Bearing Witness to Divine Wisdom: Sergii Bulgakov (1871–1944)

Bearing Witness to Divine Wisdom: Sergii Bulgakov (1871–1944)

Roman Zaviyskyy

In the West, Sergii Bulgakov, with the burst of translations into English, French and Italian, is increasingly viewed by critics beyond Orthodoxy as not only the most creative Orthodox theologian of the 20th century, but a figure whose stature and theological thrust is comparable to such Western theological giants as Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88), Karl Barth (1886-1968), Karl Rahner (1904-84), and Paul Tillich (1886-1965).

However, Bulgakov is often reproached for his sophiology, some elements of which are considered by many as clearly heterodox or, at least, alien to the patristic tradition. John Milbank, on the other hand, maintains that sophiology ‘increasingly appears to be the most significant theology of the two preceding centuries’.[1] 

Astonishingly, in Western literature Bulgakov remains a baffling theologian—some would consider him as a liberal[2], some as a doctrinal ‘traditionalist’[3]—yet within Russian context, the assessment is even more polarised. Some are inclined to portray Bulgakov as the greatest Orthodox theologian of the 20th century (AntoineArjakovsky, Boris Jakim), or even since the time of St Gregory Palamas (Constantin Andronikof), while others would label him if not a heretic, then, at least a non-orthodox thinker who was heavily influenced by Western philosophy in general and by German Idealism in particular (Metr. Sergii Stragorodskii, Vladimir Lossky, Georgii Florovsky).

Why are there such polarised views ranging from Orthodox theologian par excellence to heresiarch? What are the reasons behind this dichotomy?

In the absence of a suitable explanation, many potential readers of Bulgakov have been put off by the controversy over his enigmatic personality. He drifted from the Christian faith embodied in the ethos of his priestly family, left a seminary and embraced Marxism, then re-converted to Christianity, shifting from Marxism to idealism[4], from political activism as Deputy of the Second Russian Duma to a prophetic leading member of the Pan-Russian Church Council in 1917-18.  His path from socialism towards idealism and eventually to Orthodoxy is paradigmatic[5] for the fates of Russian intellectuals of the Silver Age.

History worked against the legacy of Bulgakov. His early theological career inRussiawas abruptly terminated by the Bolshevik revolution, and was followed by his forcible exile from theCrimeain 1922. Later, in the diaspora inParis, his theological voice was again silenced by the circumstances of World War II and the subsequent re-location of the theological axis of Russian Orthodoxy from Europe toNorth America. However, over the past two decades or so, there has been a revival of interest in Sergii Bulgakov both in Russia and in the West. 

Wisdom: Link between God and the cosmos

The unifying metaphor of Sophia, the Wisdom of God, as a vehicle for the articulation of the relationships of God and the cosmos in man, God-man, is a subject of Bulgakov’s mature sophiology.  He gives a description of the issues at stake in his later thought:

The central problem of sophiology is the issue of the relation between God and the world, or fundamentally, of the relation between God and man. In other words, sophiology is a problematic dealing with power and the meaning of the divine humanity Bogochelovechestva , but not only as God-Man incarnate Logos, but precisely divine humanity as the unity of God with all created world – in man and through man. [6]

In the antinomic fashion, Bulgakov attempts to hold together the two poles, namely, that the creation[7] is other than God, but at the same time, it is God’s other. One ought to be able, Bulgakov argues, to simultaneously unite, identify, and distinguish creation and God’s life, which is possible in the doctrine of Sophia, Divine and creaturely, identical and distinct.[8] 

Bulgakov radically distances himself from pantheism, and upholds panentheism ‘all is in God’.[9] In his early sophiology Bulgakov, echoing Solov’ev, defined sofi¿a apophatically as a neither-norsofi¿a sophia is neither entirely divine, nor entirely creaturely. In his mature sophiology Bulgakov reformulated his insights kataphatically, defining sophia sofi¿a as a both-and: sophia sofi¿a is divine and creaturely, present on both sides, expressing a link between God and the cosmos in their otherness, — metaxu metacu/ in Plato’s term.[10] 


Theologically, however, there are numerous deficient tendencies in sophiological thought, and I shall point out here just a few.

