Wednesday, October 29, 2008

AAR in Chicago: A Fire and Rose Guide

Tomorrow I leave for Chicago to attend the 2008 AAR Meeting. I love Chicago, so I’m glad the conference is being held there this year. What I don’t love is the stress of traveling. In any case, the main reason I am going this year is to present a paper in the session on “Religion, Film, and Visual Culture.” My paper is entitled, “A Beautiful Anarchy: Religion, Fascism, and Violence in the Theopolitical Imagination of Guillermo del Toro.” The only difference from the original proposal is that I will not be discussing Hellboy in the paper due to time and space constraints. If you are attending AAR this year and are interested in hearing my paper in person, here is the relevant information:
Religion, Film, and Visual Culture
Saturday - 4:00 pm-6:30 pm
CHT-Boulevard A
Theme: Visual Imageries of Reality and Fantasy
There are some other sessions well worth attending. Here are a few that I recommend:
Karl Barth Society of North America
Friday - 4:00 pm-6:30 pm
CHT-International Ballroom South
  • Keith Johnson, Wheaton College: “The Invention of the Antichrist?” Reconsidering Barth’s Rejection of the Analogia Entis
  • Kevin Hector, University of Chicago: Election and the Trinity: How My Mind Has Changed
North American Paul Tillich Society
Saturday - 9:00 am-11:30 am
PH-Clark 1
Theme: Evangelical Responses to Tillich

Wildcard Session
Saturday - 1:00 pm-3:30 pm
CHT-PDR 2
Theme: On the Relation between A/Theism and the Political; or, The Political Theology of the Void, Parmenides, and St. Paul
NB: Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek have both withdrawn from this session.

Theology and the Political Consultation and Theology and Religious Reflection Section
Sunday - 3:00 pm-4:30 pm
CHT-Marquette
Theme: Evangelicals and Empire: Engaging Hardt and Negri

The Centre of Theology and Philosophy
Sunday - 6:45 pm-9:15 pm
CHT-Waldorf
Theme: The Return of Metaphysics: A Dialogue on the Occasion of the Publication of Belief and Metaphysics
  • John Betz, Loyola College
  • Sarah Coakley, Cambridge University
  • Paul DeHart, Vanderbilt University
  • David Bentley Hart, Providence College
  • John Milbank, University of Nottingham
Christian Systematic Theology Section
Monday - 9:00 am-11:30 am
CHT-International Ballroom North
Theme: The Torah and the Continuity of Scripture in Jewish Christian Dialogue

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Evolution and Original Sin: A Blog Series

A new series is beginning at Steve Martin’s always fascinating and educational blog, An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution (one of the most straightforward and accurate blog titles in the entire blogosphere!), which will discuss George Murphy’s paper “Roads to Paradise and Perdition: Christ, Evolution, and Original Sin.” Murphy is a physicist, theologian, and pastor, and his paper is part of a growing field of literature which brings evolutionary science and Christian theology into conversation. Martin has asked three people to write responses to the essay (I happen to be one of them). Murphy will then respond to our responses before answering questions and comments from readers. Here is the order of the blog series:
1. Introduction
2. Summary of the 2006 PSCF article (George Murphy)
3. Response #1 (Terry Gray)
4. Response #2 (Denis Lamoureux)
5. Response #3 (David Congdon)
6. George Murphy replies to the three responses
7. George Murphy answers readers’ questions
8. Conclusion
Since my full response is too long, I will publish a longer version of my response on this blog sometime after my post appears in the series.

