The Comforter: Bulgakov on the Holy Spirit

This essay is a longer version of my official contribution to the 2008 Bulgakov Blog Conference, hosted by D. W. McClain at The Land of Unlikeness.

I must begin by confessing up front that I am wholly unqualified for this task. I am knowledgeable neither in Russian Orthodox theology nor in pneumatology. Furthermore, I approach theology as a modern, Western, Barthian Protestant—attributes which predispose me to find the work of Sergius Bulgakov quite alien in nature. Due to limitations in time and ability, I have limited my focus to the second volume in Bulgakov’s “great trilogy” on Divine-humanity, The Comforter. In this volume, Bulgakov builds on the account of Divine-humanity and Sophia that he explores in more detail in The Lamb of God (christology) and The Bride of the Lamb (ecclesiology and eschatology), the first and third volumes in the trilogy, respectively. My treatment of Bulgakov’s pneumatology will proceed in the following way: first, I will comment briefly on his doctrine of the Trinity; second, I will explore (a) the procession and (b) the revelation of the Spirit in Bulgakov’s pneumatology; and, finally, I will conclude with some critical reflections and questions for further engagement.

1. Bulgakov’s Doctrine of the Trinity

Bulgakov’s doctrine of the Trinity appears in The Comforter after he examines the various attempts by the church fathers to locate the Third Hypostasis in the triune life of God. What he finds in this historical survey are a lot of theological errors, including different forms of subordinationism and impersonalism. Most importantly, he states that “there is no dogma of the Holy Spirit anywhere,” and the “dogmatic creativity of the epoch of the ecumenical councils was never applied to developing a doctrine of the Holy Spirit” (40). He gives the most praise to the Cappadocians with the caveat that their doctrine of the Trinity “remains unfinished in the sense that its result is three united in one nature, not a triunity” (32). He acknowledges Augustine as the father of the Western trinitarian tradition, where, unlike the Cappadocians, the “point of departure is not the trinity of the hypostases . . . but the unity of the ousia” (41). He concludes his survey by looking at John of Damascus, who systematizes the achievements and errors of the past while introducing new problems of his own. The important development in the Damascene is that he introduces the concept of causality into the doctrine of the Father’s monarchy. This will have important ramifications for the filioque debate, as I will show below.

In light of this historical overview, Bulgakov constructs a nuanced and highly technical doctrine of the trinitarity of God: “the Holy Trinity is not three, but a triunity; and It is not a series but an enclosed whole, which has the fullness of Its being, Its power, precisely in trinitarity” (54). And so he speaks of “Trinity-Unity” or “unifiedness in Trinity” (53). Bulgakov elaborates upon this starting-point by rejecting the notion that God is either a “self-enclosed, singular I” or a tritheistic “community or harmony of three” I’s. Both of these options emphasize one or three at the expense of understanding God as “unity-trinity” and “trinity-unity” (55). Within the immanent Trinity, God is “simultaneously I, thou, he, and therefore we and you,” with the observation that “only they is excluded” as “an abstraction from I” (ibid.). Bulgakov thus walks a very fine line; his entire theology is characterized by the greatest subtlety. The moment you feel confident pegging him as this or that, he immediately offers a clarification which shatters your hasty judgment. For example, the statement that “in the one absolute I there exist three I’s, as fully equal centers of I,” seems to place him squarely in the social trinitarian camp. But he rejects the view that this is a community of I’s, and even says that in the Holy Trinity there is “the total identity of personal self-consciousness: one is three and three are one, hetero-personally and uni-personally” (ibid.). He strongly emphasizes that the Trinity is “one Divine I, the Absolute Subject,” whom we address as one person, yet who is “also three Persons” (ibid.). Of course, only a couple paragraphs later, he speaks of both “three hypostatic subjects” and “the trihypostatic subject” (56).

