The Lost World of Origen’s Gospel Metaphysics

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

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

The field of his examination is not that of the Greek sense experience and knowledge. His field of examination is Jesus Christ: “In the first place, we must know that in Christ the nature of his divinity, as he is the only-begotten Son of God, is one thing, and another is the human nature, which in the last times he took on account of the economy” (Princ. 1.2.1.1). The Gospel as first principle requires that he begin by examining the titles of Christ, and the relation of the Son to the Father. He concludes: “As no one can be a father without having a son, nor a master without possessing a servant, so even God cannot be called omnipotent unless there exist those over whom He may exercise His power; and therefore, that God may be shown to be almighty, it is necessary that all things should exist” (Princ. 1.2.10). It is through the Son that the Father is almighty, and this position of the Father is extended through the Son into all of creation. “For through Wisdom, which is Christ, God has power over all things, not only by the authority of a ruler, but also by the voluntary obedience of subjects” (Princ. 1.2.10). Again he explains:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Ibid. xii.

[4] Ibid. 17.

[5] Ibid. 24.

[6] Ibid. 18

[7] Ibid. 1.

[8] Ibid. xiii

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

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

Recapitulation: The Hermeneutic that Saves

Irenaeus’ doctrine of recapitulation, as soteriology and hermeneutic, is a continuation of focus on the rule of faith or the apostolic preaching (as found, for example, in Justin Martyr). Recapitulation is the summing up that is the Gospel and a soteriological summing up of all things, but to understand its saving work it has to be understood as a way of reading the Bible. The term cannot be separated from its literary application as a means of understanding Scripture, but this in turn cannot be separated from the whole economy of salvation. In other words, the apostolic preaching, or the presentation of Christ in the Gospel according to the Scriptures, is the recapitulation that saves.

The term has its background in rhetorical or literary theory, in which recapitulation is a restatement or compendium aimed at a unified picture. As a briefer and unified summary, it has greater impact. As Irenaeus writes, salvation is not through the “prolixity of the Law, but according to the brevity of faith and love” (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 87).  He quotes Isaiah as saying: “A word brief and short in righteousness: for a short word will God make in the whole world” (Is. 10:23). Irenaeus references Paul as precedent, as he uses the notion of literary recapitulation in writing that the commandments of Scripture are “summed up in this word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Rom. 13:19). He explains, “On these two commandments, He says, depend all the law and the prophets. So then by our faith in Him He has made our love to God and our neighbor to grow, making us godly and righteous and good” (Dem. 87). The Gospel is this concise Word of recapitulation, apart from which Scripture is obscure, but the epitome or resume of Scripture (recapitulation/Gospel) makes the invisible visible and the incomprehensible comprehensible. This concise Word of recapitulation, summing up Scripture, is the Gospel.

What may be important in understanding Irenaeus is what he is not saying. He is not using the language of prophecy and fulfillment, the notion of old and new covenant, or the idea of separate ages, to explain the singular economy of the Gospel found in Scripture. The Gospel is always present in the Hebrew Scriptures, so that there is nothing new in the Gospel other than Jesus, but Jesus Christ was and is found throughout Scripture. The apostles’ reflection upon Jesus Christ “according to the Scriptures,” John Behr explains, “directs attention back to Scripture, to reflect yet further on the identity of Christ.”[1]  Scripture and Gospel do not exist separately, but neither are they identical. The Gospel unveils Scripture and Scripture informs the Gospel.

Irenaeus concern is to combat the notion that a division or disunity read into Scripture, between the Old and New Testament, results in division that is read into God and salvation. He is combating the sort of plan A plan B understanding that presently predominates in Christian theology. In this understanding, God had a plan, and humans sinned and messed it up, and so now we are on plan B. Law is pitted against grace, creation is pitted against salvation, and there is the supposition that if humans had avoided sin, God’s plan would not have been changed up. Recapitulation establishes a singular economy in Scripture and a unified understanding of God. There is, according to Irenaeus, “one God the Father and one Christ Jesus, who is coming throughout the whole economy, recapitulating all things in himself” (AH 3.16.6). There is a singular continuum between creation and salvation as God’s plan, from the foundation of the world, was to complete creation and the image of the first Adam in that of the second Adam.

