The Sophiology of Death as Explanation of Salvation and Trinity

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going.” Ecclesiastes 9:10

There is nothing more personal than death. Death is a failure of personhood, a loss that cannot be abstracted, as it happens to concrete persons who can only know of this pervasive reality as it happens to “me.” Death isolates and individuates so that we all die alone. While life and love are shared experiences, death is the opposite. Death is a pure negation, a complete absence, a total loss. It is a loss of connectedness, of love, and obviously of life and the effort and struggle of life. As Koheleth records, struggle with all your might now, for the grave ends all possibility of strategizing. Death, in the small doses that we all experience it, is familiar. The moments of shame in life are small bits of dying, while the total loss that is the shame of death is an undoing and loss beyond comprehension. We cannot think our own dissolution and undoing, and so denial of death is not a conscious choice but an inevitable orientation, but this orientation comes at a price in its reifying and absolutizing of the finite and mortal. The transcendent and immortal cannot be accommodated in the “immortalization” of the mortal. The incarnate and fleshly, immortalized, is a refusal of the world – a striving toward the disincarnate – and this is dying. The dying begins where embodied, incarnate, fleshly living, is refused. Struggle then with all of your life against death – this is dying. So, death is not simply a problem at the end of life, but an ending that pervades all of life. This orientation to death marks all of life as a dying. The unconscious struggle to have life, to hold onto life, to gain a fulness of life, as an insurance against the grave, is to submit completely to the orientation to death.

This orientation and this dying are against God and his intention for humans: “God didn’t make death. God takes no delight in the ruin of anything that lives. God created everything so that it might exist. The creative forces at work in the cosmos are life-giving. There is no destructive poison in them” (Wisdom 1:13-14). God permitted death, which means he permitted free will refusal of himself and of life and of love. He permitted sin, and death entered in through sin. It is not that all sinned in Adam, in spite of the Latin translation of Romans 5:12. Rather: “just as sin entered into the cosmos through one man, and death through sin, so also death pervaded all humanity, whereupon all sinned” (Rom. 5:12, DBH). For Adam, the order was sin to death, but for the rest of sinful humanity (which is not all of humanity in Paul’s explanation – Rom. 5:14) it is ordered from death to sin.

As Sergius Bulgakov describes, “Death entered the world through the path of sin, which destroyed the stability of human existence and as it were separated within man the uncreated from the created. The created, since it did not possess in itself its own power of being, became mortal, having acquired an undue independence from the uncreated. Such is the nature of death.”[1] This “undue independence” is nothing short of a lie. It is the presumption of life where there is death and the presumption of being where there is nonbeing. The separation of the created from the uncreated is an unreality. As Jordan Wood has summarized Bulgakov in conjunction with Maximus: “Rational creatures by definition actualize themselves in the mode of self-determination, of freedom, and somehow that mode can and is in fact misdirected to absurd and absolutely irrational proportions: we make ourselves unmade, we incarnate pure fantasy, we interpret the world and give our very selves, parasitically, to breath (sic.) life into a world that is against the divine will; and anything against the divine will is no creation of the divine will.”[2]

Jordan recognizes in Bulgakov the same refusal of abstraction as he found in Maximus. There is no dying in the abstract – it is always personal. “So the ‘problem’ of sin and its wages is that actual persons are in an actual state of pseudo- and anti-actualization, ‘discarnate or ‘anti-incarnate.’” The work of fallen humanity in its pursuit of life through death (the disincarnate) is countered by the work of the Trinity which, always and in all things, is Incarnation. The work of Incarnation counters the anti-incarnate or false incarnation which is the lie of sin. Incarnation always and in all things (or recapitulation) meets “the actual persons to be saved precisely where and how they are: in a state of anti-incarnation.”[3]  

It is not as if death has the final word, as in the image of Ecclesiastes. In Christ the limitation of the power of death is disclosed. As Bulgakov describes it, Christ’s death reveals the limitation of death: “Death is neither absolute nor all-powerful. It can only tear at and fracture the tree of life, but it is not invincible, for it has already been conquered by the resurrection of Christ.”[4] To realize this defeat of death in the resurrection of Christ, the death of Christ must become the manner of one’s life. He took our death upon himself, so that the “death of humanity is precisely Christ’s death, and we must take part in the fullness of this death, just as he partook in our death after becoming enfleshed and human.”[5] Death and dying and thus living become His manner of death and life.

Bulgakov pictures the full realization of Christ meeting us in death as occurring only in our actual dying. He ends his article on the Sophiology of Death with a description of his near-death experience due to cancer, and then in the pain of having his throat sliced open without anesthetics, having the feeling of being suffocated. The feeling of complete helplessness that is the experience of dying, is the place Christ meets us. The place we would refuse, out of fear, is the place of revelation.  

And to the extent that we know, or rather, will know our own particular death, in it and through it shall we know the death of Christ too. But until we have reached the very threshold of death and have drunk the cup of death, we can only foreknow our death, and in it and through it Christ’s death as well. Such foreknowledge is accessible to us and necessary, for it reveals to us our own— as well as Christ’s— humanity, in its depths and in its terrible abyss; in the light of death it manifests to us our very selves. And to whom it is granted by the will of God to approach this edge of the abyss, let him from thence become a herald, that thence which for each person will at some point become a thither and a there.[6]

The mystery of God and the incomprehensible mystery of death are conjoined in the God-man. In his humanity there is the dying, but his humanity is completely united with his deity. Our dying with him is not a point of separation, isolation, and forsakenness, because he has taken upon himself forsakenness and defeated it. Thus, that which defeats and destroys God’s good creation becomes the point of life, love, and being joined to God. “The God-man dies in the image of man, and man dies in the image of the God-man, in a marvelous mutuality.”[7]  This “impossibility” that God would die in Christ – this point of incomprehension in which incomprehensible death and incomprehensible God takes up dying, this becomes the moment of enlightenment and comprehension. Jesus meets us at the edge of the grave. He is there in the dying and this is the assurance that imparts a new form of living.

This is salvation, atonement, expiation and new life. His being poured out, his kenotic self-giving, is organically tied to the problem and its resolution. His incarnation and dying joins him to the dying of all persons. “(If) Christ redeems and raises every person, then it is only because he co-dies in every person and with every person.”[8] His being with us in his humanity is the point in which he imparts the uncreatedness and life of his deity. “Clearly, we can speak here of “dying” only in a completely unique sense, different from human death; specifically, it is some kind of passivity, an inactivity, which permits the death of the human nature on account of a certain incompleteness in the latter’s divinization.”[9] Christ undertakes divinization in his life’s journey, through death and resurrection, and imparts to all the path he has taken. “Divinization comes into its fullness only in the resurrection and is accomplished only by the Father’s power through the action of the Holy Spirit.”[10]

Bulgakov approaches the possibility of the death of the God-man, the possibility of human entry into the divine, and the divine entry into the human, in his picture of Sophia (wisdom) or what he calls Sophiology. The Psalms picture wisdom as consisting of both a created and uncreated aspect: “The LORD created me as His first course, before His works of old. From everlasting I was established, from the beginning, before the earth began” (Psalms 8:22-23). Wisdom, in both of its forms, according to Bulgakov, is Wisdom embodied in Christ.

The humanity of Christ is created Sophia, permeated by Divine Sophia and in this union with it already pre-deified. . .. Created Sophia, as the human nature of Christ, admitted of further sophianization or divinization, which is exactly what was accomplished through the resurrection of Christ and in his glorification. The latter is the fullness of divinization, the sophianization of created Sophia in Christ, its full penetration by Divine Sophia, perfected divine-humanity.[11]

The course of Christ’s life bringing about the fulness of the Divine Wisdom in his life contains the order and course of the universe – “the union of eternity and time, of fullness and becoming.”[12]

Bulgakov, like (or with) Maximus, not only avoids abstraction surrounding death, but also abstractions which would explain the humanity and deity of Christ. Theoretically or abstractly deity and humanity, time and eternity, God and death, cannot be joined, but what are opposites theoretically are brought together concretely in the person of Christ. The theoretically impossible is not impossible in Christ. Bulgakov expresses this in terms of the peculiarity of what has occurred in Christ. This human and divine life and death is one of a kind. The kenosis of Christ is a possibility for divinity but it is temporary and transitory, and it is a death like no other. Bulgakov admits that the decaying condition, of being turned over to the grave is an impossibility in the death of the God-man. He is susceptible to dying but: “Nevertheless, this dying, while not representing the genuine death of decay, is still that condition of death in which the Lord rests in the grave. The God-man fully experiences death, he partakes of it, although he is not handed over to its power in his divinity and in his divinized humanity. His divine-humanity enters into the fullness of power and glory precisely through dying.” The manner of his death is not being left in a state of death, though he is turned over to the power of death but death cannot hold him.

Kenosis is nothing more than a state that may be adopted by divine being— temporary and transitory, as the path to resurrection. But kenosis is not mortal existence itself, which is what divine existence would be transformed into in such a case. In the depths of kenosis there is a weakening, as it were, of divinity, but only until the end of kenosis, when this weakness is overcome. Such is the immanent dialectic of kenosis in divine-humanity. In its kenosis it is capable of dying, but the death of the God-man can only be a victory over death: “having trampled death by death.”[13]  

Through Divine Sophia, Bulgakov explains the joining of deity and humanity in the person of Christ. Where otherwise one might pose some form of Docetism, or (in the case of Rowan Williams) an “asymmetrical christology” in which the deity of Christ is privileged over the humanity of Jesus. (In Williams description, the divine Word could be apart from Jesus, who “contributes nothing extra to that identifying esse” of the Word.)[14] In Divine Sophia the fulness of the humanity and deity of Christ, including the death of Christ and glorification at the right hand of God, not only exist in one person but are the constitutive aspects – the full deity and humanity – of this person. Sophia explains how, the apparent and necessary division between deity and humanity, are conjoined in a singular person:

In the divine abandonment of Christ, the Divine Sophia becomes, as it were, inactive in him; what remains in full force is only the human nature, created Sophia, although in a state of suffering and mortal frailty. This sophianic kenosis— which prima facie appears to be a division of the natures, as it were, in the humanity’s loss of divinity— is the path to their fullest union in the resurrection. Humanity, created Sophia, needed to be revealed in the depths not just of the positive power belonging to it as the image of Divine Sophia, but also in its Adamic nature, weakened by the fall and communing with death. But in this union with Divine Sophia, created Sophia communes in this divine nature, and in this union she reaches the greatest depth of kenosis: the depth of human frailty is disclosed to the utmost through Christ’s voluntary acceptance of humanity’s fall for the sake of humanity’s restoration and salvation.[15]

Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human, both divine and human natures in one person, and because this is who he is there is the possibility of restoration and salvation.  

