Is Universal Salvation Possible in Islam?

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“Each virtue is a gold and diamond step on the ladder of salvation, the ladder that unites earth and heaven, that stretches out from your own hell to your own paradise”

Why does the Church place this Saint in the middle of the Fast, as the most holy image, so that all would behold him?

Saint John of the Ladder. Who is he? He is the man who experienced and wrote the Ladder of Paradise, who experienced the ascent of man from hell to heaven, to paradise. He experienced the ladder from earth to heaven, the ladder that extends from the bottom of the hell of man to the peak of paradise. He experienced and wrote. A very educated man, well studied. A man who led his soul along the path of Christ, entirely leading it from hell to paradise, from the devil to God, from sin to sinlessness, and who in a divinely wise way recorded this journey, namely what takes place when a man fights with each devil that is behind sin.

The devil fights us with sin, both you and I, my brothers and sisters. He fights against you with every sin. Do not fool yourself, do not think that a small and weak force attacks you. No! He attacks you! Even if it is a grimy thought, only a thought, know that he is rushing on you. A thought of pride, a thought of desire, a thought of avarice, an innumerable multitude of thoughts come upon you from every side. And you, what are you? O, Ladder of Paradise! How, Father John, were you able to make this ladder from paradise stand between earth and heaven? Did not the demons tear it down, cut it or break it? No! His fasting was a flame, a fire, an inferno. What devil could endure it? All fled panic stricken, all the demons fled being chased away by his glorious and divine prayers, all the demons fled terrified by his fasting, all the demons disappeared by his fiery and fervent prayer.

The Ladder of Paradise! What is it? It is the holy virtues. The holy evangelical virtues: humility, faith, fasting, gentleness, patience, kindness, goodness, compassion, truthfulness, the love for Christ, the confession of Christ, suffering for the sake of Christ. These and many other New Testament holy virtues. Every command of Christ, my brethren, is a virtue. Do you keep them? Do you apply them? Fasting is a holy virtue, it is a step on the ladder from earth to heaven. Fasting, blessed fasting, like the entire ladder leads from earth to heaven. Each virtue is a small paradise. Each virtue nourishes your soul, making it blessed, and brings down into your soul divine, heavenly rest. Each virtue is a gold and diamond step on the ladder of salvation, the ladder that unites earth and heaven, that stretches out from your own hell to your own paradise. This is why none of them are ever on their own. Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is never on its own. It is manifested by prayer, by fasting, by almsgiving, by humility, by suffering on behalf of ones neighbor. Not only does it manifest itself this way but it also lives every virtue, because the other virtue exists. Faith lives with prayer, prayer lives with fasting, fasting is nourished by prayer, fasting is nourished by love, love is nourished by compassion. Thus every virtue is alive through the other. And when one virtue resides in your soul, all the others follow, all will slowly emerge and grow through it and with it.

Yes, the ladder of paradise depends on you. Let’s say I fast with fear of God, with reverence, with mourning, with tears. But then I give up on it. There, I began to built the ladder and I myself tore it down, I broke it. And you, you fast often, and are temperate with every physical food. But, at the time of fasting, you allow sin to dwell in your soul, and allow various unclean thoughts and desires sprout in your soul. It belongs to you to immediately chase them far away with prayer, with mourning, with reading or with any other exercise. If you, however, although you physically fast, nourish your soul with some sin or some hidden passion, then you, although you began to build each step one by one with fasting from earth to heaven, you yourself will pull it down and destroy it.

Fasting requires compassion, humility and gentleness. They all go together. It is like a group of builders, whose head is prayer. This is the master builder, the architect, the chief engineer of our spiritual life, our spiritual desire, the ladder that we will make stand between earth and heaven. Prayer occupies the first place. When prayer becomes established in your heart, and it is inflamed with an unquenchable thirst for the Lord, when it continuously sees Him, continuously senses Him, then with prayer you import into your soul all the other virtues. Then the engineer (prayer) has excellent craftsmen, and quickly builds marvelous ladders from earth to heaven, the ladders of your gradual ascent to God, towards your perfection. When you have power, powerful prayer, then no type of fasting will be difficult for you, no type of love will be impossible. Holy evangelical love!

Prayer sanctifies everything within you, your every exercise, your every thought, your every feeling, your every mood. Prayer! A divine power, which the Lord gave us to sanctify whatever is within us, in our souls. Prayer will unite you with the Most Compassionate Lord, and He will pour into your heart compassion for every person, for the sinner, for the brother who is weak like you, that falls like you, but also can get up like you; who yet needs your help, your brotherly help, your prayerful help, your ecclesiastical help. Then, when you give help, without a doubt you will build your own ladder, the ladder that leads from your hell to your paradise; then, with certainty in your heart you will ascend step by step, from virtue to virtue, and you will arrive at the top of the ladder, Heaven, and you will step down onto Heaven, you will step down onto heavenly Paradise.

We have everything, you and I: nine Beatitudes, nine holy evangelical virtues. This is the gospel of fasting, the gospel of Saint John of the Ladder. Virtues, my brethren, great virtues. The difficult ascetic practices of fasting, prayer and humility, were presented by the Lord in the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 5:3).

Humility! This is the beginning of the Christian life, the beginning of our faith, the beginning of our virtues, the beginning of our ascent to Heaven, the foundation of our ladder. Lord, I am a nothing. You are everything! I nothing, You everything! My mind is nothing before Your Mind, my spirit is nothing before Your Spirit, my heart, my knowledge… O nothing, nothing before Your knowledge Lord! I, I, nothing, nothing, and behind it countless nothings. This is what I am before You, Lord. Humility! This is the first holy virtue, the first Christian virtue. Everything begins from this.

But the Christians of this world, who build this ladder of our salvation, are always in danger from unclean forces. What are these? Sins, our sins, our passions. And behind these are the devil. Just as the holy virtues build the heavenly ladder between earth and heaven, so do our sins build a ladder to hell. Every sin. If there are sins in your soul, be careful. If you hold hate in your soul for one, two, three, five days, notice into what kind of a hell your soul has changed into. It is the same if you hold anger, avarice, obscene desire. And what are you doing? Indeed, you are making for yourself a ladder to hell.

But the Good Lord gives us an amazing example. Here, in the middle of the Fast, is displayed the great and wondrous Saint John of the Ladder. He entirely shines with the holy evangelical virtues. We see him ascend quickly and wisely the ladder of paradise, which he made to stand between earth and heaven. As a teacher, as a holy guide, he gives us Christians his Ladder as a model so that we may ascend from hell to Paradise, from the devil to God, from earth to Heaven.

I pray that our merciful and great Holy Father John of the Ladder, will influence us in our struggles against all our sins with the aim of the holy virtues; that we may also build with his help our own ladder and following him we will arrive at the Kingdom of Heaven, Paradise, where there exists all heavenly rests, all eternal joys, where together with him we will glorify the King of all those good things, the Eternal King of the Heavenly Kingdom, our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom belongs all glory and honor now and forever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

St Justin Popovich


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Sergius Bulgakov on St Augustine and Predestination

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Divine Mercy as ‘Immanent Transcendence’ According to Nicaean Metaphysics

by Robert F. Fortuin

This topic is very exciting to me for several reasons. On a very personal and existential level, it is my firm conviction that God’s mercy is precisely the very reason for, and assur­ance of, our presence here tonight – in St. Paul’s words, ‘for in Him we live and move and have our being.’ God then is the very ground of our existence, in Him we have our very existence with every breath a gift of mercy. Another reason for my delight about this topic is that it con­cerns the Nicaean Creed. This creed, often referred to as the ‘Symbol of the Christian faith’, is the shared inheritance of all Christians; it belongs to all Christians across time and place, regardless of tradition, denomination, language or tribe. Not one of us can lay exclusive claim to this Ecumenical Creed. As our common confession Nicaea can, and should, serve as a powerful impetus towards unity among Christians. In case the presentations here tonight are substantially at odds, I suggest a collective re-thinking of our first principles may be in order. If Nicaea does not unite us, or at least bring us a degree closer to one another, perhaps we cannot unite at all. However, my excitement about this topic stems from the heartfelt belief that the Creed – and the Reality for which it stands – does indeed unite. Another reason for my delight about this topic is that it over­laps with my current research into the writings of Gregory of Nyssa, specifically his meta­physical construal of the nature of being and the implications for theological predication. For Gregory, as it is for all the Nicaean fathers, theology necessarily involves metaphysics. It is impossible to theologize, to speak about God, without thereby also reflecting on the so-called transcendentals: the nature and meaning of Truth, Beauty, the Being of God and the being of the world, and their interre­lation. The aim of this essay is to briefly reflect on how the creedal confession of Nicaea marks a remarkable shift in the metaphysics of Late Antiquity, an affirmation of the Christian view of reality, a vision by which alone the profundity and the proportion of God’s mercy in Christ can be appreciated. What is Nicaea’s metaphysics and how does it provide insight into the meaning of God’s mercy? I will attempt to answer this by way of 1.) defining mercy and its relation to divinity; and 2.) taking a brief look at the old ‘Logos metaphysics’ which was supplanted by Nicaea; and 3.) a brief explication of the metaphysical shift accom­plished by Nicaea by which divine mercy obtains meaning as utter gratuitous ‘immanent transcendence,’ the immediate laying bare of God’s triune illimitable plenitude of tran­scen­dent being for and within the cosmos.

First then an inquiry has to be made as to the meaning of mercy and its relation to God. Upon initial reflection it is quickly learned that one looks in vain for the mention of the word ‘mercy’ in the Nicaean Creed. The only way to learn about mercy in the Creed is by inference, via indirect means. Consequently a determination as to the meaning of mercy is in order before a turn to the Creed is made. Fortunately, the word ‘mercy’ is widely used in the Scriptures and in early Christian literature. Indeed, it seems difficult to find pages in the New Testament that do not mention ‘mercy.’ According to Bauer’s Greek-English Lexicon, the Greek word for mercy is ελεέω, and signifies pity, compassion, sympathy, and even a ‘gracious gift,’; it can also denote charitable works such as almsgiving (as in ‘works of mercy’). More broadly ‘ελεέω‘ signifies a benevolent, unmerited kindness, and heartfelt forgiveness. It is important to note the voluntary component of ‘ελεέω‘, it cannot be compelled or forced to be properly called ‘ελεέω.’ Mercy’s sole motivation, then, is the well-being of the other, when one is moved by pure compassion and selfless empathy without consideration for personal gain. So Scripture bears witness to the God who is rich in mercy, a mercy which is everlasting, for ‘τον αιωνα το ελεος αυτου‘ ‘His mercy endures forever’ (Psalm 135, LXX); of the virtue of those who practice mercy, as taught by Christ in the Beatitudes, ‘μακάριοι οἱ ἐλεήμονες‘ ‘blessed are the merciful’; and the promise of mercy on all, as expressed by St Paul in Romans 11:32, ‘συνέκλεισεν γὰρ ὁ θεὸς τοὺς πάντας εἰς ἀπείθειαν, ἵνα τοὺς πάντας ἐλεήσῃ‘ ‘For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that He may have mercy on them all.’

