Resurrection as Sign or Substance of Salvation?

There are two primary ways of narrating the human predicament and its resolution in Christ and these two ways involve the two broadest forms of Christianity found in East and West (categories that are ultimately inadequate). The question that divides is whether sin is the problem which gives rise to death or is death the predicament which gives rise to sin? How one views this choice is determinative of the role of resurrection but it is also the move which will either posit a gap within or organically fuse the sign of the work of Christ with what it signifies.

The problem, giving us two forms of the faith, can be traced to the 3rd century with the Latin Vulgate’s rendering of Romans 5:12 (which describes sin’s universal spread resulting in death rather than death’s spread resulting in sin, as a consequence of Adam), which will not only give rise to Augustine’s notion of original sin but to varying interpretations of the death and resurrection of Christ which will infect even those theologies which may not hold to either Augustine’s theory of original sin or Calvin’s rendering of Augustinian theory. While there are some 20 different “theories” of atonement (which are not necessarily opposed – though some are) there are two basic approaches to understanding the work of Christ: the life and death of Christ are either a direct reversal of sin (a healing or deliverance) rendered directly available through resurrection, or his life and death are a step removed from the primary problem and his resurrection is a sign pointing to the resolution of the problem (as a sign of righteousness (sin defeated), rather than the thing itself). To state it in this broad way I am intending to capture an array of understandings characteristic, in the first instance, of what we might call Augustinian Christianity (in characteristic forms of Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, but also the range from fundamentalism to liberalism) and Eastern Christianity. The ultimate goal (which can only be gestured to in this introduction) is not simply to distinguish forms of Christianity which separate or do not separate the sign and what it signifies but to describe how the life, death, and resurrection of Christ directly reverse the human predicament which is not clear at this point in theories East or West.  This will entail beginning with the person and work of Christ as the interpretive frame for understanding the solution and the problem toward which the solution is directed (an apocalyptic hermeneutic).

There are texts in Scripture which might support either of these understandings (e.g. the cross as a sign or as an organic solution), so it is not enough to demonstrate that his death is a sacrifice, a consequence of sin, or a pathological result of evil. His death might be all of these things but to make it simply any one of these is not an end of explanation nor does it arrive at the fullness of an organic solution. Certainly, his death was at the hands of evil men (as Peter tells it in the first Christian sermon) but does this mean, as Edward Schillebeeckx maintains, “that we are not redeemed thanks to Jesus’ death but in spite of it.” Or does this mean that, as Donald Smythe has put it, “We revere the cross as a sign and symbol of what fidelity to God means?” What Schillebeekx and Smythe are rejecting is the notion that the death of Christ involves an exchange between the Father and the Son, removed from the human context (as in theories of divine satisfaction and penal substitution), but then they too are guilty of reducing the cross to a sign. The cross is indeed a sign of many things, but is it simply a sign of consequences? It is not enough to reject vicarious satisfaction and with it to reject the centrality of the cross, nor are ancient formulations of Christus Victor (the cross as the defeat of the devil) in and of themselves adequate to rescue this centrality. Just as Nicaea and Chalcedon would develop and extend the New Testament understanding of the Trinity, so too we must develop and extend our understanding of the doctrine of salvation.

This will entail not simply a reordering of proof texts (all 20 theories of the atonement have their texts) but beginning from an apocalyptic presumption that the work of Christ not only provides an answer but also unveils (the root meaning of apocalypse) the problem. Christ is the resolution to a problem we do not understand, as stupidity, ignorance, false sophistication, having believed a lie, is part of the problem he exposes (I Cor. 1:20). The answer comes prior to the diagnosis because the disease is one of deception. To begin with sin is to begin with a complete mystery, even in Augustine’s estimate, which will leave salvation mysterious as well.  The diagnosis and remedy entail a holistic inclusion of epistemology, as the life that one relinquishes so as to gain true life (Mt 10:39; Mk 8:35; Lk 9:24; Jn 12:25) is inclusive of the life of the mind. Our addiction to one sort of life is characterized by an addiction to a foundational knowledge (our knowing), which is not simply a modern philosophical method. Augustine is not simply mistaken in his creation of his distinctive notion of original sin but in his hermeneutic which presumes to work out Romans 5:12 apart from Romans 5:10 in which the life of Christ is set up as the interpretive frame for understanding sin and death. Our desperate addiction to a form of life that kills is inclusive of a deadly, lying, interpretive frame. The sure sign of this mode of thought is that it begins explanation apart from the cross and presumes sin and death are accessible apart from his death and resurrection.  

In this sense Augustine’s mistake is the mistake of sin. Death as the occasion for sin is always obscured or denied in sin and instead it is made a result to be voided or avoided (through the law). Contractual theology negotiates a way around death, presuming as it does that the law marks the way even for the work of Christ (he keeps the contract where we could not and he pays the price required by the law). Rather than the law marking an orientation to death the law is thought to be the means of life which Christ fulfilled. The lie of sin, that there is life in the law which voids the role of death, is the mark of failed humanity and religion. You won’t die (as the serpent tells Eve) as death is unreal – a doorway to the unfolding of immortality. So too in a failed Christianity, death is made peripheral by either shuttling the work of the cross off to heaven or getting rid of it entirely. A theology which misses the very thing the cross was meant to heal bears the mark of sin. To reverse the problem, as in an Augustinian reading, and to imagine sin has some sort of mysterious coherence apart from its orientation to death (the grab for life) and its disruption of resurrection life, is to not only miss sin (it is made original, mysterious, genetically conveyed, sexual, pertaining to guilt) but to miss how the cross frees from sin (it too is made mysterious, heavenly, pertaining to the mind of God, or simply particular forms of oppression). 

 Given the starting point of the resurrection and our participation in that resurrection (Paul’s starting point in such passages as Ephesians 2) we come to understand how dying to one form of life is actually a dying into life or a dying to death. That is, resurrection as our starting point also tells us that death does not simply pertain to our morality but to an orientation which is death dealing in the living (the opposite of resurrection living). The reason that the death of Christ leads to resurrection is the same reason that our dying with him leads to our resurrection life. Jesus describes it as a germination sort of dying, bearing the fruit of life. To hold back this planting and germination, so as to keep a grip on the life one loves, is to halt life before it begins. To follow Jesus manner of life, in which he takes up the cross, is already to live out the resurrection (to die with him is to be raised with him (Jn 12:24-26)). In this understanding, death need not characterize a person’s life, so death as the controlling orientation is overcome. Death, in fact, is no longer a negative factor orienting life, but dying to this orientation by embracing the death of Christ is the means to life.  

Joseph Fahey recently shared his class notes with me from a course taught by William Frazier. Frazier used a series of questions to bring out the radical but sometimes subtle difference in these two forms of Christianity. In order to accentuate this distinction and to locate one’s own understanding I have copied, sometimes in revised form, a few of these questions below. I provide an explanation below that might aid in drawing out the difference.

1. Death is a mystery that   A. necessarily destroys life    B. potentially enables life.

2. Death is a result of   A. sin     B. creation.

3. The Father saved us     A. in spite of Jesus death    B. by way of Jesus death.

4.  According to Christian belief the Savior saves mainly by    A. bringing about a real change in the world     B. showing the world how to change itself.

5. God accomplished salvation through Christ by   A. reconciling the world to himself   B. reconciling himself to the world.

6. The Christian life is related to death as   A. oil is to water   B. night is to day    C. flower is related to seed.  

7. Of the following alternatives the one I find closest to the Christian truth is that    A. sin germinates in the soil of mortality    B. mortality germinates in the soil of sin.

8. Of the following alternatives the one I find closest to the Christian truth is that death    A. is something that happens to human beings    B. the way human beings happen.

9. Resurrection means deliverance   A. from death    B. through death.

10. Of the following alternatives the one I find closest to the Christian truth is that the resurrection of Jesus   A.  did away with his death   B. derived from his death    C. reversed his death.

Finding Peace in a Hostile Universe

In the midst of this pandemic it is easy to believe that pathogens, germs, viruses, and disease, or the chaotic nature of the world, is the key factor in determining human behavior.[1] We live in a hostile world and it is the nature of the world that gives rise to the consistent patterns of human response (culture). It may be that it is not that this chaotic world is the cause of any particular response but it is certainly the occasion which gives rise to the range of human responses.[2] In the best of times there are limited resources, the looming possibility of natural calamities, and the inevitable onset of disease and old age, but in the midst of a world-wide pandemic the precariousness of life is accentuated and the responses  were predictable: i.e., this “Chinese” disease is the fault of the Chinese; God is punishing the wicked; life is meaningless so eat, drink, and go to the beach. Writ large this scapegoating (blaming, sacrificing, and organizing around the common enemy), rationalizing (the world operates according to law and God can be identified with this law), or embracing the futility (as in hedonism, nihilism, pantheism, etc.), might describe the predominant cultures, philosophies, and religions of the world. What all such systems share and are built upon is the presumption that the ultimate power (whether the gods, God, or the universe) is against us. The world is hostile and we might try to redirect the violence (scapegoating religion), explain it (we have been stricken by God), or succumb to it by denying or embracing the hostility under another name (presuming death is not unnatural and evil is an unnecessary distinction).

