The Lost World of Origen’s Gospel Metaphysics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Ibid. xii.

[4] Ibid. 17.

[5] Ibid. 24.

[6] Ibid. 18

[7] Ibid. 1.

[8] Ibid. xiii

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

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

The Gospel Constituting Scripture: The Hermeneutic of the Rule of Faith

The presumption of Restoration Movement churches, of which I am a lifetime member, is that the Bible alone is sufficient for all matters of faith and practice. The approach is tightly inductive, presuming that where the Bible speaks, we speak and where the Bible is silent, we are silent. The eschewing of tradition is sometimes taken to extremes, with little exposure in the typical seminary education to patristics or early church theology and exegetical practice. There is a suspicion of theology, such that in my undergraduate education there was no course in theology. One must use caution extrapolating from the ideas found in one text to another. Employing the tools of historical criticism, each text must be studied objectively. To understand any particular verse or text requires exhaustive study of the background, the historical setting, and getting at the intent of the author. Given that the truth is in the history (it is the “historical critical” method) and that it is the world behind the text that must be delineated, there is really no end to the study. After the grammatical implications, the etymology of particular words, and the immediate context of the verse is taken into account, one can then move on to another verse. But this raises the problem of harmonizing the historical details (e.g., between the Gospels or between the epistles), to say nothing of the ideas found therein.

One might begin to suspect the unity of the Bible or the efficacy of Bible reading. The text does not seem trustworthy at multiple levels and certainly seems to fall short of being divine, as some of the church fathers would have it. The fact that a modern foundation of truth, outside of the Bible and outside of Christ, is displacing the foundation of Christ, may or may not occur to the interpreter. Friedrich Schleiermacher was pretty well aware he was no longer working under the same definition of truth set forth in the Bible, but most modern interpreters are not so bold. In the Restoration Movement, the foundation was mostly changed without anyone noticing. It was a product of 19th century Lockean rationalism and the naivete attached to modernism in general. Both conservatives and liberals lost the biblical foundation before it occurred to them to fight over it. What may be characterized as a naïve Biblicism (or even naïve anti-Biblicism) needs to be targeted, but there may also be the presumption that the alternative is an either/or solution between tradition and scripture or between theology and scripture.

There is a “rule of faith” that recognizes the preeminence of the gospel of Christ in the formation of scripture and in biblical interpretation, but this does not reduce to an easy either/or as to what weight is to be given to tradition, scripture, or theology. What it does indicate is that faith or even the formation of theology is as important to how the Bible is interpreted as anything to be found in the interpretive method itself. That is, the evangelical notion that the Bible and correct Bible reading provide the cure to every disagreement and heresy, is not only missing the primacy of faith (or in terms of the early church, the primacy of the gospel), but the necessary givenness of theory and worldview. There is no blank slate or pure induction, and this is not only the rediscovery of postmodernism but the starting premise of Christianity (e.g., Heb. 11:1).

The rule of faith (regula fidei) is not only a basic premise for reading scripture but is the situation in which scripture is constituted. Scripture is an interpretation of the person of Christ (in both Testaments), and this is the substance of its unity and the point of departure. Scripture is a confession of faith in the crucified and risen Christ, but this faith first arises in the Apostles and is being preached before it is written. Irenaeus explains (see below) that if the apostles had left no writings that the churches they founded were a deposit of this faith, but even here ascertaining (in the second century) and understanding this gospel was on the basis of the rule of faith.

