False Incarnation in Jordan Daniel Wood and Maximus the Confessor

In conversation with Jordan Wood, Jordan mentioned the notion of a false incarnation proposed by Maximus the Confessor. I found the idea intriguing, fitting as it does with a psychotheological portrayal of the human predicament. Jordan traces two beginnings or moments of creation in Maximus, a false beginning giving rise to a failed understanding (of creation, the self, and God) and the real moment of creation, in the Spirit, through Christ. Romans 7 contains Paul’s example of the dynamic of the false incarnation (the focus of psychotheology), in which the “I” would manipulate the law as the end point of desire, a desire which defines and consumes the self. Romans 8 describes the undoing or displacement of this false creation or false imaging as the individual is found in Christ and through the Spirit is born into the participation and love of God. I had not thought of this as two beginnings, but this fits Paul’s portrayal.

In Maximus’s theology, Adam turned away from God “together with coming-into-being,” thus “bringing about the phenomenal but illusory (and death-dealing) world.”[1] This false world of the first Adam (humanity outside of Christ) repeats itself in every representative of Adam (humanity). “Adam’s sin corrupts God’s creation by illicitly ‘creating’ or sourcing a false world radically hostile to God, a world into which we are born and because of which our very mode of becoming becomes damaged.”[2] As Jordan describes,  “sin illicitly ‘creates’ a ‘world’ and a ‘history’ that are not truly God’s creation.” According to Maximus, “Adam (or the concrete human being in history) has received two fundamentally opposed beginnings. We have the fantastical but self-actualized “human,” on the one hand, and the true human being, Jesus Christ, on the other.”[3] As Maximus writes, Christ contained all of human nature (or all of Adam within himself) and brought him to perfection: “When the Divine Word clothed Himself in human nature without undergoing any change, and became perfect man like us in every way but without sin, He manifested the first Adam in both the mode of His creaturely origin and the mode of His birth.”[4] “Christ ‘manifests (φαινόμενον) Adam; he makes Adam into a real historical phenomenon at long last.”  Maximus declares that “all the ages and the beings existing within those ages received their beginning and end in Christ.”[5]

This means the beginning of creation (the true beginning in Christ) is in the middle of history. As John Behr notes: “According to The Martyrology of Jerome, ‘On March 25, our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified, conceived, and the world was made.’”[6] In the false beginning the creature is necessarily brought into existence involuntarily, but in Christ all voluntarily give assent to be born into life “in and as Christ” entailing the other Maximian formula, “creation is incarnation.”  Now all voluntarily give “assent to be born into life in and as Christ, entailing that creation is indeed Incarnation.”[7]

The personhood of Jesus Christ is at the center, not simply as beginning, but as the very substance of the image of God. The nature of this image is not some abstract principle, some ability or capacity; rather, the image is the person of Christ. Christ is the very substance of the image in which humankind is created. The Christ event “is the enhypostatic act of the Word of God in history. Like any event, the historical Incarnation is also the disclosure of the person who acts and is acted upon. Every event contains and is contained by a person whose whole truth resists reduction to either an abstract genus or an abstract instance of some generic principle. The Christ-event is a happening every bit as resistant to abstraction as the logic it discloses is.”[8]

The incarnation of Jesus (the person of Christ) is the truth of all persons and the true beginning of all things, and false incarnation is the obstruction or turning from this beginning. False incarnation is a grasping (enfleshing) of the wrong image (an “imaginary” image in Lacanian theory), focused as it is on abstractions (spectral images), as if personhood is made up of something other than true personhood. The comparison is something on the order of Platonism and Christianity, with the former working with “eternal and transcendent trues” and the latter focused on the reality of the person of Christ. For Maximus, “Christ” names neither an essence nor “simply a general, metaphysical rule (essence/nature) nor a mere individual that appears only as an exception to that rule— an instance of something more common whose individuality emerges merely as what is particular or not-common.” Christ alone brings together the divine and created – he is, in his person the concrete identity of these two natures. This is no formal abstraction, as he is the “very condition for the (existential) possibility of any further abstraction about him whatever.”[9] He is not an instance of a universal or a particular principle. “In Christ particulars and universals and their mutual dependency are created.”[10] Time and eternity, God and creation, and beginning and end, brought together in the incarnate Christ is the substantive beginning comprehending the whole.

