Vox Nova At The Library: Icons And The Name of God

Vox Nova At The Library: Icons And The Name of God March 15, 2012

Sergius Bulgakov. Icons and the Name of God. trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2012).

Another year and we have more writings from Sergius Bulgakov translated for the English-speaking audience. Here we have two interesting, and somewhat difficult, works: the essay “The Icon and Its Veneration (A Dogmatic Essay)” and “The Name of God,” which is a chapter taken from Bulgakov’s The Philosophy of the Name. These two texts do connect together, so that, even if one might wish to have the whole of The Philosophy of the Name, nonetheless, one can understand why Boris Jakim has released these two texts together.

Bulgakov begins his work on icons with a brief examination of the history of icons. He points out the pagan precedence as well as the problems Israel had with images. He makes the point to see what was positive in both the pagan tradition as well as the need for the Israelite rejection of images, pointing out how images could be and often were used for fetishes and demonic purposes. Christianity needed to come in and baptize art to preserve it and sanctify it. He then turns to the early history of debates about icons, and says that though icon veneration was preserved in the Church due to the work of the Holy Spirit, the arguments made for them were inconclusive:

For the wisdom of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, is more perspicacious than her individual members, more perspicacious, in particular, than the theologians of icon veneration of the eighth to ninth centuries, and even than the fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council; and in general this wisdom manifests itself in the ability to distinguish theological opinions from church decrees. And by no means are we obliged to accept these opinions, for in their logical development they actually lead to iconoclasm; and moreover, in and of themselves, they are unsound (27).

The iconoclasts, he believes, gave a better testimony of their faith, and had stronger argument, for they gave theses which their opponents agreed with: the invisible nature of the divinity and Chalcedonian Christology. The iconoclasts argued that iconophiles divided Christ – since the divinity cannot be portrayed, inconophiles were either dividing Christ like Nestorians or confusing his natures like monophysites. Bulgakov believes that the attempts to justify icons tried to get around this problem, but in the end, their agreement with the apophatic thesis made it impossible to come to a positive conclusion on icons without some mediating theological positions, positions which they did not articulate.  In this section, while Bulgakov makes some important points, it is also clear he is trying hard to justify the need for his own theological speculations; iconophiles have a stronger case than he suggests once one understands they follow the presuppositions of St Cyril of Alexandria on the unity of the person of Christ.  Here, what is said to be vague and ambiguous shows is the result of such unity. The icon brings the image of the whole person of Jesus, and so, brings us an image of God, just as Mary is said to give birth to a person who is divine and so is declared to be the Mother of God. Be it as it may, Bulgakov’s point is that there is more to icons than what early iconophiles articulated and his Sophiology helps us understand the logical progression which begins with apophatic theology and ends with the icon. He provides a series of thesis and antithesis which makes this point.

I. Theology

Thesis: Apophatic theology with the absolute “no” of God. Antithesis: Kataphatic Theology of the Trinity, of God in himself.

II. Cosmology

Thesis: God in Himself, the Trinity, eternal, absolute. Antithesis: God the Creator, God who creates the world in correlation to himself.

III. Sophiology

Divine Sophia: “THESIS: Go, unisubstantial in the Holy Trinity, reveals Himself in His Wisdom, which is His Divine life and the Divine world in eternity, fullness, and perfection” (35-6).  Creaturely Sophia: “ANTITHESIS: God creates the world by His Wisdom, and this Wisdom, constituting the Divine foundation of the world, abides in temporal-spatial becoming, submerged in non-being” (36).

