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 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. 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 anthropocentric 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)

Out “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.

The Radical Theology of Maximus the Confessor: Creation is Incarnation

If the end point of Augustinian thought might be said to be the theology of Martin Luther, in which the essence of God is unattainable (nominalism), then the fulfillment of Origen’s theology must be found in the work of Maximus the Confessor (580-662 CE), who pictures identification between God and the world. The logic (the Christo-logic) of Origen’s apocatastasis is summed up in Maximus’ formula, “The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things” (Ambigua, hereafter Amb. 7.22). As Maximus explains it elsewhere: “This is the great and hidden mystery. This is the blessed end for which all things were brought into existence. This is the divine purpose conceived before the beginning of beings, and in defining it we would say that this mystery is the preconceived goal for the sake of which everything exists, but which itself exists on account of nothing, and it was with a view to this end that God created the essences of beings” (QThal. 60.3).[1] Creation’s purpose is found in the incarnation (in the lamb sacrificed before the foundation of the world), and this end is present in the beginning, so that incarnation is not simply a singular event within creation but is the basis of creation.

In the incarnation the absolute differences between God and man (those differences which one form of Christianity picture as unbridgeable) are brought together in the God/man Jesus Christ, and this identity between creator and creation is complete:

This mystery is obviously the ineffable and incomprehensible union according to hypostasis of divinity and humanity. This union brings humanity into perfect identity, in every way, with divinity, through the principle of the hypostasis, and from both humanity and divinity it completes the single composite hypostasis, without creating any diminishment due to the essential difference of the natures.

(QThal. 60.2).

This total identity with God on the part of Christ is perfectly duplicated in the Christian. That is, according to Maximus, the Christian becomes Christ: “they will be spiritually vivified by their union with the archetype of these true things, and so become living images of Christ, or rather become one with Him through grace (rather than being a mere simulacrum), or even, perhaps, become the Lord Himself, if such an idea is not too onerous for some to bear” (Amb. 21.15). Maximus is not speaking metaphorically or analogously but is describing a complete identification between the disciple and his Lord. His qualifications pertain only to the difference that what Christ is by nature the disciple attains by grace. Or as he states it in Ambigua 10, the disciple may be limited by his nature but nonetheless reflects the “fulness of His divine characteristics”:

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).

Their “own natural potency” is the only delimitation between the identity of the Word and the one reflecting that Word. Otherwise they are “imbued with His own qualities” and are “reflections of the undiminished form of God the Word” and “possess the fullness of His divine characteristics” which totally interpenetrate but nonetheless do not overwhelm or diminish who they naturally are. It is not that the individual is absorbed into the One and so lose themselves, but in reflecting the Word the individual becomes fully who they are. He explains that he is not describing the erasure of the individual: “Let not these words disturb you, for I am not implying the destruction of our power of self-determination, but rather affirming our fixed and unchangeable natural disposition” (Amb. 7.12). One’s natural inclinations are fulfilled through the work of Christ, as “there is only one sole energy, that of God and of those worthy of God, or rather of God alone, who in a manner befitting His goodness wholly interpenetrates all who are worthy” (Amb. 7.12). This is accomplished through the body, the incarnation, of Christ.  

The body of Christ not only accounts for the deification of the Christian but is the means for cosmic deification: “The ‘body of Christ is either the soul, or its powers, or senses, or the body of each human being, or the members of the body, or the commandments, or the virtues, or the inner principles of created beings, or, to put it simply and more truthfully, each and all of these things, both individually and collectively, are the body of Christ” (Amb. 54.2). The body of Christ is the body of “each human being” it is the “virtues” or “the inner principles of created beings.” As Jordan Wood puts it, “Everything is his body.”[2] There is a complete identification (though Maximus is careful to stipulate this is not an identity in essence): “the whole man wholly pervading the whole God, and becoming everything that God is, without, however, identity in essence, and receiving the whole of God instead of himself, and obtaining as a kind of prize for his ascent to God the absolutely unique God” (Amb. 41.5).

Maximus is building upon Origen’s notion that the beginning is in the end and the end is in the beginning, which is Jesus Christ. Thus, he describes the virtuous person through Origen’s formula: “For such a person freely and unfeignedly chooses to cultivate the natural seed of the Good, and has shown the end to be the same as the beginning, and the beginning to be the same as the end, or rather that the beginning and the end are one and the same” (Amb. 7.21). As Maximus explains, from the viewpoint of God taken up by the virtuous person “by conforming to this beginning,” a beginning in which “he received being and participation in what is naturally good,” “he hastens to the end, diligently” (Amb. 7.21). This end is the deification of all things: “In this way, the grace that divinizes all things will manifestly appear to have been realized” (QThal. 2.2).  

As with Origen, it is the incarnate Christ, and not an a-historical or preincarnate Logos, in which he locates the beginning of all things. In the incarnate Word, God has identified with the world, and the worlds beginning and end is found in this identity of the Word (in the middle of history).  As stated in the Gospel of John, this process of creation continues through the Son, and this work is the work of deification:

 In this way, the grace that divinizes all things will manifestly appear to have been realized—the grace of which God the Word, becoming man, says: “My father is still working, just as I am working.” That is, the Father bestows His good pleasure on the work, the Son carries it out, and the Holy Spirit essentially completes in all things the good will of the former and the work of the latter, so that the one God in Trinity might be “through all things and in all things.

(QThal. 2.2).

The Trinitarian work begun through the Son is carried out on all of creation, so that he might be all in all (Col. 3:11).  As Maximus states it in Ambigua 31:

If, then, Christ as man is the first fruits of our nature in relation to God the Father, and a kind of yeast that leavens the whole mass of humanity, so that in the idea of His humanity’ He is with God the Father, for He is the Word, who never at any time has ceased from or gone outside of His remaining in the Father, let us not doubt that, consistent with His prayer to the Father, we shall one day be where He is now, the first fruits of our race. For inasmuch as He came to be below- for our sakes and without change became man, exactly like us but without sin, loosing the laws of nature in a manner beyond nature, it follows that we too, thanks to Him, will come to be in the world above, and become gods according to Him through the mystery of grace, undergoing no change whatsoever in our nature.

(Amb. 31.9)

Maximus might be seen as working out the details of Athanasius’ formula, “God became man that man might become god.” However, he sees this as the working principle of the cosmos, with its own logic and singular explanation. It is not that God became “like” man or that man becomes “like” God, nor is it simply some sort of Greek notion of participation. Maximus gives full weight to both the human and divine principle at work in Christ. He counters the tendency to focus on the deity of Christ at the expense of the humanity. The notion, spoken or unspoken, that the incarnation is in some sense a singular episode in the life of God and not an eternal reality, is here counterbalanced (as in Origen) with a full embrace of both humanity and deity. There is a complete union between God and man, and that union is complete on both sides (divine and human) in Jesus Christ. The movement fully embracing humanity is part of the move to a fully embraced identity between God and humans. “And this is precisely why the Savior, exemplifying within Himself our condition, says to the Father: Yet not as I will, but as thou wilt. And this is also why Saint Paul, as if he had denied himself and was no longer conscious of his own life, said: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Amb. 7.11). In the first instance, Christ really becomes human, and in the second instance, Paul really becomes Christ. There is a perichoretic or hypostatic identity in Christ:  

God renewed our nature, or to put it more accurately, He made our nature new, returning it to its primordial beauty of incorruptibility through His holy flesh, taken from us, and animated by a rational soul, and on which He lavishly bestowed the gift of divinization, from which it is absolutely impossible to fall, being united to God made flesh, like the soul united to the body, wholly interpenetrating it in an unconfused union, and by virtue of His manifestation in the flesh, He accepted to be hidden exactly to the same degree that He Himself, for the sake of the flesh, was manifested and to all appearances seemed to go outside of His own natural hiddenness.

(Amb. 42.5)

In Wood’s explanation, whether he employs the term or not, Maximus is describing perichoresis – “the idea that the deific state involves the whole God in the ‘whole’ creature and the reverse.” Wood describes Maximus perichoretic logic as “two simultaneous, vertical movements (both realized horizontally)—God’s descent and our ascent. Both transgress Neoplatonic participation. They make it so that the very mode (and act) of divinity descends into the finite mode (and act) of the creature just as much as the latter ascends into divinity’s; that both modes exist as one reality; and that even in this single reality both modes perdure entirely undiminished—neither’s natural power limits the other’s act.”[3] A prime example is taken from John’s two-fold description that “God is light” and then his statement a few lines later that “He is in the light.”

God, who is truly light according to His essence, is present to those who “walk in Him” through the virtues, so that they too truly become light. Just as all the saints, who on account of their love for God become light by participation in that which is light by essence, so too that which is light by essence, on account of its love for man, becomes light in those who are light by participation. If, therefore, through virtue and knowledge we are in God as in light, God Himself, as light, is in us who are light. For God who is light by nature is in that which is light by imitation, just as the archetype is in the image. Or, rather, God the Father is light in light; that is, He is in the Son and the Holy Spirit, not that He exists as three separate lights, but He is one and the same light according to essence, which, according to its mode of existence is threefold light.

