Bulgakov and the problem of speculation in modern Orthodoxy

One of the most prominent and (I think) unfortunate characteristics of contemporary Orthodoxy is its zealous opposition to all things ‘speculative.’ Practically speaking, ‘speculative’ functions in this context as a kind of catch-all term, used by Orthodox to dismiss any theological claim not already made by ‘the fathers’ and ratified by ‘Tradition.’ This refusal is especially characteristic of — but certainly not limited to — the online Orthodox community (a community comprised largely of “converts from Evangelicalism who,” much to David Hart’s frustration,”bristle at the thought that Orthodox tradition might be more diverse, indeterminate, and speculatively daring than what they signed on for”).

The problem with this anti-speculative attitude is that it could hardly be less faithful to the fathers themselves, who never suggested — in either word or deed — that the task of theology is limited to the regurgitation of established truths and formulae. On the contrary, the best of the Greek fathers understood ecclesial dogma as the foundation by which the Christian is enabled to explore new speculative terrain without fear.

When Gregory of Nyssa, for instance, offered various “conjectures and similitudes” regarding the relation of the Fall to human gender in De opificio hominis, he was bequeathing to tradition not merely a set of interesting conjectures, but also — far more importantly — an example for later Christians to follow in their own theologizing. And follow it they did: Maximus and John Damascene, to use just two prominent examples, were both emboldened by De opificio hominis to speculate about the Fall and its consequences in even more daring and conjectural ways than Gregory had (in Ambiguum 8 and De fide orthodoxa 2.30, respectively).

But my point here is not simply that saints like Maximus and John felt themselves allowed to speculate on theological matters due to Gregory’s example. Much more radically, they understood themselves to be following Gregory most authentically by speculating in directions he himself had not. Balthasar thus expresses a quite genuinely patristic sentiment when he writes that

Being faithful to tradition most definitely does not consist … of a literal repetition and transmission of the philosophical and theological theses that one imagines lie hidden in time and in the contingencies of history. Rather, being faithful to tradition consists much more of imitating our Fathers in the faith with respect to their attitude of intimation reflection and their effort of audacious creation, which are the necessary preludes to true spiritual fidelity.

And perhaps no modern Orthodox theologian better exemplifies following the fathers in their “effort of audacious creation” than Sergei Bulgakov. Whatever one ultimately makes of his sophiology — whether one finds it veracious or not — there is really no questioning that it is a authentic, 20th-century expression of patristic and Orthodox tradition. It is a carefully (and prayerfully) worked out theological system, offered to the Church by a man of renowned personal sanctity and grounded in the dogmatic formulae of the Councils, the wisdom literature of the Septuagint, the iconographic tradition of the Church, and the writings of the fathers.

Which is to say: in his mature sophiological writings, Bulgakov is doing precisely what Gregory was doing in De opificio hominis, and what Maximus was doing in the Ambigua, and what Dionysius was doing in The Celestial Hierarchy (and so on and so forth). He is speculating, yes, but in a manner wholly licensed by tradition and modeled by the saints.

(For more on all this, and for an introduction to the basic claims of Bulgakovian sophiology, here is a term paper I recently completed on Bulgakov and Byzantine tradition.)

 

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