Universalism: A Coherent Participatory Ontology

I think it should be assumed that all of the vocabulary of the New Testament describing participation in the Trinity coheres around a singular understanding of God’s relationship to the world.  That is, our overall understanding of the key vocabulary of the New Testament describing being “in Christ” is not dependent on the etymology and context of dozens of different words describing participation in Christ. Aren’t walking as he walked, being “in Christ” or taking on his “likeness” or being “adopted,” “united with,” or part of the body, or being “joined to the head,” or being “baptized into,” or partaking of his body etc., all referring to the same reality?

This presumption of a singular economy is captured in the terms “recapitulation” and “apokatastasis,” both of which bear a sense of the universal. Both words simultaneously refer to the universe and all that it contains (that is, in the first instance the reference is not to “who” but “what”) but it also refers to an economy and ontology. Recapitulation and restoration (apokatastasis) were terms the early church used to express this singular and coherent ontology and economy captured in the notion of participation. These nearly synonymous terms (depending on who is deploying them), were simply a means of summing up the economy of redemption and reality found in Christ and the New Testament. The different words of the New Testament describing participation in Christ must all refer to the same fundamental reality (which does not mean context, etymology etc. can be ignored, but that we are not starting fresh with each new word or description). However, through the processes of church history and theology this singular economy has either gone missing or has been qualified in much theology and Christian understanding.

So, for example, when we come to the crucial passage in Romans 6:3-5 in which Paul is describing being “baptized into Christ Jesus” he uses a series of terms that seem to all be referring to the same reality. Those that are baptized into Christ “walk in newness of life” they have “become united with Him in the manner of His death,” and therefore “in the likeness of His resurrection.” The baptism, the walk, the likeness, or being in Christ are all referring to a singular participatory economy. In turn, the meaning of the Christian’s “dying to sin” (6:2) will depend upon its “likeness” to Christ’s “dying to sin” (6:10). The understanding of the nature of this “likeness” (6:5) determines whether participation or proximity is indicated. That is, determination of the meaning of the word “likeness” is key to understanding what salvation is about and how it works, and one might presume this is not a one-off occurrence but describes what the New Testament consistently describes.

Unfortunately, when we turn to commentaries on Romans to determine the meaning of the word “likeness” (ὁμοιώματι) the meanings have a wide variation. It can be taken as either a “corresponding reality” (which would make baptism a likeness once removed from the original and the death an imitation) or a form of the original (which would mean baptism is not a reduplicated dying but a participation in the singular death of Christ). The similitude is sometimes pictured as an image of an inward event. James Dunn writes, “The thought is not of integration with Christ’s death as such, as though believers could actually participate in a historical event that took place twenty to twenty-five years earlier.”[1]

In Dunn’s description there is a gap between the imaging subject and its archetype or object. He illustrates this understanding with an appeal to Plato in Parmenides in which “finite things are ὁmoίwmata in which the heavenly ideas are expressed.”[2] As Dunn works this out in regard to baptism the question arises as to how one can ever overcome the gap between subject and object. Just as the likeness of the earthly and physical is a representation of the eternal form, so Christ’s death is the transcendent reality or eternal form, while the individual’s conversion is a concrete expression of this form.[3] Though he is using the word “form” he does not have in mind a participatory form but an imitation once removed from the original. As he further illustrates and explains, this “likeness” is that of the idol, “intended to give concrete representation to spiritual and transcendent realities.”[4] He likens the relationship of the believer to Christ’s death, to a “mirror image” and not a direct participation.[5] The likeness of Christ is on the order of the likeness of an idol or mirror image. (Which raises the question as to whether Christ’s “likeness to sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3) is also one step removed from the reality of being human?) Where Irenaeus and the early church understood the economy of Christ to be a defeat of sin, death, and the devil, in and through his real-world assumption of humanity and challenge to sin, one of the prime markers of the loss of this economy involves a loss of a real-world defeat of evil. The question is then, what is the status, not only of baptism, but any event, as all are removed by the passage of time? Is Christ only available on the same terms as other events? Perhaps he operates in some sort of legal fiction, an economy only found in the mind of God, and not pertaining to restoration of the cosmos and a real-world defeat of evil.

What Dunn, and those who follow this sort of nominalist ontology are specifically denying or missing is the early church notion of recapitulation. It is precisely in conjunction with this notion of “likeness” that Irenaeus sums up the early church doctrine:

He, too, was made in the likeness of sinful flesh, Romans 8:3 to condemn sin, and to cast it, as now a condemned thing, away beyond the flesh, but that He might call man forth into His own likeness, assigning him as [His own] imitator to God, and imposing on him His Father’s law, in order that he may see God, and granting him power to receive the Father; [being] the Word of God who dwelt in man, and became the Son of man, that He might accustom man to receive God, and God to dwell in man, according to the good pleasure of the Father. (Against Heresies, 3.20.2)

Irenaeus equates each stage of the work of Christ with recapitulation, referring with the term to the underlying and overarching economy. He refers to Eph. 1:10 where we read that God set forth his purpose in Christ “as a plan (oikonomia) for the fullness (pleroma) of time, to recapitulate all things in him” (Eph. 1:10).[6]  He “sums up” (ἀνακεφαλαιώ) all things, and this is the key to recognizing the breadth of Irenaeus use of the term (just as Paul is using “sums up” to encapsulate the economy described in Ephesians).

As Bradley Matthews describes it, “The verb carries the meaning ‘to sum up’, and the noun denotes a ‘summary’ or ‘statement of the main point’.” And “the prefix ἀνα- adds the sense of repetition or renewal. As such, the compound verb ἀνακεφαλαιόω follows the common meaning used in the ancient rhetorical contexts as summing up or recapitulating an argument.”[7] Paul employs the same term to indicate that love “sums up” the law (Rom 13.9 – ἀνακεφαλαιοῦται). “Thus, with respect to its meaning in 1.10, the ἀνακεφαλαίωσις of all things entails the summation of the cosmos in Christ.”[8]

Lest there be any doubt as to whether this recapitulation only applies to the human sphere, Paul specifies, this includes everything (τὰ πάντα), “things in heaven and things on earth.” Throughout the book of Ephesians, Paul explains the “all things” and indicates that all things have been placed under Christ’s feet (1:22); “all things” are derived from the creator (4:9); and there is “one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:6). The recapitulation is cosmic, referring to the universe and the powers behind and beyond the universe which sustain it and renew it and even those that challenge it.

Certainly, the summing up is inclusive, but not limited to, the human realm. According to the TDNT,

The summing up of the totality takes place in its subjection to the Head. The subjection of the totality to the Head takes place in the co-ordinating of the Head and the Church. As the Church receives its Head the totality receives its κεφάλαιον, its definitive, comprehensive and (in the Head) self-repeating summation. In the Head, in Christ, the totality is comprehended afresh as in its sum.[9]

Despite this strong cosmic application some scholars would limit recapitulation to the human realm. Marcus Barth traces this history and locates it with the Lutheran impetus of Rudolf Bultmann.[10] 

For Irenaeus however, there is no question that this economy of salvation is cosmic, while certainly inclusive of the human realm. In his explanation of Colossians 3:10 – “And in saying, “According to the image of him who created him,” he indicates the recapitulation of this man who at the beginning was made after the image of God (Gen. 1:26)” (Against Heresies, 5.12.4) . He describes recapitulation as encapsulating the meaning of Christ’s shedding of blood:

“The blood of every just man shed on the earth will be requited, from the blood of the just Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you killed between the temple and the altar; truly, I tell you, all that will come upon this generation” (Matt. 23:35–36). He was pointing to the future recapitulation in himself of the shedding of the blood of all the just and the prophets from the beginning and the requital of their blood through himself. He would not have demanded requital unless it was to be saved, and the Lord would not have recapitulated these things in himself if he too had not been made flesh and blood in accordance with the first-formed work, thus saving in himself at the end what had perished at the beginning in Adam. (Against Heresies, 5.14.1)

Irenaeus, like Paul, sees recapitulation as engaging the devil and spiritual forces for evil. Christ’s recapitulation defeats Satan:

So in recapitulating everything he recapitulated our war against the enemy. He called forth and defeated the one who at the beginning in Adam had led us captive, and he trod on his head, as in Genesis God said to the serpent: “And I will set enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed; she will watch your head and you will watch her heel” (Gen. 3:15). (Against Heresies, 5.21.1)

But each of the above is true because his death saves as it recapitulates or is the culmination of total or universal recapitulation:  

The Maker of the world is truly the Word of God: he is our Lord, who in the last times was made man, existing in this world (John 1:10), and invisibly contains everything that was made (Wisd. 1:7) and was imprinted in the shape of a Chi in everything, as Word of God governing and disposing everything. Therefore he came in visible form into his own region (John 1:11) and was made flesh (1:14) and was hanged from the wood, in order to recapitulate everything in himself. (Against Heresies, 5.18.3).

Irenaeus describes recapitulation in terms of a total “framework” bringing together heaven and earth:

The things in the heavens are spiritual, while those on earth are the dispensation related to man. Therefore he recapitulated these in himself by uniting man to the Spirit and placing the Spirit in man, himself the head of the Spirit and giving the Spirit to be the head of man: for it is by this Spirit that we see and hear and speak (Against Heresies, 5.20.2).

In other words, in this singular, word (recapitulation), which he applies universally, Irenaeus is indicating a singular economy by which to understand the work of Christ and Christian participation in that work. The word refers to all that God is doing in Christ for the cosmos.

Origen will employ the term “restoration” (apocatastasis) for similar purposes. Ilaria Ramelli defines the term as “related to the verb ἀποκαθίστημι, “I restore, reintegrate, reconstitute, return.” She says it, “bears the fundamental meaning of ‘restoration, reintegration, reconstitution” And “came to indicate the theory of universal restoration, that is, of the return of all beings, or at least all rational beings or all humans, to the Good, i.e. God, in the end.”[11]  

Origen apparently inherits the concept, as he indicates in his commentary on John, referring to “the so-called restoration.”[12] Ramelli says, he may be referring to both Clement, who often uses the phrase, and to its biblical employment.[13] The specific term appears in Acts 3:21: “that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things” (3:20-21). Peter repeats the phrase, announcing the eventual restoration, in Acts 3:24: “all the prophets . . . foretold these days,” that is, those of the universal restoration (apokatastasis). As Ramelli notes, “Origen chose precisely the phrase ἀποκατάστασις πάντων (restitutio omnium) found in Acts 3:21 to indicate his doctrine.”[14] He calls it the “perfect telos” and the “perfecting of all” or “the restitution of all things, when the universe will come to a perfect end” . . . “in which the consummation of all things will take place . . . that is to say, that period when all things are no longer in an age, but when God is all in all” (On First Principles, 2.3.5).

