The Peaceful Hermeneutic of Origen: The End of Deicide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Bruce, Ibid.

[3] Origen, Homilies on Joshua, 14.1.

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

[5] Bruce, Ibid.

[6] Eusebius, Church History,  6.1–2

[7] Ibid, 6.2.

[8] Ibid, 6.39.

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

[10] Kolbert, 554.

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

[12] Kolbert, 552.

[13] Kolbert, 562

[14] Origen, Against Celsus, 7.55.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Against Heresies, 3.1.1

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

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

[4] Against Heresies, 3.12.9.

[5] Behr, Ibid.

[6] Against Heresies 1.10

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

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

[9] Origen, On First Principles 4.1.6.

[10] Against Heresies, 4.26.1.

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

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

[13] Principle 4.2.2.

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

“You are Gods”: According to Maximus the Confessor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Ambigua 20.1.

[5] Ambigua 20.2.

[6] Ambigua 20.3.

[7] Ambigua 7.16

[8] Ambigua 7.22.

[9] Wood, 11.

[10] Ambigua 7.21

[11] Ambigua 15.9

[12] Ambigua 20.2

[13] Ambigua 7.21.

[14] Ambigua 7.22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Bulgakov. Unfading Light, 335.

[5] Ibid. 316.

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

[7] Ibid. 322.

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

[9] Ibid. de Lubak.

[10] Ibid. 325.

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

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

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. 31.27.

[16] Ibid. 31.28.

How Theology Became Boring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Origen, On First Principles 4.2.1.

[3] Ibid. 4.2.2.

[4] Ibid. 4.2.1.

Can John Deliver Us from the Modern Gnostics?

Charles Hill’s examination of the reception of the Johannine corpus demonstrates that modern reception of John is more a reflection of the modern theological situation than it is a historical reality about the early reception of the Johannine literature. That is, the “Johannophobia” that Hill traces is a projection of the modern period upon the past which speaks of the modern fear or failure in regard to John.[1] In turn, the supposed gnostic “Johannophilia,” which Hill debunks, describes how modern reception of John has amounted to a reception of the book on the basis of a gnostic sensibility. My hypothesis is that the fear and love of the book of John, as Hill finds it in the early church, is precisely the opposite of what has been projected and this is because moderns tend to fear or reject a true reading of John and have succumbed to a gnostic reading.  That is, the heretics feared and avoided the book and the orthodox made it central but in the modern period the book is mostly reduced to a heretical reading as the basis for its acceptance.

Part of the evidence that this might be the case is in the universal consensus which has developed around John in the modern period. As Hill describes it, before the Valentinians appropriated the Gospel through their novel interpretation of the Prologue, John was offensive to the heretics in its emphasis on the deity of Christ and the eyewitness testimony to this effect.[2] Yet, in modern scholarship the opposite has been presumed to be the case:

As is apparent from this review, the phenomenon of orthodox Johannophobia has been for several decades a generally recognized principle among scholars working in Johannine studies, and in New Testament and early Christian history. It has been endorsed by most of the trusted names in Johannine studies, one of whom declares it to be supported by ‘all our evidence’. Many of these scholars shaped Johannine studies, and New Testament studies in general, in the last half of the twentieth century. Others are highly qualified and respected historians of early Christianity. Their work is quite naturally relied upon by other Johannine scholars and by specialists in related fields. When one scholar wrote that ‘It is well known that the orthodox were unwilling to quote the Fourth Gospel in the second century, for it was much the preserve of heretics’, she was stating what is, in the mainstream of the academic community, utterly non-controversial.[3]

Hill meticulously refutes this modern consensus and concludes:

Surely one of the most striking results of this investigation, but not of this only, for other studies have been at least tending towards the same conclusion, is that the major use of the Fourth Gospel among heterodox or gnostic groups up until the Valentinians Ptolemy, Heracleon, and Theodotus, is best described as critical or adversarial. This exposes and should correct the tendency of earlier scholarship to assume that any Johannine borrowings or allusions in gnostic literature are evidence of gnostic/Johannine affinity, or of a common family history.[4]

 But Hill leaves his readers wondering how modern scholarship and modern sensibility could make such a mega-blunder.

After Hill’s book and the earlier work of Martin Hengel, according to John Behr, the idea that John’s Gospel was viewed with suspicion by the orthodox church should be a dead letter,[5]but the fact that this notion has been given life and continues to survive seems to speak of the strange theological situation in which we find ourselves. The major influence which John exercised on the early church is largely read out of the history of modern scholarship, and one can only speculate that this is due to the silencing of John in the modern period. This silencing is not an overt exclusion of the Johannine literature but is an exclusion of a Johannine theological approach.

 My own, admittedly anecdotal, witness to this silencing of John comes from teaching John to undergraduates. John’s theological approach to the life of Christ, as I am sure I inadequately presented it, either opened students to a new way of reading the Bible or it made them angry. Students attenuated to a flat reading of the life of Christ through a flat reading of the synoptics were not used to finding the sort of theological significance and depth which are unavoidable in John. The strange yet blatant theological echoes of the Hebrew scriptures, the linking of the divine name and action to Jesus’ miracles and identity, the cosmic dimensions of recreation through Christ, the time-bending apocalyptic nature of John, the peculiar theological focus upon the manner of the death of Christ (an accomplished fact that pervades the Gospel), the implication of all the apostles in the sin of Judas as definitive of darkness, etc. etc.; these themes either created excitement or brought out defensiveness. In other words, the Johannophobia which Hill traces among academics is present at a popular level among ordinary believers.

John is not normally read in the universally accepted manner in which the early church read him and this serves to blunt his message, which is directed at the heresy which has the modern church in its grip. The flat reading of the Logos as the disincarnate Christ, the heaven and earth duality, the legal abstractions which pass for atonement theory, the focus on the individual, the elitism of the saved, the focus on souls going to heaven, and the denigration of this world and the flesh amounts to a form close to Gnosticism. Is the peculiar scholarly reception of John and the popular misreading of John a reflection of the fact that the modern church has succumbed to gnostic tendencies against which John writes?

The offence of John against gnostic sensibilities is the focus on the incarnation or the divine Word becoming flesh. The Gnostics believed matter was evil and it would be impossible for the divine to become flesh. The Word made flesh and the high view of the deity of Jesus made John repulsive to the early Gnostics. Only disembodied spirit could be divine and only those who, through special knowledge linked to an original divine spark, gained gnostic knowledge.

What renders John inoffensive in the modern period is a downplaying of John’s anti-gnostic themes. The incarnation is muted in modern sensibility as focus is put upon the pre-incarnate Christ. In turn, the goodness of creation or the sense in which it is a fit-dwelling for God, is displaced by the notion that redemption amounts to abandonment of God’s creation (rather than recreation, as portrayed in John). Focus on individual assent of the believer to a doctrinal formula accords with disembodied gnosis as adequate for salvation, which also fits with a focus on the inward and “spiritual” as standing over and against the outward and fleshly. This all fits with the peculiar elitism of the Gnostics (of the first and 21st century): only a special few are saved and most are damned and there is no cosmic salvation or cosmic recreation in gnostic-like readings of John.

