Gnosticism, Existentialism and Nihilism: The Root of the Human Disease

The shared context and perspective of 2nd century Gnosticism and modern existentialism has been pointed out by Christopher Lasch, Eric Voegelin, and most brilliantly by Hans Jonas.  The dualism, the antinomianism, the individualism, but most starkly, the sense of alienation, arising from the Roman disestablishment of traditional religion and modern disenchantment, gave rise to thought and religion steeped in and ultimately dependent upon a radical dualism. The individual alone in a hostile or indifferent world finds herself abandoned and helpless before the laws of fate or nature. The world is a horror; the laws of the universe a tyrant under which the individual is crushed and helpless. There is order, but it is an order of absolute law which leaves the human alienated, imprisoned, and alone. To acknowledge this incomprehensible darkness and alienation is the beginning of freedom. The realization of the sickness contains the negative knowledge giving rise to the will to defeat it. To be integrated into or reconciled with the world is to be ruled by ignorance and it is to squelch the inner spirit which is by definition transcendent. The power of the cosmic laws felt in total alienation is the dark truth which points to the inner spark and possibility of freedom.

The climate of moral confusion in which old faiths were dying, gave rise to a new imperialism, the spread of education (aimed not at mastery and mental discipline but at utility), as rapid circulation of goods and ideas created a new cosmopolitanism which would throw off the former provincialism. In this world in which the old myths could no longer be directly believed there was an effort to reinterpret them, not in order to believe but in order to surpass belief and regain the enchantments/insights and vigor of a former time. In Lasch’s description, it “was a time when the accumulation of wealth, comfort, and knowledge outran the ability to put these good things to good use. It was a time of expanding horizons and failing eyesight, of learning without light and great expectations without hope.”[1]  In the depiction of both Jonas and Voegelin, the overlapping context produced an overlapping turn to “salvational knowledge.”

It was the overlap of the times and thought that drew Jonas deeper into his lifelong study of Gnosticism. He found in his study of Heidegger and Gnosticism a “dimly felt affinity” which “lured” him on into examining Gnosticism, for at the base of both he began to uncover what he would identify as a shared nihilistic element.[2] Jonas turns to Pascal, whose description he claims was the first to face the frightening implications of modern cosmology. Rather than finding himself at home in the universe, Pascal describes the early tenets of an existentialism, which both in its Christian and atheistic manifestations, speaks of a profound alienation. God has been set at such a distance, he had absconded (Deus absconditus) and therefore is fundamentally unknowable (according to Nicholas of Cusa, John Calvin, and Martin Luther). Pascal would take up the notion, as did the Jansenists to whom he had converted and become an influential member. This notion accentuated human loneliness in the unfolding perception of modern cosmology (the notion of a world machine governed by immutable laws).

 Pascal speaks of a fundamental fear: “Cast into the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened.”[3] As Jonas notes, it is the indifference in the imperception (the not-knowing) of the universe that gives rise to the feeling of insignificance and loneliness. The universe is blind to man, so that just as his being can be attributed to a blind accident, so too his destruction is of no consequence. Yet, unlike any other part of the extended universe man is a thinking reed. The world is all res extensa (as his contemporary, Descartes had taught)– it is all matter and extended magnitude and only the human knower stands out as a thinking thing. But this very thought alienates, separates, and brings the awareness of being easily dispensable. His consciousness is alienating, marking the “unbridgeable gulf between himself and the rest of existence.” [4]  Alienation, foreignness, estrangement, is the very substance of reflection as the mind does not work to integrate but in thinking separates itself. That is, Pascal, as in mathematics so too in religion and philosophy, is ahead of his age and recognizes what Descartes did not: the thinking thing is lost in the universe.  As Pascal notes, “I cannot forgive Descartes. In all his philosophy he would have been quite willing to dispense with God. But he had to make Him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God.”[5]

Pascal continues, “I am frightened and amazed at finding myself here rather than there; for there is no reason whatever why here rather than there, why now rather than then.”[6] In more settled times the cosmos may have been felt to be man’s natural home, now, according to Pascal, man should “regard himself as lost” locked away as he is in the “prison-cell in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the (visible) universe.”[7] Telos has been lost as the “utter contingency” of existence gives rise to the feeling of being out of place. The Copernican universe captured an understanding of the mathematical gears but has knocked man from its center and denied him any sense of an intrinsic teleology or meaning.

Pascal may be the first to feel himself left unsupported by the inherent ontological frame. There are no values and the self is, in Jonas description, left unsupported and thus “thrown back entirely upon itself in its quest for meaning and value. Meaning is no longer found but is ‘conferred.’ Values are no longer beheld in the vision of objective reality, but are posited as feats of valuation. As functions of the will, ends are solely my own creation.”[8] Vision is displaced by will and the temporal can no longer contain the goodness of eternity, as the first hints of an overt nihilism begin to surface. As Nietzsche will poetically phrase it (in Vereinsamt): “Now man is alone with himself. The world’s a gate to deserts stretching mute and chill. Who once has lost What thou hast lost stands nowhere still. . . Woe unto him who has no home!”[9]

Pascal has faith in God, but this faith and this God are no longer the outgrowth of or connected with the natural world:

This is our true state; this is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge and of absolute ignorance. We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end. When we think to attach ourselves to any point and to fasten to it, it wavers and leaves us; and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us, and vanishes forever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition, and yet most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses.[10]

God is unknown and unknowable and the universe does not reveal the creator’s purpose but only power, immensity and will – God’s will and power and human will. The reason for the universe eludes man and the question is beyond answering. “The deus absconditus, of whom nothing but will and power can be predicated, leaves behind as his legacy, upon leaving the scene, the homo absconditus, a concept of man characterized solely by will and power—the will for power, the will to will.”[11]

The nihilism kindling early theistic existentialism will become the key pole characterizing the dualism which will become primary in both theistic and atheistic existentialism. Nothing, death, darkness, and absence will inform something, life, light, and presence. The turn to the individual and the will to power, whether of the Hegelian or Nietzschean form, will characterize the modern.

There is only one other example, according to Jonas, in human history in which “tarrying with the negative” or the overt embrace of nihilism is recommended. Jonas suggests that the only other epic which compares to this “cataclysmic event” is the rise of Gnosticism as a distinct religion. “That is the gnostic movement, or the more radical ones among the various gnostic movements and teachings, which the deeply agitated first three centuries of the Christian era proliferated in the Hellenistic parts of the Roman empire and beyond its eastern boundaries.”[12]

Jonas gathers under the name gnostic a highly diversified and widespread phenomenon which is distinctly not Christian but which is feeding on the same cultural disturbances that mark the rise of the Christianity. The various forms of Gnosticism appearing in a variety of places and in many languages, share the “radically dualistic mood which underlies the gnostic attitude as a whole” constituting it a unified system or systems. “It is on this primary human foundation of a passionately felt experience of self and world, that the formulated dualistic doctrines rest. The dualism is between man and the world, and concurrently between the world and God.”[13]

Jonas locates the impetus behind arcane gnostic doctrine in the same feeling of alienation which characterizes the modern. The “absolute rift” between man and the world and the feeling of alienation is projected onto a God, who is by definition, alien to the world and has no part in the physical world. True deity is beyond the world: “Unknown, the totally Other, unknowable in terms of any worldly analogies.”[14]

The principle or law bringing forth the material world might be attributed to some lower deity or personal agency, but this agency is subject to a deeper “impersonal necessity of dark impulse.” No allegiance is owed to this demiurge as the laws it serves are beneath the spirit or divine spark within humankind. The passion, ignorance and blind force which brought forth the world is without knowledge or benevolence. The world only sets forth a negative knowledge, that which is sick, unenlightened, ruled by necessity and power. But it is in the face of this dark power that man recognizes his true essence, found in knowledge of self and of God: “this determines his situation as that of the potentially knowing in the midst of the unknowing, of light in the midst of darkness, and this relation is at the bottom of his being alien, without companionship in the dark vastness of the universe.”[15]

It is not that the world is chaotic, rather it is a cosmos of order “but order with a vengeance, alien to man’s aspirations.” The universe is a complete and orderly system but the law that orders the system would and has dominated humankind under the guise of logos or reason. “But cosmic law, once worshiped as the expression of a reason with which man’s reason can communicate in the act of cognition, is now seen only in its aspect of compulsion which thwarts man’s freedom.”[16] Man is counted out of the necessities of the universe. Fate, misidentified by the Stoics as providence, is a tyrant. The supposed providence, once attached to the power exercised by the stars, is nothing other than law, order, and fate which stands opposed to human freedom.

Rather than seeking to integrate the self into this law, like Pascal and Heidegger, one should feel frightened: “Dread as the soul’s response to its being-in-the-world is a recurrent theme in gnostic literature. It is the self’s reaction to the discovery of its situation, actually itself an element in that discovery: it marks the awakening of the inner self from the slumber or intoxication of the world.”[17] The knowledge (gnosis) thus gained will liberate from servitude to the law, to “providence,” to seeking to be integrated into the cosmos. Where the Stoics pursued freedom through consent to the law, the Gnostics would overcome the law through the power of gnosis (power against power). There is no longer the presumption of finding significance in the whole (e.g., the city, the empire, the cosmos) or the law of the universe or cosmic destiny.

