The third chapter of Fr Michael Plekon’s book is dedicated to the memory of a man of no small controversy, Fr Sergius Bulgakov, “Political Economist and Priest, Marxist and Mystic.” I went into this chapter wanting to have my mind changed about Fr Bulgakov. I’d always taken the side of those who judged him a heretic, and I was prepared for a solid defense. Indeed, there is much to admire about Bulgakov as a man, a priest, a spiritual father, and a teacher. But my mind was not changed about his doctrinal errors, largely because any such accusations are simply dismissed by the author. We read, for instance, that his life of prayer and holiness have “long since been overshadowed by condemnations, most of them without ground, of his theological work.” Quite frankly, I find such a characterization mind-boggling. All three Russian jurisdictions at his time condemned his Sopholology – Bulgakov’s own Paris Jurisdiction, ROCOR, and the Moscow Patriarchate – and one would be extremely hard pressed to find anyone today who would endorse this doctrine. It is not, as Fr Plekon writes, “hard to understand how a theologian who had written so much, who had been so active in ecumenical work and in the students’ movement and more broadly in both emigre and French intellectual life, was forgotten so quickly and so totally ignored in the half century or more since his death.” It is likewise ingenious to write that one “cannot simply attack Father Bulgakov for what was already in the Old Covenant, a rich, complex, and mysterious figure, that of Wisdom” – as if Bulgakov went no further in his Sophiology than what is found in Scripture.
Fr Plekon by choice largely sidesteps the issue of Sophiology, but presents a subchapter on Bulgakov’s ecumenism. Bulgakov wrote that “heresies and schisms are manifestations taking place only within the life of the Church,” and that, consequently, “eucharistic communion could be a means toward the restoration of unity, not just its final goal.” In fact, Bulgakov “went so far as claiming that in our time there were no longer heretics in the general use of the term.”
In a subsection called “Father Bulgakov and the Deans,” Fr Plekon reflects on the tributes and criticisms from three Deans: Fr Alexander Schmemann, Fr Boris Bobrinskoi, and Fr Thomas Hopko. Plekon writes that Schmeann, in a tribute in 1971 presented his estimation in “three images”: as priest, as man of prayer, and as celebrant of the Liturgy. It’s my estimation that if we are to have a positive appreciation of Bulgakov we should follow the lines mentioned by Schmemann, ignoring largely Bulgakov’s theological legacy, the hubris of which is considerable: “His was a theological mind bold enough to try to formulate in positive terms the Incarnation, which the Council of Chalcedon over a millenium and a half earlier could only describe as ‘without separation, division, confusion.’” I generally distrust those who try to go beyond the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils.
Let us accept Bulgakov the man, and leave aside Bulgakov the theologian.