Fr. Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov was a priest of the Church of Russia in the early twentieth century. He was noted as an Orthodox theologian, philosopher, and economist. After an early interest in Marxism, he returned to his religious roots in Orthodox Christianity. He wrote extensively, and after being exiled by the new Communist government of Russia, he became part of the community of Russians in Paris, taking part in the founding the of St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris.
Sergius Bulgakov was in born Livny, Russia, on June 16, 1871, into the family of an Orthodox priest. He studied first at the Orel Seminary, followed by attending the Yelets Gymnasium. He then attended the Law School of the Moscow University where his studies included political economy. He graduated in 1894. While studying at the seminary, Bulgakov became interested in Marxism and took part in the Legal Marxism movement. After studying Marxism, Bulgakov became convinced in the impotence of the Marxist theory and returned to his religious beliefs, being influenced by the works of such Russian religious writers as Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Vladimir Solovyov.
He became well known among the Russian intelligentsia of the time. He contributed to many books and journals, including the New Way, Questions of Life, and Way, of which he was the publisher. He was elected to the Second Duma in 1906 as an independent Christian Socialist. As a writer, he wrote monographs, including Philosophy of Economy and Unfading Light. It was during this time that he began to develop his ideas that were based on a combination of the sophiology of Vladimir Solovyov and Pavel Florensky with ideas from the works of Schelling and his own ideas of Orthodoxy.
Bulgakov became prominent in the activities of the Church in Russia, taking part in the All-Russia Sobor of 1917 that elected Tikhon of Moscow to the restored position of Patriarch of Russia. In 1918, he was ordained to the diaconate and then to the priesthood. He continued to write even as the Russian Civil War tore apart his Russia. Living in Crimea he wrote the Philosophy of the Name and Tragedy of Philosophy where he revised his views about relations between philosophy and dogmatism.
On December 30, 1922, Bulgakov was among the approximately 160 prominent intellectuals, including also Nicholas Berdyaev, who were exiled by the Bolshevik government. Bulgakov initially settled in Prague, Czechoslovakia. In May 1923, he was named professor of Church Law and Theology at the Russian Research Institute in Prague. From Prague he moved to Paris, which was his home until his death. In 1925, he participated in the establishment of the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute. He became the head of the institute, where he also was the professor of Dogmatic Theology.
In addition to his writing, he participated in the Anglican-Orthodox interchange that was formalized in the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius. Bulgakov remained active in the large community of Russian expatriates in Paris until his death on July 12, 1944, from throat cancer. His funeral was conducted at the Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky in Paris. He was buried at St. Geneviève-des-Bois near Paris.
Bulgakov’s teaching on sophiology is highly controversial. The attempt to understand it properly is hindered by the highly political controversy surrounding it in the 1930’s. It should be noted that by 1931 there existed three separate Russian Orthodox jurisdictions in Europe: Russian Church Abroad/Sremski Karlovtsi Synod under Met. Antonii (Khrapovitskii); the ‘Patriarchal’ church answering ultimately to Met. Sergii (Stragorodskii) of Moscow (of which the young Vladimir Lossky was a member); and the Russian Church in Western Europe (Bulgakov’s own jurisdiction as well as the church of Georges Florovsky) under Met. Evlogii (Georgievskii) that was under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople. In a famous first ukaz of 7 September, 1935 of Met. Sergii (not confirmed by the Synod) Bulgakov’s teaching on ‘Sophia’ was described as ‘alien’ to the Orthodox faith. This ukaz was largely based on the epistolary reports (letters with a catenae of ‘suspect’ quotations from Bulgakov’s works) of Alexis Stavrovskii. Stavrovskii was an ex-student of the St Serge Institute who due to a disciplinary problem was forced to leave the school and was later expelled from France for reasons that are not made clear in the sources. He was also the president of the Brotherhood of St Photius (Alexis Stavrovskii was president; Vladimir Lossky, the vice-president, and Evgraf Kovalevskii were also amongst the 12-15 young laymen who made up its numbers) whose members had left the jurisdiction of Met. Evlogii for that of Met. Elevtherii of Lithuania. This exodus was in reaction to Met. Sergii having removed, on 10 June, 1930, Met. Evlogii as the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Western Europe (since Met. Evlogii had continually refused to agree to the 30 June, 1927 Declaration of Loyalty to the Soviet government) and named Elevtherii as his replacement. In late 1935, Met. Evlogii appointed a commission to look into the charges of heresy levelled against Bulgakov. The commission quickly broke into factions. In June of 1936 the majority report (prepared by Vasilii Zenkovskii, Anton Kartashev and others) rejected the charge of heresy but had serious objections about Sophiology. The minority report of 6 July, 1936 was prepared by Fr Sergii Chetverikov and reluctantly signed by Fr Georges Florovsky who had only joined the commission when Met. Evlogii had insisted so that it would not be viewed as a whitewash. (Florovsky had a very close relationship with Bulgakov despite their theological differences. Some of this closeness was no doubt due to the fact that Bulgakov was for at least a spell in the early 20’s the confessor/spiritual father of Florovsky). Meanwhile, the Church Abroad formally accused Bulgakov of heresy in 1935. The 1935 decision of the Church Abroad was based on Archbishop Seraphim (Sobolev) of Boguchar’s Novoe uchenie o Sofii (Sofia, 1935). Bulgakov responded to the heresy accusation in his Dokladnaia zapiska Mitropolitu Evlogiiu prof. prot. Sergiia Bulgakova (Paris, 1936). Archbishop Serafim then rebutted Bulgakov in his Zashchita sofianskoi eresi (Sofia, 1937). No final report was prepared on the sophiology controversy by the commission set up by Bulgakov’s own jurisdiction. However, Met. Evlogii convoked a bishop’s conference on 26-9 November 1937 to bring closure to the matter. The bishops in their statement were working from reports by Archimandrite Cassian (Bezobrazov) and Chetverikov and they concluded that the accusations of heresy against Bulgakov were unfounded but that his theological opinions showed serious flaws and needed correction. The future understanding of sophiology depends much on both the reconstruction of political events in church history in the 1930’s and a careful reading of Bulgakov’s teaching informed by his own multifarious sources (from German Romanticism to the newly discovered Gregory Palamas).