Open Processing: An Over-Simplified Explanation of Sergei Bulgakov's Sophiology

#SergeiBulgakov #Trinity #Theology #Sophiology #Creation #openprocessing

Sergei Bulgakov


Poetic. Confusing. Beautiful. Controversial. Sergei Bulgakov's Sophiology ignited heated debate within the Russian Orthodox religious renaissance of the late 19th-20th century. Sophiology is a theological-metaphysical theory to account for how God is both transcendent to creation while also being the Ground of All Being, that the physical world is not merely dead matter, that creation comes into being by God's Being alone, and that God is personal. If you have never heard of Bulgakov or Sophiology, that is because the waters are still receding into the academic ocean, preparing for a coming tsunami of more mainstream Bulgakov scholarship in the years to come. Well, at least that's my hypothesis as of now. In this essay, I will attempt to give an over-simplified explanation of Bulgakov and his concept of Sophia.

Bulgakov's Brief Bio

Sergei Bulgakov was a Russian Orthodox theologian and philosopher who lived and worked in the late 19th to early 20th century. He was one of the most prominent figures within the Russian Orthodox renaissance of that time period. This renaissance was sparked, in part, by the mass expulsion of intellectuals from Russia shortly following the Soviet Revolution. Thus, Bulgakov and his contemporaries were writing and working as exiles in Paris. He spent his life as a professor, priest, and even was a confessor and spiritual mentor to Mother Mary Skobtsova, who went on to become a canonized saint.

The concept of Sophia is central to Bulgakov's theology. Unfortunately, this concept is incredibly difficult to understand, which has made it difficult for Bulgakov's theology to gain more traction beyond the narrow corners of academia. For instance, my earliest encounter with Bulgakov's work happened during my first semester as an MTS student at Duke Divinity. I'm not sure if I have ever read something that went so completely over my head. Ever since that fateful day, Bulgakov has haunted me, and I've been determined to try to understand him because, despite being so beyond me, I felt like he had something beautiful to say. So in what follows, I will attempt to give my best over-simplified explanation of Sophia. Please keep in mind that I am still a novice in Bulgakov, and so this should not be taken as the definitive explanation of his thought because I might very well be wrong.

The Divine Sophia

The term Sophia is taken from one of the names of divine wisdom found in scripture. It is the Greek translation of “hokhmah” which is used often in Proverbs. For instance, Proverbs chapters 1 and 3 describe wisdom in terms that are strikingly personal and exalted.

“Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: 'How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you.''” (Prov. 1:20-23 NRSV)

“The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew.” (Prov. 3:19-20 NRSV)

Bulgakov attempts to take the vast biblical witness to Sophia (which is far more inclusive than the two verses I provided) and create an expansive theological metaphysics that involves both the Trinity and creation. His aim is to theorize how Sophia works within the Trinity without being a fourth member of the Godhead, bridge the gap between Creator and creation, and balance the immanence/transcendence distinction in God's relationship to the world.

For Bulgakov, wisdom/Sophia names something about the essence of God. It is not a fourth member of the Trinity and it is not a person. But at the same time, it is also not a static substance or storage of abstract data. My favorite description I've come across thus far is from John Milbank, who described Sophia as a “person-making force.” It is a dynamic and living essence that, when engaged in relation, creates a person. Thus, in the act of eternal processions within the Trinity, when the Father communicates the divine essence to the Son and the Spirit, there is a communication of a person-making force from which the two persons eternally proceed or generate. This generation or procession of the Son and Spirit by virtue of the Father's communication of the divine essence is the foundation of the Trinitarian relations existing from all eternity. Bulgakov described this relationship in kenotic (meaning “self-emptying,” cf. Philippians 2) terms. The Son is the result of the Father eternally giving himself to another in absolute love, and the Holy Spirit is the hypostatic joy of this love which freely gives itself to another.

Indeed, for Bulgakov, existence itself has a personal character to it because all that exists rests on and in the Ground of God's own being. As he writes in Jacob's Ladder, “Everything truly existing is personal, because love is personal and therefore reciprocal” (Jacob's Ladder: On Angels, page 3). For Bulgakov, the essence of the Trinity is love, and true love must be personal love of the self-giving itself to the Other without dissolving itself. The giving of oneself to the Other without dissolving oneself is how the Father communicates the Divine Essence to the Son and Spirit. If that which truly exists is personal because love is personal, then this would then imply that the divine essence is not static or abstract but rather living and dynamic. However, we do not want to postulate Sophia as a fourth person of the Godhead, because that would be heresy. Likewise, we do not want to collapse the hypostasis (roughly translated as “personhood” or “person”) of the Father into the essence such that they are purely univocal, because the Father communicates the essence to the Son but not the hypostasis. Thus, the divine essence must be personal (a person-making force) without being a full Person with a capital P.

However, Sophia is not something existing only within the Godhead. There is also a creaturely Sophia, which is a distinct mode of being of the Divine Sophia, though they are both just one Sophia. Sound confusing? You're not alone. This is one reason why Bulgakov has proved both controversial and confusing, but let's see if we can parse this out.

