In working on a new Wikipedia article about the idea of a meta-historical human fall, I noticed an interesting set of similarities between the concepts of two eminent Christian theologians publishing within the same year: one in English within the Anglican tradition and the other in Russian within the Orthodox tradition. I would guess that they were aware of each other, but I have not seen any references in either one to the work of the other. I would love to hear from readers if you might know of any relationships between these two or if you simply have thoughts on the degrees to which their thinking aligns or diverges.
Norman Powell Williams (1883 – 1943), who typically published as N. P. Williams, was an Anglican theologian and priest educated at Durham School and at Christ Church, Oxford. He held a series of appointments at Oxford as Fellow of Magdalen (1906), Chaplain of Exeter (1909), Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity and Canon of Christ Church (1927). In 1924 he was the Bampton lecturer, and these lectures were published in 1927 as The Ideas of the Fall and of Original Sin: a Historical and Critical Study which received a summary in Ronald W. Hepburn’s 1973 entry on the “Cosmic Fall” for the Dictionary of the History of Ideas.
Williams makes a case for a unique and compelling account of the human fall that carefully keeps it within created time although noting that this is best understood as a higher form of time that he calls “an ‘absolute’ Time or duration of which the times relative to different percipients or groups of percipients are imperfect and distorted copies.” Within this higher form of time, the human fall takes place within “the ‘Logos Spermatikos’ or ‘seminal reason’” that he says has been “more recently reformulated, in the light of modern biological conceptions, by M. Bergson under the name of the elan vital, the Life-Force which is the immediate ground of our own being as of that of all the multitudinous creatures of the universe.” Although Williams is clearly critical of Origen and seems to equate him with later Origenist ideas about the pre-existence of individual human souls, this placement of the human fall by Williams in a higher time prior to the evolution of all plant and animal life has a lot in common with other concepts of a meta-historical fall, including the ideas being defended in another book published in Russian during the same year (1927) by Sergius Bulgakov, The Burning Bush, which articulated a “doctrine of a supramundane fall” that “did not take place within the limits of this world” but outside “at the threshold of our entry into the world” and clarifies that “the idea of [a human] pre-existence in the sense of a time preceding our aeon was condemned by the Church” as Origenism and should be recognized as “essentially incompatible with a healthy ontology.” These ideas were further developed by Bulgakov in The Bride of the Lamb (published posthumously in 1945) where he says that “empirical history begins precisely with the fall, which is its starting premise.”
Both theologians published similar ideas in the same year of a human fall located in a unified “Life Force” (or “creaturely Sophia” in the case of Bulgakov) and with this fall coming before and, in part, leading to the differentiation of this universal Life Force or creaturely Sophia into all the variety of life forms that we have today. Both authors also carefully distinguish their ideas from the heretical concept of individual human preexistence associated with Origenism. Finally, both of them, as a result of their doctrines of pre-cosmic falls, defend animal life as connected with human life (although also clearly distinct) and as wrapped up within the same grand story of fall and transfiguration. They both fully appreciate the idea of a whole creation groaning together in labor pains as Paul writes in Romans 8.
I plan to write more about Sergius Bulgakov in coming months. For now, however, here are a few key passages from The Ideas of the Fall and of Original Sin by N. P. Williams:
We are thus led to the hypothesis of a pre-cosmic vitiation of the whole Life-Force, at the very beginning of cosmic evolution: this, it would seem, and not the failure of primitive man to escape from already existing evil, is the true and ultimate ‘Fall’. Such a view of the Fall and its effects is much vaster and more awe-inspiring than that which makes it a purely human affair; and it proportionately increases the amplitude and magnificence of Redemption. [xxxiv]
To explain evil in Nature, no less than in man, we are compelled to assume a Fall—a revolt against the will of the Creator, a declension from the beauty and glory which God stamped upon His work at the beginning. And, to account for the vast and intimate diffusion of evil, selfishness and hate amongst all the multitudinous tribes of living creatures, we must place this ultimate Fall, which the argument contained in the first part of this lecture compels us to regard as an event in Time, at a point before the differentiation of life into its present multiplicity of forms and the emergence of separate species. We must summon to our aid the great conception first elaborated by the Stoics under the title of the ‘Logos Spermatikos’ or ‘seminal reason,’ and more recently reformulated, in the light of modern biological conceptions, by M. Bergson under the name of the elan vital, the Life-Force which is the immediate ground of our own being as of that of all the multitudinous creatures of the universe. If we can assume that there was a pre-cosmic vitiation of the whole Life-Force, when it was still one and simple, at a point of time* prior to its bifurcation and ramification into a manifold of distinct individuals or entelechies, we shall be in possession of a conception which should explain, so far as explanation is possible, the continuity and homogeneity of evil throughout all ranks of organised life, from the bacillus up to Man. This remote and mysterious event, and not the comparatively recent failure of primitive man to escape from already existing evil, would then be the true and ultimate ‘Fall.’ Such a view of the primeval catastrophe and its effects is vaster, more solemn and more awe-inspiring than that which regards the Fall merely as the affair of our species, and it proportionately increases the scope, the amplitude, and the magnificence of redemption. [523-524]
*[Footnote:] It may be asked at this point ‘Does such a transcendental Fall-doctrine necessitate the assumption of the ultimate reality of Time?’ The answer would seem to be in the negative. The doctrine of the Fall does, indeed, imply that the created universe is in Time; it may, indeed, be taken to involve the assumption that there is what may be called for human purposes an ‘absolute’ Time or duration, of which the times relative to different percipients or groups of percipients are imperfect and distorted copies. But such an ‘absolute Time’ would only be absolute within the realm of created being; it could have no reference to the eternal Essence of God, Who is the supreme and timeless Reality. The version of the doctrine of the Fall suggested above does not, therefore, involve the attribution of a higher degree of reality to Time than to the created world of which Time is a dimension; it ascribes no more than a phenomenal reality to either; and it is amply consistent with the Platonic and Augustinian position that the world was created, not in Time, but together with Time.