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The Burning Bush: On the Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God (Sergius Bulgakov)


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#1 Aidan Kimel

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Posted 15 March 2010 - 05:19 PM

Title: The Burning Bush: On the Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God
Author: Sergius Bulgakov
Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009
ISBN-10: 0802845746
ISBN-13: 978-0802845740
Pages: 191
Price: $17.89
Links: Amazon.com
Description: In The Burning Bush - the first component of his "minor theological trilogy" - the great Russian Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov explores the place of Mary the Mother of God in Orthodox theology and devotional practice, in the process critiquing certain aspects of Roman Catholic Mariology. Drawing heavily on the Orthodox Church's liturgical texts and iconography and on his own developing Sophiology, Bulgakov offers a rich explanation of the unique, mysterious role played by the Mother of God as the realization of the human capacity for divinization. (Book jacket)

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#2 Aidan Kimel

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Posted 15 March 2010 - 05:30 PM

I would like to commend a book that I am presently reading, and plan to re-read: The Burning Bush. Originally published in 1926, it has only just recently been translated into English.

Bulgakov's intent in this book is to present what he believes to be the true Orthodox understanding of the sanctity of the Theotokos, particularly over against the Roman Catholic scholastic dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which he violently rejects, and over against some late 19th-early 20th century Orthodox presentations of the Theotokos, presentations that he judges to be distorted over-reactions to the Catholic dogma. The former removes Mary from the fallen human condition; the latter dare to immerse her in personal sin.

Invoking the liturgical prayers of the Orthodox Church, Bulgakov begins his book with a clear and emphatic affirmation of the absolute sinlessness of the Theotokos. "Does the Most Pure, the All-Immaculate One have any kind of personal sin?" he asks. "Is it possible even for a moment to conceive this dreadful abuse? And yet, as strange it may sound, to just such an admission do those Orthodox theologians tend who are tempted by excessive zeal to shatter to its foundations the unsuccessful Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God." Bulgakov acknowledges confusion among some of the Fathers on this question, but asserts that in the end the authentic teaching of Orthodoxy is represented in the views of Ephrem the Syrian, Epiphanius, Gregory Nazianus, Ambrose of Milan, and Augustine, which were eventually authoritatively embodied in the liturgical prayers:

In its countless divine services dedicated to the Mother of God, the Holy Orthodox Church firmly and clearly teaches the absolute sinlessness of Mary in her birth, her holy childhood and adolescence, in the Annunciation, in the birth of her Son and throughout her entire life. We shall pause at only the most important dogmatic witnesses borrowed from the services of Theotokos feasts. As is evident from these witnesses, the Most Holy Virgin is called in her very birth "Holy of Holies," "living heaven," "temple of all kings and thrones," "sole immaculate one," "the true temple pure from infancy on," "hostile to the course of sin," etc. The question arises: is the idea of any sort of assault of sin, which even some fathers of the church, and with them other orthodox theologians, allow, compatible with this veneration? Obviously not. The Mother of God was sinless, not a single attack of sin approached her most pure soul, the bearer of perfect virginity. But in that case is she not made equal "to the one sinless" Lord Jesus? No, and therein is the whole point. Sinlessness belongs in a unique and exclusive sense to the Son of God conceived without seed from a virgin who had never known a man, in that He was a stranger not only to every personal sin but also to original sin. The latter had absolutely no power over the new Adam. ... It is quite the opposite in the case of the Most Pure and Immaculate One: in her, original sin preserved its entire power with all its fatal consequences--weakness and mortality of the body (for death is only the final revelation of this weakness). The Theotokos died a natural death in fulfilment of the natural law, which she bore in her human nature. Death was defeated only by the salvific power of Christ's resurrection and was ultimately annulled by it. The Lord Jesus is in this sense the Saviour for the entire human race, and in it of His mother as well.


A proper understanding of the Theotokos will seek to articulate how one who was subject to the condition of fallenness could overcome it and live a personally sinless life. This is the burden of Bulgakov's book.

