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Book Review: The Lamb of God by Sergius Bulgakov (Christology)

The following is a review of the following book: Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008). 472. pp.


The Inner Life of God

In Bulgakov’s theology, the inner life of God, creation, and the Incarnation, to be fully grasped, must be understood each in light of the other.  It is difficult to describe each of these individually without reference to the other, which is a testimony to their irreducible complexity in Bulgakov’s theology.  We will consider them one at a time, but cannot describe them apart from the others.

The inner life of God is also his Ousia [or nature] and “can be understood as God’s life and God’s power, that is, something entirely simple” (101).  It is God’s “All-unity,” where Ousia and Sophia are identical (102).  Ousia is not a hypostasis, but rather, “love” (104).  Although not a hypostasis, Bulgakov refers to Sophia in personal terms, for “She is the divine life in God, who is love” (104).  This love is to be understood as an eternal act of “self-positing” (94).  This act of self-positing is to be understood as a “going out into another” (95).

It seems fair to say, then, that the Ousia of God is an eternal divine person factory of sorts.  The Father is the principle of this love (98).  He desires to “acquire himself” or “have himself … outside himself” (98).  The other hypostases of the Trinity (the Son and Spirit) are different “realizations” of this self-positing love (94).  The Son is the Father’s begetting of himself (self-positing of himself), the result of the Father’s going out into another [person] (98), while the Holy Spirit is the joy that comes from this begotenness (99).  The Son, then, is the “self-actualization” of the Father (98) and the Holy Spirit is “precisely the joy of sacrificial love” (99).

Thus, these three hypostases are unified by virtue of this Ousia, this love, this self-positing, which is the Divine Life.  None of these hypostasis can be proper understood without consideration of the other.  In fact, each hypostasis, although equally God, does not posses divine nature “for Himself,” otherwise this would be tritheism (95).  They possess this nature “in common” (95).  The procession of the Holy Spirit (joy) from the Father to the Son is actually God’s own nature “as reality” (100).  God’s life is not possessed by each hypostasis individually, but is “one life” (89).

Creation and Incarnation

Creatureliness is defined in terms of becoming (i.e. having potentiality, 96).  Man’s nature is only “psycho-corporeal,” which implies potentiality and becoming (92).  That is, man’s nature only consists of body and soul (92).  Yet, man’s nature is not all that man is, for this nature is a “state” of man’s spirit (93).  Since spiritual being is “rooted” in eternity in the divine life, it bears “consciousness” of this divine life (92).  Thus, a part of man is “eternal” (93).  “If man were capable of freeing himself from his natural essence by the power of spiritual life, he would simply be God” (94).

By breathing His breath into man, God poured out his “essence” into man (91).  Creation, then, although in time and thus “becoming,” was created for “eternity” (157).  This was not an arbitrary act, however, for creation was created to be united with God and thus the Incarnation “expresses the most fundamental and determining relation of God to the world,” quite apart from a consideration of the fall (170).  God would have become Incarnate whether or not there was a fall to remedy; but since there was a fall to remedy, his Incarnation overcame this fall to accomplish the ultimate telos of creation—to become divine (169-71).

Divine-humanity, then, is not the by-product of the fall’s remedy, but the reason God created the world in the first place (so to speak).  Creaturliness is “becoming,” and since Divine-humanity is what God intends for creation to “become,” it is easy to see that Christ is the epitome of creation’s eternal destiny, creation’s ultimate “norm.”  Since Jesus is the ultimate end of creation (or epitome of it), he teleologically determines the beginning and everything in between (the Alpha and Omega in this sense, 169).  God “wants to become man in order make man god” (171).  The Third hypostasis’ proper “work” is the Incarnation (176).  The Incarnation was man’s “adoption” of God into humanity through the ever-virgin Mary who is the culmination of God’s work in the world seen through the “Old Testament Church” (176-78).

In short, the relationship between the inner life of God and creation is revealed and epitomized by the Incarnation, which fits perfectly God’s Ousia of self-positing (going outside himself in sacrificial love).

Kenosis of Divine in the Incarnation

Once the distinction between God’s being in Himself and His being outside Himself for Himself can be seen, it is clear (to Bulgakov) that God in his being outside and for Himself has the freedom to limit Himself (223).  “Such a possibility does not contradict God’s absoluteness” and unchangeability in his being as considered in Himself (223).  The Incarnation did not involve that Christ not have the divine Ousia (since it rather presupposes the divine Ousia, since this self-emptying happens according to this sacrificial love which is God’s nature or Ousia) but rather involves Christ’s abandoning the “glory” of this Ousia in his descent from heaven (224).  That is, Christ abandoned the “divine life,” in such a way that his nature “retains only the potential of glory” (224).  “He retains only the nature of Divinity, not its glory” (224).  Indeed the Son abandons the “closed ring of the Trinity [and] … remains outside it” (229).  “The Creator became a creature” (229).

