Sophiology in Context

The following is an excerpt of an invited chapter on intersections between Edwards and Orthodoxy. It is still a bit of a rough draft. Be nice.


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

Sophiology is the child of Russia’s “Silver Age,” which one might think of as the 1960s of the late 1800s. It was a period of immense religious, philosophical, and artistic experimentation. Intellectual radicalism and political radicalism often go hand-in-hand, and Russia at the time was no exception. Conservative “slavophiles” were engaged in a kind of culture war with the more liberal “westernizers.” The former upheld the old traditions and Christian faith of Holy Russia. The latter wanted to remake their homeland in the image of secular Western Europe.[1] Because the church was effectively an arm of the state, radical intellectuals tended to see it as a backwards and corrupt institution (and rightly so). Vladimir Solovyov broke the mold, navigating between the Scylla of autocracy and the Charybdis of secularism by deploying the metaphor of Holy Wisdom – Sophia – to incorporate culture, and thus openness to its insights, into the stream of church tradition. This made Solovyov something of a radical slavophile; he critically incorporated western philosophy (especially German idealism) and western values (such as individual rights) into a political philosophy that was deeply informed by Russian Orthodox spirituality.[2]

Solovyov said that Holy Wisdom was God’s ideal of the world made material in the cosmos, thereby filling it with a kind of erotic longing to return to its source. This historicized the idea of natural revelation such that everything in this world – including human cultural and economic productions (which are no less natural than birds’ nests) – is innately, albeit imperfectly, holy, and it becomes holier the more it realizes its ideal form in God. This idea of progressive, historical theosis had a profound effect on Bulgakov. He believed that Solovyov had glimpsed the mystery of the Incarnation when the latter said that, “[I]n order to be that which it is, [the infinite] must…be the union of itself and its opposite.”[3] But Solovyov went wrong when he tried to rationalize that mystery, which led him into outright pantheism. Bulgakov tried to correct this error by deploying the concept of antinomy, which Brandon Gallaher has rightly called the methodological key to understanding Bulgakov’s thought.[4] Thus it deserves extra attention before a closer analysis of his work in the next section.

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

The orthodox faith has long known that the audacity to speak of the divine with human words must always conclude in contradictions. The truth of dogma is proved when we must utter a “no” with our “yes” and a “yes” with our “no.” Thus God is one and three, Jesus is divine and human, Mary is a virgin and a mother, and there is no surer proof that Christianity is the refusal of dualism than the wounds in the hands of the victorious crucified God. Thus one finds blatantly contradictory statements through Bulgakov’s writings. He says that creation is divine and extra-divine.[5] God is beyond time, yet “time…is real for God.”[6] God is the Creator and also a creature.[7] The eternal and immutable God “becomes the becoming God” in the God-man.[8] I could pile on more examples, but the important thing to note here is that Bulgakov always intends for his words to transcend themselves. It is a reflex that ultimately saves him from heresy, at least according to some.

No introduction to sophiology would be fair or complete without talking about the “Sophia affair,” which continues to mar his reputation in some circles. Bulgakov lived in what a putative Chinese curse would call “interesting times.” He was the son of a priest, but he did not embrace his “Levite blood” until well into adulthood.[9] He abandoned his faith to become an atheist radical, then an idealist political reformer, rediscovering his spiritual heritage less than a decade before the country went to hell in brutal civil war. The year of his ordination is significant (early 1918) because Bulgakov refused to be a priest until it became clear that what had been the church of the powerful would from then on be the church of the persecuted.[10] Deemed a religious intransigent and political undesirable, Bulgakov was expelled from his homeland, settling eventually in Paris to become the dean and the theology professor of the newly established St. Sergius Institute, which Metropolitan Evlogii had established to continue the Orthodox faith of the Russian émigrés in their new home. But Bulgakov became the victim of the kinds of jurisdictional conflicts that can besiege communities trying to come to grips with the trauma of displacement. A rival diocese accused him of heresy in 1935.[11]

Guess who Bulgakov sometimes criticized!
Guess who Bulgakov sometimes criticized!

