Louth Andrew

Modern Orthodox Thinkers, From the Philokalia to the Present Day.

InterVarsity Press, 2015. P.42 - 59.




Fr Sergii Bulgakov and the nature of theology1


Among the Russian émigrés who settled in Paris in the 1920s, Bulgakov was already an established theologian and, as dean of the newly established Institute of Orthodox Theology dedicated to St Sergii (the Institut St-Seige), he rapidly assumed theological leadership. He became one of the voices representing Russian Orthodoxy in the burgeoning ecumenical movement, and was particularly active in the newly founded Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, which though primarily concerned with Anglicans and Russian Orthodox had always a larger dimension. He spent the rest of his life in Paris, and during this period his theological interests predominated, issuing in two trilogies that represent a comprehensive attempt to set out the theological perspective of those Russian theologians who had sought to respond to the intellectual concerns of the nineteenth-century West, and who had been profoundly affected by German Idealism (and also by the Kierkegaardian reaction, something of which can be found, quite independently, in Dostoevsky). In these theological works, Bulgakov sought to engage with the theological world of the West, particularly as he encountered it among the Western intellectuals who welcomed him in Paris. Bulgakov’s œuvre, then, represents a distinctive moment in an engagement between Russian Orthodoxy and the West, at the point at which the Russians of the emigration found themselves established there, and anxious to seize the opportunity to communicate to their Western contemporaries, in terms they could understand, the distinctive vision of Russian Orthodoxy.


Early years and life in Russia

Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov was born in 1871 in Livny, a small provincial town in the Orël province about 250 miles south of Moscow, 11 is father was a priest serving the cemetery chapel and belonged to a priestly (‘levitical’) family, stretching back several generations. After schooling, Sergei was sent to the local theological seminary, where he was unhappy, and lost his faith.


1. Most of the material in this chapter has already appeared in two of my articles: ‘Sergei Bulgakov’, in Moderne teologi: Tradisjon og nytenkning hos det 20 ărhundrets teologer, ed. Stăle Johannes Kristiansen and Svein Rise (Kristiansand: Høyskoleforlaget, 2008), 353-65, now available in English: Key Theological Thinkers: From Modern to Postmodern (Famham: Ashgate, 2013), 341 -51; ‘Sergii Bulgakov and the Task of the Theologian’, ITQ 74 (2009). 243-57.



As a young Marxist, he went to Moscow University, where he studied economics and law (1890-4), By the turn of the century, although still confessedly a Marxist, he was beginning to develop his own ideas, and in his thesis, submitted unsuccessfully for a doctorate in 1900, on agriculture and economics, he had broken with Marxism, though without developing any clear alternative. In the early years of the twentieth century, he began, like many of the intelligentsia, to turn back to his childhood faith. He was one of the contributors to the volume of essays, published in 1909, Vekhi (‘Landmarks’), in which a group of intellectuals made clear their dissatisfaction with Marxism and its neglect of spiritual and metaphysical questions. By this time, Bulgakov occupied the chair of Political Economy at the Institute of Commerce in Moscow University, a position he held until 1911, when he resigned over government interference in university matters.

Writing of his return to Christianity, Bulgakov acknowledged the influence of Dostoevsky and the Russian philosopher and historian Vladimir Solov’ev; he also wrote about various experiences that unsettled his Marxist convictions, and drew him back to his childhood faith. As early as 1895, his first sight of the mountains of the Caucasus made him aware of the ‘dull pain of seeing nature as a lifeless desert’ to which a Marxist analysis of reality had committed him, and convinced him that he could not be ‘reconciled to nature



without God’, with the realization that the ‘pious feelings of his childhood’ might be true2. A few years later, during his period of study in Germany, his encounter with Raphael’s Sistine Madonna in the Zwinger Gallery in Dresden brought him to tears, and with them ‘the ice melted from my soul’;3 thenceforth, his regular early morning visits to the gallery led him to an experience of prayer. His final conversion, ten years later in 1908, took place in a solitary hermitage deep in a forest. His Autobiographical Sketches, where these accounts are to he found, were only published in 1946 after his death; the three accounts of the steps towards his reconciliation with the Church were first published, however, in the first chapter of Unfading Light (1917), entitled ‘Calls and Encounters’. These three encounters cannot but recall Solov’ev’s three meetings with Sophia, related in his late set of poems, called ‘Three Meetings’ (1898). It can hardly be a coincidence.

His return to the Christian faith was an ecclesial awakening, too, leading him to participate in the movements seeking reform in the Church that were to culminate in the reform synod of Moscow in 1917-18, and also to his involvement in the controversy over the invocation of the divine name among the Russian monks on Mount Athos, which had led to their condemnation and the removal of most of them by Russian naval vessels in 1913. Bulgakov, like his friend Pavel Florensky, had great sympathy for the ‘venerators of the Name’ among the monks. For Bulgakov, the presence of Jesus was experienced by the invocation of his name, ‘the temple for which is every human heart, and every member of the faithful, as having this Name imprinted in his heart, is a priest of this temple"4. The book Bulgakov wrote on the philosophy of the name remained, however, unpublished until after his death.

