Symposium Introduction

There are few questions that cut to the heart of so many contemporary theological debates than those concerning the nature of tradition—what it is, how it functions, and what role it should play in shaping Christian theology. While such conversations are certainly not new, they seem to have become particularly acute across various communions in the last century and, if anything, gained force and urgency in our own day. The debate within Orthodoxy over Russian Sophiology is no exception. Since its inception, but especially as it was refined and formalized in the work of Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, Sophiology has provoked fierce disagreements and division amongst its supporters and detractors, expanding well beyond the Orthodox fold. Though in recent decades both sides of this vexed theologoumenon have seemed to harden into an impasse, in his book, Wisdom in the Christian Tradition: The Patristic Roots of Russian Sophiology, Marcus Plested attempts to chart a path forward through this entrenched debate.

Plested begins his study by introducing readers to the controversy over Russian Sophiology. Situating the key Sophiologists—Vladimir Soloviev, Fr. Pavel Florensky, and Bulgakov—within their philosophical and theological context, Plested carefully demonstrates the connections between these figures and neo-Platonism, Hellenistic esoteric traditions, German mysticism, and, more proximately, the works of Jakob Boehme and German Idealists such as F.W.J. Schelling. Despite their major divergences, in each of these thinkers there was a concern to respond to the philosophical trends of modernity that were born out of the Enlightenment and, thus, he characterizes Sophiology as a “species of anti-modernism” (15). These Sophiologists were each compelled by a vision of wisdom (Sophia) as God’s self-revelation to himself, of its nature as somehow both created and uncreated, uniting all things, and linking Creator and creation. Florensky and Bulgakov, to a much greater degree than Soloviev, however, sought to anchor their Sophiological projects on the patristic and ecclesiastical foundations of the Orthodox tradition. Florensky was particularly loath to go beyond “the bounds of Church ideas” (33). Similarly, Bulgakov, while undoubtedly one of the most creative theologians of the twentieth century, saw his own work as a contribution to and crystallization of the understanding of wisdom he found within the patristic tradition, especially as formulated in the work of St. Gregory Palamas (40–48). Bulgakov, as he saw it, was taking the lead from the Fathers when he argued that (as Plested summarizes):

Wisdom…is understood as denoting the divine life, the unity of the triune deity. She is God’s self-revelation both in and outside himself, a single principle capable of existing in both uncreated and created forms: God in the world and the world in God…She is not a hypostasis but a principle capable of hypostasization: in God, in Christ, in Mary, in the creation. She is that which alone gives meaning to the historical process. She is the principle of the unity of the uncreated and the created, a unity manifested in and founded upon Christ. This mystery of union without confusion, of primordial divine humanity, is poured out upon the whole created order by the Holy Spirit. Thus Sophia is God’s self-bestowal within the Trinity and upon the world. She is the principle of unity and coinherence in God, and between God and the world—the very foundation of all that is (37–38).

Even so, the reaction to Russian Sophiology—and Bulgakov in particular—was strong. Some sections of the Russian Orthodox Church condemned Bulgakov’s teaching as something foreign to the Orthodox faith. However, those who made these decisions had no direct oversight of the theologian and he was soon acquitted of heresy by a committee within his own ecclesial body (58–59). Though not without his defenders, the reception of Bulgakov’s work was “overwhelmingly negative” for most of the twentieth century due to Vladimir Lossky, Fr. Georges Florovsky, and Fr. John Meyendorff (59). These theologians’ particular arguments against Sophiology differ in various ways, but each of these so-called “Neo-Patristic” authors characterized Sophiology as a foreign incursion into Orthodox theology, out of step with the tradition (58–66).  

Bulgakov and Florensky’s concern for patristic fidelity provides the impetus for Plested’s historical study, which constitutes the main body of his text (chapters 2–6). According to the fourfold scheme of sophia that Plested lays out in his introduction (S0—human wisdom ordered away from God; S1—human wisdom applied to craft and quotidian life; S2—wisdom as divine gift; S3—Wisdom as divine attribute or quality) (3), he notes how each of the Sophiologists tended to limit their considerations of wisdom primarily to the level of S3 (224). With a view to this, Plested provides an extensive account of wisdom throughout the ages in order to assess how this approach to sophia holds up against the breadth of the tradition. To be clear, this is no mere formal comparison. Rather, acknowledging a certain flexibility and room for creativity within the bounds of tradition, Plested seeks to appraise the claims of continuity between Russian Sophiology and the articulations of wisdom throughout traditional sources (5–6). While this is not a comprehensive account of every figure who has commented on the nature of wisdom within the Christian tradition, it is a robust appraisal of the major sources and themes of many of the greatest Christian theologians East and West. Starting with biblical and classical sources and ending in the thirteenth century with Thomas Aquinas in the West and Gregory Palamas in the East, Plested provides a rich account of the multifaceted nature of wisdom throughout the ages, presenting the contributions of these numerous thinkers with nuance and concision.

Plested’s final chapter assesses the sophiological project based on his careful presentation of wisdom as it has been understood throughout the Christian tradition. Setting Florensky and Bulgakov against the breadth of this historical study, Plested—though appreciative of the insights of these Sophiologists—finds their presentation of wisdom to be lacking in key ways and, indeed, to fall short of their own stated pursuit of fidelity to the patristic tradition (227–38). Further, he provides a schematic for a “reoriented” sophiology, which seeks to distill wisdom in the fullness with which it has been expressed throughout the centuries, particularly as articulated in the Palamite categories of essence, hypostasis, and energeia, and which ultimately places the incarnate Christ, rather than Sophia, as the sole link piece between Creator and creation (238–42).

Leading off our symposium is Brandon Gallaher, who, situating his appreciation of Plested’s work within his own experience in the Orthodox tradition, celebrates Plested’s positive valuation of Bulgakov’s work as, in large part, patristic, characterizing the book as  “a major fork in the road for modern Orthodox theology.” Yet, he raises the question of whether (Orthodox) theology requires a patristic warrant or whether its alignment with the patristic witness is due to the superior value of their theology, or both. At stake, as he sees it, is whether theology must conform to the limits set by patristic theology or whether the Fathers serve, in the words of Florovsky’s later opinion, as “guides and witnesses, no more.” 

Regula Zwahlen continues our symposium by highlighting, through an extensive and adroit summarization of his theological emphases, Bulgakov’s purpose of engaging Sophiology as a means of answering questions of theological anthropology in a way analogous to the retrieval projects of theologians contemporary to him (e.g., Maritain, Barth, and Catholic ressourcement theologians). Additionally, she gives some push-back to Plested’s description of Sophiology as “a species of anti-modernism,” arguing instead for Bulgakov’s self-understanding as precisely a “modern theologian” addressing the questions of his own time as the early Church Fathers approached the questions of theirs. 

Next, Alexis Torrance takes the conversation in a different direction. He praises Plested’s historical study, noting especially the nuanced discussion of the Latin wisdom tradition. When it comes to the sophiological project, however, he describes Plested’s work as a careful balancing act of opinions which both give positive appraisal to much of what is found within Sophiology while simultaneously shearing it of its more eccentric and deleterious elements. Yet he asks whether this tension is fully resolved. Further, he poses several questions about specific historical theological claims, including his wondering aloud whether Plested gives too much credence to Sophiology’s tendency to broaden the frame of reference for wisdom beyond exclusive association with the Son. 

Paul Blowers rounds out our symposium with a careful consideration of Plested’s work, noting the variegated nature of wisdom in earlier Christian sources and analyzing various “leitmotifs” within this study. Finally, he appraises the significance of its contribution to both historical and modern theology, ending his discussion by expressing his commendation that this work will be read outside of the Orthodox fold.

Throughout this symposium, readers will be presented with some indication of the range of responses that any book dealing with the divided legacy of Russian Sophiology will no doubt receive, yet they will also find here a demonstration of ways in which this discussion—so long beleaguered by heated opposition on both sides—can move forward constructively. 

I’m grateful to Marcus Plested and all those who have contributed to this symposium for this thoughtful and irenic conversation.

Brandon Gallaher


Seeing into Aslan’s Country: The Contemporary Orthodox Sea-Change in the Reception of Sophiology and Bulgakov

It is not often in Orthodoxy, renowned for not changing, that you can see in one’s lifetime a theological shift and Plested’s book marks a turning of the tide. When I first became Orthodox in the early 1990s in Western Canada, I heard virtually nothing about Sergii Bulgakov, except, with some digging (then without the internet), that he was accused of an obscure heresy about some goddess called “Sophia” in a dispute no one seemed to understand or remembered between warring parts of the Russian Church (some things do not change). When I arrived as a student at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in 2001, I was slightly better informed having read Bulgakov in French translation at McGill but my professors at St. Vladimir’s (including Fr. Tom Hopko, Paul Meyendorff and John Erickson) thought my enthusiasm for him an arcane interest at best and dangerous at worst. Indeed, I remember a comment at the end of one essay asking me when I was going to give up my obsession with Bulgakov and return to more serious pursuits like history, patristics, and liturgy. What everyone agreed on in the then Orthodox theological world—and St Vladimir’s was typical here—was that Bulgakov’s work had next to nothing to do with the Fathers, who were the wellspring of Orthodoxy, and did not really reflect the ethos of the Church seen in its liturgy. “Sophiology,” as one professor asked, “why do you need it at all?” Mrs. Schmemann, who I interviewed for my MDiv thesis, clearly thought the whole thing ridiculous, Sophia was an almost “separate divinity” and Bulgakov had an “obsessive presence” and was surrounded by mostly female acolytes, “an ecstasy,” and when he died they all stopped going to church. It was “Russian religious philosophy” or “Russian religious thought” and Bulgakov was said to be a sort of Russian émigré Origen who meant well but was a deluded and passionate enthusiast. My professors, and the community in Crestwood that had lived in Paris, were simply following their teachers in these opinions. As Florovsky wrote in the late 1960s, “I was professing theology in the spirit of the Holy Fathers, I don’t find in the patristic teaching anything of what Bulgakov is teaching.”1 And even more trenchant in Vladimir Lossky in the 1930s: Bulgakov’s Agnets Bozhii (Lamb of God) “was written by a presbyter of the Church – who was captivated by his own philosophy and who, for its sake, perverted Orthodox doctrine and rebelled against the Fathers.”2 Again, Fr. Alexander Schmemann in a classic 1971 essay (“Three Images”) on Bulgakov still untranslated into English writes that “Fr. Sergii decided to build a complete and all-encompassing theological system. And now, I do hope he forgives me, if I, having owed him so much, truly being unworthy to untie the thong of his sandal, in all good conscience say honestly that in this desire of his for a ‘system’ I see for him a personal fall of sorts. It seems to me that Fr Sergii fell here into a kind of ‘temptation.’… [The creative] tragedy [of Fr Sergii], in the end, is that his system …does not correspond to his experience [of God’s glory and joy, revealed in the Church].”3 Finally, Fr. Tom Hopko, in a late sympathetic (where he nevertheless compares him to Origen and Augustine) essay on receiving Bulgakov, wrote that “the attacks on Bulgakov’s name and memory throughout the Orthodox world, especially by Russians, is, ironically, wholly disproportionate to his actual influence on Orthodox theologians and believers, which to date has been virtually non-existent. At St Vladimir’s, for example, contrary to what is claimed in some circles, no one ever supported or defended Fr Bulgakov’s Sophiology. Fr Sergius was either ignored or criticized by those here who knew him and his work. In my time Prof. Serge Verhovskoy and Fr John Meyendorff, like Vladimir Lossky and Fr Georges Florovsky, rejected his theological vision.”4 This was the context of my initial interest in Bulgakov and, until the last decade, the norm in Orthodoxy. 

