The Hidden and the Manifest: A Book Review

Fifteen years ago David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth blazed across the theological sky. For those of us who were reading theology back then, it was not quite like anything we had ever seen before. How many scholars can speak with equal ease about Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor as about Thomas Aquinas, Erich Pryzwara, and Robert W. Jenson; about Plotinus and Nicholas of Cusa as about Neitzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida? As Geoffrey Wainwright states in his review: “Few, if any, other theologians could have written The Beauty of the Infinite.” Hart’s erudition is staggering, but even more impressive is the way he has creatively synthesized the insights and teachings of the masters and made them his own. It is often difficult to know, for example, where Gregory Nyssen ends and Hart begins. An historical theologian may dispute Hart’s reading of Gregory, Dionysius, or Maximus, yet his reading is often so compelling it doesn’t matter. If that’s not what Maximus said, perhaps it’s what he should have said.

Then there’s Hart’s prolixity and boundless vocabulary. Jenson once quipped that “Hart never uses one clause where twenty will do.” Too true. Yet these multiple clauses also give his writing an incantatory power that sometimes achieves a profound mystical beauty—not always but more than occasionally. And everyone, of course, jokes about needing to have the Oxford English Dictionary at hand when reading his work, the unstated implication being that the author would have made all of our lives so much easier if he had restricted himself to our own very limited lexicons. But the moment one begins to replace those uncommon words with more familiar synonyms (Roget’s is no help here) one discovers that something essential has gotten lost. Form and content, medium and message, are indivisibly united in Hart’s writing. Many passages simply need to be read aloud in order to fully appreciate their lyricism and incandescent passion. Hart’s argumentation does not paraphrase well nor easily reduce to syllogism. Something else is afoot, I think–the communication of a metaphysical vision. Hart wants us to see what he has seen. Semantic density, denotation and connotation, metaphor, the sound of the words, the rhythm and cadence of the sentences–all contribute to the revelation, if there be revelation, of the transcendent plenitude of Being.

The Beauty of the Infinite generated immediate and vigorous response, but after a while the book largely disappeared from scholarly view–at least that is my impression. The disappearance is understandable. Part 1 is impenetrable to anyone who has not studied the thinkers with whom Hart interacts and critiques. I’ve never been able to push my way through it. I suspect that many readers have jumped ahead to part 2, the dogmatica minora, only to find themselves defeated still. Beauty of the Infinite book is an exceptionally demanding text. Many readers lack the sympathy, skills, patience and time to manage it. Reading Finnegan’s Wake seems an easier task.

Hart has continued to publish since 2003, but his substantive academic writings have been largely restricted to journals and essay collections and are thus easily overlooked. This is unfortunate. Like myself, many have found his essays more accessible than Beauty of the Infinite, even when a given piece is drawing verbatim upon it. For this reason the publication of The Hidden and the Manifest is a major event. The volume includes most of his better known post-Beauty essays but also several interesting essays unfamiliar to me, including one on thrift (it ain’t a virtue) and another on Gregory of Nyssa’s rejection of slavery. My favorites: “No Shadow of Turning,” “The Destiny of Christian Metaphysics,” “The Hidden and the Manifest,” and “Impassibility as Transcendence.” These were the essays, along with the works of Robert Sokolowski and Herbert McCabe, that directly challenged my longstanding understanding of divinity. Up until that time I had largely dismissed classical theism. What do impassibility and immutability have to do with the lively God of the Scriptures? Now suddenly these divine attributes began to make sense. Perhaps the Church Fathers had not been corrupted by Hellenistic metaphysics after all. The volume also includes a study of the eucharistic theology of the Eastern Church, “Thine Own of Thine Own,” and the controversial and much-tweeted lecture in which Hart unequivocally affirms universal salvation. Apokatastasis lives again!

Hart is sometimes accused of being more metaphysical than theological (which is hardly a criticism), but the essays of this book demonstrate his Trinitarian envisioning of Being. Consider the following paragraphs:

The doctrinal determinations of the fourth century, along with all their immediate theological ramifications, rendered many of the established metaphysical premises upon which Christians had long relied in order to understand the relation between God and the world increasingly irreconcilable with their faith, and at the same time suggested the need to conceive of that relation–perhaps for the first time in Western intellectual history–in a properly “ontological” way. With the gradual defeat of subordinationist theology, and with the definition of the Son and then the Spirit as coequal and coeternal with the Father, an entire metaphysical economy had implicitly been abandoned. These new theological usages–this new Christian philosophical grammar–did not entail a rejection of the old Logos metaphysics, but they certainly did demand its revision, and at the most radical of level. For not only is the Logos of Nicaea not generated with a view to creation, and not a lesser manifestation of a God who is simply beyond all manifestation; it is in fact the eternal reality whereby God is the God he is. There is a perfectly proportionate convertibility of God with his own manifestation of himself to himself; and, in fact, this convertibility is nothing less than God’s own act of self-knowledge and self-love in the mystery of his transcendent life. His being, therefore, is an infinite intelligibility; his hiddenness–his transcendence–is always already manifestation; and it is this movement of infinite disclosure that is his “essence” as God. … God is Father, Son, and Spirit; and nothing in the Father “exceeds” the Son and Spirit. In God, to know and to love, to be known and to be loved are all one act, whereby he is God and wherein nothing remains unexpressed. And, if it is correct to understand “being” as in some sense necessarily synonymous with manifestation or intelligibility–and it is–then the God who is also always Logos is also eternal Being: not a being, that is, but transcendent Being, beyond all finite being.

