Some Notes on Bulgakov’s Political Theology

Tony SigI’m taking a survey course this semester on the history and culture of Eastern Orthodoxy.  A fair amount of time has been spent on Russia and I used it as an opportunity to read up on some Sergii Bulgakov, though I’ve not read as much as I would’ve liked yet, and I’ll certainly need some help with his massive trilogy, The Lamb of God, The Comforter & The Bride of the Lamb, which is so far above my skill level it’s insane.

The primary book I worked with is +Rowan Williams’ book introducing Bulgakov’s political theology.  It consists in a group of texts edited and translated by +Williams himself and his own introductions to each reading.  The total effort is a minor intellectual biography focused more on politics than his larger works in theology.  In a large part this introduction is already out of date since the publication of many works of Bulkagov in English in the last few years, thanks in no small part to the effort of Eerdmans and the tireless labor of the translator, Boris Jakim.  But the introductions by +Williams are worth the price of the book.

Bulgakov, the son of a priest, went to seminary but dropped out and became an atheist Marxist.  But during his time working on his doctoral thesis about “Capitalism and Agriculture,” he found himself shifting from received Marxist orthodoxy.  This was eventually to put him in deep water and Lenin eventually shipped him and over a hundred other “rogue academics” out of Russia.  What’s the point of having an authoritarian state without using it to excommunicate heretics and political dissidents?

In The Economic Ideal, Bulgakov is critical of notions of the human being reduced to a homo economicus.  For him, it is fundamentally necessary to speak of the larger goals of wealth creation and distribution, that for which spirit is working.  There are two errors that theorists can fall into, according to Bulgakov.  The one is a hedonism, which he saw reflected in the bourgeoise pseudo-capitalism of Sombart.  “Naive hedonism is always allied to a conscious or unconscious economic philosophy, in so far as wealth and high consumption or demand are ultimately taken to be the absolute good” (31)  The other is a social asceticism as reflected in certain kinds of buddhism.  “asceticism strives for its complete liberation from matter…All pleasure is slavery for the spirit.  Life is a mirage, a malign deception, an illusion.” (35)  For Bulgakov, the historical task is one of labor, indeed the centrality of labor to his work is pervasive.  At the same time, he remains strident that freedom from poverty is the fundamental foundation for entrance into the moral life, the life of spirit.  Without it, one remains subject to the elemental powers of the world.  The fall was for him a sort of reversal; in the beginning humanity was the “master” of matter and nature, and the post-lapsarian condition is a kind of enslavement to nature.  Labor and creation, freedom from sheer survival, is the move toward salvation, the imitation and realization of the divine Logos/Sophia in the human and created sophia.  What here is mostly political commentary, eventually flowers into his full fledged work on the Divine-Humanity.

In fact I got the impression that Bulgakov’s dogmatic work was in a way an attempt to give a solid christological and dogmatic foundation to an understanding of human poetics, to supplant his former Marxism with a Christian vision of the world as a household.  (The whole series of works based on oikos is relevant)  There’s a lot of unworked potential in conversation with Bulgakov, and his hasty denouncement by the Russian patriarchate and men like Vladimir Lossky and Georges Florovsky, and the only very recent translation of his works into English, has pronounced this.  I for one can’t wait to read some more.



  1. Nerd.

    I’ve never even heard of Bulgakov. But, if +Rowan Williams thought enough of him to translate and edit some of his work, then hell, I better get on the bandwagon.

    Intuitively, having no actual rational basis for it, I feel that somehow the writings of Jaques Ellul would enter into an interesting conversation with your friend Sergii. Maybe it’s just the surface parallel of a marxist-turned-theologian and anarchist-turned-theologian. But I don’t really know what I’m talking about when it comes to Bulgakov, and I a very imperfect understanding of Ellul.

    Also, what about E.F. Shumacher’s account of Buddhist economics as an answer to Bulgakov’s critique of Buddhist asceticism?


  2. I haven’t read Bulgakov, either, but I like the suggestion of reading Bulgakov via Ellul. I was thinking too of suggesting bringing Bulgakov into conversation with the films of Andrey Tarkovsky, which I’ve been eating up lately.

