Made For God: Resolving the Nature Grace Duality Before It Begins

A straightforward way to understand and avoid the unnecessary Western theological complications (Augustinian and Thomistic) of a two-tiered nature/supernature split, or nature pitted against grace, is to follow Irenaeus’ argument against the Gnostics. Irenaeus’ description of soul, body and Spirit, clarifies that there is no “human nature” apart from God (or a Gnostic dualism). “Now the soul and the Spirit are certainly a part of the man, but certainly not the man; for the perfect man consists in the commingling and the union of the soul receiving the Spirit of the Father, and the admixture of that fleshly nature which was molded after the image of God.”[1] Where the Gnostics taught a radical dualism between God and matter, and God and the world, positing a mediating deity or Demiurge between God and the world, Irenaeus, combines the Genesis story and its completion in Christ, to picture the full participation of God in man and man in God as the “natural” end (anything less is unnatural). Creation and theosis are not separate events anymore than creation and incarnation. This is who God always is; this is who man always is, and this is the point of creation.

Irenaeus describes the necessity of the Spirit of God, not as a force apart from man but as molding and blending the handiwork of God: “But when the Spirit here blended with the soul is united to God’s handiwork, the man is rendered spiritual and perfect because of the outpouring of the Spirit, and this is he who was made in the image and likeness of God.”[2]  That is, the Genesis account is only completed through the active participation of God in the man as Spirit. But this is not simply God’s Spirt but it is the constituting element of the man.

While all three elements, body, soul and Spirit, constitute the image of God in which man was created, Irenaeus use of Spirit (sometimes seeming to refer to God and man simultaneously) portrays the perfection of full co-participation between the divine and human while also allowing for a diminishment of participation: “One of these does indeed preserve and fashion (the man)  – – this is the Spirit; while as to another it is united and formed–that is the flesh; then comes that which is between these two–that is the soul, which sometimes indeed, when it follows the Spirit, is raised by it, but sometimes it sympathizes with the flesh, and falls into carnal lusts.”[3] The Spirit “preserves and fashions” the man, so that there is no human apart from Spirit. The Spirit is not something added to man, and yet there is the possibility, in following lusts, that the role of the Spirit is diminished.

As Irenaeus describes it, no part of the flesh, soul, Spirit trichotomy can be left out of the mix that makes up the complete human:

But if the Spirit is lacking from the soul, such a one, remaining indeed animated and fleshly, will be imperfect, having the image, certainly, in the handiwork (the flesh), but not receiving the likeness through the Spirit. Likewise this one is imperfect, in the same manner again, if someone takes away the image (soul) and rejects the handiwork – one can no longer contemplate a human, but either some part of the human, as we have said, or something other than a human. For neither is the handiwork of flesh itself, by itself, a perfect human, but the body of a human and a part of the human; nor is the soul itself, by itself, a human, but the soul and a part, of the human; nor is the Spirit a human, for it is called Spirit and not human. But the commingling and union of all of these constitutes the perfect human. [4]

John Behr notes, with Irenaeus it is the Spirit that renders human beings both living and, due to the combination with the flesh, human. It is “the Spirit that absorbs the weakness of the flesh and manifests living human beings: living, because of the Spirit, ‘their Spirit’; and human, because of the flesh.” His point in emphasizing that this is “their Spirit” is to point out “it is always the human who lives, who personalizes the life given to them by God.”[5] The virtues and life developed in the flesh through the Spirit are not an overriding of human personality and freedom, but their completion. On the other hand, “if we take away the substance of the handiwork (flesh) we are left with ‘only the Spirit itself, which Irenaeus describes as ‘the Spirit of the human or the Spirit of God’. The Spirit itself is not the human, nor even a part, of the human, but is given to the human in such a manner that it can be legitimately described as their Spirit.”[6] This is not simply the animating breath but the vivifying Spirit of God, which is their Spirit.

The image (but not the likeness) may be present, where the soul and flesh are joined apart from the Spirit, but clearly the Spirit is needed to complete the creation account – in the “image and likeness.” Though already part of the original creation account, Irenaeus envisages (through his quotation of I Thess. 5:23) the completeness (the fullness of image and likeness) as occurring in the eschaton. But this completion is a process initiated from the moment of creation.

Part of the problem for later interpreters of Irenaeus, shaped by a Catholic confessional understanding (making a distinction between nature and grace), is that Irenaeus distinguishes between image and likeness, but not so as to posit the possibility of an image (“natural”) apart from the likeness (which he ties to the Spirit), as this would amount to an unformed or unmolded man. No part of man can be completely separated from God and still be human. An unspiritual human or an ungraced man is not of the human species at all, such that there is not the possibility of a man apart from the grace of God.

As Dai Sal Kim has put it, “The fact that man was created by God was a pure grace, to begin with! Then how can we say that the addition of the spirit is the supernature added by the grace of God?”[7] As Vladimir Lossky portrays it, the Eastern tradition will preserve the understanding of the image of God as preserving the full integration of nature and grace. He writes, “The idea of supererogatory grace which is added to nature in order to order it towards God is foreign to the tradition of the Eastern Church. As the image of God, the ordering of the human person was towards its Archetype.”[8]

Allan Galloway points to Augustine as the founder of the dualism between nature and grace, developed and aggravated in the Middle Ages. He compares Irenaeus to Augustine, indicating that while Augustine acknowledged the goodness of nature it was an insignificant goodness in comparison to the benefits of Christ, while in Irenaeus there is only one order of goodness. “All goodness, whether it belongs to this world or to the final consummation, is a manifestation of the grace of God.”[9] In Irenaeus there is no trace of the dualism of the Middle Ages as there is a complete and ultimate unity of nature and grace.

For Irenaeus, humans are not two-storied creatures, first possessing an integrated human nature, to which relationship to God is added. By definition, the image and likeness in which humans are created is a participation in the divine. Grace is not added to an ungraced world or to a God free man, as what it means to be made soul, body, and Spirit created in the image and likeness of God is the participation of God in man and man in God.  


[1] Against Heresies (AH) Book 5, Chapter 6, paragraph 1.

[2] AH 5.6.1

[3] AH, 5.9.1.

[4] AH 5.6.1.

[5] John Behr, Godly Lives: Asceticism and Anthropology, with special reference to Sexuality, in the Writings of St. Irenaeus of Lyons and St. Clement of Alexandria (Pembroke College, Oxford, 1995), Abstract.

[6] Behr, 118-119.

[7] Dai Sil Kim, The Doctrine of Man in Irenaeus of Lyons, (Boston University: Doctoral Dissertation, 1969) 96-97.

[8] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, (London: James Clarke & Co. Ltd., 1957) 131. Quoted in Kim, 97.

[9] Allan D. Galloway, The Cosmic Christ, (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1951) 127. Quoted in Kim, 97.

Death as Containing Sin in Irenaeus

A key shift entailed in Augustine’s misreading of Romans 5:12, concerns the meaning of death. Where Irenaeus, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Ambrose, up to Maximus the Confessor, held that death was a prevention of the immortalizing of sinfulness (a containment of sin), Augustine sees death as a penalty incurred due to sin (probably the prevailing understanding today).[1] He says, “We used our immortality so badly as to incur the penalty of death: Christ used His mortality so well as to restore us to life.”[2] In On the Trinity he concludes, death is a “just retribution.” He explains, “Just as the judge inflicts punishment on the guilty; yet it is not the justice of the judge, but the desert of the crime, which is the cause of the punishment.”[3] For Augustine, death is simply the infliction of punishment and through this (mis)understanding, the groundwork is laid for a shift not only in the meaning of death but the meaning of punishment (focused on the second death).  Those attuned to the Augustinian depiction may not recognize the contrast this poses with the teaching that preceded him, in which death is not retribution for sin but the beginning of rescue from sin.