(QThal 8.2)

God himself is the light and this light is “in us who are light.” God is both by nature light and by imitation in the light. As Wood points out, there is the typical “by essence” vs. “by participation” distinction here, but then “it descends or “comes to be” or even “becomes” (γίνεται) participated light (i.e. light in a qualified or finite mode).” God becomes the participated mode. “For God who is light by nature is in that which is light by imitation, just as the archetype is in the image.” In other words, there is full identification between the light that is God and the light in the archetype and the light “in us.” “It’s a claim that in the deified person God descends and ‘becomes’ the very participated mode (and activity) of that person, all while retaining the divine mode unmuted and unqualified and unmediated.”[4]

My point in this short piece is to simply set forth what seems to be the key element in Maximus’ theology, which raises a number of issues. Isn’t there a collapse of any distinction between creator and creation? Doesn’t this reduce to a kind of pantheistic monism, in which everything is Christ? Isn’t this an example of a failure of a breakdown of thought – identity through difference simply reduces to sameness? Isn’t this a return to Hegel, with total focus on the historical becoming of God? Is this a relinquishing of the distinctive role of Christ? While there are possible answers to these questions, the questions indicate the radical nature of Maximus’s Christo-logic.


[1] On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios here after QThal.

[2] Jordan Daniel Wood, That Creation is Incarnation in Maximus Confessor,” (Dissertation for Doctor of Philosophy, Boston College, 2018) 227.

[3] Wood, 209-210

[4] Wood, 211.

The Augustinian Displacement of Origen

The decisive turn of the church in regard to metaphysics, philosophy, attitudes toward violence, church structure, the acceptance of Platonism, and a host of other issues can be marked by the differences between Origen and Augustine. It is not that the two can simply be posed against one another, as Augustine is formed by Origen’s theology more than he is himself aware,[1] but it is also the case that Christian theology takes on a very different shape as represented by these two theologians. As Gerald Bostock states it, “Origen, the founding father of Christian theology in the East, has had little influence in the West. This is because the great exponent of Christianity in the West has always been Augustine of Hippo.”[2] It may seem extreme to attribute to Augustine the suppression of Origen, as it is the 5th ecumenical council (recognized by both East and West) which condemns Origen, but it is in the wake of Augustinianism that this condemnation takes place.

According to Adolf Harnack, the church of the West, up to and including the reformers, owes its distinctive characteristics to one man, Augustine:

Along with the Church he served, he has moved through the centuries. We find him in the great medieval theologians, including the greatest, Thomas Aquinas. His spirit sways the pietists and mystics of those ages: St Bernard no less than Thomas à Kempis. It is he that inspires the ecclesiastical reformers—those of the Karling epoch as much as a Wyclif, a Hus, a Wesel and a Wessel: while, on the other hand, it is the same man that gives to the ambitious Popes the ideal of a theocratic state to be realised on earth.[3]

Augustine is not simply the first modern man but he lays the foundations of what will become modernity and its hosts of dualisms.[4] He bequeaths to the West the peculiar philosophy of mind and language taken up by Rene Descartes (the split between mind and body) and the apologetic argument and theological rationalism developed by Anselm, and he poses the theological doctrines of original sin and predestination which reach their final trajectory in John Calvin (the split between the wrath and love of God). We can credit Augustine with the full theological embrace of Greek philosophical thought, for the sense of the individual, and the notion of God’s sovereignty that contrasts with that individualism (the contradiction between human freedom and cosmic determinism). The failures inherent to his thought seem obvious in the postmodern aftermath in which his system has played itself out.

The alternative to Augustine was and perhaps still is the theological understanding of Origen of Alexandria. B. F. Westcott poses the stark difference between these two alternative forms of Christianity:

Few contrasts can be more striking than that offered by the two philosophies of Christianity of Origen and Augustine … In Origen history is charged with moral lessons of permanent meaning and there is carried forward from age to age an education of the world for eternity. In Augustine history is a mere succession of external events … For Origen life has a moral significance of incalculable value: for Augustine life is a mere show, in which actors fulfil the parts irrevocably assigned to them. The Alexandrian cannot rest without looking forward to a final unity … the African acquiesces in an abiding dualism in the future … not less oppressive to the moral sense than the absolute dualism of Mani.[5]

In an attempt to picture the extent of the contrast and what was lost of Origen due to the dominance of Augustinian thought, I resort to a list, which cannot possibly contain the fulness of the difference between these two world-shaping figures. (The point is not a critical examination of the whole of Origen’s theology but to highlight elements of his thought suppressed in the West.)  

  1. History is salvific (apocatastasis) versus history as predetermined assignation:

The most complicated and controversial difference between Origen and Augustine may be the most far reaching, but what is obvious is that in Augustine’s rejection of Origen’s apocatastasis, which he had at one time deployed in his arguments against Manicheanism, he falls into the very dualism he had found so repulsive in his former belief system. In his turn from refuting Mani to refuting Pelagius he also turned against Origen. According to Ilaria Ramelli, Augustine could be quoting Origen in his early utilization of the doctrine: “The goodness of God orders and leads all the beings that have fallen until they return/are restored to the condition from which they had fallen” (The Confessions 2.7.9). As Ramelli describes, “Augustine is briefly presenting the doctrine of universal apokatastasis: all creatures (omnia) that have fallen are restored to their original condition by the Godhead in its supreme goodness. Origen also thought that the agent of apokatastasis is God’s goodness. What is more, a precise parallel with Origen’s Περὶ ἀρχῶν is detectable.”[6]

By 415 Augustine had changed his mind, and in his efforts to refute Pelagius, his understanding of the economy of salvation is also changed up, in that he no longer holds that God’s purpose in creation is the purification of rational creatures (Ad Orosium 8.10; cf. 5.5).  According to Ramelli, “What is more interesting, he argued that ignis aeternus must mean “eternal fire,” or else the righteous’ bliss could not be eternal.” He argues there must be two parallel and opposite eternities, that of the blessedness of the righteous and that of the torments and death of the damned. Origen had already refuted this argument in his Commentary on Romans (which Augustine had read), in which he argued that eternal life and eternal death cannot subsist together, since they are two contradictories.

2. Remedial versus retributive punishment:

In refuting apocatastasis Augustine turns from the belief in God’s punishment as a remedial discipline to belief in the eternity of infernal torments so as to refute what he deemed Origen’s Platonic error: “that of viewing infernal pains as therapeutic, purifying, and limited in duration. He did not know, or perhaps he intentionally ignored, that Plato did not maintain universal apokatastasis and that Origen had to correct him in this respect.”[7]

3. Free will versus Predestination:

Augustine accuses Origen of the very predestinationism of which he is guilty, suggesting Origen’s infinite series of ages (which he did not hold to) eliminates human freedom and universal restoration (which Augustine once held to and then repudiated). In his reworked understanding, Augustine claims this fails to extract the retributive justice he now believes God requires. As Ramelli explains, “Origen was now accused of determinism and predestinationism, while he had never ceased refuting ‘Gnostic’ (especially Valentinian) determinism and predestinationism, especially because of his own concern for theodicy; precisely from this polemic his philosophy of history and apokatastasis arose.”[8]

Augustine trades belief in restorative justice for a belief in a retributive justice, and this combined with his belief in predestination poses a challenge to his belief in free will. The monks under his care become fatalistic, given their masters doctrine of predestination, but Augustine attempts the seemingly impossible task of defending free will.[9]

Augustine notes that the “vast majority” of Christians in his day held to the doctrine of apocatastasis and “albeit not denying the Holy Scripture, do not believe in eternal torments” (Ench. ad Laur. 29). This of course also provided a rational foundation for belief in free will.

4. Salvation as Universal versus Salvation and Damnation as predestined:

 Augustine, in abandoning apocatastasis, also gives up the notion of universal salvation, as he had previously understood it as spelled out in I Tim. 2:4 (God “wants all humans to be saved and come to the knowledge of truth”). “After the conflict with the Pelagians, Augustine drastically reduced the strong universalistic drift of this passage by taking “all humans” to mean, not “all humans” in fact, but only those predestined.” He also holds that the “fulness of the Gentiles” and “All of Israel” are reference only those who are predestined.[10]

5. The Logos is the Incarnate Christ versus a Greek Logos:

Origen’s focus is continually and consistently on the reality of the incarnation as an eternal fact about God. This is a sensibility that may be strange to those in the West, more familiar as we may be with the Augustinian development of the Greek sense of Logos (something on the order of language per se). Augustine writes,

Whoever, then, can understand the word, not only before it sounds, but even before the images of its sound are contemplated in thought –such a word belongs to no language, that is, to none of the so-called national languages, of which ours is Latin – whoever, I say, can understand this, can already see through this mirror and in this enigma some likeness of that Word [viz., Jesus Christ] of whom it was said: ‘In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God; and the Word was God.’

