Trinitarian Truth and the Three-fold Possibility of Falling Short of the Truth

The truth of God, which is to say truth itself, is Trinitarian. Truth proceeds from the Father through the Son and is realized through the Spirit. But this full realization of truth is tied to the historical event of the incarnation and the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is not to say that truth develops for God, but for human-kind it unfolds historically.

Another approach to the same idea is that God as love is a Trinitarian realization, which is not to say love is otherwise absent, but humanity in the Old Testament did not know of the law of love upon which “all the law and prophets hang (Matt. 22:40). According to Jesus, this is a “new commandment” (John 13:34) with which the final discourse of Christ culminates.[1]  If we would describe the fulness of truth as fulness of love it is obvious that the love of the Father apart from the Son is on the order of that between a small child and his father. The child is loved but cannot be entrusted further than his capacities will allow. The period of the Law describes a time in which truth was presumed to be on the order of commands, all for the good of the child perhaps, as the child cannot take in the fulness of love.

Apart from the revelation of the Son, the truth of God did not take on a human or incarnate dimension with all that this entails. It certainly did not entail a direct Spiritual participation, but the truth stood outside of history and outside of the human psyche and experience, like commands of the law. So, while we might describe each period or epoch (marked by the revealing of the three persons of the Trinity) as being prompted by the love of God, the love of the Father apart from the revelation of the Son is on the order of law.

Whenever truth has been reduced to law, or propositions, or abstract universal trues, it has taken on the truncated picture of being over and against the personal. Moses would presume God is an object for sight (like the light of the sun which cannot be looked at directly), but so too notions of God as first Cause, as pure being, or as that which can be extrapolated from creation. God as that to which one concludes outside of creation and outside of history is a force or power on the order of the Aristotelian Unmoved Mover. Rather than God upholding the nexus of creation through an immanent involvement (i.e., through the Word), his transcendence becomes closed off from all that is contingent. Perhaps he knocks over the first domino or sets the contingencies of creation into motion, but he is unmoved. His eternality lies beyond time, rather than serving as the resource and foundation of time and history.

For example, in the Newtonian conception (which remains as part of the modern experience), time is not a relation or mere measurement but a force unto itself, ever devolving and dissolving all things into the nothing from which they arose. The creative force of the Father apart from the intimate involvement of the Son and Spirit leaves creation floating in the void. The God of law reduces to the law and the law displaces God. This is demonstrably the Jewish problem, but in this the Jews are representative of all humanity. A cosmos set in motion by the Father apart from the Son, in spite of recognizing God’s power of creation is not understood as a direct expression of the love of God.

It is Christ who calls his disciples into friendship and into direct participation with the Father on the basis of love and friendship: “I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (Jn. 15:15). Christ opens a personal relation (a relation presuming the fulness of personhood) with the Father, and thus the world becomes the cosmic temple where God and humanity meet in the full reciprocity of love. Where the Son and Spirit are realized as aspects of the fulness of truth, in the description of Sergius Bulgakov, “Eternity lies not beyond time or after time, but on a level with it, over time, as an ideal for it and under time as its foundation. . .”[2] Time taken as an independent force is on the order of the Father being separated out from the Son and the Spirit; the danger is that nothing or nonbeing might be presumed to be an actually existing void counterbalancing the something and being as a dialectical resource. Rather than the Son being the medium of Creation through the Father by the Spirit, creation from nothing may implicate creation in a primary relation with the nothing from whence it came.

Modern cosmology has hit upon the truth, in big bang cosmology, of creation ex-nihilo, but this has been grasped as much as a possibility for measurement, containment, and comprehension as an awakening to eternity intersecting time. The conception is that of a world which begins in time rather than a world which unfolds from the beginningless reaches of eternity.[3] The possible (contradictory as it is) popular implication of big bang cosmology, like that of a truncated Christology, is that there was a time before the beginning, a time before God was creator and a time before the Lamb crucified from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). Though the presumptions of Newton have been proven wrong, there is still the experiential presumption that time preceded creation and that time and law take precedence over creation as a resource from which it arose. Thus, it is assumed that there is a “before creation” and a “before time” and that there will be an after, such that the nothing which precedes and follows becomes the prime reality enfolding creation. Rather than time being a measure of relation the measurement is mistaken for the reality out of which it arises.

Bulgakov argues that time has reality only in its relation to eternity and in the fact that “in the fulfilled times and seasons God was incarnated.” “If eternity is clothed in temporality, then time also proves to be fraught with eternity and generates its fruit.”[4] As Bulgakov describes it, “At any given instant of being, in its every moment, eternity enlightens, integral and indivisible, where there is no present, past, or future, but where all that happens is extratemporal.” In the Son, time and eternity, heaven and earth, history and  Spirit intersect, such that the cross is an eternal fact about God. “Vertical segments of time penetrate eternity; therefore nothing of that which only once appeared for a moment in time can vanish anymore and return to nonbeing, for it has a certain projection into eternity, it is itself in one of its countless aspects.” However, this “freedom from temporality” – the alternative to being given over to nothing – comes with a certain dark note: “in this permanence of what once was the joy of being is included, as is dread before eternity, its threat: at the Dread Judgment nothing will be forgotten or concealed.”[5] It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, and best perhaps that we hide in oblivion rather than face this glorious reality.

On the other hand, where the truth of the Son has been taken as primary and sufficient, exclusive of the truth of the Father and the Spirit, the historical and the human have come to have predominance over the transcendent, and time and history have been presumed to contain their own sufficient meaning. The peculiar historicism that marks both theological liberalism and conservativism unfolds from a reappreciation (over-appreciation) of history. Higher critical attacks on the Bible and the retreat to the literalism of biblical inerrancy miss, in Henri de Lubac’s estimate, the Spirit of history.

In his return to the spiritual reading of Origen, de Lubac describes the goal of this form of exegesis as “an effort to grasp the spirit in history or to undertake the passage from history to spirit.”[6] Origen’s spiritual reading of the Bible does not eschew history or the letter or time but presumes that the Son and the Spirit provide the prime meaning to the fleshly and historical. There is a dyadic union between the Son and the Spirit in which the former (the Word, Scripture, the historical) is realizable only through the latter. History or the Old Testament becomes the mediating source for God only with the incarnation of the Son. It is not simply that Moses and the Law prepared for the coming of Christ, but Jesus says Moses spoke of me (Jn. 5:46). Jesus as the interpretive key of history is not a denial of history but, in conjunction with the Spirit, its realized meaning.

History is not an end in itself, as historical facts alone are dead and gone – they have passed on. As de Lubac says, the role of history is to “pass on.” The “events recounted in the Bible, whatever they might be, as they were unfolding, all exhausted, so to speak, their historical role at the same time as their factual reality, so as no longer to survive today except as signs and mysteries.” Only in this light can Paul say, these things happened for our edification. They are only for the purpose of our “spiritual re-creation in Christ, then for the purpose of our moral instruction as Christians. Thus, in its entirety, up to its final event, history is preparation for something else. To deny that is to deny it.”[7]

As Origen pictures it, “In following the trail of truth in the letter of Scripture,” we “will thus be served by history as by a ladder.”[8] The ascent to spiritual realities is provided by the rungs of history and only with this ascent, this perpetual movement toward the transcendent, does the Spirit make all things new. Otherwise, even in reading the New Testament, constituted as such through the Spirit, there can be a clinging to the letter. If we do not ascend above the history, even where we obtain complete harmony between the New and the Old or within the various accounts in the Gospels, “it would still be as if we remained at the literal level. We would thus still be only a scribe or a Pharisee.”[9] Origen, like Paul, invites us to see the heavenly, the Spiritual, the unseen, through the seen. “He wants the mind to be raised to a spiritual understanding by seeking in the heavens for the causes of realities here on earth.”[10]

In the description of Bulgakov, this is a possibility only realized through the Spirit:

By its procession from the Father upon the Son, the Third hypostasis loses itself, as it were, becomes only a copula, the living bridge of love between the Father and the Son, the hypostatic Between. But in this kenosis the Third hypostasis finds itself as the Life of the other hypostases, as the Love of the Others and as the Comfort of the Others, which then becomes for it too its own Comfort, its self-comfort. . . . It is possible, however, to distinguish different modes of this love and, in particular, to see that, in the Third hypostasis, the kenosis is expressed in a special self-abolition of its personality. The latter disappears, as it were, while becoming perfectly transparent for the other hypostases, but in this it acquires the perfection of Divine life: Glory.[11]

This perfection through the Spirit points to the third possible error, which is at once the most dangerous and perhaps the most pervasive. Where the Spirit has been cut off from the Son and the Father and made a rival deity, the human and the historical are set aside in a presumed Gnostic embrace of the divine apart from the human. The Spirit in this instance, as it was perceived in the Old Testament, is sheer power. Where the Spirit’s dyadic connection with the Son is relinquished, there is the presumption that Christ in the flesh is of no consequence. Exposure of this anti-Christ teaching takes up a good portion of the New Testament and is the primary target of several of the Church fathers.

Gregory of Nazianzus pictures the entire preparation of the Old Testament and the preparation of Christ as preparation for the indwelling of the Spirit: “For it was not safe, when the Godhead of the Father was not yet acknowledged, plainly to proclaim the Son; nor when that of the Son was not yet received to burden us further (if I may use so bold an expression) with the Holy Ghost.”[12] Gregory describes a gradual process in which Christ’s entire work, with “the beginning of the Gospel, after the Passion, after the Ascension” is dedicated to “making perfect their powers” so that only then did he breathe the Holy Spirit upon them. Always Christ spoke of the Spirit in conjunction with his own teaching and the work of the Father. The Father sends the Spirit, but only in “my Name” and in order to “call to remembrance all that I have taught you” (Jn. 14:26). As Gregory describes it, this careful approach to the Spirit, was in order to ensure “that He might not seem to be a rival God.”[13]

According to Gregory this is the third and most dramatic of the movements of God. “The Old Testament proclaimed the Father openly, and the Son more obscurely. The New manifested the Son, and suggested the Deity of the Spirit. Now the Spirit Himself dwells among us, and supplies us with a clearer demonstration of Himself.”[14] This third “earthquake” unleashes the most radical of possibilities, as here the Trinitarian Truth of God is open as the final possibility (or the ultimate perversion). “For what greater thing than this did either He promise, or the Spirit teach. If indeed anything is to be considered great and worthy of the Majesty of God, which was either promised or taught.”[15] Perhaps it is the finality and fulness of the Spirit which also raises the specter of the unforgivable sin (Matt. 12:31-32).