What Hill finds, in contrast to a phobia of John in the early church, is the profound influence of John in every sector of the early church:

After the Johannine Epistles, the influence of this Gospel is evident in the writings or oral teachings of Ignatius, Polycarp, ( John) the Elder, Aristides, Papias, the longer ending of Mark, the later portions of the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistula Apostolorum, the Ad Diognetum, all before about 150. These represent the Great Church in at least Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy. The witness of Papias and his sources is of particular magnitude, as it seems to represent a substratum of tradition about the four Gospels which became widely diffused. This witness is consistent with the eminence of the four Gospels which is assumed by the longer ending of Mark, well before the comments made by Irenaeus in the 180s.[6]

Hill goes on to describe what must have been the universal appeal and shaping force of John in the early church. John’s “strong representation among the surviving papyrus fragments of early Christian writings” and the very early testimony of Aristides (in the 120s) and Justin (in the 150s) that the reigning emperor read John. Hill maintains that, “By the middle of the century, when Justin Martyr, Tatian, Valentinus, Ptolemy, and Hegesippus were in Rome, this Gospel must have been quite a well-known and prominent Christian authority.”[7] Hill argues, contrary to the received consensus, “there is no good evidence that any of the writers of the Great Church opposed or rejected the Gospel according to John in the second century, least of all for being gnostic or docetic, and not even for being inauthentic.”[8]

He points to the early catacomb paintings in Rome (around 200 A.D.) which testify to the unique influence of John in depictions of Jesus as the good shepherd (John 10), the conversation with the Samaritan woman (from John 4), the healing of the paralytic (from John 5), and the raising of Lazarus (from John 11). The use of “good shepherd” chalices (in the third century), and popularity of depictions of the wedding at Cana and the healing of the man born blind in baptistries, in Christian tombs, in glass and ceramic art, and in mosaics, testify to the popularity of the Gospel of John.[9] Far from a heretical love of John and an orthodox fear, Hill concludes that John was a “stubborn obstacle to docetism” or the denial that Christ was fully human. John preserved the orthodox church against the heretics, rather than providing an opening for their split between the humanity and deity of Jesus.

John’s focus on the eternality and deity of Jesus, as described in the work of Herbert McCabe, Robert Jenson, John Behr, and Rowan Williams, has been largely subdued if not lost in the modern sensibility, and this may account for the peculiar gnostic-like malaise of the church. The failure of Johannine scholarship seems to be the manifestation of a broader failure of appreciation of the theological focus of John which preserved the orthodoxy of the first church. What we find in the early church, and what has been largely lost in the modern period, is the centrality of the Gospel of John.

Maybe the prime representative of a Johannine theological approach, today condemned as a heretic, is Origen of Alexandria. My point in turning to Origen is to suggest that what has been lost in the modern church, in its flat reading of John, is best represented in the theological richness of Origen, which is today an understanding often reviled and repudiated.

As Ronald Heine describes in his introduction to Origen’s commentary on John, “Perhaps no book of the Bible, certainly none of the New Testament, was so suited to Origen’s exegetical approach as the Gospel of John. In his Commentary on the Gospel of John we have the greatest exegetical work of the early church.”[10] Ambrose directed Origen to write on John, as he had been saved out of Valentinianism by Origen, and apparently the Gospel had become key in his understanding. Origen’s spiritual exegesis of Scripture takes its inspiration from John and Paul. He referred to them as the “princes” of the New Testament and he refers to John as the “high priest” of religion of the Logos, as it was John who attained to a spiritual vision. He credits Revelation 14:6 as inspiring his understanding of the spiritual gospel, and his reading of John provides an abundance of examples of this spiritual reading.

In the commentary he will refer (in Book 6) to the crossings of the Jordan as a type of baptism; to the paschal lamb as a type of the crucified Christ (Book 10); to the tabernacle and the temple as types of Christ (Book 10.60); and in his discussion of John 2:13 he proceeds from the Passover in Exodus to Christ to I Corinthians 5:7 to Jesus words in 6:53-56 regarding eating his flesh and blood.[11] Origen finds Jesus Christ in the Law and the Prophets and is the center of his interpretation of every book of the Hebrew scriptures. In other words, Origen sets the pattern in a theological interpretation, inspired by John, that would become common in the early church.

Eusebius (260-339 A. D.) calls him the greatest Christian theologian, while Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215 A. D.) calls him the true gnostic. Gregory of Nyssa considers Origen his theological master while Gregory of Nazianzus demonstrates a primary reliance of Origen. According to David Bentley Hart, it is Origen and Origen’s reading of the Bible that will exercise the key influence on the early church:

After Paul, there is no single Christian figure to whom the whole tradition is more indebted. It was ­Origen who taught the Church how to read Scripture as a living mirror of Christ, who evolved the principles of later trinitarian theology and Christology, who majestically set the standard for Christian apologetics, who produced the first and richest expositions of contemplative ­spirituality, and who—simply said—laid the foundation of the whole edifice of developed Christian thought.[12]

And as Hart continues, it is Origen who is most disgracefully treated as a heretic by both East and West.

What is lost to us in the critical reception of Johannine literature in modern scholarship and in the flat reading of John with its gnostic-like presumptions, is the richness of the theological program inspired by John and passed along by Origen. Apart from the recovery of John’s theological reading it is not clear that deliverance from modern Gnosticism is possible.


[1] Charles Hill, The Johannine Corpus in the Early Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[2] Hill, 444.

[3] Hill, 56.

[4] Hill, 466.

[5] John Behr, John the Theologian and His Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 43.

[6] Hill, 465.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hill, 468.

[9] Hill, 469.

[10] Origen, Commentary on the Gospel According to John Books 1-10, Translated by Ronald E. Heine (Washington D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1989), 3.

[11] Origen, 14-15.

[12] David Bentley Hart, “Saint Origen,” in First Things (October 2015). Thank you Matt for the reference and for your great enthusiasm for Origen.

Is the God of the Law Among the Principalities and Powers Defeated by Christ?

The difference between contractual and apocalyptic theology is literally a world apart, in that contractual theology presumes history, law, human experience, and human intellect are an adequate or semi-adequate groundwork for prompting and recognizing the work of Christ. The scale of salvation, in a contractual understanding, is limited to humanity and tends to be focused on individuals or individual souls. It harmonizes, or attempts to harmonize, the God of the law with the image of God revealed in Christ. Any tension within Scripture between the Hebrew and Christian understanding of God is glossed over as resolvable.

Apocalyptic theology unfolds, both in its depiction of the problem and solution, on a cosmic scale. The world has been enslaved to forces of cosmic proportion which are spiritual and heavenly and physical and terrestrial. Ruling from above they have taken earth captive and have divided its kingdoms, with various spirits, religions, gods, and heavenly/earthly rulers demarking the spoils over which they reign. In turn, the story of salvation involves the entire cosmos, and as Ephesians depicts it, Christ has challenged the archons or so-called gods of the nations. We may imagine Paul is not including the God of Israel and the giver of the law as among the powers challenged by Christ. I would argue, it is precisely the one who delivered the law that is the prototype of the powers undone by Christ.

Paul, in quoting Psalms 68, which is describing David’s defeat of his enemies, translates the significance of these enemies and their defeat into the spiritual realm: “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men” (Eph. 4:8).  He explains, “In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Eph. 4:9-10). The cosmos, through the original deception but through continued manipulation, has been enslaved to death and hades. The descent and defeat of the place of the dead and the ascent into heaven is a depiction of the defeat of deathly power. Human acquiescence to deadly forces has unleashed these forces onto all that mankind was to have dominion over. How exactly these powers have come to rule may not be clear, but their manner of rule is clarified in conjunction with the death dealing nature of the law.

The exact manner of the rule of the powers is specified in Colossians, which also describes what happens now that they have been defeated: “When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him. Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:16–17). The specific “basic principles” which formerly enslaved and which now threaten again, are precisely those commanded in the law (I Ch. 23:21). The Colossians, like the Ephesians and Galatians, are being lured back into a Judaized Christianity, in which the law is pictured as a necessary first order arrangement (much as in contractual theology). Paul argues that, the specific way in which the reign of death is exercised is through human subjection to laws, principles and powers, which have no substance. They are lacking in truth and reality and yet these shadowy powers once reigned where Christ now reigns.

