Douglas Campbell’s Framing of Paul Through Ephesians

The frame in which the book of Ephesians might be viewed, as Douglas Campbell sees it, is not as a late and pseudo-Pauline writing, but as an early work, central to Paul’s theology, an understanding which entails several revolutionary shifts. Overall, the understanding of the New Testament, and Paul specifically, must be understood, not through an atonement theory based on contract but one based on covenant (which entails an entirely different theological tenor), but this overall shift points to a series of major turns in theology and exegesis. This is the self-described description of Campbell, which accounts for his peculiar theological understanding and placement of Ephesians (as central) in the Pauline corpus. He notes that there were a series of major shifts occurring during his seminary years in the 1980’s which laid the framework for his theology.[1]

First, the publication of the work of Krister Stendahl in 1963 had thrown into question, what he calls the “Lutheran” understanding of Paul, in which Paul’s main problem was a guilty conscience arising from his inability to keep the law. Paul’s struggle was seen in light of the introspective struggles of Augustine and Luther, and salvation was seen primarily in terms of guilt and its relief. Stendahl notes that, “In the history of Western Christianity — and hence, to a large extent, in the history of Western culture — the Apostle Paul has been hailed as a hero of the introspective conscience. Here was the man who grappled with the problem ‘I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want to do is what I do . . . (Rom.7:19).”[2] As I have pointed out in my work on Romans, this misreading of Romans 7 marks the major forms of the faith (is this the conscious non-Christian Paul, or is this Paul’s reflection on his non-Christian life from a Christian stand-point, or is this simply Christian Paul?).[3] This background, according to Stendahl, gives rise to the Western notion of “justification by faith”: “hailed as the answer to the problem which faces the ruthlessly honest man in his practice of introspection.”[4]

This does not line up with Paul’s own description of his conscience in Philippians and elsewhere:

In Phil. 3 Paul speaks most fully about his life before his Christian calling, and there is no indication that he had had any difficulty in fulfilling the Law. On the contrary, he can say that he had been “flawless” as to the righteousness required by the Law (v.6). His encounter with Jesus Christ — at Damascus, according to Acts 9:1-9 — has not changed this fact. It was not to him a restoration of a plagued conscience; when he says that he now forgets what is behind him (Phil. 3:13), he does not think about the shortcomings in his obedience to the Law, but about his glorious achievements as a righteous Jew, achievements which he nevertheless now has learned to consider as “refuse” in the light of his faith in Jesus as the Messiah.”[5]

Justification by faith, Stendahl notes, is going to mean something very different if the notion of guilt, and relief from guilt, is not the primary lens for reading Paul or understanding Judaism. Stendahl notes the point which will be developed and built upon in what is called, “The New Perspective on Paul”: “for the Jew the Law did not require a static or pedantic perfectionism but supposed a covenant relationship in which there was room for forgiveness and repentance and where God applied the Measure of Grace.”[6]

Second, in Campbell’s telling of the story, it was E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism, published in 1977, which brought home the fact that Judaism, as it is characterized under the typical Protestant notion, as a “work’s righteousness” religion, gives a legalistic account of “justification by works” that is unrecognizable to Jews. The inherent antisemitism of this understanding, which in the post-Holocaust world was a key concern, added to the recognition of the false portrayal of Judaism in typical Western, mainly Protestant, understandings.  

As James Dunn notes, “What is usually taken to be the Jewish alternative to Paul’s gospel would have been hardly recognized as an expression of Judaism by Paul’s kinsmen according to the flesh. Sanders notes that Jewish scholars and experts in early Judaism have for long enough been registering a protest at this point, contrasting rabbinic Judaism as they understand it with the parody of Judaism which Paul seems to have rejected.”[7] Sanders quotes Solomon Schecter as an example: “Either the theology of the Rabbis must be wrong, its conception of God debasing, its leading motives materialistic and coarse, and its teachers lacking in enthusiasm and spirituality, or the Apostle to the Gentiles is quite unintelligible;” and then James Parks: “… if Paul was really attacking ‘Rabbinic Judaism’, then much of his argument is irrelevant, his abuse unmerited, and his conception of that which he was attacking inaccurate.”[8]

The fact that New Testament scholarship and the framing of Paul’s understanding (through such key scholars as Rudolf Bultmann and Ernst Kasemann) is based on this Lutheran model, with its rejection the entire field became suspect.

 Sanders also demonstrated that Judaism is based, not on a contractual relationship of law keeping, but on a covenantal relationship:

In particular, he has shown with sufficient weight of evidence that for the first-century Jew, Israel’s covenant relation with God was basic, basic to the Jew’s sense of national identity and to his understanding of his religion. So far as we can tell now, for first-century Judaism everything was an elaboration of the fundamental axiom that the one God had chosen Israel to be his peculiar people, to enjoy a special relationship under his rule. The law had been given as an expression of this covenant, to regulate and maintain the relationship established by the covenant.[9]

The relationship of the covenant was primary, and the law was added only as a guide to maintain the relationship. “So, too, righteousness must be seen in terms of this relationship, as referring to conduct appropriate to this relationship, conduct in accord with the law. That is, obedience to the law in Judaism was never thought of as a means of entering the covenant, of attaining that special relationship with God; it was more a matter of maintaining the covenant relationship with God.”[10] Sanders refers to this understanding as “covenantal nomism” – which he defines in the following manner:

covenantal nomism is the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression … Obedience maintains one’s position in the covenant, but it does not earn God’s grace as such … Righteousness in Judaism is a term which implies the maintenance of status among the group of the elect.[11]

There are multiple implications to this understanding of Paul, which Sanders did not pursue. He simply assumed Paul’s Judaism was different than that of his fellow Jews.

The third thing that Campbell notes, which pertains to the above points, concerned the question of Paul’s “center” (which Campbell refers to as the question of the nature of Paul’s “gospel” or his “soteriology”). With the questioning of the Lutheran Paul, there was a turn to nineteenth century German theology, such as that of Albert Schweitzer focused on “being-in-Christ.” Schweitzer claims, “The doctrine of righteousness by faith is therefore a subsidiary crater, which has formed within the rim of the main crater – the mystical doctrine of redemption through being-in-Christ.”[12]  The question arose as to how to reconcile these two understandings of Paul. Was Paul inconsistent or was the scholarship on Paul flawed?

Fourth, Campbell mentions the impact of the work of Richard Hays, and his understanding that “various phrases in Paul were best understood as references to the ‘faithfulness of Jesus’ as against (Christian) ‘faith in Jesus.’” This coincides with a participatory notion of faith, in which Jesus is not so much the object of faith as the model of faith which his followers emulate.

The fifth contributing influence concerns Campbell’s studies under Richard N. Longenecker, who proposed an alternative frame for understanding the order of Paul’s letter writing. “If Galatians was Paul’s first extant letter (as Longenecker proposed) then the shape of his theological project was rather different from an account that positioned 1 or even 2 Thessalonians first . . . The language and concerns distinct to Galatians and Romans look rather less programmatic and rather more occasional if the latter biography holds good.”[13]

As Campbell concludes, “In short then we were taught in the 1980s at Toronto that some of the key details in Paul’s biography, which affected the interpretation of some of his key letters, were being vigorously contested.[14]

In Campbell’s description this all became coherent and constituted an alternative reading only with his encounter with the work of Thomas and James Torrance. Under the Torrance’s influence he came to a fuller understanding of exactly what might be entailed in a covenantal relationship:

Because the basis for the relationship is precisely this ground, of love, the covenantal actor reaches out to the other and establishes the relationship independently of any action by that party. It is therefore an unconditional and gracious act, and the relationship with the other is a gifted one. The covenantal actor has “elected” to enter the relationship and so taken the initiative. That actor has also thereby functioned “missiologically” and “incarnationally” — in the case of God literally — in stretching to the other actor’s location and, if necessary, meeting them right where s/he is. Once established, moreover, this relationship then extends through time, irrevocably. It lasts as long as the love of the loving covenantal actor lasts, hence, in the case of God, through eternity. And the relationship is consequently characterized by complete loyalty and unswerving fidelity.[15]

Though Campbell does not extend this particular essay to his own framing of Paul and the role he would assign to Ephesians, it seems evident these moves clear the ground for something like a return to the early church understanding of the centrality of Ephesians. As I indicated in my previous blog, Origen considered Ephesians the center of Paul’s thought[16] and according to Richard Layton he defined “this epistle as the spiritual ‘heart of Paul’s letters, a repository of mysteries at which the apostle only hinted in other correspondence.”[17] In the estimate of Origen and Jerome, “…Ephesians, that epistle of the apostle which stands in the middle in concepts as well as order. Now I say middle not because it comes after the first epistles and is longer than the final ones, but in the sense that the heart of an animal is in its mid‐section, so that you might understand from this the magnitude of the difficulties and the profundity of the questions it contains.”[18] As Ernest Best shows, Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement of Rome, Hermas, and other Apostolic Fathers knew and used this letter as a key to understanding Paul.[19] However, “with the reformation, and the modernist quest that followed it, the letter came increasingly to be read as a unified discourse with its own distinct message.”[20]

As Martin Wright demonstrates in his PhD dissertation, “Ephesians is deeply embedded in the CP (Pauline Corpus) . . .  it serves an integrating function within the Corpus, and above all . . . patterns of reception and reinterpretation across the Corpus are far more complex than the bifurcation between “authentic” and “spurious” letters can admit.”[21] Wright engages Campbell’s “framing” of Paul noting that in this understanding Colossians and Ephesians are  authentic, “the latter is really the “Laodiceans” of Col. 4:16, and together with Philemon these letters constitute a ‘single epistolary event’, dating from an imprisonment in Asia Minor in 50;59 they therefore precede 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians and Romans . . . .”[22] This leads to consequential conclusions as to the centrality of Ephesians:

The place of Ephesians (“Laodiceans”) in Campbell’s schema is intriguing. In his view it is not prompted by any particular crisis, but gives “an account of pagan Christian identity” to a Gentile congregation not founded by Paul. . . . But as a result, and because Campbell locates the letter before 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians and Romans, its role in the CP is transformed. Ephesians becomes a distinctively “unconditioned” statement of Paul’s gospel, more so even than Romans; its echoes throughout the Corpus reflect its closeness to the heart of his theology, with motifs first articulated here to be developed later on, perhaps transformed in the crucible of conflict and schism. This is of course the opposite of the usual modern position, that Ephesians is a late text drawing together strands from various earlier Pauline letters (though it sits well with Origen’s view quoted at the beginning of this study). As Campbell realizes, if his frame is accepted, one consequence will be “a more ‘Ephesiocentric’ account of Paul’s thought.[23]

As Wright goes on to note, this means that Ephesians is not occasioned by a particular false teaching (the rise of a rival Jewish-Christian Teacher spurring the discussion in of law, grace, faith and justification/righteousness in Galatians, Philippians, and Romans) as the writing of Ephesians precedes these events. What we have in Ephesians then, according to Campbell, is a summation of Paul’s gospel for a people otherwise not familiar with it.

Campbell sums up Paul’s gospel by highlighting four points:[24] 1. a realized eschatology: Resurrection, ascension, rule, life all come together as the predestined plan of God, and this rule is not simply to a future eschatological fulfillment (though this is not absent in Ephesians, e.g., 1:14; 2:7; 4:30; 5:5; 6:8, 13), the distinctive emphasis of Ephesians is of a present or realized eschatology (e.g., “we are now seated with him at the right hand of God, 2:6).

2. “Secondly, it is (as a direct consequence of the foregoing) a radical understanding, in that it cuts to the root (the radix) of sin in the sinful being of humanity and the present cosmic order, which is full · of oppressive evil powers that have a foothold in that corrupt being (notably sin and death; they plague the flesh- Gk sarx).” What we learn in this gospel is that resurrection and enthronement defeat the Powers (the prince of the power of the air, Eph. 2:2). It tells us that the power (the power of sin and evil) is defeated in the defeat of death, and that this power of death is that which is wielded by the principalities and powers and by the prince of the power of the air. The gospel of Paul is the mystery revealed in this reign over the Powers (3:9-10). Satan’s power over the nations is ended (3:1-13) and every Christian can participate in this defeat (6:10-20).

