How is Sin Taken Away?

The best one sentence summary of the theology of the Gospel of John may be John the Baptist’s introduction and summation of the work of Christ, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). This short sentence contains reference to both Passover and the Day of Atonement, blending the two in a uniquely Christian manner, so as to simultaneously sum up the efficacy and result of the work of Christ, while indicating the scope of salvation (the world) and the nature of sin and evil. The Passover lamb, which is thematic in John and is tied to the “hour” of crucifixion, is referenced in the next chapter: “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (John 2:13). The Passover lamb is not a sin bearer, and yet this result (specifically tied to the Day of Atonement) is pictured as resulting from Christ’s Passover work. In brief, John is identifying the life God provides in Christ (the work of the Lamb in Egypt celebrated in Passover) as the means of “taking away the sin of the world.” The life of God as the rescue from sin and death is the means, with one result (among many) being sins are taken away. This cannot be read as punishment and payment but, as with the Gospel of John as a whole, the picture is of a real-world resolution to the problem of sin and death (life displacing death, light breaking into darkness, the bread of heaven provided in the wilderness, the storm calming voice of “I am” in the midst of the storm).

The goat of Leviticus who “bears away sin,” the Azazel Goat, has the singular function of symbolically carrying away sin and dumping it into the abyss. The way sin is gathered up to be loaded onto this goat is not found in this goat, but in the other goat, the Goat of Yahweh, which does all of the work and provides the explanation. The Yahweh Goat is the one whose blood is taken into the temple as representative of the cleansing life God provides. God had provided Abraham the life of Isaac, he had provided life in the face of death in Egypt with lamb’s blood applied to the door post, and the same symbolism is at work in the Yahweh Goat. On the other hand, the Azazel Goat sums up the negative result of the positive work of the Tabernacle, the priests, the Goat of Yahweh, the story of Abraham and the lamb of Passover. That is, John is explaining or summing up the primary work of Christ in terms of the Passover lamb, which is not part of the Day of Atonement. There is no mistaking the Passover lamb for the Azazel Goat and there is no danger of blending their work (or there should not be), as these are never brought together in Yom Kippur. The work foreshadowed in the story of Abraham, the story of the Exodus, and the Tabernacle and Temple is the positive part of the story.  Life and love through the Lamb, bears primary weight in this sentence and in the theology of John, while the taking away of sin is a result and not a means. The lamb is not a sin bearer and is not involved in Yom Kippur, but by linking the Lamb with atonement, John is tying the weight of the entire Jewish tradition to the singular “lifting up” of Christ. Cross, resurrection, and ascension are the singular cure to John’s depiction of the death centered darkness definitive of sin.

There are several dangers looming in misunderstanding how the sacrifice of atonement is taken up by Christ. We might assign the primary weight to the Azazel Goat and thus see Jesus’ death primarily in terms of the scapegoat. But of course, the Azazel Goat could never serve as a sacrifice or offering as it was unclean. The primary work of the Temple and Tabernacle was connected with the Yahweh Goat, or the notion that God provides life that cleanses the Temple of death (in my previous blog, here, I debunked the notion that God desires death), and with this cleansing, the scouring of sin can be put upon the head of the Azazel Goat and led off into the wilderness.

The action is not with the Azazel Goat, who is led passively off into the wilderness, but is with the Yahweh Goat which echoes the original sacrifice which Abraham did not make on Moriah, but which God will make on Golgotha. It is God who originally brings life from out of the dust or from those as good as dead. When Abraham offered Isaac, it was his own possibility for life, for making his name great, for survival, that is being offered. It was not Abraham’s life per se as he was as good as dead. It was not Sarah’s life; her womb was dead (Romans 4:19-20). Isaac represented their possibility for life in the face of death. This same provision from God is reflected in the cleansing from death through life blood in the Tabernacle and Temple. What is taking place with the offering of Isaac, is what is always ritually taking place in the Jewish sacrifices. When the priest ritually applies blood to the temple furnishings, he is applying the blood of Isaac as the antidote to death. All of which points to the true provision of life in the midst of death: “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood” (Hebrews 9:11-12).  Here is God providing his own life – the symbol of sacrifice. He does not provide life through death but in spite of death and he overcomes the orientation to death definitive of sin through his life.