The Creaturely Sophia

One of Bulgakov's main concerns is the need to bridge the gap between creation and its Creator without collapsing into pantheism or a harsh dualism like Manicheanism (where both matter and God are co-eternal and co-necessary substances). At the same time, Bulgakov wants avoid postulating that the existence of creation makes a change within the nature or essence of God. In other words, Bulgakov wants to avoid saying that only after the creation of the world did God become a Creator. Instead, Bulgakov insists that God is a Creator from all eternity, and not merely in the abstract potentiality for one day changing into a creator, but that God is a Creator in God's actuality. (cf. The Bride of the Lamb, pg. 62).

Additionally, Bulgakov wants to avoid bringing God down into the category of a being amongst beings. He is insistent upon God's total transcendence, aseity, and self-sufficiency. God is the Ground of All of Being or Being Itself. Because of this, Bulgakov wants to reject what he sees as a bad notion of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”). Creatio ex nihilo means that God did not use any pre-existing matter or material to fashion the world. God created the world purely through God's own power. Thus, it is often said that God created the world 'from nothing.' But Bulgakov insists that this “nothing” is not covertly 'something' like empty space. As he writes in The Bride of the Lamb, “It is impossible to imagine that, before creation, there 'was' a nothing that was like a kind of emptiness, a sack into which, later, upon creation, all the forms of being were poured. Such a state of divine being before or outside the creation of the world simply did not exist and could not have existed, just as there was no such emptiness and no such sack.” (page 44)

Thus Bulgakov is juggling many things at once.

1: Bulgakov's wants to avoid pantheism and harsh dualism.

2: Bulgakov believes that God is a Creator from all eternity (not merely potentially, but in actuality) instead of only becoming Creator with the creation of the world.

3: Bulgakov rejects the notion of creatio ex nihilo as implying that there was an empty space into which God poured the stuff of creation.

4: God is not a beings amongst beings, and is thus not reducible to the “first cause” or “prime mover” of the world, because God is transcendent to our causal categories in the unfolding of nature.

To hold onto these commitments, Bulgakov advocates a view adjacent to what is sometimes called creatio ex deo. The doctrine of creatio ex deo, Latin for “creation out of God,” is a theological concept that affirms that all things were created directly from the being of God. According to this doctrine, God's creative power is intrinsic to God's divine nature, and the entire universe, including both the material and immaterial realms, finds its origin in God. Creatio ex deo emphasizes that God is the ultimate source and sustainer of all existence, while rejecting that God used any pre-existent matter to create the world. In this view, the universe is seen as an expression of God's will and a reflection of God's divine attributes. The doctrine highlights the immanence of God, asserting that His presence permeates every aspect of the created order. It also underscores the unity between God and God's creation, suggesting a profound interconnection between the Creator and the handiwork. Creatio ex deo serves as a theological framework that affirms the transcendence and immanence of God in the act of creation.

Because the world is an expression of God's will and a reflection of God's divine attributes, the world is an expression of the Divine Sophia. The presence of Sophia (the person-making wisdom of God) permeates and sustains the world, somewhat similarly to the world soul theory of other philosophers. Sophia is thus a type of bridge or mediating reality between God and the world, simultaneously existing both in the creaturely sphere and within the Godhead.

My preferred analogy is music. Suppose we have a classical symphony with an orchestra and a conductor, who composed the music being performed. Before the orchestra plays, the composer first composes the music based upon the melody that exists within his or her mind. The music within the composer's mind is like the Divine Sophia. Then, the composer writes down the music externally on paper, creating sheet music that depicts the melody in the composer's mind. This is like the creaturely Sophia — the Divine Sophia gone outwards. The music depicted by the notes on the paper exist both within the mind of the composer and externally on the paper. This is similar to how Sophia exists both within the divine essence and the cosmos. However, the notes on paper are not quite yet music per se. Rather, it is like a music-making force. It comes into its fullness when the composer leads the orchestra in playing the music he or she created.

Of course, this isn't a perfect analogy, but hopefully, it is helpful.


In conclusion, Sergei Bulgakov's concept of Sophia emerged as a poetic, beautiful, and controversial theory within the Russian Orthodox religious renaissance of the late 19th-20th century. As a theologian and philosopher, Bulgakov aimed to reconcile the transcendent nature of God with His immanence in creation. Sophia, derived from the biblical notion of divine wisdom, represents an essence of God that is not a separate person within the Trinity but a dynamic, person-making force. Bulgakov sought to bridge the gap between the Creator and creation without falling into pantheism or dualism. He rejected the idea that God became a Creator only with the existence of the world and instead emphasized God's eternal creative nature. Bulgakov also challenged the naive notions of creatio ex nihilo, positing instead a view adjacent to creatio ex deo, which holds that all things were directly created from the being of God. The presence of Sophia permeates and sustains the world, acting as a bridge between God and creation while remaining present to each. While this summary provides an introduction to Bulgakov's theory, further exploration is necessary to fully comprehend his motivations and the intricacies of Sophia.

If you'd like a fuller introduction to Bulgakov, I highly recommend John Milbank's lecture about him: