Maximus the Confessor and Synthesis or Unity Without Confusion

THEREFORE, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man . . . recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ (excerpt from The Chalcedon Formula, AD 451).

The controversies surrounding the person of Christ, are not so much resolved at Chalcedon, as the parameters of what can and cannot be said are set. The heresies of Arianism (claiming Christ is not divine) and Sabellianism (claiming the Father, Son and Spirit are representative modes or aspects of the singular Godhead), form the poles Chalcedon is aimed at avoiding. It is not only Christology though, which is at stake, as every part of Christian dogma entails navigating between absolute and irresolvable difference or a unity which erases all difference. Is the Godhead one or three, is Christ God or human and in what measure, is humanity primarily soul or body, is the Church a human or divine body, is the Bible the very Word of God or is this the role of Christ, is the universe constituted a realm separate from God (as pure nature) or is nature understood only with reference to divine grace? The differences and the problem of unifying difference could be endlessly multiplied to include every level of reality (the gap between the conscious and unconscious, between the individual and the social, between male and female, the wave-particle duality of quantum physics, etc.). Who are we, who is God, and what is the nature of reality, are ultimately at stake in our understanding of unity and difference. Too much focus on difference or on sameness will have the same violent result of obliterating the constitutive parts of the whole. This was not simply the problem of Kant and Hegel; the problem of the “One and the many” (is reality a plurality or a unity, is God One and yet immanent in the universe) is the oldest of philosophical questions, but it pertains in the most personal manner. Who am I in relation to the neighbor is a singular question. Relationship to the neighbor, to God, to the world, is part of the issue of the I. So, what is at stake at Chalcedon and in Christianity in general, is the unique resolution to dualism and division, and the claim is that in Christ the most fundamental of problems is resolved. Thus, in the Christological and Trinitarian controversies the arcane attention to semantics, to processions, to nuance, may occasionally lose sight of the goal, but the goal of maintaining difference in unity is of supreme importance.

Unity, synthesis and love require difference, distinction, and plurality, and there is the obvious and overwhelming choice of disunity, violence, false synthesis, and hatred. Body/soul, male/female, heaven/earth, divine/human can fall short of unity in the fleshly, the patriarchal, the earthly, or the human. On the other hand, there is no fulness of personhood without the difference synthesized in an abiding unity. There is no pure body, pure soul, pure heaven or pure earth, and there is no humanity apart from divinity. The whole is not reducible to its parts. There is no soulless or bodiless human, no human devoid of the other or devoid of God, and no unity or love apart from difference. This is what is at stake in the Christological and Trinitarian controversies.

The debate pertains directly to the most immanent and practical. The Christian understanding of the Holy Trinity and the person of Christ is the archetype and ground for realizing and understanding the synthesis between interior subjectivity and exterior otherness (who am I in relation to God, the neighbor, and the universe), and the means of realizing their co-inherence (or of arriving at love). There is no pure inward or outward, self and other, even within the Godhead. The union without confusion and separation is definitive of divine and human. The true love, making up the essence of the divine is also what it means to be fully human, but this divine essence is not simply an idea but a participatory reality. Thus synthesis, perichoresis, and unity, are continually interpenetrating because they are without confusion and separation. This is the power of God and the power of love definitive of love of God and love of neighbor, and it is Maximus the Confessor who first begins to articulate the positive fullness of the Chalcedonian formula.

Maximus takes the largely negative statement of Chalcedon and extrapolates to a series of revolutionary, but seemingly, inevitable conclusions. He spells out in a concrete fashion how it is that Christ reconciles all things in himself bringing together the created and divine:

He, one and the same, remained unchanged, undivided and unconfused in the permanence of the parts of which he was constituted, so that he might mediate according to the hypostasis between the parts of which he was composed, closing in himself the distance between the extremities, making peace and reconciling, through the Spirit, the human nature with the God and Father, as he in truth was God by essence and as in truth he became man by nature in the Dispensation, neither being divided because of the natural difference of his parts, nor confused because of their hypostatic unity.[1]

What Christ has done in himself; he has done for all of creation. “The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things.”[2] The incarnation is the way in which God is drawing all things to himself, completing and fulfilling the work of creation. “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.”[3] In short, “creation is incarnation.”

In the incarnation the absolute differences between God and man (those differences some forms of Christianity picture as unbridgeable) are brought together in the God/man Jesus Christ, and this identity between Creator and creation is complete. 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.”[4] What Christ is by nature the disciple attains by grace, coming to reflect 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.[5]

This is not the erasure or destruction of the individual, but the opposite, the coming to the full powers of self-determination.[6] 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. 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.”[7] This is accomplished through the incarnate body of Christ, which accounts not only 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.”[8]

For Maximus, Christ resolves the problem of the One and the many, in that God is One and is simultaneously present in the universe creating and upholding all things, as Paul says (Col. 1:15-17; or Heb. 1:3), through his powerful Word. There is the singular Word or Logos, but this Word penetrates all things in what Maximus calls logoi. The logoi are like the musical notes making up a symphony or the single letters making up words and the words making up a book, in which the letters and words take on there meaning in the whole. All things have their being through the differentiation of the logoi, which flow from and are harmonized in the Logos. The logoi constitute both the difference and the unity. God’s wisdom and reason is made multiple in the universe through the logoi, or the “natural differences and varieties” so that “the one Logos as many logoi” remain “indivisibly distinguished amid the differences of created things, owing to their specific individuality which remains unconfused both in themselves and with respect to one another” while at the same time “the many logoi are one Logos, seeing that all things are related to Him without being confused with Him, who is the essential and personally distinct Logos of God the Father, the origin and cause of all things, in whom all things were created, in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities: all things were created from Him, through Him, and return unto Him.”[9]

Maximus traces this unifying power of Christ, maintaining distinction without confusion, to every phase of salvation and creation.  Like air “illuminated by light” or “iron suffused by fire,” so too God in Christ is establishing, illuminating, refining, and drawing all things to himself in divine love.  The Logos as the unifying power of letters and words of Scripture, not only gives these words their meaning, but clothes them in his Person. So too the many members of the body of Christ, are like the individual members of the human body, each playing its crucial role in the incarnate body of Christ. The “Church of God is an image of God because it realizes the same union of the faithful which God realizes in the universe. As different as the faithful are by language, places, and customs, they are made one by it through faith.”[10] Maximus allows for myriads of differences among the peoples of the earth, while pointing to their oneness in Christ. Everyone converges with all the rest, with no one “in himself separated from the community.”[11] God brings about the union among different people, the different nature of things “without confusing them but in lessening and bringing together their distinction, as was shown, in a relationship and union with himself as cause, principle, and end.”[12]

God is unifying and synthesizing all things, maintaining difference without confusion, through the divinizing work of the God/man. “What could be more desirable to those who are worthy of it than divinization? For through it God is united with those who have become Gods, and by His goodness makes all things His own.”[13] He is our beginning and end marking our telos and power. “For from God come both our general power of motion (for He is our beginning), and the particular way that we move toward Him (for He is our end).”[14] The multiplicity of differences are synthesized in the unifying perichoresis of God made man.


[1] Maximus, Epistulae (1-45), PG 91,361-650, Cited in Mika Kalevi Törönen (2002) Union and distinction in the thought of St Maximus The Confessor, Durham theses, Durham University. 32.  Available at Durham E-Theses Online: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/1087/

[2] Maximus, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, Edited and Translated by Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 7.22.

[3] On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios, 60.3.

[4] Ambigua 21.15.

[5] Ambigua 10.41.

[6] Ambigua 7.12.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ambigua 54.2.

[9] Ambigua 7.15

[10] Mystagogia, Soteropoulos 1993′ [= PG 91,657-717] 154: 13-154: 20 [= PG 91,66813C] cited in Törönen, 164.

[11] Myst. 1, Soteropoulos, 152: 19-26 [= PG 91,665D-668A]; Acts 4: 32, cited in Törönen, 165.

[12] Myst. 1, Soteropoulos, 154: 13-154: 20 [= PG 91,66813C]] cited in Törönen, 164.

