Valliere, Paul. Modern Russian Theology - Bukharev, Soloviev, Bulgakov: Orthodox Theology in a New Key. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000. Reviewed by Scott Lingenfelter.
In this book, Paul Valliere traces the development of a lesser known "Russian school" within Russian Orthodoxy. McGregor Professor in the Humanities at Butler University, Indianapolis, IN, Valliere analyzes the defining works of three often abstract thinkers and their quest "to promote the engagement of Orthodox believers with the modern world" (p. 7). The result is a very fine, persuasive statement of how important it will be to devote attention to their legacy.
According to Valliere, views of Orthodoxy currently lack balance, focusing as they do almost exclusively on an influential "school" within Orthodoxy, led by Georges Florovsky, that stressed unwavering faithfulness to the church fathers. Valliere writes that the contribution of this Neopatristic school to modern theology is significant but limited, particularly when dealing with social questions. By contrast, the Russian school consisting of Alexander Bukharev (Archimandrite Feodor), Vladimir Soloviev, and Sergei Bulgakov confronted modernity with a blend of patristic thought and contemporary Western, particularly German, philosophy that most of the lights from Russia's theological academies found objectionable. The trio's biographies are as intriguing as their thought, and Valliere tells their stories well.
Bukharev (1824-1871) was the biblicist of the three. His insightful commentary on Isaiah inspired a critique of the Russian Orthodox Church's passivity and isolation--a real achievement since it was written while he held faculty positions at the Moscow and Kazan theological academies and was a member of the church's censorship committee in St. Petersburg. Soloviev (1853-1900) grew up in one of Imperial Russia's most distinguished intellectual families. To refine his apocalyptic vision of a theocratic Russian society, he traveled in Europe and the Near East. As poet, philosopher, and emblem of Russia's exuberant Silver Age of culture, Soloviev inspired a circle of young Marxists to abandon historical materialism and class conflict for religious philosophy and a path back to the church, none more high profile than Sergei Bulgakov (1871-1944). According to Valliere, the Russian school matured with Bulgakov. As apostle to the Russian intelligentsia, Duma deputy, key lay member of the Church Council of 1917-18, and priest and theologian in exile, Bulgakov tried to solve the Russian school's central question: how to "reconcile an ecclesiastical culture which regards modern civilization in hostile terms...with a secularist culture which asserts human rights without reverence for nature or God" (262). However, Bulgakov's answer, a speculative personification of God's wisdom at work in the world (Sophia), was problematic. Valliere's work has the merit of pointing out specific shortcomings. As the book suggests, Bulgakov's most straightforward and promising attempts to ground modern Orthodoxy's social ministry are to be found in his early writing.
Their shortcomings aside, Valliere finds in these three thinkers something unique in Russian Orthodoxy: openness to modernity, yet faithfulness to Orthodox roots. The concerns of current Russian theologians reflect this as they research patristics, European phenomenology, and Karl Barth's theology of the Word, though direct connections are hard to make. In fact, what students of the Russian church will likely take from Valliere's 400-page work is the lack of continuity in twentieth-century Russian theology. Even so, Bukharev, Soloviev, and Bulgakov addressed social and political issues still timely in Orthodox countries struggling to shed the past. Valliere argues that, like the times, their answers now come to us in a new key.
Scott Lingenfelter is a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Chicago and adjunct instructor of Russian and European history at Columbia College, Chicago, IL.
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