Regula M. Zwahlen, University of Fribourg, Switzerland
International Conference organised by St. Andrew’s Biblical-Theological Institute, Moscow, and Monasterio di Bose, Italy “History and Theology. Historical Consciousness as a Way to Church Unity”, 21–24 October 2015, Conference Paper.
Serge Bulgakov’s Justification of History
Serge Bulgakov’s thought is deeply shaped by historical consciousness. One may even argue that historical consciousness lies at the very core of Bulgakov’s thinking: “The ongoing religious dilemma of grappling with transcendent absolutes and mutable immanent creaturely realities is at the core of both Sergei Bulgakov’s personal struggles and his theological insights recorded in the 1920s and 1930s.”1 One might add that Bulgakov’s historical consciousness lies at the very beginning of his famous departure from Marxism, and can be traced through the full development of his theology.
There are at least two problems we must tackle when examining Bulgakov’s justification of history. First, the “Marxist problem”: Some of his contemporaries and today’s scholars accuse Bulgakov of having never really stopped being a Marxist, arguing that his ‘sophiology’ remaineda kind of historical materialism,2 that is, Bulgakov “saw history as a display of providential necessity […] at the expense of uniqueness of the historical divine revelation” and “at the expense of human freedom”.3 The second difficulty in assessing Bulgakov’s legacy is connected to the self-perception of the Orthodox Church itself, to its “return to the fathers” and to the uncertainty regarding whether there is or is not “an Orthodox consensus against doctrinal development”.4
1 Tataryn, Myroslaw, ‘History Matters: Bulgakov’s Sophianic Key’, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 49, 1–2 (2005), 203–218: 204.
2 Rodnjanskaja, Irina, ‘S.N. Bulgakov v spore s marksistskoj filosofiej istorii: ottalkivanija i pritjaženija’, in: Gal’ceva, Renata; Rodnjanskaja, Irina, K portretam russkich myslitelej, (Moscow: Petroglif), 2012, 401–428: 410.
3 Gavrilyuk, Paul L., Georges Florovsky and the Russian Religious Renaissance, (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 2013, 120, 150; Gavrilyuk, Paul L., ‘Universal Salvation in the Eschatology of Sergius Bulgakov’, Journal of Theological Studies 57, 1 (2006), 110–132: 131.
4 Lattier, Daniel J., ‘The Orthodox Rejection of Doctrinal Development’, Pro Ecclesia XX, 4 (2011), 389–410: 409. In the case of the difficult relationship between Bulgakov and Florovsky, Paul Gavrilyuk has shown that their thought is more intertwined and even more similar than one might assume. After all, it was Bulgakov who persuaded Florovsky to pursue a career in patristics. Gavrilyuk, Paul L., Georges Florovsky and the Russian Religious Renaissance, 158. Both were tackling modern theological problems, and both claimed that “returning to the fathers, however, does not mean abandoning the present age, escaping from history […] Orthodoxy is not only a tradition, it is a task […]. And genuine historical synthesis lies not in interpreting the past, but in creatively fulfilling the future.” Florovsky, Georges, Ways of Russian Theology, p. II, in Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, vol. 6, (Vaduz: Büchervertriebsanstalt), 1987, 301, 308, cited by Kalaitzidis, Pantelis, ‘From the ‘Return to the Fathers’ to the Need for a Modern Orthodox Theology’, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 54, 1 (2010), 5–36: 10–11.
Bulgakov’s own stance on the development of doctrine is perfectly clear: “dogmatic theology must take into consideration other landmarks of church history – patristics, historical scholarship, etc. – and do so with constantly broadening horizons”.5
Bearing in mind the “Marxist” and the “Orthodox” problems, I shall argue that Bulgakov’s thought, and especially his sophiology, is a justification of human history. I will do so by providing an outline of Bulgakov’s critique of Marxism, and especially by examining his extensive examination of historical research on early Christianity in his papers collected in his book “Two Cities” (1911), before exploring the role of historical consciousness in his eschatological interpretation of the world’s creation and summarising his later views on the concept of developing doctrine.
