The Sophiology of Sergius Bulgakov: Part 1, Divine Sophia and the Issue of Mediation

Over the summer I spent some time exploring the theology of the Russian Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov (1871 – 1944). Bulgakov's name kept coming up in conversations among theologians I follow, so I read The Bride of the Lamb and Sophia: The Wisdom of God: An Outline of Sophiology. In this series I'd like to share some summative reflections on Bulgakov's theology, what I took to be helpful and interesting.

A couple of notes here at the start of this series.

First, I am no expert in Bulgakov, and there were portions of The Bride of the Lamb that I don't know if I understood. Like most of you, I'm just a guy who is trying to understand things outside of his area of formal education. Consequently, if there are any readers who are experts in Bulgakov who want to jump in at any point to correct or educate, please feel free.

Second, I expect most of you will find Russian Orthodox sophiology to be very weird. This is a stream of Christian theology that will be very alien to most readers. You will likely find this strangeness off-putting. I expect even seeing the word "sophiology" is making some of you say, "This series is not for me. I'm checking out." And if that's your reaction, let me offer this encouragement. Russian Orthodox sophiology is foreign to how many of us think about faith. But the reason I went down this rabbit hole is because this stream of thought has some pretty interesting and helpful insights. So when I'm talking, say, in the early parts of this series about things like "Divine Sophia," don't get overly freaked out. Keep reading past the oddity to get to the interesting implications.

Which brings me to my last encouragement. One of my passions is explaining difficult theological ideas in ways that are simple and accessible. Remember, I'm the guy who described Rudolf Bultmann's notion of demythologization as "Scoobydooification" in Reviving Old Scratch. I delight in using cartoons to explain German theology! My goal in this series isn't to get you lost in the theological weeds. My goal is to share Bulgakov's thought for a general audience. Yes, you'll read the word "sophiology" a lot, but I think I have a knack for explaining this sort of thing, so stick with me.

With those encouragements offered, let's begin.

Most theologians tend to have a big issue or question they are especially focused upon, their "project." Bulgakov's project, in my view, concerns divine mediation. Specifically, how does God relate to creation? What "mediates" this relationship? What is going on when the Absolute makes "contact" with the relative, when Eternity makes "contact" with time, when the Infinite makes "contact" with the finite, when Heaven makes "contact" with earth, when the Divine makes "contact" with the mundane, when the Spiritual makes "contact" with the physical?

Already you might think we are getting lost in the weeds, but the issue of mediation is a question that fills your spiritual life. How does God answer prayer? How do miracles happen? How does the Holy Spirit help me get through the day? Does God control all the events in the world? When it comes to such questions, our imaginations and intuitions are all over the map, but all these questions are really about a single issue: mediation. How does God "connect" to our world?

Most of us imagine that the relationship between God and the world is causal. God "causes" things to happen in the world. God shoves, and the world responds. Just think back over the questions above--prayer, miracles, the activity of the Holy Spirit, providence. I expect as you imagine God's actions in those areas you imagine them as causes, God causing things to happen in the world. 

Orthodox sophiology is going to go in a different direction. I'll have more to say about this in a coming post, but instead of causality Orthodox sophiology is going to argue that mediation happens through Divine Wisdom/Sophia. God doesn't shove the world. Rather, God inhabits the world and we inhabit God through Divine Wisdom.

Your response here is likely, "I don't know what you mean by Divine Wisdom." Let me explain! Let's start by looking at Proverbs 3:

Happy are those who find wisdom
and those who get understanding,
for her income is better than silver
and her revenue better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called happy.

The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;
by understanding he established the heavens;
by his knowledge the deeps broke open,
and the clouds drop down the dew.
A couple of things to note. First, Wisdom is personified here as a woman. Second, Wisdom is how God "founded the earth." Third, through Wisdom God maintains a constant and ongoing relationship with the world. We can "follow her paths" and she is a "tree of life." We could look at other passages in the Old Testament, New Testament, and the Apocrypha (which is a part of the Orthodox canon), but Proverbs 3 is enough to make the point. 

Now, I expect for most of my readers that the female personification of Wisdom in the Bible, and her role in the creation of the world, has been largely ignored. Or if not ignored, then taken to be a bit of Old Testament poetry that has little theological import. But the Russian Orthodox tradition took this feminine image of Divine Sophia and ran with it, building a theological tradition known as sophiology

Again, for Bulgakov, Sophia is how we are to think about divine mediation. Taking a cue from Proverbs 3, God doesn't make contact with creation via causality, but through Wisdom

Now, many readers might see a connection here between the Old Testament vision of Wisdom and the New Testament idea of the Logos, which is associated with Christology (e.g., John 1: "In the beginning was the Word...All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being." See also Col. 1.15-17). However, Orthodox sophiology makes a contrast between Sophia and the Logos. Most strikingly, the Orthodox retain and embrace the feminine personification found in the Old Testament, and don't allow that to be folded into the masculine image of the Son. Second, Orthodox sophiology associates Sophia with all three persons the Trinity and not just the Son. So, when we say "Sophia" we are naming the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit collectively and in their unity. 

Okay, all this gets us started. The take home points are this. First, Bulgakov's sophiology is concerned with divine mediation, how God relates to and interacts with the world. What is the connection between our lives and God? Right out of the gate you should be intrigued, because this issue sits at the heart of so many questions we have, from prayer to miracles to the activity of the Holy Spirit to divine providence. 

Second, according to Orthodox sophiology God relates to and interacts with the world through Wisdom, Divine Sophia. Admittedly, you don't know what that even means or looks like right now, but I hope you're at least a little curious. Just ponder for today the "gap" between you and God. What bridges that gap? What connects you to God? What's the tether? According to Orthodox sophiology, what connects and tethers you to God is Divine Sophia. Put Divine Sophia in the gap connecting you to God, rather than some mechanistic view of causality, and you've taken the first step on the journey in exploring Orthodox sophiology. 

In fact, according to sophiology that we're even imagining a "gap" between God and ourselves goes to a misunderstanding that sophiology is trying to overcome. More on that tomorrow.

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