Though the arguments and theories of Gnosticism and existentialism in regard to the law may be vastly different, nonetheless they share this antinomian tendency. Nietzsche can declare “God is dead” and in Gnosticism “the God of the cosmos is dead” but in both instances a nihilistic vacuum is created in which “the highest values become devalued.” This nihilistic conclusion is the impetus behind the abandonment of transcendence in modernity and to the positing of a radical dualism which does not allow for any intelligible connection in Gnosticism. The gnostic God is completely unknown (the absolutely absconded) and the “known” is primarily negative. As Jonas puts it, “this God has more of the nihil than the ens in his concept.”[18] He is totally different, hidden, and beyond. Just as hidden human nature (spirit) is revealed in its alienation, the divine counterpart is posited primarily as an absence. In practice, there is not a lot of difference between the denial of transcendence and a transcendence removed from any normative reality. There is no law, no sign, no value attached to human action in either instance. Existential man and pneumaticos man do “not belong to any objective scheme, is above the law, beyond good and evil, and a law unto himself in the power of his ‘knowledge’.”[19]

As a formula from the Valentinian school epitomizes gnosis: “What makes us free is the knowledge who we were, what we have become; where we were, wherein we have been thrown; whereto we speed, wherefrom we are redeemed; what is birth and what rebirth.”[20] This “thrownness” is fundamental to Heidegger, and may echo Pascal’s “Cast into the infinite immensity of spaces,” but Jonas claims its origin is gnostic: “In Mandaean literature it is a standing phrase: life has been thrown into the world, light into darkness, the soul into the body.” [21] It denotes an original violence and the necessity of a certain helpless passivity as one “speeds” from “who we were” to “what we have become” and the only element left out is the present. One is caught between the poles of past and future – one is born and one dies, and as in Heidegger, all major terms are determined by past and future. “Leaping off, as it were, from its past, existence projects itself into its future; faces its ultimate limit, death; returns from this eschatological glimpse of nothingness to its sheer factness, the unalterable datum of its already having become this, there and then; and carries this forward with its death-begotten resolve, into which the past has now been gathered up.” There is no present but only the crisis between past and future in which the between continually eludes and fades. In other words, what is lost is eternity, real presence, the essence of God and the essence of reality.

Jonas is not only describing the modern discovery of the shared darkness, the explicit deployment of darkness as a means to the light, that Hegel will call the dialectic, which Freud will refer to as death drive, but he is also depicting what Lacan and Žižek locate in Paul’s encounter with the law. Paul and John are countering the false teaching which will become Gnosticism. It is precisely this existential sort of gnostic nihilism that the Word become flesh defeats. Eternity has intersected time and the light has overcome the darkness and darkness and death are not determinative. The Gospel and Epistles of John explicitly describe the developments of this proto-Gnostic thought as relying on the dualism between flesh and spirit and depending upon a series of dualisms, which Jesus, in John’s depiction will defeat by collapsing the poles upon which they depend. Jonas’ insight into the modern and ancient predicament, which he sums up as nihilism, seems to describe the fundamental human disease.[22] Gnosticism and existentialism partake of the overt form of nihilism which absolutizes nothing as its realization of something (what the Bible calls idolatry).


[1] Christopher Lasch, “Gnosticism, Ancient and Modern: The Religion of the Future?” Salmagundi, No. 96 (Fall 1992), pp. 27-42. Available online at https://www.sfu.ca/~poitras/pc_gnosticism_92.pdf

[2] Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, Third Edition, 2001), 320.

[3] Blaise Pascal Pensees, ed. Brunschvicg, fr. 205. Quoted in Jonas 322.

[4] Jonas, 322.

[5] Blaise Pascal, Pascal’s Pensées (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958), 24.

[6] Pascal Op. cit. fr. 72. Quoted in Jonas 323.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jonas, 323.

[9] Quoted in Jonas, 324.

[10] Pascal, English, 20.

[11] Jonas, 324-325.

[12] Jonas, 325.

[13] Jonas, 326.

[14] Jonas, 327.

[15] Jonas, 327-328.

[16] Jonas, 328.

[17] Jonas, 329.

[18] Jonas, 332.

[19] Jonas, 334.

[20] Clemens Alex., Exc. ex Theod., 78. 2. Quoted in Jonas, 334.

[21] The Mandeans are the last surviving Gnostics from antiquity. Quoted in Jonas, 334.

[22] The nihilism may be explicit, as it is in Gnosticism and existentialism, or it may be implicit as it is in idolatry.

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.

Jesus as an Eternal Fact About God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Register for the upcoming Class on the Gospel of John starting May 9th here: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] Herbert McCabe, “The Involvement of God,” New Blackfriars, (November 1985) 476. Available online at https://www.scribd.com/document/327357740/The-Involvement-of-God

[2] McCabe, 476.

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

[4] McCabe, 474.

[5] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.9.2.

[6] McCabe, 473.

[7] McCabe, 473

[8] McCabe, 473.

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

[10] Behr, 18.

[11] Hippolytus, 61.

Introducing the Course on the Gospel of John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Register for the upcoming Class on the Gospel of John starting May 9th here: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


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

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

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

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

The “Lifting Up” that is John’s Apocalyptic Gospel

The Gospel of John, in apocalyptic fashion, bends time, space, and sequence, depicting creation’s “beginning” with the Word of Christ and “it is finished” (the opening and closing of the creation week in Genesis) with the cross. The cross constructs a cosmic Temple, announced (enacted?) upon completion of Jesus’ first week of ministry (a confusing sentence that makes perfect sense in the context of John). The temple destroyed and raised is Jesus’ own body (2:21) which enacts the tabernacling presence of God (1:14) in which the wellsprings of creation (4:10; 7:37) (the water of life in Ezekiel’s temple description, 47:1-12) and light of the world (8:12) are made available in the abiding spirit incorporating the temple/household/family of God. John’s Gospel is apocalyptic, in that one world order and age is displacing another (not as in the old notion of apocalypse as focused on the second coming and literal end of the world), and the cross is the point where this new age, this new structuring of heaven and earth, and this entry of God into the temple of creation, is enacted. John’s Gospel is apocalyptic in its depiction of the unveiling of the Hebrew Scriptures, which in Paul’s description remain veiled outside of Christ: “But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (2 Cor. 3:14-16). John’s Gospel unveils the riddle of the Old Testament in light of the work of Christ, but this recognition of Christ (as true Temple, true sacrifice, true sabbath, etc.) in light of Scripture also makes sense of his life. The riddle of Jesus’ words and actions, as they first appeared to the disciples, are unveiled in light of the Scripture (in light of Christ). The veil has been lifted on both Christ and the Scriptures, as John reads Israel’s history in light of the work of Christ but beginning from creation, he also reads the work of Christ in light of the Hebrew scriptures.

As J. Louis Martyn has described the apocalyptic perspective, or what he calls the “stereoptic vision” characterizes John. The dramas of both heaven and earth unfold simultaneously, not as two dramas but as singular events in the life of Christ. John, in Martyn’s portrayal, is changing up the definition of apocalypse with the stereoptic vision including, not a separate heaven and earth, but the perspective of the One from heaven come to earth. He joins heaven and earth, particularly as he is stretched out on the cross. Events, which in and of themselves might seem meaningless or tragic, become filled with an inexhaustible depth of meaning in light of the full meaning of the passion understood in light of the Hebrew Scriptures. [1]

 In Jewish imagery (which John depicts throughout his Gospel) the micro cosmos of the temple not only represented all of creation but also incorporated the key stories of the Hebrew Scriptures: it serves as the capstone holding back the waters of the flood (Noah’s altar sealed the waters of the abyss becoming the foundation stone of a new creation located in the Holy of Holies as support of the Ark of the Covenant), it is the place of Abraham’s sacrifice (Gen. 22:2; 2 Chr. 3:1), it is the site of Jacob’s dream of a ladder leading from earth to heaven (Gen. 28:10-17), it is from this site where God hovered over the waters of the deep and caused the four rivers to flow through Eden to bring life to the Garden (Gen. 2:6, 10-14), which was located just beyond its walls.[2] Jesus’ identification with the water of life, light of the world (on the occasion of the festival of lights, in which the temple is lit up as the representative source of cosmic light), the one upon whom angels ascend and descend (the description given to Nathanael, that Jew in whom there is no guile (John 1:47-55)), the true Passover sacrifice (first announced by John the Baptist (1:29) and thematic in John’s Gospel), incorporates a new humanity into the temple of his body (2:21). Through faith believers receive the Spirit and are reborn (3:3-5) as members of the family of God constituting a true temple a true oikos or family of God.  

