Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Sophia-Spirit-Mary, by Madonna Sophia Compton

Madonna Sophia Compton, Sophia-Spirit-Mary: Sergius Bulgakov and the Patristic Roots of a Feminine Spirit, 2015 self-published

I have recently been very interested in the Sophiology of the Russian Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov. His concept of Sophia enables us to see a form of the feminine divine within the bounds of orthodoxy, along with a high Mariology that elevates Mary to the level of a goddess, while still maintaining the vital creature-creator distinction. These aspects are expounded in this book by ecofeminist theologian, Madonna Sophia Compton. Drawing on both Sergius Bulgakov and his source material, she explores the close theological connection between the Holy Spirit, the Blessed Virgin Mary and Sophia.

Compton identifies a trend in the early Church Fathers to move from identifying Sophia with the Holy Spirit (connecting Sophia to Mary) to identifying Sophia exclusively with the Logos. She argues that this raised a problem for the Patristic theologians in giving a definite role to the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, the association of Sophia and the Holy Spirit continued in the Syrian liturgical tradition, with many Syrian hymns ascribing feminine metaphors and a maternal role to the Holy Spirit. Dealing with the Cappadocians, our author argues that they articulated a role for the Holy Spirit which was detached from the connection with Sophia recognized by the previous generation of theologians. She argues that the result of this was an increasing devotional significance of the Mother of God, yet this Mariology was separated from its anchoring in the Sophia-Spirit paradigm. She then goes on to explain how Bulgakov tried to recover a Sophianic Mariology, offering an exposition of his book, The Burning Bush, which I had read a couple of months ago.

Things become problematic in chapter 9, where she addresses the implications for theology of contemporary scientific cosmologies. Based on the conclusions of Quantum physics, she raises questions about both the traditional doctrine of creation Ex-Nihil and the concept of God as First Cause. I think it is dangerous to try to rethink important theological concepts based on the changing conclusions of scientists. One should also bear in mind that when physicists talk about causality, they do not mean exactly the same thing as philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas. It is true that there is reasonable doubt about whether the first chapter of Genesis teaches creation out of nothing, but the doctrine does not rest solely on that one passage. She also says that Bulgakov rejected the notion of divine impassibility. I have not read this in his works, though I have read another passage where he might appear to have some problems in that area. It has been fashionable over the last century to reject divine impassibility, but abandoning it creates real problems in our doctrine of God. To reject impassibility brings into question the timelessness, simplicity and immutability of God. Our author sees in Bulgakov a cosmological and eschatological panentheism, not unlike that of Jurgen Moltmann. While there are insights in such an approach, panentheism does potentially endanger the vital distinction between creator and creation.

Compton also takes a look at the iconography of the Eastern Orthodox Church in a chapter on the angel icons representing Sophia. She argues that these images should be understood Mariologically. In doing so, she addresses some of the criticisms of Bulgakov's Sophiology from Georges Florovsky and John Meyendorff. In the final chapter she argues for the relevance of Bulgakov's Sophiology to feminism, particularly an ecologically orientated feminism. While I think feminist theologians have insights to offer, I do not care for their standpoint and hermeneutics of suspicion. Feminist theologians absolutize their ideology and use it as an axiom to which all theology and Christian doctrine must be subject.

This is a book that says some great things, though it attempts to go in places that are out of harmony with much of the Christian tradition and possibly beyond Bulgakov's own conclusions. I am not sure that I agree with the author's preference for referring to the Holy Spirit as 'she.' While in the Old Testament, the Hebrew gives 'Spirit' as feminine, the New Testament, which is more precise in it's theology of the Holy Spirit, treats the Spirit as masculine.

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