Ramelli tracks Origen’s multiple biblical references, and then traces the reception of restoration through church history. She concludes her study with this summary:

Indeed, the Christian doctrine of apokatastasis is based on the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ, and on God’s being the supreme Good. It is also founded upon God’s grace, which will “bestow mercy upon all,” and the divine will—which these Patristic authors saw as revealed by Scripture—“that all humans be saved and reach the knowledge of Truth.” They also considered it to be revealed in Scripture, and in particular in a prophecy by St. Paul, that in the telos, when all the powers of evil and death will be annihilated and all enemies will submit (for Origen and his followers, in a voluntary submission), “God will be all in all.”[15]

Both recapitulation and restoration express the all-encompassing economy giving meaning to the dozens of words used in the New Testament to describe some aspect of a participatory ontology. Both terms serve at once to picture the economy of salvation in its defeat of sin, death, and evil, and the bringing of all things to full participation in God. Perhaps the mark of a failed theology is lack of this integrating vision, due to a metaphysical understanding which falls short of a full participation in the divine nature.  


[1] James Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8. vol. 38 (Dallas: Word Books Publisher, 1988), 330.

[2] Plato, Parmenides 132 D and Phaedrus 250 B quoted in Dunn, Romans , 317.

[3] Dunn, Romans , 317, 331.

[4] Dunn, Romans , 317

[5] James Dunn, “Paul’s Understanding of the Death of Jesus as Sacrifice ’, in Sacrifice and Redemption: Durham Essays in Theology , ed. S. W. Sykes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 37,

[6] Irenaeus, Irenaeus of Lyons, trans. Robert Grant (London: Routledge, 1997) from Grant’s Introduction, 38.

[7] Bradley J. Matthews, (2009) Mature in Christ: the contribution of Ephesians and Colossians to constructing Christian maturity in modernity, Durham theses, Durham University, 76.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Schlier, H. (1964–). κεφαλή, ἀνακεφαλαιόομαι. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 3, p. 682). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[10] M. Barth, ‘Christ and All Things’, in Paul and Paulinism: Essays in Honour of C. K. Barrett, eds. M.D. Hooker and S.G. Wilson (London: SPCK, 1982), 160-72. As Matthews explains, “Bultmann argued for a restricted sense through the theological argument that Christ’s death is existentially efficacious for people only. He also provided a historical-critical argument that τὰ πάντα draws from the Gnostic-redeemer myth, which necessitates that interpreters demythologise NT soteriology communicated through cosmic-naturalistic terms in order to focus on the actual victims of the fall.” Mathews, Ibid., 86.

[11] Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (Boston: Brill, 2013) 1.

[12] Origen, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, trans. by Ronald Heine (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1989) 1.91.

[13] Ramelli, 4.

[14] Ramelli, 14.

[15] Ramelli, 817.

Douglas Campbell’s Framing of Paul Through Ephesians

The frame in which the book of Ephesians might be viewed, as Douglas Campbell sees it, is not as a late and pseudo-Pauline writing, but as an early work, central to Paul’s theology, an understanding which entails several revolutionary shifts. Overall, the understanding of the New Testament, and Paul specifically, must be understood, not through an atonement theory based on contract but one based on covenant (which entails an entirely different theological tenor), but this overall shift points to a series of major turns in theology and exegesis. This is the self-described description of Campbell, which accounts for his peculiar theological understanding and placement of Ephesians (as central) in the Pauline corpus. He notes that there were a series of major shifts occurring during his seminary years in the 1980’s which laid the framework for his theology.[1]

First, the publication of the work of Krister Stendahl in 1963 had thrown into question, what he calls the “Lutheran” understanding of Paul, in which Paul’s main problem was a guilty conscience arising from his inability to keep the law. Paul’s struggle was seen in light of the introspective struggles of Augustine and Luther, and salvation was seen primarily in terms of guilt and its relief. Stendahl notes that, “In the history of Western Christianity — and hence, to a large extent, in the history of Western culture — the Apostle Paul has been hailed as a hero of the introspective conscience. Here was the man who grappled with the problem ‘I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want to do is what I do . . . (Rom.7:19).”[2] As I have pointed out in my work on Romans, this misreading of Romans 7 marks the major forms of the faith (is this the conscious non-Christian Paul, or is this Paul’s reflection on his non-Christian life from a Christian stand-point, or is this simply Christian Paul?).[3] This background, according to Stendahl, gives rise to the Western notion of “justification by faith”: “hailed as the answer to the problem which faces the ruthlessly honest man in his practice of introspection.”[4]

This does not line up with Paul’s own description of his conscience in Philippians and elsewhere:

In Phil. 3 Paul speaks most fully about his life before his Christian calling, and there is no indication that he had had any difficulty in fulfilling the Law. On the contrary, he can say that he had been “flawless” as to the righteousness required by the Law (v.6). His encounter with Jesus Christ — at Damascus, according to Acts 9:1-9 — has not changed this fact. It was not to him a restoration of a plagued conscience; when he says that he now forgets what is behind him (Phil. 3:13), he does not think about the shortcomings in his obedience to the Law, but about his glorious achievements as a righteous Jew, achievements which he nevertheless now has learned to consider as “refuse” in the light of his faith in Jesus as the Messiah.”[5]

Justification by faith, Stendahl notes, is going to mean something very different if the notion of guilt, and relief from guilt, is not the primary lens for reading Paul or understanding Judaism. Stendahl notes the point which will be developed and built upon in what is called, “The New Perspective on Paul”: “for the Jew the Law did not require a static or pedantic perfectionism but supposed a covenant relationship in which there was room for forgiveness and repentance and where God applied the Measure of Grace.”[6]

Second, in Campbell’s telling of the story, it was E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism, published in 1977, which brought home the fact that Judaism, as it is characterized under the typical Protestant notion, as a “work’s righteousness” religion, gives a legalistic account of “justification by works” that is unrecognizable to Jews. The inherent antisemitism of this understanding, which in the post-Holocaust world was a key concern, added to the recognition of the false portrayal of Judaism in typical Western, mainly Protestant, understandings.  

As James Dunn notes, “What is usually taken to be the Jewish alternative to Paul’s gospel would have been hardly recognized as an expression of Judaism by Paul’s kinsmen according to the flesh. Sanders notes that Jewish scholars and experts in early Judaism have for long enough been registering a protest at this point, contrasting rabbinic Judaism as they understand it with the parody of Judaism which Paul seems to have rejected.”[7] Sanders quotes Solomon Schecter as an example: “Either the theology of the Rabbis must be wrong, its conception of God debasing, its leading motives materialistic and coarse, and its teachers lacking in enthusiasm and spirituality, or the Apostle to the Gentiles is quite unintelligible;” and then James Parks: “… if Paul was really attacking ‘Rabbinic Judaism’, then much of his argument is irrelevant, his abuse unmerited, and his conception of that which he was attacking inaccurate.”[8]

The fact that New Testament scholarship and the framing of Paul’s understanding (through such key scholars as Rudolf Bultmann and Ernst Kasemann) is based on this Lutheran model, with its rejection the entire field became suspect.

 Sanders also demonstrated that Judaism is based, not on a contractual relationship of law keeping, but on a covenantal relationship:

In particular, he has shown with sufficient weight of evidence that for the first-century Jew, Israel’s covenant relation with God was basic, basic to the Jew’s sense of national identity and to his understanding of his religion. So far as we can tell now, for first-century Judaism everything was an elaboration of the fundamental axiom that the one God had chosen Israel to be his peculiar people, to enjoy a special relationship under his rule. The law had been given as an expression of this covenant, to regulate and maintain the relationship established by the covenant.[9]

The relationship of the covenant was primary, and the law was added only as a guide to maintain the relationship. “So, too, righteousness must be seen in terms of this relationship, as referring to conduct appropriate to this relationship, conduct in accord with the law. That is, obedience to the law in Judaism was never thought of as a means of entering the covenant, of attaining that special relationship with God; it was more a matter of maintaining the covenant relationship with God.”[10] Sanders refers to this understanding as “covenantal nomism” – which he defines in the following manner:

covenantal nomism is the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression … Obedience maintains one’s position in the covenant, but it does not earn God’s grace as such … Righteousness in Judaism is a term which implies the maintenance of status among the group of the elect.[11]

There are multiple implications to this understanding of Paul, which Sanders did not pursue. He simply assumed Paul’s Judaism was different than that of his fellow Jews.

The third thing that Campbell notes, which pertains to the above points, concerned the question of Paul’s “center” (which Campbell refers to as the question of the nature of Paul’s “gospel” or his “soteriology”). With the questioning of the Lutheran Paul, there was a turn to nineteenth century German theology, such as that of Albert Schweitzer focused on “being-in-Christ.” Schweitzer claims, “The doctrine of righteousness by faith is therefore a subsidiary crater, which has formed within the rim of the main crater – the mystical doctrine of redemption through being-in-Christ.”[12]  The question arose as to how to reconcile these two understandings of Paul. Was Paul inconsistent or was the scholarship on Paul flawed?

Fourth, Campbell mentions the impact of the work of Richard Hays, and his understanding that “various phrases in Paul were best understood as references to the ‘faithfulness of Jesus’ as against (Christian) ‘faith in Jesus.’” This coincides with a participatory notion of faith, in which Jesus is not so much the object of faith as the model of faith which his followers emulate.

