Do Not Give Way on Your Desire: Comprehending Sexuality Through the Trinity

The Church, in its various institutional forms, is in the midst of a sexual crisis in which both married and supposed celibate clerics are not keeping their vows. Could it be that the ordering of desire around a misconstrued image of ultimate reality (God and human) is playing into this crisis?

At the heart of what is considered the most theologically developed portion of the New Testament, Paul brings together sexuality, desire, and Trinity that depicts the deepest “groanings” of human longing as a direct communion with the Holy Spirit. Desire gone bad and then rightly channeled is the substance of Paul’s depiction of redemption. For a variety of reasons, this economy of desire once developed and appreciated in the early church, is often no longer accounted for in standard depictions of salvation, God, and what it means to be human.

The extra-biblical discourse on the Trinity, for example, is typically abstract and esoteric or it is presumed that God’s inner life is completely closed off to us (apophaticism). But in passages like Romans 8, which most clearly depicts God as Trinity, there is also a depiction of human entry into the divine life on the basis of this intra-triune relation. Here there is no clear demarcation between immanent (who God is in himself) and economic (and who God is for others) Trinity.  In fact, it is not clear that these categories are adequate, as what is being depicted is that who God is for himself opens his life to others.

 At the same time, the God who is become man incorporates humankind into his life on the basis of who he is but also on the basis of what it means to be human. That is, prayer “groanings” (Ro 8:26), inclusive of the depth of human desire and need are the point of communion with God through the Spirit. It is not the setting aside or thwarting of desire but the mediation of desire which opens into participation in the inner life of God. God’s desiring love, his incorporating communion, is the ontological ground and fulfillment of human desire.

In this use of the word desire, we have passed beyond gender, though human desire is always initiated in gender. It is engendered bodily, but to limit it to gender is on the order of explaining thought as a mere product of the brain. The embodied and enabling factor of thought and desire, for all but the crudest reductionist, is not its ultimate explanation. Paul accounts for this tendency to reduce desire to gender as the law of sin and death (a law of desire – Ro 7:7). A “married woman is bound by law to her husband” so that her husband, representative of the law, constricts her desire.

Paul is not advocating adultery or celibacy but he is describing how desire can be ordered and channeled, such that one becomes a slave to law/desire (“I did not know desire apart from the law” 7:7). That is, both things (desire and law) arise simultaneously as a form of bondage in which all that one is and does is defined by this dynamic. Those who channel their desire into gender alone are on the order of those who have made the law the ultimate point of mediating relationship to God. The law bound are also the gender bound, so that one is controlled by their relationship to the law/husband. To state it in different terms, one’s love is constricted by the marks of maleness or femaleness.

Becoming united with Christ amounts to a breaking free of this dynamic: “you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another” (7:4). The love of God experienced in Christ is a release from the slavery to the law: “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Ro 7:6). Gender and with it, desire, is not an end in itself but is the medium to a relationship which transcends gender and erotic love. In the words of Sarah Coakley, “desire is more fundamental than gender, and the desiring, trinitarian God ultimately ambushes all attempts to fix and constrain gender in worldly terms.”[1]

It is on this basis of a transcendent desire that Paul describes a communion with God through the direct intervention of the Spirit in prayer. Prayer, the expression of “eager longing,” is the occasion in which there is evoked and realized adoption into the family of God: “you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (8:15). All three persons of the Trinity enable this communion. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” and “fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him” (8:16-17). Prayer is both the entry point and defined by the communion with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit.

This realization of Trinitarian agape love is not on the basis of a sublimation or refusal of erotic or gendered desire but the realization that gender, desire, and marriage, are a human economy which is to be conjoined with the divine communion in which the Spirit engenders Sonship. The divine communion opened to humanity through the Son links all of creations groanings in a cosmic sort of childbirth in which human desire is drawn into the divine economy so as to bring about the full adoption of humanity into the life of the Trinity (8:22-23).

Sex, gender, and desire, disconnected from this life in the Spirit, is on the order of a disembodied agape love or a prayer life that always seems to be speaking into the void. Prayer as a monologue to a distant patriarch is like an empty eroticism or a desire defined by gender and law.  The communication, the groaning, the desire is not answered by God but is left to itself – which describes life in the law; relationship, not to a person, but to an impersonal and mechanical-like symbolic order.

 In describing the Trinitarian communion Paul also describes a world participating in the purposes of God in which the deepest human “eager longing” is not closed in on itself. Primordial desire left to itself becomes the law of sin and death, but this same primordial desire opened to Christian hope is channeled beyond “life in the flesh” to hope of adoption as “children of God.”

A common theme of the church fathers is that the incorporation of the believer into the life of the Trinity through the Spirit is on the order of being incorporated into marriage through sex. As Sarah Coakley describes it, “For Origen, agape simply is Eros, by another name; whereas for his rather different successor in the Song-commentary tradition, Gregory of Nyssa, Eros is agape “stretched out in longing” toward the divine goal.” Just as the sexual bond makes of the two one flesh, so too the binding together in the Spirit is a fulfillment and ordering of desire. As Dionysius the Areopagite describes it, “’desire’ becomes an ontological force inherent to the divine life itself, an ecstatic capacity of God to go out and return, always ‘carried outside of himself’ whilst also “remaining within himself.”[2] Just as one is incorporated into the marriage relationship through the fulfillment of desire, so too the desire of God (the desire originating in God) describes this same self-transcendence or going outside of himself in an overflowing love.

Gregory of Nyssa, in Homilies on the Song of Songs describes the kinsman/Christ as drawing his lover/disciples through a reflected beauty in which desire is the power of the Spirit: “the Bride has dedicated herself to her kinsman and in her own form has taken on the beauty of her Beloved.” Andrew was led to the Lamb by the reflected attraction in the voice of John. Nathanael attracts Philip through the same allure that the maidens find in the kinsman’s lover – perfect in her comeliness. This reflected “’glory’ means the Holy Spirit, if account is taken of the Lord’s words; he says, after all, ‘The glory that you have given me, I have given to them.’” That is, the eroticism of sexual attraction in the Song translates directly into the attraction of Christ through the Spirit (Homily 15). “For it is obvious that where she is concerned the Word is pointing to this: that the soul, through the upward journey she has completed, has been exalted to the point where she is straining forward toward the wonders of the Lord and Master.”

There is a passage into desire in which “childishness” is left behind as the “disposition shaped by erotic love” is joined to God – “such were the souls of David and Paul.” David says, “But for me it is a good thing to cleave to God” and Paul says, “None shall separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, not life or death or what is present or what is future, or anything else.” Gregory calls those who stifle this desire through a misbegotten virtue, “concubines” (as they do not share in the divine Spirit of kingship) as it is out of fear, rather than by rightly directed desire, that they refuse evil: “by drawing near to the good through servile fear rather than through a bride’s love—she becomes a concubine rather than a queen because of her fear.”

Gregory, unlike Augustine, in no way denigrates marriage or sex. “We are well aware that it is not a stranger to God’s blessing” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). As Gregory describes it, however, one can either be a “Pleasure-lover” or a “God-lover.” The problem is not desire per se but whether desire is rightly ordered or given its proper telos (as a God-lover). It is not a matter of setting aside desire but of channeling it and even preserving it. That is, one should not spend desire solely on the earthly but channel it toward the heavenly.

Imagine a stream flowing from a spring and dividing itself off into a number of accidental channels. As long as it proceeds so, it will be useless for any purpose of agriculture, the dissipation of its waters making each particular current small and feeble, and therefore slow. But if one were to mass these wandering and widely dispersed rivulets again into one single channel, he would have a full and collected stream for the supplies which life demands. Just so the human mind (so it seems to me), as long as its current spreads itself in all directions over the pleasures of the sense, has no power that is worth the naming of making its way towards the Real Good; but once call it back and collect it upon itself, so that it may begin to move without scattering and wandering towards the activity which is congenital and natural to it, it will find no obstacle in mounting to higher things, and in grasping realities. Gregory of Nyssa (de virginitate, chapter VII)

He goes on to explain, desire rightly regulated and channeled will burst upward against the constraining force of gravity: “in the same way, the mind of man, enclosed in the compact channel of an habitual continence, and not having any side issues, will be raised by virtue of its natural powers of motion to an exalted love.” This is the way God ordained “that it should always move, and to stop it is impossible.” Thus, to spend desire on “trifles” is to introduce a leak into a stream which would otherwise speed one “toward the truth.” This does not entail setting aside sex and marriage. “That in the cases where it is possible at once to be true to the diviner love, and to embrace wedlock, there is no reason for setting aside this dispensation of nature and misrepresenting as abominable that which is honorable” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). It is a matter of arriving at “due proportion.”