So too, what Christ reveals about the Trinity, is that God in three persons is involved in the kenotic giving of the Son: “the Father sends the Son, and this sending is an act of Fatherly sacrificial love, the kenosis of the Father, who condemns to the cross the beloved Son, who in turn takes on himself this feat on the cross. The feat of the Son is also the self-denying love of the Father who, in ‘sending’ the Son, condemns his very self to co-suffering and co-crucifixion, though in a manner different than the Son.”[16] The Father and the Son “possess one life, one joy and suffering, although in a different manner.” The Father does not remove himself from the suffering of the Son – “both co-suffer together.” “The Son accomplishes the will of the Father, and this unity of will and of mutual knowledge (“no one knoweth the Son, but the Father, neither doth anyone know the Father, but the Son” [Matt 11:27]) testifies to the unity of life and the unity of suffering in their common— although distinct for each— kenosis of love.”[17]

The person of Jesus Christ involves the fulness of the Trinity. Bulgakov distinguishes the economic and immanent Trinity, but not so as to make a division within the person of Christ or within the persons of the Trinity:

The love of the Father through the Spirit in the life of the Son “is unbroken and there can be no room for any sort of mutual abandonment. But “economically,” in the relationship of God to the world, as Creator to creation, there occurs, as it were, a division of the hypostases because the very hypostasis of union, the Holy Spirit, in “abandoning” the Son, ceases, as it were, to unite the Son with the Father and instead remains with the Father.[18]

The Spirit, which “blows where it wills” (John 3:2), momentarily and manifestly (economically) “stops blowing on the Son.” But this death of the Son is experienced by each of the persons of the Trinity as the “Father co-dies” and the “Holy Spirit co-dies” with the Son. Bulgakov assures that this is not a division, though it has that appearance, but a union: “a union in dying for each of the hypostases in its own way, true both individually and for all of them in conjunction.”[19]

The movement of salvation in Christ is not then, an event removed from who God is, but is bound up with the Trinitarian reality. The revelation exposing the fiction of a life oriented to death, the life giving revelation, simultaneously is a revelation of God as Trinity. The one does not exist apart from the other.

[1]Sergius Bulgakov, The Sophiology of Death: Essays on Eschatology: Personal, Political, Universal (p. 117). Cascade Books. Kindle Edition.

[2] Jordan Daniel Wood, “The Lively God of Sergius Bulgakov: Reflections on The Sophiology of Death” (Eclectic Orthodoxy Blog, December 15th, 2021).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bulgakov, 117.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 133.

[7] Ibid., 118.

[8] Ibid., 132.

[9] Ibid., 122.

[10] Ibid., 123.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 130-131.

[14] This is Jordan Woods description in reviewing Rowan Williams’, Christ the Heart of Creation. “Against Asymmetrical Christology: A Critical Review of Rowan Williams’s ‘Christ the Heart of Creation’” (Eclectic Orthodoxy, August 4th, 2019)

[15] Bulgakov, Ibid., 131-132.

[16] Ibid., 124.

[17] Ibid., 125.

[18] Ibid., 128.

[19] Ibid., 129.

Jordan Daniel Wood and Maximus on the Answer to Hegel

I have described entry into the holism of the Gospel (see my The Psychotheology of Sin and Salvation) by engaging the theory of Slavoj Žižek who is working in the multiple registers of philosophy, psychology, cultural theory, and theology. Žižek takes as his point of departure the Kantian critique of the Cartesian Subject deployed by Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in which Hegel depicts the Subject as arising in conjunction with the empty X of the “thinking thing.” That is, this failure of the Cartesian cogito (as depicted by Kant) is not a failure but the foundation of the Subject in Žižek’s Hegel. The nothingness at the center of the Subject makes for the very possibility of a Subject. Žižek boils this down in his self-description as a Pauline-Hegelian theorist. He sees Hegel as a development of Paul’s theology (primarily Romans 7) and considers Hegel the summation of philosophical thought and the ground of Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. That is, Hegel (according to Žižek and others) is the summation of human thought and the human project. For Žižek there is no escaping Hegel as Hegel says it all, capturing the true atheistic essence of the gospel.

 My point, in the concluding chapter of my book, is that the gospel and Paul offer an alternative world, an alternative psychology, and an alternative theology to Hegel – not claiming that Žižek/Hegel are simply wrong but picturing theirs as the singular alternative sublated and resolved through the gospel. Mine, however, is primarily a negative description of the all-inclusive nature of Žižek/Hegel, to get at the all-inclusive nature of the gospel. Jordan Wood, in his reading of Maximus, sets forth a fulsome positive picture of this alternative.

Jordan hits upon the truth in Maximus’ theology (a development of New Testament theology through Origen) which, I am convinced, is the proper ground for the peace and love of the gospel to be fully recognized. To begin with, he sees Maximus as recognizing the pervasiveness of Hegel’s description (obviously, before Hegel) and then moving beyond, while taking into account, this understanding (sublation):

Thus Maximus knows what Hegel claims few do: “That these forms [e.g., finite vs. infinite, subject vs. object, and so forth] are different everyone knows; but that these determinations are still at the same time inseparable is another matter.” You cannot meaningfully predicate infinity of God without simultaneously referring to infinity’s negation, the finite. The abstract meaning of infinity is itself negatively determined by the concept of finitude. Abstract infinity remains a finite predicate, since it positively depends for its sense on its not being whatever we mean by “finite.” While these categories are indeed different, they are also inseparable. Their very difference unites them.[1]

Maximus recognizes what Hegel will also spell out, namely that what are taken to be absolute differences amount to interdependent relations. Being and nothingness, life and death, or good and evil are interdependent antitheses through which a synthesis can be attained. Hegel reads Genesis 3 and “the knowledge of good and evil” as the prototype of all human thought. The good has its existence over and against evil and evil has its existence over and against the good. Hegel’s point is that antitheses, like good and evil or infinite and finite, are not simply known in tandem but have their being in tandem. Maximus, however, recognizes that what is meant by difference is not difference at all, but a form of interdependence.

So, step one in Maximus’ depiction of the created and uncreated is a depiction of these categories (e.g., creator/creation, finite/infinite, divine/human) as absolutely different, such that when they are brought together in Christ this bringing together is not on the order of a Hegelian dialectic and synthesis. Maximus’ reason for rejection of dialectical difference is inadvertently illustrated by Hegel. Death, for Hegel, is the source of life, while nothingness is the source of all that is:  

The activity of dissolution is the power and work of the Understanding, the most astonishing and mightiest of powers, or rather the absolute power. … This is the tremendous power of the negative; it is the energy of thought, of the pure “I.” Death, if that is what we want to call this nonactuality, is of all things the most dreadful, and to hold fast what is dead requires the greatest strength. . .. Spirit is this power … looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being. This power is identical with what we earlier called the Subject.[2]  

The Subject arises through the power of death and negation. Hegel is fusing thought and being, making of psychology an ontology. He is taking the Kantian problem with the Cartesian cogito, (the empty X of “I think” in Kant’s estimate) not as an irresolvable problem, but as the ground of an alternative metaphysic and psychology. In this understanding nothingness and death are the absolute resources against which life and being are derived. In short, this is the abstraction which may best express Paul’s depiction of the law of sin and death.

 Due to Maximus’ recognition of the dialectic of difference as the ground of human thought (the human failure of thought) he makes of difference, not a dialectic, but an irreconcilable absolute. “Maximus never disputes— that, for instance, since the uncreated is not the created, God could never enjoy essential identity with the world he makes from nothing. Maximus even intensifies their natural contrast by denying any commonality between them whatsoever.”[3]  As Hans Urs Von Balthasar describes, Maximus duel with the Monothelites caused him “to take seriously and to apply, in all its consequences, the formula of the Council of Chalcedon, which asserts the “unconfused” character of the two natures of Christ and which prevents any dissolving of the human substance in God.”[4] For Maximus the divine and human difference is absolute and theoretically irreconcilable. As a result, “Maximus looks straight in the eye of Hegel,”[5] who “recognizes a kindred christological instinct to synthesize created contraries but he outstrips Hegel by insisting that Chalcedon’s Definition govern every synthesis.”[6] This is not a formal theory, an abstraction, or something on the order of an analogy of being. This is the accomplishment of the person of Christ that cannot formalized:

For the superessential Word, who took on himself, in that ineffable conception, our nature and everything that belongs to it, possessed nothing human, nothing that we might consider “natural” in him, that was not at the same time divine, negated by the supernatural manner of his existence. The investigation of these things exceeds our reason and our capacity for proof; it is only grasped by the faith of those who reverence the mystery of Christ with up right hearts.[7]

Christ does not provide a pattern for formal understanding or a Hegelian example of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. “We believe that He Himself, by virtue of His infinite transcendence, is ineffable and incomprehensible, and exists beyond all creation and beyond all the differences and distinctions which exist and can be conceived of within it.”[8] What is accomplished in the person of Christ is ineffable, precisely in that two absolutely different natures reside in one person:

For the mystery remains concealed by Jesus, and can be drawn out by no word or mind, for even when spoken of, it remains ineffable, and when conceived, unknown” (according to Gregory). Beyond this, what could be a more compelling demonstration of the Divinity’s transcendence of being? For it discloses its concealment by means of a manifestation, its ineffability through speech, and its transcendent unknowability through the mind, and, to say what is greatest of all, it shows itself to be beyond being by entering essentially into being.[9]

The “ineffable manner of union” of the two natures in Christ is beyond  comprehension (or dialectical synthesis or true knowledge for Hegel). The one who “transcends being” entered into being, and he who transcends human nature subjugated himself to this nature but “He elevated nature to Himself, making nature itself another mystery, while He Himself remained entirely beyond comprehension, showing that His own Incarnation, which was granted a birth beyond being, was more incomprehensible than every mystery.”[10]

Where Hegelianism sees the movement of history, in its synthesizing possibilities, as bringing about Spirit (in Žižek’s interpretation of Hegel, this movement is endless – never arriving at Spirit), Maximus sees Christ as the end of a synthesizing dialectical possibility. The movement of time and history is not intrinsically salvific, but Christ makes of this movement “a weapon for the destruction of sin and death, which is the consequence of sin.”[11] For Maximus the rule of sin and death is the constituting “condition of passibility.” From the false beginning in Adam humankind is thrown into a downward spiral which Christ turns into a weapon of destroying judgment. The simultaneous judgment and creative providence found in the incarnation are key in the dimensions of the work of Christ:

If, as we just read Maximus saying, “the perfect re-formation” comes to be “within Him, according to the ineffable union,” if “the whole mystery of Christ” is precisely that “all the ages and the beings existing within those ages received their beginning and end in Christ,” and if indeed our very potential to resist the Word’s Incarnation and thereby illicitly hypostasize a counterfeit creation— if, I mean, even this slavish passion to sheer finitude— is itself made possible by God’s veritable act of creation in and as Christ, then we should expect to find Maximus making explicit this concrete reciprocity or simultaneity at every level of his contemplation of the historical.[12]

The reciprocity or simultaneity of creation and judgment through incarnation is a point Maximus illustrates at length. Christ does not depend upon negation and death, but judges and defeats these categories while simultaneously bringing about creation. The passage in Christ is not toward an endless dialectic, as Christ presents an immovable essence and a final stability which brings the agony of dialectic to an end:

For the union of the limit of the age and limitlessness, of measure and immeasurability, of finitude and infinity, of Creator and creation, and of rest and motion, was conceived before the ages. This union has been manifested in Christ at the end of time, and through itself bestows the fulfillment of God’s foreknowledge, so that creatures in motion by nature might find rest around that which is absolutely immovable by essence, departing completely from their movement toward themselves and each other, so that they might acquire, by experience, an active knowledge of Him in whom they were made worthy to find their stability, a knowledge which is unalterable and always the same, and which bestows upon them the enjoyment of the One they have come to know.[13]

Where in Hegel, time, history and movement save (through dialectic and synthesis), for Maximus Christ is the immovable center of history. In the person of Christ what is distinctly different has been brought into union, not through a dialectic, but through both providence and judgment rendered in the incarnation. Maximus sees providence and judgment as part of the singular power of Christ, exercised in the multiple dimensions of the incarnation. “Providence is the union itself, the God-man; judgment is the Passion, the suffering God.”[14]

In Maximus explanation:

On the right, then, is the mystery, according to providence, of the Incarnation of the Word, which by grace brings about divinization in a manner transcending nature for those who are being saved. This mystery was predetermined before the ages, and absolutely no principle of beings can approach it by nature. On the left is the mystery, according to judgment, of the life-giving passion of the God who willed to suffer in the flesh. This mystery brings about the utter destruction of all the properties and movements contrary to nature that were introduced into nature through the primal disobedience. It also produces the perfect restoration of all the properties and movements that were previously in nature, according to which absolutely none of the principles of beings can ever be adulterated. From these, by which I mean providence and judgment, that is, from the Incarnation and the Passion, there came forth—because of the stability, purity, and incorruptibility of courageous virtue and immutability on the level of practice, and because of the clarity and brilliance of mystical contemplation and knowledge there came forth, I say, like horse-drawn chariots racing “through the middle of two brass mountains . . .[15]

The stability, incorruptibility, and immutability of Christ in the incarnation is at once bringing about natural potential and judging and destroying the unnatural incarnation of falsehood. Thus, the incarnation is the enacted judgment and outworking of God’s providence bringing about divinization in those who are being saved. This mystery is simultaneously destroying all that is contrary to nature while restoring and bringing to fulness the potential in nature. Maximus is clear about the fundamental reciprocity between creation and judgment characteristic of the whole mystery. “The union reveals divine goodness and “will” (θέλησις), God’s absolute desire, while the Passion evinces Christ’s concrete love for human beings in his “consensual” (καθ’ ἑκούσιον) or voluntary response to a determinate phenomenon— our transgression, the actual sins of all persons.”[16]

This is not a dialectic dependent upon death, but is salvation from death wrought in the person of Christ. God wants human beings to be divinized, made into his image, but humans resist God’s creation in Christ. “In his divine counsel God knows Adam’s true and false beginnings because— and this is truly critical— God knows and wills Adam. Which is to say, God wills and thus creates not an abstract arrangement of essences or mere instances of nature but actual, individual, free persons, the very persons who in themselves freely hypostasize something other than themselves.”[17] Thus “human persons make God a suffering God-man. The Passion at once establishes and responds to actual persons, since, of course, God’s judgment sustains the singularity and distinctiveness of all persons— even in and through the depths of their deluded self-destruction.” Rather than dialectic giving rise to the Subjest, there is the outworking of providence and judgment in Christ who “concretizes, in himself, the essential paradox of human freedom, the possibility of both our primordial error and our eventual embrace of God, our “initial” and “perfect” formation.”[18]

In Maximus most fulsome explanation:

For in truth it was necessary—necessary, I say—that the Lord, who according to His nature is wise and just and powerful, should not, in His wisdom, ignore the means of curing us; nor, in His justice, despotically save humanity when it had fallen under sin by the inclination of its own will; nor, in His omnipotence, falter in bringing the healing of humanity to completion. He therefore made manifest the principle of His wisdom through the mode by which He healed humanity, namely, by becoming man without undergoing any kind of change or alteration. He showed the equality of His justice in the magnitude of His condescension, when He willingly submitted to the condemnation of nature in its passibility, and he made that very passibility a weapon for the destruction of sin and death, which is the consequence of sin, that is, for the destruction of pleasure and the pain which is its consequence. And He did this because the rule of sin and death had established themselves in our condition of passibility, along with the tyranny of sin associated with pleasure and the oppression associated with pain, for the rule of pleasure and pain over our nature subsists within our passibility.[19]

Maximus describes something approaching psychoanalytic masochism, in which one takes pleasure in their own destruction as pleasure has been fused with death (or as in Hegel, death is the primary resource of life). He pictures death as being mothered by pleasure such that “Adam’s life of pleasure is the mother of death and corruption.” The death of Christ brings an end to this fusion of pleasurable dying, bringing about the possibility of eternal life: “the death of the Lord, which came about for the sake of Adam, and which was free of the pleasure associated with Adam, is the progenitor of eternal life.”[20]  

He explains how and why this is the case:

It seems to me, then, the word of Scripture has rightly distinguished between how, on the one hand, generation from Adam accompanied by pleasure, in tyrannizing our nature, was providing food for the death that arose in consequence of that pleasure; and how, on the other hand, the birth of the Lord in the flesh, which came about because of His love of mankind, eliminated both of these things, by which I mean the pleasure associated with Adam and the death that came about because of Adam, eradicating Adam’s punishment along with his sin. That is, it was not possible for the Lord’s generation as man—which was in no way touched by that beginning whose end was death—to be conquered in the end by corruption through death. This is because, as I said, the word of Scripture has distinguished these things from one another, because for as long as our nature was being tyrannized solely by the characteristic marks of Adam in its beginning and end, by which I mean generation and corruption, it was “not the time for the judgment” enabling the complete condemnation of sin “to begin.” But when the Word of God appeared to us through the flesh and became perfect man but without sin, and in the flesh of Adam willingly bore only the punishment of Adam’s nature, and when He “condemned sin in the flesh,” innocently suffering as “righteous for the sake of the unrighteous,” and converted the use of death, reworking it into the condemnation of sin but not of nature, then, I say, “it was the time for the judgment to begin,” a judgment consistent with this conversion of death and leading to the condemnation of sin.[21]

In Maximus’ description, the dialectic of the law of sin and death has been defeated. The agonistic struggle Paul describes and valorized by Hegel is ended by Christ. The tyrant of death and corruption are judged and destroyed as Christ condemned sin and converted death into the means of destroying sin. As Jordan summarizes:

The judgment of the Passion thus restores my freedom and invites me to choose to be created, to be born of the Spirit rather than from my own primordial delusion. I must come to recognize the depths of God’s love in the fundamental God world reciprocity generated in the Word’s historical experience. That reciprocity creates the freedom to undo my own misuse of freedom exactly because the Word’s identification with the false world is simultaneously his identification with the true one. He made himself the hypostatic identity of bad and good infinities. That is, he received, in his Passion, the entire burden of the errant motions of every individual rational being, and by making them his own— he who is essentially God— endowed the very false “principles” our sin falsely incarnate, namely the “law of death,” with the deeper principle of providence, the complete deification of even this universe and of the “me” I make in vain. His true Incarnation, always and in all things, destroys all false incarnations from true beginning to true end— for he is both.[22]

Žižek (whose entire corpus is grounded in the notion of freedom) openly embraces the necessity of a deception as the condition for the Subject. While there is no alternative to the primordial lie in Žižek’s reading of Hegel, Maximus sees the gospel as specifically engaging this falsely incarnated Subject arising around a false dialectic and depicts the how and why of its dissolution and sublation in Christ.

[1] Jordan Daniel Wood, The Whole Mystery of Christ (p. 198). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University

Press, 1977) 18-19.

[3] Wood, 198.

[4] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor Translated by Brian E. Daley, S.]. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988) 207.

[5] Ibid. According to Balthasar he arrives at his synthesis on the basis of an antithesis between the Old and New Testaments arriving at a Hellenistic Johannine Christological synthesis.”

[6] Wood, 4.

[7] Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua Vol. 1-2; Edited and Translated by Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 5.15. Quoted in Balthasar, 209.

[8] Ambigua 7.16.

[9] Ambigua 5.5.

[10] Ambigua 5.5.

[11] St. Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties In Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios; Translated by Fr. Maximos Constas, (Washington D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press) 61.6.

[12] Wood, 175.

[13] The Responses to Thalassios, 60.4.

[14] Wood, 183.

[15] The Responses to Thalassios, 3.19.

[16] Wood, 182-183.

[17] Wood, 183.

[18] Ibid.

[19] The Responses to Thalassios, 61.6.

[20] The Responses to Thalassios, 61.7.

[21] The Responses to Thalassios, 61.8

[22] Wood, 186.

False Incarnation in Jordan Daniel Wood and Maximus the Confessor

In conversation with Jordan Wood, Jordan mentioned the notion of a false incarnation proposed by Maximus the Confessor. I found the idea intriguing, fitting as it does with a psychotheological portrayal of the human predicament. Jordan traces two beginnings or moments of creation in Maximus, a false beginning giving rise to a failed understanding (of creation, the self, and God) and the real moment of creation, in the Spirit, through Christ. Romans 7 contains Paul’s example of the dynamic of the false incarnation (the focus of psychotheology), in which the “I” would manipulate the law as the end point of desire, a desire which defines and consumes the self. Romans 8 describes the undoing or displacement of this false creation or false imaging as the individual is found in Christ and through the Spirit is born into the participation and love of God. I had not thought of this as two beginnings, but this fits Paul’s portrayal.

In Maximus’s theology, Adam turned away from God “together with coming-into-being,” thus “bringing about the phenomenal but illusory (and death-dealing) world.”[1] This false world of the first Adam (humanity outside of Christ) repeats itself in every representative of Adam (humanity). “Adam’s sin corrupts God’s creation by illicitly ‘creating’ or sourcing a false world radically hostile to God, a world into which we are born and because of which our very mode of becoming becomes damaged.”[2] As Jordan describes,  “sin illicitly ‘creates’ a ‘world’ and a ‘history’ that are not truly God’s creation.” According to Maximus, “Adam (or the concrete human being in history) has received two fundamentally opposed beginnings. We have the fantastical but self-actualized “human,” on the one hand, and the true human being, Jesus Christ, on the other.”[3] As Maximus writes, Christ contained all of human nature (or all of Adam within himself) and brought him to perfection: “When the Divine Word clothed Himself in human nature without undergoing any change, and became perfect man like us in every way but without sin, He manifested the first Adam in both the mode of His creaturely origin and the mode of His birth.”[4] “Christ ‘manifests (φαινόμενον) Adam; he makes Adam into a real historical phenomenon at long last.”  Maximus declares that “all the ages and the beings existing within those ages received their beginning and end in Christ.”[5]

This means the beginning of creation (the true beginning in Christ) is in the middle of history. As John Behr notes: “According to The Martyrology of Jerome, ‘On March 25, our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified, conceived, and the world was made.’”[6] In the false beginning the creature is necessarily brought into existence involuntarily, but in Christ all voluntarily give assent to be born into life “in and as Christ” entailing the other Maximian formula, “creation is incarnation.”  Now all voluntarily give “assent to be born into life in and as Christ, entailing that creation is indeed Incarnation.”[7]

The personhood of Jesus Christ is at the center, not simply as beginning, but as the very substance of the image of God. The nature of this image is not some abstract principle, some ability or capacity; rather, the image is the person of Christ. Christ is the very substance of the image in which humankind is created. The Christ event “is the enhypostatic act of the Word of God in history. Like any event, the historical Incarnation is also the disclosure of the person who acts and is acted upon. Every event contains and is contained by a person whose whole truth resists reduction to either an abstract genus or an abstract instance of some generic principle. The Christ-event is a happening every bit as resistant to abstraction as the logic it discloses is.”[8]

The incarnation of Jesus (the person of Christ) is the truth of all persons and the true beginning of all things, and false incarnation is the obstruction or turning from this beginning. False incarnation is a grasping (enfleshing) of the wrong image (an “imaginary” image in Lacanian theory), focused as it is on abstractions (spectral images), as if personhood is made up of something other than true personhood. The comparison is something on the order of Platonism and Christianity, with the former working with “eternal and transcendent trues” and the latter focused on the reality of the person of Christ. For Maximus, “Christ” names neither an essence nor “simply a general, metaphysical rule (essence/nature) nor a mere individual that appears only as an exception to that rule— an instance of something more common whose individuality emerges merely as what is particular or not-common.” Christ alone brings together the divine and created – he is, in his person the concrete identity of these two natures. This is no formal abstraction, as he is the “very condition for the (existential) possibility of any further abstraction about him whatever.”[9] He is not an instance of a universal or a particular principle. “In Christ particulars and universals and their mutual dependency are created.”[10] Time and eternity, God and creation, and beginning and end, brought together in the incarnate Christ is the substantive beginning comprehending the whole.