1) Bulgakov and Marxism
The crucial text containing Bulgakov’s reflections on Marx is the famous article about “Karl Marx as a Religious Type” (1906). There, Bulgakov claims that the ‘materialistic interpretation of history’ serves “to vulgarize, to degrade the socialist movement, […] to extinguish its spirit and to make the sounds of class hatred in the movement more audible than the sounds of love for all mankind.”6 Bulgakov rejects Marxism because of its inherent neglect of the individual person and her real impact on history. Simply because of personal impact, it is not possible to predict the future or know any historical laws. In his Philosophy of Economy (1912), Bulgakov cites his own thesis from 1900, in which he wrote: “Marx considered it possible to measure and predetermine the future by referring to the past and the present, whereas actually every age introduces new facts and new forces of historical development – historical creativity does not diminish. Therefore every prognosis about the future, if it is based on data from the present, is inevitably false. The serious scholar here takes on the role of prophet or soothsayer, leaving behind the solid territory of fact. Therefore with regard to predictions of the future I prefer an honest ignoramus to social wizardry and charlatanism’”.7
5 Bulgakov, Sergius, ‘Dogma and Dogmatic Theology’, in: Plekon, Michael (ed.), Tradition Alive: On the Church and the Christian Life in Our Time – Readings from the Eastern Church, (Lanham, MD: Sheed & Ward), 2003, translated by Peter Bouteneff, 67–80: 70.
6 Bulgakov, Sergei, Karl Marx as a Religious Type: his Relation to the Religion of Anthropotheism of L. Feuerbach, (Belmont Mass.: Nordland Publ.), 1979, translated by Luba Barna, 110.
7 Bulgakov, Sergei, Philosophy of Economy, (New Haven: Yale University Press), 2000, translated by Catherine Evtuhov, 323, note 9: “The question of the possibility of historical prediction, posed so sharply in Marxism and more generally in scientific socialism, has always been troubling for me, and the apprehension of its impossibility became a significant breach in my Marxism”. See Sergei Bulgakov, Kapitalizm i zemledelie [Capitalism and Agriculture] (St. Petersburg 1900), 2 vols., 2: 457–8: [citation in the main text].”
What, then, is the extinguished “spirit of the socialist movement”? For Bulgakov, it is a “vibrant sense of the organic growth, of the historic becoming, of a mighty superindividual process, which in his theory is seen as the growth of production forces with its strict logic; in [socialism] you can really hear the beating of the historic pulse, there is a sense of historic vegetation. In this sense, [...] socialism contains its deep, but atheistic mysticism, and therein lies its main, even unwittingly attractive power.” 8
To put it briefly: Bulgakov is looking for a philosophy of history that combines a sense of organic historical growth with the real impact of individual persons on history. For Bulgakov, this problem exposes the very “crux theologiae”, the question regarding the antinomy of human existence between human freedom and divine providence.9 The solution he will suggest as a theologian is the Chalcedonian declaration concerning Christ’s Godmanhood: according to Bulgakov, the Chalcedonian dogma of the acknowledgement of the unity of two natures in Christ “which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation” expresses the interrelatedness of God and the world, which encompasses a reconciliation of spirit and matter, time and eternity, God and man.10 The very fact that God enters history by incarnation serves as proof that “Christianity itself is a historical religion, the incarnation happened in time, and for anything that exists there are ‘times and seasons’ [Acts 1,7]. By transcending the end of history beyond the limits of the temporal, it does not take any sense away from the temporal process, which can be neither avoided nor jumped over.11 […] And just as individual life has an absolute meaning, history is the biography of all men.“12 According to Bulgakov, “in the world, nothing is lost and nothing is annihilated except evil, which is defeated and exposed in its nonbeing by God’s power. But the history of the world, which is also the history of the Church, is the building of the Kingdom of God, the City of God.” 13
8 Bulgakov, Sergej N., ‘Pervochristianstvo i novejšij socialism’ [Early Christianity and Modern Socialism], in: Bulgakov, S.N., Dva Grada [Two Cities] II, (Moscow: Put’), 1911, 1–50: 39.
