Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bulgakov, Negative Theology, and the Incarnation (UPDATED)

Novgorod Icon of the Wisdom of God
(Hagia Sophia)
I have found Sergius Bulgakov a fascinating thinker since encountering his work a couple years back. He is by no means the most significant theological influence on my thought, but he was a fascinating, deep and original thinker.  I appreciate his fidelity to traditional theological categories and formulations, combined with an occasionally radical willingness to press at the weak points of those same formulas.  For example, it was in reading Bulgakov I first realized that the Hypostatic union is not really an explanation of how the incarnation happens. Bulgakov attempted to answer that question of 'how' the incarnation happened in his study of Christology, The Lamb of God. What does it mean to speak of a personal union of the divine and the human?

Which brings me to exactly the critical point I want to make. I was browsing through The Lamb of God the other day, and ran across this quote.

The fundamental question of Christology is: how can one understand the union of the two natures, divine and human, in the one hypostasis of the Logos not only from the negative side, as it is defined in the Chalcedonian dogma (with it's four negatives: inconfusably, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably) but also from the positive side? we know what the Chalcedonian 'no' is, but what is the 'yes'? (Lamb of God. Tr. Jakim. Grand Rapids; Eerdmans. 2008. 444)
Bulgakov wants to expand clarify the Chalcedonian definition, which while true, expresses the union of divine and human natures in Christ in generally negative terms, affirming that the Church confesses:
one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence,  not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ. (Translation taken from The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church. New York; Church Publishing. 1979. 864)
In other words, Christ is one person (hypostasis) with two distinct natures, that are not mixed up to create some third, new nature.  There is no explanation about how this could be, simply that it is, and that we must deny either that Christ is two distinct persons (the Eternal Word and Jesus of Nazareth) who are closely united, or that Christ is a sort of mingling of divinity and humanity.

Of course, this is a creedal statement, not a philosophical treatise.  The point is to state clearly what the Orthodox position is, and not even to provide an argument for it. Even turning to the theological treatises of the Fathers, however, we find that in general the union of the two natures in Christ is simply described as 'ineffable.'  Bulgakov sees this as evading the question.   He is particularly critical, for example, of Cyril of Alexandria since "To seek refuge in the idea that the union of the two essences surpasses human understanding is, of course, inappropriate for a theologian who made this the main subject of his investigation" (The Lamb of God. 30).  So in other words, what Bulgakov wants to do is really answer the question: how can Christ be both Perfectly God and Man, without confusion, change, etc.?

At first glance, Bulgakov's question it is not unreasonable, and when I first read The Lamb of God two years ago it struck a chord and the urgency of this theological problem seemed self-evident. Now, I find myself wondering whether it is even really a good question.

His question expresses some of the greatest strengths and weaknesses of Bulgakov's approach. It shows his admirable desire to both respect and deepen the theological formulations that have been handed on by Tradition.  It shows also, his ability to formulate probing and clear questions that illuminate the lacunae in those formulations.  On the other hand, betrays what seems to be a characteristic and problematic lack of appreciation for the real significance of 'negative' theology.

He goes on to propose that there must be some bridge, some unity between the divine and the human that permits the union of two natures in Christ.  Unsurprisingly if you know Bulgakov at all, this bridge is Sophia.  Sophia is an elusive figure in Bulgakov's thought, occasionally identified with the divine essence or ousia.  She is emphatically not a fourth person in the godhead, but neither is she a mere impersonal abstraction, because nothing in God is impersonal.  She is rather, that in God which is necessarily expressed personally, i.e., in the persons of the Trinity.  If this seems confusing, that's because it is.  Sophiology is what got Bulgakov in trouble. For my part I think you can read Bulgakov in an orthodox way, I can understand why the Russian Orthodox hierarchy generally disagrees.  His language is slippery and every time I think I have a handle on just what he means by speaking of Sophia, his meaning seems to shift ever so slightly.

In any case, Sophia is the bridge in his thought.  Sophia is the image in which man (and by extension the World) are created.  When the Bible speaks of man as created in the image of God, Sophia is that image.  She is the plan according to which creation is laid out.  There is thus a distinction between Sophia as the uncreated divine-world and Sophia as the created world of Becoming.  This is not, in basic outline, all that different from saying that the created world is an image of the uncreated, divine plan; other theologians might speak of divine ideas or logoi, rather than Sophia.  This has certain biblical resonances, as the Bible speaks of Sophia in an architectonic role at the creation (e.g., Prov. 8:22-31).  These passages are generally given a Christological reading, of course.

How does this explain the hypostatic union?  "[Christ's] two natures are the Divine Sophia and the Creaturely Sophia... one and the same principle in two forms, divine fullness and creaturely becoming" (Lamb of God. 445).  Essentially, Bulgakov seems to be saying there must be some common principle between the divine and human natures in Christ, or they will be locked in hopeless contradiction.  This is an almost unstated presupposition of Bulgakov's Christology.

