A Matter of Nothing: The Doctrine of Creation According to Sergius Bulgakov and Georges Florovsky

This post is a developed version of my 20th Century Orthodox Dogmatics midterm which was submitted to Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology’s Three Hierarchs Essay Competition. I give my thanks to Father Matthew Baker for his outstanding class and critiques of my paper.

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ἀξιῶσε, τέκνον, ἀναβλέψαντα εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ τὴν γῆν καὶ τὰ ἐν αὐτοῖς πάντα ἰδόντα, γνῶναι ὅτι ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων ἐποίησεν αὐτὰ ὁ Θεὸς καὶ τὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων γένος οὕτως γεγένηται.” – II Maccabees 7:28

The doctrine of creation is of such importance for the Orthodox Church that it was enshrined in the Nicene Creed, in which God the Father is “Creator of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.” This has been understood within the tradition of the Church to mean God created all things ex nihilo, ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων, from nothing. However, this very notion of nothing, as well as questions of substance and necessity, led to a fundamental disagreement between Russian theologians of the 20th century. Did this creation mean that ‘nothing’ was a kind of limit to overcome, the result of God’s self-limitation? Or was it merely the absence of anything, a “no-thing” which meant that creation was novel, completely unrelated to God in substance? This paper will examine these opposing doctrines of creation via the late Fr. Sergius Bulgakov and his influences from Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyev and their common inheritance from German Idealism, as well as the response by the late and devoutly respected Fr. Georges Florovsky.

Fr. Sergius Bulgakov (1874-1944) was a prominent Orthodox theologian whose legacy is his theologumenon: Sophiology.1 He developed this doctrine from the work of previous Sophiologists, primarily Vladimir Solovyev (1853-1900) whom Bulgakov considered to be “one of the ‘fathers’ to him personally.”2 While Bulgakov has no consistent definition as to what Sophia is,3 one can roughly figure it to be the essence of God which though not a hypostasis has hypostaticity.4 The identification of Sophia as the divine nature is from Vladimir Solovyev who states that Sophia is the “universal substance, or absolute unity of the whole.”5 For Solovyev the essence of God “cannot be one thing among many” and thus is a “universal substance or ‘all in unity.’” This notion of all in unity must be unpacked since it became axiomatic for Bulgakov.6

Because Sophia is “the universal substance” she contains “the latent potentiality of all things,” which implies a plurality that is actively subjected to a unity.7 Thus indeterminate multiplicity has never existed per se in Sophia, nor has God ever created it, but is eternally reduced to unity since Sophia is the universal substance.8 However, Solovyev makes a distinction of Sophia inside of God, “the eternally actual state,” and Sophia outside of God, the “potential state,” the former being all in unity, the latter being “all in division.” Solovyev labels this outside state as Chaos, which is the “antithesis of the Divine Being” who is eternally suppressed by God to a state of “pure potentiality.”

God then must overcome Chaos in three ways: by His mere fact as all in unity, His right to conquer Chaos by showing its falsity and thus proving His truth, and by having Chaos participate in the divine life, transfiguring and thus absorbing Chaos back into unity.9 The absorption of Chaos back into the divine is thus an act of synthesis between God’s truth and Chaos, thus reflecting a Hegelian influence.10 Chaos’ false “system of eternal ideas, reasons or truths, each one of which, linked with all the others by an indissoluble bond of logic” go through the process of determinate negation and are brought into unity, the absolute idea in this case being Sophia.11

This goal of all in unity is apparent in Bulgakov, especially in the act of creation’s becoming. Bulgakov describes creation as being ex nihilo, however he refuses to see ‘nothing’ as a limit for the absolute, or a space or void in which God can create.12 Nothing
is not “something totally extradivine” since there is nothing apart or outside of God, “just as there is not even any ‘outside of’ or ‘apart from.’”13 Bulgakov then reasons that this very nothing must have been created by God, thus making nothing a relative concept since nothing must relate to something.14 Nothing then correlates to a state of being which is incomplete and thus becoming.

