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.

Judas versus Jesus: Salvation’s Confrontation with Sin

The judgment in the “trial” of Jesus is not a pronouncement by Pilate concerning Jesus (Pilate refuses to pronounce judgment and refuses to actually have a formal trial)[1] but Jesus pronouncement that “he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin” (Jn 19:11, NASB). The significance of this “he” and of his sin of “delivering” Jesus is that it encompasses the ultimate sin or the culminating point of sin.  Pilate, Rome (the world of Gentiles), Judas, the Jewish priests, the Jews, and Satan are all involved in the “delivering up of Jesus unto death.”  John equates this delivering up with darkness, with Satan entering into Judas, with the uncleanness that clings to the Apostles in the form of the betrayer. Jesus is delivered over to the Gentiles or Romans through the Jews by means of an Apostle, such that every class of human is involved in this deliverance. Darkness, sin, death, uncleanness, and evil, are encompassed in the movement which delivers Jesus unto death. Judas starts the chain reaction of “delivering” or “handing over” (παραδίδωμι) in which he “hands over” Jesus to the Jews (Mark 14: 10), who in their turn “bound Him, and led Him away and handed him over to Pilate the governor” (Math. 27:2). The Jews picture their handing him over as a self-evident sign of guilt: “If this Man were not an evildoer, we would not have handed him over to you” (John 18: 30; cf. also Mark 15: 1 and Matthew 27: 2). At the end of the trial Pilate will hand Jesus over to the Jews to be crucified. Judas though is the “betrayer” (ho paradidous) or the one whose entire identity is marked by this “handing over” (Mark 3: 19, “Judas Iscariot, who handed him over (hos kai paredōken auton),” and in Matthew 10: 14, “Judas Iscariot, the one who handed him over (ho kai paradous auton).” Once Jesus is delivered into “the hands of men,” into the hands of the high priests, into the hands of the Gentiles, the momentum toward the crucifixion is a foregone conclusion.

Isn’t the decision of Pilate, the role of Herod and the High Priests, the work of Rome, the important element of the handing over? The death drive which would consume Jesus would seem to concentrate itself at the end of the process.  Something as insignificant as a kiss, as inconsequential as 30 pieces of silver, as trifling as a little greed, sets the more important forces of Israel and Rome into motion. But this kiss, as Karl Bath says, “attests and seals again the fellowship of the perpetrator with Jesus.”[2] That is the darkness to be penetrated, the orientation toward death which needs overcoming, the evil to be defeated, cuts through the Apostles and is represented by Judas.  Judas is not only of Judah and Israel but is of Jesus and the Apostles and it precisely this proximity to Jesus that serves to identify the gravest depth of sin: “he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.”

Judas is participating in the last supper with the other Apostles when Jesus makes it clear that the worst form of guilt is that of the betrayer: “But behold, the hand of the one betraying Me is with Mine on the table. For indeed, the Son of Man is going as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!”[3]It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.”[4] It is odd that this great sinner, this one who sums up the worst sort of sin as the betrayer, is so much a part of the apostolic band that they cannot distinguish him. When Jesus notes that the betrayer is among those with whom he is breaking bread, the Apostles “began looking at one another, at a loss to know of which one He was speaking.”[5] Mathew pictures each of the disciples as vocally questioning if they personally will betray him: “Being deeply grieved, they each one began to say to Him, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’”[6] They seem to each see within themselves the possibility which resides in Judas.

It is in conjunction with this disclosure that Jesus washes the disciple’s feet. When Peter protests, “Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.’”[7] When Peter insists upon a complete bath, Jesus explains, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.[8] The wholly clean still need to have their feet washed and what they are washed of, the uncleanness which still resides among them, is represented by Judas. Jesus cleanses their feet – they are wholly clean – yet they will have to continue in this service which Jesus renders to remain clean. That is, this service and what it represents directly addresses the Judas’ orientation of which they all need cleansing. The uncleanness of Judas, as it exists among all the Apostles, is particularly represented in the story by Peter.