Several years later when I went up to Oxford to do my doctorate on this latter-day Origen with the great Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes (as Met Kallistos Ware had retired and at that time—like everybody else—thought Bulgakov theologically dubious—though he later changed his mind), I remember getting into a Wiki-war with a ROCOR priest on NS Christmas day (both of us celebrated on January 7 so we both had spare time on December 25). I would change the Wikipedia entry of Bulgakov to reflect the historical record and he would change it back to reflect the position of ROCOR. I eventually gave up. It has taken (for me) about thirty years, nay nearly eighty years since the death of Bulgakov, and we now have a book by a leading Orthodox theologian and patristic scholar that without apology argues that “Sergius Bulgakov is the most constructive and creative Orthodox theologian  of the modern era—indeed one of the greatest theologians of any stamp in the last several centuries” and, for me, more breathtaking still, “In sum, Sophiology especially as articulated by Bulgakov, is indeed firmly rooted in patristic tradition in some of its base affirmations, notably in its apperception of the coinherence of God and the world, its insistence that divine wisdom is not reducible to the person of the Son, its intuition of the potential utility of the essence-energies distinction, and its renewal of a wisdom Christology. In all of these respects it can find considerable grounding and support” (35 and 229). Wow! It can’t be underestimated how much of a departure this book is in defending the patristic basis of Sophiology from previous generations given that just twenty years ago the consensus view was that Sophiology was profoundly unpatristic and Bulgakov was at best deluded and at worst a heretic. 

Plested’s monograph then is a quite decisive fork in the road for modern Orthodox theology. It is a beautiful and important scholarly monument that manages to be a systematic study of the multiple patristic theologies of wisdom, an unprecedented careful evaluation of Russian Sophiology’s claims to be founded on patristic teaching (and a balanced but critical vindication of those claims), and, perhaps most importantly, in its brief constructive final pages a contemporary synthesis of patristic Sophiology that corrects the doctrinal ambiguity of Russian Sophiology. It is a careful historical theological evaluation of the claim by Florensky and Bulgakov that Sophiology had patristic foundations, arguing that, rightly understood, and with a correction which is a completion, Sophiology is distinctly Orthodox theological form which is not only in line with tradition but speaks powerfully to a contemporary world that, in its rationalism and utilitarianism (seen in the environmental crisis and the reduction of humanity and community to the economic), has lost the vision splendid of the natural world as charged with the wise love of its Creator, alternatively, God’s divine power and beauty, and the Church, as the Body of Christ, as radiating that holy wisdom which is ever to come but breaking forth in our midst in the liturgy. 

I’ve taken the time to trace, via my own biography, how important Plested’s volume is in the history of modern Orthodox theology but here I want to raise a crucial query for him on theology and the limits of patristic tradition. As I understand it, the correction or completion of Sophiology that is offered by Plested in the concluding pages of the volume is to bring Sophiology more in line with Palamism, as he rightly observes that Bulgakov and later Evdokimov claimed its basic vision was indeed Palamite. Here Plested says that Sophia for Bulgakov was a “free-floating category—neither essence, nor hypostasis, nor energy” but a reality that is neither fish nor fowl and “God is wisdom as essence, hypostasis and energy—but not otherwise” (240–41). The reason that, he argues, we need to follow this corrective path is that as Orthodox we need “patristic warrant” (232) for our positions and Bulgakov’s “mature theology is in no way ‘post-patristic’, nor does it espouse a notion of development of doctrine that would in any way supplement or add to the given fullness of the faith of the Church. Like his detractors, he regards the patristic witness as essentially normative” (226). Thus, we need to follow wisdom as essence, hypostasis and energy because the Fathers have essentially canonized these categories as a sort of sacred grammar. But Marcus also seems to have more theological reasons than mere patristic warrant for this Palamite realignment which is that Sophia as a category unhinged from the traditional categories cannot clarify theological matters like the patristic terminology as it is a “theologically indeterminate and inherently problematic notion”: “In his schema, Sophia hovers between the traditional Orthodox dogmatic categories of essence, hypostasis, and energy—and indeed between Creator and creation” (238). Bulgakov evidently feels the need for a “missing link” to tie these categories together within God and in turn to bind God to the world in an eternal embrace. But is such a “missing link” really necessary (237)? Yet which is it? Do we follow the Fathers because they have the best theology or because they provide our theology patristic warrant? Or both? Here then is my question for Plested. What does it mean to say that a theology has “patristic warrant” or is “normative”? Or put otherwise: what does it mean to “follow the Holy Fathers,” to be traditional in our theologizing?

One view would hold that we cannot theologically color beyond the lines set out by the Fathers since to do theology is in some sense to work within established limits. Truth, in this sense, is bound to the form of its articulation and cannot be rearticulated using contemporary language or categories. Florovsky held this position saying that it was wholly illegitimate to express Christian teaching in any other philosophy but that forged by the Fathers. Christianity “is history by its very essence” and there exists no abstract general Christian message that can be detached from its historical context and there likewise is no eternal truth “which could be formulated in some supra-historical propositions.”5 The philosophy that the Fathers used in expressing Christian dogma was in fact unique and differed greatly from that of Aristotle and Plato in that the Greek thought forms of such thinkers were baptized and then redirected to Christian purposes. It was wholly “ridiculous” to attempt to reinterpret “traditional doctrine in terms of categories of a new philosophy, whatever this philosophy may be”6 since that doctrine was quite simply inseparable from the renewed Greek philosophy in which it was formulated. The Christian philosophy of the Fathers is, therefore, wholly coextensive with Christian dogmatic teaching and tradition and, more precisely, Eastern Orthodoxy which, he argued, stands for the “common heritage of the Church universal” in both East and West, as “patristic tradition.”7 This includes the canonized conceptual apparatus of ousia, hypostasis, and energeia Plested calls upon and says Sophiology needs to be realigned with in his new vision. 

Bulgakov, in contrast, held that dogmas were truths of religious revelation that had metaphysical content. They were expressed differently depending on the language of the philosophy of the day, whether it was the Greek philosophy used by the Fathers or our own contemporary philosophy.8 He believed that for our theology to be according to the Fathers did not mean that everything we articulated had to have patristic warrant or needed to be articulated in the terminology forged by the Councils. This was because the Fathers were indeed normative but as the “Church’s witness to itself.” There were multiple patristic traditions, Bulgakov argued, and not all of them were in harmony but were often in contradiction forcing us to give preference to one tradition over another. We should not treat the Fathers as “dogmatically infallible ‘unerring texts’ smoothing over and harmonizing the different patristic writers like the Talmud does with different rabbis (‘a rabbinic approach’ to the writings of the Fathers as ‘tradition’).” They are instead “authoritative witnesses” and should not be transformed into “unerring texts.”9 Bulgakov continues, “Orthodox theology is not the Talmud, and a real veneration of the Fathers must reverence not the letter but the spirit. The writings of the Holy Fathers must have a guiding authority, yet be applied with discernment.” We must read the Fathers critically, historically, and comparatively and they don’t possess a universality applicable willy-nilly to any and all periods of history but are limited and historically conditioned even if they have eternal value because they witness to the dogmatic consciousness of the Church.10 This is not far off from Florovsky late in life who argued that “The ‘authority’ of the Fathers is not a dictatus papae. They are guides and witnesses, no more. Their vision is ‘of authority,’ not necessarily their words.”11 And not far off again from Plested when he writes that “the Church Fathers are seen to provide a paradigm of theology and practice which we are called on to faithfully and creatively ‘translate’ to our own specific contexts—preferably within the context of a living tradition, a continuum of faith” (226).

So, we return to the earlier question. Why do we need to correct Bulgakov in eliminating Sophia as a free-floating category and essentially assimilating her to the patristic categories of hypostasis, ousia and energeia? Do we do this because his theology does not work, is not fit for purpose when Sophia is a category unmoored from traditional terminology, or because for his theology to work, to be coherent, o/Orthodox, it needs to be in line with a previously canonized theology with its blessed and iconic categories? But could it be that some of the obscurities in Bulgakov which appear because of the category of Sophia are merely apparent and are simply the result of his attempt to articulate aspects of the mystery of Christ that the Fathers had not yet foreseen? In other words, the trouble with the obscurity or apparent heterodoxy in Bulgakov is not with him but with us as we have yet to catch up with Bulgakov? This is not inconceivable given it has taken nearly eighty years to appreciate that he is as central a thinker as Plested claims. 

Thus, for example, the Fathers by no means applied the terminology of Trinitarian theology to human persons. It was with the moderns from Ivan Kireevskii onwards that we see this “personalistic turn.” Nor did they, to mention just one of the issues Plested identifies as having no ready grounding in patristic tradition, “warrant any idea of God’s self-revelation to Himself” (229). But are not these ideas theologically helpful within a new modern context where, for example, with the notion of the human being as a person in relation, a living hypostasis defined by outreach in love to the Other, one needs to make an argument for the impossibility of reducing the human being to their biology or their function in society? Or to turn to the idea of Selbstoffenbarung, self-revelation, if God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit reveals himself primordially to himself as love, as Sophia-ousia, then we can see creation as the natural Trinitarian self-expression of God to Himself externally as Sophia-love that, although contingent, is in some sense necessary given the sort of God who God is eternally. Such a vision—though it may be non-patristic—is needed in a world which has been desacralized, shorn of his sacredness with no sense of their being a golden thread tying earth to heaven. What I am calling for is real creative novelty in a theology that has a patristic base and inspiration. To be traditional does not mean that every idea must be traced genetically to the Fathers. And do not forget that the age of the Fathers has not closed somehow arbitrarily with Palamas. So some might say that Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain, Philaret of Moscow, and Paisii Velichkovskii were Fathers. I remember a conference at St. Serge in Paris in 2009 where some proclaimed Florovsky a new Church Father. 

Plested’s book inaugurates not only a new era in the reception of Sophiology and Bulgakov. But it also pushes us into a new period of trying to understand what it means to be theologically traditional and theologizing “according to the Holy Fathers.” If Bulgakov is in some sense also a neo-patristic writer, as the late great Fr. Matthew Baker claimed, then this means that to be a patristic theologian is a much freer and more creative enterprise than Orthodox have thought since the death of Florovsky. Indeed, we are perhaps coming to an understanding of ressourcement much more liberating and akin to what it has long been the case in some Catholic circles. We may now—as Bulgakov certainly did—be willing to see the Fathers and the patristic inheritance as not so much ramparts to keep us within the body of the living Christ protected from the surging darkness beyond, as high walls upon which one may stand “seeing beyond the End of the World into Aslan’s country.”12

  1. Unpublished Interview of Georges Florovsky with Andrew Blane and Thomas E. Bird on November 7, 1969, 59 (Georges Florovsky-Andrew Blane Papers, Damascene Foundation) cited in John Chryssavgis and Brandon Gallaher, ‘Introduction’ in The Living Christ: The Theological Legacy of Georges Florovsky, Chryssavgis and Gallaher, eds. (London: T & T Clark/Bloomsbury, 2021), 1-24 at 8-9.

  2. Vladimir Lossky, Spor o Sofii: “Dokladnaia Zapiska” prot. S. Bulgakova i smysl ukaza Moskovskoi Patriarkhii.  (Paris:  Brotherhood of St Photius, 1936), 14.

  3. Alexander Schmemann, ‘Tri Obraza’, Vestnik Russkogo Studencheskogo Khristianskogo Dvizheniia, no. 101-02 (III-IV 1971), 9-24 at 20-21.

  4. Thomas Hopko, ‘Receiving Father Bulgakov”, St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 42.3-4 (1998), 373-383 at 373.

