Sergius Bulgakov, Jacob's Ladder: On Angels, trans. Thomas Allan Smith. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010, xiii + 164pp. $25.00

Jacob's Ladder, the last contribution to Bulgakov's ‘minor trilogy’ on Mary, John the Baptist and angels, is a quintessential example of the author's capacity to merge the highly esoteric with the pastoral. On the one hand, angels function as a kind of ‘proof’ of the theology of Divine Wisdom – sophiology – which views creation as an act of loving, triune self-expression. On the other hand, Bulgakov mines his sophiology for resources to expound on the inner lives of angels, thus also addressing the kind of questions a curious believer might ask a pastor.

Bulgakov builds his argument like a helix, raising seemingly tangential queries within the context of larger discussions that subsequent chapters then double-back to address, bolstering both points in the process. The result is not a systematic angelology but a complex, organic enquiry into the seemingly unknowable, much like Sophia herself. This method of argumentation resists neat, chapter-by-chapter summary. Therefore, though the following synopsis will be roughly sequential, it will adhere more to the logic of Bulgakov's argument than the ordering of his chapters.

From the Introduction to chapter 3, Bulgakov focuses on the union between the human and angelic worlds. Love, he says in the Introduction, is the basis of this union. Because love must always be personal, then fulfilling the biblical command to love oneself in God requires an act of positing oneself in another (much like the love of the Trinity). This other – this friend – is the guardian angel. The individual loves herself in the angel because, Bulgakov says, they comprise the same hypostasis ‘in two worlds’ (p. 41). This idea of a hypostatic double is consistent with his sophiology, wherein every created thing has its heavenly archetype, so, logically, this principle must also apply to humans. A guardian angel is thus a human being's ‘heavenly I’ (p. 43). This conviction leads Bulgakov to expand upon the tradition that Christians receive an angel at baptism; he reasons that each person must have her own, unique guardian angel (with whom she develops a special intimacy after the second birth of her baptism). Sharing their lives with us, our heavenly I's must also be implicated in everything that happens in creation. Thus Bulgakov further extends heavenly protection beyond the human to include the ‘natural’ (i.e. non-human) world as well. Bulgakov sees the whole universe populated by unseen powers.

Probing a little further into the inner lives of angels, in chapters 4–7, Bulgakov considers the nature and qualities of angels. Though they share our hypostases, Bulgakov says angels do not possess their own nature but are wholly ‘transparent for God’ (p. 74). Bulgakov never exactly explains what he means by this ‘transparency’, but he seems to intend to say that angels are defined entirely by their loving service. In a manner of speaking, they are what they do (which is also why they make a fitting mouthpiece for God in Old Testament theophanies.) This is another way of saying that angels exist by virtue of the love that motivates their service. There is thus a kind of dual conformity between the human and the angelic. As we shall be like the angels in the resurrection (i.e. bound together in loving service), their transparency means that they are like us now. Angels take on the characteristics of their charges, even gender (though not sex). They lack bodies but possess form (though they can manipulate the natural world ‘metaphysically’ to appear within it). They even have a kind of language in order that they may praise God with us. Developing a brief ‘angelic aesthetics’, Bulgakov says that this praise of heavenly beauty is an ‘art’ both humans and angels share. When we worship we speak with one voice.

The final chapter and conclusion comprise a kind of corrective recapping of the preceding presentation. Bulgakov seems concerned that he might be thought to have given too much credit to angelic powers' role in salvation, so he reiterates that this intercommunion between our two worlds is only possible because of the redeeming work of Christ, which healed the rupture between earth and heaven in the Fall. Thus the cross and resurrection enable angelic service, which, in the end, is not a duty but a consequence of trinitarian love extended into the human world.

Tempting as it may be to dismiss some of the preceding as ‘eccentric’, Bulgakov should be credited with addressing a neglected area of theological inquiry. Stretching the theological imagination into undiscovered territory, he compels the reader to consider the importance of angels and the numerous ways they are involved in our world. However, this innovative impulse is both the strength and the weakness of this book, for what Bulgakov gains in creativity he loses in conceptual clarity. In the first place, his argumentative architecture begs the question. On the one hand, angels are a kind of ‘proof’ of Sophia. On the other, from that proof he is able to peer into their inner lives. Bulgakov thus presupposed much of what he intended to demonstrate. Secondly, angels as archetypes of human hypostases greatly complicate Bulgakov's sophiology. Sophia exists in two aspects: heavenly Sophia abides eternally within God as triune self-love, but she is also distended into temporality as the creaturely Sophia. As our hypostatic archetypes, angels correspond to heavenly Sophia, but they are also created. These two positions cannot be reconciled to his sophiology (unless one posits an intermediary half-divine, half-creaturely Sophia, which only complicates an already enigmatic metaphysics). The final problem with this angelology relates to the practical implications of seeing the guardian angel as a kind of heavenly twin. Though Bulgakov persuasively says that self-love can only happen in a ‘syzygy’ between oneself and the other, one cannot help but wonder if making this ‘other’ a better version of oneself – wherein the highest ideals one has about oneself are projected onto, and subsequently read off of, eternity – might lead not to a fulfilling kenosis of love but further self-entrapment in pride.

Yet, in spite of these shortcomings, this book is worth reading if for no other reason than to call readers to consider the place of these often neglected heavenly powers within their theology – to make decisions they may have avoided because they never really considered the roles angels play in salvation. There is thus much in this book to commend it to a wide range of readers, primarily academic theologians, but also seminarians and divinity students who have some background with Bulgakov's sophiology. The ultimate usefulness of this book lies in its creative range. The translator described sophiology as a ‘word picture’ (p. vii). That term suits Bulgakov's angelology as well. Despite its conceptual shortcomings, it is an impressive instantiation of theology as a work of complex, modern art. Like art, its job is less to inform than inspire, calling readers' attention to questions about angels that, until now, they never knew they needed to ask.