A hostile universe may not determine that we channel all of our energies into the struggle for survival or that we become bent upon explaining, controlling, and warding off death, but given this factor the basic human tendency is accounted for. Where this backdrop of hostility is made absolute, we must arm ourselves against “God” by employing violent sacrificial religion; we must arm ourselves against our enemies with weapons of war; we must arm ourselves against our neighbor through positions of power and plenty. The self-seeking need to secure ourselves makes even the drive for pleasure an obscene injunction to “enjoy” at the expense of the other (witness the crowds at the beach). The disease that afflicts us in this present moment is simply a case in point of the cause of the human disease, the one giving rise to the other.  We live in a hostile world and this explains human hostility and violence. The disease of human violence arises in the attempt to reduce the worlds hostility to controllable human proportions.

The raw fact that the natural world is deadly and that humans are deadly (for themselves, to one another, and the natural world) is not a necessary correlate, but given that the laws of the universe or that the cosmos itself are presumed to be absolute, cosmic necessity becomes human necessity. The identification of God with the law (no matter the specifics of the religion, the nature of God or the gods, or the details of the law) means that God is felt to be present only as our enemy. This condition which Paul blames on the “natural mind,” creates hostility toward God and others. This hostility is derived from mistaking the finite for the infinite (typical of idolatry) and imagining that limited power is ultimate power (the power of death definitive of nature but also taken in hand by the “principalities and powers”). A religion (call it Christian or not) which mistakes this hostility for God’s hostility is, by definition, absolutely devoted to relative causes.

 In such a belief system, one is bound to swear final allegiance and loyalty to finite and temporal causes (the self, the tribe, the nation, civilization, etc.) which commits one to absolute hostility toward the enemy. Tribal and national allegiances become religious absolutes and violent sacrifice of the enemy or the self (to kill or be killed), can be considered the ultimate sacrifice to God. Human animosity and hostility are presumed to be supernatural forces embodied by our God, and our wrath is presumed to be divine in its requirement of infinite appeasement and satisfaction. Our hostility and defensiveness become the prime creative power so that setting infinite store on our conflicts, the glory of war, the glory of a violent death, the glory of service to our finite loyalties, becomes divine glory. This lying exchange of God’s glory, in Paul’s summation of Old Testament history, is definitive of human evil (Rom. 1:23 ff.).

Under this condition, to know God as love and peace is an impossibility, as God is simply the name given to the hostile powers of the destroyer (the Satanic destroyer is mistaken for God). Though there are instances of naming devotion to the destroyer “love,” this world is so skewed that love is simply an anthropomorphism for delimited hatred (as Calvin explains his understanding of God’s love). To reconcile one to this hostility, as if it is God, is to render love empty and meaningless. In fact, one can deploy the full range of Christian vocabulary but in this world all the words take on a different meaning, though the same thing might be said of many religious systems. The Buddhist or Hindu may use the word evil without believing in it, but so too the Calvinist. The deep grammar of a world of presumed hostility is bound to mistake evil for good, darkness for light, and death as a form of life. To change up this human frame of reference, this deep grammar of human understanding, the Bible does not presume an escape from this world but a salvation inclusive of the cosmos.

Though this notion of “cosmic salvation” may sound strange to modern western ears, for Paul’s contemporaries and for the vast majority of world cultures it was and is presumed to be definitive of salvation. The stars, the alignment of the planets, fate, karma, the inexplicable will of the cosmic controlled gods, is the fixed order with which one must negotiate “salvation” (which might mean any number of things). Even temporary deliverance from the malign forces of cosmic necessity accounts for the energies and devotions of many religions. In Japan, for example, to call these forces good or evil, divine or demonic, is to misunderstand, as it seems to pose a choice. One does not choose subjection to these forces; they are simply the forces which must be dealt with. Even nirvana or moksha are not deliverance from, so much as reconciliation with, the obliterating forces of cosmic hostility under a different name.

In Judaism, by comparison, there is the weird depiction of the laws of nature being changed up, so that wolves and lambs will cuddle and children will frolic with snakes and bears. In the grand visions of this kingdom, there is simultaneously steady rain for an abundance of crops and an ending of human violence and hostility. Swords are turned into ploughshares, war is no longer a preoccupation or worry, and even animals that under the old order would have been enemies are found to be eating hay instead of one another. Interwoven throughout each of the texts, is the end of various manifestations of human violence, human greed, human want, human deprivation, human oppression, with the end of  natural calamities, the natural exposures to draught and famine, and the end of the hostility built into nature (see Is 11:6-9, 65:17-25; Job 5:20-24; Zach 8:9-12; Jer 14; Lev. 26:3-6; Ez 34:25-29). The all-inclusive peace of these passages presumes that, in the words of William Frazier, “anthropological peace germinates in cosmological soil.”[3]

This points toward the cosmic/human solution of Christ, as the presumption of the cross is that following “the course of this world” humans have taken up enmity.  Human hostility built upon cosmic hostility is a diagnosis which explains the specific nature of the intervention found in the cross, as outlined in such passages as Col. 1:19-20 and Eph. 2. Both passages are inclusive of the cosmos but depict a reordering or reshaping of the cosmic order through Christ. They depict a cosmic scope, inclusive of “all things on earth or things in heaven” (Col. 1:19-20) as Christ “is before all things” and “holds all things together” (Col 1:17). At the same time, there is the focus on the particulars of human peace worked out with this cosmic reconciliation. The enmity between Jews and Gentiles, representative of all inter-human enmity, and the hostility of humans toward God, and the cosmic nature of this enmity, are simultaneously addressed in Christ (Eph 2:11-19). The cosmic order is being re-established as human order is brought into its proper service and place through his body, his Temple: “having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:20-22). The cosmos as temple puts the cosmos in its proper order as it puts the human priests of the temple in their proper place. This peace which ends all hostility culminates in cosmic temple worship: “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (Col 1:17–18).

So, it is this root hostility, in both its natural and human phase, toward which the peace of the cross of Christ is aimed. Peace is definitive of salvation, not because God is our angry enemy (as in theories of divine satisfaction or penal substitution), but as in Paul’s explanation, because we are defined by our hostility. Christ challenges our defining presumption that presumes God has arrayed the laws of the universe, the laws of religion, the laws of the human conscience, against us. Christ is the Prince of Peace because, in a very specific manner, he disarms us of our need for sacrificial religion, for weapons of war, and for the weapons of power and control.  It is not that Christ simply persuades us of the love of God (the moral influence theory), though he may do that. The specific nature of the work of Christ is called for by the specific nature of the human predicament. There is a “dividing wall of hostility” obstructing peace and good will among all human classes (Jew/gentile, slave/free, male/female) and this dividing wall is inclusive of a “carnal hostility toward God” (Ro 8:7). It is this specific hostility which Christ came to resolve as he “broke down the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14) and “put to death the enmity” (v 16).

[1] Randy Thornhill has proposed that germs may be the basis for various forms of cultural formation see

[2] William Frazier, How the God of Jesus Makes Peace Kindle Edition. This article is part of the fruit of a prolonged encounter with and development of the work of William Frazier. Many years ago, I encountered an article in a missionary magazine which set the course of my studies and changed my theological orientation. When you find thought this profound and all-encompassing you presume it must be backed up by a host of publications. I presumed this ground-breaking thinker would be mentioned, studied, and quoted. Either I missed where this was happening or I was wrong. I looked for the big book summing up his research. He published a few articles, but he passed away last year. I just discovered this small book based on his papers and lectures. This piece is a synopsis of this book – available for 99 cents on Amazon. I wish I had let him know of the profound impact his work had on me.  Thank you, William Frazier, and thanks to Joseph Fahey, who put this little book together.

[3]William Frazier, How the God of Jesus Makes Peace (p. 72). Kindle Edition.

Apocalyptic Story Time in the Midst of the Plague

President Trump has recently been repeating that there are much worse things that might result from social isolation, in the attempt to halt the coronavirus, and the implication is that this ultimate worst thing is the failure of the economy. R. R. Reno, in First Things, has chimed in with a full-bore theological support of Trump, explaining that we need to recognize that the sacrifice of a small percentage of the population may be necessary to save the system as a whole.[1] Like Trump, he never specifically names the ultimate catastrophe (perhaps it is too fearful and unimaginable to even utter), but he ridicules the “sentimentalism” which would attempt to save a small number of lives concluding, “The Eucharist itself is now subordinated to the false god of ‘saving lives.’”

The Eucharist, in Reno’s version, is on the side of hard free market choices, which he describes as a system of triage. Doing triage, or choosing who must be sacrificed, always “requires the hard moral labor” of rationing “healthcare by price, waiting times, and physician discretion.” The unspoken message, that the present economy requires human sacrifice, is articulated as, “Only an irresponsible sentimentalist imagines we can live in a world without triage.” Reno seems to recognize he is near to defining Eucharist (what he calls the “no to the reign of death”) in the same way Paul defines sin, so he clarifies, “We must never do evil that good might come.” But he hedges and qualifies his way back to embracing Paul’s formula for evil, as if it is the good: “But we often must decide which good we can and should do, a decision that nearly always requires not doing another good, not binding a different wound, not saving a different life.” In other words, the zero-sum game of capitalism (the life of “finitude”) embraces the necessity of sacrificing the few for the many.