Irenaeus pictures salvation as corporate, coming to Adam and his whole race: “we are all from him: and as we are from him, therefore have we all inherited his title. But inasmuch as man is saved, it is fitting that he who was created the original man should be saved” (AH 3.23.2). All are found alike in the first Adam and in the second Adam: “When therefore the Lord vivifies man, that is, Adam, death is at the same time destroyed” (AH 3.23.7). Irenaeus pictures a universal and corporate captivity to death and a universal and corporate deliverance in the second Adam. He speaks of those who are left in death but at the same time speaks of a complete abolition and defeat of death – anything less would be a defeat of God in his estimate:

For if man, who had been created by God that he might live, after losing life, through being injured by the serpent that had corrupted him, should not any more return to life, but should be utterly [and forever] abandoned to death, God would [in that case] have been conquered, and the wickedness of the serpent would have prevailed over the will of God (AH 3.23.1).

Irenaeus is not concerned to deal with the experience of every individual, and he does not focus on human interiority, but as with Paul in Romans 5, the focus is upon the two representative individuals. The two Adams represent the corporate, embodied experience of the race. Ultimately the second Adam incorporates all of humanity into God: “But in every respect, too, He is man, the formation of God; and thus He took up man into Himself.” Irenaeus poses the sort of oppositional differences which might be linked to the two Testaments or to alternative portrayals of God, and links them to the recapitulation accomplished by Jesus Christ in which absolute difference is overcome: “the invisible becoming visible, the incomprehensible being made comprehensible, the impassible becoming capable of suffering, and the Word being made man, thus summing up all things in Himself” (AH 3.16.6). In the same way that Scripture is recapitulated in Him, so too all things are summed up and recapitulated so that what might have once appeared an impossible difference is bridged. As Behr puts it, “The recapitulation of the whole economy unfolded in Scripture, the subject throughout which is the Gospel of Christ, in a concise epitome makes visible and comprehensible what had previously been hidden in the prolixity of the Law.”[2]  There is the obscurity of the law and the reality of death, but these do not compete or interfere with the economy of salvation, which Irenaeus at various points indicates is all inclusive.  

In countering those who would divide Scripture and God, Irenaeus emphasizes that Jesus Christ is not only the unifying subject of Scripture but its ultimate author, and this unified authorship is the point of entry into understanding the work of the Trinity. The alternative, such as that posed by the Marcionites, is to believe in two gods aligned with the two Testaments (“no god at all” according to Irenaeus). As Irenaeus poses the choice:

shall it be he whom the Marcionites or the others have invented as god (whom I indeed have amply demonstrated to be no god at all); or shall it be (what is really the case) the Maker of heaven and earth, whom also the prophets proclaimed — whom Christ, too, confesses as His Father — whom also the law announces, saying: Hear, O Israel; The Lord your God is one God? Deuteronomy 6:4 (AH 4.2.2).

Irenaeus’ hermeneutic of unification is aimed at establishing that there is one God, the Father of Jesus Christ, and this affirmation is the basis of belief in Christ. As Irenaeus puts it, “the writings of Moses are the words of Christ,” referencing Jesus’ words in John: “If you had believed Moses, you would have believed Me: for he wrote of Me. But if you believe not his writings, neither will you believe My words” (John 5:46-47). Irenaeus extends this understanding to include all of the prophets:

If, then, [this be the case with regard] to Moses, so also, beyond a doubt, the words of the other prophets are His [words], as I have pointed out. And again, the Lord Himself exhibits Abraham as having said to the rich man, with reference to all those who were still alive: If they do not obey Moses and the prophets, neither, if any one were to rise from the dead and go to them, will they believe him. Luke 16:31 (AH 4.2.3).

