Jesus as an Eternal Fact About God

What is the significance of the fact that the Logos of John’s prologue refers to the incarnate Christ and not the pre-incarnate Christ? In the modern period, Herbert McCabe may have been the first to raise the issue, and in his estimate the shift to the pre-incarnate Christ introduces a series of theological problems and failures. He concludes that equating the Logos with the pre-incarnate Christ amounts to nothing less than a shift in the meaning of the incarnation and the doctrine of God. No longer is the incarnation about the inner life of the Trinity (the story of the procession of the Trinity), no longer is the bible the story of God found in the incarnate Christ, no longer is there recognition of how it is “really God who suffers in Jesus of Nazareth,” and this then creates the pressure, found in modern theology, to change up the doctrine of God (relinquishing the traditional understanding of the eternality of God and the impassibility of God).[1]  As he sums up his argument:

I have been arguing three things. First, that the traditional notion of God, far from being the allegedly “Greek” idea of a remote indifferent God, is a doctrine of the everpresent active involvement of the creator in his creatures; on this point I also claimed that the creator is a metaphysical notion of God and that we owe this metaphysics not to the Greeks but to the Jews and their bible. Secondly, I suggested that the temptation to attribute suffering to God as God, to the divine nature, is connected with a failure to acknowledge that it is really God who suffers in Jesus of Nazareth. Thirdly, I suggested that the traditional doctrine of God and the incarnation, is at least capable of development to the idea that the whole set of stories narrated in the bible is nothing other than the interior life of the triune God visible (to the eyes of faith) in our history.[2]

According to John Behr, the tendency, developing from out of the Middle Ages, has been to privilege the Word of God as first in a sequence leading to Jesus, and as primary as a point of explanation of God. Rather than beginning with the incarnation to say who God is, the incarnation began to be treated separately from the doctrine of the Trinity. The speculative possibility of treating the One God separate from the triune God and the Trinity separately from the incarnation is opened up.[3] As McCabe describes it, “to speak of the pre-existent Christ is to imply that God has a life-story, a divine story, other than the story of the incarnation. It is to suppose that in some sense there was a Son of God existing from the eternal ages who at some point in his eternal career assumed a human nature and was made man.”[4] McCabe sights the work of Raymond Brown (and his study of John of which he is appreciative) which presumes arriving at the pre-existent Christ is an advance over the “low” Christology of the virgin birth of Matthew and Luke. According to McCabe, this “invented” category (as “there is no such thing as the pre-existent Christ”) becomes the implicit presumption of modern scriptural and dogmatic scholarship.

Once the Word, as a pre-existent divine person is separated from the historical figure of Jesus, the Word becomes a wax nose to be bent according to the need of the hour. The Logos can be equated with a term of ancient philosophy rather than with the Gospel. Or as Irenaeus notes against the Gnostics, all sorts of mediating principles and gods can be slipped into the empty place of the Logos, or Light, or Life, which is not expressly identified with the incarnate one.

Thus it is that, wresting from the truth every one of the expressions which have been cited, and taking a bad advantage of the names, they have transferred them to their own system; so that, according to them, in all these terms John makes no mention of the Lord Jesus Christ. For if he has named the Father, and Charis, and Monogenes, and Aletheia, and Logos, and Zoe, and Anthropos, and Ecclesia, according to their hypothesis, he has, by thus speaking, referred to the primary Ogdoad, in which there was as yet no Jesus, and no Christ, the teacher of John.[5]

The structuring deities (the Ogdoad) can just as easily serve in place of Jesus, prior to Christ becoming the incarnate Son. The death and resurrection of Christ and the apostolic preaching of the cross are effectively trumped by emptying the Logos of Jesus (in the 2nd century and in the 20th century). God can be given another story in which the succession of the Son of God becoming man might be posited as one among any number of changes. And rather than reading the Gospel as an apocalyptic new world order, the historicizing approach to scripture takes hold in the last several centuries and Jesus is understood primarily in light of historical development.