9 Bulgakov, S.N., ‘Iuda Iskariot – apostol-predatel’’ [Judas Iscariot – Apostle and Traitor], in: Bulgakov, S.N., Trudy o troičnosti, [Works on the Trinity] (Moscow: OGI), 2001, 181–330: 234. In Bulgakov’s view, Judas’ destiny is the very expression of this antinomy. Unfortunately, only the conclusion of this work is translated into English: Bulgakov, Sergius, ‘Judas or Saul? Thoughts on the Russian people’, The Slavonic and East European Review 9, 27 (1931), 525–535.
10 See Tataryn, Myroslaw, ‘History Matters: Bulgakov’s Sophianic Key’, 204 ff.
11 Note the allusion to Engels’ “jump from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom” in Friedrich Engels, Herrn Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft (Anti-Dühring), 1878.
12 Bulgakov, Sergej N., ‘Ot avtora’ [Introduction by the author], in: Bulgakov, S.N., Dva Grada [Two Cities] I, (Moscow: Put’), 1911/1971, VII–XXI: XVI.
13 Bulgakov, Sergei N., Apocatastasis and Transfiguration: Comprising his Essay “On the Question of the Apocatastasis of the Fallen Spirits” (=Variable Readings in Russian Philosophy), vol. 2, (New Haven: Variable Press, 1995), translated by Boris Jakim, 30.
That is where another ‘Marxist aspect’ in Bulgakov’s thought must be considered: it is something we can call ‘determination for success’ with regard to human history or a kind of determination for salvation. There are claims that Bulgakov remains under the (Marxist) spell due to his excessively optimistic belief in a happy ending. Indeed, while still a Marxist, Bulgakov wrote: “Each reasonable person will agree that he will act with more energy if he knows that his work will succeed”.14 But as a Christian, he will introduce a certain, crucial difference: the difference between secular chiliasm and Christian eschatology.15 Chiliasm opens the horizontal dimension of human history with its vision of a paradise on earth, while a transcendent, religious, hence eschatological view opens a vertical dimension with its vision of all-encompassing resurrection and the possibility of interference from above.16 In short, in Bulgakov’s understanding, human or Godhuman history is “free action, work and a heroic act of all humanity”17 within a realm between the created horizontal dimension and a divine vertical dimension. At the very end, every person will see the glory of the great deed or work of art of which she was a part. Indeed, according to Bulgakov, God’s creation cannot fail – for the very reason that it is God’s creation. It is true that this view is flawed in its suggesting a certain curtailment of human freedom, but only with regard to questions with eternal or ontological impact – it does not affect freedom with regard to human creative acts in history18, which according to Bulgakov’s understanding of eschatology will not end, but flow into meta-history, a new aeon.19 In this sense, only “good” achievements of human creativity will have an impact on eternity,20 since evil is defeated. Therefore to accuse Bulgakov of simply replacing materialist necessity by providential necessity is to go much too far. Furthermore, Bulgakov’s thought does not neglect materialism21 or providence,22 rather he reflects on both in terms of their
14 Bulgakov, S.N., Ot marksizma k' idealizmu. Sbornik stat'ej (1896-1903) [From Marxism to Idealism], (Frankfurt a. M., 1968), 33.
15 See Schwaiger, Axel, Christliche Geschichtsdeutung in der Moderne, (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot), 2001, 51–52.
16 Bulgakov, Sergej N., ‘Pervochristianstvo i novejšij socialism’, 76.
17 Bulgakov, Sergej N., ‘Ot avtora’, VIII).
18 Zwahlen, Regula, ‘Sergei Bulgakov: The Potentiality of Conversion’, in: J. Herlth & Ch. Zehnder: Models of Personal Conversion in Russian Cultural History of the 19th and 20th Centuries, Bern 2015, 129–139: 133.
19 Samokishyn, Marta, ‘Sergii Bulgakov’s Eschatological Perspectives on Human History’, Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies 49/3–4 (2008), 235–262: 253.