Peter’s denial of Christ indicates a failure, not only morally like that of Judas, but a similar failure of comprehension.  All of the apostles are included in the foot-washing and Peter’s and Judas’ failure both unfold from this point in the story. The specific element which both Peter and Judas fail to recognize, maybe from different ends of the same spectrum, is that Jesus intends the foot-washing to symbolize or foreshadow his self-giving in death. The threat of death has been hanging over the disciples from the time they all went up to Bethany and Jesus raised Lazarus. Death is on all of their minds, following the fatalistic lead of Thomas, who determined for all of them to “go, so that we may die with Him.”[9]  He has already explained that the foot-washing is a model of humble service, but this is something Jesus explains to the disciples immediately (13:12-17). The foot washing is incomprehensible to them because they have yet to link sacrificial service to death. It must be death as part of this self-giving to which Jesus refers when he tells Peter he will only comprehend the action later (13:7). Peter would block Jesus from going up to Jerusalem to die and Judas would bargain his way out of being counted among those who would die. They are consistently uncomprehending or unwilling to grasp what it might mean for Jesus, let alone themselves, to take up the cross.

After the foot-washing, Peter seems eager to press the point and to show that he has made the connection: “Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You.”[10] We know from Peter’s actions at the arrest of Jesus that he would lay down his life in battle – taking as many ears as he can in the process. He would die the death of any good zealot – perhaps in the sort of final battle Judas and all the apostles imagine for Jesus. Peter’s words parallel those Jesus has used earlier, not once but twice, when describing his own role as the good shepherd (“the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” – Jn 10:11,15). Jesus answers Peter by repeating Peter’s words as a question: “Will you lay down your life for Me?” (13:38). Peter’s claim reflects a reversal of the shepherd-sheep relationship Jesus has outlined earlier in the Gospel. Peter will fall into the hired hand category despite his best efforts: “He who is a hired hand . . . sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.”[11] The note of irony in Jesus’ voice must have been obvious as he repeats Peter’s words: “Will you lay down your life for Me?”

Judas, meanwhile, is fulfilling the treachery depicted in Zechariah 11, in which the sheep of Israel are pictured as standing in solidarity against the Good Shepherd.  The Good Shepherd, God himself, is sold for thirty pieces of silver and the people of Israel and Judah are handed over to the shepherds which would bring on their slaughter.

Judas is consistently depicted as devil possessed or as the devil himself and his work is associated with the darkness.  After the morsel of the last supper is handed to him, “Satan then entered into him”[12] and “after receiving the morsel he went out immediately into the night.”[13] Paul too will connect his deed to darkness: “in the night in which He was betrayed.”[14] Jesus calls him “the son of perdition”[15] and “a devil.”[16] On the other hand, Jesus identifies Peter with Satan – precisely when Peter would obstruct Jesus from going up to Jerusalem to die (Math. 16:23).

So, the sin of handing over Jesus is focused on Judas, but Peter and the Apostles, Israel, Judah, and the Jews, have all played their part in this handing over. Judas seems to represent what Israel has always done: the Israelites would hand Joseph over to death, they would, like Esau, sell their birthright for a mess of pottage. In the midst of the trial they would not only buy and sell the Messiah but proclaim their true king is Caesar. As Jesus says, the tradition (παράδοσιν – that which is handed down) has nullified their religion. Theirs is Yahweh religion in which Yahweh is nullified; it is messianic religion which would kill the messiah. But this sin of the Jews distilled in Judas is precisely that addressed and undone in the economy of salvation.

The very point and substance of salvation is found in God’s handing over of Jesus, not as an extension of darkness and evil, but to dispel the darkness, to overcome death, to free the captives who Paul describes as being themselves “handed over” to their own lusts. “God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie.”[17] The lie and lust of the first couple is repeated in their progeny and this seems to have culminated in the “son of perdition” who would sell Jesus for 30 coins. It is precisely in the midst of this handing over that God also “delivered Him over for us all.”[18] That is the confrontation between Jesus and Judas is precisely the point where the light confronts the darkness, where the devil would do his worst, where evil would kill the Son of Glory, and where God would absorb this handing over, defeat it and reverse it. As Barth describes it, the situation between Jesus and Judas is only a heightened form of the situation between Jesus and all men. This is illustrated in the one who would continue the apostleship of Judas.