What is lost is the recognition that Jesus is the life story of God. “The story of Jesus is nothing other than the triune life of God projected onto our history, or enacted sacramentally in our history, so that it becomes story.” Part of what is at issue is recognizing that the screen upon which this story is projected can distort the projected image. If it is a smooth silver screen, the image is clear, but if the screen is wrinkled or bent, this will have a distorting effect. “Now imagine a film projected not on a screen but on a rubbish dump.” This is not a secondary story but “the Trinity looks like a story of (is a story of) rejection, torture, and murder but also of reconciliation” because “it is being projected on, lived out on our rubbish tip; it is because of the sin of the world.” [6]

 Nonetheless all of the bible can be read as part of this projection of the story of Jesus upon history. “Watching, so to say the story of Jesus, we are watching the processions of the Trinity. That the mission in time of Son and Spirit reflect the eternal relation”. . . and more than that “they are not just reflection but sacrament – they contain the reality they signify.”[7] In Jesus Christ we encounter the reality of God because this is really who God is. The missions of the Son and the Spirit are not one episode in the story of God, this is the reality of God unfolding in the story of the Gospel. The “mission of Jesus is nothing other than the eternal generation of the Son.”[8]

The way the Logos is depicted in the early church is precisely not to imagine a fleshless pre-incarnate Christ, but to picture the cross as the center of time and an eternal fact about God. The virgin birth is not the beginning, but as Hippolytus pictures it, there is the loom of the cross set up in the midst of history weaving a different order of reality:

The web-beam, therefore, is the pass on of the Lord upon the cross, and the warp on it is the power of the Holy Spirit, and the woof is the holy flesh wrought (woven) by the Spirit, and the thread is the grace which by the love of Christ binds and unites the two in one, and the combs or (rods) are the Word; and the workers are the patriarchs and prophets who weave the fair, long, perfect tunic for Christ; and the Word passing through these, like the combs or (rods), completes through them that which His Father wills.[9]

The flesh of the Word is being continually woven from the sufferings of the cross, woven by the patriarchs and prophets who continue weaving the “tunic” of incarnate flesh. The incarnate flesh is woven backward and forward so that every moment, from the virgin birth to the proclamation of the church is the weaving of this incarnate reality. As Behr puts it in his explanation of Hippolytus, “It is in the preaching of Jesus Christ, the proclamation of the one who died on the cross, interpreted and understood in the matrix, the womb, of Scripture, that the Word receives flesh from the Virgin.”[10]

Hippolytus, in his reading of Revelation 12, extends the metaphor to describe this an unceasing activity of the church:

By the woman then clothed with the sun, he meant most manifestly the Church, endued with the Father’s word, whose brightness is above the sun. And by the moon under her feet he referred to her being adorned, like the moon, with heavenly glory. And the words, upon her head a crown of twelve stars, refer to the twelve apostles by whom the Church was founded. And those, she, being with child, cries, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered, mean that the Church will not cease to bear from her heart the Word that is persecuted by the unbelieving in the world. And she brought forth, he says, a man-child, who is to rule all the nations; by which is meant that the Church, always bringing forth Christ, the perfect man-child of God, who is declared to be God and man, becomes the instructor of all the nations. And the words, her child was caught up unto God and to His throne, signify that he who is always born of her is a heavenly king, and not an earthly; even as David also declared of old when he said, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make Your enemies Your footstool.’”[11]

The eternal fact of the incarnate Christ is one the church is “always bringing forth.” This one  seated at the right hand of God “is always born of her” the “heavenly king.” This is the one of whom David spoke, the one the apostles preached, the one the Virgin bore, the one the church bears for eternity.  

(Register for the upcoming Class on the Gospel of John starting May 9th here:

[1] Herbert McCabe, “The Involvement of God,” New Blackfriars, (November 1985) 476. Available online at

[2] McCabe, 476.

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

[4] McCabe, 474.

[5] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.9.2.

[6] McCabe, 473.

[7] McCabe, 473

[8] McCabe, 473.

[9] Hippolytus, On Christ and Antichrist, 4.

[10] Behr, 18.

[11] Hippolytus, 61.

Introducing the Course on the Gospel of John

Is there in John, and by extension in Genesis, the notion that evil (in the form of darkness and chaos) precedes and enters into creation from its inception, or is John foreclosing this “narrative gap” to locate the origin of evil subsequent to creation? This is not an academic question, as the Gnostics and their predecessors (to say nothing of present-day Gnostics) find in Genesis and John a cosmic dualism, in which light and darkness are engaged in an ongoing ontological struggle. Philo, for example, presumes that chaos, emptiness, and darkness were there from before creation, and so too in some modern interpreters of John, these nothings are not among the things that come into being as these are over and against being.[1] These are of the nothing and non-being, such that one could say (and mean something very different than John) that “Nothing came into being apart from the Logos.” The Nothing of creation ex nihilo that is, is assigned an actual reality as a counter force over and against God and creation.

