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The Analogy of Faith as a Mindset and Ethic

The analogy of faith, or the rule of faith or, to say the same thing, the gospel, is a hermeneutic or interpretive lens which unveils the meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures (among many other things). As Paul explains to the Corinthians, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (I Cor. 15:3-4). Apart from these events in the life of Christ, it would be hard to locate such things in the Scriptures, but given the reality of the life of Christ, the Scriptures became a means of understanding these events and these events unveil the meaning of Scripture. As John Behr writes, “Read in the light of what God has wrought in Christ, the Scriptures provided the terms and images, the context, within which the apostles made sense of what happened, and with which they explained it and preached it.”[1] In other words, the object is not simply to understand the historical setting of Scripture, or the intent of the author, but to understand Christ according to the Scriptures.

 Behr expertly lays out the interworking of the apostolic preaching, the rule of faith, and the role of Scripture, but his explanation falls short in explaining how, according to the New Testament and the early church fathers, this rule of faith is at once to be a personal mindset and an ethical orientation organizing, not just Scripture, but one’s life. That is, this rule is more than a proposition or rule in the ordinary sense, but is the means of seeing and measuring all things by the peace and love of Christ. The rule is linked with unity and peace, it is linked with apprehending rightly, and it is linked to making critical judgments, and all of these are linked with putting on the mind of Christ. Which is to say this rule of faith is taken up, cathected (as Freud describes the superego image) into the self as part of one’s character and one’s apprehension of the world.

The analogy of faith is partly understood as an alternative to the law. The law is a definitive measure but where the law could be compared to a tutor, leading a student to school, faith is not an objective rule outwardly coercing, but an inward perspective or critical faculty (Gal. 3:25). This is an obvious point that may be lost where doctrine or creeds or propositional language pushes out the personal, the ethical, or the sense in which faith is a living hypothesis and not a dead letter. There is nothing inherently wrong with doctrine or creeds or propositional language, but where the literal, the fleshly, or the law become primary, the letter displaces the Spirit. Letters, propositions, and doctrines are a necessity but not an end or goal but a means. Just as letters are held together by larger units of meaning, the Word (the Gospel, the apostolic tradition) constitutes the unity of meaning in light of which the world is apprehended.

Paul explains that the analogy of faith works in conjunction with preaching and teaching. He wanted every prophecy and every teaching to be conformed to the analogy or likeness of faith (Rom. 12:6). The application or extrapolation of the kerygma may be the specialty of the prophet, but Paul calls every Christian to “appraise all things” according to the mind of Christ. Putting on the mind of Christ means that the individual is enabled to make authoritative judgments, informed critiques, “so that we may know things freely given to us by God,” so that we combine “spiritual thoughts with spiritual words” and thus come to understand those things that “are spiritually appraised” (I Cor. 2:12-16). This spiritual individual has the wisdom provided by God, where the natural man, or literally “a man of animal soul,” is incapable of discerning things according to the Spirit. Jesus promised that the Spirit would guide into all truth (Jn. 16:13) and Paul seems to be applying this to the individuals in the Corinthian church.

For Paul it is not enough that the Corinthians have an authoritative apostle (himself), or that they have appointed bishops and shepherds, some of whom are apparently abusing their position through an extreme authoritarianism. The Corinthians are eager to submit to various authorities and are pitting one authority against another, with some saying “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos” (I Cor. 3:4). Some would pit their leader, their bishop, or their teacher, against that of others. Paul does not presume to grab a scepter and robe and set himself up as final authority, nor does he allow Apollos such a position. Nor does he say, “Look ye unto Peter, who sits upon the seat of Christ.” Rather, he says, “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth” (I Cor. 3:5–7). God is the one who causes growth, and this growth is not simply corporate or institutional but is personal and individual and very much interconnected with applying the analogy of faith. This analogy or rule is the primary authority Paul is concerned to establish.

Obviously, Paul exercises authority (just in the fact that he is writing a letter) but his is not a coercive authoritarianism, but is one that pleads, persuades, argues, and even in his estimate – uses hyperbole, exaggeration, and bragging (2 Cor. 11:16-12:13). In his challenge of Peter in Antioch, in his acknowledged offering of opinions, and in the very mode of his persuasive letter writing, Paul is demonstrating the very mind-set of Christ that he would instill in the Christians under his care. He would call out Peter, he would challenge the apostolic council in regard to Gentiles, but he feels this confidence not simply because he too is an apostle, but because he is calling the apostles themselves to follow the standard or rule of faith which governs them all. They are all subject to the rule of faith, such that the apostles themselves must not veer from the apostolic tradition in which their authority consists.

In dealing with those who are challenging his teaching and authority in Corinth, Paul explains that they are using the wrong measurement: “they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves,” thus “they are without understanding” (II Cor. 10:12). But where they measure by human, self-established measure (measuring themselves by themselves) Paul “measures by the measure which God has given me.” As he explains to the Ephesians this is “the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). This is the measure that, rather than stirring up human antagonism, is the means by which “we all attain to the unity of the faith.” “As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ” (Eph. 4:14-15). This measure and authority is one that each is to take up.

Paul’s main concern is not that the Corinthians obey him, or that they revere his letters; his main concern is that they put on the mind of Christ and become spiritual minded in their thinking. The Corinthians and all Christians are to judge by the measure of faith. This measure breaks down the inherent hostility contained in human measure or in the measure of the law. The law requires a wall of hostility as part of its function. It is inherently divisive but Christ as measure is peace: “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances” (Eph. 2:14-15).

The turn from the rule of faith, which is Christ, to ordinances, creeds, doctrines, etc. has not only produced unending division in the church but has given rise to violence, in which Christians participate in bloodshed against one another and against the enemies declared outside the bounds of Christian love.

Paul had predicted as much to the Galatians, explaining that those who insist on the law “bite and devour one another” as they are judging according to the flesh (Ga. 5:15). “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law” (Ga 5:18). The singular principal Paul invokes is neighbor love, “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF’” (Ga. 5:14). This is a measure to be lived out, and by its very nature it disrupts what Paul sees as the desire undergirding the law: becoming “boastful, challenging one another, envying one another” (Ga. 5:26) and ultimately “biting and devouring one another.” In contrast, the rule of faith is a means to peace and unity, and by definition is a promotion of the love and peace of Christ. He himself is our Peace as the measure by which we attain to the unity of the faith.

We have two measures or two rules to choose from: the human measure and the measure of Christ. The human measure, the law, or the law of sin and death, is inherently a violent measure and the measure of Christ is inherently peaceful. It is in the life of Christ that we see these two measures set against one another. By the rule of man Christ dies, so that human measure ends in deicide. The force that killed Christ, namely the law or the measure of man, is countered by Christ and Christian witnesses (martyrs). That is, the peace of Christ embodied in nonviolent love and nonviolent resistance, is the counter to the human rule and is the goal and means of the rule of faith. The earliest accounts of the rule of faith outside of the New Testament link the rule of faith to this peaceful nonviolence.

The Didache (written in the first century A. D.), provides instructions for the Christian life, which in the first part is entitled “Two Ways, the Way of Life and the Way of Death.” It may have served as basic instruction to catechumens or those studying to be baptized, and it is focused on the doctrine of love and Jesus’ ethical teaching. The way of life is characterized by loving God, loving one’s neighbor, and loving one’s enemies by following Jesus’ ethic of nonviolence. The text (as do most all of the early explanations of the rule of faith) references Matthew 5:39-44 (containing Jesus’ commands of nonviolent resistance, or radical subordination) and sets forth a “way of life,” which sums up the point of part one. In other words, the Didache provides a measurement for Christian living that is founded upon Jesus’ own teaching.

Justin Martyr (100-165) in his First Apology also speaks of the rule of faith. Writing to emperor Antonius Pius, he describes Christian nonviolence as offering no threat to Rome, as Christians serve a heavenly kingdom: “For if we looked for a human kingdom, we should also deny our Christ, that we might not be slain; and we should strive to escape detection, that we might obtain what we expect. But since our thoughts are not fixed on the present, we are not concerned when men cut us off; since also death is a debt which must at all events be paid.”[2] He describes the kingdom established among Christians as bringing to pass the prophecy of Isaiah 2:3: “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” As a result, “we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.”[3] He points to “the case of many who once were of your way of thinking, but have changed their violent and tyrannical disposition, being overcome either by the constancy which they have witnessed in their neighbors’ lives, or by the extraordinary forbearance they have observed in their fellow-travelers (Christians) when defrauded, or by the honesty of those with whom they have transacted business.”[4] These proofs he puts forward are people, Christians whose lives are governed by a rule of enemy-love and non-violence. The rule is not simply an objective rule, but the means to grow in love and peace.

Tertullian (160-220) likewise, addressing “rulers of the Roman Empire,” explains that Christians are persecuted unjustly because they love their enemies and are forbidden to retaliate. “If we are enjoined, then, to love our enemies, as I have remarked above, whom have we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate, lest we become as bad ourselves: who can suffer injury at our hands?” He asks, “banded together as we are, ever so ready to sacrifice our lives, what single case of revenge for injury are you able to point to.”[5] This nonviolent form of life, in which Christians are charged to love their enemies, Tertullian explains, “is the rule of truth which comes down from Christ by transmission through his companions” (the apostles).[6] Christians have exchanged the law of retribution for the law of truth and nonviolence, and as a result Rome gains more than it has lost.

In Ignatius of Antioch’s (died 108) letter to Polycarp, Ignatius explains how the law of nonviolence replaces the weapons of war with those of peace: “Let your baptism endure as your arms; your faith as your helmet; your love as your spear; your patience as a complete panoply.”[7] Human law calls for violent preparation through weapons of war, but the law of peace taught by Christ exchanges military equipment with the equipment of love, patience and faith.

The analogy of faith is not simply a measurement or rule aimed at sorting out propositions, setting up creeds, and establishing doctrine. The rule of faith is an ethic and a characteristic way of thinking which is to govern the life of the mind and body of the Christian.


[1] John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology: The Way to Nicaea, Vol. 1, (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 27-28.

[2] Justin Martyr, Apologia I, 11.

[3] Ibid., 39.

[4] Ibid., 16.

[5] Tertullian, Apology 37.

[6] Ibid., 47.

[7] Ignatius, To Polycarp 6.2.

The Peaceful Hermeneutic of Origen: The End of Deicide

In the ninth century, the Buddhist sage Linji Yixuan told a monk, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Locating the quote in the Zen tradition and its complete detachment from the historical Buddha may be pertinent, in that an embodied Buddha goes against the tenets of the religion. Modern Western Buddhists give a benign reading to the quote such as, don’t assume you have the answers or always be willing to question your assumptions. Maybe the point is not to settle on any sure propositions especially as they might be attached to an actual fleshly historical figure. Maximus the Confessor notes that the best of human thought, which he located in the Greek philosophical tradition, ends in deicide. The murder of the Messiah is the end result of all sorts of forces, but what Maximus has in mind is what the earliest church fathers noticed, even given the Bible, given Jesus, given Christian history, given the church, without the gospel as starting premise the human tendency is to obliterate faith in a God who has come in the flesh. The most destructive elements to the early Church were not those who were seeking to literally kill and destroy Christians but those who became Christians.