In the Genesis account, Adam, who for Maximus is representative of all humanity, receives the breath of God, but the true inbreathing of the Spirit  occurs only when man is born of the Spirit (so Genesis 2, the beginning is found only in the end which Christ brings about). Being born of the Spirit is the initiation of the true imaging (deification). “Birth by Spirit grants one the power to become God,” and this is a power that in one sense is beyond humanity and yet is part of his natural capacities. As “it is evident . . . that the process from spiritual birth to achieving the full stature of divine filiation is itself the process of creation.”[11] Being born of the Spirit “is nothing other than birth ‘according to Christ in the Spirit,’ or— which comes to the same — living in a way that allows Christ’s own births (both of which find their term in his hypostasis) to take place in you.”[12] While in sin there is a failure to be fully myself or to be completely created (truly born), in Christ there is a regeneration flowing backward and forward, so that in becoming “all in all,” what is not complete is being made complete.

This end in the beginning is portrayed in the Genesis 2 account, which in Maximus’ view, is an all-inclusive (mythical?) depiction, while Genesis 3 depicts a false beginning. Adam is ignorant of God, himself, and the world as is evidenced in his ready willingness to partake of the forbidden fruit. As Maximus puts it, “For after humanity’s transgression, the end can no longer be indicated through the beginning, but only the beginning through the end. Nor does one seek the principles of the beginning, but rather researches those principles that lead beings in motion to their end.”[13] The historical beginning recounted in Genesis 3 is a false beginning, cut off from its true end. In this beginning, “Adam rejected ‘this deifying and divine and nonmaterial birth’ and preferred the immediate pleasure of sensible things to spiritual delights ‘that were not yet fully evident to him.’ He was thus ‘condemned to a material, mortal, and corporeal birth, outside the power of his free choice [ἀπροαίρετον].’”[14]

In Maximus’ portrayal, just as Genesis 2 may depict an all-inclusive end, so too Genesis 3 depicts a continually reenacted event inclusive of all fallen humanity. Sin is not a necessity or inheritance, but describes a beginning and world based on an improper goal and “erroneous judgement” (his definition of evil) continually enacted.[15] “So construed, the Fall names not principally an ancient event, nor simply an event simultaneous with becoming as such, but an event that occurs at all moments of becoming in this world— in the generation, conduct, corruption, and death of every person.”[16]

In one paragraph Maximus depicts the full movement of the two beginnings:

God, then, truly became man and gave our nature the new beginning of a second birth, which through pain ends in the pleasure of the life to come. For our forefather Adam, having transgressed the divine commandment, introduced into our nature another beginning of birth—in contrast to the one that had preceded it—constituted by pleasure, yielding to pain, and ending in death. Following the counsel of the serpent, he conceived of pleasure not as succeeding any prior suffering, but rather as terminating in suffering, and so he subjected, through this unrighteous origination in pleasure those who like him were born of the flesh, together with himself, to the just end of death through suffering. Conversely, our Lord, having become man, and having created for our nature a new beginning of birth through the Holy Spirit, and having accepted the death through suffering that was justly imposed on Adam, but which in Him was completely unjust—since it did not have as the principle of its beginning the unrighteous pleasure that arose from the disobedience of the forefather— destroyed both of these two extremes (I mean the beginning and the end) of human birth according to Adam, neither of which was brought into being by God.”[17]

For Maximus the Garden of Eden is not perfect or complete, as perfection and completion (pleroma) are only brought about in Christ. There is not the possibility one can experience this fulness and abandon it, as this contains the inherent contradiction (an imperfect perfection) which demeans both God and his purposes in creation. “For starters, even the bare possibility that we might experience the perfection of our faculties in God and yet move away from him belies God’s own beauty, indeed that God is beauty itself, since ‘whatever is not good and desirable in and of itself’ and ‘does not attract all motion to itself, strictly speaking cannot be the Beautiful.’” Maximus rejects the notion that the first pair were perfect or complete:

The first man, consequently, being deficient in the actual movement of his natural powers toward their goal, fell sick with ignorance of his own Cause, and, following the counsel of the serpent, thought that God was the very thing of which the divine commandment had forbidden him to partake. Becoming thus a transgressor and falling into ignorance of God, he completely mixed the whole of his intellective power with the whole of sensation, and drew into himself the composite, destructive, passion-forming knowledge of sensible things.[18]

Adam’s desire, as Paul describes it (and as taken up by Lacan and Zizek), becomes twisted around the law: “For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness” (Rom. 7:7-8). Adam, Paul, or everyman mistakes the created for the ultimately desirable, and thus displaces the ultimate object of desire, God, with that which is finite. Maximus comes close to describing the futility of the Lacanian interpretation of Paul’s death drive (the drive to escape the death drive):

