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Controversies in Eastern theology

10 August 2012

Why were 600 monks booted off Mt Athos? Hugh Wybrew looks at the deep issues

Relics and Miracles: Two theological essays
Sergius Bulgakov, author
Boris Jakim, translator
Eerdmans £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT374 - free postage on UK online orders during August)

Icons and the Name of God
Sergius Bulgakov, author
Boris Jakim, translator
Eerdmans £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT374 - free postage on UK online orders during August)

SERGIUS BULGAKOV is best known for his Lesser and Greater Trilogies. But he wrote a number of shorter works, conveniently listed in the translator's introduction to the first of these two books. The essay "On Holy Relics" was written in 1918 in response to the Bolshevik desecration of relics immediately after the Revolution. Much more than a protest, it is perhaps the first attempt to set out a theological justification for the veneration of saints' relics. Bulgakov sees such veneration as rooted in the incarnation and the consequent deification of humanity in its entirety, including the body. Within the corruptible relics of the saints are their incorruptible risen bodies.

The incarnation is central, too, to the later essay, written in 1932, "On the Gospel Miracles". Bulgakov rejects the distinction made by the Tome of Leo, read at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, between what Jesus did as God and what he did as man, as dividing his two natures, divine and human. He insists it was the one person of Jesus Christ who in his divine humanity worked such signs of God's love for humankind.

The essay on "The Icon and its Veneration" was written in 1930. The practice of making and venerating icons was declared legitimate by the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787. But it provided no dogmatic definition of icons or justification for their veneration. Bulgakov was unhappy with the arguments of both iconoclasts and iconodules, based, he believed, on an inadequate understanding of the incarnation. Here, too, he argues that there can be no separation between the divine and human natures in Christ. An icon of Christ does not depict his human nature only: it depicts the one divine humanity of the incarnate Word, and a properly blessed icon radiates divine energy.

That energy is contained, too, in the Name of Jesus. The essay included in the second of these books is the sixth chapter of Bulgakov's "The Philosophy of the Name". It was written in the 1920s, commissioned by the All-Russian Council of 1917-18 as a response to the controversy that sprang up on Mount Athos in the decade before 1914, when the doctrine that the Name of God is God, and so can be worshipped, became popular among Russian monks on the Holy Mountain. It was declared heretical by the Holy Synod in St Petersburg, and more than 600 monks were forcibly repatriated from Athos to Russia.

Bulgakov was one of the theologians who defended the imyaslavtsy, the "worshippers of the Name". The chapter included here provides a theological justification for the belief, with extensive references to the Name of God in the Old Testament, and also to the New Testament Name of God, Jesus. Readers may be surprised to learn that "Jesus" is not only the Name of the Second Person of the Trinity, but, because of the inter-relationship of the Three Persons, also the Name of the triune God. God is present in his Name, and so the Name, like the icon and like relics, radiates the divine energies, which, as Gregory Palamas argued in the 14th century, are consubstantial with God's essence and inseparable from it.

Running through all four essays is Bulgakov's insistence on the unity of the human and divine natures in the one person of Jesus Christ and the consequent deification of human nature, and on the penetration of the material creation, too, by the divine energies. Coming occasionally to the surface is his controversial doctrine of divine Sophia; and the second of these books concludes with Bulgakov's "Post Scriptum" to "The Name of God": "A Sophiological Interpretation of the Dogma of the Name of Jesus".

Boris Jakim is to be congratulated on making available to English-speaking readers these four essays, which illuminate specific aspects of Orthodox theology and provide further insights into the thought of the most creative of 20th-century Russian Orthodox theologians.

Canon Hugh Wybrew was formerly Vicar of St Mary Magdalen's, Oxford.

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