This recognition is gained, not by reading from scripture to Christ (e.g., as in the reading of N. T. Wright) but the other way round; by reading from the gospel story to Scripture. In fact, according to Martyn, it is only through the gospel that Scripture is constituted as such: “In a word, with Jesus’ glorification, belief in Scripture comes into being, by acquiring an indelible link to belief in Jesus’ words and deeds. . . . we have simply to note in the Gospel of John the absence of a linear sacred history that flows out of Scripture into the gospel story. Indeed, the redemptive-historical perspective is more than absent; it is a perspective against which John is waging a battle.” Neither John nor Paul move from Law to gospel (a “salvation history” approach), rather this characterizes the approach of Paul’s and John’s opponents.[3] For both there is a “vertical invasion” in which for Paul the gospel “came through an apocalypse of Jesus Christ”, rather than by being taught by a human being (Gal. 1:12), and for John, the gospel is from Christ who is “from above” (3:31;8:23). As John Behr notes, “both aspects of this ‘invasion from above’ are inseparable from the apocalyptic unveiling of Scripture, through which Scripture provides the words and images in and by which, from the beginning, the gospel is proclaimed and Christ revealed.”[4]

It is not only the Old Testament that is telescoped and unveiled but the life of Christ receives this same telescoping effect in John’s telling, with the end present in the beginning and the beginning understood through the end. In what may be a key passage in John, the singular event of the cross enfolds judgement, the casting out of the ruler of this world, glorification, the universal appeal of the gospel, and the audible voice of God:

“Jesus answered and said, ‘This voice has not come for My sake, but for your sakes. Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.’ But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die”

(John 12:30-33).

In 12:23 Jesus announced that the hour had come for the Son of Man to be glorified and the following two verses make it clear that this is a reference to Jesus’ death on the cross, which would result in many people believing in Him. Jesus compares His death to the “death” of a grain of wheat which, after falling into the ground, produces many other grains of wheat (v. 24). As Jesus declared, “it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (vv. 27–28).

It is the “lifting up” which reveals Jesus’ identity as the “I am” (YHWH): “So Jesus said, ‘When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He’” (John 8:28).  Here is the realization of Isaiah, that through the “lifted up” servant “you may know and believe that I AM” (Isa. 43:10; 52:13).[5] Here too, in Jesus’ explanation, is the revelation of the Son of Man (as in Daniel 7:13-14) who is “given dominion” over “all peoples” in an everlasting Kingdom.

In John 3, Jesus explains to Nicodemus, who seems to represent the Jew veiled from understanding the Scriptures (he has no concept of being “born again”, a theme of the Hebrew Scriptures) and in Jesus estimate he seems incapable of receiving things of the Spirit (3:6,11,12). Here too it is the being “lifted up” that unveils the truth of Moses in Jesus: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life” (3:14-15). According to Jesus, “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man” (3:13).

Apparently, there is only one mode of ascent, one means of being lifted up,[6] but in John’s depiction of Jesus the spiritual effect of this lifting up is realized in the conversation with Nicodemus. According to Martyn: “The Son of Man ascends to heaven on the cross, but in some sense he returns to earth in the person of the Paraclete and can therefore enter into conversation with ‘Nicodemus’ as he who has ascended to heaven (3:13). The Paraclete makes Jesus present on earth as the Son of Man who binds together heaven and earth.”[7] And it is from this point that Jesus explains himself as the love and salvation sent from God (3:16).

This lifting up realization is a hermeneutic key applied from “In the beginning” of John: “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:4-5). This is the fulness of the Word of the cross which is life and light. This is a Gospel told in light of the Spirit, who brings to “remembrance all that I have said to you” (14:26).

Where the synoptics picture this insight as beginning after the resurrection (Luke 24, with the two on the road to Emmaus), John’s Gospel begins with this presumption and expands upon it. From the Prologue, in which the Logos is complete, to John the Baptist identifying him as the “Lamb of God,” (1:36) to Phillip’s informing Nathanael, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (1:45).  Nathanael himself concludes, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel” (1:49) and John the Baptist recognizes (3:31) before Jesus explains that he is “from above.” 

Jesus’ glorification or being lifted up describes His death, resurrection, ascent, exaltation, multiplication of disciples, love of God and, in short, sums up the gospel.  As James Dunn puts it, ‘The “hard saying” finds its fulfillment, therefore, when Jesus has been lifted up in the upward sweep of the cross–resurrection–ascension, in the giving of the life-creating Spirit.”[8] As Behr describes it, “The unity of all aspects of the Passion, Pascha—the Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and also Pentecost—in ‘the hour’ of a single ‘day’ is thus emphasized by John. . .”[9] Upon this event the Spirit is given and the epistemological insight of the cross is realized. “Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him” (John 12:16).

Jesus is lifted up on the cross, lifted up from the grave, lifted up to the Father in the singular hour of his glory, and this is the insight from which John narrates his Gospel.

(Register for the upcoming Class on the Gospel of John starting May 9th here: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003) 130. Quoted in John Behr, John the Theologian and His Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 121. See Behr 121-123. It is not that John’s theological interpretation throws doubt on his eyewitness account, but just the opposite. In light of the fact that he is the only apostle present at the cross and the first to believe at the empty tomb, gives his reading of events, in light of Scripture, their apocalyptic tenor.

[2] See Mary Coloe, “Raising the Johannine Temple” https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/abr/48_47_coloe.pdf

[3] Martyn, ‘John and Paul on the Subject of Gospel and Scripture’, (in Martyn, Theological Issues, 209–30). 216–221. Quoted in Behr, 127.

[4] Behr, 128.

[5] In Sirach (49:11-12) the Temple and people are pictured as the interchangeable product of the one lifted up: “How are we to magnify Zorobabel? He too was like a signet on the right hand, so was Jesus, son of Iosedek, who in their days, built a house and lifted up a holy temple/people to the Lord prepared for everlasting glory.” Some manuscripts have “temple” while others have “people” but the parallels with John (“Jesus”, being “lifted up,” a “house” or “people” for “glory”) are striking.

[6] Moses, Enoch and Elijah, in John’s account have no claim on the reality realized in Jesus’ lifting up.

[7] Martyn, History and Theology, 138. Quoted in Behr, 232.

[8] James D. G. Dunn,., ‘John VI—A Eucharistic Discourse?’, (NTS 17.3 (1971), 328–38), 337. Quoted in Behr, 155.

[9] Behr, 176.

Easter Life as Truth

The Gospel of John sets forth an alternative definition of truth which distinguishes the theological enterprise from every other truth endeavor. The life and light found in Christ are not of the world though they light up the world, simultaneously providing a new definition of truth (life, light, the way) and a new understanding of the world. Theology begins with this presupposition, set forth in John, that the Logos of Christ, the Word of the Cross, the Gospel, is the principle through which creation has its beginning (its arche) and end. Easter sums up the incarnate life of Christ, referencing all of the life of Christ, but John sums up creations purpose in the story of Christ (summed up in Easter). John begins with the Word of the Gospel (this is not a partial word, or a reference to the preincarnate Christ), but the Redeemer is portrayed as the Creator, with time unfolding from the middle and extending to the beginning and end. This truth sums up and surpasses every other form of truth.

Living Truth versus Dead Truth

What exactly is truth? There are factual trues (the cat is on the mat), historical trues (Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492), scientific trues (water is H20), but when Christ says he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), the very definition and function of truth are changed up. The trues of the previous order pertain to the world and are constituted as true as they reference this order but to treat the truth of Christ as merely factual, historical, or scientific (though this reduction marks modern theology) is to miss the “living way” in which this truth pertains.

There is a certain deadness or irrelevance in the former trues. At some point in time or at some place or within the framework of this world these things correspond to a state of affairs. This truth reduces to packets of information which serve as code about something, but does not really encompass cats, mats, the person Columbus, or the wetness of water. These things show up in the world as “facts” but they are after the fact and do not pertain to fullness of experience. This particular cat has moved on, Columbus is long gone, and H20 references component parts that convey nothing about drinking, swimming, or sailing. The experience of these realities is not captured in their “truth” but these are things which have presented themselves, and are referenced in trues about them, but this truth does not pertain to or capture present or past experience. There is no life in this truth as the truth which is life cannot appear under its reduction to DNA, neurons, and physical particles. Life cannot appear under the parameters of truth of the world.

Christ’s truth claim, of being the way and the life, is a truth that exceeds the factual, historical, scientific, or the predominant philosophical notions of truth. This is a living or lived truth, in that life is the truth and the sharing in this life is the truth. This means it is experienced, it is subjective and the truth of a subject, and it is a first order truth (it is not about something else). Where Heidegger wants to locate truth in the “world’s worlding” (imagining the world is the ultimate context which will show up the truth), Christ says his truth is not of the world. His truth and life are not the “ways” of the world and he pictures a complete humanity as not of the world: “because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (John 17:14). This does not mean that the truth resides elsewhere, but his truth is not from or contained in the world but encompasses the world. Christian truth locates and relativizes the creaturely order: “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (John 1:3).