God can only be properly worshipped and the fulness of the truth apprehended in the fulness of the Trinity, apart from which the truth of God is subject to perversion. Only on the basis of this fulness can humankind enter into Truth or into participation in God (i.e., into theosis and deification). “And indeed from the Spirit comes our New Birth, and from the New Birth our new creation, and from the new creation our deeper knowledge of the dignity of Him from Whom it is derived.”[16]


[1] Sergius Bulgakov, The Comforter, Translated by Boris ]akim (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids/Cambridge, 2004), 316.

[2] Sergius Bulgakov, Unfading Light: Contemplations and Speculations, Translated by Thomas Allan Smith (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids/Cambridge, 2012), 332.

[3] Bulgakov works this out most extensively in The Bride of the Lamb, Translated by Boris Jakim (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 71-76.

[4] Bulgakov. Unfading Light, 335.

[5] Ibid. 316.

[6] Henri de Lubac, History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture according to Origen, Translated by Anne England Nash (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2007), 317.

[7] Ibid. 322.

[8] Origen, Commentary on John, Book 20.3. Quoted from de Lubak, 323.

[9] Ibid. de Lubak.

[10] Ibid. 325.

[11] Bulgakov, The Comforter, 181-182.

[12] Gregory of Nazianzus, Fifth Theological Oration, Oration 31.26.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. 31.27.

[16] Ibid. 31.28.

How Theology Became Boring

I assume connectedness, integration, and beauty, are key elements in the make-up of that which is compelling and interesting. We engage in what grabs and pertains to us. In turn, boredom arises with disconnectedness and irrelevance.  This means the most basic, broadest, most interconnected of topics, such as theology, should be the most compelling – which for most is self-evidently not the case.

This is nowhere more obvious than among supposed students of the Bible, which I found through long experience, require convincing that theology is pertinent to their goals in ministry. As David Wells and Mark Knoll noted years ago, even the highest achieving seminarians can be dismissive of theology and eager to get to the real work of ministry. They both put the blame on the culture of pragmatism, but neither thought to look at the treatment of the topic itself. Neither considered the role of theology in giving rise to a culture, even a culture within the church, which no longer was concerned with what would seem to be foundational. It is clear that this subject, theology, which once engaged the greatest minds in history, even the greatest philosophical and scientific minds, as the queen of the sciences, has been displaced and theologians may have ensured this result.

The problem with turning to theology as giving rise to its own failure is not so much about agreeing that this may be true.  The argument is mostly about who is to blame. Who or what gave rise to “onto-theology,” or “classical theism” or the focus on metaphysics? While the incremental steps which gave rise to an irrelevant theology might be debated (e.g., the Constantinian shift, Augustinian dualism and doctrine of original sin, Anselm’s self-grounding philosophy and atonement theory, Scotus’ univocity of being, Calvin’s penal substitution, etc.) the end result is that theology became a perceived ghetto – the realm of those who have nothing pertinent to contribute to reason, science, and modern society.

One might point to Anselm, who presumed final solutions reside within the rational subject as there is a “natural” interiority which can function as the equivalent of revelation. The human word attains the Divine word and human self-presence equals the presence of God.  In other words, Anselm poses a world in which the resources for attaining to God lie within human reason and interiority rather than in a community of faith.

Leslie Newbigin suggests the real culprit in dividing faith from reason is Thomas Aquinas: “The Thomist scheme puts asunder what Augustine had held together, and as a result of this, knowledge is separated from faith. There is a kind of knowledge for which one does not have to depend upon faith, and there is another kind which is only available by exercise of faith. Certain knowledge is one thing; faith is something else. In Locke’s famous definition, belief is ‘a persuasion which falls short of knowledge.’” Augustine and Anselm held that faith was the beginning point, and “faith seeking understanding” held the two realms together. Subsequent to Aquinas, according the Newbigin, certainty is presumed to be a matter of knowledge, not of faith. “Faith is what we have to fall back on when certain knowledge is not had.”[1]

John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Radical Orthodoxy would lay the primary blame for a failed theology (and the failures of modernity in general) on Duns Scotus. His “univocity of being” presumes to find in all being what constitutes it as an individual existing thing. The being of the world, like the being of God, contains its own haecceity or integrity of being. According to the story told in Radical Orthodoxy, Scotus is to blame for making God like all other being, which results in secularism and atheism as God is subsumed by the being of the world.

Nearly everyone piles on Rene Descartes as the true culprit behind the division between faith and reason. Newbigin even suggests he is the cause of the second fall of man. In the midst of the crisis of authority represented between Protestants and Catholics, but more broadly between science and faith, as a paid apologist for the church, Descartes develops his argument for God, beginning, not with faith, but with doubt. He argued that knowledge of God and the soul was the business of philosophy, and the particulars of Christianity stood apart from the certain knowledge provided by natural reason. He presumes that since he has certain knowledge within himself, this knowledge is distinct from the realm of his body and the “outside” world. He concludes his soul is independent of the outside world and that the mind is distinct from and superior to matter. It is his soul, he argues, which does the real seeing, hearing, and perceiving, and not his physical eyes, ears, or physical body. He presumes any eye could be stuck in his eye socket, even a dead animal’s eye, for his soul to see through. Thought and action, belief and practice, the realm of the mind and the world of social relations are divided as a result.

Isaac Newton, who considers himself a theologian above all else, wanted to correct the primary mistake he found in Descartes of excluding God from science. Newton depicts God as inserting the created world into an already existing time and space (the laws of nature like the laws of reason are uncreated). He presumed God needed to occasionally correct the great machine of the universe and allows for God in the gaps, but his natural theology mostly closes the universe and promotes mechanical philosophy. As Pierre-Simon Laplace replies to Napoleon, inquiring where God is in his theory, “Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.” Laplace assumed he had closed the gaps in Newtonian theory.

Wherever the blame is placed, it seems undeniable that a cleavage develops between the God of philosophy and science and the God of the Bible.  The former is demonstrable through apologetics and philosophical arguments while the latter is known through narrative and history. The God found in narrative does not provide for the sort of certainty found in the God of reason, and thus the God of reason and certainty becomes definitive of the God of faith. Natural theology, the study of metaphysics, and the notion of God as efficient cause, trumps the personal trinitarian God revealed in Christ. The being or the existence of God becomes the primary thing about him and his redemptive work in Christ and history are often rendered secondary to the brute fact of his existence.

The focus on God’s relation to time and history, the implicit privileging of monotheism over trinitarianism, arguments about immutability, impassibility, and sovereignty come to dominate much of the theological conversation. The notion of the world as a limited whole shapes theology such that the universe is no longer sacramental. Rather than the universe shining forth with the grandeur of God, it is a problem for God. Mechanical philosophy, evolutionary biology, or the pervasive tendency to reductionism, threatens to shut out God entirely, so that theology becomes consumed with proofs.

 In the realm of biblical studies, the primary effort becomes one of warding off scientific attacks, defending against higher criticism, and defending the inerrancy of the biblical text. Harmony between the Old and New Testament, harmony within the Gospels, harmony within the doctrine of the Bible, becomes the prime imperative among conservatives. The Bible not Jesus, history and not Christ, becomes the presumed ground of the Christian truth claim. Propositions about Christ tend to displace the centrality of his person. Historicism displaces the Word revealed in a continuum of history, as the Spirit of history becomes the history of spirit. In the general tenor of theology, like that of the culture, doubt displaces trust, certainty is sought to avoid risk, and facts are preferred over narrative. In the words of Paul, taken up by Origen, the spirit is displaced by the letter.

Origen might refer to the boring form of theology today as the faith of the “simple ones.” These simple ones believe in the creator God but they read Scripture without the Spirit, and are left, not simply with the literal text but the letter devoid of the Spirit. He commends their high view of the creator but concludes, they believe things about God that would “not be believed of the most savage and unjust of men.”[2] He says the reason for this, and the reason for the false teaching of the heretics and the literalism of the Jews, can be assigned to a singular cause: “holy Scripture is not understood by them according to its spiritual sense, but according to the sound of the letter.”[3] Those that miss the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Word, or the Spirit of history, “have given themselves up to fictions, mythologizing for themselves hypotheses according to which they suppose that there are some things that are seen and certain others which are not seen, which their own souls have idolized.”[4] The boring/simple ones reduce God to being after their own likeness and they miss the sacramental nature of the word and world delivered through the Spirit.


[1] Leslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 18.

[2] Origen, On First Principles 4.2.1.

[3] Ibid. 4.2.2.

[4] Ibid. 4.2.1.

Atonement in the Gospel of John

The atonement theory of John might be described, from the prologue, with its echoes of Genesis, as new creation. “In the beginning” of Genesis repeated in John ties together creation and redemption. The “it is finished,” pronounced from the cross, brackets the ministry of Jesus (his life and death), within the first and final words of creation, so that from the tree of the cross there is a planting of a new tree of life. In chapter 16, Jesus describes this new life springing from death as on the order of birth pangs. He describes the lamenting surrounding his death as giving way to an unending joy (16:22). Throughout the Gospel, the life that is imparted has this same quality – it cannot be disrupted or despoiled by death (darkness cannot overtake this light), as it is a life that has overcome death.

