Who Should Read This Book – Readers who are into theology and are desiring a deep dive into the work of one of the greats, perhaps the greatest, Russian theologian of the 20th century.
What’s the Big Takeaway – Bulgakov presents a beautiful story, an image of one humanity and all creation (the creaturely Sophia), fully united and reconciled to the one God in three persons (through the Divine Sophia).
At least, that’s my effort to summarize 526 pages of dense writing into one sentence.
And a quote – “It is impossible to appear before Christ and to see Him without loving Him” (459).
Sergius Bulgakov was a brilliant, and controversial, theologian in the Russian Orthodox Church in the first half of the twentieth century. The controversy stems from his sophiology. Sophia is “wisdom” and there is a long tradition of sophiology in the Russian church (Solovyov and Florensky are two others). Even trying to understand and explain the controversy would take more effort, and skill, then I have.
Apart from that, it seems more theological types are reading Bulgakov these days. I am not sure why, though perhaps it has to do with David Bentley Hart’s endorsement. Hart has spoken highly of Bulgakov and has a large readership, so it makes sense for those of us who read Hart to move on to Bulgakov. At least, that’s how I got into his writing. I think there is also just more interest in ideas from outside the western Protestant and Catholic Church. In this Orthodox writers in general can be a breath of fresh air.
This year I set out to read Bulgakov’s big trilogy: The Lamb of God (Christology), The Comforter( Holy Spirit, Pneumatology) and The Bride of the Lamb (Ecclesiology and Eschatology). It has definitely been worth it. I remember diving into The Lamb of God and being confused with all his talk on the Divine Sophia and Creaturely Sophia. After completing all three I am still a bit confused but I am getting it more!
Here’s the thing: I’m not a professional theologian. If I was teaching a theology class or writing an article on Bulgakov, I would have to go back and read much more closely. Its not that I rushed through, its just that his writing is dense. I think I went through dozens of pens, highlighting and underlining way too much. Perhaps the best way to say it is that Bulgakov’s writings in these three books speaks as much to my heart as my mind. I used the word “beautiful” in my Big Takeaway and I think that’s the word of it – Bulgakov presents a beautiful picture of God, creation, humanity and the cosmos.
That is one of the big differences between Bulgakov and much western theology. Maybe its the difference between writing good theology and bad theology. And honestly, maybe its a caricature. I just started reading a book defending the concept of hell as unending, conscious torment (the traditional view). Its boring. Its practically just an outline. This does not mean its wrong (though I think the scriptural arguments are unconvincing and it is wrong). Its more that the God presented in that book is not worthy of worship. Fear? Yes. Worship? No. The picture of God painted by Bulgakov, centered on the Love of the Trinitarian God is worthy of worship.
I am a good way into this review and haven’t even mentioned much about the book yet. I’ll try to offer just a few highlights:
The first section is on the creation of the world. Bulgakov argues that speaking of God as the “First Cause” already gives us a poor picture of God. He argues for speaking of God as Creator rather than a mechanistic first cause. This then ties in with his conception of creation as Creaturely Sophia. The cosmos is infused with God’s glory (which is really what Divine Sophia is). The Divine Sophia in the Creaturely Sophia is a sort of world soul. This sort of thinking (which again, is way deeper than I am able to explain) could be a remedy to our overly naturalistic way of looking at the world in modern, western culture. Even Christian theology and apologetics is susceptible to this. Often the way some Christians speak, we end up imagining the natural world as running on its own (a sort of deism) with God occasionally popping in for a miracle or something. Contrast this with the entire cosmos filled with God’s presence and glory.
I can see how some may argue Bulgakov’s theology leads to a sort of panentheism where the creation is God’s body. But Bulgakov rejects this and its not really what he’s saying. Creation is separate from God, though it is infused with God’s glory (Sophia).