Origen, who writes the first text on how to read the Bible, is faced with three kinds of false teaching: the simple (who believe God is corporeal), the Marcionites (who believe in two Gods – the Old Testament Jewish God and the Father of Christ) and the Jews, and all of them are eagerly reading the Bible with a literal hermeneutic, counter to the reality of the incarnation. Origen’s task in On First Principles is nothing short of setting forth an alternative or new understanding of God, humans, and the world, in the principle or rule which will guide Bible reading. Only in the incarnation will the seeming dualisms and contradictions in the world, in Scripture, and in humanity find a unifying principle. He insists, according to M. F. Wiles, on “the absolute unity of the message of Scripture from beginning to end.”[1] As Barbara Bruce puts it, “The one God was revealed in both Testaments, and a peacemaker was the person who could demonstrate the concord and peace of the Old Testament with the New.”[2]

Origen’s peaceful hermeneutic strategy is most clear in his reading of Joshua. Israel (of the flesh) is typical of those with a literal hermeneutic and a literal view of the world in that reading a book like Joshua she “understood nothing in them except wars and the shedding of blood,” and as a result was “incited to excessive savageries” and was “always fed by wars and strife.” Here Origen spells out his hermeneutic strategy, which applies to his overall reading of Scripture: “But after the presence of my Lord Jesus Christ poured the peaceful light of knowledge into human hearts, since, according to the Apostle, he himself is ‘our peace,’ he teaches us peace from this very reading of wars. For peace is returned to the soul if its own enemies—sins and vices—are expelled from it.” Reading “according to the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ” serves to equip for battle, not according to the flesh, but against the spiritual enemies that “proceed from our heart” namely, “evil thoughts, thefts, false testimony, slanders,” and other enemies of “our soul.” [3] Origen is describing the powers that rule the world and the human heart and the means of defeating them, namely through a proper hermeneutic. He describes this spiritual reading as enabling the life-giving breath of the Spirit to be imparted to us.

This peaceable new life is built on his notion that the incarnation demands a new understanding of reality, and this serves the new hermeneutic. Scripture as an extension of incarnation constitutes Bible reading as the most essential sacrament.[4] “As the people listened to Scripture, letting the words penetrate their minds, they were partaking of the body of Christ. Even as they were careful during the Eucharist celebration not to let one particle of bread drop to the ground, so also must they reverently attend to the Word.”[5]

Origen is forced by the heretical circumstance to drop his own biblical exposition so as to undertake the first manual on biblical hermeneutics, and the place he begins pertains to the broadest assumptions about God and the world revealed in the Trinity and incarnation. His first principles are not first because they are easy but because apart from these principles the Christian religion is being completely misconstrued.

Origen’s peaceable hermeneutic is not only aimed at harmonizing antagonisms in conceptions of God and scripture, as his larger concern is to create disciples who will prove to be true witnesses (martyrs to peace over and against the violence that would kill them). Just as he sees Bible reading in light of the broadest of perspectives, he also understands that only those who are grounded in the truth will prove true in death. He wants to create those who can endure the violence of persecution without themselves giving in to violence. There is no Word apart from the historical incarnation and apart from those who would continue the incarnation, specifically through martyrdom.

Origen’s father had been martyred and only his mother’s hiding his clothes prevented young Origen from joining his father. As Eusebius tells the story:

When Severus began to persecute the churches, glorious testimonies were given everywhere by the athletes of religion. This was especially the case in Alexandria, to which city, as to a most prominent theater, athletes of God were brought from Egypt and all Thebais according to their merit, and won crowns from God through their great patience under many tortures and every mode of death. Among these was Leonides, who was called the father of Origen, and who was beheaded while his son was still young.[6]

Torture and death called for preparation on the order of an athlete preparing to win a contest. Eusebius tells of Origen writing “to his father an encouraging letter on martyrdom, in which he exhorted him, saying, ‘Take heed not to change your mind on our account.’” [7] This letter is the earliest record of his vast writing project which would only come to an end with his own torture and death.

From the age of 18, when Origen was selected to train catechumens, he understood his task was to prepare his charges for martyrdom. Eusebius gives the account of seven of Origen’s students, who in quick succession, were tortured and martyred. One of his outstanding student martyrs was Potamiæna, who had burning pitch poured over “various part of her body, from the sole of her feet to the crown of her head.” Not long after the officer overseeing her death, moved by her manner of death, converted and was also martyred.

As Eusebius describes Origen’s end, he suffered “bonds and bodily tortures and torments under the iron collar and in the dungeon; and how for many days with his feet stretched four spaces in the stocks he bore patiently the threats of fire and whatever other things were inflicted by his enemies.” The goal was not to kill him immediately but to make him suffer, but not long after, he died as a result of the tortures. As Eusebius records, “what words he left after these things, full of comfort to those needing aid, a great many of his epistles show with truth and accuracy.”[8] In other words, his is the writing of a martyr for martyrs, in order to prepare for and live out a life of defeating death, and his life proved true in death.

The pattern Christians are emulating, reenacting, or repeating is that of Christ, tortured and crucified, but defeating those who killed him both in the manner of his death and in his defeat of death. The martyr faces the principalities and powers in a hermeneutical contest in which two realms of truth or two powers are pitted in a life and death struggle in which life and death are the two powers, the two principles, or the two forms of thought. The state proves its power and truth in displaying the crucified, broken, naked, terrorized, body of Christ and his followers. The human body marks the site in which the social body, the political body, or the religious body, impresses its truth. Torture and death are a means of establishing a regime of truth and this is why the martyr is the witness to a counter truth.

As Paul Kolbert writes, torture poses a potential hermeneutical crisis that does not differ much “from the hermeneutical challenges of everyday life.”[9] In Origen’s description, the common passions of life, avarice for example, can breed an exponential desire for money such that one begins to acquire money through force and shedding human blood. This everyday “hermeneutical failure” demonstrates how an inward greed can become an outward violence such that a natural desire becomes “full blown demonic theater.”[10]

In the exegetical strategy of the state, the tortured, maimed, and killed are a sign (a letter) of the final power, the sovereign power of Rome in this case, which proves its final and all-powerful word in the flesh of its victims. The tortured are non-persons, non-citizens, so many lice (in Nazi hermeneutics) who, in their humiliation and otherness, mark the personhood and power of those who exercise power over them. The cross, or the instrument of torture, is the clearest demarcation of two regimes of truth (those who crucify and those crucified).

Origen explains to Ambrose, preparing for his martyrdom, that he must first undergo an inner martyrdom so that when it came to being tortured, he would not defile himself with any untoward word or thought toward his torturers and should in no way be diverted from devotion to God. He must willingly and without anger confess his faith so as to bring the rage of his torturer into contrast with his own tranquility. But to do this he must first ground himself in the Word.[11]

There are two systems on each side of the cross, and Origen understood his task as one of filling out the alternative to violence by bodying forth or enfleshing the alternative in the manner of Christ. As Kolbert puts it, “Origen’s intensely Christian and intellectual response to state-sponsored terror resists the Roman state’s efforts to impose its own violent discipline on bodies through a voluntary, nonviolent discipline, a counter-asceticism that not only opposes the Empire’s interpretation of the world, but also embodies an alternative to it.”[12]

Just as the literalist disfigures the body of the biblical text, in the same mode the torturer would disfigure the flesh in service of violence. What arises in the body of Christ is an alternative meaning attached to bodies and to the letter: an opening to the Spirit. As Origen describes it, reading the Bible rightly, according to the flesh, soul, and spirit includes a right understanding of God, a right understanding of the world, and only with this understanding can one endure torture. Reading by the Spirit, or a figural reading “is a means of freeing knowledge from its cultural captivity to power.” Reading Scripture rightly, is a “spiritual exercise through which readers cultivate a nonviolent hermeneutic, one that embraces the broader signification of material figures (both in Scripture and in the rest of the human world) rather than violently disfiguring them.”[13]

 According to Origen, Christ in his silence “under the scourge and many other outrages” manifested “a courage and patience superior to that of any of the Greeks who spoke while enduring torture.” When Jesus “was being mocked and was clothed in a purple robe, and the crown of thorns was put on his head, and when he took the reed in his hand for a scepter, he showed the highest meekness. For he said nothing either ignoble or angry to those who ventured to do such terrible things to him.”[14] Origen’s comparison pictures a test of two world systems, and Christ’s nonviolent response is the sign of an alternative, peaceful, understanding to be embodied in the church and its hermeneutic.

(To register for our next class with PBI, “Reading the Bible in Community” starting the week of September 26th and running through November 18th register at https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] M. F. Wiles, “Origen as a Biblical Scholar,” The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 1, ed. P. R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans (Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 454–89. Quoted in Origen, Homilies on Joshua, trans. and intro Barbara J. Bruce (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002) 7.

[2] Bruce, Ibid.

[3] Origen, Homilies on Joshua, 14.1.

[4] Henri Crouzel, “Origen and Origenism,” The New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 10 (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967), p. 771. Quoted in Bruce, 6.

[5] Bruce, Ibid.

[6] Eusebius, Church History,  6.1–2

[7] Ibid, 6.2.

[8] Ibid, 6.39.

[9] Paul R. Kolbet, “Torture and Origen’s Hermeneutics of Nonviolence” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, September 2008, Vol. 76, No. 3, p. 552.

[10] Kolbert, 554.

[11] Origen, Exhortatio ad martyrium (Koetschau et al. [1899–1955]: 2.3–47); trans. Greer (1979: 41–79). Quoted from Kolbet, 554.

[12] Kolbert, 552.

[13] Kolbert, 562

[14] Origen, Against Celsus, 7.55.

The Gospel Constituting Scripture: The Hermeneutic of the Rule of Faith

The presumption of Restoration Movement churches, of which I am a lifetime member, is that the Bible alone is sufficient for all matters of faith and practice. The approach is tightly inductive, presuming that where the Bible speaks, we speak and where the Bible is silent, we are silent. The eschewing of tradition is sometimes taken to extremes, with little exposure in the typical seminary education to patristics or early church theology and exegetical practice. There is a suspicion of theology, such that in my undergraduate education there was no course in theology. One must use caution extrapolating from the ideas found in one text to another. Employing the tools of historical criticism, each text must be studied objectively. To understand any particular verse or text requires exhaustive study of the background, the historical setting, and getting at the intent of the author. Given that the truth is in the history (it is the “historical critical” method) and that it is the world behind the text that must be delineated, there is really no end to the study. After the grammatical implications, the etymology of particular words, and the immediate context of the verse is taken into account, one can then move on to another verse. But this raises the problem of harmonizing the historical details (e.g., between the Gospels or between the epistles), to say nothing of the ideas found therein.

One might begin to suspect the unity of the Bible or the efficacy of Bible reading. The text does not seem trustworthy at multiple levels and certainly seems to fall short of being divine, as some of the church fathers would have it. The fact that a modern foundation of truth, outside of the Bible and outside of Christ, is displacing the foundation of Christ, may or may not occur to the interpreter. Friedrich Schleiermacher was pretty well aware he was no longer working under the same definition of truth set forth in the Bible, but most modern interpreters are not so bold. In the Restoration Movement, the foundation was mostly changed without anyone noticing. It was a product of 19th century Lockean rationalism and the naivete attached to modernism in general. Both conservatives and liberals lost the biblical foundation before it occurred to them to fight over it. What may be characterized as a naïve Biblicism (or even naïve anti-Biblicism) needs to be targeted, but there may also be the presumption that the alternative is an either/or solution between tradition and scripture or between theology and scripture.

There is a “rule of faith” that recognizes the preeminence of the gospel of Christ in the formation of scripture and in biblical interpretation, but this does not reduce to an easy either/or as to what weight is to be given to tradition, scripture, or theology. What it does indicate is that faith or even the formation of theology is as important to how the Bible is interpreted as anything to be found in the interpretive method itself. That is, the evangelical notion that the Bible and correct Bible reading provide the cure to every disagreement and heresy, is not only missing the primacy of faith (or in terms of the early church, the primacy of the gospel), but the necessary givenness of theory and worldview. There is no blank slate or pure induction, and this is not only the rediscovery of postmodernism but the starting premise of Christianity (e.g., Heb. 11:1).

The rule of faith (regula fidei) is not only a basic premise for reading scripture but is the situation in which scripture is constituted. Scripture is an interpretation of the person of Christ (in both Testaments), and this is the substance of its unity and the point of departure. Scripture is a confession of faith in the crucified and risen Christ, but this faith first arises in the Apostles and is being preached before it is written. Irenaeus explains (see below) that if the apostles had left no writings that the churches they founded were a deposit of this faith, but even here ascertaining (in the second century) and understanding this gospel was on the basis of the rule of faith.