Bulgakov’s commitment to church reform led to his being a delegate at the synod of 1917-18, which was cut short by the October Revolution and of which the only lasting result was the restoration of the patriarchate that had been abolished by Peter the Great. The very fad of the synod was decisive for Bulgakov: this act of independence gave the lie to the charge of caesaro-papism and freed Bulgakov to seek ordination to the priesthood. On the feast of Pentecost (‘Trinity Sunday’) 1918, Bulgakov was ordained deacon in the Danilov Monastery and the next day, the Day of the Holy Spirit, ordained to the priesthood (thereafter, as was the custom, adopting the more archaic spelling of his name: Sergii). The turmoil of the last years had not left him, however, and while a priest serving in Yalta in the Crimea, he wrote a dialogue called Under the Ramparts of Cherson (‘Cherson’ being the Byzantine – and ecclesiastical – name for Sevastopol in the Crimea), again not published in his lifetime, with the significant subtitle ‘The “Catholic Temptation” of an Orthodox Theologian’, in which he rehearsed the arguments


2. Sergei Bulgakov, Autobiograficheskie Zametki (Paris: YMCA Press, 1991; originally published 1946), 61-2; ET: A Bulgakov Anthology: Sergius Bulgakov 1871-1944 (London: SPCK, 1976), 10.

3. Bulgakov, Avtobiograficheskie Zametki, 64 (Anthology, 11).

4. Sergius Bulgakov, Ikons and the Name of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 157.



of the various sides in the debate over the Russian Church, and finally exorcized the temptation to abandon Russian Orthodoxy for Roman Catholicism.5


Exile and controversy

In December 1922, Trotsky issued a decree exiling most non-Marxist intellectuals from Russia, and in January 1923, Bulgakov left the Crimea for Europe. After a brief period in Prague, he settled in Paris where he became the first dean of the Institut St-Serge and Professor of Dogmatic Theology. On his way to Prague, Bulgakov passed through Constantinople and visited the church of Hagia Sophia, then a mosque. There he had another remarkable experience, which he identified with the figure that had become, and was to remain, central to his theology: the figure of Sophia, the Divine Wisdom. The church of Hagia Sophia he experienced as

the artistic and tangible proof and manifestation of holy Sophia – of the Sophianic nature of the world and the cosmic nature of Sophia ...  neither heaven nor earth, but the vault of heaven above the earth ... neither God nor man, but divinity, the divine veil thrown over the world ...6


In Paris, Bulgakov sought, through his writings, his lectures, and perhaps above all through celebrating the Divine Liturgy and preaching and spiritual counsel, to make Russian Orthodoxy a living presence in the West.

The Russian Church in the West rapidly became divided. There were those who repudiated the Revolution and the patriarch’s acquiescence with the communist authorities, most stridently those who formed the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad at a synod in Sremski-Karlovci in Yugoslavia in 1921 (the so-called ‘Synodal Church’). Then in 1930, Metropolitan Evlogy, the Russian Orthodox exarch in Europe, broke off relations with the Russian Church and placed the parishes of the exarchate under the jurisdiction of the Œcumenical Patriarchate. Finally there were those – a minority – who remained faithful to Moscow, whatever the difficulties. The Institut St-Serge remained with Metropolitan Evlogy. In the 1930s, Bulgakov’s theology, and especially the role of Sophia, the Divine Wisdom, in his theological reflections became controversial; both the Moscow Patriarchate and the Church in Exile condemned him, though Metropolitan Evlogy stood by him. This controversy clouded Bulgakov’s last years, but he continued with his theological writing until his death from cancer in 1944.


The nature of theology

In the last decade or so of his life, Bulgakov composed his ‘great’ theological trilogy, On Godmanhood. In this trilogy he covers the ground of a traditional


5. Published in Russian in 1997; French trans. with Introduction and notes by Bernard Marchadier: Serge Boulgakov, Sous les remparts de Chersonèse (Geneva: Ad Solem, 1999).

6. Bulgakov, Avtobiograficheskie Zametki, 95 (Anthology. 14).



dogmatic theology, but he does this in a quite unusual way. This can hardly have been other than deliberate. It is striking, too, that round about the same time (the first volume, The Lamb of God, was published in 1933), another great theologian was also struggling with the problem of how to present a dogmatic theology: namely, Karl Barth, whose first attempt at dogmatic theology, Die Christliche Dogmatik im Entwurf,7 the first volume of which appeared in 1927, was aborted, as Barth embarked on his monumental, and renamed, Church – not Christian Dogmatics in 1932.

Dissatisfaction with the traditional shape of dogmatic treatises (though the traditional shape of Protestant dogmatics had already been altered by Schleiermacher, so that Barth’s problems were not exactly the same as Bulgakov’s, or indeed his Catholic contemporaries) was in the air, for in the Catholic world, the most vital movements in theology – those associated with the movement of Ressourcement, focused especially on the Jesuit house at Lyon-Fourviers, where de Lubac was teaching – pursued theology in a different vein, and also raised questions that affected the structural principles of a dogmatic theology (this seems true both of de Lubac’s questioning of the traditional disjunction between the natural and the supernatural,8 and Rahner’s later reflections on the relationship between the traditional starting point of theology, ‘On God’, and ‘On the Trinity’9). It is also a question raised by Hans Urs von Balthasar in what could be regarded as a methodological introduction to his own vast trilogy, published in English as Love Alone: The Way of Revelation.10 Although we are primarily concerned with Bulgakov, it is worth setting our reflections against not dissimilar concerns expressed in Western theology, contemporary with him. What kind of historical links there might have been, I shall not explore, as it seems unlikely that any of these links are very secure.

The problem Bulgakov, Barth, Ra liner and Balthasar all face is how and where to start. Traditionally, in East and West, dogmatic theologies had followed a basically credal order, an order already discernible in St John Damascene’s On the Orthodox Faith, and even in some earlier patristic works, which seem to broach what we now would regard as a presentation of Christian dogmatic theology, such as Gregory of Nyssa’s Great Catechetical Oration or Augustine’s Enchiridion. As these earlier works are fundamentally catechetical, it is hardly surprising that they reflect, more or less, the order of the baptismal creed in their presentation of the faith. So they begin with God, and then progress through the Trinity, creation leading to the fall, Christology and redemption, the Church and the sacraments, eschatology. As the catechetical context of the earliest of these works suggests, the starting point is the believer coming to baptism and initiation in the faith epitomized


7. Karl Barth, Die Christliche Dogmatik im Entwurf, vol. 1, Prolegomena (Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1927).

