Why Death and Not Sin is the Primary Human Problem

Ignatius, Irenaeus, Basil, Athanasius, and the Greek Fathers as a whole, according to John Romanides, look upon salvation as first and foremost redemption from death.[1] In the early church and Eastern tradition death, and not sin, is definitive and primary in the human predicament, while in the West the presumption has been that sin is primary and precedes death in terms of cause and effect. The biblical portrayal, that the reign of death is the cause of sin, has been rendered obscure if not inaccessible, by the presumption of Augustinian original sin (a mysterious and inherited guilt). Where this presumption can be set aside, it is clear that death and not sin is pictured as primary: it is death that is the “last enemy” (1 Cor 15:24–25); death and Hades (the place of the dead) are the last thing to be thrown into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:14); Paul’s primary thing from which he needs rescue is “this body that is subject to death” (Rom. 7:24); sin is the sting or result of death and not the other way round (that is death is not the sting of sin in I Cor. 15:56); the problem is not that sin reigns and then comes death but death accounts for the spread of sin because “death spread to all men” (Rom. 5:12), “death reigned” (v. 14), “the many died” (v. 15), “death reigned through the one” (v. 17), “as sin reigned in death” (v. 21). As Paul concludes in verse 21, “sin reigned in death” and not the other way round. In Paul’s explanation in Romans 5, it is not sin that is inherited from Adam (as in Augustine’s misreading) but it is death which Adam passed on. Now with death comes sin, but not inevitably or all inclusively, as Paul can speak of those who have not sinned in the manner of Adam (5:14).

Certainly, Adam sinned and introduced death, and with the spread of death sin becomes a contagion, but it is precisely this dynamism in which death is the cause and not the effect that accords with Paul’s parallel picture of Christ. Christ introduces righteousness and eternal life into the world, so that this introduction of life spreads righteousness to all of humanity (vv. 17-18). So, what was done in the first Adam is undone in the second Adam – sin introduced death to all (not because all sinned), so too righteousness introduces life to all (but even more abundantly as life and righteousness overflow to all (v. 17)).

But the question arises as to why death would cause sin? Part of the explanation is connected with the depiction of the devil, who exercises his power through fear of death. It is not that death or mortality, per se, can be equated with sin, but fear of death and deception are linked with the work of Satan. It is not that Satan is a generic or ambiguous tempter, but his temptation is specifically linked to how he misorients or enslaves through death. Hebrews pictures the devil enslaving humanity as he wields fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15) and Paul describes this same reign of fear and enslavement (Rom. 8:15). Hebrews explains, the death of Jesus was intended to “destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil.” John puts it succinctly, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (I John 3:8). At the opening of Revelation Jesus holds “the keys of death and Hades” (Rev. 1:18). Presumably the one who holds the keys to death has taken control of what was formerly under Satan’s power. He has the power to unlock the chains which bound human kind.

We can continue to specify in what fear of death consists by recognizing both how it is resolved and what this resolution allows for. John equates love and life as enabled through Christ: “By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him” (I Jn. 4:9). The fear, that would obstruct love is cured through the love of Christ: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear” (I Jn. 4:18). On the other hand, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death” (I Jn. 3:14).

Lest there is any confusion, John explains: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (I Jn. 3:15-16). Fear of death leaves one under the control of death and incapacitates love and gives rise to violence. Fear, death, hatred, and violence, pose one option and life, love, abiding in Christ, and laying down life for others constitutes the other option. But we still might ask why captivity to fear enslaves to lovelessness and death? What is it precisely in fear of death that leads to enslavement and violence?

The book of Wisdom goes some way in explaining cause and effect. It sets out to explain how Hades (the place of the dead), has come to rule in place of God’s intent for creation through the ungodly:

For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, “Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end, and no one has been known to return from Hades. For we were born by mere chance, and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been, for the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts; when it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes, and the spirit will dissolve like empty air.” As a result, death is invited into a person’s life as those who are captured by it say, “Let none of us fail to share in our revelry; everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment, because this is our portion, and this our lot. Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow or regard the gray hairs of the aged. But let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless. Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training” (Wis. 1:12–2:15).