The fifth contributing influence concerns Campbell’s studies under Richard N. Longenecker, who proposed an alternative frame for understanding the order of Paul’s letter writing. “If Galatians was Paul’s first extant letter (as Longenecker proposed) then the shape of his theological project was rather different from an account that positioned 1 or even 2 Thessalonians first . . . The language and concerns distinct to Galatians and Romans look rather less programmatic and rather more occasional if the latter biography holds good.”[13]

As Campbell concludes, “In short then we were taught in the 1980s at Toronto that some of the key details in Paul’s biography, which affected the interpretation of some of his key letters, were being vigorously contested.[14]

In Campbell’s description this all became coherent and constituted an alternative reading only with his encounter with the work of Thomas and James Torrance. Under the Torrance’s influence he came to a fuller understanding of exactly what might be entailed in a covenantal relationship:

Because the basis for the relationship is precisely this ground, of love, the covenantal actor reaches out to the other and establishes the relationship independently of any action by that party. It is therefore an unconditional and gracious act, and the relationship with the other is a gifted one. The covenantal actor has “elected” to enter the relationship and so taken the initiative. That actor has also thereby functioned “missiologically” and “incarnationally” — in the case of God literally — in stretching to the other actor’s location and, if necessary, meeting them right where s/he is. Once established, moreover, this relationship then extends through time, irrevocably. It lasts as long as the love of the loving covenantal actor lasts, hence, in the case of God, through eternity. And the relationship is consequently characterized by complete loyalty and unswerving fidelity.[15]

Though Campbell does not extend this particular essay to his own framing of Paul and the role he would assign to Ephesians, it seems evident these moves clear the ground for something like a return to the early church understanding of the centrality of Ephesians. As I indicated in my previous blog, Origen considered Ephesians the center of Paul’s thought[16] and according to Richard Layton he defined “this epistle as the spiritual ‘heart of Paul’s letters, a repository of mysteries at which the apostle only hinted in other correspondence.”[17] In the estimate of Origen and Jerome, “…Ephesians, that epistle of the apostle which stands in the middle in concepts as well as order. Now I say middle not because it comes after the first epistles and is longer than the final ones, but in the sense that the heart of an animal is in its mid‐section, so that you might understand from this the magnitude of the difficulties and the profundity of the questions it contains.”[18] As Ernest Best shows, Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement of Rome, Hermas, and other Apostolic Fathers knew and used this letter as a key to understanding Paul.[19] However, “with the reformation, and the modernist quest that followed it, the letter came increasingly to be read as a unified discourse with its own distinct message.”[20]

As Martin Wright demonstrates in his PhD dissertation, “Ephesians is deeply embedded in the CP (Pauline Corpus) . . .  it serves an integrating function within the Corpus, and above all . . . patterns of reception and reinterpretation across the Corpus are far more complex than the bifurcation between “authentic” and “spurious” letters can admit.”[21] Wright engages Campbell’s “framing” of Paul noting that in this understanding Colossians and Ephesians are  authentic, “the latter is really the “Laodiceans” of Col. 4:16, and together with Philemon these letters constitute a ‘single epistolary event’, dating from an imprisonment in Asia Minor in 50;59 they therefore precede 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians and Romans . . . .”[22] This leads to consequential conclusions as to the centrality of Ephesians:

The place of Ephesians (“Laodiceans”) in Campbell’s schema is intriguing. In his view it is not prompted by any particular crisis, but gives “an account of pagan Christian identity” to a Gentile congregation not founded by Paul. . . . But as a result, and because Campbell locates the letter before 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians and Romans, its role in the CP is transformed. Ephesians becomes a distinctively “unconditioned” statement of Paul’s gospel, more so even than Romans; its echoes throughout the Corpus reflect its closeness to the heart of his theology, with motifs first articulated here to be developed later on, perhaps transformed in the crucible of conflict and schism. This is of course the opposite of the usual modern position, that Ephesians is a late text drawing together strands from various earlier Pauline letters (though it sits well with Origen’s view quoted at the beginning of this study). As Campbell realizes, if his frame is accepted, one consequence will be “a more ‘Ephesiocentric’ account of Paul’s thought.[23]

As Wright goes on to note, this means that Ephesians is not occasioned by a particular false teaching (the rise of a rival Jewish-Christian Teacher spurring the discussion in of law, grace, faith and justification/righteousness in Galatians, Philippians, and Romans) as the writing of Ephesians precedes these events. What we have in Ephesians then, according to Campbell, is a summation of Paul’s gospel for a people otherwise not familiar with it.

Campbell sums up Paul’s gospel by highlighting four points:[24] 1. a realized eschatology: Resurrection, ascension, rule, life all come together as the predestined plan of God, and this rule is not simply to a future eschatological fulfillment (though this is not absent in Ephesians, e.g., 1:14; 2:7; 4:30; 5:5; 6:8, 13), the distinctive emphasis of Ephesians is of a present or realized eschatology (e.g., “we are now seated with him at the right hand of God, 2:6).

2. “Secondly, it is (as a direct consequence of the foregoing) a radical understanding, in that it cuts to the root (the radix) of sin in the sinful being of humanity and the present cosmic order, which is full · of oppressive evil powers that have a foothold in that corrupt being (notably sin and death; they plague the flesh- Gk sarx).” What we learn in this gospel is that resurrection and enthronement defeat the Powers (the prince of the power of the air, Eph. 2:2). It tells us that the power (the power of sin and evil) is defeated in the defeat of death, and that this power of death is that which is wielded by the principalities and powers and by the prince of the power of the air. The gospel of Paul is the mystery revealed in this reign over the Powers (3:9-10). Satan’s power over the nations is ended (3:1-13) and every Christian can participate in this defeat (6:10-20).

3. Campbell notes the Trinitarian aspect of Paul’s gospel which he elsewhere combines in an understanding of the participatory or perichoretic understanding. Paul “uses a sexual metaphor informed by Gen 2:24, understanding sexual union as oneness or unification, as that text suggests. This usage denotes the unity of close relational intimacy, along with close bodily contact without any erasure of differentiation or individuated personhood, and supports a perichoretic account of the divine unity.”[25]

Humankind was created for participation and relationship with God, and the intimacy of this participation is part of the mystery revealed (5:32). Christ’s salvific work (the mystery revealed to all the saints, 1:1; 1:9) brings about unity of all things, “things in the heavens and things on the earth” (1:10), inclusive and represented by the unity of Jews and Gentiles (3:1-6). This saving union with God marks the medium and goal of the Christian life. Christians are to “keep the unity of the Spirit” (4:3) through the oneness of the body, as “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you also were called into one hope . . .. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (4:4–6a). The point of the apostles and prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers, or the point of the church is building up the body of Christ “until all of us attain unity of the faith” (4:13) with “the whole body being joined together and united together by every binding ligament of support” (4:16). This gospel unity stands in contrast to the dividing powers controlling those alienated from the life of God” (4:18). Christians are members of one another (4:25) because of Christ’s victory over the alienating power of death and the resultant unifying and life giving of the Spirit (5:14-15) through the predetermined will of the Father.

4. “Fourthly and finally, the model is clearly utterly unconditional: no human act can initiate or effect the eschatological irruption of God-or the Father’s sending of the only Son. People are simply caught up in the irresistible purposes and creativity of God, as Paul himself was outside Damascus . . ..” Paul opens Ephesians with this understanding of God’s unconditional plan: “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will” (1:3-6). Paul informs us, “This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord” (3:11). All “because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (2:4-6). As Campbell puts it, “A new person, and new humanity, has been made. Note, this is not to subordinate the second creation to the first: in Paul the second clearly prefigured the first cosmically, and also vastly exceeds it . . .”[26]

Though I have drawn from Campbell’s early work to his most recent work to highlight the role of Ephesians, I think I have been true to the progression of his thought. In conclusion his summary of the gospel could just as well be a summary of the key role of Ephesians, which he notes:

The secret of the universe and the point of the great narrative that encompasses us all is God’s plan to draw us into a community imaged and formed by his resurrected Son. The risen Jesus will have primacy but also a rather extraordinary equality with those who surround him and look like him. Everyone in this community will therefore be a “brother,” bearing the image of the Resurrected One. . .. Our destiny, then, is to be a “band of brothers,” which is to say, “a family of siblings.” This is God’s great plan that lies at the heart of the cosmos. Its fulfillment is the story that enfolds us all, and it is the only story that really matters.

Just the same notion is expounded at length in the opening section of Ephesians. There Paul uses the form of a blessing— entirely appropriately, since it is a blessing— to convey the insight that fellowship with the triune God lies at the heart of the cosmos. Such is his enthusiasm that he articulates this notion in one sentence that runs on for twelve verses (vv. 3– 14). This purpose existed “before the foundation of the world: that we should be holy and blameless before him, having been chosen in love” (v. 4). At the heart of the cosmos, its inception, its existence, and its future, lies the divine plan to create us and to enjoy us in fellowship. And this plan entailed initiating this relationship by creating us and then calling us and drawing us into communion in the loving movement often known as election, the Greek literally meaning “calling out,” hence “summoning.”[27]

(Sign up for our next class beginning January 30th: Philemon and Ephesians: Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Paul https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] Douglas Campbell, “Covenant or Contract in the Interpretation of Paul.” Participation: The Journal of the T. F.  Torrance Theological Fellowship (2014) 183-184

[2] Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” First delivered as the invited Address at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, September 3, 1961 ; it is a revised and footnoted edition of the “article “Paulus och Samvetet,” published in Sweden in Svensk Exegetisk Ârsbok 25 (i960), 62-77. Accessed online at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/569543b4bfe87360795306d6/t/5a4d41fa085229a032376713/1515012617149/01Stendahl.pdf

[3] Seem my work, Paul V. Axton, The Psychotheology of Sin and Salvation: An Analysis of the Meaning of the Death of Christ in Light of the Psychoanalytic Reading of Paul (London: T & T Clark, 2015).

[4] Stendahl, “Introspective Conscience”

[5] Stendahl, Ibid.

[6] Stendahl, Ibid.

[7] James Dunn, “The New Perspective on Paul,” The Manson Memorial Lecture delivered in the University of Manchester on 4 November 1982. Subsequently delivered in inodified form as one of the Wilkinson Lectures in the Northen Baptist Theological Seminary, Illinois, under the title “Let Paul be Paul”. Accessed online at https://www.escholar.manchester.ac.uk/api/datastream?publicationPid=uk-ac-man-scw:1m1686&datastreamId=POST-PEER-REVIEW-PUBLISHERS-DOCUMENT.PDF

[8] Dunn is quoting Sanders, Paul, p. 6. See the fuller survey “Paul and Judaism in New Testament scholarship” on pp. 1-12.

[9] Dunn, Ibid.

[10] Dunn, Ibid.

[11] Sanders, Paul, pp. 75, 420, 544. Quoted in Dunn.

[12] A. Schweitzer, Die Mystik des Apostels Paulus (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1930, 2 1954). Quoted from Carsten Claussen, “Albert Schweitzer’s Understanding of Righteousness by Faith according to Paul’s Letter to the Romans” “Romans through History and Cultures Group”; SBL Annual Meeting 2007 in San Diego

[13] Campbell, “Covenant or Contract.”