[13] Ambigua 7.27.

[14] Ambigua 7.10

The Completion of Creation in Christ: Sergius Bulgakov, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor and Jordan Wood

God’s pronouncement in Genesis chapter one that creation is good, inclusive of the creation of humankind, is amended in the second chapter of Genesis with a “not good” concerning the man. Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus, presume that the original story must be inclusive of the entire scope of creation (its Alpha and Omega), while the second enters into the process already completed in chapter one, with all of human history, but particularly the incarnation and work of Christ, completing creation. As Gregory puts it, “In the case of the first creation the final state appeared simultaneously with the beginning, and the race took the starting point of its existence in its perfection.”[1] The goodness of creation, or its completion, cannot have occurred apart from the completion of the first Adam in the second Adam. The not-good, the incompleteness, and the possibility of failure, are only introduced in chapter two. The goodness of God being all in all – reflected in Genesis one, is accomplished only when humanity is brought to the fulness of its image bearing capacities in Christ. Adam, or humankind as the crown or caretaker of God’s creation, impacts all of creation so that the goodness and fulness of the cosmos is accomplished only in the completion of the human image. Thus, chapter one of Genesis gives us the eternal perspective, while chapter two of Genesis works within the immanent frame of the cosmos. We find ourselves then, in the midst of creation being completed.

In the meanwhile, though we can point out much that is good, the “not good” is pervasive and seems predominant. Given the brutal slaughter of children, the ravages of disease, the suffering of the innocent, and the general depravity of the human condition, which can be summed up as the reign of death, creation is “not good.” Though it has its bright spots, to call creation, as we have it, good, would be a kind of blasphemy. The notion that goodness has or ever will prevail, is not evident or immediately demonstrable from within the death laden present.

Genesis chapter three, provides an explanation, which may be unapproachable historically, in that it bears more weight than the story allows. According to Sergius Bulgakov, “In this sense, although it is a history, the Genesis 3 narrative of the fall is meta-historical in nature; and in this capacity it is a myth, which is grander and more significant in its generalized and symbolical images than any empirical history.”[2] The creation for us, unfolds with the realities of Genesis 3 already in place. The notion that there has been a fall, or that death has not always reigned, or that there is final goodness, is a faith position. There is nothing within this world, absent the story of Christ, that indicates entropy, slaughter, and death, have not always been the case. “An event is described that lies beyond our history, although at its boundary. Being connected with our history, this event inwardly permeates it. But this event cannot be perceived in the chain of empirical events, for it is not there. It took place, but beyond the limits of this world: After the expulsion of our progenitors from Eden, its gates were locked, and an angel with a fiery sword protects this boundary of being that has become transcendent for us.”[3]

The very fabric of human experience would put ultimate valuation, not on some mythical dream time in the eternal past or future, but on this time and place. Goodness in this understanding, is never unadulterated, never pure, but established through the “not-good.” War brings peace, violence ensures justice, death is the means to establishing ongoing life. Faith, even for those that claim it, must be tempered by the reality of this world. This is the “only reality” we have, and the before and after of eternity, are as disconnected as Genesis-one-goodness is from the shameful murderous condition that unfolds from chapter three. Experientially, practically, and realistically, we cannot live as if goodness has the final word. To do so is to ignore the prevailing reality of this world. Or at least, that is the existential choice and investment with which we are presented. The incompletion of the world poses itself as its own form of reality. Time’s entropy, nature’s death, and the absolute limitedness of phenomenal existence are the created order. This reality is not good, not God-connected or infinite, but poses a bad infinite.

In biblical terms, the choice is that between the first Adam and the reality of this form of humanity, and the second Adam and the reality of this form of humanity. In either case, it involves an existential investment of life. With the first Adam, the world is a closed cosmic order in which the pleasures, “successes,” passions, and value systems of the phenomenal world order, are the final truth. This truth may not be rational or transcendental, but it accords death its proper centrality. In this light, the work of Christ is a fabrication spun out of the web of human sorrow in an attempt to find significance in what cannot be assigned final meaning. The suffering and evil of the world have no explanation, no counterpoint, no resolution, and certainly no possible justification. The world as we have it is the best argument that there is no final goodness, no eternal purpose, as death has the final word and is the ultimate reality. In the world, far from encountering the incarnation as the truth of creation “we typically meet ephemera, flux, deceit, self-love, greed, corruption, death—in a word, ‘slavery to time and nature.’”[4]

The creation as we know it is generated not from the goodness of Genesis one, but from the beginning instituted by Adam. This creation is fallen upon arrival, in that death, suffering, shame, finitude, ignorance of God, violence, antihumanism, and anti-creation, are its structuring principles. There is no direct route from Genesis chapter three, back to Genesis one. The goodness, the eternal perspective, the image-bearing capacity, are obscured, rendered incomplete and inadequate in the new order of reality. Adam has instituted creation of a different kind, and we find ourselves in this Adam. As Jordan Wood describes, “We, each and all, endeavor to incarnate in ourselves—in our concrete existence, in our hypostases—what is in itself pure illusion. Evil possesses no essence or hypostasis or power or activity, certainly. But the ‘dishonorable passions,’ which constitute the mixed fruit of our erroneous judgment about this world, acquire in us ‘a dependent, parasitical subsistence’ (παρυπόστασις).”[5]

The divine perspective and its sense of goodness and meaningful existence, gives way to a senseless world based on the sensuous and the senses. That which is good for the eyes, desirous to eat, and offering its own wisdom, obscures the eternal perspective. The limited and finite only has itself as ground. “The flux and finitude of the world has only the grave as a stable and sure foundation. More precisely, it is our free, impassioned attachment to pure phenomena, our deluded judgment that sheer limitation might yield limitless bliss—it is, I mean, our frenzied strife to make this contradiction actual that prevents the world’s true creation and generates in its place a world of our own making, a world of brute boundary.”[6] As Maximus puts it, “In the beginning, sin enticed Adam and persuaded him to transgress the divine commandment, and through transgression sin hypostasized pleasure, and through pleasure sin affixed itself to the very foundations of our nature, condemning the whole of our nature to death, and through man it was pushing the nature of all created beings away from existence.”[7]

In turn, in light of the second Adam, it is the first Adam who created an irrational fantasy world. In the death and resurrection of Christ, in which Christ is true Adam, the perfection of the image, and the finalization of creation, humanity is clearly made for divinity and life, not death and finitude. In the Alpha and Omega of the second Adam, the eternal perspective of the good creation takes hold in human nature. Here is rescue from sin and death, but also Resurrection life imparted as the principle of a new form of completed humanity. The fleshly perspective of a completely immanent frame still tempts, but its reality is shattered by the Resurrected body, the empty tomb, and new life. Christ’s passion, the power of Resurrection, the life of Christ, intersects with and transforms the concrete possibilities, the “pure nature,” of human experience. This is not simply an abstract possibility, but Christ is becoming all in all, the true beginning and end of every person, such that the fictional world of the first Adam – in its universal form, is being displaced for all of humanity.

Here we encounter the completion and fulness of the sixth day. As Jordan sums up:

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.[8]

Either we live in the wake of a cataclysmic eruption in which life sprang from death, or the cataclysm is, as pictured in Genesis, the intrusion of death into life. The incarnation centers creation on a new form of life, amounting to a re-creation, in which all things are made new: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17). There is a transformation of creation from the inside, beginning with Christ. The “natural” world is subject to a futility, which can be taken as its own end and reality but Christ has relativized this meaninglessness. “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:20–21).

Genesis chapter one has no record of this corruption, as it is undone in Christ, the perfector of creation. His beginning and end join the eternal perspective of Genesis one with the New Jerusalem of Revelation:

Then He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. . . Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nation. . . God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Rev. 21:6; 22:1-2; Gen. 1:31).


(Sign up for the course, The Theology of Maximus the Confessor with Jordan Wood. https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings. The course will run from 2024/3/25–2024/5/17 and will meet on Saturdays.)

