ORA Thesis: "The theology of Vladimir Nikolaievich Lossky: an exposition and critique" - uuid:15b86a5d-21f4-44a3-95bb-b8543d326658




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Reference: Rowan Douglas Williams, (1975). The theology of Vladimir Nikolaievich Lossky: an exposition and critique. DPhil. University of Oxford.

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Title: The theology of Vladimir Nikolaievich Lossky: an exposition and critique


Part 1. Chapter 1. Introduction: the Man and his work. The intellectual life of Russia at the turn of the century was marked by a lively interest in religious questions, and, in some circles, a cautious rapprochement between the intelligentsia and the Orthodox Church. Vladimir Lossky was born into an academic environment which looked more sympathetically upon traditional Christianity than had previously been usual: and the fact of his being brought up in a household both academic and (articulately and critically) Christian tends to set him apart from the religious thinkers of his father's generation (Bulgakov, Berdyaev, and others) who had discovered, or rediscovered, Orthodox faith in adult life adter experiencing disillusion with radicalism or Idealism, or both. Lossky's first major theological essay was, in fact, directed against the ethos of Russian 'religious philosophy', especially its preoccupation with the Wisdom of God (Sophia) as a cosmic principle. In this, as in later works, he pleads for a theology rooted in the historical experience of the Church and free from philosophical systems. His commitment to the 'historical experience' of the Church is reflected in his lifelong allegiance to the Patriarchate of Moscow as the only canonically authoritative Russian ecclesial body. His thinking on the relation between Church and culture was clarified in his experiences in the Second War, which also brought him into close association with several Catholic theologians. It was in this context that he first attempted a synthetic presentation of Orthodox dogma in his best-known work, the 'Essai sur la théologie mystique de l'Eglise d'Orient'. In the post-war period he continued his professional work as a mediaevalist at the Sorbonne, but continued to write on theological questions, developing, in particular, a distinctive approach to the concept of the human person and to the catholicity of the Church. He was much involved in ecumenical gatherings in France and England, and, in Paris, up to the time of his death, assisted in the training of clergy for the Patriarchal jurisdiction (though his hopes for the development of a western-rite group were frustrated).

Chapter 2: The debate with Bulgakov. Superficially, Lossky's theology has much in common with that of Sergei Bulgakov, especially in their attitudes to tradition and catholicity, and Lossky's hostility to Bulgakov is surprising. However, a brief examination of Bulgakov's thought reveals its extensive dependence upon the notion of 'Sophia', the Divine Wisdom, as an all-embracing cosmic reality, both divine and human - a notion which Lossky rejects absolutely as deterministic, destructive of a proper sense of both divine and human freedom. He also condemns Bulgakov's Christology: the idea of 'Godmanhood', fundamental to Bulgakov's theology, jeopardises the reality of Christ's humanity, and tends to reduce the Incarnation to a manifestation of cosmic process. The basic theme of Lossky's critique is that Bulgakov's system, in Christology, ecclesiology, and Trinitarian theology, is dominated by metaphysical presuppositions incompatible with orthodox belief: it is insufficiently apophatic, too preoccupied with concepts. Lossky's own theology shows a marked and conscious reaction away from this kind of conceptualism.

Chapter 3. The Via Negativa. The 'negative way' is not, for Lossky, merely a dialectical step in theology, a 'corrective' to affirmative theology: it is the essential ground of all theology. Theology beings in personal encounter with a personal God, an encounter which cannot be expressed in concepts; negative theology, which declines to speak of God in concepts, most closely reflects this basic reality. It is the μετάνοια, the conversion and self-sacrifice, of the intellect. The Greek patristic language about meeting God in 'darkness' is simply a 'dogmatic metaphor' for this experience, complementing, not contradicting the imagery of 'light': darkness and light together here represent the experience of transcending the sphere of the intellect. The history of early Christian spirituality shows a gradual movement towards a via media between intellectualism and agnosticism, a position which allows for both the absolute incomprehensibility of God in seipso, and His accessibility to man. This via media is expressed most fully by Gregory Palamas, but is anticipated by the Cappadocians, pseudo-Dionysius, and Maximus. It envisages God 'transcending His transcendence, expressing His unknowable 'essence' in His 'energies', His manifestation in the world. God's self-transcendence calls forth man's 'ecstacy'. The personal encounter of man with God is a mutual movement of self-giving: man is nearest to God and so most fully God-like in this movement. And since God is always fully personal, man is therefore most personal in the act of self-renunciation: negative theology alone is adequately 'personalist'.