In sophiological thought theosis seems to be somehow auto-theosis from below, as it were, as it is somewhat implied in the creation of man. Divinization of man is not merely a final goal but an initial datum, the starting point because man is created God. Theosis gets its full meaning in theosarcosis by which the creaturely Sophia reunites with the Divine Sophia.

Creation in sophiological thought is contemporaneous with the Creator. Therefore the line between created and uncreated becomes more of a zigzag. Humans are seen as premature-gods in becoming and God is seen as primordially supra-human. Inevitably, this upsets the central soteriological notions of the Incarnation and Redemption and makes them secondary, and correlative, to the overarching notion of en-theosis (re-union of the Creaturely Sophia with the Divine Sophia).

Sophiology runs the risk of what Bulgakov himself terms sophianic determinism[11] (derivation of the economia from God’s essence as love). It is hard to see how God’s freedom with regard to creation and redemption is secured within the framework of sophiological thought. God necessarily creates the world out of love, because as God-Love He cannot but create and redeem.

There are difficulties, too, in sophianic anthropology: man is the quintessence of the world which is primordially somewhat divine. Humans, for sophiology, are not completely unique beings that God created ex nihilo, but more of the residue of the decreasing progression of the divine.


Following Solov’ev, Bulgakov had to conduct throughout his life a struggle on two fronts:

the ‘anti-Christianity of those who have Christ on their lips, but crucify Him by their lives;
and those who serve Him by their deeds, but reject Him in their minds’.[12]

This perplexity partially stemmed from the historical weakness of Christianity in bridging the gap between God and humanity. Christian consciousness had been torn apart by the two opposing views:

  • manicheanism which establishes the unbridgeable gap between God and the world.
  • pantheism which accepts the world as it is, and merely ‘deifies’ the world by means of ‘secularization’[13].

Against this background, then, religious consciousness presents humans with two alternatives: either God or the world[14]. The option of God, even in the history of Christianity, often presupposed the denial of the world.[15] Historical Christianity has grappled with the separation of religion and public life as this separation takes place inside Christianity itself. Modern social Christianity finds itself amidst this weakness in the struggle to be practical. However, this social dimension of Christianity—without a corresponding theological foundation—is predestined to be merely an appendix: missionary philanthropy or moralism[16].


Sophiology, from this perspective, seems to be able to provide theological grounding as COSMODICY IN GOD [opravdaniie mira v Boge][17], in contrast to the tendency to separate the world from God. Sophianic perception of the world as the Wisdom of God opposes a mechanistic worldview where there is no graced nature, but only a self-sustained mechanism[18] and the mechanization of life and man.

In European culture, symptoms of the crisis within historical Christianity stem from secularization brought about by the Enlightenment and humanism. The affirmation of the world in humanism is the reaction against the negation of the world in Christianity[19]. This dialectic spoils modern culture. Bulgakov’s sophiology emphasises the God—creation relationship as a starting point of theology. ‘We have seen the difficulty,’ he argues, for ancient theology, the Fathers, and the Scholastics in ‘co-ordinating the divine and the created existence, God and the world—the difficulty that consists of  in the need simultaneously to unite and separate, identify and juxtapose both images of being: the divine-absolute (GOD) and the created-relative (WORLD)’[20]. This aspect of Bulgakov’s sophiology received appraisals by Catholic theologians B.Schulze[21]and Y. Spiteris[22], and G. Lingua[23] among others.

With his discourse on Divine Wisdom, Bulgakov found, as Rowan Williams has argued, a way of speaking about the non-arbitrariness of the relation of love between God and creation.[24] Sophia shows how in Christ, God is both continuous and different from His creation[25] and that God loves by creating and saving us in Christ.

[1] See John Milbank, ‘Sophiology and Theurgy: the New Theological Horizon’. Found at See also John Milbank, The Suspended Middle: Henri de Lubac and the Debate Concerning the Supernatural (Grand Rapids,Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006).

[2] See Paul Vallière, ‘The Liberal Tradition in Russian Orthodox Theology’, The Legacy of St. Vladimir: Byzantium, Russia, America, eds. J Breck, J. Meyendorff and and Eleana Silk (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990) 93-106. See also Paul Vallière, Modern Russian Theology: Bukharev, Soloviev, Bulgakov: Orthodox Theology in a New Key (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000).

