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Monday, May 28, 2012

Sophia in Russian Theology as the Revelatory Aspect of the Divine Energies


            One of the prominent themes that emerged in Russian theological thought in the 19th and 20th centuries was the concept of Sophia, or Divine Wisdom.  Personified as a woman and loosely associated with the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity as well as with the Theotokos and the Church, speculation on the nature of Sophia was often controversial, and some of the theologians incurred ecclesiastical condemnation due to the perceived similarity of sophianic thought to ancient Gnosticism, Protestant theosophy, and German transcendental idealism.  The purpose of this paper shall be to explain the main concepts and terms of Russian sophiology in such a manner as to show that it is at heart genuinely Orthodox despite unfortunate and confused phrasing on the part of the authors in question.  I shall do this by arguing that Sophia, under the aspect conceived especially by the two theologians Fr. Sergei Bulgakov and Holy New-Martyr Fr. Pavel Florensky, is not actually a “fourth hypostasis” or a feminization of one of the Three Hypostases, but rather a manner of viewing the uncreated energies of God, as described and enshrined in Orthodox dogma by St. Gregory Palamas.  I shall use Palamas’ terminology to relate Sophia to the Most Holy Trinity, and conclude by showing how the writings of the often influential but neglected 16th-century Lutheran spiritual writer Jacob Boehme relate Sophia to the Western, Roman Catholic teaching on divine grace.  My secondary purpose in explaining the relation between Sophia and the Trinity will be to separate sophiology from the sort of Gnostic speculations that unfortunately tainted the work of Vladimir Soloviev, and also from the feminist heresies in the latter half of the 20th century that identified Sophia with either God the Father, God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit.

            As it is the subject of an entire category of books in the Old Testament, there is no need to pose the question as to whether Sophia exists, but only as to what manner of being Sophia has.  There are two extremes which this paper will attempt to steer a middle ground between.  One would speak of divine wisdom as simply an abstraction, much as one would speak of human wisdom as a description of the quality of someone’s mind and not a hypostatic reality in its own right.  This ought to be rejected for the following liturgical, Scriptural, and mystical reasons.  First, Scripture personifies Wisdom throughout all of the wisdom books, speaking of her in language too strong for a mere abstraction.  “For Wisdom is more active than all active things: and reacheth everywhere by reason of her purity.  For she is a vapour of the power of God, and a certain pure emanation of the glory of the almighty God; and therefore no defiled thing cometh into her.  For she is the brightness of eternal light, and the unspotted mirror of God’s majesty, and the image of his goodness.  And being but one, she can do all things: and remaining in herself the same, she reneweth all things, and through nations conveyeth herself to holy souls, she maketh the friends of God and prophets.  For God loveth none but him that dwelleth with wisdom.”[1]

            Secondly, there is a liturgical tradition of naming temples in honor of Sophia, most notably Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and consequently several iconographic templates for writing icons to her.  It is strictly forbidden within Orthodoxy to write icons depicting abstractions (leading some iconographers to reject the icons of Sophia as heretical)[2] or to dedicate temples to them.  Therefore Sophia must be in some sense hypostatic.

            Thirdly, this paper assumes the real rather than abstract existence of Sophia because it would like to fully account for Vladimir Soloviev’s visions of Sophia.[3]  Soloviev is almost universally positively regarded as a theologian in both Catholic and Orthodox circles, and given his ardent defense of the Papacy with which he professed communion and his lifelong attempt to bring the Russian Orthodox Church into union with Rome, it is at least easier to believe that his visions were of God rather than of the devil.  His first vision of Sophia as a resplendent lady occurred during Liturgy at the age of nine; a second occurred in the British Library while he was reading somewhat dubious Protestant sophianic texts by Jacob Boehme and John Pordage.  Sophia then instructed him to go seek her in the Egyptian desert, and he immediately left for a remote part of Egypt where he had a third vision of her.    Shortly after these visions, he earnestly embraced an ultramontane view of the Papacy, publicly received communion from a Catholic priest, and spent the rest of his life defending Christian unity.  It would not seem that a mere abstraction could be such an effective agent of grace.

