Can John Deliver Us from the Modern Gnostics?

Charles Hill’s examination of the reception of the Johannine corpus demonstrates that modern reception of John is more a reflection of the modern theological situation than it is a historical reality about the early reception of the Johannine literature. That is, the “Johannophobia” that Hill traces is a projection of the modern period upon the past which speaks of the modern fear or failure in regard to John.[1] In turn, the supposed gnostic “Johannophilia,” which Hill debunks, describes how modern reception of John has amounted to a reception of the book on the basis of a gnostic sensibility. My hypothesis is that the fear and love of the book of John, as Hill finds it in the early church, is precisely the opposite of what has been projected and this is because moderns tend to fear or reject a true reading of John and have succumbed to a gnostic reading.  That is, the heretics feared and avoided the book and the orthodox made it central but in the modern period the book is mostly reduced to a heretical reading as the basis for its acceptance.

Part of the evidence that this might be the case is in the universal consensus which has developed around John in the modern period. As Hill describes it, before the Valentinians appropriated the Gospel through their novel interpretation of the Prologue, John was offensive to the heretics in its emphasis on the deity of Christ and the eyewitness testimony to this effect.[2] Yet, in modern scholarship the opposite has been presumed to be the case:

As is apparent from this review, the phenomenon of orthodox Johannophobia has been for several decades a generally recognized principle among scholars working in Johannine studies, and in New Testament and early Christian history. It has been endorsed by most of the trusted names in Johannine studies, one of whom declares it to be supported by ‘all our evidence’. Many of these scholars shaped Johannine studies, and New Testament studies in general, in the last half of the twentieth century. Others are highly qualified and respected historians of early Christianity. Their work is quite naturally relied upon by other Johannine scholars and by specialists in related fields. When one scholar wrote that ‘It is well known that the orthodox were unwilling to quote the Fourth Gospel in the second century, for it was much the preserve of heretics’, she was stating what is, in the mainstream of the academic community, utterly non-controversial.[3]

Hill meticulously refutes this modern consensus and concludes:

Surely one of the most striking results of this investigation, but not of this only, for other studies have been at least tending towards the same conclusion, is that the major use of the Fourth Gospel among heterodox or gnostic groups up until the Valentinians Ptolemy, Heracleon, and Theodotus, is best described as critical or adversarial. This exposes and should correct the tendency of earlier scholarship to assume that any Johannine borrowings or allusions in gnostic literature are evidence of gnostic/Johannine affinity, or of a common family history.[4]

 But Hill leaves his readers wondering how modern scholarship and modern sensibility could make such a mega-blunder.

After Hill’s book and the earlier work of Martin Hengel, according to John Behr, the idea that John’s Gospel was viewed with suspicion by the orthodox church should be a dead letter,[5]but the fact that this notion has been given life and continues to survive seems to speak of the strange theological situation in which we find ourselves. The major influence which John exercised on the early church is largely read out of the history of modern scholarship, and one can only speculate that this is due to the silencing of John in the modern period. This silencing is not an overt exclusion of the Johannine literature but is an exclusion of a Johannine theological approach.

 My own, admittedly anecdotal, witness to this silencing of John comes from teaching John to undergraduates. John’s theological approach to the life of Christ, as I am sure I inadequately presented it, either opened students to a new way of reading the Bible or it made them angry. Students attenuated to a flat reading of the life of Christ through a flat reading of the synoptics were not used to finding the sort of theological significance and depth which are unavoidable in John. The strange yet blatant theological echoes of the Hebrew scriptures, the linking of the divine name and action to Jesus’ miracles and identity, the cosmic dimensions of recreation through Christ, the time-bending apocalyptic nature of John, the peculiar theological focus upon the manner of the death of Christ (an accomplished fact that pervades the Gospel), the implication of all the apostles in the sin of Judas as definitive of darkness, etc. etc.; these themes either created excitement or brought out defensiveness. In other words, the Johannophobia which Hill traces among academics is present at a popular level among ordinary believers.