  5. Florovsky, ‘The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Movement’, Theology Today, Vol. 7 no. 1 (April, 1950), 68-79 at 75.

  6. Florovsky, “Patristics and Modern Theology” in Brandon Gallaher and Paul Ladouceur, eds., The Patristic Witness of Georges Florovsky: Essential Theological Writings (London: Bloomsbury/T & T Clark, 2019), 153–57 at 156.

  7. Florovsky, “The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Movement,” 72.

  8. See Bulgakov, “Dogma and Dogmatic Theology” [1937], trans. Peter Bouteneff, Tradition Alive, ed. Michael Plekon (Lanham, MD: Sheed & Ward, 2003), 67–80. [‘Dogmat i dogmatica’ in Zhivoe Predanie: Pravoslavie v sovremennosti (Paris: YMCA, 1937), 9–24. (Pravoslavnaia mysl’ v.3)].

  9. ibid., 70.

  10. ibid., 71.

  11. Florovsky, ‘On the Authority of the Fathers’ in Gallaher and Paul Ladouceur, eds., The Patristic Witness of Georges Florovsky, 237–40 at 238.

  12. C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (London: Harper Collins, 2014), 251.

  • Marcus Plested

    Marcus Plested


    Plested Response to Gallaher

    Fr. Brandon Gallaher’s response performs an inestimable service in placing the book within the wider framework of twentieth and twenty-first century Orthodox theology. His reports of various modern Orthodox theologians’ overwhelmingly negative views of Sophiology, along with the insights drawn his personal biography, are all very illuminating (and often entertaining!). His sense of the book’s overall significance is, finally, deeply gratifying. 

    I have little to add to the opening remarks save perhaps in respect of the ever-memorable Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware). I think, with respect, it may be a little too simple to say that he “changed his mind” having regarded Bulgakov as “theologically dubious” well into the 2000s. Metropolitan Kallistos was nothing if not nuanced and I would argue, on the basis of my reading of his work and the thirty-plus years I knew him (in which Bulgakov was a regular conversation topic), he maintained a consistent sense both of the qualities and of the flaws of Bulgakov’s oeuvre. I think, in line with Professor Gallaher, that a case can indeed be made that his appreciation of Bulgakov increased in recent decades. I recall, for example, his being particularly impressed in the connections that Fr. Nikolai Sakharov, a fellow doctoral pupil of the bishop’s in the 1990s, was able to make between Bulgakov and the contemporary elder Saint Sophrony the Athonite (1896–1993).1 But I do not think the Metropolitan’s growing regard (if we may allow this) for Bulgakov ever amounted to wholesale approbation in which all suspicion of theological dubiousness was put aside. 

    Metropolitan Kallistos (1934–2022) is, along with Philip Sherrard (1922–95), one of the dedicatees of the book. As will be evident from the preceding paragraph he was for me, as for Professor Gallaher, a towering presence in both my scholarly and spiritual life—and indeed a paradigm of how the two can be most properly combined. It was a particular, if poignant, joy to be able to present him with a copy of the book only a few weeks before he died. But it is precisely his quality of nuance that book seeks, however inadequately, to emulate, giving due credence to both the qualities and the flaws of Bulgakov’s splendid but problematic theological achievement. This balancing act (which a later contributor to this symposium aptly compares to tightrope-walking) is no easy task. Determining where to affirm, where to deny, and where to propose a correction or completion is decidedly tricky. As Professor Gallaher adroitly advises us, much of this comes down to the question of “theology and the limits of patristic tradition.” 

    The question of tradition is indeed, as I have remarked elsewhere, the “central problematic of modern Orthodox theology.”2 And while tradition is a much broader category than the patristic inheritance alone, I shall in what follows, in line with both the book and the response, focus largely on this vital dimension of the question. As I say in the book (4–6, 224–27) it is widely, if not universally, accepted within Orthodox circles that the patristic tradition provides an indispensable basis for our engagement with Scripture and thus our articulation of Orthodox theology in our own time. It is also widely, if not universally, accepted that our reception of patristic tradition requires not only fidelity but also creativity: we are not simply to repeat what we find in the Fathers but to appropriate the Fathers’ teaching, make it our own, in order that we may apply that same teaching in our own time—not least to answer questions which they themselves never posed or were never confronted with. In these respects one can find substantial agreement between, say, Florovsky and Bulgakov. Indeed, with a little ingenuity one could come up with a parlour game in which players were asked to identify the authorship of quotes along these lines from both authors—distinguishing them would not be easy. But where they and their epigones differ is, of course, in the exact nature of that fidelity, the philosophical idiom in which that tradition can be expressed, and the limits to the creativity involved in such expression. Professor Gallaher has done a great job in focusing our attention on precisely these questions.

    I can scarcely hope to answer adequately all of Professor Gallaher’s pertinent questions in what remains of this brief response to a response. Doubtless we await another, very different (and Orthodox) equivalent to Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Let me nonetheless try a few thoughts. Firstly, I heartily commend his affirmation, following Bulgakov, that the “age of the Fathers” is not over and would add figures such as St. Sophrony to his list of contemporary Fathers. Fidelity to patristic tradition does not consist in mere subservience to the past but is an ongoing and shared enterprise within a living continuum of faith. That said, there is, I think, a legitimate priority attaching to the Fathers of the Church who articulated the dogmatic teachings of the Church in response to specific heresies affecting the very foundations of the faith. It is these teachings and these figures to which we customarily refer when we speak of “the Church Fathers,” the “patristic tradition,” “the patristic achievement,” and so on. In so doing, we do not suggest that the Fathers agreed on all matters, or that they are each in every utterance infallible, but that they are our best guides into the mystery of salvation. Taken in the round, the patristic achievement may be summarised as a defence, exposition, and vindication of various aspects of the proposition that “God became human in order that humans might be divinised.” For the Orthodox at least, this entails not only Trinitarian theology and Christology (and the depiction thereof) but also the teaching on deification and its dogmatic basis offered by St. Gregory Palamas and canonised by a series of councils in the fourteenth century. The fact that no further dogmatic definition in relation to the mystery of salvation has been offered by the Orthodox Church does not mean that such definition is impossible but that it has not yet proved necessary (the question of its workability is a separate question). There is thus a certain logic in focusing our reference to the patristic tradition to the period down to Palamas.

    Following the Fathers is certainly not a question of tracing back ideas “genetically” to the past or of finding proof-texts to confirm what we already think. It is, as Bulgakov says, far from a “Talmudic” enterprise. We do not follow the Fathers just because they have best theology or because they can provide support for positions we already hold. Following them is, I suggest, not so much a question of our reception of tradition as of our being received into the tradition. We follow the Fathers because conforming ourselves to their approach to Scripture, to their articulation of the essential foundations and parameters of the faith, and to their defence of the mystery of salvation, is the best guarantee we have of remaining within the bounds of Orthodoxy and thus within the bounds of the Church. This is what it means to be traditional in our theologizing, what it means for the patristic tradition to be “normative,” what it means for our theology to have patristic warrant: for our theology to be grounded, nourished, shaped, and stimulated by those who fought for the Orthodox faith in the face of heresy and in spite of all the blandishments of the world. This is not, of course, to say that we do not face challenges of our own but our challenges do not tend to relate so obviously to the big dogmatic questions of Trinitarian theology, Christology, and the dogmatic basis of deification. If anything our challenges are, as another contributor observes, tied up with anthropology, with the question of what it means to be human. But we will only answer such questions properly if we conform ourselves to what we have received.

    I would also, with Florovsky, acknowledge a permanent value to the conversion of classical culture to the service of the Christian Gospel effected within the first millennium (what he calls “Christian Hellenism”) but I would not see this such absolute terms as reported in Professor Gallaher’s response. For example, I would not see this as diminishing the value of other less expressly philosophical articulations of Christianity (e.g. the earlier Syriac tradition—although that too has been recently shown to be more implicated in the world of classical philosophy that was previously suspected) or indeed articulations couched in non-Western forms (e.g. the expression of Christianity in terms of classical Chinese philosophy evidenced on the Xian tablet). Equally, expressions of the tradition that make use of more modern philosophical forms can certainly supplement and complement the patristic achievement. The Fathers themselves provide us a model of how such forms are, and are not, to be utilised. I doubt, however, that any such expressions are likely to have quite the same longevity or permanent value as that achieved by the Church Fathers.   

    The baptism and transformation of classical philosophy is perhaps most in evidence in the categories of essence, hypostasis, and energy which are indeed, in the strictest sense of the term, canonized terms—confirmed, that is, by both Ecumenical and General councils of the Orthodox Church. I stick therefore to my claim that these are the only properly authoritative theological categories that we should use when we wish to speak precisely and correctly of God and God’s self-giving activity in the world. God is love, wisdom, goodness, power, truth and the like in these three ways (as essence, hypostasis, and energy) and not otherwise. Bulgakov himself recognised that there was a great difference between the dogmatic pronouncements of the Church (very much including this terminology) and the more expansive realm of dogmatic theology.3 Doubtless there is much to color in (but not “color beyond,” to borrow a phrase from Gallaher) as to the meanings, implications, and nuances of such terminology but such terminology provides us with some necessary boundaries within which to work much as the iconographic tradition provides certain parameters within which the iconographer may exercise considerable freedom (cf. 6). 

    Does this mean we have yet to “catch up” with Bulgakov? I think not. Even Bulgakov, struggling to express his “free-floating” notion of Sophia (cf. 240) takes the traditional dogmatic categories mentioned as his starting point while moving, somewhat awkwardly, well beyond them to define her as not a hypostasis but a principle capable of hypostasisation (cf. 37, fn 47; 52). I do not, in short, think that we need, let alone will ever see, a new dogmatic category or new dogmatic terminology for Sophia as neither created nor uncreated, or both created and uncreated, not least because this particular union without confusion (between the created and the uncreated) is already perfectly held within the person or hypostasis of wisdom incarnate, that is, within Christ.

    Discussion of fidelity and creativity with respect to patristic tradition can, of course, easily become a little abstract thus it is very welcome that Professor Gallaher has provided us with two “test cases,” as it were: the application of the terminology of Trinitarian theology to human persons and the idea of God’s self-revelation to himself. In the first case there is a rich scriptural base to work with right from the beginning of Genesis with human beings, male and female (arguably the first society), being made according to the image and likeness of the triune God. One also finds a great deal in figures such as SS Gregory the Theologian, Augustine, Symeon the New Theologian, and Gregory Palamas on various threefold vestiges or structures within man or on the ways in which humans might or might not image the Trinity. Here we might also mention great icons such as Rublev’s Trinity which can certainly inform our understanding of relational being in God and, by extension, the world. Certainly, none of this this is yet the kind of thing that Fr. Brandon points us to—and here modern notions of the person have certainly proved helpful—but there is certainly plenty to work with from Scripture as mediated and understood within patristic tradition, plenty to unpack, plenty to “color in,” plenty to unfold, plenty to think creatively and faithfully with. This is not, to my mind, at all the case with the second example. The idea of God revealing himself to himself as love and that love constituting the “ousia-Sophia” seems to me not only absent from Scripture and patristic tradition but positively contrary to both. There is, in short, nothing whatsoever to work with. On the other hand, the idea of the world as God’s self-revelation (as opposed to God’s self-revelation to himself) receives ample testimony in Scripture and patristic tradition as regularly noted in the book (e.g. 77, 110, 117, 126, 138-39, 141-42, 176, 185)  It seems to me that this self-revelation is perfectly sufficient to underpin the kind of sacralised vision of the cosmos that Professor Gallaher rightly envisages and commends.

    I look forward, God willing, to discussing these and many other issues with Fr. Brandon for many years to come and thank him once again for his wonderfully rich response.