[1] Gregory of Nyssa, Hom. in Cant. 15, GNO 6:458, trans. Norris, 487: “ἐπὶ μὲν οὖν τῆς πρώτης κτίσεως ἀδιαστάτως τῇ ἀρχῇ συνανεφάνη τὸ πέρας καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς τελειότητος ἡ φύσις τοῦ εἶναι ἤρξατο.” Quoted from  Jordan Daniel Wood, The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus Confessor (p. 171). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (p. 170). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[3] Bulgakov, 170.

[4] Wood, 175.

[5]  Wood, 168-169..

[6] Wood, 170.

[7][7] Q. Thal. 61.9, ed. Laga and Steel, CCSG 22, 95, slight modification. Quoted from Wood, 168..

[8] Wood, 186. 

Creation as Incarnation – A Communion Meditation with Maximus

“The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things” (Maximus, Ambigua, 7.22). As Maximus explains: “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]

Maximus’ formula not only provides the interpretive key to creation and “everything that exists,” but it establishes the concrete mode in which interpretation occurs. The danger in describing Maximus’ Christo-logic, is to turn it into an abstraction or principle, when he is referring throughout to the person of Christ. There is the constant danger, Maximus warns against, of mistaking words for the Word. The letter, the principle, the abstraction, the form, the theory, threaten to displace the Person. On the other hand, the material, the “substance,” the elemental, threaten from the other direction, when these too are departures (abstractions of a different order). All things hold together, whether symbolic or material, in His Person.

In short, every event, every point of creation, every true idea, contains and is contained in the incarnate Christ. He is a flesh and blood person, but even flesh and blood and person are comprehended in Him. According to Maximus, He is not simply another instance of a person or individual, but personhood and individual are comprehended in Him. Creation is incarnation means that all things are framed and comprehended in the Christ-event.

One way of approaching the difference this makes, is in regard to the Eucharist. The arguments surrounding communion betray the fallacy of reducing the Christ-event to an abstraction. Here is the point at which incarnation takes hold in creation, and yet the discussion focuses on the nature of the elements and the point of transformation. Arguments about transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or pure symbolism, miss the Christ-event, confusing it with the material elements. All flesh and blood, all bread and wine, every human body, begins and ends with incarnation. Incarnation is not the transformation of bread and wine into flesh and blood, rather here is creation as Incarnation (the Christ-Event). Flesh and blood do not constitute the person, rather Christ constitutes the flesh and blood. The Lord’s Supper is the enactment of the body of Christ – or the person of Christ within believers. Literal reduction or symbolic abstraction of blood and flesh reifies the sign and misses the person of Christ and the purpose of the meal.

The point is to destroy what would reduce and abstract (that which killed him, which was the attempted destruction of the person and a reduction to flesh and blood). The material elements do not constitute personhood, but the Christ-event incorporates these elements into Incarnation and personhood. Christ’s personhood is the condition of creation, and incorporation into this condition is not an abstraction, reduction or symbolization, but is the reality enacted, shared, and celebrated in the love feast of the body of Christ. Transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and Zwinglian symbolism miss the person for the sign, falling short of the person in the material form and missing the Person in pure abstraction.

The Lord’s Supper is the center of the founding of a new community, a new economics, a new ethics of sacrificial love. It is the mystery of the Incarnation actualized. “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.”  Creation in Incarnation, enacted in incorporation into the person of Christ. This is the significance of the Lord’s Supper.


[1] On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios abbreviated as QThal.

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). https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2021/12/15/the-lively-god-of-sergius-bulgakov-reflections-on-the-sophiology-of-death/

[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) https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2019/08/04/against-asymmetrical-christology-a-critical-review-of-rowan-williamss-christ-the-heart-of-creation/

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

[16] Ibid., 124.

[17] Ibid., 125.

[18] Ibid., 128.

[19] Ibid., 129.

Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies: Karl Barth as Resolution to Sexual and Body/Soul Dualism

I presume sin impacts humans not only in the experience of alienation but in conceiving all things in an alienated manner. That is, the failure of humanity becomes the singular truth, the only kind of humanity we know, and it is presumed there is no alternative to antagonism and dualism. Soul/body, male/female, or heaven and earth are taken to be, not only the historical understanding, but the singular reality. In psychoanalysis this shows itself in Lacanian psychoanalysis in that the antagonism structuring the Subject is presumed to be a necessity. Alienation and antagonism produce the Subject without possibility of qualification. One might manipulate this antagonism (death drive), but best of all, perhaps through therapy, one will be resolved to living with it. The insight of psychoanalysis, is that the various historical dualisms, centered on soul and body or male and female (but including every aspect of what it means to be human including life and death, language and meaning, heaven and earth) arise from a singular structure within the human psyche.  

Psychoanalysis locates the antagonism within the individual in interpenetrating categories such as ego and superego, but most dualisms have as their goal the presumed capacity to rid oneself of the negative, as is illustrated with male/female. Male is associated with the soulish, the rational, or the spiritual, while female is equated with the body, the natural, and the passions. As the church father Jerome describes it, “As long as woman is for birth and children, she is different from man as body is from soul. But if she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be a woman and will be called man.”[1] Every human must strive for the masculine and the Christ-like and aim to shed the fleshly-feminine, but clearly the female sex starts with a disadvantage. As Ambrose writes: “She who does not believe is a woman and should be designated by the name of her bodily sex, whereas she who believes progresses to complete manhood, to the measure of the adulthood of Christ. She then does without wordly name, gender of body, youthful seductiveness, and garrulousness of old age.”[2] What is at play, in even Christian texts, is the notion that the masculine is abstract, spiritual, soulish, and universal, and the feminine is bound by the body. As Daniel Boyarin lays out the opposed pairs, man is to woman as substance is to accident, form to matter, univocity to division and difference, soul to body, meaning to language, signified to signifier, natural to artificial, and essential to ornamental.[3]

The psychoanalytic insight is to assign what Boyarin and others have concluded is universal to the human sickness. The details and historical permutations of the sickness may vary (Neo-Platonism, Adam and Eve, Judaism, or Christianity, have been blamed) but what Lacanian psychoanalysis attempts is a diagnosis of the human disease which explains how humans are traumatized by death. Death resistance as castration, the Oedipus complex, the focus on human sexuality, the entry and orientation within law and language, may or may not be right in the details, but what it incorporates within its explanation is the shape of male/female or soul/body antagonism and how this constitutes the human Subject and her world. What it does not do is provide any path beyond the problem.

Karl Barth provides a different (simpler?) approach to assessing both the universal human disease and its resolution, in that Christ serves as definition of what it means to be human. Barth does not start with the phenomena of the human as it may present itself to the anthropologist or the psychologist, as this will only lead to one going astray, “especially as they always arouse at this point the burning interest which powerful inner contradictions always bring to light.”[4] What Barth might be referring to specifically is not clear, but he has hit upon the truth of the development of modern psychoanalysis in its focus on contradiction (life versus death, male versus female, body versus soul, or the imaginary against the symbolic) as the primary focus of study and interest. The turn to Jesus Christ as model is simultaneously a turn from the supposed normativity of this antagonism.

Barth is also departing from traditional Christian dogma, which begins with man’s existence in the abstract and then applies this understanding to Christ. As he points out, this has resulted in a “certain one-sidedness,” referring perhaps, to the sort of reflection found in Ambrose and Jerome. The downgrading and oppression of women and the privileging of the soul, represents a majority position in the history of the church. Barth, by making Christ definitive of what it means to be human, is setting theology on a different foundation than the “older dogmatics.” The body/soul, male/female, and mind/body dualism can now be approached and potentially resolved in Jesus Christ. At a minimum, Barth provides a largely untapped point of departure.

