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The Church as Entelechy

In The Bride of The Lamb, Sergius Bulgakov argues that the church itself should be undestood as the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation, but in a particular sense. The church is an entelechy, a term that takes its derivation from Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Therein Aristotle defines an entelechy (from en+telos) as a reality that has its own end within itself and as such is constantly in a state of becoming that is, by definition, unending, for if an entelechy were to acheive its end in a static sense it would cease to exist.

Bulgakov applies this to the church. The church is within itself the eschatological fulfillment of redemption, but it is always and ever in the process of becoming this reality. Here we have a fruitful concept, not only for thinking of the church in the present age as always en via, but also for a mode of thinking about the age to come. If the people of God are defined by there entelechic mode of being in which they are always dynamically becoming that which they are without ever acomplishing this identity in a static sense (which would be a contradiction), then we are now able to conceptualize eternity, not as a sort of fiat accompli, but rather as an ever-moving restfulness, an ever-peaceful exhilaration which never comes to an end and eternally grows more exciting.


  1. Byron wrote:

    Yes, further up and further in!

    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 2:03 am | Permalink
  2. astatum wrote:

    John Milbank (via Catherine Pickstock) on the church:

    “The Church is the brotherhood and sisterhood of the Grail: of those ceaselessly questing for the Eucharist which is the source of the Church, and so perpetually questing for the Church itself. The latter is not a given, but arrives endlessly, in passing. When it settles and becomes objectified as mere human sovereignty, its nature is lost. Only in the passage of time…is forgiveness exercised, and so only in passing is the Church the community of reconciliation (Being Reconciled, 105).”

    Sounds like someone (maybe Milbank & Pickstock) have missed out on a good source for their engagement. What say ye?

    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 7:36 am | Permalink
  3. Andrew wrote:

    Sorry, the URL in the above comment is broken. Here’s the new one.


    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 7:38 am | Permalink
  4. Hill wrote:

    Milbank has definitely not missed out on Bulgakov. He hasn’t written extensively about him yet, but he’s been obsessed with Bulgakov/sophiology for at least the past 8 years, probably much longer.

    The above article addresses some of these topics.

    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 8:10 am | Permalink
  5. Nate Kerr wrote:


    I’m not sure about Bulgakov’s entelechic understanding of the church. Mostly, this is due to the fact that I think the idea that the church “is” or carries its “being” within itself is a severe short-circuiting of the nature of the church as sacrament. I rather think that the church-as-sacrament means precisely that the church is the sign of something that it “is not” within itself, as such. I am also wary of the idea that the church is somehow the domicile or “home” of the Trinitarian life of God on earth (as suggested in the following post), and that too because of the same point: the church I think is rather the sign of an excessive dynamic that it cannot “contain” within itself. Perhaps most strikingly, I’m not sure this kind of teleological relation of the church to the eschaton can at all be made consistent with apocalyptic eschatology. The idea that “the church is within itself the eschatological fulfillment of redemption” does not seem apocalyptic to me at all: I’m not sure how we speak then of Christ’s coming new creation as new and transformative, rather than as simply as “more” (even if dynamically ever-more) of what the church “is” in-itself. I think the notion of epectasis is helpful here, indeed. But ecclesial life is epectatic not because it has its principle of motion within itself as such, but because it is continually called forth from outside of or beyond itself.


    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 9:16 am | Permalink
  6. Hill wrote:

    Just to throw out an idea, I think we could say that what the church has “within itself” is being outside itself. It could just be a problem of inaccurate spatial metaphors. I definitely see your concern. Would it be more palatable to say that the Church is constituted by and end towards which it constantly moves? I think it’s possible to preserve all of Bulgakov’s insight while acknowledging the force of your critique, but I think we have to be very terminologically precise. It is also worth noting that the Russian intellectual and theological milieu in which Bulgakov writes is rather different from the Western in that the idea of natural and supernatural plays out very differently. In other words, we can’t presume many of the things we would presume in a Western discussion of the same ideas. This more something I’ve been told than something I appreciate myself, however.

    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 9:36 am | Permalink
  7. Nate Kerr wrote:


    But Bulkagov is precisely at his most Schellingian when he is working out these ideas. The teleological paradigm he is working with and building upon is as Romantically idealist as it is Greek.


    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 9:41 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Nate, I agree about the issue of teleology, so to speak. I think the problem here may be something of a linguistic one. The main insight I was seizing on had to do with a way of conceptualizing the church that, on the one hand could never–even in the eschaton–posit any form of static “completion” in which the church’s being would simply be an accomplished fact. And on the other hand, I think the concept is helpful toward not simply viewing the church instrumentally, as though it were merely a means to some other end, to be dispensed with when the end is accomplished.

    Rather, I wanted to argue that the church’s nature itself precludes any notion of the church ever being “finished” and that its unfinishedness is part of its glory as Christ’s bride. Perhaps Bulgakov’s language indicates a simple sort of constant progressivism though, which is not what I have in mind as I certainly view the church’s pilgrimage into the life of God as an apocalyptic sort of dynamic–though I think Bulgakov has some good stuff on apocalyptic as well.