This foundational understanding of mercy as virtuous, selfless, uncompelled kindness towards ‘the other’ allows for the observation of the various indirect references to mercy in the Nicaean Creed. It also becomes readily apparent that there are diverse aspects of God’s mercy that can be identified. We can note the inscrutable mercy of God’s kenotic com­pas­sion towards us, ‘who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.’ As the ancient Arabic Christian hymn renders this ineffable self-emptying and self-outpouring mystery of Divine tender compassion of Christ’s incarnation so beautifully, ‘He who rained manna on His people in the wilderness, is fed on milk from His mother’s breast.’ We can also point to the boundless empathy which moved the impassible God paradoxically to endure passion for our sake, Who was ‘crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried.’ We could then point to Christ’s merciful trampling of death by death by His resurrection, and to the divine philanthropic mercy in the creaturely restoration by way of the assump­tion of human nature into celestial glory by His ascension, and Who now, ‘sits on the right hand of the Father.’ We can note the agapeic mystery of Divine mercy in the fulfilment of His glorious return, the final judgment and His never-ending Kingdom, in which He is the ‘All in all.’ Unmerited mercy too can be seen in the presence of the Holy Spirit, ‘who is the Lord and Giver of life’ and Whose abiding role as Teacher and Comforter is solely for creaturely benefit. We too can note God’s merciful provision for people in the gift of the ‘one holy catholic and apostolic Church’ and in the ‘one baptism for the remission of sins.’ In short, all the above creedal references lay-out before us ‘salvation history’ from beginning to end – a story of merciful compassion, pure and selfless empathy, voluntary kenotic self-outpouring of God for our sake, utterly gratuitous and without divine necessity.

However, as much as these passages of the Nicaean Creed are a witness to the reality of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ, it is necessary to pause and reflect on an obvious truth which nevertheless can be overlooked: the mercy encountered in the Creed is exclusively God’s mercy. Mercy has to be defined in terms of Divinity, in terms of the essential attributes unique to God’s infinite and uncreated nature – the transcendent attributes which set God apart from creation – if we are to come to an understanding of mercy as declared by the bishops assembled in Nicaea. Moreover, there is an additional component to mercy not to be disregarded: namely divine relationality to creation. Following Gregory of Nyssa, one of the church fathers who championed Nicaean theology, mercy specifically denotes God’s relation to creation. According to Gregory in Contra Eunomium, mercy is not a general name of God, but rather mercy derives its meaning as a particular name specifically ‘assigned with reference to the operations over us and all creation.’1 Mercy for Gregory signifies first and foremost God’s ceaseless sustenance and care for His creation. As such, then, an adequate ‘Nicaean’ understanding of mercy cannot be had without a considera­tion of both the transcendent absolute-other-than-creation mode and quality of God’s nature and God’s relation to creation. It is with this in mind that a segment of the Nicaean Creed not already mentioned, namely the opening confession of faith in the one God who creates, takes on particular interest for understanding divine mercy.

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

It is this part of the Creed affirming God as creator and the co-equal Son as the means whereby creation came to be which points to a radical Nicaean revolution of the ruling metaphysics of Late Antiquity. The Creed speaks of the Divine as ‘one God’ ἕνα Θεὸσ who is ‘father’ and ‘all powerful’ παντοκράτορα, who created all things by His co-essential Son ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί, who was begotten of the Father ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς γεννηθέντα before all ages πρὸ πάντων τῶν αἰώνων. All that exists ‘in the ages’ τῶν αἰώνων receives its being by Jesus Christ who is ‘not made’ οὐ ποιηθέντα but is eternally γεννηθέντα of and ὁμοούσιον with the Father. It is particularly in light of the affirmation of the Son’s ὁμοούσιον with the ἕνα Θεὸσ, and the profound ontological shift this affirmation entails, that the nature and meaning of God’s mercy in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as summarized in Nicaean Creed can be rightly appreciated. The Nicaean deliberations of the fourth century not only clarified theological dogmatic definitions in regards to Trinitarian ad intra hypostatic relations, but these debates also, with equal importance, addressed the ad extra Triune relations to creation and the essential difference between God and crea­tion. The existence of the created order has as its sole cause and reason for being – its raison d’être – the Father through the Son by whom, the Nicaean fathers unequivocally insisted, ‘δι’ οὗ τὰ πάντα ἐγένετο,’ ‘all things were made.’ It is from the eternal creative and the temporal salvific act of the co-equal Son, as affirmed by Nicaea, that the meaning of God’s mercy, His ‘operations over us and all creation’ in the words of Gregory of Nyssa, can be rightly informed. But before we take a closer look at the metaphysical breakthrough of Nicaea, we must briefly detail the prevailing ontology which Nicaea overthrew.

The older metaphysical system which dominated the intellectual circuits of the three cen­turies prior to Nicaea is sometimes referred to as the ‘Logos Metaphysics.’2 As Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart opines, these ontologies invariably conceived of a derivative or secondary spiritual reality functioning as intermediaries. This idea of a derivative ‘Logos’ was furthered by Christians (particularly in the eastern Empire and most notably in Alex­andria), as well as by Jewish philosophers, neo-Platonists and Gnostics. According to this structure the secondary Logos principle functioned as mediating reality between the Supreme Being and the world of creation, albeit never completely and not without some measure of distortion. This system of thought attempted by means of this interme­diary and secondary principle to bridge the world to its ultimate Cause, connecting the Infinite to finite creation, the Absolute to the contingent, the Transcendent to the immanent. These theolo­gies aimed to close the infinite interval between the untouchable transcendent Deity and the alienated, distorted creation. It was commonplace even for Christians during the time prior to Nicaea to speak of the Logos having issued from the Father before creation with the implication of an interval of time in the filial generation. For many ante-Nicaean Christian thinkers including Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen this meant the Logos had been generated not eternally πρὸ πάντων τῶν αἰώνων but with respect to creation. The Logos’ generation for them was somehow inseparably entailed in the creation of the world.3 We can see how Arius’ theology, which of course was the very reason for the convocation of Council of Nicaea, mirrors this older Logos metaphysics: the concept of the untouchable divine being with the lesser secondary intermediary Logos, and the alienated existence of the cosmos. According to Arius, God the Father was completely hidden, inaccessible, unknowable, and wholly imparticipable. The Logos, as ontologically secondary and lesser to God, functioned in Arian theology as the mediator between the Father and creation. God, for Arius, remains the abso­lutely obscured ‘Other,’ impenetrably hidden such that even the Logos had no immediate access to the Father. We see here then an understanding of divine transcendence which could never truly over-come the infinite gap between God and creation – not even by the Logos. For the Arians there was thus no ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί ‘essential equality’ between the inferior Son and God the Father. This, in short, was the prevailing pre-Nicaean metaphysics which came to entangle the Church in a most severe theological crisis.

The fathers assembled at Nicaea, however, toppled this structure of intermediary meta­physics by unequivocally affirming the ὁμο­ούσιον τῷ Πατρί the co-equality and co-eternity of Christ (and the Holy Spirit), marking the end of the old and introducing the new metaphysical order. According to the Nicaean fathers, the Logos is not gen­erated in relationship to creation. He is eternally the Son of the Father, and He is not an inferior, secondary manifestation of God. The Triune God, the revelation of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit is the eter­nal transcendent reality whereby God is revealed in Christ through the Holy Spirit to be the God who He is. Which is to say, and here I suggest the genius of Nicaea comes into focus, that Divine transcendence is always already Divine self-revelation. Tran­scendence, the divine attribute which makes God other-than-creation, rather than alienate creation from God according to the old metaphysics, constitutes and guarantees God’s relation and mercy to creation. As David Hart puts it, ‘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 and the mystery of his transcendent life.’4 God’s transcen­dence, His otherness, is always already an act of self-revelation and manifestation to and in creation. This is another way of saying that God’s eternal triune ad intra self-knowledge and God’s ad extra economic salvific self-disclosure are one divine act whereby he is the God he is. We can approach this paradoxical ‘immanent-transcendence,’ as I like to call it, from another angle – namely that of God’s creative act as self-disclosure. The existence of creation – that there is something rather than nothing – its coming into being from noth­ingness purely by reason of God’s fortuitous creative fiat, constitutes a manifestation of divine transcendence. In the words of the late Orthodox theologian Phillip Sherrard, ‘the absolute gulf between Creator and creature, and the total transcendence of God which constitutes that gulf, are themselves transcended in the very act of creation.’ ‘Creation,’ says Sherrard, ‘presents this paradox: that it affirms a spanless abyss between God and creature which the act of creation itself bridges.’5 However we approach God’s self-revelation the true theological triumph accomplished by Nicaean metaphysics is the true nature of transcendence: transcendence as unqualified immediate act of God in which the infinite God without intermediary gives being to being. Transcen­dence then takes on immediacy and closeness not found in the old metaphysics. According to Nicaea, God is it once radically immanent within and radically transcendent of creation. Immediacy and revelation do not come at the cost of transcendence. He is immediately active in and present to all things while yet taking no position as an object among the spectrum of objects. The infinite transcendent God performs the creative act, ex nihilo, neither by necessity nor by reduction into inferior spiritual realities: He Himself creates and no less as the infinite God. Such a contrast this is to the God of Arius who as the unknowable wholly obscured ‘Other’ has no immediate contact whatsoever with finite creation. The Logos of Nicaea is the Father’s own perfect image, His perfect self-revelation. (As an aside, the Nicaean metaphysics has important implications for theological speech, how we ‘theo-logize’ about God, for its neither pure univocal nor equivocal predication which can maintain likeness within an ever greater interval of infinite unlikeness. We must use the language of analogy.)

It may be asked at this point, what has this to do with God’s mercy? For one, the imma­nent-in-transcendence envisioned by Nicaea speaks to us about the radically intimate character of the God-world relationship, a relation in which the transcendent God, παντοκράτορ no less, is immediately present in the moment while also always tran­scen­ding it. This immediate intimacy allows us to better understand the ‘infinite personal dimension’ (to use an obvious oxymoron) of the utter selfless compassion of God’s mercy as experienced in our salvation as wrought by Christ and expressed in the Nicaean Creed. The divine intimacy to creation puts Gregory of Nyssa’s insistence on mercy as God’s name ‘assigned with reference to the operations over us and all creation’ in a new perspective. Indeed I believe we can see the divine economy in toto, from protology to eschatology, as the unfolding of God’s self-less agapeic mercy, not mediated by a secondary reality, but by God himself. As St Augustine put it in personal terms, ‘tu autem eras interior intimo meo et superior summo meo.’6 ‘You were more inward than my innermost and higher than my uppermost.’ According to the terms of Nicaean metaphysics only a mercy given by God παντοκράτορ intimately present and undetermined by the gift, can properly be called ‘Christian mercy.’