3. Campbell notes the Trinitarian aspect of Paul’s gospel which he elsewhere combines in an understanding of the participatory or perichoretic understanding. Paul “uses a sexual metaphor informed by Gen 2:24, understanding sexual union as oneness or unification, as that text suggests. This usage denotes the unity of close relational intimacy, along with close bodily contact without any erasure of differentiation or individuated personhood, and supports a perichoretic account of the divine unity.”[25]

Humankind was created for participation and relationship with God, and the intimacy of this participation is part of the mystery revealed (5:32). Christ’s salvific work (the mystery revealed to all the saints, 1:1; 1:9) brings about unity of all things, “things in the heavens and things on the earth” (1:10), inclusive and represented by the unity of Jews and Gentiles (3:1-6). This saving union with God marks the medium and goal of the Christian life. Christians are to “keep the unity of the Spirit” (4:3) through the oneness of the body, as “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you also were called into one hope . . .. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (4:4–6a). The point of the apostles and prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers, or the point of the church is building up the body of Christ “until all of us attain unity of the faith” (4:13) with “the whole body being joined together and united together by every binding ligament of support” (4:16). This gospel unity stands in contrast to the dividing powers controlling those alienated from the life of God” (4:18). Christians are members of one another (4:25) because of Christ’s victory over the alienating power of death and the resultant unifying and life giving of the Spirit (5:14-15) through the predetermined will of the Father.

4. “Fourthly and finally, the model is clearly utterly unconditional: no human act can initiate or effect the eschatological irruption of God-or the Father’s sending of the only Son. People are simply caught up in the irresistible purposes and creativity of God, as Paul himself was outside Damascus . . ..” Paul opens Ephesians with this understanding of God’s unconditional plan: “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will” (1:3-6). Paul informs us, “This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord” (3:11). All “because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (2:4-6). As Campbell puts it, “A new person, and new humanity, has been made. Note, this is not to subordinate the second creation to the first: in Paul the second clearly prefigured the first cosmically, and also vastly exceeds it . . .”[26]

Though I have drawn from Campbell’s early work to his most recent work to highlight the role of Ephesians, I think I have been true to the progression of his thought. In conclusion his summary of the gospel could just as well be a summary of the key role of Ephesians, which he notes:

The secret of the universe and the point of the great narrative that encompasses us all is God’s plan to draw us into a community imaged and formed by his resurrected Son. The risen Jesus will have primacy but also a rather extraordinary equality with those who surround him and look like him. Everyone in this community will therefore be a “brother,” bearing the image of the Resurrected One. . .. Our destiny, then, is to be a “band of brothers,” which is to say, “a family of siblings.” This is God’s great plan that lies at the heart of the cosmos. Its fulfillment is the story that enfolds us all, and it is the only story that really matters.

Just the same notion is expounded at length in the opening section of Ephesians. There Paul uses the form of a blessing— entirely appropriately, since it is a blessing— to convey the insight that fellowship with the triune God lies at the heart of the cosmos. Such is his enthusiasm that he articulates this notion in one sentence that runs on for twelve verses (vv. 3– 14). This purpose existed “before the foundation of the world: that we should be holy and blameless before him, having been chosen in love” (v. 4). At the heart of the cosmos, its inception, its existence, and its future, lies the divine plan to create us and to enjoy us in fellowship. And this plan entailed initiating this relationship by creating us and then calling us and drawing us into communion in the loving movement often known as election, the Greek literally meaning “calling out,” hence “summoning.”[27]

(Sign up for our next class beginning January 30th: Philemon and Ephesians: Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Paul https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] Douglas Campbell, “Covenant or Contract in the Interpretation of Paul.” Participation: The Journal of the T. F.  Torrance Theological Fellowship (2014) 183-184

[2] Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” First delivered as the invited Address at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, September 3, 1961 ; it is a revised and footnoted edition of the “article “Paulus och Samvetet,” published in Sweden in Svensk Exegetisk Ârsbok 25 (i960), 62-77. Accessed online at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/569543b4bfe87360795306d6/t/5a4d41fa085229a032376713/1515012617149/01Stendahl.pdf

[3] Seem my work, Paul V. Axton, The Psychotheology of Sin and Salvation: An Analysis of the Meaning of the Death of Christ in Light of the Psychoanalytic Reading of Paul (London: T & T Clark, 2015).

[4] Stendahl, “Introspective Conscience”

[5] Stendahl, Ibid.

[6] Stendahl, Ibid.

[7] James Dunn, “The New Perspective on Paul,” The Manson Memorial Lecture delivered in the University of Manchester on 4 November 1982. Subsequently delivered in inodified form as one of the Wilkinson Lectures in the Northen Baptist Theological Seminary, Illinois, under the title “Let Paul be Paul”. Accessed online at https://www.escholar.manchester.ac.uk/api/datastream?publicationPid=uk-ac-man-scw:1m1686&datastreamId=POST-PEER-REVIEW-PUBLISHERS-DOCUMENT.PDF

[8] Dunn is quoting Sanders, Paul, p. 6. See the fuller survey “Paul and Judaism in New Testament scholarship” on pp. 1-12.

[9] Dunn, Ibid.

[10] Dunn, Ibid.

[11] Sanders, Paul, pp. 75, 420, 544. Quoted in Dunn.

[12] A. Schweitzer, Die Mystik des Apostels Paulus (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1930, 2 1954). Quoted from Carsten Claussen, “Albert Schweitzer’s Understanding of Righteousness by Faith according to Paul’s Letter to the Romans” “Romans through History and Cultures Group”; SBL Annual Meeting 2007 in San Diego

[13] Campbell, “Covenant or Contract.”

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] F. Pieri and Ronald E. Heine, “Recovering Origen’s Commentary On Ephesians from Jerome,” The Journal of Theological Studies NEW SERIES, Vol. 51, No. 2 (October 2000), pp. 478-514 Published By: Oxford University Press

[17] Richard Layton, “Recovering Origen’s Pauline Exegesis: Exegesis and Eschatology in the Commentary on Ephesians” Journal of Early Christian Studies 8:3, 373–411 2000 The Johns Hopkins University Press.

[18] Origen and Jerome, The Commentaries of Origen and Jerome on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, ed. and trans. Ronald E. Heine (Oxford: OUP, 2002), 77. This part of the commentary survives only in Jerome’s version, but Heine attributes much of it, including the quoted passage, to Origen.

[19] Ernest Best, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians, ICC
(Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 115–17. Quoted in Oscar E. Jiménez, Metaphors in the Narrative of Ephesians 2:11-22, (Brill, 2022) 2.

[20] Max Turner, “Book of Ephesians,” in Dictionary for the Theological Interpretation of the Bible (London: SPCK, 2005), 187. Quoted in Jiménez, Ibid.

[21] Martin Wright, Breaking Down the Dividing Wall: Ephesians and the Integrity of the Corpus Paulinum, (Durham theses, Durham University, 2018) 10.

[22] Wright, 10.

[23] Wright, 80-81.

[24] Outlined in Campbells essay, “Covenant or Contract.” I am filling out his outline from Ephesians.

[25] Douglas Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics (Kindle Locations 1441-1445). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[26] Campbell, “Covenant or Contract.”

[27] Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics, Kindle Locations 1699 – 1711.

Understanding the “Time” of Origen and Paul Through Ephesians 3:9-10

Origen considered Ephesians the center of Paul’s thought[1] and according to Richard Layton he defined “this epistle as the spiritual ‘heart of Paul’s letters, a repository of mysteries at which the apostle only hinted in other correspondence.”[2] As Layton explains, “The imagery of Ephesians moves in celestial realms and encompasses the vast reaches of eternity, inviting cosmological speculation. The language of Ephesians is particularly vivid at precisely the points where Origen’s teachings kindled controversy.”[3] One might read Origen as an explanation of this cosmological time and space bending book (Ephesians), which provides entre into Pauline theology. Though Origen and Paul are often read through Platonic conceptions, Origen is making a clear break with Platonism (most clearly on such issues as the intersection of time and eternity) and his is a demonstration of the unique logic of Paul and the New Testament. What Origen demonstrates is that Paul, in his conception of time (and eternity), is neither Greek nor Hebrew but is setting forth the peculiar implications arising from the incarnation of Christ and His consummation or summing up of all things (Eph. 1:10).

A key component of Origen’s thought is derived from Ephesians 3:9-10 in which Christ is said to be “the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places.” Origen pictures Christ as the Wisdom of God, which as he notes from this verse is “manifold” or containing the different principles or arche upholding creation. The Wisdom of God “administered” through Christ captures the point of intersection between God, who is timeless, and his dealings with time and creation. While this Wisdom is also beginningless in its reference to the Son, it is also interwoven with the creative act of the Son:

The son of God is also called wisdom, made as a beginning of his ways to his works, according to the Proverbs, which means that wisdom existed only in relation to him of whom she was wisdom, having no relation to anyone else at all; but the son of God himself became God’s benevolent decision and willed to bring creatures into being. This wisdom then willed to establish a creative relation to future creatures and this is exactly the meaning of the saying that she has been made the beginning of God’s ways.[4]

Wisdom, through the Son, creates and is itself made part of creation, in that the reason or arche of all things is found in the Son. As Paul says, “in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17) and yet He is “the firstborn of all creation” (Col.1:15). As Origen explains, he “is the oldest of all created beings and … it was to him that God said of the creation of man: ‘Let us make man in our image and likeness.’[5] “Wisdom” is regarded as “created” in the “body” of Christ, such that the passage from uncreated to created is present in Christ.

Origen pictures the first creation account of male and female as referring to the arche or logoi from out of which the next chapter records the creation of the man from the dust and the woman from out of the side of Adam. As Panayiotis Tzamalikos describes it:

The “reasons” is what God created in the beginning. Taking into account that the term logōi means both “words” and “reasons”, Origen’s view is that these logōi are the words of God when he was speaking to his son in the creation of the world according to Genesis. These logōi of God are but the creative . . . fiat out of which the notion of “coming into being out of non-being” began to make sense. It is certainly God who brought them into being but the act of this “creation” is portrayed as an “utterance” of the father to the son. These “utterances”, in Greek called by Origen logōi (which means “utterances”, “words” and “reasons”), is what actually came into being out of non-being.”[6]

The “manifold wisdom” of which Paul speaks, is known through creation and Christ, the wisdom of God is manifest in creation. Wisdom as given through the son, Paul explains (and Origen notes), is the means of bestowing the divine mysteries. What was once hidden in God is manifest in Christ, which Paul notes in acknowledging that God created all things. So, there is a creaturely, created aspect (the logoi) which is from the uncreated, timeless divine wisdom, but which is made known in and through the work of creation.

 In his commentary on Ephesians, Origen refers to Paul’s specialized usage of the term “foundation” (Eph. 1:4) to suggest a similar idea.

καταβολῆς is properly used when something is thrown down and is placed in a lower place from a higher one or when something assumes a beginning. For this reason also those who lay the first foundations of future buildings are said καταβεβληκ ναι, that is, they are said to have thrown down the beginnings of the foundations. Paul, therefore, wishing to show that God devised all things from nothing, ascribes to it not making, not creating and formation, but καταβολῆ, that is the beginning of the foundation, so that something from which creatures were made did not precede creatures in accordance with the Manichaeans and other heresies (which posit a maker and material), but all things subsist from nothing.[7]

Origen makes a clear distinction between Creator and creation, which is worked out in his understanding of a two-fold notion of wisdom in Christ. There is the uncreated Wisdom, but then the manifold wisdom or the logoi. Origen maintains there is a separation between these two. The wisdom of God, which is Christ (I Cor. 1:24), contains the arche. The Logos is not the creator, but the means of creation. (Origen is explaining how it is that “He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (Jn 1:2–3).

As Origen writes,

And in the Epistle to the Hebrews the same Paul says: “At the end of days he has spoken to us in a Son whom he has appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the worlds,” teaching us that God has made the worlds through the son since the only begotten had the “through whom” when the worlds were made. So here too, therefore, if all things were made through the Word, they were not made by the Word, but by one better and greater than the Word. And who would this other one be except the Father?[8]

God the Father made the worlds through the Son, who is himself “begotten of the Father.” First, there is the reality of God in himself, then as Paul expresses it in Eph. 3, there is the manifold or multiple, or as Origen will put it, there is the “decorated” or “multi-embroidered,” wisdom through which creation came about out of non-being. In this first instance, we do not have yet to do with material or corporeal reality, as it is Christ who is the Wisdom of God, but through this Wisdom (singular and timeless) there arises the manifold (many, various) or “multi-embroidered” wisdom. As the TDNT puts it, “The wisdom of God (→ σοφία) has shown itself in Christ to be varied beyond measure and in a way which surpasses all previous knowledge thereof.”[9] This then explains the preparation of the beginning from which creation occurs:

And in relation to this, we will be able to understand what is meant by the beginning of creation, and what Wisdom says in Proverbs: “For God,” she says, “created me the beginning of his ways for his works.” It is possible, of course, for this also to be referred to our first meaning, i.e. that pertaining to a way, because it is said, “God created me the beginning of his ways.”[10]

There is a created aspect contained in the Word.[11] This initial phase does not reference the material creation or the corporeal body of Adam, but pertains to the one who is true Adam or the beginning from which creation comes. The archetype is Christ, the true image bearer of humans but containing the arche of all creation. As Tzamalikos explains, “When, therefore, Origen speaks of ‘first’ creation which was ‘incorporeal’ he does not refer to any ‘incorporeal world’ whatever. For in a strict sense there is no world at all. The reality is the “body” of Christ, which was ‘embroidered’ by those ‘made’.[12] This incorporeal nature is created but not of the material created order, yet it is in this incorporeal nature that embodied humans come to their fulness.