[3] See Rowan Williams, ed., trans. and introd., Sergii Bulgakov: Towards a Russian Political Theology (Edinburgh:  T & T Clark, 1999) 15.

[4] Idealism in this case included for Bulgakov an interest in ultimate questions regarding human existence as well as metaphysical questions ranging from the doctrine of God, soteriology to moral theology.

[5] Bulgakov’s close associates Nikolai Berdiaev and Piotr Struve, professional philosophers also abandoned Marxism and positivism and became idealists.  For the discussion on neo-idealist trends within the Russian intelligentsia see Catherine Evtuhov, The Cross and the Sickle: Sergei Bulgakov and the Fate of Russian Religious Philosophy (Ithaca/London:  Cornell University Press, 1997). However, there were cases when people who were trained for the priesthood at seminaries turned to Marxism and never re-converted to Christianity: Stalin for instance.

[6] See Sergii Bulgakov, ‘Tsentralnaya Problema Sofiologii’, Tikhiye Dumy (Moscow, 1918) 269.

[7] For Bulgakov’s teaching on creation see Robert Slesinski, ‘Bulgakov’s Sophiological Conception of Creation’, Orientalia Christiana Periodica 74/2 (2008) 443-454.

[8] Sergii Bulgakov, Nevesta Agntsa (Paris:  YMCA-Press, 1945) 52.

[9] Bulgakov writes: ‘the world is that which is not God [ne-Bog] existing in God, God is that which is not the world [ne-mir] existing in the world. God posits the world outside of Himself, but the world possesses its being in God.’ See Bulgakov, Ikona i Ikonopochitanie, 50. Translation in: Gallaher, There is Freedom, 105.

[10] Bulgakov, Ikona i Ikonopochitanie, 51. Gallaher, There is Freedom, 46, 54.

[11] Bulgakov, Agnets Bozhii, 447. Gallaher, There is Freedom,129.

[12] Bulgakov, ‘Chto daet’, 241.

[13] See Sergii Bulgakov, Tikhiye Dumy (Moscow, 1918) 269.

[14] See Bulgakov, Tikhie Dumy, 269.

[15] Bulgakov, Tikhie Dumy, 269.

[16] Bulgakov, Tikhie Dumy, 270.

[17] See Bulgakov, Tikhie Dumy, 270.

[18] Sergii Bulgakov, ‘Priroda v filosofii Vl. Solov’eva’, S. N. Bulgakov: Sochineniia v Dvukh Tomakh, eds. S. S. Khoruzhii and I. B. Rodninskaia, vol. 1 (Moscow: Izdatel’stvo ‘Nauka’, 1993) 18.

[19] Bulgakov, Tikhie Dumy, 272.

[20] Bulgakov, Nevesta Agntsa, 40.

[21] Schultze writes: «giudica di enorme importanza per il pensiero moderno, costretto a confrontarsi coll’alternativa di un dualismo falsamente credente che allontana Dio dalle creature decadute, in nome della sua perfezione, o di una secolarizzazione falsamente umanistica che separa le creature, in nome della loro autosufficienza, dalle fonti vitali dell’esperienza spirituale». See P. Bernardi, N. Bosco, and G. Lingua, ‘Storia e storiografia bulgakoviane’, Filosofia e Teologia 6 (1992) 247. For the asessement of Bulgakov’s Christology, see Bernhard Schultze, Pensatori russi di fronte a Cristo: saggi sul loro atteggiamento verso Cristo, la Chiesa e il Papa, vols. 2-3 (Firenze, 1949) 228.

[22] See Y. Spiteris, ‘Lo Spirito Santo nella tradizione teologia cristiana: la prospettiva dell’Oriente cristiano’, Spirito, eschaton e storia, ed. Nicola Ciola (Roma, 1998) 100.

[23] See Lingua, Kénosis di Dio, 197.

[24] Williams, Sergii Bulgakov,168-169.

[25] Rowan Williams, ‘Creation, Creativity and Creatureliness: the Wisdom of Finite Existence’. Study Day organised by the St Theosevia Centre for Christian Spirituality, Oxford, UK, 23 April 2005.’ Found at