To confuse the result and means of John’s declaration (and of the Jewish sacrificial system and the work of Christ) is not simply a technical mistake but an ontological error, in that it lends a determinate substance to death sin and evil. It is the equivalent of letting the devil call the shots or of picturing God having to negotiate with death. It puts what amounts to nothing (sin, death and evil) in ontological competition with God. Certainly, Christ was treated like a scapegoat by sinners but describing the work of the sinners and their sin, as if that explains the work of Christ, is like explaining the work of the Tabernacle, priests, and sacrifices only in terms of its scourings. It would be the equivalent of describing my gardening activity in terms of weeding and weeds. Heaping up a wheel barrow of weeds and burning them says nothing about what is being grown. Burning weeds does not produce carrots and peas.[1] Carrying away a goat load of sin and death says nothing about the main activity. And while dead weeds may be the primary fruit of my gardening, to confuse the Azazel Goat with the Goat of the Lord is quite literally to confuse the demonic with the divine. The wilderness of Azazel was connected with a demon (it may have meant “fierce god”) and this demon goat bearing all of the sins of Israel is taken to miḏbār, the polar opposite of holiness or to ’ereṣ gezêrāh – “a land of separation” “a land cut off” (Lev. 16:22) which came to be associated with the pit (sheol).[2]

Strangely though, in the notion of penal substitution, the work of both goats and the work of Christ is described in terms of the Azazel Goat, as if this goat does the work of the Yahweh Goat. John Stott, for example, describes all of the work of Christ as sin bearing and punishment and specifically links it to the Azazel Goat. He warns that some “make the mistake of driving a wedge between the two goats, the sacrificed goat and the scapegoat.”[3] What Stott seems to miss is that there was originally to be an absolute separation, as described in the place the goat is taken (literally to the “land of separation”). Stott concludes, “In this case the public proclamation of the Day of Atonement was plain, namely that reconciliation was possible only through substitutionary sin bearing.”[4] The Azazel goat does all the work and the entire institution of Tabernacle, priesthood and sacrifice (all that is done within the Tabernacle) is summed up in what was done outside the Tabernacle and Israel.

Stott is following John Calvin, who acknowledges that the resurrection of Christ might be the sign intimated as a carrying off sin, but he rejects this conclusion: “I embrace, however, what is more simple and certain, and am satisfied with that; i.e., that the goat which departed alive and free, was an atonement, that by its departure and flight the people might be assured that their sins were put away and vanished.” Calvin reduces the work of the atonement to the goat that bears the “offscouring,” calling it “the only expiatory sacrifice in the Law without blood.”[5] He understands this is a direct contradiction of Hebrews 9:22 (“without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness”), and yet he presumes to carry over the work of the Yahweh Goat to the Azazel Goat, going so far as to sum up atonement in the second goat and even calling it a sacrifice (again, this unclean goat could not be sacrificed and could never serve as an offering to God). But this makes room for his notion that Christ suffered in Hell on the cross: “In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. Whence also it was necessary that he should engage, as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death.”[6] The point in penal substitution is to reduce the work of Christ to sin bearing punishment, which puts all the meaning on the wrong goat and in doing away with the significance of the Yahweh Goat, it misconstrues the meaning of both goats.

Stott misses how the writer of Hebrews marks this point of separation (between the goats) in the work of Christ. “The author of the letter to the Hebrews has no inhibitions about seeing Jesus both as ‘a merciful and faithful high priest’ (2: 17) and as the two victims, the sacrificed goat whose blood was taken into the inner sanctuary (9:7, 12) and the scapegoat which carried away the people’s sins (9:28).”[7] What Stott and Calvin miss in Hebrews, they miss in the original depiction of atonement, and that is the Yahweh Goat (the singular sacrifice, or in John the Lamb) does all of the active cleansing. This is clear in John the Baptist’s phrase, as the Passover lamb is not associated with bearing sin, and yet this Lamb accomplishes what the Yahweh Goat also accomplishes.