In chapter one, with its depiction of the first week of Jesus’ ministry and the calling of a new humanity, maybe this new creation is more of a recapitulation; something on the order of Paul’s depiction in Romans five of the second Adam becoming the head of a new race, in which life, and not death, is the controlling factor. These two Adams though are not separate but conjoined even in Irenaeus’ description (the originator of recapitulation). What was begun in the Adam of the dust is completed in Adam of the Spirit. As Irenaeus describes it, the two Adams are on a continuum: “For never at any time did Adam escape the hands of God, to whom the Father speaking, said, “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness.’” So what was begun in the first Adam is completed in the second: “And for this reason in the last times, not by the will of the flesh, nor by the will of man, but by the good pleasure of the Father, His hands formed a living man, in order that Adam might be created after the image and likeness of God.”[1] Though Irenaeus describes his theory as recapitulation, this speaks not so much of a redoing as a finishing. Maybe it is best described as creations completion.

If there is a singular theological point to chapter two, the temple cleansing pointing to Christ as ordering the true cosmic temple, heralded by the wedding supper (of the lamb) and the new wine of a new age, proleptically offered up at Cana, the singular point might fit the theory of Christus Victor (Christ’s defeat of sin death and the devil). There is direct reference to the violent destruction (crucifixion) of Jesus, which inaugurates the new temple/cosmic order: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (2:19). This Christus Victor motif, fits with Jesus’ depiction of “being lifted up” and in the process casting out the prince of this world and dragging all people to himself (12:32). The emphasis though, is not so much on what is defeated, overcome, or set aside, as upon temple construction and a new order of life.

This cosmic vision is made personal, if not individualistic in the next two chapters with the discussion with Nicodemus and the woman at the well. Once again there is direct reference to the death of Christ, but in this instance the cross is depicted as therapeutic or curative. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life (3:14-15). This is not exactly “the hair of the dog that bit you” but it is a reordering of life in which the sting of death is accounted for. The cross, like the bronze serpent, is an antidote to death through trust in the cure or the life that God offers. There is the same lifting up as in chapter 12, but in this instance the focus is upon the individual believer rather than a universal humanity. While Jesus appropriates the sign of Moses, he is also claiming, with his “no one has ascended to the father” (3:13), that he is greater than Moses (as well as Enoch and Elijah, claimants of heavenly ascent) as he says they have not ascended, but only he has ascended. The ascent seems to be only through being lifted up, and none of them qualify. None of them have conquered death and none of them have access to the power of eternal life which defeats death.

The lifting up through death qualifies the nature of the life that Christ offers. This is echoed and stated explicitly in the story of the man by the Sheep Pool in chapter 5. The paralyzed man can find no “human” to help him into the healing waters. Christ tells the man to “rise” (5:8) and to take up his bed, bringing on the condemnation of the authorities, who claim that both Jesus and the man have broken sabbath laws. Though no resurrection has yet occurred in John, Jesus treats the miracle as on the order of resurrection: “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes” (5:21). He is making divine life available through his “work” as he presumes to demonstrate in the miracle unfolding as part of sabbath work. This healing is on a continuum with his rising into new life and in this seventh day of redemptive work (the ongoing completion of creation) the life of God is fully given and death defeated.

Death though, is not a singular thing in John, as it may be the means of access to life – as in the seed that is planted which produces new life through its death (John 12:24) or it may be the wrong kind of death, even if it is of the sacrificial kind. The death of betrayal describes not only Judas’ suicide from despair but Peter’s willingness to betray the way of Christ by killing. The two betrayers are set side by side, and all of the apostles seem to be represented in their respective stories. At the foot washing, the particular dirt which they all share is not simply that of Judas, but of the apostolic spokesman Peter. Their two stories of betrayal unfold from this point. Judas sells out Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, but Peter also involves himself in betrayal.

As he testifies after the foot washing, he is willing to lay down his life (13:37), and as it turns out, he is willing to lay down the life of as many as he can kill in fighting for Jesus. Before this, he is portrayed as attempting to prevent Jesus’ death, and Jesus identifies Peter (as he did Judas) with Satan: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Matt. 16:23). This misdirected following, and misoriented willingness to kill and die, gives rise to Peter’s denial of Christ (18:15-27). Peter’s betrayal may be of a different order than that of Judas but is it somehow more acceptable? Or is his attempted homicide more acceptable due to our sense that killing for Jesus is more socially respectable than betrayal for greed. Isn’t Peter also a potential suicide when Jesus finds him and restores him through his three-fold demand for love displacing his three denials? The point is, there are many ways to die, but there is only one form of dying that is salvific.  

As Jesus had already warned Peter, the one who would prevent him from facing death is the devil, and ultimately, in his manner of death Jesus takes on death and the devil. However, the lifting up on the cross, the lifting up in resurrection and ascension, is also, as explained above, the lifting up associated with his healing. As he describes in the most explicit terms after his healing of the man by the pool, he has life within himself, like the Father: “For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself” (5:26). Resurrection, healing, therapy, making whole, are all facets of the life he gives. As Jesus says in the Apocalypse, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades (Revelation 1:17–18). Christ’s passage through death, his becoming dead, opens up the “risen” quality of life which is divine life. He shares in the quality of life of the Father, in that they both have life in themselves and are the source of life, but this is a life realized through his death.

The whole of the book of John may seem to offer too many sides to the saving work of Christ to call each a facet of salvation, but this is the writer’s description of his purpose: “these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (20:31). The life he gives is made evident in his healing ministry. Those paralyzed are raised up, those who are blind are enabled to see.  Jesus heals where life is defective and provides sustenance where life is short. There is a cosmic theme in Jesus’ identity as the Logos behind creation and in his identity as true temple. This cosmic salvation is inclusive of individual orientation, and there is consistent depiction of life, new life, spiritual life, and the accessing of this new life through a specific and individual reorientation to death. Atonement or redemption cleanses of death through life, it heals, it is spiritually therapeutic, and it resolves the problem of desire. At the cosmic and individual level, death is displaced with life. This might be called new creation, recapitulation, Christus Victor, or simply creation completion.


[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.1.3.

God in the Dock

The trial of Jesus plays a central and extended role in the book of John, with some seeing the entire book as a courtroom scene in which various witnesses are called in a trial of cosmic proportions in which God and humankind take turns in the dock.[1] Besides the ambiguity as to who is acting as judge at his trial (does Pilate or Jesus sit in the seat of judgment in 19:13, see here), John uses trial language throughout his Gospel,[2] and pictures John the Baptist and the writer (himself), or beloved disciple, as witnesses (1:6-8,15; 19:35; 21:24). The Gospel is framed as a legal proceeding, and John references and echoes the trial scene in Isaiah, in which God is the accused and the nations are arrayed against him as witnesses of the prosecution. God declares, let “All the nations gather together and the peoples assemble. Let them bring in their witnesses to prove they were right, so that others may hear and say, ‘It is true’” (Is. 43:9). At the same time, God brings forth Israel, and his key witness “my servant whom I have chosen” (Is. 43:10).

The chief thing to be proven in Isaiah is the identity of God as opposed to the gods of the nations: “so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me” (43:10). As witness, Israel was to “know” and “believe” and witness to YHWH’s being “I Am.” Jesus’ calls for this same belief (πιστεύσητε—8:24) and knowledge (γνώσεσθε—8:28) as applying to himself, but he explains this will come about only when the judgment is passed and “you lift up the Son of Man.” Only then will you “know that I am He” (8:28). The language is precisely that of the Septuagint in Isaiah. The reference is not lost upon his listeners, as they would immediately execute judgment by stoning Jesus (8:58).

His betrayal, arrest, and death, would seem to be the point when they would presume he is not the “I am” but Jesus predicts the opposite. “From now on I am telling you before it comes to pass, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am He” (13:19). This unmistakable recognition occurs on the night of his betrayal. When Jesus inquires of the soldiers whom they seek, and they say “Jesus the Nazarene,” he self-identifies in a way that bowls them over. “He said to them, ‘I am He.’ And Judas also, who was betraying Him, was standing with them. So when He said to them, ‘I am He,’ they drew back and fell to the ground” (18:5–6). The claim and recognition that this is the “I am He” of Isaiah is apparently self-evident, and like any theophany, overwhelming.

The claim, “I am He,” in Isaiah and the significance worked out in John has pertinence to all involved, as “apart from me there is no savior” (v. 11). There is only one who has “revealed and saved and proclaimed – I, and not some foreign god among you” (v. 12). Though they have wearied God with their sins and have not shown any gratitude for his mercy (Is. 43:24) still, “I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake, And I will not remember your sins (Is. 43:25).

The decision being handed down in these tandem trials is about the nature of reality and truth, the order of power, and the role of life and death, but ultimately it is about salvation. In both John and Isiah, this “judgment” is salvific. In Isaiah, though there are a series of harsh accusations, the beginning and end of the matter is to offer assurance. “‘Comfort, O comfort My people,’ says your God. ‘Speak kindly to Jerusalem; And call out to her, that her warfare has ended, That her iniquity has been removed, That she has received of the LORD’S hand Double for all her sins’” (Is 40:1–2). Through Israel, the same invitation is extended to all the nations: “Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; For I am God, and there is no other. I have sworn by Myself, The word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness And will not turn back, That to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance” (Is 45:22–23).

In John, Jesus gives the same assurance, though it too is mixed with various harsh condemnations. He describes his purpose as one of judgment, “For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind” (John 9:39). This judging works its effect in delivering from darkness, casting out the prince of this world and in exposing the lie undergirding this enslaving darkness. There is ultimate trust in the law of the cosmic order (“they have loved darkness” 3:19), an implicit trust in the power of death, and a first-order trust in the law of Moses (5:46), and on this basis a rejection and presumed judgment of Jesus is rendered. It is this false judgment that becomes God’s judgment and means of universal salvation (12:32).