Paul illustrates this in regard to himself, in two passages Origen often cites: Paul says, “I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20) and he speaks of the husband and wife as being “one flesh” which pertains to Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:31-32). The embodied, corporeal person takes up the fulness of the image through Christ as Christ imparts the incorporeal logoi of his life.

In the Ephesians 3 passage, this accomplishment of wisdom shared and received is made known “to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10). He says the “rulers and authorities” we “ought to understand as saints and ministers of God” though he acknowledges that “some take them to be the prince of the air (Eph. 2: 2) and his angels).”[13] Origen makes the bold attempt to describe the place of the devil, who may stand behind the “principalities and powers.”

In other places, he describes a singular counter-power which could stand behind these powers. “Thus he speaks of “one, who fell from the bliss”, further he speaks of “one” applying the adjective “ruler” without stating any noun again; “while there were many rulers who were made, it was one who fell.’”[14] There is a failure or fall (the fall of the devil) which precedes the fall of man but which (even before the fall of man) pervades all of creation. The corporeal creation contains a divide, from its inception, which is the result of this fall. Origen quotes Paul as proof, “All creation groans and travails until now (Rom. 8:22)”[15] He surmises, “Creation was subjected to vanity, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it in hope,” that bodies and doing bodily things, which is . . . necessary . . . for one in a body, might be vanity. He who is in a body does bodily things unwillingly. For this reason, creation was subjected to vanity unwillingly.”[16]

This travail and vanity explains some of the peculiar characteristics of time and its relief in Christ. There is an original unity in the “body” of Christ, but with multiplication of wisdom (the logoi) there arises the distinctions of space-time. The beginning constituted in Christ (which is timeless), is that from which time unfolds, and time pertains to change and ultimately to decay and death, which explains Christ’s incarnation: “because our Lord, on account of his love for man, took up death on behalf of us” and he “took our darknesses upon himself that by his power he might destroy our death, and completely destroy the darkness in our soul.”[17]

This freedom from death and darkness explains the sort of time travel, or passage out of time which characterizes Ephesians. Christ is the “summing up of all things” in heaven and earth (1:10) and Christians are, in the present tense, seated with him at the right hand of God (1:20). His body “fills all in all” (1:23; 4:10) and the church is made “one flesh” with Christ (5:32) defeating “the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (6:12). And this involves a fundamental apperception in which “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened” (Eph. 1:18). The peculiar intersection of time with eternity brings about a new form of knowing and a new unity and peace as God’s eternal purposes carried out in Christ have been made known (Eph. 3:11). This is not a discursive knowing but knowing by revelation: “By referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit” (Eph. 3:4–5). Origen, who provides the earliest commentary on Ephesians, rightly sets it front and center in understanding the mystery revealed in the Gospel.

(Sign up for our next class beginning January 30th: Philemon and Ephesians: Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Paul https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] F. Pieri and Ronald E. Heine, “Recovering Origen’s Commentary On Ephesians from Jerome,” The Journal of Theological Studies NEW SERIES, Vol. 51, No. 2 (October 2000), pp. 478-514 Published By: Oxford University Press

[2] Richard Layton, “Recovering Origen’s Pauline Exegesis: Exegesis and Eschatology in the Commentary on Ephesians” Journal of Early Christian Studies 8:3, 373–411 2000 The Johns Hopkins University Press.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Origen, Fragmenta 1-140 in Joannim, fragment 1. Quoted in Panayiotis Tzamalikos, The concept of Time in Origen (Published by ProQuest LLC, 2018) 53.

[5] Origen, Contra Celsum, trans. by Henry Chadwick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953) 5.37.

[6] Tzamalikos, 58.

[7] Jerome and Origen, The Commentaries of Origen and Jerome on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, trans. by Ronald Heine (Print ISBN 0199245517, 2002), 84.

[8] Origen, Commentary on the Gospel According to John Books 1-10, trans. Ronald Heine (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1989) 2.72.

[9] Seesemann, H. (1964–). ποικίλος, πολυποίκιλος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 6, p. 485). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[10] Commentary on John, 1.101.

[11] Origen does not believe the Son is created, as the “Son is the brightness of eternal light” and just as there is no brightness apart from light, neither then is the Father without the Son or the Son without the Father. “How, then, can it be said that there was a ‘when’ when the Son was not? For that is nothing other than to say that there was a ‘when’ when Truth was not, a ‘when’ when Wisdom was not, a ‘when’ when Life was not, although in all these respects the substance of God the Father is perfectly accounted.” Origen, On First Principles Vol. 2, trans. John Behr, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017) 4.4.1.1

[12] Tzamalikos, 72.

[13] Commentary on Ephesians, 149-150.

[14] Tzamalikos, 76.

[15] Commentary on John, 1.98. “Creation was subjected to vanity, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it in hope,” 151 that bodies and doing bodily things, which is . . . necessary . . . for one in a body, might be vanity. 152 He who is in a body does bodily things unwillingly. For this reason creation was subjected to vanity unwillingly.

[16] Ibid. 1.99

[17] Commentary on John, 2.166.

Real Presence as Opposed to Deferred Meaning

Japanese is a language suited to a people concerned to gauge response (agreement or disagreement), and aiming to gain consensus, in that the meaning of a sentence is not clear from the beginning or middle but only becomes clear at the end. The statement can be turned to a negation, a question, or the subject changed all-together according to the ending of the final word of the sentence. What might seem a bold declaration can be turned round, softened, or negated, depending on how it is being received. Jacques Derrida saw this deferral of meaning as characteristic of writing and language in general, so that the entire signifying chain holds out a meaning that is deferred so that the subject/Subject is continually being uncoiled in speech.

Just as in Japanese, faced with a run on sentence, the meaning or substance of speech is always in process but never arriving. Derrida tried to capture this in his neologism “différance,” in which the changed vowel cannot be detected from the way it sounds. What the added letter indicates is that language is built on difference: the different letters and contrasting sounds or the different meanings of words compared to other words creates meaning, so that it is only through contrast and difference that meaning unfolds along an endless signifying chain. To attach some substantive element, some final meaning, or some essence or presence to the Subject speaking due to his speech, contains the deception inherent to language.

An object endures through time due to its static nature, but language does not endure but rather passes away as soon as it arises. It has no enduring being. One who is coming to his identity in and through language is subject to the fate of language. Thus, what Derrida means by his new word concerns the death dealing nature of language: “The a of différance, thus, is not heard; it remains silent, secret and discreet as a tomb: oikesis.”[1] Tomb in Greek, oikesis, is akin to the Greek oikos (house) from which the word “economy” derives. Thus, to dwell in the house of language is to dwell in the house and economy of death. “And thereby let us anticipate the delineation of a site, the familial residence and tomb of the proper’ in which is produced, by différance, the economy of death.”[2] A Subject put into pursuit of an object, or identity as an object (the ego, or the notion of an enclosed self-subsistent center), through language is involved in an impossible contradiction.

Jacques Lacan would do for the human psyche what Derrida did for the text, finding there the pursuit of identity and presence through a three-sided play of language.  Following Freud, he finds in the compulsion to repeat a key to human self-destructiveness. Where Freud grounded the compulsion in a biological need to return to the stable material realm, Lacan explains the compulsion as arising from language and the struggle to establish the self in and through language. Lacan connects the compulsion to repeat to the ‘insistence of the signifier’ or the ‘insistence of the signifying chain’ or the insistence of the letter as a means to establish the self. To be present to the self or to have a self-presence gives rise to the compulsion to repeat so as to gain the self. He connects the compulsion to death in the “death drive” or “death instinct.”[3]

In the death drive one would be integrated into the signifying chain, converting the word into flesh (body and ego), simultaneously immortalizing the flesh through the word and its endless play. Thus, Lacan concludes the death instinct is “the mask of the symbolic order” of language (Seminar II, 326). The death instinct is the “insistence to be” through language.

Lacan, followed by Slavoj Žižek, considered his explanation of the human psyche as an extrapolation from the Apostle Paul. Paul is laying out this framework primarily in Romans, but is building upon the Hebrew Scriptures, dealing with the fall, with the law, and picturing both the human predicament and its resolution in Christ as arising from the economy described in Scripture. The knowledge of good and evil, the law, idolatry, or simply the “letter” in Paul’s depiction, kills. In the language of cabalists, Adam makes knowledge his own destiny and his own specific power.[4] So too with Paul, the law is not inherently deadly but the tendency is to reify it or make it substantive and by this means lend substance to the one who takes up the letter. The letter kills as no life or Spirit is to be found in the letter of the law.

Another approach to the same idea is to be found in the spectacle of the idol. The idol (the visual) is invested with substance through language. It is made a divine spectacle, not because the wood or metal from which it is crafted contains peculiar properties, but because it is invested with divine power through language.

A way of putting this that taps into the entire biblical economy is that God’s presence is displaced where the letter, where the knowledge of good and evil, or where the idol displaces that presence. That is, the economy of presence and absence which Derrida, Lacan, and Žižek, attached primarily to language is an economy that originally pertains to God’s presence. The letter kills as it cannot produce the presence which comes from God alone.   

In the economy of the Bible, the presence or absence of God is determinative of success or failure and is equated with life or death or truth and lies. From the opening verses of Genesis, God’s presence in the Garden represented by the Tree of Life, and by his walking in the Garden in the “cool of the day,” means all is well. With the entry of sin, access to God, to the Garden, and to the Tree of Life are cut off (Gen 3)

As the Psalmist indicates, “the nearness of God is my good” (Ps 73:28). God’s presence is equated with life and joy (Ps 16:11) and there is nothing better than to “dwell in the house of the Lord” and to behold his beauty and “meditate in His temple” (Ps 27:4). The presence of God is portrayed throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as the equivalent of fulness of life and blessing. God assures Abraham, Moses, Jacob, and Israel in general that he will be with them, and so there is no cause for fear as they will endure and be successful. As God says to Moses, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest” (Ex 33:14).[5]

Likewise, salvation in the New Testament is equated with having access to the presence of God: “for through Him (Christ) we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph 2:18); “in whom we have boldness and confident access through faith in Him” (Eph 3:12). Partaking of the body of Christ (Luke 22:19-22), receiving the indwelling Spirit (Rom 8:9-11), entering the Holy of Holies (the very presence of God) (Heb. 10:19), and inhabiting the City of God, the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21) are all equated with salvation. This presence gives eternal life, peace, love, joy, hope, forgiveness, freedom from sin, and access to God in prayer.

However, what is meant by Christ’s or God’s presence, is not an instance of presence in general but it carries a peculiar and specific meaning in Scripture. The presence of God pertains to God’s indwelling and active presence, comingled with the person in whom this presence is manifest. The presence of God is equated with the Gospel, with grace and with truth. It is “constantly bearing fruit and increasing, even as it has been doing in you also since the day you heard of it and understood the grace of God in truth” (Col 1:6). This presence has obtained a hold on believers: “Therefore, I will always be ready to remind you of these things, even though you already know them, and have been established in the truth which is present with you” (2 Pe 1:12). This presence is an ever-increasing reality culminating in the final presence or Parousia of Christ but present now in and through the believers: “For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming?” (1 Th 2:19). As the saints “increase and abound in love for one another” they are established “without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints” (1 Th 3:12–13). In and through his presence a process of sanctifying preservation is enacted which will be secured with the final Presence/Parousia: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th 5:23). There must be an active pursuit of this abiding presence: “abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming” (1 Jn 2:28).

God’s presence is not simply an effect of language, the absorption of or in an idea, or the repetition of a divine formula. Nor is God’s presence simply that God is nearby. God’s presence accomplishes what the failed pursuit of the letter attempts. The human word made flesh, ossifies, entombs, and kills while God’s Word made flesh brings about the comingling of the divine and human. In the same way that Jesus Christ is both God and man, so too those who take on his identity experience this hypostasis.

Maximus the Confessor’s description of the person of Christ describes the manner in which there is a real presence in the life of every believer:

He does the things of man,according to a supreme union involving no change, showing that the human energy is conjoined with the divine power, since the human nature, united without confusion to the divine nature, is completely penetrated by it, with absolutely no part of it remaining separate from the divinity to which it was united, having been assumed according to hypostasis. (Amb. 5.14)

He assumed our being that we might assume His, joining together His Spirit as the substance of our life and His body as our continued incarnation of the Word. Through this Word Christians “become partakers of the divine nature” (I Pet. 1:4) and escape the corruption of His absence.