8. See Henri de Lubac, Surnaturel, Théologie 8 (Paris: Aubier, 1946), which grew into Augustinisme et théologie moderne and Le Mystère du surnaturel, Théologie 63 and 64 (Paris: Aubier, both 1965).

9. Karl Rahner, The Trinity, trans. Joseph Donceel (London: Burns & Oates, 1970).

10. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone: The Way of Revelation (London: Burns & Oates, 1968).



in the baptismal creeds, which from the beginning seem to have adopted a basically Trinitarian structure, itself probably reflecting the liturgical form of baptism in the threefold name. It is not exactly as a catechetical task that modern theologians understand their role. Their task is not just to expound, but to present coherently and critically the Christian faith. Principles of coherence are needed, and these are generally drawn from a broader understanding of the significance and meaning of the faith. It has long been observed, for instance, that Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae adopts from Neoplatonism the idea of procession and return as a structural principle.11

Another issue in modern dogmatics concerns, more precisely, how to start: i.e. what are the prolegomena? What are the steps that take one into the realm of theology? A good deal of Western theology since scholasticism seems to see the prolegomena as philosophical considerations that establish a kind of rational basis – accessible to any honest thinker – on which the more detailed account that belongs to revelation can be based. Another version of this is to explore human experience and show how it is open to the transcendent, which is itself unfolded in the more particular experience of revelation. Barth, famously, is against all this, and the transition from the Christian to the Church Dogmatics took place, because he soon came to see that the Christian Dogmatics was not sufficiently radical.

One can get an initial impression of Barth’s concerns by simply looking at the table of contents in each work. Both, after preliminaries (themselves significantly different in detail), see dogmatics as a response to the Word of God, but the Christian Dogmatics has chapters on ‘The Word of God and Man as Preacher’, and ‘The Word of God and Man as Hearer’, both of which Barth came to see compromised his insistence on the sovereignty of the Word of God; both inserted man, and man’s innate capacity, into the consideration of the Word of God, so that the Word of God – its meaning and bearing – was qualified by man’s capacity to understand and interpret. The point of contact (Anknüpfungspunkt) between God and man is not sovereignly created by God, but in some way conditioned by man. The consequences of Barth’s radical understanding of the Word of God are a rejection of natural theology and any attempt to explore the human capacity to receive God’s revelation. Another issue – explored in Section 7 of the first chapter of the Church Dogmatics – concerns the question of whether a Christian dogmatics can be a systematic theology, a term introduced by liberal theologians who disliked the associations of ‘dogma’ and ‘dogmatic’.12 Barth argues against ‘systematic’ theology, which he sees as introducing a humanly derived systematic principle and thus risks misrepresenting and distorting the Word of God.

For our part, the details of Barth’s considerations here are less important than the kind of issues he is struggling with Bulgakov came from a very


11. See M.-D. Chenu OP. Introduction à I’étude de saint Thomas d’Aquin (Paris: Vrin/Montréal: Institut d’Études Médiévales, 1954), 266-76.

12. Karl Barth, Die Kirchliche Dogmatik, I/1 (Zürich: Zollikon, 4th edn. 1944), 261-310.



different ecclesial experience, but there are analogies in the concerns of these theologians. There is something analogous, too, in Rahner’s concerns in his essay on the Trinity, namely that the way into theology may compromise whatever it is one discovers, but the links between Bulgakov and Rahner, and indeed Balthasar, will become clearer after we have looked in more detail at Bulgakov’s response to these issues.


The nature of dogma

One could simply go to the trilogy On Godmanhood, and ask why Bulgakov adopts what seems to be such an untraditional approach Son, Spirit, and then Church and eschatology – but there is a short essay, ‘Dogma and Dogmatic Theology’, published in 1937, that is, just after he had published the first two volumes of his trilogy,13 This is explicitly about the task of dogmatic theology, and thus demands our attention. The first pan concerns the nature and remit of dogmatic theology, which he describes as ‘the systematic setting out of dogmas which, taken together, express the fullness of Orthodox teaching’.14 He initially makes two points: first, the limited scope of genuine dogmas – there is much that is not dogmatically defined – and second, the close link between lex credendi and lex orandi – dogma is rooted in the prayer of the Church; it is not a freestanding philosophical system. This link between dogma and prayer, both personal and liturgical, is one that he dwells on. He comments, ‘That is why the altar and the theologian’s cell – his workspace – must be conjoined. The deepest origins of the theologian’s inspiration must be nourished from the altar’.15

It is in this context that we find Bulgakov echoing Barth’s insistence on the sovereignty of the Word of God: ‘The Word of God is the absolute criterion of theology ... The Word of God has an unplumbable depth and an absolute character for us’.16 But it is an insight that will be developed in different ways in the two theologians. Barth means the Word of God as preached, written and revealed. For Bulgakov, the Word of God is heard within the Church, in a liturgical context, so that he can affirm. ‘The Holy Scriptures must be understood in the light of tradition’.17 Bulgakov goes on to consider the role of the Fathers in theology. The Fathers are those who have passed on to us the apostolic faith. They are not to be identified with the Fathers of the first few centuries, important as these are; he mentions modem Fathers such as Fr John of Kronstadt and Bishop Theophan the Recluse (both now canonized). They constitute a chorus of reflection, a chorus of many voices, but not by any means a unison. There is much that


13. ET: Peter Bouteneff in Tradition Alive, ed. Michael Plekon (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 67-80.

