“But along with this there was another thought … that constituted for me a genuine spiritual event, which will forever remain for me a revelation … It was my dying — with Christ and in Christ. I was dying in Christ, and Christ was dying with and in me.”
— Sergius Bulgakov, Sophiology of Death
The Theology of Sergius Bulgakov
By Robert F. Slesinki
St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2017. pp. 280. $35
The Sophiology of Death
Essays on Eschatology: Personal, Political, Universal
By Sergius Bulgakov
Translated by Roberto J. De La Noval, foreword by David Bentley Hart
Cascade, 2021. pp. 198+xxviii. $28
The Eucharistic Sacrifice
By Sergius Bulgakov
Translated, with an introduction, by Mark Roosien
University of Notre Dame Press, 2021. pp. 110+xix. $42
Review by Anthony D. Baker
As the Russian Orthodox Church continues, alternatively, to compel and baffle with its iconography and political pronouncements, there is perhaps no better time to linger with the strange and beautiful theology and life of one of its leading lights. Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944) was born 10 years after the end of feudalism in Russia and died amidst a world in utter chaos. Along the way, he produced one of the most truly remarkable bodies of work of the modern theological era.
Bulgakov gained notoriety as an economist, when the questions of agriculture, industry, and the identity of the new Russia were preoccupations of an entire continent. At first attempting to put Marx’s theories to work solving the problems of Russian farming, he eventually found Marxism inadequate, largely because of the way it reifies progress as a kind of false transcendence. Socialism needs a soul, he said. And the atheistic soul of Feuerbach and company was simply not adequate to the task.
Meanwhile, his country was in the midst of revolution. Exiled by Lenin’s Bolshevik’s along with many other famous intellectuals of the era, he left Russia — and the grave of his infant son — in 1922, never to return. Robert Slesinki tells these stories and more, giving us an account of the life that formed this remarkable body of theological work. He also offers a deep and penetrating account of the work itself. Slesinki, a Catholic scholar of Eastern Christianity, has already given us a great gift in his 1984 monograph on Pavel Florensky. His study of Bulgakov illuminates the through lines, critically engages the more heterodox claims, and ends with an important inquiry into Bulgakov’s problematic rhetoric around Judaism. For those who want to know how a celebrated economist became an exiled priest and Russia’s most controversial theologian, there is no better guide.
In fact, Bulgakov’s conversion to Christianity and then to the priesthood seems to me, at all points, to be a deepening and re-rooting rather than a rejecting. The newly translated collection, The Sophiology of Death, demonstrates this in essays that cover his entire lifetime. From a chapter of his early book Two Cities, in which he first began to formulate his critique of atheistic Marxism, to the concluding paragraphs of his very intimate and personal requests for his own funeral, this brilliantly gathered and translated collection walks a path of theological humanism focused on the question of death itself.
Very early on, we begin to glimpse what Bulgakov found missing in Marxist economics. Christianity, he says, is the missing soul of socialism. The desires expressed within human life — desires which manifest in friendships, loves, meals, business transactions, and in countless other ways — are themselves expressions of divine wisdom in contracted, human moments. Human life is a modal expression of a metaphysical gift that we can only work against, never destroy. Even suicide, he rather alarmingly says, is a grief-ridden way of affirming the true desire for this gift of abundant life (Sophiology of Death, 69).
The unifying theme of these essays is not simply death, but rather the place of creaturely endings in the grand display of divine wisdom. Is there a meaningfulness to human history, limited as it is by the death of any creature who might call it meaningful? What does it mean for me, that I will die? What does my death mean for God?
The center of all Bulgakov’s works, from those early forays into the “unfading light” that shines through fading world economies, all the way through his great dogmatic trilogy on the the church of the triune God, is the eternal metaphysical meaningfulness of humanity. The Incarnation is not simply the conjoining of opposites, but instead the historical display of a deep kinship between the divine being and that being’s created image. Jesus is not just the human who shows us God, but the human who shows us the divine-humanity. Bulgakov thus wants to contemplate “the theological preconditions for the Incarnation,” as Slesinski puts it (Theology of Bulgakov, 157).
It is, to be sure, a surprising center, and it involves significant theological remapping. His controversial language of Sophia as a way of renaming the divine essence, and thus reorienting the divine hypostases, is only one of these re-mappings. But in the orienting question in these essays, we can find a pathway in. Humanity is in a sense “necessary for God” (Sophiology of Death, 70) — not because God is the sort of being who needs me or needs us, but because humanity is an eternal truth without which God would not be God. What happens, then, when we die?
The answer, it seems to me, is twofold. First of all, the human limit is itself naming something true about God. The cross is not just a death of Christ’s humanity, nor even a death taken in and transformed by the divine Son. Rather, Bulgakov says, it is a death that is in some mysterious way experienced by the entire Trinity. “This is not a division but rather a union in dying for each of the hypostases in its own way” (Sophiology of Death, 129). The silence of the Father, the absence of the Spirit, the Son breathing his last: this is the entire triune God saying that humanity’s dying has a home in the unified divine being. This is the theme he studies with finesse in The Eucharistic Sacrifice.