    1. This is now published: Nicholas Sakharov, I Love, Therefore I am: The theological legacy of Archimandrite Sophrony (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002).

    2. “Between Rigorism and Relativism: The Givenness of Tradition.” Essay posted on on 25th May 2017.

    3. See his 1937 essay, “Dogma and Dogmatic Theology,” in Tradition Alive: On the Church and the Christian Life in Our Time – Readings from the Eastern Church, ed. Michael Plekon, trans. P. Bouteneff (Lanham, MD: Sheed & Ward, 2003) 67–80.

Regula Zwahlen


Sophiology as Modern Theological Anthropology

“Truth is attained through the honest, free, and loyal confrontation of ideas.”1 That is how Prof. Sergei Bulgakov would open his seminars on economics and social sciences at the beginning of the twentieth century. Therefore, he would be delighted about this book by Marcus Plested, who offers a thorough and sympathetic account of the pros and cons of Bulgakov’s Sophiology from a patristic point of view, guided by the sincere intention to “hold on to what is good” (1 Thess 5:21). Moreover, Plested situates modern Russian Sophiology within the much broader and “dazzling scope of Christian wisdom reflection” (224), that has somehow fallen out of focus because of the overwhelmingly negative reception of Sophiology by Bulgakov’s “neo-patristic” colleagues, and against the background of the heated church-political atmosphere of Russian Orthodox intellectuals in exile. 

Plested’s main question is “whether or to what extent (Bulgakov’s) Sophiology is grounded in patristic tradition.” However, one should bear in mind that this is not Bulgakov’s main question or goal. Bulgakov’s recourse to patristic theology is a method, not an end in itself. Therefore, on the one hand, Plested’s answer that “Sophiology is clearly rooted in patristic tradition, but only up to a point” (230), is not surprising. On the other hand, Plested convincingly shows how Sophiology “misses a great deal from the tradition – not least from the Bible” (230) and demonstrates that Bulgakov could have even amplified his own arguments by more thoroughly studying both Christian wisdom reflection in the Greek East and in the Latin West, where, as Bulgakov quite polemically claimed, “Sophia never had any place” and only “constantly hovers on the brink of sophiological problems.”2 That is, of course, not true, and Plested deserves ample credit for trying to bring Sophiology out of the self-inflicted ghetto of Russian Orthodox exoticism—a fact that Bulgakov deplored3—and for locating it within the breadth of Christian theology as a whole. That is actually how Bulgakov wanted to present Sophiology, because in his view it “brings a special interpretation to bear upon all Christian teaching and dogma, beginning with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation and ending with questions of practical everyday Christianity in our time.”4

The expression “in our time” is crucial here, and in this regard, I would like to highlight that Bulgakov’s recourse to patristic theology and even his development of Sophiology are methods developed in order to answer questions of a modern theological anthropology. This fact is sometimes overshadowed by the scandals surrounding Sophiology. Moreover, Bulgakov’s Sophiology is an endeavor to engage with contemporary philosophical thought “in our time,”5 like the Church fathers did in their time, since, in his view, their “language of ancient philosophy […] is no longer our philosophical language.” He argues that: 

there is thus a voluntary (or involuntary) inevitability of the influence of contemporary philosophical thought. Dogmatists cannot avoid it. It is a kind of translation into modern language of the lexicon of the early church. The result is not a new dogmatic definition, which in its essence remains unchanged, but its philosophical interpretation, which is indispensable for a sincere philosophical internalization of dogma in our time. Without this process, a dogma will sound foreign to our thought […] This means that the theologian in point of fact is also a philosopher who must have [an appropriate equipment].6 

Therefore, in The Wisdom of God (1937), Bulgakov presented Sophiology not only as a teaching based on patristic tradition, but as “one trend of thought within Christianity, and that one which is by no means dominant in the Orthodox Church, just as, for instance, Thomism or ‘Modernism’ exists within Catholicism, or liberal ‘Jesuanism’ or Barthianism within Protestantism.”7 Bulgakov wanted to be taken seriously as an (Orthodox) theologian in his time, tackling the questions of “our modern age.”8 Hence, apart from Bulgakov’s patristic grounding, an important next step in the contextual understanding of Bulgakov’s Sophiology would be comparison with his contemporaries like Jacques Maritain, the theologians of the Catholic Renewal who also returned to the Church Fathers in order to “bring Catholic thought closer to the concerns of modern intellectual life,”9 and Protestant theologians like Karl Barth and Emil Brunner who held disputes about “natural theology” and the meaning of human culture.10 Also, Bulgakov’s book on The Wisdom of God was mainly written for an Anglican and Protestant public, and his mention of “practical everyday Christianity” alludes to the contemporary Ecumenical projects that formed the World Council of Churches in 1948. Thereby he critically emphasized, that the social cooperation of the churches and the call for a “Nicaea of Ethics” by Nathan Söderblom, recipient of the 1930 Nobel Peace Prize, could not do without finding dogmatic common ground by justifying the world in God. In Bulgakov’s view, that should and could be done by focusing on the dogma of incarnation, and he boldly presented Sophiology as a solution for overcoming Karl Barth’s “non-acceptance of the world.” For Bulgakov, the “[vital antithesis] of our [Christian] unity as something given, and at the same time, of our disunity as a fact” cannot leave “the modern Christian” in peace who must seek its resolution.11 Of course, a common focus on patristic texts could be helpful in this endeavor, since the “call to return to the sources” is known within all Christian confessions.

If Bulgakov’s recourse to patristic theology and his Sophiology were methods developed in order to answer modern theological questions—what were they? In Bulgakov’s own words: 

What was the place of man in nature, and of nature in man? What was man in the whole complex of his capacities as a thinking being, endowed with will and intellect, called to creative effort in the world, sensible to beauty and art, and capable of love, individual and social at the same time, spirit and flesh, angel and animal in one life?12

Bulgakov found that “the universal fact of the incarnation in Christ is the […] single convincing answer of philosophy to the riddle of man.”13 Here is why in answering the question “why Sophia?” we immediately see “Bulgakov the dogmatic theologian,”14 who found the single convincing answer to modern philosophical questions about human freedom and necessity, subjectivity, physical matter, creativity and social philosophy in the Chalcedonian dogma of incarnation that contains a notion of “human nature.” Therefore, “our modern age stands in need of a new apprehension of the dogmatic formulae preserved by the Church in its living tradition.”15 Bulgakov is convinced “that it is precisely our epoch […] that is called to be the Chalcedonian epoch, that is called to a new religious and theological disclosure and assimilation of this gift of the Church.”16 In his view, “our” Chalcedonian epoch should attempt a positive concept of the four negative definitions of the Chalcedonian dogma about the “unconfused, unchangeable, indivisible, and inseparable” union of divine and human natures in Christ. He believed that such an endeavor would calm down and resolve all the “exhausting” modern disputes between idealism and materialism, immanentism and transcendentalism, pantheism and theism, individualism and communism. All these “–isms” tackle just one aspect of the holistic truth of “theo-anthropology,” that was miraculously expressed, but not “theologically justified or even fully understood” by the participants of the Council of Chalcedon:17 

Do people […] sufficiently realize that this dogma in itself is not primary, but derived? In itself it presupposes the existence of absolutely necessary dogmatic assumptions in the doctrine of God and humanity, of the primordial Divine-humanity. These presuppositions are in fact unfolded in Sophiology.18

Therefore, Bulgakov’s grand “theological trilogy” was devoted to the study of God-humanity—hence to traditional Christology, that, in David Bentley Hart’s words, “allows us to think of the incarnate Logos not as a mythic demigod or divine-human chimaera composed of disparate natures, but instead as truly wholly human and wholly divine.”19

The Chalcedonian presuppositions unfolded in Bulgakov’s Sophiology are the notions of “divine nature” (ousia, and divine Sophia “as ousia revealed”20) and “human nature” (created Sophia) which are united in Christ. What is “human nature” in relation to “divine nature”? and how is their unity by incarnation even possible? That is the question Bulgakov wanted to answer, and which patristics did not, in his view, or only indirectly. It is an anthropological question—the “key question” of theological inquiry of the twenty-first century, in Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s view.21

Bulgakov’s main anthropological argument against Marxism in his early career was that only a being made in God’s image would be able to act freely, while a mere product of nature or society remains determined by its producers. Only God, by a kenotic act, is able to grant freedom to creation. Also, Bulgakov felt provoked by Ludwig Feuerbach’s claim that God was made in the image of man, and not the other way round. He agreed with Feuerbach’s “discovery” of the divine essence of man, but contested the conclusion that therefore God does not exist.22 On the contrary, Bulgakov concluded that the Christian teaching of man as God’s image and likeness reveals a God-given “inner kinship” or “essential conformity” of Creator and created human being.23 Indeed, in Russia, Gregory of Nyssa’s works, published between 1861 and 1865, and especially his exegesis of Genesis 1:26 about God’s image and likeness, accrued enormous hermeneutic value among Orthodox theologians and religious philosophers. After all, the so-called “neo-patristic turn” did not happen after Bulgakov, but already in imperial Russia in the nineteenth century when clerical academies of the Orthodox church translated and popularized thousands of patristic texts into the vernacular.24

Based on Bulgakov’s intellectual history, I argue that Bulgakov’s Sophiology can best be explained—and a “re-oriented Sophiology” best be developed25—by including the concept of the human person as God’s image and likeness, which, of course, also has “patristic grounding.” In Bulgakov’s Chapters on Trinity (1928), Bulgakov clearly puts the main focus on anthropology: 

The image of God in the human being, although darkened by sin and error, is the ontological foundation of revelation. Anthropology is the natural foundation of theology. Of course, it is incapable of substituting for revelation, but it gives the possibility of its acceptance.26 

Moreover, Bulgakov closely relates his thought to the “personalism” of this time and speaks of the “personalism of the revealed doctrine of God,” since “the whole Holy Trinity in unity says of itself: I and We.”27 On the grounds of “revealed personalism,” Bulgakov asks, as Kallistos Ware has put it: “‘What is the human person?’ What does it mean, more specifically, to be a person-in-relation according to the image of God the Holy Trinity?”28 

In Bulgakov’s anthropological concept, “Sophia” is not sort of a third item that “hovers” between Creator and creation as Plested put it (237), but it should rather be understood as a kind of “common denominator” of the Holy Trinity united by divine nature, and of human persons united by human nature, created in God’s image. Bulgakov defines the correlation between Creator and creature by the category of “co-imagedness” (soobraznost’),29 or as “some original analogy […] which yet does not overthrow all the essential difference between them.”30 Put differently, God’s creation should be rather thought of as birth, passing on of life (sophia) and setting it free, rather than production of something ontologically “other.” The “inner kinship” of divine and human nature makes incarnation possible: “The very possibility of God’s taking human nature and uniting it with his own, rests upon the essential conformity between the two; and that, in its turn, rests upon the unity in diversity of Wisdom.”31 Moreover, the Chalcedonian definition that human nature not just dissolves in Christ’s divine nature, but is “inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably” united with it, reveals the God-given ontological reality and freedom of human nature, which will not be “abolished as something unnecessary” but transfigured in the kingdom of God.32 God’s creation is personal being in His image and likeness, an “anthropocosmos.”33

In Bulgakov’s thought, Christology is inseparably connected to an “anthropo-cosmology” of human persons, who, in God’s image and likeness, freely live, act, and create by “humanizing” or “hypostasizing” the potential of God-given human nature (created Sophia), manifest in each individual’s body, but moreover in the whole of created universe, that “can become our body, its external, peripheral extension.”34 In Bulgakov’s theology of personhood, there is no juxtaposition of person (as freedom) vs. nature (nor person vs. individual), but the individual person is defined by a constant free creative relationship of her “I” (self-consciousness) towards her own and universal human nature. After the fall this relationship is mostly one of “overcoming necessity,”35 but it, first, simply defines the God-given fact of bodily existence, and second, the freedom and capability to transcend individual nature by communicating and interacting with God, other persons, and the whole of creation.


