Sophia or wisdom of God is one of the most intriguing and multifaceted notions in modern Russian thought. Various descriptions of Sophia reveal fictional characteristics, mystical insight, religious symbolism and philosophical speculation. Her many manifestations are often so interlaced with each other that it becomes difficult to analyze them separately.
A pioneer of Russian sophiology, Vladimir Solov'ev (1853-1900), is usually credited for introducing the notion of Sophia to both religious philosophy and literature. As a highly gifted person, Solov’ev combined the talent of a speculative thinker with a poetical and mystical vocation. In one of his poems, "Three Meetings," he described mysterious rendez-vous with the Eternal Feminine, the Queen of Heavens or the Wisdom of God. These mystical visions as well became the center of his philosophical reflection. In the twentieth century, the whole pleiad of Solov'ev's followers, philosophers and poets developed his sophiology both in their native land and abroad.
The main sources of modern Russian sophiology are Christian scriptures (Old and New Testaments), Orthodox Christian tradition and a religious-philosophical movement named gnosticism. The three major ideas about wisdom--namely, its personification, the distinction between its divine and human aspects, and the identification of Sophia with Christ and the Holy Trinity--which were used by Russian thinkers, are contained in Biblical texts. Another distinctive sophiological teaching found in Russian thought--that of created and uncreated wisdom--comes from the heritage of the Eastern fathers of the Church. Finally, Russian sophiologies retain the gnostic tendency to view the divine Sophia as a dual entity which combines both the angelic and demonic qualities and is the source of good and evil.
The originality of Russian sophiology, hence, seems to lie not in its distinct elements, which are in separate ways already present in the history of culture. It consists rather in a unique synthesis of those elements created in response to a cultural transformation Russia went through in the modern period of its history. Those specific circumstances--primarily due to the rise of Protestantism and the Enlightenment in Europe--forced Russian intellectuals to reconsider Russia's religious identity and its relation to Europe and European forms of Christianity. The sophiology introduced on this ground by Vladimir Solov'ev represented a moderate response to the challenge of modern civilization, an attempt to reconcile the divine wisdom preserved in the Orthodox tradition with the human wisdom unleashed during the Enlightenment.
Solov'ev's main lines of teaching about Sophia were developed in his Lectures on Divine Humanity and remained essentially unchanged throughout his intellectual career. Solov’ev equates here Sophia with normative or ideal humanity, uniting all the individual beings or souls. She “occupies a mediating position between the multiplicity of living entities, which constitute the real content of its life, and absolute unity of Divinity, which is the ideal principle and the norm of its life” (Lectures on Divine Humanity, p. 131). In his later work, Russia and the Universal Church, Solov'ev refines this sophiological teaching. A contemporary historian of philosophy, Frederick Copleston notes that the “context of the theory of Sophia is here formed more by Christian belief, devotion and hopes than by the complicated metaphysics... It is not a question of claiming that Solov'ev abandoned or repudiated his meta- physics; it is more a question of a temporary shift of interest” (Russian Religious Philosophy, p. 85).
However, in spite of the generally unchanged spirit, in Russia and the Universal Church, Solov'evian sophiology underwent an important modification with regard to the problem of evil. In his Lectures, he writes about Sophia, whose fall doomed the creatures, including herself, to separation from the Deity. In his late work, to preserve the purity of the Godhead and God's wisdom, Solov'ev dissociates the concept of Sophia from that of the world soul and ascribes the origin of evil to the latter.
Solov'ev's sophiological thought reflected the richness and complexity of his intellectual search and religious-philosophical evolution. In philosophy Solov’ev laid a foundation for many future sophiologies by combining his ideas about wisdom with the metaphysics of total-unity. Another fruitful, though contro- versial for its theological implications, was his teaching about Sophia and the Holy Trinity. The elaboration of Solov'ev’s sophiology in the theological domain revealed the ambivalence of this project which had been anticipated in the warnings of Solov’ev himself.