Augustine’s point of departure concerning death (that it is visited upon all due to the guilt inherited from Adam), stands in contrast to the teaching of the earliest church father’s such as Irenaeus, who saw death as limiting sin’s possibility. Irenaeus, as one of the earliest church theologians and one whose experience included both east and west, stood in a direct line, through Polycarp, to the teaching of the Apostles. In other words, he represents the clearest teaching concerning death and sin in the post-Apostolic period up to Augustine. This is especially true, since he is concerned to refute Gnostics (such as Valentinus), who also have a perverted view of sin and death. Where Augustine will make a gnostic-like move in privileging human interiority and rationality (focusing on thought, word, and will) as containing the “image of God,” Irenaeus locates the image of God in the body and in human relationality through the body. Where the body is subject to death and corruption, the image of God in humans is marred (but certainly not completely spoiled).

 One way of getting at the difference between Augustine and Irenaeus (but also between Irenaeus and the modern), is to note Irenaeus’ appreciation for the body and relationality, which is more post-Wittgensteinian than modern. For Irenaeus, to be human is to be a physical body and this entails relationality. As Mako Nagasawa depicts it, Irenaeus had a relational, marital, and physical understanding of what “the image of God” meant for human beings. The marital/physical relationality was paradigmatic, such that to explain how the individual, and not just the married couple bore the image, he “appealed to the relational identity of the Word-Son as the image of God.” So too every “human being was meant to be in relation to God by the Spirit, in some sense mirroring an internal relation of the Son to the Father in the Spirit.” The image could be traced in marital relationship or in relationship to God, but Irenaeus had no notion of an isolated individual bearing the image of God. Nagasawa concludes, “Irenaeus’ theological anthropology was relational to its core.”[4]

This embodied notion of relationality as bearing the image, explains how physical death impacts the image bearing capacity. Irenaeus appeals to the Genesis story and the formation of man from earth, and the giving of breath, seeming to relish the earthy nature of the image as a contrast to gnostic denigration of flesh. “For He traced His own form on the formation, that that which should be seen should be of divine form: for (as) the image of God was man formed and set on the earth. And that he might become living, He breathed on his face the breath of life; that both for the breath and for the formation man should be like unto God.”[5] As he explains in this same paragraph, “And this great created world, prepared by God before the formation of man, was given to man as his place, containing all things within itself.” Though this world contains “all things,” God also prepares a place where he can give himself: “And so fair and good was this Paradise, that the Word of God continually resorted thither, and walked and talked with the man, figuring beforehand the things that should be in the future, (namely) that He should dwell with him and talk with him, and should be with men, teaching them righteousness.”[6] The physical body, the breath from God, God’s presence, and the male/female presence, together constitute the fulness of this relational image.

Irenaeus also pictured the first humans as having free will as part of their image bearing, such that their decision for the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” constituted not only disobedience but a willful rejection of life (in the “tree of life” or in God’s presence); a rejection which God honored. In this sense, death was the fulfillment of the desire of sin; namely, to be free of God’s arbitration of the good (life). Now they would be the arbiters of their own ethics (“knowing good and evil” in the absence of life).

Death though, is the built-in limit to sin: “But He set a bound to his [state of] sin, by interposing death, and thus causing sin to cease, putting an end to it by the dissolution of the flesh, which should take place in the earth, so that man, ceasing at length to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live to God.” Death poses a definitive boundary to sin, so that there is no possibility “that the sin which surrounded him should be immortal, and evil interminable and irremediable.”[7] Death is not a punishment then, but the first step in rescue, but at the same time death potentially contains the deception of the serpent. “For at the first Adam became a vessel in his (Satan’s) possession, whom he did also hold under his power, that is, by bringing sin on him iniquitously, and under color of immortality entailing death upon him.”[8] The original lie held out the promise of immortality but brought about death, and death continues to hold out the possibility of this deception in Irenaeus depiction.

Though the tendency, even among expositors explaining Irenaeus, is to pose an aspect to death that is not physical (that is the tendency is to separate out physical and spiritual death). Irenaeus could not be clearer: death refers not to soul or spirit but to the fleshly, physical body.