(On the Trinity, 15.10.19)

This Augustinian word which belongs to no language and which exists only in thought, is the impetus to the reification of language developed in Anselm and Descartes, which is the foundation of Western philosophy and theology. “There is nothing else of comparable power or originality on this topic until Descartes’ Meditations.”[11] Indeed the dualism between mind and body often attributed to Descartes should actually be credited Augustine.[12] Augustine’s translator offers a backhanded compliment, as in tying Augustine to Descartes he also ties him to the debacle of Western thought.

6. The body as an integral necessity to intellect versus the body as an obstacle to thought:

In contrast to Origen’s repeated insistence upon the inseparability of soul and body, form and matter, Augustine pictures the necessity of setting aside bodily and material concerns so as to arrive at reason. He contends that “nothing is more present to the mind than it is to itself” though he acknowledges one might be distracted by the body from knowing itself: or is it the case as with an infant “that it knows itself, but is too intent on those things through which it begins to experience pleasure through the senses of the body” (On the Trinity 14.5.7). He maintains that it could never be the case that one could completely fail to think of the self even if “it (the mind) did not always separate itself in the same thought from corporeal things” (On the Trinity 15.3.5). Like Descartes after him, the point seems to be that the mind and thought need to be shut off from the body to function properly.

It is Augustine’s account of language and soul/body dualism that prefigures not only the Cartesian turn, but seemingly the very wording of the Cartesian cogito:

We resemble the Divine Trinity in that we exist, we know that we exist, and we are glad of this existence and this knowledge … In respect of those truths I have no fear of the arguments of the Academics. They say, “Suppose you are mistaken?” I reply, “If I am mistaken, I exist.” A non-existent being cannot be mistaken; therefore I must exist, if I am mistaken. Then since my being mistaken proves that I exist, how can I be mistaken in thinking that I exist, seeing that my mistake establishes my existence.

(City of God 11.26)

Stephen McKenna notes not only Descartes but William of Ockham and Nicolas Malebranche are reliant on Augustine’s view of language.[13] So not only modernism but the nominalism definitive of the Reformation traces its roots to Augustine.

Origen pictures the body as an ongoing necessity and God alone is without a body, but Augustine absorbs the Platonic reification of language over and against the body. This may be most clear in his picture of language as an innate given (a private language with which we are born which seems to exist free of enculturation and the body.[14] (Ludwig Wittgenstein begins his counter to the notion of private language by referencing Augustine’s picture of how he learned language.)[15] This opens the door to mind body dualism and the denigration of the body.

7. Evil as originating with Satan versus a human origin of evil:

In his reaction to Manichaeism, Augustine concludes that evil (as a parasite on the good) resides in human nature and that sin and God’s punishment are the source of evil. According to Gerald Bostock, Augustine adopted the questionable claim that evil is either sin or punishment for sin.[16] The focus of evil, for Augustine, is that evil which resides in the human race due to original sin. In the Augustinian picture of original sin, the first sin corrupted the whole race of humans:

Thence, after his sin, he was driven into exile, and by his sin the whole race of which he was the root was corrupted in him, and thereby subjected to the penalty of death. And so it happens that all descended from him, and from the woman who had led him into sin, and was condemned at the same time with him, —being the offspring of carnal lust on which the same punishment of disobedience was visited, —were tainted with the original sin.

(Encheiridion 26).

In contrast, Origen is an exponent of the Christus Victor theory of the Atonement; the belief that the Cross is to be seen as the decisive defeat of the powers of darkness by the Son of God – the very heart of Origen’s theology. Origen locates evil in the lie inspired by the “father of lies” and though the devil is not responsible for human wrongdoing, as man is responsible for his decisions, the devil continues to deceive as he did with the first pair.[17] “We must now see how, according to Scripture, the opposing powers, or the devil himself, are engaged in struggle against the human race, inciting and instigating them to sin” (Princ. 3.2.1). It is not, as with Augustine, that sin automatically rules and the struggle is over before it has begun, but the struggle continues. After a general survey of Scripture, Origen concludes: “Through all these passages, therefore, the divine Scripture teaches us that there are certain invisible enemies, fighting against us, and warns us that we ought to arm ourselves against them” (Princ. 3.2.1).

The Gospel serves to equip for battle, not according to the flesh, but against the spiritual enemies that “proceed from our heart” namely, “evil thoughts, thefts, false testimony, slanders,” and other enemies of “our soul” (Homilies on Joshua, 14.1.). Origen is describing the powers that rule the world and the human heart and the means of defeating them, through Christ.  

8. Real world defeat of evil versus the beginnings of a forensic doctrine of salvation:

Origen depicts a continual confrontation with and possible defeat of sin and the devil. Augustine has set the stage for an alternative theory of atonement, though this will fall to his disciples to develop. Anselm’s doctrine of divine satisfaction and Calvin’s penal substitution are the logical end of Augustine’s picture of original sin and retributive justice. For Origen there is a real world defeat of evil in the power of Christ, but Augustine mystifies both sin and the nature of redemption.

9. Synergism versus predestination and determinism:

In Origen’s theology, both the devil and God work synergistically with humans: “For consider whether some such arrangement is not indicated by that which the Apostle says, God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond that of which you are capable, that is, because each one is tempted in proportion to the amount or possibility of his strength” (Princ. 3.2.3).

Where Augustine’s notion of predestination reduces to an arbitrary determinism, Origen held to the autonomy of the soul which worked synergistically through the Spirit and power of God:

Since, therefore, through this it is being taught that man must indeed expend effort and attentive care, but that God grants the success and completion to the work, it is assuredly pious and religious, while God and man do what is in themselves, to attribute the chief part of the work to God rather than to man. And so, although Paul was planting and Apollos was watering, God is said to give the increase.

(Commentary on Romans 7.16).

10. Anti-Platonism versus Platonism:

I have detailed Origen’s anti-Platonism (here) and his argument for a different order of reason based on the Gospel. There is no question that Augustine, even in his own estimate, is too much absorbed by Platonism: “I have been rightly displeased, too, with the praise with which I extolled Plato or the Platonists or the Academic philosophers beyond what was proper for such irreligious men, especially those against whose great errors Christian teaching must be defended” (Retractions 1.4).

Though this (role of Platonism) is evident in the above, the difference between the thought of Origen and Augustine comes through in the perceived problems and the tenor of their work. For Origen the Trinity is revealed as an outworking of the incarnation, while for Augustine the Trinity is a problem needing explanation and analogy, for which he turns to the human mind, where Origen turns to history, creation, and incarnation. For Origen the Gospel as the rule of faith refers to the person of Christ, while Augustine is geared to the sort of propositional explanation which will come to typify the West.

It is hard to gauge the breadth of the impact of Augustine’s embrace of Plato. While he was certainly not the first to have done so (since the time of Justin Martyr, the logos of the Platonic system was beginning to be fused with the Logos of John 1:1), Augustine sealed the deal. As Robert O’Connell describes it, Platonism will shape Augustine’s theology, in his denigration of sex and love, culture, art, and science. It is not clear he ever escaped his Manichean view (shared by Plato) that the soul is imprisoned in the body and that sexual procreation is the darkest element of this imprisonment.[18] Augustine’s failure to divest himself of Platonism has seemingly immunized Western theology against the Anti-Platonic thought of Origen.


[1] Augustine is reliant on Origen’s commentary on Romans and yet seems to forget this reliance. Ilaria L.E. Ramelli points out Augustine’s unwitting reliance on Origen in The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (Leiden & Boston: Brill Publishing, 2013) 670-671.

[2] Gerald Bostock, “Origen: The Alternative to Augustine?” The Expository Times Volume 114, Issue 10

[3] A. Harnack, Monasticism (London: Williams & Norgate, 1913), p. 123.

[4] It is Henry Chadwick’s claim that Augustine is the first modern man but the evidence indicates he contains modernism in utero, the birth of which will play out over centuries. Henry Chadwick, Augustine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, I986), p. 3.

[5] B. F. Westcott, Essays in the History of Religious Thought in the West (London: Macmillan, I89I), pp. 247f. Quoted in Bostock.

[6] Ramelli, 664. The quote from Origen reads, “We think that the goodness of God, through his Christ, will call back and restore all creatures to one and the same end” (Princ. 1.6.1).

[7] Ramelli spells out the confusion between Greek and Latin: “The imprecision of the Latin vocabulary of eternity can help to explain Augustine’s argument. While, as I have often mentioned, the Bible describes as ἀίδιος only life in the world to come, thus declaring it to be “eternal,” it never describes as ἀίδια punishment, death, and fire applied to human beings in the world to come; these are only and consistently called αἰώνια, “belonging to the future aeon.” But in Latin both adjectives are rendered with one and the same adjective, aeternus (or sempiternus), and their distinction was completely lost. This, of course, had important consequences on the development of the debate on apokatastasis. Augustine refers twice to the words of the Lord that, he avers, declare the absolute eternity of otherworldly punishments. In those words, however, in the Gospels κόλασις is described as αἰώνιος, and not as ἀίδιος. But Augustine, just as many Latin authors, was unable to grasp this distinction.” Ramelli, 670.