Purity is not a matter of ridding oneself of desire but of not dissipating desire on trifling rivulets. Much as in a Lacanian frame, Gregory equates desire with the life force. Lacan’s singular ethical imperative (“Do not give way on your desire”), understood in this light is the empowerment to remain in the right channel of life. “If, as an inexperienced and easy-going steward, he opens too wide a channel, there will be danger of the whole stream quitting its direct bed and pouring itself sideways” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). So, the sexual passion, which he compares to a “trifling debt of nature” need not and should not consume one in “over-calculating.” Rather, through “the long hours of his prayers [he] will secure the purity which is the key-note of his life” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). This purity is a desire preserved and propelled by the Spirit, bent not on sexual union alone, but on the ultimate “blending” by “sharing in the place the Spirit holds between Father and Son.”[3]

William of St Thierry, reflecting Gregory of Nyssa, in his Exposition on the Song of Songs freely depicts an erotic spiritual love: “his left hand is under my head, and his right hand shall embrace me” (Song 2:6): “This embrace extends to man, but it surpasses man. For this embrace is the Holy Spirit. He is the Communion, the Charity, the Friendship, the Embrace of the Father and of the Son of God; and he himself is all things in the love of Bridegroom and Bride.” He describes the full consummation of this desire in union with God: “Then, I say, it will be the full kiss and the full embrace, the power of which is the wisdom of God; its sweetness the Holy Spirit; and its perfection, the full fruition of the Divinity, and God all in all.”[4]

This understanding of the Trinity leaves behind the apophatic and lifts up the human condition as preparation and mediation for participation in the inner life of God. God is known through an empirical order, rearranged and redirected by its inclusion in the love of God.


[1] Sarah Coakley, “Pleasure Principles” in Harvard Divinity School Bulletin Archive (AUTUMN 2005 (VOL. 33, NO. 2) https://bulletin-archive.hds.harvard.edu/articles/autumn2005/pleasure-principles

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Quoted from Coakley, Ibid.

A Hermeneutic of Peace: The Spiritual Reading of the Old Testament Through Christ

What difference would it make to our theology if Jesus had died in bed of old age or if he had been killed as an infant? If his death is primarily a sacrifice of appeasement, then an infant sacrifice might be quite fitting. If he is a model for right living, then modeling dying in old age would be most fitting. What is missing in old age dying or infant sacrifice, and a theology which might accommodate such a death, is the political nature of his death. He was a political prisoner killed by imperial power on an instrument designed to reinforce the subjugation of slaves and noncitizens. His was a political death brought about by human violence. The point is not to isolate the political, but to recognize that the violence that is accentuated and exposed on the cross (which is political) pertains to every human sphere. The political along with its violence is not isolated from the religious, the social, and the personal. Each of these spheres are addressed in the New Testament, but not discreetly or separately. The New Testament uses battle imagery, legal imagery, family imagery, or psychological imagery, so as to describe the form of universal enslavement and emancipation (another image). There is no singular way of describing the problem and solution as both are pervasive and pertain to everything, while overlapping in a central nexus. It is, in the language of the New Testament, of cosmic proportions, pertaining to the word and world, so that we speak it and live in it. If the problem is violent (dealing in death throughout) then the danger is that we will miss it. More than a danger, the interpretive frame focused on the cross as a religious sacrifice or Jesus as a moral example, demonstrate the violence remains. This interpretive frame is demonstrably subject to an overlooked pervasive violence, which means a peculiar hermeneutic is necessarily part of the answer.

The incarnation tells us the answer is worked from the inside out, and this pertains to our hermeneutic strategy. As Paul describes, Jesus came “from a woman, coming to be under the Law” (Gal. 4:4). A sacrificial theology “satisfied” with a dead Jesus, or an ethical theology content with a moral Jesus, or even a political theology focused on a revolutionary Jesus, all suffer from attempting to contain the solution in the problem. In Paul’s language, they make Christ fit the Law. They all suffer from fitting the answer to a facet of the problem. By the same token, if we fit Jesus to the frame of the Old Testament, he might be taken as another sacrifice, another prophet, or another revolutionary. This explains the interpretive strategy demonstrated in the New Testament in its reading of the Old Testament and the predominant hermeneutic of the church fathers. The presumption is not only that Christ is the interpretive key to the Old Testament but this key entails suspending a literal, flat, violent, reading.

Paul, in explaining the significance of Mount Sinai says, “These things are told allegorically” ((Gal. 4:24) in David Bentley Hart’s translation). As Hart explains in a note to his translation, “Again, one should not assume that Paul does not mean precisely what he says, and does not take the tale to be essentially (not merely secondarily) allegorical. His interpretive habits are rarely literalist.” Paul is explaining the significance of the Law, but in his explanation, he is also making it clear that all people, both Jews and Gentiles, were enslaved to the fundamental elements or principles of the cosmos (τὰστοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου in 4:3) which included the Law. These “elementary things” might entail any number of things and there is a sense in which the obscurity and plural valence of the term gets at its inescapable nature. According to Hart, the “Stoicheia” might refer to material constituents of the world, the elementary aspects of language, or they might refer to idols. Paul may be likening the religions of the world to children’s earliest lessons prior to Christ, much as he describes the Law as a schoolboy’s tutor or custodian. Perhaps it is something like the deep grammar which religion and language share (in a Girardian sense) with the Law.

His argument in verse 8 is, if Galatian Christians return to the law this would amount to returning to idols or the impoverished Elementals which formerly enslaved. All religion, and particularly the Jewish religion, in Paul’s explanation, suffered from this deep grammar or this elementary way of talking that enslaves all religionists prior to Christ. To read the Old Testament and the law literally, as of equal weight and as a guiding prefix to Christ, would be nothing short of “turning again to the weak and impoverished Elementals” and to once again be enslaved (4:10). Paul is teaching the Galatians that the Law, including the story of Hagar, Jacob and Esau, and the story of Sinai, have a role on the order of a maidservant. To treat the maidservant as if she is the freewoman is to mistake freedom for bondage. “Cast out the maidservant and her son, for by no means shall the maid servant’s son inherit along with the freewoman’s son” (4:30). The allegorical interpretive strategy puts the container of the Law in its proper place. It was a tutor, a maidservant, a part of what is now counted as among the impoverished Elements.

In Corinthians Paul explains that to miss the allegorical sense in which Christ was present in the Law is to miss the true spiritual food and true spiritual drink for “the rock was the Anointed” (I Cor. 10:4). Paul makes the point throughout that in light of Christ, “Now these things have become typological figures for us, so that we should not lust after evil things, as indeed those men lusted” (10:6). To take the letter of the Law as an end in itself, or as Christ says, as if it contains life, is to fall under the same principal under which the Israelites lusted and which caused them to be idolaters. In both Galatians and Corinthians, Paul is describing a fundamental desire connected with the Law and elemental principles which caused them to “go whoring” after idols (10:7-8). He once again emphasizes that the correct reading is the spiritual understanding which reads Christ as the end of the lesson: “Now these things happened to them figuratively, and were written for the purpose of our admonition, for whom the ends of the ages have arrived” (10:11).