What appear to be contradictory statements juxtaposed together is precisely the brilliance of Bulgakov’s doctrine of the Trinity: he deftly moves from emphasizing unity to emphasizing trinity and then back again, always aware of the inadequacy of human language while seeking to do theological justice to the mystery of God’s triune being. He eventually articulates his “trinitarian axiom”:

The Holy Trinity is a divine triunity which is exhaustive and perfect in Its fullness, a triunity of interrelations which is trine and integral in all Its definitions, without any disjunctive or conjunctive “and” connecting the separate hypostases. Every hypostasis in separation, as well as their triunity, must be understood in trine connection and in trine self-definition, which form the Whole, the Holy Trinity. (57)

The significance of this axiom will become clearer after outlining his discussion of the procession of the Spirit. Briefly, here, it is worth noting that God is not Father and Son and Holy Spirit, but Father-Son-Holy Spirit. Whereas the patristic tradition tended to view the Spirit as “a kind of theological addendum, an ‘etc.’ or ‘and so on’” (56), Bulgakov seeks to define each person of the Trinity in concrete relationship with the other two persons. We will see now how this takes shape in his doctrine of the Spirit’s procession.

2. Bulgakov’s Pneumatology

2.1. The Procession of the Spirit

Bulgakov’s treatment of the Spirit’s procession is really a “book within a book”: he does both historical and systematic theology within this particular subsection, which is worth the price of the book alone. He frames the problem of the filioque in the following way: the patristic tradition made the mistake of interpreting “generation” and “procession” as two forms of origination from the Father, and then interpreting Fatherhood as causality (cf. 58). In this thesis, he also anticipates his solution: remove all aspects of origination and causality from the trinitarian relations. But I am getting ahead of myself, so let’s back up briefly to explore this in more detail.

In the early patristic literature, two variations on the procession of the Spirit coexist: the Eastern dia (through) and the Western que (and). The former states that the Spirit precedes from the Father through the Son, while the latter says that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. While distinct, these two were not mutually exclusive; there was no ecumenical dogma either way. John of Damascus, as mentioned earlier, introduced causality into the mix, and this is presupposed in the work of those who follow. The pivotal change then occurred with Patriarch Photius in the ninth century. In his anti-Latin treatises, he made the two patristic options mutually exclusive, with the addition of causality: the Spirit originates either from the Father alone or from the Father and the Son. The latter is theologically bankrupt, according to Photius, because it introduces two principles into the procession, and this violates the fundamental doctrine of the Father’s monarchy. This position had the effect of determining the rest of the debate. From that point on, one was either Photian or anti-Photian. Bulgakov then summarizes the Western anti-Photian doctrine of the filioque in four theses (121-22): (1) in the procession of the Spirit, the Father and the Son act as “one principle,” not as two; (2) the procession is the “origination” of the Holy Spirit in which the Spirit receives “essence and substantial being”; (3) in the generation of the Son, the Father gives the Son the capacity of giving “essence and substantial being” to the Spirit in procession; and (4) the being of the Holy Trinity is grounded in the “pre-hypostatic divine principle” of divinitas, and thus the difference between the hypostases is solely determined by “the opposition of relations (according to origin).” That is, the three hypostases are distinguished by virtue of their ontic relationship with each other according to origination.

Bulgakov criticizes the Latin position on several levels, which I will briefly summarize. The basic charge involves impersonalism and subordinationism. The impersonalism is rooted in the fact that the three persons of the Trinity are co-divine because they ontologically share in “the impersonal and pre-personal Divinitas” (123). The relationally distinct persons “appear in the capacity of accidents, although substantial ones”—i.e., to be “Father” is to have the ontic accident of fatherhood added to the essence of divinitas. Ontologically priority thus belongs to divinitas. In this accidental differentiation between the persons, we have an “ontological subordinationism,” since the origination of the hypostases involves a “decreasing progression of Divinity: the Father = the fullness of the nature, Deitas; the Son = Deitas minus the power to generate; the Holy Spirit = Deitas minus the power to generate and the power to originate by procession” (124). Furthermore, in this origination, “the triunity of the Holy Trinity is destroyed, and the Holy Trinity is sundered into two dyads” (ibid.). Photius made the great mistake of creating two dyads in the Trinity by asserting that the Son and the Holy Spirit originate “from the Father alone,” creating the dyads Father-Son and Father-Holy Spirit. The Latin response, stated in the first thesis, was merely a variation on the Photian error, so that the two dyads now are Father-Son and Father-and-Son – Holy Spirit. Photianism and anti-Photianism “are completely equivalent” in nature (138). To summarize, Bulgakov argues that the “fundamental defect” in the filioque doctrine “is that it considers the hypostases as relations, and in particular relations of origination by opposition”; the hypostases ontologically “originate thanks to differences in one Divinity” (127).