To not embrace this individualistic survival of the fittest obscenity is, in Reno’s estimate, to miss the imperative of the Gospel, which he rightly pinpoints as overcoming the fear of death. What he misses in the Gospel, is that the fear of death reigns through the lie that proposes death as the solution to life, so it need not be feared (the ultimate result of fear is believing this lie). Every good samurai, every devout religionist, every fervid nationalist, would follow the Satanic injunction to embrace death as the means to life. Reno has confused Satan and God, the Truth and the lie, evil and the good.

He demonstrates this through the unfortunate example of the Spanish flu epidemic. “Unlike us, however, that generation did not want to live under Satan’s rule, not even for a season. They insisted that man was made for life, not death.” It was for this reason that this generation threw caution to the wind, “bowed their head before the storm of disease and endured its punishing blows, but they otherwise stood firm and continued to work, worship, and play, insisting that fear of death would not govern their societies or their lives.” As a result of this robust refusal to be turned aside from work, worship, and play, between 20 to 50 million people lost their lives. Reno could be paraphrasing the serpent in the Garden in urging us to embrace death. “We must reject the specious moralism that places fear of death at the center of life,” and the way we do this is to embrace death.

Reno warns us not to believe what is most obviously true: “They abandoned the weak to the slaughter of the disease for no good reason.” No, he says, rather, “They insisted that man was made for life, not death.” The way one really lives is not to take precaution but to continually fuel life with the reality of death. Life, in this view, is structured by death. This is the impetus behind every form of violence, every justification for war, every turn to defying death through death. Death, war, and violence, are presumed to be made controllable through embracing them. As Sue Mansfield has put it, through active violence, death and destruction “are forced into an ordered gestalt that human consciousness can encompass because it is commensurate with human limits and meanings.”[2] Reno would turn the death of Christ into a fellowship of death, in which life is a limited commodity ordered by death (resurrection does not enter into it). Saving lives is not important in Reno’s religion, as life seems to have little intrinsic value.

The additional lie surrounding the Spanish flu epidemic, is that out of concern of appearing weak before their enemies during WW I, government officials suppressed reporting on the number of deaths and the seriousness of the disease. In other words, they were advocates of doing evil that good might abound; better to lose a few thousand citizens than to risk losing the war. Of course, fear of death looms behind this willing sacrifice of tens of thousands. Reno portrays this same unspeakable fear in advocating business as usual. Rather than seeing this as an opportunity for reevaluating life’s chief concerns, Reno seems to be recommending “family reunions,” “visiting the elderly,” and “serving the Eucharist,” all in death defying support of not turning from routine. A moment alone, a time of boredom, a period of reflection, may contain the chief fearful realization: the ordering principles of the American Way, of liberal democratic capitalistic society, are inadequate and subject to failure.

 Reno (perhaps, along with his magazine and its ideology, fleshed out in this political moment) is living proof that Eucharist, Gospel, or Jesus, might all be so twisted so as to serve the most profound evil. The structuring principle backing his ready willingness to secure the system at the expense of its people, concerns the guiding philosophy, not only of his right-wing Catholicism, but the undergirding thought of right-wing evangelicalism. Richard Neuhaus, founding editor of First Things, proposed that the American experiment in self-government be reconceived in terms of a communal “covenant” under God. The political and theological implications may be most simply expressed in his understanding that “when he died and stood face-to- face with his creator, he expected to do so as an American.” He holds that the American experience is a “sacred enterprise.” As Michael Novak (a fellow traveler) has described it, the market economy mirrors the will of the divine Trinity, meaning the spread of democratic capitalism is “the greatest story ever told.” Or as Attorney General William Barr would have it, “the traditional Judeo-Christian moral system” is under threat as secularism threatens the United States. Each would conflate the story of the United States with Christianity. Where the system of the United States is threatened so is the Christian moral system. Christ and Christianity are made to fit the American story and are understood in this context.[3]

In the Christian story, the recognition is that we are all in this together, and this is an all-inclusive “all,” without geographic (space) or historical (time) boundaries. It is not enough to add Christ to an already existing story or to imagine the community from which the story of the United States arises is the Christian community. In this sort of virtual reality, actually existing lives count for very little. By the same token, it is not enough to simply imagine that foregrounding the story of Christ with the story of creation, the story of Abraham, or the story of Israel, or the story of the Church, will adequately contextualize our understanding of Christ (as illustrated with Catholic/evangelical ideology). Christ is not added to or understood in the context of other stories, even the unfolding narrative of Scripture.

In the New Testament, time and space bend around the life, death and resurrection of Christ. As in Ephesians 2:6, God has already “raised us up with him.” His past resurrection accounts for a present experience which will be realized in the future. In I Corinthians Paul states, “our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.” Christ was present with Israel in their exodus and wilderness journey. As Paul says a few verses later (detailed in Numbers 21 and Psalm 77), it was Christ that they had put to the test and the Corinthians should avoid doing the same. The incarnate Christ as the pre-existent Christ bends all of history around the incarnation. He “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4) and “all things have been created through him and for him.” The same one that is “head of the body, the church” is the one that is in the beginning.” This narrative simultaneously focuses on the historical Christ as encompassing the beginning and end “so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (Col. 1:16-18).

The saving work of Christ does not abandon the physical, the historical world, as in Reno’s theology, nor does it abandon the many or the few for the benefit of the saved. Any version of the story which is not centered on the singular story of Christ (his life, death and resurrection as context) will, of necessity, produce the dead wood of the expendable darkness so as to provide the fuel for producing the light. As Chris Tilling depicts it, this sort of narrative time (“stretched over a sequential template”) “locks key truth claims about the whole into the beginning” so that the problem is determinative of the answer. The hero or heroine is constituted by an already determined task. The beginning, the particular historical context, a moment in time, preceding or separate from Christ, “by force of being first, contains key or axiomatic truths for the articulation of the whole.”[4] A beginning, history, or Fall, which is read as unfolding toward Christ will be determinative of the meaning of Christ, so that sin will be determinative of salvation and creation will contextualize and control incarnation.  Just as the beatific vision of Augustine, Calvin, and Aquinas, is dependent upon an eternal delight in witnessing the tortures of the damned, so too the poor unfortunates sacrificed in Reno’s Catholicism do not require sentimental consideration but are the necessary expendables of a faith, contextualized by this present moment.

It may turn out that love of neighbor, in these unsettling times, results in full realization of what it might mean that we are all in this together. This simple but apocalyptic realization may best be learned in the midst of this global pandemic, in which we realize GDP, money, the market economy, do not really count for much in the face of recognition that my good cannot be purchased at the expense of my neighbor. This common place assumption cannot be absorbed where the values of the of the market reign supreme.

It is time to find ourselves a different ordering principle, an alternative hermeneutic, a different story. As my friend Matt Welch has written, “This awful situation is also an opportunity for us to learn something deep & mysterious & wonderful & telling about the world God created for us: that the good of each individual human being is bound up with the good of every other human being. We each *need* the well-being of our neighbor for our own well-being. Our good depends upon the good of our neighbor. The human race is a family and God is our Father.”

As Tilling notes, where “the revelation of God is conditioned by something other than the reality of God in Jesus Christ, then that which conditions it has become the real lord.”  Due to “human sinfulness and rebellion, such constructed interpretative lords are prone to idolatry,” and as in all idolatry (every market economy) human sacrifice is the unfolding necessity.[5] Where the interpreter contextualizes herself in the revelation of God in Christ, and not in their time, their country, their narrative, the necessity of the moment is overridden by the power of resurrection and an entirely different “necessity” – love for the neighbor.

[1] R. R. Reno, “Say ‘No’ to Death’s Dominion,” First Things (3/23/20),

[2] Sue Mansfield, The Gestalt of War, quoted from William Frazier, How the God of Jesus Makes Peace (p. 23). Kindle Edition.

[3] I have written of all of this here –

[4] Christ Tilling, “Paul, Christ, and Narrative Time,” in Christ and the Created Order: Perspectives from Theology, Philosophy, and Science, Andrew Torrance and Thomas McCall, eds., (Zondervan, 2018) 162. Thank you Tim for putting me onto this.

[5] Ibid.


Liberty, our little Church, is officially located in the township of Cairo (pronounced kayro), formerly known as Fairview. Either the view was judged not so fair or the name was not exotic enough. So far as I know, there are no actual Egyptians associated with the village. At any rate, Liberty is not really near the village but is several miles up 63 and some 4 miles east. Turn right onto the dirt road under the American flag and the big bill board (which has recently carried messages trying to prevent suicide or trying to preserve fuel), and just beyond the Unlimited Supply Company (a contradiction in messages). You will pass a ranch on the left, which for inexplicable reasons has four long horn cattle in a front pen, then you will go by Rita’s house on the right. Rita is not able to get to church often due to her sister Nita being ill, though she is a fine baker and will be happy to cater your next event. On the left you will pass a sign for the Jim and Betty Mather Goat Farm with Award-Winning Goats (not having seen their exceptional goats I am not clear in what manner they win awards). Liberty is over the rise behind the cemetery.

 We recently buried Imogene (who passed away at age 97) and her grave is still fresh, two rows back. Right after her funeral Larry pointed out the oldest part of the cemetery in the northeast corner where Edgar Crew is buried and who, though the marker does not indicate it, was hung in 1891. The clientele of the cemetery, in Larry’s telling, are not closely scrutinized on the finer points of doctrine. The cemetery is largely occupied by Robucks, Larry’s people, and while we are liberal in our burying practices, Larry is concerned that interlopers will learn of the cheap burial plots in the pristine surroundings and buy them all up.  