 The relation between Gospel and Scripture is not here focused on an unfolding history, but on Jesus Christ. The point is not that the Old Testament was simply prophetic or a precursor to Christ, but the Gospel is proclaimed in the Hebrew Scriptures. Irenaeus describes Jesus Christ as being inseminated throughout Scripture: inseminatus est ubique in Scripturis ejus Filius Dei. Behr describes this, not as an unknown Logos, but as the preexistence of Christ: “That is, the preexistence of Christ, the Word of God, is inextricably connected with his seminal presence in Scripture, the word of God.”[3] The crucified and risen Christ is the singular subject of Scripture revealed in the Gospel – the Gospel found throughout Scripture.

Where Marcion pictures a complete break between the old (the old covenant, the Old Testament, the old god) and the new (the new covenant, the New Testament, and the new god), for Irenaeus there is nothing new in the Gospel. The Gospel economy is the singular economy, the singular revelation, the singular God, revealed throughout Scripture. Given this understanding, Irenaeus exhorts Marcion: “read with earnest care that Gospel which has been given to us by the apostles, and read with earnest care the prophets, and you will find that the whole conduct, and all the doctrine and all the sufferings of our Lord, were predicted through them. {AH 4.34.1) “To those who, presented with such a claim, ask, ‘what new thing then did the Lord bring by his advent?’ Irenaeus simply answers, ‘Christ himself!’” [4]

 Irenaeus acknowledges that there are a variety of figures and dispensations, but this variety has as its center Jesus Christ and his Gospel. In refuting the Gnostics, who attach a significance to Jesus living to be 30 years old, “that He might show forth the thirty silent Æons of their system, otherwise they must first of all separate and eject [the Saviour] Himself from the Pleroma of all” (AH 2.22.1), Irenaeus argues that Jesus lived closer to age 50, thus fulfilling the Jewish sense of being a Master and providing a coherence to the life course of man. As Behr notes, “The literary coherence of Scripture, and the rhetorical coherence derived by engaging with Scripture to interpret Christ, is the ultimate criterion for Irenaeus’ reflections on the eternal Word of God.”[5] Though his argument as to Jesus’ age may lack evidence, his point is that Jesus is present in every age of man, both the normal growth through infancy to old age but the passage of the ages of history. Adam and Eve represent the age of childhood, and all of human history is part of the process of being brought to maturity. There is not an age before and after Jesus Christ, as in his passage through the various stages of human growth Jesus Christ also recapitulates every age of history, from infancy (on the order of that of Adam and Eve) to the full maturity of the defeat of death.

In this lengthy but key quote he summarizes the all-inclusive recapitulation of Christ:

Being a Master, therefore, He also possessed the age of a Master, not despising or evading any condition of humanity, nor setting aside in Himself that law which He had appointed for the human race, but sanctifying every age, by that period corresponding to it which belonged to Himself He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise He was an old man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also, and becoming an example to them likewise. Then, at last, He came on to death itself, that He might be the first-born from the dead, that in all things He might have the pre-eminence, Colossians 1:18 the Prince of life, Acts 3:15 existing before all, and going before all. (AH2.22.4).

In summary: the “brief” or “compendium” or “resume” that is recapitulation furnished salvation “so that what we had lost in Adam — namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God — that we might recover in Christ Jesus” (AH 3.18.1). Or as Behr writes, “Recapitulating in himself the exposition of the economy, Jesus Christ furnishes us with salvation through a resume, an epitome, which condenses or concentrates, and so makes visible and comprehensible, what had previously been invisible and incomprehensible.”[6] The key point: the literary recapitulation in which the apostolic preaching sums up Scripture cannot be separated from the entire economy of salvation brought about in Jesus Christ. Or to state it negatively: where Jesus Christ is not the lens through which Scripture is interpreted, the economy of the Gospel of salvation cannot be properly grasped.