Both passages (from Ephesians and Colossians) seem to be an example of what the Apostles Creed describes as the “harrowing of hell,” or the defeat of the reign of death and those powers (or that power) which held the power of death as an enslaving instrument. Paul describes the release from captivity as a setting free of delusion, and his fear is that the Christians will forsake the truth for the lie of false religion: “Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind” (Col 2:18). The worship of angels may indicate, according to F. F. Bruce, a return to Judaism, as it was not God, but angels who delivered the law. The return to the law, characterized as worshipping angels, is probably Paul’s way of deriding legalism and asceticism.[1] 

Both Stephen, in Acts, and the writer of Hebrews make it clear, the law did not come directly from God but was delivered by angels, and to mistake their message and presence for the full substance of reality is the equivalent of idolatry (a worship of angels) in deifying what is not God (Acts 7:54; Heb. 1:4). Paul takes this a step further, indicating the Lord of Israel was an angelic mediator and should not be confused with the Father of Christ. The law delivered through this “God,” along with his reign, was a mediating phase displaced by the real thing: “Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made” (Ga 3:19). Paul is quick to explain that the problem is not with the mediation or the mediator, but the problem is to imagine this temporary measure is permanent or real. He is arguing that the law is temporary, but he also suggests the one doing this mediating was not God per se, but a mediator for God. “Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one” (Gal. 3:20). This mediating personage is not God and is not life giving, as his message is only partial: “For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law” (Gal. 3:21).

In 4:8 he equates returning to the law as returning to enslavement “to those who by nature are not gods.” He could be quoting the injunction from Chronicles (I Ch. 23:31; 2 Ch. 31:3) to observe and keep “Sabbaths, new moons, and set feasts.” Yet these things, which might have once been mistaken for divine ordinances, are “weak and miserable forces. . . who by nature are not gods” (Gal. 4:8-10). Is the “mediator,” this “weak and miserable force,” presumed to be God or the law or both? It may not matter, as neither is to be equated with the God revealed in Christ. “But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22). There was no access to God, to life, or to righteousness, as this mediating system “shut up everyone under sin.”

Other than as a pointer to the reality of Christ, as the writer of Hebrews indicates, the laws and institutions making up Israel are a shadow and not the reality: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves” (Heb. 10:1, RSV). The writer then nods toward the prophetic tradition (quoting Psalms 40) in which the voice commanding sacrifices and institutions of sacrifice (the temple, altar and priests) was not conveying the will of God: “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired. . . in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure” (Heb. 10:5-6). Jeremiah says it even more bluntly, “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Jer. 7:22). Jesus quotes Hosea to indicate what God really wants: “But go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt. 9:13).

Yet there are many passages where God (or a mediator) does command sacrifice and seems to enjoy the pleasing aroma of sacrifice. “The Lord smelled the soothing aroma” of Noah’s sacrifice and his anger was calmed (Gen. 8:20-21). Exodus pictures God or his messenger demanding sacrifice and finding pleasure in the smell: “You shall offer up in smoke the whole ram on the altar; it is a burnt offering to the Lord: it is a soothing aroma, an offering by fire to the Lord” (Ex. 29:18). Every indication, from a series of passages, is that the Lord commanded and enjoyed sacrifice (Gen. 8: 21; Exod. 29: 18, 25; Lev. 1: 9, 13; 2: 9; 4: 31). Yet there are an equal number of scriptures that indicate these were not commands from God: “I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills” (Ps. 50:9-10). “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Ho 6:6). “I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats” (Is. 1:11). God says, you have me confused with someone else, “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Jer. 7:22).

Whether it is, as Novation put it, that God has allowed himself to be fit to a frame of understanding “not as God was but as the people were able to understand,” or as Gregory of Nazianzus pictures it, God allowed fallen understanding to be mixed with right understanding as an accommodation, in either case the reality of God is obscured (even according to the Old Testament) in many of the Hebrew scriptures’ portrayals of God.[2] To fail to miss the possible accommodation and to presume to make all things equal in the Bible, will amount to committing the very error Paul is warning against. Law, sacrifices, blood offerings, new moons, sabbath keeping, taken as more than a shadow, amount to idolatry. These things are in danger of becoming an enslaving god, in competition with the Father of Christ. As Paul and Hebrews indicate, the law was given through angels (lesser spirits), and these in no way attain to the reality of God.

If this is the case, isn’t it also true that the principalities and powers, the archons of the age, the thrones and dominions, Paul speaks of, may be a mixed bag of malevolent spirits and corrupted and incomplete principles, inclusive of what he calls a “bewitching” (3:1) misapprehension of the law? He equates this delusion with the principle of the flesh (3:3), with reducing Christ to nothing (2:21), with the curse of the law (3:10), and with the equivalent of a return to idolatry (4:8-9). Paul compares living under the law to enslavement to the “elemental principles of the world” (Gal. 4:3), and to trade this enslavement for freedom in Christ is nothing short of the original malignancy introduced by the serpent.

If it seems odd to suggest that many of the theophanies of the Hebrew scriptures not only fall short of the reality of God but are at times indistinguishable from fallen angels or malevolent spirits, Origen is an early example of one who equates theophanies with malignant spirits. In a section of his book, On First Principles, entitled “The Opposing Powers,” he pictures the one commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son as a malign spirit. “For he is manifestly described as an angel who said that he knew then that Abraham feared God, and had not spared his beloved son, as the Scripture declares, although he did not say that it was on account of God that Abraham had done this, but on his, that is, the speaker’s account.” He equates this spirit with the one called “the destroying angel” slaying the first born in Egypt (Ex. 12:23), with the “evil spirit from God who “came mightily upon Saul” (I Sam. 18:10) and with the “deceiving spirit” sent upon the prophets (I Kings 22:19-23). Origen recognizes that the violence of the Hebrew Bible is mitigated and to be read through the peace of Christ, so that violence and a spirit of violence is unworthy of God, let alone being identified with God.

Christ has conquered the whole mixed bag of demonic spirits, malevolent principles, enslaving powers, the archons, thrones and dominions, inclusive of those connected to the law and the giving of the law. Paul is not concerned to sort out and save the one who mediated the law from other powers. In an apocalyptic reading, in which the old world order (perhaps most clearly represented by the law) is disrupted and defeated by the work of Christ, there is no middle position between slavery to the world principles and freedom. As Paul explains, the Jew is at no advantage in this regard (Gal. 2:16-20). He might as well have said, “Go ahead and observe the law and pretend the God who sends evil and deceiving spirits which enslave mankind and which enslaved the Jews pertain to the reality of God, but understand in observing special days and months and seasons and years and in turning back to the mediating angel of the law, I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you, for this has nothing to do with the God revealed in Christ” (see Gal. 4:10-11).


[1] F. F. Bruce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991). 118.

[2] Novatian, De Trinitate, 6, cited in Gregory Boyd, Cross Vision (Kindle Location 1563). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition. [2] Gregory of Nazianzus, “Fifth Oration: On the Holy Spirit,” in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, vol. 7, trans. P. Schaff and H. Wace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), 326. Cited in Boyd, (Kindle Locations 1564-1565).

Do Not Give Way on Your Desire: Comprehending Sexuality Through the Trinity

The Church, in its various institutional forms, is in the midst of a sexual crisis in which both married and supposed celibate clerics are not keeping their vows. Could it be that the ordering of desire around a misconstrued image of ultimate reality (God and human) is playing into this crisis?