I was gratified to see that Bulgakov does not focus his critique of the Immaculate Conception dogma on the red herring of original guilt. He understands that the Roman Church construes original sin as a privation of original righteousness, and it is precisely this construal that he vigorously attacks. He rejects the dualism of nature and grace that he sees in the Catholic teaching of his day. This neo-scholastic dualism would later be strongly criticized by Catholic theologians in the mid to late 20th century, Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, and Hans Urs von Balthasar (see Stephen J. Duffy, The Graced Horizon), as well as by Anglican neo-Thomist Eric Mascall. If Bulgakov were alive today, perhaps he might be a tad less harsh with Catholic teaching--perhaps.

Let me close with a passage that must certainly resonate with all Catholic hearts and hopefully Orthodox hearts:

In as much as sin through the paralysis of human freedom engenders personal sinfulness, this latter can be weakened to a minimum and even brought down to the condition of full potentiality: posse non peccare (though before redemption and before baptism the condition of non posse peccare cannot be reached). To be sure, such a maximum achievement is unthinkable for fallen humanity without the help of Divine grace which, however, only assists freedom and does not compel it. In other words, when original sin as infirmity is kept in force, personal freedom from sins or personal sinlessness can be realized by the grace of God. In harmony with the firm and clear consciousness of the Church, John the Forerunner already approaches such personal sinlessness. The most holy Virgin Mary, the all-pure and all-immaculate, possesses such sinlessness. Only by virtue of this sinlessness was she able to say with her entire will, with her whole undivided essence, behold the handmaid of the Lord, to speak so that the answer to this full self-giving to God was the descent of the Holy Spirit and the seedless conception of the Lord Jesus Christ. The smallest sin in the past or the present would have broken the integrity of this self-giving and the power of this expression. This word, decisive for the whole human race and the entire world, was the expression not of a given moment only, but came out of the depths of Mary's unblemished being. It was the work and the sum of her life. The inadmissibility of personal sin in the Virgin Mary thus becomes axiomatically trustworthy provided we understand what kind of answer was demanded here of Mary. This was not the particular agreement of her will to a particular action, relating only to a given moment of life; no, this was the self-determination of her entire being.


While this might not appease very traditional Catholics who are wedded to a scholastic theological framework, I suspect that many Catholic theologians today would acknowledge that Bulgakov's presentation of the purity of the Theotokos satisfies the principal theological concern that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception seeks (however imperfectly) to address. Whatever differences might remain certainly are not church-dividing.

Pick up a copy of this book, read, and inwardly digest.

#3 Aidan Kimel

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Posted 15 March 2010 - 07:05 PM

To get a feel for Bulgakov's views on the Theotokos, read Mother Maria Skobtsova's article "The Veneration of the Mother of God." The influence of Bulgakov on Mother Maria is manifest, at least so it appears to me.

#4 Jason H.

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Posted 17 March 2010 - 02:25 PM

"the Holy Orthodox Church firmly and clearly teaches the absolute sinlessness of Mary in her birth"

I thought that the Church does not believe that the Theotokos was born wihtout sin. I think St. John Maximovitch talks about that in his book.

#5 Father David Moser

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Posted 17 March 2010 - 03:40 PM

"the Holy Orthodox Church firmly and clearly teaches the absolute sinlessness of Mary in her birth"

I thought that the Church does not believe that the Theotokos was born wihtout sin. I think St. John Maximovitch talks about that in his book.


The Virgin Mary was not exempt from the effects of the ancestral sin (i.e. the fallen nature, subject to death and corruption, etc.) but she was , as were all of us,
born without sin (one must be careful to separate sin from the effects of sin here - sin is "personal" but the effects of sin are universal). While most of us (well all of the rest of us) don't manage to maintain our sinless state (that is we sin - and pretty quickly at that) the Virgin Mary never did sin knowingly or voluntarily and thus kept spotless the robe (albeit the flawed robe) she had from her birth. She still required the redemption of Christ because she still bore in herself the corrupted fallen nature and that needed healing.

Fr David Moser

#6 Aidan Kimel

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Posted 17 March 2010 - 05:14 PM

A comparison of Bulgakov's The Burning Bush with St John the Wonderworker's essay "The Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God" might prove illuminating. I have not read either pieces well enough to offer anything more than very tentative opinions.

St John criticizes Bulgakov for "seeing in Her an Intermediary between men and God, like Christ." He also suggests (if I'm interpreting him rightly) that Bulgakov's insistence upon Mary's "full freedom from any personal sins" throughout her life is wrong and un-Orthodox.