[1] John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology: The Way to Nicaea, Vol. 1 (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 133.

[2] Behr, 127.

[3] Behr, 117.

[4] Behr, 116.

[5] Behr, 131.

[6] Behr, Ibid., 128.

The Analogy of Faith as a Mindset and Ethic

The analogy of faith, or the rule of faith or, to say the same thing, the gospel, is a hermeneutic or interpretive lens which unveils the meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures (among many other things). As Paul explains to the Corinthians, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (I Cor. 15:3-4). Apart from these events in the life of Christ, it would be hard to locate such things in the Scriptures, but given the reality of the life of Christ, the Scriptures became a means of understanding these events and these events unveil the meaning of Scripture. As John Behr writes, “Read in the light of what God has wrought in Christ, the Scriptures provided the terms and images, the context, within which the apostles made sense of what happened, and with which they explained it and preached it.”[1] In other words, the object is not simply to understand the historical setting of Scripture, or the intent of the author, but to understand Christ according to the Scriptures.

 Behr expertly lays out the interworking of the apostolic preaching, the rule of faith, and the role of Scripture, but his explanation falls short in explaining how, according to the New Testament and the early church fathers, this rule of faith is at once to be a personal mindset and an ethical orientation organizing, not just Scripture, but one’s life. That is, this rule is more than a proposition or rule in the ordinary sense, but is the means of seeing and measuring all things by the peace and love of Christ. The rule is linked with unity and peace, it is linked with apprehending rightly, and it is linked to making critical judgments, and all of these are linked with putting on the mind of Christ. Which is to say this rule of faith is taken up, cathected (as Freud describes the superego image) into the self as part of one’s character and one’s apprehension of the world.

The analogy of faith is partly understood as an alternative to the law. The law is a definitive measure but where the law could be compared to a tutor, leading a student to school, faith is not an objective rule outwardly coercing, but an inward perspective or critical faculty (Gal. 3:25). This is an obvious point that may be lost where doctrine or creeds or propositional language pushes out the personal, the ethical, or the sense in which faith is a living hypothesis and not a dead letter. There is nothing inherently wrong with doctrine or creeds or propositional language, but where the literal, the fleshly, or the law become primary, the letter displaces the Spirit. Letters, propositions, and doctrines are a necessity but not an end or goal but a means. Just as letters are held together by larger units of meaning, the Word (the Gospel, the apostolic tradition) constitutes the unity of meaning in light of which the world is apprehended.

Paul explains that the analogy of faith works in conjunction with preaching and teaching. He wanted every prophecy and every teaching to be conformed to the analogy or likeness of faith (Rom. 12:6). The application or extrapolation of the kerygma may be the specialty of the prophet, but Paul calls every Christian to “appraise all things” according to the mind of Christ. Putting on the mind of Christ means that the individual is enabled to make authoritative judgments, informed critiques, “so that we may know things freely given to us by God,” so that we combine “spiritual thoughts with spiritual words” and thus come to understand those things that “are spiritually appraised” (I Cor. 2:12-16). This spiritual individual has the wisdom provided by God, where the natural man, or literally “a man of animal soul,” is incapable of discerning things according to the Spirit. Jesus promised that the Spirit would guide into all truth (Jn. 16:13) and Paul seems to be applying this to the individuals in the Corinthian church.

For Paul it is not enough that the Corinthians have an authoritative apostle (himself), or that they have appointed bishops and shepherds, some of whom are apparently abusing their position through an extreme authoritarianism. The Corinthians are eager to submit to various authorities and are pitting one authority against another, with some saying “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos” (I Cor. 3:4). Some would pit their leader, their bishop, or their teacher, against that of others. Paul does not presume to grab a scepter and robe and set himself up as final authority, nor does he allow Apollos such a position. Nor does he say, “Look ye unto Peter, who sits upon the seat of Christ.” Rather, he says, “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth” (I Cor. 3:5–7). God is the one who causes growth, and this growth is not simply corporate or institutional but is personal and individual and very much interconnected with applying the analogy of faith. This analogy or rule is the primary authority Paul is concerned to establish.