In the Genesis account, Adam, who for Maximus is representative of all humanity, receives the breath of God, but the true inbreathing of the Spirit  occurs only when man is born of the Spirit (so Genesis 2, the beginning is found only in the end which Christ brings about). Being born of the Spirit is the initiation of the true imaging (deification). “Birth by Spirit grants one the power to become God,” and this is a power that in one sense is beyond humanity and yet is part of his natural capacities. As “it is evident . . . that the process from spiritual birth to achieving the full stature of divine filiation is itself the process of creation.”[11] Being born of the Spirit “is nothing other than birth ‘according to Christ in the Spirit,’ or— which comes to the same — living in a way that allows Christ’s own births (both of which find their term in his hypostasis) to take place in you.”[12] While in sin there is a failure to be fully myself or to be completely created (truly born), in Christ there is a regeneration flowing backward and forward, so that in becoming “all in all,” what is not complete is being made complete.

This end in the beginning is portrayed in the Genesis 2 account, which in Maximus’ view, is an all-inclusive (mythical?) depiction, while Genesis 3 depicts a false beginning. Adam is ignorant of God, himself, and the world as is evidenced in his ready willingness to partake of the forbidden fruit. As Maximus puts it, “For after humanity’s transgression, the end can no longer be indicated through the beginning, but only the beginning through the end. Nor does one seek the principles of the beginning, but rather researches those principles that lead beings in motion to their end.”[13] The historical beginning recounted in Genesis 3 is a false beginning, cut off from its true end. In this beginning, “Adam rejected ‘this deifying and divine and nonmaterial birth’ and preferred the immediate pleasure of sensible things to spiritual delights ‘that were not yet fully evident to him.’ He was thus ‘condemned to a material, mortal, and corporeal birth, outside the power of his free choice [ἀπροαίρετον].’”[14]

In Maximus’ portrayal, just as Genesis 2 may depict an all-inclusive end, so too Genesis 3 depicts a continually reenacted event inclusive of all fallen humanity. Sin is not a necessity or inheritance, but describes a beginning and world based on an improper goal and “erroneous judgement” (his definition of evil) continually enacted.[15] “So construed, the Fall names not principally an ancient event, nor simply an event simultaneous with becoming as such, but an event that occurs at all moments of becoming in this world— in the generation, conduct, corruption, and death of every person.”[16]

In one paragraph Maximus depicts the full movement of the two beginnings:

God, then, truly became man and gave our nature the new beginning of a second birth, which through pain ends in the pleasure of the life to come. For our forefather Adam, having transgressed the divine commandment, introduced into our nature another beginning of birth—in contrast to the one that had preceded it—constituted by pleasure, yielding to pain, and ending in death. Following the counsel of the serpent, he conceived of pleasure not as succeeding any prior suffering, but rather as terminating in suffering, and so he subjected, through this unrighteous origination in pleasure those who like him were born of the flesh, together with himself, to the just end of death through suffering. Conversely, our Lord, having become man, and having created for our nature a new beginning of birth through the Holy Spirit, and having accepted the death through suffering that was justly imposed on Adam, but which in Him was completely unjust—since it did not have as the principle of its beginning the unrighteous pleasure that arose from the disobedience of the forefather— destroyed both of these two extremes (I mean the beginning and the end) of human birth according to Adam, neither of which was brought into being by God.”[17]

For Maximus the Garden of Eden is not perfect or complete, as perfection and completion (pleroma) are only brought about in Christ. There is not the possibility one can experience this fulness and abandon it, as this contains the inherent contradiction (an imperfect perfection) which demeans both God and his purposes in creation. “For starters, even the bare possibility that we might experience the perfection of our faculties in God and yet move away from him belies God’s own beauty, indeed that God is beauty itself, since ‘whatever is not good and desirable in and of itself’ and ‘does not attract all motion to itself, strictly speaking cannot be the Beautiful.’” Maximus rejects the notion that the first pair were perfect or complete:

The first man, consequently, being deficient in the actual movement of his natural powers toward their goal, fell sick with ignorance of his own Cause, and, following the counsel of the serpent, thought that God was the very thing of which the divine commandment had forbidden him to partake. Becoming thus a transgressor and falling into ignorance of God, he completely mixed the whole of his intellective power with the whole of sensation, and drew into himself the composite, destructive, passion-forming knowledge of sensible things.[18]

Adam’s desire, as Paul describes it (and as taken up by Lacan and Zizek), becomes twisted around the law: “For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness” (Rom. 7:7-8). Adam, Paul, or everyman mistakes the created for the ultimately desirable, and thus displaces the ultimate object of desire, God, with that which is finite. Maximus comes close to describing the futility of the Lacanian interpretation of Paul’s death drive (the drive to escape the death drive):

Thus the more that man was preoccupied with knowledge of visible things solely according to the senses, the more he bound himself to the ignorance of God; and the more he tightened the bond of this ignorance, the more he attached himself to the experience of the sensual enjoyment of the material objects of knowledge in which he was indulging; and the more he took his fill of this enjoyment, the more he inflamed the passionate desire of self-love that comes from it; and the more he deliberately pursued the passionate desire of self-love, the more he contrived multiple ways to sustain his pleasure, which is the offspring and goal of self-love. And because it is the nature of every evil to be destroyed together with the activities that brought it into being, he discovered by experience that every pleasure is inevitably succeeded by pain, and subsequently directed his whole effort toward pleasure, while doing all he could to avoid pain, fighting for the former with all his might and contending against the latter with all his zeal. He did this believing in something that was impossible, namely, that by such a strategy he could separate the one from the other, possessing self-love solely in conjunction with pleasure, without in any way experiencing pain. It seems that, being under the influence of the passions, he was ignorant of the fact that it is impossible for pleasure to exist without pain. For the sensation of pain has been mixed with pleasure even if this fact escapes the notice of those who experience it, due to the passionate domination of pleasure, since whatever dominates is of a nature always to be prominent, overshadowing the perception of what is next to it.”  

The masochistic fusion of pleasure with pain results in the pleasurable drive toward death. “Ignorance of creation intensifies ignorance of God. Knowing neither God nor creation, Adam cannot know himself; he, in his deluded self-love, fancies himself fulfilled by bare sense pleasure. Such pleasure always disappoints. Pain follows hard upon pleasure because no finite phenomenon can sate infinite desire. Thus the whole of this miserable existence, which vacillates pitilessly between pleasure and pain, relies first and last upon ignorance of God, creation, and the self.”[19] The pursuit is to fulfill desire in that which cannot possibly satisfy, which only intensifies the effort, so that the ego is completely given over to this lie. The lie, in Paul and Lacan and seemingly Maximus, constitutes the core of a false self.

Thus our life became filled with much groaning—a life that honors the occasions of its own destruction and which, out of ignorance, invents and cherishes excuses for corruption. Thus the one human nature was cut up into myriad parts, and we who are of one and the same nature devour each other like wild animals. Pursuing pleasure out of self-love, and for the same reason being anxious to avoid pain, we contrive the birth of untold numbers of destructive passions.[20]

Thus, humankind always eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, always flees from paradise, in the effort to produce life from death.  

However, humankind’s false start does not contradict or preclude that creation is incarnation: “Quite the contrary: that we can “create” a counterfeit world by incarnating, in ourselves, our own impassioned delusions proves possible only because creation’s very logic is already that of the Word’s actual Incarnation in and as all things.”[21] As Paul demonstrates in Romans 7, it is possible to create a death dealing dynamic which would embody the letter of the law. This is the false principle of the law, a law unto itself. The law made absolute is the manifest principle of absolutizing finitude, of worshipping the creation as creator, or of self-deification. But just as Paul pictures the reversal of Romans 7 in Romans 8, so too all humanity is involved in the reversal brought about in Christ.

Adam represents the universal fact that every person causes the Fall, and that therefore every person, empowered by Christ’s personal human freedom, must freely undo that Fall. After all, God’s intention and will and desire (his logoi) in creating at all is not principally to make a created order, an impersonal hierarchy of variously arranged essences. His goal is to create concrete, free, unique, ultimately deified persons. There is a logos of every person, and every person’s logos is also Christ the Logos. Creation’s perfection, its true beginning and end, is nothing less than the personal perichoresis of God and creation— beholding God “face to face.[22]

Creation was made for deification (a truth indicated even in false deification), and there is the sense, as shown in Christian baptism (Maximus’ example) that freewill plays a part in every part of the process. According to Maximus, “He who is God by nature was born bodily yet without sin and for our sake accepted the birth of baptism unto spiritual adoption, I believe that for this reason the teacher (Gregory) connected the birth of baptism with the Incarnation, so that baptism might be considered as the abolition and release from bodily birth.” The second birth not only fulfills the first but releases from the bonds and limitations of being set on the finitude it entails:

Those who interpret the divine sayings mystically, and who honor them, as is right, with more lofty contemplations, say that man in the beginning was created according to the image of God, surely so that he might be born of the Spirit in the exercise of his own free choice, and to acquire in addition the likeness by the keeping of the divine commandment, so that the same man, being by nature a creation of God, might also be the son of God and God through the Spirit by grace. For there was no other way for man, being created, to become the son of God and God by the grace of divinization, without first being born of the Spirit, in the exercise of his own free choice, owing to the indomitable power of self-determination which naturally dwells within him.”[23]

The false start contains both the truth of human participation in their creation and full participation in God; that is the true beginning is found in its end (choosing to be born and attain to deity). This first creation is, in Paul’s description suspended or sublated by the second but it is a work in process. “If creation does not seem to us the sublime Incarnation of the Word ‘always and in all things,’ perhaps that means not that creation is something other than Incarnation but rather that ‘creation’ as it appears is not yet truly creation, not yet God’s finished work, not yet the world.”[24] As Maximus writes, “it happens that—because the disposition of their will has not yet been fully extracted from its passionate fixation on the flesh, and because they have not been completely imbued by the Spirit.” Maximus pictures the process of this sublation in his picture of the interplay of the two beginnings:

The mode of our spiritual birth from God is twofold. The first bestows on those born in God the entire grace of adoption, which is entirely present in potential; the second ushers in this grace as entirely present in actuality, transforming voluntarily the entire free choice of the one being born so that it conforms to the God who gives birth. The first possesses this grace in potential according to faith alone; the second, in addition to faith, realizes on the level of knowledge the active, most divine likeness of the God who is known in the one who knows Him. In those whom the first mode of birth is observed, it happens that—because the disposition of their will has not yet been fully extracted from its passionate fixation on the flesh, and because they have not been completely imbued by the Spirit with active participation in the divine mysteries that have taken place—it happens, I say, that their inclination to sin is never very far away for the simple reason that they continue to will it.[25]

Christ extracts humanity from captivity by its first beginning by taking upon himself all of the vicissitudes of this false incarnation and overcoming them.

