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.