To conclude, I hope that the mentioned points and quotes demonstrate that Bulgakov (and Soloviev, maybe even Florensky) would be quite unhappy with the presentation of Sophiology as “a species of anti-modernism” (15, 238) or an “unmodern turn” (238)—maybe with good intentions to “save Bulgakov” from neo-patristic assaults. Yet Bulgakov’s “justification of religion” or of the world consisted in a strong claim that faith is a timeless human condition, that can and should inform modern, “progressive,” and enlightened worldviews. I actually believe that Bulgakov wanted to save Orthodox theology from being “distinctively unmodern” (244) and called Orthodox theologians to creatively engage with questions of their time, to “test them all and hold on to what is good.” 


  1. Nikolai Valentinov, Encounters with Lenin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), 178.

  2. Sergei Bulgakov, Sophia: The Wisdom of God, trans. by Patrick Thompson, O. Fielding, Xenia Braikevitch (New York: Lindisfarne Press, 1993), 5.

  3. Ibid., 12–13.

  4. Ibid., 13.

  5. I share Christoph Schneider’s opinion on that issue expressed during the IOTA panel on Plested’s book (IOTA mega-conference in Volos, Greece, on 11–15 January 2023). See also Theology and Philosophy in Eastern Orthodoxy. Essays on Orthodox Christianity and Contemporary Thought, ed. by Christoph Schneider (Pickwick: Eugene, OR) 2019.

  6. Sergii Bulgakov, “Dogma and Dogmatic Theology (1937),” in Tradition Alive, 79. The available English translation is wrong: “the theologian […] is also a philosopher who must have a corresponding armor against philosophy” (italics mine).

  7. Bulgakov, Sophia, 13.

  8. Ibid., 18.

  9. See Sarah Shortall, Soldiers of God in a Secular World. Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics (Harvard University Press 2021), 240.

  10. Regula Zwahlen: “Over a Beer with Barth and Bulgakov”:; see Brandon Gallaher, Freedom and Necessity in Modern Trinitarian Theology (Oxford University Press 2016), on Sergii Bulgakov, Karl Barth, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

  11. Sergii Bulgakov, “By Jacob’s Well. On the actual unity of the apparently divided Church: in prayer, faith, and sacrament (John 4:23)” [1933], in: Tradition Alive: On the Church and the Christian Life in Our Time, ed. Michael Plekon (Lanham 2003), 65.

  12. Sergius Bulgakov, “From Marxism to Sophiology,” in: Review of Religion 1, 4 (1937), 361–68: 364.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Aristotle Papanikolaou: “Why Sophia? Bulgakov the Theologian,” in: The Wheel 26/27 (2021), 14–18: 16.

  15. Bulgakov, Sophia, 18.

  16. Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, trans. by Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing 2008), 62.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Bulgakov, Sophia, 18.

  19. David Bentley Hart, “Orthodox Theology and the Inevitability of Metaphysics,” in Christoph Schneider (ed.): Theology and Philosophy in Eastern Orthodox Thought (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2019) 76–96: 95.

  20. On this see Papanikolaou, “Why Sophia,” 17f.

  21. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Orthodox Theology in the twenty-first century (Volos 2012) 25. Ware also claims “that the conciliar definitions concerning Triadology and Christology involved at many points presuppositions regarding the nature of the person, yet these presuppositions were not explicitly discussed by the Councils as an issue in its own right” (31).

  22. Regula M. Zwahlen, “Different Concepts of Personality: Nikolaj Berdjaev and Sergej Bulgakov,” in Studies in East European Thought 64, 4–4 (2012), 183–204: 186, 188.

  23. Sergii Bulgakov, Die zwei Städte, Studien zur Natur gesellschaftlicher Ideale (Münster 2020), 55–56; Bulgakov, Sophia, 88.

  24. Patrick Lally Michelson, Beyond the Monastery Walls: The Ascetic Revolution in Russian Orthodox Thought, 1814–1914 (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2017), 59, 116. It is ironic, that the somewhat “Protestant” translation projects by the clerical academies were launched in order to combat “protestantization” at the court of Alexander I.

  25. Plested’s seventh chapter offers a framework for a re-oriented sophiology.

  26. S. N. Bulgakov, “Glavy o troichnosti,” in: S. N. Bulgkakov, Trudy o troichnosti, ed. Anna Reznichenko (Moscow: OGI 2001), 54–160: 54. There is a German translation titled “Capita de trinitate”, published in 3 issues of Internationale Kirchliche Zeitschrift 1936/1945, an English translation is forthcoming.

  27. Ibid., 134.

  28. Ware, Orthodox Theology, 25.

  29. Sergii Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, Mich. 2002), 221.

  30. Bulgakov, Sophia, 85.

  31. Bulgakov, Sophia, 88. I believe this resonates well with Plested’s assertion that “the creation as a whole is a manifestation of the divine wisdom, the eternal ideas for the creation corresponding to the uncreated divine energies sustaining and underpinning the creation” (241).

  32. Bulgakov, Bride of the Lamb, 519.

  33. Protopresbyter Sergii Bulgakov: “Hypostasis and Hypostaticity: Scholia to the Unfading Light,” trans. by Brandon Anastassy Gallaher and Irina Kukota, in St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 49/1-2 (2005), 5–46.

  34. Sergei Bulgakov, Philosophy of Economy. The World as Household, trans. by Catherine Evtuhov (Yale University Press 2000), 100.

  35. Aristotle Papanikolaou, “From Sophia to Personhood. The Development of 20th Century Orthodox Trinitarian Theology,” in: Phronema 33, 2 (2018), 1–20: 9.

  • Marcus Plested

    Marcus Plested


    Plested Response to Zwahlen

    Regula Zwahlen is a learned and brilliant scholar of Bulgakov. Her response contains numerous insights and suggestions of very great value. She is right, of course, to point out that demonstration of patristic fidelity was not Bulgakov’s only or even main goal. It was rather, she argues, part of his methodology and “not an end in itself.” Leaving aside the question of whether one can detach one’s methodology from one’s goals in this way, it is worth repeating that the book’s emphasis on patristic reception is of course a function of the nature of the debate over Bulgakov’s contested legacy within modern Orthodox theology, a debate which has revolved principally around precisely this question. It has been my conviction that some resolution of this question is a prerequisite for a more balanced and nuanced appreciation of Bulgakov within the contemporary Orthodox world.

    Dr. Zwahlen is also right to emphasise the sheer contemporaneity of Bulgakov’s Sophiology and in particular his desire to engage philosophical thought “in our time” just as the Church Fathers did “in their time.” I do, as I indicated in my response to Professor Gallaher, fully acknowledge the possibility of expressing the truths of Christianity in the idioms of contemporary philosophy (or, perhaps better, philosophies) and agree this was absolutely a driving consideration for Bulgakov. Having said that, I might note that modern philosophies tend to date far more quickly than those of the ancient world which remain, as I have suggested, of perennial relevance. The prevalence of German Idealism in Bulgakov and his Sophiological forebears is, arguably, now more of an obstacle than an aid in terms of contemporary reception of his message.

    But some clarification is probably needed of what I mean by “modern,” “modernism,” and “unmodern” in this book. I consistently refer his teaching as “modern” (as in “modern Russian Sophiology”) and affirm that it is “certainly” to be seen as “modern” (15). “Modern” here is a chronological  marker and reflects, among other things, Bulgakov’s commitment to engagement with the problems of his time using the language and philosophical tools of his own time. I do, however, also call Sophiology a “species of anti-modernism.” Here, modernism in not just a chronological marker but a more metaphysical term denoting, as I put it in the book, various developments within the modern Western world including, but not limited to, “the separation of reason from revelation, overconfidence in the unaided powers of human reason and/or scientific observation, and some form of distancing, separation, or even elimination of God from the world” (15). I suggest that Bulgakov increasingly found in the Orthodox Christian tradition some of the key resources and tools with which to tackle modernism in this sense while remaining unimpeachably modern in the chronological sense. It is, as I say in the book, the beauty of Orthodox theology that it is “not conditioned by any particular time-bound historical or cultural construct” (244). “That is not to say,” as I put it elsewhere (11)that Orthodoxy does not live in or is not profoundly affected by the modern world, or that it has no answer to the problems of the modern West but, on the contrary, that it offers answers from outside the blind alleys and aporiae of modernity, from a tradition that is neither pre-modern, modern, nor postmodern but unmodern.” “Unmodern” is, thus, a non-chronological category reflecting precisely the eternal and unchanging character of the truths of Orthodox theology which each generation is called to express anew in their own context. It is in this sense that I speak of Bulgakov’s “unmodern turn” and affirm that, “At its best, Sophiology stands for a distinctly unmodern conception of the relationship of God and the world, one that stands in diametric opposition to the prevalent scientific and post-Enlightenment mindset” (11). Would Bulgakov have been unhappy with the moniker “unmodern”? Perhaps yes, in terms of sheer contemporaneity, but in the more metaphysical sense I have outlined, maybe not. Another, simpler, way of looking at all this is in terms of our common calling to be “in the world” but not “of the world” (cf. John 15:19, 17:14–16). 

    Dr. Zwahlen goes on to discuss what some of Bulgakov’s chief concerns were and rightly highlights his insistence on the necessity of our attending to the dogmatic basis of the social problems of our time. I especially appreciated her point about Sophiology “being presented as a solution for overcoming Karl Barth’s ‘non-acceptance of the world.’” Her subsequent remarks concerning the anthropological dimensions of Bulgakov’s overall project are exceptionally valuable, especially as these relate to the mystery of the incarnation expressed miraculously but, as he would have it, in unfinished form at the Council of Chalcedon.

    We then move on to one of the areas of Bulgakov’s thought that I have treated as particularly wobbly from a patristic standpoint: the primordial existence of divine-humanity underpinning and somehow sustaining the mystery of the incarnation. This primordial grounding, articulated in terms of the union of uncreated and created Sophia, is, as Zwahlen acknowledges, not founded in patristic thought. Leaving aside the various ways Bulgakov treats this primordial grounding as indispensable, and which Zwahlen discusses adroitly, it remains the case that the idea of a Sophia as a “common denominator” is a problematic notion from the point of view of Orthodox dogmatic theology not least in that it elides and eludes the traditional categories of essence, hypostasis, and energy. The notion of a primordial “common denominator” or pre-principle of unity has no ready grounding in Scripture or tradition and seems to me a wholly unwarranted intrusion into the inner workings of the godhead. It is this conviction that lies behind my insistence that we do not need to look beyond or behind Christ for the union between created and uncreated natures. As I sum it up in my constructive proposal for a reoriented Sophiology, “in him alone is eternal divine humanity” (231). For after all, in the final analysis, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 3:17). 

    In the last paragraph, Dr Zwahlen offers, in passing, a rather bold suggestion that Bulgakov’s work is characterised by “a strong claim that faith is a timeless human condition, that can and should inform modern, ‘progressive,’ and enlightened worldviews.” This gave me pause in that it looks worryingly like an attempt to recruit Bulgakov into some of the fraught social and cultural debates of our own time. Of course much depends by what exactly she means here by “progressive” and “enlightened” worldviews (and I apologise if I have mistaken her meaning) but it is rather odd to suggest that the timelessness of faith necessarily translates into a particular set of worldviews. I suspect, in fact, that many of Bulgakov’s views would seem rather conservative in our contemporary context. He was deeply opposed to many aspects of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought and had, let us not forget, first hand experience of the bloody and tyrannical consequences of some of the “progressive” movements of his own time. 

