My own installment of the 2008 Bulgakov Blog Conference has just been posted over at Land of Unlikeness. I have re-posted it here, but please direct all comments to TOU to support the discussion over there. My thanks to Dan for all his hard work of organizing and patience with us contributors. Here is my post engaging Bulgakov’s ecclesiology.
Sergei Bulgakov is unique among Orthodox theologians, Russian and otherwise for all manner of reasons, not the least of which involves his distinctive ecclesiology. Bulgakov’s The Bride of the Lamb provides perhaps the most innovative work in Orthodox ecclesiology in the twentieth century. In what follows, I will attempt to make a provisional exploration into the fabric of Bulgakov’s ecclesiology looking particularly at a constellation of coordinates that are operative in the shape of his thought. I hope to explore the way in which Bulgakov’s ecclesiological thought is a dynamic theological articulation, which circulates between the nodal points of the Eucharist, eschatology, and the world. Bulgakov’s ecclesiology is, through and through informed by a dynamic conceptual interplay between these three major foci. My aim in this essay is limited simply to the observance of some of these dynamics. I hope that in so doing I will illuminate some of the key contributions of Bulgakov to the ecumenical task of exploring the nature of the church and its place in the shape of redemption.
It should be noted at the outset that I am no expert on Bulgakov and those more knowledgeable about his thought than I will certainly be in a good position to correct any imbalances and misapprehensions in what follows. In the interest of space and focus, I am here taking my cues from two of Bulgakov’s works alone, his shorter dogmatic treatises, The Holy Grail and the Eucharist and his massive treatment of ecclesiology, The Bride of the Lamb. In both of these works Bulgakov binds together an integrated view of the redemption, originating in the Christic self-oblation of the Lamb.
The first thing to be noted in approaching this endeavor is found in Bulgakov’s treatment of “The Holy Grail.” Herein, Bulgakov engages in a form of inquiry that is rightly described by the translator as “mystical lyricism” (The Holy Grail and the Eucharist, p. 9). Here Bulgakov attempts a “dogmatic exegesis” of John 19:34 which recounts Christ’s side being pierced by the spear of Longinus and the blood and water flowing forth from the wound. Bulgakov recounts the standard legends of the Holy Grail, which culminate in the Arthurian poems of the Middle Ages, but then goes on to theologically reimagine the idea of the Holy Grail from a radically different point of view. According to Bulgakov, the Holy Grail is not a chalice, which caught the blood and water from Christ’s side, but rather is the world itself into which Christ’s shed blood and water flowed.
The blood and water that flowed from Christ’s side on the cross of course represent Baptismal water and Eucharistic blood in Bulgakov’s view. However, he makes a radical point of distinction here. There is a crucial difference between Christ’s poured-out blood and water and the elements of the Eucharist and the waters of Baptism shared in in the church. The differentiation is not a substantial one, but a differentiation of mode. For Bulgakov, “the blood and water that came out of His side were not Eucharistic in intent” (The Holy Grail and the Eucharist, p. 33). What is crucial for Bulgakov is that the blood and water which poured from the wound of Christ, though identical to the Baptismal and Eucharistic elements substantially, is different in that it is not offered to the faithful for communion, but rather is poured out into the substance of the world as such (see The Holy Grail and the Eucharist, pp. 34ff). The blood and water that are poured out into the Holy Grail, the world, are not given “for the communion of the faithful but for the sanctification and transfiguration of the world” (The Holy Grail and the Eucharist, p. 34).