The ungraspable realms of time, space, language, and embodiment, taken as the parameters of truth, necessarily divide and deal out death, but where these creatures serve their proper end of conveying truth and not containing the truth they are relativized. Time alone would deprive us of all things in that there is no present but only the past and the future converging in an instantaneous, annihilating now. Embodiment is subjection to times entropic arrow, pointing us to the grave upon conception. Creation’s big bang points to its explosive end. Where creation as medium constricts the message, death and entropy seem to contain the original nothingness as the absolute from which the world emerged.  What appears is disappearing and what is heard is continually lost in the wind of time.

Isn’t this just a depiction on the order of Paul’s: “For, indeed, the form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31)? Truth, as it is in this world, cannot be pinned down as it is continually passing away. It appears complete after the fact. This truth is dead on arrival. Before it arrives from out of the future it is unknown and it is only made known in passing. No one knew about the cat (the one on the mat) or Columbus before they showed up, and attached to their appearance was their disappearance, and only in disappearing are they fully known. Only then do we have a definitive word. The epitaph is the final and full word.

The cross and Easter displace the finality of the epitaph as the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8) is the Word which was in the beginning, which is God and is with God. “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (Col. 1:18). The resurrection of Christ is the final and full word, displacing death with life: “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men” (John 1:4). His life is the light of truth, as he is the beginning, the source, the head (with the “beginning” in John 1:1 meaning the same thing as in Colossians 1:18), and not simply the first in a temporal line. The form of life “is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3) as this life does not reveal itself in the world as it exceeds the world. This life precedes the world (at its foundation – Eph. 1:4) and surpasses the world: “When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory” (Col. 3:4). But this resurrection life is in effect now: “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:1-2). This is not a passage out of the immediacy of life but it exceeds time and place in the experience of life.

The prologue of John might be rendered: At the source of all is the Word (the crucified and risen Jesus), and the Word is God and from out of this Wisdom is life and all things. As John Behr puts it, “As such, this verse is nothing other than a summary of the whole Gospel: that Jesus is in first place on the cross, as the head of the body, as the king in authority upon his throne, and as the source and fulfilment of all things; he is going, through the cross, to the God and Father; and, as the crucified and ascended one, he is confessed as God.”[1]    

United Truth Versus Divided Truth

The former truth (fact, history, science) is a truth that is divided, whereas the truth of Christ is indivisible. We speak of the cat and mat, Columbus and his dates, and the hydrogen and oxygen in conjunction, locating them in time and space in reference to other referents. This truth is extrinsic to its object, showing us something about what it names. Christ’s claim to truth refers to himself. Though we might speak of him historically (born in Bethlehem), factually (died under Pontius Pilate), or even scientifically (he was biologically human), his truth encompasses and exceeds trues about him, to include himself as the truth. Seeing him, hearing him, knowing him, is not divided from what is seen, heard and known. He is the light and what is first illuminated is himself. He is the word and what is heard is himself. The revealer is the revelation in that his revelation is self-revelation. In each instance, this is life gained in the seeing, hearing, knowing and living.

Greek philosophical truth (arguably the characteristic philosophy) makes division an absolute, separating the forms of truth from their appearing so that the H20ness of water, and not the water itself is its truth. The truth of the water, the cat and Columbus reside outside of their passing physicality and time bound nature. Truth, for the Greeks, is what is unchanging and therefore the signs of these changing things are their truth. In turn, the Being of the world equated with the essence of God reduces the living God to the Unmoved Mover of the philosophers, trading an appearance, an apparition (a lie) for the God revealed in Christ. The same principle is at work in each realm of truth, as the language (or signs) takes precedence over what they signify. The description, name, location, date, chemical composition, are the things that can be said about objects. These things show themselves as external to the reality shown. Appearance apart from substance or an empty word devoid of content is of the order of a lie, which may be why Christ contrasts his identity and truth with a language grounded in a lie (John 8:44). The lying word is bound by and binds its adherents to the temporal order (“Abraham died, and the prophets also” (John 8:52) and that is the end of the matter according to his interlocutors).

The Logos of Christ stands over and against this divided logos in that the word of Christ is not about him, describing him, reducing him, but it is Him. “In the beginning was the Word and this Word was with God and was God” (John 1:1). To speak or hear this word entails the full phenomenological reality of who he is. There is no division between the sign and what he signifies. The passage of this sign into flesh, into the spoken word, into history, into time and space, is not diminished by these means but the mediums are relative to who he is. Time and history do not diminish his abiding presence (e.g., “I am before Abraham”). Embodiment does not delimit his universal incarnate presence (e.g., “Where two or three are gathered, I am there.” “I am the Alpha and Omega.”) This revelation makes of time and space his effective presence. He gives himself through these media but what is given exceeds the creaturely order through which he gives. Those who receive this gift receive life and this life is who he is and this is a truth not bound by the divisions of language, time, space, and embodiment.  

The Phenomenology of Suffering as Model of Life in Christ

According to philosopher Michel Henry, one way of getting at the difference between the truth of the world, in its divisiveness, conjunction, and otherness, and the truth of Christ, in its self-referential unity, is through the phenomenology of suffering. “Suffering experiences itself,” as Henry describes.  “It is only in this way that suffering speaks to us; it speaks to us in its suffering. And what it says to us, by speaking to us in this way, is that it suffers, that it is suffering.”[2] Rather than a mere appearance, a name, or a fact (the truth of the world), suffering does not appear external to itself or as other than itself.

So too the life and truth of Christ are not other than himself and those who enter into this experience share the unified life of Christ. What is manifest in Christ is not a power, or life, or redemption separate from Christ. The revealer, revealing the revelation, manifests himself in the fullness of human experience. “It is the first decisive characteristic of the Truth of Christianity that it in no way differs from what it makes true. Within it there is no separation between the seeing and what is seen, between the light and what it illuminates.”[3] This truth is “irreducible” to the concept of truth which dominates the world. “What manifests itself is manifestation itself. What reveals itself is revelation itself; it is revelation of revelation, a self-revelation in its original and immediate effulgence.”

Henry, having begun with the phenomenology of Heidegger and Husserl, concludes with the idea of a pure revelation and phenomenology: “With this idea of a pure Revelation – of a revelation whose phenomenality is the phenomenalization of phenomenality itself, of an absolute self-revelation that dispenses with whatever is other than its own phenomenological substance – we are in the presence of the essence that Christianity posits as the principle of everything.” This pure experience of life through access to God by means of his self-revelation consists of a singular “phenomenality proper to Him.” It “is not susceptible of being produced except where this self-revelation is produced and in the way self-revelation does so.”

This revelation is redemptive as it is a sharing of life in his light: “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men” (John 1:4). The temporal, intellectual, sensual, concentrated as it is on appearances exists as a form of darkness and incomprehension of light and life: “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:5).

The equating of life with the essence of God and with the opening of God in Christ, Henry maintains, is thematic in the New Testament. He references the following examples: “I am the living one” (Revelation 1:17), “the living God” (1 Timothy 3:15), “by him who is declared to be living” (Hebrews 7:8), “He who is living” (Luke 24:5). The point is that this is a life opened to all: “‘Go, stand in the temple courts,’ he said, ‘and tell the people these words of life’” (Acts 5:20).  Henry’s focus is on developing these themes from John, as in the prologue, “In him was life and this life was the light of men” (John 1:4). “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself” (John 5:26). This life given to the Son is opened to all humanity: “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25); “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63). The divine essence is explicitly stated to be that of Life, “the bread of life” (John 6:48) and “the water of life” (John 4). The life Christ gives provides open access to God and in the New Jerusalem: life is opened to the nations in the river flowing “down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life” (Revelation 22:2).

Life reveals itself in a two-fold sense: “it is Life that achieves the revelation, that reveals – but, on the other hand, that what Life reveals is itself.” Henry concludes, “Living is not possible in the world. Living is possible only outside the world, where another Truth reigns, another way of revealing. This way of revealing is that of Life. Life does not cast outside itself what it reveals but holds it inside itself, retains it in so close an embrace that what it holds and reveals is itself.” This folding in of truth and life in a unity which is unbreakable is the revelation of Easter. Death, difference, distance, time, cannot disrupt the resurrection life, the condition of all true experience.

(Register for the upcoming Class on the Gospel of John starting May 9th here: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] John Behr, John the Theologian and His Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 260.

[2] Michel Henry, Words of Christ, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012) 74. Quoted in Behr, 276

[3] Michel Henry, I am the Truth: Toward a Philosophy of Christianity (Stanford University Press, 2003). This quote and the following are from an online excerpt: https://philosophiatopics.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/i-am-the-truth-ch12-pdf.pdf

The Native Language of the Cross

Compared to the biblical writers our understanding of time and history may tend to be stilted. Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58), with the “I” here referring to the present tense Jesus as now communing with the past. This is no minor point, as Jesus is staking all of his claims on this peculiar construct, and his audience is going to try to kill him because of the claim integral to this same construct. The ἐγώ εἰμι (“I am”) is a clear reference to deity and the name of God (YHWH) given in Exodus, but even in our acceptance of the deity of Christ we may miss the implications of that deity. In our tendency to help Jesus make better sense we might have him say, “I was before Abraham.” Maybe he is not a native speaker of Greek and he certainly does not speak English, so maybe he doesn’t understand you cannot have a present continuous before a completed past tense (a problem in any language). The context tells us, this is not a language problem in that sense, but in another sense the whole conversation pertains to language and one’s native language. Jesus says he is the truth and speaks the truth and his interlocutors speak lies and their native language is lying, as they speak the language of the father of lies (John 8:44).