The ontological determination of humanity is grounded in the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus. So long as we select any other starting point for our study, we shall reach only the phenomena of the human. We are condemned to abstractions so long as our attention is riveted as it were on other men, or rather on man in general, as if we could learn about real man from a study of man in general, and in abstraction from the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus. In this case we miss the one Archimedean point given us beyond humanity, and therefore the one possibility of discovering the ontological determination of man. Theological anthropology has no choice in this matter. It is not yet or no longer theological anthropology if it tries to pose and answer the question of the true being of man from any other angle.[5]

Barth derives his concept of what it means to be human from the singular man, Jesus Christ. In his volume on the doctrine of creation, Christ is the “Archimedean point” for understanding not only humanity but all of creation. Barth, through a more circuitous route, lands close to the Maximian formula, “creation is incarnation.” Or, “The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things.”[6] Barth’s doctrine of creation, like his doctrine of anthropology, presumes creation by itself is a mere abstraction. The incarnate Christ provides the concrete center and revelation concerning creation: “Because man, living under heaven and on earth, is the creature whose relation to God is revealed to us in the Word of God, he is the central object of the theological doctrine of creation.” Which leads to Barth’s anthropological focus: “As the man Jesus is Himself the revealing Word of God, He is the source of our knowledge of the nature of man as created by God.”[7] Anthropology is not a subset of the study of creation but is its center, and true anthropology is approached only through the truly human one. “As the man Jesus is Himself the revealing Word of God, He is the source of our knowledge of the nature of man as created by God.”[8] Barth concludes: “But this point of departure means nothing more nor less than the founding of anthropology on Christology.”[9]

Barth builds upon this foundation (in section 46) with his opening thesis in which he sets forth the primary terms of body, soul, and Spirit: “Through the Spirit of God, man is the subject, form and life of a substantial organism, the soul of his body – wholly and simultaneously both, in ineffaceable difference, inseparable unity, and indestructible order.”[10] Humans are both body and soul – simultaneously and inseparably. “Man’s being exists, and is therefore soul; and it exists in a certain form, and is therefore body.”[11] In Christ these are not constituent parts. “He is one whole man, embodied soul and besouled body: the one in the other and never merely beside it; the one never without the other but only with it, and in it present, active and significant; the one with all its attributes always to be taken as seriously as the other.”[12]

The death and resurrection of Christ do not alter this order: “The whole man, soul and body, He rises as he died, and sits at the right hand of God and will come again.”[13] This soul and body wholeness is an eternal fact about who he is. “He does not fulfil His office and His work from His miraculous annunciation to His fulfilment in such a way that we can separate His outer from His inner or His inner from His outer.”[14] Everything is simultaneously inner, invisible, and spiritual, and outer, visible, and bodily.

Barth illustrates the point through a series of biblical verses which refer alternatively to Christ “giving himself” (Gal. 1:4), giving his soul (Matt. 20:28), or giving his body (Luke 22:19). “Jesus, He Himself, is His soul, and His body, and it is the one whole man who died on the cross and thus made our sin inoperative and completed our reconciliation.”[15] In turn it is the whole man, body and soul, that is raised. Body and soul are not parallels or two parts or two lines. Their union in him permits no choice but to consider them together. “They cannot be considered independently. In and with one another they are the oneness and wholeness of this life.”[16] Which is not to deny that there is a higher and a lower or a dominating and dominated, but Jesus is both. Barth does not mention a male and female principle, but inasmuch as these might represent the body and soul, or the sensuous and the rational, it can only be said that Jesus is both. “His life of soul and body is really His life. He has full authority over it.”[17]

It is important that Christ accomplished this in his flesh. Flesh may be a neutral term referring to human existence, but it also has an evil connotation. “It indicates the condition of man in contradiction, in disorder and in consequent sickness, man after Adam’s fall, the man who lives a fleeting life in the neighbourhood of death and corruption.”[18] Christ has come in the flesh to condemn sin in sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3). He suffered in the flesh (I Pet. 4:1). He reconciled us “in the body of his flesh” (Col. 1:22). He “abolished in his flesh the enmity” (Eph. 2:15). In his flesh he parted the veil in the Temple and provided entry into God’s presence (Heb. 10:20). Even in his resurrection body he is still in the flesh, and is not pure spirit (Luke 24:39). He provides true food and true drink continually through his flesh (Jn. 6:51). Flesh, which in itself speaks of death, disorder and disobedience, through his flesh takes on life, order and obedience. “The flesh, which in itself profits nothing, becomes a purposeful instrument. The flesh, which in itself is lost, attains a determination and a hope. The flesh, which in itself is illogical and irrational, becomes logical and rational. As the Logos becomes flesh and Jesus is flesh, it is shown that this man has and is spirit and life, and the flesh itself becomes quickening and living and meaningful.”[19]

Barth equates the work of Christ in the flesh with creation itself – with the ordering of chaos into a cosmos. The reconciliation, ordering, rationalizing, of Christ in the flesh “is the triumph of the meaning of the human existence of Jesus.”[20] Chaos in itself offers no explanation no rationale, nor order, but through the ordering of the flesh in Christ the world and humankind are an ordered creation and cosmos. This establishes a new basis for understanding humanity, creation, and the human relationship to God.

The Christian response to dualism is to recognize that most every form of human subjectivity is built upon an antagonistic dualism (between body and soul, between male and female, between the ego and the law, or between life and death) but there is one human to whom this does not apply; namely Jesus Christ. Jesus is the alternative to alienation, antagonism, and dualism and this alternative applies to all and grounds a holistic Christian understanding.


[1][1] Jerome, Commentary on the Letter to the Ephesians, Patrologia cursus completus, series latina, ed. J.-P. Migne (Paris, 1841–66), 26:533; translation from Vern Bullough, “Medieval Medical and Scientific Views of Women,” Viator 4 (1973): 499. Cited in Daniel Boyarin, “On the History of the Early Phallus,” in Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 8.

[2] Ambrose, “Exposition of the Gospel of Luke,” in PL 15:1844. Boyarin, Ibid.

[3] Boyarin, 12-13.

[4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Creation III.2 (Hendrickson Publishers, 1956) 325. All quotes are from III.2 unless otherwise indicated.

[5] Barth, 132.

[6] Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua Vol. 1; Edited and Translated by Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 7.22.

[7] Barth, 3.

[8] Barth, 41.

[9] Barth, 44.

[10] Barth, 325.

[11] Barth, 325. 

[13] Barth, 327.

[14] Barth, 327.

[15] Barth, 328.

[16] Barth, 331.

[17] Barth, 332.

[18] Barth, 335.

[19] Barth, 336.

[20] Barth, 336

Christ as Definitive of Torah and Judaism – Not Their Dissolution

There is a time and space bending aspect to the gospel which is no mere metaphor. The time, space, and place Jesus occupies, according to the writers of the New Testament, is the beginning of all things (John 1:1), the place of Israel, and the Temple and, as Jesus says, before Abraham he is (John 8:58). This present tense presence of Jesus in the ancient past is an interpretive key deployed throughout the New Testament. The 7th day of rest is, according to the writer of Hebrews, an ongoing reality encompassing all of human history (Heb. 4:6). Paul identifies Christ with the rock in the wilderness of Sin: “They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (I Cor. 10-2-4). Matthew identifies Christ with Israel, “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matt. 2:15). Jesus, in the middle of history, is the beginning, the door to the seventh day, the one present now before Abraham. The early church fathers will continue to identify Christ directly with Adam, Moses, and Joshua, so that Jesus is the subject of the Hebrew Scriptures. Our tendency may be to dismiss this as allegory or metaphor, and in doing so we may cling to a flat consecutive ordering of time and history, and thus miss how it is that the events surrounding Christ fold back to the alpha and forward to the omega of all of history (Rev. 1:8; 21:6; 22:13).

Maximus formula captures the time and space bending nature of the incarnation: “The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things.”[1] As Maximus explains it: “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.”[2]

It is of doctrinal significance that the division which develops between Judaism and Christianity is gradual, in that Christianity was originally understood to occupy the same time and space, share the same scriptures, and even accord Torah the same primacy, such that Christians met in synagogues and were probably considered a sect of Jews. Magnus Zetterholm argues that the name, “Christian,” arises in Antioch because there may have been up to twenty to thirty synagogues in the city, and the designation may have come from the Christians or from their fellow Jews as a way of distinguishing their particular synagogue. As Zetterholm writes, “That Christianity eventually became a non-Jewish, separate religion does not mean that this separation must already have taken place by the first time we hear the term ‘Christian.’ The sources actually indicate the opposite.”[3]

But even to describe “Jews” in this fashion may already be anachronistic, if “Jew” is thought to specify a particular religion. Daniel Boyarin raises the question whether Jewish or Christian are categories which existed during the Second Temple period. The Greek term Ἰουδαῖος (Ioudaios) simply means Judean or Jew, and meant something like the ways of the Judeans/Jews as a people. To imagine Jewish designates a religion with a singular and agreed upon essence is anachronistic and mistaken at several levels.