God is the sole author of creation; however, He creates by His substance, the Divine Sophia, mixing it with nothingness to produce the world which is a “becoming being” because of its emergence from nothing.15 This same idea can be found in Solovyev in where Chaos is willed into existence and thus emerges “out of its nothingness” to be reabsorbed into unity.16 Creation then is not novel, but rather “a re-arrangement” of Sophia combined with nothing.17 This
creation is the Creaturely Sophia which is in the process of becoming so it can “reflect in itself the countenance of the Divine Sophia” which is the entelechy of fr_sergius_bulgakovcreation.18 For Bulgakov, this very process of creation is creatio ex nihilo, and that the cataphatic knowledge one can derive from it is that the world was made from God’s own essence, a statement also found in Solovyev.19

Sophia is the identity principle which allows for the unity between the world and God and thus allows God to “split” Himself into nothingness and then synthesize the creation.20 The goal for creation is the same for Bulgakov as in Solovyev. Sophia’s submergence into nothing leads to an all-multiplicity which must be overcome by the Creaturely Sophia.21 Creation “is only in a state of potentiality, which the world must actualize in itself” by liberating itself from nothing.

Confronted with the problem of necessity, Bulgakov emphatically denies that God needs the world when relating to His inner divine life.22 The world, then, is a work. However, Bulgakov is also quick to deny any sense of arbitrariness in the act of creation, and affirms that the world is necessary to God not for Himself but “for the world itself,” and as such God could not have not created the world.23 Since God is love, it is proper for Him to expand beyond divinity, otherwise His absoluteness would be a limit on Himself who is the Absolute.24 Furthermore, God needs the world in order to love outside Himself, to love the “not-Himself.” This seems to be pulling from Fichte’s idea of the “absolute I” which splits itself in order to establish a subjective-objective relationship between the “I and not-I.”5 Without the world God cannot love outside Himself and would thus reflect a Satanic, egoistic pride.26 Borrowing further from Fichte, this necessity is not an external pressure (after all, there is no ‘outside’ to begin with), but rather is “the necessity of love, which cannot not love” and thus makes creation necessary.27 This same view is found in Solovyev as well, which states that Sophia is not content merely overcoming the possible challenges of Chaos, and as such God wishes for there to be another nature outside Himself that “may progressively become what He is from all eternity – the absolute whole.”28

While during his life Bulgakov had many admirers, he was faced with criticism for his Sophiology, even by fellow Russian émigrés to Paris. One critic who excoriated Bulgakov’s theology without mentioning him by name was Fr. Georges Florovsky (1893-1979). Though interested in Solovyev from a scholarly perspective,29 Fr. Georges diverged insuperably from Bulgakov in his opinion on the Russian philosopher, seeing “the rejection of Solov’ev in toto [po vsei linii] as a personal religious duty and a task that needs to be undertaken in due course by contemporary Russian religious and philosophical thought.”30 This criticism extended to Bulgakov’s theology which Florovsky characterized as being “long hindered” by Solovyev’s influence.31 More specifically, one can find the underlying problems with Bulgakov’s theology by analyzing Florovsky’s critique of German Idealism, a movement that influenced both Bulgakov and Solovyev.

In German Idealism Florovsky found a determinative influence of Hellenism which characterized the entire philosophical project.32 The problems and issues that plagued Idealism were essentially Hellenistic in nature. Antiquity could not comprehend “the empirical, the changeable, the variety” and “especially the event.” The response was then “to overcome the event, to overcome time” in order to discover the “actual world” which is unchanging in nature. Ancient thought is a morphology of the world in which instability is rejected and one seeks for “the eternally ideal world, of the world of paradigms and prototypes.”33 This same trajectory of thought is repeated in Idealism as its “pathos…was aimed at the search for the unchangeable foundations of the world.”

Concerning the doctrine of creation, German Idealism ultimately bore two different pathi, one of infinity (as seen in Fichte) and one of form, the latter eventually coming to dominate. The world in Idealism “is always finite, always limited…always a very sharply defined image.” Even Chaos cannot escape this as it “is the womb bearing forms, it is impregnated with these forms from ancient times.” All things, even Chaos, “adapt themselves to the circle, the rhythm of the universe.”34 This domination of form was especially prominent in Hegel, who saw “the progressing infinity as something ‘bad’” and instead seeks to find complete unity. The language no doubt reminds one of Chaos being suppressed and subjected to unity by God in Solovyev, or the overcoming of all-multiplicity in Bulgakov.