Bulgakov’s response to the filioque doctrine is crafted with care—siding with the East, but free from the polemics that so often characterizes this debate. Against impersonalism, Bulgakov argues that the being of God is “totally hypostatize[d]” (140). The being of God is hypostatic all the way down. God simply is Father-Son-Holy Spirit. More importantly, against ontological subordinationism, Bulgakov argues that the hypostases “do not have any origin,” nor are the hypostases constituted by their intra-trinitarian relations, as the West argues (e.g., the Father is fatherhood, etc.). “Neither generation nor procession is origination, for the latter is not known by the equi-eternal, equi-divine, co-beginningless hypostases” (128). In other words, God does not originate; God just is from all eternity. Bulgakov acknowledges that the West affirms such statements, but he argues that origination is logically inconsistent with a definition of the Trinity as equi-eternal and equi-divine. Origination finally undermines the doctrine of “divine trihypostatic aseity” (138). According to Bulgakov, then, generation and procession are not two originations but “two images of love” between the triune persons (136). The monarchy of the Father remains, though the Father is the source not of being but of the revelation which is accomplished in the revealing dyad of Son and Spirit (137).

The central rebuttal to the Latin filioque involves recognizing that each hypostasis is defined in relation to the other two hypostases. Each hypostasis is conditioned by the other two. This leads to Bulgakov’s “general thesis, which is a kind of axiom concerning the Holy Trinity”:

The three hypostases, in their character, are not single and not double, but trine. They must be understood not on the basis of themselves alone, but on the basis of their trinitarian union; they are defined and shine not only with their own light, but also with the light reflected from the other hypostases. It follows that all three hypostases must be understood in a distinctly personal as well as trinitarian manner; and any doctrine that transforms the Holy Trinity into a system of originations and dyads is fundamentally deficient. (141)

What is key about this definition is that he can affirm what most people mean when they refer to the filioque: viz., that the procession of the Spirit involves “the necessary presence or participation of the Son” (142). The difference is that he extends this “necessary presence or participation” to each of the other persons in the Holy Trinity. The relation between the Engendering One (Father) and the Engendered One (Son) involves the mutual love that is the Holy Spirit, “Who not only reposes upon the Son but also passes through the Son” (ibid.). The Spirit is the unifying love between Father and Son, as Augustine affirmed. The Father is therefore defined by generation and spiration, Son and Spirit; the Son is defined by the engendering of the Father and the reposing and passing through of the Spirit; and the Spirit is defined by the procession from the Father and the presence of the Son for whom the Spirit is a “transparent medium” (67; cf. 70). The Spirit proceeds from the Father “toward the Son, upon the Son, in relation to the Son,” but also “from the Son, through the Son toward the Father” (181).