A second way whereby Nicaean metaphysics informs God’s mercy is that Nicaea breaks the existential despair intrinsic to the old metaphysics. According to the old ontological construal particularity of the creature was the reason for its estrangement and isolation from God. For the fathers of Nicaea however, it is through becoming what the creation is – rather than through elimination of creaturely particularity which alienates it from God – that creation truly reflects God’s goodness and transcendence. No longer is creature, as creature in its dissimilarity to God, an alienation from God. No longer is God, as God dissimilar to creation, alienated from creation. Most profoundly Nicaea accomplishes this without collapsing the Creator-creature distinction. The metaphysics of Nicaea affirms that all of creation is a theophanic expression of God’s abundant mercy manifested as immanent-transcendence.

The Nicaean Creed thus constitutes a profound re-evaluation of the understanding of the nature of existence, of God and of creation. It elucidates the Christian meaning of God’s transcendent life as laid bare by the Father’s will in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Nicaea removes the absolute hiddenness and divine inaccessibility which alienates creation. Divine intimacy and immediacy as manifested in the person of Jesus Christ brings the immeasurable gratuity of God’s mercy into a renewed focus. This radical Nicaean vision of Reality inscribed in the Symbol of the Christian faith is an enduring ‘metaphysical guide­post’ by which to understand our very own experience of God’s life and mercy so that we ‘may become partakers of the divine nature’ (II Peter 1:4). In Christ the eternal Theanthro­pos, the compassionate, kenotic outpouring of God’s mercy towards humanity and all of creation is encountered as the ‘interior intimo meo et superior summo meo‘ – the Transcendent plenitude of love inscrutably revealed in the intimacy of the immanent. 


[1] Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium, NPNF (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Volume V. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1880ff.), p. 120.
[2] I am indebted to David Bentley Hart’s assessment of the metaphysical change Nicaea accomplished in replacing the old ‘Logos Metaphysics.’ See in particular ‘God, Creation, and Evil,’ Radical Orthodoxy, Vol.3, Number 1 (Sept 2015), and ‘The Hidden and The Manifest: Metaphysics after Nicaea’ in Orthodox Readings of Augustine, Aristotle Papanikolaou and George Demacopoulos, eds. (St Vladimir’s Press, New York, NY. 2008) p. 191ff.
[3] Cf. Hart, ‘Hidden and Manifest’, p. 198.
[4] Hart, ibid. p. 203-4.
[5] Sherrard, Phillip. The Rape of Man and Nature (Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 1987).
[6] Augustine, Confessions, Book III, 6:11.

This essay was originally written for presentation at the Ecumenical Patristics Seminar ‘The Early Experience of the Mercy of God in Christ as Reflected in the Nicaean Creed’ at William Jessup University (September 2016).

(9 November 2016)

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Robert F. Fortuin is Adjunct Professor of Orthodox Theology at St Katherine College in San Diego, California. He holds an MLitt Divinity from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and a BA in Religious Studies from Vanguard University. 

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Roland, Rebirth, and Resurrection: A Comparative Eschatology of Paramahansa Yogananda and Origen of Alexandria

by David Armstrong

The last century has seen a lot of great scholarship on a variety of interrelated topics in biblical studies, with some helpful new starting points for doing critical work on Jewish and Christian antiquity. On the one hand, scholars of Early Judaism now take it for granted that all Judaism after the time of Alexander the Great was thoroughly Hellenized. The question in analyzing Jewish individuals, documents, and archaeology after 323 BCE is not whether they were Hellenized, but how much, in what ways, and with how much comfortable per­me­ability of the boundaries of social institutions and cultural participa­tion. The Jews at Qum­ran and the Jews living in Alexandria, Egypt were both Hellenized, but they had very different relationships to that fact, and it may even be fair to say that the latter group was more explicitly conscious of that fact than the former. All varieties of Early Judaism are thus forms of Greco-Roman religion: Hellenistic and Imperial species of ethnically specific behavior dealing with ancestral customs and cultural norms for inter­actions with divinity and the worshiping community. On the other hand, scholars of Early Christianity now universally recognize that the nascent Jesus Movement of the first century was fully within the cultic, social, and institutional boundaries of what we would identify as “Judaism,” and did not constitute an explicitly separate, wholly distinct religious phenomenon—“Christian­ity”—for some time afterwards.

That is to say, Jesus, his apostles, their disciples, and the authors of the literature later compiled as the New Testament were all Jews existing within the wider matrix of Early Jewish diversity, and thus within the cultural mosaic of Hellenism. Within this group, which contained internal Jewish diversity, were also already diverse approaches to relationship with Hellenic religion, philosophy, and culture; and thus these Christ-following assemblies of Jews and gentiles, too, constituted examples of Greco-Roman religion. The only conclu­sion that can follow from these premises is thus that to talk about the earliest “Christianity” as a species of Early Judaism and to talk about it from within the framework of Hellenic religion, philosophy, myth, and literary culture are not and cannot be mutually exclusive.

This foundation has been partly assumed, and partly laid, by scholars like M. David Litwa, whose excellent work demonstrates the sheer Hellenism of the Gospels’ presentation of Jesus in the terms of what ancient Greeks and Romans expected from their gods, includ­ing their human gods (“demigods” or “heroes”). As he argues in Iesus Deus,1 Jesus’ literary portrait in the canonical and non-canonical Gospels is clearly shaped by such expectations. Luke’s account of Jesus’ pneumatic conception, for example, while certainly drawing on what he deemed tradition concerning Jesus’ conception and birth and making use of explicitly Jewish imagery, language, and themes (particularly surrounding haaron habrit, the ark of the covenant), no less engages in a theory of the genesis of divine humans that was also advocated by his pagan contemporary Plutarch (Moralia 7173-718b).2 Likewise, as Litwa later points out, contra N.T. Wright and pro the growing consensus of scholars who work on ancient theories of resurrection (or what Litwa calls “corporeal immortaliza­tion”), Jesus’ restoration to physical life (the Gospels do not leave a corpse in the tomb) is the same preliminary to divine glorification or bodily deification that heroes like Askle­pios, Herakles, and Romulus had received.3 Again, the point is not anything so crude as to say that the Gospel writers simply “borrowed” something from the pagan imaginary and slapped it onto Jesus; but it is rather to point out that for Early Christian language about Jesus, as a species of Early Jewish ethnoreligious language, itself just part of the broader Greco-Roman cultural web, to have any kind of positive content for the people to whom that language was addressed, then what happened to Jesus had to have had some kind of parallel point of reference in wider religious discourse. Jesus can, and does, for the Gospel writers, surpass all other possible rivals, but figures like St. Justin Martyr had no problem, as Litwa points out, simply admitting that what Christians claim to have happened in, through, to, and for Jesus is “nothing at all new” or out of the ordinary beyond what was ordinarily predicated of the demigods in Greek religion (Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 21.1-3).4

The basic principle here is that the mystery of Christ is unintelligible if it is wholly dissimilar to everything else culturally. If Christ has no parallel in world mythology, philosophy, and religion, then one has only succeeded in making Jesus perfectly inaccessible to all human conceptualization.

More recently, Roland Hart says much the same thing in the gita or canon of suttas that his ward David Bentley encapsulated in Roland in Moonlight.5 In the conversation that emerges from within Roland’s scholarly studio,6 Roland asks (rhetorically) of his human disciple:

I mean, is there truly a gulf of difference between Buddhism’s sambhogakaya and St. Paul’s absolutely fleshless soma pneumatikon? Or between the transfigured, radiant body of the risen Christ, or at least the resplendent bodies of the hesychasts, and the radiant flesh of Swami Premananda walking through the marketplace in an ecstasy of love for God’s beauty? And who’s to say Swami Ramalingam didn’t in fact experience full bodily transfiguration and divinization in this life, growing constantly physically more luminous and translucent as his fleshly body changed first into the suddha deha, the pure body, and then into the pranava deha, the body of the primordial OM, and then into the jnana deha, the body of perfect divine grace, or that he didn’t finally vanish away one day in 1874 into pure, immaterial, spiritual corporeality, and didn’t thereafter appear to his disciples in this … resurrected form? (324-325)

Roland and Hart’s dialogue on Asian religions may be obscure to some, so it is worth des­crib­­ing these references. The sambhogakaya is a Mahayana doctrine about the second of the three bodies of the Buddha (and it might be worth noting as an aside here that both Harts seem to have a definitive preference for Mahayana over Theravada). The sambhoga­kaya is the “enjoyment-body” or celestial body of the Buddha, which is usually available to sight only in the various forms of the “pure land” in which the Buddha’s devotees dwell, but which particularly adept spiritual masters might also gain vision of through advanced meditative practices. If I understand rightly, Premananda is a reference to Premanand Swami (1784-1855), one of the Paramahansas of Swaminarayan Sampraday, not to the more infamous Prem Kumar (1951-2011) who died in prison on several counts of accused rape, some of them involving molestation of minors. Assuming he is the former, the Swaminara­yan tradition of Hinduism aligns more with Ramanuja than with Sankara, the former of whom maintains a qualified (Vishishtadvaita) as opposed to the radical (Advaita) nondualism of the latter. This is to say, for Ramanuja and Swaminarayan Hindus, as well as for Sankara, the ultimate goal of liberation is the experience of the underlying, infinitely nondual unity of atman (the innermost spiritual “Self”) and Brahman (the All, “God” with a capital G, to put it in crude English terms). But where in Advaita, saguna Brahman—Brahman with qualities, including the qualitative world of manifestation—is ultimately illusory, and part of maya (“illusion”), and therefore the liberation involves to some extent the obliteration of any notion of self apart from Brahman nirguna, Brahman without qualities, Ramanuja’s school maintains that saguna Brahman is the body to nirguna Brahman‘s soul, that one and the same Brahman exists both beyond quality and in theophany as the created world. Atman, therefore, retains its existence in the bliss of devotional communion with Brahman rather than by simple or crude absorption into Brahman. Atman is still Brahman in this scheme, and realization of this truth is the key to moksha, but atman is a manifestation of Brahman whose signifi­cance can be neither mitigated nor absolved: each individual jiva, or finite act of being and consciousness, is in its true atman an eternal participation in the sat, citt, and ananda that is God; but maya obscures this eternal reality and binds the jiva to samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth. Swami Ramalinga, or Ramalingam Swamigal (1823-1874) was a Tamil saint who, according to his hagiography, was assumed into a higher state of existence from within a locked room on January 30th, 1874, leaving behind no traces or evidence of escape.

A more recent and more famous Hindu saint in the West would serve as a better explicator of the three bodies doctrine Roland articulates from within that particular fold, namely, Mukunda Lal Ghosh, better known as Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952). Yogananda, a teacher of Kriya Yoga and founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, belonged to a monastic and yogic tradition whose practitioners understand it to go back to Mahavatar Babaji, a mys­terious figure about whom we only receive tantalizing information in the form of meetings and recounted experiences between 1861 and 1935. From Babaji to Lahiri Mahasaya, and from Mahasaya to Yogananda, Kriya Yoga was, so taught Yoga­nanda, the form of yoga taught by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita and known, also, to many of the world’s saints, prophets, and avatars, including Jesus, in whom Yogananda took a direct and personal interest for much of his life and public career. (It should be noted, as an aside, that in the belief of many connected to Yogananda’s movement in the 21st century, Mahavatar Babji is still alive somewhere, utilizing yogic prowess to stave off physical death.) The popularization of Kriya Yoga by Yogananda in his famous and much republished book, Autobiography of a Yogi,7 came hand in hand with a spiritual memoir of Yogananda’s monastic development and his encounters with several deified humans and divine beings, including his resurrected master, Sri Yukteswar.