The place of Judas is taken by one who was handing over (παρεδίδου) Christians to be imprisoned and killed (Acts 8:3). This one who takes Judas place begins where Judas left off.  He counts himself “the chief of sinners” due to his persecution of the Church. Though the fate of Judas is not spelled out, the one who considers himself as guilty or guiltier than Judas also counts himself a worthy Apostle. The one who is rejected, the one who is handed over to sin, through Christ’s being handed over becomes the one who would deliver Christ to the Gentiles: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”[19] How one is oriented to this deliverance is determinative of whether he stands with Jesus or Judas.

The difference between the sin of deliverance and the salvation accomplished through deliverance is found in the subject and object of the deliverance. Where Christ is the object separated out and delivered to be killed, this is the work of the betrayer. This one separates himself out from the death of Christ and refuses to take up the Cross. A theology founded on this sort of betrayal would say “Christ died so that I do not have to.” The one who delivers Christ in the Gospel identifies with what is delivered. This one would “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.”[20] Paul pictures himself as dying daily, as completing the death of Jesus in his own body, that he might deliver Christ to the Gentiles. The “I” that stood with Judas so as to deliver Jesus to death has itself been delivered up to death: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”[21]  

[1] See http://forgingploughshares.org/2018/05/03/only-one-king-can-judge-jesus-trial-as-the-suspension-of-sovereign-judgment/

[2] See volume II 2, 35.4 of the Dogmatics for Barth’s treatment of Judas and “handed over.”

[3] Lk 22:21–22

[4] Mk 14:21

[5] Jn 13:22

[6] Mt 26:22

[7] Jn 13:8

[8] Jn 13:10

[9] Jn 11:16

[10] Jn 13:37

[11] Jn 10:12

[12] Jn 13:27

[13] Jn 13:30

[14] 1 Co 11:23

[15] Jn 17:12

[16] John 6:70

[17] Ro 1:24–25

[18] Ro 8:32

[19] 1 Co 15:4–5

[20] Jud 3

[21]Ga 2:20

A Cruciform Hermeneutic: The Passage from Dead Language to the Living Word

In his meditation on a beam of light in a tool shed, C.S. Lewis noted, one can either look at the beam of light and see dust particles and not much else or one can look along the beam of light and see the world the light illumines. The meditation concerned different ways of reading the Bible and of doing Christianity. Looking at may be the peculiar modern temptation to reduce everything to our field of vision while simultaneously constricting our vision to what is right in front of us. We imagine we can reduce Scripture to a theory so as to “know it all.”  Whether this reductionist understanding is fostered by or fosters pride, either way, it is characterized by a willingness to deconstruct and not to be deconstructed by the Word. Scripture is made to fit a modernist foundation and “reality” which precedes and is apprehended apart from Christ and Scripture. Truth, in this understanding, is objective and timeless and, as a result, the historical specifics of the narrative of Scripture are presumed to be secondary. That which is timeless and universally true must be sifted out from the particular, culturally specific, and narrative bound. Ironically, the primary trues of the incarnation are presumed, due to the necessary trues guiding reason, to be disincarnate. As a result, the life of Christ and the Gospels are consigned a secondary role to the doctrinal statements and theological development of the epistles. This disincarnate truth reduces to rules to follow, doctrines to be organized, or simply primary events witnessing to timeless truth (in the fundamentalist, conservative, or liberal, application of the foundational paradigm). Narrative cannot be authoritative in this understanding, as authority is pictured as vertical or top down (as in a monarchy or hierarchy) rather than a horizontal sort of road map which introduces previously uncharted territory. Scripture is thought to inform with rules and propositions rather than guide with example, and Christ is the object of faith (we have faith in him) rather than the subject of a faithfulness we are to enter into and imitate. Continue reading “A Cruciform Hermeneutic: The Passage from Dead Language to the Living Word”