20 Note the influence of Nikolai Fedorov here, see Bulgakov, S.N., ‘‘Zagadočnyj myslitel’ (N.F. Fedorov)’ [An Enigmatic Thinker], in: Bulgakov, S.N., Dva Grada [Two Cities] II, (Moscow: Put’), 1911, 260–277: 267: “The Kingdom of God, once accomplished in its fullness by fulfilment of God’s will, guided by God, realized by Him through us, is an opus [proizvedenie] of all virtuous forces, of all virtuous human capabilities as a whole, as an outcome of the fullness of knowledge, of the depth and purity of the senses, of the power of good will.” [Citation of Fedorov’s interpretation by Kozhevnikov.]
21 See Bulgakov’s reflections on Vladimir Soloviev’s notion of “religious materialism”: Bulgakov, S.N., ‘Priroda v filosofii Vl. Solov’eva’ [Nature in the Philosophy of Soloviev] (1910), in: ibid., Sobranie sočinenii v 2 tomach, [Collected works in 2 vols.], (Moscow: Nauka), 1993, vol. I, 16–46; German translation in: Sergij Bulgakov, Philosophie der Wirtschaft, Münster 2014, 262–291.
(Chalcedonian) inter-relatedness with human freedom. That is why we can read his sophiology as an honest quest for the relation of divine providence and human freedom and history.23 Bulgakov’s optimism is not just a case of looking for a “happy ending”, because he knows only too well about the tragic character of history. Rather, he is searching for the very meaning of redemption and resurrection. That is the kind of hope that provides the inspiring energy Bulgakov was seeking in order to justify human acts in history “in this world” and which he first found, then lost, in Marxist thought. After that, Bulgakov will focus his attention on Early Christianity with its emphasis on eschatology.
2) Research on Early Christians
Why is Bulgakov interested in early Christianity? It might be said that it was somewhat in the air at the time, for at least three reasons. First, there were the ongoing debates among socialists about the economically motivated origins of Christianity as a communist movement. The most famous work is Karl Kautsky’s Foundations of Christianity: A Study of Christian Origins from 1908, translated into Russian in 1909. Second, in this decade, a lot of important works of the “historical-critical method” of German Protestant theology and reactions to it such as Adolf von Harnack’s Dogmengeschichte were translated and published in Russian. As Bulgakov’s bibliography in his collection Two Cities (1911) shows, he read many of these Russian translations, and many German originals too. Third, there is Vladimir Solov’e’s essay “The Development of Dogma in the Church in Connection with the Question of Church Union” from 188624, and a large discussion among Russian intellectuals about ‘The Development of Dogma’ in the course of the Religious-Philosophical Meetings of St. Petersburg from 1901 to 1903. 25
22 Christopher Stroop is right about the politics of Providentialism and Russian national messianism that was integral to Russian religious thought, especially in Bulgakov’s response to World War I. Stroop, Christopher, ‘Nationalist War Commentary as Russian Religious Thought: The Religious Intelligentsia’s Politics of Providentialism’, in: The Russian Review 72 (2013), 94–115. In the 1930s, when the intellectuals within the Russian Émigré Society in Paris were divided between a nationalist Eurasian group and a rather universalist, oecumenical group, Bulgakov clearly belongs to the latter and refrains from Russian messianism. I will dwell on the reasons of this change in a future paper.
23 See Bulgakov, S.N., ‘Iuda Iskariot – apostol-predatel’’, 236: “The problem of Judas is asking the question about divine providence in the world and in man. How does God dispose of the world?”
24 Valliere, Paul, Modern Russian Theology. Orthodox Theology in a New Key, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark), 2000, 178 ff.
25 Polovinkin, Sergej M. (ed.), Zapiski peterburgskich Religiozno-filozofskich sobranij (1901–1903) [Notes of the Religious-Philosophical Meetings in Petersburg], (Moscow: Respublika), 2005, 354–462. See also Scherrer, Jutta: Die Petersburger Religiös-Philosophischen Vereinigungen: die Entwicklung des religiösen Selbstverständnisses ihrer Intelligencija-Mitglieder (1901–1917). (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz Verlag), 1973, 109–111. It is the task of further research to find out whether Bulgakov read the ‘Notes’ from these meetings that were published in the journal Novyj put’ [New Way] (1903–1904) and separately in a book 1906. To my knowledge, he never mentions them explicitly. Certainly, all these thinkers (Solov’ev included) did not know John Henry Newman’s seminal work “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine” (1878), which still has not been translated into Russian. See Konstantin Markovič on Newman: http://www.bogoslov.ru/text/649027.html (access on 29.1.2016); there are at least two dissertations on Newman in the Russian context: Daniel J. Lattier, John Henry Newman and George Florosky: An Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue on the Development of Doctrine, Duquesne University, 2012; paper by Michail Tolstoluzhenko on Newman and Vl. Soloviev at this conference.