In Chapter 43 of Autobiography, aptly titled “The Resurrection of Sri Yukteswar,” Yoga­nanda begins by recounting an “ineffable vision” of Krishna himself (473), which is one week later followed by the “beatific light” and “rapture” in the sight of “the flesh and blood form of Sri Yukteswar,” his recently deceased teacher. Yogananda embraces Yukteswar, and inquires as to why the latter left the former and permitted him to be away at the time of his death; in not unfamiliar language, Yukteswar replies that, although parted “only for a little while,” he is now “with [him] again.”8 Yogananda is astounded: “But is it you, Master,” he asks, “the same Lion of God? Are you wearing a body like the one I buried beneath the cruel Puri sands?” “Yes, my child,” Yukteswar replies,

I am the same. This is a flesh and blood body. Though I see it as ethereal, to your sight it is physical. From cosmic atoms I created an entirely new body, exactly like that cosmic-dream physical body which you laid beneath the dream-sands at Puri in your dream-world. I am in truth resurrected—not on earth but on an astral planet. Its inhabitants are better able than earthly humanity to meet my lofty standards. There you and your exalted loved ones shall someday come to be with me.9

Yukteswar goes on to explain at length the postmortem world he has entered upon. He now “serve[s] on an astral planet as a savior,” where the inhabitants are already fairly spiritually advanced, but there remains “astral karma” which they must resolve on this world.10 Yoga­nanda begins to receive word-pictures as Yukteswar begins to remind him of the scriptural teachings of “the idea, or causal, body; the subtle astral body, seat of man’s mental and emotional natures; and the gross physical body.” This astral body, Yukteswar says, is made of prana (more or less the Sanskrit equivalent to the Greek pneuma), and he is preparing the beings there to enter the more purely noetic “causal world.”11 At Yoganan­da’s request, he describes at length that “[t]here are many astral planets, teeming with astral beings,” an “astral universe, made of various subtle vibrations of light and color … hundreds of times larger than the material cosmos,” in which “[t]he entire physical creation hangs like a little solid basket under the huge luminous balloon of the astral sphere.” On this astral plane are “millions of astral beings who have come, more or less recently, from the earth, and also with myriads of fairies, mermaids, fishes, animals, goblins, gnomes, demigods and spirits, all residing on different astral planets in accordance with karmic qualifications.”12 While there is a dark part to the astral universe, full of “fallen dark angels, expelled from other worlds,” locked in war, “[i]n the vast realms above the dark astral prison, all is shining and beautiful. The astral cosmos is more naturally attuned than the earth to the divine will and plan of perfection.” There is fluidity: “Astral beings dematerialize or materialize their forms at will. Flowers or fish or animals can metamorphose themselves, for a time, into astral men. All astral beings are free to assume any form, and can easily commune together…. Everything is vibrant with God’s creative light.”13 There is no sarkic birth: “No one is born of woman” (Maximian scholars take note), but astral children are begotten from recently disembodied souls invited into that realm by their prospective astral parents.

Beauty and festivity are attached in the astral plane to spiritual advancement.14 On these occasions, God the Father and the highest saints are capable of materializing on the astral plane to celebrate with those who rejoice in the ascension of their own. What this means in the eyes of the viewer changes dependent on the viewer: “In order to please His beloved devotee, the Lord takes any desired form. If the devotee worshiped through devotion, he sees God as the Divine Mother. To Jesus, the Father-aspect of the Infinite One was appealing beyond other conceptions.” Astral beings participate in cosmic government.15 Sustained by “cosmic light,” they communicate by “telepathy and television” (the latter in a psychic, rather than a technological, sense).16 So lovely as the astral universe is, it is still a lesser reality than the causal world, where “one perceives all created things—solids, liquids, gases, electricity, energy, all beings, gods, men, animals, plants, bacteria—as forms of conscious­ness.”17 But even this existence, too, is a kind of imprisonment from the infinite, and it is only once the soul is “merged in the One Cosmic Ocean” of God, “with all its waves—eternal laughter, thrills, throbs.”18 But this does not mean that the soul is done with the causal, astral, and material realms: “[a] master who achieves this final freedom”—like, Yukteswar says, Jesus—”may elect to return to earth as a prophet to bring other human beings back to God, or like myself he may choose to reside in the astral cosmos.”19 That is, the liberated Self has every ability to manifest in whatever reality it desires; in becoming one with God through realization of its unity with God, its “personal” or “individual” qualities have not ceased to be vehicles of divine grace.

Yogananda realizes, at Yukteswar’s instruction, that what he has buried was not Yukteswar’s real body, but only his “dream-body.”20 “Now,” says Yukteswar, “my finer fleshly body—which you behold and are even now embracing rather closely!—is resurrected on another finer dream-planet of God.”21 It too will eventually die, though not in the sense that death is usually met with in the physical world, as Yukteswar continues his cosmic ascent.

As Yogananda would go on to argue in his posthumous mammoth commentary on the Gos­pels, The Second Coming of Christ,22 it is precisely this that took place in the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ complete realization of his unity with God enabled and undergirded the paschal mystery of his humiliation and exaltation, and specifically his resurrection of his flesh body. “In the resurrection of Jesus,” writes Yogananda, “we have the assurance of our Creator that God-realized devotees, if they wish, can find not only immortality of the soul but also of the body.”23 For Yogananda, what Jesus manifested was “the resurrection of the soul into one­ness with Spirit—the soul’s ascension from delusory confinement of body consciousness into its native immortality and everlasting freedom,” from which vantage he “infused his Spirit-expanded soul back into his crucified body, immortalizing it, and returned to his bereft disciples in physical form.24 There were “definite steps” to this process, specifically, Jesus’ liberation of “his soul … from physical, astral, and causal limitations by three distinct efforts,” that he might “reunite it with the omniscience and omnipotence of the Spirit.”25 So “[w]hen after death Jesus had neutralized the mechanism of the three gunas, and had burnt all karmic seeds resulting from his incarnate cause-effect actions, he ascended from the three bodies straightway into the bosom of God. Then he had power even as God has. From that supreme state, Jesus put on his body again or cast it off at will.”26 As this sort of bodily manifestation is simply a property of such infinite ascent, “Jesus after crucifixion could appear among his disciples for forty days, materializing and dematerializing his form before their eyes.”27 So “the resurrected Jesus—having ascended from the confinement of his physical, astral, and causal bodies into the Infinite-bodied Cosmic Consciousness—manifes­ted his Jesus form not apart from Spirit but as the Infinite who has become Jesus, all individualized souls, and all manifestation.”28 Therefore, Jesus “immortalized his body as well as his spirit. Any true devotee can see him as Jesus Christ or know him as one with the Infinite Christ.”29 Yogananda himself claimed to have been the witness of personal manifestation of Christ in bodily form several times, and from these to have received the very revelatory knowledge of the New Testament that fills his immense commentary.

Roland and Yogananda’s confidence in the parallel comparability of Jesus’ resurrection to the physical glorification of other spiritual masters may strike us for the specific juxtapo­sition of South Asian religion to Christianity. Apart from figures like Bede Griffiths (1906-1993) and Raimon Pannikar (1918-2020), relatively few contemporary theologians have traversed so far in comparative theology between Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism as to produce anything like a creative synthesis or articulation of Christian theology in the native categories of Indian thought. But in reality, to do so is not doing anything different from what the Evangelists or Justin Martyr were already doing with what tropes were available to them to describe the mystery of Christ in the Greco-Roman culture in the first century; it is simply to do so with South Asian source material, and so our tolerance and receptivity to it are functions of our appreciation for that particular human world.

That is not to say that this particular construct of comparative theology (understanding the resurrection through the three bodies doctrine) is immutably true, or that one must agree to the particular fusion by Roland or Yogananda, etc. It is just to point out that all theology is, really, comparative theology, especially if it has any pretense to some sort of universal take on the nature of God. That is why most localized religions do not bother with a real theology, if we mean by that what the Greek word really means, a rational account (λόγος) about God or gods (θεός). It is one thing for the early Indo-European societies that would become the Greeks, or even the archaic Greeks committing Homeric poetry to textualized form, to tell myths about their gods, in a context of limited discursive reflection on myth and cultural interaction beyond the pale of their own wider people groups. It is another thing for preclas­sical, classical, and Hellenistic philosophers to have to find a way to make use of myth to construct an internationally relevant conception of divinity.

Comparative theologies are usually driven by contact and necessity. Paul makes use of Hellenistic physics and the Evangelists of Hellenistic portraits of divine humans because those are the cultural resources that were at the disposal of Early Jews like Paul and the Evangelists. (Traditionally Luke is thought a gentile, but there’s some movement in the opposite direction on that question just now in the academy.) These resources were drawn on to articulate the mystery of Christ—his incarnation, life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement—because they were the best tools available to explain the content of the apostolic kerygma to a world, Jewish and gentile, well-versed in Hellenic cultural norms. But what can the resurrection of Christ mean to a culture like, for example, India, where the significance of a particular material corpus is dwarfed by the samsaric odyssey of every individual soul? Here, Roland and Yogananda show us not just that something like the three bodies doctrine could successfully convey the paschal mystery in that context, but even that something of catholic significance about the resurrection might be conveyed through its articulation in that cultural matrix, something that then might be taken in to the great benefit of a Jewish apocalyptic sect that, from its infancy, was bilingual, working in the already entangled Semitic and Greek linguistic thought-worlds. In none of this is the historical origin of Christianity as a form of first century Judaism in the Hellenic and Roman worlds, or the indelible mark that lineage has left on its essential scriptural, liturgical, and dogmatic content, displaced or relativized.

So a comparative work of the sort I’ve described only really succeeds insofar as it gestures to an underlying logic always already there in the paschal mystery itself. In that sense, it is never really alien to Christianity, but the exposition of something native and implicit within it. This is borne out rather obviously if one pauses to consider the picture of resurrection that one gets from Origen of Alexandria (184-253) in his De Principiis in comparison to the Swaminarayan and Yoganandan pictures outlined above. We only have a few fragments from Methodios of Olympos and Pamphilos preserving Origen’s once larger treatise De Resur­rec­tione, sadly, but Origen gives us enough of his own eschato­log­ical system in the De Principiis that we can piece together something of what that text may have taught. While Origen seems to deny that the mind (mens) and the soul (anima) are corporeal in themselves (De Princi­piis I.1.7), potentially problematizing the notion of three simultaneously extant corpora, Origen nevertheless lays the groundwork or something rather like the three bodies doctrine throughout De Principiis. First, he establishes that “every rational being is able, passing from one order to another, to go from each order to all and from all to each, while it continues, through its faculty of free will, susceptible of promotions and demotions according to its own actions and efforts” (I.6.3).30 These “orders” are, to be clear, those of angels, humans, and demons, and the nature of their progression is a kind of cosmic pedagogy, healing rational beings committed to wickedness (humans and demons) of their error:

both in these seen and temporal ages and in those that are unseen and eternal, all those beings are arranged in order, by reason, according to the measure and dignity of their merits, so that some at first, others second, some even in the last times and through heavier and severer punishments endured for long duration and, so to speak, for many ages, are renewed by these harsh correctives and restored, at first by the instruction of the angels, and then by the powers of a higher rank, that, advancing thus through each stage to better things, they arrive even at those things which are unseen and eternal, having traversed, by some form of instruction, every single office of the heavenly powers (I.6.3).