So too in Hebrews, the sin bearing is a consequence of the sacrifice. In the writer’s sequence, “Christ was sacrificed once”, like the Yahweh goat, and this accomplished the work “to take away the sins of many” (9:28). Jesus might be identified with the Yahweh Goat, and the work he accomplishes might be identified with the Azazel Goat, but Jesus is not subject to, but conqueror over Sheol (the pit, the wilderness, the point of separation). He empties out the category entirely (once and for all) and does not suffer eternally, as in Calvin’s depiction but empties out the category by providing life where it was formerly absent.

In John, Jesus compares the pain of his death to that of a woman in labor – the pain is resolved with the birth: “Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world. Therefore you too have grief now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (John 16:21-22). This fits with the overall theology of John, which is not focused on the weight of the negative power of sin, but on the overcoming of sin with life.

From the beginning of John, the Logos is not a preincarnate abstraction but is the “I am” (the name of God, as described in the Targums) that is light, that is sustenance, that is assurance, that is life. This light shines in the darkness of death most clearly from the cross. Here, the substance of two worlds collides. The world built on the immanent frame of Israel (“the Jews,” Nicodemus, Judas, etc.), the immanent frame of Rome (Pilate and Caesar), or simply the absolute nature of death, would close off the world and possibility of the “I am.” But John lends no ontological weight to the power of evil and sin. It can be gotten rid of through washing (13:1-7) or in taking up the servant attitude it can be counteracted in belief and love. The ontological weight of the “I am” is enough to provide living water in the midst of the desert, to provide manna from heaven, to calm the storm, to bring healing. Jesus does not lay down his life as a payment for sin but “for the life of the world” (6:51) and for the life of the sheep (10:11). He does not pay up with death but through his life given to all, he provides heavenly bread, his life, for sustenance (John 6).

As John Behr notes, “Christ’s life-giving death on the cross, is not understood by John as a response to sin but rather as principally deriving from the love that God himself is (cf. 1 John 4:8) and has for the world (3:14–16).” It is this love “that has liberated human beings from the condition of being slaves to that of being friends (15:15), members of the household of God, enthroned in the Temple as sons alongside the Son, and the commandment that Jesus gives as his own is simply ‘that you love one another as I have loved you’ (15:12).”[8] In this power of love, life defeats death and this is what rids the world of sin. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).


[1] The garden analogy fails slightly, in that the Lamb accomplishes the work described in the clean-up activity, as if planting carrots and peas were enough to push out the weeds.

[2] “גְּזֵרָה (gĕzērâ). Separation, not inhabited. Used in Lev 16:22 of the “land of separation” (ASV and RSV “solitary land”) into which a live goat was taken and abandoned on the day of atonement. It was so called because the area was cut off from water (KB) or from habitation. Later Jewish teachers interpreted gĕzērâ to mean a precipice from which the goat was to be hurled down.”Smith, J. E. (1999). 340 גָּזַר. R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 158). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Westmont, IL: IVP Books, 2006), 143.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John Calvin, Commentary on Leviticus, 16:7.

[6] John Calvin, Institutes, 2:16,10.

[7] Ibid, Stott.

[8] John Behr, John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 192.

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: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] Herbert McCabe, “The Involvement of God,” New Blackfriars, (November 1985) 476. Available online at https://www.scribd.com/document/327357740/The-Involvement-of-God

[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 “Lifting Up” that is John’s Apocalyptic Gospel