In linguistic terms, there are two deep grammars at play. One deep grammar is grounded in violence and death and the other is grounded in truth and life (8:51). In familial terms, there are two streams of meaning or two heads or fathers of language (8:38). In this short conversation the limits of one language (sequence, consequence, before and after) are challenged by Jesus’ consciousness; his supra-temporality and supra-spatiality, in which the one who is incarnate and embodied now precedes one who was born and who died in the ancient past. Jesus’ claim to divinity simultaneously disturbs all norms of sequence, cause and effect, and rationality.

Jesus is claiming to be the ground of truth, and truth of a peculiar kind, and those who are confronting him cannot hear him because they speak the wrong language, the language of lies. In other words, this is a language problem in the sense that the deep grammar (the letter that kills, the lie of sin) grounding this particular group of Jews is more than their problem but is universal.[1] The entire conversation revolves around the power of language. Those who “continue in” or do the word of Jesus “will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). But Jesus perceives that his new found friends have decided they would like to kill him: “you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you” (8:37). According to Jesus, their native language gives rise to the violence they would do to him, and if they spoke the same language or comprehended what he was saying, their murderous attitude would be cured. Unfortunately, they have been weaned on the native language of their father: “therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father” (8:38). I presume this does not pertain to Greek or Hebrew or English so much as to the grounding and reference point of language. Orientation to language, to law, to death, to Logos, is determinative of sin and salvation. Language is mimetically acquired – we imitate the language of our family, our father, our people, and taken as a final and full word the language can prove deadly or life-giving.

So, what if we take this conversation at face value, and resist the tendency to chalk it up to hyperbole, or a particular problem with this group of Jews? Isn’t the consistent focus of Scripture precisely concerned with language and the ground of language, whether the ground is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Babel, or the law, or the letter of the law? John contextualizes all of sin and salvation in the Logos of God or the logos of the devil. The Jewish attachment to Abraham, the law, the tradition, is not simply Jewish but seems to be a type of the human problem. My father, my family, my tradition, my tribe and nation, my understanding, provide a fulness of access to God. Here lies my univocity of being, my ontological argument, my house of language, my wisdom and power, my access to the universals (to the forms), my analogy of being. Isn’t it precisely this form of the analogia entis, this ground of being, that is the anti-Christ?

I presume we should resist reading ourselves out of the story, as there seem to be only two universal possibilities and either one comprehends the word of life and the time and tense of this “I am before Abraham” or one is uncomprehending of this reading of history, this understanding of God, or this use of language, and the key difference pertains to life and death. Which is to say, comprehension of the centrality of the Logos is the shibboleth that divides good and evil, life and death, God and the devil.

The particular contours of the time and tense of this language, this “I am” before all else, seems to be a key part of the discussion. Jesus’ Jewish interlocutors inhabit a sequential reason, with time unfolding from birth to the grave.  It is not just Jesus’ “I am” statement that gets them riled, but the notion that the Jesus presently before them can have had any impact or discourse with Abraham in the past: “Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets died too; whom do You make Yourself out to be?” (John 8:53). In the Jewish scheme of things this leap through history is demonically inspired: “The Jews said to Him, “Now we know that You have a demon. Abraham died, and the prophets also; and You say, ‘If anyone keeps My word, he will never taste of death’” (John 8:52).

Jesus’ counterpoint is that their incomprehension on this point is an indicator of the limits of their native language. Their notion is grounded in the grave, the lie of their father (seemingly a reference to the original lie of the serpent). Death reigns over life and the natural sequence of aging and dying is the controlling factor in their understanding: “So the Jews said to Him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?’” (John 8:57). Thus comes the explanation which they cannot bear: “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). Their reaction betrays the limits of their language: “Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple” (John 8:59). Their death dealing logic is bound by the sequence and limitations of the grave, and at the same time their ultimate argument would be to kill Jesus and reduce him to the limits of their understanding.

It should be noted that these particular Jews begin as those who believe Jesus (John 8:31) and yet the conversation ends with death dealing rejection. We may imagine we stand on the side of belief in this discussion, but it seems important to Jesus, important enough to drive off halfhearted believers, to spell out the full implication of his claim to deity. Part of this is that he is not bound by time, history, death, or normal spatial bonds – and this is all part of his place as the ground of truth over and against the language of the liars.

He has previously tied the ἐγώ εἰμι to his power over nature: walking on the water and calming the storm (as if we now see YHWH trampling down the waves (Job 9:8 and Ps 89:10) and offering the comfort of his being presence in the storm (Gen 26:24; 46:3; Jer 1:8; 1:17; 26:28). In this same passage in John 8 he ties the “I am” to the light (8:12) simultaneously connecting it to the Logos of the Prologue called the light of men (John 1:4-9).[2] The light of the world, the Logos grounding one form of language against all other forms of language, entails a bending of time, space, history, and cause and effect.

If we miss the time bending implications of the Logos, we may tend to flatten out all such passages describing Jesus’ work of redemption as not only preceding Abraham but preceding the work of creation. Paul, for example, in Romans 5:14 pictures the first man Adam as being preceded by and pointing toward the image of Christ. As Irenaeus explains, “For inasmuch as He had a pre-existence as a saving Being, it was necessary that what might be saved should also be called into existence, in order that the Being who saves should not exist in vain.”[3] Redemption precedes creation, the second Adam precedes the first Adam, the saving work of Christ is the telos of Adam in this explanation. Irenaeus goes on to explain that the end is already in the beginning, maintaining “that it is He who has summed up in Himself all nations dispersed from Adam downwards, and all languages and generations of men, together with Adam himself.”

Much as in the “I am” statement of Christ, the one who was to come (the second Adam), exists before the first Adam. It is not that Adam fell, and then God put plan B into action to save what had gone wrong. Christ’s saving work, in Irenaeus explanation, precedes those he is saving. As Cyril of Alexandria explains, “There is no division in the subject of Christ before and after the incarnation, rather: “One is the Son, one Lord, Jesus Christ, both before the incarnation and after the incarnation.”[4]

The incarnate Jesus is the preexistent Christ, and even the life of Christ is ordered, not from his birth but from the cross. Both Cyril and Hippolytus describe a putting on of flesh, but this is not pictured as having been inaugurated from the conception or birth of Jesus but is generated backward in time, having been woven from the sufferings of the cross. Hippolytus, commenting on Revelation 12 which pictures all of human history as the woman (the Church) bearing her child (who is Christ). He pictures the weaving of the incarnate flesh of Christ an unceasing function of the Church, “bearing from her heart the Word that is persecuted by the unbelieving in the World.” [5] The Word of the Cross is creations completion the Church teaches, proclaims and bears. If we miss the history bending, time bending, wisdom bending Word of Christ we miss the manner in which we are to be part of the creating-redeeming activity of God in Christ.


[1] In this instance these are not his enemies but “those who believed him” (8:31).

[2] This is not the final ἐγώ εἰμι of John. In John 18:5–6 Jesus’ twofold saying ‘I am’, was so impressive that those who had come to arrest him drew back and fell to the ground. In John 18:8 Jesus confirms his ‘I am’ for the third time.

[3] Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.22.3.

[4] Cyril of Alexandria, First Letter to Succensus, 4.

[5] Hippolytus, Antichrist 4.

Nature Versus Grace: Why My Seminary Education was Confusing

In the Western world in the post-apostolic period, there was no more important thinker than Augustine (born A.D. 354), as his peculiar biography and form of thought have become the key influence for both Roman Catholic and Protestant theology. Because of his own difficulty in overcoming sexual lust, and because of his reading of a mistranslation of Romans 5 in which he understands that all have sinned in Adam, he concludes there is inherited guilt, total depravity or loss of free will, conjoined in his doctrine of original sin. All are conceived in sin and damned from the moment of conception. For “as soon as our first parents had transgressed the commandment, divine grace forsook them.”[1] Nature was from that moment literally “disgraced” as the grace of human nature was utterly lost. Thus, for Augustine, human nature is no longer such that humanity is free to obey the creator as the very possibility of not sinning is lost. Indeed, it is not possible for humanity not to sin or even to choose the good or to choose Christ, as all are guilty and depraved. The result of Adam and Eve’s transgression was, therefore, according to Augustine, a complete change in nature for the whole human race. The original righteous state of humanity has been replaced by “original sin”; a sin transmitted not by imitation but by mystical propagation. Nature knows no grace, for through our first parents it has suffered disgrace.

