Jonathan Edwards was a Sophiologist, Part 3


By Jared Sparks via Wikimedia Commons
By Jared Sparks via Wikimedia Commons

The genius of sophiology is the recognition that God and creation are not mutually exclusive. Do not take that as a ringing endorsement. A reasonable person can – and should! – be able to appreciate the genius of those she disagrees with. Bulgakov was an avowed panentheist. I am not. I think the very idea of panentheism inadvertently supports the dualistic cosmology it intends to overcome, but that argument will have to wait. My point here is to compare Bulgakov and Edwards.

Both of them viewed creation as an emanation of the divine life, God’s delight in Godself apprehended as if it were an other to Godself. We can best get at this idea by following Bulgakov’s take on the Christian view that God created ex nihilo – out of nothing.

When I was younger, when I thought about what it meant for God to create out of nothing, I pictured a sheet of paper. One one side was written “God.” On the other was written “nothing.” Gradually I came to see what was wrong with that picture. As Bulgakov says, “Nothing is by no means like an ocean that flows around this being. Rather, it is divinity itself that is an ocean without any shores.”[1] Bulgakov saw that  creatio ex nihilo is not the description of a process but an affirmation of divine sovereignty. Nothing cannot be a space outside of an infinite God. Greek philosophy assumed God formed pre-existent matter into the cosmos. When the fathers and mothers of the church insisted that God actually created out of nothing, they were affirming that God needed nothing but God to create. “Nothing” for Bulgakov, refers instead to the freedom God gives the creation to exist apart from the divine life. It is the Absolute’s eternal decision to be relative.

By Fr. Damian (St. Sophia mission), via Wikimedia Commons
By Fr. Damian (St. Sophia mission), via Wikimedia Commons

This is where Bulgakov gets his panentheism from. For God to create out of nothing is for God to create out of Godself. He says, “The creaturely world does not contain any ontological novelty for God.”[2] Sophia is basically the divine essence. She is the totality of divine life thrown against the wall of creaturely becoming like a kind of living Jackson Pollock painting. She grows in time toward her origin in the divine life. This makes the universe the object of divine self-love. We are the way in which God loves Godself.

Though Edwards did not know what panentheism was, he did agree that creation is the product and object of God’s self-love. In my last post on this topic I talked about how Edwards dealt with God’s “need” to create the world. God creates because it is greater for the attributes of God to be known beyond God than for God to be known only to Godself. Thus Edwards also recognizes that God and creation are not completely separate things. He says,

Nor ought God’s glory and the creature’s good to be spoken of as if they were properly and entirely distinct, as they are in the objection. This supposeth that God’s having respect to his glory and the communication of good to his creatures, are things altogether different: that God’s communicating his fullness for himself, and his doing it for them, are things standing in a proper disjunction and opposition.[3]

Though Edwards does not specifically address the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo in the same way as Bulgakov, he has hit upon the latter’s sophiological insight. The two are on the same logical trajectory.

Edwards also speaks about the cosmos as the manifestation, object, and recipient of God’s own infinite self-love. The universe is the glory of God beyond the borders of divinity.

As there is an infinite fullness of all possible good in

God, a fullness of every perfection, of all excellency and beauty, and of infinite happiness. And as this fullness is capable of communication or emanation ad extra; so it seems a thing amiable and valuable in itself that it should be communicated or flow forth, that this infinite fountain of good should send forth abundant streams, that this infinite fountain of light should, diffusing its excellent fullness, pour forth light all around.[4]

Creation – Day 1 via Art in the Christian Tradition (Vanderbilt University)
Creation – Day 1 via Art in the Christian Tradition (Vanderbilt University)

Edwards goes on to say that creation multiplies the divine glory. God is more glorious with creation than without it. But this is only in a certain sense. He compares this multiplication to many streams that flow from the same fountain. This metaphor is important because it expresses that (1) this multiplication is not something novel for God and (2) that the creation is not exactly something other than God. Creation is other than God in the same way that a stream is something other than its source, but both share the divine life together.

This leads me to wonder, as I conclude this series of somewhat scattershot reflections on this paper that is still kicking my butt currently being revised, to what extent Edwards and Bulgakov are drawing upon similar streams of thought. On the surface, they are very different, yet their theo-logics suggest deeper currents of thought flowed through them both. Perhaps it was their Neoplatonism, or maybe their reading of the church fathers, but here I run up against my own ignorance. This is a place for further research, for if we can discover the source of this shared current, then we can perhaps discover a deeper commonality between the divided traditions of the Orthodox priest and the New England divine.

[1] Bulgakov, Sergius. 2002. The Bride of the Lamb. Translated by Boris Jakim. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 43-44.

[2] Bulgakov, Sergius. 2002. The Bride of the Lamb. Translated by Boris Jakim. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 50.

[3] Edwards, Jonathan. 2008. “DISSERTATION I: Concerning the End for Which God Created the World.” In Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, edited by Paul Ramsey. Vol. 8. Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University. 458


[4] Ibid., 432-33.

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