As Richard Beck notes, the book of Wisdom may be an indicator that the tendency to read the Genesis 3 story as the origin of sin may have missed the point. It is death that comes to be shared by the race and death contains the impetus to sin. As Beck argues, “the main impulse of the story, given how the Orthodox follow the framing given in texts like those in Wisdom, is less about how the world became infected by sin than how it became infected by death.”[2] Further, “we see that the root cause of death isn’t sin, as the devil/serpent actually predates sin. It’s the “envy of the devil” that introduces sin and death into the world.”[3] In other words, the mortal condition is the situation in which the failed moral condition spreads to all. In this understanding sin is not mystified, as it is in Augustinian original sin. It can be understood how the disease and corruption of death give rise to sin.

In the generation following the first couple, it is not that Cain and Abel are equally depraved and immoral (totally depraved according to Augustine). Cain is evil and he attacks Abel because he is righteous (I Jn. 3:12). This explains how the murderous Cain and his type might come to out-populate and dominate the harmless Abels of the world. We understand how a righteous man like Noah might find himself alone amidst a murderous people. The world has been infected by death, and as Wisdom and presumably Genesis are explaining, this gives rise to murderous competition in which life is a zero sum game and one better grab all the life he can while the grabbing is good.

As Wisdom puts it, God did not intend for it to be this way: “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal” (Wis. 1:14-15). This fits with Genesis but it also fits with what is obvious. People die and this creates a limit condition in which people are desperate.

This might show up, as Wisdom describes it, in a desperation to find pleasure when and where it is possible. Or it might show up in the sort of desperation on display in Cain, in which he is put into competition for God’s acknowledgement, as if there is only so much to go around. Or maybe, as with those in Babel, the attempt is to storm the heavens, make an enduring name, and leave a mark, so that people will not be undone and dispersed by death. The psychology of the fear of death may take any number of forms, but what is obvious is that God did not and does not intend it to be this way. As Beck describes it, “As mortal creatures, separated from God’s vivifying Spirit, humans are fearful and survival-driven animals, easily drawn into sinful and selfish practices.” This mortal drive to self-preservation, makes us “tragically vulnerable to death anxiety—the desire to preserve our own existence above all else and at all costs.”[4]

Mark Lilla’s description, relying upon Thomas Hobbes, describes how fear of death gives rise to the continual need for violence:

Natural man, according to Hobbes, is desiring man—which also means he is fearful man. If he finds himself alone in nature he will try to satisfy his desires, will only partially succeed, and will fear losing what he has. But if other human beings are present that fear will be heightened to an almost unbearable degree. Given his awareness of himself as a creature beset by desire—a stream of desire that ends, says Hobbes, only in death—he assumes others are similarly driven. “Whosoever looketh into himself and considereth what he doth,” Hobbes writes, “he shall thereby read and know, what are the thoughts and passions of all other men.” That means he can think of them only as potential competitors, trying to satisfy desires that may come into conflict with his own . . . That is why the natural social condition of mankind is war—if not explicit, armed hostilities, then a perpetual state of anxious readiness in preparation for conflict.[5]

As Beck notes this fits with James depiction of why there is quarrelling and violence in the church: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts” (James 4:1-2). This formulation closely follows Hobbes. “Why is there violence in the world? Because of a desire motivated by want, lack, and scarcity—whether it be real, potential, or simply perceived scarcity.”[6]

This clarifies why in overcoming the fear of death the very specific result will be the capacity to love. John describes this love as a self-sacrificial love which might be something as simple as the willingness to share worldly goods: “But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (I Jn. 3:17). To obtain, possess, and survive does not lend itself to even the simplest act of sharing, apart from which love is an impossibility. Christ breaks the grip of death in his passion as he succumbs to the worst human situation, and overcomes it.

In his defeat of death Christ opens a way beyond death to life. As Basil writes, “To the extent that [man] stood apart from life, in like amount he also drew closer to death.  For life is God, and the deprivation of life is death.” In Christ life and righteousness are opened up as a possibility. Athanasius the Great writes, “When, by the counsel of the devil, men turned away from things eternal, they returned to things of corruptibility and became themselves the cause of dissolution unto death.”[7] In the defeat of the devil Christ turns men back to life and not their dissolution in death but the dissolution or defeat of death. John Chrysostom writes:

He who fears death is a slave and subjects himself to everything in order to avoid dying. . . . [But] he who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed “man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life,” [Job 2:4] and if a man should decide to disregard this, whose slave is he then? He fears no one, is in terror of no one, is higher than everyone, and is freer than everyone. For he who disregards his own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one’s country? For these are small things to him “who counteth not even his life dear,” says blessed Paul [Acts 20:24]. Do you see that in casting out the tyranny of death, He has dissolved the strength of the devil?[8]

This defeat of the fear of death frees one from slavery – “he fears no one and is freer than everyone” – it defeats the devil and opens one to love. Here is a mode of life that gives life and shares life and does not horde it in fearful self-salvation (the sort in which he who would save life experiences only death). The slavery of self-salvation is driven by fear, lack, and the attempt to preserve what is rendered absent in the attempt. Only one willing to give up the death-dealing grab to save the self has access to life.