What, then, are mortal bodies? Can they be souls? Nay, for souls are incorporeal when put in comparison with mortal bodies; for God breathed into the face of man the breath of life, and man became a living soul. Now the breath of life is an incorporeal thing. And certainly they cannot maintain that the very breath of life is mortal. . .. Neither, on the other hand, can they say that the spirit is the mortal body. What therefore is there left to which we may apply the term mortal body, unless it be the thing that was moulded, that is, the flesh, of which it is also said that God will vivify it?[9]

Death then, describes the corruption of the physical body,

For this it is which dies and is decomposed, but not the soul or the spirit. For to die is to lose vital power, and to become henceforth breathless, inanimate, and devoid of motion, and to melt away into those [component parts] from which also it derived the commencement of [its] substance. But this event happens neither to the soul, for it is the breath of life; nor to the spirit, for the spirit is simple and not composite, so that it cannot be decomposed, and is itself the life of those who receive it. We must therefore conclude that it is in reference to the flesh that death is mentioned; which [flesh], after the soul’s departure, becomes breathless and inanimate, and is decomposed gradually into the earth from which it was taken.[10]

This captivity to death, by its very nature, indicates the absence of God: “The flesh, therefore, when destitute of the Spirit, is dead, not having life, and cannot possess the kingdom of God: [it is as] irrational blood, like water poured out upon the ground. And therefore he says, ‘As is the earthy, such are they that are earthy.’”[11] The earthy are subject to the mortality and corruption of the flesh, indicating “a certain dominion of death,” which unless resisted through the soul and spirit describes the state of the man. One succumbs to the corruption of death by being fleshly and living according to the principle of the flesh.

Irenaeus patiently spells out over several chapters that this is what Paul means when he says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom.” It is not that flesh and blood will be gotten rid of in the Kingdom, but the spirit added to the body (flesh and blood) does indeed inherit the Kingdom. As he puts it in the title of book 5 chapter 14: “Unless the flesh were to be saved, the Word would not have taken upon Him flesh of the same substance as ours: from this it would follow that neither should we have been reconciled by Him.” Christ has reconciled us in the flesh by his flesh, not by getting rid of the flesh but adding to it the life of the spirit. Afterall, to be human is to be flesh and blood, even in the Kingdom, as it is by such that we have life in the first place: “Now, since man is a living being compounded of soul and flesh, he must needs exist by both of these.”[12] He concludes, “If, therefore, flesh and blood are the things which procure for us life, it has not been declared of flesh and blood, in the literal meaning (proprie) of the terms, that they cannot inherit the kingdom of God; but [these words apply] to those carnal deeds already mentioned, which, perverting man to sin, deprive him of life.”[13]

Physical, bodily, death can be a bondage as the principle of the flesh is taken as an end in itself, without admixture or resistance of soul and spirit. Irenaeus equates this condition with the “falsehood” put into place by the serpent, and he sees this lie as potentially fragmenting the person: “For godliness is obscured and dulled by the soiling and the staining of the flesh, and is broken and polluted and no more entire, if falsehood enter into the soul.” This corruption is a loss or corruption of the self, just as keeping the self or maintaining wholeness is possible “when truth is constant in the soul” and the flesh is pure.[14]

This in turn, explains the specific nature of the work of Christ as explained by Paul: “And it is this of which he also says, ‘He shall also quicken your mortal bodies.’ And therefore in reference to it he says, in the first [Epistle] to the Corinthians: ‘So also is the resurrection of the dead: it is sown in corruption, it rises in incorruption.’ For he declares, ‘That which thou sowest cannot be quickened, unless first it die.’” As Irenaeus puts it in the title of chapter 7: “Inasmuch as Christ did rise in our flesh, it follows that we shall be also raised in the same; since the resurrection promised to us should not be referred to spirits naturally immortal, but to bodies in themselves mortal.”[15] He does refer to this raised body as a “spiritual body” but in no way is this a departure from the physical body. As he states it, “This, however does not take place by a casting away of the flesh, but by the impartation of the Spirit.”[16]

This may be shocking for those weaned on the Augustinian idea that death is a punishment and the Calvinist notion focused on the second death (eternal torturous punishment in hell). In this  understanding, physical death has next to nothing to do with the human predicament, focused as Calvin is on hell and rescue from infinite torture. (In this sense, evil is immortalized, over and against Irenaeus’ notion that this was the very point of death – to limit evil.) This of course makes nonsense of Paul’s explanation, which Irenaeus is building upon, that sin reigns in and through death. Death is the occasion for sin as where “death spread to all men” (Rom. 5:12), where “death reigned” (v. 14), where “the many died” then “sin reigned in death” (v. 21). Here death is not a punishment and is not even necessarily connected to sin, as Paul describes those who have not sinned in the manner of Adam – “Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam” (v. 14). All people are subject to death, but apparently there are entire classes of people that have not sinned (e.g., infants and children).  As Paul explains in Corinthians it is not that death is the punishment or sting of death but just the opposite, “the sting of death is sin” (I Cor. 15:56).