(Sign up for our next class beginning January 30th: Philemon and Ephesians: Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Paul https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] Jacques Derrida, Différance, translated by Alan Bass, Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp 3-27.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The prime example of the drive to establish the self through language, inclusive of the deployment of language to establish being, and the impossibility of the enterprise is captured in Rene Descartes’s cogito.

[4] Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, Translated by Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993) 80.1.

[5] God’s presence is connected to the ark of the covenant, so that wherever the ark goes God is present, as in aiding in the defeat of an enemy (I Sam. 4:6-7). The particulars of how his presence manifests varies. “He can come in dreams (Gn. 20:3; 28:13), in more or less veiled theophanies (Gn. 18:1 ff.; 32:25 ff.; Ex. 3:2 ff.; 24:10 ff.; 34:6 ff.; Ps. 50:3), in the cloud . . . in visions at the calling of the prophets (Is. 6:1 ff.; Jer. 1:4 ff.; Ez. 1:4 ff.), in the storm, in the quiet breath (1 K. 19:12 f.), in His Spirit (Nu. 24:2: Ju. 3:10; 11:29; 1 S. 11:6; 19:20), with His hand (1 K. 18:46), in His Word (Nu. 22:9; 2 S. 7:4; 1 K. 17:2 etc.). The messiah is expected to come in history Oepke, A. (1964–). παρουσία, πάρειμι. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 5, p. 861). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Christ as Analogy Versus the Lie of the Anti-Christ: Maximus as an Answer to the Challenge of Barth

Though it may be an odd juxtaposition to pit Maximus the Confessor against a much later theological development, it might be argued that Maximus’ notion of transfiguration into the image of Christ (in which he deploys terms like analogy) grounds theology differently than the analogy of being or the univocity of being. Whether or how the analogia entis, as Barth would have it, is the anti-Christ, there is no question that theology, the church, and Christianity attached itself to the worst forms of evil; a failure most ingloriously manifest in the Holocaust but continuing in a variety of forms. The argument is not so much whether theology experienced its own form of the fall, but the question is about the details. Does the fault lie with Constantinianism, Augustinianism, or Onto-Theology? Is it primarily the fault of Rene Descartes, or as Radical Orthodoxy would have it, is it Duns Scotus that ruined everything? The story that one might tell to illustrate where the fault lies is highly contested, but nominalism and voluntarism and the subsequent rise of secularism and atheism describe the reduction of God (to a part of the furniture of the universe) and then his eventual banishment. This result is beyond question, but the issue is whether there is a unified story that explains this disaster and what would constitute its alternative?

 In the description of Conor Cunningham, the story can be told through the singular idiom of “meontotheology” (his neologism) in which absolutely nothing serves in place of the divine absolute.  “Nihilism is the logic of nothing as something, which claims that Nothing Is.”[1] Cunningham is not so much arguing with the grain of the thinkers he is detailing, but is demonstrating that their key idea or point of mediation often reduces to nothing. He begins his story with Plotinus and Avicenna, fore-echoing Descartes: “Avicenna (Ibn-Sina) was directly influenced by Plotinus. He took from the Neoplatonists the idea that being was equivalent to the intelligible (in this sense creating was thinking) . . .”[2] Being then, is a possibility or logical contingency of thought. Scotus extends this understanding such that Cunningham concludes: “there is but one being, which in its unity is formally distinct from itself (namely God), such that univocity of being again for this reason ‘is not’ being; already as one being it departs from pure existence. This is the meontotheology of nihilism’s logic: nothing as something.”[3]  The real univocity concerns not being per se, but nonbeing.

It was not that Scotus’ was arguing toward this conclusion, but as Cunningham makes the case, his system permits the conclusion that what the finite and infinite share is nothing (as an essence). That is “there is a latent univocity of non-being” in God and creation and this is all they share. Scotus would completely separate God and creatures such that “God and creature share in no reality.”[4] Yet, “Every created essence [is] nothing other than its dependence with regard to God.”[5] The substance of this dependence is in a contingency or possibility which reduces to nothing in itself: “Hence God and creatures do share in a certain ‘non-reality’, whose nullity is nonetheless fundamental.”[6] Cunningham demonstrates the same logic at work, in various forms, in Plotinus, Avicenna, Ghent, Scotus, Ockham, Henry of Ghent, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Martin Heidegger, Paul Celan, Sartre, Lacan, Deleuze, Badiou, and Žižek.  In each of them there is a mediating term or idea that reduces to a reified nothing.

While this may initially appear to be a fantastic claim, I would suggest that what Cunningham has hit upon is more extensive and compelling than he realizes. My work has added a footnote to his understanding, taking it out of the realm of philosophy or theology alone, and describing it in terms of psychology, desire, and even a necessary part of a failed human identity. The philosophical and theological fold into the psychological as they reify the symbolic order. That is, language per se is made substantial and points only to itself, and this is not simply a philosophical dilemma, this is the human dilemma. The truth illustrated by Descartes is that thinking strives toward being. “I think therefore I am” translates into “I would be through my thought.” Nominalism and voluntarism – a separation between God and his word – leaves us with something other than the divine Word and brings us to the Cartesian moment. The word (the symbolic, language, law, thought, propositions, philosophy, etc.) serves in place of the Word (Jesus Christ).

In other words, the problem of theology and philosophy is not a problem apart from what the Bible describes as the universal problem: reliance on the law (trust in the symbolic, trust in Judaism, trust in culture, etc.) displaces a direct reliance, trust and participation in the reality of God given in Christ. By the same token, univocity, analogy, being, propositionalism, onto-theology, inasmuch as they foster a mediating principle which functions to displace the first-order reality of Jesus Christ are then, the anti-Christ.

This will, as John describes, show itself in obvious ways in a series of lying possibilities. There is a lying spirit, there are lying prophets, and there is the big lie of the anti-Christ (I John 4:1-3).  The lie which would separate the humanity and deity of Christ is connected to every form of lying and liars, but the primary thing John notes about these liars and their lie is, “They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them” (I Jn. 4:5). Either the world or Christ, in John’s estimate, serves as foundation and ground. This difference marks the lie over and against the truth and shows up in one’s ethical orientation. The truth is connected to love, while the “spirit of error” not only separates the deity and humanity of Christ, but it separates ethics and theological understanding. Theoretically it is possible to hate the visible neighbor and love the invisible God, but this too is a sign of the lie (I Jn. 4:20). Living in God or living through God, is the way John characterizes the truth as it shows itself in love (I Jn. 4:16).

The danger is we might read John analogously, metaphorically, or hyperbolically, (according to the world?), and miss that he is speaking literally. There is no padding, no mediating term, no emanation, in John’s life lived in God. Instead, there is direct identity between the life of God given in Christ and the life of the believer. Jesus is God come in the flesh, and this includes the flesh of his body the church, and only thus is he life and love and truth, and there is no possibility of stating this according the world.

The theologian who has best captured and built upon this literalism of identity, may be Maximus the Confessor. Far from fitting Christ to the frame of the world, Maximus presumes the incarnation of Christ – God come in the flesh – is the truth of the world. Maximus succeeds in holding together doctrine, hermeneutics, and ethics in the singular concept that just as Christ bodies forth God in the world, the world (as his creation, as what he holds together) is subsequent to and taken up in the incarnation. Paul Blowers rehearses many of the themes worked out in my recent blogs (the equation of Christology and cosmology, the incarnation as preceding both Scripture and the world and serving as their logic, etc.) but Blowers specifically pits Maximian theology against analogy: “the Confessor’s primary analogy to convey the condescension of the Word into the logoi of creatures (and of Scripture, and of the virtues) is the incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth. In reality this is not an ‘analogy’ at all since it is precisely the Logos ‘destined…before the foundation of the world’ to become the incarnate and sacrificial Lamb (1 Peter 1:19-20) who originally contained the logoi and willingly communicated his presence to creatures through them.”[7] As Jordan Wood summarizes the point: “This remarkable observation—that the ‘analogy’ between historical and cosmic Incarnation is no mere analogy—commits Blowers to the thesis that for Maximus the Word’s condescension in the logoi of creation, in Jesus, in Scripture, and in the deified are ‘eschatologically simultaneous’.” He concludes, “And so the truly astounding insight, one Blowers seems to intimate, is that Maximus rethinks not just how God is present in Jesus in order to distinguish this presence from God’s presence in the cosmos, but that he then reintroduces this mode of presence as the potential mode the Word might be present in the cosmos itself.”[8]

The term analogy may still apply, but it has taken on a direct identity with the divine. As Wood puts it, “Here ‘analogy’ takes on altogether jarring and different senses than we’re used to encountering in much modern theology. Here it implies a symmetry between God and the world grounded in hypostatic identity (like Christ’s natures).”[9] Maximus employs “analogy” in this sense, that saved humanity is analogous to the union found in Christ. It is not an analogy of being, but the analogy of Christ. In the same way that Jesus Christ is constituted a particular individual (the divine in the human), so all humans become who they are, as John describes it, only through participation and union with the divine life.  “For each of those who has believed in Christ according to his own power, and according to the state and quality of virtue existing within him, is crucified and crucifies Christ together with himself, that is, he is spiritually crucified together with Christ. For each person brings about his own crucifixion according to the mode of virtue that is appropriate to him . . .” (Amb. 47.2). Humans are both created and infinite, not because these categories reside naturally together in body and soul, but because Christ, in his hypostatic union stands at the head of a completed humanity in which flesh and Spirit inhere. However, in each individual this life will manifest uniquely but “analogously” to Christ.  

Maximus illustrates the point with Melchizedek who, “so transcendentally, secretly, silently and, to put it briefly, in a manner beyond knowledge, following the total negation of all beings from thought, he entered into God Himself, and was wholly transformed, receiving all the qualities of God, which we may take as the meaning of being likened to the Son of God he remains a priest forever” (Amb. 10.45).[10] What is true of Melchizedek is true, first of all in Christ: “For alone, and in a way without any parallel whatsoever, our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, is by nature and in truth without father, mother, or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (Amb. 10.46). Maximus goes through each of the points set forth in Hebrews: he is without genealogy, as both of his births are inaccessible and incomprehensible. He has no beginning or end of days because he is absolutely infinite – “He is God by nature. “He remains a priest forever, for His being is immune to death by vice or nature, for He is God and the source of all natural and virtuous life” (Amb. 10.46). What is true of Christ and Melchizedek can be extended to all: “And you must not think that no one else can have a share in this grace simply because Scripture speaks of it solely with respect to the great Melchizedek, for in all human beings God has placed the same power that leads naturally to salvation, so that anyone who wishes is able to lay claim to divine grace . . .” (Amb. 10.46). What is true of Christ is true of every believer:

He who loses his own life for my sake, will find it— that is, whoever casts aside this present life and its desires for the sake of the better life—will acquire the living and active, and absolutely unique Word of God, who through virtue and knowledge penetrates to the division between soul and spirit, so that absolutely no part of his existence will remain without a share in His presence, and thus he becomes without beginning or end, no longer bearing within himself the movement of life subject to time, which has a beginning and an end, and which is agitated by many passions, but possesses only the divine and eternal life of the Word dwelling within him, which is in no way bounded by death. (Amb. 10.48).

There is an analogy with Christ, but there is no natural analogy between creature and creator, or between God and being. The creator is absolutely separate, unknowable, and beyond human comprehension. There is no univocity or analogy between God and creation. “God . . . is absolutely and infinitely beyond all beings, including those that contain others and those that are themselves contained, and He is beyond their nature, apart from which they could not exist . . .” (Amb. 10.57).  It is Christ alone who has brought together Creator and creation, flesh and Spirit, divine and human in who he is, but he has accomplished this salvation for all who would believe. “For there is nothing more unified than He, who is truly one, and apart from Him there is nothing more completely unifying or preserving of what is properly His own” (Amb. 4.8).

In the words of Ephesians, “He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity” (Eph 2:14–16). There is a law, a symbolic order, a human word which would pursue being, unity, and analogy through a unified nothingness, and it is precisely from this word which the Word of Christ delivers.  Christ alone is “all in all” (Col. 3:11) The theological tragedy is not a separate problem from the human tragedy, of trying to accomplish on the basis of the world what can and has been accomplished in Jesus Christ.


[1] Conor Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism (London: Routledge, 2002), as summarized on the back cover.

[2] Cunningham, 9.

[3] Cunningham, 31.

[4] Duns Scotus, Quodlibetal Questions, V. Quoted in Cunningham, 31.

[5] Scotus, Opus Oxoniense II, d. 17, q. 2, n. 5. Quoted in Cunningham 31.

[6] Cunningham, 31.