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] F. Pieri and Ronald E. Heine, “Recovering Origen’s Commentary On Ephesians from Jerome,” The Journal of Theological Studies NEW SERIES, Vol. 51, No. 2 (October 2000), pp. 478-514 Published By: Oxford University Press

[17] Richard Layton, “Recovering Origen’s Pauline Exegesis: Exegesis and Eschatology in the Commentary on Ephesians” Journal of Early Christian Studies 8:3, 373–411 2000 The Johns Hopkins University Press.

[18] Origen and Jerome, The Commentaries of Origen and Jerome on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, ed. and trans. Ronald E. Heine (Oxford: OUP, 2002), 77. This part of the commentary survives only in Jerome’s version, but Heine attributes much of it, including the quoted passage, to Origen.

[19] Ernest Best, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians, ICC
(Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 115–17. Quoted in Oscar E. Jiménez, Metaphors in the Narrative of Ephesians 2:11-22, (Brill, 2022) 2.

[20] Max Turner, “Book of Ephesians,” in Dictionary for the Theological Interpretation of the Bible (London: SPCK, 2005), 187. Quoted in Jiménez, Ibid.

[21] Martin Wright, Breaking Down the Dividing Wall: Ephesians and the Integrity of the Corpus Paulinum, (Durham theses, Durham University, 2018) 10.

[22] Wright, 10.

[23] Wright, 80-81.

[24] Outlined in Campbells essay, “Covenant or Contract.” I am filling out his outline from Ephesians.

[25] Douglas Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics (Kindle Locations 1441-1445). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[26] Campbell, “Covenant or Contract.”

[27] Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics, Kindle Locations 1699 – 1711.

Understanding the “Time” of Origen and Paul Through Ephesians 3:9-10

Origen considered Ephesians the center of Paul’s thought[1] and according to Richard Layton he defined “this epistle as the spiritual ‘heart of Paul’s letters, a repository of mysteries at which the apostle only hinted in other correspondence.”[2] As Layton explains, “The imagery of Ephesians moves in celestial realms and encompasses the vast reaches of eternity, inviting cosmological speculation. The language of Ephesians is particularly vivid at precisely the points where Origen’s teachings kindled controversy.”[3] One might read Origen as an explanation of this cosmological time and space bending book (Ephesians), which provides entre into Pauline theology. Though Origen and Paul are often read through Platonic conceptions, Origen is making a clear break with Platonism (most clearly on such issues as the intersection of time and eternity) and his is a demonstration of the unique logic of Paul and the New Testament. What Origen demonstrates is that Paul, in his conception of time (and eternity), is neither Greek nor Hebrew but is setting forth the peculiar implications arising from the incarnation of Christ and His consummation or summing up of all things (Eph. 1:10).

A key component of Origen’s thought is derived from Ephesians 3:9-10 in which Christ is said to be “the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places.” Origen pictures Christ as the Wisdom of God, which as he notes from this verse is “manifold” or containing the different principles or arche upholding creation. The Wisdom of God “administered” through Christ captures the point of intersection between God, who is timeless, and his dealings with time and creation. While this Wisdom is also beginningless in its reference to the Son, it is also interwoven with the creative act of the Son:

The son of God is also called wisdom, made as a beginning of his ways to his works, according to the Proverbs, which means that wisdom existed only in relation to him of whom she was wisdom, having no relation to anyone else at all; but the son of God himself became God’s benevolent decision and willed to bring creatures into being. This wisdom then willed to establish a creative relation to future creatures and this is exactly the meaning of the saying that she has been made the beginning of God’s ways.[4]

Wisdom, through the Son, creates and is itself made part of creation, in that the reason or arche of all things is found in the Son. As Paul says, “in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17) and yet He is “the firstborn of all creation” (Col.1:15). As Origen explains, he “is the oldest of all created beings and … it was to him that God said of the creation of man: ‘Let us make man in our image and likeness.’[5] “Wisdom” is regarded as “created” in the “body” of Christ, such that the passage from uncreated to created is present in Christ.

Origen pictures the first creation account of male and female as referring to the arche or logoi from out of which the next chapter records the creation of the man from the dust and the woman from out of the side of Adam. As Panayiotis Tzamalikos describes it:

The “reasons” is what God created in the beginning. Taking into account that the term logōi means both “words” and “reasons”, Origen’s view is that these logōi are the words of God when he was speaking to his son in the creation of the world according to Genesis. These logōi of God are but the creative . . . fiat out of which the notion of “coming into being out of non-being” began to make sense. It is certainly God who brought them into being but the act of this “creation” is portrayed as an “utterance” of the father to the son. These “utterances”, in Greek called by Origen logōi (which means “utterances”, “words” and “reasons”), is what actually came into being out of non-being.”[6]

The “manifold wisdom” of which Paul speaks, is known through creation and Christ, the wisdom of God is manifest in creation. Wisdom as given through the son, Paul explains (and Origen notes), is the means of bestowing the divine mysteries. What was once hidden in God is manifest in Christ, which Paul notes in acknowledging that God created all things. So, there is a creaturely, created aspect (the logoi) which is from the uncreated, timeless divine wisdom, but which is made known in and through the work of creation.

 In his commentary on Ephesians, Origen refers to Paul’s specialized usage of the term “foundation” (Eph. 1:4) to suggest a similar idea.

καταβολῆς is properly used when something is thrown down and is placed in a lower place from a higher one or when something assumes a beginning. For this reason also those who lay the first foundations of future buildings are said καταβεβληκ ναι, that is, they are said to have thrown down the beginnings of the foundations. Paul, therefore, wishing to show that God devised all things from nothing, ascribes to it not making, not creating and formation, but καταβολῆ, that is the beginning of the foundation, so that something from which creatures were made did not precede creatures in accordance with the Manichaeans and other heresies (which posit a maker and material), but all things subsist from nothing.[7]

Origen makes a clear distinction between Creator and creation, which is worked out in his understanding of a two-fold notion of wisdom in Christ. There is the uncreated Wisdom, but then the manifold wisdom or the logoi. Origen maintains there is a separation between these two. The wisdom of God, which is Christ (I Cor. 1:24), contains the arche. The Logos is not the creator, but the means of creation. (Origen is explaining how it is that “He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (Jn 1:2–3).

As Origen writes,

And in the Epistle to the Hebrews the same Paul says: “At the end of days he has spoken to us in a Son whom he has appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the worlds,” teaching us that God has made the worlds through the son since the only begotten had the “through whom” when the worlds were made. So here too, therefore, if all things were made through the Word, they were not made by the Word, but by one better and greater than the Word. And who would this other one be except the Father?[8]

God the Father made the worlds through the Son, who is himself “begotten of the Father.” First, there is the reality of God in himself, then as Paul expresses it in Eph. 3, there is the manifold or multiple, or as Origen will put it, there is the “decorated” or “multi-embroidered,” wisdom through which creation came about out of non-being. In this first instance, we do not have yet to do with material or corporeal reality, as it is Christ who is the Wisdom of God, but through this Wisdom (singular and timeless) there arises the manifold (many, various) or “multi-embroidered” wisdom. As the TDNT puts it, “The wisdom of God (→ σοφία) has shown itself in Christ to be varied beyond measure and in a way which surpasses all previous knowledge thereof.”[9] This then explains the preparation of the beginning from which creation occurs:

And in relation to this, we will be able to understand what is meant by the beginning of creation, and what Wisdom says in Proverbs: “For God,” she says, “created me the beginning of his ways for his works.” It is possible, of course, for this also to be referred to our first meaning, i.e. that pertaining to a way, because it is said, “God created me the beginning of his ways.”[10]

There is a created aspect contained in the Word.[11] This initial phase does not reference the material creation or the corporeal body of Adam, but pertains to the one who is true Adam or the beginning from which creation comes. The archetype is Christ, the true image bearer of humans but containing the arche of all creation. As Tzamalikos explains, “When, therefore, Origen speaks of ‘first’ creation which was ‘incorporeal’ he does not refer to any ‘incorporeal world’ whatever. For in a strict sense there is no world at all. The reality is the “body” of Christ, which was ‘embroidered’ by those ‘made’.[12] This incorporeal nature is created but not of the material created order, yet it is in this incorporeal nature that embodied humans come to their fulness.

Paul illustrates this in regard to himself, in two passages Origen often cites: Paul says, “I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20) and he speaks of the husband and wife as being “one flesh” which pertains to Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:31-32). The embodied, corporeal person takes up the fulness of the image through Christ as Christ imparts the incorporeal logoi of his life.

In the Ephesians 3 passage, this accomplishment of wisdom shared and received is made known “to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10). He says the “rulers and authorities” we “ought to understand as saints and ministers of God” though he acknowledges that “some take them to be the prince of the air (Eph. 2: 2) and his angels).”[13] Origen makes the bold attempt to describe the place of the devil, who may stand behind the “principalities and powers.”

In other places, he describes a singular counter-power which could stand behind these powers. “Thus he speaks of “one, who fell from the bliss”, further he speaks of “one” applying the adjective “ruler” without stating any noun again; “while there were many rulers who were made, it was one who fell.’”[14] There is a failure or fall (the fall of the devil) which precedes the fall of man but which (even before the fall of man) pervades all of creation. The corporeal creation contains a divide, from its inception, which is the result of this fall. Origen quotes Paul as proof, “All creation groans and travails until now (Rom. 8:22)”[15] He surmises, “Creation was subjected to vanity, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it in hope,” that bodies and doing bodily things, which is . . . necessary . . . for one in a body, might be vanity. He who is in a body does bodily things unwillingly. For this reason, creation was subjected to vanity unwillingly.”[16]

This travail and vanity explains some of the peculiar characteristics of time and its relief in Christ. There is an original unity in the “body” of Christ, but with multiplication of wisdom (the logoi) there arises the distinctions of space-time. The beginning constituted in Christ (which is timeless), is that from which time unfolds, and time pertains to change and ultimately to decay and death, which explains Christ’s incarnation: “because our Lord, on account of his love for man, took up death on behalf of us” and he “took our darknesses upon himself that by his power he might destroy our death, and completely destroy the darkness in our soul.”[17]

This freedom from death and darkness explains the sort of time travel, or passage out of time which characterizes Ephesians. Christ is the “summing up of all things” in heaven and earth (1:10) and Christians are, in the present tense, seated with him at the right hand of God (1:20). His body “fills all in all” (1:23; 4:10) and the church is made “one flesh” with Christ (5:32) defeating “the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (6:12). And this involves a fundamental apperception in which “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened” (Eph. 1:18). The peculiar intersection of time with eternity brings about a new form of knowing and a new unity and peace as God’s eternal purposes carried out in Christ have been made known (Eph. 3:11). This is not a discursive knowing but knowing by revelation: “By referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit” (Eph. 3:4–5). Origen, who provides the earliest commentary on Ephesians, rightly sets it front and center in understanding the mystery revealed in the Gospel.