Israel is supposed to be God’s witnesses “that I am God,” but as in Isaiah, so in the trial of Jesus, Israel does not prove trustworthy. Those who proclaim “we have no King but Caesar” (John 19:15) are those who formerly sided with the nations against God, and who stand accused and condemned: “Put Me in remembrance, let us argue our case together; State your cause, that you may be proved right. Your first forefather sinned, And your spokesmen have transgressed against Me. So I will pollute the princes of the sanctuary, And I will consign Jacob to the ban and Israel to revilement” (Is 43:26–28). Or as Jesus states it, “All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them” (10:8). “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (10:10). “He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them” (10:12). “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (8:44).

The characteristics of the truth and judgments of the cosmic order, which Jesus challenges, is that it is flesh bound, earth bound, or in the language of Charles Taylor, reliant on an immanent frame. According to Jesus, there is a regime of truth whose judgments are based on appearances (7:24), on the flesh (8:15), on what is below and without reference to a transcendent order (3:31; 6:33, 62; 8:23). Jesus counters this system of truth and judgment with the claim that he speaks for God (8:15-16) with a word which transcends the world and does not rely simply on human standards of judgment (e.g., 8:15, 23; 12:31; 18:36). In cosmic terms, this is like light against darkness, life against death, or God against humanity. “He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony” (3:31–32). It is not an intrinsic problem with the law, but with the orientation that misses the transcendent referent of the law (5:46). The exposure of this lie and the revealing of the truth occurs throughout the life of Christ but comes to a culminating point at the trial and in the judgment of the cross.

 The two regimes of truth, two modes of power, or two cosmic orders built on life or death, respectively, come into clear conflict and a judgment is rendered in the trial and its aftermath. However, as in Isaiah, the point of Jesus confrontation with the power of darkness and death is not simply judgment and condemnation but life: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (10:10). “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes” (5:21).

As Isaiah describes it, in the clearest pointers to Jesus’ trial: “I gave My back to those who strike Me, And My cheeks to those who pluck out the beard; I did not cover My face from humiliation and spitting. For the Lord GOD helps Me, Therefore, I am not disgraced; Therefore, I have set My face like flint, And I know that I will not be ashamed” (Is 50:6–7). Trust in God in the face of death characterizes the Servant and describes Jesus confident march into Jerusalem and taking up of the cross. Those who condemned him presumed they had destroyed him and sealed him up in death: “By oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation, who considered That He was cut off out of the land of the living” (Is. 53:8). God’s judgment intervenes so as to set aside every human judgment: “Behold, My servant will prosper, He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted” (Is. 52:13). God in Christ receives condemnation, but in the midst of this death his divine glory and life shine forth (lxx 52:14—ἡ δόξα . . . ἀπὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων).

Jesus is the agent of God’s judgment, his claim upon the world. As Andrew Lincoln describes it, “that claim is now depicted in terms of God’s salvific judgment, which, through Jesus as its unique agent, inaugurates ‘life’ or ‘eternal life.’”[3] All then are called before the judgment of the word of Christ: “He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day” (12:48). The call is to believe and know that “I am” as he has overcome death; he is life and the source of eternal life (6:53-54). “I know that His commandment is eternal life; therefore the things I speak, I speak just as the Father has told Me” (Jn 12:50). “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (6:63). This is judgment, that the light has broken into the darkness and all are called to the light (3:19).


[1] Andrew T. Lincoln, Truth on Trial: The Lawsuit Motif in the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000). Lincoln has also updated his work in the article “A Life of Jesus as Testimony: The Divine Courtroom and the Gospel of John” available online at https://www.academia.edu/16852459/A_Life_of_Jesus_as_Testimony_The_Divine_Courtroom_in_the_Gospel_of_John

[2] According to Lincoln he uses  “witness” or “testimony” (μαρτυρία occurring 14 times), the verb “to testify” (μαρτυρεῖν occurring thirty three times), judge (κρίνειν is employed nineteen times), or the legal or forensic notion of “truth” (ἀληθεία occurs twenty five times) or “true” (ἀληθής occurs some 14 times) or “trustworthy” (ἀληθινός occurs nine times). See the Lincoln article, Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Jesus’ Temple Construction as a New World Order

At the beginning of John, Jesus disrupts the Passover sacrifice in the temple with a sign which, in his explanation, points to himself as true temple: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). The temple incident is not about cleaning up Herod’s temple nor is it about getting rid of coin exchange (it was necessary that the coins bearing Caesars image be exchanged for those with “no graven images”) or animals being sold. As Mary Coloe points out, such trade was not itself wrong; rather, “his words and actions must be seen as a prophetic critique of the entire sacrificial system.”[1] The Jewish response indicates as much, as they do not question why he did it but ask what sign he could give that he had the authority to do such a thing. They did not take his action as some sort of violent assault on the temple, but presumed it called for a legitimating sign of authority, as with Moses’ “signs and wonders” (Deut. 34:11). They knew the prophecies concerning the end of sacrifice and the limitation of the efficacy of animal sacrifice, and indeed, Jesus is declaring the end of the sacrificial system, as he is true temple and true sacrifice. As Jacob Neusner describes Jesus’ action in the temple, it “represents an act of the rejection of the most important rite of the Israelite cult and therefore, a statement that there is a means of atonement other than the daily whole-offering, which now is null.”[2]

The Gospel of John is written at the end of the first century, after the Romans had already destroyed Jerusalem and its temple, so that John might be read, not only as the story of temple replacement, but as a depiction of how all of the rites and meaning of Israel are now continuing as a first order reality through Christ. The ingathering of a new Israel, represented in the 12 apostles, resonates with the founding of a new dwelling, a new sacrifice, and a new understanding of atonement.

 As Coloe points out, this theme of fulfilling Israel’s scriptures, echoes from “the beginning” in which the true tabernacling (eskenoseri) among us has commenced in his flesh and God is among us, and we saw his glory {doxa)” (1:14).[3] The language of tabernacle and glory reverberates with the way in which God’s presence was made known to Israel in the ark, the tabernacle, and the temple. Rather than reading this opening scene as a cleansing of the temple, in the context of John, this must be read as the beginning of a new temple and new order of worship and a recentering of the world.

The theme of Jesus as temple marks each key moment in Jesus’ explanation of his identity. Seated at Jacob’s well in Samaria, Jesus indirectly alludes to himself as the temple, which was often pictured as situated above the wellsprings of creation (as in Ezekiel 47:1-12). The temple, in Jewish tradition, was thought to rest upon the spring of creative waters (Gen. 2:8) and also served as the capstone holding back the flood waters of Noah. Noah’s altar is also linked with this foundation stone located in the Holy of Holies supporting the Ark, with its temple sitting upon the wellspring of the earth at the center and source of creation, but now Jesus is this living water (John 4:6, 10). At the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus describes himself in terms of this festival as the source of thirst-quenching water (7:37) and the light of the world (8:12). During the Feast of Dedication, celebrating the reconsecrated temple (in 165 BCE), Jesus describes himself as the “consecrated one” (10:36). During the final discourse Jesus speaks of his “Father’s House” with many dwellings (14:2) which indicates an ongoing extension of the household of God. In the course of the Gospel, the temple has been identified as a building whose true form is the person of Jesus, and this then is extended to a new temple community of disciples, but ultimately a new world order. [4]

If we take Jesus at his word, the key part of temple construction gets under way at the cross and the tomb, in which the echoes of the temple reverberate throughout. John makes it obvious that the cross is the point when the true Passover lamb is being sacrificed, as his Gospel climaxes with the crucifixion at the very moment the Passover lambs are being slain (John 19:14, 31). Jesus is this Passover lamb that cleanses the world of sin and death, according to John the Baptist (John 2:13, which I described last week here).

The work of the temple, representative of a cosmic removal of death, is a work completed in Christ, but maybe it is the empty tomb and resurrection which most clearly bears echoes of Jesus as true temple. For example, in John 20:12 Mary “saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying.” Several commentators see here an allusion to the ark of the covenant with its two angels at either end of the mercy seat or lid on the ark of the covenant.[5] Nicholas Lunn finds ten similarities between the scene of the tomb and the ark of the covenant: the inner chamber of the temple, separated by a veil is like the burial chamber sealed with a rock and, like the ark, Jesus body was “carried” (άροϋσιν) and “put” in the tomb (τίθημι – put, place, lay is used some six times in John to describe that Jesus was laid there (John 19:42; also 19:41; 20:2, 13, 15)). A cloth covered the ark and was wrapped around Jesus for burial, and both involved spices (and specifically myrrh). Both the tomb and the ark were adjacent to a garden (with the Garden of Eden represented as surrounding the ark). Though entry into the holy of holies is restricted, Peter and John enter and believe but Mary receives a warning, similar to that given to the priests not to touch the holy things (Jesus says, “Do not touch me” (John 20:17)) and both times of entry were early morning. Finally, the risen Lord directly correlates to and surpasses the glory surrounding the ark (John 12:16; 2:22).[6]

The glory of the Lord had been attached to the ark (with the cherubic figures described as “the cherubim of glory” (Heb. 9:5)). It was here that God appeared to Moses to give him revelations: “There I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel” (Ex 25:22). With the loss of the ark the glory departed from Israel (I Sam. 4:21-22) and God fell silent. Now real cherubim show up to mark the spot where full access to God is realized. The presence of God had been identified as the one “who dwells between the cherubim” (cf. 1 Sam 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2; 2 Kgs 19:15; Ps 80:1; 99:1), but now the presence of the risen Lord is marked by living angelic messengers.