Chapter 4. Imago Trinitatis. Man is in the image of God because he is personal: he cannot be reduced to his 'nature', to what is common, repeatable and conceptualisable. He is more than an individual of a species; and this constitutes him in the image of God's trinitarian life, in which individuality is perfectly transcended in full communion. The Church, in which man realises his capacity for communion can also be called imago Trinitatis: it is a plurality of persons, each called and sanctified in a unique manner by the Spirit, sharing one nature, the humanity which Christ has restored and 'deified'. This 'trinitarian' life is what is designated by the term 'catholicity', the existence of the whole in the part. Lossky's method in discussing the theology of personality is resolutely Christocentric: the impossibility of interpreting ὑπόστᾰσις as 'individual' is established by an appeal to the inadmissibility of so interpreting it in Christology. Lossky's appeal to the Fathers in support of this thesis is, however, problematic: his concern to include the body in the imago Dei, and his understanding of ὑπόστᾰσις both lack a clear and consistent patristic foundation. Although he does genuinely build upon certain Greek patristic ideas, he is, as a 'personalist', essentially and inevitably - a -post-Augustinian'. The ambiguity of the patristic evidence raises the serious question of how far Lossky is justified in criticising Western theology (as he does) according to alledgedly patristic criteria.

Chapter 5: The debate with the West (i). Lossky presupposes the unity of Christian theology; if one doctrinal topic is infected with error, the whole theological system is poisoned. In the West, it is the doctrine of the double procession of the Spirit, the filioque, which is the basic error: it suggests that the Spirit is somehow less personal than the Son, rejects the patristic idea that the Father is the sole source of 'cause' of the other persons, and so makes the unity of the Trinity reside not in the person of the Father but in a super-personal 'essence', that which is common to Father and Son. Western theology opts for a divine essence, in place of the living God of revelation: it is as much in thrall to philosophy as Bulgakov's system. Consequently, it is consistently impersonalist, not only in Trinitarian theology, but in its ecclesiology, its doctrine of grace, and its ascetical theology. Protestantism is as much conditioned as Catholicism by the basic assumption implicit in the filioque that real communion, sharing (in some sense) of substance, is impossible between God and man, because both are encapsulated in their 'essences'. Historically, Lossky's critique is often inaccurate and unjust; but he makes a good case, nonetheless, for the dominance, in much of Western theology, of conceptualism and impersonalism. There is little to correspond to Lossky's profound apophoticism and 'kenotic' idea of personality

Chapter 6: The debate with the West (ii). For Lossky, the Palamite distinction of 'essence' from 'energy' is one of the most important safeguards in Eastern theology against a philosophical essentialism. The scholastic's rejection of Palamism is of a piece with his defence of the filioque. Palamism asserts that God communicates Himself fully to creation in His 'energies', although His 'essence' remains incomprehensible and imparticipable: but the energies are not merely relative to creation, since God eternally acts, is eternally έν ένεργειας. Closer examination reveals a good deal of logical strain in Lossky's language on this subject, traceable to some serious philosophical confusions in Palamas himself and his precursors. There is, in particular, a certain vacillation between a (broadly) Platonic and a (broadly) Aristotelean understanding of oὐσία. Lossky seems, at least in later years, to have been aware of some of these confusions, and attempts a cautious restatement, connecting the energies far more closely with God's personal act of self-transcendence and self-renunciation. And this lends him to modify and clarify his ideas on the filioque, allowing a sense in which it may be affirmed with references to the complete mutual dependence of all three persons in their activity towards each other, and towards creation.

Conclusion to Part I. The central theme in Lossky's theology is a particular model of personality, divine and human, as 'kenotic', fulfilled in absolute self-giving. While this idea has some roots in patristic thought, it is quite clearly indebted to other and later sources. It is therefore desirable to turn to a brief examination of Lossky's immediate background in Russian philosophy, identifying some of its basic concerns in order to assess how far Lossky may be said to stand within the same tradition.