In Irenaeus explanation, it is not that death of necessity contains the pollution or is itself sin, but he links sin to an inclination of the soul implicit (or contained in a second sense) in death (a deception?).[17] The corruption of death takes up residence in the soul through sin, unless the counter to sin and death is displaced by the spirit of life.  


[1] This is the claim of Mako A. Nagasawa, “Penal Substitution vs. Medical-Ontological Substitution: A Historical Comparison,” The Anastasis Center Documents/atonement/article-penal-substitution-vs-ontological-substitution-historical-comparison.pdf

[2] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1.14. Yet, in this same passage there is a picture of the work of Christ as healing from the sin sickness (we are still far from Calvin’s penal substitution), but death, in this understanding, has no constructive purpose.

[3] Augustine, On the Trinity, 4.12

[4] Ibid. Nagasawa.

[5] Irenaeus, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, paragraph 11 p. 81

[6] Ibid, p. 82

[7] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.23.6

[8] Ibid, 3.23.1.

[9] Ibid, 5.7.1

[10] Ibid,

[11] Ibid, 5.9.3.

[12] Irenaeus, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, paragraph 2. p.71.

[13] Ibid, 5.14.4

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid, Irenaeus, 7.

[16] Ibid, Irenaeus 8.1.12

[17] So sin is contained in death in a two-fold sense: death contains an inclination to sin but delimits it or contains it.

The Word of the Cross as Defeat of a Universal Nominalist-like Sickness

The New Testament describes a form of realism, in which words and actions connect in the definitive giving (δίδωμι) of Christ, and in contrast there is a passive “handing over” (παραδίδωμι) in which the agent simply relinquishes or betrays the Word or his words. In this latter instance, the agency of the action is unclear in that the betrayal or handing over is to a power (e.g., Satan or sin) which carries off what is given up.  It is on the cross that there is positive gift or giving: “he gave himself” (Gal. 1:4, 1 Tim. 2:6; Tt. 2:14), that he might rescue, ransom, and redeem from the power to which men have been given up. This gift (δίδωμι) stands juxtaposed to the giving up (παραδίδωμι) by which Christ was killed, in that the gift specifically defeats the betrayal.

The agency of the positive gift, and the unclear or failed agency, in James’ depiction, characterizes two kinds of faith. The betrayal of the word, or a failure to bring together words and action, describes an empty faith: “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give (δίδωμι) them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” (James 2:16). The words are hollow and the faith is “dead.” For Martin Luther (steeped in nominalism – i.e., God’s essence and universals are unavailable) faith (sola fide) is an inner quality (disconnected from works) and not a sharing in the life of God. So for Luther, this passage marked James as an “epistle of straw.” Luther’s error (the nominalist error, but also the failure behind the modern) points to a more basic and universal failure James and Jesus are addressing.

Jesus indicates his conjoining of work and word marks something new and unique: “But the testimony which I have is greater than the testimony of John (the culmination of the previous testimony); for the works which the Father has given Me to accomplish—the very works that I do—testify about Me, that the Father has sent Me” (Jn. 5:36). Jesus’ words and deeds completely overlap in his divine mission. He embodies a different relationship to words than even John, the pinnacle of the Jewish system. Jesus words accomplish something, or intersect with ultimate reality, where John (and Judaism) could only point to this reality. This prior incapacity is most starkly represented, by the particular betrayal (παραδίδωμι) which killed him.