Having just read (quickly) Bulgakov's book, let me say that I do not find anywhere in it a heretical divinization of the Theotokos. Bulgakov does not make her into a fourth person of the Holy Trinity. He does not absorb her into the divine nature. But as the quotations in my above review indicate, he certainly does affirm her personal sanctity throughout her life. He does not reduce this sanctity to a state that did not require Mary's synergistic cooperation to maintain and deepen; but he does see in her life, consummated in her holy death and her heavenly union with God, the perfect realization of theosis:

The Annunciation is already the completion of Divine Motherhood. The descent of the Holy Spirit and His indwelling in the Mother of God, who by virtue of this indwelling received the capacity for a seedless conception, is generally speaking the highest blessing that can ever be thought for creation. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit already signifies the divinization of human nature in the person of the Mother of God. At the same time it was not yet salvation, but only the preparation for salvation. Life in the Holy Spirit was revealed for humankind only through Christ and in Christ, who prayed His Father to send down the Holy Spirit after His ascension. Before this the Holy Spirit is revealed as a surmounting power which acts on humankind in a certain sense from the outside, transcendently, but not from the inside, not immanently; the latter became possible only when Christ took on flesh and became immanent to humanity. Thus the singular and unrepeatable indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary, not shared by any other creaturely being, does not exclude Pentecost for her. It does not close the possibility of receiving the grace of the Holy Spirit already as the principles of the proper life of a human being, as its interior divinization. The Virgin Mary became the Temple in which the Holy Spirit dwelt for the purpose of Christ's incarnation, but as a human being, for the sake of her own nature begotten in original sin, as indeed every human being, she needed baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit and she received the fiery tongue of the Holy Spirit along with and equally with all the apostles, with the whole Church. The grace of the Annunciation proved to be compatible with the grace of Pentecost. As a human burdened by original sin, Mary needed redemption through the blood of her Son and the appropriation of this redemption through the gift of the Holy Spirit; to speak in the language of church sacraments, she needed baptism (with the Holy Spirit and with fire) and chrismation (sealing with the Spirit). This in and of itself sufficiently refutes the Catholic dogma. Otherwise there would be no reason for her to be present at Pentecost (it merits notice that the sole recollection about Mary in the Acts of the Apostles concerns precisely this account, and in icons of the descent of the Holy Spirit the Mother of God is always depicted in the centre of the apostles receiving her special fiery tongue).


Is this not the teaching of at least many of the Church Fathers? I recently came across this citation from Met Kallistos on St John of Damascus:

John believes that Mary underwent a special purification and hallowing at the moment of the annunciation, when "the sanctifying power of the Spirit overshadowed, cleansed and consecrated her." But this does not signify that, in John's view, she was sinful prior to the annunciation; on the contrary, he clearly considers that she was always pure and guiltless. Moreover, he also states clearly that she was predestined from all eternity to be the Mother of God incarnate: "She was chosen from ancient generation, through the preordained counsel and good pleasure of God the Father ... The Father forechose her, the prophets through the Holy Spirit proclaimed her in advance."


In his desire to refute the Catholic dogma of the immaculate conception, St John Maximovitch seems to come close to denying the sinlessness of the Theotokos: e.g., "The teaching of-the complete sinlessness of the Mother of God--(1) does not correspond to Sacred Scripture, where there is repeatedly mentioned the sinlessness of the 'One Mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ' (I Tim. 2:5)." But surely we need not and should not logically infer that Mary is personally sinful because of Scripture's emphatic assertion that Christ died for the sins of all. I am not saying that St John actually says that Mary was guilty of personal sin, but I do find his presentation ambiguous and unclear. He seems to confuse the assertion of Mary's personal sinless with a belief that Mary was beyond temptation and indeed could not sin. Needless to say, this is not what Bulgakov believed and is not what many Catholics believe.

#7 Jason H.

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Posted 17 March 2010 - 08:28 PM

The Virgin Mary was not exempt from the effects of the ancestral sin (i.e. the fallen nature, subject to death and corruption, etc.) but she was , as were all of us,
born without sin (one must be careful to separate sin from the effects of sin here - sin is "personal" but the effects of sin are universal). While most of us (well all of the rest of us) don't manage to maintain our sinless state (that is we sin - and pretty quickly at that) the Virgin Mary never did sin knowingly or voluntarily and thus kept spotless the robe (albeit the flawed robe) she had from her birth. She still required the redemption of Christ because she still bore in herself the corrupted fallen nature and that needed healing.