On the other hand, it is not that this rule floated free of scripture, as Irenaeus appeals to scripture in setting forth the rule of faith. He writes, “We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.”[1]

Irenaeus is not distinguishing scripture and tradition, as both derive from the Apostles. Entailed in the reception of the gospel is the faith that what is apostolic is authoritative because it derives from Jesus and Jesus is God’s divine messenger. As John Behr writes, “So, for Irenaeus, both the true apostolic tradition maintained by the churches, and the apostolic writings themselves, derive from the same apostles, and have one and the same content, the Gospel, which is itself . . . “according to the Scriptures.”[2] Or as G. Florovsky put it, “Tradition” for the early church is “Scripture rightly understood.”[3] In the same breath Irenaeus is appealing to tradition he also says, “the demonstrations [of things contained] in the Scriptures cannot be demonstrated except from the Scriptures themselves.”[4] Or as Behr sums it up:

Irenaeus’ appeal to tradition is thus fundamentally different to that of his opponents. While they appealed to tradition precisely for that which was not in Scripture, or for principles which would legitimize their interpretation of Scripture, Irenaeus, in his appeal to tradition, was not appealing to anything else that was not also in Scripture. Thus Irenaeus can appeal to tradition, to establish his case, and at the same time maintain that Scripture cannot be understood except on the basis of Scripture itself, using its own hypothesis and canon.[5]

Irenaeus suggests that it is not writing per se that constitutes the gospel, as the illiterate “barbarians” who receive this gospel may have it written on their hearts though they cannot understand the words written with ink and paper. He is describing an encounter with the risen Christ, in the gospel, that is faith. This is the faith received at baptism but as he goes on to explain, this faith has a very particular form and content:

…this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the earth and the seas and all the things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who made known through the prophets the plan of salvation, and the coming, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his future appearing from heaven in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and to raise anew all flesh of the whole human race.[6]

This rule of faith includes loving recognition of Christ who reveals the fulness of the Trinity. There is no distinction here between economic and immanent Trinity, no notion of distinction between Jesus and the Logos and no separation of the humanity and deity of Christ. The incarnation and the Trinity are not separate subjects. The rule of faith begins with the incarnation as access to God as Trinity. As Irenaeus defines (elsewhere) “the order of the rule of our faith” is:

God, the Father, not made, not material, invisible; one God, the creator of all things: this is the first point of our faith. The second point is: The Word of God, Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was manifested to the prophets according to the form of their prophesying and according to the method of the dispensation of the Father through whom all things were made; who also at the end of the times, to complete and gather up all things, was made man among men, visible and tangible, in order to abolish death and show forth life and produce a community of union between God and man. And the third point is: The Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied, and the fathers learned the things of God, and the righteous were led forth into the way of righteousness; and who in the end of the times was poured out in a new way upon mankind in all the earth, renewing man unto God.[7]

The rule of faith, which will be implicitly challenged and set aside, is inclusive of a specific understanding of God as creator, of Christ as unveiling and constituting the inspiration of scripture and delivering from death, and of the Holy Spirit who is being poured out making people righteous and forming a new unified people. One encounters God the Father, God the Son (as Word, Son of God, Jesus Christ), and God the Holy Spirit in the gospel message, and this unity is the rule of faith.

According to Behr, this will begin to change in the Middle Ages. Rather than beginning with the incarnation to say who God is, the incarnation began to be treated separately from the doctrine of the Trinity. The speculative possibility of treating the One God separate from the triune God and the Trinity separately from the incarnation is opened up.[8] In other words, at some point there is a loss of the rule of faith, and while this loss is marked most clearly by the condemnation of heretics, what is condemned are the conclusions reached rather than the starting point by which they were reached in both biblical interpretation and the very definition of faith.

It may be in the theology of Origen that this fulness of the rule of faith is most clearly worked out, but he is building upon what he has received. What is clear in Origen, partly due to its strangeness and contrast to later development, is his presumption that it is Christ alone that reveals the inspiration of the Hebrew scriptures: “For before the fulfilment of those events which were predicted by them, they could not, although true and inspired by God, be shown to be so, because they were as yet unfulfilled. But the coming of Christ was a declaration that their statements were true and divinely inspired.”[9] Irenaeus makes the same point: “If anyone, therefore, reads the Scriptures with attention, he will find in them an account of Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling.” Christ is the treasure hid in the field who brings alive the meaning of Scripture through “types and parables.”[10] Apart from Christ the reader only finds myth, “for the truth that it contains is only brought to light by the cross of Christ, and only reading it in this way do we find our way into the Wisdom of God and ourselves come to shine with his light as did Moses.”[11]

As J. Louis Martyn writes: “the fundamental arrow in the link joining scripture and gospel points from the gospel story to the scripture and not from scripture to the gospel story. In a word, with Jesus’ glorification, belief in scripture comes into being by acquiring an indelible link to Jesus’ word and deeds.”[12] Origen’s point is this reading of scripture is tied directly to “the rule of the heavenly Church of Jesus Christ [handed down] through succession from the apostles.”[13]

The rule of faith comes with a hermeneutic that is at once the gospel of Christ, Trinitarian, apocalyptic, and “spiritual” (if not in the details of Origen’s method at least implying apprehension of Christ and response in the reader). Apart from the rule of faith and its doctrinal implications (the point of On First Principles), the reader of scripture may be left with the letter, the text, the history, but will have missed the encounter with the gospel of Christ. With the spelling out and application of the doctrinal implications of the rule of faith the scriptures are opened, where otherwise they remain closed.[14]

(To register for our next class with PBI, “Reading the Bible in Community” starting the week of September 26th and running through November 18th register at https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] Against Heresies, 3.1.1

[2] John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology: The Way to Nicaea, Vol. 1, (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001) 45.

[3] Behr Citing G. Florovsky, “The Function of Tradition in the Early Church,” GOTR 9, no. 2 (1963): 182; repr. in Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition (Vaduz, Liechtenstein: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987), 75, Behr Ibid.

[4] Against Heresies, 3.12.9.

[5] Behr, Ibid.

[6] Against Heresies 1.10

[7] Irenaeus, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 6

[8] John Behr, John the Theologian and His Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 17

[9] Origen, On First Principles 4.1.6.

[10] Against Heresies, 4.26.1.

[11] Origin, On First Principles Vol. 1, translated and with Introduction by John Behr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017) L.

[12] J. Louis Martyn, ‘John and Paul on the Subject of Gospel and Scripture’, in idem. Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul, Studies of the New Testament and its World (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1997), 209-30. Quoted in Behr’s Introduction to On First Principles, Ibid.

[13] Principle 4.2.2.

[14] As Herbert McCabe has written, “Watching, so to say the story of Jesus, we are watching the processions of the Trinity. That the mission in time of Son and Spirit reflect the eternal relation”. . . and more than that “they are not just reflection but sacrament – they contain the reality they signify.” In Jesus Christ we encounter the reality of God because this is who God is. The missions of the Son and the Spirit are not one episode in the story of God, this is the reality of God unfolding in the story of the Gospel. The “mission of Jesus is nothing other than the eternal generation of the Son.” Herbert McCabe, “The Involvement of God,” New Blackfriars, (November 1985) 473. Available online at https://www.scribd.com/document/327357740/The-Involvement-of-God

“You Are Gods”: The Satanic Version

The point of Jesus’ statement, “You are gods” (John 10:34) might be summed up as theosis or being found “in Christ” or being filled with the Holy Spirit. That is, the explanation is inclusive of the New Testament doctrine of salvation. Christians, as Peter says, are “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) and so participate and are in union with God. The yeast that is integrated and assimilated into the whole batch of dough is divine. The union between a husband and wife marks the mystery of human and divine union (Eph. 5). As Irenaeus puts it, “For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God.”[1]  Or as Athanasius succinctly put it, “He became man that we might become god.”[2] This may sound demonic, or at least Jesus’ contemporaries thought so: “Many of them were saying, He has a demon and is insane. Why do you listen to Him?’” (Jn. 10:20). Isn’t this demon talk or a near reduplication of the serpent’s temptation in Genesis? 

The opposite of biblical deification, at least in the church fathers, is not what moderns might imagine post-Nietzsche, when we hear, “You are gods.” That is, we might think the satanic version is simply to say the same thing again, perhaps in a slightly different register (and without all the qualifications that have been made in order to help Jesus express himself better). The statement may conjure up images of Nietzsche’s superman, or of a completely autonomous individual – the captain of his own soul, churning out values and determining his world. We may imagine a kind of irreligion or atheism which gains freedom and power in throwing off all belief.

Even in the negative assessment of the statement we may be missing the original sense, as in, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” The supposed statement of Dostoevsky (it is actually Sartre misquoting The Brothers Karamazov) attributes a potency, hedonistic though it may be, to disbelief. Whether in its positive atheistic Nietzschean guise (“wiping the horizon clean,” etc.) or in its negative conservative ideological form (presuming religion and transcendental authority are necessary to set limits to human evil), there is a presumed freedom, either liberating or dangerous. In being god and displacing God, in this misunderstood demonization, there is a presumed empowerment that is fundamentally mistaken, and the error is exposed at multiple levels.

As Jacques Lacan put it, reversing Dostoevsky’s formula: “If God is dead nothing is permitted.” On its surface this may ring hollow, but the evidence Lacan is observing in the clinic is universally available. People are sick, twisted, and mentally ill. They kill themselves at almost the same rate they kill one another. People live under deadly constraints so that death is often the only option. Violence is not a choice but a necessity: there is random violence, national violence, religious violence, political violence, familial violence, or entertaining violence, but violence is the necessity that orders people’s lives. It may not be an overt physical violence, but simply a description of the life of the individual. Intrusive thoughts reduce many to marionettes controlled by their sick conscience which takes obscene delight in not allowing a moment’s rest. Of course, the conscience torturing them is their conscience – and any pleasure had in the sickness involves the ongoing suffering of the individual inflicting the pain. The more pain, the more divine satisfaction, so that one is continually working toward satisfying the god/voice in the head.

The source of this voice may be communal or individual, religious or irreligious; it matters not. The hedonistic command to enjoy is as deadly as the puritanical command to abstain from enjoyment. The command to sacrifice may come from the gods or it may come from the neighbor’s dog. The sacrifice may be the sacrifice of the first born, the sacrifice of a virgin, the sacrifice of the soldier, or the pedophile’s child sacrifice. People are sick, but they are not sickened by freedom but by enslavement. The gods they serve, personal or corporate, hedonistic or puritanical, demand constant vigilance, constant sacrifice, and human life is mostly spent in futile servitude to what is nonexistent.

Though Nietzsche railed against the slave religion of Christianity, he too succumbed to mental enslavement and ended his life a drooling idiot. The fact that his mental break came at the sight of a man beating a horse, indicates it was not freedom but human cruelty and evil – and perhaps the cruelty he inflicted upon himself – which he could not endure. The Übermensch turns out to be a pitiful wreck, and we live in the wake of this presumed freedom which induced an even heavier dose of enslavement. But the issue was never religion versus irreligion, or atheism versus theism.

In fact, one way of characterizing Jesus’ statement and the faith of the New Testament is as a form of irreligion (only a slight misnomer). The Romans presumed Christians were atheists, because they refused worship of the Roman gods. Judaism and Christianity are both characterized by their rejection of any form of idolatry (the only form of religion for much of the world). But Jesus statement gets at the fact that idolatry per se is not the root of the human problem (isn’t he guilty, one might ask, of the very idolatry Judaism condemns?). The Jews accuse Jesus of the worst form of irreligious blasphemy in claiming equality with God. Saul persecuted Christians for the same reason his Pharisee brothers accused Jesus of blasphemy.

Humans are enslaved, but what they are enslaved by is a deadly orientation, lust, or drive, which might take an infinite variety of forms. Paul characterizes it as an orientation to the law, in which the Jewish law is only a particular instance of the universal problem. His point to the Judaizers in Galatia is that a return to Judaism is the equivalent of a return to idolatry. The weight of the law might be felt in the inclusion/exclusion of the Jewish law, but this wall of hostility is not peculiar to Jews. It is not simply a “Jewish problem” or a “religious problem” but is the universal problem of suffering under the hostile condemnation of law.  