John is not normally read in the universally accepted manner in which the early church read him and this serves to blunt his message, which is directed at the heresy which has the modern church in its grip. The flat reading of the Logos as the disincarnate Christ, the heaven and earth duality, the legal abstractions which pass for atonement theory, the focus on the individual, the elitism of the saved, the focus on souls going to heaven, and the denigration of this world and the flesh amounts to a form close to Gnosticism. Is the peculiar scholarly reception of John and the popular misreading of John a reflection of the fact that the modern church has succumbed to gnostic tendencies against which John writes?

The offence of John against gnostic sensibilities is the focus on the incarnation or the divine Word becoming flesh. The Gnostics believed matter was evil and it would be impossible for the divine to become flesh. The Word made flesh and the high view of the deity of Jesus made John repulsive to the early Gnostics. Only disembodied spirit could be divine and only those who, through special knowledge linked to an original divine spark, gained gnostic knowledge.

What renders John inoffensive in the modern period is a downplaying of John’s anti-gnostic themes. The incarnation is muted in modern sensibility as focus is put upon the pre-incarnate Christ. In turn, the goodness of creation or the sense in which it is a fit-dwelling for God, is displaced by the notion that redemption amounts to abandonment of God’s creation (rather than recreation, as portrayed in John). Focus on individual assent of the believer to a doctrinal formula accords with disembodied gnosis as adequate for salvation, which also fits with a focus on the inward and “spiritual” as standing over and against the outward and fleshly. This all fits with the peculiar elitism of the Gnostics (of the first and 21st century): only a special few are saved and most are damned and there is no cosmic salvation or cosmic recreation in gnostic-like readings of John.

What Hill finds, in contrast to a phobia of John in the early church, is the profound influence of John in every sector of the early church:

After the Johannine Epistles, the influence of this Gospel is evident in the writings or oral teachings of Ignatius, Polycarp, ( John) the Elder, Aristides, Papias, the longer ending of Mark, the later portions of the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistula Apostolorum, the Ad Diognetum, all before about 150. These represent the Great Church in at least Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy. The witness of Papias and his sources is of particular magnitude, as it seems to represent a substratum of tradition about the four Gospels which became widely diffused. This witness is consistent with the eminence of the four Gospels which is assumed by the longer ending of Mark, well before the comments made by Irenaeus in the 180s.[6]

Hill goes on to describe what must have been the universal appeal and shaping force of John in the early church. John’s “strong representation among the surviving papyrus fragments of early Christian writings” and the very early testimony of Aristides (in the 120s) and Justin (in the 150s) that the reigning emperor read John. Hill maintains that, “By the middle of the century, when Justin Martyr, Tatian, Valentinus, Ptolemy, and Hegesippus were in Rome, this Gospel must have been quite a well-known and prominent Christian authority.”[7] Hill argues, contrary to the received consensus, “there is no good evidence that any of the writers of the Great Church opposed or rejected the Gospel according to John in the second century, least of all for being gnostic or docetic, and not even for being inauthentic.”[8]

He points to the early catacomb paintings in Rome (around 200 A.D.) which testify to the unique influence of John in depictions of Jesus as the good shepherd (John 10), the conversation with the Samaritan woman (from John 4), the healing of the paralytic (from John 5), and the raising of Lazarus (from John 11). The use of “good shepherd” chalices (in the third century), and popularity of depictions of the wedding at Cana and the healing of the man born blind in baptistries, in Christian tombs, in glass and ceramic art, and in mosaics, testify to the popularity of the Gospel of John.[9] Far from a heretical love of John and an orthodox fear, Hill concludes that John was a “stubborn obstacle to docetism” or the denial that Christ was fully human. John preserved the orthodox church against the heretics, rather than providing an opening for their split between the humanity and deity of Jesus.

John’s focus on the eternality and deity of Jesus, as described in the work of Herbert McCabe, Robert Jenson, John Behr, and Rowan Williams, has been largely subdued if not lost in the modern sensibility, and this may account for the peculiar gnostic-like malaise of the church. The failure of Johannine scholarship seems to be the manifestation of a broader failure of appreciation of the theological focus of John which preserved the orthodoxy of the first church. What we find in the early church, and what has been largely lost in the modern period, is the centrality of the Gospel of John.