[7] Paul M. Blowers, Drama of the Divine Economy: Creator and Creation in Early Christian Theology and Piety, (Oxford: OUP, 2012) 166. Quoted in Jordan Daniel Wood, That Creation is Incarnation in Maximus Confessor,” (Dissertation for Doctor of Philosophy, Boston College, 2018) 94.

[8] Wood, 95.

[9] Wood, 30.

[10] Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua Vol. 1-2; Edited and Translated by Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014). Hereafter Amb.

Have a Maximian Christmas: The Contrast of Total Darkness and Total Light

As we pass through advent, this waiting period brings two perspectives into contrast. The forces of Rome, the forces of darkness, the forces of poverty, close in on Joseph and Mary as pregnant Mary is forced to travel, and they find only animal accommodations. This period is representative of the long darkness, which may seem endless. The dark night before Christmas is representative of a long history in which a dark perspective prevails, but this nihilistic view is one that can grip us at any time. As Shakespeare’s Macbeth expresses it, after murdering and manipulating his way into power:

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle. Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.

As the writer of Ecclesiastes describes it, the matter is not simply belief or lack of belief in God, as this belief alone still abandons one to the vanity of life:

Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them; While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain: In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened, And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low; Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets: Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.  (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8)

William James puts the same sentiment in the modern scientific idiom:

Though the scientist may individually nourish a religion and be a theist in his irresponsible hours, the days are over when it could be said that for Science herself the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Our solar system, with its harmonies, is seen now as but one passing case of a certain sort of moving equilibrium in the heavens, realized by a local accident in an appalling wilderness of worlds where no life can exist. In a span of time which as a cosmic interval will count as but an hour, it will have ceased to be. The Darwinian notion of chance production, and subsequent destruction, speedy or deferred, applies to the largest as well as the smallest facts. It is impossible, in the present temper of the scientific imagination, to find in the drifting of the cosmic atoms, whether they work on the universal or on the particular scale, anything but a kind of aimless weather, doing and undoing, achieving no proper history, and leaving no result. Nature has no one distinguishable ultimate tendency with which it is possible to feel a sympathy. In the vast rhythm of her processes, as the scientific mind now follows them, she appears to cancel herself. The bubbles on the foam which coats a stormy sea are floating episodes, made and unmade by the forces of the wind and water. Our private selves are like those bubbles … their destinies weigh nothing and determine nothing in the world’s irremedial currents of events.”[1]

Both Koheleth and James share the perspective, which goes unrelieved by belief in God, that death and chance happen to all. Better a living dog than a dead lion (Ec. 9:4): “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun” (Ec. 9:5-6). It is not simply that hope for life beyond the grave will relieve the burden, as every indication (experiential, scientific, observational) is that life reduces to meaninglessness.  Maybe there are clear moments when the heavens do indeed seem to declare the glory of God, but what may go unacknowledged for believer and unbeliever alike, is the fear that it all amounts to a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Is the believer or even the optimistic humanist, grasping after the delusion of meaning, as the alternative is unbearable. Isn’t Nietzsche correct, that a hard-boiled honesty, in the face of the darkness, is most difficult and yet most necessary. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he insists “nothing today is more precious to me and rarer than honesty.”[2] Nietzsche recognizes our capacity for self-deception – our “will to truth” – may be nothing more than a means of escape given our proneness to self-protective delusion. If honesty and truth go hand in hand, as it seems they must, it may be that an understanding of the perspective of Koheleth, William James, and McBeth precedes a full appreciation not only of the constitution of the darkness but the nature of the light.

That is, the birth of Christ (the incarnation) can be made to fit too small of a notion, in which he does not so much change up our reality as give hope of deliverance from our perception of reality. In this tepid notion of reality and religion, the full depth of the problem of the human dilemma is not appreciated, and as a result the radical nature of the incarnation is not realized. Jesus, as I have been arguing for the last few blogs, can be made to fit a ready-made frame of truth (e.g., Constantinianism, Neo-Platonism, nominalism, nationalism, or most simply, some form of dualism). A dualism of heaven and earth or body and soul can easily accommodate, through a form of denial, the darkness which accompanies full recognition of the star of Bethlehem. Christ may be misrecognized as a mere sacrifice, as an emergency measure, as a legal remedy, as an appeaser of divine anger, but what goes unrecognized is that God come to earth in Christ is not simply dispelling a problem, ridding us of a potential future darkness, but is encompassing all creation in who he is.

Incarnation is theosis enacted. There is a union between God and world in which God has eternally attached who he is to what we are and what we are has become part of who he is. We might think of it as an innovation, but it is not an innovation that violates the true nature of the world and ourselves, but there is now a reality opened up which exceeds human possibility. The world understood through the limits of its own laws explains the darkness of Koheleth and James, but in Christ the world is no longer understood as existing according to the limits of this immanent frame.

The laws and principles of nature are not violated (“nature is preserved inviolate”) but there is an innovation in which God’s power and wonder are directly manifest: “When, however, the mode is innovated—so that the principle of nature is preserved inviolate—it manifests a wondrous power, for it displays nature being acted on and acting outside the limits of its own laws” (Amb. 42.26).[3] The innovation of Christ does not change natural principles but he opens up the possibility and reality of these principles, acting in and upon nature in a new way. His divine mode of being is united with the principle of human nature, such that the ongoing existence of human nature is conjoined to the newness of his transcendent mode of being. In him, according to P. Sherwood, “the [human]nature and will are wholly divinized, not as to their nature, which re-main ever human, but according to the mode of their existence [which is divine]. This is the mystery of Christ.” [4]

Christ is acting in a manner beyond human nature, so as to demonstrate the union of the divine and human. Where God might be consigned to a kind of negative transcendence (unknown and unknowable), Jesus assumed our being and “joined together the transcendent negation with the affirmation of our nature and its natural properties, and so became man, having united His transcendent mode of existence with the principle of His human nature, so that the ongoing existence of that nature might be confirmed by the newness of the mode of existence” (Amb. 5.14). God is bodied forth in the world, accomplishing in the mystery of his embodiment a filling out of who is for the world and a completion of what the world is for him. This reveals the nature of the world and the nature of who God is. God and world, creator and creation, human and divine, are conjoined in Jesus.  

What we see in the birth of Jesus is that the created order continues: birth, life, death, and evil, account for the natural reality Jesus experienced. At the same time the natural is taken up by and in the supernatural.  Jesus is fully human and even in the midst of walking on water, curing the blind, cleansing the leper, and raising the dead, the natural order continues, but the supernatural now interacts, takes up, innovates, and makes something new of the natural. A virgin gives birth, a dead man is raised, and the grave – the natural end of man – is emptied of its contents. The created and uncreated are unified in Jesus and this is now who and what they are:

For there is nothing more unified than He, who is truly one, and apart from Him there is nothing more completely unifying or preserving of what is properly His own. Thus, even when He suffered, He was truly God, and when He worked miracles the same one was truly man, for He was the true hypostasis of true natures united in an ineffable union.

(Amb. 4:8).

The miraculous birth of Jesus marks the incarnation, a new stage in the relation of God to the world. It is not that either the divine or human become something different or something other than what they are, but the way things are – not in their being but in their mode of existence are transformed. It is not that God’s purposes have been changed, but vision is no longer constricted by the darkness. The ground and goal of creation found in Jesus Christ is nothing less than the union of God and the world (an impossibility according to Platonic, Aristotelian, or natural principles). The ground and goal are not those found in creation, but what is found in the incarnation. Jesus, as Paul says, is the first fruits (I Cor. 15:20-22), the firstborn of a new sort of humanity (Col. 1:11), that duplicates the divine image in the human. In Jesus we see the new mode for humanity, no longer enslaved to the laws of nature.

Having been wholly united with the whole Word, within the limits of what their own inherent natural potency allows, as much as may be, they were imbued with His own qualities, so that, like the clearest of mirrors, they are now visible only as reflections of the undiminished form of God the Word, who gazes out from within them, for they possess the fullness of His divine characteristics, yet none of the original attributes that naturally define human beings have been lost, for all things have simply yielded to what is better, like air—which in itself is not luminous—completely mixed with light.

(Amb. 10.41)

The world and its principles cannot contain the principle that “showed up in Mary’s belly.”[5] Given this world’s laws as final explanation the darkness prevails – this is the honest conclusion. Given the reality of the incarnation, the world is not all “sound and fury,” a vanity signifying nothing, and humanity is not a momentary bubble cast up by the sea of nature. The world is imbued and being imbued with the qualities of Christ and we are part of accomplishing this yielding to what is better – the dark world made luminous as it is mixed with the light.


[1] William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, quoted from a sermon by Stanley Hauerwas: “Advent — facing God in the face of nothingness”: https://www.abc.net.au/religion/hauerwas-advent-facing-god-in-face-of-nothingness/14119072?fbclid=IwAR0qLzOdP_YLkYVwf3WN1ul2IBbL8da9uQxNrQF2IBQIOXUaUP8E-nqbz0s

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, (tr.) W. Kaufmann (New York: Penguin, 1954) 8.

[3] Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua Vol. 1-2  Edited and Translated by Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014). Hereafter Amb.

[4] P. Sherwood, The Earlier “Ambigua” of Saint Maximus the Confessor and His Refutation of Origenism, Rome 1955, 57-58.

[5] The phrase is from Hauerwas in the above cited sermon.

The Politics of Jesus and the Determination of Reality

When we consider the world into which Christ was born, in which the emperor is worshipped as absolute sovereign, in which the state is prime determiner of reality and has universal power, we understand the threat Christ posed. The accusation of insurrection at his trial would make him the disturber of the peace, the disrupter of the pax Romana, or the challenger to the monopolistic sovereignty of imperial Rome. Given Roman presuppositions about the emperor as divine sovereign, the state of Rome as the determiner of justice and the instrument of peace, the sort of alternative truth Christ would pose would challenge the political, economic, religious, and social order of Rome.

Though the Jewish notion that the Messiah would defeat Rome through violent insurrection was mistaken, it was not a mistake to understand that the Messiah would usher in a different kingdom and a different order of truth and reality. Christ would indeed break the Roman monopoly on truth, and the way he would accomplish this would involve politics (he would be king); it involved government and power (he would rule); it would involve economics (Christians would share among themselves and render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s); and of course, it would involve religion (Christ is the divine Son of God). The difference between the truth of Christ and the truth of Rome involves every sphere of what it means to be human. To be Christian will involve entering a different order of reality. The truth of Christ sets free from the enslaving, wholesale delusion that is Roman Imperialism.

 But isn’t it the case that this monopoly on truth, power and divinity claimed by Rome is the permanent condition of the kingdoms of this world. While it is true that Rome alone exercised a more or less universal power, isn’t it the case that throughout history, no matter the size of the tribe country or state that the same sort of monopoly is placed on the determination of reality. Think in our day of North Korea, Communist China, the former Soviet Union, or perhaps more difficult for us to see – the United States of America. Communism and fascism would obviously exercise a monopoly on the nature of reality, but doesn’t secularism, individualism, or capitalism, represent the same sort of monopolistic claims on reality and value as imperial Rome? We can readily understand it may be contradictory to claim to be a Nazi Christian, a fascist Christian, or a Leninist Christian, but is it any less contradictory to claim to be a capitalistic Christian, an individualistic Christian, a secular Christian, or to say the same thing, an American Christian. That is, secularism, individualism, autonomous rationalism, or capitalism, are no more accommodating to Christian truth than Roman Imperialism. Or to say it the other way round, to be grounded in fascism, capitalism, or rational individualism, is to be deluded in regard to ultimate reality (the truth of Christ). The delusion that the truth of Christ sets free from is a delusion about the nature of reality.

Many in our day imagine that Christian truth is meant to supplement other forms of truth. One (certainly not the only one) expression of this is far-right politicians in the United States and around the world advocating a church/state alliance, in which “Christian morality” (e.g., oppression of immigrants, feminists, religious minorities) would be implemented by Christian politicians. For example, the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano maintains the nation should reclaim its Christian identity, and that the notion of separation of church and state is a myth. The truth behind this misunderstanding, is the apparent disempowerment of Christian faith. According to New York Times journalist, Elizabeth Dias, “Many dismiss the historic American principle of the separation of church and state.” She notes this is occurring in conjunction with the blending of Christian faith with notions of election fraud conspiracies, QAnon ideology, gun rights and lingering anger over Covid-related restrictions. According to Representative Lauren Boebert, “The church is supposed to direct the government, the government is not supposed to direct the church. I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk.” At this Patriots Arise event, Jenna Ellis, a former co-counsel for the Trump campaign’s effort to overturn the 2020 election, told the audience that “what it really means to truly be America first, what it truly means to pursue happiness, what it truly means to be a Christian nation are all actually the same thing.”[1] What is being advocated is a return to a Roman Catholic or Constantinian form of the faith, in which the church is an arm of the state and Christian power is expressed in state power.