The same sort of development is seen in more recent history with terms like Hinduism (a British designation), which simply refers to the practices of the people on the subcontinent of India and until the British designated the category, did not exist as a singular religion or even a particular set of practices. The same thing is true in Japan. The religion known as Shintoism is a late development (of the Meiji Restoration) imposing the notion that the animistic practices of the various clans fit under a singular umbrella unified by State Shinto. The Meiji government debated whether to designate Shinto a religion or a national identity, and created laws that reflect contradictory conclusions at different points. The central government eventually sent out State Shinto missionaries to enforce unified practices on the variety of animistic “religions” practiced on the Islands of Japan.

 So too “Judaism” is an open-ended term, according to Boyarin, “talking about the complex of rituals and other practices, beliefs and values, history and political loyalties that constituted allegiance to the People of Israel, not a religion called Judaism.”[4] In turn, “Most (if not all) of the ideas and practices of the Jesus movement of the first century and the beginning of the second century—and even later—can be safely understood as part of the ideas and practices that we understand to be ‘Judaism.’”[5] But Judaism, is not a closed set of ideas or a unified understanding, as Jews were broken into ever dividing factions, arguing over what constituted the essence of their religion.

Gregory Knight maintains, “The Pharisees were a kind of reform movement within the Jewish people that was centered on Jerusalem and Judaea. The Pharisees sought to convert other Jews to their way of thinking about God and Torah, a way of thinking that incorporated seeming changes in the written Torah’s practices that were mandated by what the Pharisees called ‘the tradition of the Elders.’” Knight refines the usual understanding of Pharisees and Sadducees: “Traditionally, scholars have portrayed the Sadducees as strict interpretationalists who accepted nothing as binding except the literal language of the Torah. At the other extreme, the Pharisees have been portrayed as the more progressive sect which accepted the whole corpus of traditional law-the ‘Oral Torah’-that had developed around the written Torah.”[6] Knight notes that this is a generalization that will not hold in that “the Sadducees were not completely averse to the traditional law nor were the Pharisees always the more lenient, tradition-bound group.”[7] Sorting out this difference though, will not begin to settle the issue of what is essential to being Jewish. As Boyarin writes, “It is quite plausible, therefore, that other Jews, such as the Galilean Jesus, would reject angrily such ideas as an affront to the Torah and as sacrilege.”[8] The Zealots would, in turn, reject all forms of Judaism but their own.

The Apostle Paul describes Judaism as lacking an essence in the understanding of the Jews. He describes it, in Hegelian fashion, in that the mystery of the Jews is a mystery to the Jews. The essence of Judaism escapes Jews (2 Cor. 3:15).  “But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away” (2 Cor. 3:14). Christ, in Matthew, describes a hollow emptiness (that of a tomb) in the Judaism of the scribes and Pharisees: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matt. 23:27). Where Christ is the “filling up” or fulness of the law (pleroma), the scribes and Pharisees are “full” (ἀνοµία) of emptiness. Their problem is not legalism but an active negation of the law. Jesus has no problem with law but with its emptying out, which is the mystery around which their Judaism revolves. Their focus on the letter takes the law as its own end but leaves out the doing: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them” (Matt. 23:2–3). Instead of “doing” the law the scribes and Pharisees are caught up in an outward adherence which misses the heart of the law. This absent center though, is the prototypical and universal human problem – culture, religion, or the individual subject revolves around a reified absence. This is the very definition of sin.

On the other hand, Christ is understood not as a disjunction or discontinuation of the law and the Hebrew scriptures, but as the point of mutual illumination. Matthew (chapter 1) depicts Jesus in two origin stories, which duplicate the book of Genesis (but here is the true origin or true Genesis). The word genesis (γένεσις) is used some ten times in the Septuagint version of Genesis and it is probable that by the time of Matthew’s writing “Genesis” had been adopted within Greek-speaking Jewish communities as the formal title of the book. The echo of Genesis is evident in the specific phrase “The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah” – which literally reads, “the book of the genesis of Jesus.” (This phrase occurs in Genesis 2:4 and 5:1.)

The birth narrative (Matt. 1:22-23) contains the formula Matthew uses throughout his Gospel to describe Jesus’ relationship to Judaism. “Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord.” “Fulfilled” can be read as, “to bring to its designed end” or “to bring to its fulness” (pleroma). Jesus is not depicted as challenging Judaism, but as standing within it – fulfilling it and even defining it. That is Judaism is not brought to its designed end apart from Christ.

The point of Matthew’s formula is too simplistically described as prophecy and fulfillment, as many of the passages he sights are not prophecy, but Jesus fills out the Hebrew scriptures. Matthew would say “fulfilled,” as Jesus, the substance, fills up the scriptures of Israel in a substantially new and unexpected way. Jesus is not moving beyond Torah, but embodies Torah. “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17). Jesus is upholding, bringing to life, or bringing Torah to its designed end.

As Richard Hays writes: “Matthew’s language and imagery are from start to finish soaked in Scripture; he constantly presupposes the social and symbolic world rendered by the stories, songs, prophecies, laws, and wisdom teachings of Israel’s sacred texts.”[9] The world of the Hebrew scriptures is precisely the world occupied by Christ. As Roy Fisher describes, “Matthew is envisioned as incorporating Torah into his work, such that we now envision Matthew’s composition to be taking form within a Torah-formed space.”[10] As Zetterholm writes, “A Jew who came to embrace belief in Jesus as the Messiah could not be said to change one symbolic universe for another. To become a Messiah-believing Jew would rather represent a new orientation within the same symbolic universe.”[11]

Jesus is pictured as filling up the righteousness of the law (e.g., as in his baptism). When John objects to baptizing Jesus, he answers, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness (πληρῶσαι πᾶσαν δικαιοσύνην)” (Matt. 3:15). Baptism marks the form, the relinquishing, the self-giving, which accomplishes the fulness of righteousness.  As Fisher notes, “baptism is the form righteousness takes. It is the proper doing necessary to inhabit the shape of δικαιοσύνην” (righteousness).[12] Of course, baptism is a work, or something Jesus does (and in Christian baptism, which all his followers do) but this doing is not over and against the law but is the laws completion. Jesus continually demonstrates his authority through his doing (e.g., baptism, teaching, healing, forgiving, and dying and rising). “This notion of πληρόω neither goes beyond Torah nor does it replace Torah. On the contrary, Matthew’s concept of fulfillment is the inhabiting of Torah through word and deed. This is how Jesus makes Torah complete.”[13]

 The Gospel of Matthew is a case in point of the time bending sense of Christ as the fulfillment (pleroma) and true subject of the Hebrew scriptures and the law, assigning them the definition (the authority and settled meaning) they always were to have. As with the other writers of the New Testament and the church fathers, it is not that Christ is beginning a new epoch in history (from old to new or from Jew to Christian) but Christ occupies and has always occupied the subject position of the Hebrew scriptures.  


[1] Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua Vol. 1; Edited and Translated by Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 7.22.

[2] 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) 60.3.

[3] Magnus Zetterholm, The Formation of Christianity in Antioch: A Social-Scientific Approach to the Separation of Judaism and Christianity (London: Routledge, 2003), 96. Cited in Roy Allan Fisher, “Locating Matthew in Israel” (Unpublished dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2018) 92.

[4] Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: The New Press, 2012) 2. Cited in Fisher, 18.

[5] Boyarin, viii.

[6] Gregory Knight, “The Pharisees and the Sadducees: Rethinking their Respective Outlooks on Jewish Law” 1993 BYU L. Rev. 925 (1993).