Origen moves directly from this observation into a meditation on the character of change, asking “how those things which are seen are transient—whether because there will be nothing at all after this [world], in all those periods or ages to come in which the dispersion and division from the one beginning is restored to one and the same end and likeness, or because while the form of the things that are seen passes away, their substance, however, is in no way corrupted” (I.6.4). Origen, following Paul, opts for the latter view, saying that “if the form of the world passes away, it is not, by any means, an annihilation or destruction of the material substance that is indicated, but a kind of change of quality and transformation of form that takes place.” So “this renewal of heaven and earth, and the transmutation of the form of this world, and the changing of the heavens will undoubtedly be prepared for those who, travelling along the way which we have indicated above, are stretching out towards that end of blessedness, to which even the enemies themselves are said to be subjected, in which end God is said to be all and in all.” And yet, Origen is clear, this does not mean that “material, that is, bodily, nature will perish utterly,” since “beings so numerous and powerful are” in no way “able to live and exist without bodies, since it is thought to be a property of God alone … to exist without any material substance and apart from any association of a bodily addition.” He proposes instead that “perhaps … in that end every bodily substance will be so pure and refined that it must be thought of as the aether, in a way, and of a heavenly purity and clearness.”

For Origen, then, the connaturality of all rational beings and their common destiny of return to God means both that (a) the transience of corporeal reality cannot be taken to imply its ultimate destruction and (b) bodily life in the consummation of the world will nevertheless be quite different than it is now. These two themes recur throughout the work when Origen returns to this subject. For Origen, for whom “clearly the end of this world is the beginning of the one to come” (II.1.3), it is also the case that “it is impossible for this point in any way to be maintained, that is, that any other being, apart from the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, can live without a body,” and so, therefore, “rational beings were created, yet that material substance is to be separated from them only in thought and understanding … but that they never have lived nor live without it; for a bodiless life will rightly be considered only of the Trinity” (II.2.2). And since this is true, “that material substance of this world, as we have said above, having such a nature that accepts every kind of transformation, when it is dragged down to lower beings is moulded into the denser and more solid condition of body, so as to distinguish those visible and various forms of the world; but when it serves the more perfect and blessed beings, it shines in the splendour of celestial bodies and adorns either the angels of God or the sons of the resurrection with the garment of a spiritual body, from all of which is composed the diverse and various conditions of the one world.” The resurrection, according to Origen, is nothing other than that “this matter of the body, which is now corruptible, shall put on incorruptibility, when a perfected soul, instructed with the teachings of incorruptibility, shall have begun to use it,” and thus “when this body, which someday we shall have in a more glorious state, shall have become a partaker in life, it then accedes to what is immortal, such that it also becomes incorruptible” (II.3.2).

Bamberg-Eichstätt Psalter

Notice Origen’s subtlety here: the soul al­ways makes use of the same matter for its body, but the nature of that body is a reflec­tion of the soul’s own state of education concerning divine truth. The grossness and opacity of materiality, the principle of life (psychic or pneumatic, animated or spir­itual) and the quality of life (corruptible, incorruptible), are all functions of the soul’s knowledge of God. Since the body is the principle of the rational being’s differen­tiation from God and from other rational beings, Origen thus rejects the idea that the ulti­mate consummation of subjection to Christ and God’s universal indwell­ing is bodiless, saying that even in such a scenario, rational beings would need to be subject to the move­ments bodies allow to know the reality of God’s grace, and thus “the world will [n]ever be able to exist except from variety and diversity, which can in no way be effected without bodily matter.”

A key corollary to all this for Origen is that this is not the only world (in Rufinus’ Latin, mundus, but surely, in the original Greek, κόσμος). It is important to keep in mind that for Origen, “world” has multivalent meanings, and there is no simple, linear path from Origen’s use of this word to our contemporary uses.31 This is Origen’s only explanation for the stand­ing diversity of rational beings and their respective bodily characteristics, all conditioned by the noetic movements of rational beings towards or away from God. This is also why Origen rejects the Stoic infinity of identical universes for an infinite succession of differing universes according to the free arbitration of rational beings in each one.32 Temporally speaking, then, each world or “age” (saeculum in Rufinus’ translation; certainly αἴων in Greek) finds its one consummation in the divine pleroma, which exists, in some sense, in a metaphysical posi­tion above all the ages. Here, Origen’s quotation of John 17:24 and 21 directly states his belief that this state of God’s being “all in all” is “that of course when all things are not still in an age, but when God is all in all” (II.3.5).33 Note the progression of logic: a “world” is an “age”; there have been and will be an infinite succession of “worlds” or “ages”; the state, however, in which the Savior, Jesus, desires us to be is where he is with the Father, which is not where all things still exist in an age, a temporally distinct world, but where God is all in all. The eschatological horizon is thus not horizontal, as though at the end or in the near future of a timeline, but vertical, in a spatially analogous supratemporal realm.

Origen then turns from considering time to considering space, with a detailed look at the cosmographical language of Scripture and its relationship to eschatology. He admits his preference for talk about “a certain other world” in Scripture, superior to the one we are familiar with, as indicating not a bodiless world of forms, but a world “superior in glory and quality but confined within the limits of this world” (II.3.6). Indeed, “it might be supposed that the entire universe of things that exist, celestial and super-celestial, earthly and infernal, is called, generally, a single and perfect ‘world’, within which, or by which, other worlds, if there are any, must be supposed to be contained.” And so Origen offers three options for understanding the trans­formed world of the eschaton:

It has been said that it must be supposed either that it is possible to lead a bodiless life, after all things have become subject to Christ and through Christ to the God and Father, when God will be all in all. Or that when all things have been made subject to Christ, and through Christ to God, with whom they become one spirit, by virtue of the fact that rational beings are spirits, then the bodily substance itself, being united to the best and most pure spirits and being changed, according to the quality or merits of those who assume it, into an ethereal character—as the Apostle says, and we shall be changed—and will shine with light. Or else that when the form of those things which are seen passes away, and all corruptibility has been shaken off and cleansed away, and the entire condition of this world, in which the spheres of the planets are said to be, has been superseded or transcended, there is established the abode, above that sphere which is called ‘non-wandering’, of the pious and the blessed, as it were, in a good land and the land of the living, which will be inherited by the meek and the gentle, to which belongs that heaven (which, with its more magnificent circumfer­ence, surrounds and contains that land itself) which is truly and principally called heaven; in this heaven and earth, the end and perfection of all things can safely and most surely take place, where, that is to say, those who, after the rebuke of punishments which they have endured, by way of purgation, for their offences, fulfilling and discharging every obligation, may deserve a habitation in that land; wile those who have been obedient to the Word of God and, being compliant, have proved themselves already capable of receiving his Wisdom, are said to be deserving of the kingdom of that heaven or heavens, and thus the saying is more worthily fulfilled, Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth, and Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven, and what is said in the Psalm, He shall exalt you and you shall inherit the land. For it is called a descent to this earth, but an exaltation to that which is on high. In this way, therefore, a sort of road seems to be opened up for the progress of the saints, from that earth to those heavens, so that they would appear not so much to remain in that land but to dwell there, that is, to pass on, when they will have made progress in it, to the inheritance of the kingdom of heaven. (II.3.7)

Origen’s third option encompasses the other two, and has his clear dialectical preference, setting up his account of the movements, judgment, punishments, and promises by which rational beings return to God. Here, it is important to keep in mind the relativity Origen has already established between the temporal and the spatial. Different abodes in the one “world” which encompasses all cosmic realms entail different kinds of embodiment appropriate to their station (II.9.3); because their created souls are all intrinsically good by virtue of their good Creator, their diversity of stations can only be attributed to their actions in previous temporal worlds (II.9.4-7), established by some previous “day of judgment” (II.9.8). The “judgment to come,” “the retribution and punishment of sinners” themselves are dependent on the facticity of the resurrection (II.10.1). But the resurrected body is “spiritual,” not animated, and therefore, as in Paul, not fleshly (1 Cor 15:50; De Principiis II.10.3). The “transformation” of the body in the resurrection is one in which “those who shall deserve to attain an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, that principle of the body’s refashioning, which we have mentioned before, by the command of God refashions out of the earthly and animated body a spiritual body, able to inhabit the heavens; while to those who may be of inferior merit or more abject still, or even those of the lowest condition and thrust aside, will be given a body of glory and dignity correspond­ing to the dignity of the life and soul of each, in such a way, however, that even for those who are destined to eternal fire or to punishments, the body which rises again is, through the very transformation of the resurrection, so incorruptible that it cannot be corrupted and dissolved even by punish­ments” (II.10.3). For that reason, the threats of punishment admit of spiritual interpre­ta­tions, and “are produced from the hurtful affections of the sins themselves,” not from divine retribution (II.10.4). These punishments are really “the [soul’s] chastisement and torment of its own dissension,” but they produce the benefit that “the soul, thus dissolved and rent asunder … is undoubtedly reinforced in the consolidation and re-establishment of its structure” (II.10.5).

All of this leads to Origen’s description of the divine promises of reward (II.11.1-7). He makes an immediate and decisive move away from a literalist reading of Old Testament and New Testament prophecy for the terrestrial restoration of Israel as a cultic and political entity, thus somewhat strangely becoming the first true ante-Nicene Father not to subscribe to a strongly chiliastic reading of the New Testament. “Certain persons,” he says, “rejecting the labour of thinking and following the superficial letter of the law, or yielding, rather, in some way to their own desires and lusts, being disciples of the letter alone, reckon that the prom­ises of the future are to be looked for in the pleasure and luxury of the body; and especially because of this they have the desire to have again, after the resurrection, flesh of such a kind that never lacks the ability to eat and drink and to do all things that pertain to flesh and blood, not following the teaching of the Apostle Paul regarding the resurrection of a spiritual body” (II.11.2; cf. II.10.3). So food and drink, marriage and sex and children, and an earthly Jerusalem are the objects of their desire in the resurrection, presuming a restoration to the same animated quality of life as one now experiences in flesh. The most obvious objects of Origen’s scorn here would be figures like Papias, the apostolic Father whose fragments are preserved by other millenarian thinkers like Origen’s older contemporary, Irenaeus of Lyons (130-202; Irenaeus, Adversus Haeresos V.34.4-35.2).34 Origen’s account of the “life of the world to come,” by contrast, is fitted to his doctrine of the resurrection body (one which Irenaeus explicitly rejected). Accepting “the interpretation of Scriptures in accordance with the sense of the apostles” (II.11.3) look for education “in things divine” as the feast of the future world, an ongoing pedagogy in divine truth combined with a cosmic ascent. It is here, too, that Origen shows his hand that the resurrection is an immediate postmortem reality: it is the “desire” for this education that Origen thinks to have been referenced by Paul when he writes that “I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better, knowing that when he should have returned to Christ he would know more clearly the reasons for all things which are done upon earth” (II.11.5). The logic is subtle but clear: in II.10-11 Origen’s three interconnected subjects are on the resurrection, punishment, and promises, resurrection being the necessary preliminary to talking about the latter two topics, and therefore the discourse here is about what the resurrected saints are promised to receive. So Origen’s quotation here of Philippians 1:23, where Paul is talking about the distinction between life in the body and departure to be with Christ, strongly implies that he reads Paul here as saying that resurrection follows immediately upon death.