Christian nationalism is taking root, not only in the United States but the far right is currently ruling in Hungary with Viktor Orbán (who has come out against race mixing in Europe and was a speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Texas this summer) and Poland with the Christian nationalist party. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro, called indigenous peoples “parasites” and promoted the burning of the Amazon basin. He called Hitler “a great strategist” and believes Brazil is “a Christian country,” and he has spent the last four years governing, as he terms it, as the “Trump of the Tropics.” His key support is among Brazilian evangelicals.  Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s new prime minister campaigned with the slogan “Italy and Italians first!” Her party, Brothers of Italy, is the successor of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI), and followed closely the 1926 fascist doctrine to protect the “State, family, morality and the economy.” Meloni, a Christian nationalist, has praised Mussolini and promised to “defend God, country, and family.” She has proposed a naval blockade against migrants. In a speech in a meeting with the Spanish far-right party, she laid out the principles of her neo-fascist ideology: “yes to the natural family … yes to the universality of the Cross … no to mass immigration.” This rise of the Christian right wing can be linked to both a right-wing Islamist and Hindu drive to power. In India Narendra Modi has pursued Hindu-nationalist policies against religious minorities and in Turkey Tayyip Erdoğan has imposed Islamic nationalism and ethnic cleansing against Kurds.[2]  The blending of right-wing politics and Christianity as we have it in the United States may be inspiring a world-wide movement, as once liberal democracies are turning right.

The theological problem and solution is not concerned with right or left wing politics, but with the conceding of embodied reality to the dictates of the state. The privatization of religion in liberal democracy, squeezes out the notion of an alternative kingdom or alternative citizenship (an alternative embodiment) in the church. This is the case, as death is the implicit power behind our political order.

The threat of death, in the description of Stanley Hauerwas, justifies political liberalism’s forced political arrangement of citizens with nothing in common but “their fear of death.”[3] Death in war, death at the hands of the state, or protection from a perceived enemy, lends the state something like a sacred responsibility. The secular order can presume to dictate matters of life and death, creating the equivalent of the sacred, with its presumed power over death and life in its policing power, its power to make war and its power of capital punishment. The state controls the body through the body of state, disciplining and punishing and controlling embodied reality. Yet the claim of Christ is that we are saved by becoming part of his body and making him determinative of our reality.

Jesus can only be fully known and encountered in those people who call him Lord and King and who are ordered by his kingdom. Liberal democracy (in the name of secularism), like totalitarianism, fascism, or nationalism functions like religion in its determination of the strictures and loyalties of embodied existence. Add the power of potential nuclear holocaust, and the state takes on its own metaphysical power, an eternal value directly expressed in its power for extermination.[4]  Never before has this absolute power, this monopoly on the power of death and destruction, been so literal and blatant. Set aside is any notion of serving a higher good or a law that transcends the state and the absoluteness of its survival (expressed in the power of mutually assured destruction). The law of survival, state self-determination and sovereignty, is written in the power for an assured destruction.

Christian salvation is precisely concerned to defeat the state monopoly on the power of life through its control of death and destruction. The Christian faith makes absolute claims as to the nature of truth and reality, and these claims can in no way be subordinated to the principalities and powers. By conceding that life together, political life, economic life, or sexual life, is ultimately under the control of state power, the church concedes that Christian truth serves the state. This is the lie Christ confronted in his life and in his trial and death. With the resurrection, the state monopoly on the power of death is defeated. There is no truth more determinative of reality than Jesus crucified and raised and this truth is necessarily attached to the holistic shape of his kingdom.[5]

His work is in history, yet he demonstrates God’s rule over time and history. His truth is specifically attached to his personhood, his entry into history as a Jewish carpenter, and his particular story. His truth cannot be relegated to the ahistorical, the abstract or the transcendental. It cannot be privatized or made to serve another story – i.e., the story of the nation state, the story of the rise of liberal democracy, the story of Rome or America. This is the lie not only of the secular state, capitalism, and individualism but is the lie that he confronted in both Rome and Israel. Both would obliterate, kill and control him, so that Rome could be great, or to prove the absoluteness of Israel. It is truth and reality that are in contention in his life and death.

Where his life is deployed to make America great again, or to legitimize the worst forms of oppression, there is a theological failure to recognize Christ constitutes a kingdom. Only in the living community shaped by the politics, culture and tradition of Jesus, do we encounter the fully embodied Christ. The incarnation continues through the church, but the church is only the church where his people are fully formed as part of his body. That is, the body of state, the body of liberal democracy, or the body of death, has no part in the embodiment of Christ.


[1] Elizabeth Dias, “The Far-Right Christian Quest for Power: ‘We Are Seeing Them Emboldened’

Political candidates on the fringe mix religious fervor with conspiracy theories, even calling for the end of the separation of church and state.” The New York Times (July 8, 2022)

[2] Camila Vergara, “Opinion/ How Christian Nationalism Is Taking Root Across the World:

The electoral success of the far right in Italy and Brazil is a warning for the United States. Politico (October 27, 2022).

[3] Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches, Christians Among the Virtues: Theological Conversations with Ancient and Modern Ethics, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997) 169. The quotations from Hauerwas and Williams are from the dissertation by David Wade Horstkoetter, “Gary Dorrien, Stanley Hauerwas, Rowan Williams, and the Theological Transformation of Sovereignties” (2016). Dissertations (2009 -). Paper 632. http://epublications.marquette.edu/dissertations_mu/632

[4] See Rowan Williams, Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology, ed. Mike Higton (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007), 165-166.

[5] Stanley Hauerwas, War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity,: (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011) 173.

Whence the Rise of Christian Fascism

Where the church has been joined to the state, the state becomes the church and political reality is the determiner of reality. In displacing the kingdom of God and Christ, the state shapes thought and practice, determines the nature of truth, and the church is rendered an instrument of state. Rather than the church discipling Christians in a peculiar apprehension of truth and ethics, faith is primarily a private affair. There is no expectation of moral transformation, world-view shift or change in life-style, for one who is shaped by the ethic and reality of liberal democracy. No training is necessary in being a Christian, as Christianity is not so much a practice as a system of private belief.

There is no practical notion of the truth of Christ and the kingdom of Christ being pitted against the illusion of the world and its kingdoms. Truth is presumed to be an immediately accessible category, founded on and provided through human autonomy.  The truth of Christ is part of a larger frame of truth, determined through an autonomous rationalism and proven (through apologetics) on the basis of this shared foundation. Just as the church supports the state, so too the truth and ethics of the church are not distinct from a shared understanding.

The church and Christ do not have a distinctive witness as regards truth or ethics, but Christian faith is distinctive only in its claims surrounding Christ, but these claims appeal to an already shared understanding so as to establish the truth of Christ. His truth, his peace, and his redemption serve an already existing reality to which all people have access. Christianity might aid the state or even critique the social order, but the liberal social order establishes the only real-world peace and only the state can implement enduring social justice in this world.

Christian ethics cannot be applied in the public square and Christian politicians cannot employ Jesus’ ethic of loving the neighbor, turning the other check, or going the second mile. Jesus’ nonviolence is an impractical and unworkable ethic given the primacy of death and the state monopoly on killing in war, capital punishment, and the legal deployment of violence. Justice can only be accomplished through violence and those who would act responsibly accept this reality. Pacifism renders one irrelevant, irresponsible, and unrealistic. God himself uses violence in a variety of ways: he deploys violence to save people in the atonement, and judges people by means of eternal violence.

This picture of God and the overall picture of Christianity is based on the criteria of its effectiveness. Only a violent God, a violent Christ, and a violent Christianity can be deemed effective.  In other words, God, Christ, and Christianity are true to the degree that they meet the criteria of truth according to effectiveness. Truth is power and what is true works. Only a God and Christianity which gets results in terms of health, wealth, and power is true. What works is true, thus for God and Jesus to be intelligible, nonviolence would render them ineffective, and thus is patently false.

In this sense the freedom provided by the state is a primary, rendering the freedom of Christ (like the truth and peace of Christ) conditional and dependent. The state secures religious/Christian freedom through its deployment of armies, weapons, and violence. To enjoy this freedom, the price is the limitation of Christianity to a sphere that in no way competes or interferes with the domain of the state – the right (in every sense) of violence. (Thus, Christian pacifism exceeds its proper bounds, should it critique state violence).

Transcendence in this perspective takes on a new meaning, in that the domain of Christianity does not transcend or trump the importance or reality of state purposes, but it is transcendent in that it does not directly pertain to the immanent order. One might speak of a transcendent truth, a transcendent power, or a transcendent peace, but it pertains in a different order of reality, and does not intersect or interfere with the reality of the immanent frame. Transcendent truth then, or the truth of Christ, is not a particular truth or a historical truth, but is an abstract or universal truth. It is part of the eternal trues of reason, which does not pertain to embodiment in a given historical/relational realm.

The resurrection, for example, does not constitute a new order of truth, but we must deploy autonomous trues of reason, which are determinative of the truth (or not) of the resurrection. The truth that underwrites the conviction of faith in the resurrection is gained through a shared theory of truth. Proofs for the resurrection and the truth that fosters faith is the greater truth. Before we worship Christ we must be thoroughly grounded in the autonomous trues of reason afforded by the freedom of thought granted in a liberal democratic state.

Any means of supporting the authority of this reality, whether by hook or crook, deserves the full support of every Christian. Raw violence, pure authoritarianism, full deployment of power, may in fact be the best and only means of protecting the truth of the state. A privatized Christianity subordinate to state purposes is the only means of insuring religious freedom. The state that most effectively protects this privatized religion, in turn, is the state this religion will uphold. Thus fascism is the most effective means of upholding the prevalent form of American Christianity and this form of Christianity is inherently fascist.

Maximus the Confessor’s Deepening of the Anthropic Principle

The anthropic principle is the notion that the universe seems to have been fashioned for humans. The earth’s exact optimal distance from the sun, the makeup of the atmosphere, the presence of the moon at exactly the right distance, etc. lends itself to the idea that the universe is peculiarly shaped for humanity. But if we simply have in mind physical survival, that we can breathe the air, drink the water, and eat the fruit, the depth of this anthropocentrism may be limited. Perhaps it is mechanical principles that govern the universe and they happen to accommodate human life, but these principles themselves may be indifferent to the presence of humanity. The anthropic principle does not specify an actual principle, but it seems to point to an underlying principle, which is itself human centered. That is the anthropic principle may or may not lend itself to a specifically Christian interpretation, but given the idea that it is not just any kind of human but the humanity of Christ that is at the heart of creation, this anthropocentrism takes on a particular shape. Christ as the specific human center to the Cosmos – the truth about the world – means that creation’s purpose is not simply anthropocentric but it is Christocentric.

This Christocentrism consists of two parts: the immanent purposes of creation are to be discovered in the particulars of Christ’s humanity (in no way separated from his deity) and the transcendent principles determining creation are to be discovered in his deity (in no way separated from him humanity). That is, creation is not simply made for man, but in Christ we find the very principles guiding and holding the universe together have a human shape. As Colossians 1:16 puts it, “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him.” He is both the means and the purpose of creation.

 It is not mechanical principles, impersonal laws, or sheer power, at work in the world. That is, we might think of Christ as an outside purpose, holding together some other (e.g., mechanical) principle, but what Paul is describing in Colossians, is an inside principle as well. “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). He is the reason of the universe in a two-fold sense – the teleological purpose or the end for which all things were created, but also as guiding principle or final power at work in creating and holding all things together. Paul does not distinguish between these powers – it is the same Christ at work as the inward principle and the outward goal.

If we think of it in terms of the Logos, it is not that a different Word or logic is at work in bringing about all things and bringing them to their proper end. The principle for which things are created is to be found in their end. “Christ maintained the modes of existence (which are above nature), along with the principles of being (which are according to nature), united and unimpaired” (Amb. 5.17).[1]  “As God, He was the motivating principle for his own humanity,” for humanity in general and for all of creation, and what tells us this is the case is that “as man He was the revelatory principle of His own divinity” (Amb. 5.18). In his incarnation we encounter the manner in which all of creation is through him and for him. “His divine energy was humanized through its ineffable union with the natural energy of the flesh, He completed the plan of salvation on our behalf in a ‘theandric’ manner, which means that, in a way that was simultaneously divine and human, he ‘accomplished both human and divine things’” (Amb. 5.19). The principle and energy behind the incarnation (the “theandric energy”), the energy of his flesh, is the very principle of creation. The Logos completing and perfecting creation in the incarnation, is the Logos through whom and by whom creation was accomplished. Creation and incarnation are conjoined in the singular principle and purpose of the Logos.