Furthermore, it is because one must overcome the changing to find the eternal that Idealism tried to comprehend existence from the event which is the manifestation of existence, of the original prototype, “for existence is nothing other than the power and the
need to reveal itself.” All mysteries of existence then will be revealed, and the only mystery left “is the power of revelation” itself. As such, any accomplished perception is a revelation of the absolute – economy swallows up theology and an identification of God and the world is made, thus leading to pantheism.35

This critique could equally be applied to both Bulgakov and Solovyev who both identified creation as being Sophia, and thus consubstantial with God. Bulgakov is aware of this criticism and avidly denies that Sophiology is pantheism, but rather “panentheism, where all is in God or for God.”36 Bulgakov sees pantheism as “pan-divinity and thus the absence of divinity” whose “distinguishing trait” is that God is “the highest degree of the evolution of the world, while considering the world to be the initial principle of the evolution of God.”37 Bulgakov even criticizes Hegel and Schelling for falling into this very pantheistic fallacy.38 However, Florovsky sees pantheism’s distinguishing trait as “the absolute, insoluble connection of God with the world” which means that even if God is not identified with the world, He nevertheless needs it – the world is a necessary being.39 If the world does not exist, neither does God, and if He does exist, then the world must also. God needs the world in order to reveal Himself, a point that Bulgakov undeniably teaches.40 If God remained within Himself then he would not exist since to exist for Bulgakov is to exist for another. Because of this very necessity as an attempt to make creation’s existence non-arbitrary, the world “constitutively belongs to the perfection of the divine existence,”41 it is a “part of the fullness of the very concept of God.”42 The world then is “the eternal double of God” not only in Idealism, but for Bulgakov as well – the Creaturely Sophia is merely the Divine Sophia in the process of becoming.43

In place of Bulgakov’s Sophiology, Florovsky puts forward the Orthodox interpretation of creatio ex nihilo in which neither the world nor time existed before the act of creation.44 This means, in clear opposition to Bulgakov, that the world is a contingent being and need not exist.45 The world’s very “createdness” means that its “cause and foundation” lies “outside the world” – it is not consubstantial with the divine. There is an impassable ontological gulf between God Who is uncreated and man who is created. This further means that created being is a substance and not a phenomenon, not an act of becoming or synthesis, but an essence.46

Florovsky, like Bulgakov, says that it is imprecise to say that creation is outside of God, but he arrives at a very different conclusion; creation is outside God in the sense it is ex nihilo and thus is a “heterogeneous substance” that is completely unlike God.47 There is no “kind of limitation to the Divine fullness,” but rather a novel creation. There is no external necessity for God to create, for there is nothing outside of God before creation.48

6a0120a679bde1970b01310f316eee970cYet while both may agree there is no external necessity, Florovsky goes further than Bulgakov to say that there is no necessity for creation at all. At the beginning of the second part of his essay Creation and Creaturehood, Florovsky discusses the problem of necessity with reference to Origen. Florovsky here is candidly speaking about Bulgakov for
the problems inherent in one exists in the other.49 Origen believed that in order to maintain the immutability of God and His attributes of being Creator and Pantokrator, creation had to be co-eternal for God to exercise His omnipotence over.50 If not, then there would have been a change in God in which He would have became Creator rather than be so from all eternity. Furthermore, for Origen any sequence or interdependence of predicates indicated temporal change and this clashed with the unchangeability of God.51 As such, Origen denied any sequence or interdependence of the predicates as a whole, and thus “asserted the necessity of the Divine self-disclosure ad extra,” a “’not-I’” from all eternity that was a necessary being for God’s completeness.