            The second extreme I would like to avoid in this paper is to make Sophia a separate hypostasis in her own right.  Since I am interested in the orthodox Christian doctrine of Sophia, I will not be concerned with Gnosticism, and due to the length constraints of this paper I will not critique Soloviev’s ambitious and dubious attempt to adopt the entire system and terminology of Valentinian Gnosticism while showing that properly understood it is nothing other than Trinitarian orthodoxy.  Likewise, because the Orthodox doctrine of God is that though God transcends the biological categories of male and female, He relates to us as a male, and it is heretical to refer to any of the three hypostases of the Trinity as female (as Sophia, or as Mother, or as Divine Feminine) despite the popularity of such an identification by modern feminists as well as by some more mainstream Roman Catholic pop theologians.[4]  Instead, I shall argue that Divine Sophia is the hypostatic energy of the Most Holy Trinity following the essence/energy distinction elucidated by St. Gregory Palamas and enshrined as dogma by the Fourth Council of Constantinople in 1351.[5]  The basic structure of my argument shall follow the reasoning of Fr. Sergei Bulgakov in his book Holy Wisdom.

            Despite his ecclesiastical condemnation, Bulgakov was self-consciously attempting to express Orthodox doctrine on the subject.[6]  Like Soloviev, he was familiar with the earlier theological ventures into sophiology made by Protestants like Jacob Boehme and John Pordage, and which had been introduced by the Freemasons into Russia at the end of the 18th century.  However, he argued that his own teaching did not derive from Boehme but from Tradition,[7] and gently criticized Soloviev for mixing Gnostic elements in with his Orthodoxy.

            Starting with Proverbs 8:22-31, Bulgakov notes that Sophia is in some way hypostatic,[8] but contra Arius not identical to the Logos because the passage has Wisdom say “The Lord created me.”[9]  Instead of identifying her with the Logos, Bulgakov related her to the Shekinah, the Glory of God.  According to Bulgakov, Wisdom and Glory are distinct aspects of the Godhead, but distinguished only by the way in which they are revealed.  Wisdom refers to the content of the revelation of the Godhead; Glory/Shekinah to the manifestation of the revelation of the Godhead.  “Wisdom is the matter of Glory, Glory the form of Wisdom,” as he says.[10]  “Nevertheless,” Bulgakov states, “these two distinct aspects can in no way be separated from each other or replaced by one another, as two principles within the Godhead.  This would contradict the truth of monotheism, for the one personal God possesses but one Godhead, which is expressed at once in Wisdom and Glory.”[11]  Though Bulgakov’s terminology is at times unclear, it seems that Godhead is the divine ousia; “God possesses the Godhead, or he is the Godhead”.[12]

            It would seem that Bulgakov is inaccurate to identify Sophia as the divine Ousia, however,[13] though he acknowledges in a footnote that a more precise and less simplistic phrasing would be to acknowledge an “equivalence in difference” between Sophia and ousia analogous to that of the ousia and energeiai of St. Gregory Palamas.[14]  Even more precisely, Bulgakov identifies Sophia with the divinity of God, and in the medieval disputes over the hypostatic origin versus eternal manifestation of the divinity of the Holy Spirit through the Son, divinity became regarded in the East as the energy of God.[15]  As Bulgakov explains, “The glory of God in these instances is obviously intended to represent a divine principle.  Though it differs from God’s personal being, yet it is inseparably bound up with it: it is not God, but Divinity.”[16]  From the Western point of view, the divinity of God is His natura or “essence” since it is what makes God what He is.  God’s essence is His existence, or His essence is to exist, and therefore divinity cannot exist apart from God and God cannot exist except through His divinity.  The Eastern theological viewpoint does not disagree with this because of the subtle difference in meaning between ousia and natura; expressing this truth in Eastern terms, Bulgakov says that Sophia is eternally hypostasized in and through the hypostases of the Trinity.  Sophia is the life of God – “the life of an hypostatic spirit, though not itself hypostatic.”[17]