On the other hand, it is not that this rule floated free of scripture, as Irenaeus appeals to scripture in setting forth the rule of faith. He writes, “We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.”[1]

Irenaeus is not distinguishing scripture and tradition, as both derive from the Apostles. Entailed in the reception of the gospel is the faith that what is apostolic is authoritative because it derives from Jesus and Jesus is God’s divine messenger. As John Behr writes, “So, for Irenaeus, both the true apostolic tradition maintained by the churches, and the apostolic writings themselves, derive from the same apostles, and have one and the same content, the Gospel, which is itself . . . “according to the Scriptures.”[2] Or as G. Florovsky put it, “Tradition” for the early church is “Scripture rightly understood.”[3] In the same breath Irenaeus is appealing to tradition he also says, “the demonstrations [of things contained] in the Scriptures cannot be demonstrated except from the Scriptures themselves.”[4] Or as Behr sums it up:

Irenaeus’ appeal to tradition is thus fundamentally different to that of his opponents. While they appealed to tradition precisely for that which was not in Scripture, or for principles which would legitimize their interpretation of Scripture, Irenaeus, in his appeal to tradition, was not appealing to anything else that was not also in Scripture. Thus Irenaeus can appeal to tradition, to establish his case, and at the same time maintain that Scripture cannot be understood except on the basis of Scripture itself, using its own hypothesis and canon.[5]

Irenaeus suggests that it is not writing per se that constitutes the gospel, as the illiterate “barbarians” who receive this gospel may have it written on their hearts though they cannot understand the words written with ink and paper. He is describing an encounter with the risen Christ, in the gospel, that is faith. This is the faith received at baptism but as he goes on to explain, this faith has a very particular form and content:

…this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the earth and the seas and all the things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who made known through the prophets the plan of salvation, and the coming, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his future appearing from heaven in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and to raise anew all flesh of the whole human race.[6]

This rule of faith includes loving recognition of Christ who reveals the fulness of the Trinity. There is no distinction here between economic and immanent Trinity, no notion of distinction between Jesus and the Logos and no separation of the humanity and deity of Christ. The incarnation and the Trinity are not separate subjects. The rule of faith begins with the incarnation as access to God as Trinity. As Irenaeus defines (elsewhere) “the order of the rule of our faith” is:

God, the Father, not made, not material, invisible; one God, the creator of all things: this is the first point of our faith. The second point is: The Word of God, Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was manifested to the prophets according to the form of their prophesying and according to the method of the dispensation of the Father through whom all things were made; who also at the end of the times, to complete and gather up all things, was made man among men, visible and tangible, in order to abolish death and show forth life and produce a community of union between God and man. And the third point is: The Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied, and the fathers learned the things of God, and the righteous were led forth into the way of righteousness; and who in the end of the times was poured out in a new way upon mankind in all the earth, renewing man unto God.[7]

The rule of faith, which will be implicitly challenged and set aside, is inclusive of a specific understanding of God as creator, of Christ as unveiling and constituting the inspiration of scripture and delivering from death, and of the Holy Spirit who is being poured out making people righteous and forming a new unified people. One encounters God the Father, God the Son (as Word, Son of God, Jesus Christ), and God the Holy Spirit in the gospel message, and this unity is the rule of faith.

According to Behr, this will begin to change in the Middle Ages. Rather than beginning with the incarnation to say who God is, the incarnation began to be treated separately from the doctrine of the Trinity. The speculative possibility of treating the One God separate from the triune God and the Trinity separately from the incarnation is opened up.[8] In other words, at some point there is a loss of the rule of faith, and while this loss is marked most clearly by the condemnation of heretics, what is condemned are the conclusions reached rather than the starting point by which they were reached in both biblical interpretation and the very definition of faith.

It may be in the theology of Origen that this fulness of the rule of faith is most clearly worked out, but he is building upon what he has received. What is clear in Origen, partly due to its strangeness and contrast to later development, is his presumption that it is Christ alone that reveals the inspiration of the Hebrew scriptures: “For before the fulfilment of those events which were predicted by them, they could not, although true and inspired by God, be shown to be so, because they were as yet unfulfilled. But the coming of Christ was a declaration that their statements were true and divinely inspired.”[9] Irenaeus makes the same point: “If anyone, therefore, reads the Scriptures with attention, he will find in them an account of Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling.” Christ is the treasure hid in the field who brings alive the meaning of Scripture through “types and parables.”[10] Apart from Christ the reader only finds myth, “for the truth that it contains is only brought to light by the cross of Christ, and only reading it in this way do we find our way into the Wisdom of God and ourselves come to shine with his light as did Moses.”[11]

