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Title: The theology of Vladimir Nikolaievich Lossky : an exposition and critique
Author: Williams, Rowan Douglas
ISNI:       0000 0001 3569 3829
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 1975
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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.
Supervisor: Allchin, A. M. Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Theology and Religion ; Christianity and Christian spirituality ; Vladimir Nikolaievich Lossky ; Sergei Bulgakov ; Via Negativa ; imago Trinitatis ; filioque ; Russian philosophy