            Bulgakov is careful to say that Sophia is “not itself hypostatic” in order to avoid the error that the phrasing of his martyred colleague Fr. Pavel Florensky sometimes leaned towards in making God a quarternitas, for example when Florensky calls God a “fourth hypostatic element”.[18]  Bulgakov notes the similarity of this phrasing to the medieval heresy of Gilbert de la Porree, for whom the Godhead was a fourth term of the Trinity, and who was condemned by the Council of Rheims in 1147.  Bulgakov quotes the aforesaid council as having “very justly proclaimed that Divinitas sit Deus et Deus Divinitas.”[19]

            Because of God’s simplicity – He is a Trinity, not a set of three gods – there is but one divinity and consequently one Sophia.  Because of the inseparability of energy and essence, it is impossible for multiple essences to have the same energy or for one essence to have multiple energies.  As St. John Damascene taught us, God’s energy is simple, and likewise Fr. Bulgakov teaches that the Holy Trinity “possesses one Wisdom, not three; one Glory, not three.”[20]

            Sophiology becomes more tricky when we approach the question of the relation of Sophia to the created world.  God created the world by His energies (“energy” by definition refers to the ontological being of an action within the doer), and His presence in the world and indeed the very being of the world are through His energies;[21] Bulgakov will say that it is by Sophia that the world is created,[22] and he says that what he means by this is that God’s Wisdom is the “reason” why God created the world, insofar as God could be said to have a reason.

Furthermore, since Wisdom is the content or “matter” of the revelation of God, and God reveals Himself first and foremost through creating creatures that partake a likeness to the Creator and are capable of receiving a revelation of God, the first and foremost “matter” of God’s revelation is nothing other than the entire created universe itself.  Bulgakov and other Russian theologians vary on whether Sophia is created or uncreated, and whether Sophia is one or two.  In The Wisdom of God, Bulgakov speaks of two Sophias, one created and the other uncreated;[23] the two Sophias were perfectly united in the person of Christ, making our theosis possible.[24]  However, he also noted that this would seem to introduce “a sort of duplication of the divine Sophia”,[25] violating the absolute incommensurability between Creator and creature.  Orthodox thought does not recognize an “analogy of being”, an idea largely misunderstood as implying a common ground or set of qualities between God and the world.  Instead, Orthodoxy insists that the created world participates in Being through the uncreated energies of God, making God the sole ground of being between both (an idea that should hopefully sound familiar to Thomist ears).  God therefore is the being of created things, and the “creaturely Sophia” (Bulgakov does not say “created”) is truly divine, just as sanctifying grace is divine (and, according to Orthodox dogma, therefore uncreated).  Consequently, Bulgakov notes that “it is nearer the truth to speak of unity, even identity, as between the divine and the creaturely Sophia; for there is nothing doubled in God.  At the same time, however, and without equivocation, we can speak of the two different forms of Sophia in God and in the creature.”[26]   Bulgakov distinguishes them both on the grounds of one’s simplicity and perfection and the other’s temporality, and on the grounds of one’s divinity and the other’s participatedness.

In order to do full justice to the unity of Sophia and avoid the clumsiness of having an asymmetric duality between Sophias, most other Russian theologians will speak of a single Sophia.  They disagree, however, as to whether this Sophia is created or uncreated, or somewhere inbetween.  Sensitive to the ecclesiastical condemnation (in the Synodikon of Holy Orthodoxy) of the idea of eternal Platonic forms which would compromise the createdness of matter and the freedom with which God created the world, Fr. Vasilii Zenkovskii insisted that Sophia had to be purely created, a view strongly supported by Scriptural passages in which God is spoken of as having created Sophia (such as Proverbs 8:22).[27]  Father Zenkovskii was supported in his view by a number of prominent theologians whose Orthodoxy was irreproachable, including Fr. Georges Florovsky, Vladimir Lossky, and his less well-known father Nikolai Lossky.  Yet just as the disciples of Barlaam the Calabrian ended up concluding that “created grace” as a creature is incapable of bridging the ontological gap and uniting us to God, Father Zenkovskii was unable to explain how a created thing could truly be the Wisdom of God as described in Wisdom 7, and his attempt to do so was wrought with contradictions.  For example, one has to wonder exactly what he means when he speaks of the “genuine, although not beginningless, eternity of the sophianic foundation of the world”.[28]

An equally reputable Orthodox theologian, Prince Evgeny Trubetskoi, went the opposite direction and treated Sophia as purely divine without any creaturely element.  Trubetskoi argued that as a power of God, Wisdom had to be “a quality inalienable from Him”.[29]  This description fails to explain how there could be any communion between God and creation, how the created world could manifest the wisdom of God as the unanimous Christian tradition has always said, how one could personally live a life of wisdom, or how the world could reveal the wisdom of God.