Thus the more that man was preoccupied with knowledge of visible things solely according to the senses, the more he bound himself to the ignorance of God; and the more he tightened the bond of this ignorance, the more he attached himself to the experience of the sensual enjoyment of the material objects of knowledge in which he was indulging; and the more he took his fill of this enjoyment, the more he inflamed the passionate desire of self-love that comes from it; and the more he deliberately pursued the passionate desire of self-love, the more he contrived multiple ways to sustain his pleasure, which is the offspring and goal of self-love. And because it is the nature of every evil to be destroyed together with the activities that brought it into being, he discovered by experience that every pleasure is inevitably succeeded by pain, and subsequently directed his whole effort toward pleasure, while doing all he could to avoid pain, fighting for the former with all his might and contending against the latter with all his zeal. He did this believing in something that was impossible, namely, that by such a strategy he could separate the one from the other, possessing self-love solely in conjunction with pleasure, without in any way experiencing pain. It seems that, being under the influence of the passions, he was ignorant of the fact that it is impossible for pleasure to exist without pain. For the sensation of pain has been mixed with pleasure even if this fact escapes the notice of those who experience it, due to the passionate domination of pleasure, since whatever dominates is of a nature always to be prominent, overshadowing the perception of what is next to it.”  

The masochistic fusion of pleasure with pain results in the pleasurable drive toward death. “Ignorance of creation intensifies ignorance of God. Knowing neither God nor creation, Adam cannot know himself; he, in his deluded self-love, fancies himself fulfilled by bare sense pleasure. Such pleasure always disappoints. Pain follows hard upon pleasure because no finite phenomenon can sate infinite desire. Thus the whole of this miserable existence, which vacillates pitilessly between pleasure and pain, relies first and last upon ignorance of God, creation, and the self.”[19] The pursuit is to fulfill desire in that which cannot possibly satisfy, which only intensifies the effort, so that the ego is completely given over to this lie. The lie, in Paul and Lacan and seemingly Maximus, constitutes the core of a false self.

Thus our life became filled with much groaning—a life that honors the occasions of its own destruction and which, out of ignorance, invents and cherishes excuses for corruption. Thus the one human nature was cut up into myriad parts, and we who are of one and the same nature devour each other like wild animals. Pursuing pleasure out of self-love, and for the same reason being anxious to avoid pain, we contrive the birth of untold numbers of destructive passions.[20]

Thus, humankind always eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, always flees from paradise, in the effort to produce life from death.  

However, humankind’s false start does not contradict or preclude that creation is incarnation: “Quite the contrary: that we can “create” a counterfeit world by incarnating, in ourselves, our own impassioned delusions proves possible only because creation’s very logic is already that of the Word’s actual Incarnation in and as all things.”[21] As Paul demonstrates in Romans 7, it is possible to create a death dealing dynamic which would embody the letter of the law. This is the false principle of the law, a law unto itself. The law made absolute is the manifest principle of absolutizing finitude, of worshipping the creation as creator, or of self-deification. But just as Paul pictures the reversal of Romans 7 in Romans 8, so too all humanity is involved in the reversal brought about in Christ.

Adam represents the universal fact that every person causes the Fall, and that therefore every person, empowered by Christ’s personal human freedom, must freely undo that Fall. After all, God’s intention and will and desire (his logoi) in creating at all is not principally to make a created order, an impersonal hierarchy of variously arranged essences. His goal is to create concrete, free, unique, ultimately deified persons. There is a logos of every person, and every person’s logos is also Christ the Logos. Creation’s perfection, its true beginning and end, is nothing less than the personal perichoresis of God and creation— beholding God “face to face.[22]

Creation was made for deification (a truth indicated even in false deification), and there is the sense, as shown in Christian baptism (Maximus’ example) that freewill plays a part in every part of the process. According to Maximus, “He who is God by nature was born bodily yet without sin and for our sake accepted the birth of baptism unto spiritual adoption, I believe that for this reason the teacher (Gregory) connected the birth of baptism with the Incarnation, so that baptism might be considered as the abolition and release from bodily birth.” The second birth not only fulfills the first but releases from the bonds and limitations of being set on the finitude it entails:

Those who interpret the divine sayings mystically, and who honor them, as is right, with more lofty contemplations, say that man in the beginning was created according to the image of God, surely so that he might be born of the Spirit in the exercise of his own free choice, and to acquire in addition the likeness by the keeping of the divine commandment, so that the same man, being by nature a creation of God, might also be the son of God and God through the Spirit by grace. For there was no other way for man, being created, to become the son of God and God by the grace of divinization, without first being born of the Spirit, in the exercise of his own free choice, owing to the indomitable power of self-determination which naturally dwells within him.”[23]