NB: Comments will be closed throughout the series! If you want to leave a comment or ask a question, you must email Steve Martin. Here is what he says:
If you would like to pose a question to George to be answered in Post#7, please submit it to me via email. You can do this at any time up until 2 days after post#6 is published. Please keep questions relatively short – ideally 3 or 4 sentences maximum. Blog comments will be open on this post – consider it the after-lecture reception where informality (and sometimes heated discussion) is the norm.
I am really looking forward to this dialogue regarding evolution and theology. I found Murphy’s paper very interesting and full of good insights. I highly recommend that you read it in full, even though he will provide a summary of the essay as part of this series. And my sincere thanks to Steve for putting this blog series together. I expect this to be a stimulating conversation.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Princeton Theological Review: Analogy of Being

The Princeton Theological Review—the student-run journal I helped to run for two years—has a call for papers out for their spring 2009 issue. The issue will be on the “analogy of being” (analogia entis). It is an especially pertinent theme, considering the renewed interest in von Balthasar, Erich Pryzwara, and Catholic-Barthian relations in general. The topic was chosen primarily in light of the recent ecumenical conference held in Washington, D.C. this past spring. At the 2006 Karl Barth Society meeting at AAR, there was a debate between George Hunsinger and David Bentley Hart over the analogy of being. And Hart, along with John Betz, is translating Pryzwara’s masterpiece, Analogia Entis, due out sometime in 2009.

If you are interested in submitting an article for publication, please send your submissions to the editors of the PTR at ptr-at-ptsem-dot-edu. You can find submission guidelines on their website. Articles should be between 5000-7000 words, though exceptions will be made. The deadline for submissions is January 15, 2009.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Romero on YouTube

This is amazing news. Someone (a saint, really) has posted the entire Romero film on YouTube in eleven clips. D.W. Horstkoetter of Flying Farther alerted me to this in his recent post. I first watched Romero as an undergraduate in a class on systematic theology taught by Mark Husbands. The first thing I did was show the film to the rest of my family back home. I was astounded by the film’s ability to tell Archbishop Romero’s story without backing away from the profound theology that grounded his subversive theopolitics. The film is really necessary viewing for anyone in the church, anyone who claims to follow Christ. Romero is the closest thing to a sermon on celluloid. If you haven’t seen it yet, then take the time now to watch it all in the clips below.

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Review: P. H. Brazier, Barth and Dostoevsky

P. H. Brazier, Barth and Dostoevsky: A Study of the Influence of the Russian Writer Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky on the Development of the Swiss Theologian Karl Barth, 1915-1922 (Colorado Springs, CO: Paternoster, 2007), xix + 245 pp. $39.99 (paperback)

In his forward to Paul Brazier’s new book, Stephen Holmes begins by stating, “The book you have before you might surprise you” (xvii). Holmes was apparently skeptical about the prospect of a book looking at an historical period in Barth’s life already thoroughly covered by Bruce McCormack. Holmes goes on to say that he “expected little more than a conversation with, and perhaps some footnotes to, McCormack,” but that Brazier had convinced him that there was “extraordinarily interesting data” still waiting to be explored. The result of this exploration was Brazier’s dissertation, originally entitled “Die Freiheit in der Gefangenschaft Gottes”: The Nature and Content of the Influence of Dostoevsky on Karl Barth, 1915 to 1922, now published in the line of Paternoster Theological Monographs under the title, Barth and Dostoevsky. While the book illuminates and examines certain dimensions of Barth’s life that have been ignored by most Barth scholars, the data is not always as surprising as one might expect, nor is the data presented in a very accessible manner.

Read the rest of the review at the Center for Barth Studies website.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Lyceum 2008: spiritual consumerism

Right after AAR, another conference will begin in Unity Village, Missouri, on Nov. 3-6. The conference is Lyceum 2008, an “annual educational symposium open to teachers, writers, and students of spiritual and theological studies.” This is the first year of the conference. I’m not mentioning this conference in order to recommend that people attend it. On the contrary, it might just be the biggest waste of your time. That’s because the theme of this year’s conference is “Culturally Christian, Spiritually Unlimited.”