14. Tradition, 67.

15. Tradition, 69.

16. Tradition, 69.

17. Tradition, 70.



we can learn from listening to them, and we have to study them seriously, establishing the ‘actual views of the Church writers’, and understanding them ‘in their historical context, their concrete circumstances and historical relativity’.18

The result of such an approach is that ‘the Fathers’ legacy of the past is a mosaic of different parts of history, produced by different historical circumstances. In no way is it comprehensive.19 He warns against what he calls a patristic ‘rabbinism’.20 He also remarks that much recent Orthodox theology has taken its categories from the West, and become ‘more polemical, more reactive, than positive’.21 The task of the modern theologian is daunting, for though the Fathers are a great resource, there are many questions they never considered, and which we cannot avoid. These questions ‘one must treat in such a way that does not break with tradition, one should not cower from their "newness”‘.22 Bulgakov goes on to envisage modem Orthodox theology as ecumenical (though he does not use the word): ready to learn from contemporary Catholic and Protestant thinkers, while ‘remain[ing] itself, nourished by the wellspring of truth entrusted to it’.23

Two further issues occupy Bulgakov in his essay: the question of the development of doctrine and that of the place of philosophy. Development is not something Orthodox have generally found acceptable,24 and while Bulgakov is insistent that the ‘fullness [of the divine life] is given in the Incarnation of the Lord Jesus, in whom the whole fullness of God dwells bodily, and in the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when the Spirit comes into the world hypostatically in the tongues of fin’,25 he is equally clear that

in the divine-human conscience of the Church, insofar as it includes temporality and relativity, this fullness enters only successively and partially – which is why the history of dogma, as we observe it in reality, exists. New dogmas arise, and it is only in this sense that one can speak of the existence of dogmatic development.26


It is this sense of the Church as existing in culturally specific conditions that determines his attitude to philosophy. Dogmatic theology expresses the dogmatic consciousness of the Church in relation to current human problems, which means that it will utilize prevailing philosophical notions, even to the


18. Tradition, 70.

19. Tradition, 72.

20. Tradition, 70-1.

21. Tradition, 73.

22. Tradition, 73.

23. Tradition, 74.

24. See my ‘Is Development of Doctrine a Valid Category for Orthodox Theology?’, in Orthodoxy and Western Culture: A Collection of Essays Honoring Jatoslav Pelikan on His Eightieth Birthday, ed. Valerie R. Hotchkiss and Patrick Henry (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005), 45-63.

25. Tradition, 76.

26. Tradition, 76.



extent of accepting principles of systematic coherence drawn from philosophy in its setting forth ‘a system of dogmas’,27

Such an approach to dogmatics explains something of Bulgakov’s approach to theology. Dogmatic theology is open-ended, exploring the implications and meaning of the dogmatic tradition of the Church. It is rooted in the life of the Church, and finds its confidence there in the daily encounter with Christ in the liturgical life of the Church and in personal prayer. This confidence drives out fear – fear of the new, fear of the unknown – so that Christian theologians can boldly avail themselves of the ways of thought of those they seek to communicate with. Above all, there is much to do. Theologians are not the keepers of a sacred tradition, but those who seek to engage with the issues of their day and of their culture. Of course, they do not do this uncritically – everything is to be tested against the word of God heard in the Church – but neither are they afraid of engagement with modem ideas and problems. Above all, theology, for Bulgakov, is not a collection of doctrines that you could list and run through; rather it is way of thinking, rooted in a way of praying: it is a vision, not a collection of truths, however accurate.


A liturgical theology

It is this last point that is most obviously carried over into Bulgakov’s dogmatic theology. His readers are being encouraged to look at things in a certain way, or perhaps look at things from a certain position – and that position is standing in the Church before the face of the living God. We have already seen how closely Bulgakov associates the theologian’s task with the prayer of the Church. I don’t think this was merely a commonplace linking of lex credendi with lex orandi; rather it takes us to the heart of Bulgakov’s understanding of the theologian, or at least, of his understanding of himself as a theologian. It is something we need to grasp fully, if we are to understand Bulgakov properly.

The achievement of Boris Jakim, Bulgakov’s principal translator into English, in making him known – or at least accessible – in the English-speaking world, and the acclaim with which this has been received, risk obscuring how hard it seems to have been to hear Bulgakov at all in the past. It is only just over 40 years ago that Fr Alexander Schmemann could speak of the ‘tragedy of Fr Sergii’. In an article published to commemorate the centenary of Bulgakov’s birth (in 1871), Schmemann commented that,

A hundred years after the birth, and more than twenty years after the death of someone who, whatever one thought of his work, must be recognized as one of the most remarkable men of this tragic half-century of Russian history, an almost total silence surrounds his name.28


27. Tradition, 78.

28. Alexandre Schmemann, ‘Trois Images’, Le Messager orthodoxe 57 (1972), 2-21, at 2-3 (my trans.).



Schmemann went on to say that, even if he is to be regarded as an irredeemable heretic, there was something about him that seemed to transcend that: the priest, the spiritual father. Schmemann proceeded to recount ‘three images’ of Bulgakov that remained with him. His first memory was of seeing him at some grand celebration, a priest, dressed simply, lost in thought, which led him to reflect on what he saw as the archetypal quality of Bulgakov as a priest, the descendant of a long ‘levitical’ family. His second memory was of Fr Sergii at the Vigil Service for Palm Sunday, and seeing his face, just for a moment:

his eyes radiant with a calm enthusiasm, his tears, and the whole of his person turned towards ‘the holy place’ [the east end of the church], as if he were going to the next village where Christ was preparing the last passover for his disciples.29


The eschatology that breathes through the works of Bulgakov, an urgent waiting for the coming of Jesus, was something living and real for him. The third ‘image’ I would like to quote at greater length:

My third memory of Fr Sergii, the third image, is not about a brief moment, a short encounter. It is the memory of Fr Sergii before the altar, celebrating the liturgy. In his Iast years, because of his illness and loss of voice, he celebrated only the morning liturgy. Because of the equipment he had about his throat, he celebrated in very light, white vestments.