Another way of saying this is that the dogmatic definitions of the fourth century ultimately forced Christian thought, even if only tacitly, toward a recognition of the full mystery–the full transcendence–of Being within beings. All at once the hierarchy of hypostases mediating between the world and its ultimate or absolute principle had disappeared. Herein lies the great “discovery” of the Christian metaphysical tradition: the true nature of transcendence, transcendence understood not as mere dialectical supremacy, and not as ontic absence, but as the truly transcendent and therefore utterly immediate act of God, in his own infinity, giving being to beings. In affirming the consubstantiality and equality of the persons of the Trinity, Christian thought had also affirmed that it is the transcendent God alone who makes creation to be, not through a necessary diminishment of his own presence, and not by way of an economic reduction of his power in lesser principles, but as the infinite God. In this way, he is revealed as at once superior summo meo and interior intimo meo: not merely the supreme being set atop the summit of beings, but the one who is transcendently present in all beings, the ever more inward act within each finite act. … True divine transcendence, it turns out, transcends even the traditional metaphysical divisions between the transcendent and the immanent. (pp. 147-148)

To grasp something of the above is to understand the metaphysical revolution that was Nicaea, not the council in itself but the theological reflection on divinity that it generated in the fourth, fifth, and subsequent centuries. I knew some of this before I read Hart, yet his vision of divine transcendence as transcending the transcendent and immanent altered my experience of God. It changed how I pray. It changed, or at least is changing, how I preach, teach, and write.

The Hidden and the Manifest is probably not the first book by David Bentley Hart you should pick up if you are unacquainted with his work. Begin, rather, with The Experience of God and The Doors of the Sea. But if you are a theologian, or simply love to wrestle with hard theological questions, you will eventually need to embrace the challenge represented by The Hidden and the Manifest. Hart is convinced that genuine metaphysical reflection is necessary if the Church is to avoid fundamentalism, whether biblical, patristic, or modern-academic. Wrestle with these essays and you may find that you are finally ready to read (or reread) Hart’s magnum opus.

Posted in Book Reviews, David B. Hart | 14 Comments

A Reply to N. T. Wright

(wherein, at long last, our author unburdens himself of a great number of complaints he has long wished to make against that pious man’s earnest but problematic approach to the New Testament, embellished with a few moments of sly mockery, but ultimately intended as a good-natured—albeit inflexible—expression of deep disagreement)

by David Bentley Hart


I have to confess (though it should come as no surprise to the attentive reader of footnotes) that, when I set out to translate the New Testament for Yale, the modern English translation of the same text to which I found all my hermeneutical and literary principles most starkly opposed (at least, among versions produced by respected scho­lars) was N. T. Wright’s The Kingdom New Testament (2012). My disagree­ments with Wright’s method in general, and with his readings of many texts in particular, were and are both large and irreconcilable. So, it is no great shock that his review of my translation in The Christian Century is mostly a catalogue of complaints, only one of which looks opportunistically malicious (an obvious printing mistake of Romans 8:12 that he describes as an “error” in translation). He is, however, kinder to me than I would have been to him had I written a review of his translation; so, I suppose I should not take umbrage. I do want, however, to reply, because his remarks, to my mind, exhibit a host of what I regard as some of the profounder errors that can be made by any reader or translator of the New Testament. While I have respect for some of Wright’s theological inclinations, I am one of those captious few who think his New Testament scholarship suffers from a dangerous combination of the conventional and the idiosyncratic, with a few significant historical misconceptions mixed in, and that all too often it is an exercise in imposing meanings on the text that best conform to his own convictions, plausible or not.

He makes this same last accusation against me, by the way. On the whole, though, if he is right that I too fall into a tendentious pattern, I still think it easy to establish that his transgressions on this score are the more numerous and willful. In fact, as far as I can see, Wright hits the ground running in his own direction from the early chapters of Matthew, where (for instance) he renders the word Magoi (Magi) as something along the lines of “wise and learned men,” which I assume he knows perfectly well to be flagrantly nonsensical (I expect he was cossetting the anxieties of his Evangelical Anglican readers regarding things occult or heathen). He laments the variety of ways in which I deal with words like “dikaios” and “dikaiosis” in Romans, and yet his own translation is notoriously capricious in that regard. Regarding, for example, his insistence on rendering “dikaiosyne” by the cumber­some phrase “covenant righteousness” (a special hobby-horse of Wright’s, which he takes out for a gallop around the paddock whenever he can), I would be only one among legions in pointing out that this arbitrarily isolates a single dimension of a term with a far larger range of possible meaning in the text.

Some of our differences, I hasten to note, merely rehearse traditional disagreements between proponents of “dynamic” and “formal” equivalence in translating ancient texts. I am very much a champion of the latter. There are those who believe that the difference between ancient and modern idioms is simply a difference between distinct ways of expressing identical meanings (which apparently float above the flux of language and culture like Platonic ideas); I believe that different idioms reflect different ways of seeing reality and shaping experience, and so I choose to retain ancient turns of phrase or images that do not seem natural in modern English, on the assumption that it is misleading to do otherwise. Wright says that I claim my rendering is “pitilessly literal.” I do not; what I actually say in my introduction is that there are a great many particular passages where I adopt “an almost pitilessly literal” rendering precisely to preserve the difference between the ancient and modern ways of saying (and seeing) things. This can involve even very small matters. Wright complains of those places where I left intact constructions that use the words “houtos” (“this one”) and “ekeinos” (“that one”)—”the one who…, this one…” “having received…, that one…”—rather than assimilating them to simpler “he did so-and-so” constructions. After all, he notes, Greek and English work differently. And, indeed they do, which is why my choice is the correct one. I have no idea how large a classical education Wright has, but I suspect he knows that such constructions generally occur where the author is adding (for some reason or other) a special emphasis: “this one” (as opposed to someone else); “that one” (as opposed to “this one” or “just anyone,” and sometimes perhaps with a hint of disdain, like the Latin iste). Since in my translation I was interested not in producing a smoothly gleaming modernized gloss, but rather a “formal” correspondence of tropes, I chose to alert readers without Greek to that added emphatic note, and I remain absolutely convinced that I was wise to do so. Moreover, not having quite as colloquial a sensibility as Wright where the question of good English is concerned, I actually like the rhetorical effect, in all its stiff and strange formality.