As J. Louis Martyn writes: “the fundamental arrow in the link joining scripture and gospel points from the gospel story to the scripture and not from scripture to the gospel story. In a word, with Jesus’ glorification, belief in scripture comes into being by acquiring an indelible link to Jesus’ word and deeds.”[12] Origen’s point is this reading of scripture is tied directly to “the rule of the heavenly Church of Jesus Christ [handed down] through succession from the apostles.”[13]

The rule of faith comes with a hermeneutic that is at once the gospel of Christ, Trinitarian, apocalyptic, and “spiritual” (if not in the details of Origen’s method at least implying apprehension of Christ and response in the reader). Apart from the rule of faith and its doctrinal implications (the point of On First Principles), the reader of scripture may be left with the letter, the text, the history, but will have missed the encounter with the gospel of Christ. With the spelling out and application of the doctrinal implications of the rule of faith the scriptures are opened, where otherwise they remain closed.[14]

(To register for our next class with PBI, “Reading the Bible in Community” starting the week of September 26th and running through November 18th register at

[1] Against Heresies, 3.1.1

[2] John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology: The Way to Nicaea, Vol. 1, (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001) 45.

[3] Behr Citing G. Florovsky, “The Function of Tradition in the Early Church,” GOTR 9, no. 2 (1963): 182; repr. in Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition (Vaduz, Liechtenstein: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987), 75, Behr Ibid.

[4] Against Heresies, 3.12.9.

[5] Behr, Ibid.

[6] Against Heresies 1.10

[7] Irenaeus, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 6

[8] John Behr, John the Theologian and His Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 17

[9] Origen, On First Principles 4.1.6.

[10] Against Heresies, 4.26.1.

[11] Origin, On First Principles Vol. 1, translated and with Introduction by John Behr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017) L.

[12] J. Louis Martyn, ‘John and Paul on the Subject of Gospel and Scripture’, in idem. Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul, Studies of the New Testament and its World (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1997), 209-30. Quoted in Behr’s Introduction to On First Principles, Ibid.

[13] Principle 4.2.2.

[14] As Herbert McCabe has written, “Watching, so to say the story of Jesus, we are watching the processions of the Trinity. That the mission in time of Son and Spirit reflect the eternal relation”. . . and more than that “they are not just reflection but sacrament – they contain the reality they signify.” In Jesus Christ we encounter the reality of God because this is who God is. The missions of the Son and the Spirit are not one episode in the story of God, this is the reality of God unfolding in the story of the Gospel. The “mission of Jesus is nothing other than the eternal generation of the Son.” Herbert McCabe, “The Involvement of God,” New Blackfriars, (November 1985) 473. Available online at

Jesus as an Eternal Fact About God

What is the significance of the fact that the Logos of John’s prologue refers to the incarnate Christ and not the pre-incarnate Christ? In the modern period, Herbert McCabe may have been the first to raise the issue, and in his estimate the shift to the pre-incarnate Christ introduces a series of theological problems and failures. He concludes that equating the Logos with the pre-incarnate Christ amounts to nothing less than a shift in the meaning of the incarnation and the doctrine of God. No longer is the incarnation about the inner life of the Trinity (the story of the procession of the Trinity), no longer is the bible the story of God found in the incarnate Christ, no longer is there recognition of how it is “really God who suffers in Jesus of Nazareth,” and this then creates the pressure, found in modern theology, to change up the doctrine of God (relinquishing the traditional understanding of the eternality of God and the impassibility of God).[1]  As he sums up his argument:

I have been arguing three things. First, that the traditional notion of God, far from being the allegedly “Greek” idea of a remote indifferent God, is a doctrine of the everpresent active involvement of the creator in his creatures; on this point I also claimed that the creator is a metaphysical notion of God and that we owe this metaphysics not to the Greeks but to the Jews and their bible. Secondly, I suggested that the temptation to attribute suffering to God as God, to the divine nature, is connected with a failure to acknowledge that it is really God who suffers in Jesus of Nazareth. Thirdly, I suggested that the traditional doctrine of God and the incarnation, is at least capable of development to the idea that the whole set of stories narrated in the bible is nothing other than the interior life of the triune God visible (to the eyes of faith) in our history.[2]