Here is Bulgakov’s key point, the Eucharistic and Baptismal elements, Christ’s blood and water are poured out on the cross and remain in the world. Bulgakov insists that this outpouring of Christ’s wound on the cross indelibly alters the fabric of the world, binding it forever to Christ, sanctifying it and preparing it for its final transfiguration at the parousia. For Bulgakov the very metabolism of the world, its cosmological fabric is transmuted by the flowing forth of Christ’s water and blood into it. There is a real sense for Bulgakov that Christ’s own human substance remains diffused into the world through his self-oblation. The world, in Christ’s outpouring is “Christified”, permanently bound to Christ, united with him and impelled on by this union towards its eschatological transfiguration by the Spirit. Indeed, for Bulgakov it is the fact of Christ’s blood and water pouring into the heart of the world that even makes it possible for the earth to sustain, to bear the Pentecostal coming of the Spirit whose eschatological epiphany is recounted in radically apocalyptic terms. The biblical images of the sun turning to darkness and the moon to blood in the day of the Lord (cf. Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:17-31) are the manifestation of this pneumatological intensity, which the world can only endure on the basis of its Christic reconstitution through being transfigured into the Holy Grail. (see The Bride of the Lamb, pp. 419-421)
In short, for Bulgakov, Christ’s passion and resurrection radically transfigures the reality of the world in a distinctively eschatological and Eucharistic manner. The world is, in a sense Eucharisticized and Baptized by the blood and water of Christ’s body in a manner that inclines it to, and sets it on the path toward its eschatological destiny. Christ imparts his divine humanity to the world itself, allowing his blood and water to remain in the earth. In so doing he binds himself to the world, making it a place upon which his presence can rest in its epiphanic, eschatological fullness. “This blood and water made the world a place of the presence of Christ’s power, prepared the world for its future transfiguration, for the meeting with Christ come in glory” (The Holy Grail and the Eucharist, p. 44). Thus, for Bulgakov, “the reception and the sending down of the Holy Spirit into the world depend upon the Incarnation, upon the profound, radical transformation of the world’s natural being”. Only thereby does “the world become capable of bearing the Pentecost, of receiving the fire of the Holy Spirit without being consumed by it.” (The Bride of the Lamb, p. 419).
What Bulgakov here presents is a vision of redemption that is at once apocalyptic and Eucharistic (see The Holy Grail and the Eucharist, p. 45). In Christ’s passion the world is constituted anew as the place of his presence, on which his Spirit rests, impelling the world towards it eschatological future, the transfiguration of creaturely reality in the union of the earthly and heavenly Jerusalem (see The Bride of the Lamb, p. 522-524). The whole shape of the world, constituted by Christ’s blood and water is Eucharistic. It is this construction of the world in and through Christ’s blood and water that make the coming transfiguration of the world into a cosmic redemption rather than a cosmic holocaust. Christ’s suffusion of the world with his very humanity renders the world a place capable of bearing the weight of the divine glory even as it transfigures the world in a purgative cleansing fire. The world is destined to “undergo a catastrophic trancensus: on the one hand, it will perish in a cosmic fire; on the other hand, it will be transformed inwardly.” (The Bride of the Lamb, p. 417) Thus, the Christic outpouring of Christ’s humanity into the fabric of the world is what renders possible the Pneumatic mission of the Spirit to renew and transfigure. “It is precisely the Holy Spirit who accomplishes the transfiguration of the universe: the energy of the Holy Spirit destroys the sinful, imperfect old world and creates a new world, with the renewal of all creation. This is the power of the Fire that burns, melts, transmutes, illuminates, and transfigures.” (The Bride of the Lamb, p. 421)
For Bulgakov this dynamic vision of the redemption of the world, which is at once Trinitarian, Eucharistic, and apocalyptic is grounded in the ecclesial reality which exists in the world, seen preeminently through the sacramental life. It is the church that is the center of God’s eschatological outpouring of purgative, transfiguring grace, which proclaims and anticipates the eschatological destiny of the redemption, the marriage supper of the Lamb. Bulgakov’s ecclesiological vision is thoroughgoingly cosmic in scope, seeing in the Eucharistic life of the church the future of the world, which was pre-accomplished in Christ’s kenotic outpouring of his humanity into the world, constituting it as the Holy Grail, the chalice of God’s grace, transfigured by the fire of the Spirit and offered up to the Father as a divine sacrifice of praise.
These observations, of course, do not sink very deep into the riches of Bulgakov’s ecclesiology, most notably they fail to explore the connection between Bulgakov’s configuration of eschatology, Eucharist, and world and his Sophiology, which begs exploration and analysis. That is a task I leave to others and to ensuing conversation.