The betrayal of Judas, the conspiring of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the complicities of Herod, Pilate, and “the Jews,” all played their part, but each of these parties passively “hand him over.” Judas starts the chain reaction of “handing over” (παραδίδωμι) in which he “hands over” Jesus to the Jews (Mark 14: 10), who in their turn “bound Him, and led Him away and handed him over to Pilate the governor” (Math. 27:2). The Jews picture their handing him over as a self-evident sign of guilt: “If this Man were not an evildoer, we would not have handed him over to you” (John 18: 30; cf. also Mark 15: 1 and Matthew 27: 2). This handing over of Jesus includes Pilate, Rome (the world of Gentiles), Judas, the Jewish priests, the Jews, and Satan.[1] All are involved in the “handing over of Jesus unto death.” At the end of the trial Pilate will hand Jesus over to the Jews to be crucified, but of course the Jews could not carry out crucifixion, so they hand him over to the soldiers.

It is true, Judas is the “betrayer” (ho paradidous) or the one whose entire identity is marked by this “handing over” (Mark 3: 19, “Judas Iscariot, who handed him over (hos kai paredōken auton),” and in Matthew 10:14, “Judas Iscariot, the one who handed him over (ho kai paradous auton).” Once Jesus is delivered into “the hands of men,” into the hands of the high priests, into the hands of the Gentiles, the momentum toward the crucifixion is a foregone conclusion. But the sin of Judas, “handing over,” is shared by every class of people, and in particular the apostles, from which Judas originated and with whom he is still identified even after the betrayal.

At the last supper, when Jesus announces that the betrayer is among them, all of the Apostles assumed they are potentially the betrayer. The Apostles “began looking at one another, at a loss to know of which one He was speaking” (Jn 13:22). Mathew pictures each of the disciples as questioning if they personally will betray him: “Being deeply grieved, they each one began to say to Him, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’” (Mt 26:22).  They each see within themselves the possibility which resides in Judas. Judas is singled out and his sin is singled out, but this great sinner who sums up the worst sort of sin as the betrayer, is so much a part of the apostolic band that they cannot distinguish him.

 It is in conjunction with this disclosure that Jesus washes the disciple’s feet. When Peter protests, “Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me’” (Jn 13:8). When Peter insists upon a complete bath, Jesus explains, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you” (Jn 13:10). The wholly clean still need to have their feet washed and what they are washed of, the uncleanness which still resides among them, is represented by Judas. Jesus cleanses their feet, yet they will have to continue in this service which Jesus renders to remain clean. That is, this service and what it represents directly addresses the Judas-orientation of which they all need cleansing.

All of the apostles are included in the foot-washing and yet, Peter’s and Judas’ failure both unfold from this point in the story. The specific element which both Peter and Judas fail to recognize, maybe from different ends of the same spectrum, is that Jesus intends the foot-washing to symbolize or foreshadow his self-giving in death. He has already explained that the foot-washing is a model of sacrificial service; something Jesus explains to the disciples immediately (13:12-17). They must understand this part but Jesus indicates they have not comprehended the significance of what he has done. “You don’t know now what I’m doing. You will understand later” (13:7). The foot washing is not fully comprehensible because they have yet to link sacrificial giving to death. Peter would block Jesus from going up to Jerusalem to die and Judas would bargain his way out of being counted among those who would die. They are consistently uncomprehending or unwilling to grasp what it might mean for Jesus, let alone themselves, to give his life.

After the foot-washing, Peter seems eager to press the point and to show that he has made the connection: “Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You” (Jn 13:37). We know from Peter’s actions at the arrest of Jesus that he would lay down his life in battle – taking as many ears (and heads, his true target) as he can. Peter’s words parallel those Jesus used when describing his own role as the good shepherd (“the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” – Jn 10:11,15). Jesus answers Peter by repeating Peter’s words as a question: “Will you lay down your life for Me?” (13:38).  Of course, instead of giving (δίδωμι) his life for Christ he betrays (παραδίδωμι) him, and it is not clear, even at the end of the Gospel, that Peter can give in the manner of Jesus. To pass from betrayal (παραδίδωμι) to giving (δίδωμι) in the manner of Christ, specifically involves cross bearing – a lesson Peter will subsequently grasp.