On the other hand, some of our differences appear to be matters of personal formation and education. Wright claims that I undertook to produce a “literal” rendering in plain modern English. I did not. I was quite willing to use slightly obscure words (“tilth,” for instance, or “chaplet”) where I thought their exact meanings were the most accurate correlates of certain Greek terms (a “chaplet” is not exactly a crown, but a very specific kind of ornament for the head). As Nabokov said, a good reader always has a dictionary near at hand. But, really, I would hope most readers would not need one for these particular terms. Then again, it seems that what Wright and I regard as normal English are wildly different. For instance, he finds the phrase “going and washing, I saw…” weirdly archaic. It is inelegant, perhaps, both in Greek and in English, but it is hardly syntactically exotic. And then there are the words that Wright finds “obsolete” that, to my ear, are neither particularly old nor particularly new, but simply reasonably literate English. He thinks that the nautical term “alee” is antique (not among the seafaring folk in my corner of Maryland, or in fact anywhere in the Anglophone sailing world). He even seems to think that the phrase “rapt up” will be unintelligible to modern readers; but to me phrases like “rapt in contemplation” or “rapt up in his own affairs” or “rapt admiration” are fairly normal parlance. To be honest, I feel no shame or chagrin in admitting that I did not pitch my version to readers for whom the word “rapt” would prove an insuperable enigma. (And, to be honest, it is a little rich to hear such criticisms coming from someone whose own translation is notorious for fustian phrases like “woe betide!”, as well as a general drab clumsiness of expression.)

Certain other disagreements, I suppose, are matters more of scholarly debate than anything else. But, even here, I have to wonder whether Wright’s self-confidence is somewhat suspect. For instance, he does not like my decision to render the singular and plural of Abraham’s “kolpos” as, respectively, “vale” or “vales” rather than “bosom” (though, happily, not “bosoms”). He mistakenly calls my usage “metaphorical,” though in fact it is one of many perfectly literal renderings of the word (“bosom” is no more literal). More to the point, according to Wright, I have “ignored the well-known ancient Jewish idiom of Abraham’s bosom.” Really? Do tell. There is in fact no such “ancient idiom” known to modern scholarship. There is no extant instance of the image’s use before Luke’s gospel, and it is believed by a good many very impressive scholars that the image actually migrated from Christian sources into later Midrash and Talmud; hence the actual meaning of the phrase in Luke’s Greek cannot be established with any certainty, as I admit in my notes, and certainly not on the basis of a seemingly parallel idiom in later Rabbinic literature. The shift from singular to plural in the course of the parable, moreover, opens up the possibility that the original image has typically been lost in translation. Luke, whether speaking as a Greek Christian familiar with pagan pictures of the underworld or just as a Christian conversant with various first-century Jewish pictures of the afterlife, would have had no difficulty in imagining the next world as having a kind of geography separating the happy souls from the desolate. And, after all, Luke does describe Lazarus as inhabiting a place of flowing water. Again, in my text I offer my rendering as a purely speculative reading of Luke’s language, to apprise readers of the possibility of different interpretations. On the other hand, I find it very disquieting that Wright so confidently invokes a tradition of which no record exists. It raises doubts for me regarding his sources.

Our largest differences, however, revolve around what we believe the texts actually say on certain theological matters. At times, admittedly, these differences can look like disputes over Greek usage, but the real issues are invariably deeper. Wright observes, correctly, that Greek sometimes uses a definite article before a noun where we would use none, since it names an abstract property; at the same time, he says, sometimes Greek often omits an article where we would use one. This too is correct, but not quite in the same way. He is objecting to my practice of advancing formulae such as “a Holy Spirit” where pious convention would write “the Holy Spirit”; and the deeper contention here is that clearly the text always means what later tradition unambiguously intended when it spoke of “the Holy Spirit.” (He also objects to some of my choices regarding when to capitalize “spirit” and when not, but I explain that quite adequately in my critical postscript.) Here I am right and Wright is wrong. True, a particular substantive often lacks an article in ancient Greek where it would carry one in English—as when, for instance, it functions as a predicate in a sentence—but where a noun is used as a specific denominative title (or even as an honorific version of an otherwise common name) it will usually be marked as such by the definite article. The absence of an article generally indicates that the author did not think of the noun as warranting a definite rather than indefinite designation. And, frankly, I have to assume that Wright would not make this argument if he were not committed to finding something like a fully theoretically operative Nicene-Constantinopolitan theology already present in the New Testament (the unthinkable alternative being to assume that his feel for ancient Greek is a little deficient).

Mind you, it would have helped things immeasurably had Wright paid closer attention to what I said in my critical apparatus, rather than to the snippets he misleadingly prised from it. I did not claim to be presenting a perfectly “undogmatic” translation, but rather one freed (as much as possible) from the later developments of “doctrinal history.” My version is perfectly “dogmatic”; I simply believe that it is usually closer to the dogmatic interpretations of the earliest readers of the Greek. Beyond that, when looking for guidance in interpretation (as I say in my postscript), I consulted figures in the tradition who were at least reading the actual Greek original. At times, I admit, I was guided by the desire to translate the texts in a way that made more intelligible the commentaries of figures as diverse as Origen and Theophylact, on the assumption that their ears for the Greek were better guides to its meanings than would have been theological and doctrinal formulations that, having been first generated from Latin translations, then evolved into entire systems of their own in later centuries. I am unrepentant on this score. It would have helped, also, had Wright followed my critical notes with greater care. For instance, he insinuates that in my wrestling with the adjective “aionios“—and, to a lesser extent, the noun “aion“—I only reluctantly allowed my thinking to be governed by Judaism’s theology of the two ages. This is nonsense. That was the consideration to which I devoted the most space in my postscript and the one that was absolutely determinative for the translation on which I settled. But this brings me to another aspect of Wright’s review, and here I am not disposed to be genial.