Maybe the prime representative of a Johannine theological approach, today condemned as a heretic, is Origen of Alexandria. My point in turning to Origen is to suggest that what has been lost in the modern church, in its flat reading of John, is best represented in the theological richness of Origen, which is today an understanding often reviled and repudiated.

As Ronald Heine describes in his introduction to Origen’s commentary on John, “Perhaps no book of the Bible, certainly none of the New Testament, was so suited to Origen’s exegetical approach as the Gospel of John. In his Commentary on the Gospel of John we have the greatest exegetical work of the early church.”[10] Ambrose directed Origen to write on John, as he had been saved out of Valentinianism by Origen, and apparently the Gospel had become key in his understanding. Origen’s spiritual exegesis of Scripture takes its inspiration from John and Paul. He referred to them as the “princes” of the New Testament and he refers to John as the “high priest” of religion of the Logos, as it was John who attained to a spiritual vision. He credits Revelation 14:6 as inspiring his understanding of the spiritual gospel, and his reading of John provides an abundance of examples of this spiritual reading.

In the commentary he will refer (in Book 6) to the crossings of the Jordan as a type of baptism; to the paschal lamb as a type of the crucified Christ (Book 10); to the tabernacle and the temple as types of Christ (Book 10.60); and in his discussion of John 2:13 he proceeds from the Passover in Exodus to Christ to I Corinthians 5:7 to Jesus words in 6:53-56 regarding eating his flesh and blood.[11] Origen finds Jesus Christ in the Law and the Prophets and is the center of his interpretation of every book of the Hebrew scriptures. In other words, Origen sets the pattern in a theological interpretation, inspired by John, that would become common in the early church.

Eusebius (260-339 A. D.) calls him the greatest Christian theologian, while Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215 A. D.) calls him the true gnostic. Gregory of Nyssa considers Origen his theological master while Gregory of Nazianzus demonstrates a primary reliance of Origen. According to David Bentley Hart, it is Origen and Origen’s reading of the Bible that will exercise the key influence on the early church:

After Paul, there is no single Christian figure to whom the whole tradition is more indebted. It was ­Origen who taught the Church how to read Scripture as a living mirror of Christ, who evolved the principles of later trinitarian theology and Christology, who majestically set the standard for Christian apologetics, who produced the first and richest expositions of contemplative ­spirituality, and who—simply said—laid the foundation of the whole edifice of developed Christian thought.[12]

And as Hart continues, it is Origen who is most disgracefully treated as a heretic by both East and West.

What is lost to us in the critical reception of Johannine literature in modern scholarship and in the flat reading of John with its gnostic-like presumptions, is the richness of the theological program inspired by John and passed along by Origen. Apart from the recovery of John’s theological reading it is not clear that deliverance from modern Gnosticism is possible.


[1] Charles Hill, The Johannine Corpus in the Early Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[2] Hill, 444.

[3] Hill, 56.

[4] Hill, 466.

[5] John Behr, John the Theologian and His Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 43.

[6] Hill, 465.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hill, 468.

[9] Hill, 469.

[10] Origen, Commentary on the Gospel According to John Books 1-10, Translated by Ronald E. Heine (Washington D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1989), 3.

[11] Origen, 14-15.

[12] David Bentley Hart, “Saint Origen,” in First Things (October 2015). Thank you Matt for the reference and for your great enthusiasm for Origen.

Is the God of the Law Among the Principalities and Powers Defeated by Christ?

The difference between contractual and apocalyptic theology is literally a world apart, in that contractual theology presumes history, law, human experience, and human intellect are an adequate or semi-adequate groundwork for prompting and recognizing the work of Christ. The scale of salvation, in a contractual understanding, is limited to humanity and tends to be focused on individuals or individual souls. It harmonizes, or attempts to harmonize, the God of the law with the image of God revealed in Christ. Any tension within Scripture between the Hebrew and Christian understanding of God is glossed over as resolvable.