According to John Behr, the tendency, developing from out of the Middle Ages, has been to privilege the Word of God as first in a sequence leading to Jesus, and as primary as a point of explanation of God. Rather than beginning with the incarnation to say who God is, the incarnation began to be treated separately from the doctrine of the Trinity. The speculative possibility of treating the One God separate from the triune God and the Trinity separately from the incarnation is opened up.[3] As McCabe describes it, “to speak of the pre-existent Christ is to imply that God has a life-story, a divine story, other than the story of the incarnation. It is to suppose that in some sense there was a Son of God existing from the eternal ages who at some point in his eternal career assumed a human nature and was made man.”[4] McCabe sights the work of Raymond Brown (and his study of John of which he is appreciative) which presumes arriving at the pre-existent Christ is an advance over the “low” Christology of the virgin birth of Matthew and Luke. According to McCabe, this “invented” category (as “there is no such thing as the pre-existent Christ”) becomes the implicit presumption of modern scriptural and dogmatic scholarship.

Once the Word, as a pre-existent divine person is separated from the historical figure of Jesus, the Word becomes a wax nose to be bent according to the need of the hour. The Logos can be equated with a term of ancient philosophy rather than with the Gospel. Or as Irenaeus notes against the Gnostics, all sorts of mediating principles and gods can be slipped into the empty place of the Logos, or Light, or Life, which is not expressly identified with the incarnate one.

Thus it is that, wresting from the truth every one of the expressions which have been cited, and taking a bad advantage of the names, they have transferred them to their own system; so that, according to them, in all these terms John makes no mention of the Lord Jesus Christ. For if he has named the Father, and Charis, and Monogenes, and Aletheia, and Logos, and Zoe, and Anthropos, and Ecclesia, according to their hypothesis, he has, by thus speaking, referred to the primary Ogdoad, in which there was as yet no Jesus, and no Christ, the teacher of John.[5]

The structuring deities (the Ogdoad) can just as easily serve in place of Jesus, prior to Christ becoming the incarnate Son. The death and resurrection of Christ and the apostolic preaching of the cross are effectively trumped by emptying the Logos of Jesus (in the 2nd century and in the 20th century). God can be given another story in which the succession of the Son of God becoming man might be posited as one among any number of changes. And rather than reading the Gospel as an apocalyptic new world order, the historicizing approach to scripture takes hold in the last several centuries and Jesus is understood primarily in light of historical development.

What is lost is the recognition that Jesus is the life story of God. “The story of Jesus is nothing other than the triune life of God projected onto our history, or enacted sacramentally in our history, so that it becomes story.” Part of what is at issue is recognizing that the screen upon which this story is projected can distort the projected image. If it is a smooth silver screen, the image is clear, but if the screen is wrinkled or bent, this will have a distorting effect. “Now imagine a film projected not on a screen but on a rubbish dump.” This is not a secondary story but “the Trinity looks like a story of (is a story of) rejection, torture, and murder but also of reconciliation” because “it is being projected on, lived out on our rubbish tip; it is because of the sin of the world.” [6]

 Nonetheless all of the bible can be read as part of this projection of the story of Jesus upon history. “Watching, so to say the story of Jesus, we are watching the processions of the Trinity. That the mission in time of Son and Spirit reflect the eternal relation”. . . and more than that “they are not just reflection but sacrament – they contain the reality they signify.”[7] In Jesus Christ we encounter the reality of God because this is really who God is. The missions of the Son and the Spirit are not one episode in the story of God, this is the reality of God unfolding in the story of the Gospel. The “mission of Jesus is nothing other than the eternal generation of the Son.”[8]