Isn’t this the point of Christ’s self-giving sacrifice which is the model to emulate so as to defeat captivity to death?

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,   but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.  Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Php. 2:3–8).

The selfishness and empty conceit which enslaves to death is undone in the one who reversed the instinct behind the fear of death and became the means to life and the defeat of sin.

[1] John Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, pp 34-35.

[2] Richard Beck, The Slavery of Death (Kindle Locations 263-267). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition. Thank you, Tim, for the gift of this book.  

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 304.

[5] Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God (New York: Knopf, 2007) p. 81-82. Quoted in Beck, p. 14.

[6] Ibid. Beck, p. 422.

[7] Ibid., Romanides.

[8] The excerpt is from Homily IV of Chrysostom’s Homilies on Hebrews. Quoted in Beck, p. 14.


Cosmic Meaning Versus the Cosmic Christ

What does an illicit romantic affair have to do with war? How does slavery pertain to human psychology? The psychoanalytic and biblical claim is that all share the same structure and they each generate meaning through this structure. All depend upon a split or divide which generates a struggle or drive in which the imagined goal of love, peace, power, or success, is equated with resolution to the struggle.

“True love” cannot be obtained through the law as the deep core of the self is, by definition, that which is beyond the law. I cannot possibly be equated with or captured in something so prosaic as a norm, a law, or a covenant. Deep within me resides the essence of who I am and this essence is in excess of the law, beyond the human symbolic order. The relationship to one’s spouse is the prototypical social obligation, but how can this obligation, this contract, this burden, capture my true essence. Social life consists of an externally imposed law in which I cannot possibly recognize myself. This bind in no way captures the fullness of my capacity for love or more precisely, for being loved; instead, it curtails the depths of my desire which pertains to my true self. Strangely, I experience this depth of love most completely when I feel the imposition of the law. When I feel the forces of society and law as an opposition to my love, then I know that the precious treasure at my core can only be loved without being submitted to the rule of law.

In turn, the very definition of peace is the resolution achieved through war. There is no peace apart from the war which defines it – it would be unrecognizable in itself. Just as perverse love depends upon its opposition, war is not only the means to peace but a symptom of an ever-elusive peace. Just as love is dependent upon the logic of exception (that which exists as an exception to the law) there is a notion of peace that is a symptom of war; more an exception creating the rule of continuous warfare than any positive entity in itself. The contradiction of achieving peace through war seems to pose itself even more directly than the notion that love is necessarily transgressive, yet the path to peace through total war and obliteration seems inevitable.

So too, there is only one way to be a master and that is through the slave. Apart from this enslaved other the subject of master cannot exist. The slave may have the advantage in freeing himself from dependence on the master (at least in Hegel’s depiction) but he cannot pass beyond the dialectic. He potentially reaches its core in recognizing the master represents fear of death and does not, within himself, contain enslaving control. One must still tarry with the negative or face the reality of death and the fear of death to come to this core realization. (Hegel simply exposes the nothingness at the core of the system, but his is a reified nothing that would still keep the dialectic up and running as the subject is this self-antagonism. The dialectic of the subject is the subject.)

The contradiction clearly shows itself when the slave/master relation is reduced to a psychology in which one must play the role of both master and slave. Only continual self-punishment will bring either the pleasure found in ultimate control or the overcoming of that control. Pain and suffering are the very substance of domination and power. As in the wars of the 20th century, only total war – the war to end all wars – will bring bring an end to suffering (peace as obliteration). When it is a dynamic reduced to an individual the pain is the pleasure and the suffering is the power, but each system, individual and corporate, consists of the same twisted logic.

The drive to gain life, peace, love, and substance is turned into a simultaneous drive toward death, war, transgression, and annihilation. The ultimate subject is gained through a final overcoming. The illusion is to imagine the goal (the object giving rise to desire) can survive beyond the struggle. In every instance the subject which would be obtained is simultaneously generated and made impossible by the system of its creation. That is, the lure of the system is to imagine the transgression, the conflict, the subjugation, is a means to an end when it is the means which is generating the imagined end.