This kind of nonsense just makes my stomach turn. Lyceum 2008 epitomizes the entire I’m-spiritual-but-not-religious bullshit. What’s fascinating is what this theme actually says, so let’s look at each phrase. First, Christianity has become cultural. This could mean a variety of things. On the more religious side, it could mean that one still attends a church, but only because this is what people have always done and it constitutes a major part of one’s history and identity. On the non-religious or less religious side, it could simply mean that Christianity forms a kind of cultural backdrop within countries like Great Britain, France, Germany, and the USA, among others. To be “culturally Christian” might be something as banal as observing, consuming, and enjoying the cultural artifacts of Christianity—precisely as things to be observed, consumed, and enjoyed. However you take this phrase, the clear implication is that Christianity has nothing to do with one’s true existence. Christianity is part of the landscape—maybe even part of one’s history—but it has no relevance, no existential significance, for the present. It is just one cultural artifact or attribute among others. Maybe more important than most, but cultural nonetheless.

Second, as a cultural Christian, Lyceum 2008 encourages us to be “spiritually unlimited.” Here the conference makes it clear that it has capitulated entirely to the Western capitalistic voluntarist conception of the religious person as a consumer of “spiritual goods.” It’s only appropriate that one of the three keynote speakers is Bishop Spong, who is giving two lectures, the second of which is entitled, “Beyond Christian Limits, but Not Beyond Christianity.” That basically summarizes everything that is wrong with Spong and this conference. In an interview with Thomas Shepherd of the Unity Institute, which is hosting the event, Shepherd discusses the conference. While talking about Bart Ehrman, who is also giving two keynote lectures, he says, “We’re learning that early Christianity had lots of options, from the prosaic to the phantasmagoric. Did you know one sect of early Christianity believed in thirty gods?” The implication, of course, is that there are “lots of options” outside of orthodoxy—that old dry and stiff religious straitjacket. With these unlimited spiritual options, I only have to discover the kind of spirituality that suits me. I can have my pie and eat it, too: I can call myself “Christian” but believe whatever the hell I want to.

This stuff makes me sick. I’m hoping Lyceum dies off after this first year. Maybe the $299 registration cost will ensure that it does.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Desirability and Possibility of a Universal Definition of Evangelicalism

Definitions of evangelicalism are almost a dime a dozen. It seems like everyone today has an opinion on what counts as truly “evangelical.” Some find the term so ambiguous that they argue it should be dispensed with altogether. Others seek to find a new definition. Most people just don’t care.

The Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, a center of research established at Wheaton College by Mark Noll and Nathan Hatch, outlines the definition of contemporary evangelicalism in the following way:
There are three senses in which the term “evangelical” is used today as we enter the 21st-century. The first is to see as “evangelical” all Christians who affirm a few key doctrines and practical emphases. British historian David Bebbington approaches evangelicalism from this direction and notes four specific hallmarks of evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. A second sense is to look at evangelicalism as an organic group of movements and religious tradition. Within this context “evangelical” denotes a style as much as a set of beliefs. As a result, groups as disparate as black Baptists and Dutch Reformed Churches, Mennonites and Pentecostals, Catholic charismatics and Southern Baptists all come under the evangelical umbrella—demonstrating just how diverse the movement really is. A third sense of the term is as the self-ascribed label for a coalition that arose during the Second World War. This group came into being as a reaction against the perceived anti-intellectual, separatist, belligerent nature of the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s and 1930s. Importantly, its core personalities (like Harold John Ockenga and Billy Graham), institutions (for instance, Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College), and organizations (such as the National Association of Evangelicals and Youth for Christ) have played a pivotal role in giving the wider movement a sense of cohesion that extends beyond these “card-carrying” evangelicals.
This statement provides a very helpful “lay of the land.” Evangelicalism is used in each of these three senses: type, style, and movement. In what follows, I am going to look at a few different ways of defining evangelicalism, most of which fall in the first category of type, but some which blend these together. The question I will pursue is whether a “universal definition” of evangelicalism is desirable and even possible. My main focus will be on John Stackhouse’s new definition of evangelicalism, which seeks to combine type and movement together. That is, he wants a definition of evangelicalism which specifies a very particular group of people that all share a very specific list of beliefs. First, however, let’s look at some other definitions.