    It sounds as if SB was doing in his time and place what Milbank and RO are calling for now?


  3. Bulgakov is deep. I have wondered a lot about the above-referenced critique by Lossky and Florovsky, but I am not prepared to voice an opinion yet. I do note that some of the enthusiasm for, or (depending on who you ask) criticism of, Bulgakov seems to arise from his apparent development of Solovyov’s ‘sophiology’ which has definite divergences from orthodoxy. Not sure that this is what Williams sees in him though. I am a bit more familiar (which is not saying much) with Blugakov’s friend Pavel Florensky, who was not lucky enough to be shipped out by Lenin and died in the gulag.

    I hope you post more on this.


    1. James – If I’m a nerd, what does one call someone who knows old/middle English? I must make an admission up front, so far I’ve only got a barebones skeleton of some main themes Bulgakov developed, so I can’t say to what degree there would be overlap with Ellul. Because of the volatile politics of Russia in his day he was a fairly strong supporter of the ‘king,’ and was to a degree a slavophile. It doesn’t appear that he was quite as bad as Dostoevsky in that regard, but Bulgakov’s perspective was Russian enough that I’m not sure that an anarchist perspective would completely line up. But I know almost nothing about Ellul.

      As far as Buddhist economics, I’m not sure that Bulgakov would rule out the fact that some kind of Buddhist perspective could create an ‘existential’ politics that issued in a just social vision, but it’s specifically the ‘cosmological’ aspects of traditional Buddhism, and it’s ‘escape from history,’ that he couldn’t buy into. I learned a bit about Buddhist thought and I’m not sure how it could really sell itself as pro-history. The labor and work of history was very important to Bulgakov – it’s that incarnational perspective.

      Chris – I may need to check out this Tarkovsky guy. As far as RO, Milbank has definitely showed strong interest in him. And yeah, I think something like Milbank’s “The Name of Jesus” could link up to Bulgakov, but it has often been noted, rightly in my opinion, that Milbank has a rather weak christology, so in that sense, Milbank at least would need to be supplemented and/or corrected by the ‘more robust’ christology of Bulgakov.

      skholiast – Thanks for the encouragement. I’ll try to post at least a few other times on this. You’re right that it was Bulgakov’s sophiology that Lossky and Florovsky had strong opinions on. But in his defense, B. eventually dropped some of the more controversial phrases such as ‘Fourth Hypostasis’ and such. Florensky was a sophiologist to a certain extent as well, yes?

      Jordan – I suppose you could think of it that way. I’ve heard it said that anything that tries to pit itself as a ‘third way’ will issue in fascism. But I didn’t get the impression that he was trying to navigate socialism and capitalism. It might sound silly but I think he really was trying to explicate the necessary politics that result from a Nicene christology, not work between two poles that were defined on their own terms…he was setting his own terms.


  4. I’ve heard of Bulgakov, but only because I’m a fan of
    Rowan William’s theology. I hope you post some more on him. It sounds like he offers nice alternative to the capitalist vs socialism story that defines so much economic discussion.


  5. Tony, I was of course calling you a nerd in order to pay you homage and respect. I had the best intentions.

    You make a good point about buddhism. There is an interesting tension in buddhism between the asceticism caused by what you call the ‘escape from history,’ which can produce a passive acceptance of suffering, etc. and another aspect of buddhism which calls its practitioners to lead a compassionate and just life. While these aspects are not contradictory (within the teachings and system of buddhism), it would seem that people tend to emphasize one or the other. Sort of like in Christianity, when some emphasize rapture and tribulation eschatology as their own sort of escape from history. But, that doesn’t really have anything to do with your post…

    The real problem I have with you and this post is that over the (several) years you’ve expanded my reading list and amazon wish list to such an extent that I am now contemplating robbing a bank in order to afford the acres of shelving of books that you’ve recommended to me.


  6. Tony,

    Thanks for posting!

    I’ve found Bulgakov’s little book, Sophia, The Wisdom of God, to be very helpful. Isn’t it strange that we still don’t know what to do with all the biblical passages referring to a hypostasised Wisdom? Bulgakov doesn’t shy away from this.

    Also, I believe he was eventually acquitted from the charge of heresy.


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