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.

“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.