Special Theme Edition on the Current Ukrainian Crisis:   Volume 22, No. 3  (Summer 2014)

The East West Church &  Ministry Report has issued a special theme edition examining the impact of the current Ukrainian crisis on the church and ministries in Ukraine and Russia.

This theme issue is now available in pdf format in English,  Russian, and Ukrainian.

Read more about the East West Church & Ministry Report  in EnglishRussian, or Ukrainian 

New Light on a Pivotal Orthodox Theologian

Matt Miller

St. Andrew’s Biblical-Theological Institute, Moscow, and Ostkirchliches Institut, Regensburg, Germany, organized an academic conference, 29 September – 3October 2004, on “Russian Theology in European Context: Bulgakov and Contemporary Western Religious Philosophical Thought,” in honor of Archpriest Sergei (1871-1944). This gathering of scholars, graduate students, and church leaders to discuss the\impact of one of Russian Orthodoxy’s most influential twentieth-century theologians was held in Dzerzhinsky, Russia, near Moscow. This conference in honor of apolitical exile was held, ironically, in a city named in honor of the founder of Lenin’s political police, which forced Bulgakov to flee his homeland. A well-polished statue of Dzerzhinsky still stands in the city. Approximately 40 participants attended the conference,30 from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, and ten from Western Europe and North America. The majority represented state-supported academic bodies, with others from Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant institutions. This conference followed a 2003 event, “Russia and the Universal Church: The Humanity of God in the Perspective of Contemporary Interconfessional and Interreligious Dialogue,” dedicated to the memory of Vladimir Soloviev, the innovative Russian philosopher of the nineteenth century.

Bulgakov’s insightful and often controversial works continue to spark heated debate 60 years after his death. His brilliant mind was sharpened by the trials of his tumultuous life. Born into the family of an Orthodox priest, the young Bulgakov dismissed his faith in an atmosphere of alcoholism and poverty. He later found worldly success as a Marxist professor of economics, but eventually found his new system of belief to be intellectually unsound. He wrestled through philosophical idealism and Christian socialism back to Orthodox Christianity and was ordained a priest in 1918. His outstanding leadership within the church led to his exile from Russia in 1922 along with other “un reform able” intellectuals. Until his death in 1944, he served as professor at the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris. In training a new generation of clergy, he emphasized the impact of the divine incarnation on every aspect of Christian life and called for personal spiritual revival and self-critical church renewal.

His influence spread broadly from Paris, but several equally talented Orthodox leaders sharply criticized some of his theological innovations (especially his ideas on “Sophia”) as heretical. His theological and philosophical writings attempted to face the wrenching doctrinal, political, and economic problems of the early twentieth century. His theological method always began with careful study of the Scriptures and the Fathers, but he saw the necessity of consulting contemporary Catholic, Protestant, and other thinkers as well. He believed that his theology must be both Orthodox and modern. In return, his ideas influenced many Roman Catholic and Anglican theologians. Today, Bulgakov’s journey from parochial Orthodoxy through Marxism and idealism to a traditional but open-minded Orthodoxy resonates with many in the Slavic intellectual world. For this reason, anyone working within this environment should be familiar with his thinking and influence.

The wide range of Bulgakov’s religious and philosophical interests was reflected at the conference in the presentation of topics: the Scriptures, the Church, the Trinity, culture, creativity, and economics. Dr. Aleksandr Ivanovich Negrov, rector of St. Petersburg Christian University (a leading Protestant seminary), addressed “The Hermeneutics of Sergei Bulgakov,” treating Bulgakov’s approach to biblical interpretation compared to that of other Orthodox theologians. Negrov argued that Bulgakov placed an unusually strong accent on the divinely inspired nature of Scripture. He also outlined Bulgakov’s four basic interpretive principles: 1) The interpreter needs to respect both the human and divine aspects of Scripture; 2) A full understanding of Scripture is received only with the assistance of the Holy Spirit within the Church; 3) The Bible can be fully understood only within the context of holy tradition; 4) The interpretation of a text reached by the Church in a council is superior to that reached by an individual interpreter.

Sergei Vasilievich Nikolaev, a Ph.D. student at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, and a Methodist pastor,explored “Epistemological Issues Raised by Fr. Sergei Bulgakov’s Proposal for Partial Intercommunion among Members of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius.”His study focused on Bulgakov’s highly controversial 1933recommendation that members of this Orthodox-Anglican group share a common celebration of the Eucharist. Nikolaev argued that the proposal was based more on an experiential sense of personal spiritual fellowship than on theological or canonical grounds. Brandon Gallaher, a doctoral student at Oxford University and a graduate of St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary, compared two outstanding, but rarely juxtaposed, thinkers in “There is Freedom: The Problem of Divine Freedom and the Necessity of Love in Karl Barth and Sergei Bulgakov.” Gallaher discussed their views on the philosophical interrelation of the purpose of God’s creation of the world, the nature of God’s gracious love, and the reality of God’s freedom.

Dr. Nikolai Konstantinovich Gavrushin of the Moscow Theological Academy contrasted the careers and worldviews of two well-known clerics of the same name who both died in 1944: “Two Jubilees: Archpriest Sergei Bulgakov and Patriarch Sergei (Stragorodskii).” He stressed that although many are familiar with the theological conflicts between the émigré theologian and the Soviet patriarch, they may not be familiar with points of commonality in their early careers. For example, they both participated in pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg religiousphilosophicalmeetings.

In another presentation, Dr. Albert Rauch, a Catholic priest and director of the Ostkirchliches Institut, Regensburg, Germany, noted the influence of Bulgakov on the views of Catholic theologians, especially Hans Urs von Balthasar, Aloys Grillmeier, and Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), and the decisions of Vatican II. Father Sergei’s ideas on sobornost’ were seen in the council’s theological description of the Church. He also influenced Vatican II statements on tradition and relations with other Christian confessions. 

This event left no doubt that Father Sergei’s penetrating and often eccentric thought continues to influence, fascinate, and provoke both secular philosophers and believers of all Christian confessions. His career confirmed that Lenin was indeed correct when he labeled Bulgakov “unreformable.” He held his course, and his books continued to circulate from hand to hand until they could be openly published and discussed. Not all Orthodox welcome Bulgakov’s call for openness to the modern world, free discussion, and self-critical church reform, but many others seem ready to listen to this voice from exile. In 2006 an edited collection of conference papers appeared as Russkoe bogoslovie v evropeiskomkontekste: S.N. Bulgakov i zapadnaya religioznofilosofskaya mysl’ (Moscow: Bibleisko-BogoslovskiiInstitut Sv. Apostola Andreia).

Those desiring an English language introduction to the life and thought of Bulgakov(or a bibliography of his works) should consult Catherine Evtuhov, The Cross and the Sickle: Sergei Bulgakov and the Fate of Russian Religious Philosophy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997) and Paul Valliere, ModernRussian Theology: Bukharev, Soloviev, Bulgakov: Orthodox Theology in a New Key (Grand Rapids, MI:Eerdmans, 2000), reviewed in the East-West Church & Ministry Report 11 (Winter 2003), 14-15.

Matt Miller, a Ph.D. candidate in Russian history at the University of Minnesota, works in Russia with the Evangelical Free Church.