For the very thing which Adam freely rejected (I mean the birth by the Spirit leading to divinization), and for which he was condemned to bodily birth amid corruption, is exactly what the Word assumed willingly out of His goodness and love for mankind, and, by becoming man in accordance with our fallen state, willingly subjecting Himself to our condemnation (though He alone is free and sinless), and consenting to a bodily birth, in which lay the power of our condemnation, He mystically restored birth in the Spirit; and so for our sake, having dissolved in Himself the bonds of bodily birth, He granted, through birth in the Spirit, to those who believe in His name the power to become children of God instead of flesh and blood.[26]

The first birth, through Christ, is no longer a form of bondage but an opening to birth in the Spirit. Though bodily and Spiritual birth may appear as distinct temporal moments, this division is due to sin or the human attempt to make themselves (in Freudian terms to be their own father). For Maximus, there is though, an inevitable passing through these two moments as the first birth is the means to the second birth. “In this way God joined together in me the principle of my being and the principle of my well-being, and He closed the division and distance between them that I had opened up, and through them He wisely drew’ me to the principle of eternal being, according to which man is no longer subject to carrying or being carried along, since the sequence of visible realities in motion will reach its end in the great and general resurrection. . .”[27]

In conclusion:

The pattern is clear: whatever characterized the Word’s becoming in history is what characterizes our primordial becoming, since the Word’s becoming is ours. Not that this characterizes our appearance in this phenomenal world. The two beginnings remain absolute antitheses. No possible compromise can be brokered between them, since they oppose one another as what God does and does not create— surely an absolute distinction.[28]

There are two distinct beginnings: the phenomenological beginning experienced with our physical birth and the bringing forth of an I or ego (the false incarnation) which must be sublated by the second and true birth in the Spirit through the Son.

[1] This is John Behr’s summary in the Foreword to the book, Jordan Daniel Wood, The Whole Mystery of Christ (pp. ix-x). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Wood, 153.

[3] Wood, 144.

[4] St. Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties In Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios; Translated by Fr. Maximos Constas, (Washington D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press) 21.2.

[5] Wood, 153.

[6] Wood, ix.

[7] Wood, ix.

[8] Wood, 142.

[9] Wood, 142-3.

[10] Wood, 143.

[11] Wood 147.

[12] Wood, 154.

[13] The Responses to Thalassios, 59.12.

[14] Wood, 148.

[15] The Responsis the Thalassios, 1.2.12.

[16] Wood, 157.

[17] The Responses to Thalassios, 61.7

[18] The Responses to Thalassios, 1.2.13.

[19] Wood, 165.

[20] The Responses to Thalassios, 1.2.15.

[21] Wood, 145.

[22] Wood, 166.

[23] Maximus the Confessor, The Ambigua, Volume 2, trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 42.31-32.

[24] Wood, 145-6.

[25] The Responses to Thalasios, 6.2.

[26] Ambigua, 42.32.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Wood, 153.

Salvation as Defeat of the Powers

The depiction of the armor of God in Ephesians (6:10-19) is often taken as a colorful illustration, which makes for great sermonizing, but is not usually considered as central to the gospel. Defeat of the powers and personal engagement in this defeat, to say nothing of the notion that Christ came to defeat evil, are often displaced by theories of the atonement focused on deliverance from the wrath of God, and limited to a legal remedy of imputed righteousness, none of which allows for primary focus on personal engagement with and defeat of evil. In this understanding, the gospel is thought to pertain to more effervescent and transcendent categories rather than depicting how it weaponizes those who bear it and wear it with a capacity to engage and defeat evil. Thus, what the early church and Paul considered the very heart of salvation is dismissed as a fun allegory, more suited to children’s choruses than serious theologizing. How this came to be is largely explained by the Constantinian shift.

Constantinianism is a form of Christianity which has abandoned Christ’s strategy for what it presumes is a more effective method. As Nathan Kerr describes it:

Constantinianism most fundamentally names a certain orientation toward the political meaning of history which is rooted in a heretical eschatology based upon a misconception of the relation of Christ to history. Most importantly, Constantinianism proceeds as if what happened in the cross, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus had not profoundly altered history, and it provides for the church a way of acting politically in history which is not entirely determined by the lordship of Jesus Christ.[1]

According to John Howard Yoder, Constantinianism (true to the vision of Constantine), moves the sign of the cross from Golgotha to the battlefield, and conquering under this sign no longer entails taking up the cross as an instrument of self-giving sacrifice but it reinforces sacrificing one’s enemies in violence and warfare.[2] As Jordan Wood describes, Yoder “is not merely claiming that ‘Constantinianism’ tempts Christians to disobey the commands of Jesus, but that it tempts them to renounce their destiny to be like God.”[3] In Yoder’s estimate this temptation becomes reality in the undoing of the church/world distinction, such that the church disappears and the Roman State takes its place:

Before Constantine, one knew as a fact of everyday experience that there was a believing Christian community but one had to “take it on faith” that God was governing history. After Constantine, one had to believe without seeing that there was a community of believers, within the larger nominally Christian mass, but one knew for a fact that God was in control of history.[4]

Prior to Constantine the persecuted and martyred Christians marked the church state distinction, but with the Constantinian embrace of Christianity, all Romans were (mostly) Christian and the church became an indistinct part of the masses, while Rome’s rule in the name of Christ was interpreted as the arrival of the kingdom. Thus, every Roman soldier was required to be a Christian, and soldiering for Christ was sublated by literal killing and service to the State. This ideology persists in Christendom, such that Paul’s illustration is often allegorized and spiritualized away.

Four key points need to be made regarding the gospel armor in Ephesians 6 to regain the meaning and centrality of this passage:

1. If Ephesians is, as I have argued (along with the early church fathers such as Origen, and contemporary scholars such as Douglas Campbell – here) the center and summary of Paul’s gospel, then Ephesians 6 as a summary of all that Paul has said in Ephesians, encapsulates Paul’s understanding of how the gospel works to defeat evil and bring about salvation (as I demonstrate below).[5] As Joshua Greever notes, Romans 13:12–14 is a parallel text, in which Paul urges Christians to “put on the armor of light” (13:12), but then follows this up in 13:14 with “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” “suggesting that putting on the armor of light is nothing other than putting on the Lord Jesus.”[6] In other words, by encouraging them to put on this armor Paul is urging them once again to “put on Christ” and is summarizing his gospel with the added urgency to do this and thus defeat the powers.

2. Paul’s gospel is built upon resistance to evil. The genius of Walter Wink is in recognizing (and one could point to the failure of theologians such as David Hart and John Milbank, who both eloquently describe a peaceful ontology but fail to recognize) what Wink calls the third way of the gospel. This third way is not nonresistance or violent resistance to evil, but nonviolent resistance to evil. As Wink writes, “Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil, but to refuse to oppose it on its own terms. We are not to let the opponent dictate the methods of our opposition. He is urging us to transcend both passivity and violence by finding a third way, one that is at once assertive and yet nonviolent.”[7] Christ does not promote passive resistance or violent resistance, but Christ offers the singular solution – the gospel.

3. In Ephesians 6:10-19, Paul is describing salvation. Salvation defeats evil in the form of the powers of this world and the only way these powers are defeated is through the means provided by God. Taking Ephesians as a whole and Ephesians six, in particular, as descriptive of salvation, means salvation is not deliverance from God but deliverance from the cosmic powers of evil, death, and the devil. The captivating power, the darkening power, the death dealing power, is not the power of God but the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers (the cosmocrats), the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (6:12). The cosmic struggle is not removed from the historical, political, and earthly, and so too, the Christian engages these spiritual forces through their earthly manifestations. Ideologies and institutions manifesting the various forms of individual and corporate violence and oppression (e.g., nationalism, fascism, racism, sexism, legalism) constitute the cosmos of darkness. There is no mystery as to the power of evil (this power of death and violence is the coin of the realm of the kingdoms of darkness) undone by the gospel of peace, truth, and righteousness.

That the mode of this salvation is provided by God is made clear in the armor passages Paul is echoing. The description of God’s armor in Isaiah (which Paul must be following) and God’s saving is Israel’s only hope: “And He saw that there was no man, And was astonished that there was no one to intercede;Then His own arm brought salvation to Him, And His righteousness upheld Him” (Is 59:16). God alone can accomplish this salvation and he alone has this armor.

Why can only God save? The obvious answer is in Paul’s depiction of the power of God (equated at 6:10 ff. with the armor) found (as he has explained) in Christ’s resurrection, ascension, and reign over the powers:

what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion (Eph 1:19–21).

Paul has explained the strength of the Lord and how believers appropriate this strength, thus his command to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might” (6:10) is a reiteration of the opening of the letter. It is through the gospel that God in Christ defeats death, and the powers that depend upon death. Christ is seated at the Father’s right hand in the heavenly place and this exaltation of Christ implies the disarming of all cosmic powers, and this disarming power is to be appropriated by each Christian.

4. Salvation involves a real-world defeat of the principalities and powers in the life of the believer. There is simultaneously the corporate empowerment (implying an army), but the focus in this passage is on the individual soldier. To state it most succinctly: to be saved is to be saved from the powers as outlined in the armor passage. This is inclusive of the thought (head), action (feet), and heart (breast) of the individual. The armor weaponizes the individual against the “fiery darts of the evil one” by creating a new plan of action (feet shod with the gospel of peace), a new world of thought (the head and mind transformed by the helmet of salvation), and a new ethic and worldview (the breast plate of righteousness and the belt of truth girding up the whole outfit). Defeating the powers, though it may not be a full explanation of salvation, is synonymous or at least synchronous with salvation in that the fulness of the gospel is required (with all of its positive benefits) to counteract, as Ephesians puts it, “the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Eph. 6:16).

Paul’s picture of salvation through the defeat of the powers focuses on the perspective of the individual soldier. This soldier has the resources of his Lord seated at the right hand of God, but he only sees the battle in the limited perspective of one directly engaged in warfare. It is only the commander on high who can survey the entire field of battle and he alone understands how this battle is to be won. One must trust that God is in control of history, as only the immediate warfare is in plain sight. The temptation is to judge this methodology ineffective and to replace the armor and weaponry of the gospel with the sword of state. The kenotic self-sacrificing power of the cross, the feet shod with the gospel of peace, the head protected by salvation, are unlikely strategies for victory by the standards of worldly power, so the soldier must have faith in his weapons and his commander or abandon the gospel. The final outcome is assured only in the eschaton.