If this is the problem of sin, what difference might it make if this system goes unrecognized and the work of Christ is made to fit the problem rather than to defeat it? This explains the various forensic explanations of the work of Christ in which God is the subject gaining satisfaction from his own self punishment. God is reduced to a dialectic struggle, with the Father deploying evil men to kill his Son so that he might have the satisfaction of his suffering and death. Eternal suffering in hell is equated with the suffering of the Son on the Cross, so that no distinction can be made between those that torture the Son in the passion and the Father who requires that they carry out this torture – only he requires eternal torture as part of who he is as eternal justice.  

Knowledge of God, in this understanding, cannot be separated from the dialectic of the law. Through the “the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate,” according to Tertullian, the vision of God is made possible. According to Thomas Aquinas, “the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed.” Oh, happy day when we can delight, along with God, in relishing the torture of the majority of the human race, knowing that God’s justice and human will (particularly in the unrepentant) continue to exercise ultimate power. The law bringing about this punishing God is the means and end of this God. Life, God, and truth are folded into law, and the power or sovereignty of God (God as master) or the free will of human beings become the primary subjects of theological discourse.

Hegel and Calvin represent the culminating point of this God, with God either taking death and nothingness up into himself or being directly equated with evil. Atheism and fundamentalism are near equivalents – with leftist Hegelians presuming God disappears and makes room for a corporate (Marxist) spirit (incarnate will) and fundamentalists equating all that happens, good and evil, with this God. In this system evil is a means to the good, death is the means to life, love is consonant with hate, and sin is the occasion for grace. There is no truth beyond the dialectic. Even the resurrection gains its meaning as part of a dialectic with death and sacrifice. Resurrection becomes a footnote – sacrifice accepted – rather than death defeated.

No part of the work of Christ need challenge the contradictory nature of the system. Revelation is not the revealing of a new truth exposing the lie of sin, but is an establishment of the law. The law is not mitigated, corrected, or suspended but it becomes the economy for explaining the work of Christ. Rather than the work of Christ exposing the meaning systems of this world, his meaning is subsumed into this world order. This explains why the name of Christ has been invoked for justification of holocausts, inquisitions, crusades, war, and the worst of human horrors. Christ is incorporated into the dialectic which supports sexual transgression, war, and slavery, and which aggravates and does not cure the human disease.

Christ as revelation, exposing the lie of this world’s violent wisdom, establishes an alternative truth, peace, love, and subjectivity. Christianity as Revelation exposes a world order built upon the death-dealing orientation of dividedness and dialectic. Christ as God, as the Cosmic Christ, as the full openness of God, is not an addendum, a proviso, or a fulfillment (in the way this is normally understood). Christ is revelation in a two-fold sense: his work is an exposure of the lying dialectic generating this world’s meaning and he serves as foundation to an alternative world of meaning and truth. Christ is the structuring order or the inner ground of creation and it is in him that creation’s purpose is revealed.

Salvation in Christ is not simply a negation of sin, or an effect of the Fall, but the goal of creation. A Christianity focused on the Fall is of the same order as love that needs transgression, peace which requires war, and self-mastery which includes self-enslavement. Sin becomes the essence of salvation where we imagine it is sin that necessitated the incarnation. So too every doctrine is reduced. In this failed system predestination is not about cosmic purposes but about who is in and who is out; the incarnation is not a revealing of the essence of God but a secondary manifestation; the resurrection is not about the defeat of death but about a payment accepted; and redemption is not about participation in the Trinity but about going to a disembodied heaven. The mission of Christ, reduced to payment for sin, misses the incarnation as the principle and purpose behind creation. It misses the fact that creation’s purpose is found in Jesus Christ (the God/Man), that redemption is cosmic completion, and that the Church’s part in a continued incarnation is a fulfillment of creation. “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Romans 11:35). We know this due to the incarnate Christ who “is the summing up of all things . . . things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Ephesians 1:10). In Christ, love, peace, and identity are not an effect or symptom of the law and sin but, in the words of Athanasius, an effect of “our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Perhaps the fundamental hurdle to a sin-based notion of Christ is the attachment to human decision, human history, and human time as the controlling factor in the purposes of God. The work of Christ is depicted as necessarily subsequent to sin, rather than as who and what has been predestined “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). In Scripture there is no choice preceding this choice as this is an eternal fact about God. Jesus Christ is not a contingent reflection of God, dependent upon creation and Fall, but creation is an outworking of the love of God found in Christ. It pertains, as Paul describes it to the divine immanence (who God is in himself): “…having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself” (Ephesians 1:9). The will of God does not reside in some dark transcendent council as his will has been revealed in Christ.