A spiritual or theological reading will find Christ in the Old Testament, so that the focus is not on the text per se (or the intent of the author, etc.) but on Christ. As Paul explains in 2 Corinthians, God is the authority in whom we should have confidence due to Christ (3:4) and not the words of scripture. It is God, “Who also made us competent as ministers of a new covenant, not of scripture but of spirit; for scripture slays but spirit makes alive” (3:6). A text-based faith or a letter-based competency is a “ministry of death” (v. 7) but the spirit and the spiritually based hermeneutic lifts the veil of the Law, in Paul’s simultaneous explanation and demonstration of this interpretive method. This spiritual reading is not focused on the historical events but on the lesson to be drawn, allegorically, for the admonition and edification of contemporary readers.

As Hebrews puts it, God has spoken in the Old Testament through a multiplicity of sources and in a variety of ways. This plurality of words and messengers is contrasted with the singular message and messenger in which this plurality is overcome (Hebrews 1:1-3). Hebrews, like Galatians, argues that the former word or Law from God was imperfect because it came by way of secondary mediators – angels, or prophets, or Moses – and the message did not come directly from God. The implication is that the human mediators marked/marred the quality of the message and this is in contrast to the perfect representation of Christ. This imperfect message shaped by imperfect messengers resulted in its hearers perishing in the desert, missing both the promised land and the promised rest. They were bound to death by the imperfection of the message but now the full message has resulted in freedom from bondage to the former message.

As Romans states it, “But now we have been released from the Law, having died wherein we were imprisoned, so that we slave in newness of spirit and not in scripture’s obsolescence” (7:6). It is not that the Law or the scriptures are abolished but their punishing effect, or the idolatrous desire which they accentuate and aggravate, have been suspended. “For when we were in the flesh the passions of sin, which came through the Law, acted in our bodily members for the purpose of bearing the fruit of death” (7:5). Paul’s cumulative description of this Law includes Moses, Sinai, Jacob, Esau, and the various commands subsequent to Abraham. The Law and scriptures (or the gramma or word) must include much of the Old Testament, but it is also connected at a deep grammatical level (the elementary principle, the childish language, the idolatrous inclination) with the universal law of sin and death. At points in Romans, it is not clear what law he might be referencing (the prohibition in Genesis, the Mosaic law, or some sort of natural law) and it no long matters, as all law is the law of sin and death.

Origen draws out his allegorical hermeneutic from this Romans passage (7:1-3) but his larger point is to bring about peace, inclusive of peace between the Old Testament and the New.

The word ‘woman’ doubtless stands for the soul that was held fast by the Law of Moses, and about which it is said, ‘so long as her husband lives, she is bound by the Law.’ But if her husband, doubtless, the Law, has died, he calls her soul, which seems to be bound, ‘released.’ Therefore it is necessary for the Law to die so that those who believe in Jesus should not commit the sin of adultery.

 He concludes that Moses is dead and the Law is dead “and the legal precepts are now invalid.” He patterns his claim, an allegorical hermeneutic rightly handling the Law, after the Apostle and with an appeal to Jesus. “Do you want me to bring forth proofs from the Scriptures that the Law is called Moses? Hear what he says in the Gospel: ‘They have Moses and the Prophets, let them listen to them.’ Here, without any doubt, he calls the Law Moses.”[1] The woman, according to Origen, stands for every soul bound by the Law and thus drawn into adulterous desire. The dead husband stands for a Law that no longer rouses adulterous desire. And all of this in a series of sermons on Joshua.

His point is, like this woman defined by the Law and subject to desire, now that we understand Joshua is Jesus (the same name in the Hebrew) we can also understand the true enemy. What is slain by Joshua is this adulterous sin that afflicts the soul:

You will read in the Holy Scriptures about the battles of the just ones, about the slaughter and carnage of murderers, and that the saints spare none of their deeply rooted enemies. If they do spare them, they are even charged with sin, just as Saul was charged because he had preserved the life of Agag king of Amalek. You should understand the wars of the just by the method I set forth above, that these wars are waged by them against sin. But how will the just ones endure if they reserve even a little bit of sin? Therefore, this is said of them: “They did not leave behind even one, who might be saved or might escape.”[2]

The battle the Christian has joined with Jesus/Joshua is against sin. Both the surface (the wars and carnage) and deep violence of the Law (sinful desire) are suspended in Christ as hermeneutic key.  In this sense,  one can agree with the refrain to “sanctify war,” as it is a war to become holy in body and spirit by destroying “all the enemies of your soul, that is “the blemishes of sins.” The battle is one in which you “mortify your members” and you “cut away all evil desires” and you are crowned as a victor by Christ Jesus – our true Joshua.

Origen’s point, as he states it plainly in Homily 12, is “that the wars that Jesus/Joshua waged ought to be understood spiritually.” He references Hebrews to make his case that the entire Mosaic system, inclusive of the tabernacle, the sacrifices and the entire worship are a “type and shadow of heavenly things,” and so too the wars that are waged through Jesus, “the slaughter of kings and enemies must also be said to be ‘a shadow and type of heavenly things.’”[3] He defends this allegorical suspension and transformation of the Law by appealing directly to Paul: “All these things, which happened figuratively to them, were written for us, for whom the end of the ages has arrived” (I Cor. 10:11).[4]

Origen expands on Paul’s argument (referencing Corinthians and Romans) to make the case that one who clings to a fleshy reading or a literal circumcision also clings to wars, the destruction of enemies, and Israelites seizing kingdoms. This literal sense mistakes Joshua the son of Nun for the son of God.[5] The one who is an outward Jew and who insists on circumcision, in Origen’s explanation of Paul’s allegory, is committed to reading the violence of Joshua literally and in the process misses what it means to be a Jew secretly and to receive the circumcision of the heart. This fleshly reader of scripture misses Jesus’ casting out and destroying those powers ruling our souls so as to fulfill his word, “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”

This violent non-allegorical or non-Christocentric hermeneutic of the original readers will only increase the violent work of the Law and will not achieve peace:

Then that Israel that is according to the flesh read these same Scriptures before the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, they understood nothing in them except wars and the shedding of blood, from which their spirits, too, were incited to excessive savageries and were always fed by wars and strife. But after the presence of my Lord Jesus Christ poured the peaceful light of knowledge into human hearts, since, according to the Apostle, he himself is “our peace,” he teaches us peace from this very reading of wars. For peace is returned to the soul if its own enemies—sins and vices—are expelled from it. And therefore, according to the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we indeed read these things, we also equip ourselves and are roused for battle, but against those enemies that “proceed from our heart”: obviously, “evil thought, thefts, false testimony, slanders,” and other similar adversaries of our soul. Following what this Scripture sets forth, we try, if it can be done, not to leave behind any “who may be saved or who may breathe.” For if we gain possession of these enemies, we shall fittingly also take possession of “the airy authorities” and expel them from his kingdom, as they had gathered within us upon thrones of vices.”[6]

Origen concludes that apart from this non-violent allegorical reading of scripture it is questionable that “the books of Jewish history would ever have been handed down by the apostles to the disciples of Christ.” Christ “came to teach peace so it is only by transforming these tales of “physical wars” into figures of “spiritual wars” that these books are made worthy of being read in the churches. “For what good was that description of wars to those to whom Jesus says, ‘My peace I give to you; my peace I leave to you,’ and to whom it is commanded and said through the Apostle, ‘Not avenging your own selves,’ and, ‘Rather, you receive injury,’ and, ‘You suffer offense’?”[7]

It comes down to a choice between the violent, fleshly, inheritance of the Law and Moses or the peace of Christ, and to cling to the fleshly reading, according to Origen, is disqualification from the inheritance of Christ. “If, therefore, you wish to be made worthy to pursue the inheritance from Jesus and if you wish to claim a portion from him, you must first end all wars and abide in peace, so that it may be said concerning the land of your flesh, “The land ceased from wars.”[8] Origen’s Christocentric allegorical hermeneutic has the peace of Christ as its continual aim and only the defeat of sin and violence are worthy of Christ. He suggests that the primary enemy of Jesus is the root of “bitterness” (the meaning of “Amorite”) that continues to dwell in those who continue to “strike out violently” (the meaning of Edom) and may linger on even in those who dwell in peace (the meaning of “Salamin”) but the lesson is clear:

The ones who strike violently are those who, placed in contests, endeavor to overcome devilish abodes and structures. But peaceful ones are those who produce peace for the soul after overcoming fleshly desires. Nevertheless, a hostile power, bitterness, steadfastly continues and strives to persist in both.[9]

Origen extends the reading of Paul, in what he describes as a cruciform hermeneutic applied to Joshua.