Apocalyptic theology unfolds, both in its depiction of the problem and solution, on a cosmic scale. The world has been enslaved to forces of cosmic proportion which are spiritual and heavenly and physical and terrestrial. Ruling from above they have taken earth captive and have divided its kingdoms, with various spirits, religions, gods, and heavenly/earthly rulers demarking the spoils over which they reign. In turn, the story of salvation involves the entire cosmos, and as Ephesians depicts it, Christ has challenged the archons or so-called gods of the nations. We may imagine Paul is not including the God of Israel and the giver of the law as among the powers challenged by Christ. I would argue, it is precisely the one who delivered the law that is the prototype of the powers undone by Christ.

Paul, in quoting Psalms 68, which is describing David’s defeat of his enemies, translates the significance of these enemies and their defeat into the spiritual realm: “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men” (Eph. 4:8).  He explains, “In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Eph. 4:9-10). The cosmos, through the original deception but through continued manipulation, has been enslaved to death and hades. The descent and defeat of the place of the dead and the ascent into heaven is a depiction of the defeat of deathly power. Human acquiescence to deadly forces has unleashed these forces onto all that mankind was to have dominion over. How exactly these powers have come to rule may not be clear, but their manner of rule is clarified in conjunction with the death dealing nature of the law.

The exact manner of the rule of the powers is specified in Colossians, which also describes what happens now that they have been defeated: “When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him. Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:16–17). The specific “basic principles” which formerly enslaved and which now threaten again, are precisely those commanded in the law (I Ch. 23:21). The Colossians, like the Ephesians and Galatians, are being lured back into a Judaized Christianity, in which the law is pictured as a necessary first order arrangement (much as in contractual theology). Paul argues that, the specific way in which the reign of death is exercised is through human subjection to laws, principles and powers, which have no substance. They are lacking in truth and reality and yet these shadowy powers once reigned where Christ now reigns.

Both passages (from Ephesians and Colossians) seem to be an example of what the Apostles Creed describes as the “harrowing of hell,” or the defeat of the reign of death and those powers (or that power) which held the power of death as an enslaving instrument. Paul describes the release from captivity as a setting free of delusion, and his fear is that the Christians will forsake the truth for the lie of false religion: “Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind” (Col 2:18). The worship of angels may indicate, according to F. F. Bruce, a return to Judaism, as it was not God, but angels who delivered the law. The return to the law, characterized as worshipping angels, is probably Paul’s way of deriding legalism and asceticism.[1] 

Both Stephen, in Acts, and the writer of Hebrews make it clear, the law did not come directly from God but was delivered by angels, and to mistake their message and presence for the full substance of reality is the equivalent of idolatry (a worship of angels) in deifying what is not God (Acts 7:54; Heb. 1:4). Paul takes this a step further, indicating the Lord of Israel was an angelic mediator and should not be confused with the Father of Christ. The law delivered through this “God,” along with his reign, was a mediating phase displaced by the real thing: “Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made” (Ga 3:19). Paul is quick to explain that the problem is not with the mediation or the mediator, but the problem is to imagine this temporary measure is permanent or real. He is arguing that the law is temporary, but he also suggests the one doing this mediating was not God per se, but a mediator for God. “Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one” (Gal. 3:20). This mediating personage is not God and is not life giving, as his message is only partial: “For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law” (Gal. 3:21).

In 4:8 he equates returning to the law as returning to enslavement “to those who by nature are not gods.” He could be quoting the injunction from Chronicles (I Ch. 23:31; 2 Ch. 31:3) to observe and keep “Sabbaths, new moons, and set feasts.” Yet these things, which might have once been mistaken for divine ordinances, are “weak and miserable forces. . . who by nature are not gods” (Gal. 4:8-10). Is the “mediator,” this “weak and miserable force,” presumed to be God or the law or both? It may not matter, as neither is to be equated with the God revealed in Christ. “But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22). There was no access to God, to life, or to righteousness, as this mediating system “shut up everyone under sin.”