Is it the case that there was a preexistent evil resistance to creation and this is represented by darkness?  Or is the darkness subsequent to creation and accounted for within the parameters of the story (the story of creation or the story of the Gospel)? Is sin and evil something we can locate, name, and identify, along with its defeat or is the battle between light and darkness of such proportions that we are mere pawns in a game in which we cannot know from whence it came or where it is going? The answer to this question divides the Christian world (roughly between East and West) but it also amounts to two readings of John. The basic contention is whether John is a text that accords with the Platonic tradition (identity through difference, the necessity of a dualism)[2] or is John, in taking up the Logos (a key Greek philosophic term), describing an understanding over and against the Greeks and the Gnostics?

There is no part of the Christian enterprise that is not affected by how we conceive the Logos, as it is the abstraction of the Logos (conceived as the preexistent Christ and reduced to something like a first principle) which accounts for or accords with the mystification of sin, the turn to apologetics, the focus on an abstract atonement theory, the privileging of the law, the turn to nominalism, and the basic tenor of Western theology.

This understanding begins with a separation within the Word – separating the Logos from the “word of the cross,” making a division between the word and work of Christ. The nominalist positing of an empty sign or the disconnect between word and action or between words and ultimate reality, or the gap posed between God and creation flow out of this separation. For example, Luther and Calvin could not conceive of first order participation in the divine nature, as man is totally depraved and justification is outward (legally imputed) and there is no real participation in divine life. But the nominalist/Protestant inspired devolution from Hegel, to Kant, to Marx, to Nietzsche, is not simply a modern dilemma but is the condition addressed by Christ.

The incarnate identity in the New Testament and early church is pictured as definitively established in the cross. The presumption in John and among the early church fathers was not that this identity was some pre-incarnate form of the Logos.

John opens his depiction of recreation with the (Genesis) light personified in Christ and with the confirmation of creation ex nihilo through Christ but also with the resistant chaos of darkness threatening: “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:3-5). The darkness does not overtake, grasp, overpower, or vanquish the light but the very existence of the penetrating light relativizes the darkness.

As in Genesis, the chaos of the waters and the darkness of night, is not a residue of the nothingness from out of which things were made but is a condition existing within creation. The “formless and void” condition and the “darkness over the surface of the deep” is limited by the light (1:2-4) and in the midst of the waters, atmosphere is formed creating a vertical space, and land is formed holding back the waters, creating a horizontal space (1:6-10). In John, Jesus’ movement between heaven and earth is on the order of the creation of an atmosphere in which heaven and earth meet as the life and breath of God are readily available in this joining. So too in John, the darkness can be named, comprehended, grasped, and is even overpowered in the culminating “it is finished” which sums up creation and recreation.

It is not that darkness takes on substance in John or that the dualism between light and dark are affirmed. Rather, John is depicting a decisive defeat of the darkness, and not a battle between two equal and opposite forces or the balancing out of the powers. The cure of the human disease is not, as it is for the Gnostics, in reconciling light and darkness and seeking a middle way of harmony between these opposed pairs. The Star Wars “dark” and “light” sides of the Force typify this Gnostic sort of dualism, in which evil is pictured as a competing reality with the good. In this world, good and evil or life and death constitute a “reality” of struggling between opposed pairs. As the Stranger describes in Plato’s Sophist:

Whereas we have not merely shown that things that are not, are, but we have brought to light the real character of “not being.”  We have shown that the nature of the Different has existence and is parceled out over the whole field of existent things with reference to one another; and of every part of it that is set in contrast to “that which is” we have dared to say that precisely that is really “that which is not.” . . . [We have proved] that the Kinds blend with one another; that Existence and Difference pervade them all, and pervade one another, that Difference. . . by partaking of Existence, is by virtue of that participation, but on the other hand is not that Existence of which it partakes, but is different; and since it is different from Existence . . . quite clearly it must be possible that it should be a thing that is not (Sophist 258-259).[3]

In other words, the nothing and nonexistent competes with and participates in being. Where a dualism is posited, reality and truth are not to be found on one side of the duality, as the dualism constitutes the existence (with the lie, in Plato’s description, having its own reality and substance necessary to the truth).  Life, peace, goodness, and light, do not survive, either conceptually or as lived possibilities, when paired with death, violence, evil, and darkness. Where life is gained through death, where peace is the end product of war, where goodness is the counter to evil, and where light is apprehended through the darkness, the oppositional reality infects both poles of the duality.  The lie resides not in one of the opposed pairs but in the opposition itself.  This system, what John will call the cosmos of darkness, does not present a true picture of alienation, rather it is a system of alienation in which the seeming route to overcoming alienation enacts it.  John’s Gospel opposes this proto-Gnostic tendency, not because it is the peculiar sin of his day, but because this identity through difference is the universal form of sin.

