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Solovyev: Gnostic or Orthodox?
November 1991By Charles A. Coulombe
Charles A. Coulombe is the author of Everyman Today Call Rome, The White Cockade,
and Catholic Without Apology. He is a film reviewer for the National Catholic Register.
Russia and the Universal Church. By Vladimir Solovyev. Help of Christians
Publications. 274. $6.50.
War, Progress, and the End of History. By Vladimir Solovyev. Lindisfarne Press.
206. $14.95.
The apparent downfall of Communism in eastern Europe and
the Soviet Union has coincided with renewed Western interest
in religious thinkers from those regions. Of these, none is more
fascinating than Vladimir Solovyev (1853-1900); it is
particularly appropriate that two of his most basic and
illuminating works should recently have been reprinted.
While perhaps better known in Europe than in this country,
Solovyev nevertheless is claimed as one of their own by Catholics, Eastern Orthodox,
and neo-Gnostics alike. Certainly, there is much in his work to attract all three groups:
Catholics (at least of the believing sort) applaud his attachment to the papacy; Orthodox
see in his rejection of Western 19th-century philosophies an affirmation of his Russian
religious heritage; neo-Gnostics find his kind of interest in sophiology, cosmology, and
eschatology congenial. Reading these two books together goes a long way to solving the
Solovyev conundrum.
Russia and the Universal Church, published in France (due to Russian censorship) in
1889, and appearing in English the first time in 1948, is an exposition of Solovyev's
religious and political ideas. In his Introduction, Solovyev lays down his religiopolitical credo: "The fundamental truth and distinctive idea of Christianity is the perfect
union of the divine and the human individually achieved in Christ, and finding its social
realization in Christian humanity, in which the divine is represented by the Church,
centered in the supreme pontiff, and the human by the state." The state to which he
refers is the sort of Christian state demanded by his contemporary Pope Leo XIII, in
Immortale Dei. While Solovyev was careful to maintain the distinction between Church
and state, he derides the separation thereof as idolatry, raising up an authority
independent of and unrecognizing Christ.
Part one of the book is entitled "The State of Religion in Russia and the Christian East."
In this he condemns the Orthodox Church establishment for its Caesaro-Papism, its
refusal to apply the faith to social problems, its arrogance, and its insistence that it alone
is the true Church of Christ, despite its continued separation from Rome. He also
lambastes the Russian imperial government for shackling the Church. But, since "for
lack of an imperial power genuinely Christian and Catholic, the Church has not
succeeded in establishing social and political justice in Europe," the Russian emperor
may find his true role in attempting to succeed where his Holy Roman and Byzantine
counterparts failed. This, however, can only be done if the Orthodox Church which he
dominates, and he himself, return to union with the pope.
The next part, "The Ecclesiastical Monarchy Founded by Christ," deals specifically with
the papacy. He demonstrates that papal primacy of jurisdiction as well as honor was
always accepted in the East, and lays great stress on the events surrounding the Council
of Chalcedon. Solovyev shows, for example, that in the opinion of St. Flavian, the then
(451) Patriarch of Constantinople, no council was needed to define a dogma if the
Bishop of Rome had already done so. But while he goes on at great length to define and
defend papal prerogatives, he is no naif. He mentions that there have been on the papal
throne men "of diabolical character." He maintains that even the human errors of
individual popes are necessary, in the sense that they force Catholics to defend the faith
for its own sake. But none of this, in Solovyev's view, lessens either the infallibility or
divine nature of the papacy.
The last section is, in many ways, the most startling. "The Trinitary Principle and its
Social Application," as it is called, deals with a great many topics, from the creation of
the world to the sacraments and social teaching. Showing how the triune nature of God
has repercussions throughout creation, he demonstrates that sacraments, Church, and the
Incarnation are naturally related. In all of this he triumphantly refutes the double truth
theory (that what is true in theology may be false in philosophy), which underlies so
much of our present day chatter about religion. For Solovyev, the compartmentalization
of moral, dogmatic, and mystical theology, and of social teaching, does not exist, except
for convenience's sake. Transubstantiation, for example, is as much a part of reality as
the ocean, and no philosophy that does not reflect this can be completely valid.