Florensky tried to describe a single Sophia which was somewhere either both God and creaturely or somewhere in-between, as did Bulgakov in his earlier writings.  In The Lamb of God, written a couple years before The Wisdom of God, he says that “a single Sophia is disclosed in both God and creation”, [30] and says that this single Sophia exists “between being and supra being without being one or the other, or is both at the same time”.[31]  Seeking to avoid pantheism, he clarifies that the world itself “is Sophia in its basis but is not Sophia in its condition”,[32] though this expression could be taken in either a conventional Thomist sense (God is the cause of the being of the world, and the world participates in the Being of God and is ordered in terms of final causality towards God), or in an pantheistic adaptation of the Gnostic myth of the “fall of Sophia”, making the world itself originally uncreated but now fallen.

Bulgakov also speaks of a typological relationship between created realities and an eternal Sophia, but this does not seem to avoid the Platonic errors that Fr. Zenkovskii sought to avoid, and occasionally seems to fall into a quasi-docetism or quasi-Eutychianism.  Since “Sophia is the heavenly Type of humanity or, in this sense, heavenly manhood itself”,[33] the createdness of Christ’s human nature can become compromised, at least in his phrasing.  “Christ’s created manhood is rendered transparent to his eternal manhood.”[34]  Father Florovsky’s phrasing is better, when he describes the “divine idea” of something, associated with “created Sophia”, as “the truth of a thing, its transcendent entelechy”.[35]  As with most of Florovsky, this idea is heavily grounded in patristic theology, in this case St. Maximos the Confessor.

The phrasing of Holy New-Martyr Pavel Florensky is bolder, and sometimes more consistent, than that of Bulgakov, but violates the incommensurability between God and Creation.  He describes Sophia as “the Great Root of the whole creation.  That is, Sophia is all-integral creation and not merely all creation.  Sophia is the Great Root by which creation goes into the intra-Trinitarian life and through which it receives Life Eternal from the One Source of Life.  Sophia is the original nature of creation, God’s creative love.”[36]

This would seem to put Sophia on the created side of the ontological gap – and, indeed, he will later say that “Sophia is a fourth, creaturely, and therefore nonconsubstantial Person… She ‘is’ not Love, but only enters into communion with Love.  And she is allowed to enter into this communion by the ineffable, unfathomable, inconceivable humility of God.”[37]  Yet he also seems to put her on the uncreated side of the ontological gap, when he says, “Sophia is the Guardian Angel of creation, the Ideal person of the world.  The shaping reason with regard to creation, Sophia is the shaped content of God-Reason, His ‘psychic content,’ eternally created by the Father through the Son and completed in the Holy Spirit:  God thinks by things.”[38]  He calls Sophia “creaturely”, and acknowledges a separate uncreated Wisdom of which the creaturely Sophia is the “image and shadow”,[39] but even then says that “realized, imprinted, in the empirical world in time, Sophia, although she is creaturely, precedes the world.  She is a supramundane hypostatic collection of divine prototypes of that which exists.”[40]

Though it is often taken for granted in the West that God alone is capable of creating, Florensky describes God giving Sophia creative power.  “She is the Eternal Bride of the Word of God.  Outside of Him and independently of Him, she does not have being and falls apart into fragments of ideas about creation.  But in Him she receives creative power.  One in God, she is multiple in creation and is perceived in creation in her concrete appearances as the ideal person of man, as his Guardian Angel, i.e., as the spark of the eternal dignity of the person and as the image of God in man.”[41]

It would seem that all of these errors and confusions would be avoided and the difficulties solved, by returning more closely to the dogma of the divine energies and Bulgakov’s identification of Sophia as the content of divine revelation.  The divine energies are uncreated, and the act of creation is itself uncreated; but the content of the revelation – the entire universe – is created.  Therefore, viewed as energy or act of revelation, Sophia is uncreated; viewed as the content or “matter” of revelation, Sophia is created; but there are not two different Sophias, but only one viewed two different ways.  Christian orthodoxy does not allow for a separate existence to the world apart from the act of being by which God creates it and by which it participates in being, although Christianity does not always explicitly emphasize this truth as strongly as acosmic philosophies and religious systems (such as the Vedanta within Hinduism) do; this act of being is both uncreated in terms of what it really is and created in terms of what participates in and is brought into existence through this act of being.