To conclude this summary of Bulgakov’s assessment of the filioque, we have to note his ecumenical proposals at the end. First, he lays more of the blame on the Western church for (1) constructing a pointless dogmatic edifice to support their erroneous theologoumenon and then (2) stamping the whole affair with “the seal of papal infallibility” (144). Second, he insists upon a key ecumenical axiom: “there does not yet exist a definitive dogma of the procession of the Holy Spirit, either with regard to the meaning of the procession or with regard to its mode” (145). Third, he says, rather surprisingly, that “in and of itself, the Filioque is not a heresy” (ibid.) and thus does not constitute an obstacle to church unity. Fourth, as long as we jettison any notion of origination from the doctrine of the Trinity, then the various formulas used to describe the procession of the Holy Spirit “can and must be understood . . . not as mutually contradictory or mutually exclusive expressions but as equivalent in some sense” (146). Each formula describes the Trinity “from different points,” while still referring “to one and the same Divine being” (ibid.). Fifth, and finally, the Western and Eastern churches “do not differ in their veneration of the Holy Spirit,” and what separated the churches was really a “schismatic spirit,” not a dogmatic or living heresy (148-49). It is thus high time, according to Bulgakov, to reconsider pneumatology and the unacceptable split within the communion of the church.

2.2. The Revelation of the Spirit

Bulgakov’s doctrine of the Trinity includes a sharp distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity. He distinguishes between “the supra-eternal life of the Holy Trinity in Itself from Its trihypostatic revelation in creation” (53). As we turn to look at the work of the Spirit ad extra, however, it is necessary to flesh out the relation between immanent and economic as that distinction takes shape in the relation between the Divine Sophia and the creaturely Sophia. Bulgakov’s sophiology is a key aspect of his theology, one that has been addressed elsewhere in this series. Here I will provide a brief summary for the sake of clarifying the revelatory role of the Holy Spirit.

According to Bulgakov, divine self-revelation occurs both within the immanent Trinity in pre-temporal eternity and in the economic activity of God in relation to creation. The immanent self-revelation of God is the Divine Sophia, while the economic self-revelation of God is the creaturely Sophia. The Divine Sophia is not a fourth hypostasis but rather the life of God in the activity of divine self-revelation ad intra; similarly, the creaturely Sophia is not a second “thing” alongside the world but rather the life of the cosmos in the divine activity ad extra which sustains the world’s participation in the divine life.[1]

In both dimensions of revelation, the Father is the monarchical source or “principle,” while this revelation “is actualized as the bi-unity of two hypostases: the Word uttered by the Father, upon which reposes the Holy Spirit, Who proceeds from the Father” (177). While Son and Spirit are necessary to reveal the Father, the doctrine of the Father’s monarchy means that the Divine Sophia “belongs to the Father,” or rather, “the Father is Sophia” (366). Having said that, it is key to Bulgakov’s theology that the work of revelation requires both Son and Spirit; and that means the Spirit has an indispensable role to play in the divine life. The Holy Spirit is “the Life of the Father and of the Son” (64), “the hypostatic Joy” of the Godhead (66). In short, the “Third Hypostasis completes the self-revelation of the Divine” (65). This has important implications for God’s work ad extra, as we shall see below. Finally, despite a sharp distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity—such that Bulgakov repeatedly rejects applying the language of “becoming” or “history” to God—the Divine Sophia is not alien to the creaturely Sophia. In fact, Bulgakov can say that “the Divine Sophia is the eternal Humanity, the heavenly proto-image of creaturely humanity” (186). This leads us, then, to the creaturely Sophia.

According to Bulgakov, the “created world is established in being by God . . . in the Divine Sophia, as her creaturely image, or the creaturely Sophia. In creation there is nothing that does not belong to Sophia” (189). This statement has enormous consequences for the rest of his theology, which I will attempt to elucidate here. First, there is no independent act of creation, no second act of divine self-revelation. The seeds or ideas of creation are already posited in God’s self-revelation ad intra, in the Divine Sophia, and the being of the world develops from these seeds by an act of divine will.[2] Creation is, in this sense, an eternal reality. One might even say, to borrow a phrase from christology, that there was no time when creation was not. Second, the being of the world (the creaturely Sophia) is grounded in the being of Father-Son-Holy Spirit (the Divine Sophia), or perhaps more accurately, the creaturely Sophia is united with the Divine Sophia according to the Chalcedonian pattern (“without confusion,” “without separation”), a formula Bulgakov uses throughout this book. The unity of divinity and humanity in Christ becomes the analogical template for all other unions, including the unity of God and creation. We might even speak of an analogy of Sophia, as opposed to an analogy of being (the latter being far too Latin and scholastic).[3] The important thing to note here is that Bulgakov openly endorses panentheism, or what he calls a “pious pantheism.”[4]