    But it is not my purpose here to litigate Bulgakov’s legacy. What I would say, in conclusion, is that a rather different approach to tradition lies behind my reception of Bulgakov and that seemingly suggested by Dr. Zwahlen. Is tradition essentially a given, something to which we must conform ourselves, or is it somehow malleable, somehow to be transcended in accordance with the dictates of historical circumstance? I think the reader will have little difficulty seeing with which approach my own sympathies lie even as I absolutely agree with her that Orthodox theologians are indeed called “to creatively engage with questions of their time, to ‘test them all and hold on to what is good.’”

     Let me close by thanking Dr. Zwahlen for her close and probing engagement with the book. She is a stellar reader of Bulgakov and I look forward to learning more from her in the future.  

Alexis Torrance


Whither Sophia? Orthodox Funambulism in the Service of the Church

I am grateful to have been included in the Syndicate discussion of Marcus Plested’s marvelous new book.

There is no better treatment of wisdom in the broad sweep of Christian tradition, and one no less that covers so much, so well, in so short a space. It provides an encyclopedic overview of East and West, early and medieval; it is tantalizing, yet also substantial, both compendious and frequently edifying.

Motivation for work:

The work is written with a much-needed combination of openness, even-handedness, and groundedness. It is motivated by the need for less stand-offishness between neo-patristic critique and Sophiology, and seeks a more charitable yet still careful re-integration of the category of divine wisdom within Orthodox theology.

Overview of work

St. Paul gives us a twofold scheme involving the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God. Marcus uses his deep and expansive reading of the Christian tradition to expand this, positing a fourfold scheme (see 2–3):

  • S0: human wisdom/learning ordered away from God.
  • S1: wisdom as craft, skill, learning, applied to realities of life, when ordered towards God, predisposes for reception and experience of divine wisdom.
  • S2: wisdom as divine gift of supernatural knowledge.
  • S3: wisdom as manifestation/appellation of God, his relation to and presence in the creation.

The importance but also controversy surrounding modern Sophiology lies in the background throughout this work, even when Sophiology is not explicitly being discussed. Marcus brings his characteristic even keel and healthy dose of dispassion to the texts, which allows him both to make fair judgments and also supply fresh insights that are overlooked by each side of the Sophiological debate. For instance, the recurring importance in the early tradition of the sapiential dimension of the category of wisdom, that is, wisdom as the day-to-day enactment of a godly life, is virtually absent in the debate. As Marcus puts it, “Sophiology remains oddly unsapiential in Bulgakov” (38). This touches on a key point, namely the tendency on both sides to sever the high-octane debates about Sophia on the dogmatic plane from the existential dimension of lived wisdom.

The bulk of the work is a tour and analysis of wisdom texts from Scripture through the patristic and medieval traditions of East and West. Every careful reader will glean a huge amount from these analyses, and will likewise pick up many memorable turns of phrase: “the religio-philosophical bear pit of second-century Alexandria” springs to mind. Marcus commends the nascent theology of divine uncreated energy in the Cappadocian Fathers as opening “the gap for Sophiology,” a gap which he argues “remains, largely thanks to Augustine, tightly shut in the Latin West” (159). Augustine is in fact pummeled on a few occasions for identifying divine wisdom or Sophia straightforwardly with the divine essence (although, perhaps somewhat ironically, Bulgakov will also make this identification in his own way). The divergence between East and West on divine wisdom “is due above all,” says Marcus, “to St. Augustine of Hippo” (152). That said, Marcus’ much-needed deep dive into subsequent Latin theology on the matter reveals a more nuanced and complex picture. I was especially taken, for instance, by his brief description of the thought of Alcuin of York on the matter. Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, for Marcus it is Thomas Aquinas who comes out on top in his assessment of the Latin Middle Ages.

Time would fail me to describe blow by blow Marcus’ analyses of such a dizzying range of figures.

Allow me instead to focus on the issue of the place of modern Orthodox Sophiology that underpins the work, and which comes to the fore in the first and last parts of the book. It should be noted that Marcus makes some key points regarding the diversity that exists within Sophiology itself: Soloviev’s Sophia is not Florensky’s, which in turn is not quite Bulgakov’s, even if there is much that joins them. Marcus appears less taken with Soloviev’s program. He discusses in some detail the background in the work of the German theologian von Baader, and I couldn’t help thinking that Soloviev comes across as von Baader to worse, as it were. Where Florensky champions St. Athanasius as a forerunner, Bulgakov champions St. Gregory Palamas, though both say we must go beyond the Fathers to arrive at a true understanding of Sophia. Sophiology, in other words, is not a monolith, even if it has a broad set of defining features (e.g. Sophia as divine but not reducible to the person of Christ and Sophia as somehow definitive of the God-world relationship). I would add also that it is hard to call Sophiology a monolith within Bulgakov’s own thought: he is so capacious a thinker as to be very hard to ever definitively pin down.

Marcus is clearly taken by much of the beauty offered in the theology of Sophia, especially Bulgakov’s, and urges his readers to give it its due. Yet his inebriation is a sober one. For each celebratory remark regarding Sophiology’s accomplishments one can find a note of caution to temper it. He tells us early on that “Sophiology, duly reconfigured, may yet prove an axis of integration of the so-called ‘Russian religious’ and ‘neo-patristic’ schools of thought” (10). This is the book’s aim, as I mentioned earlier. But then later he criticizes Sophiologists for allowing the “personification of Sophia” to prevail over “the person of Christ” (97). While he can defend the reticence to refuse to reduce the category of wisdom to Christology, he also sees a “far more dangerous problem: a docetic tendency within Sophiology as a whole in which the historical incarnation is subordinated to the principle of Sophia or divine-humanity” (97). This is, of course, a classic neo-patristic critique. 

At the end of the book, this oscillating tension between high praise for Sophiology and damning criticism is especially in evidence. To some extent, this is perhaps unavoidable for a project that seeks to reintegrate Sophiology with the wider Christian tradition in a critical and responsible manner. But it is striking nonetheless. Thus Marcus tells us bluntly that the origins of Sophiology “lie outside the patristic tradition” (224). But we then hear that “Sophiology’s unmodern turn found far more grounding in patristic tradition than its detractors were ever able to allow” (227)  and further: “Sophiology’s consistent contention that the category of wisdom cannot simply be reduced to the person of the Son has some very heavyweight support” (227). The point, I think, is that Sophiology is both unpatristic in the immediate historical context of its emergence, but that the patristic tradition nevertheless lends credibility to many of its claims. But the tension, and the need for funambulatory flair to handle it, is evident. 

In his most damning comments of Sophiology as a theological system, Marcus argues that “some of the key intuitions of Sophiology are blatantly incompatible with patristic tradition—above all the idea of wisdom as a primal other, a pre-principle of divine humanity irreducible to categories of essence and hypostasis. Sophiology is clearly rooted in patristic tradition, but only up to a point” (230). He tells us we need a “re-oriented Sophiology” with a Christological and stavrological corrective (238–39). He upholds St. Sophrony Sakharov whose theology is to Bulgakov as the theology of St. Irenaeus is to the gnostics (239). This strong critique culminates with a call for “Sophiology without Sophia,” that is, without the mythic and gnosticizing elements characteristic of Bulgakov’s contemplations of divine wisdom (239). He offers positive proposals in the final pages, a sort of manifesto for what this kind of Sophiology might look like, one resting on a more faithful reading of Palamas’s theology of divine energeia than he sees offered by Bulgakov (see 241–42). But in almost the same breath as these harsh criticisms, Marcus’s tone softens: Sophiology “reminds us that the scope of revelation is not yet closed and offers a compelling vision of a comprehensive theology that connects all aspects of human life and experience to one another and to their divine source and origin” (243). It needs not so much a corrective as a “completion” (243). Within a few pages we appear to move from Sophiology as Gnosticism to Sophiology as the “glory of modern Orthodox theology” (citing Evdokimov approvingly: 243).

The oscillation we find between the positive and negative assessments of Sophiology are, as I mentioned, surely part of what it means to grapple with such an important and difficult project of integration, synthesis, symphony, or whatever the going term is. But I did leave with the impression that the tension has not been entirely resolved. The tightrope walk is not yet over.

Together with this overarching matter, I had a few smaller questions I would like to mention briefly before giving a brief conclusion.


  1. The book posits a fourfold scheme for understanding wisdom, but the first two, S0 (wisdom ordered away from God) and S1 (wisdom in a more neutral sense of craft, skill, learning for the practicalities of life that can be ordered towards God), receive very little treatment. In fact, other than the theology of Eunomius being categorized as S0 (without much discussion), everyone else seems to escape it. And yet I do think that St. Paul’s preoccupation with the negative category of the wisdom of this world that is incommensurable with the wisdom of God (a theme developed in earnest by St Gregory Palamas), is a salutary one. Grappling with this notion sheds a rather precise light on the potential problems of Sophiology’s comfort with a rather straightforward continuum between human wisdom and divine wisdom.
  2. At several points, a claim drawing on St. Maximus is made regarding the logoi of creation and God’s eternal logoi, which in turn appears to line up with Plested’s use of the terms created and uncreated wisdom (see 176, 185, 228, 242–43). However, I think this does not quite do justice to the text of St. Maximus. The claim rests on Theological Chapters 1.48, but here St Maximus does not distinguish between created and uncreated logoi, but created and uncreated works of God. In his dense and poetic way, St. Maximus considers the divine attributes like Goodness and Wisdom to be divine works that have no beginning (or end), as opposed to creation itself which does have a beginning and an end. The logoi are not the same as these works. All the logoi are eternal and uncreated in St. Maximus, since they correspond to the eternal divine wills for all things, as he explains in Ambiguum 7. As far as I can tell, the distinction Marcus attributes to Maximus between eternal logoi and the logoi of creation is not strictly present in his thought. It deserves closer attention because this could have knock-on effects for the arguments about created and uncreated wisdom that recur in the study.
  3. As I read the book sometimes I wondered whether a little too much credence was given to the Sophiological project of detaching wisdom from the Son. Certainly, patristic theology has more to say about divine wisdom than simply to equate it with the Son and move on, but St. Paul’s lead on this is still rather important and formative for all subsequent reflection. This includes the significance of the Agia Sophia church in Constantinople (a frequent Sophiological symbol), whose connection to the nearby Agia Irene and (the admittedly more obscure) Agia Dynamis churches clearly reflects a primarily Pauline impulse identifying Christ as the Wisdom, Peace, and Power of God. One must also reckon with the fact that Byzantines often referred to the Church of Hagia Sophia as the church or temple of “the Wisdom of the Word of God” [τῆς τοῦ Θεοῦ Λόγου Σοφίας], or simply equated Agia Sophia with “church/temple of the Word of God.” This is not to say that the identification of holy wisdom with the Son of God is all that can be said. Theology of course can go further than this (e.g. in discussions of divine wisdom as a common energy of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), but this cannot be done by wresting the theology of divine Sophia from its assumed Christological foundation.
  4. Finally, I was intrigued by Marcus’s repeated appeal to Sophiology and Orthodox theology as a whole as distinctly “unmodern” rather than pre-modern, modern, or post-modern (see 34ff., 227, 238, 244). It is in some ways a neat way of bypassing many vexed problems with this kind of terminology in theology. But is “unmodern” a fully accurate or appropriate moniker here? Certainly, the relationship of Orthodox theology to modernity is different from many other types of theology, especially Western theology, but I’m not sure this makes it “unmodern.” The term seems a little too aloof, a little too disconnected from reality. If we simply mean that Orthodox theology strives to be “ever ancient, ever new,” I think I get it. It’s certainly a term that prompts further discussion.