[8] Ramelli, 673.

[9] Augustine, On the Free Choice of the Will, On Grace and Free Choice, and Other Writings, Trans. and Introduction Peter King (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) xvii.

[10] Ramelli, 674.

[11] Augustine, On the Trinity, Books 8-15, trans. and Intro. Stephen McKenna (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002) xviii.

[12] Here is the full quote: ”Rene Descartes (1596-1650) is obviously the philosopher one would naturally select as the one most deeply influenced by Augustine’s De Trinitate. The concept of mind that emerges in DT, even the concept of body one finds there, strikes the modern reader as surprisingly Cartesian. The internalist argumentation to support Mind-Body Dualism seems quite Cartesian. And, of course, Descartes’ cogito, as a response to skepticism, seems to echo the cogito-like passage in DT 15.” McKenna, xxviii.

[13] McKeena xxix.

[14] G. E. M. Anscombe’s translation in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953) 2e. Quoted in McKeena, xxv.

[15] Here is Augustine’s picture of how he learned language. “When they [my elders] named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements, as it were, the natural language of all peoples: the expression of the fact, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.” (Confessions 1.6.8).

[16] Bostock, 328.

[17] Bostock, 328.

[18] Robert J. O’Connell, St. Augustine’s Early Theory of Man A.D. 386–391, (Harvard University Press, 1968) 284.

The Lost World of Origen’s Gospel Metaphysics

The fact that the premiere genius among the church fathers, the one most responsible for a fully articulated theological world, the one who explains what must be the case if the Gospel is true, the fact that he is condemned by the church, indicates what was mostly lost for the next two millennia. The problems which plague the church up to the present time, such as the duality between body and soul, between heaven and earth, the dualities introduced into the Trinity, the doctrines of Calvinist predestination, limited atonement, and penal substitution, but most basically the warped conceptions of God which now predominate, can be summed up as the metaphysical problems of God and creation directly addressed by Origen. In short the resulting metaphysical incoherence can be traced to a rejection of the coherence that might otherwise have prevailed if Origen’s thought had been preserved rather than being condemned.[1] As P. Tzamalikos writes in praise of Origen’s accomplishment, “Christianity, against a background of other sects, cults, beliefs and various religions of its time and place, was successful in organizing its tenets into a coherent system. To a considerable extent, this was a feat of Origen.”[2] Neglect of the coherence provided by Origen resulted in metaphysical confusion.

Origen, continuing in the spirit of Irenaeus and Ignatius, expounds and expands upon the rule of faith, inclusive of the basic principles or extrapolations which must be the case, given the truth of the Gospel. Like Aristotle he understands that there must be first principles, or the basis upon which one builds so as to gain wisdom (otherwise there is an infinite regress). While acknowledging the Greek notion of first principles, Origen’s understanding that the Gospel is the first principle departs from a Greek understanding. His opening sentence in On First Principles sets the foundation of his work on Christ: “All who believe and are assured that grace and truth came through Jesus Christ, and who know Christ to be the truth, according to his saying, I am the truth, derive the knowledge which leads human beings to live a good and blessed life from no other source than from the very words and teaching of Christ” (On First Principles, hereafter Princ. Preface, 1). Origen notes specifically, that his principle is a departure from a Greek understanding and is a turn to Christ as first principle: “For just as, although many Greeks and barbarians promise the truth, we gave up seeking it from all who claimed it for false opinions after we had come to believe that Christ was the Son of God” (Princ. Preface, 2).

The field of his examination is not that of the Greek sense experience and knowledge. His field of examination is Jesus Christ: “In the first place, we must know that in Christ the nature of his divinity, as he is the only-begotten Son of God, is one thing, and another is the human nature, which in the last times he took on account of the economy” (Princ. 1.2.1.1). The Gospel as first principle requires that he begin by examining the titles of Christ, and the relation of the Son to the Father. He concludes: “As no one can be a father without having a son, nor a master without possessing a servant, so even God cannot be called omnipotent unless there exist those over whom He may exercise His power; and therefore, that God may be shown to be almighty, it is necessary that all things should exist” (Princ. 1.2.10). It is through the Son that the Father is almighty, and this position of the Father is extended through the Son into all of creation. “For through Wisdom, which is Christ, God has power over all things, not only by the authority of a ruler, but also by the voluntary obedience of subjects” (Princ. 1.2.10). Again he explains:

And He exercises His power over them by means of His Word, because at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, both of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth. And if every knee is bent to Jesus, then, without doubt, it is Jesus to whom all things are subject, and He it is who exercises power over all things, and through whom all things are subject to the Father; for through wisdom, i.e., by word and reason, not by force and necessity, are all things subject.” (Princ. 1.2.10)

 This is his working principle, namely that God’s almighty rule and his work of creation is grounded in the eternal relation between the Father and Son, which is the means of understanding God’s relation to creation.

Origen is clearly working within a Christological frame. He is setting forth an alternative world-view, a Christ centered logic, or a Christian metaphysic. The problem is that very few may have been up to the task of following the subtlety of his argument. His translators, his readers, his enemies, and ultimately the church will misunderstand Origen. There are a variety of reasons for this misunderstanding, including the treatment and mistreatment of his writings which were being changed even in his lifetime. The simplistic understanding that many presume, is that Origen is a Platonist and is simply deploying Plato or Neoplatonism to explain Christianity. Thus, the charge is that he Hellenized Christianity or that his Christianity is simply a form of Greek thought. In the 15 anathemas leveled at Origen at the 5th ecumenical council, such as holding that he taught the preexistence of souls, the existence of disembodied souls, and that he denigrated material bodies, what is demonstrated is an incapacity to apprehend his argument. He is describing the world that must be the case given the truth of the Gospel, and to the degree he was correct the church subjected itself to error.

John Behr is, as with his work on the Gospel of John, arguing against the mainstream of scholarship. Behr is relying, at least in part, on the work of P. Tzamalikos, who maintains that not only is Origen not a Platonist but that he is an anti-Platonist: “Since 1986, I argue for the unpopular thesis that Origen is an anti-Platonist in many respects. This was received with suspicion and distrust within a mindset where branding him a ‘Christian Platonist’ was (and still is) a matter of course.”[3] This is particularly important, in that the anathemas and misunderstanding leveled at Origen attempt to fit his argument within a Greek or pagan frame, where it simply does not fit. Tzamalikos repeats his counter-claim and builds upon it throughout his work:

Actually, the claim of Platonism in Origen appears so baffling, that argument would be needed to establish not its incoherence, but its coherence. For it thrives on half-truths confronting his own statements and cardinal ideas, with ‘Platonism’ being mostly a flight of fancy in heads of unlearned authors (many bishops) of old times, whose views were upheld by modern theologians no less uninformed about what Plato really wrote.[4]

He makes the case that Origen is an anti-Platonist and setting forth a Christian alternative to the Greek worldview.

What is almost always forgotten, however, is that it is Origen himself who singles out Platonic views, for the purpose of juxtaposing them with his own conceptions. Had he upheld a notion redolent of a Platonic outlook, would it be too difficult for him to say a few words about it? Cels (Origen’s work, Against Celsus) promptly concedes certain of his viewpoints appearing to be similar to Platonic views. Those points are pointed out, and considered with portions of Plato’s works quoted whenever necessary. . . . On the issue of history and eschatology, Origen knows that his views have nothing to do with those of any pagan philosopher. It is no accident that this section of Cels is one of the shortest of the entire work. He quotes the challenge by Celsus, yet he does not regard him worthy of a full reply on a question which requires the listener to be of an entirely different background. [5]

One of the specific points at which Tzamalikos finds Origen rejecting Platonism is in regard to the body:

The truth is though that Origen espoused a notion held in derision by many Platonists, which nevertheless was originated in the Hebraic tradition: survival as resurrection of the body. According to Platonists, material things make up only the lower half of the wholeness of reality, indeed the far less dignified half of it. For them the body is the source of passion, of meanness and decay, the most outright representation of degeneration of materiality; this ought to dissolve irrevocably. Rejecting the notion of the soul surviving without a body, Origen virtually denied the idea of resurrected bodies living in a disincarnate form: he defended resurrection in a body; although this is understood to be a body of a different quality, still this is a definitely material body. The salient point though is that, pace Paul, he made resurrection the central theme of his thought, indeed of all Christian doctrine: if there is no resurrection, there is no Christian faith and all Biblical history is void of any meaning at all. No one after Paul made so strenuously the Cross and Resurrection the pivotal point designating all history from start to finish.[6]