We see that the apophatic aspect of the Divinity, while significant,  is not the end of the discussion. The Divinity is representable because of the Divinity being Sophia, that it is something positive in the Godhead and not a negative nothing to the persons of the Trinity. Once we understand that Sophia is the foundation of the world, even as it is the content of the Divine Nature, we should be able to see how the two can relate and how Sophiology presents a means by which we can apprehend something of the Divinity, an apprehension which is necessary for icons. Of course, one can argue that Bulgakov is beginning to engage in the same cosmic speculations of the Gnostics of old, even if his system is not as elaborate as theirs; there might be truth in this, but on the other hand, traditional doctrines on angels already approach this hierarchical structure as well. The problem is not the structure, it is how it is interpreted, the error is to be found in how one answers the question of whether it means there is penetration of the divinity in creation or not. The problem with the Gnostics was their complete rejection of the world, of it being entirely other to the Divinity, as being outside the Divinity; that is, they were dualists. Bulgakov presents a way of creation as being a created other within the Divinity (panentheism) and so founded within the Divinity and able to be penetrated by and united with the Divinity.

The question of the icon is more than the question of our ability to have some true apprehension of God,  it is also a question of art, of beauty. Beauty is capable of being a source of revelation, and so, the icon is capable of teaching us something about the Divine reality. Thus, true iconoclasts not only reject icons, but are rather negative with art in general: what else could they be? Art had to be defended, and was defended by the iconophiles: it gave us something which we needed. Thus, they gave us a discussion of the question of type and prototype, a discussion on reality and ideality, with images being “ideal repetitions” (41). Everything has its ideal, which then can be represented in an image. But images are ontologically dependent upon the prototype and on the substance used to generate them; this dependence allows them to be more than themselves but to express ideal which they are meant to represent. This prototype, moreover, has its own representation of itself, making the prototype subjective and not merely objective. Images help present this subject into a more idealized form, to reveal their inner nature, even to the prototype itself when it is self-conscious like a human person. A human has images, indeed creates them, but also is one who, through conscious perception, receives them as well. The human needs images, needs art, because it is a part of the very makeup of humanity. Icons, therefore, represent something anthropological, and how humans are bringing in aspects of the divine reality into the world.

But as art deals with something sacred, we must realize we need to engage the divine reality, to embrace it, to create art. It’s not about technique, it can’t be made into something routine done by a machine, but must be something connected with our own encounter with the divine. “Art attests to the images of being, and this testimony is not a deception (not even one that elevates us) but a tale told in the language of the world about pre-eternal being; it is testimony of creaturely sophianicity about the noncreaturely Sophia” (49). It is, of course, not exhausted in one work of art, but able to be presented, retold, in a variety of ways, in many works of art, to help us further identify that original ideal image. And yet it is because of the Sophianic content, of the Divine World full of the original images, things have value, have worth, that things are not merely nothing.

Having stated this, Bulgakov once again explores Sophiology and how it presents the Trinity, to show how in the Trinity we find the original iconography: the Father (invisible) becomes the prototype for his image, the Son who is revealed, who is seen; and the Holy Spirit is the revelation of love which unites the Father and the Son. We see the Trinity, but we must also see how their unity is found in Sophia and can be expressed also in icons, hence icons of the Holy Trinity (Rublev) and icons of Sophia (which represents Wisdom revealing herself in her Divine nature). Thus, the Trinity is iconographic, and so serves as the foundation for all discussions of iconography and its revelatory nature. “God sketched His image in the creature, and this Divine image is therefore imageable” (54-5).  In this way, since there is an image for God, an image which is expressed in us, in creation, the conclusion is that the original assertion that God is imageless is not correct. The Trinity confirms an image. This, then, allows the creature to express God and in that expression of God, in accordance to how well that expression is made, that is how worthy of honor they have. But the image could only be made, only allowed to be turned into something sacred and holy through the incarnation: before it, original sin entirely defiled the human image and so all that could be produced would be contaminated by sin; through Christ, with humanity restored to its original integral unity, we can see and experience the fullness of the human image, one worthy of honor because of its representation of God. The incarnation itself was possible because the image of God was found in humanity and so he found his own image in man and was able to take it up, present it as true, instead of some abrupt invasion of the divinity which disrupts nature.