Despite these few general and specific questions that bubbled up as I read this magnificent volume, as a whole I think this is just the kind of book we need right now. It offers a serious and charitable reading of Sophiology, but without falling head over heels in utter bewitchment. To some readers, he will perhaps be read as a straightforward vindicator of Sophiology as a traditional and longstanding form of Christian thought. To others, as a neo-patristic operative, courageously attempting to vaccinate the masses with a mild Sophiology, one that may bring with it minor symptoms, but at least prevents the serious and fatal illness that can come with courting and welcoming the myth of Sophia into the heart of dogmatic Orthodox theology. Whatever the case, scholarly care and theological insight present on each page of the work demonstrate a wisdom worthy of imitation. It is a wisdom, as he tells us in his concluding paragraphs, that does not conceive of Orthodox theology as “the preserve of the solitary practitioner, however gifted,” but which offers and attunes itself to the larger body, the mind of the Church (243). This involves, as he again says, “a disciplined and non-eclectic reading of scripture and tradition” (244). In a time where undisciplined, eclectic, and indeed unwise, readings of Scripture and tradition have tended to proliferate, often pushed by this or that “lone genius” or self-proclaimed authority, Marcus’s ecclesial book serves as an exemplar of what wise theology can look like. 

  • Marcus Plested

    Marcus Plested


    Plested Response to Torrance

    I have to admit that I was a stranger to the term “funambulism” (“tightrope-walking”) but find it an apt descriptor for the delicate balancing-act that this book attempts and which Fr. Alexis Torrance describes and sums up so succinctly. Among other things, he appreciates the occasional turn of phrase in the book and, doubtless as a way of putting the “fun” into funambulism, engages in some scintillating wordplay of his own: “Von Baader to worse” still has me chuckling!  

    Professor Torrance’s account of the book’s character and chief aims is, as I say, brilliantly lucid. I was delighted by his thoroughgoing enthusiasm for the project and by some of the things he picked out, not least the treatment of the Latin tradition largely overlooked by the Sophiologists. Of course the balancing act needs a resolution to be fully successful and this is attempted in the last chapter and in particular the “framework for a re-oriented sophiology” (241–42) which Torance correctly sees as “a sort of manifesto.” This framework is intended precisely as a way of retaining modern Russian Sophiology’s most precious insights while dispensing with its more problematic elements. But this framework is, as I say, “just the beginning” and “much more remains to be built on it” (225). Doubtless there are areas of ongoing tension, as Professor Torrance observes, areas to be further resolved and clarified. Whether this is a question of continuing the balancing act or some new feat of dexterity is another question. As I suggest here, I see the ongoing task more as one of building. 

    But let us not get too bogged down in metaphors. In the latter part of the response, Professor Torrance raises some very pertinent questions which are tremendously helpful as I, and I hope others, continue to build on the work accomplished in this book. Firstly, S0: human wisdom apart or away from God—the kind of wisdom excoriated by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians. In my defence, I must point out that there is perhaps more in the book on S0 than Professor Torrance seems to allow. I see it, for example, in my treatments of the Epistle to Diognetus (105), Tatian (108), Tertullian (109), the pseudo-Clementines (114), Clement of Alexandria (123-24), Origen (133), Athanasius (139), Gregory the Theologian (146), Macarius (161-62), and Bernard (212). And of course, it also comes up in a big way in my treatment of Palamas (especially 182-83). Here I make the claim that the kind of wisdom most routinely written off and attacked by St. Gregory, especially in his more polemical works, is precisely S0 and that he is does indeed have a place for properly-ordered human wisdom (S1) albeit certainly not in any sort of “straightforward continuum” with divine wisdom such as Torrance detects within modern Russian Sophiology.

    The second question regarding Maximus’ doctrine of the logoi is a brilliant one and time would fail to give an adequate response. I do indeed (176) speak both of the logoi of creation and the eternal logoi contemplated around the essence. I also bring Centuries on Theology I.48 into my discussion of Maximus’ signature doctrine. In this passage, Maximus suggests that we may distinguish between acts (or “works”: erga) of God relating to the creation (works that have a beginning) and acts relating to his eternal being (works that do not have a beginning). I do indeed take this passage to be pertinent to Maximus’ teaching on the logoi but in none of the references to my book mentioned (or anywhere else, to the best of my knowledge) do I suggest that this distinction corresponds to a distinction between created and uncreated logoi, and still less between created and uncreated wisdom. In the first place, the logoi of creation are themselves to be seem as uncreated (cf. “eternally willed,” 176; “eternal and therefore uncreated,” 228). Whether the acts of God in the world (works that have a beginning) referenced in CT I.48 should be understood as created effects or as pointing to the eternal and uncreated logoi underpinning and sustaining the creation is another matter.

    The chief claim I make in relation to CT I.48 is that the reference to eternal acts helps us to understand the eternal logoi contemplated around the essence—in other words, the question of divine attributes. Torrance writes, “Maximus considers the divine attributes like Goodness and Wisdom to be divine works that have no beginning (or end), as opposed to creation itself which does have a beginning and an end. The logoi are not the same as these works.” In CT I.48 Maximus indeed tentatively suggests that these eternal acts (or “works”) can “perhaps” be identified with “goodness and all that is encompassed by the principle (logos) of goodness” (he does not mention wisdom) and in general “all that is contemplated around the essence.” Elsewhere he writes that such divine attributes (he mentions goodness and love, but again not wisdom) are precisely to be numbered as among the “highest logoi that are “contemplated around God” (Ambigua 10:51 1204D). The fact that the divine attribute of goodness, in particular, is considered as both one of the highest logoi and as an eternal divine act suggests that the notions of act and logos cannot be entirely disassociated from one another in the context of the discussion of the divine attributes. Maximus is, as Torrance says, a “dense and poetic” figure, and one whose terminology is not always consistent. Sometimes one has to interpret Maximus through Maximus which is essentially what I was attempting to do in bringing CT I.48 into my discussion of the divine logoi. All this, of course, deserves more attention and I look forward to thrashing it out further.

    I freely admit Maximus’ teaching on the logoi undoubtedly pertains largely to the uncreated logoi of creation with the category of higher or more exalted logoi pertaining to the essence being a more occasional reference point. In distinguishing between them I seek only to explicate Maximus’ teaching on the logoi and certainly not to suggest a real distinction between them. In any event, nothing whatsoever in my argument hangs on there being a significant  distinction in this respect. Where there is a significant distinction in Maximus is between the uncreated logoi and the uncreated essence—a distinction I see as foreshadowing the Palamite distinction (cf. 176). Here we might note that Palamas himself appeals to CT I.48 to support his doctrine of the divine energies (e.g. in his 150 Chapters, 88). 

    But we are in danger of missing my main point about Maximus’ teaching on wisdom. As I have already noted, in neither of the passages under discussion just now (CT I.48 and Ambigua 10.51) mention wisdom. Indeed, as the book puts it, “Maximus does not explicitly construe wisdom as one of the logoi around the essence or indeed as one of the logoi of creation” (177). Wisdom is, in Maximus, a cosmological, Christological, and pneumatological category understood chiefly in terms of the return of the logoi to God. As I express it in the book: “if the logoi are the means by which God extrapolates himself in the world of multiplicity then wisdom is the means by which God returns the creation to himself in utter simplicity” (177–81). This is really the nub of the matter.

    Time is indeed beginning to fail and I must deal with points three and four more briefly. Certainly, there is no question in my mind of wresting the theology of the divine wisdom from its Christological foundation even as one seeks to emphasise the wider dimensions of the question. And as for “unmodern,” I have attempted to answer that question in my response to Dr. Zwahlen. It is absolutely not intended to suggest aloofness or disconnection from our world but rather a call to engage with the world without being conformed to it and, yes, on the basis of a theology which is precisely “ever ancient, ever new.”

    Finally, let me thank Fr. Alexis for his elegant, generous, and subtly probing response. The closing remark about “wise theology” is perhaps the highest praise I can hope to receive. 

Paul Blowers


Russian Sophiology and Retrieval

Marcus Plested is not only a prolific interpreter of patristic literature but also an astute critical reader of modern Eastern Orthodox theology, so he is ably positioned to compose a monograph on whether and how the modern Russian sophiologists (Vladimir Soloviev, Pavel Florensky, Sergius Bulgakov, et al.) engaged, positively and negatively, their ancient Christian forebears’ project of distinguishing and relating divine Wisdom and human wisdom. Russian Sophiology is certainly a foreign territory to many Western Christian readers, so Plested provides, on the front end, a substantive introduction to this intellectual group. But the bulk of the book is an inventory of patristic “sophiologists” that repeatedly raises questions of the Russians’ fidelity to, criticism of, and movement beyond their ancient authority. Bulgakov holds privileged place because of his extensive reading of the Fathers; Gregory Palamas holds privileged place since, especially for Bulgakov, he represents the zenith of patristic Sophiology.

Challenging Plested’s study, not to mention the people he’s studying, is the fact that S/sophia has been far from transparent or monovalent in classical, biblical, patristic, and later sophiological usage. From a purely semantic standpoint, wisdom is a veritable leviathan. In Christian usage, S/sophia has taken on something of a life of “her”—or his or its—own. A taxonomy is necessary for perspectival coherence, and, particularly because he applies it throughout his book, Plested’s basic four-fold schema of Sophia-discourse is a helpful rubric:  S0, human wisdom on its own apart from God; S1, prudential human wisdom or philosophia ordered toward God and opening human beings to a higher divine gift of wisdom; S2, wisdom as a divinely bestowed gift of supernatural knowledge or instruction (paideia); and S3, Wisdom as theophanic attribute or divine energeia. Each one of these, of course, is complex by itself and in its relation to the other three. At the divine level (S3), for example, one question is whether wisdom has a priority all its own, as an eternally creative and salvific resourcefulness (such as how Origen privileges it among the divine Logos’s epinoiai, or revelatory aspects), or, like love, is the perfect intersection of many divine attributes, connecting grace or mercy, providence, forbearance, faithfulness, et al., all of which are intrinsically simultaneous in God. The latter would certainly support, at the human and ascetical level, the mutual insinuation of the virtues that was so important to numerous early Christian moralists and to some of their Graeco-Roman counterparts.

This is a book with many conversations going on at the same time, largely because there is no even or collective retrieval of patristic sources in the Russian sophiologists. Their work of retrieval is often very spotty business. What provides consistency and continuity across Plested’s presentation, in my judgment, is his gravitation to distinct guideposts and leitmotifs, without which the middle chapters would become overly discrete and survey-driven. I will limit my comments to identifying some of these since the success of the book significantly depends on them.

First is the perennial elephant in the room, the matter of allegiance to the insights of the Bible, where wisdom (חָכְמָה; σοφία) already has a vitality within and beyond the specific genre of wisdom literature. The Bible as a whole seems to be in conversation with itself over who or what wisdom essentially is, but in Plested’s overall account, patristic and Russian sophiologists alike were thoroughly content that Holy Scripture did not try to nail down the definition of W/wisdom, conceding to it its own self-revelatory prerogative. Wisdom in the OT manifested both as a quasi-divine hypostasis (Prov 8; Wis Sol; Sirach) and as the crowning gift of morality and piety, while the NT introduced the idea that Jesus Christ was the ultimate teacher and embodiment of divine wisdom. Many patristic authors picked up on all of these, while, as Plested indicates, the Russians were far more selective, sometimes even arbitrary, in gleaning from biblical wisdom texts. The Russians were captivated with the mystique of the feminine hypostatization of wisdom in some OT texts, and yet ignored much of the tradition, while in the NT they became enthralled with John’s Apocalypse as a “paean to Sophia” (94–96). Plested does not hold back his critique: the Russian sophiologists, in their mythologizing of Sophia, risked “a functional disavowal of the primal significance of the incarnation” in the divulgence of divine Wisdom (97).     