Let us now examine his ample work “On Early Christianity: What it Did and Did not Include”, which he first presented on October 3,1908 at a meeting of the Moscow Religious-Philosophical Vl. Solov’ev Society.
First, Bulgakov is very fond of all the historical research undertaken in order to find out more about the history of Christianity. He relies upon Ernst Troeltsch’s seminal work The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions from 1902 in insisting that the historical and human ways beyond Christianity cannot be ignored, as long as scientific research about them does not claim to produce universal religious truths. Bulgakov is very impressed by the work of German researchers such as Karl Geffcken or Ernst von Dobschütz, who admit that ultimately none of their research can really explain the final victory of Christianity in history, and that it remains a “historical miracle”.26 For Bulgakov, historical research can be helpful in order to discover which aspects of early Christianity are still normative for Christianity as such, and which ones modern men can faithfully ignore.27
According to Bulgakov, the two main normative aspects of Christianity as a new force in history are: first, the principle of the individual person, and second, a new ideal of a new kind of community, a new house built not only beyond but also in this world – the Church.28 The person, and the Church – these are eternal truths newly brought into this world by Christianity.
Modern science of history has also shown the very strong significance of eschatology in early Christianity. That is why the early Christians were not interested in state affairs, politics, or revolutions in order to abandon social injustice and slavery, but, according to Harnack’s studies, quietly expected the end and were humble towards providence. Hence, their sense of eschatology was of a quietist and conservative character. Bulgakov thinks that modern Christians should not act or feel the same way; on the contrary, they should be active in history. For Bulgakov, the
26 Bulgakov, Sergej N., ‘O pervochristianstve: O tom, čto v nem bylo i čego ne bylo: Opyt charakteristiki]’ [Early Christianity: What it Did and Did not Include], in: Bulgakov, S.N., Dva Grada [Two Cities] I, (Moscow: Put’), 1911, 234–308: 237.
27 Ibid., 240. On the contrary, Ritschl’s school and its elaborate theology, which identifies metaphysical premises with historical conclusions, seems to be a much more serious and dangerous foe for “positive Christianty” than atheism. Bulgakov, Sergej N., ‘Filosofija kn. S. N. Trubeckogo i duchovnaja bor’ba sovremennosti’ [The Philosophy of Prince S. N. Trubeckoj and the Spiritual Battle of the Present Age], in: Bulgakov, S. N., Dva Grada [Two Cities] II, Moscow 1911/1971, 243–254: 253.
28 See Bulgakov, Sergej N., ‘O pervochristianstve’, 265, 302.
early Christian eschatological feeling is only a “special historical form of the sense of […] incompleteness of the contemporary condition of the world as one that is becoming”.
Everything changes when the first Christians die without having seen Christ’s return. This is the beginning of the fundamental “antinomy of the Christian philosophy of history”, the antinomy between chiliasm, the dream of building God’s kingdom on earth (which can even legitimize violent actions and according to Bulgakov is still present in atheist socialism), and eschatologism in terms of a negation of any meaning of immanent history. Bulgakov dwells on this antinomy in the last chapter of an article called “Apocalypse and Socialism” (1909–1910). He argues that there is no point in trying to finally solve the problem either through the immanence of chiliasm or by the transcendence of eschatologism, which both lead to a sort of anti-historicism. Bulgakov appeals to human responsibility and the obligation to use one’s given talents to serve the life of humanity in the history of this world, but not to forget the eschatological goal beyond this world as a mystical experience.29
That is where Bulgakov’s theological concept of the world’s creation comes in: God’s Creation is a given potential that has to be actualized by human beings during the temporal process of history.30 What the early Christians did not yet understand was that faith in Jesus Christ did not mean advancing the end of the world, but advancing the transfiguration of the world through human creativity. In this sense, early Christianity, Bulgakov argues, is a historical paradox, because by rejecting the world due to the faith’s closeness to heaven, and by its transcendence of reality, it actually won its victory in human history and became a new, reviving force within it.