Part II. Chapter 7: The definition of an ethos: Kireevsky to Soloviev. Philosophy in Russia began to develop only in the 19th century. The problems of historical and national identity created by the Petrine reforms perhaps predisposed the Russians to Hegelianism, a philosophy very much rooted in a sense of historical conflict: the basic question of much 19th century Russian thought is the issue between voluntarism and historical determinism - that is, the problem of the relation of individual identity to corporate identity, of individual volition to corporate process. Russian religious philosophy attempts to discover a point of equilibrium between individualism and collectivism, a kind of personalism, in fact, which resolves the tension between the particular and the general by seeing the general in the particular. Different philosophers incline to different sorts of solution, depending largely upon whether they are (like Kireevsky) more concerned with the history and self-awareness of the Church (in which case they will tend to a very radical voluntarism), or (like Soloviev, and, to a lesser extent, Khomyakov) more interested in global or cosmic patterns (in which case they will tend to some sort of determinism). Soloviev's use of the myth of 'Sophia' was to have an immense influence on those thinkers inclined to the latter school. By the turn of the century, the tension between the impulse to voluntarism and the metaphysical attraction of 'sophiology' has become acute.

Chapter 8: essays in synthesis. Various attempts to reconcile these two concerns were made. The brothers Trubetskoi, despite a large debt to Soloviev, move towards a voluntarist and 'historicist' position; Pavel Florensky, while extending the 'sophiological' world-view, insists equally upon the unique value of the individual. He is particularly violently opposed to any kind of theological rationalism and stresses the importance of paradox and antinomy. This is stated still more strongly by Berdyaev, who, however, rejects the whole apparatus of sophiology in an extreme form of personalism. The 'hierarchical personalism' of Nikolai Lossky (Vladimir's father) moves back towards determinism; S. L. Frank adopts an unconventional, but in some ways deeply traditional, approach to the absolute value of the person, but is still hampered by the legacy of sophiology. Losev attempts to develop a form of Neo-Kantianism based on the apophatic recognition of the incomprehensibility of particular, concrete and living, substances. Karsavin (Lossky's teacher at Petersburg) despite his highly personalist and voluntarist understanding of the Fathers, generally presents a very impersonalist metaphysical approach. No satisfactory resolution of the tensions identified seems to have been possible within the terms of the tradition dependent on Hegelianism and sophiology.

Chapter 9: the ecclesiastical tradition. Not all Russian religious thinkers, however, were identified with this tradition. An 'alternative theology', more dependent on Scripture and the Fathers, and closely associated with monastic groups, existed, represented by men like Philaret of Moscow and Antony of Kiev (or earlier philosophers, Kireevsky is closest to this school). Philaret's emphasis on kenosis, not only in the Incarnation, but in the eternal life of the Trinity, is of great importance for Lossky (and others); and in Antony's works, we find a clear statement of the doctrine of man-in-the-Church as imago Trinitatis, and of a mature personalism and apophaticism strikingly close to Lossky's thought. The major spokesman of this school in the 20th century is Georges Florovsky, who argues for a 're-Hellenisation' of theology and a 'neopatristic synthesis'. Although close to Lossky in many respects (his early writings influenced Lossky a good deal), he lays less emphasis on the person as such, and more on the radical freedom which characterises the person. There are also important differences between their views on the relation between Christ, the Spirit, and the Church. Generally, Florovsky is far closer than Lossky to the ipsissima verba patrum, less willing to revise or extend patristic concepts: Lossky appears as the more original mind of the two.

Conclusion. The scope of Lossky's theological synthesis is considerably wider than he himself would have admitted. His work presupposes the continuing debate within Russian religious thought sketched in the preceding chapters, and incorporates the more positive intuitions of this tradition of theistic metaphysics. Lossky's hostility to the conceptual mechanisms of Russian religious philosophy should not blind the student to the extent of his debt to the tradition. To deny this debt is to deny a great part of the creativity and comprehensive vision of Lossky's system, his ability to transcend patrological fundamentalism in a theology which is, in every sense, personal.

Digital Origin:Reformatted digital
Type of Award:DPhil
Level of Award:Doctoral
Awarding Institution: University of Oxford
About The Authors
institutionUniversity of Oxford
facultyHumanities Division - Theology Faculty
oxfordCollegeWadham College
Canon A. M. Allchin More by this contributor
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Issue Date: 1975
Copyright Date: 1975
Urn: uuid:15b86a5d-21f4-44a3-95bb-b8543d326658
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Member of collection : ora:thesis
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Copyright Holder: Rowan Douglas Williams
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