This likely helps to explain why it is that Origen is so dismissive of the stream of apocalyptic thought resident within his chiliast predecessors. Using Outi Lehtipuu’s rubric, Origen clearly dismisses the notion of a resurrectio carnis in favor of a pneumatic or spiritual resurrection, which comes with a clear commitment to a chronology that favors a vertical, spatially oriented horizon of eschatological becoming as opposed to a horizontal, futurist, and temporally oriented one.35 That is to say, the nature of Origen’s resurrection body not only sidesteps the necessity of a historical parousia, but actually actively undermines it: Jesus is already with the Father in the superior kosmos to which the faithful are headed, and it is by continual education of the soul, and thus continual spiritualization of the body in the soul’s cosmic ascent, that the eschaton is attained. This is not any less apocalyptic an option than chiliasm, but it is an apocalypticism of a different sort, boasting of an eschatology that is currently realized on a different plane of reality, and conceptualizing the spiritual life as the attempt to ascend to that plane of reality. But even so, what binds Origen together with the earlier chiliasts is precisely that Origen’s eschatology retains the necessity of a gradualist, immeasurable temporal scope for its realization. There will never stop being new “worlds” or “ages” in which the providence of God arranges for the salvation of rational beings, and so it is not merely a Sabbath of the world upon the return of Christ that acts as pedagogy for eternity, but it is all of temporal reality itself, experienced in the animated or in the spiritual body, which provides the necessary education for supratemporal existence with God in the time (and therefore also the place) where God is “all in all.”36

What conditioned Origen’s preference for an apocalyptic eschatology of cosmic ascent over one predicated on a historicist and futurist parousia is difficult to pinpoint in any simple terms: his Hellenistic context in Alexandria, in the third century, likely has something to do with it, but then again, Paul himself was an intensely apocalyptic thinker in a mold familiar to Palestinian Jews of his day, and he was nevertheless a Hellenized Jewish author from Tarsus clearly familiar with Greek philosophy and culture. And perhaps, too, his work might be characterized within a broader trajectory of apocalypticism’s transfor­mation into mysticism, of the internalization of radical apocalyptic hopes for a trans­formed world in the future that one encounters in other early Jewish and Christian literature.37 Where Paul’s eschatology may have allowed for both imminent futurism as well as a cosmic ascent, later Christian writers seem to bifurcate the two, in conjunction with their bifurcated notions of resurrection more generally. Perhaps this is unfair to Origen, since it is perfectly possible that in De Resurrectione or in some other tractate which we now lack, he laid out more concretely his understanding of the parousia; but in what remains from the present work, it seems that the De Principiis favors ascent more than return.

That ascent itself is rather glorious. The ascending soul learns first about the rudimentary elements of human nature, and then about the reason (ratio) and explanatory principles (causae) of the scriptural types entextualized in the Torah (II.11.5). Moving on from this, “he will come to know, moreover, about the good powers, what they are, their greatness and qualities, and of those also of the opposite kind, and what is the affection of the former towards human beings and the contentious jealousy of the latter,” the “intention of the Creator … concealed in each individual thing,” the powers of herbs (i.e., medicinal pharmaceuticals), the fall of the angels, and the character of divine providence generally conceived (II.11.5). The worthy, “after their departure from this life” (II.11.6), may well spend a great deal of time learning these things before beginning their ascent through the various cosmic levels, learning first about “the abode of the air,” and then about the others. So Origen speculates that “the saints who depart from this life will remain in some place situated upon the earth, which the divine Scripture calls paradise, as if in some place of instruction and, so to speak, an auditorium or school for souls, in which they may be instructed regarding all things which they had seen on earth and may also receive some information regarding things that are to follow in the future, just as when placed in this life they had received some indications of future events, through a mirror, in enigmas, indeed, yet comprehended in part, which are revealed more clearly and luminously to the saints in their proper place and time.” From here, those who are “pure in heart and more clear in intellect and more practised in understanding … will make quicker progress and speedily ascend to a place of the air, and will reach the kingdom of heaven, through each of those stages, so to speak, which the Greeks have termed ‘spheres’, that is, ‘globes’, but which the divine Scripture calls heavens; in each of these he will first observe the things that are done there, and, second, he will come to know the reason why they are done: and thus he will pass in order through each stage following him who has passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, who has said, I will that where I am, they may also be with me.” Origen’s quotation of John 14:2 with his reference to “stages” (μοναί; mansiones),38 combined now here with his second reference to John 17:24 which we saw above, shows that his understanding of this ascent is precisely the progress of the saints through the various aeonic levels of cosmic reality to the superaeonic realm where God’s plenitude resides. For Origen, this is Jesus’ own teaching: “He also alludes to this diversity of places, when he says, There are many stages with my Father. He is himself everywhere, however, and traverses all things; we are no longer to understand him in those narrow limits, in which he came to amongst us for our sake, that is, not in that circumscribed condition which he had when placed among human beings upon earth in our body, by which he might be thought of as enclosed in some one place.”

In their ascent, the saints will come to know the true natures and activities of the stars, and progressing from there, God will reveal “to them, as to sons, the causes of things and the power of his creation,” following which “they will come to those things which are unseen or to those whose names alone we have as yet heard, and to things which are invisible” (II.11.7). “And so,” Origen writes, “the rational being, growing through each step, not as it grew in this life in flesh and body and soul but enlarged in intelligence and understanding, is advanced as an intellect already perfected to perfect knowledge,” and then still further on it will subsist on “the contemplation and understanding of God, having measures appropriate and suitable to this nature, which was made and created;” and so indeed, “it is appropriate that every one of those beginning to see God, that is, to understand him through purity of heart, observe these measures.”

The bulk of Bk. III is then devoted to the nature of the soul’s free will, not in a digressional manner, but precisely so as to identify the mechanism of choice, cause, and effect by which the soul’s participation in punishment or promise enables its cosmic ascent to God in the resurrection. It is not accidental that this discourse transitions, in III.5-6, to the world’s beginning, end, and consummation, since it is precisely the choices of rational creatures which condition the cosmic drama. Again, the diversity of statuses for rational beings requires for Origen that “just as after its dissolution there will be another world, so also we believe others to have existed before this one was” (III.5.3). The common destiny of the saints is therefore also their common origin: “I am of the opinion,” he writes, “that as the end and the consummation of the saints will be in those [worlds] that are not seen and eternal, 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” (III.5.4). But not all came to be in their present status in the same manner: some souls have so descended because they deserve it, and “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,” while others descended precisely “to serve the whole world.” And the whole creation therefore has an expectation of freedom, a hope for liberation, the servants through the fulfillment of their mission, and the fallen through their reeducation in this world. Christ is, as in all things, the exemplar here, since it is through his subjection of all things to himself that restoration is effected, and that both the administrative rule of the angelic servants and the obedience of the human race are restored (III.5.7).

Origen finally comes to his account of the consummation itself, which is when God becomes all in all, as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15:28 (III.6.2-3). In that divine indwelling, “bodily nature in no way at all prevents” the union of all things with God (III.6.3). So the pneumatic or spiritual body of the resurrection which Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 5:1 is, for Origen, resident in the very cosmic stages that he has otherwise identified as the future destiny of the saints: “Regarding this body,” he writes,

the Apostle has also said that We have a house not made by hand, eternal in the heavens, that is, in the mansions of the blessed. From this statement, then, we can form a conjecture of what great purity, of what great refinement, and of what great glory is the quality of that body, if we make a comparison of it with those which now, although they are bodies celestial and most splendid, are yet made by hand and visible. But of that body it is said that it is a house not made with hands but eternal in the heavens…. From this comparison, it may be conjectured how great is the beauty, how great the splendour, and how great the brilliance of a spiritual body, and how true is that saying, that eye has not seen nor ear heard nor has it entered into the heart of a human being what God has prepared for those who love him. It ought not to be doubted, however, that the nature of this body of ours may, by the will of God who made it such, be brought, by the Creator, to that quality characterizing the exceptionally refined and pure and splendid body, according as the condition of things shall require and the merits of the rational being shall demand. (III.6.4)

In the final account, all bodies shall admit of no diversity of glory, and “[i]t is on this account, moreover, that the last enemy, who is called death, is said to be destroyed, that there may no longer be any sadness when there is death, nor diversity when there is no enemy” (III.6.5). But Origen has something quite specific in mind by death’s destruction. “The destruction of the last enemy, indeed,” he says “is to be understood in this way, not that its substance, which was made by God, shall perish, but that the hostile purpose and will which proceeded not from God but from itself shall disappear. It is destroyed, therefore, not in the sense that it shall not be, but that it shall not be an enemy and death.” Origen clarifies for us that this means that death will cease to be a principle of dissolution and destruction of the substance of creatures which God creates “that they might exist” (a reference to Wisdom 1:14), but instead become a principle of “change and variation, so as to occupy a better or worse position in accordance with their merits.” The best example of precisely this change is what happens to the flesh itself in resurrection: its substance endures, though its quality as flesh disappears when it is restored to life. “[A]ll things will be restored,” he writes,

when they shall be one, and when God shall be all in all. It must be under­stood, however, that this shall happen not suddenly, but gradually and by degrees, during the passing of infinite and immeasurable ages, with the improvement and correction being accomplished slowly and by degrees, some hastening on in advance and tending towards perfection by a quicker route, and others following behind at a close distance, with others far behind: and so, through the many and innumerable ranks of those making progress and being reconciled, from enmity, to God, until the last enemy, which is called death, is reached, so that it too may be destroyed and no longer be an enemy. (III.6.6)

It is at that point of universal restoration, he now says, that the glory of the spiritual body is attained. But recall, for Origen, it is at death that the soul begins to progress through the cos­mic spheres precisely to that heavenly destiny, to where the spiritual body of glory resides. It is “by means of instruction” that the human being “comes to be rendered spiritual,” and so, too, “this very body which now, because of its service to the soul, is called animated, will, through a certain progress—when the soul, united to God, shall have been made one spirit with him, the body then serving, as it were, the spirit—attain a spiritual state and quality.” And so, “in the consummation and restoration of all things,” he says, “those gradually making progress and ascending in order and measure shall arrive first at that other earth and the training that is in it,” and thereon Christ “will himself assume the kingdom,” by which Origen means that “he himself will instruct those who are capable of receiving him in respect of his being Wisdom, reigning in them until he subjects them to the Father, who has subjected all things to himself; that is, when they shall have been rendered capable of God, then God will be to them all in all” (III.6.9).