The way the Logos is depicted in the early church is precisely not to imagine a fleshless pre-incarnate Christ, but to picture the cross as the center of time and an eternal fact about God. The virgin birth is not the beginning, but as Hippolytus pictures it, there is the loom of the cross set up in the midst of history weaving a different order of reality:

The web-beam, therefore, is the pass on of the Lord upon the cross, and the warp on it is the power of the Holy Spirit, and the woof is the holy flesh wrought (woven) by the Spirit, and the thread is the grace which by the love of Christ binds and unites the two in one, and the combs or (rods) are the Word; and the workers are the patriarchs and prophets who weave the fair, long, perfect tunic for Christ; and the Word passing through these, like the combs or (rods), completes through them that which His Father wills.[9]

The flesh of the Word is being continually woven from the sufferings of the cross, woven by the patriarchs and prophets who continue weaving the “tunic” of incarnate flesh. The incarnate flesh is woven backward and forward so that every moment, from the virgin birth to the proclamation of the church is the weaving of this incarnate reality. As Behr puts it in his explanation of Hippolytus, “It is in the preaching of Jesus Christ, the proclamation of the one who died on the cross, interpreted and understood in the matrix, the womb, of Scripture, that the Word receives flesh from the Virgin.”[10]

Hippolytus, in his reading of Revelation 12, extends the metaphor to describe this an unceasing activity of the church:

By the woman then clothed with the sun, he meant most manifestly the Church, endued with the Father’s word, whose brightness is above the sun. And by the moon under her feet he referred to her being adorned, like the moon, with heavenly glory. And the words, upon her head a crown of twelve stars, refer to the twelve apostles by whom the Church was founded. And those, she, being with child, cries, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered, mean that the Church will not cease to bear from her heart the Word that is persecuted by the unbelieving in the world. And she brought forth, he says, a man-child, who is to rule all the nations; by which is meant that the Church, always bringing forth Christ, the perfect man-child of God, who is declared to be God and man, becomes the instructor of all the nations. And the words, her child was caught up unto God and to His throne, signify that he who is always born of her is a heavenly king, and not an earthly; even as David also declared of old when he said, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make Your enemies Your footstool.’”[11]

The eternal fact of the incarnate Christ is one the church is “always bringing forth.” This one  seated at the right hand of God “is always born of her” the “heavenly king.” This is the one of whom David spoke, the one the apostles preached, the one the Virgin bore, the one the church bears for eternity.  

(Register for the upcoming Class on the Gospel of John starting May 9th here:

[1] Herbert McCabe, “The Involvement of God,” New Blackfriars, (November 1985) 476. Available online at

[2] McCabe, 476.

[3] John Behr, John the Theologian and His Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 17

[4] McCabe, 474.

[5] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.9.2.

[6] McCabe, 473.

[7] McCabe, 473

[8] McCabe, 473.

[9] Hippolytus, On Christ and Antichrist, 4.

[10] Behr, 18.

[11] Hippolytus, 61.

The Logos is the Incarnate Christ – The Openness of God

The implication of John’s and Paul’s focus on Christ incarnate is that we not only identify who God is through the incarnation, but we begin here because this is who God is. As John Behr notes, the early Church did not presume to start with the pre-incarnate Word – in fact he claims, the term “pre-incarnate” is absent from patristic literature.[1] The order of identification in Gregory of Nyssa, for example, begins with the cross and from the cross (in reference to Ephesians 3:18) the height, depth, breadth, and length, of all things unfolds and returns. As Gregory describes it, the cross is divided into four parts because the One upon it binds together in Himself all forms of existence. The apprehension of all things and the reality of all things converge on the cross.[2]

It is not that the Word became incarnate and then suffered on the cross, but rather the One on the cross is the identity of the Word. The mystery of God revealed as Trinity does not unfold from a fleshless (asarkos) heavenly realm. According to Behr, there has been a serious departure as the subject of Christian theology has changed, from Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord proclaimed by the Gospel, to the narrative of the Word of God somehow devoid of the content of the Gospel. This false narrative pictures an unfolding consecutive order occurring in God. The pre-incarnate Word descends to put on flesh, something like a space-suit, and it is this disembodied Word that is the secret behind the life of the Messiah.

