The Burning Bush: On the Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God. By Sergius Bulgakov. Translated by Thomas Allan Smith. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009. xxiv + 191 pp. $28.00 (paper). Can be purchased here.
The work of Sergius Bulgakov, one of the most controversial Orthodox theologians of the early 20th century, is becoming popular again. As Bulgakov’s sophiology regains popularity, Eerdmans has published translations of several of his books in the last few years. He contrasts the Orthodox understanding of the personal sinlessness of the Virgin Mary to the Immaculate Conception doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. Bulgakov’s main point is to prove the Virgin was subject to original sin while being free of personal sin, unlike the Roman Catholic belief that she was free from original sin because of the Immaculate Conception. As expected, Bulgakov starts with tradition, in this case the liturgy surrounding the Theotokos.
The book consists of four main chapters; the first shows the liturgical understanding of the Theotokos’ sinlessness. The second focuses on her original sin and how and why the Virgin must have the taint of original sin. The third chapter focuses on his debate with the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. The last chapter focuses on the festivals surrounding the Mother of God. In the end, the book has three excursuses dealing with the Scriptural and patristic evidence for his understanding of the Virgin and the Divine Sophia. The book closes with the endnotes and a subject index.
Because Bulgakov writes for an Orthodox audience, he uses language and concepts not necessarily familiar to those outside of Orthodox traditions. Thomas Smith, the translator, provides not only an introduction to the book and concepts, but gives an introduction to Bulgakov and his life. This makes introduction essential reading for those unfamiliar with Orthodox traditions. Smith also gives a list of Bulgakov’s sources which is crucial tool for any academic reader. This book is intended for the serious student or scholar of theology. Bulgakov leaves no theological stone unturned, sniffing out every possible connection to his point.
Bulagkov’s first chapter is an amazing exposition of the Orthodox Church’s understanding of the sinlessness of the Theotokos. It walks through the life of the Virgin from birth to death, hypothesizing why she would be free from personal sin at each stage. It is a brief journey, relying mostly on the Orthodox liturgy. However, when available, he does stand on the Gospel witness. The beauty and praises of this chapter and how Bulgakov captures the awe the church has for the Most Blessed Virgin Mary are amazing and breathtaking.
However, the beauty of the liturgy and tradition quickly dry up in the follow chapters. In these, Bulagkov brings sophiology into the argument. His teachings on sophiology were officially condemned by some Orthodox churches. The Divine Sophia (translated Wisdom) is the subject of sophiology, representing the Wisdom of God or the feminine aspect of God. Some theologians consider his reliance on the Divine Sophia as suspect. However, his understanding of sophiology is critical to understanding his Mariology.
The subjects discussed in these later chapters are an interesting and thought-provoking stroll into matters of human sanctity, the nature of the soul, and other theological and philosophical topics. However, it is sometimes difficult to see how they connect to the main subject of the book. This can leave the reader desperately clutching at the seemingly unraveling thread running through the book. However, this book would be useful for anyone who wants an in-depth discussion of the Orthodox understanding of the Mother of God and the Divine Sophia.