At the heart of what is considered the most theologically developed portion of the New Testament, Paul brings together sexuality, desire, and Trinity that depicts the deepest “groanings” of human longing as a direct communion with the Holy Spirit. Desire gone bad and then rightly channeled is the substance of Paul’s depiction of redemption. For a variety of reasons, this economy of desire once developed and appreciated in the early church, is often no longer accounted for in standard depictions of salvation, God, and what it means to be human.

The extra-biblical discourse on the Trinity, for example, is typically abstract and esoteric or it is presumed that God’s inner life is completely closed off to us (apophaticism). But in passages like Romans 8, which most clearly depicts God as Trinity, there is also a depiction of human entry into the divine life on the basis of this intra-triune relation. Here there is no clear demarcation between immanent (who God is in himself) and economic (and who God is for others) Trinity.  In fact, it is not clear that these categories are adequate, as what is being depicted is that who God is for himself opens his life to others.

 At the same time, the God who is become man incorporates humankind into his life on the basis of who he is but also on the basis of what it means to be human. That is, prayer “groanings” (Ro 8:26), inclusive of the depth of human desire and need are the point of communion with God through the Spirit. It is not the setting aside or thwarting of desire but the mediation of desire which opens into participation in the inner life of God. God’s desiring love, his incorporating communion, is the ontological ground and fulfillment of human desire.

In this use of the word desire, we have passed beyond gender, though human desire is always initiated in gender. It is engendered bodily, but to limit it to gender is on the order of explaining thought as a mere product of the brain. The embodied and enabling factor of thought and desire, for all but the crudest reductionist, is not its ultimate explanation. Paul accounts for this tendency to reduce desire to gender as the law of sin and death (a law of desire – Ro 7:7). A “married woman is bound by law to her husband” so that her husband, representative of the law, constricts her desire.

Paul is not advocating adultery or celibacy but he is describing how desire can be ordered and channeled, such that one becomes a slave to law/desire (“I did not know desire apart from the law” 7:7). That is, both things (desire and law) arise simultaneously as a form of bondage in which all that one is and does is defined by this dynamic. Those who channel their desire into gender alone are on the order of those who have made the law the ultimate point of mediating relationship to God. The law bound are also the gender bound, so that one is controlled by their relationship to the law/husband. To state it in different terms, one’s love is constricted by the marks of maleness or femaleness.

Becoming united with Christ amounts to a breaking free of this dynamic: “you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another” (7:4). The love of God experienced in Christ is a release from the slavery to the law: “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Ro 7:6). Gender and with it, desire, is not an end in itself but is the medium to a relationship which transcends gender and erotic love. In the words of Sarah Coakley, “desire is more fundamental than gender, and the desiring, trinitarian God ultimately ambushes all attempts to fix and constrain gender in worldly terms.”[1]

It is on this basis of a transcendent desire that Paul describes a communion with God through the direct intervention of the Spirit in prayer. Prayer, the expression of “eager longing,” is the occasion in which there is evoked and realized adoption into the family of God: “you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (8:15). All three persons of the Trinity enable this communion. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” and “fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him” (8:16-17). Prayer is both the entry point and defined by the communion with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit.

This realization of Trinitarian agape love is not on the basis of a sublimation or refusal of erotic or gendered desire but the realization that gender, desire, and marriage, are a human economy which is to be conjoined with the divine communion in which the Spirit engenders Sonship. The divine communion opened to humanity through the Son links all of creations groanings in a cosmic sort of childbirth in which human desire is drawn into the divine economy so as to bring about the full adoption of humanity into the life of the Trinity (8:22-23).

Sex, gender, and desire, disconnected from this life in the Spirit, is on the order of a disembodied agape love or a prayer life that always seems to be speaking into the void. Prayer as a monologue to a distant patriarch is like an empty eroticism or a desire defined by gender and law.  The communication, the groaning, the desire is not answered by God but is left to itself – which describes life in the law; relationship, not to a person, but to an impersonal and mechanical-like symbolic order.

 In describing the Trinitarian communion Paul also describes a world participating in the purposes of God in which the deepest human “eager longing” is not closed in on itself. Primordial desire left to itself becomes the law of sin and death, but this same primordial desire opened to Christian hope is channeled beyond “life in the flesh” to hope of adoption as “children of God.”

A common theme of the church fathers is that the incorporation of the believer into the life of the Trinity through the Spirit is on the order of being incorporated into marriage through sex. As Sarah Coakley describes it, “For Origen, agape simply is Eros, by another name; whereas for his rather different successor in the Song-commentary tradition, Gregory of Nyssa, Eros is agape “stretched out in longing” toward the divine goal.” Just as the sexual bond makes of the two one flesh, so too the binding together in the Spirit is a fulfillment and ordering of desire. As Dionysius the Areopagite describes it, “’desire’ becomes an ontological force inherent to the divine life itself, an ecstatic capacity of God to go out and return, always ‘carried outside of himself’ whilst also “remaining within himself.”[2] Just as one is incorporated into the marriage relationship through the fulfillment of desire, so too the desire of God (the desire originating in God) describes this same self-transcendence or going outside of himself in an overflowing love.

Gregory of Nyssa, in Homilies on the Song of Songs describes the kinsman/Christ as drawing his lover/disciples through a reflected beauty in which desire is the power of the Spirit: “the Bride has dedicated herself to her kinsman and in her own form has taken on the beauty of her Beloved.” Andrew was led to the Lamb by the reflected attraction in the voice of John. Nathanael attracts Philip through the same allure that the maidens find in the kinsman’s lover – perfect in her comeliness. This reflected “’glory’ means the Holy Spirit, if account is taken of the Lord’s words; he says, after all, ‘The glory that you have given me, I have given to them.’” That is, the eroticism of sexual attraction in the Song translates directly into the attraction of Christ through the Spirit (Homily 15). “For it is obvious that where she is concerned the Word is pointing to this: that the soul, through the upward journey she has completed, has been exalted to the point where she is straining forward toward the wonders of the Lord and Master.”

There is a passage into desire in which “childishness” is left behind as the “disposition shaped by erotic love” is joined to God – “such were the souls of David and Paul.” David says, “But for me it is a good thing to cleave to God” and Paul says, “None shall separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, not life or death or what is present or what is future, or anything else.” Gregory calls those who stifle this desire through a misbegotten virtue, “concubines” (as they do not share in the divine Spirit of kingship) as it is out of fear, rather than by rightly directed desire, that they refuse evil: “by drawing near to the good through servile fear rather than through a bride’s love—she becomes a concubine rather than a queen because of her fear.”

Gregory, unlike Augustine, in no way denigrates marriage or sex. “We are well aware that it is not a stranger to God’s blessing” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). As Gregory describes it, however, one can either be a “Pleasure-lover” or a “God-lover.” The problem is not desire per se but whether desire is rightly ordered or given its proper telos (as a God-lover). It is not a matter of setting aside desire but of channeling it and even preserving it. That is, one should not spend desire solely on the earthly but channel it toward the heavenly.

Imagine a stream flowing from a spring and dividing itself off into a number of accidental channels. As long as it proceeds so, it will be useless for any purpose of agriculture, the dissipation of its waters making each particular current small and feeble, and therefore slow. But if one were to mass these wandering and widely dispersed rivulets again into one single channel, he would have a full and collected stream for the supplies which life demands. Just so the human mind (so it seems to me), as long as its current spreads itself in all directions over the pleasures of the sense, has no power that is worth the naming of making its way towards the Real Good; but once call it back and collect it upon itself, so that it may begin to move without scattering and wandering towards the activity which is congenital and natural to it, it will find no obstacle in mounting to higher things, and in grasping realities. Gregory of Nyssa (de virginitate, chapter VII)

He goes on to explain, desire rightly regulated and channeled will burst upward against the constraining force of gravity: “in the same way, the mind of man, enclosed in the compact channel of an habitual continence, and not having any side issues, will be raised by virtue of its natural powers of motion to an exalted love.” This is the way God ordained “that it should always move, and to stop it is impossible.” Thus, to spend desire on “trifles” is to introduce a leak into a stream which would otherwise speed one “toward the truth.” This does not entail setting aside sex and marriage. “That in the cases where it is possible at once to be true to the diviner love, and to embrace wedlock, there is no reason for setting aside this dispensation of nature and misrepresenting as abominable that which is honorable” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). It is a matter of arriving at “due proportion.”