[1]  Nathan R. Kerr, Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission (Eugene: Cascade, 2009) 7. Quoted in Jordan Wood, Assessing the “Constantinian Shift”: A Defense of the Theological Question, Presented at “For the Good of the Many”: Constantine and the Edict of Milan on Its 1700th Anniversary St. Louis, September 20, 2013.

[2] The description is from John Howard Yoder, “The Constantinian Sources of Western Social Ethics,” in The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics Gospel (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984): 145. Quoted by Wood, 7.

[3] Wood, 7.

[4] Yoder, “The Constantinian Sources,” 137. Quoted in Wood, 4.

[5] Throughout his description of the armor, Paul is appealing to his former key points (a few examples must suffice): “the strength of his might” of 6:10 is defined by resurrection and ascension at 1:19; “put on the whole armor of God” has its parallel explanation at 4:24, “put on the new self”; “the schemes of the devil” (6:11) are explained at 4:14 as “deceitful schemes” and the Ephesians are warned “give no opportunity to the devil” at 4:27; the first three pieces of armor—peace, truth and righteousness (6:13-15) are defined earlier by Christ. Truth is directly equated with Jesus (4:21), and truth and righteousness are found in the one new man created and embodied in Christ (4:24; cf. 2:15), and the original preacher and resource of the gospel of peace is Jesus (2:17); the defeat of the rulers and authorities of 6:12 has been explained at 1:21, as Christ (resurrected and ascended) is far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, inclusive at 2:2 of the authoritative ruler of the air and at 3:10 the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. For an exhaustive list Joshua M. Greever, The Armor of God, the Gospel of Christ, and Standing Firm against the ‘Powers’ (Ephesians 6:10–20); [JBTS 5.1 (2020): 72–89].

[6] Ibid, 84.

[7] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be (p. 101). Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale. Kindle Edition.

Christ as Analogy Versus the Lie of the Anti-Christ: Maximus as an Answer to the Challenge of Barth

Though it may be an odd juxtaposition to pit Maximus the Confessor against a much later theological development, it might be argued that Maximus’ notion of transfiguration into the image of Christ (in which he deploys terms like analogy) grounds theology differently than the analogy of being or the univocity of being. Whether or how the analogia entis, as Barth would have it, is the anti-Christ, there is no question that theology, the church, and Christianity attached itself to the worst forms of evil; a failure most ingloriously manifest in the Holocaust but continuing in a variety of forms. The argument is not so much whether theology experienced its own form of the fall, but the question is about the details. Does the fault lie with Constantinianism, Augustinianism, or Onto-Theology? Is it primarily the fault of Rene Descartes, or as Radical Orthodoxy would have it, is it Duns Scotus that ruined everything? The story that one might tell to illustrate where the fault lies is highly contested, but nominalism and voluntarism and the subsequent rise of secularism and atheism describe the reduction of God (to a part of the furniture of the universe) and then his eventual banishment. This result is beyond question, but the issue is whether there is a unified story that explains this disaster and what would constitute its alternative?

 In the description of Conor Cunningham, the story can be told through the singular idiom of “meontotheology” (his neologism) in which absolutely nothing serves in place of the divine absolute.  “Nihilism is the logic of nothing as something, which claims that Nothing Is.”[1] Cunningham is not so much arguing with the grain of the thinkers he is detailing, but is demonstrating that their key idea or point of mediation often reduces to nothing. He begins his story with Plotinus and Avicenna, fore-echoing Descartes: “Avicenna (Ibn-Sina) was directly influenced by Plotinus. He took from the Neoplatonists the idea that being was equivalent to the intelligible (in this sense creating was thinking) . . .”[2] Being then, is a possibility or logical contingency of thought. Scotus extends this understanding such that Cunningham concludes: “there is but one being, which in its unity is formally distinct from itself (namely God), such that univocity of being again for this reason ‘is not’ being; already as one being it departs from pure existence. This is the meontotheology of nihilism’s logic: nothing as something.”[3]  The real univocity concerns not being per se, but nonbeing.

It was not that Scotus’ was arguing toward this conclusion, but as Cunningham makes the case, his system permits the conclusion that what the finite and infinite share is nothing (as an essence). That is “there is a latent univocity of non-being” in God and creation and this is all they share. Scotus would completely separate God and creatures such that “God and creature share in no reality.”[4] Yet, “Every created essence [is] nothing other than its dependence with regard to God.”[5] The substance of this dependence is in a contingency or possibility which reduces to nothing in itself: “Hence God and creatures do share in a certain ‘non-reality’, whose nullity is nonetheless fundamental.”[6] Cunningham demonstrates the same logic at work, in various forms, in Plotinus, Avicenna, Ghent, Scotus, Ockham, Henry of Ghent, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Martin Heidegger, Paul Celan, Sartre, Lacan, Deleuze, Badiou, and Žižek.  In each of them there is a mediating term or idea that reduces to a reified nothing.

While this may initially appear to be a fantastic claim, I would suggest that what Cunningham has hit upon is more extensive and compelling than he realizes. My work has added a footnote to his understanding, taking it out of the realm of philosophy or theology alone, and describing it in terms of psychology, desire, and even a necessary part of a failed human identity. The philosophical and theological fold into the psychological as they reify the symbolic order. That is, language per se is made substantial and points only to itself, and this is not simply a philosophical dilemma, this is the human dilemma. The truth illustrated by Descartes is that thinking strives toward being. “I think therefore I am” translates into “I would be through my thought.” Nominalism and voluntarism – a separation between God and his word – leaves us with something other than the divine Word and brings us to the Cartesian moment. The word (the symbolic, language, law, thought, propositions, philosophy, etc.) serves in place of the Word (Jesus Christ).

In other words, the problem of theology and philosophy is not a problem apart from what the Bible describes as the universal problem: reliance on the law (trust in the symbolic, trust in Judaism, trust in culture, etc.) displaces a direct reliance, trust and participation in the reality of God given in Christ. By the same token, univocity, analogy, being, propositionalism, onto-theology, inasmuch as they foster a mediating principle which functions to displace the first-order reality of Jesus Christ are then, the anti-Christ.

This will, as John describes, show itself in obvious ways in a series of lying possibilities. There is a lying spirit, there are lying prophets, and there is the big lie of the anti-Christ (I John 4:1-3).  The lie which would separate the humanity and deity of Christ is connected to every form of lying and liars, but the primary thing John notes about these liars and their lie is, “They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them” (I Jn. 4:5). Either the world or Christ, in John’s estimate, serves as foundation and ground. This difference marks the lie over and against the truth and shows up in one’s ethical orientation. The truth is connected to love, while the “spirit of error” not only separates the deity and humanity of Christ, but it separates ethics and theological understanding. Theoretically it is possible to hate the visible neighbor and love the invisible God, but this too is a sign of the lie (I Jn. 4:20). Living in God or living through God, is the way John characterizes the truth as it shows itself in love (I Jn. 4:16).

The danger is we might read John analogously, metaphorically, or hyperbolically, (according to the world?), and miss that he is speaking literally. There is no padding, no mediating term, no emanation, in John’s life lived in God. Instead, there is direct identity between the life of God given in Christ and the life of the believer. Jesus is God come in the flesh, and this includes the flesh of his body the church, and only thus is he life and love and truth, and there is no possibility of stating this according the world.

The theologian who has best captured and built upon this literalism of identity, may be Maximus the Confessor. Far from fitting Christ to the frame of the world, Maximus presumes the incarnation of Christ – God come in the flesh – is the truth of the world. Maximus succeeds in holding together doctrine, hermeneutics, and ethics in the singular concept that just as Christ bodies forth God in the world, the world (as his creation, as what he holds together) is subsequent to and taken up in the incarnation. Paul Blowers rehearses many of the themes worked out in my recent blogs (the equation of Christology and cosmology, the incarnation as preceding both Scripture and the world and serving as their logic, etc.) but Blowers specifically pits Maximian theology against analogy: “the Confessor’s primary analogy to convey the condescension of the Word into the logoi of creatures (and of Scripture, and of the virtues) is the incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth. In reality this is not an ‘analogy’ at all since it is precisely the Logos ‘destined…before the foundation of the world’ to become the incarnate and sacrificial Lamb (1 Peter 1:19-20) who originally contained the logoi and willingly communicated his presence to creatures through them.”[7] As Jordan Wood summarizes the point: “This remarkable observation—that the ‘analogy’ between historical and cosmic Incarnation is no mere analogy—commits Blowers to the thesis that for Maximus the Word’s condescension in the logoi of creation, in Jesus, in Scripture, and in the deified are ‘eschatologically simultaneous’.” He concludes, “And so the truly astounding insight, one Blowers seems to intimate, is that Maximus rethinks not just how God is present in Jesus in order to distinguish this presence from God’s presence in the cosmos, but that he then reintroduces this mode of presence as the potential mode the Word might be present in the cosmos itself.”[8]

The term analogy may still apply, but it has taken on a direct identity with the divine. As Wood puts it, “Here ‘analogy’ takes on altogether jarring and different senses than we’re used to encountering in much modern theology. Here it implies a symmetry between God and the world grounded in hypostatic identity (like Christ’s natures).”[9] Maximus employs “analogy” in this sense, that saved humanity is analogous to the union found in Christ. It is not an analogy of being, but the analogy of Christ. In the same way that Jesus Christ is constituted a particular individual (the divine in the human), so all humans become who they are, as John describes it, only through participation and union with the divine life.  “For each of those who has believed in Christ according to his own power, and according to the state and quality of virtue existing within him, is crucified and crucifies Christ together with himself, that is, he is spiritually crucified together with Christ. For each person brings about his own crucifixion according to the mode of virtue that is appropriate to him . . .” (Amb. 47.2). Humans are both created and infinite, not because these categories reside naturally together in body and soul, but because Christ, in his hypostatic union stands at the head of a completed humanity in which flesh and Spirit inhere. However, in each individual this life will manifest uniquely but “analogously” to Christ.  

Maximus illustrates the point with Melchizedek who, “so transcendentally, secretly, silently and, to put it briefly, in a manner beyond knowledge, following the total negation of all beings from thought, he entered into God Himself, and was wholly transformed, receiving all the qualities of God, which we may take as the meaning of being likened to the Son of God he remains a priest forever” (Amb. 10.45).[10] What is true of Melchizedek is true, first of all in Christ: “For alone, and in a way without any parallel whatsoever, our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, is by nature and in truth without father, mother, or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (Amb. 10.46). Maximus goes through each of the points set forth in Hebrews: he is without genealogy, as both of his births are inaccessible and incomprehensible. He has no beginning or end of days because he is absolutely infinite – “He is God by nature. “He remains a priest forever, for His being is immune to death by vice or nature, for He is God and the source of all natural and virtuous life” (Amb. 10.46). What is true of Christ and Melchizedek can be extended to all: “And you must not think that no one else can have a share in this grace simply because Scripture speaks of it solely with respect to the great Melchizedek, for in all human beings God has placed the same power that leads naturally to salvation, so that anyone who wishes is able to lay claim to divine grace . . .” (Amb. 10.46). What is true of Christ is true of every believer:

He who loses his own life for my sake, will find it— that is, whoever casts aside this present life and its desires for the sake of the better life—will acquire the living and active, and absolutely unique Word of God, who through virtue and knowledge penetrates to the division between soul and spirit, so that absolutely no part of his existence will remain without a share in His presence, and thus he becomes without beginning or end, no longer bearing within himself the movement of life subject to time, which has a beginning and an end, and which is agitated by many passions, but possesses only the divine and eternal life of the Word dwelling within him, which is in no way bounded by death. (Amb. 10.48).