A brief look at some “popular” definitions of evangelicalism is illuminating. The Evangelical Theological Society, for example, has a very simple approach: define what is absolutely essential in terms of doctrine (“mere evangelicalism”), and ignore everything else. So their definition is very basic: “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs. God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.” For the ETS, scholastic metaphysics + Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy = evangelicalism. Everything else is adiaphora.

By contrast, the National Association of Evangelicals (founded in 1942) claims to represent the broad “evangelical” constituency, and they do so by leaving out the more controversial particulars while at the same time providing a lengthier list of “mere evangelicalism”:

• We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.

• We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

• We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return in power and glory.

• We believe that for the salvation of lost and sinful people, regeneration by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential.

• We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life.

• We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.

• We believe in the spiritual unity of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ.

The problem with this list is that it is too broad to count as a description of evangelicalism, unless we reduce “evangelical” to “orthodox” or “traditional” Christian. Any conservative member of a denomination, including most Catholics and Orthodox, would probably be able to sign on to this statement. We might call this statement “mere traditional Christianity.”

The most widely-used academic definition has to be that of David Bebbington, who drafted what is now known as the “Bebbington Quadrilateral”: crucicentrism (inclusive of christocentrism), biblicism, conversionism, and activism. Evangelicals are centered on the reconciling work of Christ on the cross, the authority of Scripture, the necessity of a changed heart, and active works of love in the world. George Marsden came along and quite rightly added a fifth term: transdenominationalism. While “biblicism” is often taken to exclude Catholics (who uphold Sacred Tradition alongside Sacred Scripture), the addition of transdenominationalism more explicitly limits evangelicalism to a particular movement within Protestantism, one that is not denominationally “fixed.” That is, evangelicalism views denominational boundaries as dispensable; they are unnecessary demarcations which can and should be ignored when it comes to the work of the gospel.

Most recently, John Stackhouse of Regent College (Vancouver, BC) has written a new definition of evangelicalism that takes its bearings from Bebbington and Marsden. Stackhouse is an evangelical theologian and the senior advisor for the Centre for Research on Canadian Evangelicalism (CRCE), an initiative of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC). Stackhouse views the attribute of “transdenominationalism” to be essential because it “helps to mark off evangelicals from the more generic category of ‘fervent orthodox Protestants,’ a category that would include, say, conservative Lutherans or conservative Anglicans, who generally have little to do with any other kind of Christian.” Consequently, he finds the term “evangelical Catholic” to be at least oxymoronic, if not entirely nonsensical.

His revised definition of evangelicalism is an attempt to identify a very specific group of people. He was motivated to attempt a redefinition because of the inability of pollsters and academics to specify who they mean when they refer to “evangelicals.” (He cites Ron Sider’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience as a particularly bad example.) As a result, he offers six attributes and he insists that all six are necessary in order to identify an “evangelical”:
[T]his set of criteria functions properly only as a set. There is nothing peculiarly evangelical about any of them singly, of course. It is only this set that helps scholars, pollsters, leaders and interested others “pick out” evangelicals from Christians in general or observant Christians in general or observant Protestants in general, and so on. Thus it must be employed as a set, without compromise, as in the common polling practice of counting as evangelicals those who score “highly” on some scale derived from such criteria. No, evangelicals do not compromise on any of these values.
So what are these values? Here is Stackhouse’s universal definition of evangelicalism:
Orthodox and Orthoprax: Evangelicals subscribe to the main tenets—doctrinal,
ethical, and liturgical—of the churches to which they belong.

Crucicentric: Evangelicals are Christocentric in their piety and preaching, and emphasize particularly the necessity of Christ’s salvific work on the Cross.

Biblicist: Evangelicals affirm the Bible as God’s Word written, true in what it says and functioning as their supreme written guide for life.

Conversionist: Evangelicals believe that (1) everyone must trust Jesus as Saviour and follow him as Lord; and (2) everyone must co-operate with God in a life of growing spiritual maturity.

Missional: Evangelicals actively co-operate with God in his mission of redeeming the world, and particularly in the proclamation of the gospel.