The underlying key to Bulgakov’s trinitarian sophiology—what establishes the relationship between Divine and creaturely Sophia—is the Holy Spirit. As the life of God, the Holy Spirit is the life of the world; as the one who completes the intra-trinitarian self-revelation, the Holy Spirit is the one who completes the deification of creation. The Holy Spirit is the “ontic foundation of the world” in a way “that corresponds to the action of the Third Hypostasis in the Divine Sophia” (200). Just as the Spirit is the force of life and joy in the Divine Sophia, so too the Spirit is the force of life and joy in the creaturely Sophia. The Holy Spirit sustains the being of the world by bringing God’s self-revelation ad extra to completion. In the life of the Spirit, creation participates in the sophianic being of God. Bulgakov’s panentheism is thus rooted in his pneumatocentric theology of creation, in which the Spirit is the power of life in both God and creation as well as the bond of participation.

More specifically, the Spirit’s role in “completing” divine self-revelation—both ad intra and ad extra—involves the work of inspiration.[5] In the immanent Trinity, this means that “[b]y the Spirit the Father inspires Himself in His own Word, and this self-inspiration is divine life, Beauty. . . . Divine life is an act of self-inspiration . . . in the Word through the Holy Spirit. . . . In God, all things are actual and actualized in the Holy Spirit” (184). The Holy Spirit actualizes the Divine Sophia through the act of inspiration. The Holy Spirit carries on the same actualizing work ad extra. The Spirit inspires the world by bringing forth beauty and inspires humanity through the imprint of the image of God. The Holy Spirit, according to Bulgakov, “is bestowed upon the world in the creaturely Sophia, through the Divine Sophia” (210). This means that, in the creaturely Sophia, “the Holy Spirit has implanted the force of life and inspiration as the sophianic foundation of this being” (213). The inspiring power of the Spirit becomes a “natural grace” in the creation, bringing forth natural beauty but also human reason and creativity.

Bulgakov speaks of this work as “kenotic” in that the Spirit “diminished Himself to becoming in His revelation in the creaturely Sophia” (220). The “Fullness” that is divine life receives “unfullness” into itself by becoming “the force of being and the giver of life” in the world (ibid.). Bulgakov goes on to examine the kenotic nature of divine self-revelation ad extra as it applies to each of the three hypostases (219f). The Father’s relation to the world is kenotic in that the Father remains “outside” of the creaturely Sophia; the Father stands at a kenotic distance. The Son’s work is kenotic because he “diminished Himself to the human form of being,” entering the world and dying a human death in time and space. But the Holy Spirit’s kenotic work is the most expansive, since the Spirit’s kenosis involves the whole of creation. The Spirit sustains the participation of the creaturely Sophia in the Divine Sophia. Bulgakov states that insofar as the world is still in process toward full deification, the relation of God to the world is a kenotic one. The kenosis will end once the world is fully sanctified, i.e., made fully transparent to the deifying power of the Spirit.

3. Concluding Reflections

Reading Bulgakov’s pneumatology is like walking into rich and ornate cathedral: one is immediately captured by the grandeur of its aesthetic beauty, but one easily gets lost in its wide expanses. The nuances of the architecture are often disorienting, which is a feeling I had repeatedly while reading The Comforter. And yet, no matter how grand Bulgakov’s project may be, it is necessary to point out some major points of theological disagreement. For the sake of brevity and discussion, I will list only three.