Lunn draws parallels between the Levites and Jesus’ high priestly prayer (for the disciples) in terms of the relationship between the high priest, God’s representative, and the Levites. It is stressed several times, that they belong to God: “They are mine [έμοι έσονται],” he says (Num 3:13; cf. 12, 45; 8:14). Jesus repeatedly describes his disciples as those who were God’s which are now mine. “I have manifested your name to the men you gave me out of the world; they were yours and you gave them to me” (John 17:6). “I do not pray for the world but for those you have given me” (John 17:9). “I desire that they also, whom you have given me, be with me where I am, that they may see my glory” (John 17:24). Just as God designates the tribe of Levi as Aaron’s brothers (Numbers 18:2) Jesus calls his disciples his brothers (John 20:17). On the other hand, the prohibitions against touching or looking improperly are clearly abrogated in Christ, whom they could freely see and touch without fear of being struck dead. “No longer is God concealed and unapproachable, but revealed and accessible. No longer is there any threat of death in drawing near, but rather through the incarnate Son’s own atoning death there is an offer of life.”[7]

Besides the obvious implications, that here God and his people meet and that here true revelation is given and divine access is opened through Christ, the explicit linking of cross and lamb, and tomb and ark, bear a striking theological lesson. There is no negotiation with the powers, with evil, with death, or with the necessity of violence. While great violence is unleashed on Christ, this is not something he negotiates but it is what he overcomes. The true high priest has applied his own life blood to the “mercy seat” so that where death previously occupied the center of the world, life now appears so as to displace death. Death or the devil do not demand or require a ransom for Jesus, as he simply defeats both. He is lifted up and the prince of this world who has kept the world enslaved through death is defeated (John 12:30-32).

There is no deep discord, original violence, or dialectic difference to mediate the work of Christ. He is the light that dispels the darkness, the life that overcomes death, and the “I am” which exposes all false metaphysical presuppositions. It is not, as Karl Barth depicts it, that the antithesis to creation – nothingness – is somehow lent a reality in competition with God’s being. He maintains, “That which God renounces and abandons in virtue of his decision is not merely nothing. It is nothingness, and has as such its own being, albeit malignant and perverse. . . . It lives only by the fact that it is that which God does not will. But it does live by this fact.”[8] In Barth’s Calvinist depiction, God must negotiate with this malignant order as if it is in competition with the reality of God. While some may not be so bold as Barth and Calvin to assign evil to God, there is a long tradition imagining God must somehow stoop to the level of death, darkness, and violence to overcome it.

The tomb as ark and the cross as means of establishing this relation, not only connects Christ to the atoning sacrifice, it also bears the full meaning of that sacrifice. We find the life of Christ in the place of death and the love of Christ in the place of violence. Christ’s life puts paid to the notion that violence is inevitable and that even God must struggle against the powers, pay the penalty, and work within the law or the laws of the universe. This inevitable violence and death dealing struggle describe every human order, every institution, every means which cannot imagine a resource that transcends the violence of the world. But this is precisely why Christ is the singular atoning sacrifice, the sole foundation of a new peaceable kingdom. We should not look to the shadows to determine the substance of the reality.

However atonement might have been construed prior to Christ, it now must be understood in light of his work as, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2, NIV). In John’s depiction in both the Gospel and the Epistles, love is definitive of God but this is a love that comes to full expression and fruition in the work of Christ: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10). The love of God as the defeat of sin and death is the meaning of atonement and this is the meaning of the world.

The Lamb is at the center of the throne, the place described as between the cherubim (Exodus 25:22). (As in Numbers, it is from here that Moses “heard the voice speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the ark of the testimony, from between the two cherubim” (Numbers 7:89).) The center of the world has become the throne room of heaven in John’s vision: “Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne” (Revelation 5:6). All peoples and all of heaven are now centered on this reality: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!’” (Revelation 5:13). Here the world is brought into relation with its Creator and Redeemer through the true Temple and True sacrifice of reconciliation.


[1] Mary Coloe, “Temple Imagery in John,” Interpretation (2009, 368-381)

[2] Jacob Neusner, “Money Changers in the Temple: The Mishna Explanation,” NTS 35 (1989) 290. Quoted in Coloe, ibid.

[3] Coloe, Ibid.

[4] Coloe, “Raising the Johannine Temple (JOHN 19: 19-37),” Australian Biblical Review (48/2000) 47-58.

[5] Nicholas P. Lunn, “Jesus, The Ark, and The Day of Atonement: Intertextual Echoes in John 19:38-20:18”

JETS 52/4 (December 2009) 731-46, provides the following references. John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, Vol. 3 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1859) 443-44; Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. 5: Matthew to John (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991) 979; Β. F. Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John (London: John Murray, 1892) 291; Geerhardus Vos, Grace and Glory (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994) 73. More recently the same comparison has been made by Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, XIII-XXI (AB; New York: Doubleday, 1966) 989; Rowan Williams, in an “ssay entitled, “Between the Cherubim: The Empty Tomb and the Empty Throne,” in his volume On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000) 183-96, esp. 186- 87; Johannine scholar Mark Stibbe in his popular work The Resurrection Code: Mary Magdalene and the Easter Enigma (Milton Keynes: Authentic Media, 2008) 61, 71; also Jim Cassidy, “The Mercy Seat” (a sermon preached August 2008) at http://www.calvary-amwell.org/sermons/ John20b.mp3.

[6] Lunn, Ibid.

[7] Lunn, Ibid.

[8] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Creation. Volume III, Part 3 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 352.

How is Sin Taken Away?

The best one sentence summary of the theology of the Gospel of John may be John the Baptist’s introduction and summation of the work of Christ, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). This short sentence contains reference to both Passover and the Day of Atonement, blending the two in a uniquely Christian manner, so as to simultaneously sum up the efficacy and result of the work of Christ, while indicating the scope of salvation (the world) and the nature of sin and evil. The Passover lamb, which is thematic in John and is tied to the “hour” of crucifixion, is referenced in the next chapter: “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (John 2:13). The Passover lamb is not a sin bearer, and yet this result (specifically tied to the Day of Atonement) is pictured as resulting from Christ’s Passover work. In brief, John is identifying the life God provides in Christ (the work of the Lamb in Egypt celebrated in Passover) as the means of “taking away the sin of the world.” The life of God as the rescue from sin and death is the means, with one result (among many) being sins are taken away. This cannot be read as punishment and payment but, as with the Gospel of John as a whole, the picture is of a real-world resolution to the problem of sin and death (life displacing death, light breaking into darkness, the bread of heaven provided in the wilderness, the storm calming voice of “I am” in the midst of the storm).

The goat of Leviticus who “bears away sin,” the Azazel Goat, has the singular function of symbolically carrying away sin and dumping it into the abyss. The way sin is gathered up to be loaded onto this goat is not found in this goat, but in the other goat, the Goat of Yahweh, which does all of the work and provides the explanation. The Yahweh Goat is the one whose blood is taken into the temple as representative of the cleansing life God provides. God had provided Abraham the life of Isaac, he had provided life in the face of death in Egypt with lamb’s blood applied to the door post, and the same symbolism is at work in the Yahweh Goat. On the other hand, the Azazel Goat sums up the negative result of the positive work of the Tabernacle, the priests, the Goat of Yahweh, the story of Abraham and the lamb of Passover. That is, John is explaining or summing up the primary work of Christ in terms of the Passover lamb, which is not part of the Day of Atonement. There is no mistaking the Passover lamb for the Azazel Goat and there is no danger of blending their work (or there should not be), as these are never brought together in Yom Kippur. The work foreshadowed in the story of Abraham, the story of the Exodus, and the Tabernacle and Temple is the positive part of the story.  Life and love through the Lamb, bears primary weight in this sentence and in the theology of John, while the taking away of sin is a result and not a means. The lamb is not a sin bearer and is not involved in Yom Kippur, but by linking the Lamb with atonement, John is tying the weight of the entire Jewish tradition to the singular “lifting up” of Christ. Cross, resurrection, and ascension are the singular cure to John’s depiction of the death centered darkness definitive of sin.

There are several dangers looming in misunderstanding how the sacrifice of atonement is taken up by Christ. We might assign the primary weight to the Azazel Goat and thus see Jesus’ death primarily in terms of the scapegoat. But of course, the Azazel Goat could never serve as a sacrifice or offering as it was unclean. The primary work of the Temple and Tabernacle was connected with the Yahweh Goat, or the notion that God provides life that cleanses the Temple of death (in my previous blog, here, I debunked the notion that God desires death), and with this cleansing, the scouring of sin can be put upon the head of the Azazel Goat and led off into the wilderness.

The action is not with the Azazel Goat, who is led passively off into the wilderness, but is with the Yahweh Goat which echoes the original sacrifice which Abraham did not make on Moriah, but which God will make on Golgotha. It is God who originally brings life from out of the dust or from those as good as dead. When Abraham offered Isaac, it was his own possibility for life, for making his name great, for survival, that is being offered. It was not Abraham’s life per se as he was as good as dead. It was not Sarah’s life; her womb was dead (Romans 4:19-20). Isaac represented their possibility for life in the face of death. This same provision from God is reflected in the cleansing from death through life blood in the Tabernacle and Temple. What is taking place with the offering of Isaac, is what is always ritually taking place in the Jewish sacrifices. When the priest ritually applies blood to the temple furnishings, he is applying the blood of Isaac as the antidote to death. All of which points to the true provision of life in the midst of death: “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood” (Hebrews 9:11-12).  Here is God providing his own life – the symbol of sacrifice. He does not provide life through death but in spite of death and he overcomes the orientation to death definitive of sin through his life.

To confuse the result and means of John’s declaration (and of the Jewish sacrificial system and the work of Christ) is not simply a technical mistake but an ontological error, in that it lends a determinate substance to death sin and evil. It is the equivalent of letting the devil call the shots or of picturing God having to negotiate with death. It puts what amounts to nothing (sin, death and evil) in ontological competition with God. Certainly, Christ was treated like a scapegoat by sinners but describing the work of the sinners and their sin, as if that explains the work of Christ, is like explaining the work of the Tabernacle, priests, and sacrifices only in terms of its scourings. It would be the equivalent of describing my gardening activity in terms of weeding and weeds. Heaping up a wheel barrow of weeds and burning them says nothing about what is being grown. Burning weeds does not produce carrots and peas.[1] Carrying away a goat load of sin and death says nothing about the main activity. And while dead weeds may be the primary fruit of my gardening, to confuse the Azazel Goat with the Goat of the Lord is quite literally to confuse the demonic with the divine. The wilderness of Azazel was connected with a demon (it may have meant “fierce god”) and this demon goat bearing all of the sins of Israel is taken to miḏbār, the polar opposite of holiness or to ’ereṣ gezêrāh – “a land of separation” “a land cut off” (Lev. 16:22) which came to be associated with the pit (sheol).[2]

Strangely though, in the notion of penal substitution, the work of both goats and the work of Christ is described in terms of the Azazel Goat, as if this goat does the work of the Yahweh Goat. John Stott, for example, describes all of the work of Christ as sin bearing and punishment and specifically links it to the Azazel Goat. He warns that some “make the mistake of driving a wedge between the two goats, the sacrificed goat and the scapegoat.”[3] What Stott seems to miss is that there was originally to be an absolute separation, as described in the place the goat is taken (literally to the “land of separation”). Stott concludes, “In this case the public proclamation of the Day of Atonement was plain, namely that reconciliation was possible only through substitutionary sin bearing.”[4] The Azazel goat does all the work and the entire institution of Tabernacle, priesthood and sacrifice (all that is done within the Tabernacle) is summed up in what was done outside the Tabernacle and Israel.