What memory have I kept of this? Not the ‘beauty’ of his celebration, if by beauty one means the rhythm and freedom of harmonious and solemn gestures, his ‘savoir-faire’; in this sense Fr Sergii’s way of celebrating was perhaps not beautiful. He never knew how to cense. And there was in his movements something awkward and jerky, something that had neither rhythm nor harmony ...

But there was in that very awkwardness and in those stiff gestures something that went back to the very source, which connected with the forces of nature, which recalled the sacrificing priest of the ancients or the princely priest of the Old Testament. He was not accomplishing a well-established rite, traditional in all its details. He delved down to the very depths, and one had the impression that the liturgy was being celebrated for the first time, that it had fallen down from heaven and been set up on the earth at the dawn of time. The Bread and the Chalice on the altar, the flame of the candles, the smoke of the incense, the hands raised to the heavens: all this was not simply an ‘office’. There was accomplished here something involving the whole created world, something of the pre-eternal, the cosmic – the ‘terrible and the glorious’ (strashnoe i slavnoe], in the sense these liturgical words have in Slavonic. It seemed to me that it is not by chance that the writings of Fr Setgii are very often laden – so it seems – with liturgical Slavisms, that they themselves so often resonate with liturgical praise. It is not just a matter of style. For the theology of Fr Sergii, at its most profound, is precisely and above all liturgical – it is the revelation of an experience received in divine worship, the transmission of this mysterious ‘glory’, which penetrates the entire service, of this ‘mystery’, in


29. Schmemann, ‘Trois lmages’, 11.



which it is rooted and of which it is the ‘epiphany’. The manifestation of God, and also of the world as God created it, of the divine roots of creation, destined to be filled with God, as that in which God is ‘all in all’.30


And this from someone who thought of Bulgakov’s works as a ‘ponderous philosophical edifice’!31 Schmemann’s sense of the centrality of the Divine Liturgy to Bulgakov’s life and thought is something we encounter in many other reminiscences of him. It is there in Metropolitan Evlogy’s address at his funeral, which recalls his ordination, and his last celebration of the liturgy, both on the Monday after Pentecost, the ‘Day of the Spirit’.32 It is there in Sister Joanna Reitlinger’s recollections,33 and it is significant that it is to Bulgakov that Fr Boris Bobrinskoy ascribes what is probably a priestly proverb – ‘the whole of his theological vision he had drawn from the bottom of the Eucharistic chalice’.34

What all this suggests, it seems to me, is that we need to catch something of the sense of Fr Sergii the priest, if we are to hear properly Bulgakov the theologian. In a profound sense Bulgakov is a liturgical theologian, not in the sense that he writes about the liturgy, but that he writes out of the liturgy. This can already be found in his earlier writings as a priest. There is an example in the very subjects of his so-called ‘little trilogy’ – The Burning Bush, The Friend of the Bridegroom, Jacob s Ladder – on the Mother of God, John the Baptist or the Forerunner, and the angels. The choice of the Mother of God and St John the Forerunner is certainly influenced by the iconographic tradition, and especially the icon colled the Deisis – ‘Intercession’ – in which a seated Christ is flanked by the Mother of God and St John with their hands raised in an attitude of prayer. They are the two who are closest to Christ, and this closeness is manifest in prayer.

Such considerations are already liturgical, in that they are concerned with prayer, but the final volume on the angels focuses these considerations more precisely on the Divine Liturgy, for all these volumes are concerned with the conjunction of the two worlds – the earthly and the heavenly – a conjunction manifest in different ways in the Mother of God and St John the Forerunner, but realized most immediately for us in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, when we join together with ‘thousands of Archangels and ten thousands of Angels, the Cherubim and the Seraphim, six-winged and many-eyed’. But just considering together the Mother of God and the Forerunner has a more precisely eucharistic reference, which Bulgakov himself draws out


30. Schmemann, ‘Trois Images’, 13-14 (my trans.).

31. See also his remarks on Bulgakov as a thinker in his diary, entry for 31 March 1980: The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann 1973-83, trans. Juliana Schmemann (Cresrwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000), 261-2.

32. Quoted in James Pain’s Introduction to A Bulgakov Anthology, XVI-XVII.

33. See Sister Joanna Reitlinger, ‘The Final Days of Father Sergius Bulgakov: A Memoir’, in Sergius Bulgakov: Apocatastasis and Transfiguration, trans. Boris Jakim, Variable Readings in Russian Philosophy 2 (New Haven, CT: Variable Press, 1995), 31-53.

34. B. Bobrinskoy, La Compassion du Père (Paris: Cerf, 2000), 160, cf. 173; La Mystère de la Trinité (Paris: Cerf, 1986; 1996 imprint), 149 (presumably a reminiscence, as no reference is given).



when he recalls that in the preparation service, the Proskomidi, as the priest cuts fragments of bread to set beside the Lamb, the bread to be consecrated, the first two fragments are in honour of the Mother of God and then of the Forerunner. Similarly in the eucharistic prayer, after the epiclesis, the first to be commemorated is the Mother of God, followed immediately by St John the Forerunner.35 The way in which such precise liturgical references feed Bulgakov’s theological reflection is something very striking, and I don’t really know anyone else of whom this is true to the same extent.