Astute readers may already see the clear parallels between Origen’s eschatology and that proposed by Yukteswar to Yogananda. In their particular brand of yogic philosophy, the illumined yogi, upon death, may be reborn on the astral plane, not beginning an entirely new life in a body of flesh, but assuming an astral or spiritual form of pure prana (the Sanskrit equivalent to the Greek pneuma or Latin spiritus) appropriate to one’s karmic status, on a world in the astral universe. From their station, they may advance within the astral realm, or they may decline back again to the grossly material realm, dependent on their relative merits and karmic needs. The astral realm also hosts the demonic, where the darkened intellects are reborn in torturous forms and undergo a kind of punishment for their ignorance of the unity between atman and Brahman and their consequent sins. To this existence, it seems, rebirth on the Earth or in the simply material universe is in fact superior. But the more spiritually advanced in the astral plane go on to be reborn once more in the causal realm, which is to say, to ascend into their causal body, where they are face to face with the fundamental noetic superstructure (or substructure) of reality; just as astral beings have the freedom to manifest in physical form on earth, so causal beings can manifest in astral and material form, such that this is not a reduction in being but a true expansion, even if the body assumed is too subtle or fine for lower beings to perceive on its own. And from this there is an even higher ascent, from which, Yogananda adds in his Second Coming, the atman that has overcome the illusion of its separation or difference from Brahman may, still, identify with each of its bodies, in all three planes of reality, and manifest however, whenever, and to whomever he or she likes. The point is that realization of one’s intrinsic unity with God does not amount to an obliteration of the particular manifestation of God that is one’s own personal embodiment, presence, and accessibility in the cosmos, but actually full mastery thereof.

In Origen, the resurrection, because it is pneumatic, follows on death; the body assumes a form of glory appropriate to the spiritual illumination or darkening of its soul and a relative status in the universe appropriate to both. The wicked experience punishments after this life—in the very form of their demonification (II.10.8)—appropriate to their sinful behavior that corrects and purifies them of their evil, sometimes at the cost of the very soul-body complex their rational spirits have assumed so as to ensure the salvation of the core of their being, leading, perhaps, to its inhabitation of a new psychosomatic unity (though Origen never says this). But the righteous experience an ascent through the cosmos as though through a divine school-house (Origen’s lifetime as a didaskalos is on display here), attaining their spiritual bodies in a gradated way as they ascend, ultimately, to the divine pleroma beyond the aeons in the eternal and future heavens and earth from which all of the infinite worlds are, in fact, just so many slips. For the wicked, death is punishment, but once purified, death gradually becomes not a punishment or an enemy but simply that principle of change by which we are able to return to God, all through the regal lordship and tutoring Wisdom that is Christ, the mediator of the divine providence by which all rational beings find their end in reconcilia­tion with God, who is “all in all,” that is, everything to everyone, in the final analysis.

In both systems, “rebirth” is a kind of resurrection, and resurrection a kind of “rebirth,” though in only one such system are both terms invoked; in both systems, the goal is not the dissolution of personal identity but the cessation of personal identification with something other than God, such that the resumption of bodily presence in the cosmos becomes theo­phany rather than a cause of separation between self and all. True, for Yogananda and Yuk­teswar, Jesus is who Jesus is because he understood and mastered Kriya Yoga, whereas for Origen, Jesus is who Jesus is because he is the eternal Son of God, the Father’s agent of universal lordship and providential creative activity. Despite frequently being accused of such, Origen never explicitly articulates metempsychosis of souls between different flesh bodies; he always asserts the unity of soul and body as the one body for the one soul under­goes a change of qualities appropriate to the change in the soul’s intellectual comprehension of ultimate reality.39 Roland is not wrong to make the comparison: it’s really already there, just waiting to be highlighted. This does not denigrate the Christian proclamation of the resurrection, but again, testifies to its fundamental intelligibility.

As a closing thought, too, it is obvious that both systems are conditioned by the particular times and places in which their authors found themselves, and by the communal and indi­vi­dual experiences that constructed their understanding of the world. This is because, at the end of the day, while we do theology in order to interpret our experience of and encounter with ultimate, absolute reality—God—we necessarily do so from within the conditioned finitude of our rational existence. Finite reality is its own theophany, to be sure, but access to the infinite and, from the infinite, a vantage on the meaning and course of finitude is a more particular grace of illumination than our ordinary consciousness allows. In Origen’s case in particular, Origen’s theological exposition of the apostolic and ecclesiastical preaching, which together with his hermeneutical method for reading scripture is the De Principiis, is in many ways quite different from that preaching in its earliest modes as enshrined in the New Testament text itself. Origen, for example, saw a problem with “Judaic” readings of Scripture that would not have occurred to the Apostle Paul to whose theology he otherwise skewed so closely; and Origen lived in a historical context where the apocalyptic fervor of the first Christians for an imminent parousia and a transformation of the world in accordance with apocalyptic streams of Jewish hope had already gone numerous mutations with subsequent generations and demographic shifts within the movement. We rightly find him a masterful link in the chain of transmission for the kerygma of Christ. But following his own example, it is up to us, again and again, to resynthesize the meaning of the apostolic proclamation of Christ, crucified and risen, both in continuity with those who have come before us and in the specificity of our own temporal and spatial situation. Perhaps counterintuitively to the decidedly modernist values of many contemporary Christian apologists and evangelists, epistemic humility about the culturally conditioned character of our theology may enable more successful communication of the mystery of Christ than it inhibits.



[1] M. David Litwa, Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014). 
[2] Litwa, Iesus Deus, 37-68. 
[3] Litwa, Iesus Deus, 141-180. 
[4] Litwa, Iesus Deus, 1-2. 
[5] David Bentley Hart, Roland in Moonlight (New York: Angelico Press, 2021). 
[6] Hart, Roland in Moonlight, 314-334. 
[7] Parahamansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi, 13th ed. (Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1998). It was first published in 1946. 
[8] Yogananda, Autobiography, 476. 
[9] Yogananda, Autobiography, 476. 
[10] Yogananda, Autobiography, 477. 
[11] Yogananda, Autobiography, 478. 
[12] Yogananda, Autobiography, 479. 
[13] Yogananda, Autobiography, 480. 
[14] Yogananda, Autobiography, 481. 
[15] Yogananda, Autobiography, 482. 
[16] Yogananda, Autobiography, 482-483. 
[17] Yogananda, Autobiography, 488. 
[18] Yogananda, Autobiography, 489. 
[19] Yogananda, Autobiography, 490. 
[20] Yogananda, Autobiography, 493. 
[21] Yogananda, Autobiography, 494. 
[22] Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ Within You (Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 2004). 
[23] Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ, 1637. 
[24] Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ, 1637. 
[25] Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ, 1638. 
[26] Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ, 1642. 
[27] Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ, 1643. 
[28] Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ, 1648. 
[29] Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ, 1660. 
[30] The translation is John Behr’s, which is the new standard for this text. See Origen, On First Principles, 2 vols., ed. and trans. John Behr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 115. Throughout, it is his translation I use unless otherwise noted. 
[31] This is a point that I have happily taken from Behr. For a good overview of the evolution of talk about “world” as an all-encompassing catalogue or interconnected whole of contingent reality, see Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Worlds Without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), and her follow-up, Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018). Rubenstein talks about Origen’s understanding of the world in Worlds Without End, 62-64, 66, 68. 
[32] See Rubenstein, Worlds Without End, 63. Rubenstein rightly points out that Origen’s “ages of ages” is “incompatible with the spatial riot of the Epicureans,” yet “fit perfectly with the temporal multiplicity of the Stoics,” mutatis mutandis for Origen’s understanding of free will. It is true that Origen proposes an infinite succession of kosmoi which follow on one another temporally, which can be designated as “ages,” rather than spatially parallel kosmoi resident within a void, as did the Epicureans. Yet it must be stressed that for Origen, the beginnings of a relativity between time and space are already beginning to be seen. As we will see, Origen does not think that the eschatological destiny of the saints is to be found at the end of the ages in temporal sequence, but rather beyond their ontological horizon in a supratemporal realm; vertical ascent takes the place of a horizontal arrival, as though on a timeline. And so in this sense, for God, who is the metaphysical summit toward which that ascent reaches, all of the infinite kosmoi are always present, and so from God’s perspective, all possible worlds are thus actual. Origen does not directly say this, but it is the only logical outcome of his system. 
[33] Here I slightly dissent from Behr’s translation. Behr has: “And see if that which the Saviour says, I desire that where I am these also may be with me, and, as I and you are one, so also these may be one in us, does not seem to point to something more than an age or ages, perhaps even more than the ages of ages, that is to say, that period when all things are no longer in an age, but when God is all in all” (Origen, On First Principles, trans. Behr, 169). It seems clear even in Behr’s translation, though, that Origen is drawing a distinction between temporally conditioned existence defined by living in an “age,” even a superior future age, and being in the divine pleroma, such that to identify this state of affairs as a “period” seems contradictory. 
[34] Behr identifies these in Origen, On First Principles, trans. Behr 269 fns 3-4, but of course, millenarianism was a broader tradition in the early centuries. 
[35] See Outi Lehtipuu, Debates Over the Resurrection of the Dead: Constructing Early Christian Identity, Oxford Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 159-200. 
[36] This is a point that has emerged in private correspondence between Behr and myself, which he was charitable to remind me of in response to a draft of this piece. It is true that Origen distances himself from the literalist chiliasm represented by someone like Irenaeus, where a historical return of Christ results in a literal fulfillment of biblical prophecies which then, in turn, bleed into the eternal state. But what Origen shares with that tradition is a gradualist eschatology, where full attainment of divine plenitude requires more time than this life allows, both for individual rational beings and for the universe as a considered whole. 
[37] My friend David Burnett, an excellent Paul scholar, once outlined this dynamic for me in a most instructive way. 
[38] See Origen, On First Principles, ed. and trans. Behr, 279 fn 47. 
[39] I might wonder out loud here, at the very end, if this does not absolve the whole problem about metempsychosis for contemporary Christian theology, though that likely requires a wholly separate paper.

* * *

David Armstrong is a Byzantine Catholic. He has an MA in Religious Studies from Missouri State University and an MA in Classics from Washington University in St. Louis. His proudest accomplishment is being married to Bethany. His puppy, Daisy, is something more of an Epicurean than Roland.

