With quite some difficulty, for to comprehend the content, however lucidly put, is intellectually demanding, I have been reading Aidan Nichol’s book about the theology of the Russian Orthodox theologian Sergei Bulgakov (1871-1944). In doing so, I feel a little like St Jerome reading Rufinus’ presentation of the thoughts of Origen – without the sad breakdown of friendship consequent upon that, I hasten to add! for I was greatly pleased to meet the easily approachable and utterly unpretentious Fr Aidan some years ago, a man who carries his great learning with unassuming humility – since the somewhat unusual sophiological ideas of Bulgakov, even when presented most irenically, do sound more than a bit unorthodox to this rather rigid amateur theologian-cum-heresy-hunter.
That said, this volume is a marvellously just and charitable presentation of the deep and difficult work of Bulgakov, a writer whom I have often wished to understand better with the aid of a sure and reliable guide: and in Fr Aidan, my prayer has been answered. To shew how ecumenically his presentation has been received, his tome contains a Foreword by the Archbishop of Canterbury (no mean Patristic scholar and theologian, howsoever some of his pronouncements on morals and ecclesiology may be viewed by Catholics) and a Preface by the noted Orthodox prelate, Bishop Kallistos Ware.
For Trinity Sunday, I present some apposite extracts:
Who and what?
Th greatest of the names for God in the Old Testament is surely that found in the Book of Exodus, 3:14. The Lord reveals his name to Moses as ‘I am He who is’. Bulgakov begins his theology of the triune God from here. As he points out, this divine name already implies that God is both a personal subject – ‘I am He’ – and has an objective nature – ‘who is’. The distinction between being a subject, a ‘who’, and having a nature, a ‘what’, is of course something we are highly familiar with… In the Church’s tradition, the Tradition of the Fathers and the early Councils, we are told that the divine personality is three ‘hypostases’, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But we are also told that the divine personality has a single, unique nature, shared by no one else. In God there is one being or nature – in Greek, the main language of the Fathers, one ousia. In his single unique nature, God is the personal subject of a tri-hypostatic life.
The trihypostatic divine life
… Bulgakov wants to say something more about the three persons in God. … he wants to introduce his theology of the three persons who are nonetheless one single personal being, our divine Creator. The Lord God is supremely personal because he unites in himself all the modes in which the personal principle can find expression. Not only ‘I’ but ‘thou’ or ‘you’ in the singular, and ‘he’, ‘we’ and’you’ in the plural. The Father, for example, can say ‘I’ about himself, and ‘thou’ to, for instance, the Son. And he can say ‘he’ of, for example, the Holy Spirit. Then again, the Father and the Son can say ‘we’ together or the Father can say ‘you’ to the Son and the Spirit. And this would work as well for any of the divine Three. God is thus the fullness of personal awareness, a single personality in three mutually related centres. From all eternity, he affirms himself in a Trinitarian fashion, which is to say not as a ‘unipersonal “I”’ but by the affirmation of each hypostasis in the others. The divine personality realizes itself as the ‘source of self-renouncing love, entering into ecstasy [goes out of itself to find itself again] in another “I”’.
— Aidan Nichols, O.P., Wisdom from Above: A Primer in the Theology of Father Sergei Bulgakov (Leominster: Gracewing, 2005) 11 and 17.