(Sign up for our next class beginning January 30th: Philemon and Ephesians: Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Paul https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] F. Pieri and Ronald E. Heine, “Recovering Origen’s Commentary On Ephesians from Jerome,” The Journal of Theological Studies NEW SERIES, Vol. 51, No. 2 (October 2000), pp. 478-514 Published By: Oxford University Press

[2] Richard Layton, “Recovering Origen’s Pauline Exegesis: Exegesis and Eschatology in the Commentary on Ephesians” Journal of Early Christian Studies 8:3, 373–411 2000 The Johns Hopkins University Press.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Origen, Fragmenta 1-140 in Joannim, fragment 1. Quoted in Panayiotis Tzamalikos, The concept of Time in Origen (Published by ProQuest LLC, 2018) 53.

[5] Origen, Contra Celsum, trans. by Henry Chadwick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953) 5.37.

[6] Tzamalikos, 58.

[7] Jerome and Origen, The Commentaries of Origen and Jerome on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, trans. by Ronald Heine (Print ISBN 0199245517, 2002), 84.

[8] Origen, Commentary on the Gospel According to John Books 1-10, trans. Ronald Heine (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1989) 2.72.

[9] Seesemann, H. (1964–). ποικίλος, πολυποίκιλος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 6, p. 485). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[10] Commentary on John, 1.101.

[11] Origen does not believe the Son is created, as the “Son is the brightness of eternal light” and just as there is no brightness apart from light, neither then is the Father without the Son or the Son without the Father. “How, then, can it be said that there was a ‘when’ when the Son was not? For that is nothing other than to say that there was a ‘when’ when Truth was not, a ‘when’ when Wisdom was not, a ‘when’ when Life was not, although in all these respects the substance of God the Father is perfectly accounted.” Origen, On First Principles Vol. 2, trans. John Behr, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017) 4.4.1.1

[12] Tzamalikos, 72.

[13] Commentary on Ephesians, 149-150.

[14] Tzamalikos, 76.

[15] Commentary on John, 1.98. “Creation was subjected to vanity, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it in hope,” 151 that bodies and doing bodily things, which is . . . necessary . . . for one in a body, might be vanity. 152 He who is in a body does bodily things unwillingly. For this reason creation was subjected to vanity unwillingly.

[16] Ibid. 1.99

[17] Commentary on John, 2.166.

The Contrast Between Luther and Maximus

There is a move among Finnish and Scandinavian theologians in general to draw parallels between the theology of Martin Luther and Maximus the Confessor. While such parallels are interesting, it might be more interesting and necessary to first state the obvious differences.

Maximus and Luther are working with two different notions of salvation and atonement, with Luther more focused on the individual and Maximus on cosmic salvation (see my blog explaining Maximus here). Luther holds to an Augustinian notion of original sin and his theology is slanted if not defined by his focus on forensics.

Is his focus on forensics or on law versus grace definitive of his theology, such that there is no ontological understanding or access to divine essence? One might argue the point, but this is not an uncommon conclusion about his theology, which stands in contrast to Maximus picture of access to the divine essence in creation and incarnation. Is imputed righteousness characteristic of Luther’s theology, such that it all is defined in legal or theoretical terms? Some Lutherans might argue otherwise and this may not be fair to the fulness of his theology, and there are those (such as the Finnish theologians) who argue Luther had his own notion of apocatastasis, but what can be said is that Calvin comes in the wake of Luther and Calvin’s theology is forensic (and Luther’s is commonly perceived as being of a similar order). On the other hand, Maximus follows Origen and the early church in his depiction of theosis (perhaps not entirely absent in Luther) – bringing to maturity in the second Adam the race of the first Adam through divinization. Maximus sees this as a present reality unfolding toward the eschaton.

 Luther’s theory of the two kingdoms allows for full participation of the Christian in the necessities of state violence, including the violent suppression of peasants, Jews, and heretics. The peace of Maximus, the enacted theosis in the life of the believer, the cosmic context of virtue grounded in the incarnation of Christ, stands in contrast to Luther’s picture of the Christian life as an unending (violent?) struggle with sin.

Maximus’ picture of salvation is holistic and unified (grounded as it is in the reality of the Trinity) while Luther depicts a split individual struggling with sin, living in two different kingdoms, such that the spiritual and hidden kingdom of God momentarily serves the immediate and practical necessities of the earthly kingdom, allowing this ethic to dictate the lived Christian ethic. Luther affirms the necessity of violence and maintains that people of faith are to be the instruments of violence. After all, “The deviancy of some would call down punishment on all. At a certain point, God even owes it to himself, as it were, to his honour, we might say, to strike.”[1]

Luther tended to demonize his enemies with a violent and abusive rhetoric (which is not to ignore that he often spoke of love), and there is no question that his antisemitism is imbibed by the creators of the Holocaust. Maximus depicts salvation as the destruction of death, and this is the resource and reality out of which the Christian is to live. Monk Maximus would die at the hands of the state and it is not entirely implausible that, given the right circumstance, the ex-Monk Luther might have approved.

But this cursory list of contrasts does not get at the world of difference between Maximus notion that creation is incarnation and Luther’s semi-nominalism. For Luther, God, in his essence is hidden from us, and we do not live with the resource of access to the immanent Trinity. For Maximus, God is revealed in Christ and this is the truth not only of salvation but of the purposes of creation. Luther’s theology lays the groundwork for modernity[2] while Maximus’ theology is the culmination of a premodern theology, pointing toward a very different sort of world order. The enchantment of the world in light of Maximus’ Christo-logic (which is not any old sort of enchantment or magic) and the disenchantment of the world in light of Luther’s direct attack on indulgences and magic, and the secularism implicit in Luther’s thought and theology gets at the fundamental difference. And of course, this is not to attribute (blame/credit) all of secularism to Luther, but again, his theology seems to have enabled secular developments.[3]

As Charles Taylor describes it, Luther reversed the fear factor in his attack on indulgences and on the magic the church could enact (a needed disenchantment):

A great deal of Catholic preaching on sin and repentance was based on the principle that the ordinary person was so insensitive that they had to be terrified into responding. . .. But just this cranking up of fear may have helped to prepare people to respond to Luther’s reversal of the field.[4]

We can locate Luther within the context of nominalism – as nominalism defines both what he is for and what he is against and it is in a nominalist context that he makes these arguments. The father of nominalism, the way of the modern (via moderna), William of Ockham (1287-1347), denied the existence of universals (nominalism indicates we have only the names), which was an underlying foundation for Thomas (1225-1274) and Scotus (1266-1308). Consequently, Ockham would stress the importance of the will (God’s and man’s) over and above the intellect.[5] Luther will challenge the role of human will, attacking what he sees as semi-Pelagianism.

Luther believes that God’s absolute power renders the efficacy of the human will entirely useless. Or in terms of human understanding, it is not as if God can be aligned with the good (as we know it) as God is determinative of the good and so the good must be aligned with the (arbitrary?) will of God.

As Luther states it in the 19th Thesis of the Heidelberg Disputation: “Anyone who observes the invisible things of God, understood through those things that are created, does not deserve to be called a theologian.” God is not grasped through the being of the world (against the scholastics) but God comes to us only on the basis of promise or covenant, and this does not pertain to His essence or the essence of the world. As Taylor puts it, “God must always remain free to determine what is good. The good is whatever God wills; not God must will whatever is (determined by nature as) good. This was the most powerful motive to reject the “realism” of essences for Occam and his followers.”[6]

This sets up a peculiar Lutheran dialectic, in which faith stands over and against reason or in which the theology of glory is opposed to the theology of the cross. The theology of glory clings to works-righteousness while the theology of the cross is dependent on faith alone. Likewise, grace stands over and against law, yet grace needs the law that it might be understood to be a gift and not an accomplishment of the law. If the law “serves no other purpose than to create a thirst and to frighten the heart,” the gospel “satisfies the thirst, makes us cheerful, and revives and consoles the conscience.”[7] The “presumption of righteousness is a huge and a horrible monster. To break and crush it, God needs a large and powerful hammer, that is, the Law, which is the hammer of death, the thunder of hell, and the lightning of divine wrath” (26.310).[8] The greater the paradox, conflict, and struggle, all the better:

“All the works of God are in conflict with His promise, which nevertheless remains completely true and unshaken. . . . The marvelous counsels of God in governing His saints must be learned, and the hearts of the godly must become accustomed to them. When you have a promise of God, it will happen that the more you are loved by God, the more you will have it hidden, delayed, and turned into its opposite” (4.326).

As David Tracy describes it, “Luther’s notion of dialectic … is structured as a conflict of opposites that not only clash but imply and need each other.”[9] The dialectic, like any dialectic refers only to itself, so that what is known pertains not to any necessarily existing reality but to the language of dialectic.

God has his own autonomous purposes which are beyond human comprehension, but what can be known is what God has promised. For Luther, God is the cause of all things, while the human remains a passive recipient of God’s action. There is no free will for man in Luther’s estimation: “We do everything of necessity, and nothing by ‘free-will’; for the power of ‘free-will’ is nil, and it does no good, nor can do, without grace.”[10] According to Roland Millard, for Luther, “The sovereignty of God’s will necessarily excludes any causality on the part of the human person.”[11] Where Maximus describes a synergistic working of human will with the will of God, for Luther human will stands over and against the will of God.

In this understanding, Scripture no longer pertains to ontological necessity but to covenantal promise. Scripture is proclamation and promise so that rather than salvation history or ontological realism, for Luther the Word is a promise. The Word is the means by which God condemns sin and promises salvation (the law and the gospel). But this promise is had, not through the achievement of a real-world defeat of sin, but only on the basis of promise: “Sin is always present, and the godly feel it. But it is ignored and hidden in the sight of God, because Christ the Mediator stands between” (26.133). It is not that sin and the law are ever suspended or surpassed: “There is a time for ‘killing’ the flesh through the law, and a time for reviving the spirit through the gospel. Complacency and self-righteousness require the former, fear and despair the latter. The one ‘who masters the art of exact distinction between the Law and the Gospel should be called a real theologian’ (23.271; cf. 26.115).[12] Though Luther finds the Gospel partly revealed in the Old Testament and he finds the Law mixed in with the New Testament, his primary point is that the Law of the Old Testament stands over and against the Gospel of the New Testament.