Wright wants to suggest that my reading of Paul pays scant attention (and scanter tribute) to the Jewish background of his writings; and I suspect that he says this, broadly speaking, for two reasons. The first is as a distasteful rhetorical device, cynically employed: To hint that I somehow slight Judaism in my translation is to suggest that I must be an insensitive lout, and that really we should all be dashing back hell-for-leather to the sheltering baroqueries of “covenant righteousness” and other laborious devices, or else risk being suspected of super­sessionist bigotry. The second is simply dubious scholarship: Wright’s picture of first-century Judaism is at once a rather fanciful projection backward of later Rabbinic tradition and a projection forward of the canon of Hebrew scripture—both of which are perfectly relevant to our understanding, but neither of which is capable of placing the New Testament texts within a first-century Judaism that had been shaped by intertes­tamental literature and traditions, and that had absorbed Hellenistic thought in various ways and at various levels, and that was still a diverse and marvelously farraginous clash of cultural, spiritual, and intellectual worlds. Thus Wright objects to (and dismissively misrepresents) my observation that Paul may literally mean what he seems explicitly to say in 1 Corinthians 10:11, that some of the stories recorded in the Torah may already be allegorical in form rather than strictly literal historical narratives. For Wright, to say as much is to discount the presence of Israel’s history in Paul’s thinking on the covenant. What on earth is Wright talking about? Does he really know so little of the age in which Paul wrote, and of the diversity of views in Jewish thought at the time, as to think that, for an educated student of Gamaliel, only something like a fundamentalist literalism could be counted as faith in the reality of God’s presence with Israel through the generations? (Well, the question answers itself, really.)

To be frank, I have never thought Wright’s understanding of late antique Judaism particularly sound or subtle (a friend of mine who is both a Rabbi and a fine scholar calls Wright’s view of late antique Judaism a Protestant Christian fantasy); at the very least, I certainly think Wright fails to grasp the full scope of Paul’s struggles with the question of God’s covenant with Israel. If, after all, the only one of Paul’s writings that had survived till today were the letter to the Galatians, we would think him a fairly extreme super­sessionist. Thankfully—if perennially troublingly—we have the tortured but ultimately glorious reflections of Romans 9-11 to balance the picture. Even so, as Jon Levinson has so aptly remarked, a tendency toward super­sessionism is one of the most purely Jewish aspects of Christian tradition; and Paul, whether we like it or not, clearly believed that aspects of Jewish tradition had been superseded so as to make room within God’s covenant with Israel for those who had otherwise been excluded. We all know this, surely. What makes us uncomfortable, however, is how extreme Paul really was at times on this score. Wright is aghast that at certain crucial junctures I render the word “gramma” not as something vague and unthreatening like “the letter,” but as “scripture.” I suppose this is only to be expected. We do not want to hear Paul speak of “scripture’s obsolescence” (Romans 7:6), or say that “scripture slays” (2 Corinthians 3:6). Surely, we cry, he cannot mean that in some sense scripture has been surpassed by God’s self-revelation in the face of Christ! Except that he does, and explicitly so. One need only read what follows in 2 Corinthians, all the way to verse 18, to grasp this. There is no question that Paul here is opposing God’s revelation in Christ not merely to “the letter” in some abstract sense. What this means ultimately, I cannot say, since in an even greater sense the testimony of scripture is also fundamental to Paul’s teaching regarding who Christ is. Then again, I do not expect perfect consistency from Paul, but only fervent fidelity to the mysteries with which he is grappling. Wright, however, calls my rendering “as idiosyncratic as it is bold.” I thank him for this, as it happens. But it is one other thing beside—it is correct. Or, to be more exact, it is honest. Interpreting Paul’s meaning here may be difficult, but translating his language is not. It is a tiresome fact of theological history that, generation upon generation, Christian exegetes choose to draw a veil of delicacy over some of the more jarring claims made by Paul. I fully understand the impulse; but I am no longer as patient with it as I once was.

Posted in David B. Hart | 54 Comments

Origen and the Eschatological Creation of the Cosmos

by Fr John Behr, Ph.D.

After using for several decades G. W. Butterworth’s translation of Origen’s On First Principles (the standard translation used in the English speaking world for the better part of a century), I became convinced that not only was a new translation needed but a new critical edition. Crouzel’s edition for Sources Chrétiennes, and other more recent editions, are a great improvement over that of Koetschau (used by Butterworth), but there are still issues with regard to the structure of the work as presented in their editions. In the introduction to my edition and translation, Origen: On First Principles, I argue that the work is structured differently than how it has been presented to us. There are various significant implications to be drawn from this (see the book for more details!), but perhaps none are more striking than how it challenges our picture of Origen’s understanding of creation.

That Origen held creation to be in some sense eternal is based primarily on his argument in Princ. 1.2. This chapter deals with the titles of Christ expressing his divinity, especially and primarily Wisdom, who says of herself that God ‘created me as the beginning of his ways’ (Prov. 8:22).

Earlier on in the chapter, Origen explained this verse in terms that recall both the Platonic ‘ideas’ and the Stoic ‘reasons’, suggesting Wisdom was created to be the beginning of the ways of God as she ‘contains within herself the beginning and the reasons and the species of the entire creation’ (1.2.2, cf. 1.4.4). At that stage in his argument, then, if creation can be said to be eternal, it is only in a prefigurative sense.