The Gospel of John, in apocalyptic fashion, bends time, space, and sequence, depicting creation’s “beginning” with the Word of Christ and “it is finished” (the opening and closing of the creation week in Genesis) with the cross. The cross constructs a cosmic Temple, announced (enacted?) upon completion of Jesus’ first week of ministry (a confusing sentence that makes perfect sense in the context of John). The temple destroyed and raised is Jesus’ own body (2:21) which enacts the tabernacling presence of God (1:14) in which the wellsprings of creation (4:10; 7:37) (the water of life in Ezekiel’s temple description, 47:1-12) and light of the world (8:12) are made available in the abiding spirit incorporating the temple/household/family of God. John’s Gospel is apocalyptic, in that one world order and age is displacing another (not as in the old notion of apocalypse as focused on the second coming and literal end of the world), and the cross is the point where this new age, this new structuring of heaven and earth, and this entry of God into the temple of creation, is enacted. John’s Gospel is apocalyptic in its depiction of the unveiling of the Hebrew Scriptures, which in Paul’s description remain veiled outside of Christ: “But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (2 Cor. 3:14-16). John’s Gospel unveils the riddle of the Old Testament in light of the work of Christ, but this recognition of Christ (as true Temple, true sacrifice, true sabbath, etc.) in light of Scripture also makes sense of his life. The riddle of Jesus’ words and actions, as they first appeared to the disciples, are unveiled in light of the Scripture (in light of Christ). The veil has been lifted on both Christ and the Scriptures, as John reads Israel’s history in light of the work of Christ but beginning from creation, he also reads the work of Christ in light of the Hebrew scriptures.

As J. Louis Martyn has described the apocalyptic perspective, or what he calls the “stereoptic vision” characterizes John. The dramas of both heaven and earth unfold simultaneously, not as two dramas but as singular events in the life of Christ. John, in Martyn’s portrayal, is changing up the definition of apocalypse with the stereoptic vision including, not a separate heaven and earth, but the perspective of the One from heaven come to earth. He joins heaven and earth, particularly as he is stretched out on the cross. Events, which in and of themselves might seem meaningless or tragic, become filled with an inexhaustible depth of meaning in light of the full meaning of the passion understood in light of the Hebrew Scriptures. [1]

 In Jewish imagery (which John depicts throughout his Gospel) the micro cosmos of the temple not only represented all of creation but also incorporated the key stories of the Hebrew Scriptures: it serves as the capstone holding back the waters of the flood (Noah’s altar sealed the waters of the abyss becoming the foundation stone of a new creation located in the Holy of Holies as support of the Ark of the Covenant), it is the place of Abraham’s sacrifice (Gen. 22:2; 2 Chr. 3:1), it is the site of Jacob’s dream of a ladder leading from earth to heaven (Gen. 28:10-17), it is from this site where God hovered over the waters of the deep and caused the four rivers to flow through Eden to bring life to the Garden (Gen. 2:6, 10-14), which was located just beyond its walls.[2] Jesus’ identification with the water of life, light of the world (on the occasion of the festival of lights, in which the temple is lit up as the representative source of cosmic light), the one upon whom angels ascend and descend (the description given to Nathanael, that Jew in whom there is no guile (John 1:47-55)), the true Passover sacrifice (first announced by John the Baptist (1:29) and thematic in John’s Gospel), incorporates a new humanity into the temple of his body (2:21). Through faith believers receive the Spirit and are reborn (3:3-5) as members of the family of God constituting a true temple a true oikos or family of God.  

This recognition is gained, not by reading from scripture to Christ (e.g., as in the reading of N. T. Wright) but the other way round; by reading from the gospel story to Scripture. In fact, according to Martyn, it is only through the gospel that Scripture is constituted as such: “In a word, with Jesus’ glorification, belief in Scripture comes into being, by acquiring an indelible link to belief in Jesus’ words and deeds. . . . we have simply to note in the Gospel of John the absence of a linear sacred history that flows out of Scripture into the gospel story. Indeed, the redemptive-historical perspective is more than absent; it is a perspective against which John is waging a battle.” Neither John nor Paul move from Law to gospel (a “salvation history” approach), rather this characterizes the approach of Paul’s and John’s opponents.[3] For both there is a “vertical invasion” in which for Paul the gospel “came through an apocalypse of Jesus Christ”, rather than by being taught by a human being (Gal. 1:12), and for John, the gospel is from Christ who is “from above” (3:31;8:23). As John Behr notes, “both aspects of this ‘invasion from above’ are inseparable from the apocalyptic unveiling of Scripture, through which Scripture provides the words and images in and by which, from the beginning, the gospel is proclaimed and Christ revealed.”[4]

It is not only the Old Testament that is telescoped and unveiled but the life of Christ receives this same telescoping effect in John’s telling, with the end present in the beginning and the beginning understood through the end. In what may be a key passage in John, the singular event of the cross enfolds judgement, the casting out of the ruler of this world, glorification, the universal appeal of the gospel, and the audible voice of God:

“Jesus answered and said, ‘This voice has not come for My sake, but for your sakes. Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.’ But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die”

(John 12:30-33).