There is an analogy with Christ, but there is no natural analogy between creature and creator, or between God and being. The creator is absolutely separate, unknowable, and beyond human comprehension. There is no univocity or analogy between God and creation. “God . . . is absolutely and infinitely beyond all beings, including those that contain others and those that are themselves contained, and He is beyond their nature, apart from which they could not exist . . .” (Amb. 10.57).  It is Christ alone who has brought together Creator and creation, flesh and Spirit, divine and human in who he is, but he has accomplished this salvation for all who would believe. “For there is nothing more unified than He, who is truly one, and apart from Him there is nothing more completely unifying or preserving of what is properly His own” (Amb. 4.8).

In the words of Ephesians, “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, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity” (Eph 2:14–16). There is a law, a symbolic order, a human word which would pursue being, unity, and analogy through a unified nothingness, and it is precisely from this word which the Word of Christ delivers.  Christ alone is “all in all” (Col. 3:11) The theological tragedy is not a separate problem from the human tragedy, of trying to accomplish on the basis of the world what can and has been accomplished in Jesus Christ.

[1] Conor Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism (London: Routledge, 2002), as summarized on the back cover.

[2] Cunningham, 9.

[3] Cunningham, 31.

[4] Duns Scotus, Quodlibetal Questions, V. Quoted in Cunningham, 31.

[5] Scotus, Opus Oxoniense II, d. 17, q. 2, n. 5. Quoted in Cunningham 31.

[6] Cunningham, 31.

[7] Paul M. Blowers, Drama of the Divine Economy: Creator and Creation in Early Christian Theology and Piety, (Oxford: OUP, 2012) 166. Quoted in Jordan Daniel Wood, That Creation is Incarnation in Maximus Confessor,” (Dissertation for Doctor of Philosophy, Boston College, 2018) 94.

[8] Wood, 95.

[9] Wood, 30.

[10] Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua Vol. 1-2; Edited and Translated by Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014). Hereafter Amb.

The Radical Theology of Maximus the Confessor: Creation is Incarnation

If the end point of Augustinian thought might be said to be the theology of Martin Luther, in which the essence of God is unattainable (nominalism), then the fulfillment of Origen’s theology must be found in the work of Maximus the Confessor (580-662 CE), who pictures identification between God and the world. The logic (the Christo-logic) of Origen’s apocatastasis is summed up in Maximus’ formula, “The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things” (Ambigua, hereafter Amb. 7.22). As Maximus explains it elsewhere: “This is the great and hidden mystery. This is the blessed end for which all things were brought into existence. This is the divine purpose conceived before the beginning of beings, and in defining it we would say that this mystery is the preconceived goal for the sake of which everything exists, but which itself exists on account of nothing, and it was with a view to this end that God created the essences of beings” (QThal. 60.3).[1] Creation’s purpose is found in the incarnation (in the lamb sacrificed before the foundation of the world), and this end is present in the beginning, so that incarnation is not simply a singular event within creation but is the basis of creation.

In the incarnation the absolute differences between God and man (those differences which one form of Christianity picture as unbridgeable) are brought together in the God/man Jesus Christ, and this identity between creator and creation is complete:

This mystery is obviously the ineffable and incomprehensible union according to hypostasis of divinity and humanity. This union brings humanity into perfect identity, in every way, with divinity, through the principle of the hypostasis, and from both humanity and divinity it completes the single composite hypostasis, without creating any diminishment due to the essential difference of the natures.

(QThal. 60.2).

This total identity with God on the part of Christ is perfectly duplicated in the Christian. That is, according to Maximus, the Christian becomes Christ: “they will be spiritually vivified by their union with the archetype of these true things, and so become living images of Christ, or rather become one with Him through grace (rather than being a mere simulacrum), or even, perhaps, become the Lord Himself, if such an idea is not too onerous for some to bear” (Amb. 21.15). Maximus is not speaking metaphorically or analogously but is describing a complete identification between the disciple and his Lord. His qualifications pertain only to the difference that what Christ is by nature the disciple attains by grace. Or as he states it in Ambigua 10, the disciple may be limited by his nature but nonetheless reflects the “fulness of His divine characteristics”:

Having been wholly united with the whole Word, within the limits of what their own inherent natural potency allows, as much as may be, they were imbued with His own qualities, so that, like the clearest of mirrors, they are now visible only as reflections of the undiminished form of God the Word, who gazes out from within them, for they possess the fullness of His divine characteristics, yet none of the original attributes that naturally define human beings have been lost, for all things have simply yielded to what is better, like air—which in itself is not luminous—completely mixed with light.

(Amb. 10.41).

Their “own natural potency” is the only delimitation between the identity of the Word and the one reflecting that Word. Otherwise they are “imbued with His own qualities” and are “reflections of the undiminished form of God the Word” and “possess the fullness of His divine characteristics” which totally interpenetrate but nonetheless do not overwhelm or diminish who they naturally are. It is not that the individual is absorbed into the One and so lose themselves, but in reflecting the Word the individual becomes fully who they are. He explains that he is not describing the erasure of the individual: “Let not these words disturb you, for I am not implying the destruction of our power of self-determination, but rather affirming our fixed and unchangeable natural disposition” (Amb. 7.12). One’s natural inclinations are fulfilled through the work of Christ, as “there is only one sole energy, that of God and of those worthy of God, or rather of God alone, who in a manner befitting His goodness wholly interpenetrates all who are worthy” (Amb. 7.12). This is accomplished through the body, the incarnation, of Christ.  

The body of Christ not only accounts for the deification of the Christian but is the means for cosmic deification: “The ‘body of Christ is either the soul, or its powers, or senses, or the body of each human being, or the members of the body, or the commandments, or the virtues, or the inner principles of created beings, or, to put it simply and more truthfully, each and all of these things, both individually and collectively, are the body of Christ” (Amb. 54.2). The body of Christ is the body of “each human being” it is the “virtues” or “the inner principles of created beings.” As Jordan Wood puts it, “Everything is his body.”[2] There is a complete identification (though Maximus is careful to stipulate this is not an identity in essence): “the whole man wholly pervading the whole God, and becoming everything that God is, without, however, identity in essence, and receiving the whole of God instead of himself, and obtaining as a kind of prize for his ascent to God the absolutely unique God” (Amb. 41.5).

Maximus is building upon Origen’s notion that the beginning is in the end and the end is in the beginning, which is Jesus Christ. Thus, he describes the virtuous person through Origen’s formula: “For such a person freely and unfeignedly chooses to cultivate the natural seed of the Good, and has shown the end to be the same as the beginning, and the beginning to be the same as the end, or rather that the beginning and the end are one and the same” (Amb. 7.21). As Maximus explains, from the viewpoint of God taken up by the virtuous person “by conforming to this beginning,” a beginning in which “he received being and participation in what is naturally good,” “he hastens to the end, diligently” (Amb. 7.21). This end is the deification of all things: “In this way, the grace that divinizes all things will manifestly appear to have been realized” (QThal. 2.2).  

As with Origen, it is the incarnate Christ, and not an a-historical or preincarnate Logos, in which he locates the beginning of all things. In the incarnate Word, God has identified with the world, and the worlds beginning and end is found in this identity of the Word (in the middle of history).  As stated in the Gospel of John, this process of creation continues through the Son, and this work is the work of deification:

 In this way, the grace that divinizes all things will manifestly appear to have been realized—the grace of which God the Word, becoming man, says: “My father is still working, just as I am working.” That is, the Father bestows His good pleasure on the work, the Son carries it out, and the Holy Spirit essentially completes in all things the good will of the former and the work of the latter, so that the one God in Trinity might be “through all things and in all things.

(QThal. 2.2).

The Trinitarian work begun through the Son is carried out on all of creation, so that he might be all in all (Col. 3:11).  As Maximus states it in Ambigua 31:

If, then, Christ as man is the first fruits of our nature in relation to God the Father, and a kind of yeast that leavens the whole mass of humanity, so that in the idea of His humanity’ He is with God the Father, for He is the Word, who never at any time has ceased from or gone outside of His remaining in the Father, let us not doubt that, consistent with His prayer to the Father, we shall one day be where He is now, the first fruits of our race. For inasmuch as He came to be below- for our sakes and without change became man, exactly like us but without sin, loosing the laws of nature in a manner beyond nature, it follows that we too, thanks to Him, will come to be in the world above, and become gods according to Him through the mystery of grace, undergoing no change whatsoever in our nature.

(Amb. 31.9)

Maximus might be seen as working out the details of Athanasius’ formula, “God became man that man might become god.” However, he sees this as the working principle of the cosmos, with its own logic and singular explanation. It is not that God became “like” man or that man becomes “like” God, nor is it simply some sort of Greek notion of participation. Maximus gives full weight to both the human and divine principle at work in Christ. He counters the tendency to focus on the deity of Christ at the expense of the humanity. The notion, spoken or unspoken, that the incarnation is in some sense a singular episode in the life of God and not an eternal reality, is here counterbalanced (as in Origen) with a full embrace of both humanity and deity. There is a complete union between God and man, and that union is complete on both sides (divine and human) in Jesus Christ. The movement fully embracing humanity is part of the move to a fully embraced identity between God and humans. “And this is precisely why the Savior, exemplifying within Himself our condition, says to the Father: Yet not as I will, but as thou wilt. And this is also why Saint Paul, as if he had denied himself and was no longer conscious of his own life, said: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Amb. 7.11). In the first instance, Christ really becomes human, and in the second instance, Paul really becomes Christ. There is a perichoretic or hypostatic identity in Christ:  

God renewed our nature, or to put it more accurately, He made our nature new, returning it to its primordial beauty of incorruptibility through His holy flesh, taken from us, and animated by a rational soul, and on which He lavishly bestowed the gift of divinization, from which it is absolutely impossible to fall, being united to God made flesh, like the soul united to the body, wholly interpenetrating it in an unconfused union, and by virtue of His manifestation in the flesh, He accepted to be hidden exactly to the same degree that He Himself, for the sake of the flesh, was manifested and to all appearances seemed to go outside of His own natural hiddenness.

(Amb. 42.5)

In Wood’s explanation, whether he employs the term or not, Maximus is describing perichoresis – “the idea that the deific state involves the whole God in the ‘whole’ creature and the reverse.” Wood describes Maximus’s perichoretic logic as “two simultaneous, vertical movements (both realized horizontally)—God’s descent and our ascent. Both transgress Neoplatonic participation. They make it so that the very mode (and act) of divinity descends into the finite mode (and act) of the creature just as much as the latter ascends into divinity’s; that both modes exist as one reality; and that even in this single reality both modes perdure entirely undiminished—neither’s natural power limits the other’s act.”[3] A prime example is taken from John’s two-fold description that “God is light” and then his statement a few lines later that “He is in the light.”