The structure of theology

If we think of Bulgakov as a liturgical theologian in this sense, then I think the structure of the great trilogy begins to make sense. But I want to lead into a discussion of the structure of the great trilogy by recalling Hans Urs von Balthasar’s reflections on the history of theological reflection in the book already referred to, Love Alone: The Way of Revelation. Balthasar begins by outlining two historical approaches to theology: the first the cosmological approach, the second the anthropological approach. The cosmological approach presents the faith objectively, as a description of what is the case in the relationship of God to the world. Creation, the fall, the Incarnation, atonement, the Church, the sacraments, the last things: these are presented as a series of facts. It is the way the world is, as a result of God’s activity; so we might well call it cosmological. This has characterized, and continues to characterize traditional presentations of the faith, especially in the Catholic and Orthodox worlds. The anthropological approach, by contrast, starts from an understanding of what it is to be human, and in particular with the question, how do we humans come to know anything at all about all this? Historically, as Balthasar suggests, this approach takes its starting point from a central feature of the cosmological approach, the understanding of the human as in the image of God, as occupying a kind of frontier position (as a methorion) between God and the world, between the spiritual and material realms.36 But this position has become isolated, and it is from the perspective of the human – its nature and potentialities, its needs and requirements – that any human understanding, of the world or God, is unfolded. This shift in approach constituted as radical a revolution as the more-or-less contemporary ‘Copernican revolution’.

Festugière, long ago, suggested that we can see the contrast between the ancient approach (which Balthasar calls ‘cosmological’) and the modem approach (which Balthasar calls ‘anthropological’) by considering Descartes’s cogito ergo sum, ‘I think, therefore I am’. Descartes moves from thought to the one who thinks; the Greeks, Festugière suggests, would more naturally move


35. Sergius Bulgakov, The Friend of the Bridegroom, trans, Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 136.

36. Balthasar, Love Alone, 25.



from thought to those things of which one thinks, ta noeta.37 Balthasar suggests that both these approaches are limited: the first, the cosmological, tends to become extrinsicist, presenting a list of objective ‘facts’; the second, the anthropological, tends to an intrinsicism, an exploration of the conditions of being human, ending up in a kind of moralism, concerned above all with what humans ought to do. Balthasar seeks to combine the two approaches in what he calls the way of love, which is equally the way of aesthetics. God is approached neither simply as the Truth, the objectively real, underwriting the true state of affairs through his creative power; nor is he to be approached as the Good, underwriting a proper way of behaving; rather he is to be seen as Beauty, both someone to behold in objective forms that we can trace and describe, but also one who, through his beauty, inspires us with the longing of love, a love that shapes everything we do, so that the objectively true and the morally good are united in the pursuit of the beautiful.38

It is, it seems to me, precisely an attempt to hold together these two approaches that lies behind Bulgakov’s approach to dogmatic theology, especially as we see it in the great trilogy. On the one hand, Bulgakov remains traditional in giving a systematic account of the objective truths of revelation – the way things are, seen in the light of revelation On the other hand, he is concerned with the root question of the anthropological approach: how do we know any of this? and also: how does this make sense of my human experience? This leads him to he concerned for the place, as it were, from which we behold the revelation of the glory of God: standing before God in prayer, fundamentally in the Divine Liturgy. It is easy to see how this corresponds in a way to Balthasar’s aesthetic approach, for the human being, according to Bulgakov, stands before God in prayer and beholds the revelation of God, participates in it, and is caught up with it – and, in particular, for Bulgakov, is drawn towards the fullness of the revelation of God at the end of time (remember the second of Schmemann’s ‘images’, of Bulgakov looking for the coming of the kingdom with eagerness).

What fundamentally distinguishes Bulgakov from the anthropological approach is ultimately his conception of what it is to be human. The West, from Descartes onwards (and maybe earlier), has tended to reduce the human to the individual Bulgakov inherits from nineteenth-century Russian thought, and especially the Slavophils, a sense of the person, as opposed to the individual:39 the person coming into being shaped by and contributing towards


37. See A.-J. Festugière, Contemplation et vie contemplative selon Platon (Paris: Vrin, 3rd edn, 1967), 210-49.

38. There are some very striking parallels here with the approach of the Greek thinker Christos Yannaras. See, especially, his books recently translated by Norman Russell: Person and Eros and Variations on the Song of Songs (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2007, 2005). This cannot, however, be pursued here. On Yannaras, see below pp. 247-51, 254-9.

39. This is such a commonplace of nineteenth-century Russian thought that it perhaps needs no reference, but see Tomáš Špidlík, Die russische Idee: Eine andere Sicht des Menschen (Würzburg: Der Christliche Osten, 2002), 21-99.



community, a togetherness to which the Russians give the term sobornost’. So, for Bulgakov, the human being is not primarily an individual thinking, nor an individual kneeling in prayer, separate from everyone else (though that is an advance on an individual thinking), but a person standing before God in prayer, side by side with others. Liturgical knowing comes about through participation in a community standing before God in prayer; it is in this way that we come to know anything about God at all, and as such our knowledge is that of persons, not monads uttering individual cogitos, or even individual credos, but members of a community, formed by traditions that are themselves bearers of wisdom. And who is this God before whom we stand in prayer? Not the divine substance, not some indifferentiated divine monad or God, but God the Father, revealing himself and his love for us through the Son and the Holy Spirit, and drawing from us an answering love, that is the Spirit poured out in our hearts, leading us back to the Father through the Son.40

And so the structure of the great trilogy: two books on the Incarnate Son and the Holy Spirit, passing by means of an Appendix on the Father to the third volume, in which the Church is revealed as the Bride of the Lamb, calling out with the Spirit to the coming Lord, so that the trilogy ends with words from the final chapter of the New Testament: ‘And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come ... Even so, come, Lord Jesus’ (Rev. 22, 17, 20 AV).

