The Contrast Between Luther and Maximus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Taylor, 75.

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

[6] Taylor, 97.

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

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

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

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

[11] Millare, 172

[12] Westerholms, 234.

The Radical Theology of Maximus the Confessor: Creation is Incarnation

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

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

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

(QThal. 60.2).

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

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

(Amb. 10.41).

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

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

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

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

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

(QThal. 2.2).

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

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

(Amb. 31.9)

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

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

(Amb. 42.5)

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

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

(QThal 8.2)

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

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


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

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

[3] Wood, 209-210

[4] Wood, 211.

The Augustinian Displacement of Origen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Remedial versus retributive punishment:

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

3. Free will versus Predestination:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(On the Trinity, 15.10.19)

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

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

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

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

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

(City of God 11.26)

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

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

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

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

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

(Encheiridion 26).

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

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

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

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

9. Synergism versus predestination and determinism:

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

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

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

(Commentary on Romans 7.16).

10. Anti-Platonism versus Platonism:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Ramelli, 673.

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

[10] Ramelli, 674.

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

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

[13] McKeena xxix.

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

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

[16] Bostock, 328.

[17] Bostock, 328.

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