Is this true though?  Bulgakov wants to establish a unity between God and Man on the basis of similarity, and is perpetually on the verge of suggesting a unity on the basis of identity.  This is due in part to Bulgakov's pervasive lack of appreciation for negative or apophatic theology.  For the robustly apophatic theologian, the hypostatic union is not a problem. The Chalcedonian statement is necessarily negative in it's approach, because ultimately no explanation of the sort that Bulgakov wants can be given. Were such an explanation to be given, it would collapse into incoherence. He is correct to seek a deeper theological explanation of what the Definition confesses.  But a true deepening comes not by replacing the negative statements of the Fathers, but explaining why the negative, apophatic approach is actually necessary.

Bulgakov speaks more than occasionally as if the Divine and Human nature were two things, related to each other extrinsically. God and creatures, however do not operate on a 'flat plane' to steal Sarah Coakley's phrase, or like two objects in a room, of which God is the bigger, more powerful being. If that were the case, the divine nature would be always threatening to displace the human, because two things cannot exist in the same place at the same time. Indeed, even apart from the issues around the incarnation, this view sets up an inevitable conflict between creator and creature that could never be resolved except by one being absorbed into the other.

But to solve this problem we need an understanding of God's transcendence that is not "a merely quantifiable relationship between extrinsically related objects," but an infinite qualitative difference. Such an infinite qualitative difference is necessarily expressed through two interrelated theological modes of speech: the apophatic and the analagous.  God is so totally unlike creatures, that we must express that difference through a radical negation of created categories. God's transcendence is such that he is so radically different from creatures, that even difference is an inadequate term, because it suggests some commonality, some broader category encompassing God and creatures, relating them 'extrinsically.'  Rather, God's transcendence can only be captured by negation, and ultimately by "negation of negations."  In other words, apophatic theology does not just say "God is not being" but also "God is not non-being." God exceeds both categories, and therefore both are negated.  Dionysius the Areopagite even goes so far as to say that God is neither similar nor different from created beings.

Paradoxically, however, this leads us back to an affirmation of those same created categories.  Denys Turner helpfully summarizes.
The Divine Transcendence is therefore the transcendence even of the difference between God and creation. Since there is no knowable 'distance' between God and Creation, there is no language in which it is possible to state one. For all our terms of contrast state differentiations between Creatures. There is none in which to state the difference between God and Creatures. God is therefore not opposed to Creatures, cannot displace them. (Turner. The Darkness of God. 45).
God's transcendence, understood this way, actually grounds him immanence and leaves space for the participation of creatures in God, since "God is not opposed to creatures, cannot displace them."  It also creates the space in which it is possible to speak of God positively, by way of analogy.  Through a radically apophatic theology, that even negates negation, created categories are paradoxically reaffirmed, and can be freely employed to articulate the creature's participation in the transcendent God.

Returning to the question of the incarnation, it should be relatively clear from this perspective that the hypostatic union, while mysterious, is not logically problematic. David Bentley Hart puts this well and succinctly.  Because the difference between God and human beings is 'an infinite qualitative difference'
...There is no conflict between Christ's divinity and his humanity, and... the latter participates in the former so naturally that the one person of the Son can be both fully divine and fully human at once. If the difference between God and creatures were a merely quantifiable difference between extrinsically related beings, the incarnation would be a real change in one or both natures, an amalgamation or synthesis. (D. Hart. "The Destiny of Christian Metaphysics" in The Analogy of Being: Invention of the Antichrist or Wisdom of God. ed. Thomas Joseph White. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2011. 409). 
Again, the Chalcedonian Definition expressed the union of divine and human nature in highly negative terms, and the Fathers describe this union as 'ineffable.'  Bulgakov is certainly correct to apply some pressure to this point.  The ineffability of the hypostatic union needs to be more than a mere shrug of the shoulders. In fact, though, the ineffability of the union is a necessary condition of its possibility.  The divine transcendence, the same complete transcendence that requires us to speak of God in negations, is also the transcendence which makes the hypostatic union, the incarnation, not only possible but coherent.  We may even say, it is precisely because no one ever has seen, or can see God who dwells in light inaccessible, that he is able to be fully revealed in his eternal Son Jesus Christ.

There is simply no need to posit Sophia as a sort of mediating principle between the divine and the human in Christ. Of course, human beings do need a bridge between our nature and God, but that bridge is nothing other than the person of Jesus Christ himself, the one who is true God and true man.

In this case and some others, Bulgakov seems to see apophatic theology as basically no more than a sort of corrective to positive theology.  Thus, while he affirms the 'negatives' of the Chalcedonian definition, he suggests that they must have positive correlates.  That Chalcedon failed to provide these positive correlates is therefore a failure that must be remedied by later theologians.  It does not seem to occur to him that there may be an irreducible negative element to the theology of the incarnation. Apophatic theology is more than a mere corrective, though, more than a mere precaution to keep theologians humble. It is not simply that we don't have enough information about God and so must speak cautiously, but that the difference between our mode of knowing (and being) as creatures and that of God is so utterly different that our language could never possibly express, or our intellects comprehend, the fullness of God.  Apophatic theology is thus a distinct, necessary correlative and support of any positive theology.