In 12:23 Jesus announced that the hour had come for the Son of Man to be glorified and the following two verses make it clear that this is a reference to Jesus’ death on the cross, which would result in many people believing in Him. Jesus compares His death to the “death” of a grain of wheat which, after falling into the ground, produces many other grains of wheat (v. 24). As Jesus declared, “it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (vv. 27–28).

It is the “lifting up” which reveals Jesus’ identity as the “I am” (YHWH): “So Jesus said, ‘When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He’” (John 8:28).  Here is the realization of Isaiah, that through the “lifted up” servant “you may know and believe that I AM” (Isa. 43:10; 52:13).[5] Here too, in Jesus’ explanation, is the revelation of the Son of Man (as in Daniel 7:13-14) who is “given dominion” over “all peoples” in an everlasting Kingdom.

In John 3, Jesus explains to Nicodemus, who seems to represent the Jew veiled from understanding the Scriptures (he has no concept of being “born again”, a theme of the Hebrew Scriptures) and in Jesus estimate he seems incapable of receiving things of the Spirit (3:6,11,12). Here too it is the being “lifted up” that unveils the truth of Moses in Jesus: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life” (3:14-15). According to Jesus, “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man” (3:13).

Apparently, there is only one mode of ascent, one means of being lifted up,[6] but in John’s depiction of Jesus the spiritual effect of this lifting up is realized in the conversation with Nicodemus. According to Martyn: “The Son of Man ascends to heaven on the cross, but in some sense he returns to earth in the person of the Paraclete and can therefore enter into conversation with ‘Nicodemus’ as he who has ascended to heaven (3:13). The Paraclete makes Jesus present on earth as the Son of Man who binds together heaven and earth.”[7] And it is from this point that Jesus explains himself as the love and salvation sent from God (3:16).

This lifting up realization is a hermeneutic key applied from “In the beginning” of John: “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:4-5). This is the fulness of the Word of the cross which is life and light. This is a Gospel told in light of the Spirit, who brings to “remembrance all that I have said to you” (14:26).

Where the synoptics picture this insight as beginning after the resurrection (Luke 24, with the two on the road to Emmaus), John’s Gospel begins with this presumption and expands upon it. From the Prologue, in which the Logos is complete, to John the Baptist identifying him as the “Lamb of God,” (1:36) to Phillip’s informing Nathanael, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (1:45).  Nathanael himself concludes, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel” (1:49) and John the Baptist recognizes (3:31) before Jesus explains that he is “from above.” 

Jesus’ glorification or being lifted up describes His death, resurrection, ascent, exaltation, multiplication of disciples, love of God and, in short, sums up the gospel.  As James Dunn puts it, ‘The “hard saying” finds its fulfillment, therefore, when Jesus has been lifted up in the upward sweep of the cross–resurrection–ascension, in the giving of the life-creating Spirit.”[8] As Behr describes it, “The unity of all aspects of the Passion, Pascha—the Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and also Pentecost—in ‘the hour’ of a single ‘day’ is thus emphasized by John. . .”[9] Upon this event the Spirit is given and the epistemological insight of the cross is realized. “Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him” (John 12:16).

Jesus is lifted up on the cross, lifted up from the grave, lifted up to the Father in the singular hour of his glory, and this is the insight from which John narrates his Gospel.

(Register for the upcoming Class on the Gospel of John starting May 9th here: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003) 130. Quoted in John Behr, John the Theologian and His Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 121. See Behr 121-123. It is not that John’s theological interpretation throws doubt on his eyewitness account, but just the opposite. In light of the fact that he is the only apostle present at the cross and the first to believe at the empty tomb, gives his reading of events, in light of Scripture, their apocalyptic tenor.

[2] See Mary Coloe, “Raising the Johannine Temple” https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/abr/48_47_coloe.pdf

[3] Martyn, ‘John and Paul on the Subject of Gospel and Scripture’, (in Martyn, Theological Issues, 209–30). 216–221. Quoted in Behr, 127.