Other than as a pointer to the reality of Christ, as the writer of Hebrews indicates, the laws and institutions making up Israel are a shadow and not the reality: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves” (Heb. 10:1, RSV). The writer then nods toward the prophetic tradition (quoting Psalms 40) in which the voice commanding sacrifices and institutions of sacrifice (the temple, altar and priests) was not conveying the will of God: “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired. . . in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure” (Heb. 10:5-6). Jeremiah says it even more bluntly, “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Jer. 7:22). Jesus quotes Hosea to indicate what God really wants: “But go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt. 9:13).

Yet there are many passages where God (or a mediator) does command sacrifice and seems to enjoy the pleasing aroma of sacrifice. “The Lord smelled the soothing aroma” of Noah’s sacrifice and his anger was calmed (Gen. 8:20-21). Exodus pictures God or his messenger demanding sacrifice and finding pleasure in the smell: “You shall offer up in smoke the whole ram on the altar; it is a burnt offering to the Lord: it is a soothing aroma, an offering by fire to the Lord” (Ex. 29:18). Every indication, from a series of passages, is that the Lord commanded and enjoyed sacrifice (Gen. 8: 21; Exod. 29: 18, 25; Lev. 1: 9, 13; 2: 9; 4: 31). Yet there are an equal number of scriptures that indicate these were not commands from God: “I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills” (Ps. 50:9-10). “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Ho 6:6). “I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats” (Is. 1:11). God says, you have me confused with someone else, “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Jer. 7:22).

Whether it is, as Novation put it, that God has allowed himself to be fit to a frame of understanding “not as God was but as the people were able to understand,” or as Gregory of Nazianzus pictures it, God allowed fallen understanding to be mixed with right understanding as an accommodation, in either case the reality of God is obscured (even according to the Old Testament) in many of the Hebrew scriptures’ portrayals of God.[2] To fail to miss the possible accommodation and to presume to make all things equal in the Bible, will amount to committing the very error Paul is warning against. Law, sacrifices, blood offerings, new moons, sabbath keeping, taken as more than a shadow, amount to idolatry. These things are in danger of becoming an enslaving god, in competition with the Father of Christ. As Paul and Hebrews indicate, the law was given through angels (lesser spirits), and these in no way attain to the reality of God.

If this is the case, isn’t it also true that the principalities and powers, the archons of the age, the thrones and dominions, Paul speaks of, may be a mixed bag of malevolent spirits and corrupted and incomplete principles, inclusive of what he calls a “bewitching” (3:1) misapprehension of the law? He equates this delusion with the principle of the flesh (3:3), with reducing Christ to nothing (2:21), with the curse of the law (3:10), and with the equivalent of a return to idolatry (4:8-9). Paul compares living under the law to enslavement to the “elemental principles of the world” (Gal. 4:3), and to trade this enslavement for freedom in Christ is nothing short of the original malignancy introduced by the serpent.

If it seems odd to suggest that many of the theophanies of the Hebrew scriptures not only fall short of the reality of God but are at times indistinguishable from fallen angels or malevolent spirits, Origen is an early example of one who equates theophanies with malignant spirits. In a section of his book, On First Principles, entitled “The Opposing Powers,” he pictures the one commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son as a malign spirit. “For he is manifestly described as an angel who said that he knew then that Abraham feared God, and had not spared his beloved son, as the Scripture declares, although he did not say that it was on account of God that Abraham had done this, but on his, that is, the speaker’s account.” He equates this spirit with the one called “the destroying angel” slaying the first born in Egypt (Ex. 12:23), with the “evil spirit from God who “came mightily upon Saul” (I Sam. 18:10) and with the “deceiving spirit” sent upon the prophets (I Kings 22:19-23). Origen recognizes that the violence of the Hebrew Bible is mitigated and to be read through the peace of Christ, so that violence and a spirit of violence is unworthy of God, let alone being identified with God.