This critique is a repetition of that found in The Crisis of German Idealism and ultimately of Bulgakov as addressed above. However, to this problem Florovsky supplies the Orthodox response via St. Methodius of Olympus: the perfect Divinity “cannot depend on anything…except on His own nature,” meaning “God creates solely out of His goodness” and not His essence.52 Florovsky is quick to list a possible riposte: one must take into account “’the image of the world’” that existed with God from all eternity.53 Indeed, if revelation is co-eternal with God, and God is unchanging, does this not mean the idea of the world is eternal and necessary, thus meaning God eternally contemplates the non-I of creation, and once again not only makes God impossible without creation but creation becomes a necessary being that completes the fullness of God? The final deduction is that the world would be introduced into the inner life of the Trinity, again leading to pantheism and vindicating Bulgakov’s Sophiology.54

Florovsky answers this dilemma with the distinction of God’s will and His essence; the idea of the world and God’s will for it exists “by His volition” and not His essence. Thus, while the idea of the world is “obviously eternal,” it is “in some sense not co-eternal” precisely because it is “’distinct and separated,’” from His essence. God need merely to think up the idea of creation, an act done “in perfect freedom” which means “He as it were ‘becomes’ Creator, even though from everlasting.” Furthermore, taken from St. Athanasius, Florovsky affirms the distinction between that which is primary and secondary for God, the former belonging to the essence, the latter to the will.55 In the Trinity, the essence or “structure is antecedent to the will and thought of God” and thus antecedent to His works. As such, the idea of the world has a contingency on God’s will in the sense that its eternity is not one of essence, but one which is free and need not have been.56 This does not mean there is no reason for the “thinking up” of the divine world, but Florovsky agrees with St. Augustine’s prohibition to seek out these reasons.

The will is not bound or constrained in order to “think up” or create the world, but makes it out of the superabundance of love that has no necessity.57 Yet the idea of the world, one of the constituents of the eternal counsel of God, is not the world itself and thus remains unchanged and is not involved in the process of formation since it is outside the world.58 The world is created according to the idea, and the world strives to realize the idea, but the idea itself is not the subject of this striving, but “a norm and a goal established in God.” While the creation is the divine idea made substantial, it is still a new reality that “must realize this idea in its own becoming.” Creation exists outside of God, and yet is united to Him and grows closer by fulfilling its telos as established by God, an act that because of its creation ex nihilo is one of “self-determination”.59

While Florovsky was critical of Bulgakov’s thought, he always maintained a high level of respect for his colleague. Florovsky chose Bulgakov to be his father confessor not long after meeting him, and while the minority report on Sophiology bearing Florovsky’s signature noted the theological problems that Bulgakov had, Florovsky never went so far as to label him a heretic.60 Nevertheless, the doctrine of creation in Bulgakov’s Sophiology ultimately is at odds with the patristic tradition as the concept of the necessity of the world is foreign to the teaching of the Scriptures, the Fathers, and ultimately the Church. Florovsky is correct to point out that it is precisely God’s allowance for nothing to exist outside Himself that preserves the loving act of creation, for creation then is an act “out of the absolute superabundance of His mercies and goodness” in which the world “exists only through the sovereign and all-perfect freedom and unspeakable good pleasure and love of God.”61

 