Augustine’s departure from the first 400 years of church teaching was acknowledged at one level in my education, but unbeknownst to me his understanding was smuggled in as the starting point of my theological education. Molly Worthen in her book detailing the crisis of authority in American evangelicalism mentions my old professor, Jack Cottrell, and describes him as among “specific individuals” who “smuggled Reformed thinking into Restorationist circles”[2] (I have detailed this here). Cottrell couches his theology in an extreme version of the Augustinian nature/grace split (logically entailing the extremes of Calvinism, which he attempts to overcome, while still holding to a version of original sin.). As a student I struggled to navigate this contradictory system of theology, which illustrates the profound and confused nature of this Augustinian departure.  

Creation Trumps Redemption

 Where orthodox theology turned to Christ as central in comprehension of all things, with Christ as the point of comprehension or the one in whom all things (history, creation, revelation and redemption) cohere (as in Col. 1:16-17 and Heb. 1:3), Cottrell posits a split between creation, redemption, revelation, and Christian experience. As he describes it, “In summary, we are saying that the Creator is the essential center of our lives; the Bible is the epistemological center; and Jesus Christ is the existential (or experiential) center.”[3] The presumption is that God as Creator is the ontological core, while Christ is added to this centrality. His role as revealer, creator, sustainer, the Alpha and Omega, is passed over for a God whom we presumably know through nature and law and in spite of sin.  

Cottrell presumes that it is not in Christ or in redemption that we encounter God’s original or true purpose: “Shall we interpret creation in the light of redemption, or vice versa?” Very much in the spirit of Augustine, he explains that redemption is added to creation and was not part of God’s original plan. We would not want, he explains, the undue “elevation of Jesus and his redemptive work as the touchstone or central fact around which everything else revolves and (by which it) must be interpreted.” Here he departs from the biblical principle that there is one Jesus Christ, the only Son of the one Father, who alone has made known (“exegeted,” Jn 1:18) the Father. He reduces redemption to the resolution of the sin problem, and misses that God had purposed from before the beginning to bring creation to fullness in Christ (Eph. 1:10).

Christ is Redeemer and Not Revealer

Cottrell is eager to refute what he calls the “Christological fallacy” or “the attempt to make Christ an epistemological principle, rather than the Redeemer he came to be.” Just as Augustine splits nature against grace – playing off salvation against nature – Cottrell will accentuate the split between Christ as Revealer and Redeemer, presuming that, while Christ plays a revelatory role, “there are many other ways in which God can reveal and has revealed himself and his truth to the human race. Thus our knowledge of God and his works comes to us from God as God, and not necessarily from God as Redeemer.” Though he allows Christ is “the highest revelation,” Cottrell relativizes this role under practical preference for the “many other ways” of revelation in creation and the Bible.

Christ is primarily redeemer, in Cottrell’s view, and this role is pitted against revelation, as Christ’s redemption (penal substitution) does not pertain to revelation nor does revelation pertain to redemption. Cottrell distinguishes Christ’s redemptive work from revelation and specifically the revelation of Scripture: “because of the reality of revelation and inspiration, this knowledge (primary knowing) comes to us in written form in Scripture,” in contrast to Christ. His conclusion: “The Reformers are still right: the Bible is our ‘formal principle,’ our epistemological principle. Jesus Christ is not.”

So, he pits the epistemological centrality of the Bible against the centrality of Christ: “If we mean what is epistemologically central, then the answer is that THE BIBLE is central.” He seems to deny the truth of John (1:8) and the truth presumed throughout the New Testament, that Christ provides both epistemological and redemptive access to the Father (the Bible knows no distinction between revelation and redemption). As Jesus explains to Thomas, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).

Nature and Law Precede and Determine Grace

Cottrell goes on to explain that God the Creator is central to our lives, both in terms of ethics and understanding. The will of God, he concurs with Luther, comes to us on the basis of law: “law (grounded in the creation-relation) must precede gospel (grounded in redemption).” True to Luther and Calvin (and the economy inaugurated by Augustine), he sees the economy of redemption and relationship to God as law based, so that Christ is doing nothing more than working within this legal economy. There is no shadow/substance comparison here (as in Paul and Hebrews) as the law is the adequate frame of salvation. There is no need to reorder or change the natural understanding of God and the given notion of law. What is needed is someone to keep the law, and we know Christ’s redemption on the basis of the law which comes to us through both nature and the Old Testament, and which he fulfills by keeping. This stands in contrast to the apocalyptic picture of cosmic re-creation through resurrection (pictured in John, Romans, Ephesians, Colossians, Galatians, and Revelation) which founds a new form of humanity on a different foundation.

Christ Provides an Experience

 Cottrell allows for a narrowed role for Christ’s centrality: he is “existentially (or experientially) central in our lives.” He clarifies that this pertains specifically to feelings: “our strongest felt relationship to God is the relationship we have with Christ our Lord and Savior. He is the One whom we know most about and to whom we feel the closest.” If it weren’t for the elimination of Christ from knowing, ethics, creation, and ontology, this focus on feeling might not be so damning, but Christ is accorded only this role of experience and feeling. We feel honor and gratitude due to Christ, and he is central in worship (which presumably must be feeling and not knowledge centered) and service, but we must not make too much of Christ. As Cottrell warns, “let us not demote Christ and distort truth by trying to make Him an epistemological tool.”

The Multiplication of Dualisms

The problems with this understanding – imagining that experience, knowledge, and redemption are separate realms; picturing law and nature as complete and adequate apart from God’s grace; the focus on the Bible as an independent epistemological source apart from Christ; indicate the inherent contradictions which Augustine bequeathed to Western theology. Cottrell seems to be a case in point of the confusion and splits caused by Augustine’s original sin. The dualities are irreconcilable and they seem to endlessly multiply, in that not only is nature ungraced or disgraced (as if there is such a thing as nature apart from God’s gratuitous gift), but epistemology is pitted against redemption, and redemption apparently does not include or require a revelatory component (if it is purely a legal exchange between the Father and Son). The soul is pitted against the body, the church is visible and invisible, and ethics is divided from redemption. Of course, at each intersection this is a blatant contradiction of Scripture and the early church.

The Deception of Sin is Disregarded

In the doctrine of original sin, the original lie foisted on the first couple and a continuing part of the definition of sin, is passed over. It is presumed that what is wrong in the world is not that people have been deceived in regard to the law, but that the law is an adequate measure of sin. In other words, Augustine’s original sin foists the original lie upon us. By focusing on sin and presuming that human nature is the problem, the cosmic nature of the problem is traded for an individualistic problem pertaining only to human interiority. People know enough to get into trouble but are incapable of doing anything about it.

The Cosmic Nature of Sin is Obscured

The problem here is not that Augustine takes sin too seriously, but he mystifies it, individualizes it, and reduces the problem and answer to human interiority (focused on the soul). But the failure of humanity in the first Adam is corporate (as is the resolution in the second Adam): it has cosmic consequences in the reign of death, the law of sin and death, and the subjection of creation to futility. The specific nature of this futility (the root meaning of the word), is that a lie reigns in place of the truth. The truth of Christ is not additional information to what has already been received, but the counter to the lie, an overcoming of the prevailing darkness, and a defeat of the reign of death.

Revelation Is Redemption

The twisted presumption that the revelation of Scripture stands apart from the redemption of Christ misses the presumed veil that covers those who would exegete Scripture or understand God apart from Christ. Paul pictures the “same veil” that Moses placed over his face as continuing to obstruct those who would read the law and Moses apart from Christ. “But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ” (2 Cor. 3:14). Only through the removal of the veil can the true meaning of Scripture and full glory of God shine forth. This does not occur by means other than the lifting of the veil through Christ. His redemption is revelatory; it is a seeing of God rightly, and this occurs only through “the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). In turn, this revelation is redemptive: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Co 3:18). The obstructing lie of sin has been removed and with it the truth of God in Christ is revealed in redemption.

The Gospel Precedes and Constitutes Scripture

Christ seems to bear no knowledge content for Cottrell apart from Scripture, which ignores how the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ opens the Scriptures to the Apostles. For the first generation, the Scriptures refer to the Hebrew Bible, which are now read in light of Christ (and not the other way round). The death and resurrection of Christ act as a catalyst in apprehending Scripture in a new way. The preaching of the Gospel enacts a new form of understanding or wisdom, which in light of the old wisdom would be dismissed as foolishness (I Cor. 1:18-24). The preaching of the Gospel is not dependent upon Scripture in the first instance, as it consists of the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ, but in light of this proclamation “the wisdom of God” is revealed. Now there is a means of making sense of Scripture as Christ brings about a coherence it does not otherwise possess.[4]

This exegesis of Scripture and God on the basis of the Gospel constitutes the New Testament. Christ is the hermeneutical lens, the means to wisdom, the ground of epistemology, and this ground is worked out in conjunction with Scripture. The point of reading the Bible is not to find the original meaning; quite the opposite – the point is to apprehend Christ, where the original meaning, taken as its own end, might obscure this reality.