If there was no sense of history in early Christianity because of its eschatologism, there was even less sense of “theology”.31 But in Bulgakov’s understanding, the fact that there was no dogmatic teaching in early Christianity does not mean that there were no dogmas, on the contrary: the later definitions of the Church were inherently present in early Christianity, because of the very essence of dogma as he conceives it: “Dogma is a reflected living religious experience expressed
29 Bulgakov, S.N., ‘Apokaliptika i socializm’ [Apocalypse and Socialism], in: Bulgakov, S. N., Dva Grada [Two Cities] II, (Moscow: Put’), 1911, 51–127: 119 ff.
30 “The antinomic character of history of the world is based on the fact that it was fully created at the beginning, but at the same time that fullness ‘is not a fully actualized one, but is still only potential’.” Samokishyn, Marta, ‘Sergii Bulgakov’s Eschatological Perspectives on Human History’, in: Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies 49/3–4 (2008), 235–262: 250; Sergius Bulgak ov, The Bride of the Lamb, (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans), 2002, translated by Boris Jakim, 315.
31 According to Bulgakov this subject and its scholars are the most meritorious today, even if it poses more questions than it provides answers, and even if it has given rise to a lot of different schools (Tübingen, Ritschlian etc.). But they all agree on the fact that early Christians neither had any dogmatic teachings nor a catechism, and even early Christian theologians seem to be stumped by the Christological problem. Bulgakov, S.N., ‘O pervochristianstve’, 271.
by logical or philosophical concepts, a fact of a religious event or the unity [of such events], it holds the content of a living, not only theoretically but practically lived faith.”32 The truth of such a dogma is not acknowledged by rational proof, but by revelation. And that is why early Christians must have lived even more “dogmatically” than Church people today. Dogmatic formulations were only an inventory of something that already existed.33
Hence, the “normative significance of early Christianity” lies in its closeness to revelation: it is the very seed of the tree of historic Christianity, it contains everything needed for its growth, which is: personal experience of God and the unification of many such experiences in the collective experience of God in the Church. That is the essence of Christianity in Bulgakov’s understanding. In this sense, the historical-critical method can highlight the importance of personal and collective experiences that have an impact on the way of human history.
3) Historical Consciousness in Bulgakov’s Theology
At this juncture it is necessary to provide a short summary of the concept of history in Bulgakov’s later work. As late as 1917 he speaks of the necessity “to honour historical tradition”, since “religion is historical in nature”. He does not say this in the context of the debate about dogmatic development, but in response to the attempts of some “enlighteners” to invent a “natural anti-historical religion”, “enlighteners” “who do not notice that today’s ‘natural religion’ will tomorrow become historical”. “‘Religion in general’ does not exist; there are only definite, concrete religions”, Bulgakov insists.34
First of all, and this is of the utmost importance for Bulgakov, history is not a consequence of sin:35 In short, history, times and seasons were intended by God’s creation – the origin of history is not sin, but creation, but sin is the origin of the “constantly tragic reality of history”.36
In Bulgakov’s understanding, at the same time God’s creation must be seen within a horizontal historical dimension, and a vertical eschatological dimension that opens up the field of the “antinomic reality of time and eternity” – for Bulgakov, “time and eternity exist in the same dimension: eternity is not after, but together with time: above and under.”37 The very meeting
32 See Bulgakov, Sergej N., ‘O pervochristianstve’, 273.
33 Ibid., 250–251.
34 Bulgakov, Sergius, Unfading Light, (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans), 2012, translated by Thomas Allan Smith, 61-62.
