Bulgakov on the Incarnation  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Sergei Bulgakov (1871-1944) was possibly the most preeminent Russian Orthodox theologian of the 20th century. Born into a clergy family, he went through a Marxist phase during his studies of law and economics at Moscow University but later recovered his faith. He was eventually ordained a priest but left Russia soon after in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution. He spent the remainder of his life in Paris where he taught at the Institute St Serge, a seminary founded by White Russian exiles. He wrote a number of books that are dense and controversial in equal measures. I recently came across a not-so-dense quote on the Incarnation that I'd like to share with you. It appears originally in Du verbe incarne' and was translated by the English theologian Andrew Louth, who includes it in his essay "The place of theosis in Orthodox theology", which in turn appears in Partakers of the Divine Nature (Christensen and Wittung, eds., Baker Academic 2007).

God wants to communicate to the world his divine life and himself to "dwell" in the world, to become human, in order to make of human kind a god too. That transcends the limits of human imagination and daring, it is the mystery of the love of God "hidden from the beginning in God" (Eph 3:9), unknown to the angels themselves (Eph 3:10; 1 Pet 1:12; 1Tim 3:16). The love of God knows no limits and cannot reach its furthest limit in the fullness of the divine abnegation for the sake of the world: the Incarnation. And if the very nature of the world, raised from non-being to its created state, does not appear here as an obstacle, its fallen state is not one either. God comes even to a fallen world; the love of God is not repelled by the powerlessness of the creature, nor by his fallen image, nor even by the sin of the world: the Lamb of God, who voluntarily bears the sins of the world, is manifest in him. In this way, God gives all for the divinization of the world and its salvation, and nothing remains that he has not given. Such is the love of God, such is Love.

Such it is in the interior life of the Trinity, in the reciprocal surrender of the three hypostases, and such it is in the relation of God to the world. If it is in such a way that we are to understand the Incarnation--and Christ himself teaches us to understand it in such a way (Jn 3:16)--there is no longer any room to ask if the Incarnation would have taken place apart from the Fall. The greater contains the lesser, the conclusion presupposes the antecedent, and the concrete includes the general. The love of God for fallen humankind, which finds it in no way repugnant to take the failed nature of Adam, already contains the love of stainless humankind.

And that is expressed in the wisdom of the brief words of the Nicene Creed: "for our sake and for our salvation." This and, in all the diversity and all the generality of its meaning, contains the theology of the Incarnation. In particular, this and can be taken in the sense of identification (as that is to say). So it is understood by those who consider that salvation is the reason for the Incarnation; in fact, concretely, that is indeed what it signifies for fallen humanity. But this can equally be understood in a distinctive sense (that is to say, "and in particular," or similar expressions), separating the general from the particular, in other words, without limiting the power of the Incarnation nor exhausting it solely in redemption. The Word became flesh: one must understand this in all the plenitude of of its meaning, from the theological point of view and the cosmic, the anthropological, the Christological and the soteriological. The last, the most concrete, includes and does not exclude the other meanings; so too, the theology of the Incarnation cannot be limited to the bounds of soteriology; that would be, moreover, impossible, as the history of dogma bears witness....

The Incarnation is the interior basis of creation, its final cause. God did not create the world to hold it at a distance from him, at that insurmountable metaphysical distance that separates the Creator from the creation, but in order to surmount that distance and unite himself completely with the world; not only from the outside, as Creator, nor even as providence, but from within: "the Word became flesh". That is why the Incarnation is already predetermined in human kind.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 5, 2008 at Wednesday, March 05, 2008 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


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