Transdenominational: Evangelicals gladly partner with other Christians who hold
these concerns, regardless of denominational stripe, in work to advance the Kingdom of God.
Of all the available definitions of evangelicalism, Stackhouse’s version is probably the best one available, though it has its problems. It’s about as close as one can get to a “universal definition” of evangelicalism, though as I will argue in a moment, it demonstrates the final impossibility of any such universal definition.

Stackhouse’s definition is obviously a reworking of Bebbington’s definition. Stackhouse has added Marsden’s transdenominationalism, changed activism to missional, and added an extra term to emphasize the orthodox and orthoprax nature of evangelical faith. Not all of these changes are positive, in my opinion. Marsden’s term is crucial, since it captures the nature of evangelicalism since the so-called neo-evangelical movement of the 1960s and 1970s, spearheaded by the likes of Carl Henry. Nothing defines American evangelicalism more, in my opinion, than its willingness to disregard denominational affiliation to get something done. This is embodied in the non-denominational/non-conformist movement within American Christianity, a movement in which I was raised. The independence of American evangelicalism is partly why a universal definition is an impossibility.

Stackhouse’s two major changes to Bebbington’s quadrilateral are both ambiguous, with mixed results. First, the change from activism to missional is misleading and theologically questionable. Stackhouse has distinguished between conversion and mission in his definition in order to highlight the importance of making a decision for the gospel before actively engaging in the work of the gospel. Certainly, this is a standard evangelical distinction. But we could just as easily make the case for changing conversionism to missional and leaving activism. The reason for this is that conversion cannot be distinguished from mission; we are converted to the gospel as we are converted to the work of God’s in-breaking reign. Our initation into God’s kingdom has to be identified with our participation in this kingdom. There can be no gap between conversion and mission, because our being is located in act. Like the church, our being is constituted in our mission of evangelical witness to Jesus Christ.

I am also drawing somewhat upon Stackhouse’s own writings on mission and evangelism, particularly his Books & Culture essay. In that essay, he talks about how our notion of mission has to expand beyond simply preaching the gospel. He writes:
To confine the scope of salvation to those who have heard certain facts about Jesus and who come to accept him on this basis, therefore, is not necessitated by the Bible, and in fact is not even the best way to understand the Bible. . . . God is not interested in saving merely human souls. He wants human beings, body and soul. . . . The Christian gospel therefore is not a narrowly spiritual one, but literally embraces everything, everywhere, at every moment. Every action that brings shalom—that preserves or enhances the flourishing of things, people, and relationships—is the primary will of God for humanity. . . . And our mission to the world extends far beyond evangelism. Yes, evangelism is the special work of the church, for only we Christians have been entrusted with the great good news at the center of God's redemptive plan, at the heart of which is the life and work of Jesus Christ. But our evangelism itself issues a call to “life abundant” that embraces everything good in the world, not just the spiritual.
Here Stackhouse includes evangelism within the scope of God’s mission. Certainly, he would still want to identify a distinct moment of conversion, but that moment has to be understood within the larger framework of mission. Our conversion to God is a conversion to God’s missional shalom. We are converted to the kingdom of God, and thus to a life shaped by that kingdom. While our participation in the mission of God demands that we make a decision for Jesus Christ, to separate conversionism and mission as Stackhouse does in his definition of evangelicalism is misleading. It also runs against the changes within evangelicalism in recent years. The emphasis on mission captures the transformation within evangelicalism away from the narrow form of conversionism made popular by people such as Billy Graham toward a broader understanding of conversion—one that encompasses all of life, cannot be reduced to a “moment” of conversion, and is translatable into other cultures.