First, while Bulgakov is quite traditional in having such a strict distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity, he makes a very odd and disconcerting statement at the start of his reflections on the economic Trinity. I will quote him at length:

The kenosis in creation of God Who is in the Holy Trinity signifies His self-diminution with respect to His absoluteness. The absolute God, correlated with nothing but Himself, becomes correlative with something outside Himself. That is, positing relative creaturely being, He enters into a relation with the latter: the Absolute becomes God, and God is a relative concept: God is such for another, for creation; whereas in itself the Absolute is not God. (219)

For a variety of reasons, this is a troubling statement. Bulgakov seems to posit a “God behind God,” or rather, an “Absolute behind God.” One wishes to ask him where the concept of the Absolute comes from. Is it postulated on the basis of revelation? Or is it a kind of apophatic metaphysics posited in order to protect the divine being from anything relative and creaturely. At the very least, one wishes to ask him just how he knows about this “Absolute.”

Second, Bulgakov’s entire theology is non-christocentric, at least as that word defines the kind of theology pursued by Western theologians like Karl Barth. Bulgakov is non-christocentric in two key ways: (1) he rejects the christocentric method that begins and ends with God’s historical self-revelation in Jesus of Nazareth; and (2) he rejects what he sees to be the ecclesial implications of christocentrism, viz., that it “provides the religio-psychological basis for the possibility of the dogma of the pope as the vicar of Christ” (132). The latter is less interesting to me as a Protestant. The former, however, is more crucial. While it is clear that divine self-revelation is absolutely central to his theology, his method (which is nowhere made clear) is rather speculative in nature. He always begins by speaking about the immanent Trinity and the Divine Sophia, only then to discuss how this holds true for God’s self-revelation in the world. While I personally think his doctrine of the Trinity, and particularly his understanding of the intra-trinitarian relations, is excellent and well worth adopting, at least in part, one notices right away the virtual absence of biblical exegesis. Moreover, the history of Jesus Christ has almost no importance for how he understands the being of God. His actualism is a distinctly metaphysical actualism: actus purus, but not actus purus et singularis. As a result, there is a lack of concretion in his theology. God’s relation to the creaturely world is a diminishment of God’s absoluteness, rather than the proper location of God’s being. All of this, of course, is related to his panentheism and affirmation of natural theology. One could very well summarize all of this by saying that Bulgakov is an anti-apocalyptic theologian.

Third, Bulgakov’s speculative doctrine of the Trinity results in a problematic soteriology. For Bulgakov, as with Barth, revelation is reconciliation. And since revelation is accomplished in the divine dyad of Son and Holy Spirit, it follows that “it is the Holy Spirit Who completes the work of salvation by His descent on the Pentecost, His abiding in the Church, and His accomplishment of the Kingdom of God” (72). Bulgakov’s dyadic soteriology is assisted by the fact that redemption is located in the incarnation, not in Christ’s death and resurrection. This is, of course, a feature common to almost all Eastern theologians, going back to the church fathers. By locating salvation in the incarnation, one sees that the Holy Spirit is essential to salvation, since the church confesses that Mary conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. And so Bulgakov can say that “the Son is sent into the world by the Father through the Holy Spirit,” just as at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is sent into the world through the Son (259). While such triune interrelatedness is attractive, I have to take exception with the almost complete effacement of the cross from Bulgakov’s theology. One could say that he is more Johannine, whereas I (following Barth and the Latin tradition) am more Pauline. While somewhat oversimplistic, this is a distinction that is broadly true of the Eastern and Western churches. Whereas Cyril of Alexandria turned to John’s Gospel, Augustine turned to Romans, and one could say that has made all the difference. In any case, Bulgakov’s soteriology is rooted in the participation of creation in the Divine Sophia which is fulfilled by the Son’s incarnation and the Spirit’s pentecostal descent upon the world. What remains lacking is the apocalyptic and eschatological event of the new creation that is actualized in Christ’s death and resurrection.

