book is about fallen human thought as evinced in philosophy, but philosophy is simply a case in point of the human predicament. The philosopher “has desired a system. In other words, he has wished to create a (logical) world out of himself, out of his own principle – ‘you shall be as gods’ – but such a logical deduction of the world is not possible for a human being.”[7] The philosopher, like every human, has taken up the appeal of the serpent, to make of the dialectic of knowledge a replacement for living reality. Reason or philosophy as its own origin and end betrays signs of the human malaise: “Sickness, corruption, the perversion of all human existence which presented itself in original sin, also, in other words, afflicts reason, and makes it impossible for reason to gain access to the tree of heavenly knowledge, since access is denied by the fiery sword of the cherubim – the antinomies.”[8] Philosophy puts on display, not a personal pride, but the objective role of hubris, in that the philosopher, like the legalist, has no sense of the limits of the system. This then gives rise to the contradictions or antinomies of the system.   

In Pauline terms, this starting point reduces God to the system of the law. In psychoanalytic terms (which is to say the same thing in different terms), the human sickness is to interpolate the self (and with the self, all of reality) into the symbolic order. The law, the logos, the symbolic, or philosophy, would serve as its own end, displacing the divine Logos with a human word. Bulgakov traces the philosophical impetus, but he has in mind the general human orientation toward deception, violence and sin: “Logical continuity, or, what amounts to the same thing, the continuous logical deduction of all from one, making the whole system circle around a single centre which can be passed through in any direction, and which admits of no hiatus or discontinuity of any kind: this is the task which human thought naturally and inevitably strives to complete, not stopping short of violence, and self-deception, of evasions and illusions.”[9]

Logical monism, or the attempt to bridge subject and object, subject and predicate, noumena and phenomena, or to create a synthesis out of the antinomies, demands a full investment of faith (a violent bringing down of reality to fit it into the system). Every philosophy “dimly or distinctly, instinctively or consciously, timidly or militantly” claims “to be the absolute philosophy, and each of which regards its own sketch of what is as the system of the world.”[10] Hegel’s system is the characteristic illustration of overcoming the antinomies: “Hegel – and in his person, all philosophy” supposes it can bind reality into a system.[11] It presupposes what is impossible – to begin from itself, or generate from itself what can only come from what truly exists. The impossibility shows itself in the characteristic failure of philosophy, of taking one arm of tripartite reality as an end in itself.

 As Bulgakov describes, philosophy will choose either “(1) hypostasis, or personhood; (2) the latter’s idea or ideal form, logos, thought; (3) substantial being as the unity of all moments or states of being, as the self-actualizing whole.” These three philosophical moments can be summed up in the formula, “I am Something (potentially everything).”[12] This is a true enough statement, but philosophy “incessantly” cuts apart this indisseverable statement. “Philosophizing thought produces heresies through the arbitrariness of these disseverations, and through its choices of discrete beginnings; and the style of philosophizing is determined by the way in which this dissection is made.”[13] Philosophy takes what exists and that which is a necessary component of human consciousness and attempts to enter into this reality by segmenting and privileging a particular component.

The classic example is Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” The thinking thing is privileged over being. Being is subject to question and doubt, and is presumed to be determinate only through the predicate of thought, the second I. The first I and the second, (the thinking thing and that which exists as the predicate) are only conjoined in thought. This presumption cuts off the subject from its predicate and copula, as if the subject precedes predication and existence. Descartes is using his formula as a foundation to arrive at the certain proof of his existence and the existence of God, performing a dissection of thought in order to reduce it to the parameters of reason.

 In one form or another, this dissection of subject, predicate, and being indicates the history of philosophy. “Every philosophical system . . . is governed by an attempt of this kind: the subject, or the copula, or the predicate is announced as the single beginning, and everything is made to derive from it or to lead towards it. Such a ‘deduction,’ whether of the subject from the predicate, of the predicate from the subject, or of both from the copula, in fact presents philosophy with its principal task, and, thereby presents an insoluble difficulty to philosophical thought, which strives toward monism, strives to reduce everything to a first unity, no matter what.”[14] Bulgakov’s book is mostly dedicated to proving this point in three philosophical moments or movements, through engaging a wide range of philosophical thought, but focused most intensely on Immanuel Kant, Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Johann Gottlieb Fichte. (I will return, in future posts, to the specifics of his proofs).