This does not mean that Christ’s manhood is not divine, however, as even all mankind, by virtue of their portion of the eternal spirit, already consists of a union between human nature (soul and body) and divine life (spirit) [230].  In Christ, the hypostasis of the Logos—which is already spiritual in nature—simply takes the place of the spirit.  This makes the Incarnation less ontologically awkward (233-35).  In Christ, therefore, there is a perfect communion of his spirit with Divinity and this sets him apart from other humans (235).  His supreme divine-consciousness, however, co-exists with his human nature quite fittingly, just as a human spirit also bears consciousness of the divine (236).  It does not “impart to the humiliated Christ the ‘properties’ of Divinity” (236).  This helps explain (for Bulgakov) the “possibility and necessity of the coexistence of the two natures” in Christ (238).  The unity of these natures involves the unity of the “wills” and “energies” in the divine-humanity of Christ (245-46).  This means his actions were “Theandric” (247ff).

Christological Questions Answered by Bulgakov

How are we to conceive of Christ’s prophecy?  Are we to understand this prophecy as coming from omniscience?  This would seem to violate human nature.  Bulgakov, rather, proposes that we understand the prophecies in Christ in a similar way we understand all divinely inspired prophecy: as “carried out in the domain of the unconscious until some thought, word, or vision shines forth in the consciousness” (323).  Just as the Holy Spirit inspired and overshadowed the prophets of the Old Testament, so it was with Christ (324).

How are we to understand Christ’s apparent foreknowledge?  Here, again, we are to understand his foreknowledge as coming both from the “subconscious” (below) and inspired also from above (the Holy Spirit, 329).  This cannot be understood mechanically in any way.  Rather, humans have the capacity of “prescience” in their minds and hearts “in proportion to the intensity of their relation to that at which they are directed” (329).

Christ’s priesthood is to be understood in parallel to other human priests (e.g. Aaron, Melchisedec, 335).  His priestly “function” was sacrificial in nature (as attested by the Divine Eucharist) but epitomized by his prayer in John 17 where his focus is on deification (not redemption, 334-35).  His priesthood consisted of offering himself to the Father by the Spirit (336).

The goal in each of these examples is to attain a human understanding of Christ’s action in such a way that it could be considered perfectly human.  This would appear to mean that the actions of Christ could potentially be imitated by other human beings (who also have divine-humanity, even if their spirit is not the Logos).

Problems

Innumerable contradictions and problems exist with Bulgakov’s theology.  For example, distinctions of persons in the Trinity break down in his understanding of the Ousia, self-positing love.  If the Son is simply the result of the Father’s self-positing, and is the Father’s going outside himself into another person, the distinction between the person of the Father and the person of the Son breaks down.  He is not suggesting that the Father posits his nature in the form of a hypostasis, but that he posits himself.  This corresponds to the language of hypostasis.  The Father’s love is to “posit” his own hypostasis into another hypostasis so completely that he is “outside himself” and “acquiring himself.”  If the result of the Father’s self-positing is another person, this person must be considered the Father “outside himself,” but still himself (since this is a self-positing, a person’s traveling “into” another).

This self-positing cannot be the Father’s positing anything less than his own hypostasis, otherwise it would not be a self-positing, but some other kind of positing (e.g. ousia-positing, power positing, etc.).  If the Father truly leaves himself to go outside himself, how can he still be with himself and thus be himself?

In seeking answers to these questions, I find myself beside myself, going out of myself through the corridors of my own mind.  In other words, Bulgakov’s logic is enough to drive even professional theologians mad!  Yet these questions are about the fundamental skeleton of Bulgokov’s ideas. At the very heart of his novel theological construction exist a fundamental breakdown in basic contours of classic Trinitarian theology.

This breakdown, for example, of the identity of the Father and Son as distinct hypostases, along with countless other logical conundrums in Bulgakov’s work, create more problems than they solve and outweigh the tensions of the Chalcedonian problematic he seeks to relieve.  It would appear to this author that not even the theologians who attended The Council of Chalcedon could boast of the great mysteries (read: great contradictions) that Bulgakov’s theology embodies, which appears to solve the Christo-logical problem much like an unfaithful husband might relieve the problem of his own infidelity to his wife by becoming a polygamist.  His solution to the “Christological problematic” simply multiplies the sort of logical tensions that gave rise to his work in the first place.

Review by Bradley Cochran

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2 Comments

  1. Occidental gazing Oriental says:

    Quite a controversial fellow Bulgakov was. Looks like his Trinitarian views got him disciplined by two Orthodox churches in his day. And he was written against by some very influential priests.

    http://fathergregory.wordpress.com/2009/11/24/thoughts-on-bulgakov-apollinarius-and-ourselves/

    http://evangelicaluniversalist.blogspot.com/2008/08/universalism-and-heresy-in-sergius.html

    http://orthodoxwiki.org/Sophianism

  2. theophilogue says:

    Sweet! Thanks for the links!

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