Love, peace, and human wholeness cannot be adequately grounded in a salvation geared to deliverance as they will continue to be grounded in a failed cosmic order. Only by recognizing Christ as the foundation of a new order of meaning can we escape the cycles of transgressive love, war, and oppression. Salvation is the overcoming of sin but it accomplishes this overcoming only in a positive fulness and return to Christ as the completion of creations purpose. God’s plan in Christ is beyond human meaning as it is an outworking of love, peace, and identity as participation in the very essence of God.

The Cosmic Christ

Vitruvian Man

 A fundamental teaching of the New Testament, largely lost to the Western tradition but preserved (if left undeveloped) in the East, is that the incarnate Christ is the goal, the structuring order, or the inner ground of creation. Partially recovered by St. Francis and Karl Barth is this deep grammar of Scripture that makes of the Bible a “strange new world,” in Barth’s phrase.  It is only in recognizing that incarnation is not the fall back plan (utilized due to the accident of sin) but creation’s purpose, which provides coherence to key biblical doctrines such as salvation, predestination, and redemption. It is not creation and Fall which give rise to the necessity of incarnation; rather creation, in Athanasius’ explanation, is an effect of “our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Where we imagine it is sin that necessitated the incarnation, failed humanity and its potential recovery become the ground of meaning feeding into every key theological concept.  For example, the doctrine of predestination becomes an abstract doctrine about who is in and who is out, rather than about God’s purpose in creation found in Christ. For Barth this decision of God before all time, to be who he is for humanity, is the basic truth on which all other Christian truths are built. In his reformulation of the doctrine it becomes central to who God is as the electing God. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit together make a choice that the Son of God will become the elected man, Jesus of Nazareth.

But maybe Barth has still not fully recovered the original sense of there being no time before this predestined purpose. That is, among the earliest Church fathers it is not simply the disincarnate Word but Jesus, the incarnate Christ, around which creation’s meaning flows. As John Behr notes, Athanasius “barely even mentions the birth of Jesus” as incarnation is already the principle behind creation.[1] Creations purpose is found in Jesus Christ (the God/Man) and this is the meaning of predestination (he is the predestined One), redemption (as cosmic completion), and the Church’s part in a continued incarnation.

Jesus Christ as the unfolding singular purpose of all things is what makes sense of such passages as Romans 9-11, which is not a depiction of arbitrary cruelty and reward, as if some pots are made for destruction and that’s all she wrote. Israel’s election or predestined purpose had always involved being narrowed down to the preeminent purpose of the Messiah, who would be “cast away” not simply for Israel or a few lucky souls but for the redemption of the world. Paul notes first, that “God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” (Romans 11:32), and then ends on a note of universality (found also in both Colossians and Ephesians): “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (11:35). We know this due to the incarnate Christ who “is the summing up of all things . . . things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Ephesians 1:10). This is what and who has been predestined “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). There is no choice preceding this choice as this is an eternal fact about God. Jesus Christ is not a contingent reflection of God, dependent upon creation and Fall, but creation is an outworking of the love of God found in Christ. It pertains, as Paul describes it to the divine immanence (who God is in himself): “…having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself” (Ephesians 1:9).

Salvation is not simply deliverance from sin but fulfillment of who God is in Christ for creation. Where Jesus is reduced to helping us get rid of sin, what gets lost are the purposes for all of creation fulfilled in Christ but also in the Church as a continuation of incarnation. Certainly, salvation is the overcoming of sin but the fullness of redemption is the completion of creation’s purpose. Paul has moved our understanding of God’s plan beyond the earth and the human race to its cosmic impact as part of the outworking of the love (the very essence) of God. The whole point of who God is and what God was doing is summed up in the incarnate Christ (1:10). 

