Sunday, 19 March 2017

Wisdom from Above, by Aidan Nichols, OP

Aidan Nichols, OP, Wisdom from Above: A Primer in the Theology of Father Sergei Bulgakov, 2005 Gracewing, Herefordshire

Another great book from Fr Aidan Nichols! Wisdom from Above provides a systematic, informative and readable introduction to the theology of Sergius Bulgakov, one of the more radical Eastern Orthodox theologians. A key aspect of Bulgakov's theology is his Sophiology, his doctrine of interplay between divine wisdom and created beings. Nichols shows how the concept of Sophia comes into every area of doctrine that Bulgakov touched upon.

The book is structured nicely; the bulk of it corresponds to Bulgakov's to sets of trilogies; the 'great trilogy' which covered the Son of God, the Holy Spirit and the Church and the 'lesser trilogy' which covered Our Lady, St. John the Baptist and the angels. The last chapter on Icons forms a sort of unofficial appendix.

Nichols' Catholic perspective as a Dominican theologian puts him in a good place to offer an objective analysis of Bulgakov. In general, he is restrained in his critical comments, tending to explain rather than critique Bulgakov. On occasions he offers a note of concern when Bulgakov offers some of his wilder conclusions, for instance Bulgakov's suggestion that Saint John the Baptist is literally an angel in human form. He offers some general thoughts in his brief conclusion to the book. He points out that Catholic objections to Bulgakov's theology do not concern his Sophiology, but classic points of disagreement with Eastern Orthodox theology, such as the Immaculate Conception. He also points out Bulgakov's cautious support for universal salvation as a potential area of disagreement with Catholics. Nichols compares Bulgakov to the Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar, observing common themes in their work and he points out that both theologians have toyed with Universalism. He also notes that there are Orthodox who would like Bulgakov to be recognized as a saint and there are Catholics who see Balthasar as a Doctor of the Church, yet both men have offered controversial views that would count against them gaining recognition as saints. In Light from the East, Nichols also compared Bulgakov to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I would have liked him to have said more on this in this book.

It is nice to know that Bulgakov took the Scotist view of the incarnation, that the world was made so that God could become incarnate, a view that has important implications for how we view divine-human relations. Bulgakov argued that in the creed the phrase 'for us men and for our salvation' can be divided into too, so that coming 'for us men' was a distinct goal behind the incarnation, separate from the purpose of saving sinners. It has been suggested that the Scotist view of the incarnation has almost become the mainstream view in contemporary theology, following Lubac and Balthasar. Nichols suggests that St. Thomas Aquinas was more sympathetic to the Scotist view than is generally realized. Some of Bulgakov's comments on the incarnation are problematic, particularly in relation to the Passion, where he seems to risk compromising the doctrine of divine impassibility.

Nichols seems a little uncomfortable with aspects of Bulgakov's ecclesiology, in particular his somewhat low view of the role of the Church hierarchy and minimal interest in the doctrine of sacraments. Moving towards eschatology, Bulgakov's image of the Holy Grail to represent the transfiguration of the cosmos seems insightful and does make the link to the sacraments. I was surprised to find that Bulgakov advocated something close to Premillennialism, which would make him a sort of Orthodox equivalent of Jurgen Moltmann. I like the fact that Bulgakov sees the eschatological heavenly city as a living continuation of human existence and not static enjoyment of the beatific vision, as Catholic eschatology has tended to see it. I am much less convinced by Bulgakov's attempt to argue for the possibility of universal salvation. He suggested that just as all people can be both sinful and saintly, it is possible that in the eschaton, one might experience both bliss and torment, that the states of salvation and damnation are not necessarily mutually exclusive. But is this really what the authors of Scripture intended to communicate? Why use the language of finality in judgement if this was not what they intended to convey? Advocates of Universalism often seem to treat Scripture as a sort of code that only they can decipher.

This book should be of interest to anyone who wants to learn more about a key Eastern Orthodox theologian.

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