Fr David Moser


Father David, bless in the Name of the Lord!

So, the Theotokos was born just the same way as the rest of humanity, with ancestral sin, but was made spotless from the birth of Christ? Is that clsoe to what you were saying? Or am I way off base?

#8 Father David Moser

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Posted 17 March 2010 - 11:07 PM

Father David, bless in the Name of the Lord!

So, the Theotokos was born just the same way as the rest of humanity, with ancestral sin, but was made spotless from the birth of Christ? Is that clsoe to what you were saying? Or am I way off base?


Please remember that the "ancestral sin" is not inherited by anyone - rather we inherit the effects of the ancestral sin. All men are born without guilt of sin - but not all men can maintain that state - and in fact the Mother of God is the only one that the Church offers to us an example of a sinless life. Our Lord Jesus Christ, was also of course sinless, however here we are talking about someone of a different caliber altogether (see the thread on Did Christ have a fallen human nature).

Therefore to answer your question, yes, the Mother of God was born the same as the rest of humanity and required, and received, the grace of redemption offered to us by Christ. This redemption is not linked to our Lord's birth, but rather to His death and resurrection. IOW she was not separately made perfect apart from the rest of us, but rather along with all of fallen mankind.

Fr David Moser

#9 Jason H.

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Posted 18 March 2010 - 02:06 AM

Fr. Alvin,

I was looking through the index on Amazon and wondered what the section of the Catholic dogma was doing in the book about the Theotokos.

#10 Aidan Kimel

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Posted 18 March 2010 - 03:24 AM

Jason, I'm not sure if I understand your question. Google Books has a large part of the chapter on the immaculate conception available for preview. Take a look and see if Bulgakov answers your question.

#11 Jason H.

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Posted 18 March 2010 - 01:15 PM

Fr. Alvin,

Father, bless in the Name of the Lord!

Thanks for the link I'll take a look at it today during work...err, I mean after work ;-)

#12 Archimandrite Irenei

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Posted 18 March 2010 - 06:06 PM

Dear Fr Alvin, you wrote:

A comparison of Bulgakov's The Burning Bush with St John the Wonderworker's essay "The Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God" might prove illuminating.


I would find this extremely interesting and -- at least potentially -- fruitful and enlightening.

Lead on!

INXC, Fr Irenei

#13 Aidan Kimel

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Posted 18 March 2010 - 09:30 PM

I would find this extremely interesting and -- at least potentially -- fruitful and enlightening. Lead on!]


Haha! We both know, Fr Irenaeus, that I am certainly not the person to lead on on this topic, but I am eager to learn.

Is it fair to say that there is disagreement among the Orthodox on the question of the personal sinlessness of the Theotokos? Perhaps I am misreading Maximovitch, but he sure sounds to me as if he wants to say more than that Mary inherited a fallen condition (i.e., a mortal existence within a corruptible world), that she was also, at some point in her life, guilty of personal sin, however venial. Am I misreading him? Bulgakov, on the other hand, while affirming Mary's inheritance of our fallen condition, also wants to assert her personal immaculate sinlessness.

Perhaps Orthodox disagreement here simply reflects the disagreement between the Fathers. What do the Fathers teach on the personal sinlessness of the Theotokos?

#14 Olga

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Posted 18 March 2010 - 11:36 PM

Fr Alvin, where there seems to be disagreement or inconsistency among the Fathers, may I suggest that the liturgical material reflects the consensus patrum view. A look at the texts for the Vigils of the feasts of the Mother of God should provide the answer.

#15 Aidan Kimel

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 12:58 AM

Olga, I imagine that both Bulgakov and St John Maximovitch would affirm your hermeneutical principle, yet they appear (and I emphasize "appear," as my reading of Maximovitch may be wrong) to disagree on the question of the personal sinlessness of the Theotokos.

Bulgakov provides lengthy citations from the prayers of the Church in his book. He certainly believes that these prayers support his interpretation. Yet John Maximovitch is a saint.

Which prayers and hymns speak most clearly to the question?

#16 Rick H.