Other objections could certainly be raised. For example, the entire ontology undergirding the doctrine of deification needs to be overthrown. Bulgakov’s connection of Son-Christ-male and Holy Spirit-Virgin Mary-female should be discarded for numerous reasons (cf. 187, 246-49). And, finally, Bulgakov’s entire sophiology needs to be subjected to serious theological criticism. It is by no means clear to me that he has escaped the scholastic tendencies of the West. In many ways, this treatise feels at least as scholastic and speculative as Latin theologies. The one clear advantage is that Bulgakov’s work is much more aesthetically pleasing and historically sensitive.

In the end, I would like to adopt much of what Bulgakov proposes in his doctrine of the trinitarian relations. His work on the procession of the Holy Spirit is brilliant and deserves a wide reading, particularly in any graduate course in theology. But I would leave behind most of what he proposes in terms of the Trinity’s relationship to the world, much of which is governed by his “pious pantheism.” While Sergius Bulgakov’s most important contributions to theology are found in the other two volumes on Divine-humanity, his work on the Holy Spirit should not be overlooked and may provide a key to understanding the rest of his theology.

David W. Congdon

Princeton Theological Seminary

Princeton, NJ

[1] See p. 195: “We are saying that God the Father creates the world by and in Sophia, who is not a hypostasis but a hypostatizedness; she is the objective principle of divine self-revelation and life. Here we must remember that, since Sophia is hypostatized by the hypostases from all eternity, she does not exist separately from them.”

[2] To clarify matters, it is important to remember that Bulgakov here is attempting to explicate the fact that only God the Father appears in the Genesis text. The Son and Holy Spirit do not appear in their concrete hypostatic form; they are transparent or invisible in the act of creation. But it is equally important to remember that the Father does not act as an individual hypostasis. The Father always acts in and through the Son and the Holy Spirit—the Father’s “hands,” as the church fathers put it (190). And so, if Son and Spirit are the agents of divine revelation, and if this revelation occurred in pre-temporal eternity, then it follows that the creation of the world has its basis in that eternal act of divine self-revelation. For this reason, Bulgakov states that the Son and Holy Spirit

both participate in the creation sophianically, through their self-revelation in [Divine] Sophia, . . . the divine world. Sophia is not a hypostasis, although, belonging to the hypostases, she is hypostatized from all eternity. In herself, however, she is the objective principle of divine being, by and in which God the Father not only reveals Himself in divine being but also creates the world. (191; emphasis added)

By this, Bulgakov means that the immanent trinitarian act of self-revelation contained the content for the creation of the world. Nothing was added to that eternal act in order to bring forth the cosmos. Instead, the triune activity of Father-Son-Holy Spirit ad intra is then “directed” or “oriented” ad extra. To make this clear, Bulgakov refers to the commands in Genesis 1, and then says the following:

These are the words of the Word which are contained in the Divine Sophia and are called here to creation in the creaturely Sophia, in the world. . . . [T]hey are spoken here not by the hypostatic Word, Who seems to be mute here, in the creation of the world, although He speaks in the eternal Sophia. They are spoken by the creative hypostasis of the Father, Who repeats, as it were, the words of the Word already spoken eternally in Sophia. . . . God the Father, as the Creator, in creation Himself speaks these words spoken from all eternity in the Son, transmitting them to creation as commands. (191-92; emphasis added)

[3] Bulgakov declares that “God creates the world by and in Sophia; and in its sophianic foundation the world is divine, although it is at the same time extra-divine in its creaturely aseity” (200). The being of the world is grounded not directly in the being of God, but specifically in the being-in-Sophia of God, the being of God in the act of divine self-revelation. Bulgakov clearly affirms everything that worries those who reject the analogia entis, including natural theology, a union of divinity and humanity, etc. But Bulgakov does not have an ontology; instead, he has a sophiology. There is no substance or essence of God which defines what it is to be divine. Rather, it is the Trinity in trihypostatic self-revelation which constitutes divinity. As such, the cosmos is not grounded in an essence but in a divine act, namely, the trihypostatic act of self-revelation. While this is a more complex and interesting proposal than the traditional scholastic analogia entis, it fundamentally serves the same basic purpose, except that he finds even more continuity between God and the world than do most theologians in the West.