Purity is not a matter of ridding oneself of desire but of not dissipating desire on trifling rivulets. Much as in a Lacanian frame, Gregory equates desire with the life force. Lacan’s singular ethical imperative (“Do not give way on your desire”), understood in this light is the empowerment to remain in the right channel of life. “If, as an inexperienced and easy-going steward, he opens too wide a channel, there will be danger of the whole stream quitting its direct bed and pouring itself sideways” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). So, the sexual passion, which he compares to a “trifling debt of nature” need not and should not consume one in “over-calculating.” Rather, through “the long hours of his prayers [he] will secure the purity which is the key-note of his life” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). This purity is a desire preserved and propelled by the Spirit, bent not on sexual union alone, but on the ultimate “blending” by “sharing in the place the Spirit holds between Father and Son.”[3]

William of St Thierry, reflecting Gregory of Nyssa, in his Exposition on the Song of Songs freely depicts an erotic spiritual love: “his left hand is under my head, and his right hand shall embrace me” (Song 2:6): “This embrace extends to man, but it surpasses man. For this embrace is the Holy Spirit. He is the Communion, the Charity, the Friendship, the Embrace of the Father and of the Son of God; and he himself is all things in the love of Bridegroom and Bride.” He describes the full consummation of this desire in union with God: “Then, I say, it will be the full kiss and the full embrace, the power of which is the wisdom of God; its sweetness the Holy Spirit; and its perfection, the full fruition of the Divinity, and God all in all.”[4]

This understanding of the Trinity leaves behind the apophatic and lifts up the human condition as preparation and mediation for participation in the inner life of God. God is known through an empirical order, rearranged and redirected by its inclusion in the love of God.


[1] Sarah Coakley, “Pleasure Principles” in Harvard Divinity School Bulletin Archive (AUTUMN 2005 (VOL. 33, NO. 2) https://bulletin-archive.hds.harvard.edu/articles/autumn2005/pleasure-principles

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Quoted from Coakley, Ibid.

A Hermeneutic of Peace: The Spiritual Reading of the Old Testament Through Christ

What difference would it make to our theology if Jesus had died in bed of old age or if he had been killed as an infant? If his death is primarily a sacrifice of appeasement, then an infant sacrifice might be quite fitting. If he is a model for right living, then modeling dying in old age would be most fitting. What is missing in old age dying or infant sacrifice, and a theology which might accommodate such a death, is the political nature of his death. He was a political prisoner killed by imperial power on an instrument designed to reinforce the subjugation of slaves and noncitizens. His was a political death brought about by human violence. The point is not to isolate the political, but to recognize that the violence that is accentuated and exposed on the cross (which is political) pertains to every human sphere. The political along with its violence is not isolated from the religious, the social, and the personal. Each of these spheres are addressed in the New Testament, but not discreetly or separately. The New Testament uses battle imagery, legal imagery, family imagery, or psychological imagery, so as to describe the form of universal enslavement and emancipation (another image). There is no singular way of describing the problem and solution as both are pervasive and pertain to everything, while overlapping in a central nexus. It is, in the language of the New Testament, of cosmic proportions, pertaining to the word and world, so that we speak it and live in it. If the problem is violent (dealing in death throughout) then the danger is that we will miss it. More than a danger, the interpretive frame focused on the cross as a religious sacrifice or Jesus as a moral example, demonstrate the violence remains. This interpretive frame is demonstrably subject to an overlooked pervasive violence, which means a peculiar hermeneutic is necessarily part of the answer.

The incarnation tells us the answer is worked from the inside out, and this pertains to our hermeneutic strategy. As Paul describes, Jesus came “from a woman, coming to be under the Law” (Gal. 4:4). A sacrificial theology “satisfied” with a dead Jesus, or an ethical theology content with a moral Jesus, or even a political theology focused on a revolutionary Jesus, all suffer from attempting to contain the solution in the problem. In Paul’s language, they make Christ fit the Law. They all suffer from fitting the answer to a facet of the problem. By the same token, if we fit Jesus to the frame of the Old Testament, he might be taken as another sacrifice, another prophet, or another revolutionary. This explains the interpretive strategy demonstrated in the New Testament in its reading of the Old Testament and the predominant hermeneutic of the church fathers. The presumption is not only that Christ is the interpretive key to the Old Testament but this key entails suspending a literal, flat, violent, reading.

Paul, in explaining the significance of Mount Sinai says, “These things are told allegorically” ((Gal. 4:24) in David Bentley Hart’s translation). As Hart explains in a note to his translation, “Again, one should not assume that Paul does not mean precisely what he says, and does not take the tale to be essentially (not merely secondarily) allegorical. His interpretive habits are rarely literalist.” Paul is explaining the significance of the Law, but in his explanation, he is also making it clear that all people, both Jews and Gentiles, were enslaved to the fundamental elements or principles of the cosmos (τὰστοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου in 4:3) which included the Law. These “elementary things” might entail any number of things and there is a sense in which the obscurity and plural valence of the term gets at its inescapable nature. According to Hart, the “Stoicheia” might refer to material constituents of the world, the elementary aspects of language, or they might refer to idols. Paul may be likening the religions of the world to children’s earliest lessons prior to Christ, much as he describes the Law as a schoolboy’s tutor or custodian. Perhaps it is something like the deep grammar which religion and language share (in a Girardian sense) with the Law.

His argument in verse 8 is, if Galatian Christians return to the law this would amount to returning to idols or the impoverished Elementals which formerly enslaved. All religion, and particularly the Jewish religion, in Paul’s explanation, suffered from this deep grammar or this elementary way of talking that enslaves all religionists prior to Christ. To read the Old Testament and the law literally, as of equal weight and as a guiding prefix to Christ, would be nothing short of “turning again to the weak and impoverished Elementals” and to once again be enslaved (4:10). Paul is teaching the Galatians that the Law, including the story of Hagar, Jacob and Esau, and the story of Sinai, have a role on the order of a maidservant. To treat the maidservant as if she is the freewoman is to mistake freedom for bondage. “Cast out the maidservant and her son, for by no means shall the maid servant’s son inherit along with the freewoman’s son” (4:30). The allegorical interpretive strategy puts the container of the Law in its proper place. It was a tutor, a maidservant, a part of what is now counted as among the impoverished Elements.

In Corinthians Paul explains that to miss the allegorical sense in which Christ was present in the Law is to miss the true spiritual food and true spiritual drink for “the rock was the Anointed” (I Cor. 10:4). Paul makes the point throughout that in light of Christ, “Now these things have become typological figures for us, so that we should not lust after evil things, as indeed those men lusted” (10:6). To take the letter of the Law as an end in itself, or as Christ says, as if it contains life, is to fall under the same principal under which the Israelites lusted and which caused them to be idolaters. In both Galatians and Corinthians, Paul is describing a fundamental desire connected with the Law and elemental principles which caused them to “go whoring” after idols (10:7-8). He once again emphasizes that the correct reading is the spiritual understanding which reads Christ as the end of the lesson: “Now these things happened to them figuratively, and were written for the purpose of our admonition, for whom the ends of the ages have arrived” (10:11).