Though Bulgakov is focused on philosophy’s denial or dissection of a triadic unity and the tragedy which results, the same story could be told in the register of psychoanalysis or theology. The psyche strives to unify the self, experienced as mind and body, or as the objective I in the mirror and the I of experience. For Jacques Lacan, the Cartesian dilemma is the human dilemma, in that every subject is split by language. The enunciating subject is split from the subject of the statement (the enunciated) and thus the subject is inescapably split or castrated by language. By taking up and defining the self through language, there occurs a three-way split between the symbolic (language), the ego or imaginary, and the dissonance of nonbeing or death drive created in the relation between the two. Here, the tragedy is not a philosophical or metaphysical mistake, but the human sickness and neurosis which arises from trying to make the self a synthesis out of an antithesis. The compulsion to repeat, the death drive, human violence toward the other and self-destructiveness, can be traced to the psychoanalytic sickness.

The point is universalized in Paul’s use of the law, which pits the subject against itself. “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15). The philosophical and psychoanalytical is captured in Paul’s depiction of the I split by the law, but Paul includes the religious, the legal, the sexual and the social, or every aspect of the human predicament. What Bulgakov claims about philosophical systems seems to be a particular instance of Paul’s point, that could be described as the drive to a legal monism, in which the law is the system of the world, and the split between the two ‘I’s (Jew/Gentile, male/female, slave/free, mind/flesh, body/spirit) caused by the law would also be resolved through the law.

 Bulgakov, like Paul, will not so much resolve the dilemma of the split as address it through the reality of the Trinity. His presumption is that humans are created in the image of God and it is only on the basis of the divine image that the human image can be approached (if not comprehended). Like the Divine Person, the human person cannot be defined. “The essence of the hypostasis consists precisely in the fact that it is indefinable and indescribable; it stands beyond the limits of the world and of the concept, even though it continually reveals itself in them.”[15] It is not that the self cannot be named, but the I is not merely the subject of thought and reason, but thought and reason arise from the subject. The subject, transcendent as it may be, is revealed through the immanence of its predicates. “The subject, the hypostasis, is always revealed, always expresses itself, in the predicate. It goes without saying that the hypostasis in this sense is not the psychological I, psychological subjectivity, which already defines the hypostasis as a predicate, not as a subject.”[16]

The life force or spirit of the human subject is no more definable than the divine Spirit. Just as the Son bears the image of the Father, so too every child of God is defined in this relationship: “Eternity belongs to the hypostasis; it is eternal in the same sense as eternal God, who Himself breathed His own Spirit into humanity at the latter’s creation. The human being is the son of God and a created god; the image of eternity is an inalienable and indelible part of him.”[17] Humankind bears eternity in the image, and Bulgakov suggests that even suicide is not actually aimed at annihilating or extinguishing the I (“suicide attempts represent a kind of philosophical misunderstanding, and are directed not at the I itself, but only at the way in which it exists, directed not at the subject, but at the predicate”). As Bulgakov sums up, “The hypostatic I is the philosophical and grammatical Subject of all predicates; its life is this predicate, endless in its breadth and depth.”[18] The Father, Son, and Spirit, are the reality of subject, predicate, and copula of being. The Father is revealed through the Son, and this lived out realization is the work of the Spirit. This participation in the divine is the reality behind human thought and experience, and even a failure of thought points to its completion in this reality.


[1] Sergij Bulgakov, The Tragedy of Philosophy (Philosophy & Dogma), trans. by Stephen Churchyard (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2020) 91. Many thanks Jim, for the gift of this book. It is a key into Bulgakov.

[2] Or Sergij, or Sergei, among some 9 possible variants.

[3] See Jonathan R. Seiling, From Antinomy to Sophiology: Modern Russian Religious Consciousness and Sergei Bulgakov’s Critical Appropriation of German Idealism (PhD Dissertation, Toronto School of Theology, 2008) 229-233.

[4] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990), 35. Cited in Katy Leamy, “A Comparison of the Kenotic Trinitarian Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Sergei Bulgakov” (2012). (Dissertations (2009 -). Paper 211. http://epublications.marquette.edu/dissertations_mu/211), 36.

[5] Bulgakov, 3.

