Review of Marcus Plested, Wisdom in the Christian Tradition: The Patristic Roots of Modern Russian Sophiology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022).
Marcus Plested’s Wisdom in the Christian Tradition is simply extraordinary. Framed by the modern (but decidedly “unmodern” [see below]) phenomenon of Russian Sophiology, its inception and future, the book contains a breathtaking survey of the theme of wisdom spanning from the Old and New Testaments to Christian thought in the middle ages. Within this range is included the Classical Tradition, the Apostolic Fathers, Early Church Fathers, and theologians of the Greek East and Latin West respectively. As Plested himself notes, “this survey is perhaps the most comprehensive and sustained account of Wisdom in the Christian Tradition attempted to date.” (224) For this reason alone, the book is an indispensable resource for anyone interested in reflecting on wisdom Christianly. However, one does not have to read far into the survey to realize that wisdom is not a niche theme within the Christian tradition; not one topic among many, occasionally touched upon by a select few. Rather, Plested shows how wisdom has been absolutely central to foundational doctrinal reflection, perhaps most evidently in its prominent place within the controversies surrounding Nicea. Beyond this, however, the theme of wisdom has accompanied discussions ranging from divine simplicity, essence, and energies to the Christian life. Indeed, for Plested (and many before him), the “all-embracing” (see p. 1) character of wisdom is the theme’s timeless virtue. It pertains not only to God on the one hand and creation on the other, but has served precisely as that which names the relation between God and the world. Wisdom in “theistic systems” generally (see p. 2) and in the Christian tradition specifically has been the governing concept in elucidating the living link between Creator and creation.
A brief review can only scratch the surface of the wealth contained in a work such as this. For this reason, the content of this review will focus on some of the book’s overall diagnostic and constructive aims – most evident at the beginning and end of the work – rather than on its historical survey.
Important to note for our own engagement from an evangelical perspective, Plested somewhat silently points to the poverty of Protestant sources in contributing to the tradition’s lively wisdom conversation by pointing to the gap in serious wisdom reflection between the pre-Reformation era and Russian Sophiology:
Modern Russian Sophiology…is the most serious and sustained example of reflection on the figure and theme of wisdom to arise since the late Byzantine and high medieval era. Indeed it is arguably also the most creative, constructive and compelling theological movement, bar none, to have arisen since the Enlightenment and one which stands, not incidentally, in polar contrast to all species of Kantianism and, for the matter, Barthianism. (3-4)
Plested does not explicitly elaborate on the characterizations of “Kantianism” and “Barthianism” but it may be assumed that what he has in view is a secularized account of the world, not only divested of God’s presence but – even more strongly – pitted against God, such that the only possibility of encounter with the divine rests in God’s overcoming of an ontological and moral gap. Sophiology, by contrast, while acknowledging an in-principle ontological chasm between God and creation, envisions Wisdom as the bridge, suffusing the world and uniting it inseparably to its divine source. What Sophiology offers and Plested recommends is a distinctly “unmodern” vision (see p. 11) of “God in the world and the world in God” (238) – though Plested proposes this connection in ways that go beyond Sophiology’s original spokespersons. His account is not a wholesale affirmation of all the Russian movement’s features. Indeed, his main task is to assess its continuity with the Christian tradition – principally the extent to which it is faithful to the patristic roots which its own exponents have claimed – and he concludes that in some crucial respects Sophiology has gone too far (see below). Notably, it is not innovativeness as such which Plested critiques, as this is a necessary and welcome feature of any living tradition. Instead, the nuanced critiques in his final chapter rest principally on the extent to which key thinkers (Florensky and Bulgakov) were good readers of the Fathers to which they themselves chiefly appealed (Athanasius and Palamas, respectively). In addition to this, Plested suggests throughout his survey of wisdom that there are many ancient sources from which the Sophiologists would have benefited but of which they were either unaware, ignored or underappreciated. Materially, the problematic features Plested locates in Sophiology may be observed in the following lengthy quote:
But there is much in modern Russian Sophiology that has no ready grounding in patristic tradition: above all the idea of wisdom as God’s primal self-revelation to himself constituting a divine ‘other’, a liminal principle of divine humanity (as in Soloviev and Florensky) or, more specifically (as in Bulgakov), a principle of divine humanity capable of hypostatization in multiple uncreated and created forms…Sophiology, moreover, misses a great deal from the tradition – not least from the Bible. Soloviev’s Sophia has only distant connections to the wisdom figure of the Old Testament, while Florensky and Bulgakov tend to focus on that rather ambiguous figure somewhat at the expense of the rather more concrete wisdom figure of the New Testament – Christ…Sophiology, furthermore, provides scant guidance on basic issues of ethics and virtuous living – on life and how to live it…Similarly, the prominent patristic theme of participatory and gifted knowledge…is rather subsumed in Sophiology behind considerations of a more mystical and metaphysical character… (229-30)
A “re-oriented sophiology,” Plested suggests, will need to account for the above deficits, and he is confident that such a way forward is possible, so long as patristic sources are responsibly mined and the unmodern vision of Sophiology is kept alive. Reflecting on the nature of his book as a whole, as one of appreciation, exploration, critique and construction, Plested writes, “This long journey through Wisdom in the Christian Tradition, finally, reveals a great deal about the nature of Orthodox theology itself. Orthodox theology is a communal and living enterprise conducted across the centuries – or it is nothing.” (243) In addition to his wide-ranging historical survey, Plested contributes to this “communal enterprise” by laying out a seven-paragraph constructive framework for a “re-oriented sophiology.” (see pp. 241-2)
As Plested acknowledges, this framework is just that: a framework, and thus cannot be viewed as a final or full word. Thus, any critical comments which follow in this review are made in full recognition of the fact that Plested’s is a self-consciously incomplete project.