The ideal being presented in the icon, in art, requires a name, something to authenticate the icon, the image, the reality of the art itself. “A nameless portrait, even given the greatest portrait ‘resemblance’ […] does not yet have the ultimate anchoring point in itself. This point is given only by a name: only a name completes, validates, and therefore itself enters as a means of representation into the image” (68). If something is being expressed, the name itself is a part of that expression, and indeed, like the icon, contains something of the reality of what is named, so that it can unite the icon to the original ideal image being expressed by it.

The reality of what is expressed in art must be properly understood. It represents, but does not exhaust what is represented; this is true for a human person, and so it is with Christ. “One can say no portrayal of Christ, however powerful, sincere, and skillful, can come even remotely close to completely fulfilling its task, to revealing the Divine spirit of the hypostatic God the Word” (78). This shows the truth of apophaticism: there is always something greater, something which transcends what we apprehend. This does not mean there is no revelation in art. There is revelation, and so there is art, but there is the greatness of God, and so there is the apophatic foundation from which this revelation flows (as seen in the initial theses above). Revelation means God is capable of being portrayed, and this is what is needed for the promotion of icons.  But for such revelation to be of value, it must be named, it must have content which allows the portrayal to participate in revelation: it is what holds the icon together. Names, indeed, are in themselves icons. “A proper name, in contrast to ‘common’ nouns, expresses in general not a property but an entity, not a predicate but a subject. A proper name is the verbal icon of a hypostasis, of a person, while all its images are different predicates of it” (79). Still, we must understand that such naming can be done on various levels of “reality and power – ranging from subjective pretension to a certain essentiality” (80). In other words, even a name, like all art, can have a relative value in presenting its reality to the world. To fully represent the real, there is the need for a rite of sanctification, something which makes the naming and the art truly united with the reality being portrayed – it is both the verification of that connection as well as the opening to the ideal so that it what is imagined in art can continue to be experienced by the viewer of the image. It is this rite which fully makes an icon and icon, as representing the highest strata of reality and not just a sublime representation of one’s subjective experience of that reality. For the icon, then, the presence of the one named is brought about through sanctification, so that one can honor them in and through the image itself. The presence of Christ is found in the sanctified image of Christ, and so we kiss it, revering Christ. Bulgakov then explores the way the presence of Christ differs in icons and with the holy eucharist; the iconic presence is one primarily meant for our personal encounter for prayer and devotion, while the eucharist is communion, meant to be consumed, for the sake of cosmic transfiguration of matter.

Having given the foundation of icons, Bulgakov then explores how this applies to various aspects of the faith: the different kinds of icons, such as of the Mother of God (where one also gets an experience of the Holy Spirit), icons of angels (which can be portrayed because of their relationship with humanity), representation of Biblical events such as creation (which is Sophiological), and the like. Here, we see the repetition of  Sophiological ideas contained in other works, but put at work as to explain important icons which the Church uses. He also explores icons of the saints, and the relationship between them and their relics, once again pointing out the relationship is between the ideal connection with the saint in an icon and the real connection to the body and soul in the relics. Both provide different ways to encounter the saint, yet relics are special and unique while one can make many icons of the saint. Finally, Bulgakov mentions the cross: it, too, is special; it is respected even before it is sanctified, and once sanctified it is used to help sanctify, for the cross, in participating with the Cross bring the grace of Christ to the world, allowing it to elevate and receive its true form.

From what has been said above, we can see why “The Name of God” relates to the discussion of icons. The piece comes from a major controversy in 20th century Russia: Imiaslaviethe controversy around the “name-glorifiers.” Monks from Mt Athos, around 1907, were seen promoting the notion that the name of God is God; leaders in Russia, when they got word of this, considered this heretical, and those who were name-glorifiers were condemned.  In 1914, there was some attempt to bring peace to the controversy, but by 1918, the Holy Synod decided to deny communion to name-glorifiers. There was supposed to be more discussion of the matter, but other events in Russia prevented it, so that the topic remains open, though with a general disposition from official sources in preserving the condemnations of the past. There were some, however, who wrote in defense of the name-glorifies, among them Pavel Florensky and Sergius Bulgakov. The text translated here comes from Bulgakov’s work on the subject. Bulgakov was commissioned by the Synod to write the text, though it was only privately released in Paris in 1953.