[4] Behr, 128.

[5] In Sirach (49:11-12) the Temple and people are pictured as the interchangeable product of the one lifted up: “How are we to magnify Zorobabel? He too was like a signet on the right hand, so was Jesus, son of Iosedek, who in their days, built a house and lifted up a holy temple/people to the Lord prepared for everlasting glory.” Some manuscripts have “temple” while others have “people” but the parallels with John (“Jesus”, being “lifted up,” a “house” or “people” for “glory”) are striking.

[6] Moses, Enoch and Elijah, in John’s account have no claim on the reality realized in Jesus’ lifting up.

[7] Martyn, History and Theology, 138. Quoted in Behr, 232.

[8] James D. G. Dunn,., ‘John VI—A Eucharistic Discourse?’, (NTS 17.3 (1971), 328–38), 337. Quoted in Behr, 155.

[9] Behr, 176.

Easter Life as Truth

The Gospel of John sets forth an alternative definition of truth which distinguishes the theological enterprise from every other truth endeavor. The life and light found in Christ are not of the world though they light up the world, simultaneously providing a new definition of truth (life, light, the way) and a new understanding of the world. Theology begins with this presupposition, set forth in John, that the Logos of Christ, the Word of the Cross, the Gospel, is the principle through which creation has its beginning (its arche) and end. Easter sums up the incarnate life of Christ, referencing all of the life of Christ, but John sums up creations purpose in the story of Christ (summed up in Easter). John begins with the Word of the Gospel (this is not a partial word, or a reference to the preincarnate Christ), but the Redeemer is portrayed as the Creator, with time unfolding from the middle and extending to the beginning and end. This truth sums up and surpasses every other form of truth.

Living Truth versus Dead Truth

What exactly is truth? There are factual trues (the cat is on the mat), historical trues (Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492), scientific trues (water is H20), but when Christ says he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), the very definition and function of truth are changed up. The trues of the previous order pertain to the world and are constituted as true as they reference this order but to treat the truth of Christ as merely factual, historical, or scientific (though this reduction marks modern theology) is to miss the “living way” in which this truth pertains.

There is a certain deadness or irrelevance in the former trues. At some point in time or at some place or within the framework of this world these things correspond to a state of affairs. This truth reduces to packets of information which serve as code about something, but does not really encompass cats, mats, the person Columbus, or the wetness of water. These things show up in the world as “facts” but they are after the fact and do not pertain to fullness of experience. This particular cat has moved on, Columbus is long gone, and H20 references component parts that convey nothing about drinking, swimming, or sailing. The experience of these realities is not captured in their “truth” but these are things which have presented themselves, and are referenced in trues about them, but this truth does not pertain to or capture present or past experience. There is no life in this truth as the truth which is life cannot appear under its reduction to DNA, neurons, and physical particles. Life cannot appear under the parameters of truth of the world.

Christ’s truth claim, of being the way and the life, is a truth that exceeds the factual, historical, scientific, or the predominant philosophical notions of truth. This is a living or lived truth, in that life is the truth and the sharing in this life is the truth. This means it is experienced, it is subjective and the truth of a subject, and it is a first order truth (it is not about something else). Where Heidegger wants to locate truth in the “world’s worlding” (imagining the world is the ultimate context which will show up the truth), Christ says his truth is not of the world. His truth and life are not the “ways” of the world and he pictures a complete humanity as not of the world: “because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (John 17:14). This does not mean that the truth resides elsewhere, but his truth is not from or contained in the world but encompasses the world. Christian truth locates and relativizes the creaturely order: “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (John 1:3).

The ungraspable realms of time, space, language, and embodiment, taken as the parameters of truth, necessarily divide and deal out death, but where these creatures serve their proper end of conveying truth and not containing the truth they are relativized. Time alone would deprive us of all things in that there is no present but only the past and the future converging in an instantaneous, annihilating now. Embodiment is subjection to times entropic arrow, pointing us to the grave upon conception. Creation’s big bang points to its explosive end. Where creation as medium constricts the message, death and entropy seem to contain the original nothingness as the absolute from which the world emerged.  What appears is disappearing and what is heard is continually lost in the wind of time.