This means that, given the revealed purpose and principle of creation in the incarnation, Christ is manifest “in all things that have their origin in Him” (Amb. 7.16). This manifestation is according to the being of each existing thing, and it is not as if the fulness of the principle of the Logos is evident in every existent thing. There is, for example, a logos of angels, and a logos of creatures. “A logos of human beings likewise preceded their creation, and—in order not to speak of particulars—a logos preceded the creation of everything that has received its being from God” (Amb. 7.16). Each and everything, whether angels or men or animals, “insofar as it has been created in accordance with the logos that exists in and with God, is and is called a ‘portion of God,’ precisely because of that logos, which, as we said, preexists in God.” Whether great or small – “By His word (logos) and His wisdom He created and continues to create all things— universals as well as particulars— at the appropriate time.” And inasmuch as he sums up or recapitulates all things in Himself, since “it is owing to Him that all things exist and remain in existence, and it is from Him that all things came to be in a certain way, and for a certain reason,” (Amb. 7.16) and this too is made evident in the incarnation, but the incarnation is reflected in all of creation. In summary, “We also believe that this same One is manifested and multiplied in all the things that have their origin in Him, in a manner appropriate to the being of each, as befits His goodness” (Amb. 7.16).

Creation’s purpose was momentarily thwarted by those (and in those) given dominion and responsibility over creation, but this too is part of the purpose of the incarnation: “He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (Col 1:18). Creation and recreation, or creation and incarnation, are not of a separate order. He is at the head of creation as source and purpose and redemption is a filling out or overcoming of any counter-order or counter-purpose that might thwart the principle of creation.

By means of his life, death, and resurrection He restored the divine principle to humanity. He is the beginning of creation (Jn. 1:1) and he is the beginning of redemption: “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (Col 1:18). All of creation is being deified – he is becoming all in all (Col 3:11). Through Christ “God alone, who in a manner befitting His goodness wholly interpenetrates all who are worthy. For all things without exception necessarily cease from their willful movement toward something else when the ultimate object of their desire and participation appears before them” (Amb. 7.12).

All things, according to both Hebrews and Corinthians, will be brought into subjection to Him: “Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control” (Heb 2:8). “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all” (1 Co 15:28). It is on the basis of this subjection of all things to the Son, and the Son’s subjection to the Father, that what has defied this subjection is defeated. “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Co 15:25–26).

And this will take place because that which is within our power, I mean our free will— through which death made its entry among us, and confirmed at our expense the power of corruption—will have surrendered voluntarily and wholly to God, and perfectly subjected itself to His rule, by eliminating any wish that might contravene His will. (Amb. 7.11).

The anthropic principle might seem to be defeated in death, in deadly accidents, in random death, or in the human orientation to death and self-destructiveness. The principle of death might appear to reign over the human centered, life-giving nature of the universe, but in Christ, the centrality of the human is restored in the one who defeats death. This is not a destruction of the power of self-determination but the restoration of this power:

affirming our fixed and unchangeable natural disposition, that is, a voluntary surrender of the will, so that from the same source whence we received our being, we should also long to receive being moved, like an image that has ascended to its archetype, corresponding to it completely, in the way that an impression corresponds to its stamp, so that henceforth it has neither the inclination nor the ability’ to be carried elsewhere or to put it more clearly and accurately, it is no longer able to desire such a thing, for it will have received the divine energy— or rather it will have become God by divinization—experiencing far greater pleasure in transcending the things that exist and are perceived to be naturally its own. (Amb. 7.12)

Our “natural disposition” is that fixed and unchangeable purpose for which and in which we were created. This is the motive force within creation and this motive force, through our acquiescence, takes its place within us. As we are filled with the divine energy of the Spirit, we become that for which we were created: “He has now reconciled you” to the divine purpose “in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach” (Col 1:22) as in and through you He is all in all.


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

Maximus the Confessor: Knowing Christ as Breaking the Bonds of Human Knowledge

The parameters of human thought are captured in the statement, “Identity through difference reduces to sameness.” It is a plural parameter in that the first half of the statement captures the form of thought that is focused on difference. Greek dualism,[1] the Kantian distinction between noumena and phenomena, or the biblical portrayal of human knowledge as falling into the dialectical pairs of good and evil, illustrate some of the possible infinite pairs expressing a necessary difference. Language is structured on binaries and human entry into language depends upon the child entering into the capacity for differentiation, which is to say that identity through difference may describe philosophical or sociological possibilities all of which depend upon a more basic psychology.

Paul gives us the psychological form of the dialectic in Romans 7, in which the I is pitted against itself (I do what I do not want to do). He provides the religious form of the dialectic in his depiction of the Jewish reification of law and Jewishness (opposed to Gentiles). He depicts a sexual/psychological form of the dualism in the male/female duality, and he pictures a sociological dualism in the slave/free duality.

The second form of the parameter, the reduction to sameness, is often equated with eastern forms of monism or pantheism, which may also be a psychology, religion, and sociology. But to characterize the two forms of thought as eastern and western may be to miss that that identity through difference implies sameness. Hegel’s dialectic between death and life (or something and nothing), taken up by Heidegger, is indistinguishable from the Zen Buddhist thought of Nishida Kitaro (something Heidegger and Nishida recognized in one another). Just as with a “good” dependent on its opposite “evil” (as in the knowledge of good and evil), so too life dependent on death, or “something” dependent upon “nothing,” implicitly privileges evil, death and nothingness. Hegel, more than Heidegger, seems to recognize the inherent violence and evil (the necessity of the “slaughter bench of history”) grounding his dialectic, which the fascists (Heidegger and Nishida) served blindly. Though Sigmund Freud privileges the western notion of the ego and denigrates the drive to sameness, equating it with eastern religion (dubbing it the Nirvana Principle), in his later thought (emphasized by Jacques Lacan) he recognizes both phases of identity as part of the universal human sickness. The reality is that, though some may emphasize difference or sameness, the two are interdependent and always found together.

René Girard depicts sameness in terms of the undifferentiated violence which gripped the generation of Noah, constituting the flood. Universal destruction is a violent melding into the One. The resistance to sameness in the differentiation of Noah, Abraham, Moses, and the Jewish Law, and the continual slide into idolatry, intermarriage, sexual and religious indifference, is the predominant story of the Bible. Differentiation turned into “absolute difference” (reification of the Law and Judaism) is the failure of thought attached perhaps to second Temple Judaism, pharisaic religion, or the religion practiced by Paul (the Pharisee) and his contemporaries. The absolute distinctions of Judaism in its depiction of God as holy and unapproachable, is the final preparation for the recognition of the revelation of the Messiah.

The New Testament depiction of the God/man ushers in a new order of knowing, psychology, sociology, and ultimately peace, founded upon knowing Christ rather than identity according to difference and sameness. It may be that Maximus the Confessor (580-662 A.D.) works out most completely how it is that Christ surpasses difference and sameness. Maximus comes at the end of a centuries long debate in which the heretical tendency was to either overemphasize the deity or the humanity  of Christ. The Council of Chalcedon makes a bald statement about the “hypostatic” union of deity and humanity in Christ:

of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood . . . recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ.

The effort is to maintain the difference of two natures combined in one person, avoiding both difference of persons (there is a single unified person) yet maintaining difference of natures (yet “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation). What Maximus recognizes is this formula cannot be maintained on any other basis than that of Christ Jesus himself. Knowing Christ entails a new metaphysical understanding and an alternative epistemological order (knowing Christ is its own order of logic and its own order of being). To fit Christ to a Greek or any human frame of understanding will be to inevitably fall into identity through difference (an unapproachable transcendence) or sameness (immanence without transcendence). This is not simply a theoretical or philosophical danger, as Maximus recognizes that knowing Christ is a transformative knowing (involving deification or becoming united with Christ). How we know is determined, in this case, by who we know. Failing to know rightly, Maximus the Monk and ascetic recognizes, is to fail to know the love of God rightly. To enter into Trinitarian love is not a possibility available through human knowing, and human misunderstanding is not simply a failure to know rightly but this form of knowing is an obstacle to love.[2]

As Maximus explains in Ambigua (hereafter Amb.) 10 (explaining a statement of Gregory the Theologian that seems solely concentrated on reason and contemplation), true philosophy is always combined with true practice. He says “practice is absolutely conjoined with reason” as “right thinking” alone restrains “irrational impulses.” He describes the mode of human reason as clouded or veiled as it is misdirected from its telos of knowing God and is confined to “surface appearances” and is caught up “solely into what can be perceived by the senses, and so discovers angry passions, desires, and unseemly pleasures” (Amb. 10.7). He makes a distinction between knowing “polemically and agonistically” as opposed to a true rationality (Amb. 10.5). One can know through identity and difference (agonistically, polemically, dialectically), or one can know according to Christ.

True rationality will no longer play the contradictory game of imagining absolute difference as conceivable (the very ground of conception), and thus reducing it to sameness. Christ unifies what is absolutely transcendent and immanent, not in a new combination of these categories, but as their very definition.  As Jordan Wood puts it in regard to Maximus, “Divine and human natures are not only incommensurably different while perichoretically unified, but ineffably identical in Christ. . .. God is not merely transcendent, nor merely immanent, but is mysteriously the identity of both, and this renders him all the more transcendent.”[3]

Apart from Christ, transcendence is really a non-category, the equivalent of death or nothingness. That is, transcendence rendered as a mere negation, is no transcendence at all. God as an apophatic mystery is the equivalent of Heideggerian nothingness or Hegelian death. In both instances, the negation is the true power behind any positive being. By the same token, an apophatic God may serve as a reified nothingness – an absolute difference providing the background of all that is something. Though Maximus refers to the categories of transcendent and immanent or apophatic and cataphatic, these are not the basis of knowing nor do they constitute a metaphysical reality, as in Christ these categories are brought together such that Christ surpasses transcendence and immanence and apophatic and cataphatic. As Maximus writes,

As much as He became comprehensible through the fact of His birth, by so much more do we now know Him to be incomprehensible precisely because of that birth. “For He remains hidden even after His manifestation,” says the teacher, “or, to speak more divinely, He remains hidden in His manifestation. For the mystery remains concealed by Jesus, and can be drawn out by no word or mind, for even when spoken of, it remains ineffable, and when conceived, unknown. (Amb. 5.5)

Christ as the ground of true knowledge and true reason is not a ground that can be reduced or known on some other basis. This knowledge is ineffable, not in the sense that nothing or absence serves as the ground of knowing, but all knowing and all positive being gives itself in Christ as its own ground and is not apprehended on some other foundation. This is a positive transcendence – a new order of transcendence.

Beyond this, what could be a more compelling demonstration of the Divinity’s transcendence of being? For it discloses its concealment by means of a manifestation, its ineffability through speech, and its transcendent unknowability through the mind, and, to say what is greatest of all, it shows itself to be beyond being by entering essentially into being. (Amb. 5.5)

An immanent demonstration of transcendence or a manifestation of concealment or an articulation and knowability which reveals an inarticulate unknowability, is the only basis upon which transcendence is made known. It is only as Christ is beyond being that he can enter into being. What we learn in Christ is that a full transcendence is the basis for immanence. As Wood puts it, “He is not merely beyond knowability and unknowability (speech and silence, affirmation and negation, etc.). This very transcendence is what allows him to be both at once, and his being both at once is therefore the premiere index of this newly appreciable transcendence.”[4]

This seeming paradox is of the same order as the paradox that knowing does not serve as its own ground or that language arises from a deep grammar that is not itself subject to explanation. Christ is the foundation, the bedrock at which the spade is turned. Christ preserves absolute difference within the singular person he is (this is Maximus’ is), as the immanent manifestation of this absolute. This is a new order of transcendence and a new order of reason, bringing together what otherwise is radically separate, and bringing it together “without difference, without separation, and without distinction.”

As Maximus describes it in regard to Mary and Jesus’ virgin birth, the seemingly impossible is made possible and the paradoxical is rendered as part of a new order of understanding:

Thus, “though He was beyond being, He came into being,” fashioning within nature a new origin of creation and a different mode of birth, for He was conceived having become the seed of His own flesh, and He was born having become the seal of the virginity of the one who bore Him, showing that in her case mutually contradictory things can truly come together. For she herself is both virgin and mother, innovating nature by a coincidence of opposites, since virginity and childbearing are opposites, and no one would have been able to imagine their natural combination. Therefore the Virgin is truly “Theotokos,” for in a manner beyond nature, as if by seed, she conceived and gave birth to “the Word who is beyond being,” since the mother of one who was sown and conceived is properly she who gave Him birth. (Amb. 5.13)

Only one beyond being could so fashion being, providing the seed for his own flesh, preserving the virginity of His own Mother, and making her who is subject to His being, give birth to the one beyond being. “For ‘in a manner beyond’ us, the ‘Word beyond being truly assumed our being,’ and joined together the transcendent negation with the affirmation of our nature” thus His is a power “that is beyond infinity, recognized through the generation of opposites” (Amb. 5.14).