Maximus notion of free will, his picture of the whole Bible and the whole world proclaiming the Gospel seems contrary to Luther’s sharp divide between Law and Gospel and between creation and Creator. Whether one agrees with the cosmic (universal) salvation of Maximus and his peculiar Christo-logic, or whether one prefers Luther’s faith alone and imputed righteousness, it would be a mistake to blend these two contrasting worlds without noting their stark difference. The two contrasting orders of salvation, revelation, and the God/world relation in Maximus and Luther represent two very different conceptions of Christianity and the world.


[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007) 42. An understanding Taylor links to Luther.

[2] By the same token, we might sight the history of modern Western philosophy as in some sense flowing from within the wake of Lutheranism. Is the dualism of Descartes (between faith and reason), or Kant’s split between the noumena and the phenomena (and the eventual turn to phenomenology), far removed from Luther’s two kingdoms and his interiorized Christianity? In fact, faith alone (sola fide) does not seem too far removed from German idealism. Luther’s focus on a groundless Word (not grounded in metaphysics) will come to resemble phenomenology and the linguistic turn in philosophy and society. While it is too simplistic to chalk this up to Luther, it is doubtful it could have happened apart from the Reformation instigated by Luther.

[3] At least this is the argument of Charles Taylor.

[4] Taylor, 75.

[5] Roland Millare, “The Nominalist Justification for Luther’s Sacramental Theology” (Antiphon 17.2 (2013)) 169-170.

[6] Taylor, 97.

[7] Luther’s Works Volume 23, p. 272 hereafter cited by volume and page.

[8] Stephen and Martin Westerholm, Reading Sacred Scripture: Voices from the History of Biblical Interpretation (p. 233). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[9] D. Tracy, ‘Martin Luther’s Deus Theologicus’ in P. J. Malysz and D. R. Nelson, eds, Luther Refracted (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2015): 109. Quoted in Mark Norman, “Luther, Heidegger and the Hiddenness of God” Tyndale Bulletin 70.2 (2019) 302.

[10] Luther, Bondage of the Will, 180.

[11] Millare, 172

[12] Westerholms, 234.

The Radical Theology of Maximus the Confessor: Creation is Incarnation

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

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

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

(QThal. 60.2).

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

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

(Amb. 10.41).

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

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

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

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

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

(QThal. 2.2).

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

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

(Amb. 31.9)

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

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

(Amb. 42.5)

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

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

(QThal 8.2)

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

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


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

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

[3] Wood, 209-210

[4] Wood, 211.

The Augustinian Displacement of Origen

The decisive turn of the church in regard to metaphysics, philosophy, attitudes toward violence, church structure, the acceptance of Platonism, and a host of other issues can be marked by the differences between Origen and Augustine. It is not that the two can simply be posed against one another, as Augustine is formed by Origen’s theology more than he is himself aware,[1] but it is also the case that Christian theology takes on a very different shape as represented by these two theologians. As Gerald Bostock states it, “Origen, the founding father of Christian theology in the East, has had little influence in the West. This is because the great exponent of Christianity in the West has always been Augustine of Hippo.”[2] It may seem extreme to attribute to Augustine the suppression of Origen, as it is the 5th ecumenical council (recognized by both East and West) which condemns Origen, but it is in the wake of Augustinianism that this condemnation takes place.

According to Adolf Harnack, the church of the West, up to and including the reformers, owes its distinctive characteristics to one man, Augustine:

Along with the Church he served, he has moved through the centuries. We find him in the great medieval theologians, including the greatest, Thomas Aquinas. His spirit sways the pietists and mystics of those ages: St Bernard no less than Thomas à Kempis. It is he that inspires the ecclesiastical reformers—those of the Karling epoch as much as a Wyclif, a Hus, a Wesel and a Wessel: while, on the other hand, it is the same man that gives to the ambitious Popes the ideal of a theocratic state to be realised on earth.[3]

Augustine is not simply the first modern man but he lays the foundations of what will become modernity and its hosts of dualisms.[4] He bequeaths to the West the peculiar philosophy of mind and language taken up by Rene Descartes (the split between mind and body) and the apologetic argument and theological rationalism developed by Anselm, and he poses the theological doctrines of original sin and predestination which reach their final trajectory in John Calvin (the split between the wrath and love of God). We can credit Augustine with the full theological embrace of Greek philosophical thought, for the sense of the individual, and the notion of God’s sovereignty that contrasts with that individualism (the contradiction between human freedom and cosmic determinism). The failures inherent to his thought seem obvious in the postmodern aftermath in which his system has played itself out.

The alternative to Augustine was and perhaps still is the theological understanding of Origen of Alexandria. B. F. Westcott poses the stark difference between these two alternative forms of Christianity:

Few contrasts can be more striking than that offered by the two philosophies of Christianity of Origen and Augustine … In Origen history is charged with moral lessons of permanent meaning and there is carried forward from age to age an education of the world for eternity. In Augustine history is a mere succession of external events … For Origen life has a moral significance of incalculable value: for Augustine life is a mere show, in which actors fulfil the parts irrevocably assigned to them. The Alexandrian cannot rest without looking forward to a final unity … the African acquiesces in an abiding dualism in the future … not less oppressive to the moral sense than the absolute dualism of Mani.[5]

In an attempt to picture the extent of the contrast and what was lost of Origen due to the dominance of Augustinian thought, I resort to a list, which cannot possibly contain the fulness of the difference between these two world-shaping figures. (The point is not a critical examination of the whole of Origen’s theology but to highlight elements of his thought suppressed in the West.)  

  1. History is salvific (apocatastasis) versus history as predetermined assignation:

The most complicated and controversial difference between Origen and Augustine may be the most far reaching, but what is obvious is that in Augustine’s rejection of Origen’s apocatastasis, which he had at one time deployed in his arguments against Manicheanism, he falls into the very dualism he had found so repulsive in his former belief system. In his turn from refuting Mani to refuting Pelagius he also turned against Origen. According to Ilaria Ramelli, Augustine could be quoting Origen in his early utilization of the doctrine: “The goodness of God orders and leads all the beings that have fallen until they return/are restored to the condition from which they had fallen” (The Confessions 2.7.9). As Ramelli describes, “Augustine is briefly presenting the doctrine of universal apokatastasis: all creatures (omnia) that have fallen are restored to their original condition by the Godhead in its supreme goodness. Origen also thought that the agent of apokatastasis is God’s goodness. What is more, a precise parallel with Origen’s Περὶ ἀρχῶν is detectable.”[6]

By 415 Augustine had changed his mind, and in his efforts to refute Pelagius, his understanding of the economy of salvation is also changed up, in that he no longer holds that God’s purpose in creation is the purification of rational creatures (Ad Orosium 8.10; cf. 5.5).  According to Ramelli, “What is more interesting, he argued that ignis aeternus must mean “eternal fire,” or else the righteous’ bliss could not be eternal.” He argues there must be two parallel and opposite eternities, that of the blessedness of the righteous and that of the torments and death of the damned. Origen had already refuted this argument in his Commentary on Romans (which Augustine had read), in which he argued that eternal life and eternal death cannot subsist together, since they are two contradictories.

2. Remedial versus retributive punishment:

In refuting apocatastasis Augustine turns from the belief in God’s punishment as a remedial discipline to belief in the eternity of infernal torments so as to refute what he deemed Origen’s Platonic error: “that of viewing infernal pains as therapeutic, purifying, and limited in duration. He did not know, or perhaps he intentionally ignored, that Plato did not maintain universal apokatastasis and that Origen had to correct him in this respect.”[7]

3. Free will versus Predestination:

Augustine accuses Origen of the very predestinationism of which he is guilty, suggesting Origen’s infinite series of ages (which he did not hold to) eliminates human freedom and universal restoration (which Augustine once held to and then repudiated). In his reworked understanding, Augustine claims this fails to extract the retributive justice he now believes God requires. As Ramelli explains, “Origen was now accused of determinism and predestinationism, while he had never ceased refuting ‘Gnostic’ (especially Valentinian) determinism and predestinationism, especially because of his own concern for theodicy; precisely from this polemic his philosophy of history and apokatastasis arose.”[8]

Augustine trades belief in restorative justice for a belief in a retributive justice, and this combined with his belief in predestination poses a challenge to his belief in free will. The monks under his care become fatalistic, given their masters doctrine of predestination, but Augustine attempts the seemingly impossible task of defending free will.[9]

Augustine notes that the “vast majority” of Christians in his day held to the doctrine of apocatastasis and “albeit not denying the Holy Scripture, do not believe in eternal torments” (Ench. ad Laur. 29). This of course also provided a rational foundation for belief in free will.

4. Salvation as Universal versus Salvation and Damnation as predestined:

 Augustine, in abandoning apocatastasis, also gives up the notion of universal salvation, as he had previously understood it as spelled out in I Tim. 2:4 (God “wants all humans to be saved and come to the knowledge of truth”). “After the conflict with the Pelagians, Augustine drastically reduced the strong universalistic drift of this passage by taking “all humans” to mean, not “all humans” in fact, but only those predestined.” He also holds that the “fulness of the Gentiles” and “All of Israel” are reference only those who are predestined.[10]

5. The Logos is the Incarnate Christ versus a Greek Logos:

Origen’s focus is continually and consistently on the reality of the incarnation as an eternal fact about God. This is a sensibility that may be strange to those in the West, more familiar as we may be with the Augustinian development of the Greek sense of Logos (something on the order of language per se). Augustine writes,

Whoever, then, can understand the word, not only before it sounds, but even before the images of its sound are contemplated in thought –such a word belongs to no language, that is, to none of the so-called national languages, of which ours is Latin – whoever, I say, can understand this, can already see through this mirror and in this enigma some likeness of that Word [viz., Jesus Christ] of whom it was said: ‘In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God; and the Word was God.’

(On the Trinity, 15.10.19)

This Augustinian word which belongs to no language and which exists only in thought, is the impetus to the reification of language developed in Anselm and Descartes, which is the foundation of Western philosophy and theology. “There is nothing else of comparable power or originality on this topic until Descartes’ Meditations.”[11] Indeed the dualism between mind and body often attributed to Descartes should actually be credited Augustine.[12] Augustine’s translator offers a backhanded compliment, as in tying Augustine to Descartes he also ties him to the debacle of Western thought.