A spiritual or theological reading will find Christ in the Old Testament, so that the focus is not on the text per se (or the intent of the author, etc.) but on Christ. As Paul explains in 2 Corinthians, God is the authority in whom we should have confidence due to Christ (3:4) and not the words of scripture. It is God, “Who also made us competent as ministers of a new covenant, not of scripture but of spirit; for scripture slays but spirit makes alive” (3:6). A text-based faith or a letter-based competency is a “ministry of death” (v. 7) but the spirit and the spiritually based hermeneutic lifts the veil of the Law, in Paul’s simultaneous explanation and demonstration of this interpretive method. This spiritual reading is not focused on the historical events but on the lesson to be drawn, allegorically, for the admonition and edification of contemporary readers.

As Hebrews puts it, God has spoken in the Old Testament through a multiplicity of sources and in a variety of ways. This plurality of words and messengers is contrasted with the singular message and messenger in which this plurality is overcome (Hebrews 1:1-3). Hebrews, like Galatians, argues that the former word or Law from God was imperfect because it came by way of secondary mediators – angels, or prophets, or Moses – and the message did not come directly from God. The implication is that the human mediators marked/marred the quality of the message and this is in contrast to the perfect representation of Christ. This imperfect message shaped by imperfect messengers resulted in its hearers perishing in the desert, missing both the promised land and the promised rest. They were bound to death by the imperfection of the message but now the full message has resulted in freedom from bondage to the former message.

As Romans states it, “But now we have been released from the Law, having died wherein we were imprisoned, so that we slave in newness of spirit and not in scripture’s obsolescence” (7:6). It is not that the Law or the scriptures are abolished but their punishing effect, or the idolatrous desire which they accentuate and aggravate, have been suspended. “For when we were in the flesh the passions of sin, which came through the Law, acted in our bodily members for the purpose of bearing the fruit of death” (7:5). Paul’s cumulative description of this Law includes Moses, Sinai, Jacob, Esau, and the various commands subsequent to Abraham. The Law and scriptures (or the gramma or word) must include much of the Old Testament, but it is also connected at a deep grammatical level (the elementary principle, the childish language, the idolatrous inclination) with the universal law of sin and death. At points in Romans, it is not clear what law he might be referencing (the prohibition in Genesis, the Mosaic law, or some sort of natural law) and it no long matters, as all law is the law of sin and death.

Origen draws out his allegorical hermeneutic from this Romans passage (7:1-3) but his larger point is to bring about peace, inclusive of peace between the Old Testament and the New.

The word ‘woman’ doubtless stands for the soul that was held fast by the Law of Moses, and about which it is said, ‘so long as her husband lives, she is bound by the Law.’ But if her husband, doubtless, the Law, has died, he calls her soul, which seems to be bound, ‘released.’ Therefore it is necessary for the Law to die so that those who believe in Jesus should not commit the sin of adultery.

 He concludes that Moses is dead and the Law is dead “and the legal precepts are now invalid.” He patterns his claim, an allegorical hermeneutic rightly handling the Law, after the Apostle and with an appeal to Jesus. “Do you want me to bring forth proofs from the Scriptures that the Law is called Moses? Hear what he says in the Gospel: ‘They have Moses and the Prophets, let them listen to them.’ Here, without any doubt, he calls the Law Moses.”[1] The woman, according to Origen, stands for every soul bound by the Law and thus drawn into adulterous desire. The dead husband stands for a Law that no longer rouses adulterous desire. And all of this in a series of sermons on Joshua.

His point is, like this woman defined by the Law and subject to desire, now that we understand Joshua is Jesus (the same name in the Hebrew) we can also understand the true enemy. What is slain by Joshua is this adulterous sin that afflicts the soul:

You will read in the Holy Scriptures about the battles of the just ones, about the slaughter and carnage of murderers, and that the saints spare none of their deeply rooted enemies. If they do spare them, they are even charged with sin, just as Saul was charged because he had preserved the life of Agag king of Amalek. You should understand the wars of the just by the method I set forth above, that these wars are waged by them against sin. But how will the just ones endure if they reserve even a little bit of sin? Therefore, this is said of them: “They did not leave behind even one, who might be saved or might escape.”[2]

The battle the Christian has joined with Jesus/Joshua is against sin. Both the surface (the wars and carnage) and deep violence of the Law (sinful desire) are suspended in Christ as hermeneutic key.  In this sense,  one can agree with the refrain to “sanctify war,” as it is a war to become holy in body and spirit by destroying “all the enemies of your soul, that is “the blemishes of sins.” The battle is one in which you “mortify your members” and you “cut away all evil desires” and you are crowned as a victor by Christ Jesus – our true Joshua.

Origen’s point, as he states it plainly in Homily 12, is “that the wars that Jesus/Joshua waged ought to be understood spiritually.” He references Hebrews to make his case that the entire Mosaic system, inclusive of the tabernacle, the sacrifices and the entire worship are a “type and shadow of heavenly things,” and so too the wars that are waged through Jesus, “the slaughter of kings and enemies must also be said to be ‘a shadow and type of heavenly things.’”[3] He defends this allegorical suspension and transformation of the Law by appealing directly to Paul: “All these things, which happened figuratively to them, were written for us, for whom the end of the ages has arrived” (I Cor. 10:11).[4]

Origen expands on Paul’s argument (referencing Corinthians and Romans) to make the case that one who clings to a fleshy reading or a literal circumcision also clings to wars, the destruction of enemies, and Israelites seizing kingdoms. This literal sense mistakes Joshua the son of Nun for the son of God.[5] The one who is an outward Jew and who insists on circumcision, in Origen’s explanation of Paul’s allegory, is committed to reading the violence of Joshua literally and in the process misses what it means to be a Jew secretly and to receive the circumcision of the heart. This fleshly reader of scripture misses Jesus’ casting out and destroying those powers ruling our souls so as to fulfill his word, “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”

This violent non-allegorical or non-Christocentric hermeneutic of the original readers will only increase the violent work of the Law and will not achieve peace:

Then that Israel that is according to the flesh read these same Scriptures before the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, they understood nothing in them except wars and the shedding of blood, from which their spirits, too, were incited to excessive savageries and were always fed by wars and strife. But after the presence of my Lord Jesus Christ poured the peaceful light of knowledge into human hearts, since, according to the Apostle, he himself is “our peace,” he teaches us peace from this very reading of wars. For peace is returned to the soul if its own enemies—sins and vices—are expelled from it. And therefore, according to the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we indeed read these things, we also equip ourselves and are roused for battle, but against those enemies that “proceed from our heart”: obviously, “evil thought, thefts, false testimony, slanders,” and other similar adversaries of our soul. Following what this Scripture sets forth, we try, if it can be done, not to leave behind any “who may be saved or who may breathe.” For if we gain possession of these enemies, we shall fittingly also take possession of “the airy authorities” and expel them from his kingdom, as they had gathered within us upon thrones of vices.”[6]

Origen concludes that apart from this non-violent allegorical reading of scripture it is questionable that “the books of Jewish history would ever have been handed down by the apostles to the disciples of Christ.” Christ “came to teach peace so it is only by transforming these tales of “physical wars” into figures of “spiritual wars” that these books are made worthy of being read in the churches. “For what good was that description of wars to those to whom Jesus says, ‘My peace I give to you; my peace I leave to you,’ and to whom it is commanded and said through the Apostle, ‘Not avenging your own selves,’ and, ‘Rather, you receive injury,’ and, ‘You suffer offense’?”[7]

It comes down to a choice between the violent, fleshly, inheritance of the Law and Moses or the peace of Christ, and to cling to the fleshly reading, according to Origen, is disqualification from the inheritance of Christ. “If, therefore, you wish to be made worthy to pursue the inheritance from Jesus and if you wish to claim a portion from him, you must first end all wars and abide in peace, so that it may be said concerning the land of your flesh, “The land ceased from wars.”[8] Origen’s Christocentric allegorical hermeneutic has the peace of Christ as its continual aim and only the defeat of sin and violence are worthy of Christ. He suggests that the primary enemy of Jesus is the root of “bitterness” (the meaning of “Amorite”) that continues to dwell in those who continue to “strike out violently” (the meaning of Edom) and may linger on even in those who dwell in peace (the meaning of “Salamin”) but the lesson is clear:

The ones who strike violently are those who, placed in contests, endeavor to overcome devilish abodes and structures. But peaceful ones are those who produce peace for the soul after overcoming fleshly desires. Nevertheless, a hostile power, bitterness, steadfastly continues and strives to persist in both.[9]

Origen extends the reading of Paul, in what he describes as a cruciform hermeneutic applied to Joshua.