Footnotes

1Nikolai Sakharov, “Essential Bulgakov: His Ideas About Sophia, The Trinity, and Christ,” in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 55, no. 2 (2011): 165 & 206.
2Alexis Klimoff, “Georges Florovsky and the Sophiological Controversy,” in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 49, no. 1-2 (2005): 67 & 73.
3Sakharov, “Essential Bulgakov,” 177.
4Ibid., 181; Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 106, 444.
5Vladimir Solovyev, Russia and the Universal Church, trans. Herbert Rees (London: Bles, 1948), 156.
6Sakharov, “Essential Bulgakov,” 177.
7Solovyev, Russia, 156-57.
8Ibid., 157
9Solovyev, Russia, 157-58.
10Hegelian thought also influenced Bulgakov in his dogmengeschichte. See Bulgakov’s introduction to The Lamb of God, 1-88.
11Solovyev, Russia, 158; Andrew Bowie, German Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), 46.
12Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, 124.
13Ibid., 124-25.
14Ibid., 125.
15Ibid., 125, 445; Sakharov, 178.
16Solovyev, Russia, 161.
17Sakharov, “Essential Bulgakov,” 178 & 201.
18Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, 127.
19Ibid., 126-27; Solovyev, Russia, 161.
20The identity principle is roughly “the link between the subject and object world that makes judgements possible” and implies that “what is split and then synthesised in the judgement must…in some way already be the same.” “Friedrich Wilhelm von Schelling,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed February 4, 2014, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/schelling/.
21Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, 127.
22Ibid., 119.
23Ibid., 119-20.
24Ibid., 120.
25Bowie, German Idealism, 39.
26Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, 122.
27Ibid., 120.
28Solovyev, Russia, 160.
29Klimoff, “Georges Florovsky,” 72.
30Ibid., 73. Brackets are Klimoff’s. For further criticism of Solovyev by Florovsky, see “Reason and Faith in the Philosophy of Solov’ëv,” in Continuity and Change in Russian and Soviet Thought, ed. E. J. Simmons (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955), 283-97.
31Ibid., 75.
32Georges Florovsky, “The Crisis of German Idealism (I): The ‘Hellenism’ of German Idealism,” in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. XII, trans. Claudia Witte (Vaduz, Europa: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1989), 24.
33Ibid., 25.
34Ibid., 26.
35Ibid., 26-27. Florovsky’s critique of German idealism, and its relationship to Sophiology, is continued in the second part of his essay in which he deals with the problem of history, as well as its relation to the Reformation. However, for the scope of this paper, only his critique of pantheism will be discussed. For more, see Georges Florovsky, “The Crisis of German Idealism (II): The Crisis of Idealism as the Crisis of Reformation,” in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. XII, trans. Claudia Witte (Vaduz, Europa: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1989). The observation that economy swallows up theology is from Fr. Matthew Baker.
36Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, 121.
37Ibid., 121 & 134.
38Ibid., 134.
39Florovsky, “The Crisis of German Idealism,” 27.
40“…Either the creation of the world is an impossibility for God, in which case the impossibility would constitute a limit for Him, would make Him limited; or in the case of such a possibility, God’s love could not fail to actualize it by creating the world. Consequently, God-Love needs the creation of the world in order to love, no longer only in His own life, but also outside Himself, in creation.” Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, 120.
41Florovsky, “The Crisis of German Idealism,” 27.
42Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, 121.
43Florovsky, “The Crisis of German Idealism,” 27.
44Georges Florovsky, “Creation and Creaturehood,” in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. III: Creation and Redemption (Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishing Company, 1976), 43.
45Ibid., 46.
46Ibid., 48.
47Ibid., 46.
48Ibid., 52.
49The charge of Origenism against Bulgakov was also made by another Russian emigre, Vladimir Lossky who reported Bulgakov’s doctrine to the Moscow Patriarchate and wrote against Bulgakov’s Sophiological apologetic in The Dispute about Sophia (Paris, 1936). Sakharov, “Essential Bulgakov,” 201.
50Ibid., 52-54.
51Ibid., 54.
52Ibid., 54-55.
53Ibid., 55.
54Ibid., 56.
55Ibid., 58.
56Ibid., 59.
57Ibid., 60.
58Ibid., 61.
59Ibid., 73.
60Klimoff, “Georges Florovsky,” 70 & 89.
61Florovsky, “Creation and Creaturehood,” 57.

Bibliography

Bulgakov, Sergius. The Lamb of God. Translated by Boris Jakim. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2008.

Florovsky, Georges. “Creation and Creaturehood.” In The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. III: Creation and Redemption, 43-78. Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishing Company, 1976.

________________. “The Crisis of German Idealism (I): The ‘Hellenism’ of German Idealism.” In The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. XII. Translated by Claudia Witte, 24- 30. Vaduz, Europa: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1989.

Klimoff, Alexis. “Georges Florovsky and the Sophiological Controversy.” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, no. 49, 1-2 (2005): 67-100.

Sakharov, Nikolai. “Essential Bulgakov: His Ideas About Sophia, the Trinity, and Christ.” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, no. 55, 2 (2011): 165-208.

Solovyev, Vladimir. Russia and the Universal Church. Translated by Herbert Rees. London: Bles, 1948.

 

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