To what then do all these things lead us? Obviously to this, that the book does not so much indicate to us the deeds of the son of Nun, as it represents for us the mysteries of Jesus my Lord. For he himself is the one who assumes power after the death of Moses; he is the one who leads the army and fights against Amalek. What was foreshadowed there on the mountain by lifted hands was the time when “he attaches [them] to his cross, triumphing over the principalities and powers” (Col. 2:14-15).[10]

This allegorical reading, far from unusual, is the hermeneutic that prevailed in the apostolic period, the early Church, and it was the approach of much of Judaism in the first century. It is the approach of Hebrews, Galatians, I & 2 Corinthians, and Romans. As Hart points out, “Philo of Alexandria was a perfectly faithful Jewish intellectual of his age, as was Paul, and both rarely interpreted scripture in any but allegorical ways.”[11] 

The literal interpretation, with the peculiar meaning it will take on in the modern period (literalism) is a development arising only with the Reformation, prior to which the spiritual reading was normative. “From Paul through the high Middle Ages, only the spiritual reading of the Old Testament was accorded doctrinal or theological authority.”  Hart’s conclusion seems to echo Origen, “Not to read the Bible in the proper manner is not to read it as the Bible at all; scripture is in-spired, that is, only when read ‘spiritually.’”

To read the Bible as if it encourages violence or as if God is violent is to miss Christ, the New Testament, and the predominant witness of the church. To read the Bible through the hermeneutic born in the sixteenth century is, according to Hart, “at once superstitious and deeply bizarre.” This late Protestant invention is “not Christian in any meaningful way.”


[1] Origen, The Fathers of the Church: Homilies on Joshua, vol. 105, Translated by Barbara Bruce, (Washington D. C. The Catholic University America Press) p. 29. This blog is the product of a discussion with Matt Welch who prompted me to read Origen, provided me the text, and then pointed me to the key passages which I have deployed above. Matt has also pointed me to Hart and provided me with his translation of the New Testament. Matt’s friendship and dialogue through the years have been a key demonstration to me of Christ’s peaceful hermeneutic.

[2] Origen, 94

[3] Origen, 120

[4] Quoted as the opening to Homily 13.

[5] Origen, 125

[6] Origen, 130

[7] Origen, 138

[8] Origen, 168

[9] Origen, 204

[10] Origen, 29

[11] David Bentley Hart, Good God? A Response, a post in response to Peter Leithart on his blog at https://theopolisinstitute.com/leithart_post/good-god-a-response/ All the Hart quotes are from this blog.

Resurrection as the Personal Realization of Creation Ex Nihilo

The understanding of the world against which Christianity is pitted is one which begins with the world as we know it. This “world as we know it” sort of understanding might explicitly postulate the world as absolute (an infinite uncreated universe or a universe unfolding from a preexistent material) or it might, in its misconstrued Christian form, implicitly give final weight to the present cultural moment. An example of the latter, giving rise to the presumed order of the logic of Christianity, begins with creation (as “naturally” conceived as in the philosophical arguments). It is assumed that we have access to creation and that we build upon this understanding sequentially till we add in the order of salvation. Like the traditional prolegomena, it is presumed a basic knowledge of God and the world are given together and the story of salvation can be added on to this foundation. The influence of this distorted beginning shows itself, almost as bluntly as Greek philosophical understandings, in its treatment of the doctrine of resurrection. Of course, bodily resurrection made no sense in any of the Greek philosophical understandings, but it is shunted to one side even among Christians focused on creation ex nihilo. For example, creationists’ reaction to evolutionary biology, focused as they are on proving a First Cause sort of creator, seem to miss a key point of the resurrection: biology is not the primary human problem. Creation ex nihilo, then, if it is not paired with resurrection, misses the existential import it bears in the Bible and early Christian preaching.

There is some debate as to how explicit or fully realized the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is in the Old and New Testament, but what is clear is that Christian apologists of the 2nd century A.D., in defending the doctrine of the resurrection, fleshed out the doctrine of creation ex nihilo in its fullness.[1] Resurrection would require of Platonists, such as those encountered by apologists like Tatian (120-180 A.D.), a complete reconception of their world. It would demand a rethinking not only of God, but of humans, and of the material world (which was its own sort of absolute). The scoffing reaction of the Areopagites to Paul’s proclamation of the resurrection (Acts 17.32) indicates the overwhelming change the Gospel called for.

It was not just a matter of accepting resurrection, which would have been seen more as a damnable condition than salvific, but it was a matter of changing up the dominant world view in such a way as to make resurrection seem either plausible or desirable. Within a Greek frame, flesh involved a necessary corruption which could only be escaped by shedding the body and becoming an immaterial soul (not so unlike the continued understanding of a Greek influenced Christianity). Later, Celsus (as recorded by Origen) will mock the despicable lengths to which Christians are willing to go so as to make it seem any human soul would want to occupy a body that had rotted and which will continue to rot. “God in no way is able to do shameful things, neither does he wish things contrary to nature.” As Celsus will explain, God is reasonable and being reasonable he would not preserve the body, which Heraclitus tells us, “is more to be cast off than refuse.” The material and the corporeal are subject to chaos and corruption, and are subject to unreason, thus the reasonable soul must be rid of them.  “God is not willing or able irrationally to make everlasting the flesh which is full of things which are not beautiful. He himself is the reason of all things.” [2]

Seen from the stand-point of resurrection, it is obvious that death and corruption were the primary factor in the Greek conception of both God and the world. God cannot overrule the primary law of death and corruption which mark the material universe, and are separated out from his order of reason. God, equated as he was with reason, was eternally opposed to the discord and disorder of matter and this opposition constitutes an eternal dualism.

To be on the side of God would mean being part of the Greek polis, the counter-ordering of the city of man, built upon the implicit absolute of death. Controlling death, warding it off through religion, disciplining its chaotic inclinations through law, religion, sacrifice and the counter violence of the city, constitute(ed) the imposition of reason in this chaotic world. Much like the doctrines of penal substitution and divine satisfaction in Christianity gone bad, the price of not controlling the violence through violence, is to succumb to it.  But of course, these doctrines have arisen like pagan sacrificial cults on the presupposition that God must negotiate with and attempt to defeat the corrupting power of death, which controls the universe and which opposes him. This is a misreading of the universe, a misunderstanding of God, and a perversion of the Judeo-Christian hope.

The Jewish Scriptures are founded upon God’s creative control over the universe, and though there may not be a full development of creation ex nihilo, there is an explicit counter to divinizing any element in the world or to making any element of the world, divine or material, its source. Genesis seems to counter the violent Babylonian creation myth (or its equivalents), the Enuma Elish, in which the body or blood of the god, Tiamat, slain by Marduk, is the raw material of the created order. As a story of origin, Genesis purposely subordinates the chaos. Though it mentions the “confusion and emptiness,” it is subject to God and his organizing rule. The gods of the Enuma Elish were born from Tiamat and Apsu, the salt and fresh waters (Enuma Elish 1.1-12), but it is God who separates and organizes the chaotic waters of Genesis. The mythological sea and its chaotic waters always threatened, but in Jewish understanding the threat is eliminated. The waters are subject to God’s ordering and are a part of his creative artifice in Genesis. As Job explicitly has God inquire:

“Or who enclosed the sea with doors When it went out from the womb, bursting forth; When I made a cloud its garment, And thick darkness its swaddling bands, And I placed boundaries on it And set a bolt and doors, And I said, ‘As far as this point you shall come, but no farther; And here your proud waves shall stop’?

(Job 38:8-11).