It is striking how this approach to a ‘systematic setting out of dogmas which, taken together, express the fullness of Orthodox teaching’, as Bulgakov put it in the essay ‘Dogma and Dogmatic Theology’, anticipates some of the concerns of both Balthasar and Rahner. Balthasar actually calk his third way of love a ‘personalist approach’, though his understanding of personalism is perhaps not as developed as Bulgakov’s Slavophil-inspired notion; Balthasar’s personalism is more that of Buber’s ‘I-Thou’ personalism, though this parallels some aspects of Bulgakov’s personalism, not least the sense of the person as transcending nature. It also corresponds to the central assertion of Rahner’s essay on the Trinity, that we do not first engage with an undifferentiated ‘Cod’, whom we later discern to be Trinitarian, but rather encounter ho Theos, who is the Father, manifest through the Son and the Spirit, Bulgakov solves Rahner’s problem much more radically, starting neither with the One God, nor the Trinity, bin with the Son Incarnate and the Spirit.


40. Bulgakov’s understanding of the person as shaped by love might suggest that Descartes’s cogito ergo sum be replaced by amo ergo sum, I love therefore I am. It is striking that this is the title of Nikolai Sakharov’s book on the spiritual teaching of Fr Sophrony, as one of the lessons of that book is ihe debt Fr Sophrony owed to Fr Bulgakov, whose lectures he briefly attended at the Institut St-Serge in the 1920s and whom he read throughout his life. See Nikolai Sakharov, I Love, Therefore I Am: The Theological Legacy of Archimandrite Sophrony (Crestwood, NY; St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002).



Theology drawn out of the liturgy

I have suggested that Bulgakov’s theology can be seen to be liturgical in a general sense, in that it emerges from considering die human being who comes to know God by standing before him in prayer, first of all liturgical prayer. I think, however, the point can be made more precisely, by looking closely at the Divine Liturgy which Bulgakov celebrated daily.

At the heart of the Divine Liturgy is the anaphora, the eucharistic prayer, which, in the Byzantine Rite (and in the Roman canon missae) is addressed, not to God in general, or to the Trinity, but precisely to the Father. The anaphora most commonly used, that of St John Chrysostom, makes it clear, by the repeated addition of ‘your only-begotten Son and your Holy Spirit’, that the anaphora is offered to the Father – together with the Son and the Spirit. The anaphora of St John Chrysostom goes on to make clear that our engagement with the Father takes place through the Son and the Spirit – the Son, given as the love of God the Father for us, accomplishing the mystery of salvation through the Incarnation, of which the Eucharist is the representation, itself achieved through the invocation, the epiklesis, of the Holy Spirit. As Christ becomes present, heaven and earth are conjoined, and we find ourselves in the presence of the saints, pre-eminently the Mother of God, together with whom we offer intercessions for the Church and the world.

We can already see here the structure of Bulgakov’s trilogy. In the anaphora the Father comes first, but is described in entirely apophatic terms – ‘ineffable, incomprehensible, invisible, inconceivable, ever existing, eternally the same’ – what we know of him, as Creator, and restorer of a fallen Creation, ‘granting us [his] Kingdom that is to come’, we know through the Son and the Spirit. So it is in a systematic theology that we start with the Son and the Spirit, who lead us back to the Father, who is God, ho Theos. (It is worth noting that the liturgical poetry of the Orthodox Church preserves this fundamental grammar of referring to God, while at the same time making clear the equality of the Persons of the Trinity, in the expressions ho Theos kai Pater, ‘God and Father’, i.e. the God who is Father, and ho Logos kai Theos, ‘the Word and God’, i.e. the Word who is God.)

The reference to the ‘Kingdom that is to come’ is also significant, for a sense of the coming kingdom is one of the striking features of Bulgakov’s theology. The eschatology is not tagged on, or demythologized so that it only concerns the ‘last things’ in some quixotic way, as often seems to be the case in modern presentations of theology – it is integral, determining the movement of the work from the very beginning, right through to the final section, almost a third of the final volume, explicitly concerned with eschatology.41 But this sense of the coming kingdom is itself a characteristic of the Byzantine


41. This may underestimate the size of the final section, in that there are other sections that clearly belong in this final section that were, for some reason, not included, especially the section called ‘On the Question of the Apocatastasis of the Fallen Spirits’: see Bulgakov, Apocatastasis and Transfiguration, 7-30.



Liturgy from the opening proclamation, ‘Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’, through the Beatitudes, prefaced by ‘In your Kingdom, remember us, O Lord’, and the Great Entrance, with the commemoration of the faithful through their being remembered ‘in your Kingdom’, to the Communion, prefaced by the Lord’s Prayer, with its petition for the coming of the kingdom, and the allusion of the prayer of the thief – ‘Remember me, O Lord, in your kingdom’ – in the prayers before communion. The repeated invocation of the kingdom lends to the Divine Liturgy a sense of standing on tiptoe on the threshold of the kingdom – something that Bulgakov incorporates into his dogmatic theology.



It would be possible to go through the great trilogy and illustrate the manifold ways in which Bulgakov appeals to liturgical facts and prayers to ground the teaching that he unfolds in the course of it. One particularly striking example is the way in which different aspects of the cult of the Virgin Mother of God undergird his understanding of her significance in the life of the Church. It is in these terms that I would want to present Bulgakov as essentially a liturgical theologian. But there is one matter of substance that I think makes more sense if we relate it to his fundamental sense of the liturgical origins of theology, and that is his sophiology.