One grave evokes the story of Jessi Miller, the son of the closest neighbors to the Church. The Millers, like several families spread out in the countryside around the Church, attended Liberty until a hardnosed preacher insisted that Leroy Olsen, son of Rose Marie (who still attends), could not serve as deacon as he had married a divorced woman.  The Millers, along with about half the members, quit. So young Jessi and the Millers were no longer associated with the Church. At age 16 Jessi acquired a particularly nice automobile and a girlfriend, and on the same day as his girlfriend broke up with him there was a flood on highway H, and Jessi ran the car into the flood waters near the power substation. He managed to get out of the car but he walked the 3 miles home, found his deer rifle and finalized the bad turn of events.

Woodrow (a name used by Larry McMurtry in his novel, Lonesome Dove), who passed on before my arrival, is the name stamped in all of our hymnals along with his wife Fern, also memorialized by a bush in front of the Church. Occasionally stories of Woodrow come up, but I just imagine Lonesome Dove’s Woodrow Call as a Missouri farmer and a peculiarly hard-headed Elder. I am always slightly amused by the memorial Fern Bush as I walk into the building.

Between the Church and the cemetery is a wide rolling green lawn (Doug Cider comes out each week to mow) sloping into thick woods behind the Church, which during deer season sounds like an artillery range. Last Sunday, as I walked into the Church (which is on what Missourians call a knob and so affords an expansive view), I counted 10 different bird calls. Rose Marie figured there would have been Killdeer, Robins, Warblers, and Field Sparrows, but she suggested I may have overestimated in my count.

 As usual, the men gathered in the foyer for a rundown of the week’s events, and I asked Dell why he drove his truck rather than the car he usually uses for Sunday.  Dell recounted the most prolonged tale I had ever heard from him. His daughter had bought a new Audi and was driving up to visit when she had a flat tire and discovered the Germans had so precision engineered the car that the spare is deflated so as to fit into the spare tire well. The story involved dim witted tow truck drivers that could not change or fix a tire, several visits by the highway patrol, and ended with Dell loaning his car to his daughter for the week and driving the truck to Church. Larry had not arrived yet and when he did, he also noticed Dell had driven his truck. Dell faithfully recounted, without a single abridgement, this fine chronicle (a good story deserves retelling). Each week Nina ends our conversation with a rousing chorus on the piano of “To God be the Glory,” and we move up front.

Besides raising cattle, Larry had a career as a science teacher, a basketball coach, and for many years was an elected representative on the local rural electric coop.  I once pointed out to him that by Texas standards he owned more cattle than most and yet he did not dress the part (big hat, boots, etc.). He said that his father had taught him to never be presumptuous and for that reason was hesitant to even wear a cap, as it might seem as if he were trying to be what he is not. Uppity would be the last word I would associate with either Dell or Larry. Dell, retired for many years, is a skilled woodworker, though the missing fingers on one hand testify to a major mistake. I explained to him that in Japan the missing digits would mark him as a particularly mean mafioso, but in his quiet humility he may have missed the incongruity.

 Sunday School this week, on “Consequences for Injustice,” brought out a predictable turn in which Lois, our Quaker member who also follows the Unity movement out of Kansas City, clearly has the brightest perspective. Larry pointed out that a nation cannot survive where basic honesty and human decency are no longer honored. There is nothing worse than a liar, according to Larry, and he presumes America cannot continue on its present path.  An early sign of this (which I am not sure I completely comprehend as I do not follow basketball) is, as Larry explained, the defection of Lew Alcindor to the Muslim religion. Lewis Alcindor, in Larry’s book, is one of the most morally upstanding of human beings and when he became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar this was a sign the universe was out of kilter.  I pointed out that we could add a long list of black Christians turned Muslim, but Larry seemed unimpressed with my examples. No one, apparently, is in the same orbit with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Lois brought a more positive note, pointing out that “the Christ within” does not depend upon this particular political moment. Even Hitler, she explained, would be given many chances in his multiple reincarnated states.  I am never quite sure if we are all exactly on the same page, but everyone seemed satisfied.

Michael has recently constructed the FP lasagna garden, as he calls it, consisting of a layer of paper, manure, mulch, and composted soil. Rose Marie shows little interest in most subjects, but the mention of gardening so transforms her countenance – it is the only sure subject that elicits a smile.  So, I mention our gardening progress just to witness the transformation and to receive whatever advice she might have.  I would guess it is only in this peculiar sacred space that she receives a bit of conversation, signs of interest, and quiet solicitude and solace.

Likewise, our little Church provides a place for Dell’s storytelling, Larry’s theologizing, and Lois’s exhortations. It is the root of this little community, providing a core sense of place, where all have a voice. The humble little white building is so unpretentious that it serves as a levelling device, much like the tiny entrance to a Japanese tea room (all are made to bow equally). There is no financial or political gain in this levelling place. Those interested in the vestments of power, the presumption of self-importance, would feel ridiculous in this society with the singular prerequisite of willing acceptance. I have never heard an angry word spoken, as even the most serious topics are approached with great good humor and regard for the feelings of others. The homely surroundings, by definition, do not admit snobbery or exclusion. In other words, a piece of all its members is rooted in this little country chapel.  Smoke and mirrors may entertain the masses but spiritual well-being requires a heavier investment.

If you could be buried in this lovely obscurity, this place out of time, without longing for bigger and better, there is an open plot South of Edgar Crew, about 2 yards West of Imogene. The price of entry is $60 and a life.

 I think I can assure Larry he need not worry about a mob of interlopers.

The Wrath of God Proceeds from His Love

Christ came to address the problem of sin and not the various consequences of sin, such as the wrath of God, guilt, shame, or the list of consequences spelled out in Romans 1 (degrading passions, greed, unrighteousness, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossiping, slander, hatred of God, arrogance, boastfulness, etc.). To miss the root problem underlying these consequences is to miss why Christ came and the role of God (he “turns them over to their desires” (Ro 1:24)), in these consequences. Christ did not come to turn away the wrath of God, which would mean he would be turning away God’s love as well. Christ came to do away with what gives rise to wrath. Likewise, he did not come to resolve the problem of guilt but to do away with what causes guilt – and so on down the list. These consequences flow from the root problem of shutting ourselves off from God, and of course in addressing the root problem these consequences are addressed up to and including, particularly, God’s wrath.

To imagine the wrath of God is the primary problem is to miss the way in which it is also a necessary part of the cure. Paul describes sin (the root cause and not the results) as the exchange of the truth for a lie in which the creature displaces the creator as the object of service and worship (Ro 1:25). He seems to be referencing the early chapters of Genesis, but the same prognosis is repeated in each contemporaneous setting Paul addresses. The progression outlined in Ephesians introduces the same sequence of events. People have given themselves over to the “Archon of this world order” (2:2) and as a result they are “godless in the cosmos” (2:12). In other words, they have exchanged creation for the creator, becoming children of wrath (2:3), and this then results in their “being given over to their desire.” The wrath of God is unleashed in sins consequences in both passages, and this results in “walking in darkness” and being “dead in trespasses and sins.” God’s wrath or his vehemence against sin reveals itself in the fact that sin is a despoiling, dying, passing, circumstance.

Romans 1 specifies where the wrath of God is specifically directed: “against all the impiety and injustice of human beings” (Ro 1:18). Paul speaks of an immediate revelation of this wrath from heaven in its unfolding consequences oriented to and deserving of death (Ro 1:32). In Ephesians, walking according to the course of the Prince of this world, and thus being dead in sin, are synonymous with being “children of wrath.” Where love is an enduring state and God’s love endures forever, the experience of his wrath is a passing state (death being, by definition, unenduring) as the dross of sin is burnt away by the wrath which works in sin.

 The wrath is interwoven with being dead in sin but it is also immediately conjoined to the love of God: “because of His great love with which He loved us even when we were dead in our transgressions” (Eph. 2:4-5). The children of wrath are still children and are not simply consigned to wrath as an end point but are destined to pass through wrath to love. Paul is talking about himself and other Christians, who have passed into full experience of the love of God by way of wrath.

 As George McDonald has described it, the passage from wrath to love is not a change in God (from wrath to love) but a passage through a purifying love: “For love loves unto purity,” and this is often experienced as wrath, “as the consuming fire that will not be content until our sinful nature, everything that separates us from God, is burned away.” According to McDonald, “God’s anger is at one with his love.” Mercy and punishment, love and justice, are not opposed, “for punishment—the consuming fire—is a means to an end, that we might be the creatures he intended us to be. God’s punishment, his justice, can be his most merciful act.”[1]

The Hebraism “sons of death” (“sons of wrath” or “sons of stripes”) occurs in several places in the Old Testament, and as in Psalms 102, these children seemingly consigned to death are to be set free so as to constitute “kingdoms to serve the Lord” and to “tell of the name of the Lord in Zion” (Ps. 102:20-21). Ephesians seems to be echoing this tradition of building a kingdom by its purifying passage through the love/wrath of God. The “sons of wrath” are those very ones who will be shown mercy and who “are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (2:22). As Hebrews puts it, “Wherefore, we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29). This unshakeable kingdom is established in and through this purifying fire. In each instance, the point is to pass from walking in darkness and works of death so as to walk in the “good works, which God prepared beforehand” (Eph 2:10).