The illusion or lie is to imagine that difference is definitive and that existence and non-existence and the endless differences of the world constitute the world. Simply stated, the human failing is to confuse reality with unreality, setting up an antagonistic struggle to the death.  Life is consumed in an agonistic striving toward balance, but the illusion – producing suffering and death, is that engaging the struggle more intensely is the means of resolving the struggle. This peace through war or life through death antagonism not only misconstrues the power and substance of war and death but loses life and peace in the process. 

 John’s Gospel, defines the cosmos of darkness through a series of oppositional dualities which are precisely not dualisms, as John will reduce and collapse one pole of the opposed pairs. Hierarchy, law, and sacrifice are aimed at warding off chaos through maintaining a rigid balance, while in John, the Logos explodes this cosmos of darkness in that the light will penetrate and expose the darkness, life will defeat death, heaven will come to earth, and the children of the Devil will become the children of God. The evil, fleshly, world below is not an enduring autonomous reality but is exposed and defeated so that the apparent dualisms are exposed as mere oppositional dualities (and not equal and opposite dualisms).

Just as darkness in the original creation is an absence of light, so too in John, the darkness is a negation of the Light and belief is an apprehension of the Light. The Light is not only apprehended through belief but by this means “you may become sons of Light” (12:35-36). It is not that the darkness is a definitive direction or quality (a definitive counterforce) or a necessary ingredient of its opposite. As Jesus describes it, walking in the darkness apart from the Light will allow the darkness to “overtake you” as “he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes.” On the other hand, walking in the Light is to imitate Jesus and walk so as to avoid the darkness.

 As James Alison describes it, there are no secret deals, no dark blood-letting, no prior chaos with which God has to deal.[4] God has spoken definitively and finally in the word of the cross. “It is finished” (John 19:30); the Spirit is given and recreation has commenced. Any social or religious order founded upon seeking God in chaos is directly refuted by this God who speaks directly and clearly into the world in the word of the cross, the Logos of God.

(Register for the upcoming Class on the Gospel of John starting May 9th here:

[1] For example Jonathan A. Draper, “Darkness as Non-Being and the Origin of Evil in John’s Gospel” Darkness_as_Non-Being_and_the_Origin_of_Evil_in_Jo.pdf William Lane Craig, as one of the key promoters of the kalām cosmological argument, posits this gap in God as existing between “His timeless intention to create a world with a beginning, and His power to produce such a result.” The distinction is between “His causal power in order for the universe to be created” and “God’s timeless intention to create a temporal world” (fashioned of the same stuff as Augustinian/Calvinist sovereignty). Causal forces exist in time (this side of the nothing in creation ex nihilo) and exist over and against the eternal (prior to nothing) and so the thought (which is eternal), and “God’s undertaking to create” (which has a definitive beginning), must be differentiated. What is differentiated and divided is the nothing, prior to which God only intends to create and after and out of which he creates. (“Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause?: A Rejoinder,” forthcoming in Faith and Philosophy. Quoted from Wes Morrison, “A Critical Examination of the Kalam Cosmological Argument,” accessed at God’s undertaking is the very first event God causes, which posits the same sort of infinite regress the argument rejects. The kalām argument depends on there not being an actually existing series of objects or discrete entities (an infinite library or infinite rooms in a hotel reduces to contradiction as subtraction or addition to either will not register) reduces to a logical contradiction. Yet Craig needs this same discretion to exist in the mind of God so he does not simply fall back on an unreasonable eternity. He insists on this element of the argument to preserve the argument from the unreason it repudiates and builds upon.

[2] See for example, Plato’s description of the status of a lie and of difference in the Sophist.

[3] F. M. Cornford, Plato’s Theory of Knowledge: The Theaetetus and the Sophist of Plato translated with a running commentary (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1935), 294-296. Quoted in Draper.

[4] See chapter 4 of James Alison’s, On Being Liked, (Herder & Herder, April 1, 2004).