Universal Salvation in the Eschatology of Sergius Bulgakov By Paul Gavrilyuk



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Universal Salvation in the Eschatology of Sergius Bulgakov

By Paul Gavrilyuk


Fr. Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944) is a towering figure on the horizon of the twentieth century Eastern Orthodox theology. Despite the growing attention to various aspects of his thought among western theologians, his universalism continues to be ignored in the surveys of modern eschatology.1 Yet, as this article will show, Bulgakov’s eschatological vision is unsurpassed in its breadth in Russian thought and rivals the theological proposals of those modern theologians who for different reasons have rejected the eternity of hell.
1. A Brief Historical Background of Bulgakov’s Eschatology.

Bulgakov was preoccupied with eschatological themes throughout his life.2 As a child he was constantly confronted with the sacramental dimension of death: his father was a provincial Orthodox priest who made his living officiating at funerals.3 This childhood experience should not be overlooked in considering his highly speculative eschatology. The pursuit of the clerical path seemed natural to Bulgakov: according to his self-description, he was born a ‘Levite’ since there had been clergymen in his family for six generations.4 However, while attending a seminary Bulgakov lost his faith and went through a period of fascination with Marxism (1890-1905),5 which left an indelible mark upon his thinking.

Following a series of three conversion experiences Bulgakov gradually returned to the fold of the Orthodox Church.6 In his evolution from Marxism to Christian idealism Bulgakov followed the paths traveled by his three prominent contemporaries: Nikolai Berdiaev (1874-1948), Piotr Struve (1870-1944), and Simeon Frank (1877-1950).7 In the essay ‘The Fundamental Problems of the Theory of Progress’ (1902) Bulgakov interpreted Russian Marxism as an apocalyptic movement, which both competed with and at the same time drew upon the resources of traditional Christian eschatology.8 Bulgakov discerned chiliastic aspirations in the socialist project aimed at building the just kingdom of man on earth.9 In his essay ‘Apocalypticism and Socialism: Religious and Philosophical Parallels’ Bulgakov argued that ‘scientific’ sociology, based upon Marx’s economic theory, purported to predict large-scale historical developments in a way akin to biblical apocalypticism.10 In another essay, ‘Heroism and Asceticism’, written for the programmatic collection of essays entitled Landmarks (1909), Bulgakov observed that in the imagination of Russian Marxists the revolutionary heroes had acquired a status similar to Christian martyrs, ascetics, and saints.11 Since Marxist eschatology was based upon the Hegelian theory of progress, its protagonists, Bulgakov predicted, would end up divinizing the state and attributing a messianic role to the proletariat.12 He condemned Russian socialism as a chiliastic movement that was doomed to fail. He lived to witness the sad fulfillment of his prophecies after the Bolshevik revolution.

In the years preceding the revolution Bulgakov came under the influence of Fr. Pavel Florensky (1882-1937), whose major work The Pillar and Ground of the Truth (1914) made a lasting imprint upon Bulgakov’s eschatology.13 When Bulgakov became a priest in 1918 he embraced an ecclesial form of Russian Orthodoxy that was looked down upon by other like-minded members of the religious intelligentsia. His ordination precipitated his banishment from the Soviet Union in 1923 along with several prominent leaders of religious intelligentsia. After a brief stay in Prague, Bulgakov came to Paris in 1925 and continued to live in France until the end of his life in 1944.

During the last decade of his life he developed an eschatological system unmatched in its breadth by any other Russian religious thinker. Of central interest to this study is The Bride of the Lamb (1939), which crowned Bulgakov’s larger trilogy On Godmanhood with ecclesiology, theodicy, and the doctrine of last things.14 A year later, when two consecutive surgeries intended to treat throat cancer left Bulgakov temporarily without his voice, he wrote The Sophiology of Death (1940).15 Speaking as a man prepared to part with this life at any time, Bulgakov pondered the mystery of Godman’s death on the cross, Christ’s co-dying with every human being, and the purgative value of physical suffering. Having partially regained his voice in 1941, Bulgakov continued to lecture at St Sergius Institute in Paris choosing the book of Revelation as a topic for his course. His lecture notes became the material for his last book, The Apocalypse of John (1944), which he considered a postscript to his magnum opus, the trilogy On Godmanhood.16
2. Bulgakov’s Approach to Patristic Eschatology

As it is to be expected from an Eastern Orthodox priest and theologian, patristic tradition was a springboard for Bulgakov’s own theological deliberations. He observes in The Bride of the Lamb that in pondering the final destiny of humankind patristic tradition followed two distinct trajectories: one associated with the universalist ideas of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, the other espoused by the opponents of the doctrine of universal salvation.17 It should be noted that Bulgakov’s knowledge of the relevant patristic material was largely based upon the dissertation of M. F. Oksiiuk, Eschatology of St Gregory of Nyssa (1914), which provided a comprehensive survey of patristic views on eschatology up to the time of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553).18