Bulgakov begins by stating every name for God is a predicate attributed to the Divinity itself. There are many names for God as there are many qualities which we can use for God. God is revealed through these properties, through these names. “The ineffable, unknowable, transcendent essence of God reveals Itself to man in Its properties, which are predicates to the Divine Essence, and as predicates they, becoming in the capacity of subject pars pro toto so to speak, become Names of God – in the plural” (115-16). Subjects can have many names, so too, the Divinity. These properties can also be found in the way God acts – so that there can be “numerous revelations” which are also “Names of God” (116). Every revelation gives a new predicate, new knowledge of God. They are the actions of the transcendent God, who exists in himself, actions which enter into the world as an act of love to creation, love which also includes kenosis, divine emptying, because it opens God up to his creatures. God in himself is beyond naming, but he opens himself up to them, going beyond the apophatic Absolute which lies within him. These actions are God, because it is God who acts, but yet in them, in their nature as being predicates which can be put on God, they are best seen as the uncreated energies of God, where God is indeed encountered and known and yet the nature of God transcends what is known and revealed.

The act of naming must not be seen as purely accidental; it is rather, the act of a witness, of revealing what has been revealed. In this way, in the actions of God, God reveals himself knowing how the experience will be revealed, so as to make sure the right predicates are given to him. “For this reason alone the Names of God cannot be regarded as purely human creations, as names invented by man. To suppose this to be the case signifies not only a misunderstanding of the nature of the name but also the greatest of blasphemies” (118). Those who are criticizing the name-glorifiers have a problem here, because they want the names of God to be revered, and yet they are unwilling to see the role of God in forming the names themselves. The error is the same error of iconoclasts, who reject images because they close off a way that the Divinity penetrates the world. The names of God, just as icons, should not be seen as purely human constructs, though of course, the human aspect of each should be remembered so as not to destroy the distinction between the Creator and creation (pantheism). Icons are names which have been clothed in art. And it must be remembered, it is the name which gives the icon its power, its full depth of spirit. In icons, we already see the presence, the energy of the named with the name.

This once again brings us back to the name of God. If one understands icons, then one can understand how one could say the name of God is God. It is the presence of God just as one experiences the presence of what is named in an icon. “Thus, if the Name of God is, in a certain sense, the verbal icon of Divinity, then, conversely, the true icon of Divinity is His Name. And there are as many such icons as there are names, and there are as many names as there are namings” (123-4). Names are incarnations of divine energies, of the uncreated energies of God. “Divine energy and the human power of speech are united here without separation and without confusion, as in the icon: man speaks and names, but that which he names is given and revealed to him” (126). Atheism comes out of a rejection of this relationship between the name and what is named, and so for an atheist, the name really is an abstract concept, not an encounter with the Divine. It is, for an atheist, just a sound and so empty. “Here, although the atheist’s lexicon includes a word for designating Divinity, it does not, strictly speaking, contain the Name of God, which for him (as for the onomaclasts) is a mere sound, a religious emptiness, an acoustic husk without a seed” (127). This comes either from blindness or something worse, hate, the desire to destroy the presence of God in the world, to wipe out the connection to the Divine in the world.

We must move beyond the idea of a name of God as a pure human construct, but as something which has been experienced and revealed (even if with the pagans, it is something distorted or demonic). In the Christian faith, in the full revelation of God, the use of the Name is to invoke God, to address God and so to bring his presence to us. “Herein lie the power, holiness, mystery, and tremendous awe of the Name of God, for when we invoke It, we find ourselves before the presence of the Divinity, we already have God in His very Name, we create His acoustic icon” (130). Thus, Bulgakov shows what is being said by the name-glorifiers: they are bringing the experience of the Divinity to themselves through names which already include the uncreated energy or presence of God. This is why the name of God was shown as powerful in the Old Testament. It really connects with God. “The word is a symbol, but it is a symbol not in the nihilistic sense of a sign invented by man (as onomaclasts and iconoclasts always understand it) but in the sense of the union of two natures, and therefore in the sense of power and depth” (134-5). Thus, the Temple, for example, was able to contain the Glory of God because it was a temple of the name of God – making it the dwelling place of God.