The false start contains both the truth of human participation in their creation and full participation in God; that is the true beginning is found in its end (choosing to be born and attain to deity). This first creation is, in Paul’s description suspended or sublated by the second but it is a work in process. “If creation does not seem to us the sublime Incarnation of the Word ‘always and in all things,’ perhaps that means not that creation is something other than Incarnation but rather that ‘creation’ as it appears is not yet truly creation, not yet God’s finished work, not yet the world.”[24] As Maximus writes, “it happens that—because the disposition of their will has not yet been fully extracted from its passionate fixation on the flesh, and because they have not been completely imbued by the Spirit.” Maximus pictures the process of this sublation in his picture of the interplay of the two beginnings:

The mode of our spiritual birth from God is twofold. The first bestows on those born in God the entire grace of adoption, which is entirely present in potential; the second ushers in this grace as entirely present in actuality, transforming voluntarily the entire free choice of the one being born so that it conforms to the God who gives birth. The first possesses this grace in potential according to faith alone; the second, in addition to faith, realizes on the level of knowledge the active, most divine likeness of the God who is known in the one who knows Him. In those whom the first mode of birth is observed, it happens that—because the disposition of their will has not yet been fully extracted from its passionate fixation on the flesh, and because they have not been completely imbued by the Spirit with active participation in the divine mysteries that have taken place—it happens, I say, that their inclination to sin is never very far away for the simple reason that they continue to will it.[25]

Christ extracts humanity from captivity by its first beginning by taking upon himself all of the vicissitudes of this false incarnation and overcoming them.

For the very thing which Adam freely rejected (I mean the birth by the Spirit leading to divinization), and for which he was condemned to bodily birth amid corruption, is exactly what the Word assumed willingly out of His goodness and love for mankind, and, by becoming man in accordance with our fallen state, willingly subjecting Himself to our condemnation (though He alone is free and sinless), and consenting to a bodily birth, in which lay the power of our condemnation, He mystically restored birth in the Spirit; and so for our sake, having dissolved in Himself the bonds of bodily birth, He granted, through birth in the Spirit, to those who believe in His name the power to become children of God instead of flesh and blood.[26]

The first birth, through Christ, is no longer a form of bondage but an opening to birth in the Spirit. Though bodily and Spiritual birth may appear as distinct temporal moments, this division is due to sin or the human attempt to make themselves (in Freudian terms to be their own father). For Maximus, there is though, an inevitable passing through these two moments as the first birth is the means to the second birth. “In this way God joined together in me the principle of my being and the principle of my well-being, and He closed the division and distance between them that I had opened up, and through them He wisely drew’ me to the principle of eternal being, according to which man is no longer subject to carrying or being carried along, since the sequence of visible realities in motion will reach its end in the great and general resurrection. . .”[27]

In conclusion:

The pattern is clear: whatever characterized the Word’s becoming in history is what characterizes our primordial becoming, since the Word’s becoming is ours. Not that this characterizes our appearance in this phenomenal world. The two beginnings remain absolute antitheses. No possible compromise can be brokered between them, since they oppose one another as what God does and does not create— surely an absolute distinction.[28]

There are two distinct beginnings: the phenomenological beginning experienced with our physical birth and the bringing forth of an I or ego (the false incarnation) which must be sublated by the second and true birth in the Spirit through the Son.


[1] This is John Behr’s summary in the Foreword to the book, Jordan Daniel Wood, The Whole Mystery of Christ (pp. ix-x). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Wood, 153.

[3] Wood, 144.

[4] St. Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties In Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios; Translated by Fr. Maximos Constas, (Washington D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press) 21.2.

[5] Wood, 153.

[6] Wood, ix.

[7] Wood, ix.

[8] Wood, 142.

[9] Wood, 142-3.

[10] Wood, 143.

[11] Wood 147.

[12] Wood, 154.

[13] The Responses to Thalassios, 59.12.

[14] Wood, 148.

[15] The Responsis the Thalassios, 1.2.12.

[16] Wood, 157.

[17] The Responses to Thalassios, 61.7

[18] The Responses to Thalassios, 1.2.13.

[19] Wood, 165.

[20] The Responses to Thalassios, 1.2.15.

[21] Wood, 145.

[22] Wood, 166.

[23] Maximus the Confessor, The Ambigua, Volume 2, trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 42.31-32.

[24] Wood, 145-6.

[25] The Responses to Thalasios, 6.2.

[26] Ambigua, 42.32.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Wood, 153.

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.

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