Stott is following John Calvin, who acknowledges that the resurrection of Christ might be the sign intimated as a carrying off sin, but he rejects this conclusion: “I embrace, however, what is more simple and certain, and am satisfied with that; i.e., that the goat which departed alive and free, was an atonement, that by its departure and flight the people might be assured that their sins were put away and vanished.” Calvin reduces the work of the atonement to the goat that bears the “offscouring,” calling it “the only expiatory sacrifice in the Law without blood.”[5] He understands this is a direct contradiction of Hebrews 9:22 (“without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness”), and yet he presumes to carry over the work of the Yahweh Goat to the Azazel Goat, going so far as to sum up atonement in the second goat and even calling it a sacrifice (again, this unclean goat could not be sacrificed and could never serve as an offering to God). But this makes room for his notion that Christ suffered in Hell on the cross: “In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. Whence also it was necessary that he should engage, as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death.”[6] The point in penal substitution is to reduce the work of Christ to sin bearing punishment, which puts all the meaning on the wrong goat and in doing away with the significance of the Yahweh Goat, it misconstrues the meaning of both goats.

Stott misses how the writer of Hebrews marks this point of separation (between the goats) in the work of Christ. “The author of the letter to the Hebrews has no inhibitions about seeing Jesus both as ‘a merciful and faithful high priest’ (2: 17) and as the two victims, the sacrificed goat whose blood was taken into the inner sanctuary (9:7, 12) and the scapegoat which carried away the people’s sins (9:28).”[7] What Stott and Calvin miss in Hebrews, they miss in the original depiction of atonement, and that is the Yahweh Goat (the singular sacrifice, or in John the Lamb) does all of the active cleansing. This is clear in John the Baptist’s phrase, as the Passover lamb is not associated with bearing sin, and yet this Lamb accomplishes what the Yahweh Goat also accomplishes.

So too in Hebrews, the sin bearing is a consequence of the sacrifice. In the writer’s sequence, “Christ was sacrificed once”, like the Yahweh goat, and this accomplished the work “to take away the sins of many” (9:28). Jesus might be identified with the Yahweh Goat, and the work he accomplishes might be identified with the Azazel Goat, but Jesus is not subject to, but conqueror over Sheol (the pit, the wilderness, the point of separation). He empties out the category entirely (once and for all) and does not suffer eternally, as in Calvin’s depiction but empties out the category by providing life where it was formerly absent.

In John, Jesus compares the pain of his death to that of a woman in labor – the pain is resolved with the birth: “Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world. Therefore you too have grief now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (John 16:21-22). This fits with the overall theology of John, which is not focused on the weight of the negative power of sin, but on the overcoming of sin with life.

From the beginning of John, the Logos is not a preincarnate abstraction but is the “I am” (the name of God, as described in the Targums) that is light, that is sustenance, that is assurance, that is life. This light shines in the darkness of death most clearly from the cross. Here, the substance of two worlds collides. The world built on the immanent frame of Israel (“the Jews,” Nicodemus, Judas, etc.), the immanent frame of Rome (Pilate and Caesar), or simply the absolute nature of death, would close off the world and possibility of the “I am.” But John lends no ontological weight to the power of evil and sin. It can be gotten rid of through washing (13:1-7) or in taking up the servant attitude it can be counteracted in belief and love. The ontological weight of the “I am” is enough to provide living water in the midst of the desert, to provide manna from heaven, to calm the storm, to bring healing. Jesus does not lay down his life as a payment for sin but “for the life of the world” (6:51) and for the life of the sheep (10:11). He does not pay up with death but through his life given to all, he provides heavenly bread, his life, for sustenance (John 6).

As John Behr notes, “Christ’s life-giving death on the cross, is not understood by John as a response to sin but rather as principally deriving from the love that God himself is (cf. 1 John 4:8) and has for the world (3:14–16).” It is this love “that has liberated human beings from the condition of being slaves to that of being friends (15:15), members of the household of God, enthroned in the Temple as sons alongside the Son, and the commandment that Jesus gives as his own is simply ‘that you love one another as I have loved you’ (15:12).”[8] In this power of love, life defeats death and this is what rids the world of sin. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).


[1] The garden analogy fails slightly, in that the Lamb accomplishes the work described in the clean-up activity, as if planting carrots and peas were enough to push out the weeds.

[2] “גְּזֵרָה (gĕzērâ). Separation, not inhabited. Used in Lev 16:22 of the “land of separation” (ASV and RSV “solitary land”) into which a live goat was taken and abandoned on the day of atonement. It was so called because the area was cut off from water (KB) or from habitation. Later Jewish teachers interpreted gĕzērâ to mean a precipice from which the goat was to be hurled down.”Smith, J. E. (1999). 340 גָּזַר. R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 158). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Westmont, IL: IVP Books, 2006), 143.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John Calvin, Commentary on Leviticus, 16:7.

[6] John Calvin, Institutes, 2:16,10.

[7] Ibid, Stott.

[8] John Behr, John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 192.

The Necessity of the Scandal of the Cross to Bridge Heaven and Earth

From opposite starting points Jews and Greeks converged on the notion of a nearly unbridgeable gap between heaven and earth. As Paul describes (I Cor. 1:22-24), Jews would look for signs but would not presume to encounter the essence of God, and Greeks search for wisdom but this wisdom would transcend the world in its source and end. To appreciate what Christ is doing in closing the gap, bridging heaven and earth, it may be necessary to feel both the immensity of the separation and its peculiar connection to death for both Jews and Greeks. In this first blog, I will address the “scandal” the cross poses for Jews and why the scandalous nature of the cross makes it central to understanding its glory.

As the writer of Hebrews describes, angels or messengers delivered the law, and not God directly (Heb. 2:2 and also Gal.3:19; Acts 7:38, 53). God appearing, and certainly appearing in the flesh, contradicted the Jewish understanding that no one has seen God directly, not even Moses, who may have seen a residue of his glory. God might make an appearance in fire and cloud and burning bush, but it was understood that these were mediating signs and not God himself.

To then associate God, who does not actually make his appearance in the world, with the cross posed a double impossibility. A crucified and dead Messiah represented for Judaism an impossibility in the face of the conviction that Sheol (“the pit”), the realm of the dead, was a place of no return. This pit of death and destruction (Abaddon) is a shadowy realm of utter silence where “life is no more.” Though God is not entirely absent (Ps. 139:8), for the creature it is a place from which there is no return (Ps. 39:13). As King Hezekiah laments on his sick-bed: “In the noontide of my days I must depart; I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years” (Is 38:10).[1]

Though there are intimations of being remembered or escaping, the pervasive perception was that God does not seem to remember the dead and they are mostly beyond help. He does no wonders for them, and they can no longer praise him: “For there is no mention of You in death; In Sheol who will give You thanks?” (Ps. 6:5). “Will You perform wonders for the dead? Will the departed spirits rise and praise You? Will Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave, Your faithfulness in Abaddon (the place of destruction)?” (Ps. 88:10-11). The implied answer is no. “The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor do any who go down into silence” (Ps. 115:17). “For Sheol cannot thank You, Death cannot praise You; Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your faithfulness” (Is. 38:18).

Sheol, Hades, the realm of the dead make God inaccessible to the creature; it is a realm from which no one returns. Of his dead child born to Bathsheba, David says, “But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:23). As Job cries: “When a cloud vanishes, it is gone, So he who goes down to Sheol does not come up” (Job 7:9). “So man lies down and does not rise. Until the heavens are no longer, He will not awake nor be aroused out of his sleep” (Job 14:12).

The seemingly unbridgeable gap between heaven and earth is marked by Sheol or the pit. It is the condition of death, connected with the flesh, that poses a barrier between the creature and God. The God of Israel was conceived as removed from death, as it is a form of uncleanness which the Temple accentuated. As far removed as the “goat for the Lord” (the spotless one representing life dedicated to God) is from the “goat for Azazel” (the sin bearing goat sent into the wilderness and oblivion and meant to remove sin, death and impurity as far as possible from God) so is the Lord separated from death.

The purity laws were all about the battle and distinction between life and death. (To imagine that God requires death to gain access to his presence is a reversal of the meaning of the Temple and its sacrifices.) Death is a pollution to the presence of God, represented by the holy of holies. The bodily impurities require the cleansing rites connected to the outward parts of the temple and moral impurity requires the sacrifice of atonement, but every impurity is connected to death.  Dead bodies, blood, semen, skin disease, and moral rebellion have death as their common denominator.  Life dedicated to God – the point of the atonement – and not death, is the means of access.

Death was acknowledged, and thus was meant to turn Israel to YHWH, the source of life. This central theme of the Hebrew Bible, is expressed in Deuteronomy when God says, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if your offspring would live—by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him.” (Deut. 30:19-20). The point of Scripture is to choose life and God rather than death.