The completion of creation in Christ accounts for all the movements of history. The incompleteness of creation in the incompleteness of the first Adam points to the unfolding nature of creation’s purpose in history. The completion of man by the creation of woman means creation is an open-ended process (it has not ended with Genesis 1) in which the whole inner basis of humankind (contained in the name Adam) is an ongoing realization. The Second Adam completes the emergence of the human capacity for image bearing and the second Adam and his bride conjoin the human and divine for eternity. Paul pictures it both as an accomplished fact (“through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (Ro 5:18, NASB)) and an unfolding process (“through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous” (Ro 5:19)). The Church as the bride of Christ certainly indicates cosmic predestination was always the unfolding telos summing up all things. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32). Here is the revealing of “the mystery of his will” (1:9).

While we might argue about what caused the division between the sensibility of East and West (was it Augustine’s notion that no physician would have been sent apart from the disease of sin, or Anselm’s singular focus on satisfying God’s honor in light of the dishonor of sin?), what is certain is Eastern thought and small remnants of Western sensibility were not focused on the forensic accomplishments of Christ but the fulfillment of cosmological purposes. What was preserved in the focus on the “primacy of Christ” or “Christocentrism” is the Pauline notion that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the first born of every creature” (Colossians 1:15) or the Johannine notion of Christ’s recommencement of creation. What might be considered the fundamental doctrine of the New Testament, or the glue which holds it all together, is operative in Franciscan theology (as pointed out at the popular level by Richard Rohr), recovered in part by Karl Barth, but maintained as a key part of Eastern Orthodoxy. For example, Maximus the Confessor (among several Eastern theologians), held that the incarnation would have taken place without a Fall. In Duns Scotus’s terms (a Scottish Franciscan Friar), the Incarnation takes place in light of God’s glory and not due to any sin committed prior to the Incarnation. As Ilia Delio describes Scotus’s understanding, “The Incarnation represents not a divine response to a human need for salvation but instead the divine intention from all eternity to raise human nature to the highest point of glory by uniting it with divine nature.”[2] God is perfect love and wills according to the perfection of that love. Since perfect love cannot will anything less than the perfection of love, Christ would have come in the highest glory in creation even if there was no sin and thus no need for redemption

 In this understanding, the constitution and meaning of the cosmos is summed up by the incarnate Christ, who redeems fallen humanity but who is primarily the completion of the cosmos. This pertains not only to the integration of things in heaven and earth but there is a clearer integration of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ if we see in Christ the completion of creation and not the means of escape. The Western focus on the forensics of the Cross tends to split not only heaven and earth but the person and work of Christ. We might speak of the primacy of Paul and the Cross in the West and a downgrading of the Sermon on the Mount, the life of Christ, and the resurrection, but of course, this is a misconstrual of Paul, in which key terms are abstracted from the person and work of Christ.

Among the early Church Fathers, Irenaeus insisted on the primacy of the incarnate Word, with salvation not restricted to redemption from sin but inclusive of a process by which all are led from “infancy” to a state of maturity and which, in his doctrine of recapitulation, includes the summing up of the entire cosmos in Christ as its head. With this understanding as background, key terms such as “justification” or “rectification” are cosmic in proportion – making things right for the cosmos in the apocalyptic act of God in Jesus Christ. Such terms as “faith” pertain to Christ not as object but as the ground of faith. Through the death and resurrection of this faithful one the powers which hold people in bondage are defeated as they take up the Cross. This pertains not so much to reduplication of faith but participation in faith’s origin. As Barth describes it we have a part in the faithfulness of God, established in us when we meet the Christ in Jesus. As John Paul II put it, “He (Christ) satisfied the Father’s eternal love, that fatherhood that from the beginning found expression in creating the world, giving man all the riches of Creation, and making him “little less than God,” in that he was created ‘in the image and after the likeness of God.’” Here our image takes on its proper likeness to the divine image, not because Christ satisfies the wrath of God but because he satisfies his love.

A stark illustration of the centrality of Christ is found in the mysterious history surrounding Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Ancient thinkers had long considered the circle as representative of the divine and the square as representative of the earthly.  Leonardo, with the spirit of his age assumed the divine proportion was contained within the dimensions of the human body (some think he is his own model for the picture). Christ as Vitruvian Man accomplishes the squaring of the circle (the principal Leonardo presumed was present in the perfect man). The ordering principle of the circle is fit to the square of the world in the notion that Christ is the center of meaning of the cosmos. In this reinterpretation of the renaissance ideal (seemingly already a secularized version of a Christian notion), creation is not anthropocentric it is Christocentric. Christ is redeemer but redemption is not simply being “saved from” but rather being made “whole for” God’s creation purposes found in Christ.

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

[2] Delio, “Revisiting the Franciscan Doctrine of Christ,” 9.