Christ’s explanation of Scripture, with himself as center, to the two on the Road to Emmaus, is not lost to us but is recovered and expanded upon throughout the New Testament. Paul does not read Genesis as an end in and of itself – and his reading may in fact seem to distort the original story, but his point is to show forth the second Adam in conjunction with the first (e.g., Romans 5 & 7).  It turns out the two sons of Abraham represent two covenants (Gal. 4:24 ff.) and yet, there are not two such covenants revealed apart from Christ, prior to Paul’s explanation. The snake of Moses foreshadowed the crucifixion and the giving of eternal life (John 3:14). The Exodus, Passover, the Sabbath, the Temple, the sacrifices, the priesthood, and creation, have to now be read and understood in light of Christ. To reverse this, and to lift up Scripture over Christ is to lose the meaning and substance preserved in the Old and New Testaments through the preaching of the Gospel. Apart from a Christological explanation there is no coherence but only confusion and contradiction.


[1]  Augustine, City of God, XIII, xiii.

[2] Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press; 1st edition (November 1, 2013), 85.

[3] Jack Cottrell, “What is Central in our Lives?” Restoration Herald (November, 2014). All references to Cottrell are from this article.

[4] See John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology: The Way to Nicaea Volume 1 (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood New York, 2001), 25-28.

Made For God: Resolving the Nature Grace Duality Before It Begins

A straightforward way to understand and avoid the unnecessary Western theological complications (Augustinian and Thomistic) of a two-tiered nature/supernature split, or nature pitted against grace, is to follow Irenaeus’ argument against the Gnostics. Irenaeus’ description of soul, body and Spirit, clarifies that there is no “human nature” apart from God (or a Gnostic dualism). “Now the soul and the Spirit are certainly a part of the man, but certainly not the man; for the perfect man consists in the commingling and the union of the soul receiving the Spirit of the Father, and the admixture of that fleshly nature which was molded after the image of God.”[1] Where the Gnostics taught a radical dualism between God and matter, and God and the world, positing a mediating deity or Demiurge between God and the world, Irenaeus, combines the Genesis story and its completion in Christ, to picture the full participation of God in man and man in God as the “natural” end (anything less is unnatural). Creation and theosis are not separate events anymore than creation and incarnation. This is who God always is; this is who man always is, and this is the point of creation.

Irenaeus describes the necessity of the Spirit of God, not as a force apart from man but as molding and blending the handiwork of God: “But when the Spirit here blended with the soul is united to God’s handiwork, the man is rendered spiritual and perfect because of the outpouring of the Spirit, and this is he who was made in the image and likeness of God.”[2]  That is, the Genesis account is only completed through the active participation of God in the man as Spirit. But this is not simply God’s Spirt but it is the constituting element of the man.

While all three elements, body, soul and Spirit, constitute the image of God in which man was created, Irenaeus use of Spirit (sometimes seeming to refer to God and man simultaneously) portrays the perfection of full co-participation between the divine and human while also allowing for a diminishment of participation: “One of these does indeed preserve and fashion (the man)  – – this is the Spirit; while as to another it is united and formed–that is the flesh; then comes that which is between these two–that is the soul, which sometimes indeed, when it follows the Spirit, is raised by it, but sometimes it sympathizes with the flesh, and falls into carnal lusts.”[3] The Spirit “preserves and fashions” the man, so that there is no human apart from Spirit. The Spirit is not something added to man, and yet there is the possibility, in following lusts, that the role of the Spirit is diminished.

As Irenaeus describes it, no part of the flesh, soul, Spirit trichotomy can be left out of the mix that makes up the complete human:

But if the Spirit is lacking from the soul, such a one, remaining indeed animated and fleshly, will be imperfect, having the image, certainly, in the handiwork (the flesh), but not receiving the likeness through the Spirit. Likewise this one is imperfect, in the same manner again, if someone takes away the image (soul) and rejects the handiwork – one can no longer contemplate a human, but either some part of the human, as we have said, or something other than a human. For neither is the handiwork of flesh itself, by itself, a perfect human, but the body of a human and a part of the human; nor is the soul itself, by itself, a human, but the soul and a part, of the human; nor is the Spirit a human, for it is called Spirit and not human. But the commingling and union of all of these constitutes the perfect human. [4]

John Behr notes, with Irenaeus it is the Spirit that renders human beings both living and, due to the combination with the flesh, human. It is “the Spirit that absorbs the weakness of the flesh and manifests living human beings: living, because of the Spirit, ‘their Spirit’; and human, because of the flesh.” His point in emphasizing that this is “their Spirit” is to point out “it is always the human who lives, who personalizes the life given to them by God.”[5] The virtues and life developed in the flesh through the Spirit are not an overriding of human personality and freedom, but their completion. On the other hand, “if we take away the substance of the handiwork (flesh) we are left with ‘only the Spirit itself, which Irenaeus describes as ‘the Spirit of the human or the Spirit of God’. The Spirit itself is not the human, nor even a part, of the human, but is given to the human in such a manner that it can be legitimately described as their Spirit.”[6] This is not simply the animating breath but the vivifying Spirit of God, which is their Spirit.

The image (but not the likeness) may be present, where the soul and flesh are joined apart from the Spirit, but clearly the Spirit is needed to complete the creation account – in the “image and likeness.” Though already part of the original creation account, Irenaeus envisages (through his quotation of I Thess. 5:23) the completeness (the fullness of image and likeness) as occurring in the eschaton. But this completion is a process initiated from the moment of creation.

Part of the problem for later interpreters of Irenaeus, shaped by a Catholic confessional understanding (making a distinction between nature and grace), is that Irenaeus distinguishes between image and likeness, but not so as to posit the possibility of an image (“natural”) apart from the likeness (which he ties to the Spirit), as this would amount to an unformed or unmolded man. No part of man can be completely separated from God and still be human. An unspiritual human or an ungraced man is not of the human species at all, such that there is not the possibility of a man apart from the grace of God.

As Dai Sal Kim has put it, “The fact that man was created by God was a pure grace, to begin with! Then how can we say that the addition of the spirit is the supernature added by the grace of God?”[7] As Vladimir Lossky portrays it, the Eastern tradition will preserve the understanding of the image of God as preserving the full integration of nature and grace. He writes, “The idea of supererogatory grace which is added to nature in order to order it towards God is foreign to the tradition of the Eastern Church. As the image of God, the ordering of the human person was towards its Archetype.”[8]

Allan Galloway points to Augustine as the founder of the dualism between nature and grace, developed and aggravated in the Middle Ages. He compares Irenaeus to Augustine, indicating that while Augustine acknowledged the goodness of nature it was an insignificant goodness in comparison to the benefits of Christ, while in Irenaeus there is only one order of goodness. “All goodness, whether it belongs to this world or to the final consummation, is a manifestation of the grace of God.”[9] In Irenaeus there is no trace of the dualism of the Middle Ages as there is a complete and ultimate unity of nature and grace.

For Irenaeus, humans are not two-storied creatures, first possessing an integrated human nature, to which relationship to God is added. By definition, the image and likeness in which humans are created is a participation in the divine. Grace is not added to an ungraced world or to a God free man, as what it means to be made soul, body, and Spirit created in the image and likeness of God is the participation of God in man and man in God.  


[1] Against Heresies (AH) Book 5, Chapter 6, paragraph 1.

[2] AH 5.6.1

[3] AH, 5.9.1.

[4] AH 5.6.1.

[5] John Behr, Godly Lives: Asceticism and Anthropology, with special reference to Sexuality, in the Writings of St. Irenaeus of Lyons and St. Clement of Alexandria (Pembroke College, Oxford, 1995), Abstract.

[6] Behr, 118-119.

[7] Dai Sil Kim, The Doctrine of Man in Irenaeus of Lyons, (Boston University: Doctoral Dissertation, 1969) 96-97.

[8] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, (London: James Clarke & Co. Ltd., 1957) 131. Quoted in Kim, 97.

[9] Allan D. Galloway, The Cosmic Christ, (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1951) 127. Quoted in Kim, 97.

Does Paul Pose a Dualism Between Flesh and Spirit?

Read in a simplistic fashion, Paul’s pitting of flesh against spirit might seem to be on the order of a gnostic denigration of the physical body and the presumption that one must shed what is corporeal so as to embrace what is spiritual. It might be presumed that flesh, for Paul, is simply the body and one in the physical body is doomed to sin and corruption. The human problem, in this understanding, is being finite, physical, and made of flesh, and the resolution of this problem is to shed the fleshly body and be raised as an incorporeal spirit. In other words, Paul might be read as embracing a form of the belief that spirit and flesh are timeless principles pitted against one another (part of the cosmos) from the beginning. Louis Martyn’s point is that Paul is a dualist but not a dualist of this sort: “Since the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ (Gal. 4:6), it is obvious that the Spirit and the Flesh – as opponents – are a pair of opposites born not of God’s creative act, but of this new-creative act in the sending of his Son and the Spirit of the Son.”[1] This is an eschatological dualism in which two ages overlap, “the present evil age” and the age commenced, not from the beginning of time, but from the apocalyptic moment of Christ’s breaking in. It is not only the Spirit but the flesh that is redefined by this moment. In fact, of the two terms it may be that “flesh” is the most misunderstood and misconstrued.