To imagine God is doing the condemning, in the case of Jesus (and otherwise), is to miss the obvious fact that the world powers of Jerusalem and Rome are doing the torturing and killing of Christ. The killing of Jesus – revolving around his claim to deity – marks the source of the problem and the victim. The necessity to kill Jesus arises due to their respective gods. In Roman religion and Jewish religion, God incarnate must be killed to preserve the religion.

Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor arrives at the same conclusion when Jesus happens to show up at the inquisition in Spain. After healing the sick and raising the dead, the Inquisitor has Jesus arrested and that evening enters his cell, so as to explain why the Church must burn him at the stake. Where Jesus had resisted the temptations in the wilderness, it is precisely those temptations which the Roman Church has utilized to steal human freedom. The Church will offer bread in exchange for worship: “give man bread and he will bow down to you, for there is nothing more indisputable than bread. But if at the same time someone else takes over his conscience – oh, then he will even throw down your bread and follow him who has seduced his conscience.” While freedom of conscience may be the lure, “there is nothing more tormenting” than this freedom. The Inquisitor explains to Jesus that his prime mistake was to imagine there were others like him, able to bear the weight of deity. In refusing the miracle of leaping off the Temple, you wrongly presumed “there are many like you” but “you did not know that as soon as man rejects miracles, he will at once reject God as well, for man seeks not so much God as miracles.” The Inquisitor explains that Jesus has expected too much of people, and luckily the Church has stepped in where Jesus failed. But now that Jesus has shown up, he must be silenced lest he presume to speak and interfere with the established religion of the Church. Everything has been handed over to the Church and now belongs to the pope, and “you may as well not come at all now, or at least don’t interfere with us for the time being.” [3]

The weight of freedom is too much so that enslavement to religion, to gods, or to human hierarchy, is the price most are willing to pay, faced with the responsibility Jesus places upon them. Better the self-binding enslavement of the common human condition; the condemnation Paul describes in Romans 7 and which the New Testament characterizes as both Jewish and pagan, which pertains to a human problem not a God problem.  

To call it a legal problem, with Luther and Calvin, or to simply say it is a problem internal to the law, misses the point. The problem of the law is not a problem contained in the law but in people; in those who imagine life, identity, salvation, and being are in the law. But this law may consist of corporate or individual dictates. It may be a corporate law, as in the Kara tribe in which all babies whose top teeth come in before their bottom teeth must be killed, or it may be an individual compulsion to be tortured or to torture kill, rape or maim. It may be another that is destroyed, or it may be that the fervor or compulsion is directed at the self. What law is not the primary concern and abolishing the law is not the primary concern, but suspending the punishing effects of a particular orientation to the law is the point of the gospel.

But at this point the Lacanian and Dostoyevskian dictates may fold into one another. Nothing is permitted and everything is permitted may simply be two sides of the same coin. The law, individual or corporate, from God or from the individual, touches upon a drive which knows no limits and yet must be served unto death. To call this a religious or atheistic problem in our present circumstance is to miss the point that religionists and hedonists may serve the same god. Or should we imagine that Catholic and evangelical pedophiles and sex perverts, saved as they are, consist of a higher quality pervert than those dirty hedonists?

The difference may be that the religious perverts, unlike the Harvey Weinsteins of pagan Hollywood, have the corporate protection of the church to keep their proclivities from coming to light. Who is more enslaved and degenerate, the lone individual driven to sexual violence under the obscene command to enjoy, or an institution that produces and protects such an individual? Nothing is permitted on one side of the coin, but underneath all things are permitted, but both arise from the same destructive obscenity. As Slavoj Žižek has put it in regard to the Roman Church, “You must not have sexual pleasure, but you may enjoy all the little boys you desire.” Or as mega pastor Ted Haggard put it to Larry King, though he had heatedly preached against homosexuality and was then caught in a homosexual affair, “You know Larry . . . Jesus says ‘I came for the unrighteous, not for the righteous . . .’ So as soon as I became worldwide unrighteous, I knew Jesus had come for me.” Nothing is permitted and thus everything is permitted, but the same oppressive force reigns on both sides of the coin.

All of this to say, the satanic version of “you are gods” is to blind one to the source of life available in God and Christ, and the inherent moral responsibility this entails. The satanic lure is bent on selling a mediating knowledge in place of knowing God directly. Partaking of the knowledge of good and evil results in hiding, shame and fear, with idolatrous religion emerging only many centuries later. The turn from God cannot be described as empowerment (even of the evil kind). It is not the attainment of agency and freedom, but the turn to murder, mayhem and uncontrollable lust. But religion or irreligion may consist of the same punishing gods, and the point of “you are gods” is to not only name the idol, but the deep grammar from which it arises. In the context in which Athanasius and Irenaeus explain divinization this is their point. 

In leading up to his succinct statement (“He became man that man might become god”) Athanasius notes, “The barbarians of the present day are naturally savage in their habits, and as long as they sacrifice to their idols they rage furiously against each other and cannot bear to be a single hour without weapons.”[4] He describes a fearful and enslaved people who are subject to gods of their own making, but these are not deities that empower but which enslave to warfare and violence. The turn to Christ and deification is aimed at relieving humankind of its impotency in the face of the demonic gods they have manufactured. “But when they hear the teaching of Christ, forthwith they turn from fighting to farming, and instead of arming themselves with swords extend their hands in prayer. In a word, instead of fighting each other, they take up arms against the devil and the demons, and overcome them by their self-command and integrity of soul.” They gain self-command by putting off their worship of idols and, in that wonderful turn of phrase, “they turn from fighting to farming.”[5] In realizing they are made for divinity they turn from demonic warfare to the creation care of the original dominion mandate.

Irenaeus, in his explanation of divinization and “you are gods,” points to the same impotency and enslavement. Those who miss the deity of Christ and assert, “He was simply a mere man” remain “in the bondage of the old disobedience” and “are in a state of death having been not as yet joined to the Word of God the Father, nor receiving liberty through the Son, as He does Himself declare: If the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed” (Jn. 8:36). If they do not receive “the incorruptible Word, they remain in mortal flesh, and are debtors to death, not obtaining the antidote of life.” Irenaeus references both John 10 and Psalm 82, and explains that it is those “who despise the incarnation of the pure generation of the Word of God” who thus “defraud human nature of promotion into God.”[6] By refusing the Word of God and participation in deity they remain in the sickness unto death, and this constitutes subjection to the one who wields the power of death.

(To register for our next class “Reading the Bible in Community” starting the week of September 26th and running through November 18th register at https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.19.1.

[2] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 54.3.

[3] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990) book V, 250-255.

[4] Athanasius, 52.2.

[5] Athanasius is commenting on Isaiah 2:4: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into sickles, and nation shall not take sword against nation, neither shall they learn any more to wage war.” 

[6] Against Heresies, 3.19.1

“You are Gods”: According to Maximus the Confessor

In that Maximus is explaining Gregory the Theologian and referencing Origen and going beyond him, and accounting for the New Testament picture of the person of Christ (and refuting the Neo-Platonism of his day along the way), to summarize Maximus comes close to a summation of the view of the early church. Maximus provides an unparalleled explanation, not only of Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 82:6, but of the New Testament picture of Christ being “all in all” or the summation and goal of creation (so that creation and incarnation are mutually implied). On the other hand, to try to fit Maximus to some other frame is to miss the peculiarly Christian nature of his explanation. He makes constant appeal to the incarnation as the singular case for understanding the God/human relationship and Christian salvation. He is well versed in Platonism and Neo-Platonism and is precisely not a Platonist or Neo-Platonist but shows the inadequacies of Greek philosophy.[1] He is coloring in the lines set out by Chalcedon but Chalcedon, at least compared to Maximus, is more of a warning than explanation. The fact that his tongue is torn out, his right hand cut off, and that he is sent into exile points, not to his heterodoxy, but to the thin thread of orthodoxy in the East.

My minimalist picture of Jesus’ quotation and deployment of Psalm 82:6 (in the previous blog here) sets the parameters for the more fulsome explanation of Maximus. The picture in Peter, in the Psalms, and that given by Jesus, is that humans were made, as Peter says to “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). As Jesus says about himself, “I am the Son of God” (John 10:36) and in some fashion he extends his status to all humankind through quoting (Ps. 82:6), “You are gods.” In short, the New Testament teaches that humankind was made for union with God.[2] Maximus builds upon this conclusion and draws out its implications.

The focus of his work, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers (or The Ambigua) is, according to his translator, “unified around the experience of divinization, which Maximos characterizes as the deepest longing of the saints, the desire of human nature for assimilation to God, and the yearning of the creature to be wholly contained within the Creator.”[3]

Maximus takes up the specific notion and quotation, “you are gods,” in explaining Gregory’s oration on Paul’s being caught up into the third heaven: “Had Paul been able to express the experience gained from the third heaven, and his progress, or ascent, or assumption.”[4] Maximus explains that there are three ways of understanding the fact that some human person might be designated “God.” This might name a condition, an essence, or a grace. “Man” names an essence, while “wicked” or “foolish” name a condition, while “a name indicative of grace is when man, who has been obedient to God in all things is named ‘God’ in the Scriptures, as in the phrase, I said, you are Gods, for it is not by nature or condition that he has become and is called ‘God,’ but he has become God and is so named by placement and grace.”[5] This “grace of divinization” is not conditioned by anything preceding it as it is “completely unconditioned.” It does not refer to a faculty or capacity within the natural essence of man, as then it would no longer be grace.

Maximus thinks the word “assumption” best fits the estate achieved by Paul. It is a passive term and “not something that the apostle accomplished, but rather experienced.” Assumption takes into account both the passive quality but “the activity of the one who assumes” in that “the apostle left behind the names and qualities that had properly been his, for he transcended human nature virtue and knowledge.” And in this way “the name of God, which formerly stood at an infinite distance from him, he came to share by grace, becoming and being called God, in place of any other natural or conditional name that he had prior to his assumption.”[6] Grace does not work by nature or condition, as God himself sets the terms and condition: God is the condition.

I was reminded here and found helpful Barth’s picture of revelation (which I have written on here). God as Revealer, Revelation and Revealedness is not conditioned upon something else. God is the one who reveals, and he is the content of this revelation, and is the means of this revelation being received. But what Barth misses and Maximus takes into account is the link between redemption and creation. Divinization not only conditions revelation and redemption but describes creation’s logic and purpose. That is, in describing the Logos, Maximus is describing the logic of creation as well as of redemption.

The patristic understanding which Maximus assumes, that the Logos is the incarnate and not the preincarnate Christ, serves as his description of the Logic of creation: “for it is owing to Him that all things exist and remain in existence, and it is from Him that all things came to be in a certain way, and for a certain reason, and (whether they are stationary or in motion) participate in God.”[7] This Logos which stands behind creation’s purpose is the embodied Word: “For the Logos of God (who is God) wills always and in all things to accomplish the mystery of His embodiment.”[8] The mystery of his embodiment is the abiding reason and explanation to be found throughout the created order.

Though the quote above uses the phrase “participate in God,” Maximus immediately turns, not to Plato or Aristotle but to the incarnate Christ, to explain this participation. The insight of Jordan Daniel Wood, is that participation, as it is understood in Plato or Neo-Platonism, does not go far enough: “The problem arises when we imagine that participation exhausts the God-world relation. More than anyone, Maximus challenges this assumption precisely because he always discovers that the contours of the cosmos are those of Christ.” As Maximus puts it (above), “the Logos of God wills always and all things to accomplish the mystery of His embodiment.” Creation is itself an outworking of the incarnation, and as Wood puts it, “Maximus’s proper Christology really is his metaphysics or cosmology.” In other words, Christ is “the paradigm of creation” and “the perfect microcosm of the world.” Wood raises the question: “does participation describe the peculiar logic of the Incarnate Word?” He answers with a blunt, “No.”[9]

The danger is to imagine we might plug Maximus into some logic (such as Neo-Platonism) other than the specific and unique logic of the incarnation, which for him accounts for all of creation. Creation does not account for itself “naturally” but calls for the supernatural as both logic and end. The logic of Christ is its own logic and Maximus has no concern to relate it to anything else. In fact, quite the opposite: he is concerned to show that it is unrelated to any other account of knowing.