Sophiology has experienced something of a revival, especially among the movement in modem theology known as ‘radical orthodoxy’.42 Nevertheless, it is still the case that in (authentically) Orthodox circles, sophiology is largely rejected, and even those willing to be sympathetic towards Bulgakov often take the line that everything that Bulgakov wants to say using the notion of Divine Sophia could be said just as adequately without invoking the notion of Wisdom or Sophia (Bulgakov’s late work, The Orthodox Church (1935), in which he gives an account of Orthodox beliefs without using the notion of Sophia, can be cited in support of such an opinion). It may well be true that Sophia can be dispensed with, if one understands doctrine as a string of theological propositions. It is rather as one tries to understand the coherence and mutual entailments of these theological assertions that Sophia comes into its own for Bulgakov. However, that sense of coherence is also conveyed by the fundamentally liturgical inspiration of his theology.43 This suggests that there is a link between Sophia and the liturgy, and it is this that I want to explore in these final paragraphs.


42. My awareness of this has been greatly enhanced by the work of Brandon Gallaher, and conversation with him. See his ‘Graced Creatureliness: Ontological Tension in the Uncreated/Created Distinction in the Sophiologies of Solov’ev, Bulgakov and Milbank’, Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies 47 (2006), 163-90.

43. It is also, of course, the case that all the Russian sophiologists appeal to liturgical evidence – especially the fact that the dedication festivals of several Slav churches of the Holy Wisdom are feasts of the Mother of God – in support of their ideas.



The fundamental intuition of Sophiology is relatively easy to enunciate; it is that the gulf between the uncreated God and Creation, brought into being out of nothing, does not put Creation in opposition to God; rather Wisdom constitutes a kind of metaxu, ‘between’, between God and humans/Creation, for Wisdom is that through which God created the universe, and it is equally through wisdom that the human quest for God finds fulfilment.44 Wisdom, one might say, is the face that God turns towards his Creation, and the face that Creation, in humankind, turns towards God. Creation is not abandoned by God, it is not godless, for apart from God it would not be at all; it is not deprived of grace, for it owes its existence to grace. Rather Creation is graced, it is holy; in Creation God may be encountered.

Bulgakov’s account of the events that led to his own conversion, and his magnificent account of standing beneath the dome of the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in January 1923, make clear how important this intuition was to him. It also lay at the heart of what he perceived to be wrong with the Roman Catholicism he encountered in the West as an exile: the idea of an ungraced ‘pure nature’ seemed to him fundamentally false. Moreover, the relationship between God and the world, constituted by Wisdom, cannot be an arbitrary relationship, nor can it be a necessary one. Uncreated wisdom and created wisdom differ only in their being uncreated or created. Why? Because if they differed in any other way, then God would be severed from Creation, and Creation from God. This line of thought indicates a further step involved in sophiology, which raises the issue: what must Creation be, if this is true? What is Creation like, if God indeed created it (through wisdom)?

As we ask these questions, we find ourselves asking questions that have exercised Christians for centuries, and perhaps most acutely at the beginning, when, in the second century. Christianity faced the manifold challenges of Greek philosophy and Gnosticism. Christianity was not consonant with just any view of the universe. Christians agreed with the Platonists over the existence of a transcendent divine, divine providence and human free will, and adopted Platonist arguments against other Greek philosophers – Aristotelians, Stoics and Epicureans – who rejected one or other of these positions.45 They completely rejected the view, held by most of those scholars now call ‘Gnostics’, that the universe was the product of a God or gods who were either malevolent or negligent. At one point Irenaeus defends the Christian view of a universe, created out of nothing by a good God who rules it through his providence, by appealing to the Christian liturgy:

How... can they say that flesh is destined for corruption, the flesh that has been nourished by the body and blood of the Lord? Either they must change



44. For a longer account of my approach to Bulgakov’s doctrine of Sophia, see ‘Wisdom and the Russians: The Sophiology of Fr Sergei Buigakov’, in Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?, ed. Stephen C. Barton (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 169-81.

45. See my ‘Pagans and Christians on Providence’, in Texts and Culture in Late Antiquity: Inheritance, Authority and Change, ed, J. H. D. Scourfield (Swansea: The Classical Press of Wales, 2007), 279-97.



their opinion, or cease to offer him what they have said they do. Our opinion is consonant with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist confirms our faith. We offer him what belongs to him, harmoniously proclaiming the communion and union of flesh and spirit. For taking from the earth bread, after the invocation of the Lord it is no longer common bread, but Eucharist, joining together two realities, the earthly and the heavenly, so that our bodies, receiving the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, but possess, the hope of eternal resurrection. We make an offering to him, not because he needs anything, but to give thanks for his gifts and to sanctify the creation.46


For Irenaeus, to take bread and wine, to offer them to God and invoke the Holy Spirit to transform them into the Body and Blood of Christ, entails a certain view of Creation: that it is good, that the one to whom we offer the Eucharist is the Creator. In the same way, for Bulgakov, to celebrate the Eucharist entails that Creation belongs to God, that it is not alien to him, that to be a creature is already to be graced, something that Fr Schmemann’s ‘third image’ seems to suggest: Bulgakov’s celebration of the Divine Mysteries seemed to him something autochthonous, something rooted in the very being of Creation. It is this intuition that lay at the heart of his sophiology.

It is as we pursue such reflections as these that we find ourselves entering into the arcanum of Bulgakov’s theology. It is a theology that invites the human spirit on a fascinating quest after the nature of things, but it is rooted in the simple turning of the creature towards God in joy and gratitude.


46. Irenaeus, Haer, IV. 185-6.






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