Christ has conquered the whole mixed bag of demonic spirits, malevolent principles, enslaving powers, the archons, thrones and dominions, inclusive of those connected to the law and the giving of the law. Paul is not concerned to sort out and save the one who mediated the law from other powers. In an apocalyptic reading, in which the old world order (perhaps most clearly represented by the law) is disrupted and defeated by the work of Christ, there is no middle position between slavery to the world principles and freedom. As Paul explains, the Jew is at no advantage in this regard (Gal. 2:16-20). He might as well have said, “Go ahead and observe the law and pretend the God who sends evil and deceiving spirits which enslave mankind and which enslaved the Jews pertain to the reality of God, but understand in observing special days and months and seasons and years and in turning back to the mediating angel of the law, I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you, for this has nothing to do with the God revealed in Christ” (see Gal. 4:10-11).


[1] F. F. Bruce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991). 118.

[2] Novatian, De Trinitate, 6, cited in Gregory Boyd, Cross Vision (Kindle Location 1563). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition. [2] Gregory of Nazianzus, “Fifth Oration: On the Holy Spirit,” in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, vol. 7, trans. P. Schaff and H. Wace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), 326. Cited in Boyd, (Kindle Locations 1564-1565).

Revelation as the Exposure and Defeat of a Violent Concept of God

Scripture records a progressive revelation of God culminating in Christ which ends up pitting an obscure earlier understanding, with its own tradition and cultic development, against the fulness and truth of Christ. My argument (here) was that Christ bore this difference in his death. My argument below is that this development of two competing concepts of God, coming to a final conflict in Christ, is what constitutes revelation and that to miss this point is to miss the word of the cross and the nature of inspiration.

The two biblical uses of “God breathed” illustrate the point that God’s life or breath animates human-kind (Gen. 2:7) and stands behind biblical inspiration (2 Tim. 3:16) in a similar way. In both instances the human impinges upon, is allowed to act upon, the divine gift.  The human bearer of the divine breath or image is capable of obscuring that image in a way that the rest of creation cannot. That is, the rest of God’s creation bears his fingerprint but it is only humans, those who directly bear his image, that are empowered to erase it. They might erase the image within themselves as individuals, corporately as part of societies, or as part of their religion. This is brought home most starkly by the cross in the one who was “the exact representation of his nature” (Heb. 1:3) who was tortured to death in an attempted annihilation. I presume that there is no divine breath that is not marked by this deadly human impetus to erasure. If the person of Christ, God incarnate, is acted upon by evil men, how can there be any word that does not bear the mark of this encounter. If the God breathed revelation in Christ bears the human attempt at erasure (murder, violence, deicide) in his flesh, is Scripture miraculously protected where the Word was not?

There are occasions, such as when his hometown synagogue tried to assassinate him, that Jesus “passed through their midst” (Lk. 4:30) unharmed. He had the ability to escape, but we cannot see how he did it and the mode of his passing is such that it leaves no trace. He might have carried out his entire ministry, passing through their midst and “going on His way” so that he slips through their hands and minds. But the implication is that his ministry and teaching would have passed, as he did on this occasion, undetected through their midst. Apparently, a word that is untouched by human hands will also not touch upon the human mind. The revelation occurs when they get their hands on him. The height of revelation occurs when humanity acts upon him and shapes the Word to the contours of the cross. Far from the cross silencing or erasing revelation, the Gospel message is this “word of the cross.” But the cross is revelation because the message pertains to what they would do to him. Their murderous intent is the condition that is exposed as what always acts upon revelation but it is only in Christ that the Word exposes and defeats these conditions.