In the final discourse and High Priestly Prayer Jesus’ understands the disciples would be tempted with betrayal (by “the evil one”) and the Spirit alone (15:26) would enable them to be unified (in word and deed and with God). This capacity is described as deriving, as with Christ, from within the Trinity: “keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are“(Jn. 17:11). The unity of the Godhead, given in “Christ,” will be carried on in his name (because “the words which You gave Me I have given to them” (v. 8)) Here, naming, nominating, giving, is connected to ontological being. The hypostatic union brought about by the Word assuming flesh becomes a shared communion and communication. Christ’s words-actions are marked by this conjoining (unity), constituted in who he is and is to mark his disciples (“that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us” (v. 21)).

What is enabled in true giving is entry into a divine capacity of communication. As George Florovsky states it;

For man is created in the image and likeness of God – this ‘analogical’ link makes communication possible. And since God deigned to speak to man, the human word itself acquires new depth and strength and becomes transfigured. The divine Spirit breathes in the organism of human speech. Thus it becomes possible for man to utter words of God, to speak of God.[2]

Luther and Calvin could not conceive of this sort of participation in the divine nature, as man is totally depraved and justification is outward (legally imputed) and there is no real participation in divine life. But the nominalist/Protestant inspired devolution from Hegel, to Kant, to Marx, to Nietzsche, is not simply a modern dilemma. The disconnect (between word and action or between words and ultimate reality) describes the “truth” of the failed human condition. The “transfigured” word stands over and against this failed human word (not only in modernity), as Christ’s giving contravenes and changes up a universal condition.

Could it be that the obscuring of this understanding begins with a separation within the Word – separating the Logos from the “word of the cross,” making a division between the word and work of Christ? The incarnate identity (displacing an incapacity to embody the word) in the New Testament and early church is pictured as definitively established in the cross. The presumption in John and among the early church fathers was not that this identity was a given, in some pre-incarnate form of the Logos. As John Behr notes, the early Church did not presume to start with the pre-incarnate Word – claiming the term “pre-incarnate” is absent from patristic literature. He depicts modern theology as having “changed, from Jesus Christ the crucified and risen Lord proclaimed by the Gospel, to the narrative of the Word of God, treated first as ‘pre-incarnate’ (a term I have yet to find in patristic literature) or as ‘asarkos’, ‘fleshless’ . . . who then, later, becomes enfleshed, for the next phase of his biography.”[3]  By way of contrast, 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.[4]

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, contains the details leading up to the passion, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus. 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.”[5] 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.”[6]

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.”[7]

The significance of this focus on the incarnate Christ is spelled out by Irenaeus of Lyons, (predating but directly contradicting nominalism) 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 and history’s center is open to the immanent Trinity and all of history is an unfolding of this intersection in the incarnation and its continuation in the Church.

The specific connections and connectedness we develop in the body of Christ are a participation in God, who is giving our communion, our relationship, our interconnectedness an enduring eternal significance. The incapacity for giving (παραδίδωμι) is displaced by the specific giving of the cross (δίδωμι).


[1] In the atonement theory of Anselm and Calvin, the various human agents who actually brought about the hammering in of the nails were acting in accord with the will of God, so that God used evil men to bring about the death of Christ. Anselm removes the devil from the equation (ignoring the major motif of Scripture), and Luther thought that any interruption to the procedure was the work of evil. He explains Pilate’s wife’s dream as a demon’s intervention seeking to impede the crucifixion. In this understanding, Pilate, Judas, the Jews, the Romans, all line up as part of God’s effort to have Jesus punished. That is, as a result of Anselm’s doctrine of divine satisfaction, to interrupt the restoration of God’s honor through the death of Christ, would be the work of Satan, so that Satan and God seem to reverse roles. In the Gospels darkness, sin, death, uncleanness, and evil, deliver Jesus unto death, but according to Anselm, we can add God to the list. This not only splits God against God, putting him on the side of the devil, but it splits the devil against himself, as John equates the chain of handing over as the work of Satan..

[2] George Florovsky, «Revelation and Interpretation», Bible, Church, Tradition (Buchervertriebsanstalt, Vaduz, Europa, 1987), p. 25. Quoted from Manuel Sumares, “Orthodoxy and the Gospels: Repositioning hermeneutics beyond nominalism” Downloads/2085-article-4451-1-10-20191021.pdf.

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

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

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

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

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