 It was also a common belief that the heavens are of a different, divine order, than the sublunar world. This notion is also completely thwarted.  The Hebrew texts picture God as the originator of heaven and earth: “Thus says God, Yahweh, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, who hammered out the earth and its produce. Who gave breath to the people upon the earth, and spirit to those who walk on it” (Isaiah 42.5). The oneness of God, as opposed to a duality between God and the gods or the principles of the world, means there is a uniform order between heaven and earth.

“For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): “I am the Lord, and there is no other. I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, ‘Seek me in chaos.’ I the Lord speak the truth, I declare what is right.”

(Is. 45:18-19, RVSCR)

As James Alison describes it, there are no secret deals, no dark blood-letting, no prior chaos with which God has to deal.[3] Any social or religious order founded upon seeking God in chaos, is directly refuted by this God who speaks directly and clearly into the world. His personified wisdom precedes all of the elements of the world and there is nothing dark or threatening but all of creation is an ode of joy at the display of his wisdom: “The Lord created me at the beginning of His way, Before His works of old. From eternity I was established” (Proverbs 8.22-23). Reason or wisdom does not stand opposed to the created order nor does it illicit escape from this order, rather it is on display throughout creation. This wisdom from eternity is linked with all of creation; the springs, the hills, the fields, the heavens, the skies, and the clear depiction of a boundary put upon sea.  Throughout the Proverb, culminating with human creation, wisdom is described as the master workman (v. 30). So, what is prior to creation is God and the personified wisdom of God.

Here there is no dualism between the created order and reason, or between heaven and earth, or between the realm of God and the realm of the world. In fact, the world is consistently depicted as a fit dwelling place for God:

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Heaven is My throne and the earth is the footstool for My feet. Where then is a house you could build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest? For My hand made all these things, So all these things came into being,’ declares the Lord.”

(Is. 66:1-2)

Only God can prepare his dwelling place and he has done so by calling the world into being.

While this and many other verses seem to teach creation ex nihilo, it might be denied that they do so, as this doctrine is not a developed or universal understanding among Jews or even among early Christians. (For example several of both faiths view Plato’s creation account in the Timaeus, which depicts the world as created from a preexistent chaos, as borrowed from Moses.) Creation ex nihilo is implied and perhaps it is present in certain texts, but it will not become a definitively developed doctrine apart from belief in resurrection.

The development of the doctrine is clearly tied to the advent of belief in the resurrection, even as it developed among Jews during the Maccabean revolt. A mother encourages her son to submit to submit to martyrdom by looking to the origin of creation, and she ties this to the assurance of resurrection:

“I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed.  And in the same way the human race came into being. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers.”.

(2 Maccabees 7:28-29)

As Alison describes it, two things come together here, as for the first time we encounter the concept of creation ex nihilo and with it a conception of resurrection. With creation there came into being the human race, and so one can challenge the present social order, even upon pain of death, knowing that the social order is itself contingent. God is alive and exuberant and has nothing to do with death or the social order, such that it is a light matter to die rather than become subject to social purposes. What is coming into view is the implication of the work of Christ.

This is as close to an explicit teaching of creation ex nihilo as is to be found among the Jews, and yet it is also tied to an implied resurrection. The question is why this should be the case?

Certainly, the Hebrew Bible serves as an antidote to violent creation myths and it even provides explanation as to how these myths arose. The early chapters of Genesis supply ample material, which Paul calls upon in Romans 1, to describe the turn from worshipping God to deifying parts of creation. The notion of creation ex nihilo, or its near equivalent, is typically called upon in refuting idolatrous religion, and yet this is not enough, as Paul will point out. Though the people Paul is describing had ample knowledge of God and his relationship to creation, this knowledge is inadequate as a point of resistance to death dealing practices. “For they exchanged the truth of God for falsehood, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed” (1:25). The specific cause which Paul points out,“they became futile in their reasonings” and in “claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Ro. 1:21-22). Their problem is not that they have insufficient information about the First Cause. As Paul will work it out in the course of his explanation in Romans, their acceptance of false views of creation are tied to their orientation to death. As he says at the end of this first chapter, knowing that these things deserved and were tied up with death was no deterrent. They approved of wicked deeds, and knowing they were tied to death was perhaps, an impetus to do them anyway (1:32).

The specific triangulation which he comes to in chapter 4, with the depiction of the faith of Abraham, is that Abraham came to near simultaneous conclusions concerning death, creation, and his being the father of a new sort of nation: “(as it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations’) in the presence of Him whom he believed, that is, God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that do not exist (Ro. 4:17). The capacity to believe God can call into being that which does not exist is a direct correlate to believing he gives life to the dead. These two beliefs are at the center of a new identity, based on resurrection faith. This faith, which recognizes the gratuitous nature of God in creation and in regard to rescue from death, is very much tied to Abraham’s relationship to the law. The law has no hold on him; it does not pertain to his benefits and holds out only wrath (4:15), yet faith renders it irrelevant.

All of this though, comes to Abraham as part of his own existential journey into a reorientation to death.  His faith became a realization as “he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old” (4:19). Likewise, it was the recognition that Sarah’s womb was dead, combined with his faith that God could bring life from out of death, that brought him to “being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able to perform” (19-22).

What Abraham, as the prototype of Christian faith comes to, is the understanding that his is not primarily a biological or material problem. Death reigns only for those who, in their sinful orientation, imagine they must negotiate life on the basis of death. Death is put in its place by faith in God, and the faith which is no longer oriented by the sinful orientation, is enabled to put the material order and the corporeal body in their proper place (along with the law).

Even in the sequence of the writing of Genesis, it is the realization of Abraham that precedes the writing of the early chapters of Genesis, so that proper access to creation is enabled by the disabling of death and the idolatrous reification of death, by which Abraham is surrounded. The access to creation is always enabled in the same way. In this sense, creation ex nihilo and resurrection are not simply book-ends at the beginning and end of time, but pertain to this present moment. Where matter, death, biology, and time might be experienced as barriers which block out ultimate reality, faith recognizes that the world, the body, the material order of the cosmos, are the conduits for presently participating in the life of God. Creation understood in light of salvation turns out to be an unfolding of God’s eternality to his human offspring.

 The danger, even with a misconceived creation ex nihilo, would be to imagine that there is a sequence from nothing to something, as if nothing is an actually existing stage in the order of things or a stage which accompanied God prior to creation. The sequence upon which we depend is not marked, as William Lane Craig, has pictured it, as God shifting from his eternal intention (in which nothing accompanies God) to his causal power. The existential encounter with God in the reality of death, empties out the tomb and empties out this reified conception of nothing. The recognition of the power of resurrection in the midst of death opens up recognition of God’s abiding presence in and through creation.  


[1] This is the claim and explanation of James Noel Hubler in his dissertation Creatio ex Nihilo: Matter, Creation, and the Body in Classical and Christian Philosophy Through Aquinas which can be accessed at https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2119&context=edissertations

[2] In Origen, Contra Celsum, 5.14

[3] See chapter 4 of James Alison’s, On Being Liked, Herder & Herder (April 1, 2004

The Wrath of God Proceeds from His Love

Christ came to address the problem of sin and not the various consequences of sin, such as the wrath of God, guilt, shame, or the list of consequences spelled out in Romans 1 (degrading passions, greed, unrighteousness, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossiping, slander, hatred of God, arrogance, boastfulness, etc.). To miss the root problem underlying these consequences is to miss why Christ came and the role of God (he “turns them over to their desires” (Ro 1:24)), in these consequences. Christ did not come to turn away the wrath of God, which would mean he would be turning away God’s love as well. Christ came to do away with what gives rise to wrath. Likewise, he did not come to resolve the problem of guilt but to do away with what causes guilt – and so on down the list. These consequences flow from the root problem of shutting ourselves off from God, and of course in addressing the root problem these consequences are addressed up to and including, particularly, God’s wrath.