As Wisdom is the efficacious revelation of God, it is fitting that Wisdom has been most closely identified with that which has most strongly revealed God and united creation to Him – Christ, the Theotokos, the Church, and grace.  It is understandable that the Son should have been referred to as “Wisdom” as well as “Logos” because Christ reveals God in a unique way, and also that Sophia should have been thought to have been somehow between created and uncreated reality given the depth of her manifestation in Mary, whom (in one of his embarrassingly less theologically precise moments) St. Gregory Palamas referred to as “standing at the border between created and uncreated nature.”[42]

As Wisdom is the revelation of God through the divinizing energies, its most intimate manifestation in the lives of believers is through the Church and the life of grace.  Indeed, following the terminology of Soloviev, Bulgakov describes sophiology as nothing but the “full dogmatic elucidation” of the doctrine of Godmanhood (Bogochelovechestvo).[43]  The revelation of Godmanhood is the Church,[44] both in her heavenly, preexistent aspect and her earthly aspect.[45]  In this final aspect of Sophia I shall depart from my treatment of the Russian theologians and turn to the father of modern sophiology, always lurking behind the texts of those who came after him, but always veiled under a cloud of suspicion.  The unorthodox Lutheran cobbler and theosopher Jacob Boehme wrote a spiritual masterwork entitled The Life in Christ which avoided the unorthodox doctrinal speculations of his more theoretical books.  The height of the spiritual life for Boehme, which permeated his entire book, was the marriage of the soul with Sophia, a marriage which (in blatant violation of Lutheran teaching) truly unites the soul to Christ.[46]  This union of which Boehme wrote is nothing other than the life of grace in the soul, transforming through complete union with the divinizing energies of God.  “When Christ the cornerstone moves in the corrupted image of man in his deep conversation and repentance, the Virgin Sophia appears in the movement of Christ’s spirit in the corrupted image in Her Virginal clothing before the soul,”[47] and as Queen of Heaven the Virgin Sophia cannot unite with the Old Adam without transforming it in Christ.[48] As a Lutheran, Boehme could speak the soteriological language of Western Christianity, and yet his doctrine of Sophia was read by and influential on the Russian sophiologists.  Orthodox doctrine associates grace with the uncreated divine energies (though the two concepts are not quite identical), and thus the spiritual doctrine of Boehme is the final testament and argument presented here for the identification of Sophia as the revelatory and deifying energies of God.

















Reference List

Boehme, Jacob.  The Way to Christ, translated by Peter Erb.  New York:  Paulist Press, 1978.



Bulgakov, Sergei.  The Wisdom of God, translated by Patrick Thompson.  New York:  Paisley Press, 1937.



Challoner, Richard.  The Holy Bible:  Douay-Rheims Version.  Rockford, IL:  TAN Books and Publishers, 2000.



Florensky, Pavel.  The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, translated by Boris Jakim.  Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1997.



Palamas, Gregory.  Saint Gregory Palamas:  The Homilies, translated by Christopher Veniamin.  South Canaan, PA:  Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009.



Sergeev, Mikhail.  Sophiology in Russian Orthodoxy.  Lewiston, NY:  Edwin Mellen Press, 2006.



Soloviev, Vladimir.  Divine Sophia:  The Wisdom Writings of Vladimir Solovyov, translated by Judith Deutsch Kornblatt.  Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 2009.



