Bulgakov: Open Orthodoxy?


I ran across a piece on Bulgakov (SJT 58[3] 2005) this week by Orthodox theologian/philosopher Paul Gavrilyuk (here at St. Thomas U in the Twin Cities). I read the paper some time ago and still don’t know how I missed this particular aspect of Bulgakov’s views. Gavrilyuk explores Bulgakov’s very complex kenoticism, not your crude Protestant versions, but what looks to be a kenotic view of the Incarnation nonetheless. However, it’s something Gavrilyuk says unrelated to Bulgakov’s kenoticism that I find interesting (pp 258f). Bulgakov (d. 1944), by the way, was a Russian Orthodox priest/theologian/philosopher. Gavrilyuk writes:

In addition, Bulgakov maintains that God also limits his knowledge of the future in order to enable genuinely free human choices. In his eternal being God is and remains omniscient, knowing himself and all things in eternity in one supratemporal act. This eternal and perfect knowledge must not be confused with foreknowledge. Bulgakov criticises the claim that God knows all things ‘before’ they come to pass for providing a misleading idea of the relationship between eternity and temporality. Eternity, Bulgakov rightly points out, cannot be ‘before’ time in a temporal sense, as the prefix ‘pre’ seems to suggest, but rather eternity is the very foundation of temporality.

God knows all things in eternity and all future possibilities. For example, God foreknew the possibility of the fall, but God did not know that the fall was bound to happen, for this would entail that God caused the fall. God chooses not to know what exactly will come to pass in any temporal sequence ahead of time, because this would entail, Bulgakov believes, a strong doctrine of the divine causation of all things, which in turn would undo human freedom. To put it briefly, God chooses not to know future contingents in order not to determine the future and take away human freedom.

Wanting to find out for myself, I opened up Bulgakov. There are several passages in his chapter “God and Creaturely Freedom” from The Bride of the Lamb. You’ll see the relevant comments in the following passage (pp. 237f):

All this brings us to the central question of God’s omniscience in relation to creaturely freedom and its works. Does God know the works of our freedom “before” they are accomplished on the basis of His omniscience? The question is answered in the affirmative by predestinationism in its various forms…But to say that God knows in advance the works of freedom is a de facto annulment of freedom, its transformation into a subjective illusion. The acceptance of this supposition therefore places all the difficulties of predestination before us…

If God created man in freedom, in His own image, as a son of God and a friend of God, a god according to grace, then the reality of this creation includes his freedom as creative self-determination not only in relation to the world but also in relation to God. To admit the contrary would be to introduce a contradiction in God, who would then be considered as having posited only a fictitious, illusory freedom. And then one would inevitably have to accept Calvin’s conclusion that man fell not freely but because God desired it, for only God’s will and freedom exist. In other words, God could not or did not wish to create creaturely freedom or, more precisely, its subjects or bearers who presuppose it. Therefore, to unite creaturely freedom with divine omniscience, one must say not that God foresaw and therefore predestined the fall of man (a statement that is something encountered in handbooks of dogma) but that God, knowing His creation with all the possibilities contained therein, knows also the possibility of the fall, which, however, did not have to occur and can occur only by human freedom. Otherwise, the contrary assertion of Calvinism would be right…

Let us repeat, all the possibilities of creaturely being, having their roots in the Creator’s knowledge, are open to this knowledge, since they belong to the world created by Him and are included in this world’s composition, not only in the form of “integral wisdom” but also in the form of a distributed multiplicity. In this sense, creation – in both the spiritual and the human world – cannot bring anything ontologically new into this world; it cannot surprise or enrich the Creator Himself. But the very choice and creative actualization of these possibilities, that is, the domain of modal freedom, remain entrusted to creation and to this extent are its creative contribution. Although creation cannot be absolutely unexpected and new for God in the ontological sense, nevertheless in empirical (“contingent”) being, it represents a new manifestation for God Himself, who is waiting to see whether man will open or not open the doors of his heart. God Himself will know this only when it happens.

