The Cosmic Christ

Vitruvian Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.