Tzamalikos lays out the overall difference in terms of the Greek focus on stasis and the unchanging order and the Christian focus on time and history:

The Presocratic religious question had been treated mainly in terms of pursuing stability behind the physis soliciting the essence behind the phenomena. With Christianity the problem of the world in time becomes of main priority. To be sure, some pagan schools of thought did quest for a purpose of history. Plato did reflect on the ultimate goal of the earthly life. Aristotle did research on the teleological causal sequence according to which civic life was formed. The Stoics, as well as Cicero, did visualize a world-state based on reason as a goal which (sic) human race ought to full. What was entirely new though was the question of an overall meaning of human history—a purpose originated in the dispensation of God manifested within the world since its creation.[7]

His starting proposition and conclusion is “that the Alexandrian formed a distinctly Christian Philosophy of History, faithfully following Paul in making the Cross the midpoint of all history. He also formed an Eschatology, which (although obscure in the Latin of De Principiis) is crystal-clear, no matter how putative orthodoxy might receive this.”[8]

The project of John Behr, who is building upon the work of Tzamalikos, is to demonstrate that Origen is spelling out a unique Christian logic, neither Greek nor Gnostic. Among the key issues undergirding Origen’s work and that which is most misunderstood and maligned, is Origen’s concept of God’s eternity as it relates to time. As demonstrated above, Origen’s first principle is the Gospel, and he also focuses on the relation between the Father and Son to explicate the relation of time and eternity. His examination of the divine titles of Christ treats that relation as understood and expressed in the incarnation. In other words, Origen is not explaining a pre-incarnate relationship (sneaking in a Greek metaphysic), but sees the relation between the Father and Son in the incarnation as the divine reality.

As Rowan Williams puts it, “the existence of Jesus is not an episode in the biography of the Word.” As Williams explains, “God has no story but that of Jesus of Nazareth and the covenant of which he is the seal.”[9] Or as Herbert McCabe has expressed the same concept: “to speak of the pre-existent Christ is to imply that God has a life-story, a divine story, other than the story of the incarnation. It is to suppose that in some sense there was a Son of God existing from the eternal ages who at some point in his eternal career assumed a human nature and was made man.”[10]  This is the problem, along with all that it entails (the capture of modern theology by metaphysics) that Origen’s first principles resolves before it occurred .


[1] And of course, with a genius of Origen’s caliber there really is no getting rid of him, as even those such as Augustine who will reject key parts of his thought can be said to still have been formed in an Origenist understanding. The Cappadocians will most directly build upon Origen, but they too must be muted and as will become most completely clear by the time of Maximus, those who embrace Origen in both the east and west risk condemnation.    

[2] P. Tzamalikos, Origen: Philosophy of History and Eschatology, Supplements to VC, 85 (Leiden: Brill, 2007) 2.

[3] Ibid. xii.

[4] Ibid. 17.

[5] Ibid. 24.

[6] Ibid. 18

[7] Ibid. 1.

[8] Ibid. xiii

[9] Rowan Williams, Arius: History and Tradition, 2nd edn (London: SCM Press, 2001) 244.

[10] Herbert McCabe, “The Involvement of God,” New Blackfriars, (November, 1985) 474.

Recapitulation: The Hermeneutic that Saves

Irenaeus’ doctrine of recapitulation, as soteriology and hermeneutic, is a continuation of focus on the rule of faith or the apostolic preaching (as found, for example, in Justin Martyr). Recapitulation is the summing up that is the Gospel and a soteriological summing up of all things, but to understand its saving work it has to be understood as a way of reading the Bible. The term cannot be separated from its literary application as a means of understanding Scripture, but this in turn cannot be separated from the whole economy of salvation. In other words, the apostolic preaching, or the presentation of Christ in the Gospel according to the Scriptures, is the recapitulation that saves.

The term has its background in rhetorical or literary theory, in which recapitulation is a restatement or compendium aimed at a unified picture. As a briefer and unified summary, it has greater impact. As Irenaeus writes, salvation is not through the “prolixity of the Law, but according to the brevity of faith and love” (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 87).  He quotes Isaiah as saying: “A word brief and short in righteousness: for a short word will God make in the whole world” (Is. 10:23). Irenaeus references Paul as precedent, as he uses the notion of literary recapitulation in writing that the commandments of Scripture are “summed up in this word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Rom. 13:19). He explains, “On these two commandments, He says, depend all the law and the prophets. So then by our faith in Him He has made our love to God and our neighbor to grow, making us godly and righteous and good” (Dem. 87). The Gospel is this concise Word of recapitulation, apart from which Scripture is obscure, but the epitome or resume of Scripture (recapitulation/Gospel) makes the invisible visible and the incomprehensible comprehensible. This concise Word of recapitulation, summing up Scripture, is the Gospel.

What may be important in understanding Irenaeus is what he is not saying. He is not using the language of prophecy and fulfillment, the notion of old and new covenant, or the idea of separate ages, to explain the singular economy of the Gospel found in Scripture. The Gospel is always present in the Hebrew Scriptures, so that there is nothing new in the Gospel other than Jesus, but Jesus Christ was and is found throughout Scripture. The apostles’ reflection upon Jesus Christ “according to the Scriptures,” John Behr explains, “directs attention back to Scripture, to reflect yet further on the identity of Christ.”[1]  Scripture and Gospel do not exist separately, but neither are they identical. The Gospel unveils Scripture and Scripture informs the Gospel.

Irenaeus concern is to combat the notion that a division or disunity read into Scripture, between the Old and New Testament, results in division that is read into God and salvation. He is combating the sort of plan A plan B understanding that presently predominates in Christian theology. In this understanding, God had a plan, and humans sinned and messed it up, and so now we are on plan B. Law is pitted against grace, creation is pitted against salvation, and there is the supposition that if humans had avoided sin, God’s plan would not have been changed up. Recapitulation establishes a singular economy in Scripture and a unified understanding of God. There is, according to Irenaeus, “one God the Father and one Christ Jesus, who is coming throughout the whole economy, recapitulating all things in himself” (AH 3.16.6). There is a singular continuum between creation and salvation as God’s plan, from the foundation of the world, was to complete creation and the image of the first Adam in that of the second Adam.

Irenaeus pictures salvation as corporate, coming to Adam and his whole race: “we are all from him: and as we are from him, therefore have we all inherited his title. But inasmuch as man is saved, it is fitting that he who was created the original man should be saved” (AH 3.23.2). All are found alike in the first Adam and in the second Adam: “When therefore the Lord vivifies man, that is, Adam, death is at the same time destroyed” (AH 3.23.7). Irenaeus pictures a universal and corporate captivity to death and a universal and corporate deliverance in the second Adam. He speaks of those who are left in death but at the same time speaks of a complete abolition and defeat of death – anything less would be a defeat of God in his estimate:

For if man, who had been created by God that he might live, after losing life, through being injured by the serpent that had corrupted him, should not any more return to life, but should be utterly [and forever] abandoned to death, God would [in that case] have been conquered, and the wickedness of the serpent would have prevailed over the will of God (AH 3.23.1).

Irenaeus is not concerned to deal with the experience of every individual, and he does not focus on human interiority, but as with Paul in Romans 5, the focus is upon the two representative individuals. The two Adams represent the corporate, embodied experience of the race. Ultimately the second Adam incorporates all of humanity into God: “But in every respect, too, He is man, the formation of God; and thus He took up man into Himself.” Irenaeus poses the sort of oppositional differences which might be linked to the two Testaments or to alternative portrayals of God, and links them to the recapitulation accomplished by Jesus Christ in which absolute difference is overcome: “the invisible becoming visible, the incomprehensible being made comprehensible, the impassible becoming capable of suffering, and the Word being made man, thus summing up all things in Himself” (AH 3.16.6). In the same way that Scripture is recapitulated in Him, so too all things are summed up and recapitulated so that what might have once appeared an impossible difference is bridged. As Behr puts it, “The recapitulation of the whole economy unfolded in Scripture, the subject throughout which is the Gospel of Christ, in a concise epitome makes visible and comprehensible what had previously been hidden in the prolixity of the Law.”[2]  There is the obscurity of the law and the reality of death, but these do not compete or interfere with the economy of salvation, which Irenaeus at various points indicates is all inclusive.  

In countering those who would divide Scripture and God, Irenaeus emphasizes that Jesus Christ is not only the unifying subject of Scripture but its ultimate author, and this unified authorship is the point of entry into understanding the work of the Trinity. The alternative, such as that posed by the Marcionites, is to believe in two gods aligned with the two Testaments (“no god at all” according to Irenaeus). As Irenaeus poses the choice:

shall it be he whom the Marcionites or the others have invented as god (whom I indeed have amply demonstrated to be no god at all); or shall it be (what is really the case) the Maker of heaven and earth, whom also the prophets proclaimed — whom Christ, too, confesses as His Father — whom also the law announces, saying: Hear, O Israel; The Lord your God is one God? Deuteronomy 6:4 (AH 4.2.2).

