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Sergii Bulgakov's ‘Sofiologiia smerti’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 November 2017

T. Allan Smith*
University of St. Michael's College, 81 St. Mary Street, Toronto, ON M5S


This article examines S. Bulgakov's treatise ‘Sofiologiia smerti’ (‘Sophiology of Death’), which has been relatively neglected by scholars. Death is a topic that recurs with some frequency throughout Bulgakov's writings; that it merited its own study indicates the importance that he attached to the topic. The article provides a biographical, cultural and intellectual context for the treatise, as well some comments on its literary features. Bulgakov's use of sophiology and kenotic theology to explore the process of dying and the fact of death itself come under review. His reflections on human death and dying lead Bulgakov to explore how the Son of God experienced death and the involvement of the Trinity itself in that experience. Christ becomes fully human when he dies, and his death is the pattern for all human death.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

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1 Bulgakov, Sergii N., ‘Sofiologiia smerti’, in Sapov, V. V. (ed.), Tikhie Dumy (Moscow: Respublika, 1996), pp. 275306 Google Scholar (previously published in Vestnik Russkogo Khristianskogo Dvizheniia 127 (1978), pp. 18–41; 128 (1979), pp. 13–32). The only study thus far is Kiejzik, Lilianna, ‘Sergei Bulgakov's sophiology of death’, Studies in East European Thought 62 (2010), pp. 5562 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a general examination of Bulgakov's writings on death, see Roberti, Jean-Claude, ‘La vision de la mort dans l'oeuvre du Père Serge Boulgakov’, Colloque Serge Boulgakov, ed. Struve, Nikita (Paris: Action Chrétienne des Étudiants Russes, 1985), pp. 123–9Google Scholar.

2 See e.g. the two dialogues Na piru bogov (Sofia, 1921) and the posthumously published U sten Khersonisa (1922) and his impressionistic study ‘Iuda Iskariot Apostol-Predatel'’, Put’ 26, 27 (1931), pp. 3–60, pp. 3-42.

3 Solovyov, Vladimir, Lectures on Divine Humanity, ed. Jakim, Boris (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1995)Google Scholar. Solovyov's main writings on Sophia are available in Divine Sophia: The Wisdom Writings of Vladimir Solovyov, ed. Judith Deutsch Kornblatt (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009).

4 Sergii Bulgakov, ‘Tsentral'naia problema sofiologii’, in Tikhie Dumy, p. 269. The text was originally published in German in 1936. Unless otherwise indicated, the translations are my own.

5 Bulgakov's theological project is thoroughly explored by Valliere, Paul, Modern Russian Theology. Bukharev, Soloviev, Bulgakov: Orthodox Theology in a New Key (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), pp. 227403 Google Scholar.

6 He tried to clarify this in Ipostas’ i ipostasnost’ (Prague: Plamia, 1925), pp. 353–71.

7 E.g. he states, ‘This is panentheism, where all is in God or for God, in contradistinction or opposition to pantheism, that is, pan-divinity and thus the absence of divinity.’ Bulgakov, Sergii, Agnets Bozhii (Paris: YMCA-Press, 1933), p. 144 Google Scholar; ET: The Lamb of God, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans), p, 121.

8 For kenosis in the theological works of Bulgakov, see Gavrilyuk, Paul L., ‘The Kenotic Theology of Sergius Bulgakov’, Scottish Journal of Theology 58 (2005), pp. 251–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Bulgakov offers his most sustained treatment of kenosis in Agnets Bozhii, pp. 240–75 (Lamb of God, pp. 213–47).

10 Frankenhäuser, Gerald, Die Auffassungen von Tod und Unsterblichkeit in der klassischen deutschen Philosophie von Emmanuel Kant bis Ludwig Feuerbach (Frankfurt a. M.: Haag + Herchen, 1991)Google Scholar.

11 See Filosofiia obshchego dela: stat'i, mysli i pis'ma, 2 vols, ed. V. A Kozhevnikov and N. Peterson (Lausanne: L'Age d'homme, 1985); Hagemeister, Michael, Nikolaj Fedorov: Studien zu Leben, Werk und Wirkung (Munich: Sagner, 1989)Google Scholar.

12 This has been thoroughly studied in Masing-Delic, Irene, Abolishing Death: A Salvation Myth of Russian Twentieth-Century Literature (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992)Google Scholar.

13 See his essay ‘Intelligentsiia i religiia: O protivorechivosti sovremennogo bezreligioznogo mirovozzreniia’ (‘Intelligentsia and Religion: On the Contradiction of the Contemporary Areligious Worldview’), Russkaia Mysl' 3 (1908), pp. 72–103; reprint, Bulgakov, S. N., Religiia i intelligentsia (St Petersburg: Izdatel'stvo Olega Abyshko: Satis, 2010), pp. 547 Google Scholar.

14 Bulgakov, Sergei, Philosophy of Economy: The World as Household, trans. and ed. Evtuhov, Catherine (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bulgakov, Sergius, Unfading Light: Contemplations and Speculations, trans. and ed. Smith, Thomas Allan (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2012)Google Scholar.

15 ‘Sofiologiia smerti’, pp. 288, 301–2.

16 The most significant passages dealing with death in Philosophy of Economy are pp. 68–73, 142–54, 190–l; but death appears many more times throughout the book; in Unfading Light, pp. 192–3, 267–9, 351–4.

17 The essay is available in Relics and Miracles: Two Theological Essays, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011), pp. 1–40; esp. 21–31.