[6] Ibid. To miss this point will not only amount to missing the thesis of the book, but is the characteristic theological mistake. The issue is on the order of that of Jordan Wood in his departure from David Bentley Hart, or the tradition through Origen to Maximus, taken up by Bulgakov. The antinomies of heaven and earth, God and human, subject and object, are only resolved in the concrete case of the God/Man Jesus Christ. Reason cannot overcome these antinomies but Christ (in reality), in who he is, brings them together. Thus, reason begins with Jesus Christ as ground. Otherwise, it is not clear what a subject or reason might be.  

[7] Ibid., 5.

[8] Ibid, 7.

[9] Ibid, 3.

[10] Ibid, 3-4. Bulgakov has passed through commitment to Marxist Hegelianism, then with his conversion and the Russian Revolution, at this writing, he is without a job or a library in Crimea.

[11] Ibid, 6.

[12] Ibid, 9.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, 10.

[15] Ibid, 11.

[16] Ibid, 12.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

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.

Trinitarian Truth and the Three-fold Possibility of Falling Short of the Truth

The truth of God, which is to say truth itself, is Trinitarian. Truth proceeds from the Father through the Son and is realized through the Spirit. But this full realization of truth is tied to the historical event of the incarnation and the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is not to say that truth develops for God, but for human-kind it unfolds historically.

Another approach to the same idea is that God as love is a Trinitarian realization, which is not to say love is otherwise absent, but humanity in the Old Testament did not know of the law of love upon which “all the law and prophets hang (Matt. 22:40). According to Jesus, this is a “new commandment” (John 13:34) with which the final discourse of Christ culminates.[1]  If we would describe the fulness of truth as fulness of love it is obvious that the love of the Father apart from the Son is on the order of that between a small child and his father. The child is loved but cannot be entrusted further than his capacities will allow. The period of the Law describes a time in which truth was presumed to be on the order of commands, all for the good of the child perhaps, as the child cannot take in the fulness of love.

Apart from the revelation of the Son, the truth of God did not take on a human or incarnate dimension with all that this entails. It certainly did not entail a direct Spiritual participation, but the truth stood outside of history and outside of the human psyche and experience, like commands of the law. So, while we might describe each period or epoch (marked by the revealing of the three persons of the Trinity) as being prompted by the love of God, the love of the Father apart from the revelation of the Son is on the order of law.

Whenever truth has been reduced to law, or propositions, or abstract universal trues, it has taken on the truncated picture of being over and against the personal. Moses would presume God is an object for sight (like the light of the sun which cannot be looked at directly), but so too notions of God as first Cause, as pure being, or as that which can be extrapolated from creation. God as that to which one concludes outside of creation and outside of history is a force or power on the order of the Aristotelian Unmoved Mover. Rather than God upholding the nexus of creation through an immanent involvement (i.e., through the Word), his transcendence becomes closed off from all that is contingent. Perhaps he knocks over the first domino or sets the contingencies of creation into motion, but he is unmoved. His eternality lies beyond time, rather than serving as the resource and foundation of time and history.

For example, in the Newtonian conception (which remains as part of the modern experience), time is not a relation or mere measurement but a force unto itself, ever devolving and dissolving all things into the nothing from which they arose. The creative force of the Father apart from the intimate involvement of the Son and Spirit leaves creation floating in the void. The God of law reduces to the law and the law displaces God. This is demonstrably the Jewish problem, but in this the Jews are representative of all humanity. A cosmos set in motion by the Father apart from the Son, in spite of recognizing God’s power of creation is not understood as a direct expression of the love of God.

It is Christ who calls his disciples into friendship and into direct participation with the Father on the basis of love and friendship: “I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (Jn. 15:15). Christ opens a personal relation (a relation presuming the fulness of personhood) with the Father, and thus the world becomes the cosmic temple where God and humanity meet in the full reciprocity of love. Where the Son and Spirit are realized as aspects of the fulness of truth, in the description of Sergius Bulgakov, “Eternity lies not beyond time or after time, but on a level with it, over time, as an ideal for it and under time as its foundation. . .”[2] Time taken as an independent force is on the order of the Father being separated out from the Son and the Spirit; the danger is that nothing or nonbeing might be presumed to be an actually existing void counterbalancing the something and being as a dialectical resource. Rather than the Son being the medium of Creation through the Father by the Spirit, creation from nothing may implicate creation in a primary relation with the nothing from whence it came.