If salvation is a harmoniously functioning kingdom united under Christ (the thematic picture in the New Testament is of being “in Christ” as part of his body), then the image would seem to also account for the entire movement from damnation to salvation. That is, the disparate elements of the divided kingdom (split in two by the dividing wall of hostility) will come to constitute the stuff of the united kingdom. “He himself is our peace” and this means that hostility, enmity, hatred, and violence will be burned out to make way for this enduring peace among the objects of his wrath. He “abolished in his flesh the enmity,” which means we might speak of his having passed through the fire of wrath but he has turned it into purified love: “because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, [he] made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:4-5). The making alive due to love redirects from within the orientation to death definitive of experience of God’s wrath (i.e. wrath is a passage to love enacted by Christ).

 As David Bentley Hart has written, “The wrath of God in Scripture is a metaphor, suitable to our feeble understanding, one which describes not the action of God toward us, but what happens when the inextinguishable fervency of God’s love toward us is rejected.”[2] As Hart notes, this is the understanding passed down from the Church fathers. Origen writes, “If you hear of God’s anger and wrath, do not think of wrath and anger as emotions experienced by God. Accommodations of the use of language like that are designed for the correction and improvement of the little child. We too put on a severe face for children.”[3] In Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor, the wrath of God proceeds from his love, so that “even hell itself is not a divine work, but the reality we have wrought within ourselves by our perverse refusal to open out — as God himself eternally has done — in love, for God and others.” Sin is a shutting ourselves off from God, being lost in the cosmos (in a paraphrase of Paul), or being lost within ourselves such that “the fire of divine love cannot transform or enliven us, but only assail us as an external chastisement” as a hell of our own making. [4]  But what is sinful cannot endure the flame of God’s love. As McDonald puts it, “There is nothing eternal but that which loves and can be loved, and love is ever climbing towards the consummation when such shall be the universe, imperishable, divine.”[5] Or in Harts phrase, “Our God is a consuming fire, and the pathos of our rage cannot interrupt the apatheia of his love.”[6]

[1] George McDonald, “The Consuming Fire,” from Unspoken Sermons

[2] David Bentley Hart, “The Hidden and the Manifest: Essays in Theology and Metaphysics” p. 62

[3] 1. Maurice Wiles and Mark Santer, eds., Documents in Early Christian Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1975), 7–10

[4] Hart Ibid.

[5] McDonald Ibid.

[6] Hart Ibid.

A New Ordering of the Body of Thought

We can trace three psychological types in the New Testament, which correspond to three psychoanalytic descriptions, in which the coordinates between the mind and the body are determinative of alternative perceptions of reality.  What might be called the inside out person is completely subject to the valuation of cultural norms, such that there is no interior conflict or alternative awareness, at least at a conscious level (here we encounter the most common type and the most frightening possibilities). The second type is someone who begins to question the order of things (the cultural norms, the symbolic order, the law) but the struggle with these norms is still determinative, as there seems to be no way forward or no escape. The third type has not exactly escaped appearances or phenomena arising from the symbolic or cultural order, but there is a turn to an alternative order of experience.  Deploying the work of the philosopher Michel Henry, it is this third type that I want to explore in depth, but a description of the first two orders of experience will indicate the way the third order of experience is constituted.

The inside out person, the individual who knows who she is based on the scale of values afforded by complete identity with the law or the symbolic order, is at one level the most transparent and the most dangerous. Paul, during the phase in which he is arresting and presumably aiding in killing Christians, is transparent in his identity. He describes this phase of his pre-Christian understanding as guilt free in which he regarded himself “without fault” in regard to the law. As he describes it in Philippians, he considered himself righteous, zealous beyond his peers, and bearing the highest qualifications and impeccable credentials: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Php 3:5–6). Paul has a clear conscience.  No introspective guilt-stricken conscience here. By reason of his birth, his descent from Benjamin, his linguistic and cultural identity as a Hebrew, Paul considered himself faultless and head and shoulders above his peers. His status as a Jew is his identity. This is an inside out world, as we understand this Paul by the outward markers of the law and his Jewishness. Inside out characters must be the most predominant: the Adolph Eichmanns of the world, willing to find their identity in the bureaucracy, the law, the legal proceedings, making sure the trains to the death camps are running on time. Their ambitions, hopes, and desires, are determined completely by the particular symbolic world in which they find themselves. Perhaps we all come to age as petty bureaucrats, presuming the order of things and the scale of values are those set out by the social order.

In Lacanian psychoanalysis this type is dubbed masculine, not because it necessarily pertains to gender, but because of complete identification with societal authority or the father figures of a particular cultural order. As Paul describes this type, “the law dominates the man for whatever time he lives” (Romans 7:1 DBH translation). Paul will identify this type, according to his own experience, as ignorant of their own actions and an incapacity to discern evil. There is a fusion between sin and the law so that Paul, at the time he was doing it, could not discern the sort of evil in which he is engaged. As he describes, in a parallel passage in Galatians, his zeal for the law and his advancement in Judaism were marked by his persecution of the church and his desire to destroy it (Ga 1:13-14). For Paul, the law was not a marker of sin and evil but was fused with sin such that he could not perceive his own evil due to his zeal for the law. As he advanced in law-keeping and in Judaism he simultaneously advanced in his participation in evil. It did not occur to Paul the Pharisee that there was a reality which exceeded the measure of the law. Clearly, Paul is not imagining that in this understanding he has rightly perceived the law; quite the opposite, as he dubs this orientation as “having confidence in the flesh.” [1] The problem is, the flesh marked by the law, has become a principle unto itself.

The second type of subject questions the cultural symbolic order but this questioning and challenging become definitive of this individual. Paul devotes most of chapter 7 of Romans to describing this individual, continually tossed about by their orientation or disorientation to the law. While this person is perhaps a step-up morally and spiritually from the first type, this psychologically tormented individual is consumed with their personal struggles. Sometimes these folks bring a breath of fresh air into our lives with their willingness to challenge all the norms but ultimately, they are exhausting as we realize there is no end to this pursuit of freedom against the law.

 Ironically, in kicking over the traces, shedding all the shackles of culture, this person is oriented to a transgressive questioning of the law, but it is still the law that defines them. This radicalized freedom might express itself philosophically, politically, socially, or as is most often the case, sexually (e.g. democratic revolutions including the American Revolution in which freedom is enshrined as an end in itself, in Marxist and communist revolutionary movements, and in the gender revolution of the moment). The possibility of reconstructing, from scratch, what it means to be human unleashes a plague of possibility. Beyond good and evil, unchained from the worlds sun, not only describes a philosophical realization but a nearly unbearable psychology and a new form of personality or personality disorder. The two most common psychological disorders might be traced to this agonistic questioning. Where obsessional neurosis is structured around the question of existence (think here of the Cartesian cogito in attempting to establish being through thought), hysteria is structured around human sexuality: “Am I a man or a woman?” or “What is a woman?”

The problem of the first two subjects is that their life is defined by the symbolic order. This order might be associated with law, culture, normative values, or simply language. The problem is how to suspend this order so that a person’s life is not spent in service to an artificial construct. Slavery, bondage, deception, and exodus, redemption, and truth, are the motifs under which the Bible poses the problem and solution. The passage is described as new birth, recreation, adoption into a new family, or citizenship in an alternative kingdom. At its most radical it is depicted as an exchange of one cosmic order for another or one sort of body (the body of death) for another (the body of Christ). The movement is not away from embodiment but towards a different sort of body, constituting a different sort of world. 

The way that Paul pictures this as happening in both Colossians and Ephesians is in and through Christ’s flesh. “He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body” (Col. 1:22) “by abolishing in His flesh the enmity” (Eph. 2:15). The enmity with the symbolic order is taken up in the sickness of the self that is definitive of the human disease. To state the reversal of this state most succinctly, the Life that is God (as opposed to death under the law), revealed in and as Christ, is communicated to us through the incarnation, in which we can become participants (through the body of Christ). At a basic level, this is to give absolute significance to embodiment. Where the human body is written over with the law, it appears as a medium for the true significance of the symbolic order.  But the body is not a medium but a source of significance in itself, and this distinguishes it radically (substantially) from other things (which are lent their significance symbolically in language).

As Wittgenstein put it, “The best picture of the soul is the body.” It is because there are human bodies that there is a world of communication and it is by my body that I belong to this world. But there is a profound sense in which we are dispossessed of ourselves, of our bodies, as the flesh becomes symbolic of something else. The first two sorts of subject inhabit a world controlled by the flesh and the desires of the flesh, not because they occupy their bodies, but because the flesh is written over with a significance in which it takes on an alien principle. Paul describes it as giving rise to hostility as it pits the self against the self, the self against God, and the self against others. Paul’s “confidence in the flesh” speaks of an objectifying and distancing from the center of life. There is a sense in which we are restored to ourselves, to our own bodies, without interference, only through the incarnation of Christ. That is, we become incarnate (peace is restored, the dividing wall of hostility is broken down) as we become as he was, incarnate, truly inhabiting our bodies, and this is definitive of true life.

