The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Universalism and Heresy in Sergius Bulgakov

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

I recently read an interesting article called “Universal Salvation in the Eschatology of Sergius Bulgakov” by Paul L. Gavrilyuk (JTS 57.1, April 2006). Bulgakov was an influential 20th C Orthodox priest and thinker. Here is an extract (and a footnote).

"As it is to be expected from an Eastern Orthodox priest and theologian, patristic tradition was a springboard for Bulgakov’s own theological deliberations. He observes in The Bride of the Lamb that in pondering the final destiny of humankind patristic tradition followed two distinct trajectories: one associated with the universalist ideas of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, the other espoused by the opponents of the doctrine of universal salvation. It should be noted that Bulgakov’s knowledge of the relevant patristic material was largely based upon the dissertation of M. F. Oksiiuk, Eschatology of St Gregory of Nyssa (1914), which provided a comprehensive survey of patristic views on eschatology up to the time of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553).

Bulgakov recognized that the claim that all, including the fallen angels, would ultimately be saved represented a minority opinion, suspect of heresy on the grounds of its association with Origen. At the same time the Russian theologian emphasized that the Church had not issued any dogmatic definition on the subject of the final outcome of the last judgment and the eternity of hell beyond what was stated in the Nicene creed. According to Bulgakov, in the absence of a conciliar definition, consensus patrum, even if it could be presumed to exist on this issue, was not enough to settle a dogmatic dispute. In an important article ‘Dogma and Dogmatics’ (1937), written concurrently with The Bride of the Lamb, Bulgakov argued that only the doctrine of the trinity enshrined in the creed and the doctrine of the incarnation stated in the definitions of the seven ecumenical councils enjoyed the status of the dogma binding upon all members of the Orthodox Church. He relegated all other doctrinal questions, such as the veneration of the Mother of God and of the saints, sacramental theology, pneumatology, atonement theories, and eschatology, to the sphere of theologoumena, that is, of more or less authoritative patristic opinions. Bulgakov stressed that in the area of eschatology in particular no ecumenical council had ever condemned Gregory of Nyssa’s version of universalism. It is a matter of historical fact that in the Eastern Orthodox tradition the doctrine of eternal damnation did not achieve the level of explicit articulation that it later found in the Roman Catholic conciliar definitions and Protestant confessions."

A version of the Origenist doctrine of apocatastasis was condemned by the local council of Constantinople in 543. Whether the bishops of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553) anathematized this aspect of Origen’s theology explicitly is a murky question. Up to the late nineteenth century it was widely assumed that this ecumenical council did condemn universalism. See J. Daniélou, ‘L’apocatastase chez Saint Grégoire de Nysse’, Recherches de science religieuse 30 (1940), 328-47; Brian Daley, The Hope of the Early Church (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 190; J. Sachs, ‘Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology’, Theological Studies 54 (1993), 620-1.
Posted by Gregory MacDonald at 4:03 PM
Jim Weaver said…
I’ve recently read your tremendous book, which I immediately passed on to a friend. Today I discovered your blog.

A few points, which may be relevant the case;

  1. I have had a number of interactions with Hindus. Christians typically view the treatment of the Dalits in Hindu society as evidence of the inferiority of Hindu morality to that of Christianity; but it seems to me that in reality the situation may be somewhat the other way. In the Hinduism the Dalit is in hell now, but he will escape hell in a future life. The traditional Christian believes that after this life the non-Christian will enter a hell far worse than anything endured by a Dalit from which there is no escape ever.
  2. I listened to the debate on Christian Universalism posted on involving Dan Strange and Eric Stetson supplemented with your comments. It is interesting
    that according to Dan Strange hell is eternal but yet not that bad. At least those who go there are happy to go on sinning and would not want to be in heaven; but it seems to me, that if anything
    is clear about hell, it is that it is unimaginably unpleasant. Also—I would like to ask Dan Strange—if those in hell are happy to be there and don’t want to leave, in what sense are they being punished.
  3. A perennial weakness of Christians is that the way we live is not consistent with our beliefs. This means, I think, that we do not really believe what we say we believe. The traditional view of hell is a case in point. It is so incomprehensibly terrible that if taken seriously we should be hearing variations of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” every Sunday. Yet, we don’t which leads me to think that those who claim to believe it don’t really. There is no “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” type sermon in Acts, or even any mention of hell at all. This counts, I think, as strong evidence that the apostles did not believe the traditional view either.

August 5, 2008 11:22 PM

David W. Congdon said…
Thanks for bringing this article to my attention. I’ve just started reading Bulgakov for the first time, and as a supporter of Christian universalism, this article greatly interests me.

Gavrilyuk is an interesting scholar. His book on impassibility is a fine study, though I disagree with his thesis in many parts. But he’s a very clear and enjoyable person, having met him once in Providence last year.

August 6, 2008 9:21 PM

Gregory MacDonald said…

  1. Yes but this does not excuse the Hindu treatment of Dalits

  2. Indeed! (Did you like my Darth Vader voice?)

  3. Correct! The actions of many who claim to believe in ECT suggests to me that in fact they do not really believe it. ECT is not in fact the great motivator that many imagine. It seems to be a mere theory to more than a few these days.

August 16, 2008 9:22 AM

Gregory MacDonald said…

I think Gavrilyuk’s book on impassibility is simply superb. But I do wonder if the patristic impassibility he defends is actually impassibilty (hence the title I suppose “The Suffering of the Impassible God”). But I love what he is doing. I think that I would wish to defend something related to the position he holds but am not exactly sure what.


August 16, 2008 9:25 AM