    As for the church being the “home” of the Trinitiarian life of God, I don’t think that language precludes understanding the church’s reception of divine life in a apocalyptic manner. And in some sense i think Scripture requires us to think of the church under the rubric of household (the church is “being built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God” Eph. 2:22).

    Actually, I think that conceptualizing the church as the place of God’s dwelling lends itself to apocalyptic description. What else is more interruptive than those who live in household with us? Thus, the church is the “home” of the Trinitarian life, not in the sense that it possesses it or could dispense it like a product, but rather in that the church is the place where God’s presence constantly intrudes, in the form of the Eucharist, the Word, the poor, the neighbor, in whom God interrupts our life, calling us to live in hospitality towards his incursions into our common life.

    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 10:08 am | Permalink
  9. Hill wrote:


    I am a total dilettante when it comes to Russian theology (among many other things) so I trust your assessment here. I’m hoping that the western theological establishment can move beyond its (justified) fascination with Russian theology and publish some slightly more critical material so that people like me can get a better idea of what is good and what is bad as well as situating it genealogically. Any suggestions?

    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 10:17 am | Permalink
  10. Doug Harink wrote:


    An interesting post, though I had some of the same worries that Nate expressed. Your response to him is a helpful clarification, and clears up some of my worries. A couple of weeks ago I was also reflecting on “the end” as I was writing commentary on 1 Pet. 4:7. I think it might be relevant. Here’s what I wrote:

    “For the end of all things has drawn near” (pantōn de to telos ēggiken, 1 Pet. 4:7 – DH). We must clarify the meaning of telos (“end” or “goal”) in this text. First, it is not in any significant sense simply the final point in the cosmic or historical temporal sequence. It is not the end as midnight is the end of a 24 hour day, nor is it near in the sense that midnight is near to 11:59 PM. It is not the next or last thing, but the goal of all things, a goal which subsumes the temporal but cannot be summed up by it. Second, the telos here is not immanent in or intrinsic to the being of all things, something given a priori and awaiting discovery and realization. It is not a possession or potential. It is other; it is fundamentally beyond; it is present in its coming. Third, the telos of all things does not merely beckon from beyond and await our approach; it draws near; it gives itself as an end; it transforms the present. It gives itself in apokalypsis, which is not only God’s self-revelation, but also his invasion, liberation and transformation of all things. The telos of all things (“the end of times” – 1:20) of which Peter writes has already been revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ (1:20), and it is “ready to be revealed” in the “last time” (1:5); it is here and it is coming. The crucifixion of Christ spells the end of all purely immanent teloi (ends) – Paul calls them the “elemental spirits of this world” (stoicheia tou kosmou – Gal. 4:3) – to which we were formerly enslaved. The resurrection of Christ is the radically other telos, the eternal life of the triune God which has already invaded the realm of sin and death with the promise of new life. In the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the church the end is already given as a “foretaste;” in the church’s calling upon “Abba, Father,” the end is already given in prayer; in the Eucharist the end is already enacted and proclaimed. The drawing-near of the Triune End constitutes the messianic community by interrupting and unsettling the stable chronos and kosmos of Jews and Gentiles and creating them as the new humanity taken up into the gravitational orbit of the divine life. The fullness of time (kairos) comes upon the people of God; a new creation (ktisis) is on the way.

    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Doug, I agree very much with your commentary there. Perhaps this would best express what I wanted to say about the church in some sense bearing its end “within itself.” By that I did not mean that the church’s end is in some sense “immanent” to it, but rather that the God of Jesus Christ has bound Godself to the communion of the church in such a way that God’s apocalyptic future is not strictly extrinsic to the church’s identity.

    In other words, the church bears its end within itself in that (and only in that) it is the place that God sovereignly elects to be the epicenter of God’s apocalyptic invasion of the world. The church’s end is “within itself” in that it is constantly the locus of God’s apocalyptic activity which of course comes from outside it, transfiguring it from within from glory to glory, thus always becoming more and more itself. In my imagination anyway, understanding the church as an entelechy from a theological perspective would mean understanding the church as a sort of never-ending and ever-new apocalypse of divine-human communion, ekstasis, epektasis, and so on.

    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 12:24 pm | Permalink
  12. Doug Harink wrote:

    Halden, I believe we are in very substantial accord on this.

    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 12:47 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Of course. I just thought this afforded a good opportunity to further explore how to think about this issue. It takes my thoughts in the direction of an apocalyptic construal of the church’s sacraments. Clearly they are in some sense “internal” to the church’s life and definition, and yet they constitute a divine apocalyptic intrusion into the church’s life, an epiphanic manifestation of God’s invasive presence. Herein lies the paradox: the sacraments are intrusive and outside of our control as divine apocalyptic action, and yet they are not erratic but dependable and constant (i.e. faithful) within our common life as the ecclesia.

    I’ll have to think on this more and perhaps do a future post on it.