Post Script: 
This post is not intended as a complete refutation of Bulgakov's views on Sophia. While I am not a sophiologist, I do find some things that Bulgakov does with his reflections on Holy Wisdom quite interesting. I think he can be read as a fully orthodox theologian, although I tend to think his sophiological commitments muddy the waters and are ultimately more of a distraction than a help, even if sophiology does occasionally serve to put old questions in an interesting new light.  He manages, for example, to speak eloquently of the destiny of creation and the way that human beings are created in God's image, and ultimately he is a Christocentric thinker, even while looking at the faith through his peculiar sophiological lens.

Bulgakov has a number of other reasons, besides explaining the hypostatic union, why he wants to talk about this figure, not least his own religious experiences, but also certain traditions of Russian philosophy and theology, and his exegesis of the wisdom literature. My point here though, was, to speak specifically to this one point about the hypostatic union, and (full disclosure) to use Bulgakov's position as something of a foil, to show the constructive role that Apophatic theology can play in the theological formulation of the hypostatic union.

UPDATE and almost a retraction (5/22/15): 
I am not going to take this post down, but as I have looked it over, and reread some Bulgakov, I have to say I am a little embarrassed by it.  While I think the point I make about apophatic theology is correct, in fairness to Bulgakov, I missed some of his point.  He is attempting to say, in a more or less coherent, if still mysterious way, just what the Incarnation reveals about God and about Humanity.  I do not think he is trying to overstep the analogical and ontological distance between God and Man.  That distance remains.
Of course on one level the union of divine and human natures is always and fundamentally a mystery, grounded in the divine transcendence, which can never be fathomed. And Yes, if God were not utterly transcendent, the whole notion of the Hypostatic union would be a metaphysical impossibility, a chimera.

But I also think Bulgakov may finally be asking a different kind of question, with fairly immediate and wide reaching spiritual consequences. My blog post, and perhaps sometimes Bulgakov himself, confused two possible questions about the hypostatic union.

  1. How is it possible that Jesus of Nazareth can be both divine and human without an insoluble contradiction?  This is the question I (drawing on David B. Hart, Dionysius, Denys Turner and St. Cyril of Alexandria) explained by recourse to divine transcendence, expressed in an austerely apophatic mode.
  2. One can also ask: How is the union of divine and human natures in Christ possible in such a way as to be a revelation of God? In other words, what does the incarnation reveal about God, and in what way is humanity a suitable vehicle of that revelation?  Finally, I think think Bulgakov is asking something more like this.  
The God of the Bible is always concealed even as he is revealed, and is always greater than what we know of him, even to eternity... on the other hand his revelations are real revelations, not masks or smokescreens. If the incarnation is a revelation of God (as it plainly is) there must be some content to that revelation. It is true to say that God's transcendence means God does not displace creatures, and there is no conflict between Divinity and Humanity in Christ, but this tells us virtually nothing about Divinity, as any reasonably full account of the incarnation ought to do.

It seems to me that it should also tell us something about humanity.  Why should God become Man? It's true that Divinity and Humanity are not in conflict, but with the austere apophatic solution I put forward above, the same could be said about God and a shrub.  God didn't become a shrub though. What is peculiar to humanity that God should become the Human being Jesus of Nazareth?

These two questions are foci around which a large part of Bulgakov's theology orbits: What does the incarnation reveal about God?  What does the Incarnation reveal about Humanity?  He seems ultimately to suggest that there is one answer to both questions:  The incarnation reveals, finally, perfectly and fully what Bulgakov (and Solovyov and others) call the Divine Humanity.  This is the same as what Bulgakov calls Sophia.  I do not claim to have a handle on just what he means by that, but it's fair to say that humanity, being in the image of God, is created precisely to reveal something of God - whatever that is, we can describe as the "Divine Humanity," that which created humanity mirrors in God.  God becomes Man, reveals Godself in humanity, because that is what humanity is made for.  In the incarnation the uncreated image of God (the Word) assumes the created image of God (humanity), so that in the case of Jesus Christ the two are one.

Sophia (or the Divine Humanity) then, is not a sort of extrinsic metaphysical principle that links the Divine and Human natures in Christ, a sort of bridge between God and Man.  Sophia does not explain how the hypostatic union is possible, but rather explains what the hypostatic union means, how the incarnation can be a revelation of God and also how it can show us what it means to be human.  I am not always sure that Bulgakov himself keeps this distinction in mind, especially in his critique of Cyril, but neither did I, and it is a necessary clarification.

I personally doubt whether Bulgakov's Sophiological answer to these questions is finally adequate, but I do think that he is asking interesting and worthwhile questions. In my blog post, I tended to be excessively dismissive of the questions he was asking.  His vision of humanity is particularly compelling powerful, and is bound up with these probing questions about the Incarnation.