Obviously, Paul exercises authority (just in the fact that he is writing a letter) but his is not a coercive authoritarianism, but is one that pleads, persuades, argues, and even in his estimate – uses hyperbole, exaggeration, and bragging (2 Cor. 11:16-12:13). In his challenge of Peter in Antioch, in his acknowledged offering of opinions, and in the very mode of his persuasive letter writing, Paul is demonstrating the very mind-set of Christ that he would instill in the Christians under his care. He would call out Peter, he would challenge the apostolic council in regard to Gentiles, but he feels this confidence not simply because he too is an apostle, but because he is calling the apostles themselves to follow the standard or rule of faith which governs them all. They are all subject to the rule of faith, such that the apostles themselves must not veer from the apostolic tradition in which their authority consists.

In dealing with those who are challenging his teaching and authority in Corinth, Paul explains that they are using the wrong measurement: “they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves,” thus “they are without understanding” (II Cor. 10:12). But where they measure by human, self-established measure (measuring themselves by themselves) Paul “measures by the measure which God has given me.” As he explains to the Ephesians this is “the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). This is the measure that, rather than stirring up human antagonism, is the means by which “we all attain to the unity of the faith.” “As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ” (Eph. 4:14-15). This measure and authority is one that each is to take up.

Paul’s main concern is not that the Corinthians obey him, or that they revere his letters; his main concern is that they put on the mind of Christ and become spiritual minded in their thinking. The Corinthians and all Christians are to judge by the measure of faith. This measure breaks down the inherent hostility contained in human measure or in the measure of the law. The law requires a wall of hostility as part of its function. It is inherently divisive but Christ as measure is peace: “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances” (Eph. 2:14-15).

The turn from the rule of faith, which is Christ, to ordinances, creeds, doctrines, etc. has not only produced unending division in the church but has given rise to violence, in which Christians participate in bloodshed against one another and against the enemies declared outside the bounds of Christian love.

Paul had predicted as much to the Galatians, explaining that those who insist on the law “bite and devour one another” as they are judging according to the flesh (Ga. 5:15). “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law” (Ga 5:18). The singular principal Paul invokes is neighbor love, “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF’” (Ga. 5:14). This is a measure to be lived out, and by its very nature it disrupts what Paul sees as the desire undergirding the law: becoming “boastful, challenging one another, envying one another” (Ga. 5:26) and ultimately “biting and devouring one another.” In contrast, the rule of faith is a means to peace and unity, and by definition is a promotion of the love and peace of Christ. He himself is our Peace as the measure by which we attain to the unity of the faith.

We have two measures or two rules to choose from: the human measure and the measure of Christ. The human measure, the law, or the law of sin and death, is inherently a violent measure and the measure of Christ is inherently peaceful. It is in the life of Christ that we see these two measures set against one another. By the rule of man Christ dies, so that human measure ends in deicide. The force that killed Christ, namely the law or the measure of man, is countered by Christ and Christian witnesses (martyrs). That is, the peace of Christ embodied in nonviolent love and nonviolent resistance, is the counter to the human rule and is the goal and means of the rule of faith. The earliest accounts of the rule of faith outside of the New Testament link the rule of faith to this peaceful nonviolence.

The Didache (written in the first century A. D.), provides instructions for the Christian life, which in the first part is entitled “Two Ways, the Way of Life and the Way of Death.” It may have served as basic instruction to catechumens or those studying to be baptized, and it is focused on the doctrine of love and Jesus’ ethical teaching. The way of life is characterized by loving God, loving one’s neighbor, and loving one’s enemies by following Jesus’ ethic of nonviolence. The text (as do most all of the early explanations of the rule of faith) references Matthew 5:39-44 (containing Jesus’ commands of nonviolent resistance, or radical subordination) and sets forth a “way of life,” which sums up the point of part one. In other words, the Didache provides a measurement for Christian living that is founded upon Jesus’ own teaching.