    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 12:52 pm | Permalink
  14. Nate Kerr wrote:


    Your comments here have been clarifying. Thank you. You are right that my reservations have to do with the language of the church “being” something “within itself,” as such. I still have those reservations, and I am also wary of the tendency to identify the church with the eschaton. I am reminded here of Barth’s statement that we are not seeking an “eternal church” but rather the heavenly New Jerusalem coming down from heaven. And I also want to maintain with St. Thomas that, as the sacraments of sacraments, the church belongs with the sacraments to what Bonhoeffer would call the “penultimate,” the time before the last, while also being established in its reality as a sign of the ultimate, when God finally will be all in all. So I do think turning the question in the direction of the sacraments is helpful and important here, as turning to the language of paradox is helpful here as well.

    Now: What if we were to think of the church as carrying “within itself” creation’s own nothingness before God, of carrying “within itself” a movement of dispossession such that the church carries within itself the giving way of the world to God? What if the church carries within itself its own giving way to that which is neither “church” nor “world” — the new creation? Might not the sacraments then be thought of as signs of that movement by which, as (again) Bonhoeffer puts it, the world is dispossessed of itself? Might this provide another way of thinking the church as the “dwelling” of God on earth, as it is the sign of what the apocalyptic action of God is in-itself, viz., the kenotic giving-way of God to the irruptive transformation of what is not-God, and its lifting up into the life of the Godhead, its deification? Might this kind of sacramentality resonate with the kind of perichoresis you have gestured towards in a few of your earlier posts?


    Thursday, October 2, 2008 at 3:08 pm | Permalink
  15. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Well, a really great discussion has ensued here…I was planning on making a comment early on, and then saw Nate’s, which helpfully put things in much the same way that I would have (though better than I could have). Something I can maybe add now, though: I think there is somewhat of a tendency towards Marcionism in Eastern ecclesiological thought (I’ll hold judgment on whether this applies to Bulgakov, since he is one of a handful of modern thinkers to actually reflect heartily on John’s Apocalypse)…but, to think of the Church as the “dwelling place” of the Trinity, and as embodying the Kingdom within itself perpetually (even if now only anticipatorily in the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist), doesn’t take into account: (a) the profoundly Jewish understanding of “new creation” in the Apocalypse that forestalls any strict identification of “church” with “eschaton” (as Nate so helpfully put it); but also (b) the way in which God does not come to dwell in the church in the descent of the heavenly New Jerusalem (to which you pointed Halden), but makes his “temple” (his “noos”) in the earth, indwelling all creation with her intimate presence (and, this is a strict “fulfillment” of Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones…John is nearly quoting there — and Bulgakov does seem to recognize that God will temple, indwell, the whole world, and not simply the church)…church is indeed no longer “necessary” at that point. Is that to “instrumentalize” the church as Halden fears? Well, perhaps, but only insofar as the church cannot be fit into an ontological schema of the Triune God’s being, but instead is perpetually (epektatically) given to “participate” in the Triune God’s life (which includes being, but does not reduce to it), and so is also perpetually (ekstatically) dispossessed of any “locus” within which divine being might be invested. “Instrumentalized”? No, I don’t think so. Instead, the church participates in the divine life through its mission, which means that deification is in fact dispossession…communion with the Triune God is brought about through the continual witness of the Spirit who joins us in love to one another and thus also to Christ, who brings us before the Father…and we may love only as we “give up” (give-forth, forgive). This is the reason I have suggested that we describe Baptism as the “sacrament of dispossession” (or the sacrament of identity, which identity consists in our being dispossessed of identity out into possession by Christ), and Baptismal dispossession leads us to the table of unity, charity, binding many members together in one body under Christ our “head.” Baptism’s dispossession leads us to love…there is no loving unity without dispossession — not as a necessity, but because loving unity is a gift of the Spirit. Peace.

    Friday, October 3, 2008 at 9:22 am | Permalink
  16. Dave Belcher wrote:

    I hope that didn’t come off as too argumentative…that wasn’t my intent. I’m very grateful for these questions and the deep level at which you’re thinking through them Halden. Peace.

    Friday, October 3, 2008 at 9:23 am | Permalink
  17. adamsteward wrote:

    Great conversation here. This has been very helpful.

    I’ve been thinking of a section from Sanctorum Communio where Bonhoeffer poses a very similar problem. There he applies to the church the various categories of contemporary German sociology, trying to determine whether it is a society (a group constituted as a purpose in itself) or an association (a group constituted for the pursuit of some end outside itself). Ultimately, he formulates the Church as a distinctly new sociological category.

    [T]he church-community is organized toward a certain end, namely the achievement of God’s will. But this divine will is directed toward the church itself as a community of spirit, so that as a purposive society it is at the same time an end in itself, which corresponds with our earlier recognition that the church is both a means to an end and at the same time an end in itself. God, in seeking to implement the divine will, gives God’s own self into our hearts and creates community; that is, God makes the divine self the means to God’s own end (261-2)

    In this regard, I’m glad to see you bring up Jüngel in the next post, Halden. For when we think about the church’s dependent relationship to the Source of its being, we must always understand that Source as none other than the Father who has bound himself to us in the Son, through the Spirit that indwells us and vivifies the church.

    Saturday, October 4, 2008 at 11:44 am | Permalink

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