35 Ibid., 362.
36 Samokyshin, Marta, ‘Sergii Bulgakov’s Eschatological Perspectives on Human History’, 252.
37 Ibid., 249.
point of human history and eschatology already here and now is the Church as the presence of Christ in history.38 If history is only seen in its horizontal dimension, it is the history of endless progress and endless tragedy at the same time. But if it is seen in both its horizontal and vertical dimensions, history will find its fulfilment and salvation, right on the diagonal, but probably very curvy line in between history and eternity, which does not lead to an end of history, but to metahistory in “a new earth and a new heaven” where divine omnipotence and creaturely freedom will be joined. 39 For Bulgakov, the only means to finding the vertical dimension is religion. And it is within the Church, the realm of divine-human reality, where the transfiguration of history already takes place.40 Here, Godhuman synergy will define or determine what “the new earth and the new heaven” will look like.
Godhuman synergy and free human acts with an impact on history are possible because of God’s “kenotic relation to creation”: in His antinomic being, God is an eternal Absolute, but he is also God the loving creator of this world, who “voluntarily limits Himself […] and condescends, so to speak, to co-participation in its temporality and becoming”.41 Furthermore: God kenotically blinds himself to certain human choices. According to Bulgakov, ‘providence’ is not, first and foremost, God’s steering of human history, but rather His waiting for human choices and answering and reacting to them: “Providence shows absolute skill and inventiveness in correcting and fulfilling the actions of creaturely freedom. […] The relation of the Creator to creation in ‘synergism’ always remains meek and restrained, the kenosis of God in creation. […] In order to accept this principle [of synergism] fully, one must admit the genuineness or mutual reality of both sides in this interaction. This reality is conditioned by the fact that even the Creator Himself cannot penetrate […] creaturely freedom. […] Divine providence does not destroy human freedom but responds to it, acting with absolute wisdom. God cooperates with creatures according to an infallible purposiveness, while preserving their freedom. This postulate of faith is unshakably valid. The principle of synergism signifies that creatures are never deprived of the protection of divine providence, whatever may be their proper selfdeterminations, toward good or toward evil.”42
38 Ibid., 258.
39 Bulgakov, Sergius, Unfading Light, 427.
40 Samokyshin, Marta, ‘Sergii Bulgakov’s Eschatological Perspectives on Human History’, 260.
41 Bulgakov, Sergius, The Bride of the Lamb, (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans), 2002, 230.
42 Ibid., 233–234, 236, 239.
Human freedom is limited, because the potential of ontological self-destruction is not given. But man is not limited in his individual self-determination and creative action.43 Hence history is the realm in which real Godhuman cooperation and synergy (as well as theomachy) can take place in ‘this’ world. Bulgakov’s system is deterministic, but only in the double sense of determination by God’s creation and God’s renunciation of his absoluteness, whereby God comes to depend on human choices.
4) Historical Consciousness and Christian Dogmatics
What does this all mean, then, with regard to the question of the development of doctrine?
Just as God in his kenotic existence renounces absoluteness, through human language and writings divine revelation too is submitted to the laws of time and space in history.44 Here, Bulgakov makes a clear distinction between the “Word of God” and all other Christian scriptures: “The Word of God is the absolute criterion of theology. Theology cannot include ideas that could not be directly or indirectly confirmed by the Word of God, or contrary to it.”45
As we may conclude from Bulgakov’s address titled “Freedom of Thought in the Orthodox Church” (1936), he is convinced that there is no contradiction between the free search for truth and the revealed dogma dispensed by the Church, because dogma is not an abstract doctrinal statement, but a personal experience in the first place. For Bulgakov, not every new idea is heresy, but of course “the freedom is limited by the dogmas which exist already”: the Church is not a philosophical society, but, “the Orthodox Church has no external dogmatic authorities”, and even “an Oecumenical Council […] is not a ‘collective Pope’”. 46 Referring to several cases, Bulgakov demonstrates that there is no infallible authority in the Church, that tragic conflicts are inevitable.47 He argues that the same is true for patristics, since there is no single patristic tradition, but often contradictory or different opinions that “force us to make a choice”.
43 Zwahlen, Regula, ‘Sergei Bulgakov: The Potentiality of Conversion’, 136 (including a discussion of Bulgakov’s teaching of universal apocatastasis).