However, when Origen turns in Princ. 1.2.10 to consider the verse in which Wisdom is said to be ‘the emanation of the purest glory of the Almighty’ (Wis. 7:25), he seems to imply a more concrete content to the eternal existence of creation. He begins by examining what might be meant by ‘the glory of the Almighty’ to then be able to understand what its ’emanation’ is, and does so by way of an analogy to the correlation, used earlier in the chapter, between the existence of a father and that of a son, to demonstrate that the Son is eternal (Princ. 1.2.2). As it is impossible to be a father without a son, so also it is impossible for God to be almighty ‘if there are not those over whom he can exercise his power’, and, as it is clearly better for God to be almighty than not, those things by virtue of which he is almighty must always have existed: ‘if there never is a “when” when he was not almighty, by necessity those things must also subsist by which he is called almighty, and he must always have had those over whom he exercised power and which were governed by him as king or prince’; and of these things, he adds, he will speak more fully in the proper place when discussing the subject of his creatures (Princ. 1.2.10). Pared down to the bare bones of the logical structure of the analogy, as was done by Methodius of Olympus, and those who follow in his wake, this opening passage does indeed seem to suggest that creation must in some sense be eternally actualized for God to be eternally the Almighty.

However, as I argue in my introduction to the new edition, we can see from the structure of the work itself–and more immediately from the last lines of the opening paragraph of this section (paraphrased in the previous paragraph)–that Origen is not here concerned with created being themselves but with the various titles of Christ and how they correlate amongst themselves and with the Father. So much is the analogy open to misunderstanding that he continues with a warning:

But even now, although briefly, I think it necessary to give a warning, since the question before us concerning Wisdom is how Wisdom is the ἀπόρροια (or the emanation) of the purest glory of the Almighty, lest anyone should consider that the title of Almighty is anterior in God to the birth of Wisdom, through whom he is called Father, since it is said that [Wisdom] is the emanation of the purest glory of the Almighty. Let him who would think like this hear what the Scriptures clearly proclaim, saying ‘In Wisdom have you made all things’, and the Gospel teaches, that ‘All things were made by him and without him nothing was made’, and let him understand from this that the title of Almighty cannot be older in God than that of Father, for it is through the Son that the Father is almighty. (1.2.10; Ps 103.24; Jn 1.3)

In other words, Origen’s concern here is not the status of creation itself, but to work out the hierarchy of the scriptural titles for God and Christ. If Wisdom is said to be ‘a pure effluence of the glory of the Almighty’, it is nevertheless ‘in Wisdom’ that God has made all things and by the Word that ‘all things were made’, so that ‘the title of “Almighty” cannot be older in God than that of Father, for it is through the Son that the Father is almighty’.

In doing this, Origen establishes a fundamental theological point: the creative activity of God must be understood in terms of his existence already as Father. This is, in fact, the opening affirmation of almost every subsequent creed: I believe in One God Father Almighty. God’s creative act is thus grounded in the eternal relationship between Father and Son.

Origen continues his examination of the verse in question by pointing out that, as an ’emanation’, Wisdom also shares in ‘the glory of the Almighty’, as is shown by the fact that Christ, the coming one, is also called ‘the Almighty’ in Scripture (Rev. 1:8). Moreover, since Scripture calls Christ ‘God’ (John 20:28), we should not hesitate to also call the Son of God ‘Almighty’. And so:

in this way will that saying be true, which he himself says to the Father, ‘All mine are yours and yours mine, and I am glorified in them’. Now, if all things which are the Father’s are also Christ’s, and, among all that the Father is, he is also Almighty, then without doubt the only-begotten Son ought to be Almighty, so that the Son might have all that the Father has. ‘And I am glorified’, he says, ‘in them’. For, ‘at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord in the glory of God the Father’. So, in this way is God’s Wisdom herself the pure and clear emanation of the glory of God, in respect of his being Almighty, glorified as the emanation of omnipotence or of glory. (1.2.10; Jn 17.10; Phil 2.10-11)

That is, not only does Scripture confer the title ‘Almighty’ upon both God and Christ, but the truth of their omnipotence is demonstrated by Paul’s words in Philippians, that, as a result of the Passion, every knee bows at the name of Jesus. The dominion which the Father holds over all things and by virtue of which he is called ‘the Almighty’, is exercised through his Son, who is thus also called ‘Almighty’, for ‘at the name of Jesus every knee bows’. So, Origen concludes: ‘if every knee bows to Jesus, then, without doubt, it is Jesus to whom all things have been subjected, and he it is who exercised power over all things, and through whom all things have been subjected to the Father’.

To make his point even clearer, Origen continues by explaining just what the glory of this omnipotence is:

And we add this, so that it may be more clearly understood what the glory of omnipotence is. The God and Father is Almighty because he has power over all things, that is, over heaven and earth, sun and moon, and all things in them. And he exercises power over them through his Word, for at the name of Jesus every knee bows, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth. And, if every knee bows to Jesus, then, without doubt, it is Jesus to whom all things have been subjected, and he it is who exercised power over all things, and through whom all things have been subjected to the Father; for it is through Wisdom, that is by Word and Reason, not by force and necessity, that they have been subjected. And therefore his glory is in the very fact that he possesses all things, and this is the purest and most clear glory of omnipotence, that by reason and wisdom, not by force and necessity, all things have been subjected. Now the purest and most clear glory of Wisdom is a convenient designation to distinguish it from that glory which is not called pure or genuine. (1.2.10; Phil 2.10-11; 1 Cor 15.27-8)

Christ’s glory is ‘pure or genuine’ unlike that of every being that is created, for, as created and thus alterable, they can only possess righteousness or wisdom as an accidental property, and so they can always also fall away, whereas, as Origen concludes his treatment of this verse from Wisdom in, ‘since the Wisdom of God, who is his only-begotten Son, is in all respects unalterable and unchangeable, and every good quality is in her essentially, such that it can never be changed or altered, therefore her glory is declared to be pure and genuine’.

For Origen, then, in Princ. 1.2.10, not only does the attribute of omnipotence which calls creation into being derive from the relationship between the Father and the Son, but the ‘glory of omnipotence’ is found nowhere else but on the cross, as the reference to the Philippians hymn makes clear. If we do not strip away from his argument the scriptural verses that he is in fact discussing, to treat it merely as a logical argument, but instead pay attention to the scriptural verses he uses to develop his argument, we see a very different picture emerge.