All of this then allows for something special, and new, to develop with the incarnation, for now we have the name Jesus, which is the name of the God-Man, bringing the two together as one, and revealing the unity of heaven and earth: “what we have here is not a symbolic exchange of communications, not a ‘question-and-answer session’ between the transcendent and the immanent, but their perfect unity, their interpenetration” (145). This makes the invocation of the name of Jesus special, explaining its place in the spiritual life of so many people. It is the “Incarnation of the Name” (146) leading to our deification. Thus, it is blasphemy to think this invocation is just babbling, stating an ordinary name which has no connection to Jesus himself. “The Name Jesus is in the heavens; it is written and lives in heaven and on earth, and it embraces the destinies of the world and of man…” (148).

Of course, we must remember that there is something here which must remain a mystery, a thing of awe. God reveals himself to us! God continues to come to us, connected to the expressions of his revelations! It is more than we can demand of God, but what God does for us out of his love for us. It was necessary for us but not for God. This gift makes the practice of naming within humanity valid, to make it more than a nominalistic enterprise. “The mystery of Divine condescension, of the kenosis, an unfathomable mystery before which we can only bow down with reverence, consists in the fact that the most radiant Name of God, becoming a human name, is clothed in the form of a servant, in rags of humility” (152). It is thus, in the invoking of the name of Jesus, we find ourselves a part of the royal priesthood, able to reproduce Christ in our hearts. Liturgy is energized by the name. “The whole liturgy grows out of the Name of God as its seed” (162), showing how and why everyone is connected to the worshipful experience and not just the priest.

When speaking of the name of God as being God, like St John of Kronstadt, it is important to remember that “the copula ‘is’ does not by any means signify equality or identity” (164). It is the presence of God, the energy of God, the Divinity, but it is not “the God.” It is the experience of God, which is God, but it is not the fullness of God (though, of course, it is connected to it). “And in this sense the Name of God occupies in the ontological hierarchy the same place as the light of Tabor, though of course this does not mean that the Name and the Light become identical in their phenomena while remaining unisubstantial in their noumenon” (165). We must not see the name of God, then, as a dogmatic definition of God, but as the presence of the Divinity, and with the invocation, the Lord “is present with His power, with His simplicity, with Hid indivisibility…” so as to give us “communion with God” (166). Prayer thus ends up showing its sacramental value once we understand the presence of God in His name.



Once again, Boris Jakim has provided a good, accessible translation for rather difficult theological material. The book engages controversies within Orthodoxy and yet does so with philosophical and theological acumen, providing important insights and counter-measures to many modern ideologies. We live in a nominalistic age. Bulgakov understood this, and tried to point out, time and again, how the material involved (paints, for icons, sounds for the words) are vehicles for something which transcend themselves, allowing them to be more than mere conventions but actual presentations of the transcendent into the world. There are many times one might not agree with Bulgakov in his particulars, but the general scheme he provides is significant and helpful for the Christian as they struggle to understand “where is God today?” God is there, his presence is there, for us to encounter. It is there in icons, in his name, in the sacraments. We must open ourselves up from the blindness of sin, the blindness of the age, to encounter Him – but He is there, waiting for us.

There is significant Sophiological material in this volume, but one who has not studied Sophiology should be able to grasp the aspects of it Bulgakov reveals here. Indeed, though it might not be the best introduction to Sophiology, it could still provide such an introduction to those interested in it, seeing how it reveals itself in concrete, dogmatic studies.

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