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 Native Language of the Cross

Compared to the biblical writers our understanding of time and history may tend to be stilted. Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58), with the “I” here referring to the present tense Jesus as now communing with the past. This is no minor point, as Jesus is staking all of his claims on this peculiar construct, and his audience is going to try to kill him because of the claim integral to this same construct. The ἐγώ εἰμι (“I am”) is a clear reference to deity and the name of God (YHWH) given in Exodus, but even in our acceptance of the deity of Christ we may miss the implications of that deity. In our tendency to help Jesus make better sense we might have him say, “I was before Abraham.” Maybe he is not a native speaker of Greek and he certainly does not speak English, so maybe he doesn’t understand you cannot have a present continuous before a completed past tense (a problem in any language). The context tells us, this is not a language problem in that sense, but in another sense the whole conversation pertains to language and one’s native language. Jesus says he is the truth and speaks the truth and his interlocutors speak lies and their native language is lying, as they speak the language of the father of lies (John 8:44).

In linguistic terms, there are two deep grammars at play. One deep grammar is grounded in violence and death and the other is grounded in truth and life (8:51). In familial terms, there are two streams of meaning or two heads or fathers of language (8:38). In this short conversation the limits of one language (sequence, consequence, before and after) are challenged by Jesus’ consciousness; his supra-temporality and supra-spatiality, in which the one who is incarnate and embodied now precedes one who was born and who died in the ancient past. Jesus’ claim to divinity simultaneously disturbs all norms of sequence, cause and effect, and rationality.

Jesus is claiming to be the ground of truth, and truth of a peculiar kind, and those who are confronting him cannot hear him because they speak the wrong language, the language of lies. In other words, this is a language problem in the sense that the deep grammar (the letter that kills, the lie of sin) grounding this particular group of Jews is more than their problem but is universal.[1] The entire conversation revolves around the power of language. Those who “continue in” or do the word of Jesus “will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). But Jesus perceives that his new found friends have decided they would like to kill him: “you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you” (8:37). According to Jesus, their native language gives rise to the violence they would do to him, and if they spoke the same language or comprehended what he was saying, their murderous attitude would be cured. Unfortunately, they have been weaned on the native language of their father: “therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father” (8:38). I presume this does not pertain to Greek or Hebrew or English so much as to the grounding and reference point of language. Orientation to language, to law, to death, to Logos, is determinative of sin and salvation. Language is mimetically acquired – we imitate the language of our family, our father, our people, and taken as a final and full word the language can prove deadly or life-giving.

So, what if we take this conversation at face value, and resist the tendency to chalk it up to hyperbole, or a particular problem with this group of Jews? Isn’t the consistent focus of Scripture precisely concerned with language and the ground of language, whether the ground is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Babel, or the law, or the letter of the law? John contextualizes all of sin and salvation in the Logos of God or the logos of the devil. The Jewish attachment to Abraham, the law, the tradition, is not simply Jewish but seems to be a type of the human problem. My father, my family, my tradition, my tribe and nation, my understanding, provide a fulness of access to God. Here lies my univocity of being, my ontological argument, my house of language, my wisdom and power, my access to the universals (to the forms), my analogy of being. Isn’t it precisely this form of the analogia entis, this ground of being, that is the anti-Christ?

I presume we should resist reading ourselves out of the story, as there seem to be only two universal possibilities and either one comprehends the word of life and the time and tense of this “I am before Abraham” or one is uncomprehending of this reading of history, this understanding of God, or this use of language, and the key difference pertains to life and death. Which is to say, comprehension of the centrality of the Logos is the shibboleth that divides good and evil, life and death, God and the devil.

The particular contours of the time and tense of this language, this “I am” before all else, seems to be a key part of the discussion. Jesus’ Jewish interlocutors inhabit a sequential reason, with time unfolding from birth to the grave.  It is not just Jesus’ “I am” statement that gets them riled, but the notion that the Jesus presently before them can have had any impact or discourse with Abraham in the past: “Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets died too; whom do You make Yourself out to be?” (John 8:53). In the Jewish scheme of things this leap through history is demonically inspired: “The Jews said to Him, “Now we know that You have a demon. Abraham died, and the prophets also; and You say, ‘If anyone keeps My word, he will never taste of death’” (John 8:52).