Bulgakov recognized that the claim that all, including the fallen angels, would ultimately be saved represented a minority opinion, suspect of heresy on the grounds of its association with Origen. At the same time the Russian theologian emphasized that the Church had not issued any dogmatic definition on the subject of the final outcome of the last judgment and the eternity of hell beyond what was stated in the Nicene creed. According to Bulgakov, in the absence of a conciliar definition, consensus patrum, even if it could be presumed to exist on this issue, was not enough to settle a dogmatic dispute. In an important article ‘Dogma and Dogmatics’ (1937), written concurrently with The Bride of the Lamb, Bulgakov argued that only the doctrine of the trinity enshrined in the creed and the doctrine of the incarnation stated in the definitions of the seven ecumenical councils enjoyed the status of the dogma binding upon all members of the Orthodox Church.19 He relegated all other doctrinal questions, such as the veneration of the Mother of God and of the saints, sacramental theology, pneumatology, atonement theories, and eschatology, to the sphere of theologoumena, that is, of more or less authoritative patristic opinions.20 Bulgakov stressed that in the area of eschatology in particular no ecumenical council had ever condemned Gregory of Nyssa’s version of universalism.21 It is a matter of historical fact that in the Eastern Orthodox tradition the doctrine of eternal damnation did not achieve the level of explicit articulation that it later found in the Roman Catholic conciliar definitions and Protestant confessions.22 Bulgakov contrasted his approach to tradition with what he called ‘dogmatic maximalism’, which in his opinion characterized the scholastic theological education in pre-revolutionary Russia, based largely upon the Roman Catholic model.23

Bulgakov’s mind was not shaped by the educational patterns prevailing in the pre-revolutionary Russian theological academy, since he did most of his studies in secular schools and never obtained an advanced degree in theology. As a theologian Bulgakov was largely self-taught. Since his erudition was vast it would be wrong to call him a dilettante in academic theology, although at times serious argument gave way to flights of fancy and belletristic digressions in his prose. The breadth of his vision far surpassed the canons of academic theology of his time.


3. Select Aspects of Bulgakov’s Eschatology.

Many of Bulgakov’s contemporaries shared reservations about the traditional Christian belief in the eternity of hell. As early as 1914, Bulgakov’s teacher and close friend Pavel Florensky complained: ‘who does not know that nowadays a more or less vulgar Origenism--a secret conviction that the ultimate “forgiveness” will be issued by God--has crept in almost every soul?’24 Although Bulgakov distanced himself from ‘vulgar Origenism’, he shared Florensky’s concern to provide an account of universalism that would be religiously and intellectually compelling.25

Following Florensky, Bulgakov announced a terminological shift in eschatology from predominantly forensic to ontological categories.26 The end of the world must be understood primarily as the completion of creation, as all-encompassing participation of creation in the life of God, as the transfiguration of the whole cosmos, as theosis, and only secondarily as judgment. The shift from judicial theory to ontology was, for the most part, consonant with the spirit of patristic tradition, although Bulgakov himself failed to recognize this sufficiently. In fact, at one point he claimed that ‘naive moralism’ characterized early patristic reflection on the last judgment.27 Bulgakov found forensic categories too rationalistic and anthropomorphic, tending to reduce ‘the richness of Divine Wisdom to a manual of instructions for organizing an exemplary prison where the confinement is without end.’28 He warned that ‘the mysteries of God’s love cannot be measured according to the penal code.’29

Besides the shift to ontological categories, the second important aspect of Bulgakov’s eschatology is its synergism. In the consummation of all things active creaturely participation in God’s plan will continue. Bulgakov’s synergism was a critical response to two one-sided views: on the one hand, N. F. Fiodorov’s (1828-1903) utopian idea that in the future humanity will develop its own scientific means to raise the dead30 and, on the other hand, a traditional conception of resurrection and judgment as acts of God brought upon largely passive creatures. Bulgakov argues that the individual souls will cooperate with God in reconstituting their own bodies.31 God will supply the energy needed for the process. Each soul is an organizing principle which functions as a ‘seed’ from which the body grows as a plant. Bulgakov owes his development of this Pauline analogy (1 Cor. 15: 44) to Origenist tradition, although he does not acknowledge this fact directly. For Origen, ‘our bodies, like a grain of corn, fall into the earth, but implanted in them is the life-principle (ratio) which contains the essence of the body; and although the bodies die and are corrupted and scattered, nevertheless by the word of God that same life-principle which has all along been preserved restores and refashions them, just as the power which exists in a grain of wheat refashions and restores the grain, after its corruption and death, into a body with stalk and ear.’32 Origen did not locate the enduring life-principle in the soul, which survived the decomposition of the body. It was Gregory of Nyssa who developed Origen’s idea further and proposed that the soul reconstituted its resurrected body, since it remembered and retained the form (eidos) of its earthly body.33