We might call the cross an accommodation of the message to those who have received it, and incarnation certainly indicates God willingly submitted himself to the human condition, but the cross ends the shadowy form of revelation which preceded it, as Hebrews describes it. Perhaps as Novation put it (c. 200-258), God has allowed himself to be fitted to a “mediocre” state of belief so that in Israel he was understood “not as God was but as the people were able to understand.” It is not, Novatian concluded, a problem with God but with human limitations: “God, therefore, is not mediocre, but the people’s understanding is mediocre; God is not limited, but the intellectual capacity of the people’s mind is limited.”[1] Perhaps we could agree with Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329-390), that God allowed aspects of fallen understanding to get mixed in with his self-revelation, as they could not have otherwise received it. Like a wise physician he blended flavorful juice with the nasty-tasting medicine so they could stomach it. As they were able to endure more, he gradually peeled away their fallen beliefs so as to reveal more and more truth about himself. As Gregory notes, God first “cut off the idol” though he “left the sacrifices,” and then we learn in the latter prophets that he doesn’t approve of animal sacrifices. He allowed for sacrifices and even stooped to a level of spiritual immaturity which pictures him as enjoying the great smell (Gen. 8: 21; Exod. 29: 18, 25; Lev. 1: 9, 13; 2: 9; 4: 31) but which he clearly reveals he never enjoyed or wanted (Psalm 50:8; Hosea 6:6; Psalm 51:16; Psalm 40:6–8; Isaiah 1:11–31; Jeremiah 7:21–23; Hebrews 10:4–10).[2] In Christ, while there is still a form of subordination to the human condition, there is a revelation of the whole truth without the former admixture or impurity.

With Christ, the accommodation has given way to conflict between God and Israel’s conception of God. While God in Christ is addressing the human understanding, he is also challenging it as it has never before been challenged. Now God is commanding all men everywhere to repent, as he is finished with overlooking the times of ignorance. The cross marks the contradiction and difference with this former time as it is now being challenged. It is a challenge to every aspect of human understanding. It pits the human power of death against the divine power of life and it pits a human conception of God against God incarnate. Jesus will die because of the threat he poses to the Jewish Temple, the Jewish Nation, the Jewish religion, and the Jewish conception of God. And of course, the Jews are simply the best of humankind, so that Roman, Babylonian, American, or the universal is represented in what is Jewish.

The cross, then, reveals divine communication in an odd sort of dialogue, a reciprocal give-and-take, in which human agency is given free reign and Christ is willing to bear this sin. The sin, in this instance, is a form of thought, a state of mind, a belief system, or simply the symbolic order in which meaning is attached to violence and death. The violent symbolic order and religion (the Jewish religion which is the prototype of human religion) conceives of God in its own image, so that the worship of this God requires sacrifice and it results in killing God in the flesh.

This misrecognition of God is one that Israel’s Scriptures describes as slowly evolving. God has accommodated their desire for a king, their desire for polygamy and divorce, their desire for sacrifice, and even their desire to take the promised land violently. Indicators are that he planned for a slow movement in which he would remove the population by angel power (Ex. 33:2), by his own divine means (Ex. 34:11; Lev. 18:24), or by a gradual expansion of borders (Ex. 34:24). The land itself would spew out its inhabitants due to their own moral wickedness (Lev. 18:25) but also due to a hornet infestation (Ex. 23:28). But for God’s nonviolent means to be realized, patience would be required: “I will not drive them out before you in a single year, that the land may not become desolate and the beasts of the field become too numerous for you. I will drive them out before you little by little, until you become fruitful and take possession of the land” (Ex. 23:29-30). The picture is of a gradual migration, in which one people moves off the land while another occupies it.  

Throughout Israel’s Scriptures there is a tension between God’s original ideal and the actual execution of the plan. It is not always clear that God has accommodated as much as he has been made to accommodate.  For example, there is a clear record of his warning against having a king and the curses that will be bound to follow. Nonetheless, he accommodated their desire for a warrior king and then succumbed to their notion of a warrior God. All of these accommodations are codified into the law, so that what was “allowed” becomes what was legal. But contained in Israel’s Scriptures is also the evidence of God’s true desire.  Yahweh concludes, you were mistaken: “you thought I was just like you” (Ps 50: 21). The end result is that they do not know or recognize God: “An ox knows its owner, And a donkey its master’s manger, But Israel does not know, My people do not understand” (Is. 1:3).