War, Progress, and the End of History is a very different book. If Russia and the
Universal Church reminds one of Joseph de Maistre's Du Pape, this companion text
resembles the same author's Les Soirees de Saint Petersbourg. As in that work, the
writer's ideas are brought out through conversations between representative characters.
In this present case, there are, taking part in three conversations, the Prince, who follows
a Tolstoyan and pacifist Christianity-as-ethical-system-without-myths-like-theResurrection; the General, an old-style Slavophile Russian conservative; the Politician,
who is an etiquette-venerating atheist with a plan for world peace not unlike George
Bush's New World Order; the Lady, who is a well-intentioned fuzzy-thinker, not
perhaps unlike most of us; and Mr. Z., something of a mystic who is spokesman for
Solovyev's opinions.
Where the other book treats of the ideal, this one is concerned with what actually is, and
what may be -- in a word, with the problem of evil. The Prince's Christianity he
excoriates as false because non-incarnational; the Politician's views are of course almost
as noxious -- almost, because to Mr. Z., open atheism is much better than Christianity
without Christ. The General's opinions he is in sympathy with, although he does not
believe they go far enough. To the Lady, gallant that he is, he is very helpful in clearing
up misconceptions.
At the end is attached the "Short History of the Anti- Christ," a chilling account of the
last days. The work of the Anti-Christ is everything the Prince is for -- the supposed
"values" of Christianity: social justice, tolerance, fair play, and so on, sans the Savior.
He is even willing to aid the Church, if only it will be this-worldly.
There are also in this edition (the work was originally published in 1900, coming out a
month before its author's death) a Foreword by Czeslaw Milosz, and an Afterword by
Stephan Hoeller. Milosz's piece downplays Solovyev's philo-Catholicism. Hoeller, a
noted scholar of Gnosticism, emphasizes congruences between his field of study and
Solovyev. Beyond that, however, he also goes far in pointing out the importance of
Solovyev to the intellectual world at large.
The question that remains is this: Was Solovyev a Gnostic? But before one can answer
that question, it must be decided just what Gnosticism was and is. Some, like Eric
Voegelin, tend to apply the word to anyone who claims to know the nature of things
more clearly than others. Often this degenerates into labeling anyone you don't like a
Gnostic, in much the way that "fascist" was used in the 1960s and "Communist" in the
Many would define Gnosticism as a belief in salvation through knowledge. But during
the second century, "gnosis" was a buzz-word claimed by orthodox and heterodox alike,
much as "democracy" and "freedom" are coveted by all sides today. Indeed, St. Clement
of Alexandria maintained that Christian orthodoxy was the true gnosis, the knowledge
necessary for salvation.
In reality, "Gnosticism," like "Protestantism," is a word that has lost most of its
meaning. Just as we would need to know whether a "Protestant" writer is Calvinist,
Lutheran, Anabaptist, or whatever in order to evaluate him properly, so too the
"Gnostic" must be identified as a Valentinian or an Orphite, and so on. What, then, was
Solovyev? He was no Docetist, for the physical Incarnation of the Second Person of the
Trinity was the cornerstone of his thought. He was no Marcionite, for he did not reject
ecclesiastical hierarchy in favor of a purely "spiritual" church.
He was certainly no dualist. In a word, he held to none of the various schools of beliefs
we so blithely lump together as Gnostic.
The truth about Solovyev is that he was orthodox, so orthodox, indeed, that we who are
heirs to a rationalized theology find much of his thought peculiar. But even his
veneration of Sophia, the feminine personification of Divine Wisdom, which in no
small part accounts for the recurrent labeling of him as Gnostic, has always been well
known in the East, and was not entirely unheard of in Patristic and medieval Latin
Christendom. His train of thought is easy to trace, really. The mystical Slavophilism of
19th-century Russia and such Catholic Romantic writers as de Maistre and the great
Franz von Baader stand immediately behind him in his intellectual genealogy. Further
back, one would encounter Duns Scotus, Roger Bacon, and Bl. Raymond Lully. At last,
the trail brings us to St. Clement of Alexandria and the Gospel of St. John. As with
these "ancestors," mysticism was not merely a curiosity, nor the Church just an
organization. Rather, they are living realities which offer the only solutions to the
problems of human existence. Although radical in terms of today's philosophical
climate, there is nothing in this which is heretical; rather, it is the heart of the Christian