6. The body as an integral necessity to intellect versus the body as an obstacle to thought:

In contrast to Origen’s repeated insistence upon the inseparability of soul and body, form and matter, Augustine pictures the necessity of setting aside bodily and material concerns so as to arrive at reason. He contends that “nothing is more present to the mind than it is to itself” though he acknowledges one might be distracted by the body from knowing itself: or is it the case as with an infant “that it knows itself, but is too intent on those things through which it begins to experience pleasure through the senses of the body” (On the Trinity 14.5.7). He maintains that it could never be the case that one could completely fail to think of the self even if “it (the mind) did not always separate itself in the same thought from corporeal things” (On the Trinity 15.3.5). Like Descartes after him, the point seems to be that the mind and thought need to be shut off from the body to function properly.

It is Augustine’s account of language and soul/body dualism that prefigures not only the Cartesian turn, but seemingly the very wording of the Cartesian cogito:

We resemble the Divine Trinity in that we exist, we know that we exist, and we are glad of this existence and this knowledge … In respect of those truths I have no fear of the arguments of the Academics. They say, “Suppose you are mistaken?” I reply, “If I am mistaken, I exist.” A non-existent being cannot be mistaken; therefore I must exist, if I am mistaken. Then since my being mistaken proves that I exist, how can I be mistaken in thinking that I exist, seeing that my mistake establishes my existence.

(City of God 11.26)

Stephen McKenna notes not only Descartes but William of Ockham and Nicolas Malebranche are reliant on Augustine’s view of language.[13] So not only modernism but the nominalism definitive of the Reformation traces its roots to Augustine.

Origen pictures the body as an ongoing necessity and God alone is without a body, but Augustine absorbs the Platonic reification of language over and against the body. This may be most clear in his picture of language as an innate given (a private language with which we are born which seems to exist free of enculturation and the body.[14] (Ludwig Wittgenstein begins his counter to the notion of private language by referencing Augustine’s picture of how he learned language.)[15] This opens the door to mind body dualism and the denigration of the body.

7. Evil as originating with Satan versus a human origin of evil:

In his reaction to Manichaeism, Augustine concludes that evil (as a parasite on the good) resides in human nature and that sin and God’s punishment are the source of evil. According to Gerald Bostock, Augustine adopted the questionable claim that evil is either sin or punishment for sin.[16] The focus of evil, for Augustine, is that evil which resides in the human race due to original sin. In the Augustinian picture of original sin, the first sin corrupted the whole race of humans:

Thence, after his sin, he was driven into exile, and by his sin the whole race of which he was the root was corrupted in him, and thereby subjected to the penalty of death. And so it happens that all descended from him, and from the woman who had led him into sin, and was condemned at the same time with him, —being the offspring of carnal lust on which the same punishment of disobedience was visited, —were tainted with the original sin.

(Encheiridion 26).

In contrast, Origen is an exponent of the Christus Victor theory of the Atonement; the belief that the Cross is to be seen as the decisive defeat of the powers of darkness by the Son of God – the very heart of Origen’s theology. Origen locates evil in the lie inspired by the “father of lies” and though the devil is not responsible for human wrongdoing, as man is responsible for his decisions, the devil continues to deceive as he did with the first pair.[17] “We must now see how, according to Scripture, the opposing powers, or the devil himself, are engaged in struggle against the human race, inciting and instigating them to sin” (Princ. 3.2.1). It is not, as with Augustine, that sin automatically rules and the struggle is over before it has begun, but the struggle continues. After a general survey of Scripture, Origen concludes: “Through all these passages, therefore, the divine Scripture teaches us that there are certain invisible enemies, fighting against us, and warns us that we ought to arm ourselves against them” (Princ. 3.2.1).

The Gospel serves to equip for battle, not according to the flesh, but against the spiritual enemies that “proceed from our heart” namely, “evil thoughts, thefts, false testimony, slanders,” and other enemies of “our soul” (Homilies on Joshua, 14.1.). Origen is describing the powers that rule the world and the human heart and the means of defeating them, through Christ.  

8. Real world defeat of evil versus the beginnings of a forensic doctrine of salvation:

Origen depicts a continual confrontation with and possible defeat of sin and the devil. Augustine has set the stage for an alternative theory of atonement, though this will fall to his disciples to develop. Anselm’s doctrine of divine satisfaction and Calvin’s penal substitution are the logical end of Augustine’s picture of original sin and retributive justice. For Origen there is a real world defeat of evil in the power of Christ, but Augustine mystifies both sin and the nature of redemption.

9. Synergism versus predestination and determinism:

In Origen’s theology, both the devil and God work synergistically with humans: “For consider whether some such arrangement is not indicated by that which the Apostle says, God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond that of which you are capable, that is, because each one is tempted in proportion to the amount or possibility of his strength” (Princ. 3.2.3).

Where Augustine’s notion of predestination reduces to an arbitrary determinism, Origen held to the autonomy of the soul which worked synergistically through the Spirit and power of God:

Since, therefore, through this it is being taught that man must indeed expend effort and attentive care, but that God grants the success and completion to the work, it is assuredly pious and religious, while God and man do what is in themselves, to attribute the chief part of the work to God rather than to man. And so, although Paul was planting and Apollos was watering, God is said to give the increase.

(Commentary on Romans 7.16).

10. Anti-Platonism versus Platonism:

I have detailed Origen’s anti-Platonism (here) and his argument for a different order of reason based on the Gospel. There is no question that Augustine, even in his own estimate, is too much absorbed by Platonism: “I have been rightly displeased, too, with the praise with which I extolled Plato or the Platonists or the Academic philosophers beyond what was proper for such irreligious men, especially those against whose great errors Christian teaching must be defended” (Retractions 1.4).

Though this (role of Platonism) is evident in the above, the difference between the thought of Origen and Augustine comes through in the perceived problems and the tenor of their work. For Origen the Trinity is revealed as an outworking of the incarnation, while for Augustine the Trinity is a problem needing explanation and analogy, for which he turns to the human mind, where Origen turns to history, creation, and incarnation. For Origen the Gospel as the rule of faith refers to the person of Christ, while Augustine is geared to the sort of propositional explanation which will come to typify the West.

It is hard to gauge the breadth of the impact of Augustine’s embrace of Plato. While he was certainly not the first to have done so (since the time of Justin Martyr, the logos of the Platonic system was beginning to be fused with the Logos of John 1:1), Augustine sealed the deal. As Robert O’Connell describes it, Platonism will shape Augustine’s theology, in his denigration of sex and love, culture, art, and science. It is not clear he ever escaped his Manichean view (shared by Plato) that the soul is imprisoned in the body and that sexual procreation is the darkest element of this imprisonment.[18] Augustine’s failure to divest himself of Platonism has seemingly immunized Western theology against the Anti-Platonic thought of Origen.


[1] Augustine is reliant on Origen’s commentary on Romans and yet seems to forget this reliance. Ilaria L.E. Ramelli points out Augustine’s unwitting reliance on Origen in The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (Leiden & Boston: Brill Publishing, 2013) 670-671.

[2] Gerald Bostock, “Origen: The Alternative to Augustine?” The Expository Times Volume 114, Issue 10

[3] A. Harnack, Monasticism (London: Williams & Norgate, 1913), p. 123.

[4] It is Henry Chadwick’s claim that Augustine is the first modern man but the evidence indicates he contains modernism in utero, the birth of which will play out over centuries. Henry Chadwick, Augustine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, I986), p. 3.

[5] B. F. Westcott, Essays in the History of Religious Thought in the West (London: Macmillan, I89I), pp. 247f. Quoted in Bostock.

[6] Ramelli, 664. The quote from Origen reads, “We think that the goodness of God, through his Christ, will call back and restore all creatures to one and the same end” (Princ. 1.6.1).

[7] Ramelli spells out the confusion between Greek and Latin: “The imprecision of the Latin vocabulary of eternity can help to explain Augustine’s argument. While, as I have often mentioned, the Bible describes as ἀίδιος only life in the world to come, thus declaring it to be “eternal,” it never describes as ἀίδια punishment, death, and fire applied to human beings in the world to come; these are only and consistently called αἰώνια, “belonging to the future aeon.” But in Latin both adjectives are rendered with one and the same adjective, aeternus (or sempiternus), and their distinction was completely lost. This, of course, had important consequences on the development of the debate on apokatastasis. Augustine refers twice to the words of the Lord that, he avers, declare the absolute eternity of otherworldly punishments. In those words, however, in the Gospels κόλασις is described as αἰώνιος, and not as ἀίδιος. But Augustine, just as many Latin authors, was unable to grasp this distinction.” Ramelli, 670.

[8] Ramelli, 673.

[9] Augustine, On the Free Choice of the Will, On Grace and Free Choice, and Other Writings, Trans. and Introduction Peter King (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) xvii.

[10] Ramelli, 674.

[11] Augustine, On the Trinity, Books 8-15, trans. and Intro. Stephen McKenna (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002) xviii.

[12] Here is the full quote: ”Rene Descartes (1596-1650) is obviously the philosopher one would naturally select as the one most deeply influenced by Augustine’s De Trinitate. The concept of mind that emerges in DT, even the concept of body one finds there, strikes the modern reader as surprisingly Cartesian. The internalist argumentation to support Mind-Body Dualism seems quite Cartesian. And, of course, Descartes’ cogito, as a response to skepticism, seems to echo the cogito-like passage in DT 15.” McKenna, xxviii.

[13] McKeena xxix.

[14] G. E. M. Anscombe’s translation in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953) 2e. Quoted in McKeena, xxv.

[15] Here is Augustine’s picture of how he learned language. “When they [my elders] named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements, as it were, the natural language of all peoples: the expression of the fact, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.” (Confessions 1.6.8).

[16] Bostock, 328.

[17] Bostock, 328.

[18] Robert J. O’Connell, St. Augustine’s Early Theory of Man A.D. 386–391, (Harvard University Press, 1968) 284.

The Lost World of Origen’s Gospel Metaphysics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Ibid. xii.

[4] Ibid. 17.

[5] Ibid. 24.

[6] Ibid. 18

[7] Ibid. 1.