[7][7] Ibid, Knight.

[8] Boyarin, xiv.

[9] Richard B Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016), 109. Cited in Fisher, 56-57.

[10] Fisher, 57.

[11]Zetterholm, 6. Cited in Fisher, 91.

[12] Fisher, 84.

[13] Fisher, 87.

Experiencing God or Experiencing Nothing

For God created us in such a way that we are similar to Him (for through participation we are imbued with the exact characteristics of His goodness), and from before the ages He determined that we should exist in Him.[1]

Maximus the Confessor

Ours is a secular age in that direct experience of God is mostly unavailable. The Bible directly equates truth, wisdom, life, love, and light with Christ (and with experience of Christ), but the tendency is to soften this or to make it metaphorical. We seemingly no longer have direct access to God in the development of the virtues, in the experience of love, in the development of wisdom, or in peace of mind. To say what disrupts experience of God (the actualization of “existing in Him”), is part of an exercise in regaining this experience, but in brief, Christ is displaced as his own medium, his own reality, his own wisdom, and his own logic. Philosophy, human wisdom, human experience, and human logic (centered on nothing but themselves) become prime reality, and in Christian theology (popular and academic) Christ is made to fit an already existing frame and foundation.

Escaping the Obstacle of Ontotheology

The postmodern critique of ontotheology permanently dispels the notion that propositions, doctrine, or philosophy, can (in phallic/masculine form) “say it all” or lay its own foundation. The point is not to promote irrationality but reason cannot lay its foundations or encompass prime reality. What this has meant for theology, is that the person of Christ as foundation takes on a singular significance – Christ is a logic and reality that cannot be fit to an already existing frame or laid on another foundation. Examples of the significance for theology of the turn from ontotheology are the work of Stanley Hauerwas (in his turn to ethics), James McClendon (in his development of a practical theology), a return to the work of Karl Barth, and in Catholicism the new theology (nouvelle théologie) focused on escaping scholasticism. Historically the shift might be characterized as the difference between Origenism and Augustinianism, or in broad terms (too broad, but containing some truth) the difference between eastern and western theology. The general turn is one that joins faith and practice, and as with my work on the doctrine of sin and salvation, the impetus is to describe the work of Christ in real world terms.  

Realization of Christ as Prime Reality and as Salvation

I presume the defeat of sin and evil in salvation is describable phenomenologically and psychologically. First, in Christ’s confrontation with sin and death, we can describe his defeat of these categories in historical, psychological, systemic, and corporate terms. Second, we can describe incorporation into Christ and defeat of the categories of sin and evil. The implication of the incarnation is that there is a universally shared human predicament and resolution addressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Two things come together – the plane of human reality is a final reality in that God in Christ enters this plane of reality, and the universally shared failure addressed by the incarnation is corrected or being made right on this plane of reality. This is not to exclude mystery, but we can describe how the mystery of Christ takes hold in life, in love, in virtue, and in wisdom. We can, as with the historical person of Christ, experience and describe what it means for divinity and humanity to be joined in one person. This is the profound truth of Christ that exceeds every other truth. There is no logic or reason that can begin to approach this truth – it is a truth of a different order.

A practical way in which the singularity of Christ shows itself is that the Christian faith provides a diagnosis and solution to the human predicament that is unique, especially as it involves the incarnation. Even before consideration of the incarnation, a distinguishing mark of the Judeo/Christian faith is the seriousness of embodiment and death. This is one of the things that ties Judaism and Christianity together – the reality of history and embodiment. The death and resurrection of Christ addresses the human predicament, not by introducing another reality but by resolving the problem of death through resurrection. This contrasts with most every other religion, (many of which deny death by one means or another). Either there is innate immortality of the soul (downplaying embodiment), or material reality is unreal (as in Hinduism it is maya), or people do not stop living at death but survive as disembodied spirits or souls (as in animistic religion and ancestor worship). The problem of death is not to be solved on another plane of reality (or through death denial) but through incarnation, death, and resurrection.

The Subject of the Lie  

The resolution to the problem of death is aimed at formation of a new Subject. Theology and psychology merge in the description of a peculiar form of the human Subject which exists by virtue of a primordial disturbance – the Subject of the lie. Sin creates a wound or cut or obstacle in nature which constitutes one form of human subjectivity. Into the realm of immediate sense experience and “natural” animal copulating, a gap or obstacle has been introduced which constitutes the Subject. Sin, in this understanding, is not something which Adam or anyone “falls into,” as if they were fully functioning Subjects prior to the event; rather in the deception described in Scripture and psychoanalysis, sin is the passage into human subjectivity (the Subject that is self-constituting).

In brief, Jacques Lacan takes up the Freudian death drive and argues the human Subject arises around pure negation or absence, such that evil, death and absence are originary. Slavoj Žižek extends this, through Friedrich Schelling, to demonstrate how God and all things arise from an originary evil (Immanuel Kant’s “radical evil”). Surprisingly, Augustine, who also develops the notion of evil as privation, points to radical evil at the heart of the human Subject.

Augustine depicts an ineffable absence within himself. His depiction of stealing pears is clearly modeled after the Genesis story of the fall, as he indicates: “How like that servant of yours who fled from his Lord and hid in the shadows!”[2] As Pantanteleimon Manoussakis indicates, “Contrary to Greek ethics, evil for Augustine is not a mistaken choice, vice is not ignorance, and sin is not a category of epistemology that could be regulated and rectified by degrees of knowledge.” Augustine does not reference an outer temptation or anything on the order of the serpent. He is fully aware that his action was evil. “In fact he goes a step further – and this adds a whole new dimension on the problem of evil – for his theft lacked any reasonable motive; his transgression was “for no reason … there was no motive for my malice except malice.”[3]

Augustine’s description of evil goes against the Aristotelian notion that every human action is aimed at some good. “Not only there was [sic] no good that motivated Augustine’s action in the garden of Thagaste, but not even what Aristotle would call the apparent good: ‘No, I mean more: my theft lacked even the sham, shadowy beauty with which even vice allures us.’”[4] Evil is not accounted for, but is its own cause. It is the groundless ground. It has no explanation and is not intelligible and to imagine otherwise would, in Augustine’s estimate, amount to a defense of the necessity of evil.

Ontotheology, propositionalism, Platonism, foundationalism, or the fallen Subject, are made of the same stuff as Augustine’s thieving Subject. To imagine that Christ can be set on another foundation is to assign ontological priority to this nonentity.

Christ the Foundation and Wisdom of God: Experiencing God

This then sends us back to the Bible and patristic sources, in order to describe the peculiar logic and experience found in Christ. According to Maximus the Confessor, Christ is not a truth among other trues but is the foundation of truth:

For the Word, who created all things, and who is in all things according to the relation of present to the future, is comprehended both in type and in truth, in which He is present both in being and manifestation, and yet He is manifested in absolutely nothing, for inasmuch as He transcends the present and the future, He transcends both type and truth, for He contains nothing that might be considered contrary to Him. But truth has a contrary: falsehood. Therefore, the Word in whom the universe is gathered transcends the truth, and also, insofar as He is man and God, He truly transcends all humanity and divinity.[5]

The Word has his own “being” and “manifestation.” There is no natural logic or philosophical logic or natural reason which can comprehend the fact of the God/Man. This is not a truth established over and against falsehood, as there is no “contrary” dialectic which establishes this truth. This is a logic all its own and an experience of a different order. He is his own manifestation in the life of the believer. He “transcends” the truth and all humanity and divinity and all conceptions of the same. The person and work of Christ is its own point of departure. No other logic or reality mediates Christ, as he constitutes a logic and reality, and he alone mediates himself. But inasmuch as we become Christ, we too enter in to this reality which has no genealogy, no precedent, no explanation, other than Him.