To imagine the wrath of God is the primary problem is to miss the way in which it is also a necessary part of the cure. Paul describes sin (the root cause and not the results) as the exchange of the truth for a lie in which the creature displaces the creator as the object of service and worship (Ro 1:25). He seems to be referencing the early chapters of Genesis, but the same prognosis is repeated in each contemporaneous setting Paul addresses. The progression outlined in Ephesians introduces the same sequence of events. People have given themselves over to the “Archon of this world order” (2:2) and as a result they are “godless in the cosmos” (2:12). In other words, they have exchanged creation for the creator, becoming children of wrath (2:3), and this then results in their “being given over to their desire.” The wrath of God is unleashed in sins consequences in both passages, and this results in “walking in darkness” and being “dead in trespasses and sins.” God’s wrath or his vehemence against sin reveals itself in the fact that sin is a despoiling, dying, passing, circumstance.

Romans 1 specifies where the wrath of God is specifically directed: “against all the impiety and injustice of human beings” (Ro 1:18). Paul speaks of an immediate revelation of this wrath from heaven in its unfolding consequences oriented to and deserving of death (Ro 1:32). In Ephesians, walking according to the course of the Prince of this world, and thus being dead in sin, are synonymous with being “children of wrath.” Where love is an enduring state and God’s love endures forever, the experience of his wrath is a passing state (death being, by definition, unenduring) as the dross of sin is burnt away by the wrath which works in sin.

 The wrath is interwoven with being dead in sin but it is also immediately conjoined to the love of God: “because of His great love with which He loved us even when we were dead in our transgressions” (Eph. 2:4-5). The children of wrath are still children and are not simply consigned to wrath as an end point but are destined to pass through wrath to love. Paul is talking about himself and other Christians, who have passed into full experience of the love of God by way of wrath.

 As George McDonald has described it, the passage from wrath to love is not a change in God (from wrath to love) but a passage through a purifying love: “For love loves unto purity,” and this is often experienced as wrath, “as the consuming fire that will not be content until our sinful nature, everything that separates us from God, is burned away.” According to McDonald, “God’s anger is at one with his love.” Mercy and punishment, love and justice, are not opposed, “for punishment—the consuming fire—is a means to an end, that we might be the creatures he intended us to be. God’s punishment, his justice, can be his most merciful act.”[1]

The Hebraism “sons of death” (“sons of wrath” or “sons of stripes”) occurs in several places in the Old Testament, and as in Psalms 102, these children seemingly consigned to death are to be set free so as to constitute “kingdoms to serve the Lord” and to “tell of the name of the Lord in Zion” (Ps. 102:20-21). Ephesians seems to be echoing this tradition of building a kingdom by its purifying passage through the love/wrath of God. The “sons of wrath” are those very ones who will be shown mercy and who “are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (2:22). As Hebrews puts it, “Wherefore, we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29). This unshakeable kingdom is established in and through this purifying fire. In each instance, the point is to pass from walking in darkness and works of death so as to walk in the “good works, which God prepared beforehand” (Eph 2:10).

If salvation is a harmoniously functioning kingdom united under Christ (the thematic picture in the New Testament is of being “in Christ” as part of his body), then the image would seem to also account for the entire movement from damnation to salvation. That is, the disparate elements of the divided kingdom (split in two by the dividing wall of hostility) will come to constitute the stuff of the united kingdom. “He himself is our peace” and this means that hostility, enmity, hatred, and violence will be burned out to make way for this enduring peace among the objects of his wrath. He “abolished in his flesh the enmity,” which means we might speak of his having passed through the fire of wrath but he has turned it into purified love: “because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, [he] made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:4-5). The making alive due to love redirects from within the orientation to death definitive of experience of God’s wrath (i.e. wrath is a passage to love enacted by Christ).

 As David Bentley Hart has written, “The wrath of God in Scripture is a metaphor, suitable to our feeble understanding, one which describes not the action of God toward us, but what happens when the inextinguishable fervency of God’s love toward us is rejected.”[2] As Hart notes, this is the understanding passed down from the Church fathers. Origen writes, “If you hear of God’s anger and wrath, do not think of wrath and anger as emotions experienced by God. Accommodations of the use of language like that are designed for the correction and improvement of the little child. We too put on a severe face for children.”[3] In Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor, the wrath of God proceeds from his love, so that “even hell itself is not a divine work, but the reality we have wrought within ourselves by our perverse refusal to open out — as God himself eternally has done — in love, for God and others.” Sin is a shutting ourselves off from God, being lost in the cosmos (in a paraphrase of Paul), or being lost within ourselves such that “the fire of divine love cannot transform or enliven us, but only assail us as an external chastisement” as a hell of our own making. [4]  But what is sinful cannot endure the flame of God’s love. As McDonald puts it, “There is nothing eternal but that which loves and can be loved, and love is ever climbing towards the consummation when such shall be the universe, imperishable, divine.”[5] Or in Harts phrase, “Our God is a consuming fire, and the pathos of our rage cannot interrupt the apatheia of his love.”[6]


[1] George McDonald, “The Consuming Fire,” from Unspoken Sermonshttp://www.online-literature.com/george-macdonald/unspoken-sermons/2/

[2] David Bentley Hart, “The Hidden and the Manifest: Essays in Theology and Metaphysics” p. 62

[3] 1. Maurice Wiles and Mark Santer, eds., Documents in Early Christian Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1975), 7–10

[4] Hart Ibid.

[5] McDonald Ibid.

[6] Hart Ibid.

Progress in Conversion: From Charles Manson’s Brainwashing to Cultivating Discernment

In my last blog (here) I made the point that peaceful non-violence was the goal, but not yet an established or fully worked out ethic in the patristic period. Tertullian could imagine delighting in watching his enemies suffer in hell from his perspective in paradise, though he was adamant that one should not even be associated with violence by accepting a military honor. Origen failed to see that beating slaves was a form of violence unworthy of his explanation of God’s discipline; a form of violence which he otherwise abhorred. This does not mean that for the first 400 years nonviolent peace was not the goal, it simply indicates obvious blind spots. The point is not that the fathers willfully tolerated and accepted certain forms of violence; rather they could not fully discern what constitutes violence. What we can readily identify as unworthy of Christian thought and behavior, they were somehow blind to.

This entails several implications for how we are to go about the Christian life. First of all, there is no golden age in which the Christian tradition is adequate, in which the kingdom of God on earth is a fully worked out reality. Clearly the Constantinian compromise is one in which we are still enmeshed but it is not enough to “get beyond” Constantine. Restoration or return to the practices and understanding of the first Christians is an inadequate goal and a passive notion of salvation (salvation as return, as simply ridding ourselves of innovations, of passively entrusting our mind to the culture of the church) is sub-Christian. Conversion is not a singular moment but a process to be cultivated and applied as part of an expanding reality. Progress in conversion, in passage from being blind to seeing and to continued exposure of blind spots, must consist in cultivating capacities for discernment. This discernment must consist of several layers, objective and subjective, such that our understanding of God and objective reality will be a coordinate working in tandem with subjective experience. In other words, putting on the mind of Christ through the work of the Spirit is not an abandonment of reasoned effort or of concentrated self-reflection.  

Certainly, there is a model to be had in Christ, there is the supposition of guidance through the Spirit, and there is corporate molding in the Church, such that cultivation of dawning insight is not simply given over to rational thought, the power of dialectic, or the phenomenology of mood and emotion. There is also the original awareness in conversion of an enabling capacity to see. What is it precisely though, that one sees subsequent to having been blind? Beginning with the constituent pillars of blindness, its inevitable convergence with violence, its dependence on oppression, I believe it is possible to identify the dynamic of darkness (to name the violence) and to cultivate discernment of the light (to expand upon peace).

 Paul’s conversion from belief in a God who prompted him to kill, to belief in the Father of Christ which prompted him to lay down his life, contains the prototypical elements of every conversion. The sinful orientation to the law posits a punishing authority (call it god, father, the nation, Charles Manson (see below), or simply the superego) which holds out the possibility of life (presence, being, authentic existence, safety) at the expense of masochistic sacrifice (formal religious sacrifice, oppressive self-sacrifice, or sadistic sacrifice of others). Life is to be had in death and the structure of this dynamic of death consists of a perfect absence or a full darkness. The Pharisaical religion but any human religion, any human salvation system or neurosis, contains the same structure.