To be fair, Bulgakov’s early attempt at a theology of Sophia does this charge if one reads his 1917 work, The Unfading Light, uncharitably. Bulgakov depicts creation as the extension of Sophia – the beloved reflection of the fullness of the triune self. This basic position on creation remained unchanged throughout his theological career, but being an unpracticed theologian, Bulgakov used the words, “fourth hypostasis” to describe the relationship of Sophia to the triune hypostases. It is clear that Bulgakov was not saying that Sophia was actually a fourth person of the Trinity.[12] He said Sophia is somewhat like a fourth hypostasis (more on what that might mean later). The minority report of the commission tasked with investigating this accusation disagreed with Bulgakov and the heresy charges, ruling he was guilty of the lesser crime of being wrong (something most theologians are guilty of at some level). But the “Sophia affair” is important for the way it would mar his legacy, particularly in the United States, which is why for years he was little more than an object of obscure fascination among a narrow swath of Russian historians.[13] Orthodox theology looked at him askance for many years. This is beginning to change.

Bulgakov is beginning to make a comeback (and not just among Orthodox theologians) because his thought not only enables, but demands, a critical-constructive engagement with the insights of modernity in the name of the Gospel. Sophiology amounts to a social theory.

[1] According to Andrzej Walicki, the debate between the “Slavophiles” and “Westernizers,” beginning around the 1840s, only seemed to be about whether or not Russians should be like Western Europe. On a deeper level these debates were spiritual and ecclesial. Russia was struggling with how to respond to the legacy of the reforms of Peter the Great. The Slavophile Controversy: History of a Conservative Utopia in Nineteenth-Century Russian Thought (New York: Oxford, 1975), 395–455. Non-Orthodox forms of Christianity, such as various Protestant sects or Roman Catholicism were options, but not “live” ones. Suggesting that a Silver Age westernizer join the Lutherans would be like suggesting to a fundamentalist Christian preacher that his conservative values would find stronger and more consistent support in a mosque.

[2] For an introduction to Soloyvov, see Judith Deutsch Kornblatt, “Who Is Solovyov and What Is Sophia?,” in Divine Sophia: The Wisdom Writings of Vladimir Solovyov (Ithica: Cornell, 2009), 1–97.

[3] Vladimir Solovyov, “The Sophia: A ‘Mystical-Theosophical-Philosophical-Theurgical-Political’ Dialogue,” in Divine Sophia: The Wisdom Writings of Vladimir Solovyov, ed. Judith Deutsch Kornblatt (Ithica: Cornell University, 2009), 128.

[4] Brandon Gallaher, “Antinomism, Trinity and the Challenge of Solov’ëvan Pantheism in the Theology of Sergij Bulgakov,” Studies in East European Thought 64, no. 3–4 (November 1, 2012): 205–225.

[5] Sergius Bulgakov, The Comforter, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 200.

[6] Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 134.

[7] Ibid., 213.

[8] Ibid., 197; See also Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 469ff; Bulgakov, Unfading Light, 203ff.

[9] Sergius Bulgakov, “Autobiographical Notes,” in A Bulgakov Anthology, ed. James Pain and Nicolas Zernov (London: SPCK, 1976), 3.

[10] See Rowan Williams, “Introduction to The Lamb of God: On the Divine Humanity (1993),” in Sergii Bulgakov: Towards a Russian Political Theology, ed. Rowan Williams (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 163.

[11] Two excellent assessments of the political and personal issues surrounding the “Sophia affair,” which are also indicative of renewed interest in Bulgakov, are Bryn Geffert, “The Charges of Heresy against Sergii Bulgakov: The Majority and Minority Reports of Evlogii’s Commission and the Final Report of the Bishops’ Conference,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 49, no. 1–2 (2005): 47–66; Alexis Klimoff, “Georges Florovsky and the Sophiological Controversy,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 49, no. 1–2 (January 1, 2005): 67–100.

[12] Sergius Bulgakov, “The Unfading Light,” in Towards a Russian Political Theology, ed. Rowan Williams (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 217; In a later summary of his sophiology, Bulgakov explicitly states, “Ousia, and therefore Sophia, exists for God and in God, as his subsistent divinity. Yet here is no ”fourth Hypostasis“; we do not transform the Holy Trinity in to a quaternity, but merely recognize precisely in the Ousia the divinity of God, a principle ”other“ than his hypostases.” Sophia the Wisdom of God: An Outline of Sophiology, trans. Patrick Thompson, O. Fielding Clarke, and Xenia Braikevitc, Library of Russian Philosophy (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne, 1993), 55.

[13] It was a different story in Western Europe and Great Britain. His heavy involvement in the ecumenical movement made the Anglicans take notice of his theology, and his legacy in Paris was even more lasting. See Valliere, N.

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