Yet it is not entirely clear in much of the Old Testament that there is a final saving from death. Existence beyond the grave can be secured only through God’s remembrance, through the memory of the clan or tribe, or through the memory of the community of those true to the Torah, but this was only vaguely connected with the survival of the individual. According to Roy Harrisville, only at the edge of the Old Testament or in the Greco-Roman period do apocalyptic ideas appear of God’s swallowing up death and decay.[2]

In addition, the idea of a suffering Messiah is nearly as inconceivable as one who dies. Though there is a clear picture (at least from a Christian perspective) of a suffering Messiah in the Song of the Servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12, which was interpreted messianically, Harrisville points out, this messianic interpretation excluded those verses that deal with the Servant’s sufferings and death. In examples from the fifth century, which point to a much earlier time – everything suited to a kingly messiah is allowed to stand but the Servant’s humiliation and suffering are altered to their opposite. The “reference to the Servant as despised and rejected is changed to apply to heathen kings and kingdoms; the reference to the Servant in verse 7 as led like a lamb to the slaughter is taken to refer to the mighty who will be delivered to slaughter; and the reference to the Servant in verse 12 as pouring himself out to death is altered to read that he subjected himself to deadly danger.”[3] According to Wilhelm Bousett, it may not have been possible, in view of Jewish messianic belief to interpret Isaiah 53 in terms of a suffering Messiah.[4]

The contemporaries of Isaiah could not accept the idea that God’s beloved would die, let alone die the ignominious death of crucifixion. After all, one of the greatest villains of the Old Testament is associated with crucifixion. Participants at the feast of Purim, which commemorated the deliverance of the Jews from the massacre plotted by Haman, with the reading of the Book of Esther, would cry out each time Haman’s name was read, “Let his name be blotted out,” or “The name of the wicked shall rot.” In the Septuagint, the term for crucifixion is used twice to describe Haman’s execution.[5] It was inconceivable that the Messiah should suffer the same fate as this accursed enemy of God’s people. While Trypho, the second century rabbi, was able to concede, after argument with Christians, the possibility of a suffering messiah, “that he was to be crucified. . . it [is] impossible to think that this could be so.”[6] For most Jews this was a “scandal” beyond belief.

To be truly incarnate, in this understanding, is to take on the way of the flesh, including death. The corruption of death was a bridge too far, which simultaneously explains the scandal of the cross for Jews but points to the chasm which Christ bridged. The cross is the pinnacle of glory for the same reason it is a scandal, as it is a shining forth of God’s incorruptible presence in the place of final corruption. At the most corruptible and contemptible of moments the incorruption of God shines forth in that place that closed off the divine presence. This is why the hour of glory, the hour of full revelation, the hour for which Christ came is assigned to the cross. From the cross the incarnation is complete. The labor is finished at the cross in Jesus’ depiction (John 16:20), as the ultimate barrier between God and humans has been bridged.


[1] Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Sheol. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 1948). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

[2] Roy A. Harrisville,  Fracture: The Cross as Irreconcilable in the Language and Thought of the Biblical Writers (Eerdmans, 4/12/2006), 19. As Isaiah describes point blank: “He will swallow up death for all time, And the Lord GOD will wipe tears away from all faces, And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth” (Is. 25:8). “Your dead will live; Their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, For your dew is as the dew of the dawn, And the earth will give birth to the departed spirits” (Is. 26: 19).  Thank you Tim for your great generosity, including the gift of this book.

[3] Ibid, 23.

[4] Ibid, 19-20.

[5] Ibid, 20.

[6] Saint Justin Martyr, The Fathers of the Church, trans. Thomas B. Falls (New York: Christian Heritage, Inc. 1949) 208, 291. Cited in Harrisville, 22.

The Cross as Fusion of the Necessity of Flesh and Spirit

The cross is world-view shattering, according to Paul, for both Jews and Greeks (I Cor. 1:23). A crucified messiah could not be reconciled with a Jewish understanding that God does not work directly with the human world, but communicates indirectly through signs, through the law, through theophanies. God in the flesh contradicted the Jewish understanding that no one has seen God directly, not even Moses, who may have seen a residue of his glory. God might make an appearance in fire and cloud and burning bush, but it was understood that these were signs of God and not God himself. On the other hand, Greek wisdom has the opposite problem, in that to attain to final and full wisdom will mean a passing beyond the physical world to the forms, to the logos, to the abstract and propositional. For Plato, the body is the prison of the soul, and the physical world is a realm of shadows which only true wisdom can escape.[1] The notion that wisdom could be embodied in a single, incarnate individual contradicts the Greek world-view. While wisdom might be obtained by the peculiarly wise or devout, the very nature of wisdom was disincarnate and impersonal.

In both the Jewish and Greek sense then, the cross as a bringing together of the most human of events (death, dying and suffering) with the divine would require a relinquishing of their view of the world and of God. There is no continuity or natural progression from Judaism and Greek notions of wisdom to the cross; the cross requires a shift in world-views. For Jews the cross is a sign that bears too much weight as God is upon it, and for the Greeks the cross is a foolish impossibility as wisdom transports one beyond the body and beyond the physical.

Paul expresses the Jewish attachment to signs as a preference for the letter of the law more than what the letter signifies. For Jews there was an infinite gap between the reality of God and the reality of the world and the best one could do was to cling to the letter, to the sign, to the appearance, and Paul considered this deadly. It is not that Paul considered writing or language as inherently deficient, as if it is the sign system which is inadequate for making God known. The letter kills, in his estimate, not because of some inherent quality in letters, writing, and signs.

 Writing and signs as an end in and of themselves are on the order of flesh and blood as an end in and of themselves. It is not that Paul thinks that flesh and blood are bad or inadequate, it is just that flesh and blood and signs cannot be taken as “sufficient.”[2] In fact, the right combination of flesh and writing – writing not on tablets of stone but writing on the flesh of the heart – he equates with an encounter with “the Spirit of the living God” (2 Cor. 3:3). The problem is not with writing or signs per se, but with what is used to write and what is written upon. In Paul’s description of the ideal, the flesh of the heart is the writing tablet and the Spirit of God is the writing instrument. Paul does not denigrate the flesh, as if one has to rid themselves of embodiment and flesh so as to receive the Spirit. It is precisely the flesh of the heart that receives the imprint of the Spirit. (In Galatians and Romans, he will use the term “flesh” as shorthand for the danger he is touching upon in Corinthians, but as I explain here, this is in no way a flesh/Spirit dualism.)

The Gnostics, who seem to combine Greek wisdom with a Jewish understanding, will take up a small portion of Paul’s argument in Corinthians (particularly I Cor. 15:53-54) to argue that the way one passes into spirituality is to relinquish physicality. Paul is arguing that one puts on immortality, not through a subtraction of physicality, but through an addition of spirituality. Christ does not pass beyond physicality to glory, as in the Gnostic interpretation, but his most fleshly, physical moment in his suffering on the cross, is the moment of his glory. Immortality, incorruption, and spirituality do not involve disembodiment but a writing upon the flesh with the Spirit. Specifically, what gets written on the flesh is the gospel of Christ, focused as it is upon the cross.

The Gnostic inclination, which is the universal inclination (both Jew and Greek), stumbles over the physical, the embodied, the created world. The letter trips them up in an all or nothing sort of way, so that it is presumed one either clings to the letter, the body, physicality, or one clings to the Spirit. This may seem to be a matter of semantics, and may be in certain instances, but Paul’s point is that the letter or the flesh isolated from the Spirit kills. The isolation may occur because one imagines the law or the letter is all there is, or the isolation may occur because the letter, the physical sign, and all things physical are considered inherently inadequate. In both instances the letter is divided from the Spirit, and this division is deadly.

The deadliness, in Paul’s explanation concerns placing “sufficiency” in the wrong place. One might presume the law is “adequate” or that “we are sufficient of ourselves” (2 Cor. 3:5) which seems to amount to the same thing. The difference is that “we ourselves” may attain sufficiency but this is because “our sufficiency is from God.” He is the one who “made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant” (3:6). There is no need to get rid of ourselves or a portion of what constitutes us as selves, namely the body, the heart, or human physicality.

On the other hand, clinging to the letter of the law amounts to positing sufficiency in “the ministry of death” in which what is written is permanently removed from the flesh of the heart, because it is “engraved on stones” (3:7). Paul describes it as containing an inherent deception in which the fading glory or the ultimate inadequacy of the law is veiled in the same way Moses face was veiled. Their “minds were blinded” and continue to be blinded to the fading glory “of what was passing away” (3:12). It is not that writing, physicality, bodies, or faces are inherently corrupt, it is a matter of removing the blinding veil in which the law is taken to be an end in and of itself. Paul assures his readers, “the veil is taken away in Christ” (3:14) and with its removal the Spirit does its work on the body: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (3:18).

As Paul explains in the next chapter, it is not because “we have this treasure in earthen vessels” (4:7) that causes the problem. In fact, the very point is precisely that the earthen vessels accentuate the power of God: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (4:7). The human body, in its physicality and mortality, allows for taking up the fulness of the image of Christ. Paul describes himself as “always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (4:10).  The reality of life in God is realized through a continual engagement with mortal flesh: “For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (4:11). The flesh and body are not extrinsic to salvation but the very sight of redemption and transformation showing forth the life of God.


[1] He equates the body with a prison for the soul in Phaedo: “‘I will tell you,’ he replied. ‘The lovers of knowledge,’ said he, ‘perceive that when philosophy first takes possession of their soul it is entirely fastened and welded to the body and is compelled to regard realities through the body as through prison bars, not with its own unhindered vision, and is wallowing in utter ignorance.’” Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1 translated by Harold North Fowler; Introduction by W.R.M. Lamb (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1966) 83.

[2] This is the argument Irenaeus uses against the Gnostics who have latched on to this verse in Corinthians to prove that one must get rid of flesh and blood to enter the Kingdom: “As, therefore, the bride cannot [be said] to wed, but to be wedded, when the bridegroom comes and takes her, so also the flesh cannot by itself possess the kingdom of God by inheritance; but it can be taken for an inheritance into the kingdom of God.”  Against Heresies (Book V,  9.4).

