Sunday, 6 November 2016

The Friend of the Bridegroom, by Sergius Bulgakov

There are not many books on Saint John the Baptist, so I was very pleased to read this one as part of my current 'Bulgakov binge.' This theological study in the life of Saint John the Forerunner is part of Bulgakov's 'lesser triology,' which also included The Burning Bush (on Mary) and Jacob's Ladder (on angels).

This is a comprehensive study of the life of Saint John the Baptist. Bulgakov looks at the Forerunner's birth, ministry, the baptism of Jesus, his martyrdom and his glorification. Bulgakov shows that St. John was utterly Christ-like in his life of self-denial. On the subject of St. John's question from prison as to whether Jesus was the Christ, he points out the view of the Church Fathers that this was for the benefit of his disciples, a view shared by many Catholic and Protestant expositors. However, our author dissents from this view, arguing that Saint John had a genuine moment of spiritual agony foreshadowing Christ's agony on the cross. I am not completely convinced by his handling of the issue, but he stays close to the Biblical texts in his arguments.

One of the things I love about Bulgakov is his high view of the blessed Mother of God. He frequently exalts her, speaking often of her role as Queen of Heaven and queen of the universe. He points out that Mary and Saint John are often venerated together by Orthodox Christians, as they are the two greatest examples of human beings in their perfection and deification. He also connects the Forerunner to his ideas on Sophiology, showing how the divine Wisdom perfected in creation can be seen in St. John the Baptist.

In a final excursus, Bulgakov offers some criticism of Catholic devotion to Saint Joseph, who was entitled Patron of the Church by Pope Bl. Pius IX. He argues that Catholic devotion to St. Joseph is excessive and has come at the expense of devotion to Saint John the Baptist. I think this is a very fair charge; St. John the Baptist is almost forgotten in Catholic devotion compared to the blessed spouse of Mary. He also attacks the insistence of most Catholics that St. Joseph was a virgin, pointing out that apart from St. Jerome, there is a consensus that St. Joseph was a widower with his own children. Bugakov feels that the denial of St. Joseph being a father undermines the value and sanctity of marriage. I think this is also a fair criticism of the western tradition.

I used to be under the impression that Sergius Bulgakov was a radical figure, whose ideas were grounded in suspect philosophy, but this is a deeply conservative work, grounded in both Scripture and the Church Fathers. I found it very edifying.


  1. The Tridentine confiteor keeps the name of John the Baptist before the western Catholic. I seem to recall that western monastics have an especial devotion to the forerunner. Also it's not uncommon to hear a variation of his name amongst people of different nationalities.

  2. These things are true, but I don't think it can be denied that the Forerunner plays a limited part in popular Catholic devotion, at least in comparison with St. Joseph.