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Sergius Bulgakov has long been hailed by Orthodox and non-­Orthodox alike as a titan of twentieth-­century theology. He wrote on everything. After a youthful flirtation with Marx, he published Philosophy of Economy (1912), an anti-Marxist work of social theory. In The Tragedy of Philosophy (1921), he subjected modern philosophy, especially German idealism, to a profound, sometimes withering, Trinitarian critique. He offered a Christian philosophy in Unfading Light (1917). His trilogy on “­Divine-Humanity” explains how the depths of triune life are unveiled in the unification of God and man in the incarnation and the Church.

Today, nearly eighty years after his death, Bulgakov is exerting a belated influence over English-­language theology. In the early 2000s, Eerdmans published the first English translation of his ­trilogy: The Lamb of God, The Comforter, and The Bride of the Lamb. Angelico Press recently released translations of other works. For theologians in England and the United States, ­Bulgakov has never been bigger.

Bulgakov was controversial in his lifetime, and he remains so. At the center of the controversy is his best-known topic, Sophiology, a philosophical theology of divine wisdom (Greek sophia). You can’t poke very far into Bulgakov without encountering Sophia.

Sophia is in part a solution to Bulgakov’s dissatisfaction with the way theologians have spoken of the one divinity of the triune God. “Substance” is reduced in these discussions to a “philosophical abstraction,” trundled out “to achieve a logical solution of the trinitarian dogma.” Separated from religious experience, the creedal confession that the Persons are consubstantial dwindles to obscure theological verbiage.

Bulgakov turns to Scripture for a richer account. In addition to revealing the triune Persons, the ­Bible speaks of their common “glory” and alludes to the mysterious feminine principle of “wisdom” (Prov. 8). From these biblical hints, Bulgakov concludes that Wisdom isn’t “just one divine property among many” but “the divine nature as containing that All-Unity which is the content of the life of God.” Sophia is something like a network of divine ideas, but she isn’t an abstract set of properties. She loves and is loved. Love binds the Persons to one another and binds Sophia to the Persons. Love is the principle of coherence and harmony among the archetypes within Sophia. Sophia is nothing less than “the divine life.”

Bulgakov goes so far as to say, “God is Sophia; Sophia is Divine,” but he adds that these statements are not reversible: “Sophia is not ho Theos [‘the God’] but only theos or Theos.” She is “the Pleroma, the Divine world, existent in God and for God, eternal and uncreated, in which God lives in the Holy ­Trinity.” Sophia occupies an ambiguous ontological position: divine and eternal, though not one of the Persons who constitute the triune God.

Sophia’s in-betweenness is key to her role in ­Bulgakov’s account of creation. Sophia ­bridges the gap between the Absolute (God apart from creation) and the Absolute-relative (God the ­Creator). Whereas the three-­Personed Trinity is a “closed, self-sufficient, eternal act of ­Divine, substantial Love,” divine love necessarily reaches out to embrace something other. The eternal external object of God’s love is “a living essence, having person, hypostasis”—in a word, Sophia.

When triune love reaches out in creating, Sophia, now in the form of created Sophia, remains the object of that love. Sophia has a foot on either side of the Creator–­creature divide: “The pre-existent content of divine Wisdom begins to exist outside God, in time, as well as within him, in eternity.” There are not two wisdoms, but “one wisdom in two modalities, Uncreated and created.” Though there is an “infinite difference” between the divine world and creation, yet “one and the same Sophia is revealed in God and in creation.”

Because Sophia enables God to create, it’s possible to say that “God created the world out of Himself, out of His essence.” Through Sophia, he establishes “His proper divine world not as an eternally existent world but as a becoming world.” This is the positive meaning of creation ex ­nihilo. The Absolute cannot itself be immersed in creation. If the world is to exist, the Absolute must become Absolute-­relative, God the Creator, and that change can occur only through the mediation of ­Sophia.

Sophia also mediates God’s involvement with time. Whereas the triune God cannot be “potentialized,” Sophia can be and is. Initially, wisdom is present merely as the world’s potential, a scattering of seeds, the pledge of a sophianic future. Through time, the world moves toward a final “fullness of created Wisdom,” which will be “a perfect reflection of the uncreated Wisdom.” In the end, creation will reveal “the countenance of the Divine Sophia.” Uncreated ­Sophia will one day be unveiled as the ­created Sophia, the Bride of the Lamb. The seeds of a fulfilled creation come to fruition as Sophia travels the road of becoming along with creation, as “the principle of its actualization and finality.” ­Sophia is creation’s ­Alpha and Omega, the principle both of ­creation’s origin and of its progression toward ­divinization.

Sophia is Bulgakov’s solution to perennial theological puzzles. How can the Absolute create and relate to an outside world? Sophia. What is the one essence shared by the triune Persons? Sophia. How can an eternal God interact with a temporal world? ­Sophia. How does a God outside time guide the creation toward consummation? Sophia. Wherever there’s a gap, Sophia is there to fill it; wherever Bulgakov finds a knot, Sophia unties it.

Bulgakov’s Sophiology is fascinating, but I don’t buy it at all. For one thing, Bulgakov is not convincing when he insists that Sophia is not a fourth Person. Sophia loves and is an object of love, albeit in a non-strict sense; she is hypostatic even if she isn’t a hypostasis; she is alive and a most-real being. We’ll be excused if we suspect Bulgakov has betrayed himself: If it looks like a hypostasis, swims like a hypostasis, quacks like a hypostasis . . .