18 The Burning Bush: On the Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God, trans. Thomas Allan Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2009); The Friend of the Bridegroom: On the Orthodox Veneration of the Forerunner, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003); Jacob's Ladder: On Angels, trans. Thomas Allan Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010).

19 Bulgakov, ‘Moia rodina’, in Tikhie dumy, p. 317. His reminiscences about his homeland were written in Oct. 1939, roughly contemporaneous with ‘Sofiologiia smerti’.

20 Bulgakov, ‘Moia rodina’, p. 317.

21 Bulgakov, Svet nevechernii, pp. 12–14; Unfading Light, pp. 14–16.

22 Bulgakov, ‘Moia rodina’, p. 315.

23 Bulgakov, Agnets Bozhii, pp. 340–7, 393–401, 402–8 (Lamb of God, pp. 310–20, 364–71, 372–9).

24 Sergii Bulgakov, ‘Problema “uslovnogo bessmertiia” (Iz vvedeniia v èskhatologiiu)’, Put' 52 (1936), pp. 3–23; and 53 (1937), pp. 3–19.

25 Bulgakov, Sergii, Slova, poucheniia, besedy (Paris: YMCA Press, 1987), pp. 260–5, 274–8Google Scholar.

26 See n. 1 above.

27 Bulgakov, Sergii, Nevesta Agntsa (Paris: YMCA-Press, 1945), p. 381 Google Scholar, n. 1; ET: The Bride of the Lamb, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), p. 352, n. 2. As he explains in the foreword, the book was completed in 1939 but could not be published because of the outbreak of the Second World War.

28 Bulgakov, Svet Nevechernii, p. 14 (Unfading Light, p. 16).

29 Bulgakov, ‘Sofiologiia smerti’, p. 290.

30 Bulgakov, Nevesta Agntsa, pp. 378–80 (Bride of the Lamb, pp. 349–51).

31 Bulgakov, ‘Sofiologiia smerti’, p. 278.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid., p. 276.

34 Ibid., p. 277.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid., p. 278.

37 Ibid. See Nevesta Agntsa, pp. 378–406 (Bride of the Lamb, pp. 349–76), where Bulgakov goes into some detail about the post-mortem existence of the spirit, soul and body.

38 Bulgakov, ‘Sofiologiia smerti’, p. 278.

39 Ibid., p. 279.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid., p. 280.

42 Ibid.

43 Ibid., p. 281.

44 ‘Love, as if not loving for the sake of love, the perfecting efficacy abiding in inaction – such is the incomprehensible contradiction of the hypostatic property of the Holy Spirit. There are no words in human language to express this impossibility for Love itself to love, and there is no concept for comprehending it.’ Ibid.

45 Ibid., p. 282.

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid., p. 283.

48 Ibid.

49 Ibid., pp. 283–4.

50 ‘One can say that in this fullness of death, or rather, of the dying of Christ, is included the death of every human being and of all humanity. If Christ redeems and resurrects every human being it is only because He co-dies with them and in them. From this it follows that Christ glorified and seated at the right hand of the Father even now suffers and dies with humanity, the sufferings and death of which he took into himself once for all and lived out on Golgotha.’ Ibid., p. 284.

51 Ibid.

52 Ibid., pp. 285–90.

53 Ibid., pp. 285–7.

54 Ibid., p. 287.

55 Ibid., p. 288.

56 Ibid.

57 Ibid.

58 ‘The crucifixion by Grünewald is only a moment in the dialectic of death, inseparably linked with the resurrection in glory that is given alongside of other depictions in the polyptych. Grünewald gives a terrible image of death in its putrescence after dying has been completed and made powerless by this. But with Holbein even if in a putrid image, one is given to feel the dying which is not already accomplished but still under way, its very force.’ Ibid., p. 288.

59 Ibid.

60 ‘Christ died our human death in order to accept the death of the Godhuman through it. For this reason in our dying, as a co-dying with Him, there is a revelation of Christ's death, although not yet of his glory.’ Ibid., p. 289.

61 Ibid., p. 290.

62 Ibid., pp. 291–3.

63 His description of being in a fiery furnace and coming out cleansed and peaceful is reminiscent of popular Catholic belief about purgatory.

64 Bulgakov, ‘Sofiologiia smerti’, p. 293. The same episode is recounted in Lestvitsa Iakovlia, pp. 31–3 (Jacob's Ladder, pp. 18–19).

65 Bulgakov, ‘Sofiologiia smerti’, p. 293.

66 Ibid., pp. 294–5, 304.

67 He made this same point in 1906 in ‘Voskresenie Khrista i sovremennoe soznanie’ (‘The Resurrection of Christ and Contemporary Consciousness’), where he wrote, ‘for Christianity death is not a physical but a moral necessity, the consequence of sin, of the improper relationship of flesh and spirit; and the corresponding physical processes are only the external realisation of inner moral necessity’. Bulgakov, Sergii, Dva Grada: Issledovaniia o prirode obshchestvennykh idealov (Moscow: Put’, 1911), vol. 2, p. 175 Google Scholar.

68 Bulgakov, ‘Sofiologiia smerti,’ p. 303.

69 Ibid., p. 304.

70 Ibid., p. 305.

71 Ibid., p. 306.

72 In this regard, Bulgakov anticipates the theological discourse about the death of God that arose in earnest in the 1960s, and while taking the death of God very seriously avoids its pitfalls.

73 ‘This shows once again that death can be understood only in the context of life, as part of life, and not vice versa: Life cannot be submerged in the nonbeing of death. In this sense, even though death is a parasite of being, it is an act of life.’ Bride of the Lamb, 350.

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