As Maximus notes, it is not as if human identity has its existence apart from the possibility of this reality found in Christ, as human “essence itself, which plainly is not a self-subsisting hypostasis, for it has no existence in and of itself, but instead receives its being in the person of God the Word, who truly assumed it” (Amb. 5.11). The identity of Christ as the God/man is not subsequent to human identity but is the very ground and source of human identity. It is only “in a manner beyond man,” that “He truly became man” and it is only due to His transcendence over nature that he came to be “according to nature, united and unimpaired” but this fact about who he is, the logic of the incarnation, is the logic of creation and of human identity. As Maximus succinctly puts it, “As God, He was the motivating principle of His own humanity, and as man He was the revelatory principle of His own divinity” (Amb. 5.18). Just as he is the ground of his humanity, he is the ground of all humanity, and this is made known in who he is. In all “that He did He confirmed the presence of the one through the other, since He is truly both” (God and man) (Amb. 5.17) and this difference is the ground of all human identity and the ground of true knowledge. “The conjunction of these was beyond what is possible, but He for whom nothing is impossible became their true union, and was the hypostasis in neither of them exclusively, in no way acting through one of the natures in separation from the other, but in all that He did He confirmed the presence of the one through the other, since He is truly both” (Amb. 5.17). Christ is the possibility and potentiality of what it means to be human. This possibility cannot be otherwise known or approached. The incarnate Christ is the very ground of human possibility, the purpose and ground of creation, and the understanding of this reality, like the reality itself, is only known though him.

Maximus is well aware that the temptation is to relinquish the absoluteness of divine transcendence or to make this absolute negation itself part of the typical dialectic constituting human knowledge: “it is not, as some would have it, “by the negation of two extremes that we arrive at an affirmation” of something in the middle, for there is no kind of intermediate nature in Christ that could be the positive remainder after the negation of two extremes” (Amb. 5.20). There is no dialectic between transcendence and immanence on the order of the Hegelian dialectic or the dialectic of the knowledge of good and evil. What is absolute remains absolute in the revelation and reality of Jesus Christ.


[1] Dualism is, of course, the wrong word, but it is a perceived dualism that functions through the contradictory notion of absolute difference (an inherent contradiction). There are no conceivable absolute differences as, if they are conceivable, they are not absolute. Absolute differences can in no way be brought together in human thought. It is also an obvious overgeneralization to simply portray Greek thought as working on this false dualism, as it too contains both forms of thought (e.g., Plato’s deployment of the chora).

[2] See Andrew Louth, Maximus the Confessor, (London: Routledge, 1996) 25-26.

[3] Jordan Daniel Wood, “Both Mere Man and Naked God: The Incarnational Logic of Apophasis in St. Maximus the Confessor”; in Maximus the Confessor as a European Philosopher (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2017) 111.

[4] Wood, 117.

The Contrast Between Luther and Maximus

There is a move among Finnish and Scandinavian theologians in general to draw parallels between the theology of Martin Luther and Maximus the Confessor. While such parallels are interesting, it might be more interesting and necessary to first state the obvious differences.

Maximus and Luther are working with two different notions of salvation and atonement, with Luther more focused on the individual and Maximus on cosmic salvation (see my blog explaining Maximus here). Luther holds to an Augustinian notion of original sin and his theology is slanted if not defined by his focus on forensics.

Is his focus on forensics or on law versus grace definitive of his theology, such that there is no ontological understanding or access to divine essence? One might argue the point, but this is not an uncommon conclusion about his theology, which stands in contrast to Maximus picture of access to the divine essence in creation and incarnation. Is imputed righteousness characteristic of Luther’s theology, such that it all is defined in legal or theoretical terms? Some Lutherans might argue otherwise and this may not be fair to the fulness of his theology, and there are those (such as the Finnish theologians) who argue Luther had his own notion of apocatastasis, but what can be said is that Calvin comes in the wake of Luther and Calvin’s theology is forensic (and Luther’s is commonly perceived as being of a similar order). On the other hand, Maximus follows Origen and the early church in his depiction of theosis (perhaps not entirely absent in Luther) – bringing to maturity in the second Adam the race of the first Adam through divinization. Maximus sees this as a present reality unfolding toward the eschaton.

 Luther’s theory of the two kingdoms allows for full participation of the Christian in the necessities of state violence, including the violent suppression of peasants, Jews, and heretics. The peace of Maximus, the enacted theosis in the life of the believer, the cosmic context of virtue grounded in the incarnation of Christ, stands in contrast to Luther’s picture of the Christian life as an unending (violent?) struggle with sin.

Maximus’ picture of salvation is holistic and unified (grounded as it is in the reality of the Trinity) while Luther depicts a split individual struggling with sin, living in two different kingdoms, such that the spiritual and hidden kingdom of God momentarily serves the immediate and practical necessities of the earthly kingdom, allowing this ethic to dictate the lived Christian ethic. Luther affirms the necessity of violence and maintains that people of faith are to be the instruments of violence. After all, “The deviancy of some would call down punishment on all. At a certain point, God even owes it to himself, as it were, to his honour, we might say, to strike.”[1]

Luther tended to demonize his enemies with a violent and abusive rhetoric (which is not to ignore that he often spoke of love), and there is no question that his antisemitism is imbibed by the creators of the Holocaust. Maximus depicts salvation as the destruction of death, and this is the resource and reality out of which the Christian is to live. Monk Maximus would die at the hands of the state and it is not entirely implausible that, given the right circumstance, the ex-Monk Luther might have approved.

But this cursory list of contrasts does not get at the world of difference between Maximus notion that creation is incarnation and Luther’s semi-nominalism. For Luther, God, in his essence is hidden from us, and we do not live with the resource of access to the immanent Trinity. For Maximus, God is revealed in Christ and this is the truth not only of salvation but of the purposes of creation. Luther’s theology lays the groundwork for modernity[2] while Maximus’ theology is the culmination of a premodern theology, pointing toward a very different sort of world order. The enchantment of the world in light of Maximus’ Christo-logic (which is not any old sort of enchantment or magic) and the disenchantment of the world in light of Luther’s direct attack on indulgences and magic, and the secularism implicit in Luther’s thought and theology gets at the fundamental difference. And of course, this is not to attribute (blame/credit) all of secularism to Luther, but again, his theology seems to have enabled secular developments.[3]

As Charles Taylor describes it, Luther reversed the fear factor in his attack on indulgences and on the magic the church could enact (a needed disenchantment):

A great deal of Catholic preaching on sin and repentance was based on the principle that the ordinary person was so insensitive that they had to be terrified into responding. . .. But just this cranking up of fear may have helped to prepare people to respond to Luther’s reversal of the field.[4]

We can locate Luther within the context of nominalism – as nominalism defines both what he is for and what he is against and it is in a nominalist context that he makes these arguments. The father of nominalism, the way of the modern (via moderna), William of Ockham (1287-1347), denied the existence of universals (nominalism indicates we have only the names), which was an underlying foundation for Thomas (1225-1274) and Scotus (1266-1308). Consequently, Ockham would stress the importance of the will (God’s and man’s) over and above the intellect.[5] Luther will challenge the role of human will, attacking what he sees as semi-Pelagianism.

Luther believes that God’s absolute power renders the efficacy of the human will entirely useless. Or in terms of human understanding, it is not as if God can be aligned with the good (as we know it) as God is determinative of the good and so the good must be aligned with the (arbitrary?) will of God.

As Luther states it in the 19th Thesis of the Heidelberg Disputation: “Anyone who observes the invisible things of God, understood through those things that are created, does not deserve to be called a theologian.” God is not grasped through the being of the world (against the scholastics) but God comes to us only on the basis of promise or covenant, and this does not pertain to His essence or the essence of the world. As Taylor puts it, “God must always remain free to determine what is good. The good is whatever God wills; not God must will whatever is (determined by nature as) good. This was the most powerful motive to reject the “realism” of essences for Occam and his followers.”[6]

This sets up a peculiar Lutheran dialectic, in which faith stands over and against reason or in which the theology of glory is opposed to the theology of the cross. The theology of glory clings to works-righteousness while the theology of the cross is dependent on faith alone. Likewise, grace stands over and against law, yet grace needs the law that it might be understood to be a gift and not an accomplishment of the law. If the law “serves no other purpose than to create a thirst and to frighten the heart,” the gospel “satisfies the thirst, makes us cheerful, and revives and consoles the conscience.”[7] The “presumption of righteousness is a huge and a horrible monster. To break and crush it, God needs a large and powerful hammer, that is, the Law, which is the hammer of death, the thunder of hell, and the lightning of divine wrath” (26.310).[8] The greater the paradox, conflict, and struggle, all the better:

“All the works of God are in conflict with His promise, which nevertheless remains completely true and unshaken. . . . The marvelous counsels of God in governing His saints must be learned, and the hearts of the godly must become accustomed to them. When you have a promise of God, it will happen that the more you are loved by God, the more you will have it hidden, delayed, and turned into its opposite” (4.326).

As David Tracy describes it, “Luther’s notion of dialectic … is structured as a conflict of opposites that not only clash but imply and need each other.”[9] The dialectic, like any dialectic refers only to itself, so that what is known pertains not to any necessarily existing reality but to the language of dialectic.

God has his own autonomous purposes which are beyond human comprehension, but what can be known is what God has promised. For Luther, God is the cause of all things, while the human remains a passive recipient of God’s action. There is no free will for man in Luther’s estimation: “We do everything of necessity, and nothing by ‘free-will’; for the power of ‘free-will’ is nil, and it does no good, nor can do, without grace.”[10] According to Roland Millard, for Luther, “The sovereignty of God’s will necessarily excludes any causality on the part of the human person.”[11] Where Maximus describes a synergistic working of human will with the will of God, for Luther human will stands over and against the will of God.

In this understanding, Scripture no longer pertains to ontological necessity but to covenantal promise. Scripture is proclamation and promise so that rather than salvation history or ontological realism, for Luther the Word is a promise. The Word is the means by which God condemns sin and promises salvation (the law and the gospel). But this promise is had, not through the achievement of a real-world defeat of sin, but only on the basis of promise: “Sin is always present, and the godly feel it. But it is ignored and hidden in the sight of God, because Christ the Mediator stands between” (26.133). It is not that sin and the law are ever suspended or surpassed: “There is a time for ‘killing’ the flesh through the law, and a time for reviving the spirit through the gospel. Complacency and self-righteousness require the former, fear and despair the latter. The one ‘who masters the art of exact distinction between the Law and the Gospel should be called a real theologian’ (23.271; cf. 26.115).[12] Though Luther finds the Gospel partly revealed in the Old Testament and he finds the Law mixed in with the New Testament, his primary point is that the Law of the Old Testament stands over and against the Gospel of the New Testament.

Maximus notion of free will, his picture of the whole Bible and the whole world proclaiming the Gospel seems contrary to Luther’s sharp divide between Law and Gospel and between creation and Creator. Whether one agrees with the cosmic (universal) salvation of Maximus and his peculiar Christo-logic, or whether one prefers Luther’s faith alone and imputed righteousness, it would be a mistake to blend these two contrasting worlds without noting their stark difference. The two contrasting orders of salvation, revelation, and the God/world relation in Maximus and Luther represent two very different conceptions of Christianity and the world.


[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007) 42. An understanding Taylor links to Luther.

[2] By the same token, we might sight the history of modern Western philosophy as in some sense flowing from within the wake of Lutheranism. Is the dualism of Descartes (between faith and reason), or Kant’s split between the noumena and the phenomena (and the eventual turn to phenomenology), far removed from Luther’s two kingdoms and his interiorized Christianity? In fact, faith alone (sola fide) does not seem too far removed from German idealism. Luther’s focus on a groundless Word (not grounded in metaphysics) will come to resemble phenomenology and the linguistic turn in philosophy and society. While it is too simplistic to chalk this up to Luther, it is doubtful it could have happened apart from the Reformation instigated by Luther.

[3] At least this is the argument of Charles Taylor.

[4] Taylor, 75.

[5] Roland Millare, “The Nominalist Justification for Luther’s Sacramental Theology” (Antiphon 17.2 (2013)) 169-170.

[6] Taylor, 97.

[7] Luther’s Works Volume 23, p. 272 hereafter cited by volume and page.

[8] Stephen and Martin Westerholm, Reading Sacred Scripture: Voices from the History of Biblical Interpretation (p. 233). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[9] D. Tracy, ‘Martin Luther’s Deus Theologicus’ in P. J. Malysz and D. R. Nelson, eds, Luther Refracted (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2015): 109. Quoted in Mark Norman, “Luther, Heidegger and the Hiddenness of God” Tyndale Bulletin 70.2 (2019) 302.

[10] Luther, Bondage of the Will, 180.

[11] Millare, 172

[12] Westerholms, 234.