The Mysterious Disappearance of St. Augustine from Sergei Bulgakov’s Theology


A Plan for Eerdmans to Make More Money

St Augustine of Hippo
St Augustine of Hippo

Let me start off by saying that it is not entirely accurate for me to say that Augustine mysteriously disappears from Bulgakov’s theology. He is more like a ghost, occasionally manifesting himself in the open, but most of the time he lurks in the dark corners of Bulgakov’s books, leaving his slimy ectoplasm between esoteric lines of prose. But “Mysterious Disappearance” sounds more intriguing than “the Invisible Augustine,” and I cannot resist the opportunity to plagiarize the wit of Tony Baker (who crafted possibly the best title for any paper I have ever heard presented anywhere).[1]

Augustine is probably the reason I am attracted to Bulgakov. Augustine is my patron saint. For reasons I need not discuss, he started me toward Orthodoxy. (If you have only read his Confessions three or four times, you are only half-living.) I do not always agree with Bulgakov (I think Sophia is a tad superfluous), but where I do agree with him, I often find it is because I have already agreed with Augustine.

Bulgakov is apt to be upfront about his reliance on Augustine in Unfading Light. This is the book that got him accused of heresy. He gets a bit more careful in the Major Trilogy (Lamb of God, The Comforter, and Bride of the Lamb), observing the implied rule that Orthodox scholars should not cite western sources that influence them. (Although that may not be true for Augustine, but more on that below.) Here are a few examples:

When it comes to creation, Bulgakov seems to draw from Augustine’s Literal Meaning of Genesis when he says,

The bodies of Adam and Eve were beautiful, their organs corresponded to their purpose, and they knew no unhealthy disorders. But they were still not spirit-bearers, their matter was not illuminated from within by spirit or, to put it another way, they were not yet living relics, although they were able to become such.[2]

Screenshot 2013-11-08 07.52.04
She looks like she’s praying, but I think she’s thinking about Augustine’s influence on Bulgakov’s theological anthropology.

He also rejects Gregory of Nyssa’s view that humankind is essentially neuter. Instead he opts for Augustine’s position that “marriage existed already in paradise and consequently reproduction…although it had to be accomplished by a different means than in the current state of humankind, injured by sin.”[3]

He even says that there is a vestigia trinitatis in the composition of the human being.

The image of God is realized in humankind not only by the transcendence of its spirit, by negative absoluteness, but also by positive coparticipation in the mystery of Divinity…[in the] triune composition of the soul – will, mind, feeling…[4]

When it comes to the Holy Spirit, Bulgakov does criticize Augustine, saying, “In general, it is hard to reduce Augustine’s doctrine of the procession of the Holy Spirit to a totally coherent theologeme.”[5] But he agrees with Augustine that the Spirit is the so called “bond of love” between the Father and the Son. In Bulgakov’s terminology, she is:

hypostatic Love…By its procession from the Father upon the Son, the Third hypostasis loses itself, as it were, becomes only a copula, the living bridge of love between the Father and the Son, the hypostatic Between.”[6]

Little known fact: This photograph was taken during one of Fr. Sergei's lunch breaks. He had spent the entire morning writing a footnote on De Trinitatis.
Little known fact: This photograph was taken after Fr. Sergei had spent the entire morning writing one footnote on De Trinitatis.

At some point I might want to work all this up into an article, after I finish all the other things I have to do. I care more about the research getting out there, though. So if someone else wants to run with this, be my guest. Just cite my blog. That’s right! Cite my blog in an academic journal. That sort of thing is bound to happen eventually. So why not be the first (assuming someone else hasn’t already done it)? I could come up with a lot more examples if I had time, but I don’t. So let me get to the conclusion.

I happened to find myself next to Boris Jakim at a dinner reception a few years ago. He is a delightfully irreverent man (which he readily admits), especially after a couple of glasses of wine, but something he said during our conversation made me want to toss my own glass of Merlot across the room, head the bar, and start taking swigs straight from the bottle. The thing about Vanderbilt is that, at the time, J. Patout Burns was there, turning a lot of us Ph.D. students into Augustinians. (Burns wrote his dissertation under Jaroslav Pelikan, by the way. I am not trying to name-drop, but I thought I should give my Orthodox readers a bit of context.) So I was having these intense seminars with Patout at the same time as I was reading a lot of Bulgakov in preparation for my comprehensive exams.  That is when I first began to notice the mysterious presence I am talking about in this short post. Having Boris right next to me, I decided to ask him about my hunch. Anyone who has ever read Boris Jakim’s introductions to his translations of Bulgakov knows that he left out Bulgakov’s footnotes. Boris said to me that Bride of the Lamb actually contained several pages of footnotes in which Bulgakov engages the thought of Augustine. Mein Gott!

Bill Eerdmans, whose probably smiling because he’s thinking about putting the footnotes back into the Major Trilogy.

Footnotes are the backbone of academic writing. So here we have Bulgakov – a brilliant thinker who deserves all the attention he has been getting lately – crumpled on the floor, a mass of skin, without any spine! What’s worse (for obviously selfish reasons) Jakim’s omission means that I can’t do more research about this topic. Okay, I can technically “read” French, and in theory I could try to learn Russian, but I just don’t have that kind of time. I have a better idea instead: It is time for Eerdmans to correct this mistake.

Thus I want to conclude with a personal appeal to Bill Eerdmans.

Kind Sir, if you are reading this, please release a second edition of the Major Trilogy. I know Boris probably made a compelling case for leaving the footnotes out. I believe him when he said that Bulgakov’s citation method was inconsistent and unwieldy, but I think you are missing the point. Forget that we scholars need these little references in order to properly engage an argument. We will buy second editions of books that we already own! If we must, we will skip meals, walk to work to save on gas, and drink water instead of wine buy cheaper wine – whatever it takes to scrape together the funds we need to access these small-font paths into Bulgakov’s brain. He’s dead. So we can’t ask him. We can only appeal to you, Mr. Eerdmans, to sell us the footnotes. Please, make yourself more money.

[1] Anthony D. Baker, “Poesis and Inversion: The Mysterious Disappearance of Sergei Bulgakov in Von Balthasar’s Dramatics of Salvation,” in Eastern Orthodox Studies Group: Theosis and Its Reception in Western Christianity (presented at the American Academy of Religion, Atlanta, 2003).

[2] Sergius Bulgakov, Unfading Light, trans. Thomas Allan Smith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 316.

[3] Ibid., 296.

[4] Ibid., 289.

[5] Sergius Bulgakov, The Comforter, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 90.

[6] Ibid., 181.



8 thoughts on “The Mysterious Disappearance of St. Augustine from Sergei Bulgakov’s Theology”

  1. Ben Barkley – That's a great question! Footnotes would totally open up new avenues of research for those of us who can't read the Russian. It would be a huge contribution to historical, theological, and slavic studies.

  2. Ben Barkley – That's a great question! Footnotes would totally open up new avenues of research for those of us who can't read the Russian. It would be a huge contribution to historical, theological, and slavic studies.

  3. Dantastic! I would buy new editions too! (I think it would also be a very cool project to trace out the "disappearance" of western sources/influences in a trove of eastern thinkers…).

  4. Very droll (esp. about cheaper wine), very heartfelt, and very much, one hopes, to be heeded by the publisher! The idea that one could summarily decide to leave out footnotes is indeed a bit staggering. It's all the more egregious when one is talking about one of the "greats" of Russian theology, and one of the "greats" (and, for some Orthodox, great trouble-makers) of the Latin tradition. Not being able clearly to see where they influence each other and where they diverge is no small issue. Bring back the footnotes indeed!

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