The Mother of God in the Theology of Sergius Bulgakov

The Soul of the World

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Walter Nunzio Sisto
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , November
     2017.
     260 pages.
     $140.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781472451651.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

With Sergius Bulgakov’s main works now in English, we can expect the Anglophone literature about him to grow. Walter Nunzio Sisto’s The Mother of God in the Theology of Sergius Bulgakov: The Soul of the World is hopefully a harbinger of things to come. We’ll be lucky if that’s so, at least. Bulgakov’s theology often seems a monolith that must be taken whole cloth or not at all. It’s to Sisto’s credit that he’s not only hewed his book to one theme in the corpus but used it to chart a course through the very center, Fr. Sergius’s speculations on Sophia. Indeed, the monograph’s main achievement is to show just how well Bulgakov’s reflections on Mary serve as entrée to his Sophiology; anyone who has stood bewildered before the edifice of Bulgakov’s corpus, scouring the surface for some foothold with which to begin ascent to its sophiological summit, will know just how significant an accomplishment this is.

There are six chapters, flanked by an introduction and conclusion. The first three treat the personal, theological, and historical context of Bulgakov’s reflections on the Mother of God. Sixty-five pages of contextual material—more than a fourth of the book—may seem excessive, but in Bulgakov’s case it proves helpful. Sisto unearths the roots of Bulgakov’s Mariological meditations in the obvious sources of his Sophiology, Vladimir Solov’ev and Pavel Florensky (chap. 3), but he also highlights the easily overlooked significance of liturgy, scripture, and iconography for his reflections on (chap. 2) and devotion to (chap. 1) the Theotokos. Mary’s presence in the liturgical life of the Russian Orthodox Church and the speculations of his intellectual forebears thereupon provide precedent for a pivotal feature of Bulgakov’s theology: Mary’s identification with Sophia, which departs from the dominant patristic interpretation of Wisdom as Christ. 

This idiosyncrasy warrants Sisto’s brief overview of Bulgakov’s Sophiology (27-34), plus a fourth chapter that tracks the relation between theological anthropology and Mary therein. Sisto stresses the “antinomic” character of Bulgakov’s sophiological “methodology” (34). On his telling, Sophia serves as figure of three antinomies—theological, cosmological, sophiological—each enshrining a central tension: God “abides in creation” yet “remains perfect and transcendent to creation” (29). Bulgakov is thus obliged to speak of both Divine and Creaturely Sophia; these name not particular hypostases but what Bulgakov calls “hypostaticity,” a passive capacity or unconscious will to be hypostatized (33). In precisely this respect, Sophia bears special relation to the Holy Spirit. Both Sophia and the Spirit play stereotypically “feminine” roles in Bulgakov’s theology—and the first because the latter: Divine Sophia is hypostatized in the Holy Trinity through the Spirit’s maternal mediation of the Father’s Word; Divine and Creaturely Sophia are hypostatically united in Jesus Christ as the one on whom the Spirit rests and whose mission she quickens, then succeeds; Creaturely Sophia is hypostatized, preeminently, in Mary, the “pneumatophoric hypostasis” (Bulgakov’s term) who consents to birth God’s Son. Explication of the latter claim and its connection to the former is the burden of Sisto’s argument.

This he attempts in the book’s centerpiece, a seventy-seven-page chapter on “Bulgakov’s Mariology.” Like the summary chapters, this section is mostly synthetic, eschewing sustained readings in favor of a take on Bulgakov’s Mariology at large. What could have been individual chapters make up this one’s four parts, the titles of which narrate Sisto’s argument: 1) Mary: the pneumatophoric hypostasis; 2) the preparation for the pneumatophoric hypostasis; 3) the prerogatives of Mary’s glorification; 4) Mary and discipleship. To wit, Mary is the paradigmatic “Spirit-bearer” since, in imitation of the Holy Spirit’s own active-passivity, she consents to be the Spirit’s temple and so Mother of God. Like the Spirit, that is, Mary offers up her hypostasis to realize the Son’s—and this not only on account of her personal holiness but because she represents “the final step in the development of Israel and the human race for the incarnation” (124). Here, Sisto shows (115-22), Bulgakov’s critique of the Immaculate Conception (or his understanding of its neo-scholastic articulation, at least) is sharpest: Catholic doctrine stresses Mary’s exemption from human nature, Bulgakov thinks the Mother of God its culmination. She reveals creation’s sophianic ground, unbroken by sin. As such, Mary “makes possible” the incarnation (142) and inaugurates the eschatological perfection of humankind to come (146). She is, accordingly, “the Church personified” (152), the definitive, “feminine” model of Christian discipleship (165-71).

Sisto numbers “feminist theory” among his “methods of analysis” (5). Such theory “must be applied,” he writes, “to determine if [Bulgakov’s] Mariology meets contemporary standards of theology and if his theology is relevant today” (6). What theory? Whose standards? Which theology? Despite Sisto’s attention to the role of gender and sexuality in Bulgakov’s Mariology, these details are never explicitly disclosed. The only sustained discussion arrives at the end of the final chapter in a section on “Bulgakov and feminism” (203-211), following an unconnected treatment of Bulgakov’s neo-patristic contemporaries (192-202) and St. John Maximovitch (202-203). Under scrutiny here: Bulgakov’s alleged “idealization of Mary,” with which feminist theologians like Elizabeth Johnson might take issue for its inattention to the historical Mary, as well as Bulgakov’s putatively “dualistic anthropology,” which tends to essentialize “feminine” and “masculine” capacities and thereby give theological warrant to patriarchy. In either case, Sisto argues, Bulgakov parries: his emphasis on Mary’s active role in salvation history privileges her particular voice in a way Catholic theology’s recourse to God’s unilateral election of Mary cannot (205); Bulgakov actually subverts gender binaries since Mary’s “passive-activity” supports a “bisexual account of gender” according to which every person is called to be both active and passive in their response to God (208). 

Sisto’s book shines in its analysis of Bulgakov’s texts. It demonstrates the sort of intimacy with a corpus that allows one to uncover vital connections others are liable to miss; in Bulgakov’s case, this is no small feat. The monograph is slightly less successful in its attempts to place Bulgakov in dialogue. For instance, while briefly comparing Bulgakov’s “sophianic grace” with “the sentiments of more recent Catholic theologians,” Sisto suggests “[w]hat grace is or how it differs from human nature is unimportant for” Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac, Bernard Lonergan, and Bulgakov (96). This would be a tenuous reading of any one of these authors—Bulgakov included—but it only muddles what may remain points of connections between them. Similarly, some of the discussions of gender suffer from a too-hasty attempt to exonerate Bulgakov’s theology within grammars of thought alien to his own. Better to leave such complex questions for another monograph. Happily, though, Sisto’s work has made that an easier task than it was before.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Taylor Ross is a doctoral candidate in Early Christianity at Duke University.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Walter Nunzio Sisto is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at D’Youville College. His research interest is the application of Sergius Bulgakov’s theology to contemporary issues. To this end he has published a variety of articles on Sergius Bulgakov’s Sophiology in journals such as Logos, Marian Studies, and Irish Theological Quarterly. He has also published the book, Death & the World Religions (Kendall Hunt, 2015) that was inspired by Bulgakov’s Sophiology of death.

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