Jonathan Edwards is a Sophiologist (Part 1, apparently)

The blog has taken a back seat over the past few weeks to an essay that’s kicking my butt that I’m working on. I’m making good progress and thanking God for generous editor extensions, but I find that in the thick of a complex academic argument, it can help to step back and explain to others, in plain speech, what I’m trying to say. A blogged a bit about this project a few months back when I noted the paucity of Orthodox interest in Jonathan Edwards. At the time, I was not ready to say out loud what my thesis was. Now I am. Are you ready?

Jonathan Edwards was a sophiologist.

Okay. Those who know sophiology might be thinking, “Well that’s really anachronistic!” Those who don’t might be thinking, “What is sophiology? And for that matter, what does anachronistic mean?” So let me give some context.

Florensky & Bulgakov (via Wikimedia Commons)
Florensky & Bulgakov (via Wikimedia Commons)

Sophiology refers to a school of thought that originated in mid-19th century Russia with the work of the eccentric (possibly high?) philosopher-theologian, Vladimir Solovyov. It was taken up by others, like the genius and martyr, Fr. Pavel Florensky, and the charismatic, though controversial, Fr. Sergei Bulgakov. For the latter, Sophia refers to the figure of Holy Wisdom in the Old Testament, depicted in some iconography, and variously commemorated during some feast days in the Russian Orthodox Church (or so Bulgakov argued). Sophia is God’s self-love objectified. The persons of the trinity objectify the love they have for each other as the cosmos. God loves the cosmos as a whole, all at once, from the perspective of eternity. You might say God loves what the universe will have been in the kingdom of God (theologians will recognize that I am waxing Pannenbergian here). For us, the universe has a divine ground and content. It reveals who God is, and God in revelation reveals the meaning of the universe. Bulgakov is talking about more than just nature here. We are a part of nature. Our culture is natural. Therefore, Bulgakov’s sophiology is in many ways a theology of history. Sophiology helps us both justify and judge world history. We justify it because the cosmos has a kind of inner-drive for union with God. Thus Bulgakov enables a rather generous attitude toward history. But we also judge world history by the revelation of the triune God in salvation history, through the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit (which includes the Old Testament prophets, apostles, saints, and ongoing revelation of the will of God in the living tradition of Orthodoxy).

Please keep in mind three things here. First of all, I just summed up three or four books in a few sentences. So, academic folks, I hereby declare that if you nitpick my summary, you are a troll. Second, if you read more about Bulgakov on something like Orthodoxwiki, you will see that some consider him a heretic, but that article was written by folks who do not know much of anything about Bulgakov. Scholarly consensus disagrees with Orthodoxwiki, but the problem with wiki sites is that scholars’ attempts to edit them can be thwarted by the relatively ignorant (not stupid, mind you, just people who have not, you know, read that much about what they are writing about). That’s the problem with wikis. Truth should not be up for a vote. Okay, enough of my ranting excursus.

Jonathan Edwards was a Puritan preacher and theologian. He was a Calvinist who was a critic of Catholicism and Orthodoxy (which he thought was basically Catholic). He preached double-predestination – the doctrine the from the foundation of the world, God has decided who will go to hell and who will be saved – and argued against the notion that we have free will. (His argument against free will is actually brilliant.) So how can I say that he is a sophiologist?

By Fr. Damian (St. Sophia mission) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons
By Fr. Damian (St. Sophia mission) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons
Well, I’m not exactly saying that. There is an Edwards scholar named Oliver Crisp, and he argues that Jonathan Edwards had a panentheistic view of creation. That means, he says, Jonathan Edwards thought the creation somehow existed “within” God. Of course the term “panentheism” was not coined until well after Edwards is dead (just like the term sophiology), but Crisp argues that all the basic elements are there. That is what I am saying about Jonathan Edwards. He never uses the term “sophiology,” and when he talks about divine wisdom, he basically means that God has good ideas, but the main elements of sophiology are present in Jonathan Edwards’s doctrine of creation. Edwards has a “proto-sophiology.”

The next move of my argument is to talk in a bit more detail about what the main elements of sophiology are for Bulgakov, then talk about how I see those in the writings of Edwards, but this post is already pretty long, and my kids are about to get up. So I think I will make this a three-parter. Sorry to leave you on the edge of your seats. I’ll try to update soon.

Update: I just looked at the Orthodoxwiki article on Bulgakov, and it may have been somewhat improved since I looked at it last (not great, but better). However, I cannot give it a good reading because…kids. (Seriously, Connor just got up.)

12 thoughts on “Jonathan Edwards is a Sophiologist (Part 1, apparently)”

  1. The martyr Saint Maria Skobtsova knew Father Bulgakov closely and never mentioned anything about him being a heretic. Just the opposite actually she considered him a source of support and a good person. He was her father confessor.

  2. David J Dunn I have read that issue… was there something that I missed that shows that Bulgakov's Sophiology is not an innovation? St. Vladimir Seminary has had many scholars… but St. John Maximovitch was a Theologian.

  3. As an Edwards scholar, and the editor of the book David is referencing, let me weigh in here briefly. Edwards was a panentheist, that is basically standard opinion in the field. He was also an idealist and occasionalist. Edwards had a robust notion of theosis, with an equally careful notion of the creature/Creator distinction, even within his panentheism. That said, you can imagine that it did create some problems for him along the way.

  4. I thought St Paul had settled the "sophiology" question a long time ago (e.g., 1 Corinthians 1:24). As for Bulgakov, his opinions were condemned both by Metropolitan Sergius and by the ROCOR Synod. Given that it was the 1930's, that's saying something.

  5. David, since when was heresy determined by scholarly consensus?

    Also, St. John Maximovitch, was a true theologian. In the Orthodox Church, a theologian is one who truly prays, and one who prays is truly a theologian. His opinion of Bulgakov's Sophiology, combined with the judgment of the Russian Church on the matter should settle the question for any Orthodox Christian. Even Bulgakov's defenders could only defend him by arguing that "his theological opinions showed serious flaws and needed correction." That is hardly a resounding endorsement of his views.

    The biggest problem with Bulgakov's Sophiology is that is clearly an innovation. You find nothing of the sort in the patristic period. In the Orthodox Church, we don't get to make up new doctrines out of thin air, just for fun.

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