“God’s nature is, in this sense, the creative self-positing of divinity, God’s personal – trihypostatic – act. This act is the Divine Sophia, the self-positing and self-revelation of the Holy Trinity. . . Only on the basis of such a conception of the divine nature, or Sophia, as God’s self-creative act can we wholly overcome the rationalistically refined concept of God and think of him not statically, but dynamically” (42)
Within this first section on creation, Bulgakov also discusses evil and creaturely freedom. He strongly rejects the Augustinian and Calvinist notion that God determines everything (and thus is the cause of evil). I was surprised to see him argue that Aquinas’ view is just as problematic, for in presenting God as the “First Cause” he ends up with a deterministic universe as well. Bulgakov advocates for a synergism in which God’s Providence acts in creation and humans have genuinely free choice.
While I was reading I listened to the Inverse Podcast (one of my favorites) in which they interviewed Tripp Fuller, a Process theologian. Fuller was critical of Hart, who is certainly not a process theologian. Maybe a Process Theologian like Fuller would say that Bulgakov is unable to save human freedom from God’s determinism. Yet it seemed that Bulgakov’s understanding preserves both God’s Providence and humanly freedom. Or to put it differently, I would love to take a few years to dive deeply into all of this stuff because its endlessly fascinating.
Unfortunately, my life path is not one that gives me a few years to go research such things…
All that to say, Bulgakov’s description of freedom in relation to God’s providence is the best I’ve read.
I would be remiss to not mention that in here Bulgakov also talks of what it means to be human and argues for humanity as one thing. This idea played a big part of Hart’s argument for universal salvation in That All Shall Be Saved. Rejecting a modern conception of humans as individual atoms floating around, we see instead we are all connected. Who I am is wrapped up in all my relationships with others. This is not just Bulgakov (or Hart’s) idea; it is rooted in the conception of humanity in the early church.
Augustine had this idea, though for him humanity was one big pile of evil. God chose a few to be saved and allows evil to endure forever alongside of God. For Gregory of Nysa, and Bulgakov, humanity is one good creation in God and salvation is not possible unless all are saved.
“In general, humanity does not exist abstractly and impersonally. It exists only as mine, yours, ours, theirs. It consists of the totality of all particular human persons. 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” (109).”
Which brings us to the final section of the book, where Bulgakov discusses the end of all things. This is worth the price of the book. I forgot to mention the middle section on the Church, probably because it was the one that least interested me (though, it is interesting). In the final section Bulgakov argues for universal reconciliation. Actually, “argues for” is not really correct. He does show how absurd the idea of an unending torment in hell would be. But really, this all flows from Bulgakov’s doctrine of creation, God and humanity. Because of who God is – all will be saved. Because of what creation is – for any to be saved, all must be saved.
This does not mean there is no judgment. Bulgakov quotes Isaac the Syrian at length, along with a good bit of scripture, to argue for the fires of hell as a cleansing, purgation, of all that is in us that is corrupt. Through this, evil is fully annihilated from creation and only the good remains. God’s wrath is a part of God’s love. But its not that some get wrath and some get love. Rather, all experience the wrath of love that cleanses us and makes us into the one humanity, fully united to God.
“The same fire, the same love gladdens and burns, torments and gives joy. The judgment of love is the most terrible judgment, more terrible than that of justice and wrath, than that of the law, for it includes all this but also transcends it. The judgment of love consists of a revolution in people’s hearts, in which, by the action of the HOly Spirit in the resurrection, the eternal source of love for Christ is revealed together with the torment caused by the failure to actualize this love in the life that has passed. It is impossible to appear before Christ and to see Him without loving Him” (459).
There is much more I could say. I’ll just end by encouraging my dorky theology nerds out there to read some Bulgakov, if you have not already!
Well, one more thing. I mentioned a book above that is boring. I said it may make you fear God, but not love. That reminds me of how so much of Christianity, at least in America and my experience, is driven by fear. Why become a Christian? Fear of hell. Near the end, Bulgakov comments on this precise fear“: To frighten theologically is a fruitless and inappropriate activity. It is unworthy of human beings, who are called to the free love for God” (483).
Real love drives out fear.