 The simple failure here is to recognize that the Word in the Prologue of John is already, by the time of the writing of the Gospel of John, synonymous with the Gospel. The Word, like the Gospel, is about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The “word of the cross” (I Cor. 1:18) upon which apostolic preaching is centered is precisely the details leading up to the passion, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus. The Word is not, for Christians at least, determined by Greek philosophy, the Wisdom of the Old Testament, or even the tetragrammaton (the four-letter name for God which is unpronounceable) which appears under the Aramaic equivalent of Word in the Targums. As Cyril of Alexandria makes clear, Word refers to Jesus Christ: “We say that there is one and the same Jesus Christ, from the God and Father, on the one hand, as the God Word, and, on the other hand, from the seed of the divinely-inspired David according to the flesh.”[3] There is no division in the subject of Christ before and after the incarnation, rather: “One is the Son, one Lord, Jesus Christ, both before the incarnation and after the incarnation.”[4]

Both Cyril and Hippolytus describe a putting on of flesh, but this is not pictured as having been inaugurated from the conception or birth of Jesus but is generated backward in time, having been woven from the sufferings of the cross. Hippolytus, commenting on Revelation 12, pushes the metaphor to suggest this weaving of flesh is an unceasing function of the Church, “bearing from her heart the Word that is persecuted by the unbelieving in the World.” The male child she bears is Christ, God and human, as announced by the prophets, “whom the Church continually bears as she teaches all nations.”[5]

The significance of this focus on the incarnate Christ is spelled out by Irenaeus of Lyons in his insistence that each of the major metaphors for God’s entry into the world – Word, Life, Light, etc. – should not be separated out, or reified as a self-constituting entity, but must be taken as referring to Jesus Christ. The Word, the Light, the Life, is the one who became flesh. Jesus Christ is the Word in the beginning.

What John and the New Testament are conveying is that God has no story but that of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus Christ is the only Son of God. It is not that the pre-existent Christ and God have a life story, a secret divine story, other than the story of the incarnation or that the Son of God had spent a very long time in eternity – before the incarnation – doing God knows what. Eternity is not a very long time during which God was otherwise preoccupied. Eternity is not time at all and time (an unfolding story) and eternity only intersect in the Son. So, to speak of the Son of God as coming down from heaven is a metaphor that cannot be literally true. The Creator is not subject to spatial (up and down) or temporal (before and after) movement as these are created realms that do not refer to the divine reality.[6]

There are multiple implications to recognizing that the cross and the incarnation are eternal facts about God. Time and eternity, the human and divine, intersect in Christ. History’s center is open to the immanent Trinity and all of history is an unfolding of this intersection in the incarnation and the Church. Jesus Christ is not one episode among many in the story of the Word but is the singular story of God.[7] To imagine God as primarily apophatic, impassive, or apathetic, may be a way of speaking of some God we do not and cannot know, but it is by definition not the God we know through the Word.

This in turn, lends a profound significance to our interaction with the Word through our participation in this story, our continuation of the incarnation as the body of Christ. The specific connections and connectedness we develop in the body of Christ are a participation in who God is, giving our communion, our relationship, our interconnectedness an enduring eternal significance.

[1] John Behr, John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 15.

[2] Gregory of Nyssa (c 335 – after 394): The Great Catechism, 32

[3] Cyril of Alexandria, That Christ is One (ed. Pusey, 371.12–14) quoted from Behr, 16.

[4] Cyril of Alexandria, First Letter to Succensus, 4. Quoted from Behr, 17.

[5] Hippolytus, Antichrist 4, Behr, 18.

[6] Behr, 19 ff.

[7] See Herbert McCabe, “The Involvement of God,” in McCabe, God Matters (London:Continuum, 2012), 39–51. Noted in Behr, 19.