Stackhouse’s use of mission also presumes that people are in agreement about what “missional” means. But even on that point we find a plurality of views, all of which could claim the word “missional” without being disingenuous. Personally, I find Stackhouse’s definition above to be highly problematic, though I assume unintentionally so, based on the very fine discussion of mission in the article I mentioned above. The problem with his definition of missional is located in the language of cooperation, which he uses twice. In defining conversionism, he says that believers “must co-operate with God in a life of growing spiritual maturity.” And then—somewhat redundantly, since it isn’t clear that the second aspect of conversionism is really all that distinct from his definition of missional—he says under the rubric of “missional” that believers “actively co-operate with God in his mission of redeeming the world.” For both, cooperation with God is a deeply misleading notion. We never cooperate with God in the sense that our action is somehow independent of God’s action. Rather, our action takes place entirely within the prompting, empowering, preserving, and sanctifying action of God. But this participation with God is entirely asymmetrical: we are dependent upon God, but God is not dependent upon us. The language of cooperation disguises this asymmetry, and theologically it leans in a non-evangelical (i.e., non-Protestant) direction. Perhaps Stackhouse is more of a semi-Pelagian than I originally thought, but for now I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume by “cooperation” he merely means “participation,” which is a very different word.

Let me recap what I have said about conversion, mission, and activism. By collapsing activism and mission, Stackhouse wants to underscore that our activist involvement ought to be placed within the scope of God’s mission of reconciliation. He also wishes to locate evangelism within this missional framework. The advantage of this move is clear: evangelism and activism are no longer separated into separate categories, but they are now integrated into the larger umbrella category of God’s mission in which we participate as God’s covenant partners. The disadvantage is equally clear: there is now a separation between conversion and mission, between being and act, which I have argued elsewhere is fundamentally at odds with what missional theology proclaims. A second option that I mention above would involve collapsing conversionism and mission. This rectifies the being and act problem, but it leaves activism hanging out by itself. One advantage of this move is that it highlights the sociopolitical impulses of evangelicalism as something distinct and worthy of mention besides their missional impulses (always recognizing that these go together). Bebbington’s use of activism was, in part, an effort to acknowledge the significance of evangelical social engagement. That is disguised somewhat in Stackhouse’s definition, unless you are aware of the semantic depth of the word “missional.”

I think the best solution would be to collapse both conversionism and activism into missional. I would then define missional in the following way: Evangelicals believe that (1) everyone must respond to the word of the gospel that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior with heartfelt trust and faithful obedience, and (2) that obedience must take the form of active participation in God’s mission of reconciliation through the ecclesial “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). This ministry of reconciliation necessarily includes the proclamation of the gospel, but it also encompasses the whole range of active witness to Christ’s Lordship, including all manner of social, political, and economic engagement. Having this kind of fulsome definition of mission is a more theologically sound alternative to both Bebbington and Stackhouse.

In addition to the change of activism to missional, Stackhouse added a section on orthodoxy and orthopraxy. But this, too, is problematic. For some, the term might seem unnecessary, even redundant, yet it emphasizes the fact that evangelicalism accepts the central dogmas of the Christian faith and seeks to abide by the commands of God in our daily lives. However important this may be, there are major problems with including “orthodoxy” as part of one’s self-definition. Quite simply, whose orthodoxy, or which orthodoxy? Who or what defines what is “orthodox”? Even if we accept the first four ecumenical creeds (though even that decision is rather arbitrary), which is about as far as most evangelicals are willing to go, how do we interpret those creeds? Do we simply adopt the philosophical-metaphysical substructure? Most evangelicals reject the doctrine of deification, but that is at the heart and center of the Chalcedonian Definition. The problem with a term like “orthodox” is that it invariably involves power relations. The term itself has very little content, because apart from the churches that claim to have the definitive interpretation of these creeds, people are left to interpret them in various ways, not unlike the interpretation of Scripture itself. So without a definite content, the term “orthodox” becomes a way to distinguish who is “right” and who is “wrong,” who is “in” and who is “out.” The term functions like a gate or even a weapon. Its usage generally involves some kind of arbitrary exclusionary violence. And what’s most problematic is that the term is used among evangelicals (take the whole “open theism” debate as a case in point), in which both sides feel that they can abide by the label. In such cases, who is the judge? Without an evangelical magisterium, the term “orthodox” becomes more or less what the terms “evangelical” and “Christian” have become today—anyone who wants to claim the word can. At the end of the day, while I understand the reasons for including it in this definition of evangelicalism, I have to wonder whether it results in simply more confusion and damage.