God, who is truly light according to His essence, is present to those who “walk in Him” through the virtues, so that they too truly become light. Just as all the saints, who on account of their love for God become light by participation in that which is light by essence, so too that which is light by essence, on account of its love for man, becomes light in those who are light by participation. If, therefore, through virtue and knowledge we are in God as in light, God Himself, as light, is in us who are light. For God who is light by nature is in that which is light by imitation, just as the archetype is in the image. Or, rather, God the Father is light in light; that is, He is in the Son and the Holy Spirit, not that He exists as three separate lights, but He is one and the same light according to essence, which, according to its mode of existence is threefold light.

(QThal 8.2)

God himself is the light and this light is “in us who are light.” God is both by nature light and by imitation in the light. As Wood points out, there is the typical “by essence” vs. “by participation” distinction here, but then “it descends or “comes to be” or even “becomes” (γίνεται) participated light (i.e. light in a qualified or finite mode).” God becomes the participated mode. “For God who is light by nature is in that which is light by imitation, just as the archetype is in the image.” In other words, there is full identification between the light that is God and the light in the archetype and the light “in us.” “It’s a claim that in the deified person God descends and ‘becomes’ the very participated mode (and activity) of that person, all while retaining the divine mode unmuted and unqualified and unmediated.”[4]

My point in this short piece is to simply set forth what seems to be the key element in Maximus’ theology, which raises a number of issues. Isn’t there a collapse of any distinction between creator and creation? Doesn’t this reduce to a kind of pantheistic monism, in which everything is Christ? Isn’t this an example of a failure of a breakdown of thought – identity through difference simply reduces to sameness? Isn’t this a return to Hegel, with total focus on the historical becoming of God? Is this a relinquishing of the distinctive role of Christ? While there are possible answers to these questions, the questions indicate the radical nature of Maximus’s Christo-logic.

[1] On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios here after QThal.

[2] Jordan Daniel Wood, That Creation is Incarnation in Maximus Confessor,” (Dissertation for Doctor of Philosophy, Boston College, 2018) 227.

[3] Wood, 209-210

[4] Wood, 211.

“You are Gods”: According to Maximus the Confessor

In that Maximus is explaining Gregory the Theologian and referencing Origen and going beyond him, and accounting for the New Testament picture of the person of Christ (and refuting the Neo-Platonism of his day along the way), to summarize Maximus comes close to a summation of the view of the early church. Maximus provides an unparalleled explanation, not only of Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 82:6, but of the New Testament picture of Christ being “all in all” or the summation and goal of creation (so that creation and incarnation are mutually implied). On the other hand, to try to fit Maximus to some other frame is to miss the peculiarly Christian nature of his explanation. He makes constant appeal to the incarnation as the singular case for understanding the God/human relationship and Christian salvation. He is well versed in Platonism and Neo-Platonism and is precisely not a Platonist or Neo-Platonist but shows the inadequacies of Greek philosophy.[1] He is coloring in the lines set out by Chalcedon but Chalcedon, at least compared to Maximus, is more of a warning than explanation. The fact that his tongue is torn out, his right hand cut off, and that he is sent into exile points, not to his heterodoxy, but to the thin thread of orthodoxy in the East.

My minimalist picture of Jesus’ quotation and deployment of Psalm 82:6 (in the previous blog here) sets the parameters for the more fulsome explanation of Maximus. The picture in Peter, in the Psalms, and that given by Jesus, is that humans were made, as Peter says to “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). As Jesus says about himself, “I am the Son of God” (John 10:36) and in some fashion he extends his status to all humankind through quoting (Ps. 82:6), “You are gods.” In short, the New Testament teaches that humankind was made for union with God.[2] Maximus builds upon this conclusion and draws out its implications.

The focus of his work, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers (or The Ambigua) is, according to his translator, “unified around the experience of divinization, which Maximos characterizes as the deepest longing of the saints, the desire of human nature for assimilation to God, and the yearning of the creature to be wholly contained within the Creator.”[3]

Maximus takes up the specific notion and quotation, “you are gods,” in explaining Gregory’s oration on Paul’s being caught up into the third heaven: “Had Paul been able to express the experience gained from the third heaven, and his progress, or ascent, or assumption.”[4] Maximus explains that there are three ways of understanding the fact that some human person might be designated “God.” This might name a condition, an essence, or a grace. “Man” names an essence, while “wicked” or “foolish” name a condition, while “a name indicative of grace is when man, who has been obedient to God in all things is named ‘God’ in the Scriptures, as in the phrase, I said, you are Gods, for it is not by nature or condition that he has become and is called ‘God,’ but he has become God and is so named by placement and grace.”[5] This “grace of divinization” is not conditioned by anything preceding it as it is “completely unconditioned.” It does not refer to a faculty or capacity within the natural essence of man, as then it would no longer be grace.

Maximus thinks the word “assumption” best fits the estate achieved by Paul. It is a passive term and “not something that the apostle accomplished, but rather experienced.” Assumption takes into account both the passive quality but “the activity of the one who assumes” in that “the apostle left behind the names and qualities that had properly been his, for he transcended human nature virtue and knowledge.” And in this way “the name of God, which formerly stood at an infinite distance from him, he came to share by grace, becoming and being called God, in place of any other natural or conditional name that he had prior to his assumption.”[6] Grace does not work by nature or condition, as God himself sets the terms and condition: God is the condition.

I was reminded here and found helpful Barth’s picture of revelation (which I have written on here). God as Revealer, Revelation and Revealedness is not conditioned upon something else. God is the one who reveals, and he is the content of this revelation, and is the means of this revelation being received. But what Barth misses and Maximus takes into account is the link between redemption and creation. Divinization not only conditions revelation and redemption but describes creation’s logic and purpose. That is, in describing the Logos, Maximus is describing the logic of creation as well as of redemption.

The patristic understanding which Maximus assumes, that the Logos is the incarnate and not the preincarnate Christ, serves as his description of the Logic of creation: “for it is owing to Him that all things exist and remain in existence, and it is from Him that all things came to be in a certain way, and for a certain reason, and (whether they are stationary or in motion) participate in God.”[7] This Logos which stands behind creation’s purpose is the embodied Word: “For the Logos of God (who is God) wills always and in all things to accomplish the mystery of His embodiment.”[8] The mystery of his embodiment is the abiding reason and explanation to be found throughout the created order.

Though the quote above uses the phrase “participate in God,” Maximus immediately turns, not to Plato or Aristotle but to the incarnate Christ, to explain this participation. The insight of Jordan Daniel Wood, is that participation, as it is understood in Plato or Neo-Platonism, does not go far enough: “The problem arises when we imagine that participation exhausts the God-world relation. More than anyone, Maximus challenges this assumption precisely because he always discovers that the contours of the cosmos are those of Christ.” As Maximus puts it (above), “the Logos of God wills always and all things to accomplish the mystery of His embodiment.” Creation is itself an outworking of the incarnation, and as Wood puts it, “Maximus’s proper Christology really is his metaphysics or cosmology.” In other words, Christ is “the paradigm of creation” and “the perfect microcosm of the world.” Wood raises the question: “does participation describe the peculiar logic of the Incarnate Word?” He answers with a blunt, “No.”[9]

The danger is to imagine we might plug Maximus into some logic (such as Neo-Platonism) other than the specific and unique logic of the incarnation, which for him accounts for all of creation. Creation does not account for itself “naturally” but calls for the supernatural as both logic and end. The logic of Christ is its own logic and Maximus has no concern to relate it to anything else. In fact, quite the opposite: he is concerned to show that it is unrelated to any other account of knowing.

He lays out the parameters of “natural thought” and its end. “Natural intellectual motion,” as he explains, “has its relation to all relative objects of thought” but this eventually leaves one “with nothing left to think about, having thought through everything that is naturally thinkable.” Natural thought does not arrive at God through some natural given, only God himself provides the condition or experience for knowing him. As in Barth’s formula, so with Maximus, “God is not an object of knowledge or predication” such that he is grasped like other objects of knowledge, “but rather (he is grasped) according to simple union, unconditioned and beyond all thought.” He is knowing and the effect of knowing and the progress of knowing. “God made Him our wisdom, our righteousness, our holiness, and our redemption. These things are of course said about Him in an absolute sense, for He is Wisdom and Righteousness and Sanctification itself, and not in some limited sense, as is the case with human beings.”[10] Or as in Barth, God is the subject, object, and predicate of his revealing which, according to Maximus provide for being known “on the basis of a certain unutterable and indefinable principle” known “only to the One who grants this ineffable grace to the worthy.”[11]

The alternative is not nature, but what is “contrary” to grace in that it is attached to a “disposition” in those set “on a course to nonexistence, and who by their mode of life have reduced themselves to virtual nothingness.”[12] This is not to pit nature against grace, on the order of a two-tiered Thomism or pure nature before its time, as Maximus leaves nature intact but it is a nature which is properly itself only when imbued with grace.

The beginning and end of man consists of a cultivation of the seed of the Good. Man, from his beginning, “received being and participation in what is naturally good, and it is by conforming to the beginning that he received being and participation in what is naturally good, and it is by conforming to this beginning through the inclination of his will and by free choice, that he hastens to the end.” The origin and end cohere in one guided by the Word. “Having completed his course, such a person becomes God, receiving from God to be God, for to the beautiful nature inherent in the fact that he is God’s image, he freely chooses to add the likeness to God by means of the virtues, in a natural movement of ascent through which he grows in conformity to his own beginning.”[13] Created in the divine image man returns to this origin by adding the likeness through his own life course. This can be termed a “natural movement of ascent” as he grows in conformity to the nature in which he was created. Grace can be resisted or obstructed, but this has nothing to do with a pure nature but simply describes one bent toward nothingness.

Man owes his existence directly to God and he can be said to be a “portion of God” insofar as he exists, “for he owes his existence to the logos of being that is in God” insofar as he is good as “he owes his goodness to the logos of wellbeing that is in God; and he is a “portion of God” insofar as he is God, owing to the logos of his eternal being.” Maximus describes this in terms of a true ipseity, which he pits against false notions of movement and impassibility (as in Plato and Aristotle). “In this life he has already become one with himself and immovable, owing to his state of supreme impassibility” and in the life to come in an ongoing divinization “he will love and cleave affectionately to God Himself, in whom the logoi of beautiful things are steadfastly fixed.”[14] He arrives at his beginning and end and is fixed in his totality in the totality of God and is rightly called God in this divinization.

[1] Jordan Daniel Wood has laid to rest the notion that participation, in the Greek sense, adequately encompasses Maximus understanding of divinization. Jordan Daniel Wood, “That Creation is Incarnation in Maximus Confessor,” (Dissertation for Doctor of Philosophy, Boston College, 2018).

[2] A focus of the Bible, which is not absent in Maximus but not emphasized, is that the obstacle that would keep us from this realization is nothing less than a cosmic force for evil opposing God and ourselves.

[3] Maximos the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua Vol. 1, Edited and Translated by Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) xvii.

[4] Ambigua 20.1.

[5] Ambigua 20.2.

[6] Ambigua 20.3.

[7] Ambigua 7.16

[8] Ambigua 7.22.

[9] Wood, 11.

[10] Ambigua 7.21

[11] Ambigua 15.9

[12] Ambigua 20.2

[13] Ambigua 7.21.

[14] Ambigua 7.22