Isn’t this just a depiction on the order of Paul’s: “For, indeed, the form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31)? Truth, as it is in this world, cannot be pinned down as it is continually passing away. It appears complete after the fact. This truth is dead on arrival. Before it arrives from out of the future it is unknown and it is only made known in passing. No one knew about the cat (the one on the mat) or Columbus before they showed up, and attached to their appearance was their disappearance, and only in disappearing are they fully known. Only then do we have a definitive word. The epitaph is the final and full word.

The cross and Easter displace the finality of the epitaph as the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8) is the Word which was in the beginning, which is God and is with God. “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (Col. 1:18). The resurrection of Christ is the final and full word, displacing death with life: “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men” (John 1:4). His life is the light of truth, as he is the beginning, the source, the head (with the “beginning” in John 1:1 meaning the same thing as in Colossians 1:18), and not simply the first in a temporal line. The form of life “is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3) as this life does not reveal itself in the world as it exceeds the world. This life precedes the world (at its foundation – Eph. 1:4) and surpasses the world: “When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory” (Col. 3:4). But this resurrection life is in effect now: “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:1-2). This is not a passage out of the immediacy of life but it exceeds time and place in the experience of life.

The prologue of John might be rendered: At the source of all is the Word (the crucified and risen Jesus), and the Word is God and from out of this Wisdom is life and all things. As John Behr puts it, “As such, this verse is nothing other than a summary of the whole Gospel: that Jesus is in first place on the cross, as the head of the body, as the king in authority upon his throne, and as the source and fulfilment of all things; he is going, through the cross, to the God and Father; and, as the crucified and ascended one, he is confessed as God.”[1]    

United Truth Versus Divided Truth

The former truth (fact, history, science) is a truth that is divided, whereas the truth of Christ is indivisible. We speak of the cat and mat, Columbus and his dates, and the hydrogen and oxygen in conjunction, locating them in time and space in reference to other referents. This truth is extrinsic to its object, showing us something about what it names. Christ’s claim to truth refers to himself. Though we might speak of him historically (born in Bethlehem), factually (died under Pontius Pilate), or even scientifically (he was biologically human), his truth encompasses and exceeds trues about him, to include himself as the truth. Seeing him, hearing him, knowing him, is not divided from what is seen, heard and known. He is the light and what is first illuminated is himself. He is the word and what is heard is himself. The revealer is the revelation in that his revelation is self-revelation. In each instance, this is life gained in the seeing, hearing, knowing and living.

Greek philosophical truth (arguably the characteristic philosophy) makes division an absolute, separating the forms of truth from their appearing so that the H20ness of water, and not the water itself is its truth. The truth of the water, the cat and Columbus reside outside of their passing physicality and time bound nature. Truth, for the Greeks, is what is unchanging and therefore the signs of these changing things are their truth. In turn, the Being of the world equated with the essence of God reduces the living God to the Unmoved Mover of the philosophers, trading an appearance, an apparition (a lie) for the God revealed in Christ. The same principle is at work in each realm of truth, as the language (or signs) takes precedence over what they signify. The description, name, location, date, chemical composition, are the things that can be said about objects. These things show themselves as external to the reality shown. Appearance apart from substance or an empty word devoid of content is of the order of a lie, which may be why Christ contrasts his identity and truth with a language grounded in a lie (John 8:44). The lying word is bound by and binds its adherents to the temporal order (“Abraham died, and the prophets also” (John 8:52) and that is the end of the matter according to his interlocutors).

The Logos of Christ stands over and against this divided logos in that the word of Christ is not about him, describing him, reducing him, but it is Him. “In the beginning was the Word and this Word was with God and was God” (John 1:1). To speak or hear this word entails the full phenomenological reality of who he is. There is no division between the sign and what he signifies. The passage of this sign into flesh, into the spoken word, into history, into time and space, is not diminished by these means but the mediums are relative to who he is. Time and history do not diminish his abiding presence (e.g., “I am before Abraham”). Embodiment does not delimit his universal incarnate presence (e.g., “Where two or three are gathered, I am there.” “I am the Alpha and Omega.”) This revelation makes of time and space his effective presence. He gives himself through these media but what is given exceeds the creaturely order through which he gives. Those who receive this gift receive life and this life is who he is and this is a truth not bound by the divisions of language, time, space, and embodiment.  

