Sergii Bulgakov (1871–1944) wrote The Apocalypse of John during the German occupation of France in World War II. And so having fled Russia during the Bolshevik persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1922, Bulgakov once again experienced the fires of persecution. As his colleagues entered into concentration camps, he taught the book of Revelation to students who recount his intense focus in these latter years of his life. He would not emerge from the war alive, dying in July 1944 of a stroke.
Bulgakov’s colleague Lev Zander at St Sergius Orthdox Theological Institute in Paris edited and published The Apocalypse of John, Bulgakov’s final work, posthumously in 1948. Bugakov considered this last work on revelation to be a capstone and conclusion to his earlier projects. As Zander recounts him saying, ”’Unexpectantly for me,’ he once said, ‘this book has grown so much in importance as to be, if not the fourth volume of my trilogy, then, at least, its epilogue…’” (xviii).
In this sense, he expands on his earlier theological works and his idiosyncratic conception of sophiology. In the commentary itself, which is basically a literal commentary that integrates dogmatic reflection, Bulgakov writes as a chastened millennialist who thought the events surrounding World War I (i.e., the socialist transformation in Russia) would bring in the great movements that Revelation prophesied about (ix). It did not. In fact, Bulgajov sees it as a victory of the antichrist, himself being exiled from Russia in 1922.
Almost certainly this disappointment led to a changed view of Revelation (x). One can also be sure that World War II also destroyed any sort of socialistic chialistic impulse in Bulgakov. While somewhat hard to pin down, Bulgakov understands Revelation’s chilianism as a true hope whose full realization happens during the climactic eschatological events of Revelation 21–22.
In this sense, Bulgakov has a firm hope in the future realization of God’s purposes, while also allowing a provisional hope in the present without falling into a naive postmillennialism. Two unique features of the commentary include Bulgakov’s integration of his sophiology and affirmation of apocatastasis.
Sophiology and apocatastasis
The first (sophiology) basically refers to Revelation’s emphasis on the glorification or divinization of humanity (205–6). I will refrain from commenting further since this aspect of Bulgakov’s theology resists easy definitions. Yet this conception also appears to help make sense of his doctrine of apocatastasis.
Apocatastasis refers to universal salvation. Bulgakov understands the fires of judgment to be a sort of purgation at which in some later age all shall be saved. Partly, he can make such a case because of his expectation of new revelation—he assumes that some aspects of the book of Revelation cannot be understood apart from new revelation (e.g., the number 666).
Unpersuasive yet valuable
In many ways, Bulgakov’s exegesis is unpersuasive. Understandably, his work as the subtitle indicates is An Essay in Dogmatic Interpretation. In this sense, the mode of argument does not aim to be a scientific study of Scripture, although he does not shy away from using the tools of critical study (2).
Yet the spiritual nature of his interpretation comes through. He notes, “The extent and way in which the Apocalypse is assimilated other than the academic exegetical methods of theological science, is determined moreover by the personal condition of the one who aspires to it, his personal revelation, his particular charism and vocation. The prophetic book demands a prophetic attitude and perception, and at the same time it engenders them” (337).
In this sense, readers will certainly get a literal commentary of revelation but also one that is marked by personal, dogmatic reflection throughout. For this reason, readers can follow the train of thought of Bulgakov in his unique historical situation (Paris in 1944). This historical reading of Bulgakov provides a useful sympathetic understanding of how someone can read Revelation during times of great suffering and evil.
This alone is valuable. Added to that, Bulgakov has a brilliant mind and so the value increases. Nevertheless, Bulgakov consistently interprets Revelation, it seems, from prior theological convictions that preclude him taking Revelation literally. Hence, for example, he sees the fiery passages that speak of eternal perdition in Revelation as being incompatible with God’s goodness.
While interesting to see such theological exegesis in practice, it seems to become a liability when it comes to understanding Revelation. Thus, readers can expect a beautiful work that dogmatically explains Revelation often profoundly and sometimes disappointingly.
The book itself is excellently translated with only a small number of typographical errors. It ends with a series of beautiful colour pictures of Sister Joanna’s frescos which she made in honour of Bulgakov, and indeed relate closely to his work on Revelation (340).
Academics and students of church history or theological exegesis will benefit from this volume. Likely, it will satisfy those looking for scientific exegesis nor those looking for exegetical help in sermon preparation. To the audience above, I recommend this work for study.
Bulgakov, Sergii. The Apocalypse of John: An Essay in Dogmatic Interpretation. Pp. XVII + 391. Aschendorff Verlag: 2019. ISBN: 978-3-402-12042-2. The publisher provided me a review copy.
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