Maximus illustrates the point with the example of Melchizedek:

He alone in this respect is mentioned by Scripture, probably because he was the first who through virtue passed beyond both matter and form (which may be understood as his being without father or mother or genealogy), and by knowledge he surpassed all things subject to time and the age, things whose temporal existence began with their creation (for creation did not deny them their being in time), without stumbling over them in his mind as he followed his divine course, which is perhaps what having neither beginning of days nor end of life means. And 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. For every saint who has made exemplary progress in beauty is thereby said to be a type of God the giver. Consistent with this principle, the great Melchizedek, having been imbued with divine virtue, was deemed worthy to become an image of Christ God and His unutterable mysteries, for in Him all the saints converge as to an archetype, to the very cause of the manifestation of the Beautiful that is realized in each of them, and this is especially true of this saint, since he bears within himself more prefigurations of Christ than all the rest.”[6]  

Melchizedek, like Christ, cannot be reduced to matter or form or genealogy. He cannot be reduced to a particular age and time, as he is beyond this form of material creation and has been taken up into God himself. He has been “transformed” – receiving “all the qualities of God” and being made in the likeness of Christ. But what is true of Christ and Melchizedek is true of every saint as the Beauty of Christ is “realized in each of them.” The experience of Melchizedek is open and available to all imitators of Christ.

Maximus completes the thought with a final appeal to Hebrews and the depiction of the singular reality establishing a different order of Subject:

If, in addition to these things, he should also deny himself, having lost his life, according to the divine voice, which says: 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.”[7]

The life and Subject that would find itself, ground itself, father itself, or constitute its own presence, is cast aside for a different order of reality and experience. The Word of God vivifies and creates a new Subject, who through putting on virtue and knowledge enters a different order of existence in and through “His presence.” So the follower of Christ, like Christ, is no longer a creature of a particular family and genealogy, and is no longer a Subject of time but puts on the full likeness of Christ as he possesses “divine and eternal life” and “is in no way bounded by death.”  

Jesus Christ is an economy and a reality, and the only access to this economy and reality is through Him. Putting on Christ is to put on the wisdom and virtue of God. The wisdom of Christ is Christ. The virtue of Christ is Christ. The love of Christ is Christ. The hypostatic joining of deity and humanity in Christ is repeated in the saint who experiences immediate union with God in Christ, not through an ecstatic departure but through a union of the human with the divine. The created nature is brought to its full limit and potential and is thus preserved through the Word.  

In summary: the divine and human brought together in the person of Jesus Christ is the mystery that is repeated in the salvation Christ brings. Christians comprehend this salvation – that is, it exists on a historical and earthly plane of reality – we see the God-Man Jesus Christ acting in history, defeating sin death and evil (the experience of nothing) and so too the experience of salvation can be described in terms of human transformation and experience.


[1] Maximus the Confessor, The Ambigua, Volume 1, trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 7.38.

[2] James J. O’Donnell, Augustine Confessions, vol. II (Oxford, 2012), 126-7. Cited in Pantanteleimon Manoussakis, “St. Augustine and St. Maximus the Confessor between the Beginning and the End” (Peeters Publishers, Studia Patristica, 2016) 2. Published in Academia edu – https://www.academia.edu/28215430/St_Augustine_and_St_Maximus_the_Confessor_between_the_Beginning_and_the_End

[3] Ibid, Manoussakis. The Augustine quote is from Confessions, II 4.9.

[4] Manoussakis, 3, Citing Augustine’s Confessions, II 6.12.

[5] Maximus the Confessor, The Ambigua, Volume 2, trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 37.8.

[6] Ambigua, 10.45

[7] Ambigua, 10.48.

Incarnation as an Eternal Fact About God and the World or a Momentary Provision?

With the celebration of the resurrection and ascension of Christ, we may conclude that this marks the end of Jesus’ incarnation. He accomplished what he came to do, and has now returned to his disembodied estate (at least this is the way I pictured it as a young Christian). But is the incarnation a momentary affair in the life of God, in which the Son momentarily alights on earth (a mere 33 years) only to ascend and shed his body to take his place once again in the spiritual realm? I am not sure that I had thought it out or could articulate it, but I was not alone in picturing the incarnation as temporary and provisional. Unfortunately, this is a common presumption which gives rise to notions of salvation and the Christian life that are disincarnate (disembodied, otherworldly, “spiritual,” inward, individualistic, and focused on going to heaven). The provisional incarnation relinquishes the incarnate work of Christ in his real-world defeat of evil, and allows for a provisional evil to reign in his absence.

Incarnation as an Eternal Fact About God

The incarnation of Christ, in which the creator and the created, the divine and human, and heaven (the dwelling place of God) and earth are brought together, should have forever dispelled the division between the earthly and spiritual, typical of evangelicalism and of many forms of Christianity. The incarnation, according to Maximus the Confessor, is the explanation of creation:

The mystery of the Word’s incarnation contains the force of all the hidden meanings and types in scripture, and the understanding of the visible and intelligible creatures. The one who knows the mystery of the cross and tomb knows the true nature of these aforementioned things.  And the one who has been initiated into the ineffable power of the resurrection knows the purpose for which God made all things.[1]

Nature did not originally have unity with God, but according to Maximus, the incarnation has brought about this unity, in which both creation and God maintain an integrity “unaltered on the level of its essence.” By virtue of the incarnation and the union of creator and creation, nature will “continue to abide with its essence strictly intact and in every way undiminished” by sin. “In this way, the Word entered into ‘communion’ with human nature in a way that was ‘far more marvelous than the first,’ essentially uniting nature to Himself in a union according to hypostasis.”[2]

God reveals himself in the incarnation, making of the created order a fit dwelling for his presence. God in Christ provides renewed life to Adam and the created order becomes lit up with his glory. As Lewis Ayres pictures it, Christians are to “see themselves embedded within a cosmos that is also a semiotic system that reveals the omnipresent creating consubstantial Word.”[3]  As Paul writes, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him” (Col 1:15–16). What is accomplished through him and for him is not a failed or temporary arrangement. Incarnation completes, heals, and fulfills creation.

According to Irenaeus, “He was incarnate and made Man; and then he summed up in himself the long line of the human race, procuring for us a comprehensive salvation, that we might recover in Christ what in Adam we lost, namely being in the image and likeness of God.”[4] As Paul states it, “He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Eph 1:9–10). This summing up of the incarnation is an eternal and ongoing fact about God. In Maximus’ formula, (as I have described it here) “The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things” (Ambigua, 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).

Provisional Incarnation Allows for the Continued Reign of Evil in a Heaven and Earth Divide

The issue begins with how seriously we take the incarnation and it ends with how we perceive the beauty of God and the ugliness of evil. If the incarnation is seen as provisional, then true Christian peace and beauty must be discontinuous with this world as we have it. Yes, the kingdom of God will usher in a new world, but if this kingdom is of another order, then so too the salvation, ethics, and politics of Jesus. The incarnation, in this understanding, points away from the earthly work of Christ to a spiritual transaction between the Father and Son. Salvation is primarily soulish and disembodied, so that ethics is secondary and various forms of evil may be seen as necessary (part of God’s plan). Christians can thus tolerate great ugliness and the injustices of the world, while simultaneously refusing the beauty of God’s glory with which the world is permanently imbued in the incarnation.

If the incarnation is temporary and provisional, then the division between heaven and earth, the transcendent and immanent, the spiritual and material, must be a permanent division in which the affairs of this world can neither bear the weight of God’s glory nor the ugliness of radical evil. The world is rendered a neutral grey with only slight gradations of brightness and darkness, while all that is truly good is bound in heaven and all that is truly evil concerns the soul. Embodied reality is rendered secondary, such that what one does in the flesh, or one’s ethical practices (whether good or evil), only pertain in a secondary manner. There is a division within reality in which the earthly, the embodied, and the created, are secondary realities. In this form of Christianity, the primary concern is with individual souls going to heaven and missing hell, and both the goodness and evil of the world are temporary and provisional – just like the incarnation.

With belief in this discontinuous incarnation, we miss not only the great beauty of God’s creation but the incarnate goodness of God and, as demonstrated in the history of the church, Christians will tolerate evil and the most profound forms of ugliness as these are considered temporarily necessary and expedient. Violence, war, racism, and ultimately the worst forms of cruelty and genocide have been associated with forms of Christianity which have not only tolerated but promoted colonialism, slavery, and violence in the name of a greater (disincarnate) good.