It is difficult to say anything definitive about the general usage of flesh in the Bible, as context fills in, whether the reference is to the total personality, to the emotions, or to the weak or corruptible part of man. In the Hebrew scriptures flesh appears sometimes as neutral and refers to the collective and individual creaturely existence or relationship. Though it is in creatureliness that sin takes hold, it is noteworthy that in one of the most authoritative of sources the conclusion is, “nowhere is it even probable that the flesh is in conflict with the spirit.”[2] The flesh is that place where the battle between the Holy Spirit and the spirit of iniquity takes place but the flesh or the body is not itself the problem.[3] In other words, the Hebrew scriptures are not picturing a cosmic conflict between flesh and spirit or between the corporeal and incorporeal. The body is not the prison of the soul, and the flesh need not keep man from true knowledge and experience of God. In the Midrash, Psalm 16:9 (“My flesh will dwell securely”) serves to show David as an example of one over whom the corrupting tendency of the flesh has no power. [4]

This conclusion carries over to the New Testament, where the flesh may be neutral, or may refer to a weakness or physical sickness, or it may be specifically designated as “sinful flesh.” In Mathew 16:17, “flesh and blood” denote a limitation, not in terms of mortality but as a medium by which to apprehend God. That is, even Jesus in the flesh may not be recognized due to fleshly intellectual, religious, and mystical limitations. [5]

Though the New Testament does not depict an anthropological or cosmic dualism, the peculiar role of the false teachers and the need to combat their focus on the flesh gives rise to what might be mistaken for this sort of dualism. It may be in both Galatians and Romans that Paul is mistakenly perceived as presenting a cosmic/anthropological dualism.

Flesh is depicted in Galatians as a force superior to man and might be numbered among the principalities and powers, and yet this same power is not alien to humans but belongs to them and arises from them. As the TDNT makes clear, Paul’s view is not that of the Gnostics that presumes “the divine core of man has been tragically overpowered by the sinister forces which seduce the senses” – this “is not Paul’s answer.” Paul does not pose flesh, per se, over and against the spirit as the flesh may simply denote the realm of marriage, of blood relations, or of human interaction (e.g., Col. 2:1,5). It can denote the muscular part of the body, or where one might experience disease or physiological weakness (2 Cor. 12:7; Gal. 4:13).

Too much devotion or trust in the flesh lends the flesh a power which it does not possess intrinsically. The sinful life is, by definition, oriented to the flesh or serves the flesh and this results in fleshly thinking, but being in the flesh or body is not inevitably sinful (Rom. 8:8-9). Christ specifically defeats the orientation to the flesh in the flesh and makes it possible for his followers to rid themselves of this orientation, not by getting rid of the body or flesh but by being oriented to the Spirit.[6] Paul can say the believer no longer lives in the flesh, (Rom. 7:5; 8:8f.) not because he has abandoned the body but because the sinful orientation which he marks, by the shorthand of flesh, no longer controls. He describes the believer as crucifying the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal. 5:24). This is not a literal crucifixion and the flesh that dies is not the literal corporeal body, but the principle of sin attached to the orientation to the flesh. “Paul certainly does not mean that by ascetic or mystical practices man can escape his corporeality.”[7] The believer always lives physically (ἐν σαρκί): “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses” (2 Co 10:3–4). Paul says, “I now live in the flesh” but this living is now marked not by faith in the flesh but “by faith in the Son of God” (Gal. 2:20).

The false teachers of Galatia are deploying the term flesh in a fashion that may account for the peculiar usage demonstrated in Galatians. Martyn suggests that the Galatians, prior to the arrival of the false teachers, will not have received any peculiar Jewish or Christian teaching regarding the flesh, as Paul seems not to have mentioned it in his initial evangelistic campaign or his earlier writing (e.g., there is no similar warning in I Thess. 4:1-8). The false teachers may have drawn a connection between “the impulsive Desire of the Flesh” (ἐπιθυμίαν σαρκὸς) and their suggested resolution of circumcision. Abraham, in their estimate, would have defeated the desire of the flesh by keeping the law, beginning with circumcision. So, Paul’s juxtaposition of flesh against Spirit, specifically refers to the foreskin of the penis. Their reliance on the law is literally reliance on this piece of flesh.[8]

As a result, Paul, in Galatians, has developed a unique designation for the flesh in which the “power of the flesh” stands over and against the “power of the promise” of God. The power of the flesh is intermixed with a trust in the law, which reduces in Paul’s argument to the same thing. The difference for Abraham between the “power of the flesh” and the “power of the promise” pertains primarily to the object of faith (4:21-31). In both instances the reference is to procreation and birth, but trust in the power of the flesh (the birth of Ishmael) is posed against the power that produced the birth of Isaac. In both kata sarka and kata pneuma the meaning of kata is “as a result of the power of.” The point is not that one is less bodily, less sexual, less fleshly. Both powers produce children in the same embodied manner and both directly reference the act of Abraham, but in one instance Abraham trusted the flesh and in the other instance he trusted God.[9]

The false teachers, according to Paul, are repeating the mistake of Abraham (in conceiving Ishmael) in that they are trusting in the power of the flesh in their insistence on circumcision. This is on the order of trusting in the letter of the law, and thus missing the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:6). The problem is not that the law is conveyed in letters or that the power of the flesh uses the flesh, but it is the exclusive trust in the letter of the law or the power of the flesh. “Flesh versus spirit” might be a shorthand way of depicting this conflict, but this has nothing to do with an anthropological or cosmic antagonism between body and spirit. In both instances the same body and the same mode of conception are deployed, but the dynamic of the fleshly specifically entails an abandonment of trust in the power of God, and belief in the promise trusts God in this same circumstance.  

The same dynamic is at work in Romans 7, which also may reflect a Hellenistic influence, but Paul is depicting the experience of fallen man and not every man. His is precisely not the Greek notion that νοῦς (mind, reason, understanding) can control the flesh. The impotence of the mind, its passive apprehension, is itself part of the agonistic dynamic Paul is describing. It is not a matter of the law of the mind gaining control of the law of the flesh, as both are part of the dynamic of the law of sin and death. It is not the body against the spirit that is causing the problem; in fact Paul’s pitting of his mind against the body seems to be part of the problem. He sees two laws at work: “I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom. 7.23). The point is not that one of these laws is right and the other is wrong; the point is there is a war being waged in which the individual is the victim. As John Bertone notes, Paul’s object here is not to demarcate one form of law from the other: “The point is that this system represented something that simply did not produce life.”[10]

Paul may be thinking of a Pharisaical drive to achieve righteousness through the law as the struggle of sin he is describing. Establishing one’s own righteousness is on the same order as trusting in the power of the flesh. The problem in both Romans 7 and Galatians is that certain individuals misperceive the function of the law, imagining that it produces life. The command (Rom. 7:11) which promised life did not point to itself (as the source of life) but to God. The perception of promise of life in the law is skewed by sin so as to remove the necessity of God: “this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (Rom. 7:10-11). The correct nuance is to understand that the law keeps one in a life-giving relationship with God, but it is this relationship to God (and not with the law) that is the true source of life.

Just as the law was aimed at keeping one in relationship with God, this positive understanding can be carried over to the meaning of flesh. Where flesh “is understood in a full theological sense . . . it denotes the being of man which is determined, not by his physical substance, but by his relation to God.”[11]

The problem with the law, the problem with the flesh, and the problem with “this present evil age” reduce to the singular problem that the “elements of the cosmos” (στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου) have been made absolute and have not been understood in relationship to God. Whatever Paul might mean by these elements, it seems that the law and the flesh are counted among those things which held all people captive (Gal. 4:3). The law, the flesh, or simply the material order of creation, none of which are intrinsically sinful, enslave those who entrust themselves completely to this order. This is shown in the apocalyptic appearing of Christ which entails a “new creation” (Gal. 6:15). The old cosmic order is broken open and is being brought to an end as the new creation commences (which as Paul explains in his receiving of the Gospel is not dependent upon flesh and blood (1:16)).   

“But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:14-15).


[1] J. Louis Martyn, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Yale University Press, 1997), 100.

[2] Schweizer, E., & Baumgärtel, F. (1964–). σάρξ, σαρκικός, σάρκινος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 7, p. 114). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 115.

[5] Ibid, 124.

[6] Ibid, 133-134.

[7] Ibid, 134

[8] Martyn, 293-294.

[9] Martyn, 434-435.

[10] John A. Bertone, “The Law of the Spirit”: Experience of the Spirit and Displacement of the Law in Romans 8:1-16, (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005) 180..

[11] Ibid, TDNT, 134.