Fr. Sergei Bulgakov illuminates the most salient point of Ecumenism

Posted on March 5, 2012

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“We experience it as a breathing of God’s Spirit in grace, as a revelation of Pentecost, when people begin to understand one another in spite of the diversity of tongues.” –Fr. Sergei Bulgakov[1]

Fr. Sergei Bulgakov, a Russian refugee from Soviet Russia in the 1920s, can be called in many ways a key founder of the Ecumenical movement. Together with other Russian intellectuals, he helped found the Orthodox institute of St. Sergius in Paris, formed an Anglican-Orthodox dialogue group, and lead the way for the Orthodox involvement with post-WWI ecumenical groups like Faith and Order. Bulgakov was certain that the Orthodox Church was the true Church of God, and that ecumenical work was essentially a reconciliation of all Christians to Orthodoxy. But he differed from his colleagues, such as Georges Florovsky, in that he never understood Church reconciliation as a movement to any particular cultural form of Orthodoxy—Hellenized or Slavofied—but simply Orthodoxy—simply Christianity.[2] This simple Christianity, moreover, in its spiritual essence, is shared by every true Christian who loves the Lord Jesus. Therefore Christian reconciliation becomes simply the renewal of a physical unity manifesting an already present spiritual unity. In this he illuminated the most salient point of unity for Christians and avoided the snares that Orthodox Christians far too often fall into—ethnophylism.

For Bulgakov, all Christians are united dogmatically through the confession of the Apostolic creeds—the Nicene, Apostle’s and Athanasian.[3] This underlies a deeper spiritual unity that already binds all Christians—the Name of Christ is hallowed among all Christians as God and Man, and every Christian calls upon Him in worship, love, and faith.[4] This very personal relationship of every Christian to our Lord constitutes the very basis of full ecumenical reconciliation—it is a spiritual oneness that unites every Christian. Bulgakov says that we must begin here in order to pursue unity.

For far too often, the label of ‘heretic’ and ‘heresy,’ though perhaps true of the teaching itself, is used to “completely anathematize” the “entire man.”[5] For the label “heretic” not only refers to an erroneous teaching, but also to a spiritual state of sin in which a Christian brother becomes obstinate in his personal opinions and hates his brethren and his fathers, causing division. This is why ancient canon law forbade common prayer with heretics.

But Bulgakov says that “it would be entirely inconsistent to adopt this language today.”[6] Why? Because by casting another Christian as a ‘heretic,’ a spiritual judgment is also made which asserts that that person holds this belief because of spiritual pride and eristic boldness. But why is such a judgment placed on a Christian who truly loves our Lord and follows what he has been taught, though it may be doctrinally incomplete? On the contrary, Bulgakov asks, “can one say that ‘Christ is divided’ for a contemporary Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or believing Protestant? In their love of our Lord and their striving towards him all Christians are one.”[7]

Because Bulgakov did not approach ethnophylism, he was able to see past the doctrinal divisions of language in order to connect with the sincere heart of a Christian brother underneath. It is unfortunate, he wrote, that “we tend to stress our dogmatic disagreements much more than our common Christian heritage.”[8] This is very often tied in with culture, since language creates the mode of expression of creeds, and when we have an inflated love for our own language and terminology—which comes from ethnophylism—we condemn our brother who prays to the same Lord in a different tongue. A great fruit of coming together in dialogue has been the realization of our common Christian love and devotion to God, which empowers us all to work out the doctrinal differences, so that we may pray with one voice.[9]

But Bulgakov argued that since we are discovering our common love of the Lord Jesus—our Christian “heritage”—we may pray together already. As an Orthodox Christian, Bulgakov stated that the ancient canons which forbade common prayer with heretics did so because heretics were in error in teaching as well as leading spiritually destructive lives. But Bulgakov says that if a Christian truly desires unity and seeks to love our Lord just as any Christian, these rules no longer apply, since “there is no attacking party.”[10] In other words, a Christian who denies the Real Presence[11] is not openly breaking away from the Church having previously held this Orthodox teaching. No, he is a Christian who is striving for Christ our Lord in the best way he knows according to what he has been taught. The sons of heretics are not heretics. Besides, as Bulgakov states, “the spirit of schism and division is not only a characteristic of ‘heretics’ and ‘schismatics.’”[12] A Christian could be entirely Orthodox in confession, but entirely heretical in obstinacy, stirring up of dissension, hatred, rancor, and an unforgiving spirit. Indeed,

in addition to heresies of the mind there exist heresies of life, or one-sidedness. One can, while remaining an Orthodox, actually tend towards monophysitism in practice, by leaning either towards docetic spiritualism or Manicheism, or towards Nestorianism by separating the two natures in Christ, which leads in practice to the “secularization” of culture. And perhaps in this sense it will be found that we all are heretics in various ways.[13]

Therefore, if a Christian manifests the fruits of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control—and happens, for instance, to not teach that Christ ordained priests, will he not more quickly connect with a humble Catholic than with one who is filled with bitterness and hatred? For the former Christian who denies the priesthood is really not a heretic at all, though his doctrine may be incomplete, and the latter bitter Catholic is indeed a heretic in his spirit, though his doctrine is perhaps complete and orthodox.

If we keep this in mind, our theological constructions no longer tend toward defining theology in a condemnatory manner, but rather a comparison between shared experiences of God. Bulgakov points out specifically the common witness of God in the lives of the Saints—Catholic and Orthodox—which allows us to see differing cultures, spiritualties, and doctrinal terminology both working out a common sanctity in Christ.

And even more profoundly, Bulgakov states, that the common priesthood shared among Apostolic churches creates a unity in the sacraments that transcends our divisions:

Churches which have preserved their priesthood, although they happen to be separated, are not actually divided in their sacramental life. Strictly speaking a reunion of the Church is not even necessary here, although generally this is hardly realized. The Churches which have preserved such a unity in sacraments are now divided canonically in the sense of jurisdiction, and dogmatically, through a whole range of differences; but these are powerless to destroy the efficacy of the sacraments.[14]

For if we receive Christ at the altar through a priest ordained sacramentally by the Apostles, and Christ cannot be divided, then we also receive each other. This sacramental unity in the priesthood also reflects—and becomes indeed the fountain of—the common phenomenon of sanctity experienced by Orthodox and Catholics Saints through this Eucharist. This is our common Christian heritage which we must not diminish.

If we take Bulgakov’s arguments seriously, I believe we will find ourselves not as heretics, schismatics, and dissidents, but as brothers, sisters, and friends. We have one common Lord to whom we pray. On this basis we can begin to mutually understand one another, and then correct each other, working towards true unity in the Orthodox faith in doctrine and life. This may seem simple and obvious, if it were not so tragically ignored by so many who worship the Prince of Peace. Let us, therefore, brethren, listen to our father in the faith who suffered for Christ under the Soviets, and turn to our common Lord, beseeching Him for peace and concord for the Church of God, asking all the Saints in heaven who are not hindered by our divisions, to pray for us sinners.


[1] Sergius Bulgakov, “By Jacob’s Well,” 98

[2] Brandon Gallaher, “Grace and Opportunity: Sergii Bulgakov’s proposal for intercommunion in the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius,” 7

[3] Bulgakov, op. cit., 106

[4] Ibid., 100, 99

[5] Ibid., 104

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 103

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 99

[11] Of our Lord Jesus in the Eucharist. Any teaching that denies this is a heresy.

[12] Ibid., 97

[13] Ibid., 105

[14] Ibid., 110

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