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Lossky, Vladimir N. (1903–1958)

  1. Bruce V. Foltz

Published Online: 25 NOV 2011

DOI: 10.1002/9780470670606.wbecc0828

The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization

How to Cite

Foltz, B. V. 2011. Lossky, Vladimir N. (1903–1958). The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 25 NOV 2011


Vladimir Lossky was important as an Orthodox theologian, philosopher, and educator; his Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church remains perhaps the classic articulation of Orthodox theology in the 20th century. Characteristic of his writing, it is an achievement of both intellect and spirituality. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, the son of the highly regarded philosopher and professor at the University of St. Petersburg, Nicholas O. Lossky, Vladimir began his studies at the University of St. Petersburg, studying patristic theology with Lev Karasavine and Meister Eckhart under Ivan Grevs. He was soon forced from Russia in 1922, along with his family, by the Bolsheviks, but before his exile, he attended the trial of one of the first martyrs to the Russian Revolution, Metropolitan Benjamin, and the sight of the people's devotion to their martyred bishop nourished him with a powerful and lasting vision of the church as the mystical body of Christ. He continued his education in Prague, where he studied patristic theology with N. P. Kondakov, and then in Paris at the Sorbonne, where he studied medieval philosophy with Etienne Gilson, whose friendship he enjoyed throughout his life. Lossky remained an exile in Paris for the rest of his life, teaching dogmatic theology at St. Denys Institute of Orthodox Theology, which he also served as its first Dean. In addition to Gilson, he was close to a number of other Roman Catholic theologians as well, including Danielou, de Lubac, Congar, and Bouyer. Despite his strong commitment to ecumenical dialogue, Lossky's work was by no means a merely historical exposition of eastern theology, but a search for theological truth beyond cultural and historical alignments. His academic studies proceeded along two tracks, Eastern patristics (with especially strong influences from St. Dionsius the Areopagite and St. Gregory Palamas) and western medieval mysticism (especially Meister Eckhart, the subject of his doctoral dissertation), both well suited to explore the viability of eastern theology for the west; his use of French for his academic writings, rather than his native Russian, further underscores his commitment to this project. As suggested by the title of his magnum opus, Lossky saw the mystical orientation of theology in the Eastern Church as vitally important for western theology as well. Theology must entail not “assimilating the mystery to our mode of understanding,” but rather “an inner transformation of spirit, enabling us to experience it mystically.” Theology and mysticism are not opposed, but “support and complete each other.” Thus, “if the mystical experience is a personal working out of the content of the common faith, theology is an expression, for the profit of all, of that which can be experienced by everyone” (Lossky 1976, 8f.). The genuine task for theology, then, is union with God, theosis, and it must therefore entail apophaticism, i.e. the view that this highest knowing is actually an “unknowing” going beyond our knowledge of created things, often by means of paradox and antinomy, and leading us to an experience of the uncreated. At the same time, positive or kataphatic knowledge can be a vehicle for this, since all creation is saturated with the divine energies and sustained by them. “Pure nature,” somehow standing apart from a divine grace that would be supernaturally added, is “a philosophical fiction” (Lossky 1976, 101). Thus, the eastern distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies is crucial here. Lossky also emphasizes another distinction, that between person and nature, first of all to emphasize the three persons of the Holy Trinity over what he feels is an undue western emphasis upon the divine nature that ultimately renders God an abstraction. Here too, Lossky insists not just on the unknowability of the divine essence, but as a corollary, he rejects the western understanding that sees creation as a realization of what exists eternally in the divine nature. Rather, creation is rooted in the divine will, and the logoi that are exhibited in all creation are freely willed intentions of God, not “forms” following of necessity from the divine nature. Second, and following from this, human beings must be understood not just according to universal human nature, but as unrepeatable persons who are radically free even from their own nature. Indeed, fallenness itself can be seen as a forfeiting of the freedom and uniqueness of personhood, and a regression into the generic and necessary element of human nature. To renounce this resultant “selfhood,” with the help of divine grace, is thus to restore a “likeness” to God to the “image” of him that we always already are. The work of Lossky is sometimes associated with that of Fr. George Florovsky, and together they were responsible for inaugurating the “neo-patristic synthesis” that became the model for much Orthodox theology of the 20th century. His son, Nicolas V. Lossky, is professor at the University of Paris-Nanterre as well as St. Sergius Institute, and Vladimir Lossky had the rare distinction of having articles on his work written by both his father and his son.


  • Lossky, Vladimir N. (1903–1958);
  • orthodox theologian, philosopher;
  • mystical orientation of theology, in eastern church;
  • union with God, theosis;
  • the divine essence and the divine energies