The synergism here is a mutual self-determination that has an element of novelty, actualized in different modes for the two sides in the interaction. The ways of the world are therefore not predetermined as a single causal connection in which there is no place for contingent causes…On the contrary, the determination of creaturely freedom must be understood according to a series of infinite variations, actually as non determinatum ad unum, but with these variations remaining subordinate to one plan, to one ontological possibility, multiply actualized. To creaturely freedom it is given to participate in the destinies of all of creation and, first of all, in the proper ways of man. If, in God’s eternity, the world’s being is uniquely and totally determined, on the contrary, we have the incompleteness, the under-determinedness, the still-continuing self-determination of the world. Veiling His face, God remains ignorant of the actions of human freedom. Otherwise, these actions would not have their own reality, but would only be a function of a certain divine mechanism of things. (Bold emphasis mine.)

There is more. For example, Bulgakov addresses the question of prophetic prevision and the conditional nature of prophetic fulfillment, appealing to Jer. 18.7-10; 26. 3, 13 in precisely the way open theists have; that is, the conditionality described in Jer. 18 entails divine epistemic openness with respect to future contingencies. In objecting to his Sophiology, Lossky and others (so I’m told) commented on Bulgakov’s position regarding divine foreknowledge as well, which leads me to believe I’m not misunderstanding him here. He makes the same core claim as the open view makes: divine epistemic openness with regard to future contingents. He seems to believe this by supposing God ‘chooses not to know future contingents’, which itself is a contradiction of the indeterminate, unformed nature of the future which Bulgakov insists upon earlier in the passage. But that aside, I thought it interesting to see the open view advocated by an Orthodox theologian.


19 comments on “Bulgakov: Open Orthodoxy?

  1. Whahoo!!! Sweet find! Just added him to the wiki page.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. tgbelt says:

    Cool, Jacob!

    On a separate note, just being honest. We’ve just made it clear that one of the most influential Orthodox thinkers of the past few hundred years (perhaps longer) is an open theist and nobody thinks it’s a big deal?


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Guess they have to be a Protestant to make waves 😉

    Really awesome find!


  4. nelsonct says:

    It’s interesting to note that Bulgakov has an open view of the future, a kenotic Christology and a passibilist theology. And that in Bulgakov, these three ideas are entangled. He understands divine love as essentially kenotic, opening God to temporality and suffering. It reminds me of someone….

    Liked by 3 people

    • tgbelt says:

      Who’s it remind you of? ;o)

      I remember TC’s blog post, sure. He didn’t say anything about Bulgakov’s view on divine foreknowledge (i.e., that he denied EDF in the traditional sense). He focused on kenoticism and passibilism. I remember you linked Gavrilyuk’s article as well (which I had read). But again, nothing from Bulgakov of his view own views on foreknowledge (which is all our post here is about and why I didn’t reference TC’s post). And in defending his view on foreknowledge, Bulgakov relies purely on philosophical and biblical arguments.

      I don’t have any issues with describing the eternal triune relations in kenotic terms as (to use Bulgakov’s phrase) “sacrificial self-surrender” (the mutual possession of each person’s hypostatic identity in the others via self-surrender). Is God essentially kenotic in that God exists as the triune act gift/surrender and gift received? Absolutely. None of the Persons seeks to establish his identity independently of the others. Rather each is who he is in the fullest possible surrender of himself to the others, in which surrender is eternally coterminous with reception and thus beatitude.

      We’ve never suggested otherwise. Bulgakov even identifies God’s infinite beatitude as just this (which TC noted as well): “…there is no bliss in love except in sacrificial self-surrender which is rewarded by responsive fulfillment.” Heck, even Lossky (who disdained Protestant kenoticism) spoke of God in kenotic terms. It seems to be a theme in Russian Orthodoxy. But there’s a real need to be very discriminating in observing how the concept is used.