The philosopher Michel Henry begins with the realization that experience of life, pure subjective experience from within, contains the only direct phenomenological access to life. Life reveals itself in itself through the flesh. Everything else presents itself from a distance and poses a gap between the perceiver and the perceived. In his exposition of the Word become flesh in John, Henry points out that if this is the way the Word becomes human, then relationship with God is to be had in and through the flesh. The flesh is not an obstacle but is the locus of our identity with God.[2] This explains why the Word becoming flesh is revelation (John 1:14). It is not that another body among many has appeared, but the flesh of the Word is the revelation. To say the Word became flesh is not to add something else to the Word. This is the cogito as it should be, without any gap between the subject and object of reflection, but pure revelation. There is not, as with ordinary human words, the possibility of duplicity or misrecognition. As Henry puts it, “Because the Word has become incarnate in Christ’s flesh, the identification with this flesh is the identification with the Word—to eternal Life. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.’”[3]

The danger is that we might reduce the body of Jesus by allowing a symbolic significance to reduce it to a sort of mystical writing pad. So, step one is to acknowledge the primacy of the incarnate Jesus. The story of Jesus is the story of Trinity. The mission of Jesus is nothing other than the eternal generation of the Son. There is nothing secondary, shadowy, or even analogous about Jesus. Jesus is the reality of God incarnate. Jesus is the absolute truth and an absolute morality. The mystery of God revealed as Trinity does not unfold from a fleshless (asarkos) heavenly realm but from an embodied earthly realm. In turn, all human bodies are accorded their full meaning as they participate in this fullness of incarnate significance.

This reconstituted world through the flesh is determined by the incarnate Christ. This world is not a symbolic order pointing elsewhere but meaning inheres in it. There is a world where law might reign or where it has not yet been determined what one should do or can do. In Christ’s embodied life what we should do is determined and what we should not do is determined. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). What we are to do flows from the absolute which is the body of Christ. Notice that it is Christ Jesus – the incarnate Christ. His human body is the source of significant behavior. His body and our body and human embodiment is the place from which the absolute flows, not from a transcendent law, or a vague situational principle, or a symbolic order utilizing the body and the world as its medium. The body is not a tool or a medium for writing, or a megaphone for the voice, such that we are inside of it, manipulate it, and “have” it. The flesh of the body is our incorporation into the world, community, communion, and communication.

The hostility of the flesh written over by the law is undone in Christ. Living significance (as opposed to a dead letter) is restored as “now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). As we inhabit his body, we are no longer divided in ourselves, from one another, and from God. “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” (Eph. 2:14). Entering this peace is synonymous with life and meaning and is a first order experience which serves as its own ground of meaning. This is a self-validating and self-evident truth and not a truth that refers elsewhere or mediates something else. This truth is without the gap between signifier (I think) and signified (I am) as the life is in this Word of truth. There is no gap in this order, as it is a Word enfleshed, a direct access to life and the realization of life as a first order experience.

[1]  Žižek, Ticklish Subject, 247-51 Lacan dubs this most common human a “pervert.” Perversion does not refer so much to abnormal sexual practices as to a structure in which the subject sides with the law in the attempt to escape its punishing effect and to partake of its surplus enjoyment. Every individual, religious or not, who presumes to sit in judgment and to punish others in the name of the law, God, Jesus, the Nation, etc. is acting out the simple formula Paul epitomizes as the sinful orientation: the law is completed or established through sin. There is a denial of sexual difference and of death in what Žižek describes as giving oneself completely over to the symbolic without regard for finitude and mortality: “Perversion can be seen as a defense against the motif of ‘death and sexuality,’ against the threat of mortality as well as the contingent imposition of sexual difference.”

[2] Michel Henry, Incarnation: A Philosophy of Flesh (Northwestern University Press, 2015), 124.

[3] Words of Christ, 124. I am following John Behr’s exposition of Henry in, John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 296 ff.

The Logos is the Incarnate Christ – The Openness of God

The implication of John’s and Paul’s focus on Christ incarnate is that we not only identify who God is through the incarnation, but we begin here because this is who God is. As John Behr notes, the early Church did not presume to start with the pre-incarnate Word – in fact he claims, the term “pre-incarnate” is absent from patristic literature.[1] The order of identification in Gregory of Nyssa, for example, begins with the cross and from the cross (in reference to Ephesians 3:18) the height, depth, breadth, and length, of all things unfolds and returns. As Gregory describes it, the cross is divided into four parts because the One upon it binds together in Himself all forms of existence. The apprehension of all things and the reality of all things converge on the cross.[2]

It is not that the Word became incarnate and then suffered on the cross, but rather the One on the cross is the identity of the Word. The mystery of God revealed as Trinity does not unfold from a fleshless (asarkos) heavenly realm. According to Behr, there has been a serious departure as the subject of Christian theology has changed, from Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord proclaimed by the Gospel, to the narrative of the Word of God somehow devoid of the content of the Gospel. This false narrative pictures an unfolding consecutive order occurring in God. The pre-incarnate Word descends to put on flesh, something like a space-suit, and it is this disembodied Word that is the secret behind the life of the Messiah.

 The simple failure here is to recognize that the Word in the Prologue of John is already, by the time of the writing of the Gospel of John, synonymous with the Gospel. The Word, like the Gospel, is about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The “word of the cross” (I Cor. 1:18) upon which apostolic preaching is centered is precisely the details leading up to the passion, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus. The Word is not, for Christians at least, determined by Greek philosophy, the Wisdom of the Old Testament, or even the tetragrammaton (the four-letter name for God which is unpronounceable) which appears under the Aramaic equivalent of Word in the Targums. As Cyril of Alexandria makes clear, Word refers to Jesus Christ: “We say that there is one and the same Jesus Christ, from the God and Father, on the one hand, as the God Word, and, on the other hand, from the seed of the divinely-inspired David according to the flesh.”[3] There is no division in the subject of Christ before and after the incarnation, rather: “One is the Son, one Lord, Jesus Christ, both before the incarnation and after the incarnation.”[4]

Both Cyril and Hippolytus describe a putting on of flesh, but this is not pictured as having been inaugurated from the conception or birth of Jesus but is generated backward in time, having been woven from the sufferings of the cross. Hippolytus, commenting on Revelation 12, pushes the metaphor to suggest this weaving of flesh is an unceasing function of the Church, “bearing from her heart the Word that is persecuted by the unbelieving in the World.” The male child she bears is Christ, God and human, as announced by the prophets, “whom the Church continually bears as she teaches all nations.”[5]

The significance of this focus on the incarnate Christ is spelled out by Irenaeus of Lyons in his insistence that each of the major metaphors for God’s entry into the world – Word, Life, Light, etc. – should not be separated out, or reified as a self-constituting entity, but must be taken as referring to Jesus Christ. The Word, the Light, the Life, is the one who became flesh. Jesus Christ is the Word in the beginning.

What John and the New Testament are conveying is that God has no story but that of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus Christ is the only Son of God. It is not that the pre-existent Christ and God have a life story, a secret divine story, other than the story of the incarnation or that the Son of God had spent a very long time in eternity – before the incarnation – doing God knows what. Eternity is not a very long time during which God was otherwise preoccupied. Eternity is not time at all and time (an unfolding story) and eternity only intersect in the Son. So, to speak of the Son of God as coming down from heaven is a metaphor that cannot be literally true. The Creator is not subject to spatial (up and down) or temporal (before and after) movement as these are created realms that do not refer to the divine reality.[6]

There are multiple implications to recognizing that the cross and the incarnation are eternal facts about God. Time and eternity, the human and divine, intersect in Christ. History’s center is open to the immanent Trinity and all of history is an unfolding of this intersection in the incarnation and the Church. Jesus Christ is not one episode among many in the story of the Word but is the singular story of God.[7] To imagine God as primarily apophatic, impassive, or apathetic, may be a way of speaking of some God we do not and cannot know, but it is by definition not the God we know through the Word.

This in turn, lends a profound significance to our interaction with the Word through our participation in this story, our continuation of the incarnation as the body of Christ. The specific connections and connectedness we develop in the body of Christ are a participation in who God is, giving our communion, our relationship, our interconnectedness an enduring eternal significance.

[1] John Behr, John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 15.

[2] Gregory of Nyssa (c 335 – after 394): The Great Catechism, 32

[3] Cyril of Alexandria, That Christ is One (ed. Pusey, 371.12–14) quoted from Behr, 16.

[4] Cyril of Alexandria, First Letter to Succensus, 4. Quoted from Behr, 17.

[5] Hippolytus, Antichrist 4, Behr, 18.

[6] Behr, 19 ff.

[7] See Herbert McCabe, “The Involvement of God,” in McCabe, God Matters (London:Continuum, 2012), 39–51. Noted in Behr, 19.

Christ as the True Vitruvian Man: An Affirmation of the Cosmic Christ and a Critique of Richard Rohr

Not all visions of the Cosmic Christ are of equal value and some stray off into the panentheistic “flow” to such a degree that one might mistake his dog for Christ or the creature for the Creator. Perhaps I need to restate and clarify my previous blog. While the Franciscans and Barth in the West have retained and developed elements of an Eastern Orthodox sensibility (my previous point), I did not mean to conflate Duns Scotus’s understanding, for example, with the best of Eastern Christology. The accusation leveled at Scotus is that his univocity of being led to the notion that an immanent frame of understanding is self-grounding and adequate. The argument of Radical Orthodoxy is that Scotus’s conception of the univocity of being led to the Enlightenment expulsion of God, as nature’s explanation lies within.