The Violence of the Law Which Killed Christ

The depiction of Matthew is that the violent would take the kingdom of God by force (Matt. 11:12). This verse marks the transition from Jesus to John the Baptist, which in John is accompanied with the comment that “the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17). According to Paul, the period of violence, in which the kingdom would be violently manipulated through the “hostility” of the law is exposed and defeated by the one who “is our peace” (Eph. 2:14).  As John the Baptist explains upon seeing Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Here is the victim of violence who takes away the violence of the world; the Lamb who absorbs and defeats the violence. The explanation comes in verse 18: “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (John 1:18). Jesus is the full explanation or message or exegesis of God. The difference between Jesus and the law defines his message: the law does not take away violence and sin, but in John’s depiction violent men will kill Jesus following their understanding of the dictates of the law. In this killing and being killed is the problem and solution of sin.

As Walter Benjamin depicts the law, it is established through violence and enforced through violence and apart from violence there would be no law.[1] This may seem an unlikely statement, but Benjamin demonstrates the law obscures its inherent violence.

In the notion of natural law (a body of unchanging moral principles), the end point of the law is to establish justice and morality, and violence is a justified means to this end. The violence cannot be posited as part of the goal (as an end) but is presumed to be the means to an end.  For example, the Jews invade the promised land and commit genocide so that their nation and law might be established. White people came to the Americas and obliterated the populations of brown and red people who are excluded by this founding of the law. The law is being inaugurated from out of this originary violence. The question does not arise in natural law whether violence “could be a moral means even to just ends” but violence is taken as a raw datum – a fact of nature or a necessary means. The deployment of violent means to just ends is “no greater problem than perceived in a man’s right to move his body in the direction of a desired goal.” The way you get from point A to point B is the movement of violence. Violence is a “raw material” or means “the use of which is in no way problematical unless force is misused for unjust ends.”

Though Benjamin sees this as a problem predating the modern, he references Darwinian evolution as “rekindling” the presumed naturalness of violence in the modern age. Darwin’s biology, he maintains, “regards violence as the only original means, besides natural selection, appropriate to all the vital ends of nature.” It is a short step from the popular notion of natural history “to the still cruder one of legal philosophy, which holds that the violence that is, almost alone, appropriate to natural ends is thereby also legal.” Just as peace is established through war so too final justice calls for final solutions. And of course, the holocaust (the final solution of the Nazis) looms around Benjamin’s text in our backward-looking perspective.

On the other hand, positive law or those laws created by and passed down through human institutions, presume that violence is a product of history. Violence is certainly part of the means in positive law, but the violence is thought to be a regulative violence. This “limited” violence is judged legal according to its application and who applies it. Where natural law judges in terms of ends, positive law is focused on means. The presumption is that just means will automatically bring about just ends. Where in natural law, the ends justify the means, in positive law, the means justifies the end. The paradox or blindness is created in the two sides of the law, in which in neither instance is the role of violence ultimately questioned.

The inherent injustice is rendered visible when natural law and positive law are set side by side. The understanding that the inauguration of law is through an originary law-making violence exposes the true nature of law-preserving violence. For example, the United States constitutes itself as a legal entity only in denying or deconstituting subjection to the British monarch. If the United States had lost the Revolutionary War, the entire notion of independence would have been illegal. Perhaps the chief perpetrator of the crimes against the monarchy, George Washington, would have been declared the chief criminal, and executed according to the law (law-preserving). To constitute a state is to simultaneously defy the law, and to imagine a people not yet formed as the constituting entity. The violence will have been legal only in the case of victory.

This founding violence is not disconnected from law-preserving violence, as it is always possible for violence to get out of hand. The laws of the state must be enforced for the state to continue to exist. The law founds and preserves the state through the same violence, so that law enforcement is foundational both at the beginning and in the continuation of the state. Benjamin’s point is that what seems to be two forms of violence (law founding and law enforcement) cannot be separated. The law is always in the process of being constituted and legitimated through violence.

 The modern police force demonstrates the overlap in that, though they are thought to be about law enforcement, certain situations call for discretionary judgements which, like the founding violence of the law, will have been made legitimate (in hindsight) because the police embody the law. Just as a king is not able to break the law (he is the embodiment of the law), unless his rule is overturned, so too the police retain a semblance of this original embodiment, if not in theory at least in practice. They are always in the business of establishing the law, and in establishing it making it legitimate.

When the police rob and terrorize citizens, as happened over a long period in Baltimore, it becomes very difficult to bring the law to bear upon the law. In Baltimore, as in the Nation as a whole, this was largely due to the fact that police brutality was focused on the black population. “The fact that the legal order not only countenanced but sustained slavery, segregation, and discrimination for most of our Nation’s history-and the fact that the police were bound to uphold that order-set a pattern for police behavior and attitudes toward minority communities that has persisted until the present day.”[2] The black population bears similarities to the Jewish population in Nazi Germany or the Native American population in the period of discovery and settlement. The force of the law makes its primary mark in excluding those who fall outside of the law’s protection.

In the New Testament, Ephesians brings out the inherent hostility of the Jewish law in the portrayal of antagonism of Jews toward Gentiles. Christ “broke down the barrier of the diving wall” as he “abolished the enmity, which is the Law” (Eph. 2:14-15). The Jewish law was built upon exclusion of Gentiles, as this exclusion was definitive of what it meant to be a Jew. The markers of the law in sabbath keeping, in the food laws, and in circumcision, marked out the Jews. The Jews were marked in the flesh, they were marked through special time, and they were marked by special food. Gentiles did not fall within but stood outside of Jewish law. Roman law functioned in a similar manner through the special mark of crucifixion. Roman citizens were those protected from crucifixion and those who could be put on crosses were not counted as citizens.

This explains who killed Christ (the law enforcers) and why. The sabbath law, the laws of cleanliness and restricted association (no Samaritans or Gentiles allowed), the rules governing the sacredness of the Temple, and the laws against blasphemy are all going to be leveraged by the Jews to kill Christ. As Jesus explains, this is a fulfillment of their law: “But they have done this to fulfill the word that is written in their Law, ‘They hated Me without a cause’” (John 15:25). Their use of the law blinds them to their violence.

The Psalm Jesus is referencing directly links the action of the persecutors to a lie: “More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; mighty are those who would destroy me, those who attack me with lies” (Ps. 69.4). As the Psalm describes, those doing the persecuting have a murderous zeal for the temple which consumes their victim (69:9). It is their zeal for the sacrificial system rather than a true understanding of God’s desire that has them persecute and oppress this messianic figure. The prayer of the Psalm is answered in Christ as “their own table before them [has] become a snare” and “their sacrificial feasts [have] become a trap” (v. 22). The Jews would destroy the true Temple and the true embodiment of the law to preserve their law. In the end, the Jews forsake their own religion and national messianic hopes by proclaiming, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). In order to fulfill their zeal for the law by killing Jesus, they forsake their law and religion.

 The Romans, in the person of Pilate, would mock Jewish pretensions to independent nationalism by declaring Jesus the Jewish King and then having him beaten and crowned with thorns. The crown of thorns, the royal robes, the declaration of Jesus as King of the Jews, may be Pilates means of deriding all things Jewish. The Romans are going to do their part in destroying the Temple, as Pilate is concerned to quell an insurrection by enforcing Roman justice, despite his own declaration that Jesus is innocent (John 19:4). He is afraid of uncontrolled violence should insurrection occur.

When the Jews appear before Pilate, he tells them to judge him according to their own law (John 18:31). They later indicate that this is precisely what they have done: “The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God’” (John 19:7). This frightens Pilate, as this is to usurp not only Jewish law but the foundation of Roman law, embodied in the son of God – Caesar. Roman law and Jewish law converge then, in the necessity of killing Jesus. The Jewish high priest speaks for both Jews and Romans in proclaiming, “it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish” (John 11:50).

In Giorgio Agamben’s depiction, the supposed universal condition of law is established by the particulars of exception. The very root of human polity is structured around a necessary exclusion of one form of life, bare life (homo sacer). It is only where bare life is structured and ordered in the city that it can be said to be “good life.” The power of the state or sovereign power establishes itself through this power of exclusion, the exception upon which the rule is built.[3] Homo sacer is stripped of legal status and falls outside the political community and is among those continually and unconditionally exposed to the potential of being killed. This power of death, deciding who dies outside the city, establishes the life of the city.

Jesus dies outside of the city, beyond law and religion, reduced on the cross to bare life. Christ as the exception, however, forever exposes the basis upon which inclusion and law are constructed.

“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, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity” (Eph. 2:14-16).

Jewish law, Roman law, and the universal violence of law are defeated, for he has abolished the enmity of the law, he has broken down the hostility of the law, and he Himself is our peace. Law-founding and law-preserving combine to destroy the One who embodies the true law of love but, as indicated in the Temple incident, out of this destruction Christ raises up the true Temple of peace.


[1] Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 1 19-3-1926 (The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England 1996) this single article can be accessed at https://fswg.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/benjamin-critique-of-violence-new-translation.pdf What may be less obvious is how the United States “War on Terror” or even the “War on Drugs” implies and justifies holocaust like violence as a justified means toward a just end. For a goal as illusive as a pure race, the destruction of all terrorists, the end of the drug trade, all out and continual violence is seemingly justified.

[2] Hubert Williams and Patrick V. Murphy, “The Evolving Strategy of Police: A Minority View” in Perspectives on Policing, (Published by the U. S. Department of Justice, no. 13, January  1990).

[3] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 18.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Jonas, 322.

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

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

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jonas, 323.

[9] Quoted in Jonas, 324.

[10] Pascal, English, 20.

[11] Jonas, 324-325.

[12] Jonas, 325.

[13] Jonas, 326.

[14] Jonas, 327.

[15] Jonas, 327-328.

[16] Jonas, 328.

[17] Jonas, 329.

[18] Jonas, 332.

[19] Jonas, 334.

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

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

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