Modern cosmology has hit upon the truth, in big bang cosmology, of creation ex-nihilo, but this has been grasped as much as a possibility for measurement, containment, and comprehension as an awakening to eternity intersecting time. The conception is that of a world which begins in time rather than a world which unfolds from the beginningless reaches of eternity.[3] The possible (contradictory as it is) popular implication of big bang cosmology, like that of a truncated Christology, is that there was a time before the beginning, a time before God was creator and a time before the Lamb crucified from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). Though the presumptions of Newton have been proven wrong, there is still the experiential presumption that time preceded creation and that time and law take precedence over creation as a resource from which it arose. Thus, it is assumed that there is a “before creation” and a “before time” and that there will be an after, such that the nothing which precedes and follows becomes the prime reality enfolding creation. Rather than time being a measure of relation the measurement is mistaken for the reality out of which it arises.

Bulgakov argues that time has reality only in its relation to eternity and in the fact that “in the fulfilled times and seasons God was incarnated.” “If eternity is clothed in temporality, then time also proves to be fraught with eternity and generates its fruit.”[4] As Bulgakov describes it, “At any given instant of being, in its every moment, eternity enlightens, integral and indivisible, where there is no present, past, or future, but where all that happens is extratemporal.” In the Son, time and eternity, heaven and earth, history and  Spirit intersect, such that the cross is an eternal fact about God. “Vertical segments of time penetrate eternity; therefore nothing of that which only once appeared for a moment in time can vanish anymore and return to nonbeing, for it has a certain projection into eternity, it is itself in one of its countless aspects.” However, this “freedom from temporality” – the alternative to being given over to nothing – comes with a certain dark note: “in this permanence of what once was the joy of being is included, as is dread before eternity, its threat: at the Dread Judgment nothing will be forgotten or concealed.”[5] It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, and best perhaps that we hide in oblivion rather than face this glorious reality.

On the other hand, where the truth of the Son has been taken as primary and sufficient, exclusive of the truth of the Father and the Spirit, the historical and the human have come to have predominance over the transcendent, and time and history have been presumed to contain their own sufficient meaning. The peculiar historicism that marks both theological liberalism and conservativism unfolds from a reappreciation (over-appreciation) of history. Higher critical attacks on the Bible and the retreat to the literalism of biblical inerrancy miss, in Henri de Lubac’s estimate, the Spirit of history.

In his return to the spiritual reading of Origen, de Lubac describes the goal of this form of exegesis as “an effort to grasp the spirit in history or to undertake the passage from history to spirit.”[6] Origen’s spiritual reading of the Bible does not eschew history or the letter or time but presumes that the Son and the Spirit provide the prime meaning to the fleshly and historical. There is a dyadic union between the Son and the Spirit in which the former (the Word, Scripture, the historical) is realizable only through the latter. History or the Old Testament becomes the mediating source for God only with the incarnation of the Son. It is not simply that Moses and the Law prepared for the coming of Christ, but Jesus says Moses spoke of me (Jn. 5:46). Jesus as the interpretive key of history is not a denial of history but, in conjunction with the Spirit, its realized meaning.

History is not an end in itself, as historical facts alone are dead and gone – they have passed on. As de Lubac says, the role of history is to “pass on.” The “events recounted in the Bible, whatever they might be, as they were unfolding, all exhausted, so to speak, their historical role at the same time as their factual reality, so as no longer to survive today except as signs and mysteries.” Only in this light can Paul say, these things happened for our edification. They are only for the purpose of our “spiritual re-creation in Christ, then for the purpose of our moral instruction as Christians. Thus, in its entirety, up to its final event, history is preparation for something else. To deny that is to deny it.”[7]

As Origen pictures it, “In following the trail of truth in the letter of Scripture,” we “will thus be served by history as by a ladder.”[8] The ascent to spiritual realities is provided by the rungs of history and only with this ascent, this perpetual movement toward the transcendent, does the Spirit make all things new. Otherwise, even in reading the New Testament, constituted as such through the Spirit, there can be a clinging to the letter. If we do not ascend above the history, even where we obtain complete harmony between the New and the Old or within the various accounts in the Gospels, “it would still be as if we remained at the literal level. We would thus still be only a scribe or a Pharisee.”[9] Origen, like Paul, invites us to see the heavenly, the Spiritual, the unseen, through the seen. “He wants the mind to be raised to a spiritual understanding by seeking in the heavens for the causes of realities here on earth.”[10]