The initial attempt to interpret Sophia as a "fourth hypostasis" in the context of the trinitarian theology was made by Pavel Florenskii (1882-1937). In his book The Pillar and Foundation of Truth, Florenskii portrays Sophia as a "fourth hypostatic element." She is a created intermediary between God and the rest of creation, the "Great Root of the integral creation,” the "fourth, created and, therefore, non-consub- stantial Person" of the Holy Trinity (The Pillar and Foundation of Truth, pp. 323, 326, 349).
Another version of trinitarian sophiology was elaborated by Sergei Bulgakov (1871-1944). From the beginning, Bulgakov tied his philosophy of religion to the polysemantic concept of Sophia which, in its broadest sense, was understood as an organic synthesis of universality and particularity. In The Unfading Light, Bulgakov interprets Sophia as being neither creature nor divinity. In his later trilogy On the Divine Humanity, he reconsiders this approach and claims that Sophia has an uncreated aspect and is part of the Holy Trinity.
Accepting his new understanding of wisdom as the substance or nature of God, Bulgakov argues that divine nature can be analyzed in two ways, namely, as ousia (God-in-Himself) and Sophia (God-for-others). Furthemore, insofar as God differs from the creatures, Sophia, possesses two distinct principles, the divine and the creaturely. As Bulgakov points out, the doctrine of "creation ex nihilo" means nothing but the appearance of these two centers in Sophia.
Overall, the rethinking of the trinitarian dogmas in the light of sophiology seemed essentially contradictory to the accepted views of the Christian Church. To Bulgakov’s insistence on the compatibiliry of modern Russian sophiology with patristic thought, his many opponents, including, for example, Georges Florovsky (1893-1979) argued just the opposite. Together with their religious-philosophical critique, Bulgakov's sophiological theories provoked a negative reaction from the Orthodox ecclesiastical authorities, some of whom condemned sophiology as a modern-day heresy.
As a philosophical category, Sophia seems to be described less clearly and is often reduced to other concepts. Vasilii Zenkovskii, for instance, in his History of Russian Philosophy writes that the exposition of the philosophical system of Vladimir Solov'ev can be done even without mentioning Sophia because the content of this concept coincides with that of Divine humanity (History of Russian Philosophy, p. 483). Another source of authority, Aleksei Losev, while recognizing the important role of sophiology in Russian thought, thinks that the concept of Sophia represents a concretization of the broader idea of total-unity (Passion Toward Dialectics, pp. 254-255).
Many followers of Solov'ev were indeed the champions of the metaphysics of total-unity which postulates the substantial unity of the Absolute and the world. Those thinkers like, for example, Lev Karsavin (1882-1952), understood Sophia as the bridge between creator and creature; partly as divine, partly as created herself. In Noctes Petropolitanae, Karsavin describes “Sophia Akhamot [who] descended from the Divine Pleroma” and the “created Wisdom... the creaturely hypostasis and the Church as the total-unity of human beings and of the world in them” (Short Works, p. 181). The sophiological views of a close friend of Vladimir Solov'ev, Eugene Trubetskoi (1863-1920), and also of Semion Frank (1877-1950), seem to end as well by associating the concepts of total-unity and Sophia with that of the Absolute. In this respect, the sophiology developed by Nikolai Losskii (1870-1965) substantially differs from the former line of thought.
Losskii disagrees with the mainstream of Russian sophiologists and rejects a doctrine of the divine nature of Sophia. Instead, he postulates a totally created reality of Sophia--i.e. one distinct from the Absolute--which is at the same time different from the whole of the creaturely world as well. This supreme substance, which Losskii, following the tradition calls Sophia, though created, is perfect and unites the multiplicity of creation in one cosmic whole.
Unlike many other Russian thinkers, Losskii also stands for democracy and its values, and--what seems important--defends them theoretically on the basis of his sophiological or, as he calls it, hierarchical personalism. These remarkable features of Losskii's thought show the persistence of sophiological theme in modern Russian culture as well as the flexibility and intellectual potentials of sophiology which may be combined with various ontological and political doctrines.
Author: Mikhail Sergeev
Originally published in the Polish encyclopedic dictionary, Ideas in Russia: Russian-Polish-English Leksikon, ed. Andrzej de Lazari, vol. 4, Lodz, Poland, 2001, pp. 524-535