We will see more about the relationship between Christ and the Cross in a minute, but for now it is sufficient to note that Origen consistently connects Christ’s lordship with his exaltation on the cross: ‘the Son became king through suffering the cross’ (CJ 1.278). In other words, the ‘omnipotence’ Origen is speaking about when using the analogy with the relationship between Father and Son is the power revealed through the weakness of the cross. And likewise the ‘creation’ that is brought into being by this omnipotence of God is not simply that of lifeless, inanimate, and irrational matter, over which a workman might exercise his power, but the creation brought into existence through his Word, ‘by word and reason, not by force and necessity’, that is, through persuasion upon rational, self-determining beings, who through God’s long economy of creative activity come, in the end, to bow their knees in subjection to Christ, through whose own subjection to the Father God comes to be ‘all in all’ (1 Cor. 15.27-8; cf. esp. Princ. 3.6).

To understand what is going on here, it is important to note that the word ‘creation’, even in modern English, can be used in various ways. It can refer, for instance, to God’s initial act of creation, creating the world ex nihilo, or it can refer to what which is thus brought into being, the creation, in which we now live and breathe. However, there is another sense in which the word can be used. Rowan Williams suggestively comments that for Origen ‘creation, ktisis, is strictly only the unimpeded expression of God’s rational will’ (Arius, 141). In this sense, following Proverbs 8:22, where Wisdom says of herself ‘the Lord created me’, Origen can perhaps even speak of Wisdom, the Son of God, as being a ‘creature’, though by this Origen clearly means something other than what was later understood as ‘creation’ (Princ. 4.4.1). The ‘creation’ of God, everything brought into subjection to him such that he is ‘all in all’, is the reality brought into existence at the end, not the beginning, it is eschatological, not protological. And it is only by looking to the end that Origen, as we will see further below, tries to get some idea of the beginning.

Later tradition, with roots already in Isaiah (esp. 65:17–24), would of course speak of this as a ‘new creation’, or creation renewed, but that this eschatological reality can simply be called ‘the creation’ is also evidenced by the New Testament. It is seen most clearly in the opening self-identification that the risen Christ speaks to the church of Laodicea: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness [ὁ μάρτυς], the beginning of God’s creation [ἡ ἀρχὴ τῆς κτίσεως τοῦ Θεοῦ]’ (Rev. 3:14). The Christ of the Apocalypse, the apocalyptic Christ, is the ‘beginning’ of God’s creation. That ‘the beginning of God’s creation’ is an ‘Amen’ is also significant: God’s ‘creation’ requires a response, just as we have seen that ‘rational beings’ are included within the apostolic preaching alongside God, Christ, and the Spirit; it is also the Amen of martyrdom

In an important passage in his Commentary on John, Origen differentiates between creating and fashioning or moulding:

Because, therefore, the first human being fell away from the superior things and desired a life different from the better life, he deserved to be a beginning [ἀρχὴν] neither of something created nor made [οὔτε κτίσματος οὔτε ποιήματος], but of something moulded [πλάσματος] by the Lord, made [πεποιημένον] to be mocked by the angels. Now, our superior being [ἡ προηγουμένη ὑπόστασις] is in our being made [κτίσαντος] according to the image of the Creator, but that resulting from a cause [ἡ ἐξ αἰτίας] is in the thing moulded [ἐν τῷ … πλάσματι], which was received from the dust of the earth. (CJ 20.182; Job 40.19; Gen 1.26)

Here Origen, ever keen to discern the proper ordering of scriptural terminology, is working out a hierarchy of terms describing the different aspects of ‘creation’: a descending gradation of ‘create’ (κτίζειν), ‘make’ (ποιεῖν), and ‘mould’ (πλάσσειν). He does this by noting the different verbs used in the two creation accounts in the opening chapters of Genesis, by way of a verse from Job: our ‘προηγουμένη being’ is not simply a ‘superior’ existence, as created in the image of God, an intellectual reality superior to bodily matter, but also, more immediately, our primary or primordial existence: Gen. 1:26 comes, literally, before Gen. 2:7, when God takes dust from the earth and ‘moulds’ the human being. That which comes from the earth is neither simply ‘created nor made’, though, because resulting ‘from a cause’, it has ‘been made to be mocked by the angels’. Though this might seem like a superior intellectual being mocking a lower earthly one, it cannot but help recall the ‘mocking’ of Christ, on his way to becoming ‘the beginning of God’s creation’. We will see more about what this ’cause’ is that has resulted in us falling away.

A further important term for Origen’s understanding of creation is καταβολή, usually translated in the Scriptural translations as ‘foundation’, but which, as Origen makes clear in a very dense passage, signifies, rather, a casting downwards. Princ. 3.5.4 occurs in Origen’s treatment of the ‘economic’ dimensions of the principles of the faith, that is, in terms of the actual working out, or the arrangement, of God’s plans and activity. He beings by appealing to various scriptural verses in which the term ‘foundation’ appears. Especially important is Ephesians 1:4, which speaks of how God ‘has chosen us before the foundation of the world’, Origen attempts to explain what is implied by this term:

I am of the opinion that as the end and the consummation of the saints will be in those [worlds] that are not seen and eternal [2 Cor. 4:18] it must be supposed, from a contemplation of that very end, as we have frequently pointed out above, that rational creatures have also had a similar beginning. And if they had a beginning such as the end for which they hope, they were undoubtedly from the beginning in those [worlds] that are not seen and eternal. And if this is so, then there has been a descent from the higher conditions to the lower, not only on the part of those souls who have by the variety of their own movements deserved it, but also on that of those who, to serve the whole world, were brought down from the higher and invisible conditions to these lower and visible ones, even against their will. Because the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but by the one who subjected it in hope [Rom. 8:20], so that both the sun and the moon and the stars and the angels of God might fulfil an obedient service for the world; and for those souls which, because of their excessive spiritual defects needed these denser and more solid bodies, and because of those for whom this was necessary, this visible world was founded. From this, therefore, a descent of everyone alike would seem to be indicated by the meaning of the word, that is, of καταβολή. The whole creation indeed entertains the hope of freedom, of being set free from the bondage of corruption when the children of God [Rom. 8:21], who either fell away or were scattered abroad, shall be gathered together into one, or when they shall have fulfilled their other duties in this world, which are known to God alone, the Artificer of all things. (3.5.4)

There are several things in this dense passage that must be noted clearly. First, it is by a contemplation of the end that Origen speculates about the beginning. This is clearly an important point for him; he says he has pointed it out repeatedly (treated most fully in Princ. 1.6.1), and we will turn to it again later. In the ‘Recapitulation’ that concludes the whole work, Origen asserts that those who come to share in the immorality and incorruptibility of God also share in his eternity, they ‘are also eternal’ (Princ. 4.4.9). If our end is to enter into the eternity of God, being purged by him as a consuming fire, and so coming to share in his properties (as does the iron in the fire), then we too, while still embodied, material, creatures, will be in a world ‘not seen’ and ‘eternal’, with ‘a house not made by hands, eternal in the heavens’ (2 Cor. 4:18–5:1; Princ. 2.3.7; 3.6.4). This being so, then our beginning in this world and its time can only be thought of as a falling away from that eternal and heavenly reality, to which we are called.

The second point to note is that Origen does not speak about the falling away of all rational beings from their end as being caused by sinful movements, satiety, or boredom. While some, certainly, have fallen away because of their own movements, in all their variety, others have descended to minister to those who have fallen. This is something Origen returns to frequently throughout his works. ‘Not everyone who is a captive’, Origen begins his first homily on Ezekiel, ‘endures captivity on account of his sins’ (1.1). Elsewhere he gives the example of Paul, who ‘not willing, but of hope’ wishes ‘to remain in the flesh’; even though he preferred ‘to depart and be with Christ’, he remained in the state he is in for the benefit of others (CJ 1.98-100).

Third, Origen does not describe this falling away in terms of taking a body or becoming embodied, but rather as resulting in those who fall away having ‘denser and more solid bodies’. In his chapter treating, economically, the soul, Origen suggests, through the supposed etymology of the word soul (taking ψυχή to come from ψυχόω , which, as a passive verb, can mean ‘to become cold’), that the intellect becomes a soul through cooling down, noting that, as God is ‘a consuming fire’, whenever Scripture speaks of the manifestation of God in creation, it is in fiery terms (the burning bush, for instance), whereas whenever it speaks of the work of the adverse powers, and these powers themselves, it is always as ‘cold’ (Princ. 2.8.3). Christ, he points out, has come ‘to cast fire upon the earth’, and so sets Simon and Cleopas’ hearts aflame on the road to Emmaus (Lk 12.49, 24.32; Hom Jer 20.8, Hom Ex 13.4). If our end is to be in the consuming fire that is God, transformed by incorporeal fire, and coming to share in the properties of that fire, while the matter of our bodies remains what it is, our cooling down by descending from that fire results in our bodies becoming ‘denser’.

The fourth point is that it is this descent, of all, in various ways and for various purposes, that is indicated to by the scriptural expression ‘the foundation of the world’. But, fifth, and perhaps most important, is that, by starting with the end to speculate about the beginning, our ‘election’, which happens ‘before the foundation of the world’, is, in a very real sense, the call that brings us into being, prior to being ‘fashioned’ in ‘the foundation of the world’, and prior also to our being ‘created’, which only properly happens at the end.

Finally, as we have ‘descended’ or rather, in fact been ‘thrown down’ from our high calling into this world, resulting from a cause which required our being ‘fashioned’ from the dust of this earth, then our coming into being in the time of this world, and our being ‘fashioned’ to become, in the end, ‘created’, means that our subjection to decay, not by our own will, ‘but by the one who subjected it in hope’, are the ‘birth-pangs’ of creation (an apocalyptic theme if there ever was one), as it labours in travail until the revelation, the apokalypsis, of the sons of God (Rom. 8:19–22).

Our ‘election’ is, then, in a real sense, in God, prior to our being fashioned from the dust of the earth and the foundation of the world: we are primarily and primordially called to participate in the heavenly liturgy, and to enter into that eschatological and apocalyptic reality is to be created. But, because of certain causes, our being created (only realized in the end), is by way of our being fashioned or moulded from the dust of the earth, the earth which has itself been ‘thrown down’, to be mocked by the angels.

What was the cause of this falling away? In a word, it was the scandal of ‘the lamb slain from the foundation of the world’ (Rev. 13:8). While happening in the time of the world at a particular moment, it is an eternal reality in God, and so is always spoken of in the past tense. As difficult as this might be for us to understand, with our modern preoccupation with history and chronology, it is the presupposition of Christians from the time that the risen Christ opened the books to show how Moses and all the prophets spoke of how it was necessary for the Son of Man to suffer to enter into his glory (cf. Luke 24:24–6). As Irenaeus had put it a few decades before Origen, when Isaiah says, ‘I have seen with my eyes the King, the Lord of hosts’, and the other prophets similarly in their words, visions, and mode of life, they ‘see the Son of God as a human being, conversing with human beings, while prophesying what was to happen, saying that he who was not come as yet was present, proclaiming also the impassible as subject to suffering, and declaring that he who was then in heaven had descended [descendisse] into the dust of death’ (Haer. 4.20.8).