Richard Rohr’s embrace and development of Scotus’s univocity of being illustrates precisely what John Milbank and his Radical Orthodox colleagues warned, rightly or wrongly, are implicit in Scotus’s thought. As Rohr boils it down, because Scotus “believed we can speak ‘with one voice’ (univocity) of the being of waters, plants, animals, humans, angels, and God” we arrive at the conclusion, “Our DNA is . . . divine.”[1] The implication is that just as a swimmer should “be able to be the river” we are all in the flow of God and we need to realize we are God (Rohr slightly nuances this). This reading of Scotus seems to fall under John Milbank’s critique, that Scotism seems to put God and man in competition in the same space for power – a notion connected to the rise of secularism.

As Daniel Horan has pointed out in his book length work on Milbank and Scotus, Milbank presumes univocity constitutes a metaphysics but Scotus deploys this understanding only in discussions of logic, semantics, and epistemology, not as an alternative to analogy, but as an explanation of analogy.[2] Radical Orthodoxy however, would be unimpressed with Horan’s fine distinction, as in Milbank’s view it is not possible to separate epistemology from metaphysics as epistemology implies a particular metaphysics. But my point is not to defend Milbank’s reading of Scotus.

If Milbank’s critique does not to apply to Scotus, it would seem that it hits the mark with Rohr, who claims to be an expositor of Scotus.  Rohr concludes that univocity refers precisely to metaphysics: “We are already connected to everything—inherently, objectively, metaphysically, ontologically, and theologically.” [3] While Rohr seems intent on reenchanting the universe he has struck upon an odd formula, the very formula many point to as giving rise to the disenchanting of the universe in the first place. Whether the genealogy of secularism runs directly through Scotus, or Scotus and Occam to Protestantism, the point is that the very thing Scotus is accused of is precisely the way Rohr understands him.

This is a long way from Maximus the Confessor’s presentation of cosmology, anthropology, soteriology, eschatology, finding harmony in a unified Christology. Maximus maintains that the creation reflects the glory of God and that humans can raise the degree of creation’s participation in this glory. As Lars Thunberg states, “His system of theology was in fact a spiritual vision of the cosmos, of human life within that cosmos, and therefore of the economy of salvation, the salvific interplay between the human and the divine.”[4] There is participation, interplay, a lifting up into participation in the divine. This participation contrasts with Rohr’s notion of univocity in which, “We all participate in the same being. God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4), and thus reality is one too (Ephesians 4:3-5).”[5] The participation seems to be automatic and built in and is not simply analogous reflection and a participation to which one rises. No subtleties here. Which brings me to my point in illustrating the Cosmic Christ as a displacement of the Vitruvian Man.

My illustration of the Cosmic Christ as the true Vitruvian Man (in my previous blog), Jonathan pointed out to me, is riddled with problems (a discussion we take up with Matt in our upcoming podcast). The potential problems Jonathan had with my illustration are not so different from the problems I would have with some of Richard Rohr’s illustrations and conceptions. So, not so much in an effort to answer Jonathan’s objections or to save my illustration but to point to the issues at stake in how we comprehend the Cosmic Christ, I want to defend my argument for displacing the Vitruvian Man with Christ. I have no particular attachment to the illustration, but the very issues it raises pertain to a proper comprehension of the Cosmic Christ.

What Leonardo, or Vitruvius before him, were attempting (implicitly if unconsciously) in the Vitruvian Man, was to describe the coherence of things presumed in Christianity but they sought this coherence within an immanent frame (the human frame quite literally). The secularizing element (which would develop with the Enlightenment) was to arrive at an abstraction of man so as to translate this abstract ratio to both architecture and to the world. These ratios only work in the abstract, and the point is not in reference to any particular man, but to the ideal man. As Jonathan rightly points out, the Vitruvian Man in representing the dimensions of the human body as a microcosm is focused on the disincarnate mathematical dimensions of the body (e.g. a palm is four fingers, a foot is four palms, a cubit is six palms, four cubits make a man, a pace is four cubits, a man is 24 palms, etc.). My point in putting Christ in place of the Vitruvian Man is precisely to maintain the positive developments of the Renaissance and Enlightenment while avoiding the failures.

There is a sense in which all that was good and true (the coherence of the world and the human ability to follow its logic) and all that was wrong with the ideas which would blossom in the Enlightenment (anthropocentrism, chauvinism, the turn to mechanics, and ultimately secularism or the presumption of a self-grounding world) are represented in seed form in the Vitruvian Man. In displacing the Vitruvian Man with the Cosmic Christ there is an acknowledgement of coherence, a readability of the universe, without the singular focus on the model of mathematics and mechanics and without the chauvinism entailed in privileging a class of bodies (white, European, males). There is an appreciation for a recapturing of a classical focus on the senses (particularly sight) and the body without a desensitizing turn from the auditory revelation found in the historical Jesus.

It is telling that at points, Leonardo’s reading of the body onto the world sounds like Rohr or vice versa. In a notebook from 1492, Leonardo mused, “By the ancients man has been called the world in miniature; and certainly this name is well bestowed, because, inasmuch as man is composed of earth, water, air and fire, his body resembles that of the earth.” The universals are within and the divine need play no role. Rohr simply extends the immanent frame so as to include the divine: “we can speak “with one voice” (univocity) of the being of waters, plants, animals, humans, angels, and God.” While this may seem to be an affirmation of the material it is the loss of the material world in the shared abstraction of being. The immanent presence of the divine within this univocal being is also constituted an empty abstraction. Rohr maintains, “Creation is the Body of God” and he wants to downplay the particular body of God found in Jesus. He holds that “Jesus” must vanish that “Christ” may come forth. Rohr’s Christ, dispossessed of Jesus, takes on the abstraction of all being which has no specific historical characteristics but which blends with all matter and bodies.  

There is an equilibrium contained in the name of Jesus combined with Christ in which the cosmic, preexistent, reality is made specific and accessible through the incarnate Jesus. The notion of a singular logic, the coherence of the universe, and its accessibility are implicit in Christ as Creator and Redeemer. But, as with Maximus, there is not a given metaphysical univocity of being, but a participation in the divine being through Christ that is not inherently available in the material universe. There is a specific necessity for the historical Jesus, the specifics of the shared body of Christ. It is not that Jesus affirms every story, every body, every form of material existence equally. It is the cruciform life of Jesus that is the point of access to the Cosmic Christ.

[1] Richard Rohr,

[2] See Peter Leithart, “The Scotus Story” in January 19, 2015 Patheos.

[3] Rohr, Ibid.

[4] Thunberg, Lars. Man and the Cosmos: the Vision of St. Maximus the Confessor. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1985. p. 31. Quoted from

[5] Rohr, Ibid.

The Cosmic Christ

Vitruvian Man

 A fundamental teaching of the New Testament, largely lost to the Western tradition but preserved (if left undeveloped) in the East, is that the incarnate Christ is the goal, the structuring order, or the inner ground of creation. Partially recovered by St. Francis and Karl Barth is this deep grammar of Scripture that makes of the Bible a “strange new world,” in Barth’s phrase.  It is only in recognizing that incarnation is not the fall back plan (utilized due to the accident of sin) but creation’s purpose, which provides coherence to key biblical doctrines such as salvation, predestination, and redemption. It is not creation and Fall which give rise to the necessity of incarnation; rather creation, in Athanasius’ explanation, is an effect of “our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Where we imagine it is sin that necessitated the incarnation, failed humanity and its potential recovery become the ground of meaning feeding into every key theological concept.  For example, the doctrine of predestination becomes an abstract doctrine about who is in and who is out, rather than about God’s purpose in creation found in Christ. For Barth this decision of God before all time, to be who he is for humanity, is the basic truth on which all other Christian truths are built. In his reformulation of the doctrine it becomes central to who God is as the electing God. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit together make a choice that the Son of God will become the elected man, Jesus of Nazareth.

But maybe Barth has still not fully recovered the original sense of there being no time before this predestined purpose. That is, among the earliest Church fathers it is not simply the disincarnate Word but Jesus, the incarnate Christ, around which creation’s meaning flows. As John Behr notes, Athanasius “barely even mentions the birth of Jesus” as incarnation is already the principle behind creation.[1] Creations purpose is found in Jesus Christ (the God/Man) and this is the meaning of predestination (he is the predestined One), redemption (as cosmic completion), and the Church’s part in a continued incarnation.

Jesus Christ as the unfolding singular purpose of all things is what makes sense of such passages as Romans 9-11, which is not a depiction of arbitrary cruelty and reward, as if some pots are made for destruction and that’s all she wrote. Israel’s election or predestined purpose had always involved being narrowed down to the preeminent purpose of the Messiah, who would be “cast away” not simply for Israel or a few lucky souls but for the redemption of the world. Paul notes first, that “God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” (Romans 11:32), and then ends on a note of universality (found also in both Colossians and Ephesians): “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (11:35). We know this due to the incarnate Christ who “is the summing up of all things . . . things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Ephesians 1:10). This is what and who has been predestined “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). There is no choice preceding this choice as this is an eternal fact about God. Jesus Christ is not a contingent reflection of God, dependent upon creation and Fall, but creation is an outworking of the love of God found in Christ. It pertains, as Paul describes it to the divine immanence (who God is in himself): “…having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself” (Ephesians 1:9).