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 12:41 PM

consensus patrum



I would like to know which prayers and hymns speak most clearly to the question also Olga.

To be honest, when I hear "consensus patrum" offered to solve a problem in Orthodoxy, it sounds more to me like something Harry Potter would say and then wave his magic wand in order to deal with a situation than anything else.

Admittedly, I'm probably more interested in seeing this played out as an example as much as anything, but thanks ahead of time for any helps.

#17 Fr Raphael Vereshack

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 01:01 PM

To be honest, when I hear "consensus patrum" offered to solve a problem in Orthodoxy, it sounds more to me like something Harry Potter would say and then wave his magic wand in order to deal with a situation than anything else.


I understand what you are saying. But there is nothing magic about this Rick. Rather the consensus patrum is that the overall message conveyed when you stand back and listen to all of the Patristic voices together rather than only as individuals. This is fundamental to Orthodox practice and attitude.

In Christ- Fr Raphael

#18 Rick H.

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 01:13 PM

Thanks for the reply Father. Actually, I have heard this explained this way before in terms of:


. . . the consensus patrum is that the overall message conveyed when you stand back and listen to all of the Patristic voices together rather than only as individuals.


I appreciate this although it occurs to me that it is always an individual that attempts to explain what the proper interpretation of the consensus patrum view is.

But, I think what interested me about Olga's usage was how she shares specifically that the view is found in the liturgical material:

. . . the liturgical material reflects the consensus patrum view.


This would seem to indicate that the consensus patrum can be pointed to specifically, on this issue in the liturgical material, in a way that is not open for discussion or debate amongst individuals, and this is appealing to me in terms of a more concrete offering.

In plain and simple language, Olga has indicated to Father Kimel that the answer is to be found in the consensus patrum in the liturgical material, and Father Kimel is asking where?

I am interested in this because this does not allow any room for wand waving or individual interpretations (or 'Who's on First' routines) at all.

#19 Olga

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 11:09 PM

The Mother of God is constantly referred to in hymnody by a large number of terms extolling her purity and inestimable virtue: all-pure, immaculate, spotless, more honourable and more glorious than the hosts on high, the Holy of Holies, etc. Here's but one typical example, a stikheron from Great Vespers for the Dormition of the Mother of God:

By divine command the God-bearing Apostles were caught up from all over the world by clouds on high. Reaching your all-immaculate body, source of life, they kissed it with mighty honour. The highest Powers of heaven stood by with their own Master. Seized with dread they accompanied your inviolate body that had contained God; while they went on before in a manner not of this world and crying out, unseen, to the ranks above them: Behold, the Queen of all, God’s child, has come. Lift up the gates, and in a manner not of this world receive the Mother of the everlasting Light. For through her the salvation of all mortals has come. We have not the strength to gaze on her, and it is not possible to render her worthy honour. For her excellence outstrips all understanding. Therefore, immaculate Mother of God, as you live forever with the life-bearing King, your Offspring, pray without ceasing that He guard and save from every hostile assault your new people; for we have gained your protection. As to the ages with splendour we call you blessed.

On the other hand, I cannot recall ever seeing the use of the word sinless in hymnography to refer to the Virgin, but only ever to Christ. This cannot be accidental. The absence of describing the Virgin as sinless (as opposed to innumerable references to her purity and honour) seems to me to indicate a reluctance by the hymnographers to "spell it out" one way or another, that we really cannot know whether she did indeed sin or not, the opinions of individual Fathers notwithstanding. Therefore, silence on the matter is preferable to the scholastic approach, the desire to find an answer to everything, which led to the development of the notion of her "immaculate conception". Personally, I would be surprised if the Virgin did indeed sin during her life, but only God really knows. There are some things in Orthodoxy which we simply have to accept as mysterious and unknowable.

This troparion from Ode 7 of the Canon for the Annunciation is rather interesting:

The descent of the Holy Spirit has purified my soul; it has sanctified my body: it has made me a temple containing God, a divinely adorned Tabernacle, a living Sanctuary, and the pure Mother of Life.

#20 Anna Stickles

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Posted 20 March 2010 - 02:35 AM

On the other hand, I cannot recall ever seeing the use of the word sinless in hymnography to refer to the Virgin, but only ever to Christ.

This is really interesting.




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