      But speaking of this eternal, mutually kenotic self-surrender which is God, do you think, Nelson, this means there eternally is ‘pain’ in God? Do you think the Son’s eternally kenotic surrender to the Father entails any kind of rejection of the Son by the Father or a cessation of the triune relations in some way, or of death in God essentially? Does it mean the Son eternally is non-omniscient, that he’s finite in consciousness and location? Does eternal kenotic self-surrender entail eternal ‘suffering’? Does each divine Person experience pain and suffering in surrendering himself to the others? Does God eternally say, “Ouch! It sure hurts to be me!”?

      What it does mean, at the very least (and which evidently Bulgakov pushed the limits of Orthodox to explore), is that what God is eternally makes creation/incarnation/Cross (a) possible at all, and (b) an affirmation and revelation of God, not a departure from God. I’m not a student of Bulgakov, and surprises are everywhere, but I’ll put my money on Bulgakov’s NOT being a monothelite (i.e., he didn’t deny Constantinople III (681), as must all modern kenoticists). Had he denied 681 (Maximus is “the Confessor” because he gave his life for the Christological doctrine of two-wills that 681 recognizes as binding Orthodoxy), I think there would have been no question in the minds of the Bishops who met to respond to his theology that he was no longer Orthodox. But they didn’t conclude that, so I’m guessing Bulgakov didn’t just side with the Protestant kenoticists in a straightforward, unqualified sense.


  5. nelsonct says:

    Not all Protestant kenoticists are monothelite. Like Bulgakov, many kenoticists believe that Jesus had a human will and a divine will. And like Bulgakov, they work this out by saying that Jesus divine will was not His but the Father’s.

    Also, passibilism doesn’t entail that God suffers necessarily, essentially or eternally. It means that God is open to suffering, even suffering of His own.

    And Bulgakov talks about eternal kenosis, creational kenosis and incarnational kenosis. When Bulgakov treats incarnational kenosis, he comes very close to Thomasius. Bulgakov might be Orthodox, but his incarnational kenoticism comes from his interaction with Protestants. The only reason Bulgakov was not found heretical by the bishops is because he didn’t acknowledge his Protestant influences and avoided their language (i.e. Thomasius’ divestment of relative attributes).

    Liked by 1 person

    • tgbelt says:

      “The only reason Bulgakov was not found heretical by the bishops is because he didn’t acknowledge his Protestant influences and avoided their language (i.e. Thomasius’ divestment of relative attributes).”

      So you’re saying Bulgakov’s position really is essentially the Protestant one, at least sufficiently enough to have justified being branded as heresy had the Orthodox Bishops perceived the truth of the matter, but Bulgakov managed to avoid being exposed as such.

      That’s fine with me. In that case Bulgakov is as unorthodox as any kenotic protestant and isn’t an ‘Open Orthodox Father’. If that’s the case, I have no problem rephrasing myself. What isn’t the case is that Bulgakov establishes as compatible with Orthodoxy the belief that the mode of the Logos’s personal existence was reduced without remainder to the constraints of his human, finite embodied existence.

      Any protestant kenoticist who happens to be a dyothelite would certainly not attribute to the divine will possessed by Jesus all the abiding cosmic functions of the Logos (like sustaining all created things) or the continuing triune personal existence of the Logos (say, when Jesus was a zygote). In other words, it wouldn’t conform to Constantinople III.


      • tgbelt says:


        Nichols mentions the frustrating relationship in Bulgakov between his “on the one hand” and “on the other.” For example, on the one hand (Bulgakov), “God dwells in the Holy Trinity, in the tri-hypostatic relations and he lives in a [created] nature. This essential ontological plenitude of divinity cannot be modified or diminished.” That looks very Orthodox and unyielding. On the other hand, however, the ‘mode’ of the Son’s being does seem to be reduced to the created constraints of finite in Incarnation. Bulgakov translates Heb 12.2 as “Jesus, who ‘instead of’ the joy [rather than ‘because of’] he had before him [i.e., the pre-Incarnate experience of the Logos], endured the Cross.” There’s a sense in which the hypostasis of the Logos “ceases to be his own” in the Son’s accepting the mission to incarnate, during which time his hypostasis simply ‘belongs to the Father.” [Nichols (Bottom of p. 97 to the bottom of p. 101, particularly p. 101.]