Irenaeus’ hermeneutic of unification is aimed at establishing that there is one God, the Father of Jesus Christ, and this affirmation is the basis of belief in Christ. As Irenaeus puts it, “the writings of Moses are the words of Christ,” referencing Jesus’ words in John: “If you had believed Moses, you would have believed Me: for he wrote of Me. But if you believe not his writings, neither will you believe My words” (John 5:46-47). Irenaeus extends this understanding to include all of the prophets:

If, then, [this be the case with regard] to Moses, so also, beyond a doubt, the words of the other prophets are His [words], as I have pointed out. And again, the Lord Himself exhibits Abraham as having said to the rich man, with reference to all those who were still alive: If they do not obey Moses and the prophets, neither, if any one were to rise from the dead and go to them, will they believe him. Luke 16:31 (AH 4.2.3).

 The relation between Gospel and Scripture is not here focused on an unfolding history, but on Jesus Christ. The point is not that the Old Testament was simply prophetic or a precursor to Christ, but the Gospel is proclaimed in the Hebrew Scriptures. Irenaeus describes Jesus Christ as being inseminated throughout Scripture: inseminatus est ubique in Scripturis ejus Filius Dei. Behr describes this, not as an unknown Logos, but as the preexistence of Christ: “That is, the preexistence of Christ, the Word of God, is inextricably connected with his seminal presence in Scripture, the word of God.”[3] The crucified and risen Christ is the singular subject of Scripture revealed in the Gospel – the Gospel found throughout Scripture.

Where Marcion pictures a complete break between the old (the old covenant, the Old Testament, the old god) and the new (the new covenant, the New Testament, and the new god), for Irenaeus there is nothing new in the Gospel. The Gospel economy is the singular economy, the singular revelation, the singular God, revealed throughout Scripture. Given this understanding, Irenaeus exhorts Marcion: “read with earnest care that Gospel which has been given to us by the apostles, and read with earnest care the prophets, and you will find that the whole conduct, and all the doctrine and all the sufferings of our Lord, were predicted through them. {AH 4.34.1) “To those who, presented with such a claim, ask, ‘what new thing then did the Lord bring by his advent?’ Irenaeus simply answers, ‘Christ himself!’” [4]

 Irenaeus acknowledges that there are a variety of figures and dispensations, but this variety has as its center Jesus Christ and his Gospel. In refuting the Gnostics, who attach a significance to Jesus living to be 30 years old, “that He might show forth the thirty silent Æons of their system, otherwise they must first of all separate and eject [the Saviour] Himself from the Pleroma of all” (AH 2.22.1), Irenaeus argues that Jesus lived closer to age 50, thus fulfilling the Jewish sense of being a Master and providing a coherence to the life course of man. As Behr notes, “The literary coherence of Scripture, and the rhetorical coherence derived by engaging with Scripture to interpret Christ, is the ultimate criterion for Irenaeus’ reflections on the eternal Word of God.”[5] Though his argument as to Jesus’ age may lack evidence, his point is that Jesus is present in every age of man, both the normal growth through infancy to old age but the passage of the ages of history. Adam and Eve represent the age of childhood, and all of human history is part of the process of being brought to maturity. There is not an age before and after Jesus Christ, as in his passage through the various stages of human growth Jesus Christ also recapitulates every age of history, from infancy (on the order of that of Adam and Eve) to the full maturity of the defeat of death.

In this lengthy but key quote he summarizes the all-inclusive recapitulation of Christ:

Being a Master, therefore, He also possessed the age of a Master, not despising or evading any condition of humanity, nor setting aside in Himself that law which He had appointed for the human race, but sanctifying every age, by that period corresponding to it which belonged to Himself He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise He was an old man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also, and becoming an example to them likewise. Then, at last, He came on to death itself, that He might be the first-born from the dead, that in all things He might have the pre-eminence, Colossians 1:18 the Prince of life, Acts 3:15 existing before all, and going before all. (AH2.22.4).

In summary: the “brief” or “compendium” or “resume” that is recapitulation furnished salvation “so that what we had lost in Adam — namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God — that we might recover in Christ Jesus” (AH 3.18.1). Or as Behr writes, “Recapitulating in himself the exposition of the economy, Jesus Christ furnishes us with salvation through a resume, an epitome, which condenses or concentrates, and so makes visible and comprehensible, what had previously been invisible and incomprehensible.”[6] The key point: the literary recapitulation in which the apostolic preaching sums up Scripture cannot be separated from the entire economy of salvation brought about in Jesus Christ. Or to state it negatively: where Jesus Christ is not the lens through which Scripture is interpreted, the economy of the Gospel of salvation cannot be properly grasped.


[1] John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology: The Way to Nicaea, Vol. 1 (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 133.

[2] Behr, 127.

[3] Behr, 117.

[4] Behr, 116.

[5] Behr, 131.

[6] Behr, Ibid., 128.

“Who Do You Say That I Am?”: The Hypothesis of Scripture as Encounter with Christ

The identity of Christ is the unifying point of Scripture but this identity is synonymous with the presence of Christ in the reader or believer. That is, Christ’s identity pertains directly to the one doing the identifying, as his identity entails his presence in the life of the one rightly answering his question.[1] Christ’s life and presence are rendered in his identity and this identifying realization. This entails circularity (reading Scripture through the Gospel, his identity, and the Gospel through Scripture), but revolving around Christ as it does and including the life of the believer as it does, it is on the order of the circulatory system of the human body. What is circulated is the life and presence of the one around whom it revolves. One reads through the lens of the identity of Christ, but this exegesis of and through Christ pertains directly to the “you” doing the exegesis as this constitutes the encounter with Christ. So, the hermeneutical lens of the apostolic preaching (the Gospel or the analogy of faith), not only produces a symbolic coherence, bringing together the types and tropes and context of the Hebrew Scriptures in Christ, but as applied to Scripture it concerns the exegesis of Christ (not the exegesis of Scripture), the encounter with Christ, or the presence of Christ in the life of the exegete.

This describes the authority of Scripture as it takes hold through the identity of Christ in the life of the believer. The author or authorization or authority is immediately present in the one answering, “Who do you say that I am?” This is not simply an historical judgment or a critical assessment of a set of texts or an acknowledgement of institutional authority. The authority of history, Scripture, and Church pertains indirectly to the fundamental and primary authority found in the identity of Christ as this directly pertains to the believer. The particular nature of the presence of Christ in the believer is mediated through the Christ of history, the Christ of Scripture, and the Christ of the Church, but these are not substitutes or alternative authorities, but the authority derived from the Gospel, which immediately takes hold in Christ’s presence in the believer (again, an admitted circularity).

To place the primary authority in history or the historical truth of the Gospel may imagine a Christ subject to history rather than history subject to and relativized by Christ. Certainly, there is no extracting his death and resurrection from history as this history is part of his identity but his identity is determinative of this history and not vice versa. Temporality, the past, the situation of his life does not take precedence over his life or determine his identity. There is a history of Christ, in which time and history and humanity are interwoven and inseparable from the person of Christ encountered in the Gospel but the history per se is not primary. The truth of his history is a necessity, but this historical truth is not the fulness of the truth as it takes hold in the life of the believer. History, and even the history of Christ, is not the presence of Christ found in his identity.

So too with Scripture: to place primary authority on the text or the book, may miss that its authority is derived from Christ. Christ is not subject to Scripture any more than he is subject to the Church or to history. Where Scripture is made primary, Christ may be made to fit the context and circumstance of its writing rather than the other way round. Christ is the unifying center, the very hypothesis of Scripture, and the reality of his life, death, and resurrection precedes Scripture in both the Old and New Testament. Christ and Scripture are no more separable than Christ and history, but it is Christ and his identity that constitute Scripture as an authority.

 So too the Church: to place primary authority in the institution or in the hierarchy, or in the body of believers, may be to miss that the Church derives its authority from Christ and the Gospel. Life in the body is constituted by Christ and the identity of Christ located in the apostolic preaching. This preaching cannot be separated from the Church any more than it can be separated from Scripture and history but so too with this authority; to make the Church the authority will be to miss the immediate import of Christ’s identity. The apostles and the Church do not determine Christ but are determined by him. Christ cannot be made to fit the authority of the Church as the Church derives its authority from who he is. Apostle corrects apostle not because one is more authoritative than another, but because the apostles and the Church are authoritative only through the Gospel and through maintaining the apostolic tradition.

Who do you say that I am is not a question to be answered apart from history, Scripture, and the Church, but none of these are themselves the answer. The question demands that “you” answer and the answer and its power and presence take hold within this same you. Historicism, biblicism, and institutionalism, misconstrue the nature of authority and truth and thus they misidentify Christ and misplace his presence. The believer does not have a primary relation with history, with Scripture, or with the Church, but with Christ. He is present in his identity but no one but a “you” concludes to the presence and relationship of this identity. This may all be dismissed as circularity, but at the heart of this circular reason is the singular truth, which I presume is the truth of the Gospel – the identity of Christ.