Finally, we have to ask, who is excluded by this definition? Well, pretty much anyone who defends a particular denomination or tradition as intrinsically superior to all other traditions and would thus avoid or seriously delimit ecclesial partnership and ecumenism. This would include most Roman Catholics (except on sociopolitical matters, such as pro-life and anti-gay marriage agendas) and Eastern Orthodox, but it would also exclude, for example, the Reformed orthodox (such as the OPC, aka “Reformed fundamentalists”), as well as many within the mainline denominations, including Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians. A few anabaptists/baptists might be excluded if they see themselves carrying on a tradition which excludes transdenominational cooperation, but I suspect that is rarely the case.

Personally, I think Stackhouse is correct to make transdenominationalism a central ingredient in the definition of evangelical, only because, like him, I feel like the word loses any real meaning once it becomes an adjective applicable to any tradition—so long as those within that tradition emphasize things like Scripture, mission, and orthodoxy. I would be willing to argue that transdenominationalism is the key characteristic of contemporary evangelicalism, more central even than the emphasis upon the authority of Scripture, which is common to conservative Christians of all traditions. However, I want to be clear: by defining evangelicalism in this kind of narrow way does not mean that the word cannot have a secondary, more general application. The point here is that if we are trying to identify a particular subgroup (even subculture) within the Christian church, Stackhouse is correct that we have to be as specific and narrow as possible so that we know what we’re talking about. When we water down definitions so as to include the widest possible range of people, it ends up rendering these terms completely useless.

Yet there is a sense in which a term like “evangelical” will always be useless, and necessarily so. And this is the point with which I want to close. I have titled this (very long) post “The Desirability and Possibility of a Universal Definition of Evangelicalism.” (Readers who are knowledgeable about Barth should immediately notice that this is a reworking of a 1925 essay by Barth titled “The Desirability and Possibility of a Universal Reformed Creed.”) I have briefly examined definitions by ETS, NAE, Bebbington, and Stackhouse in order to chart the pursuit of a universal definition of what it means to be “evangelical.” While I support the attempt to specify as carefully as possible this particular group of people, I remain unconvinced that any definition will ever actually suffice.

The basic problem is that even the most seemingly straightforward terms—such as “orthodox” and “biblicist”—remain irreducibly complex and diverse. These terms resist any singular meaning, and they are certainly not self-evident. There are very few evangelicals who actually agree on what these terms mean. Stackhouse recognizes as much when he says that one has to abide by his definitions of these terms for the overall definition to work. But that just underscores the problem. The attempt to formulate a universal definition which will result in “accurate” polling data (as if that were even possible) requires that someone assume the role of evangelical magisterium. Someone has to determine what these words actually mean in order to specify who is in and who is out.

But it is my conviction that evangelicalism, at its heart, resists precisely this kind of magisterial power. If it is anything, evangelicalism is the rejection of any singular form or tradition in favor of a concrete, personal, and anti-institutional faith. I suggest defining evangelicalism not as a type or movement but rather as an attitude, as a particular disposition. Evangelicalism is not a substance whose attributes can be examined; it is rather an actualistic mode of being which resists any definitional foreclosure and instead bursts open our concepts, pluralizing and multiplying the dimensions of Christian faith—though always under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This helps to explain why evangelicalism is marked by transdenominationalism, and why talking about “evangelical Catholics” is a problematic use of the word.

Certainly, there are many self-proclaimed evangelicals who seek to pin down a very narrow definition of evangelicalism in order to apply the label to themselves and to very few others, if any. But I contend that this kind of semantic violence is what constitutes fundamentalism—the redefinition of terms to validate one’s own ideas over against the ideas of others. That’s not to say that people like Stackhouse are fundamentalists. By no means! Rather, it is to suggest that the attempt to locate a universally applicable definition of what is “essentially” or “truly” evangelical is itself an anti-evangelical project.