        All that said, I’m happy to disclaim Bulgakov’s being an “Orthodox Father” if indeed his views violate essential Orthodox faith in ways the Bishops didn’t perceive. But I just don’t have all the facts to make that judgment. What I will say is that his ‘open view’ needn’t entail all this. His arguments for divine epistemic openness re: future contingents are straightforwardly logical/philosophical.


  6. T. C. says:

    This thread is hilarious. ‘We love Bulgakov!’ You know he disagrees with you, right? ‘What? Oh, in that case, we hate him!’


    • tgbelt says:

      Good to hear from you TC.

      Well, what we actually proposed was “We love Bulgakov’s view on divine foreknowledge.” That’s all. And he doesn’t disagree with us on that. That’s the point. We didn’t pretend to suggest this means there aren’t any disagreements, and we don’t “hate” him on account of any disagreements. But you would’ve had to have read what we actually said to have understood this. And as we all know, ‘wanting to understand’ isn’t even part of why you stopped by.


  7. tgbelt says:

    I’ve been exploring Bulgakov and the condemnation of his sophiology (specifically his kenoticism) since writing this post. Fr Aidan has made some helpful points as well as Brandon Gallaher (Oxford Patristics scholar and Bulgakov expert), more of Gavrilyuk, and some other Orthodox heavyweights (like Dimitriu Staniloae, who accused Bulgakov of being a monophysite [which is not difficult to imagine why]).

    Bulgakov’s kenoticism isn’t a verbatim repetition of German or Protestant forms, true, but it’s essentially the same fundamental mistake, and the two Russian Churches that condemned his views (Moscow and ROCOR, essentially the entirety of the Russian Church) were correct to see in them an abandonment of key point of the Creeds. Anyhow, if this is confusing for evangelicals some of whom see kenoticism as incompatible with Orthodoxy (like Dwayne and I) and others who see it as compatible with Orthodoxy on account of Bulgakov, well, we have the Orthodox to thank for the confusion.


  8. nelsonct says:

    I just read from Roger Olson in response to a commenter in his blog:

    “Ah! Since you mention Lewis Smedes… We became acquainted not long before he died. In his last communication to me he told me that he had finally come to agree with open theism.”

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Lance says:

    I finished Lamb of God not long ago… some of the statements about God limiting himself don’t ring true. I don’t recall that being Bulgakov’s way of parsing eternity/temporality. But then, I suppose it makes sense because he’s all about defending God’s freedom.
    It was an enormous book, however. I’m not shocked I don’t recall all the finer points.

    AS a whole, however, I find Balthasar’s approach more sufficient– I think he actually calls Bulgakov a boarder line gnostic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • tgbelt says:

      Thank you Lance. I’m slowly working through Lamb of God. It’s not difficult to see the influence of German kenoticists upon him. And my hunch is he got (or got confirmed) his view on divine foreknowledge (which is just open theism’s view on the matter) from Isaak Dorner (whose work Divine Immutability Bulgakov refers to).

      The whole Bulgakov episode within Orthodox is mystifying to me. One could quote passages from Bulgakov (without naming him as author) to Orthodox friends and easily have them dismissed as heterdox at best, heretical at worse. But link them to Bulgakov and, well, there you have it.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Tom says:

    Just heard David Bentley Hart say Bulgakov was “the greatest systematic theologian of the 20th century.” Interesting.


  11. Robert Fortuin says:

    Tom, how has your perspective changed on this topic with an additional 7 some years on the tires?


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