The modern errors, like the original heresies which challenged the early church (in the New Testament and among the church fathers), shares in kind the fact, as John Behr puts it, “that in none of these approaches is God really ‘with us’ (cf. Matt 1:23).”[2] Some began to teach that Christ was a mere man, adopted by God as a Son (adoptionism). He is representative, at best, of the divine. In Docetism God is not really with us in our humanity but only appeared as a man. Instead of denying the deity of Christ, the deity is fully acknowledged but his humanity is a mere likeness and not the reality. Again, there is a failure of presence in his humanity and ours. And the third tendency acknowledged both the divinity and humanity of Jesus, but separated the deity from the humanity. Thus, the human Jesus may have experienced death and human passions and emotions but the deity of Christ is thought to be removed from such things. In essence, each of these false teachings is a denial of the cross, or in terms of presence, God cannot be said to be present in pain, suffering and death. God is not really Immanuel, God with us, in the false conceptions of his identity.

The cure or counter to this false teaching (or this failed presence) will emphasize either the humanity or deity of Jesus, or the reality of the resurrection, affirming what the false teaching would deny, but then, in each instance, this affirmation speaks directly of a specific presence that bears fruit in place of the lost presence. That is, as the writers of the New Testament and the apostolic fathers are challenged by the various heretical misidentifications of Christ, the hypothesis of his identity is honed to speak directly of God’s saving presence in place of a particular form of absence. So the example from Corinthians (worked out below), deny the resurrection and one is left with vanity and nothingness, a useless faith that misses the living hope and victory of faith. The counter focus then, is on the hope of the resurrection as entailed in the reality of his resurrection and this translates into resurrection life enabled to defeat the futility of sin. In the example of I John (developed below), deny the humanity of Christ, and the story of Christ in the Gospels, and his ethical teaching and human sojourn are traded for an abstract spirituality without ethical responsibility. Emphasis on the humanity of Christ entails then a focus on his ethical teaching and walking as he walked to abide in his presence.

Paul sums up the gospel as Christ dying for our sins, being raised on the third day, and then appearing to the twelve apostles (I Cor. 15:3-4). The identity of Christ is linked to his ongoing presence to the apostles through his death, burial and resurrection, interpreted in light of the Scriptures. Death is the prime obstacle or the opposite of life and presence, and Christ defeats death and this is the basis of his presence – a resurrected presence. This is what Paul delivered to the Corinthians and by which they stand and are saved (I Cor. 15:1), but by denying the bodily resurrection the Corinthians are turning faith into an empty vanity. Paul describes Christ’s resurrection appearances, enumerating who experienced them and extending resurrection experience to the faith of the Corinthian believers, which they are nullifying. Apart from the resurrection, life and presence are exchanged for death and vanity. Paul says it amounts to being left in sin. With resurrection belief the sting of death, a life of sin, is overcome: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (I Cor. 15:57-58). The reality of resurrection defeats the reality of death and this translates into a specific experience of victory and hope through Christ.

Christ’s presence is specific to the particulars of his resurrection. He is not present as an abstract generalization – a spirit of the universe – but he is the resurrection and the life; an identity that pertains to one making the identification. Paul leaves out the teaching and life of Jesus in his Corinthian formula, probably because of the peculiar denial of the resurrection in Corinth. The Corinthians had a form of the faith, perhaps acknowledging Jesus earthly walk and teaching. The story of Jesus however, is not rendered secondary due to the resurrection but becomes part of the life that is conveyed. As Paul says to the Ephesians, they must “learn Christ” (Eph. 4:20) and the way to learn Christ is not simply learning facts and propositions (though this is not excluded), but by laying aside the old self and putting on the new self (Eph. 4:21-24) so that one enacts in their life course Jesus’ death and resurrection, inclusive of the content of his teaching. The story has a particular shape, and the teaching of Jesus (e.g., on neighbor love and nonviolence, etc.) is captured in the manner of his death and resurrection. We do not read the events of Jesus’ life and his teaching as in normal biography, as facts and history removed from us, but we recognize the ethical implication, the form of relationship with God and others, which his resurrection implies. His story and his life is one we share, and his presence continues in us in his form of life – summed up as resurrection life. Thus believers are “strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:16).

John is faced with the docetic teaching that Christ did not come in the flesh, and so his concern is not a defense of the bodily resurrection but the bodily or corporeal nature of Jesus. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life” (I Jn. 1:1). This life was manifest in the flesh – the flesh of the Son – and in those who “saw it” (1:2).  The life was simultaneously “with the Father” and “made manifest to us” as we have seen with our eyes and we have heard with our ears and we have touched with our hands (1:1-3). Jesus was human and corporeal and not a mere human similitude or likeness. And it is on this basis that fellowship with God and his Son is established (1:3). John emphasizes abiding in Him more than accepting the fact that he abides in the Christian. Docetism may have taught moral license to do with the body as one might. But John binds the presence of Christ to “keeping His commandments” to walking “in the same manner as He walked” and to perfecting the love of God in one’s life by “keeping His word” (2:4-6). Like Paul, John speaks of a rule of faith which renders outside teachers and authorities unnecessary: “you have no need for anyone to teach you . . . as His anointing teaches you about all things” (2:27). Jesus was anointed with the Spirit and he has anointed his followers with the Spirit and the Spirit, as promised, guides into all truth. Christ abides in you and you abide in him if you walk as he taught. Christ is present and this presence takes on a particular ethical shape in those who abide in his life and presence.

Perhaps in the midst of persecution there was greater need to speak of the fulsomeness of the divine presence. Peter writes of becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). In Athanasius’ formula, “He became man, so that we might become god.”[3] Ignatius of Antioch, on a forced march to Rome and martyrdom, speaks of Christ “being now in the Father” even “more plainly visible.”[4] Now his is not a mere earthly presence but an immediate presence of the Spirit. For Ignatius Christ “is our true life” and this reality is realized in facing the reality of a torturous death with Christ: “But, [in fact,] he who is near to the sword is near to God; he that is among the wild beasts is in company with God; provided only he be so in the name of Jesus Christ. I undergo all these things that I may suffer together with Him, (Romans 8:17) He who became a perfect man inwardly strengthening me.”[5] Ignatius imagines in the details of his martyrdom complete identity with Christ: “Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”[6]

Answering the question, “Who do you say that I am?” entails naming an identity that becomes one’s own, such that the life and presence of Christ are realized as one’s life course takes on the shape of Christ.


[1] This is the conclusion of Hans Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ: The Hermeneutical Bases of Dogmatic Theology (Fortress Press, 1975).

[2] John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology: The Way to Nicaea, Vol. 1 (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 78.

[3] Athanasius, On the Incarnation 54.

[4] Ignatius, Epistle to the Romans, 3.2.

[5] Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 4.

[6] Ibid. Epistle to the Romans, 4.

The Analogy of Faith as a Mindset and Ethic

The analogy of faith, or the rule of faith or, to say the same thing, the gospel, is a hermeneutic or interpretive lens which unveils the meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures (among many other things). As Paul explains to the Corinthians, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (I Cor. 15:3-4). Apart from these events in the life of Christ, it would be hard to locate such things in the Scriptures, but given the reality of the life of Christ, the Scriptures became a means of understanding these events and these events unveil the meaning of Scripture. As John Behr writes, “Read in the light of what God has wrought in Christ, the Scriptures provided the terms and images, the context, within which the apostles made sense of what happened, and with which they explained it and preached it.”[1] In other words, the object is not simply to understand the historical setting of Scripture, or the intent of the author, but to understand Christ according to the Scriptures.

 Behr expertly lays out the interworking of the apostolic preaching, the rule of faith, and the role of Scripture, but his explanation falls short in explaining how, according to the New Testament and the early church fathers, this rule of faith is at once to be a personal mindset and an ethical orientation organizing, not just Scripture, but one’s life. That is, this rule is more than a proposition or rule in the ordinary sense, but is the means of seeing and measuring all things by the peace and love of Christ. The rule is linked with unity and peace, it is linked with apprehending rightly, and it is linked to making critical judgments, and all of these are linked with putting on the mind of Christ. Which is to say this rule of faith is taken up, cathected (as Freud describes the superego image) into the self as part of one’s character and one’s apprehension of the world.

The analogy of faith is partly understood as an alternative to the law. The law is a definitive measure but where the law could be compared to a tutor, leading a student to school, faith is not an objective rule outwardly coercing, but an inward perspective or critical faculty (Gal. 3:25). This is an obvious point that may be lost where doctrine or creeds or propositional language pushes out the personal, the ethical, or the sense in which faith is a living hypothesis and not a dead letter. There is nothing inherently wrong with doctrine or creeds or propositional language, but where the literal, the fleshly, or the law become primary, the letter displaces the Spirit. Letters, propositions, and doctrines are a necessity but not an end or goal but a means. Just as letters are held together by larger units of meaning, the Word (the Gospel, the apostolic tradition) constitutes the unity of meaning in light of which the world is apprehended.