Salvation is not simply deliverance from sin but fulfillment of who God is in Christ for creation. Where Jesus is reduced to helping us get rid of sin, what gets lost are the purposes for all of creation fulfilled in Christ but also in the Church as a continuation of incarnation. Certainly, salvation is the overcoming of sin but the fullness of redemption is the completion of creation’s purpose. Paul has moved our understanding of God’s plan beyond the earth and the human race to its cosmic impact as part of the outworking of the love (the very essence) of God. The whole point of who God is and what God was doing is summed up in the incarnate Christ (1:10). 

The completion of creation in Christ accounts for all the movements of history. The incompleteness of creation in the incompleteness of the first Adam points to the unfolding nature of creation’s purpose in history. The completion of man by the creation of woman means creation is an open-ended process (it has not ended with Genesis 1) in which the whole inner basis of humankind (contained in the name Adam) is an ongoing realization. The Second Adam completes the emergence of the human capacity for image bearing and the second Adam and his bride conjoin the human and divine for eternity. Paul pictures it both as an accomplished fact (“through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (Ro 5:18, NASB)) and an unfolding process (“through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous” (Ro 5:19)). The Church as the bride of Christ certainly indicates cosmic predestination was always the unfolding telos summing up all things. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32). Here is the revealing of “the mystery of his will” (1:9).

While we might argue about what caused the division between the sensibility of East and West (was it Augustine’s notion that no physician would have been sent apart from the disease of sin, or Anselm’s singular focus on satisfying God’s honor in light of the dishonor of sin?), what is certain is Eastern thought and small remnants of Western sensibility were not focused on the forensic accomplishments of Christ but the fulfillment of cosmological purposes. What was preserved in the focus on the “primacy of Christ” or “Christocentrism” is the Pauline notion that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the first born of every creature” (Colossians 1:15) or the Johannine notion of Christ’s recommencement of creation. What might be considered the fundamental doctrine of the New Testament, or the glue which holds it all together, is operative in Franciscan theology (as pointed out at the popular level by Richard Rohr), recovered in part by Karl Barth, but maintained as a key part of Eastern Orthodoxy. For example, Maximus the Confessor (among several Eastern theologians), held that the incarnation would have taken place without a Fall. In Duns Scotus’s terms (a Scottish Franciscan Friar), the Incarnation takes place in light of God’s glory and not due to any sin committed prior to the Incarnation. As Ilia Delio describes Scotus’s understanding, “The Incarnation represents not a divine response to a human need for salvation but instead the divine intention from all eternity to raise human nature to the highest point of glory by uniting it with divine nature.”[2] God is perfect love and wills according to the perfection of that love. Since perfect love cannot will anything less than the perfection of love, Christ would have come in the highest glory in creation even if there was no sin and thus no need for redemption

 In this understanding, the constitution and meaning of the cosmos is summed up by the incarnate Christ, who redeems fallen humanity but who is primarily the completion of the cosmos. This pertains not only to the integration of things in heaven and earth but there is a clearer integration of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ if we see in Christ the completion of creation and not the means of escape. The Western focus on the forensics of the Cross tends to split not only heaven and earth but the person and work of Christ. We might speak of the primacy of Paul and the Cross in the West and a downgrading of the Sermon on the Mount, the life of Christ, and the resurrection, but of course, this is a misconstrual of Paul, in which key terms are abstracted from the person and work of Christ.

Among the early Church Fathers, Irenaeus insisted on the primacy of the incarnate Word, with salvation not restricted to redemption from sin but inclusive of a process by which all are led from “infancy” to a state of maturity and which, in his doctrine of recapitulation, includes the summing up of the entire cosmos in Christ as its head. With this understanding as background, key terms such as “justification” or “rectification” are cosmic in proportion – making things right for the cosmos in the apocalyptic act of God in Jesus Christ. Such terms as “faith” pertain to Christ not as object but as the ground of faith. Through the death and resurrection of this faithful one the powers which hold people in bondage are defeated as they take up the Cross. This pertains not so much to reduplication of faith but participation in faith’s origin. As Barth describes it we have a part in the faithfulness of God, established in us when we meet the Christ in Jesus. As John Paul II put it, “He (Christ) satisfied the Father’s eternal love, that fatherhood that from the beginning found expression in creating the world, giving man all the riches of Creation, and making him “little less than God,” in that he was created ‘in the image and after the likeness of God.’” Here our image takes on its proper likeness to the divine image, not because Christ satisfies the wrath of God but because he satisfies his love.

A stark illustration of the centrality of Christ is found in the mysterious history surrounding Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Ancient thinkers had long considered the circle as representative of the divine and the square as representative of the earthly.  Leonardo, with the spirit of his age assumed the divine proportion was contained within the dimensions of the human body (some think he is his own model for the picture). Christ as Vitruvian Man accomplishes the squaring of the circle (the principle Leonardo presumed was present in the perfect man). The ordering principle of the circle is fit to the square of the world in the notion that Christ is the center of meaning of the cosmos. In this reinterpretation of the renaissance ideal (seemingly already a secularized version of a Christian notion), creation is not anthropocentric it is Christocentric. Christ is redeemer but redemption is not simply being “saved from” but rather being made “whole for” God’s creation purposes found in Christ.

[1] John Behr, John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), vii.

[2] Delio, “Revisiting the Franciscan Doctrine of Christ,” 9.

What is Eternal – God or Rewards and Punishment?

Multiple teachings of the Bible (e.g. the Temple as microcosm, image bearing, resurrection) pertain to the two-fold interdependence of humans and the world and humans and God. But what must be included in the mix is the overlapping of time or of the “ages” with eternity. The heavenly and its earthly entrance point are not distinct but are pictured as overlapping[1] and this is reflected in the Biblical words for time and eternity. There are a series of words in both Greek and Hebrew that often get translated as “eternal” and yet they are specifically references to time. The question arises if any stretch of time is an eternity? Or as David Konstan has posed the question, “If one speaks of the next life, or something that happens in the next life, as aiónios, does it mean simply the next era or eon, or does it carry the further implication of ‘eternal’?”[2] Is the next age either an eternity in hell or in heaven or does this way of putting it miss the intersection of time and eternity?

To pose the question in terms of the cosmology represented by the Jewish Temple, it is simultaneously a spatial and temporal microcosm in which a peculiar sort of temporal passage is represented spatially, but how can the two (the finite and infinite) be sorted out? It is not simply that the outer court is representative of the visible land and sea and the Holy Place representative of the visible heaven and the garden of God (the finite), but these realms are conjoined in the sabbath time with the Holy of Holies (the infinite or eternal). The picture is of the invisible heaven of God, and perhaps passage beyond time, somehow connected with the visible and finite. As the priest would pass into the Holy Place, he also made a temporal transition, as the garden motif in which it was decorated simultaneously pointed to the garden of Genesis and its future restoration (eternity once again intersecting time). If the Temple is taken as illustrative of an infinitely enduring state, creation (the garden, time, embodiment) will always be the meeting place between God and humans but it cannot itself be equated with the Holy of Holies or God’s eternality.

As the book of Timothy decisively states it, God “alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (I Tim. 6:16). God’s immortality or eternality are not something that can be appropriated by humanity or invested statically in creation. Eternity, as a predicate of God (τοῦ αἰωνίου θεοῦ, Romans 16:26), like immortality, is of a different order which transcends time and is not simply unending time.[3] Other things might be derivatively eternal (according to TDNT – such things as divine possessions or gifts, the Covenant, or the Kingdom) but only God is intrinsically eternal. This would include rewards and punishments of God or the age in which they exist. God is the singular eternal causal source, so that to speak of eternal punishment and reward is simply to identify the source and not the duration.

As David Bentley Hart notes in the concluding postscript to his translation, aiōnios or aiónion (as found in Matt 25:46 describing future punishment) is drawn from αἰών (aiōn or aeon), might “mean a period of endless duration, but which more properly, throughout the whole of ancient and late antique Greek literature, means ‘an age,’ or ‘a long period of time of indeterminate duration, or even just ‘a substantial interval’.” The adjective aiōnios never clearly means “eternal” in an incontrovertible sense.

So, for example, it is not as the Revised Standard Version would have it, that some “shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Th 1:9, RSV). But as Hart translates it, they “will pay the just reparation of ruin in the Age, coming from the face of the Lord and the glory of his might.” The two renderings give two very different notions of the location of eternity and thus two very different ideas of its duration.[4] In the RSV the eternality occurs in an impossible category for the Bible, in its exclusion from God. It is not as Hart translates it “from the face of the Lord” but the RSV assigns eternality to what cannot be inherently eternal. This is why Hart can say, in That All Shall Be Saved, an eternal hell is “entirely absent from the Pauline corpus, as even the thinnest shadow of a hint” (p. 93). It seems to be an intrinsic impossibility. By the same token this gives us a very different picture of the coming Kingdom.

The age of the Kingdom is parallel to the age of punishment, not as an alternative end point, but as an alternative reception of that which emanates from God and resulting in a final Age or a consummate summation of all things, which I will take up in my next blog.

[1] In one of the first Biblical images of this overlap, the breath breathed in the breathing (living) Adam is repeated in the tree of breath (life). The tree is the mediating point of God’s life giving (eternal) presence (Genesis 2:8). Eve will “breathlessly” go “breathing after” (the image of her desire) the second tree which circulates only an immanent self-referential frame (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil).

[2] Found on this internet forum and referenced here

[3] Sasse, H. (1964–). αἰών, αἰώνιος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 1, p. 208). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[4] This piece runs this down more –