To what then do all these things lead us? Obviously to this, that the book does not so much indicate to us the deeds of the son of Nun, as it represents for us the mysteries of Jesus my Lord. For he himself is the one who assumes power after the death of Moses; he is the one who leads the army and fights against Amalek. What was foreshadowed there on the mountain by lifted hands was the time when “he attaches [them] to his cross, triumphing over the principalities and powers” (Col. 2:14-15).[10]

This allegorical reading, far from unusual, is the hermeneutic that prevailed in the apostolic period, the early Church, and it was the approach of much of Judaism in the first century. It is the approach of Hebrews, Galatians, I & 2 Corinthians, and Romans. As Hart points out, “Philo of Alexandria was a perfectly faithful Jewish intellectual of his age, as was Paul, and both rarely interpreted scripture in any but allegorical ways.”[11] 

The literal interpretation, with the peculiar meaning it will take on in the modern period (literalism) is a development arising only with the Reformation, prior to which the spiritual reading was normative. “From Paul through the high Middle Ages, only the spiritual reading of the Old Testament was accorded doctrinal or theological authority.”  Hart’s conclusion seems to echo Origen, “Not to read the Bible in the proper manner is not to read it as the Bible at all; scripture is in-spired, that is, only when read ‘spiritually.’”

To read the Bible as if it encourages violence or as if God is violent is to miss Christ, the New Testament, and the predominant witness of the church. To read the Bible through the hermeneutic born in the sixteenth century is, according to Hart, “at once superstitious and deeply bizarre.” This late Protestant invention is “not Christian in any meaningful way.”


[1] Origen, The Fathers of the Church: Homilies on Joshua, vol. 105, Translated by Barbara Bruce, (Washington D. C. The Catholic University America Press) p. 29. This blog is the product of a discussion with Matt Welch who prompted me to read Origen, provided me the text, and then pointed me to the key passages which I have deployed above. Matt has also pointed me to Hart and provided me with his translation of the New Testament. Matt’s friendship and dialogue through the years have been a key demonstration to me of Christ’s peaceful hermeneutic.

[2] Origen, 94

[3] Origen, 120

[4] Quoted as the opening to Homily 13.

[5] Origen, 125

[6] Origen, 130

[7] Origen, 138

[8] Origen, 168

[9] Origen, 204

[10] Origen, 29

[11] David Bentley Hart, Good God? A Response, a post in response to Peter Leithart on his blog at https://theopolisinstitute.com/leithart_post/good-god-a-response/ All the Hart quotes are from this blog.

Resurrection as the Personal Realization of Creation Ex Nihilo

The understanding of the world against which Christianity is pitted is one which begins with the world as we know it. This “world as we know it” sort of understanding might explicitly postulate the world as absolute (an infinite uncreated universe or a universe unfolding from a preexistent material) or it might, in its misconstrued Christian form, implicitly give final weight to the present cultural moment. An example of the latter, giving rise to the presumed order of the logic of Christianity, begins with creation (as “naturally” conceived as in the philosophical arguments). It is assumed that we have access to creation and that we build upon this understanding sequentially till we add in the order of salvation. Like the traditional prolegomena, it is presumed a basic knowledge of God and the world are given together and the story of salvation can be added on to this foundation. The influence of this distorted beginning shows itself, almost as bluntly as Greek philosophical understandings, in its treatment of the doctrine of resurrection. Of course, bodily resurrection made no sense in any of the Greek philosophical understandings, but it is shunted to one side even among Christians focused on creation ex nihilo. For example, creationists’ reaction to evolutionary biology, focused as they are on proving a First Cause sort of creator, seem to miss a key point of the resurrection: biology is not the primary human problem. Creation ex nihilo, then, if it is not paired with resurrection, misses the existential import it bears in the Bible and early Christian preaching.

There is some debate as to how explicit or fully realized the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is in the Old and New Testament, but what is clear is that Christian apologists of the 2nd century A.D., in defending the doctrine of the resurrection, fleshed out the doctrine of creation ex nihilo in its fullness.[1] Resurrection would require of Platonists, such as those encountered by apologists like Tatian (120-180 A.D.), a complete reconception of their world. It would demand a rethinking not only of God, but of humans, and of the material world (which was its own sort of absolute). The scoffing reaction of the Areopagites to Paul’s proclamation of the resurrection (Acts 17.32) indicates the overwhelming change the Gospel called for.

It was not just a matter of accepting resurrection, which would have been seen more as a damnable condition than salvific, but it was a matter of changing up the dominant world view in such a way as to make resurrection seem either plausible or desirable. Within a Greek frame, flesh involved a necessary corruption which could only be escaped by shedding the body and becoming an immaterial soul (not so unlike the continued understanding of a Greek influenced Christianity). Later, Celsus (as recorded by Origen) will mock the despicable lengths to which Christians are willing to go so as to make it seem any human soul would want to occupy a body that had rotted and which will continue to rot. “God in no way is able to do shameful things, neither does he wish things contrary to nature.” As Celsus will explain, God is reasonable and being reasonable he would not preserve the body, which Heraclitus tells us, “is more to be cast off than refuse.” The material and the corporeal are subject to chaos and corruption, and are subject to unreason, thus the reasonable soul must be rid of them.  “God is not willing or able irrationally to make everlasting the flesh which is full of things which are not beautiful. He himself is the reason of all things.” [2]

Seen from the stand-point of resurrection, it is obvious that death and corruption were the primary factor in the Greek conception of both God and the world. God cannot overrule the primary law of death and corruption which mark the material universe, and are separated out from his order of reason. God, equated as he was with reason, was eternally opposed to the discord and disorder of matter and this opposition constitutes an eternal dualism.

To be on the side of God would mean being part of the Greek polis, the counter-ordering of the city of man, built upon the implicit absolute of death. Controlling death, warding it off through religion, disciplining its chaotic inclinations through law, religion, sacrifice and the counter violence of the city, constitute(ed) the imposition of reason in this chaotic world. Much like the doctrines of penal substitution and divine satisfaction in Christianity gone bad, the price of not controlling the violence through violence, is to succumb to it.  But of course, these doctrines have arisen like pagan sacrificial cults on the presupposition that God must negotiate with and attempt to defeat the corrupting power of death, which controls the universe and which opposes him. This is a misreading of the universe, a misunderstanding of God, and a perversion of the Judeo-Christian hope.