He lays out the parameters of “natural thought” and its end. “Natural intellectual motion,” as he explains, “has its relation to all relative objects of thought” but this eventually leaves one “with nothing left to think about, having thought through everything that is naturally thinkable.” Natural thought does not arrive at God through some natural given, only God himself provides the condition or experience for knowing him. As in Barth’s formula, so with Maximus, “God is not an object of knowledge or predication” such that he is grasped like other objects of knowledge, “but rather (he is grasped) according to simple union, unconditioned and beyond all thought.” He is knowing and the effect of knowing and the progress of knowing. “God made Him our wisdom, our righteousness, our holiness, and our redemption. These things are of course said about Him in an absolute sense, for He is Wisdom and Righteousness and Sanctification itself, and not in some limited sense, as is the case with human beings.”[10] Or as in Barth, God is the subject, object, and predicate of his revealing which, according to Maximus provide for being known “on the basis of a certain unutterable and indefinable principle” known “only to the One who grants this ineffable grace to the worthy.”[11]

The alternative is not nature, but what is “contrary” to grace in that it is attached to a “disposition” in those set “on a course to nonexistence, and who by their mode of life have reduced themselves to virtual nothingness.”[12] This is not to pit nature against grace, on the order of a two-tiered Thomism or pure nature before its time, as Maximus leaves nature intact but it is a nature which is properly itself only when imbued with grace.

The beginning and end of man consists of a cultivation of the seed of the Good. Man, from his beginning, “received being and participation in what is naturally good, and it is by conforming to the beginning that he received being and participation in what is naturally good, and it is by conforming to this beginning through the inclination of his will and by free choice, that he hastens to the end.” The origin and end cohere in one guided by the Word. “Having completed his course, such a person becomes God, receiving from God to be God, for to the beautiful nature inherent in the fact that he is God’s image, he freely chooses to add the likeness to God by means of the virtues, in a natural movement of ascent through which he grows in conformity to his own beginning.”[13] Created in the divine image man returns to this origin by adding the likeness through his own life course. This can be termed a “natural movement of ascent” as he grows in conformity to the nature in which he was created. Grace can be resisted or obstructed, but this has nothing to do with a pure nature but simply describes one bent toward nothingness.

Man owes his existence directly to God and he can be said to be a “portion of God” insofar as he exists, “for he owes his existence to the logos of being that is in God” insofar as he is good as “he owes his goodness to the logos of wellbeing that is in God; and he is a “portion of God” insofar as he is God, owing to the logos of his eternal being.” Maximus describes this in terms of a true ipseity, which he pits against false notions of movement and impassibility (as in Plato and Aristotle). “In this life he has already become one with himself and immovable, owing to his state of supreme impassibility” and in the life to come in an ongoing divinization “he will love and cleave affectionately to God Himself, in whom the logoi of beautiful things are steadfastly fixed.”[14] He arrives at his beginning and end and is fixed in his totality in the totality of God and is rightly called God in this divinization.


[1] Jordan Daniel Wood has laid to rest the notion that participation, in the Greek sense, adequately encompasses Maximus understanding of divinization. Jordan Daniel Wood, “That Creation is Incarnation in Maximus Confessor,” (Dissertation for Doctor of Philosophy, Boston College, 2018).

[2] A focus of the Bible, which is not absent in Maximus but not emphasized, is that the obstacle that would keep us from this realization is nothing less than a cosmic force for evil opposing God and ourselves.

[3] Maximos the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua Vol. 1, Edited and Translated by Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) xvii.

[4] Ambigua 20.1.

[5] Ambigua 20.2.

[6] Ambigua 20.3.

[7] Ambigua 7.16

[8] Ambigua 7.22.

[9] Wood, 11.

[10] Ambigua 7.21

[11] Ambigua 15.9

[12] Ambigua 20.2

[13] Ambigua 7.21.

[14] Ambigua 7.22

“You Are Gods”: The Biblical Picture

Jesus references Psalm 82:6, “You are gods,” as a response to the Jewish attempt to stone him after he claims, “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30). When Jesus asks what particular good work they were stoning him for, they answered, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God.” Instead of narrowing his claim or qualifying it, Jesus suggests that human beings were made to be gods – according to the Law: “Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I SAID, YOU ARE GODS’? “If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” (Jn 10:34–36). In the Psalm, God judges “in the midst of the rulers” accusing them of judging unjustly and showing partiality to the wicked, rather than defending the weak and the fatherless (Ps. 82:1-3). The Psalm makes the point that these rulers, appointed to a divine like authority, have failed in their duty. “I said, ‘You are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High. ‘Nevertheless, you will die like men and fall like any one of the princes’” (Ps. 82:6).

Jesus, in the context of his quoting the Psalm, presumes the reference applies to humanity and not to angelic or spiritual sons. The reference may be to the divine image in which humans were created and the dominion they were given over creation: “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth’” (Gen. 1:26). The idea is that the humans would not simply dominate but would, as the Psalm indicates, offer a benevolent reign over creation. As Bnonn Tennant notes, the Hebrew term kibshu has the double meaning of “subdue,” as in a military campaign but also the idea of a forceful or vigorous ordering. “God is not merely making man a custodian in Genesis; he isn’t giving him mere supervision of the earth, like a middle-manager. He is making him a king; giving him free rein over the world. The creation mandate is a dominion mandate.”[1] Creation care would certainly be involved in this reign, but as is now clear in the nuclear age and an age of global warming, humans can also manipulate creation so as to destroy it.

The garden may be a model or guide for what man is to do throughout creation. Adam is on the order of a coparticipant in God’s creating and ordering activity. He names the animals, tends and organizes the Garden, but extension of the Edenic Kingdom into all the world (they are to “subdue the earth,” Gen. 1:28) is part of the rule or kingship exercised by the original royal pair. This is indicated in that the “image and likeness” which God impressed on the first couple is subsequently an image Adam impresses on his son Seth (Gen. 5:1-3). The success, but mostly the failure to rightly exercise this rule, to order God’s kingdom, is the story of Scripture. “The entire Bible, one way or another, is concerned with tracing its decline, division, reunion, and eventual restoration.”[2]

The battle joined between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15) involves the entire human race in both the flood and at Babel (Gen. 11). Babel marks a united attempt to order the human kingdom on the basis of a unified world government and religion, due to improved technology and heightened presumption. Rather than spreading out, multiplying and filling the earth, the people of Babel refuse the dominion mandate and decide to arrange a kingdom that would make their name endure in a very limited region (the plain of Shinar). It is an organized rebellion – an attempt to order the kingdom by human standards and means. The unified attempt to organize, instead becomes a confusion of languages and religions.

Amar Annus, a scholar of the ancient near east, notes, “There was a broad tradition in the Babylonian scribal milieu that the seventh antediluvian figure, a king or a sage, ascended to heaven and received insights into divine wisdom. The seventh antediluvian king according to several lists was Enmeduranki, the king of Sippar, who distinguished himself with divine knowledge from the gods Adad and Shamash.”[3] Sippar, according to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, was one of the states located in Shinar.[4] Where “Babylonian mythology puts a positive spin on this event, representing the sons of God, the Apkallu, as the ones who founded Babylon and imparted knowledge of culture and technology, Jewish  Second Temple writings describe the Apkallu as the ones who taught mankind things like idolatry and witchcraft.”[5]

It is significant that Abram is called (in Gen. 12) immediately subsequent to the multiplication of tongues and religion at Babel (Gen. 11). Even the household of Abram are carrying household idols (Gen. 31:19) and in the midrash Genesis Rabbah, Abram is depicted as a young boy working in his father’s idol shop. Abram is called from out of Babel to form a people who will bring forth the second Adam. Meanwhile the other nations are allowed to continue in their religious idolatry or in, what the New Testament will describe as, the worship of demons. As Deuteronomy explains, “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage” (Dt. 32:8–9). These particular “sons of God” may refer to spiritual forces which have displaced God. The Septuagint translates the “sons of God” as “angels of God.” The gloss that Deuteronomy 4 puts upon this indicates that it is indeed spiritual forces that control the nations.

And beware lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven [צבא השמים— tsaba ha’shamayim, the standard nomenclature for the armies of heaven], you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, which Yahweh your God has allotted [חלק] to all the peoples under the whole heaven.[6]

In contrast Israel was saved out of Egypt or “out of the iron furnace” so as to be a people “of his (God’s) own inheritance” (Dt. 4:20).

The nations are turned over to spiritual forces (represented by “the sun and the moon and the stars”) or a force other than that for which they were made. Their failure to rule rightly means they have been usurped. As Psalm 82 indicates, they are subject to death though they were meant to be princes, kings, and rulers. They have apparently been turned over to the spirits or spirit behind false religion and idolatry.

The New Testament pictures this power over the nations in a variety of images: “rulers and authorities”, “world forces of darkness,” “spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places,” “the prince of the power of the air,” or simply cosmic powers of darkness.[7] The various combination of “rulers and authorities” and heavenly spiritual forces combined with imagery referencing nations and kings, indicates a continuum between the human realm and cosmic and spiritual powers. The book of Revelation speaks of “the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan” (Rev. 20:2), but it also describes a beast with seven horns and ten heads, which fronts for the dragon and which elicits the worship of all the world (Rev. 13:1-4). Whether this beast is the Roman God Emperor, or some combination of political powers, the world is forced to bow before a unified religion opposed to the rule of Yahweh.

In both Daniel and Revelation, the combination of spiritual power and political embodiment is given a beastly representation. Daniel describes a Revelation like beast and its destruction by “the Ancient of Days”: “And as I looked, the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time” (Da. 7:11–12). Daniel is given an interpretation of the vision that identifies the beasts as “four kings who shall arise out of the earth” (Da. 7:17). The saints (ESV) or the “sons of God” will take possession or receive the kingdom (7:18), from the “son of man” who has secured it on their behalf (7:14).

Paul refers to “so-called gods” but goes on to say “indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father” (I Cor. 8:56). He later explains that Gentiles “sacrifice to demons and not to God” (I Cor. 10:20) so that the “many gods and many lords,” unlike the idol itself, is not simply nothing (I Cor. 8:4) but an actually existing power, force, or spirit. There is an ambiguity surrounding the exact nature and provenance of these powers (or this power), but there is an alignment between nations, idolatrous religion, and subjection to the powers of darkness.

If we presume that Jesus inaugurates the kingdom and subdues the powers with the incarnation (the teaching of the New Testament), this must have occurred in Jesus’ confrontation with the earthly powers during the time of Roman rule. As Tennant notes, Daniel’s description of the son of man coming on the clouds is not his coming to earth but his coming to the throne of God in heaven.[8] This occurred in the first century, in which Luke records the ascension, echoing the language of Daniel:

And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1: 9-11).

Daniel’s title “son of man” is taken by Jesus, and the synoptic Gospels (also in the imagery of Daniel) picture the kingdom being ushered in with his generation: “For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Lk 21:26–28). Or in summary of a host of signs:

From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matthew 24: 29– 34; par. Mark 13: 24– 30; Luke 21: 25– 32).

The images of cosmic upheaval (e.g., a darkened sun and blood moon, representative of spiritual forces) are images of a heavenly regime change. The reality of Jesus being seated at the right hand of the Father is pictured in the imagery of unruly spiritual powers being subdued. At the same time, the gods of Psalm 82, subjected to death, with the resurrection of Christ are being restored through his reign. The “greatness of his power toward us who believe” is restoring Adam’s reign, as Christ raised from the dead is seated “at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph. 1:20-21).

To return to the point of departure, the call of the Psalm, which Jesus is applying to himself and his followers, is for God to repossess the nations: “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!” (Ps 82:8). He will restore to those designated “gods” the eternal life that fits their station: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (Jn. 10:28). The Fall, the turn to other gods, the continual rebellion and idolatry, are here reversed and this gain is irreversible. “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:29-30).