For example, Charles Manson, nearly illiterate and almost completely unschooled, might be confused with a gnostic high priest or new age guru: “Time does not exist. There is no good and evil. Death is not real. All human beings are God and the Devil at the same time, and all are part of the other. The universe is one and all that is.” In this world, according to Tex Watson (one of Manson’s “family” members), it is fine to kill because human life is worthless. To kill someone is the equivalent of “breaking off a minute piece of some cosmic cookie,” Watson explained. Death is to be embraced because it exposes the soul to the oneness of the universe. How Manson learned to manipulate people is not exactly clear. Some say it was through reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Tom O’Neill suggests that Charlie was trained by the CIA (a seemingly conspiratorial claim that he partially backs up). We know he was introduced to Scientology in prison. The mixture of his manipulative powers, LSD, sexual humiliation, reduced Tex and his friends to obedient automatons who killed 9 people at Manson’s arbitrary bidding. Cult, nation state, or run of the mill neurosis, will serve up the necessity of violent sacrifice, an oppressive depiction of god or reality, and a fundamental incapacity for discerning life.

There is an inverse relationship between what Paul (or anyone) is converted from to what he is converted to in Christ. The difference is that the refinements of death and the emptying out of evil blandly converge on violence (a limited prospect by definition) – there is no art, no refinement of sensibilities, no cultivation of discernment, as one simply learns, in Manson’s phrase, to be a “mechanical boy.” The swami on his bed of nails, the monk emptied of self and transformed into a statue, the soldier trained to stifle his humanity, the neurotic compulsively bound by repetition, or the Pharisee set to destroy his enemies, describes those hemmed in by death. Though this death like experience might be confused with self-transcendence, the isolating fixation within the self and the circumstance is definitive.

It is a more difficult task to describe how one subscribes to life and cultivates love and peace, not because these are less tangible but because here there is an infinite breadth of transcendent possibility. Knowing and loving others and the capacity to appreciate their value is the inverse sign of a developing capacity to judge the self and to escape the confines (the law) of a “given” circumstance.  The New Testament links conversion with a refocusing of values as one’s sense of worth is shifted. The pearl of great price or the treasure hidden in a field brings about an exchange, costing all that one has. The discerning pearl merchant, those well trained in the value of things, perceive what the undiscerning and untrained fail to perceive. One must undergo a “training in righteousness,” not merely to instill a new ethic but to be shaped by a new value and valuation system. To perceive God’s Kingdom, to be shaped by its values, will mean shedding the oppressive top down power of the law for a “power-under” or “bottom-up” perspective in which the subtleties of fine pearls and hidden treasures are exposed.

 A primary difference is that there is a substantive reality to be obtained as this treasure is precisely not an unobtainable object (as with the image of the idol or the ego) but is prime reality. There are substantial realities of love, peace, goodness and beauty, that do not depend upon nor are they ultimately overcome by insubstantial evil. As Robert Doran has put it, “this world is intelligible, things do hold together, we can make sense of the universe and of our lives, we can overcome the fragmentation of knowledge, we can make true judgments, we can make good decisions, we can transcend ourselves to what is and to what is good.”[1] The contrast with blindness gives no substantive or necessary role to evil or darkness but it does demonstrate that perception, sensibilities, discernment, and progress are the entry way into an alternative understanding which we must cultivate.

Maybe it is with this moral sensibility that one might appreciate Quentin Tarantino’s reworked ending for the Manson killers in “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood.” Instead of wiping out the innocent goodness of the world, represented by Sharon Tate, a true believer might reimagine a universe in which the good turns out to be the more enduring reality.


[1] Quoted from Byrne, Patrick H. The Ethics of Discernment: Lonergan’s Foundations for Ethics (Lonergan Studies) (p. 29). University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division. Kindle Edition.

The Options of Non-Violence or Gnosticism

Two things are clear from the teaching of the early Church prior to Constantine: 1. Christians were forbidden to participate in violence or in those professions connected to violence. 2. Violence is such a pervasive and deeply rooted problem that it often went unnamed and unrecognized even among those advocating its abolition. For example, Tertullian forbids any form of participation in violence for Christians, declaring: “But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away?” A Christian, must not bear the sword in any circumstance as the Lord, “in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.”[1] Yet, Tertullian could also revel in the potential delights of watching his enemies suffer: “What sight shall wake my wonder, what my laughter, my joy, my exaltation?—as I see all those kings, those great kings, unwelcomed in heaven, along with Jove, along with those who told of their ascent, groaning in the depths of darkness!”[2] Tertullian completely rejected violence, in so far as he understood it to be such. He was simply blind to the violence he projected onto God and which he still harbored in himself.

The confusion is not in regard to the Church’s stance toward violence. There is a unified voice in the first three centuries of Christianity ruling out this possibility. “Christians could never slay their enemies. For the more that kings, rulers, and peoples have persecuted them everywhere, the more Christians have increased in number and grown in strength” (Origen Contra Celsius Book VII). “Wherever arms have glittered, they must be banished and exterminated from thence” (Lactantius’ Divine Institutes IV). “Christians are not allowed to correct with violence” (Clement of Alexandria).  As Justin Martyr (110-165) explained to Emperor Antonius Pius, Christians cannot be guilty of sedition as the Christian notion is a kingdom of peace, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 2:4, in which people “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” Citizenship in God’s Kingdom, Justin informed the Emperor, is a present tense reality which renders Christians nonviolent: “That it is so coming to pass, let me convince you. We who once murdered each other indeed no longer wage war against our enemies; moreover, so as not to bear false witness before our interrogators, we cheerfully die confessing Christ” (The First Apology of Justin Martyr). There is an unequivocal stand against violence in the early Church.

The problem is not in determining whether violence was acceptable (it was not), the problem was in determining what constitutes violence. For example, is it acceptable for a Christian to accept a laurel crown as part of a military ceremony (the problem Tertullian deals with in On the Military Crown)?  A soldier, perhaps recently converted, refuses the honor and accepts martyrdom rather than to wear the crown. Tertullian argues that martyrdom is the correct choice, rather than to be associated, even by implication, in violence. He asks, “Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?” His answer is a resounding “no.” To be associated with such things, even through a laurel crown, is not an option. One could argue the point – as some did. It could even be pointed out that there were Christian soldiers (occupied nonviolently or recently converted, as is clear in the example). What cannot be argued is whether Christians rejected violence, as they clearly did. The problem they were negotiating is determining what constitutes violence.

The conflict is not between pro and anti-violence but with how to follow Jesus, how to recognize violence and evil. Tertullian’s opponents are arguing that “a peace so good and long is endangered for them.” Their fear is that obstinance, an unwillingness to recognize nuance, is being confused with nonviolence. Tertullian argues, “they have rejected the prophecies of the Holy Spirit” and “are already turning their back on the Scriptures.” He suggests a certain cowardice is at work: “in peace, lions; in the fight, deer.” One might argue either side of the equation, but the lack of clarity is not in regard to whether one should be violent but how to best avoid violence.

The first Christians had recognized that shedding blood, no matter the circumstance, is sin. Even vague association with violence, or the improper curbing of anger which leads to violence, they considered sin. What they had not recognized is that oppressive treatment (including physical punishment) of social inferiors, of women, of slaves, was violence as well. Origen, in making the case that God employs discipline, uses an unfortunate example: “And just as when you, punishing a slave or a son, you do not want simply to torment him, rather your goal is to convert him by pains.”[3] That beating one’s slave might count as violence seems to escape this one who railed against every form of violence. The point is not that the early Church accepted forms of violence, but the sense of what counted as violence had yet to be fully and clearly articulated. This is the proper task Christians are to continue to engage.

 We, I would hope, have no problem in recognizing the incongruity of Christians advocating beating slaves. That incongruence or blindness points to the need in the Patristic period to continue to develop a nonviolent sensibility. It also suggests the possibility of a similar blindness among contemporary followers of Jesus. The incomplete non-violence of the Fathers is not an excuse for violence. It should not serve to convince us that we can indulge in violence but indicates that the work of the Gospel continues, through the ages, to penetrate notions of authority, relationships with others and even within ourselves.