Drawing further upon Gregory of Nyssa, Bulgakov speculated that the process of reconstitution of the body occurred not just in every individual soul, but concurrently in the world soul, which enabled the resurrected bodies to form ‘one common corporeality, proper to the integral Adam’.34 The participation of all in the world soul and common corporeality secured the ontological and moral unity of humankind. Moral unity entailed that Dostoevsky’s maxim ‘everyone was responsible for all’35 applied to the resurrection state. The ontological unity of humankind did not destroy the personal uniqueness of each individual. Bulgakov emphasized this point by distancing himself from the view of Gregory of Nyssa and some other patristic authorities that gender distinctions would be eliminated in the resurrection.36 Bulgakov argued that since gender was a part of the original state of humanity, not of the fallen human condition, the resurrection state would include characteristics associated with gender.37 The transformation did not entail the obliteration of gender differences, but only the removal of the needs of stomach and sex that kept the body in bondage in this life.38

The resurrection will be general and permanent for all. Bulgakov rejected the view defended by some nineteenth century theologians and his contemporaries that the damned will be utterly annihilated instead of consigned to hell.39 Bulgakov argued that, on the one hand, God could not destroy his own fallen creatures, for this would indicate that he erred in creating them. On the other hand, creatures could not destroy themselves, for the power to create ex nihilo and to destroy belonged to God alone.40 To admit that creaturely freedom was capable of such metaphysical suicide was to limit the power and goodness of God.41 He speculated that various groups of people would participate in the general resurrection differently: the saintly figures would do so actively and willingly, while the indifferent and the wicked souls would accept the resurrection as inevitable.42

Bulgakov emphasized that the parousia, judgment, and general resurrection comprised one reality and should not be viewed as temporally consecutive events.43 In the parousia, Christ and the Holy Spirit would appear in all of their uncreated glory. If in the incarnation Christ’s divine glory was hidden and restrained, in the Parousia the kenosis of the trinity would come to its end.44 All will immediately recognize Christ as Godman.

The confrontation with the overwhelming reality of the glorified Christ will spell judgment for all humankind. Bulgakov writes: ‘The judgment and separation consist in the fact that every human being will be placed before his own eternal image in Christ, that is, before Christ. And in the light of this image, he will see his own reality, and this comparison will be the judgment.’45 The judgment is not about the application of general moral norms, but about the comparison that each individual makes between his empirical identity and his true self. Such an understanding of judgment was inspired in part by the Pauline vision of the transformation of humanity in Christ: ‘And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit’ (2 Cor. 3: 18; NRSV). Bulgakov also follows Gregory of Nyssa in identifying the biblical ‘image of God’ with the ideal prototype of each person eternally existing in Christ. This ideal image serves as a point of comparison and as a goal of deification for each human being in the eschaton.46

According to Bulgakov, divine judgment is not an externally imposed punishment. It is rather self-judgment, a deep realization of what one could achieve with the help of Christ and what one has failed to become.47 Similar to resurrection, human beings will not endure their judgment passively, but will synergistically participate in it. The emphasis upon internalization, Bulgakov is quick to point out, does not make self-judgment entirely subjective, since the Holy Spirit opens the eyes of conscience, enabling each person to see herself for what she really is and making the comparison with the eternal image of herself unavoidable and intrinsically convincing.48 If self-knowledge in this aeon is only partial and distorted, in the resurrection there will no longer be any place left for false self-pity, spiritual blindness, or self-deception.49

Bulgakov returns repeatedly to the insight of Isaac of Nineveh that ‘the torments of hell are the burning of love for God’.50 He elaborates on the thought of the Syrian Father in the following way:

The judgment of love is the most terrible judgment, more terrible than that of justice and wrath, than that of the law, for it includes all this but also transcends it. The judgment of love consists of a revolution in people’s hearts, in which, by the action of the Holy Spirit in the resurrection, the eternal source of love for Christ is revealed together with the torment caused by the failure to actualize this love in the life that has passed. It is impossible to appear before Christ and to see Him without loving Him. In the resurrection, there is no longer any place for anti-Christianity, for enmity towards Christ, for satanic hatred of Him, just as there is no place for fear of Him as the Judge terrible in His omnipotence and the fury of His wrath.51

The judgment of love, Bulgakov explains, encompasses wrath because the sinners will experience God’s love not only as his mercy, but also as his wrath. Love is the supreme divine attribute out of which flow all other attributes. There is no conflict in God between justice and mercy, since both of them are different aspects of love. Those who have deliberately rejected God in this life experience his love as punishing wrath, which will burn the sins of all.52

