The Comforter by Sergius Bulgakov (Review)

Who Should Read This Book – This is a work of deep and profound, yet poetic and beautiful theology so I’d say it is for readers with some grounding in theology who want to think deeply on the things of God (i.e. its probably not for beginners).

What’s the Big Takeaway – For me, this is the best book on the Holy Spirit I have ever read and there’s way too much in here to pick one takeaway.

And a Quote – “The very being of God is love. This definition can be understood in the light of the dogma of the Holy Trinity, according to which the absolute divine personality is true with all the power of sacred trinitarity, as three distinctly personal subjects, while at the same time having one substance and even one life. This identification of trinity in unity is precisely Trinitarian love. Hypostatic love, completing the trinity in unity, is the Holy Spirit. This is what makes possible the identification of God and love” (314).

20th century Russian theologian Sergius Bulgakov has now vaulted to the top of my all-time favorite theologians list, even though this is only the second book of his I have read. As I said above, this is not a book for beginners in studying theology as its a hefty 400 page work on the Holy Spirit. But if you’re someone who has some grounding in the subject and wants a deep dive, this book is brilliant. For what its worth, recognizing there are countless books of theology out there that I have never read, this is the best book on the Holy Spirit I’ve read.

With that in mind, I cannot do it justice in a review. I’ll try to offer a few points.

First, writing from the Eastern Orthodox position, Bulgakov addresses the filioque debate. In case you don’t know, the Western church inserted the filioque clause into the Nicene Creed, thus modifying it to say the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father “and the Son.” This is one of the causes for the schism between East and West. Bulgakov’s argument is critical of both sides, of the whole historical argument really, for he says the entire argument goes wrong right from the beginning because it is an argument about the origination of the Holy Spirit. So the West argues the Spirit proceeds from Father and Son and the East develops their theology of the Spirit in contrast to this, but on these terms, saying the Spirit proceeds only from the Father.

He writes, “the dogmatic controversy concerning the Spirit was deprived precisely of spirit, and its result was therefore sterility and emptiness” (149).

If I recall (and forgive me for not taking a fine-tooth comb back over the arguments, this is a brief review not a sholarly one) Bulgakov would affirm the Orthodox version of the creed. I think his main point is there is SO MUCH more to say about the Holy Spirit than this debate has reduced it too.

Second then, and this goes to what I said above about there being too much here to write a brief takeaway – this book is a feast. Bulgakov deftly writes about the relationship of Father, Son and Spirit as the one God, eternally equal while also explaining their different roles. I love how he continually connects the Spirit and the Son, such as how the Spirit comes into the world upon the Virgin Mary to inaugurate the incarnation. Then as the Son ascends back to the Father, the Spirit is sent to bring to fullness the work of the Son in the incarnation. One of the most valuable points here is Bulgakov’s discussion of Pentecost and how the Spirit was always present on earth even prior to this (a question I’ve been asked by students often).

Along with that, a big theme I’ve seen in Bulgakov (and others, maybe its an eastern thing) is that matter/flesh was made for spirit (and in regards to my use of “spirit” there, Bulgakov does talk about the similarities and differences between “spirit” and “Holy Spirit”…again,there’s a lot here). I think our implicit assumption in the west is that matter is contrary to spirit. Thus, the incarnation is a sort of invasion that seems to make little sense, for how (why?) could God take on flesh. Or more practically, we think to become more spiritual is to leave flesh behind. But Bulgakov writes of God creating the cosmos (and he talks a lot about creaturely Sophia and divine Sophia which I still can’t get my head around) in such a way that matter is made for spirit. The two go together. Sure, sin has broken this. But in being restored, matter is restored to what it is made for.

The creation is divinized – filled with God’s Spirit through the Incarnation and the Coming of the Spirit…though there is still more to come as this has not yet been fully realized.

Another thing I loved about this book is what Bulgakov said about the spirit’s presence in all creation and how this relates to philosophy and religion and even science. He writes, “What other energy, if not divine energy, gives life to the world?” (200). This means that it is the spirit who has inspired the philosophers and even religious leaders (what Bulgakov says about religions is better than books I’ve read on the subject which, again, shows how much he touches on and how good this book is!). It also means, contrary to mechanistic western science, nature itself is infused and guided by spirit. There is a fullness of Spirit in the revelation of God in Christ that these other works of the spirit lack. But there is no place absence God’s presence.

There is so much more I could say. (Have I said that already?) By the end of the book, I felt drive to worship and pray which just might be the best thing one could say about a work of theology. Bulgakov ends the book with an epilogue about God the Father. He writes of those who argue for the divine as pure transcendence, some sort of impersonal absolute (such as in both some eastern religions and some forms of Christian mysticism as well as western philosophy). Even some Christians speak of God as ultimately impersonal Absolute who then becomes or is revealed as personal. Bulgakov strongly argues against this, emphasizing God is ultimately personal:

The Absolute loves, He is the FatherThat is the idea that unites the entire absoluteness of the Heavenly God and the entire power of HIs revelation in the relative, for this power is Love. Metaphysics finds fulfillment in this divinely revealed doctrine, for it actual ideas all its postulates int he latter. But this is also the only possible and true fulfillment of the postulates of the religious consciousness which simultaneously requires that the heavenly God be remote from us and that He br near and accessible to us. These two things are harmonized in the revelation of God and the Father, heavenly by His Divinity and near us by His Fatherhood.

All that we know and love in the Son is the Father, for as the Son is also is the Father. All the love and inspiration that we have in the HOly Spirit are also in the Father, for as the Father is, so also is the Holy Spirit, Who proceeds from Him, His own Spirit.In loving the Son and the HolySpirit, we love the Father, we know the Father, we contemplate His Holy Person.” (394).

Poetic. Beautiful. Inspiring. Worshipful.

Read Bulgakov. You won’t be sorry.

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