There is the need, as John Howard Yoder recognized, to overcome the Constantinian error of fusing state violence with the Church. Certainly “the entire Christian gospel” cannot be restored without recognizing this error. But this overcoming – this recognition that violence is evil – is not itself the restoration of the entire Christian gospel. Prior to the failure of Constantinian Christianity we do not, as Jennifer Otto points out, encounter a golden age of a perfect worked out pacifism.[4] This, however, is not a license to read Constantinian violence into the first centuries, it is simply the recognition that naming and overcoming violence is not easy but is the primary Christian task, and failure in this task is the greatest of temptations.

The hard stance against violence in the early Church explains the looming gnostic temptation in Patristic Christianity. The temptation is to concede the physical realm to the logic of this world’s kingdoms, an unnecessary concession where a clear delineation is not drawn between the two kingdoms (that of Christ and the world). The threat of martyrdom, of not striking back, of not offering resistance, is a temptation to concede to the logic of violence. As Tatian recognized, following his master Justin Martyr, a stark choice is posed: “I do not wish to be a king; I am not anxious to be rich; I decline military command.” I must “die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it.”[5] Tatian recognized the “death to the world” Christ requires, but he could not endure it. With the death of his teacher, he takes up the gnostic religion of Valentinian.

Dying to the world, it turns out, is a continual process of repudiation. It is the process of the ages of cultivating peace, of continually recognizing and overcoming violence.  A Christianity that has relinquished this task of extending peaceful non-violence has already conceded to gnostic madness.


[1] Tertullian (145-220 AD) in On Idolatry

[2] Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30. Translation by Carlin Barton in Barton and Boyarin, Imagine No Religion, 68. From https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/sites/ca.grebel/files/uploads/files/cgr_35-3_otto.pdf

[3] Origen, Homily on Jeremiah, 12

[4] Jennifer Otto, “Were the Early Christians Pacifists? Does It Matter?” https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/sites/ca.grebel/files/uploads/files/cgr_35-3_otto.pdf

[5]Tatian (120-180) Address to the Greeks.

Christ Defeated Sin, Death, and the Devil – Not God’s Wrath

The predominant New Testament and early Church picture of atonement, Christus Victor, is that the death of Christ defeated the powers of evil and brought about liberation from the bondage of sin, death, and the devil. For a variety of reasons Christus Victor was displaced.  The rise of Constantinian Christianity left no room for identifying state powers, the emperor, the principalities and powers, with real world evil as the archon or ruling prince, which would have normally been identified as a minion of the world archon (the Prince of this World), was now a Christian. Maybe it was simply that Christus Victor was sometimes ill conceived and poorly illustrated. Origen presumes that if we were bought with a price then it was the devil who demanded and received the payment of the blood of Christ. Gregory of Nyssa pictures the devil as a “greedy fish” and Jesus as the bait; “For he who first deceived man by the bait of pleasure is himself deceived by the camouflage of human nature.” God “made use of a deceitful device to save the one who had been ruined.” Augustine’s original sin mystified sin (see here) and opened the way for a semi-mysterious theory of atonement (divine satisfaction). The crude depiction of a too powerful devil and a deceitful God, the political and sociological shift with the rise of Christianity as the state religion, the development of a competing notion of sin (original sin), resulted, in the West, with a displacement of Christus Victor.

Anselm’s notion of divine satisfaction bears the allure of reasoned argument couched in the implicit metaphor of Roman law.  Anselm’s genius is often overlooked, coming as he does between the giants, Augustine and Aquinas. However, it is Anselm who marks the shift to a philosophical-like argument which, like his ontological argument and his cosmological argument, functions in a necessarily closed system (pure reason).  Both divine satisfaction and penal substitution are focused on an exchange between the Father and Son: an infinite offence against the infinite honor of God requiring an infinite payment so as to avoid infinite punishment. The infinite and divine exchange (between the Father and Son) is such that it tends to leave out finite human concerns, lived reality, and permits no further insight but it succeeds in shifting focus to pure reason. Instead of being ransomed from sin, death, and the devil, the focus shifted to reasoned abstractions – law, the mind of God, justice – so that we are saved from transcendent categories rather than pressing realities. Salvation becomes an exchange removed from the sickness unto death, as the wrath of God (certainly in Calvin but wrath and anger play a key role also for Anselm) is presumed to be the real problem.

As Gustaf Aulén has noted, penal substitution and Christus Victor present opposed views: the Son bears the anger of the Father (the focus of the Cross) in penal substitution, but in Christus Victor the Father and Son are united in the work of the Cross in defeating evil, death, and the devil. Where the resurrection is a natural consequence as the sign of this accomplished defeat, the resurrection seems to be an addendum to the main event in penal substitution. Instead of a ransom price paid to the devil, it is now God who requires and receives payment – a failed or mistaken notion compounded. Though Satan is depicted as “the prince of this world” (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) possessing “all the kingdoms of the world” and deciding upon who administrates his power (Lk 4:5-6) as “god of this world” (II Cor 4:4), penal substitution seems to leave this power in place. The state (including legal, political, and administrative apparatuses) is now part of the divine order rather than minion of the prince (archon) of this world.  Roman law and Mosaic law are so integral to the logic of both systems that rather than displacing the law (summed up by Paul as the law of sin and death) both divine satisfaction and penal substitution leave the law in place as it is the logic of these legal systems which called for the death of Christ, rather than the death of Christ suspending, displacing, or rendering the law unnecessary. In Paul’s language this would amount to a continuation of the rule of the law of sin and death.

Where penal substitution renders the teaching of Christ pre-Christian and thus not an integral part of the salvation of the main event – the Cross, Christus Victor joins the narrative of the Gospels as Jesus casts out demons displacing the Satanic (Math 12:22-29), challenges the principalities and powers at every turn – Roman and Jewish, heals the physically and spiritually sick under the power of evil. This is the inauguration of the displacement and defeat of the dark kingdom with the kingdom of light (continued in the Church). Gospels and epistles are joined in a singular narrative movement of the defeat of evil, death, and sin through Christ and the Church. Instead of sin being a mysterious guilt posing a problem in the inaccessible reaches of the mind of God, sin is here understood to pertain to enslavement to death and evil as administered by the Evil One. We can witness and explain the hold evil has upon us as the Cross exposes the working of the sin system.

Paul describes sin as a fearful slavery from which Christ defeats and frees us (Ro. 8:15). As Hebrews puts it, he freed “those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Heb 2:15).  The Gospels picture Jesus confronting this enslavement in myriad forms: for Nicodemus and the Pharisees the security of their religion provides life (life in the law); for the woman at the well the security of sexual love is life (looking for love and life in all the wrong places); for Pilate security is provided by Rome (life through state identity). All have entered into a covenant with death in which pride of place, of identity, or of association, wards off death (death as the loss of pride (shame), the loss of place, the loss of identity). In each instance, the encounter with Christ exposes the emptiness of the covenant with death.

In his life and death Christ continually enters that place or circumstance violently resisted by all. His is the poverty of no place (Nazareth, a peasant, a Jew), the humility of being a nobody servant, the shame of associating with social outcasts. As he enters the jaws of death by walking into Jerusalem his walk of death acceptance overcomes and defeats the myriad forms of death denial that would kill him. Peter’s denial is precisely a refusal of death, but so is the betrayal of Judas who most obviously illustrates denial of death as a succumbing to evil.

The Cross is a confrontation, not between the Father and the Son, but the forces of evil (the Jews, the Romans, Judas, and the Judas in all the disciples) which killed him. It is a defeat of the death resistance which would kill the one (the scapegoat) that the Nation might be saved. It is precisely a defeat of nationalism, racism, ethnocentrism, egocentrism, and all forms of evil that would deal out violence and death as salvation.

It is not God’s violence that kills Jesus but the violence of evil. His death confronts and defeats evil and binds the evil one whose singular weapon is exposed as empty by the empty tomb.