Jesus’ counterpoint is that their incomprehension on this point is an indicator of the limits of their native language. Their notion is grounded in the grave, the lie of their father (seemingly a reference to the original lie of the serpent). Death reigns over life and the natural sequence of aging and dying is the controlling factor in their understanding: “So the Jews said to Him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?’” (John 8:57). Thus comes the explanation which they cannot bear: “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). Their reaction betrays the limits of their language: “Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple” (John 8:59). Their death dealing logic is bound by the sequence and limitations of the grave, and at the same time their ultimate argument would be to kill Jesus and reduce him to the limits of their understanding.

It should be noted that these particular Jews begin as those who believe Jesus (John 8:31) and yet the conversation ends with death dealing rejection. We may imagine we stand on the side of belief in this discussion, but it seems important to Jesus, important enough to drive off halfhearted believers, to spell out the full implication of his claim to deity. Part of this is that he is not bound by time, history, death, or normal spatial bonds – and this is all part of his place as the ground of truth over and against the language of the liars.

He has previously tied the ἐγώ εἰμι to his power over nature: walking on the water and calming the storm (as if we now see YHWH trampling down the waves (Job 9:8 and Ps 89:10) and offering the comfort of his being presence in the storm (Gen 26:24; 46:3; Jer 1:8; 1:17; 26:28). In this same passage in John 8 he ties the “I am” to the light (8:12) simultaneously connecting it to the Logos of the Prologue called the light of men (John 1:4-9).[2] The light of the world, the Logos grounding one form of language against all other forms of language, entails a bending of time, space, history, and cause and effect.

If we miss the time bending implications of the Logos, we may tend to flatten out all such passages describing Jesus’ work of redemption as not only preceding Abraham but preceding the work of creation. Paul, for example, in Romans 5:14 pictures the first man Adam as being preceded by and pointing toward the image of Christ. As Irenaeus explains, “For inasmuch as He had a pre-existence as a saving Being, it was necessary that what might be saved should also be called into existence, in order that the Being who saves should not exist in vain.”[3] Redemption precedes creation, the second Adam precedes the first Adam, the saving work of Christ is the telos of Adam in this explanation. Irenaeus goes on to explain that the end is already in the beginning, maintaining “that it is He who has summed up in Himself all nations dispersed from Adam downwards, and all languages and generations of men, together with Adam himself.”

Much as in the “I am” statement of Christ, the one who was to come (the second Adam), exists before the first Adam. It is not that Adam fell, and then God put plan B into action to save what had gone wrong. Christ’s saving work, in Irenaeus explanation, precedes those he is saving. As Cyril of Alexandria explains, “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]

The incarnate Jesus is the preexistent Christ, and even the life of Christ is ordered, not from his birth but from the cross. 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 which pictures all of human history as the woman (the Church) bearing her child (who is Christ). He pictures the weaving of the incarnate flesh of Christ an unceasing function of the Church, “bearing from her heart the Word that is persecuted by the unbelieving in the World.” [5] The Word of the Cross is creations completion the Church teaches, proclaims and bears. If we miss the history bending, time bending, wisdom bending Word of Christ we miss the manner in which we are to be part of the creating-redeeming activity of God in Christ.

[1] In this instance these are not his enemies but “those who believed him” (8:31).

[2] This is not the final ἐγώ εἰμι of John. In John 18:5–6 Jesus’ twofold saying ‘I am’, was so impressive that those who had come to arrest him drew back and fell to the ground. In John 18:8 Jesus confirms his ‘I am’ for the third time.

[3] Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.22.3.

[4] Cyril of Alexandria, First Letter to Succensus, 4.

[5] Hippolytus, Antichrist 4.

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.