44 “Revelation, generally speaking, is concrete and historical, but it certainly does not represent a mechanical dictation of infallible truths, nor a sort of automatic script. Therefore it is absurd to accept an abstract equipollence of all the parts of dogmatic teaching in accordance with a formal stamp of infallibility.” Bulgakov, S.N., ‘Ways of Church Reunion’, in: Father Sergius Bulgakov 1871–1944. A Collection of Articles by Fr. Bulgakov for the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius. (London: The Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius), 1969, 22–28: 26.
45 Bulgakov, Sergius, ‘Dogma and Dogmatic Theology’, 70.
46 Bulgakov, Sergius, ‘Freedom of Thought in the Orthodox Church’, in: Father Sergius Bulgakov 1871–1944. A Collection of Articles by Fr. Bulgakov for the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, (London: The Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius), 1969, 33–37: 34–35.
47 Bulgakov, Sergius, ‘Freedom of Thought in the Orthodox Church’, 35.
Bulgakov’s assertions with regard to the development of Christian doctrine can easily be found in his article “Dogma and Dogmatic Theology”; here I briefly list only seven of them:
• The Fathers are not the Word of God and must be understood within their historical context and analyzed comparatively and critically.48
• “Authoritative patristic tradition” cannot be limited to the Fathers, because “each historical period, not excluding our own, participates in the theological inspiration”.49
• Modern dogmatic theology has to tackle a “whole array of problems that face us powerfully and distressingly today” for which there is no patristic tradition. Those problems are: Christian culture; social Christianity; Church and state; the unification of Christian traditions in one Church.50
• Patristics should not be a discipline with which to defend Orthodox theology from Western developments. It should not be a polemical theology.51
• Orthodox theology must achieve “dogmatic maturity” in order to distinguish between accepted fundamental dogmas and dogmatic doctrine “with all its changeability and instability”. With regard to dogmatic opinions, there must be acceptance for the principle of “in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas”.52
• Dogmatic development: fullness of revelation is given, but enters only gradually and partially – which is why the history of dogma […] exists.” Theology “must not be afraid of new dogmatic problems, but rather address them with full attention and with the full strength of creative daring.”53
• Philosophical language: just as the patristic period theologized with the language of ancient philosophy, modern dogmatic theology should provide a “kind of translation into modern language of the lexicon of the early Church, otherwise a dogma will sound foreign to our thought.54
48 Bulgakov, Sergius, ‘Dogma and Dogmatic Theology’, 71.
49 Ibid., 72.
50 Ibid., 73, 77. “What I say here, will of course not be shared by those who […] deny the possibility of movement in the life of the Church and make this motionlessness dogma. Sometimes this comes from the best intentions as a protest against the instability and recklessness of those reformers who don’t know or cannot appreciate the ties of the Church. But in the case that this motionlessness is made dogma, then it is a great error. […] Such a deeply antihistorical view is not based on any foundation. The Church is life, creativity, an uplift. The law of continuous movement is more efficient here than anywhere else.” Bulgakov, S.N., ‘Ot avtora’, 12.
51 Bulgakov, Sergius, ‘Dogma and Dogmatic Theology’, 74.
52 Ibid., 75.
53 Ibid., 76.
54 Ibid., 79.
To conclude, Bulgakov’s thought provides many arguments in favour of a justification of human history; his dogmatic theology fully corresponds to his theology of history. To put it in his own words: “The very possibility of continuing revelation presupposes the incompleteness of revelation in history and, therefore, a corresponding incompleteness of dogmatic theology as a system of dogmas”.55 That is why Bulgakov thinks that “there is no more spiritually important realm than that of dogmatic theology […] and it is one’s greatest joy to feel how in one’s heart the life and sense of dogma grows and develops. I feel that if we have to struggle for freedom of thought it is not a struggle of ‘liberalism’ or one of personal pride, it is a struggle for ecclesiastical truth (for truth within the Church).”56
55 Ibid., 79.
56 Bulgakov, Sergej N., ‘Freedom of Thought in the Orthodox Church’, 36–37.