Justin Martyr (100-165) in his First Apology also speaks of the rule of faith. Writing to emperor Antonius Pius, he describes Christian nonviolence as offering no threat to Rome, as Christians serve a heavenly kingdom: “For if we looked for a human kingdom, we should also deny our Christ, that we might not be slain; and we should strive to escape detection, that we might obtain what we expect. But since our thoughts are not fixed on the present, we are not concerned when men cut us off; since also death is a debt which must at all events be paid.”[2] He describes the kingdom established among Christians as bringing to pass the prophecy of Isaiah 2:3: “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” As a result, “we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.”[3] He points to “the case of many who once were of your way of thinking, but have changed their violent and tyrannical disposition, being overcome either by the constancy which they have witnessed in their neighbors’ lives, or by the extraordinary forbearance they have observed in their fellow-travelers (Christians) when defrauded, or by the honesty of those with whom they have transacted business.”[4] These proofs he puts forward are people, Christians whose lives are governed by a rule of enemy-love and non-violence. The rule is not simply an objective rule, but the means to grow in love and peace.

Tertullian (160-220) likewise, addressing “rulers of the Roman Empire,” explains that Christians are persecuted unjustly because they love their enemies and are forbidden to retaliate. “If we are enjoined, then, to love our enemies, as I have remarked above, whom have we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate, lest we become as bad ourselves: who can suffer injury at our hands?” He asks, “banded together as we are, ever so ready to sacrifice our lives, what single case of revenge for injury are you able to point to.”[5] This nonviolent form of life, in which Christians are charged to love their enemies, Tertullian explains, “is the rule of truth which comes down from Christ by transmission through his companions” (the apostles).[6] Christians have exchanged the law of retribution for the law of truth and nonviolence, and as a result Rome gains more than it has lost.

In Ignatius of Antioch’s (died 108) letter to Polycarp, Ignatius explains how the law of nonviolence replaces the weapons of war with those of peace: “Let your baptism endure as your arms; your faith as your helmet; your love as your spear; your patience as a complete panoply.”[7] Human law calls for violent preparation through weapons of war, but the law of peace taught by Christ exchanges military equipment with the equipment of love, patience and faith.

The analogy of faith is not simply a measurement or rule aimed at sorting out propositions, setting up creeds, and establishing doctrine. The rule of faith is an ethic and a characteristic way of thinking which is to govern the life of the mind and body of the Christian.


[1] John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology: The Way to Nicaea, Vol. 1, (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 27-28.

[2] Justin Martyr, Apologia I, 11.

[3] Ibid., 39.

[4] Ibid., 16.

[5] Tertullian, Apology 37.

[6] Ibid., 47.

[7] Ignatius, To Polycarp 6.2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(To register for our next class with PBI, “Reading the Bible in Community” starting the week of September 26th and running through November 18th register at https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] Against Heresies, 3.1.1

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

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

[4] Against Heresies, 3.12.9.

[5] Behr, Ibid.

[6] Against Heresies 1.10

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

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

[9] Origen, On First Principles 4.1.6.

[10] Against Heresies, 4.26.1.

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

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

[13] Principle 4.2.2.

[14] As Herbert McCabe has written, “Watching, so to say the story of Jesus, we are watching the processions of the Trinity. That the mission in time of Son and Spirit reflect the eternal relation”. . . and more than that “they are not just reflection but sacrament – they contain the reality they signify.” In Jesus Christ we encounter the reality of God because this is who God is. The missions of the Son and the Spirit are not one episode in the story of God, this is the reality of God unfolding in the story of the Gospel. The “mission of Jesus is nothing other than the eternal generation of the Son.” Herbert McCabe, “The Involvement of God,” New Blackfriars, (November 1985) 473. Available online at https://www.scribd.com/document/327357740/The-Involvement-of-God

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.