A second leitmotif, a crucial center of gravity in Plested’s monograph, is the precise divine status of Wisdom (S3), since this was the object of such heavy speculation in patristic and medieval sources and in Russian Sophiology. Was Wisdom of the very divine essence, or rather an attribute or energeia, radiating from the divine essence but distinctive from it in God’s self-revelation to creation? Was Wisdom to be identified with a specific person of the Trinity, namely the Son or else the Holy Spirit? Closely related, however, was the Christological question. To what extent did the incarnate Son, as “the power and wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24) who united uncreated and created wisdom, provide the supreme access to divine Wisdom and the true fulcrum of a viable Christian Sophiology?    

As I see it in Plested’s study, most of these were make-or-break considerations in the Russian sophiologists’ patristic retrieval. The regular benefit of the historic speculations about divine Wisdom is that they helped bring to a head Christian thinking on divine transcendence and immanence, on the relation between metaphysics and the sophianic mythos, on the conditions under which divine self-revelation becomes perceptible by creatures, and on the whole mapping of the relation of uncreated and created reality. One of Plested’s most important observations—valuable for its insight into patristic philosophical theology itself and not just the critical appropriation of that legacy by the Russians—is the contrast elicited between those thinkers (Augustine, most notably) who insisted on Wisdom as absolutely intrinsic to the divine essence and properly basic to divine simplicity (156–57), and those (like Basil of Caesarea, and even Origen) who associated Wisdom eternally with the inaccessible divine essence but refused to equate them so as not to breach divine simplicity. Augustine’s advantage was that he could identify Father, Son, and Holy Spirit concurrently as the very essence of divine Wisdom. Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and others, being so deeply influenced by Athanasius’s interpretation of the persona of Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22 as referring to the Son and his incarnational kenosis, instead ascribed Wisdom principally to the hypostasis of the Son or Logos, though without precluding Wisdom in naming the Holy Spirit. The advantage here, it seems, was to connect Wisdom to the divine essence as one of the divine names or “glories” or energies, while also accentuating the hypostatic freedom, especially but not exclusively of the Son, in revealing divine Wisdom. Here, of course, was the groundwork for later Byzantine theologians like Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, and Gregory Palamas, more fully to articulate the essence/energies distinction that would fertilize Eastern Orthodox theology for centuries to come.

The irony is that, in their free-spiritedness and urgency to avoid dogmatic repetition of ancient perspectives, and their collective aversion to “limiting” Sophia to the Son (as if that threatened the feminine persona of Sophia or left out the Spirit), the Russian Sophiologists significantly missed the range and nuance in patristic Sophiology.  

Another powerful leitmotif in the Russians’ encounter with the Fathers was the role of Sophia “in between” (μεταξύ) Creator and creation, including the interrelation between the pure freedom of God to be immanent in the creation, and the converse participation of creation (ontologically and morally) in the uncreated God. In Florensky’s words, “Sophia is the Great Root by which creation goes into the intra-Trinitarian life…” (29). Or again, “Sophia is God’s presence in the world and the world’s presence in God” (31). The focus here turns more to Sophia’s creative and salvific mediation. Plested mentions more than once the Russians’ affinity for patristic authors who had christened the Platonic connection of Wisdom with the eternal divine “ideas,” the archetypes of the world. Bulgakov recognized, however, that neither this construct, nor the notion of an ad hoc creation ex nihilo, was adequate to describe the self-investment of divine Sophia, indeed of the divine essence itself, in creation. In The Lamb of God, Bulgakov found compelling Maximus the Confessor’s notion (shared with Dionysius and Eriugena) that the “nothing” from which God created the world was itself the essence of God which is “no-thing” in a hierarchy of being. The no-thing is Wisdom. Additionally, Bulgakov was drawn more than any other Russian sophiologist to Maximus’s highly developed conception of the logoi of creation as eliciting the Creator’s self-investment in the cosmos. He even called Maximus’s “logology” essentially a “Sophiology.” My own disappointment is that Bulgakov did not pursue Maximus’s logology in much more depth, and it is enhanced all the more by the fact that Plested, in the present book and in a previously published essay, has furnished a marvelous analysis of the different strands (including the doctrine of logoi) that aggregately form Maximus’s intensely Christocentric Sophiology.  

I will conclude with a few remarks on the overall impact of Plested’s monograph. For scholars of early Christianity, for medievalists as well, this book is now the indispensable guide into the many faces of W/wisdom in patristic thought. But this hardly sums it up. Wisdom in Christian Tradition is also, at one level, a highly sophisticated but also fiercely critical apologia of the Russian sophiologists’ project, especially Bulgakov’s, as he is so profoundly representative of the promise and problems in the Russians’ patristic retrieval. While Plested builds on Florovsky’s critique, he goes far beyond it in specifying the many factors in play besides fidelity to dogmatic tradition. Plested grants generous room for Bulgakov’s own speculative venture into the identity of Sophia, which was a heuristic task still going on by the end of Bulgakov’s career. Yet Plested does not back away from fully displaying the tension between theological logos and sophianic mythos in Bulgakov, a tension in which contemplating the mystery of Sophia threatened to become more exotic than heuristic.

As far as Bulgakov was concerned, patristic Sophiology, even in Palamas, was incomplete. Bulgakov’s attempts to remedy this deficiency produced some astounding insights and amount to a truly breath-taking theological achievement. Where Bulgakov becomes unstuck, and his work more like papier maché than solid rock, is where he attempts to go beyond anything that can be readily grounded in that tradition—for instance in his ruminations on God’s self-revelation to himself as wisdom, on Sophia as a divine realm of ideas somehow distinct from the Trinitarian persons, and especially on Sophia as a principle subsisting in multiple created and uncreated forms but reducible to neither (240).

Plested’s parting shot, proffering a “reoriented Sophiology” (238–44), will doubtless stimulate ongoing discussion of the prospective bridges between patristic and modern Christian Sophiology. Though he is shy to suggest this reorientation as an ultimate correction of Bulgakov or the other Russian exponents of Sophia, Plested’s recommendation is clearly informed by his repeated and detailed investigations of their shortcomings, in particular Bulgakov’s failure more fully to plumb Gregory Palamas. The upshot is an exemplary retrieval of Plested’s own (241–43), centered on the need to envision Sophia unabashedly according to divine essence, hypostasis, and energy alike; to strengthen understanding of its Trinitarian matrix; to fortify the notion of Wisdom’s insinuation “between” (μεταξύ) Creator and creation through the divine energies; to reclaim Wisdom’s role in calling all of creation back to God (a deifying movement); to recognize the Theotokos as herself the “boundary” (μεθόριον) between uncreated and created nature; to enhance human participation in divine Wisdom through all manner of human knowledge, learning, and skill. But most impactful, in my humble judgment, is Plested’s insistence that this reoriented Sophiology would recover the centrality of the incarnation and the cross (Christology and stavrology) for fathoming the divine Wisdom, as well as the role of the Church in hosting Sophia’s self-manifestations. Indeed, Plested’s reoriented Sophiology, carries extensive implications for virtually every aspect of ecclesial life: liturgical, sacramental (and mystical), pastoral, ethical, and so on. My strong hope is that it will be read and discussed beyond Eastern Orthodox audiences, since it is bound to bear fruit for the renewal of contemporary ecumenical theology.


  • Marcus Plested

    Marcus Plested


    Plested Response to Blowers

    It is a great honor to have a leading patristics scholar attend so meticulously to the principal structures and themes of this book on the patristic roots of modern Russian Sophiology. Professor Paul Blowers offers a wonderfully astute and lucid take on the book that admirably pinpoints some of its key contributions and does so, very helpfully, from a Western Christian perspective. My main response, therefore, is one of gratitude coupled with a distinct sense that he has expressed some things more clearly than I managed myself.

    Professor Blowers is, of course, spot-on in describing Sophia as a “veritable leviathan” with a life of “her” own, a wide-ranging set of concepts and images that is “far from transparent or monovalent in classical, biblical, patristic, and later sophiological usage.” It is, in this respect, very heartening to see quite how valuable an organising principle Professor Blowers has found the taxonomy of wisdom that I developed for this book ranging from S0 (merely human wisdom, apart from God) to S3 (wisdom as divine attribute or operation). In respect of S3 he poses the question as to whether wisdom has a priority all of its own (as it does, for example, in Origen), perhaps as “an eternally creative and salvific resourcefulness,” or whether, like love, it is better conceived as “the perfect intersection of many divine attributes.” Here I would suggest that there is indeed a certain priority to the notion of wisdom as applied to God, not least because of the sheer weight of biblical, philosophical, patristic, and later theological reflection on the topic, an idea of which is given in the book. Wisdom is, I would suggest, a somewhat more definite category than, for example, love, with a rather unique and distinctive capacity to encompass whole drama of salvation encompassing God’s own being as wisdom (according to essence, hypostasis, and energy), his providential ordering of the cosmos in wisdom, the crucifixion and resurrection of wisdom incarnate, and the deifying union of the creature with the Creator in and through wisdom. This is not, of course, to say that the drama of salvation cannot be understood in terms of love, still less that wisdom is more important than love. As Blowers points out, each of the divine attributes is “simultaneous” with the others. But while fully accepting that each of the attributes entails the others I would want to underline, not against Blowers but against the prevailing Western notion of divine simplicity, that they are not identical with one another (and still less are they identical with the essence). Thus we are perfectly entitled, in line with Scripture much of the patristic tradition, especially the Greek patristic tradition, to accord a certain priority to the notion of wisdom as conveying a distinct quality of the salvific relationship between the Creator and creation, all the while affirming that wisdom is inseparable from love, goodness, power, and indeed all the “glories pertaining to the essence.” 

    Blowers goes on rather helpfully to identify some of the key unifying themes of the book, notably the consistent reference back to the scriptural matrix and the overarching question of the divine character of wisdom (whether according to essence, hypostasis, or energy). This second leitmotif of course involves the notion of divine simplicity, construed rather differently in Greek East and Latin West.

    In the remaining sections, Blowers shows himself to be a discerning critic of modern Russian Sophiology, recognising its importance while also acknowledging its flaws, notably with respect to its limited and unnuanced engagement with patristic Sophiology. Blowers is, of course, one of the foremost Maximus scholars in the world and his comments on the Maximian dimension of the question are especially illuminating. In the book, I put forward a considerably more extensive and expansive treatment of Maximus’ Sophiology than that which I was able to convey in the context of a short communication to the Oxford Patristics Conference some twenty years ago.1 I am very encouraged to have Professor Blowers’ stamp of approval on my treatment of Maximus’ intensely Christocentric (and indeed, as I argue there, simultaneously Spirit-centered) Sophiology. 

    Professor Blowers closes with some remarks on the overall significance of the book and on its “parting shot,” its framework for a reoriented Sophiology. Here, I am particularly glad to note his homing-in onto the centrality of the incarnation and the cross, and to the ecclesial matrix in which these mysteries are received, within this proposal for a renewed Sophiology. This is indeed the heart of the matter.

    Finally, as regards his hope for widespread engagement with this book well beyond Eastern Orthodox confines, I can only say, “Amen!” and thank him for offering such a generous and incisive contribution to precisely that discussion. 

    1. “Wisdom in St Maximus the Confessor,” in Studia Patristica 42 (Leuven: Peeters, 2006), 2059.

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