[8] Ibid. xiii

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

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

The Peaceful Hermeneutic of Origen: The End of Deicide

In the ninth century, the Buddhist sage Linji Yixuan told a monk, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Locating the quote in the Zen tradition and its complete detachment from the historical Buddha may be pertinent, in that an embodied Buddha goes against the tenets of the religion. Modern Western Buddhists give a benign reading to the quote such as, don’t assume you have the answers or always be willing to question your assumptions. Maybe the point is not to settle on any sure propositions especially as they might be attached to an actual fleshly historical figure. Maximus the Confessor notes that the best of human thought, which he located in the Greek philosophical tradition, ends in deicide. The murder of the Messiah is the end result of all sorts of forces, but what Maximus has in mind is what the earliest church fathers noticed, even given the Bible, given Jesus, given Christian history, given the church, without the gospel as starting premise the human tendency is to obliterate faith in a God who has come in the flesh. The most destructive elements to the early Church were not those who were seeking to literally kill and destroy Christians but those who became Christians.

Origen, who writes the first text on how to read the Bible, is faced with three kinds of false teaching: the simple (who believe God is corporeal), the Marcionites (who believe in two Gods – the Old Testament Jewish God and the Father of Christ) and the Jews, and all of them are eagerly reading the Bible with a literal hermeneutic, counter to the reality of the incarnation. Origen’s task in On First Principles is nothing short of setting forth an alternative or new understanding of God, humans, and the world, in the principle or rule which will guide Bible reading. Only in the incarnation will the seeming dualisms and contradictions in the world, in Scripture, and in humanity find a unifying principle. He insists, according to M. F. Wiles, on “the absolute unity of the message of Scripture from beginning to end.”[1] As Barbara Bruce puts it, “The one God was revealed in both Testaments, and a peacemaker was the person who could demonstrate the concord and peace of the Old Testament with the New.”[2]

Origen’s peaceful hermeneutic strategy is most clear in his reading of Joshua. Israel (of the flesh) is typical of those with a literal hermeneutic and a literal view of the world in that reading a book like Joshua she “understood nothing in them except wars and the shedding of blood,” and as a result was “incited to excessive savageries” and was “always fed by wars and strife.” Here Origen spells out his hermeneutic strategy, which applies to his overall reading of Scripture: “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.” Reading “according to the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ” serves to equip for battle, not according to the flesh, but against the spiritual enemies that “proceed from our heart” namely, “evil thoughts, thefts, false testimony, slanders,” and other enemies of “our soul.” [3] Origen is describing the powers that rule the world and the human heart and the means of defeating them, namely through a proper hermeneutic. He describes this spiritual reading as enabling the life-giving breath of the Spirit to be imparted to us.

This peaceable new life is built on his notion that the incarnation demands a new understanding of reality, and this serves the new hermeneutic. Scripture as an extension of incarnation constitutes Bible reading as the most essential sacrament.[4] “As the people listened to Scripture, letting the words penetrate their minds, they were partaking of the body of Christ. Even as they were careful during the Eucharist celebration not to let one particle of bread drop to the ground, so also must they reverently attend to the Word.”[5]

Origen is forced by the heretical circumstance to drop his own biblical exposition so as to undertake the first manual on biblical hermeneutics, and the place he begins pertains to the broadest assumptions about God and the world revealed in the Trinity and incarnation. His first principles are not first because they are easy but because apart from these principles the Christian religion is being completely misconstrued.

Origen’s peaceable hermeneutic is not only aimed at harmonizing antagonisms in conceptions of God and scripture, as his larger concern is to create disciples who will prove to be true witnesses (martyrs to peace over and against the violence that would kill them). Just as he sees Bible reading in light of the broadest of perspectives, he also understands that only those who are grounded in the truth will prove true in death. He wants to create those who can endure the violence of persecution without themselves giving in to violence. There is no Word apart from the historical incarnation and apart from those who would continue the incarnation, specifically through martyrdom.

Origen’s father had been martyred and only his mother’s hiding his clothes prevented young Origen from joining his father. As Eusebius tells the story:

When Severus began to persecute the churches, glorious testimonies were given everywhere by the athletes of religion. This was especially the case in Alexandria, to which city, as to a most prominent theater, athletes of God were brought from Egypt and all Thebais according to their merit, and won crowns from God through their great patience under many tortures and every mode of death. Among these was Leonides, who was called the father of Origen, and who was beheaded while his son was still young.[6]

Torture and death called for preparation on the order of an athlete preparing to win a contest. Eusebius tells of Origen writing “to his father an encouraging letter on martyrdom, in which he exhorted him, saying, ‘Take heed not to change your mind on our account.’” [7] This letter is the earliest record of his vast writing project which would only come to an end with his own torture and death.

From the age of 18, when Origen was selected to train catechumens, he understood his task was to prepare his charges for martyrdom. Eusebius gives the account of seven of Origen’s students, who in quick succession, were tortured and martyred. One of his outstanding student martyrs was Potamiæna, who had burning pitch poured over “various part of her body, from the sole of her feet to the crown of her head.” Not long after the officer overseeing her death, moved by her manner of death, converted and was also martyred.

As Eusebius describes Origen’s end, he suffered “bonds and bodily tortures and torments under the iron collar and in the dungeon; and how for many days with his feet stretched four spaces in the stocks he bore patiently the threats of fire and whatever other things were inflicted by his enemies.” The goal was not to kill him immediately but to make him suffer, but not long after, he died as a result of the tortures. As Eusebius records, “what words he left after these things, full of comfort to those needing aid, a great many of his epistles show with truth and accuracy.”[8] In other words, his is the writing of a martyr for martyrs, in order to prepare for and live out a life of defeating death, and his life proved true in death.

The pattern Christians are emulating, reenacting, or repeating is that of Christ, tortured and crucified, but defeating those who killed him both in the manner of his death and in his defeat of death. The martyr faces the principalities and powers in a hermeneutical contest in which two realms of truth or two powers are pitted in a life and death struggle in which life and death are the two powers, the two principles, or the two forms of thought. The state proves its power and truth in displaying the crucified, broken, naked, terrorized, body of Christ and his followers. The human body marks the site in which the social body, the political body, or the religious body, impresses its truth. Torture and death are a means of establishing a regime of truth and this is why the martyr is the witness to a counter truth.

As Paul Kolbert writes, torture poses a potential hermeneutical crisis that does not differ much “from the hermeneutical challenges of everyday life.”[9] In Origen’s description, the common passions of life, avarice for example, can breed an exponential desire for money such that one begins to acquire money through force and shedding human blood. This everyday “hermeneutical failure” demonstrates how an inward greed can become an outward violence such that a natural desire becomes “full blown demonic theater.”[10]

In the exegetical strategy of the state, the tortured, maimed, and killed are a sign (a letter) of the final power, the sovereign power of Rome in this case, which proves its final and all-powerful word in the flesh of its victims. The tortured are non-persons, non-citizens, so many lice (in Nazi hermeneutics) who, in their humiliation and otherness, mark the personhood and power of those who exercise power over them. The cross, or the instrument of torture, is the clearest demarcation of two regimes of truth (those who crucify and those crucified).

Origen explains to Ambrose, preparing for his martyrdom, that he must first undergo an inner martyrdom so that when it came to being tortured, he would not defile himself with any untoward word or thought toward his torturers and should in no way be diverted from devotion to God. He must willingly and without anger confess his faith so as to bring the rage of his torturer into contrast with his own tranquility. But to do this he must first ground himself in the Word.[11]

There are two systems on each side of the cross, and Origen understood his task as one of filling out the alternative to violence by bodying forth or enfleshing the alternative in the manner of Christ. As Kolbert puts it, “Origen’s intensely Christian and intellectual response to state-sponsored terror resists the Roman state’s efforts to impose its own violent discipline on bodies through a voluntary, nonviolent discipline, a counter-asceticism that not only opposes the Empire’s interpretation of the world, but also embodies an alternative to it.”[12]

Just as the literalist disfigures the body of the biblical text, in the same mode the torturer would disfigure the flesh in service of violence. What arises in the body of Christ is an alternative meaning attached to bodies and to the letter: an opening to the Spirit. As Origen describes it, reading the Bible rightly, according to the flesh, soul, and spirit includes a right understanding of God, a right understanding of the world, and only with this understanding can one endure torture. Reading by the Spirit, or a figural reading “is a means of freeing knowledge from its cultural captivity to power.” Reading Scripture rightly, is a “spiritual exercise through which readers cultivate a nonviolent hermeneutic, one that embraces the broader signification of material figures (both in Scripture and in the rest of the human world) rather than violently disfiguring them.”[13]

 According to Origen, Christ in his silence “under the scourge and many other outrages” manifested “a courage and patience superior to that of any of the Greeks who spoke while enduring torture.” When Jesus “was being mocked and was clothed in a purple robe, and the crown of thorns was put on his head, and when he took the reed in his hand for a scepter, he showed the highest meekness. For he said nothing either ignoble or angry to those who ventured to do such terrible things to him.”[14] Origen’s comparison pictures a test of two world systems, and Christ’s nonviolent response is the sign of an alternative, peaceful, understanding to be embodied in the church and its hermeneutic.

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


[1] M. F. Wiles, “Origen as a Biblical Scholar,” The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 1, ed. P. R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans (Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 454–89. Quoted in Origen, Homilies on Joshua, trans. and intro Barbara J. Bruce (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002) 7.

[2] Bruce, Ibid.

[3] Origen, Homilies on Joshua, 14.1.

[4] Henri Crouzel, “Origen and Origenism,” The New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 10 (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967), p. 771. Quoted in Bruce, 6.

[5] Bruce, Ibid.

[6] Eusebius, Church History,  6.1–2

[7] Ibid, 6.2.

[8] Ibid, 6.39.

[9] Paul R. Kolbet, “Torture and Origen’s Hermeneutics of Nonviolence” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, September 2008, Vol. 76, No. 3, p. 552.

[10] Kolbert, 554.

[11] Origen, Exhortatio ad martyrium (Koetschau et al. [1899–1955]: 2.3–47); trans. Greer (1979: 41–79). Quoted from Kolbet, 554.

[12] Kolbert, 552.

[13] Kolbert, 562

[14] Origen, Against Celsus, 7.55.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Against Heresies, 3.1.1

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

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

[4] Against Heresies, 3.12.9.

[5] Behr, Ibid.

[6] Against Heresies 1.10

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

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

[9] Origen, On First Principles 4.1.6.

[10] Against Heresies, 4.26.1.

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

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

[13] Principle 4.2.2.

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

“You are Gods”: According to Maximus the Confessor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Ambigua 20.1.

[5] Ambigua 20.2.

[6] Ambigua 20.3.

[7] Ambigua 7.16

[8] Ambigua 7.22.

[9] Wood, 11.

[10] Ambigua 7.21

[11] Ambigua 15.9

[12] Ambigua 20.2

[13] Ambigua 7.21.

[14] Ambigua 7.22