Perhaps the most poignant “‘correction” Plested offers, and one which he shows stands in line with patristic sources, is rooting wisdom not in the “free floating category” of Sophia but, rather, in the essence, hypostases and energies of God himself. (see pp. 240-1) Plested is surely right to note that becoming overly preoccupied with Sophia as a figure or category in addition to or alongside God, necessary to the function of joining Creator and creature, ultimately distracts from the way in which such a link can only be attributed to God himself: “In his energies, God makes himself the link-piece of the universe, the in-between (μεταξύ): who or what else could ever perform such a function?” (241) In this model, the metaphysical commitment of “God alone” corresponds exactly to the soteriological commitment of “God alone.” Indeed, this sophiological framing of theology accentuates the point that salvation is accomplished by virtue of God’s own “deifying energies”, drawing creatures into himself even as they live fully within the world he has created and in which he dwells. The salvation of creatures is their “participation” in God’s trinitarian energies and their “conform[ity] to their creation in wisdom…” (242) This is a robust account of salvation in the world, not from the world. At the same time Plested situates the possibility for such salvation primarily within the walls of the Church: “As vessel and house of wisdom, the Mother of God is also to be identified with the Church as the body of wisdom incarnate and the pre-eminent means by which humans are incorporated into the divine life.” (242) While Plested clearly acknowledges that the “worldly” salvation of which he speaks is to be found in the Church, the precise dynamics of the church-world distinction and relation remains an open question. Thus, beyond the obvious question of Which church? that an evangelical might pose, further clarification is wanting with respect to the shape of a worldly wisdom which finds its proper home in Church or a churchly wisdom which finds its proper home in the world. Related to this point, the characterization of the Church as “the body of wisdom incarnate”, while certainly biblical in important respects, needs further clarification regarding what this actually means. Such high scriptural language for the Church must also wrestle with what it means for this same Body to be deeply entangled in sin, even now. Alongside the Church’s long tradition of rich wisdom reflection stands a litany of foolish words and deeds. In unoriginally Protestant fashion and, no doubt, with a loud note of modern despair, we might then ask how seriously a sophiological theology accounts for the reality of sin, especially that which plagues the “house of wisdom” itself, God’s Church.
This leads to a final point of interest which Plested himself signals. He generally critiques Russian Sophiology for its virtual disinterest in Christology, with the exception of Bulgakov’s magisterial Lamb of God, which Plested too finds problematic in crucial respects (see lengthy quote above). In his proposal for a re-oriented sophiology, Plested suggests that, among other christological commitments, “there must also surely be a far greater focus on the apparent absurd folly of the Cross – the death of wisdom incarnate. The determination to know only Christ ‘and him crucified’ (I Cor. 2:2) has never been an obvious feature of Sophiology.” (243; see also 229; 239) The call to give an account of wisdom that centers on Christ and his cross – especially in its effective judgment on human wisdom! – is certainly a cause that Protestants can get behind. Curiously, as Plested shows in his broad survey, it is a theme present but not prominent in the wider tradition. It is this reviewer’s opinion that an account of wisdom which begins from the apostle Paul’s proclamation of divine “foolishness” – God’s own overturning of human “wisdom” – will be better equipped to describe the persisting interval between the wisdom of God and the folly of humanity, the righteousness of God and the sinfulness of humanity. One need not necessarily affirm the “secularity” of the world to preserve this interval but – with attention to the cross – divine presence must be shown to include judgment on the creation to which he is present and which he is drawing to himself.