As Peter describes it, this god-like status does not describe an innate nature but a partaking or participation in the divine nature opened to all through Christ:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. (2 Peter 1:3-4)


[1] Bnonn DominicTennant, The Spine of Scripture: God’s Kingdom from Eden to Eternity (pp. 18-19). Information Highwayman. Kindle Edition.  Very much appreciate the recommendation, Leigh. Thank you.

[2] Ibid. 21-22.

[3] Amar Annus, “On the Origin of Watchers: A Comparative Study of the Antediluvian Wisdom in Mesopotamian and Jewish Traditions” Estoniain  Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha · May 2010

[4] https://www.internationalstandardbible.com/S/shinar.html

[5] Tennant, 70.

[6] From Tennant, 73.

[7] Col. 2:15-17; Eph. 2:2; 6:12; John 1:5 respectively.

[8] Tennant, 85.

The Word as the Fulness of Divine and Human Personhood: The Implication of Lacan and Žižek in Barth’s Theology

Karl Barth concludes that the Trinity, or who God is in his essence, is who he is in the three-sided aspect of revelation. “God’s Word is God Himself in his revelation.” The revelation of God is not something added to who God is, but this revealing is who he is and what is revealed in the revelation is God’s self. “For God reveals Himself as the Lord and according to Scripture this signifies for the concept of revelation that God Himself in unimpaired unity yet also in unimpaired distinction is Revealer, Revelation, and Revealedness.”[1] God is the one who reveals, and he is the content of this revelation, and is the means of this revelation being received. The work of the Father as revealer, the Son as what is revealed, and the Spirit in the reception and participation in this revelation is the center of the Christian faith.

Tied up in Barth’s doctrine of revelation and doctrine of God is his approach to epistemology and his stance toward modernism and foundationalism. Revelation is the foundation of the Christian faith (and not self-certainty); it is the objective reality and the subjective appropriation of this reality which constitutes the true. To limit revelation to a proposition, a fact, or reason (another foundation) may miss that what is being communicated is not separate from the means of communication. The revelation or Word is means, content, and appropriation. This is the sui generis point of departure. This does not stand under any other condition or criteria “but is itself the condition.” This is not a possibility to be realized by other means but is the “basis of all possible self-realizations.” “Above this act there is nothing other or higher on which it might be based or from which it might be derived unless it was from the transcendence of the eternal Word of God that came forth in revelation.”[2] Here is Subject, Object, and Predicate. Revelation is not a minus or plus: “it is not another over against God. It is the same – the repetition of God. Revelation is indeed God’s predicate, but in such a way that this predicate is in every way identical with God Himself.”[3]

Barth references and dismisses Cartesian certainty: “One might ask whether this Cartesianism is really as impregnable as it usually purports to be even on the philosophical plane.”[4] His point is to begin only with the certainty of the Word of God. This Word “does not receive its dignity and validity in any respect or even to the slightest degree from a presupposition that we bring to it. Its truth for us, like its truth in itself, is grounded absolutely in itself.” There is a sense in which this might describe the Cartesian or the modern project, but as Barth indicates the modern quest for certainty does not succeed. The procedure in theology, then, is to establish self-certainty in the certainty of God, “to measure it by the certainty of God without waiting for the validating of this beginning by self-certainty.”[5] Only subsequent to this beginning is there the possibility of self-certainty. But even to speak of a beginning, as if it is to be had apart from revelation, is mistaken. It is only in the knowledge of God’s Word that a beginning can be made.

As Barth explains, the movement is not apart from the revealing work of God, though there may be the continual drive to go beyond or below or above. “The position is not that we have to seek the true God beyond these three moments in a higher being in which He is not Father, Son and Spirit.” This would amount to a denial of – an objectifying of the one who is subject. “Here, too there is no Thou, no Lord. Here, too, man clearly wants to get behind God, namely, behind God as He really shows and gives Himself, and therefore behind what He is, for the two are one and the same.” This objectifying of God, making him something other than the subject he is would reduce God to a misconstrued human subjectivity. “Here, too, the divine subjectivity is sucked up into the human subjectivity which enquires about a God that does not exist.”

Barth does not spell out or relate how it may be a failed human subjectivity that tends to objectify and reduce the divine subject, but this is implied. It is only in a healthy human subjectivity that the fulness of the divine subject can be apprehended. “For man community with God means strictly and exclusively communion with the One who reveals Himself and who is subject, and indeed indissolubly subject, in His revelation.” Something less than Trinity would fall short of the divine subject, but would fall short of any form of what it means to be subject. “The indissolubility of His being as subject is guaranteed by the knowledge of the ultimate reality of the three modes of being in the essence of God above and behind which there is nothing higher.” God is relational as part of who he is, and this relationality is synonymous with his revelation and relation to us. Who he is as Father, Son and Spirit is inclusive of revelation and there is nothing beyond or nothing further than this Threeness. This is what it means to be a subject. “Our God and only our God, namely, the God who makes Himself ours in His revelation, is God.”[6]

This capacity for relationship, for self-giving, and for inter-mutual participation names not only the divine subject, but explains what a subject or person is (including what the human subject consists of) and was made for. The relational or personal core of revelation is inclusive of the rational or propositional but these are part of what it means to be personal. The experience of the Word involves a person-to-person relation, but the human side of this exchange is established in the process. “The determination of man’s existence by the Word of God is created thus; it is determination by God’s person.”[7] God with us is God for us in the full sense, in that this is the meaning of human personhood. “God’s Word is not a thing to be described nor a term to be defined. It is neither a matter nor an idea. It is not ‘a truth,’ not even the highest truth. It is the truth as it is God’s speaking person. It is not an objective reality, in that it is also subjective, the subjective that is God.”[8] God is present in what he says and this presence is the only form of self-presence we have.

This self-presence of the Spirit of God, God’s revealedness, is “not so much the reality in which God makes us sure of Him as the reality in which He makes Himself sure of us, in which He establishes and executes His claim to lordship over us by His immediate presence.” Apart from this presence there is only a striving for self-presence and a striving for a real word. Only through the Holy Spirit can man “become a real speaker and proclaimer of real witness.”[9] Though Barth is not here drawing out the contrast between futile striving for and fruitful reception of personhood, the alternative is posed. “The Spirit guarantees man what he cannot guarantee himself, his personal participation in revelation.” Beyond this, this personal participation is a realization or fulfilment of the personal. This “Yes” to God’s revelation “is the Yes to God’s Word which is spoken by God Himself for us, yet not just to us, but also in us.” The fulness of faith, knowledge and obedience as they are realized in the Holy Spirit are nothing less than the realization of personhood. The implication is that apart from this Yes to God and revelation there is negation of the person.

As far as I know, Barth never develops a complete theory of language, or a fuller theory of the subject, beyond what he presents in this exposition of Trinity and revelation. Here is the word properly functioning, and the fulness of what it means to be a subject. However, entailed in his exposition is the implication of the dynamics of the subject apart from God. His sui generis notion of the Word points toward a similar sui generis structuring or attempt at structuring around the human word. His picture of the self-justifying and self-authenticating disclosure of God indicates the inward direction of human failure, in continual attempts at self-justification as means of having or being the self. The drive is not simply to do the right thing but to establish one’s existence. His depiction of God’s revelation as a repetition of God, indicates the prime human neurosis. The attempt to repeat the self or to have the self in repetition describes a key Freudian discovery. The compulsion to repeat is the drive to have life through a death-dealing process.  In his three-part picture of the Revealer, Revelation, and Revealedness, he indicates that the attempt to go beyond this is to arrive at nothing and this circulation of nothingness or absence amounts to a three-fold displacement of the Trinity.

In short, Barth sums up the reception of the Word with prolonged appeal to Romans 8, among other Scriptures. If one would reverse engineer Romans 8 or reverse engineer Barth’s depiction of revelation, and take out Christ, the Holy Spirit and Abba-Father, what is left is the dynamic described in Romans 7 (7:7ff). There is law, the split I, and the dynamic of death and the individual caught up in this dynamic which has lost control of the body and will (being ineffective against desire), and there is an overall incapacity resulting from the compulsion to be interpolated into the law. This dynamic of death (in Paul’s summary statement), in the estimate of Slavoj Žižek, sums up the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan.

In Lacan’s summation of his theory, he claims to be doing nothing more than following the working of language as the structuring principle of the human psyche. The dynamic interplay stemming from the fact that humans speak (as opposed to God speaking in Barth) produces the three-fold interplay making up the two sides of consciousness (the symbolic and the imaginary) and the unconscious self (the real). In Lacan’s depiction, language becomes the structuring dynamic of the subject through something akin to Barth’s subject, object, and predicate. The order of language marks the interplay of the three parts of the human subject in its orientation to the word. The one who speaks is the superego, the law, or something like the conscience (in place of the Father or the Revealer). The object of this speech is the ego or I (in place of Christ), who would establish itself in regard to the law. This dynamic between the superego and ego is the taking up of death (the displacement of the Spirit). In other words, the Barthian project indicates something like the futility of the project of Lacan and Žižek. In turn, the disease, suffering, and despair of Freud from which they are extrapolating, point to the Barthian depiction of the resolution. The word as the displacement of the Word describes the human dilemma, and the Word lifting up and filling the place of the word describes the cure.


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God, pt. 1, eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. G. W. Bromiley, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1975), 295.

[2] Ibid. 118.

[3] Ibid. 299.

[4] Ibid. 195.

[5] Ibid. 196.

[6] Ibid. 382.

[7] Ibid. 205.

[8] Ibid. 136.

[9] Ibid. 454.

Christians and The Big Lie

What has become obvious as a result of the investigation of the January 6th committee is that Donald Trump knew he lost the election but he lied. Testimony from his closest advisors confirmed he knew he had lost and he decided to lie to his followers and the country in an effort to remain in office in spite of the election. Prior to the work of the committee, it might have been imagined that Trump had managed to delude himself. Maybe he was given bad information through some sort of disinformation campaign on the part of his advisors – but the testimony was unanimous. As the committee chair, Bennie Thompson put the conclusion of the committee: “Donald Trump lost an election and knew he lost an election and, as a result of his loss, decided to wage an attack on our democracy.”

As shocking as the original lie, is the momentum it has gained through Fox News, other right leaning media, and by promotion of Republican politicians. We are now witnessing the election of far right supporters of Trump’s election lie, with their promotion of the lie serving as a winning political strategy. As Thompson pointed out, democracy is under attack.

A quote often attributed to Nazi chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, captures the strategy:

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

Whether or not Goebbels said it, the quote describes not only the Nazi propaganda machine but the way state propaganda works. A big lie, repeated often is a means of gaining consent and overcoming dissent in supposed service of a higher cause. This manufacturing of consent can be both blunt and brutal but so pervasive that it takes a real effort to expose it.

In a report prepared by the OSS describing the psychology of Adolph Hitler, the phrase the “big lie” captured the center of his strategy:

His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.

The playbook of Hitler sounds strangely familiar. It is no surprise Vanity Fair (September, 1990) reports that Trump’s ex-wife described him as keeping a book of Hitler’s speeches on his nightstand. (When Trump was asked if this was true, he confirmed it.[1]) Is Trump following Hitler’s strategy, or is it simply that Trump and Hitler and all big liars share a psychology? That psychology, at one level, is easy enough to read – a ruthless drive for power – but there is something initially unbelievable about raw evil. Could any individual so empty themselves of morals, concern for others, or regard for the truth, that they would literally do anything to gain power? The question becomes rhetorical in the asking.

These big liars are not so much the mystery as to how it is they rise to power. What forces come into play that the most soulless and dehumanized rise to the top?

Where a big lie becomes central to the survival of a group, it is obvious that those who serve the lie have a certain utilitarian purpose. The Catholic Church, the Soviet Union, the Sackler family, the Republican Party, but every institution structured around a particular deception is bound to promote and glorify the biggest and best liars. As long as the lie works certain bishops and cardinals are promoted, certain party bosses rule, certain members of the Sackler family rise to the top, and the Republican Party can win elections. Those who stick to the lie reap the rewards, until the lie fails or is exposed.