In the description of Bulgakov, this is a possibility only realized through the Spirit:

By its procession from the Father upon the Son, the Third hypostasis loses itself, as it were, becomes only a copula, the living bridge of love between the Father and the Son, the hypostatic Between. But in this kenosis the Third hypostasis finds itself as the Life of the other hypostases, as the Love of the Others and as the Comfort of the Others, which then becomes for it too its own Comfort, its self-comfort. . . . It is possible, however, to distinguish different modes of this love and, in particular, to see that, in the Third hypostasis, the kenosis is expressed in a special self-abolition of its personality. The latter disappears, as it were, while becoming perfectly transparent for the other hypostases, but in this it acquires the perfection of Divine life: Glory.[11]

This perfection through the Spirit points to the third possible error, which is at once the most dangerous and perhaps the most pervasive. Where the Spirit has been cut off from the Son and the Father and made a rival deity, the human and the historical are set aside in a presumed Gnostic embrace of the divine apart from the human. The Spirit in this instance, as it was perceived in the Old Testament, is sheer power. Where the Spirit’s dyadic connection with the Son is relinquished, there is the presumption that Christ in the flesh is of no consequence. Exposure of this anti-Christ teaching takes up a good portion of the New Testament and is the primary target of several of the Church fathers.

Gregory of Nazianzus pictures the entire preparation of the Old Testament and the preparation of Christ as preparation for the indwelling of the Spirit: “For it was not safe, when the Godhead of the Father was not yet acknowledged, plainly to proclaim the Son; nor when that of the Son was not yet received to burden us further (if I may use so bold an expression) with the Holy Ghost.”[12] Gregory describes a gradual process in which Christ’s entire work, with “the beginning of the Gospel, after the Passion, after the Ascension” is dedicated to “making perfect their powers” so that only then did he breathe the Holy Spirit upon them. Always Christ spoke of the Spirit in conjunction with his own teaching and the work of the Father. The Father sends the Spirit, but only in “my Name” and in order to “call to remembrance all that I have taught you” (Jn. 14:26). As Gregory describes it, this careful approach to the Spirit, was in order to ensure “that He might not seem to be a rival God.”[13]

According to Gregory this is the third and most dramatic of the movements of God. “The Old Testament proclaimed the Father openly, and the Son more obscurely. The New manifested the Son, and suggested the Deity of the Spirit. Now the Spirit Himself dwells among us, and supplies us with a clearer demonstration of Himself.”[14] This third “earthquake” unleashes the most radical of possibilities, as here the Trinitarian Truth of God is open as the final possibility (or the ultimate perversion). “For what greater thing than this did either He promise, or the Spirit teach. If indeed anything is to be considered great and worthy of the Majesty of God, which was either promised or taught.”[15] Perhaps it is the finality and fulness of the Spirit which also raises the specter of the unforgivable sin (Matt. 12:31-32).

God can only be properly worshipped and the fulness of the truth apprehended in the fulness of the Trinity, apart from which the truth of God is subject to perversion. Only on the basis of this fulness can humankind enter into Truth or into participation in God (i.e., into theosis and deification). “And indeed from the Spirit comes our New Birth, and from the New Birth our new creation, and from the new creation our deeper knowledge of the dignity of Him from Whom it is derived.”[16]


[1] Sergius Bulgakov, The Comforter, Translated by Boris ]akim (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids/Cambridge, 2004), 316.

[2] Sergius Bulgakov, Unfading Light: Contemplations and Speculations, Translated by Thomas Allan Smith (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids/Cambridge, 2012), 332.

[3] Bulgakov works this out most extensively in The Bride of the Lamb, Translated by Boris Jakim (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 71-76.

[4] Bulgakov. Unfading Light, 335.

[5] Ibid. 316.

[6] Henri de Lubac, History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture according to Origen, Translated by Anne England Nash (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2007), 317.

[7] Ibid. 322.

[8] Origen, Commentary on John, Book 20.3. Quoted from de Lubak, 323.

[9] Ibid. de Lubak.

[10] Ibid. 325.

[11] Bulgakov, The Comforter, 181-182.

[12] Gregory of Nazianzus, Fifth Theological Oration, Oration 31.26.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. 31.27.

[16] Ibid. 31.28.