[4] See pp. 199-200: “This Spirit is the being that contains all things in itself, although it does not add anything to this all from itself. This Spirit is the world in its extra-divine aseity. . . . This Spirit is the natural energy of the world which can never be extinguished or interrupted in the world, but always bears within itself the principle of the growth of creative activity. This Spirit is ‘our mother, the moist earth,’ out of which all things grow and into which all things return for new life. This Spirit is the life of the vegetative and animal world ‘after their kind.’ This Spirit is the life of the human race in the image and likeness of God. This Spirit is that life-giving principle which pious paganism, without knowing Him, worshipped as the ‘Great Pan,’ as the Mother of the gods, Isis and Gaia. . . . This Spirit is the world itself in all its being—on the pathways from chaos to cosmos. But is this not a pantheism, an impious deification of the world, leading to a kind of religious materialism? Yes, it is a pantheism, but an entirely pious one; or more precisely, as I prefer to call it in order to avoid ambiguity, it is a panentheism.

[5] The Holy Spirit is also responsible for the work of sanctification, to which Bulgakov only devotes a short amount of space. The distinction between sanctification and inspiration is important, though. “In sanctification we have a descent of the Holy Spirit and a communication of His force to natural and spirit-bearing creation: the creaturely Sophia is united here with the Divine Sophia, the Holy Spirit with the spirit of God in creation” (221). The paradigmatic instance of sanctification is the Eucharist, but it extends to all moments of creaturely deification. In fact, deification is simply a form of sanctification. In both, creaturely matter “becomes transparent for the Spirit.” This results in a “communication of properties,” even a “perichoresis,” in which there is “an inseparable and inconfusible unity of creaturely and divine life. In other words, a divine-humanity is being realized here” (221-22)! Bulgakov goes on to distinguish between sanctification and inspiration in the following way: “If sanctification is proper to creaturely matter, then inspiration is proper to the human spirit and is a divine-human act, a manifestation of eternal divine-humanity in creaturely divine-humanity” (222).


Bob MacDonald said…
From one in the stands: You write "One could say that he is more Johannine, whereas I (following Barth and the Latin tradition) am more Pauline."

I hope one could not say that: the cross and the completion of the work of the 6th day are laid out in John and have significant impact on both Paul and the letter to the Hebrews - creating a unity of their plural witness that joins us to the chosen and incidentally prevents us from taking a panentheist stand on creation. It seems to me I read some of this 45 years ago in some book by Bertrand Russell. I prefer loose ends.

It is a privilege to drop in on your work - thanks.

I understand your concern. I didn't mean to suggest that the Johannine witness leans in a panentheist direction. By no means! You'll notice that I made that statement in a very specific context, namely, soteriology. The Johannine material presents a distinctly different soteriology than Paul. While both emphasize the cross, the former places more emphasis on the incarnation, whereas Paul has almost nothing to say about the incarnation of Christ. He is entirely focused on the death. But where Paul sees this death as an event of humiliation and suffering, John sees it as an event of glorification. That's not to say these are absolutely incompatible. But it does mean that they present unique understandings of the salvific event of Jesus Christ -- understandings which are not immediately harmonizable.

What this means is that various theologians take their starting-points from different parts of the NT. Barth is thoroughly Pauline in his outlook. I would say Bultmann is more Johannine, but he's definitely a more even mix. Bulgakov, by contrast, is totally Johannine. And this contrast is seen in the difference between the East and the West. Western theology after Augustine took its bearings from Paul, and Romans in particular. Eastern theology, with Cyril of Alexandria at the center, took its bearings from John, hence the emphasis on the incarnation as the locus of salvation and a more participatory (and less apocalyptic) conception of the divine-human relationship.

I hope that makes sense. These are different traditions within the church. They aren't contradictory, but they do provide very different ways of understanding the gospel.