A provisional incarnation means the gospel pertains primarily to the “spiritual” realm and the injustices and cruelties of this world must be seen in light of this greater concern. As theologian Wayne Grudem states it:

In areas where there is systematic injustice manifested in the treatment of the poor and/or ethnic or religious minorities, the church should also pray and—as it has opportunity—speak against such injustice. All of these are ways in which the church can supplement its evangelistic ministry to the world and indeed adorn the gospel that it professes. But such ministries of mercy to the world should never become a substitute for genuine evangelism or for the other areas of ministry to God and to believers mentioned above.[5]

Rather than the gospel addressing and correcting wrong, in this typical evangelical theology, the gospel, evangelism, and conversion are realms apart from injustice. The best one can do is “pray” and “speak out against injustice” but to do more would potentially distract from the real work, as these are only “supplements” to the “genuine” work. The gospel is limited to the disembodied soulish realm, and salvation is mainly from the world and not for the world while the presumed anthropology is absolute individualism.

This split between heaven and earth and the divine and human, renders ethics and practice realms apart from belief and doctrine. Again, according to Grudem, theology and ethics must be purposefully separated:

The emphasis of systematic theology is on what God wants us to believe and to know, while the emphasis in Christian ethics is on what God wants us to do and what attitude he wants us to have. Such a distinction is reflected in the following definition: Christian ethics is any study that answers the question, “What does God require us to do and what attitude does he require us to have today?” with regard to any given situation. Thus theology focuses on ideas while ethics focuses on situations in life. Theology tells us how we should think while ethics tells us how we should live.[6]

According to Grudem, belief and practice are separate and thus ethics does not enter directly into theology, as if belief and doctrine do not already entail a set of practices. The presumption is that of René Descartes, that the soul and body are separate and thus belief is interior while practice is exterior.

Another problem with a discontinuous incarnation is that sin is relegated to legal transgressions and individual acts, and the corporate and incarnate nature of the problem is overlooked. Again, Grudem serves as an example of this legal and individualistic understanding of sin:

We may define sin as follows: Sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature. Sin is here defined in relation to God and his moral law. Sin includes not only individual acts such as stealing or lying or committing murder, but also attitudes that are contrary to the attitudes God requires of us. . . .

The definition of sin given above specifies that sin is a failure to conform to God’s moral law not only in action and in attitude, but also in our moral nature. . . . It is far better to define sin in the way Scripture does, in relationship to God’s law and his moral character.[7]

With temporary incarnation, sin is not connected to the orientation to death or the corporate evil that killed Christ, just as deliverance from sin is not connected to the defeat of this orientation. Sin is not related to the death dealing systemic evil, which Christ describes in all four Gospels, as that which would “save the self.” Sin is not connected to the deception Isaiah describes and which Paul focuses upon; the “covenant with death.” In Grudem’s theology sin is not related to the devil, evil spirits, systemic evil, or the world of darkness, which is the focus of much of the New Testament. Sin is simply understood in relation to God’s law and salvation is satisfaction of God’s “moral character” as expressed in the law. In this understanding the cross of Christ does not directly address the problem of evil. In other words, the life of Jesus, his teaching, death, and resurrection do not really figure into the central problem and its resolution, which is solely connected to the law.

Meanwhile, the problem of evil, which is thought to go unaddressed by the cross, is explained as part of God’s plan. After all, what greater evil could there be than the murder of the Son, and yet this too is part of God’s plan to find self-satisfaction. Evil then, has its purposes as part of teaching people to endure suffering and creating better souls, so that God deploys evil as part of a “soul-making theodicy.” Rather than seeing the cross as the challenge and defeat of evil, evil is given a role in God’s plan.

In fact, evil may be a difficult category to discern, as God must have designated certain persons to rule in patriarchy, slavery, racism, nationalism, and colonialism, so that the gospel can be spread and souls saved. Better to oppress, dominate, and even kill the body so that the soul might be saved. Colonialism spreads the gospel and slavery trains and disciples those who otherwise might remain ignorant of salvation.

In other words, where the solutions of the incarnation, in addressing evil on the cross, are set aside, evil becomes an instrument which may be directly deployed by the church or perhaps is not recognized as evil at all. As Duane Loynes describes in a survey of the literature, John Feinberg, in his comprehensive survey of evil and theological and philosophic approaches to the problem “fails to mention slavery, racism, genocide, African Americans, Native Americans, liberation theology, Cone, King, the Civil Rights Movement, or the American Church’s tragic history of injustice.” He notes N. T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God provides passing references to the horror of Hurricane Katrina as an inspiration for his text, but doesn’t acknowledge the fact that Black bodies were the ones who suffered the most.”[8] Norman Geisler’s systematic theology, likewise “is dedicated exclusively to the topics of sin and salvation,” and yet makes no reference to corporate or systemic evil such as slavery or racism.[9] He also provides examples from Catholic theology and concludes, “Because of this silencing and invisibility, there are not only voices that have not been heard, there are moral questions that have not been asked. . .” Questions of racism, colonialism, and white supremacy, have gone unasked and unanswered by multiple generations.[10]

The New Testament Pictures the Body of Christ as a Continuing Community of Practice Bringing About Holistic Salvation

The teaching of the New Testament (and an observable truth) is that belief and practice cannot be separated and that practice reveals true convictions. This is why it is necessary to think out our convictions in a community of practice, as the fulness of doctrine and the fulness of salvation are lived-out beliefs expressed and learned through the practices and discipleship engendered in the church. One is not “saved” apart from the body of Christ any more than one can have a disembodied belief. Language and thought are not realms apart from the body but come to us through linguistic communities which embody certain beliefs in their practice. In the church, primary conviction is expressed in the ethic, the prayers, the hymns, the sermons, expressed in the life of the church – a life and set of practices that are salvific. The incarnation continues, and the church is a form of this continuation. Being joined to the incarnate One is not provisional or partial, but is holistic and eternal.

As Loynes writes in response to Grudem:

In examining the accounts of healings performed by Jesus in the Gospels, it should be obvious that they embody the union of spirituality and liberation. They are never juxtaposed as if one is opposed to the other. In fact, we sometimes find Jesus engaging solely in the work of ‘liberation’—healing people, freeing them from physical, earthly burdens—without preaching a ‘spiritual’ Gospel.[11]

 The problem is, where Jesus’ work is “spiritualized” (as deliverance from a legal category or deliverance from the wrath of God) the healing ministry of Jesus, and the historical life and death of Christ (or in short, the incarnation), are rendered secondary to the real story which is a-historical and “spiritual.” Jesus has born a spiritual and legal punishment which only indirectly pertains to historical events. The incarnation as provisional misses the eternal defeat of sin, death and evil – which in light of the eternal incarnation are defeated forever.

To know God is to know Christ in the world and to know the world through Christ. God has made nature new, including human nature, “returning it to its primordial beauty of incorruptibility through His holy flesh.”[12] Certainly this is a work in process, but apart from this joining of humanity and God in the incarnation there is no salvation, no renewal, no defeat of evil.

(Register for the Class Marginalization and Restorative Justice, starting April 17th and running through June 9th, here: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1]Maximus, Chapters on Theology and Economy 2.57‐58. Cited by Derrick Peterson, in “Maximus and Augustine: The Will, Incarnation, and Aesthetics of Creation” uploaded to academia-mail.com.

[2] Maximus the Confessor, The Ambigua, Volume 2, trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 36.2.

[3] Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to 4th Century Trinitarianism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) 325. Cited in Peterson.

[4] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.18.1. Cited in Peterson.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 868. Cited in Duane Terrence Loynes Sr., “A God Worth Worshiping: Toward a Critical Race Theology” (2017). Marquette University Dissertations (1934 -), 94.

[6] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 26. Cited in Loynes, 97.

[7] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 490–491. Cited in Loynes, 100.

[8] Loynes, 110.

[9] Loynes, 100.

[10] Loynes, 111.

[11] Loynes, 94-95.

[12] Ambigua, 42.5.

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.