As Origen explains elsewhere, in the intersection of eternity and temporality, the future determines the past As Origen put it in Contra Celsum,

We say that the one who made the prediction was not the cause of the future event, because he foretold that it would happen; but we hold that the future event, which would have taken place even it had not been prophesied, constitutes the cause of its prediction by the one with foreknowledge. (Cels. 2.20)

It is because Christ died on the cross that the prophets spoke about this, not because they spoke about it that he then died, and, in fact, when the spoke about it, they did so as a past event, and, given that its happening is the ’cause’ of the prophecy, Christ himself speaks of it as an eternal ‘necessity’ (cf. Luke 24:26).

This non-sequential relationship between eternity and temporality is also applicable to the ‘antecedent causes’ spoken about by Origen as the occasion for our falling away from our calling, in his attempt to reconcile the inequality of human fate with an affirmation of the justice of God:

this anteriority is not simply chronological, but always related to the timelessness of God’s foreknowledge.

Rather than imagining a host of eternally existing intellects who through some pre-cosmic fall descend into bodies, the ‘antecedent causes’ invoked by Origen refers to the anteriority of the timelessness of God, who knows all things for each from their womb. Or as Origen puts it, when discussing Paul’s description of his own ‘election’ before his birth (Rom. 1:1 and Gal. 1:15), ‘any one who is predestined through the foreknowledge of God is the cause of the events known’, rather than being ‘saved by nature’ as he charges his opponents with teaching (Phil. 25).

* * *

The Very Rev. Dr. John Behr is the Father Georges Florovsky Distinguished Professor of Patristics at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. He has completed a new critical edition and translation of Origen’s On First Principles, which will be published by the Oxford University Press in early 2018. The above article is drawn from the Introduction to this work. Fr John is also the author of The Way to Nicaea and The Nicene Faith, as well as the beautiful collection of meditations Becoming Human.

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“Your words will save me, your song instruct me”

Receive Christ, receive power to see, receive your light, that you may plainly recognize both God and man. More delightful than gold and precious stones, more desirable than honey and the honeycomb is the Word that has enlightened us. How could he not be desirable, he who illumined minds buried in darkness, and endowed with clear vision the light-bringing eyes of the soul? Despite the other stars, without the sun the whole world would be plunged in darkness. So likewise we ourselves, had we not known the Word and been enlightened by him, should have been no better off than plump poultry fattened in the dark, simply reared for death. Let us open ourselves to the light, then, and so to God. Let us open ourselves to the light, and become disciples of the Lord. For he promised his Father: “I will make known your name to my brothers and sisters, and praise you where they are assembled.”

 Sing his praises, then, Lord, and make known to me your Father, who is God. Your words will save me, your song instruct me. Hitherto I have gone astray in my search for God; but now that you light my path, Lord, and I find God through you, and receive the Father from you, I become co-heir with you, since you were not ashamed to own me as your brother.

Let us, then, shake off forgetfulness of truth, shake off the mist of ignorance and darkness that dims our eyes, and contemplate the true God, after first raising this song of praise to him: “All hail, O Light!”

 For upon us, buried in darkness, imprisoned in the shadow of death, a heavenly light has shone, a light of a clarity surpassing the sun’s, and of a sweetness exceeding any this earthly life can offer. That light is eternal life, and those who receive it live.

 Night, on the other hand, is afraid of the light, and melting away in terror gives place to the day of the Lord. Unfailing light has penetrated everywhere, and sunset has turned into dawn.

This is the meaning of the new creation; for the Sun of Righteousness, pursuing his course through the universe, visits all alike, in imitation of his Father, “who makes his sun rise upon all,” and bedews everyone with his truth. 

He it is who has changed sunset into dawn and death into life by his crucifixion; he it is who has snatched the human race from perdition and exalted it to the skies.

 Transplanting what was corruptible to make it incorruptible, transforming earth into heaven, he, God’s gardener, points the way to prosperity, prompts his people to good works, “reminds them how to live” according to the truth, and bestows on us the truly great and divine heritage of the Father, which cannot be taken away from us.

 He deifies us by his heavenly teaching, instilling his laws into our minds, and writing them on our hearts. What are the laws he prescribes? That all, be they of high estate or low, shall know God. “And I will be merciful to them,” God says, “and I will remember their sin no more.”

Let us accept the laws of life, let us obey God’s promptings. Let us learn to know him, so that he may be merciful to us. Although he stands in no need of it, let us pay God our debt of gratitude in willing obedience as a rent, so to speak, which we owe him for our lodging here below.

Clement of Alexandria

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About God’s Grace

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Searching for Our Human Face: Kenosis, Beggary, Hope

Eclectic Orthodoxy

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.


The kenosis of the Spirit is everywhere. The word of insight may occur on the lips of someone who believes him or herself in revolt against God. The moment of inspiration overcomes psychic deformation. The yes to the creative impulse, insofar as it humbly gives itself to the real, is both a yes to God and the enactment of genuine speech. Yet ideally, this is the mission of the Church. Part of that mission is the gathering of the world’s love and insight strewn across a night of death and despair. The Church’s mission is to extend love and hope to the hopeless. The urgency of the gospel is here. The God is life and the power of life. As much as enemies of the Church have distorted complex truth and used Crusades and Inquisitions as a hammer to bludgeon the people of God…

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Searching for Our Human Face: Love Bade Me Welcome

Eclectic Orthodoxy

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

“The Kingdom of God cannot be conceived moralistically: it is on the other side of the distinction. It is the Fall that made moralists of us” (Berdyaev, Destiny of Man, p. 36). Ascesis is necessary in order to train the mind not to accept the obvious. Perhaps better, it is necessary so that the whole man, the Hebrew “heart,” will discern an unexpected path. Once again, William Desmond is instructive:

There is a disorder of self that is perverse; there is a disorder that is divine. There is order that is killing; there is order that gives creation peace. There is a self-love that is really a hatred of the self; there is a hatred of the self that is really a love of what is other, and a consent to being. There is a sacrifice of self that affirms the other; there is…

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