In the end, even Stackhouse’s own definitions are far too ambiguous, as I have already explained above. Words like “orthodox” and “missional” simply do not carry a fixed content, even when defined by Stackhouse. The ambiguity cannot be explained away; it is irreducible. The diverse range of meanings belongs to the words themselves. Any pursuit of a universally fixed meaning is an act of exclusionary violence which runs counter to the truest impulses of the evangelical spirit.

I am not suggesting that we dispense with these definitions. They may be quite necessary and helpful in certain contexts. But we have to remember that these are contextual definitions which serve very specific purposes. They cannot and must not be used to “define” evangelicalism, as if one could specify who is an evangelical and who is not on the basis of these definitions. Evangelicalism is not a tradition like Roman Catholicism or Reformed orthodoxy, both of which are grounded in specific creeds and confessions, carried on by specific catechetical instruction. Evangelicalism is not a quantifiable entity that can be scientifically objectified and examined. On the contrary, it is, as I have suggested, an act. It is an attitude or disposition. Evangelicalism approaches the Christian faith in a non-conformist manner, tearing down the walls of division and the barriers of tradition in order to facilitate the establishment of a personal, missional faith.

Evangelicalism is thus, in a very real sense, anarchic in nature: it resists attempts to universally fix or define what is truly Christian. Instead, it remains radically open to redefinition and recontextualization. Its missional character flows from the fact that no institution or tradition or culture can possibly be the sole bearer of the truth. In its best forms, therefore, evangelicalism is simply the openness of the church to the radical interruption of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Aquila the Hamster (March, 2006 - October, 2008)


Our beloved little hamster, Aquila, has finally passed away. My wife and I first got him back in March of 2006. At the pet store, we held two different hamsters: one bit me right away, while the other one didn’t. Ever since then, he has been the nicest possible hamster—never biting, always playing with us, even responding to our calls. When we took him in to the veterinarian one day to check out a strange bump, he said that Aquila was the nicest hamster he had ever seen. And that’s been the story. For the last two and a half years, we have been blessed by our little furry friend, who has brought us so much joy.

Suddenly, in the last few weeks, he aged rapidly, becoming more lethargic and refusing to eat his food. Knowing that he was near his end, we took him out a couple last times and got some pictures. (The two pictures were taken last week.) We held him close and told him how much he meant to us. Tonight, finally, he died. He looked very peaceful. We buried him behind our apartment building and gave him a tearful eulogy. Thanks, Aquila. You brought us so many good memories.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

New issue of JTI and my first published article

The table of contents for the new issue of the Journal of Theological Interpretation is now available online. The issue includes articles by Francis Watson and Richard Hays. But right there in the middle you’ll find an article by one David W. Congdon! It’s my first peer-reviewed publication, and I am very grateful to Shane Berg, NT prof here at PTS, for his invaluable guidance in making this publication possible. (I hadn’t even considered it for publication until he mentioned it one day in the cafeteria.)

Here, then, is the table of contents for the new issue:
  • Brent A. Strawn, “Docetism, Käsemann, and Christology: Can Historical Criticism Help Christological Orthodoxy (and Other Theology) After All?” (p. 161)
  • Francis Watson, “Scripture in Pauline Theology: How Far Down Does It Go?” (p. 181)
  • Richard B. Hays, “Can Narrative Criticism Recover the Theological Unity of Scripture?” (p. 193)
  • Patrick J. Willson, “A View from the Retail Market: The Promise of Theological Interpretation of Scripture for Preaching” (p. 213)
  • David W. Congdon, “The Trinitarian Shape of πίστις: A Theological Exegesis of Galatians” (p. 231)
  • George C. Heider, “Atonement and the Gospels” (p. 259)
  • Robert E. Meditz, “Review Article: ‘Too Hard for the Teeth of Time’: Difficulties in Using Scripture in the Church Since the Reformation” (p. 275)
  • David Lincicum, “Review Article: Benedict’s Jesus and the Rehabilitation of Christian Figural Reading” (p. 285)
  • James R. A. Merrick, “Review Article: Giving God Hermeneutical Glory: Biblical Interpretation as if God Mattered” (p. 293)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

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).