Paul explains that the analogy of faith works in conjunction with preaching and teaching. He wanted every prophecy and every teaching to be conformed to the analogy or likeness of faith (Rom. 12:6). The application or extrapolation of the kerygma may be the specialty of the prophet, but Paul calls every Christian to “appraise all things” according to the mind of Christ. Putting on the mind of Christ means that the individual is enabled to make authoritative judgments, informed critiques, “so that we may know things freely given to us by God,” so that we combine “spiritual thoughts with spiritual words” and thus come to understand those things that “are spiritually appraised” (I Cor. 2:12-16). This spiritual individual has the wisdom provided by God, where the natural man, or literally “a man of animal soul,” is incapable of discerning things according to the Spirit. Jesus promised that the Spirit would guide into all truth (Jn. 16:13) and Paul seems to be applying this to the individuals in the Corinthian church.

For Paul it is not enough that the Corinthians have an authoritative apostle (himself), or that they have appointed bishops and shepherds, some of whom are apparently abusing their position through an extreme authoritarianism. The Corinthians are eager to submit to various authorities and are pitting one authority against another, with some saying “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos” (I Cor. 3:4). Some would pit their leader, their bishop, or their teacher, against that of others. Paul does not presume to grab a scepter and robe and set himself up as final authority, nor does he allow Apollos such a position. Nor does he say, “Look ye unto Peter, who sits upon the seat of Christ.” Rather, he says, “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth” (I Cor. 3:5–7). God is the one who causes growth, and this growth is not simply corporate or institutional but is personal and individual and very much interconnected with applying the analogy of faith. This analogy or rule is the primary authority Paul is concerned to establish.

Obviously, Paul exercises authority (just in the fact that he is writing a letter) but his is not a coercive authoritarianism, but is one that pleads, persuades, argues, and even in his estimate – uses hyperbole, exaggeration, and bragging (2 Cor. 11:16-12:13). In his challenge of Peter in Antioch, in his acknowledged offering of opinions, and in the very mode of his persuasive letter writing, Paul is demonstrating the very mind-set of Christ that he would instill in the Christians under his care. He would call out Peter, he would challenge the apostolic council in regard to Gentiles, but he feels this confidence not simply because he too is an apostle, but because he is calling the apostles themselves to follow the standard or rule of faith which governs them all. They are all subject to the rule of faith, such that the apostles themselves must not veer from the apostolic tradition in which their authority consists.

In dealing with those who are challenging his teaching and authority in Corinth, Paul explains that they are using the wrong measurement: “they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves,” thus “they are without understanding” (II Cor. 10:12). But where they measure by human, self-established measure (measuring themselves by themselves) Paul “measures by the measure which God has given me.” As he explains to the Ephesians this is “the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). This is the measure that, rather than stirring up human antagonism, is the means by which “we all attain to the unity of the faith.” “As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ” (Eph. 4:14-15). This measure and authority is one that each is to take up.

Paul’s main concern is not that the Corinthians obey him, or that they revere his letters; his main concern is that they put on the mind of Christ and become spiritual minded in their thinking. The Corinthians and all Christians are to judge by the measure of faith. This measure breaks down the inherent hostility contained in human measure or in the measure of the law. The law requires a wall of hostility as part of its function. It is inherently divisive but Christ as measure is peace: “For 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” (Eph. 2:14-15).

The turn from the rule of faith, which is Christ, to ordinances, creeds, doctrines, etc. has not only produced unending division in the church but has given rise to violence, in which Christians participate in bloodshed against one another and against the enemies declared outside the bounds of Christian love.

Paul had predicted as much to the Galatians, explaining that those who insist on the law “bite and devour one another” as they are judging according to the flesh (Ga. 5:15). “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law” (Ga 5:18). The singular principal Paul invokes is neighbor love, “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF’” (Ga. 5:14). This is a measure to be lived out, and by its very nature it disrupts what Paul sees as the desire undergirding the law: becoming “boastful, challenging one another, envying one another” (Ga. 5:26) and ultimately “biting and devouring one another.” In contrast, the rule of faith is a means to peace and unity, and by definition is a promotion of the love and peace of Christ. He himself is our Peace as the measure by which we attain to the unity of the faith.

We have two measures or two rules to choose from: the human measure and the measure of Christ. The human measure, the law, or the law of sin and death, is inherently a violent measure and the measure of Christ is inherently peaceful. It is in the life of Christ that we see these two measures set against one another. By the rule of man Christ dies, so that human measure ends in deicide. The force that killed Christ, namely the law or the measure of man, is countered by Christ and Christian witnesses (martyrs). That is, the peace of Christ embodied in nonviolent love and nonviolent resistance, is the counter to the human rule and is the goal and means of the rule of faith. The earliest accounts of the rule of faith outside of the New Testament link the rule of faith to this peaceful nonviolence.

The Didache (written in the first century A. D.), provides instructions for the Christian life, which in the first part is entitled “Two Ways, the Way of Life and the Way of Death.” It may have served as basic instruction to catechumens or those studying to be baptized, and it is focused on the doctrine of love and Jesus’ ethical teaching. The way of life is characterized by loving God, loving one’s neighbor, and loving one’s enemies by following Jesus’ ethic of nonviolence. The text (as do most all of the early explanations of the rule of faith) references Matthew 5:39-44 (containing Jesus’ commands of nonviolent resistance, or radical subordination) and sets forth a “way of life,” which sums up the point of part one. In other words, the Didache provides a measurement for Christian living that is founded upon Jesus’ own teaching.

Justin Martyr (100-165) in his First Apology also speaks of the rule of faith. Writing to emperor Antonius Pius, he describes Christian nonviolence as offering no threat to Rome, as Christians serve a heavenly kingdom: “For if we looked for a human kingdom, we should also deny our Christ, that we might not be slain; and we should strive to escape detection, that we might obtain what we expect. But since our thoughts are not fixed on the present, we are not concerned when men cut us off; since also death is a debt which must at all events be paid.”[2] He describes the kingdom established among Christians as bringing to pass the prophecy of Isaiah 2:3: “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” As a result, “we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.”[3] He points to “the case of many who once were of your way of thinking, but have changed their violent and tyrannical disposition, being overcome either by the constancy which they have witnessed in their neighbors’ lives, or by the extraordinary forbearance they have observed in their fellow-travelers (Christians) when defrauded, or by the honesty of those with whom they have transacted business.”[4] These proofs he puts forward are people, Christians whose lives are governed by a rule of enemy-love and non-violence. The rule is not simply an objective rule, but the means to grow in love and peace.

Tertullian (160-220) likewise, addressing “rulers of the Roman Empire,” explains that Christians are persecuted unjustly because they love their enemies and are forbidden to retaliate. “If we are enjoined, then, to love our enemies, as I have remarked above, whom have we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate, lest we become as bad ourselves: who can suffer injury at our hands?” He asks, “banded together as we are, ever so ready to sacrifice our lives, what single case of revenge for injury are you able to point to.”[5] This nonviolent form of life, in which Christians are charged to love their enemies, Tertullian explains, “is the rule of truth which comes down from Christ by transmission through his companions” (the apostles).[6] Christians have exchanged the law of retribution for the law of truth and nonviolence, and as a result Rome gains more than it has lost.

In Ignatius of Antioch’s (died 108) letter to Polycarp, Ignatius explains how the law of nonviolence replaces the weapons of war with those of peace: “Let your baptism endure as your arms; your faith as your helmet; your love as your spear; your patience as a complete panoply.”[7] Human law calls for violent preparation through weapons of war, but the law of peace taught by Christ exchanges military equipment with the equipment of love, patience and faith.

The analogy of faith is not simply a measurement or rule aimed at sorting out propositions, setting up creeds, and establishing doctrine. The rule of faith is an ethic and a characteristic way of thinking which is to govern the life of the mind and body of the Christian.


[1] John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology: The Way to Nicaea, Vol. 1, (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 27-28.

[2] Justin Martyr, Apologia I, 11.

[3] Ibid., 39.

[4] Ibid., 16.

[5] Tertullian, Apology 37.

[6] Ibid., 47.

[7] Ignatius, To Polycarp 6.2.

The Peaceful Hermeneutic of Origen: The End of Deicide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Bruce, Ibid.

[3] Origen, Homilies on Joshua, 14.1.

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

[5] Bruce, Ibid.

[6] Eusebius, Church History,  6.1–2

[7] Ibid, 6.2.

[8] Ibid, 6.39.

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

[10] Kolbert, 554.

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

[12] Kolbert, 552.

[13] Kolbert, 562

[14] Origen, Against Celsus, 7.55.