Last night we watched the documentary “Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes” (on HBO), and the shocking and sad part is that sticking to the lie of absolute Soviet superiority, inclusive of the presumed impossibility of a nuclear accident, resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Even while the disaster was unfolding, children are sent out to play, families go about their business, and no alarms are raised. Some of the most horrifying footage is of the “liquidators;” soldiers who are set to shoveling highly radio active material in the midst of the debris of the reactor. They laugh and dismiss the danger, trusting in their superiors and the Soviet State. The documentary implies the fall of the Soviet Union unfolds as this big lie came unraveled.

The characteristic displayed in the Soviet Union and on display in Trump supporters but in any totalitarian system is an unquestioning belief. We live in a time of absolute certainty, in which self-doubt and skepticism are a weakness. In a poll conducted by Psyche: “Absolute certainty was endorsed by 91 of 290 (or 31.4 per cent of) individuals who self-identified as ‘extremely Left-wing’ and by 54 of 133 (40.6 per cent of) individuals who self-identified as ‘extremely Right-wing’. The conclusion: “Extremism and absolute certainty seem to resonate.”[2] The authors cite Karl Popper, who noted that “absolute certainty is the foundational component of totalitarianism: if one is sure that one’s political philosophy will lead to the best possible future for humankind, all manner of terrible acts become justifiable in service of the greater good.”

The authors note that these are people who would probably refuse to change their beliefs under any circumstance. They are committed to the ideas of their system, such that the ideas matter more than anything else. They cite evidence “that ideological extremism is associated with low cognitive flexibility, meaning the ability to adapt to new, shifting or unexpected events and perspectives.” Though the study included both the extreme left and right, the conclusion was “we found that people identifying as ‘extremely Right-wing’ were far and away the most dogmatic group in the study.” According to the article, these dogmatists typically testify, “I am so sure I am right about the important things in life, there is no evidence that could convince me otherwise.”

Which raises the question of the connection between Christians and their support of right-wing politics and Donald Trump (at about 71% among white church-goers voting for Trump).[3] Does the Christian faith promote a mind-set or psychology that would tend toward right-wing politics? Statistically, the answer must be yes, but what can also be delineated are conservative tendencies attached to the religion. Isn’t the very foundation of the Christian faith built on particular dogmas and dogmatism? Isn’t the goal of Christianity to shape human personality and the human psyche such as to create unquestioning belief?

In fact, there is clearly such a brand of Christianity that would lend itself to Trumpism or any of a number of brands of fascism and totalitarianism. It is obvious that unquestioning trust in church institutions and church authority has translated into a conservative trust in political and cultural institutions. With this, there also seems to be a psychological type, shaped by this predominant form of the Christian faith.

We might describe this type as having primary trust in the law, full trust in church tradition and church institutions, and the presumption that there is no tension within Scripture. The law is determinative not only of the work of Christ, but is definitive of the individual psyche. The working of guilt through the human conscience does not cause one to question the role of the conscience, the legitimacy of the guilt, or the efficacy and origin of the law. It is presumed the human psyche is mostly fine, and like human government, it is instituted and shaped by God. Is it any surprise that the individual who assigns a primary and unquestioning weight to conscience would take the same attitude in his politics? Indeed, it is no surprise that the superego voice arising in political authorities would go unquestioned.

In one form of the faith, Christ died to fulfill the law, such that a portion of the law of the Old Testament is foundational. The law is beyond question and Christ is interpreted through this lens, as coming to satisfy the law. Catholic, Reformed and Methodist Churches believe that the law is the primary organizing principle of the Bible. The most radical alternative is to suggest Christ, not the law or the Old Testament, is the organizing center of the Bible. In this theology, Christ is not defined by the institutions of Israel, the law of Moses, or the institutions and traditions of Constantinian Christianity. It is argued, the law was never meant to capture or codify faith, and the faith of Abraham is the prime example used by Paul.

This reading of Paul and the New Testament calls the law into question, along with the sacrificial system, the institutions of Israel and Constantine, and the accompanying conservative conscience and psyche. The follower of Christ is not constricted by the world order as we have it, but the point is that a new world is breaking in and one must be prepared to perceive and receive this new creation. In this understanding, the big lie is that human knowledge, human institutions, and human law (the knowledge of good and evil), are the basis of the incarnation. This lie is precisely that exposed by the Truth of Christ. This calls for anything but a conservative psychological and political profile.    


[1] Business Insider Sep 1, 2015, https://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trumps-ex-wife-once-said-he-kept-a-book-of-hitlers-speeches-by-his-bed-2015-8

[2] Thomas Costello and Shauna Bowes, “Popper was right about the link between certainty and extremism,” Psyche https://psyche.co/ideas/popper-was-right-about-the-link-between-certainty-and-extremism

[3] The Pew Research Center found that about “seven-in-ten White, non-Hispanic Americans who attend religious services at least monthly (71%) voted for Trump, while roughly a quarter (27%) voted for Biden.” Low church attendance or being non-white produced the opposite result: “Nine-in-ten Black Americans who attend religious services monthly or more voted for Biden in 2020, as did a similar share of Black voters who attend services less often (94%).” https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/08/30/most-white-americans-who-regularly-attend-worship-services-voted-for-trump-in-2020/

Trinitarian Truth and the Three-fold Possibility of Falling Short of the Truth

The truth of God, which is to say truth itself, is Trinitarian. Truth proceeds from the Father through the Son and is realized through the Spirit. But this full realization of truth is tied to the historical event of the incarnation and the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is not to say that truth develops for God, but for human-kind it unfolds historically.

Another approach to the same idea is that God as love is a Trinitarian realization, which is not to say love is otherwise absent, but humanity in the Old Testament did not know of the law of love upon which “all the law and prophets hang (Matt. 22:40). According to Jesus, this is a “new commandment” (John 13:34) with which the final discourse of Christ culminates.[1]  If we would describe the fulness of truth as fulness of love it is obvious that the love of the Father apart from the Son is on the order of that between a small child and his father. The child is loved but cannot be entrusted further than his capacities will allow. The period of the Law describes a time in which truth was presumed to be on the order of commands, all for the good of the child perhaps, as the child cannot take in the fulness of love.

Apart from the revelation of the Son, the truth of God did not take on a human or incarnate dimension with all that this entails. It certainly did not entail a direct Spiritual participation, but the truth stood outside of history and outside of the human psyche and experience, like commands of the law. So, while we might describe each period or epoch (marked by the revealing of the three persons of the Trinity) as being prompted by the love of God, the love of the Father apart from the revelation of the Son is on the order of law.

Whenever truth has been reduced to law, or propositions, or abstract universal trues, it has taken on the truncated picture of being over and against the personal. Moses would presume God is an object for sight (like the light of the sun which cannot be looked at directly), but so too notions of God as first Cause, as pure being, or as that which can be extrapolated from creation. God as that to which one concludes outside of creation and outside of history is a force or power on the order of the Aristotelian Unmoved Mover. Rather than God upholding the nexus of creation through an immanent involvement (i.e., through the Word), his transcendence becomes closed off from all that is contingent. Perhaps he knocks over the first domino or sets the contingencies of creation into motion, but he is unmoved. His eternality lies beyond time, rather than serving as the resource and foundation of time and history.

For example, in the Newtonian conception (which remains as part of the modern experience), time is not a relation or mere measurement but a force unto itself, ever devolving and dissolving all things into the nothing from which they arose. The creative force of the Father apart from the intimate involvement of the Son and Spirit leaves creation floating in the void. The God of law reduces to the law and the law displaces God. This is demonstrably the Jewish problem, but in this the Jews are representative of all humanity. A cosmos set in motion by the Father apart from the Son, in spite of recognizing God’s power of creation is not understood as a direct expression of the love of God.

It is Christ who calls his disciples into friendship and into direct participation with the Father on the basis of love and friendship: “I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (Jn. 15:15). Christ opens a personal relation (a relation presuming the fulness of personhood) with the Father, and thus the world becomes the cosmic temple where God and humanity meet in the full reciprocity of love. Where the Son and Spirit are realized as aspects of the fulness of truth, in the description of Sergius Bulgakov, “Eternity lies not beyond time or after time, but on a level with it, over time, as an ideal for it and under time as its foundation. . .”[2] Time taken as an independent force is on the order of the Father being separated out from the Son and the Spirit; the danger is that nothing or nonbeing might be presumed to be an actually existing void counterbalancing the something and being as a dialectical resource. Rather than the Son being the medium of Creation through the Father by the Spirit, creation from nothing may implicate creation in a primary relation with the nothing from whence it came.

Modern cosmology has hit upon the truth, in big bang cosmology, of creation ex-nihilo, but this has been grasped as much as a possibility for measurement, containment, and comprehension as an awakening to eternity intersecting time. The conception is that of a world which begins in time rather than a world which unfolds from the beginningless reaches of eternity.[3] The possible (contradictory as it is) popular implication of big bang cosmology, like that of a truncated Christology, is that there was a time before the beginning, a time before God was creator and a time before the Lamb crucified from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). Though the presumptions of Newton have been proven wrong, there is still the experiential presumption that time preceded creation and that time and law take precedence over creation as a resource from which it arose. Thus, it is assumed that there is a “before creation” and a “before time” and that there will be an after, such that the nothing which precedes and follows becomes the prime reality enfolding creation. Rather than time being a measure of relation the measurement is mistaken for the reality out of which it arises.

Bulgakov argues that time has reality only in its relation to eternity and in the fact that “in the fulfilled times and seasons God was incarnated.” “If eternity is clothed in temporality, then time also proves to be fraught with eternity and generates its fruit.”[4] As Bulgakov describes it, “At any given instant of being, in its every moment, eternity enlightens, integral and indivisible, where there is no present, past, or future, but where all that happens is extratemporal.” In the Son, time and eternity, heaven and earth, history and  Spirit intersect, such that the cross is an eternal fact about God. “Vertical segments of time penetrate eternity; therefore nothing of that which only once appeared for a moment in time can vanish anymore and return to nonbeing, for it has a certain projection into eternity, it is itself in one of its countless aspects.” However, this “freedom from temporality” – the alternative to being given over to nothing – comes with a certain dark note: “in this permanence of what once was the joy of being is included, as is dread before eternity, its threat: at the Dread Judgment nothing will be forgotten or concealed.”[5] It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, and best perhaps that we hide in oblivion rather than face this glorious reality.

On the other hand, where the truth of the Son has been taken as primary and sufficient, exclusive of the truth of the Father and the Spirit, the historical and the human have come to have predominance over the transcendent, and time and history have been presumed to contain their own sufficient meaning. The peculiar historicism that marks both theological liberalism and conservativism unfolds from a reappreciation (over-appreciation) of history. Higher critical attacks on the Bible and the retreat to the literalism of biblical inerrancy miss, in Henri de Lubac’s estimate, the Spirit of history.

In his return to the spiritual reading of Origen, de Lubac describes the goal of this form of exegesis as “an effort to grasp the spirit in history or to undertake the passage from history to spirit.”[6] Origen’s spiritual reading of the Bible does not eschew history or the letter or time but presumes that the Son and the Spirit provide the prime meaning to the fleshly and historical. There is a dyadic union between the Son and the Spirit in which the former (the Word, Scripture, the historical) is realizable only through the latter. History or the Old Testament becomes the mediating source for God only with the incarnation of the Son. It is not simply that Moses and the Law prepared for the coming of Christ, but Jesus says Moses spoke of me (Jn. 5:46). Jesus as the interpretive key of history is not a denial of history but, in conjunction with the Spirit, its realized meaning.