For the deification to become a reality, the love of God has to be reciprocated by human love. Following Isaac of Nineveh, Bulgakov maintains that the most terrible torment is caused by the sorrow and longing of unfulfilled love.53 The souls that were created for love and who have rejected love, are tormented by love, which constitutes the law of their inner being.54 One hears in Bulgakov’s interpretation an echo of elder Zosima’s words in The Brothers Karamazov: ‘What is hell? I think that “it is the suffering of that which can no longer be loved.”’55 Dostoevsky’s elder goes on to say that the person who despised God’s love in this life would be incapable of loving God in the resurrection. The torment that such a person would experience would be internal and spiritual, rather than external and physical.56

It is also probable that Bulgakov drew his inspiration from Origen. Speculating on various species of divine punishment in De principiis, Origen observed:

When the soul is found apart from that order and connexion and harmony in which it was created by God for good action and useful experience and not at concord with itself in the connexion of its rational movements, it must be supposed to bear the penalty and torture of its own want of cohesion and to experience the punishment due to its unstable and disordered condition. But when the soul, thus torn and rent asunder, has been tried by the application of fire, it is undoubtedly wrought into a condition of stronger inward connexion and renewal.57

Here Origen, like Bulgakov, emphasizes that the torment is caused by the internal conflict between what the soul has become in its revolt against God and what God had made it to be. Bulgakov also followed Origen and Gregory of Nyssa in stressing the purgative and therapeutic, rather than the retributive dimension of this type of punishment.58

For Bulgakov, the triumph of God’s will meant that in the resurrection rational creatures would no longer be able to choose between good and evil, but only between the different kinds of good. The progress towards evil would become impossible, only the progress towards greater good, the passing ‘from glory to glory’ (2 Cor. 3: 18) would remain a possibility.59 Bulgakov insisted that such state did not eliminate human freedom. On the contrary, freedom from evil is the greatest possible kind of freedom rational creatures can possess.
4. Arguments Against the Eternity of Hell.

Consistent with his view of the resurrection and the last judgment, Bulgakov stressed repeatedly that hell should be understood as a state (sostoianie) of self-inflicted torment necessary to purify the resurrected individual from evil, not as a place permanently created by God.60 Here it would appear that Bulgakov followed Gregory of Nyssa, who saw hell as a condition of the soul, rather than a place with a particular geographic location.61 Just as ‘God did not make death’ (Wis. 1: 14), he also did not bring about hell, although he had foreseen them and permitted both of them to exist. Because hell is a byproduct of angelic fall and human sin, not an original creation of God, it cannot be an ontological opposite eternally existing side by side with the kingdom of God.62

Bulgakov, of course, recognized that numerous biblical passages spoke of the punishment of hell as aijw>niov.63 He argued that the popular conception of eternity as an infinite duration of time was flawed. For one thing, such infinite duration would have a beginning at the point of human death. More importantly, on forensic model, an infinite application of punishment for temporal sins is unjustly cruel.64 Even according to human standards, such punishment would be far greater than the crime. Thus, observed Bulgakov, the idea of infinite retributive punishment led to an anthropomorphic and unbecoming image of a vengeful and cruel deity. Besides, such eternity would be ‘bad infinity’,65 in Hegelian terms, because it would have no purpose. Nor should eternity be understood as a moment frozen in time, for creaturely existence in eternity is dynamic, not static.66

How should eternity be properly understood? Bulgakov points out that the adjective ‘eternal’ in the Johannine expression ‘eternal life’ indicates a divine quality of the subject described, rather than its infinite duration. This expression refers to the life in God, to the manifestation of the divine glory of Christ in time. Bulgakov asserts that ‘in the age of resurrection, all resurrected human beings, clothed in the glory of incorruptibility, will know eternal life, though in different ways, each in accordance with his state’.67

Bulgakov proposes to revise a picture of heaven and hell permanently existing side by side. There is an asymmetry between the eternity of heaven and that of hell. To imagine the kingdom of Satan as a permanent alternative to the kingdom of God is, according to Bulgakov, to fall into unacceptable ontological dualism, verging on Manicheism.68 According to the Christian doctrine of creation, God is not a direct cause of evil. The ontological source of evil, in contrast to good, is not eternal. Bulgakov endorses the view of Christian Platonists that evil is a perversion, a shadow, a negation of the good.69 Evil is incapable of existing independently from the good. Following Gregory of Nyssa, Bulgakov claims that evil does not have creative depth. If evil agents are left on their own, they will annihilate themselves. Infinite progress towards evil, unlike that towards good, is a metaphysical impossibility.70

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