[1] Wisdom 7:24-28.  The Holy Bible, Douay Rheims Version, revised by Bishop Richard Challoner.  Rockford, Ill:  TAN Books and Publishers, 2000.
[2] I owe this knowledge to a personal conversation with a Romanian Catholic iconographer who holds this view of the icon of Sophia.
[3] Soloviev, Three Encounters, in Kornblatt, Divine Sophia:  The Wisdom Writings of Vladimir Solovyov, 263-272.
[4] Such as Scott Hahn in his book First Comes Love.
[5]The “Palamite council” of Constantinople/Blachernae is authoritative in the East by the inclusion of their canons in the Synodikon of Holy Orthodoxy sung on the first Sunday of Great Lent and by the introduction of the feast of St. Gregory Palamas on the following Sunday as a continuation of the Feast of Holy Orthodoxy.  Despite older Roman Catholic polemics against St. Gregory, he holds the same liturgical place and position of authority as a Pillar of Orthodoxy in Orthodox churches in communion with Rome as with Orthodox churches still separated from Rome.
[6] His doctrine was condemned by both the Moscow Patriarchate and by concordats of Russian Orthodox in exile who rejected the Moscow Patriarchate’s subservience to Communism.  The Moscow Patriarchate came out first with a decree in 1935 which declared “Bulgakov’s doctrine of the being of God has nothing in common with the Church tradition and does not belong to the Orthodox Christian Church” and demanded “his written repudiation of his sophianic interpretation of the dogmas of faith and of his other mistakes in the teaching of faith as well as a written promise of unchanging fidelity to the teaching of the Orthodox Church.”  Quoted in Mikhail Sergeev, Sophiology in Russian Orthodoxy, 124-125.  This decree was followed immediately by a condemnation of Bulgakov by the Arhiereiskii Sobor of the Church in Exile, which used the term heresy.
[7] Sergei Bulgakov, The Wisdom of God, 20.
[8] The Wisdom of God, 47.
[9] The Wisdom of God, 49.
[10] The Wisdom of God, 80.
[11] The Wisdom of God, 54.
[12] The Wisdom of God, 59.
[13] The Wisdom of God, 56.
[14] The Wisdom of God, 55, footnote.
[15] See for example Steven Todd Kaster’s unpublished paper “The Palamite Doctrine of God”.
[16] The Wisdom of God, 52.
[17] The Wisdom of God, 57.
[18] Quoted by Sergeev, Sophiology in Russian Orthodoxy, 94, from the Russian edition of Florensky’s The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, 323.  My translation uses “personal” rather than “hypostasic”.
[19] The Wisdom of God, 59, footnote.
[20] The Wisdom of God, 60.
[21] Homily, Theophany 2011.  Priest Ihar Labacevich, St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church, Minneapolis.
[22] The Wisdom of God, 109.
[23] The Wisdom of God, 17.
[24] The Wisdom of God, 141.
[25] The Wisdom of God, 114.
[26] The Wisdom of God, 115.
[27] Sergeev, Sophiology in Russian Orthodoxy, 114.
[28] Zenkovskii, “Preodolenie platonizma i problema sofiinosti mira”, Put’, no. 24 (1930):3-40, p. 35, quoted in Sergeev, 115
[29] Smysl zhizni, Moscow:  Respublika, 1994, p. 100, quoted in Sergeev, 136
[30] The Lamb of God, 148, quoted in Sergeev, Sophiology in Russian Orthodoxy, p. 110.
[31] Philosophy of Economy, p. 188, quoted in Sergeev, 102.
[32] Philosophy of Economy, p. 195, quoted in Sergeev, 103.
[33] The Wisdom of God, 150.
[34] The Wisdom of God, 142.
[35] Creation and Redemption:  Collected Works, Volume III, p. 62, quoted in Sergeev, 122.
[36] Florensky, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, 237.
[37] The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, 252.
[38] The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, 237.
[39] The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, 251.
[40] The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, 251-252.
[41] The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, 239.
[42] St. Gregory Palamas, Homily XXXVII, in Veniamin, The Homilies of St. Gregory Palamas, 296.
[43] The Wisdom of God, 34.
[44] The Wisdom of God, 36.
[45] The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, 253.
[46] Jacob Boehme, The Way to Christ, 58.
[47] The Way to Christ, 60.
[48] The Way to Christ, 155.

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