History is not an end in itself, as historical facts alone are dead and gone – they have passed on. As de Lubac says, the role of history is to “pass on.” The “events recounted in the Bible, whatever they might be, as they were unfolding, all exhausted, so to speak, their historical role at the same time as their factual reality, so as no longer to survive today except as signs and mysteries.” Only in this light can Paul say, these things happened for our edification. They are only for the purpose of our “spiritual re-creation in Christ, then for the purpose of our moral instruction as Christians. Thus, in its entirety, up to its final event, history is preparation for something else. To deny that is to deny it.”[7]

As Origen pictures it, “In following the trail of truth in the letter of Scripture,” we “will thus be served by history as by a ladder.”[8] The ascent to spiritual realities is provided by the rungs of history and only with this ascent, this perpetual movement toward the transcendent, does the Spirit make all things new. Otherwise, even in reading the New Testament, constituted as such through the Spirit, there can be a clinging to the letter. If we do not ascend above the history, even where we obtain complete harmony between the New and the Old or within the various accounts in the Gospels, “it would still be as if we remained at the literal level. We would thus still be only a scribe or a Pharisee.”[9] Origen, like Paul, invites us to see the heavenly, the Spiritual, the unseen, through the seen. “He wants the mind to be raised to a spiritual understanding by seeking in the heavens for the causes of realities here on earth.”[10]

In the description of Bulgakov, this is a possibility only realized through the Spirit:

By its procession from the Father upon the Son, the Third hypostasis loses itself, as it were, becomes only a copula, the living bridge of love between the Father and the Son, the hypostatic Between. But in this kenosis the Third hypostasis finds itself as the Life of the other hypostases, as the Love of the Others and as the Comfort of the Others, which then becomes for it too its own Comfort, its self-comfort. . . . It is possible, however, to distinguish different modes of this love and, in particular, to see that, in the Third hypostasis, the kenosis is expressed in a special self-abolition of its personality. The latter disappears, as it were, while becoming perfectly transparent for the other hypostases, but in this it acquires the perfection of Divine life: Glory.[11]

This perfection through the Spirit points to the third possible error, which is at once the most dangerous and perhaps the most pervasive. Where the Spirit has been cut off from the Son and the Father and made a rival deity, the human and the historical are set aside in a presumed Gnostic embrace of the divine apart from the human. The Spirit in this instance, as it was perceived in the Old Testament, is sheer power. Where the Spirit’s dyadic connection with the Son is relinquished, there is the presumption that Christ in the flesh is of no consequence. Exposure of this anti-Christ teaching takes up a good portion of the New Testament and is the primary target of several of the Church fathers.

Gregory of Nazianzus pictures the entire preparation of the Old Testament and the preparation of Christ as preparation for the indwelling of the Spirit: “For it was not safe, when the Godhead of the Father was not yet acknowledged, plainly to proclaim the Son; nor when that of the Son was not yet received to burden us further (if I may use so bold an expression) with the Holy Ghost.”[12] Gregory describes a gradual process in which Christ’s entire work, with “the beginning of the Gospel, after the Passion, after the Ascension” is dedicated to “making perfect their powers” so that only then did he breathe the Holy Spirit upon them. Always Christ spoke of the Spirit in conjunction with his own teaching and the work of the Father. The Father sends the Spirit, but only in “my Name” and in order to “call to remembrance all that I have taught you” (Jn. 14:26). As Gregory describes it, this careful approach to the Spirit, was in order to ensure “that He might not seem to be a rival God.”[13]

According to Gregory this is the third and most dramatic of the movements of God. “The Old Testament proclaimed the Father openly, and the Son more obscurely. The New manifested the Son, and suggested the Deity of the Spirit. Now the Spirit Himself dwells among us, and supplies us with a clearer demonstration of Himself.”[14] This third “earthquake” unleashes the most radical of possibilities, as here the Trinitarian Truth of God is open as the final possibility (or the ultimate perversion). “For what greater thing than this did either He promise, or the Spirit teach. If indeed anything is to be considered great and worthy of the Majesty of God, which was either promised or taught.”[15] Perhaps it is the finality and fulness of the Spirit which also raises the specter of the unforgivable sin (Matt. 12:31-32).

God can only be properly worshipped and the fulness of the truth apprehended in the fulness of the Trinity, apart from which the truth of God is subject to perversion. Only on the basis of this fulness can humankind enter into Truth or into participation in God (i.e., into theosis and deification). “And indeed from the Spirit comes our New Birth, and from the New Birth our new creation, and from the new creation our deeper knowledge of the dignity of Him from Whom it is derived.”[16]


[1] Sergius Bulgakov, The Comforter, Translated by Boris ]akim (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids/Cambridge, 2004), 316.

[2] Sergius Bulgakov, Unfading Light: Contemplations and Speculations, Translated by Thomas Allan Smith (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids/Cambridge, 2012), 332.

[3] Bulgakov works this out most extensively in The Bride of the Lamb, Translated by Boris Jakim (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 71-76.

[4] Bulgakov. Unfading Light, 335.

[5] Ibid. 316.

[6] Henri de Lubac, History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture according to Origen, Translated by Anne England Nash (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2007), 317.

[7] Ibid. 322.

[8] Origen, Commentary on John, Book 20.3. Quoted from de Lubak, 323.

[9] Ibid. de Lubak.

[10] Ibid. 325.

[11] Bulgakov, The Comforter, 181-182.

[12] Gregory of Nazianzus, Fifth Theological Oration, Oration 31.26.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. 31.27.

[16] Ibid. 31.28.

How Theology Became Boring

I assume connectedness, integration, and beauty, are key elements in the make-up of that which is compelling and interesting. We engage in what grabs and pertains to us. In turn, boredom arises with disconnectedness and irrelevance.  This means the most basic, broadest, most interconnected of topics, such as theology, should be the most compelling – which for most is self-evidently not the case.

This is nowhere more obvious than among supposed students of the Bible, which I found through long experience, require convincing that theology is pertinent to their goals in ministry. As David Wells and Mark Knoll noted years ago, even the highest achieving seminarians can be dismissive of theology and eager to get to the real work of ministry. They both put the blame on the culture of pragmatism, but neither thought to look at the treatment of the topic itself. Neither considered the role of theology in giving rise to a culture, even a culture within the church, which no longer was concerned with what would seem to be foundational. It is clear that this subject, theology, which once engaged the greatest minds in history, even the greatest philosophical and scientific minds, as the queen of the sciences, has been displaced and theologians may have ensured this result.

The problem with turning to theology as giving rise to its own failure is not so much about agreeing that this may be true.  The argument is mostly about who is to blame. Who or what gave rise to “onto-theology,” or “classical theism” or the focus on metaphysics? While the incremental steps which gave rise to an irrelevant theology might be debated (e.g., the Constantinian shift, Augustinian dualism and doctrine of original sin, Anselm’s self-grounding philosophy and atonement theory, Scotus’ univocity of being, Calvin’s penal substitution, etc.) the end result is that theology became a perceived ghetto – the realm of those who have nothing pertinent to contribute to reason, science, and modern society.

One might point to Anselm, who presumed final solutions reside within the rational subject as there is a “natural” interiority which can function as the equivalent of revelation. The human word attains the Divine word and human self-presence equals the presence of God.  In other words, Anselm poses a world in which the resources for attaining to God lie within human reason and interiority rather than in a community of faith.

Leslie Newbigin suggests the real culprit in dividing faith from reason is Thomas Aquinas: “The Thomist scheme puts asunder what Augustine had held together, and as a result of this, knowledge is separated from faith. There is a kind of knowledge for which one does not have to depend upon faith, and there is another kind which is only available by exercise of faith. Certain knowledge is one thing; faith is something else. In Locke’s famous definition, belief is ‘a persuasion which falls short of knowledge.’” Augustine and Anselm held that faith was the beginning point, and “faith seeking understanding” held the two realms together. Subsequent to Aquinas, according the Newbigin, certainty is presumed to be a matter of knowledge, not of faith. “Faith is what we have to fall back on when certain knowledge is not had.”[1]

John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Radical Orthodoxy would lay the primary blame for a failed theology (and the failures of modernity in general) on Duns Scotus. His “univocity of being” presumes to find in all being what constitutes it as an individual existing thing. The being of the world, like the being of God, contains its own haecceity or integrity of being. According to the story told in Radical Orthodoxy, Scotus is to blame for making God like all other being, which results in secularism and atheism as God is subsumed by the being of the world.

Nearly everyone piles on Rene Descartes as the true culprit behind the division between faith and reason. Newbigin even suggests he is the cause of the second fall of man. In the midst of the crisis of authority represented between Protestants and Catholics, but more broadly between science and faith, as a paid apologist for the church, Descartes develops his argument for God, beginning, not with faith, but with doubt. He argued that knowledge of God and the soul was the business of philosophy, and the particulars of Christianity stood apart from the certain knowledge provided by natural reason. He presumes that since he has certain knowledge within himself, this knowledge is distinct from the realm of his body and the “outside” world. He concludes his soul is independent of the outside world and that the mind is distinct from and superior to matter. It is his soul, he argues, which does the real seeing, hearing, and perceiving, and not his physical eyes, ears, or physical body. He presumes any eye could be stuck in his eye socket, even a dead animal’s eye, for his soul to see through. Thought and action, belief and practice, the realm of the mind and the world of social relations are divided as a result.

Isaac Newton, who considers himself a theologian above all else, wanted to correct the primary mistake he found in Descartes of excluding God from science. Newton depicts God as inserting the created world into an already existing time and space (the laws of nature like the laws of reason are uncreated). He presumed God needed to occasionally correct the great machine of the universe and allows for God in the gaps, but his natural theology mostly closes the universe and promotes mechanical philosophy. As Pierre-Simon Laplace replies to Napoleon, inquiring where God is in his theory, “Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.” Laplace assumed he had closed the gaps in Newtonian theory.

Wherever the blame is placed, it seems undeniable that a cleavage develops between the God of philosophy and science and the God of the Bible.  The former is demonstrable through apologetics and philosophical arguments while the latter is known through narrative and history. The God found in narrative does not provide for the sort of certainty found in the God of reason, and thus the God of reason and certainty becomes definitive of the God of faith. Natural theology, the study of metaphysics, and the notion of God as efficient cause, trumps the personal trinitarian God revealed in Christ. The being or the existence of God becomes the primary thing about him and his redemptive work in Christ and history are often rendered secondary to the brute fact of his existence.

The focus on God’s relation to time and history, the implicit privileging of monotheism over trinitarianism, arguments about immutability, impassibility, and sovereignty come to dominate much of the theological conversation. The notion of the world as a limited whole shapes theology such that the universe is no longer sacramental. Rather than the universe shining forth with the grandeur of God, it is a problem for God. Mechanical philosophy, evolutionary biology, or the pervasive tendency to reductionism, threatens to shut out God entirely, so that theology becomes consumed with proofs.

 In the realm of biblical studies, the primary effort becomes one of warding off scientific attacks, defending against higher criticism, and defending the inerrancy of the biblical text. Harmony between the Old and New Testament, harmony within the Gospels, harmony within the doctrine of the Bible, becomes the prime imperative among conservatives. The Bible not Jesus, history and not Christ, becomes the presumed ground of the Christian truth claim. Propositions about Christ tend to displace the centrality of his person. Historicism displaces the Word revealed in a continuum of history, as the Spirit of history becomes the history of spirit. In the general tenor of theology, like that of the culture, doubt displaces trust, certainty is sought to avoid risk, and facts are preferred over narrative. In the words of Paul, taken up by Origen, the spirit is displaced by the letter.

Origen might refer to the boring form of theology today as the faith of the “simple ones.” These simple ones believe in the creator God but they read Scripture without the Spirit, and are left, not simply with the literal text but the letter devoid of the Spirit. He commends their high view of the creator but concludes, they believe things about God that would “not be believed of the most savage and unjust of men.”[2] He says the reason for this, and the reason for the false teaching of the heretics and the literalism of the Jews, can be assigned to a singular cause: “holy Scripture is not understood by them according to its spiritual sense, but according to the sound of the letter.”[3] Those that miss the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Word, or the Spirit of history, “have given themselves up to fictions, mythologizing for themselves hypotheses according to which they suppose that there are some things that are seen and certain others which are not seen, which their own souls have idolized.”[4] The boring/simple ones reduce God to being after their own likeness and they miss the sacramental nature of the word and world delivered through the Spirit.


[1] Leslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 18.

[2] Origen, On First Principles 4.2.1.

[3] Ibid. 4.2.2.

[4] Ibid. 4.2.1.