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Radical sophiology: Fr. Sergej Bulgakov and John Milbank on Augustine

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Abstract

Looking at John Milbank’s recent turn to Fr. Sergej Bulgakov, this paper argues that the theological and philosophical commitments they share are overshadowed by a deeper difference concerning the role each assigns the church in secular culture. It turns to Milbank’s roots in Augustine’s philosophy of history, which he argues could have allowed the church to overtake the pagan (which founds the secular) were it not for his distinction between the “visible” church and its deferred (eschatological) perfection. Bulgakov also criticizes Augustine’s doctrine of the church, or so he thinks. He actually misreads Augustine, accusing the bishop of holding a doctrine of the church that Milbank would have liked him to have held. This suggests that Bulgakov would not agree with Milbank’s view that the church should “enact” God’s judgment in history by opposing itself to the secular.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. It is worth noting that Paul Valliere characterizes Bulgakov as a liberal, which is partly why he sees strong resonances between Bulgakov and Tillich. If this presentation of Bulgakov is justified, then it should make us wonder whether or not Milbank is misreading Bulgakov (Valliere 2000, p. 236). Milbank is no fan of Tillich. If Valliere’s comparison of Tillich and Bulgakov is justified (and that is a big if), then it should make us wonder if Milbank is not misreading him (Bulgakov).

  2. Brandon Gallaher has helped to lay a foundation for further research on Milbank and sophiology. He finds points of overlap between Milbank’s brand of Radical Orthodoxy and the thought of Solov'ëv and Bulgakov (and despite Milbank’s tendency to lump “the Russians” together into one big group, Gallaher manages to differentiate one from the other). In his opinion, Milbank is on the same trajectory as the sophiologists insofar as he rejects materialism and a distinction between nature and grace, but he does not really consider whether Solov'ëv and/or Bulgakov would be “on board” with the posture Milbank takes toward the secular or his metacritical method for outnarrating it. I suspect Gallaher has either not considered or addressed this question because his work focuses more on a doctrine of God and creation than with ecclesiology and political theology (i.e. the role of the church in public life (2006).

  3. Among extant scholarly literature one sees evidence of affinities between Bulgakov and Milbank (or Radical Orthodoxy in general) both among his students and in the works of others scholars (for example, see Baker and Gangle 2005; Davis and Riches 2005, p. 35; Méndez-Montoya 2012, p. 102, footnote 71).

  4. As Miroslaw Tataryn and others have noted, Bulgakov was quite conversant with Augustine’s theology, even replicating parts of its while critiquing others (Demacopoulos and Papanikolaou 2008; Tataryn 2000, p. 226ff). This conversation is more evident in the footnotes of his Major Trilogy, which were removed in the English translation. Bulgakov also indicates in the introduction to Dva Grada that the pages of that book are a Christian politics in the spirit of Augustine’s City of God. I am grateful to Regula Zwahlen for an advanced manuscript of Dva Grada in German translation.

  5. Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptural references are from the New King James Version.

  6. His teacher was Rowan Williams, who had a chapter about Bulgakov in his doctoral thesis, and published a large book of commentary and translations on Bulgakov. Thus, it is possible that Milbank was conversant with Bulgakov before his writings indicate, but that seems unlikely given that his references to Bulgakov become more substantial over time (Williams 1975, p. esp. 32ff, 1999b).

  7. (See http://artsandsciences.virginia.edu/religiousstudies/courses/archive/2002spring.html; N.d. accessed 15 August 2012.) It is possible this course had something to do with Milbank’s student, Anthony Baker, who would have been researching Bulgakov for his doctoral dissertation (Baker 2003, 2004).

  8. This essay was only recently published, but it has been available online for a number of years and is still available at: http://theologyphilosophycentre.co.uk/online-papers/.

  9. Milbank is right that Augustine was early influenced by Origen and made a later break with him, but in a way it is ironic that Milbank thinks that Augustine should have been more like Origen when it came to the church and the state. Milbank admires his ecclesiology, particularly his concept of the two cities and the saints on pilgrimage through history, but this view was shaped by his involvement in the Donatist controversy, which, as J. Patout Burns showed (in a watershed moment for Augustinian studies), is what led Augustine to break with Origen in the first place (1980, p. esp. 183ff). Milbank can have Augustine’s ecclesiology, or he can have an Origenist Augustine, but probably not both.

  10. Emphasis mine.

  11. Bulgakov definitely engaged in polemics against Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, but he was also attentive to the Spirit of God at work in other churches, which made him a very open-minded ecumenist (see 1976).

  12. Serge Lancel meticulously examines the way pastoral realities affected the development of Augustine’s theology (2002, p. esp. 147ff).

  13. Only Christ can separate the wheat from the tares (Augustine 1972, p. XX.5).

  14. My knowledge of the Donatist controversy and its impact on Augustine’s theology relies heavily on the work of J. Patout Burns (see also Augustine 1997; Burns 1980, 2001, 2002; Lancel 2002, pp. 162ff, 275ff).

  15. Specifically, the Donatists accused the Catholics of tolerating the sin of apostasy by allowing one of its bishops, whom they alleged had handed over the holy books during the Diocletian persecution, to remain in office.

  16. Of course, like most things with Augustine, there are some possible caveats to consider. Augustine may have been willing to grant that a Donatist who was prevented from becoming a Catholic by force might belong to the true church. He says, “But the spiritual, or those who are steadily advancing with pious exertion towards this end, do not stray without the pale; since even when, by some perversity or necessity among men, they seem to be driven forth, they are more approved than if they had remained within, since they are in no degree roused to contend against the Church, but remain rooted in the strongest foundation of Christian charity on the solid rock of unity.” (Emphasis mine). This is a possible exception to the otherwise strict division between the visible church and the world. But Augustine is not exactly clear about his meaning, which was probably his intent. When trying to encourage schismatics to rejoin the church, it is best to be a little vague if one thinks that some of them might be saved (Augustine 1997, p. I.17.26).

  17. Burns notes how the Eucharist “collapses” time (my term). The Eucharist is a sign that points to the earthly body of Christ (i.e. in the Gospels) that walked on the earth in the past, the heavenly body of Christ that stands at the right hand of the Father, and the ecclesial body of Christ in the saints (Augustine 2007, p. Sermons 229N and 272; Bonner 1994; see 2001; also Kilmartin 1989).

  18. See van Kessel in this issue.

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Dunn, D.J. Radical sophiology: Fr. Sergej Bulgakov and John Milbank on Augustine. Stud East Eur Thought 64, 227–249 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11212-012-9170-6

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