Would it be too much to suggest Israel made a mistake fostered by their religion and recorded and challenged by their Scriptures?  Though, modern conservatives believe the Bible is a progressive revelation and even a revelation which passed through human vessels, it imagines this involves no errors or misconceptions (that it was inerrant). To save the Bible from error the trade-off is an illogical flattening out into something worse than Novatian’s mediocrity. Without the possibility for the sort of critique, which the Bible allows itself, no distinction can be made within the various prophetic traditions and portrayals of God. The result is to ignore the counter-prophets who maintain God never desired key elements codified in the Law, which cumulatively serve to misrepresent him. In order to accommodate the notion of an inerrant Bible, rather than the Bible accommodating human failing, the trade-off is to fit belief in a violent God to the person and work of Christ. Thus, doctrines like penal substitution or divine satisfaction not only hold that Christ satisfies God’s need for violence (to restore his honor or to assuage his anger), but historically mark the reshaping of atonement to fit Constantinian nationalism and the just war tradition, in which God is turned into something like a tribal deity.

 As Jeremiah describes the false prophets and priests, “They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, Saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ But there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14). This false peace is promoted by the prophets who imagine God’s blessing is achieved through wars for national interest and they inaugurate and sanctify a nationalism which goes on into the Maccabees and to the various parties which challenged Jesus. The Sadducees would collaborate, the Zealots would rebel, the priests and Pharisees would appease, but they agree upon the need for the violent sacrifice of Jesus that the nation might survive. Jesus refusal to wage war for national independence and his revolutionary non-violent peace, in turn succumbs in large measure, in Constantinianism to the lie which put him on the cross.

Between the Edict of Milan (C. E. 313) which established toleration for Christianity within the Roman Empire and Augustine’s master work, The City of God (circa 410), which argues that Christianity is responsible for Rome’s success, the church became identified with the Holy Roman Empire. No longer is Jesus teaching conjoined, as it had been for three centuries, with the obedient nonviolent, anti-sacrificial, line of the true prophets but it is made to serve national interests through cultic means (Jesus as one more sacrifice) which, according to the true prophets, had corrupted Israel’s religion. As John Howard Yoder puts it, “The church does not preach ethics, judgment, repentance, separation from the world; it dispenses sacraments and holds society together.”[3] It is no longer a matter of discerning the will of God in a corrupt society, as now all of society is Christian (i.e., all are baptized) and the most that one need be concerned with is personal sin and attaining the lesser evil. Augustine imagined the Roman church was the millennial kingdom and that the conquest of the world had been achieved and all that was left was a clean-up campaign. As a result, the Roman state as God’s agent in the war on evil is set (by the beginning of the new millennium in 1096, the first crusade), not to preserve peace (the purpose of kings, I Tim. 2), but to wage war for faith and Empire against the heathens.[4]

Just as Jesus enemies would have annihilated him on the cross, the symbol of the cross in the Crusades, in The Thirty Years’ War and in the multiple “Christian” state wars, comes to represent the demonic force which killed him rather than his defeat of this power of death. Rather than the cross depicting God’s willingness to bear violence, it is now justification for the state to pronounce God-like judgments on its enemies. The state can now enact its own hell in exterminating all it deems to be evil. As a result, we continually hover on the brink of world annihilation as a theologically inspired nationalism, a reenactment of Jewish nationalism, mistakes the Father of Christ for the father of the nation state.

Is there the possibility that this violent image of God is mistaken and we know that it is mistaken due to the Word of the cross? Isn’t the message of the cross precisely the Word encountering and overcoming this death dealing human condition?


[1] Novatian, De Trinitate, 6, cited in Gregory Boyd, Cross Vision (Kindle Location 1563). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Gregory of Nazianzus, “Fifth Oration: On the Holy Spirit,” in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, vol. 7, trans. P. Schaff and H. Wace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), 326. Cited from Boyd, (Kindle Locations 1564-1565).

[3] John Howard Yoder, The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical (Kindle Locations 3312-3317). Herald Pr. Kindle Edition.

[4] Yoder, (Kindle Locations 3322-3326)