The Jewish Scriptures are founded upon God’s creative control over the universe, and though there may not be a full development of creation ex nihilo, there is an explicit counter to divinizing any element in the world or to making any element of the world, divine or material, its source. Genesis seems to counter the violent Babylonian creation myth (or its equivalents), the Enuma Elish, in which the body or blood of the god, Tiamat, slain by Marduk, is the raw material of the created order. As a story of origin, Genesis purposely subordinates the chaos. Though it mentions the “confusion and emptiness,” it is subject to God and his organizing rule. The gods of the Enuma Elish were born from Tiamat and Apsu, the salt and fresh waters (Enuma Elish 1.1-12), but it is God who separates and organizes the chaotic waters of Genesis. The mythological sea and its chaotic waters always threatened, but in Jewish understanding the threat is eliminated. The waters are subject to God’s ordering and are a part of his creative artifice in Genesis. As Job explicitly has God inquire:

“Or who enclosed the sea with doors When it went out from the womb, bursting forth; When I made a cloud its garment, And thick darkness its swaddling bands, And I placed boundaries on it And set a bolt and doors, And I said, ‘As far as this point you shall come, but no farther; And here your proud waves shall stop’?

(Job 38:8-11).

 It was also a common belief that the heavens are of a different, divine order, than the sublunar world. This notion is also completely thwarted.  The Hebrew texts picture God as the originator of heaven and earth: “Thus says God, Yahweh, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, who hammered out the earth and its produce. Who gave breath to the people upon the earth, and spirit to those who walk on it” (Isaiah 42.5). The oneness of God, as opposed to a duality between God and the gods or the principles of the world, means there is a uniform order between heaven and earth.

“For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): “I am the Lord, and there is no other. I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, ‘Seek me in chaos.’ I the Lord speak the truth, I declare what is right.”

(Is. 45:18-19, RVSCR)

As James Alison describes it, there are no secret deals, no dark blood-letting, no prior chaos with which God has to deal.[3] 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. His personified wisdom precedes all of the elements of the world and there is nothing dark or threatening but all of creation is an ode of joy at the display of his wisdom: “The Lord created me at the beginning of His way, Before His works of old. From eternity I was established” (Proverbs 8.22-23). Reason or wisdom does not stand opposed to the created order nor does it illicit escape from this order, rather it is on display throughout creation. This wisdom from eternity is linked with all of creation; the springs, the hills, the fields, the heavens, the skies, and the clear depiction of a boundary put upon sea.  Throughout the Proverb, culminating with human creation, wisdom is described as the master workman (v. 30). So, what is prior to creation is God and the personified wisdom of God.

Here there is no dualism between the created order and reason, or between heaven and earth, or between the realm of God and the realm of the world. In fact, the world is consistently depicted as a fit dwelling place for God:

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Heaven is My throne and the earth is the footstool for My feet. Where then is a house you could build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest? For My hand made all these things, So all these things came into being,’ declares the Lord.”

(Is. 66:1-2)

Only God can prepare his dwelling place and he has done so by calling the world into being.

While this and many other verses seem to teach creation ex nihilo, it might be denied that they do so, as this doctrine is not a developed or universal understanding among Jews or even among early Christians. (For example several of both faiths view Plato’s creation account in the Timaeus, which depicts the world as created from a preexistent chaos, as borrowed from Moses.) Creation ex nihilo is implied and perhaps it is present in certain texts, but it will not become a definitively developed doctrine apart from belief in resurrection.

The development of the doctrine is clearly tied to the advent of belief in the resurrection, even as it developed among Jews during the Maccabean revolt. A mother encourages her son to submit to submit to martyrdom by looking to the origin of creation, and she ties this to the assurance of resurrection:

“I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed.  And in the same way the human race came into being. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers.”.

(2 Maccabees 7:28-29)

As Alison describes it, two things come together here, as for the first time we encounter the concept of creation ex nihilo and with it a conception of resurrection. With creation there came into being the human race, and so one can challenge the present social order, even upon pain of death, knowing that the social order is itself contingent. God is alive and exuberant and has nothing to do with death or the social order, such that it is a light matter to die rather than become subject to social purposes. What is coming into view is the implication of the work of Christ.

This is as close to an explicit teaching of creation ex nihilo as is to be found among the Jews, and yet it is also tied to an implied resurrection. The question is why this should be the case?

Certainly, the Hebrew Bible serves as an antidote to violent creation myths and it even provides explanation as to how these myths arose. The early chapters of Genesis supply ample material, which Paul calls upon in Romans 1, to describe the turn from worshipping God to deifying parts of creation. The notion of creation ex nihilo, or its near equivalent, is typically called upon in refuting idolatrous religion, and yet this is not enough, as Paul will point out. Though the people Paul is describing had ample knowledge of God and his relationship to creation, this knowledge is inadequate as a point of resistance to death dealing practices. “For they exchanged the truth of God for falsehood, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed” (1:25). The specific cause which Paul points out,“they became futile in their reasonings” and in “claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Ro. 1:21-22). Their problem is not that they have insufficient information about the First Cause. As Paul will work it out in the course of his explanation in Romans, their acceptance of false views of creation are tied to their orientation to death. As he says at the end of this first chapter, knowing that these things deserved and were tied up with death was no deterrent. They approved of wicked deeds, and knowing they were tied to death was perhaps, an impetus to do them anyway (1:32).

The specific triangulation which he comes to in chapter 4, with the depiction of the faith of Abraham, is that Abraham came to near simultaneous conclusions concerning death, creation, and his being the father of a new sort of nation: “(as it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations’) in the presence of Him whom he believed, that is, God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that do not exist (Ro. 4:17). The capacity to believe God can call into being that which does not exist is a direct correlate to believing he gives life to the dead. These two beliefs are at the center of a new identity, based on resurrection faith. This faith, which recognizes the gratuitous nature of God in creation and in regard to rescue from death, is very much tied to Abraham’s relationship to the law. The law has no hold on him; it does not pertain to his benefits and holds out only wrath (4:15), yet faith renders it irrelevant.

All of this though, comes to Abraham as part of his own existential journey into a reorientation to death.  His faith became a realization as “he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old” (4:19). Likewise, it was the recognition that Sarah’s womb was dead, combined with his faith that God could bring life from out of death, that brought him to “being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able to perform” (19-22).

What Abraham, as the prototype of Christian faith comes to, is the understanding that his is not primarily a biological or material problem. Death reigns only for those who, in their sinful orientation, imagine they must negotiate life on the basis of death. Death is put in its place by faith in God, and the faith which is no longer oriented by the sinful orientation, is enabled to put the material order and the corporeal body in their proper place (along with the law).

Even in the sequence of the writing of Genesis, it is the realization of Abraham that precedes the writing of the early chapters of Genesis, so that proper access to creation is enabled by the disabling of death and the idolatrous reification of death, by which Abraham is surrounded. The access to creation is always enabled in the same way. In this sense, creation ex nihilo and resurrection are not simply book-ends at the beginning and end of time, but pertain to this present moment. Where matter, death, biology, and time might be experienced as barriers which block out ultimate reality, faith recognizes that the world, the body, the material order of the cosmos, are the conduits for presently participating in the life of God. Creation understood in light of salvation turns out to be an unfolding of God’s eternality to his human offspring.

 The danger, even with a misconceived creation ex nihilo, would be to imagine that there is a sequence from nothing to something, as if nothing is an actually existing stage in the order of things or a stage which accompanied God prior to creation. The sequence upon which we depend is not marked, as William Lane Craig, has pictured it, as God shifting from his eternal intention (in which nothing accompanies God) to his causal power. The existential encounter with God in the reality of death, empties out the tomb and empties out this reified conception of nothing. The recognition of the power of resurrection in the midst of death opens up recognition of God’s abiding presence in and through creation.  


[1] This is the claim and explanation of James Noel Hubler in his dissertation Creatio ex Nihilo: Matter, Creation, and the Body in Classical and Christian Philosophy Through Aquinas which can be accessed at https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2119&context=edissertations

[2] In Origen, Contra Celsum, 5.14

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