The Phenomenology of Suffering as Model of Life in Christ

According to philosopher Michel Henry, one way of getting at the difference between the truth of the world, in its divisiveness, conjunction, and otherness, and the truth of Christ, in its self-referential unity, is through the phenomenology of suffering. “Suffering experiences itself,” as Henry describes.  “It is only in this way that suffering speaks to us; it speaks to us in its suffering. And what it says to us, by speaking to us in this way, is that it suffers, that it is suffering.”[2] Rather than a mere appearance, a name, or a fact (the truth of the world), suffering does not appear external to itself or as other than itself.

So too the life and truth of Christ are not other than himself and those who enter into this experience share the unified life of Christ. What is manifest in Christ is not a power, or life, or redemption separate from Christ. The revealer, revealing the revelation, manifests himself in the fullness of human experience. “It is the first decisive characteristic of the Truth of Christianity that it in no way differs from what it makes true. Within it there is no separation between the seeing and what is seen, between the light and what it illuminates.”[3] This truth is “irreducible” to the concept of truth which dominates the world. “What manifests itself is manifestation itself. What reveals itself is revelation itself; it is revelation of revelation, a self-revelation in its original and immediate effulgence.”

Henry, having begun with the phenomenology of Heidegger and Husserl, concludes with the idea of a pure revelation and phenomenology: “With this idea of a pure Revelation – of a revelation whose phenomenality is the phenomenalization of phenomenality itself, of an absolute self-revelation that dispenses with whatever is other than its own phenomenological substance – we are in the presence of the essence that Christianity posits as the principle of everything.” This pure experience of life through access to God by means of his self-revelation consists of a singular “phenomenality proper to Him.” It “is not susceptible of being produced except where this self-revelation is produced and in the way self-revelation does so.”

This revelation is redemptive as it is a sharing of life in his light: “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men” (John 1:4). The temporal, intellectual, sensual, concentrated as it is on appearances exists as a form of darkness and incomprehension of light and life: “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:5).

The equating of life with the essence of God and with the opening of God in Christ, Henry maintains, is thematic in the New Testament. He references the following examples: “I am the living one” (Revelation 1:17), “the living God” (1 Timothy 3:15), “by him who is declared to be living” (Hebrews 7:8), “He who is living” (Luke 24:5). The point is that this is a life opened to all: “‘Go, stand in the temple courts,’ he said, ‘and tell the people these words of life’” (Acts 5:20).  Henry’s focus is on developing these themes from John, as in the prologue, “In him was life and this life was the light of men” (John 1:4). “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself” (John 5:26). This life given to the Son is opened to all humanity: “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25); “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63). The divine essence is explicitly stated to be that of Life, “the bread of life” (John 6:48) and “the water of life” (John 4). The life Christ gives provides open access to God and in the New Jerusalem: life is opened to the nations in the river flowing “down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life” (Revelation 22:2).

Life reveals itself in a two-fold sense: “it is Life that achieves the revelation, that reveals – but, on the other hand, that what Life reveals is itself.” Henry concludes, “Living is not possible in the world. Living is possible only outside the world, where another Truth reigns, another way of revealing. This way of revealing is that of Life. Life does not cast outside itself what it reveals but holds it inside itself, retains it in so close an embrace that what it holds and reveals is itself.” This folding in of truth and life in a unity which is unbreakable is the revelation of Easter. Death, difference, distance, time, cannot disrupt the resurrection life, the condition of all true experience.

(Register for the upcoming Class on the Gospel of John starting May 9th here: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] John Behr, John the Theologian and His Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 260.

[2] Michel Henry, Words of Christ, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012) 74. Quoted in Behr, 276

[3] Michel Henry, I am the Truth: Toward a Philosophy of Christianity (Stanford University Press, 2003). This quote and the following are from an online excerpt: https://philosophiatopics.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/i-am-the-truth-ch12-pdf.pdf

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.

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.

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.

The Cosmic Christ

Vitruvian Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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