Besides, Sophiology tends to displace the triune Persons from their role in creation and history. The Son and Spirit do not create “hypostatically,” Bulgakov says, but “sophianically,” as the dyad of Word and Spirit. Sophia is reminiscent of Plato’s demiurge, an in-between something who joins the Absolute with the multiple, moving creation. Bulgakov affirms creation, but he allows Sophia to occupy theological territory that must be reserved exclusively for the Father who creates through Word and Spirit.

Though I dissent from Bulgakov’s primary theme, I agree with the judgment that he is a theologian of monumental insight. Many of his insights can be retained without the distractions of Sophia. This is especially true of his theology of creation, in which everything depends on his belief in the ontological primacy of love.

Bulgakov contends with rare rigor for an identity between the order of the economic Trinity and that of the immanent Trinity. What is true of God in himself must be true ­also of God as he creates and guides the world. If creation is arbitrarily related to the eternal essence of God, Bulgakov warns, God will be reduced to a “god.”

This assumption guides Bulgakov’s paradoxical answer to the question, “Was creation necessary?” On the one hand, God is “absolute in His proper, divine life,” and doesn’t need the world for his “self-­completion.” The tri-­Personal communion “fully exhausts the hypostatic self-definition.” With regard to “the life of Divinity itself, the world did not have to be.” ­Creation isn’t a necessary act of God’s “hypostatic nature,” like the eternal generation of the Son, but an act of God’s “creative freedom.”

And yet, creation might be necessary “in some other sense.” The fact that creation is not a necessary act of God’s nature doesn’t mean that God “could have not created the world.” On the contrary, ­Bulgakov argues, “God needs the world,” and “it could not have rem­ained ­uncreated.” Bulgakov has a biblical basis for this remarkable conclusion: He takes John’s declaration “God is love” as the most fundamental ontological truth about God. If the love of God were confined to his own triune being, his very Absoluteness would become a “limit of self-love or self-affirmation.” God is so utterly Absolute that he can pour out his love beyond himself to love what is other than himself.

It is “proper for the ocean of Divine love to overflow its limits,” and it would be “improper” for God “not to actualize this possibility.” Love exhausts “to the end all the possibilities of love.” If ­creation were impossible, there would be a limit on God; since creation is possible, “God’s love could not fail to ­actualize it by creating the world.” In short, “God-Love needs the ­creation of the world in order to love, no longer only in His own life, but also outside Himself, in ­creation.” God’s love is not limited by his Divinity but “realizes in itself the identity and indistinguishability of freedom and necessity.”

As an act of love, creation is an act of self-denial. In creating, the Absolute sacrifices his absoluteness, yet without losing it. Indeed, the Absolute manifests its utter Absoluteness by its capacity to sacrifice and yet retain all, nothing lost. ­Creation is a metaphysical Golgotha, rooted as it is in the same selfless and self-­giving love as the cross.

God’s relation to ­creation is “part of the fullness of the very concept of God.” We speak of an “Absolute” unrelated to creation, but it is no more than “a conventional abstraction.” Concretely, “the Absolute simply does not exist, for relation to the world and being for the world belong to the being of God and are inseparable from Him.” “God” is a relational term and refers to the Absolute in relation to the world; yet “the Absolute is God,” and “can be understood only in relation to the world.” For the sake of God’s grandeur, it is not enough for God to be Absolute, “self-enclosed and all-exclusive.” For God to be God, it is proper that he be “the Absolute-relative, a self-revealing Mystery that the language of logic can express only by an antinomy.”

Because “Creator” is part of the definition of God, we cannot avoid speaking of God in process. Creation is thus the site of “the maximum cosmological antinomy.” The Absolute God who is the fullness of life, to whom nothing can be added, who is unchanging and without need, is also the Creator who “lives and acts in the world.” If we say otherwise, we simply cancel the whole of Scripture. Because creation is “real by the realness of its Creator,” we can say that “God himself becomes in the world and through the world.” With regard to himself, God is eternally complete; with regard to the world, “God is not complete insofar as the world is not complete.” He is not absolute in relation to the world, for he is not yet “all in all,” as he will one day be. Creation’s history is not merely cosmogonic but theogonic.

Bulgakov’s theology of God and creation offers a startling glimpse of what it means to take “God is love” with ultimate ontological seriousness. The most obvious objection is that he doesn’t do justice to the freedom of God to create or refrain from creating. In my view, Bulgakov’s case would be stronger and more coherent if he started where the Bible and the creeds start—with the Creator of heaven and earth—rather than with what he admits is a speculative consideration of the “Absolute.”

Bulgakov is right: God’s freedom is the freedom of love. He’s also right that love has its own modes of necessity: “It is proper for love to love and to expand in love.” That is true because the God who is love has extended his love to creatures, for the God who is love is the ­Creator. Beginning from creation, we can talk about the “necessity” of creation, not because any necessity is imposed on the Absolute but because God did, in fact, ­create. ­Creation, once done, won’t be ­undone; once loved, it won’t be left unloved. 

Peter J. Leithart is author of Creator: A Theological Interpretation of Genesis 1, forthcoming from InterVarsity Press, from which this essay is excerpted.

Image by Store Norske Leksikon licensed via Creative Commons. Image triplicated and cropped. 

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