Secondly, though, if the dying of humans nests within a dying in God, the opposite is also true: human death is not left to its own apparent limits, but is shaped by the life of the God who embraces it. The trinitarian unity in death is ultimately a unity of living wisdom beyond death, and this wisdom spreads throughout creation. Thus immortality for humans is not simply a conditional gift, but the truth of who we are. We are God’s bodily manifestations of life. This drives Bulgakov not only to a rich account of resurrection, but all the way to apocatastasis: universal reconciliation with God. This is our end not because God abolishes the freedom of creatures to rebel, but instead because “freedom does not exist in an ontological contradiction with the divine plan of creation” (Sophiology of Death, 96). The Last Judgment, as Slesinski interprets this eschatology, is about a confrontation within each of us with “the Spirit of Truth who unmasks all falsity” (Theology of Bulgakov, 242).
The metaphor of nesting offers a point of transition to another recently published translation. The Eucharistic Sacrifice offers English readers for the first time the final installment of Bulgakov’s lifelong wrestling with the meaning of the bread and wine at the heart of Christian worship. Just as human life and death — and risen life! — finds its home within God, the offering of life and death that is the sacrament of the Eucharist is likewise not simply an episode of human liturgy, but a faithful expression of the eternal character of God.
Bulgakov launches this monograph from an intriguing question. Why does Jesus in the upper room invite the disciples to participate in a sacrificial breaking and giving of his body, if the sacrifice of the cross has not happened yet? Bulgakov thinks that if we take the nearest dogmatic exit — that he was proleptically inviting their participation in the events of the Passion — we miss something important. We miss the eucharistic sacrifice above and beyond the work of Good Friday. His body is already given for them on Thursday night. The sacrifice on the cross, that is to say, nests within the sacrifice that is the Incarnation (the one most immediately celebrated in the upper room). Both nest within the sacrifice that is creation, and this itself nests within the kenotic self-emptying that is the eternal generation of the divine Son. “All of this is not simply an act of God ad extra, upon a world apart from God” (Eucharistic Sacrifice, 29), but instead an act that is eternal as well as expressed through every layer of God’s creative and redemptive activity.
These nested gifts lead Bulgakov to some startling conclusions. Angels, traditionally seen as unbodied, are now differently bodied — “a kind of texture of emotions,” he suggests, and our material bodies rest in theirs. More startlingly still, “this prompts us to conceive of God’s body” (Eucharistic Sacrifice, 21), since Christ’s human body adds nothing to God. God is not embodied as we are, but God does not lack anything within being, including the ontological make-up of embodiment. God is already “shaped like” a created body, you might say.
This consumption of God’s body has its earthly origin, Bulgakov reminds us, in the liturgies of Israel. Leaning on the Epistle the Hebrews, Bulgakov says that the entire economy of sacrifices in the Torah is typologically present in the offering of Christ, the high priest “according to the order of Melchizedek.” As the work of Israel’s priesthood is the giving of a divine gift and a reception of the sinner into divine grace, the Old Testament liturgies open the path to deification. They invite, that is, the worshipers to exchange sinfulness for a life that imitates and shares in God’s holiness. “The Aaronic order is not so much canceled out as it is absorbed, and also reconstituted anew, in the New Testament priesthood” (Eucharistic Sacrifice, 9).
The ultimate origin of the Eucharist, however, is the ad intra gift-giving of God. This gift, Bulgakov insists, has content: it is not the giving of a hypostasis, since the Father does not give Fatherhood to Son and Spirit. But neither is it essence as an abstraction. It is divine essence or nature as pleroma, as the infinite content of divinity: it is the whole divine world.
Here we arrive at the heart of his doctrine of Sophia. The eternal Eucharist within God is a gift of the transcendent richness of all things. Therefore the divine being itself, and not just each hypostasis, has character, a character that remains consistent throughout the hypostases. This character is divine wisdom. Further, since the created world is nothing more than this divine gift offered ad extra, wisdom is also, across an analogical interval, the ultimate character of all creatures. Being manifests as Sophia, the divine and the creaturely.
This, again, is deeply personal for Bulgakov. His battle with lung cancer, his own thoughts on which we read in the title essay from De La Noval’s collection, gives him opportunity to wrestle with the manifestation of divine wisdom in bodily life. What is this life, and how does its painful culmination somehow manifest the divine endlessness? How is the unity of divine wisdom shown in human losses and separations that seem beyond reconciliation? The most touching moment of all these writings is certainly at the last, when Bulgakov asks that someone please sprinkle some soil from his son’s grave in faraway Crimea on his own in Paris.
These three theologians, in bringing us new articulations of Bulgakov’s voice and stunning vision, have given us a great gift. De La Noval, Roosien, and Slesinski have clearly spent countless hours with Russian texts, French translations, and secondary sources in multiple languages in order to bring this body of work to the English-speaking theological world. What Bulgakov has to offer is not simple or particularly suited for a public audience. In various places he slides deeply enough into heterodoxy to flirt with heresy. He came by controversy honestly, my grandfather would have said. Still, his deep and courageous wrestling with the humanity that lives in God and the God that lives among humans is unmatched, in my opinion. These essays, exploring the mysteries of sacrifice and death, will take us more deeply into this profound theological vision than we have yet been.
Dr. Anthony D. Baker is the Clinton S. Quinn Professor of Systematic Theology at the Seminary of the Southwest, and the author of Diagonal Advance: Perfection in Christian Theology (SCM 2011), Shakespeare, Theology, and the Unstaged God (Routledge, 2020), and Leaving Emmaus: A New Departure in Christian Theology (Baylor University Press, 2021).