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“O Glorious Miracle, the width of the Cross matches the breadth of heaven, since divine grace hallows all”

Today the Lord’s Cross is raised before all the world; today ‘the Cross is raised and the world hallowed’, and the faithful are called to worship the thrice blessed Tree on which Christ was crucified. We pray to the tree of the Cross, and we pray to the holy life-bearing Cross itself, we invoke it, we call to it:

‘Thou art my mighty defence, tri-partite Cross of Christ, hallow me with thy power that I in faith and love may worship thee and glorify thee.’

‘Rejoice, life-bearing Cross, unhindered victory of godliness, the door of Paradise, the confirmation of the faithful, the defence of the Church . . . impregnable armour, bane of devils . . . bestowing mercy upon the world.’

‘O Cross of Christ, thou hope of Christians, teacher of those in error, haven of the storm-tossed, victory in battle, pillar of the universe, physician of the sick, resurrection of the dead, have mercy upon us.’

‘Those who rely upon thee, O thrice blessed and life-giving Cross, rejoice together with the heavenly hosts.’

‘Invincible, unfathomable and divine power of the life-giving and honorable Cross, do not forsake us sinners.’

‘O glorious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, help us together with our Holy Lady the Mother of God and all the saints, world without end. Amen.’

But however much we may revere the actual precious and life-bearing Cross of the Lord, surely we are not tree worshippers who pray to a tree as to a living being, as to an intelligible essence? Is it to a tree, even if it be thrice-blessed, that we pray, or to the divine power and mystery of the Cross manifested to us in that tree? Worship of Christ’s Cross is indeed inseparable for us from the worship of of the Cross abiding in heaven, a divine and unfathomable power. The earthly Cross leads our minds to the contemplation of its archetype the heavenly Cross, as indivisibly united to it as the divine and the human nature are indivisibly but without confusion united in Christ. The heavenly Cross of the Lord shone forth on earth in the tree of the Cross, the instrument of our salvation.

At the creation of the world the seed of trees for the Cross was planted in it –the cedar, the oak, the cypress; on the day when the earth was bidden to bring forth every kind of plant, the trees for the Cross sprang up. But the Cross made of wood is the symbol of the Eternal Cross, the revelation of the mystery of the Cross. The sign of the Cross is written upon the world as a whole, for in the words of the Church anthem, it is the ‘four pointed power’ binding together the ‘four corners of the world’ as ‘height, breadth, and depth’. It is written too in the image of man with his arms outstretched: Moses and Joshua praying with their arms uplifted prefigured the Crucified. The form of the body calls forth, as it were, the tree of the Cross, for it is itself a Cross, the centre of which is the heart. In the image of the Cross the Creator inscribed His own image in the world and in man, for according to the testimony of the Church, the Cross is the divine image printed upon the world. What does the sign mean? It proclaims God’s love, and in the first place God’s love for His creation. The world is created by the power of the Cross, for God’s love for the creation is sacrificial. The world is saved by the Cross, by sacrificial love; it is blessed by the Cross and overshadowed by its power. But the mystery of the Cross, is even more profound, for it wondrously the image of the Tri-Personal God, of the Trinity in unity. The Church teaches that it is the symbol of the unfathomable Trinity, the three-membered Cross bearing the tri-personal image of the Trinity. The Cross is the revelation of the Holy Trinity, and the power of the Cross is a divine power. When we call in prayer upon the incomprehensible, invincible, and divine power of the precious life-giving Cross, we pray to the Source of life, the Trinity in unity, one and divine in life and substance. The Cross is God Himself in His revelation to the world, God’s power and glory.

God is love and the Cross is the symbol of divine love. Love is sacrificial. the power and flame, the very nature of love is the Cross, and there is no love apart from it. The Cross is the sacrificial essence of love, since love is a sacrifice, self-surrender, self-abnegation, voluntary self renunciation for the sake of the beloved. Without sacrifice there can be no acceptance, no meeting, no life in and for another; there is no bliss in love except in sacrificial self-surrender which is rewarded by responsive fulfilment. The Cross is the exchange of love, indeed love itself is exchange. There is no other path for love and for its wisdom but the path of the Cross. The Holy Trinity is the Eternal Cross as the sacrificial exchange of Three, the single life born of voluntary surrender, of a threefold self-surrender, of being dissolved in the divine ocean of sacrificial love. The tri-partite Cross is the symbol of the Holy Trinity. How is this true? In the Cross three lines meet and intersect; they approach one another from different points but as they intersect they become one in the heart of the Cross, at their meeting point. Similarly in the Holy Trinity the divine life of the Tri-unity is an eternal meeting, exchange of self-surrender and of self-discovery in the two other Hypostases. No limits can be set on love or sacrifice. Renouncing oneself in order to live again in the other –such is the bliss of love. He who loves another loves the Cross as well, since love is sacrificial. Love itself, God, in the Eternal Cross surrenders Himself for the sake of His love. The three points in which the lines of the Tri-cross end are images of the Three Divine Self-subsistent Hypostases, and the point of their intersection is the co-inherence of the Three, the Trinity in unity in sacrificial exchange.

The bliss of divine love is the sacrificial bliss of the Cross, and its power is a sacrificial power. If the world is created by love, it is created by no other power than the power of the Cross. God who is love creates it by taking up the Cross in order to reveal His love for the creature. The Almighty Creator leaves room in the world for the creature’s freedom, thus as it were humbling Himself, limiting His almightiness, emptying Himself for the benefit of the creature. The world is created through the Cross of God’s love for the creature. But in creating the world through the Cross, God in His eternal counsel determines to save it, also through the Cross, from itself, from perishing in its creatureliness. God so loved the world that from all eternity He gave His only begotten Son to be sacrificed on the Cross to save the world and call it to eternal life through the death of the Cross and Resurrection. God seeks in the creature a friend, another self, with whom He can share the bliss of love, to whom He can impart the divine life, and in His boundless love for the creature He does not stop at sacrifice, but sacrifices Himself for the sake of the creature. The boundlessness of the divine sacrifice for the sake of the world and its salvation passes all understanding. The Son humbles Himself to become man, taking upon Him the form of a servant and becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross. The Father does not spare His beloved, His only-begotten Son, but gives Him to be crucified; the Holy Spirit accepts descent into the fallen and hardened world and rests upon the Anointed, Christ, dwells in His Mother, and sanctifies the Church. It is the sacrifice not of the Son alone, but of the consubstantial and indivisible Trinity as a whole. The Son alone was incarnate and suffered on the Cross, but in Him was manifested the sacrificial love of the Holy Trinity–of the Father who sends Him, and of the Holy Spirit who rests upon Him and upon His sorrowing Mother. The Cross was prepared in the world by God for God and was therefore prefigured in the Old Testament by many symbols and images. And the Cross appeared to the world as the salutary tree, as victory over the world; hence the sign of the Cross will victoriously appear in heaven at the second glorious coming of the Son of God, and in the heaven of heavens there ever shines the Holy Cross, the vision of which was vouchsafed to St. Andrew.

Demons tremble at the blessed sign of the Cross. The Cross is to them a consuming fire. Why do they tremble at this fore of love? Because they hate love, because they are darkened by selfishness and cannot abide the path of the Cross; they are united in their legions by the power of common hatred and not love. The cheering and comforting fire is to them an unendurable flame.

The Cross is the figurative inscription of God’s Name, working miracles and manifesting powers, like the name of God revealed to Moses. The Cross is the symbol of the Holy Trinity, the sacred sign of God who is in love, burning up enmity, malice, and hatred.

This heavenly Cross has been revealed to us men in the Cross of Christ, in the blessed tree the image of which we worship and kiss with awe. We are signed with it as soldiers of Christ, we wear it on the breast and carry it in our hearts. A Christian is essentially a Cross-bearer. The sweetest Name of Jesus is said to have been inscribed on the heart of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the God-bearer; and similarly the heart of a Christian holds the Cross of the Lord which has pierced it once and for all and set it aglow. A Christian lives in God, and, in so far as he enters into the love of Christ, shares both in the burden and in the sweetness of His Cross. To worship the Cross and to glory in it is for him not an external commandment, but an inner behest: ‘Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his Cross, and follow Me.’ we can only worship the Cross to the extent to which we share in it. He who is afraid of the Cross and in his inmost heart rejects it worships it falsely and deceives his own conscience. This is why today’s feast is both sweet and terrible, and the Church accompanies its celebration with a strict fast. The Cross shines in the sinful darkness of our heart, illumining it and at the same time exposing it. Our sinful, self-loving nature fears it and resists it. Why deceive ourselves? The natural man is afraid of the Cross. And yet we must overcome this fear; we must bring forth the tree of the Cross in our hearts, lift it up, and worship it. We must lay on our shoulders, too, as did Simon, the Cyrenian passer-by, the burden of Christ’s Cross. Everyone must take up his Cross and never leave it, and, raising the Cross in his own soul, help to raise it in the world.

The Saviour’s command to bear one’s Cross is not a harsh infliction of pain, but God’s great mercy towards man. It is a sign of God’s love for man, of great respect for him. God wants His highest creation to participate in His Cross, in His joy and bliss. It was vouchsafed to Adam while still blissfully ignorant of good and evil to taste the sweetness of the Cross through obeying the divine command not to eat of the fruit of tree of knowledge. The tree of life and the tree of knowledge grew together in the garden of Eden. That was the paradisal sign of the Cross: renouncing his own will and doing the will of the heavenly Father, man was crucified on the tree which became for him the tree of life, full of eternal bliss. But through the whispering of the wily serpent, Adam and Eve rejected the Cross; they came down from it having willfully disobeyed. And the tree became deadly for them and gave them knowledge of good and evil, which entailed exile from paradise. But the New Adam, the Lord, the Son of man and only-begotten Son of God, ascended the Cross which the first Adam had forsaken; He was lifted up on the Cross so as to draw all men unto Him, for there is no way except that of the Cross to the sweetness of paradise. The ancient serpent tries to get Him too, saying to the Crucified through the mouth of his servants: ‘Come down from the Cross!’ But the new temptation was rejected, and the tree of knowledge became once more the tree of life, a life-bearing garden, and those who taste its fruit partake of immortality. In every man so long as he lives there lives the seed of the old Adam; he hears the unceasing whisper seconded by his natural frailty and infirmity: ‘Come down from the Cross, don’t torture yourself.’ The world wars against the Cross, is driven to fury by the preaching of the gospel; love of the world is hatred of the Cross. But love of God is also love of the Lord’s Cross, for our hard, rebellious heart can only love it if it be pierced by the Cross. Sweet are thy wounds to my heart, O most sweet Jesus, and it knows of no greater sweetness!

O Glorious Miracle, the width of the Cross matches the breadth of heaven, since divine grace hallows all. Amen.

Sergius Bulgakov


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Analogous Predication in Gregory of Nyssa’s ‘Contra Eunomium’

by Robert Fortuin

There is a similarity of names between things human and things divine, revealing nevertheless underneath this sameness a wide difference of meanings.1

… what we can easily perceive, it describes by terms well-worn in human use, facts that are beyond every name, while by each of the terms employed concerning God we are led analogically to some more exalted conception.2

The ultimate division of all that exists is made by the line between ‘created’ and ‘uncreated,’ the one being regarded as a cause of what has come into being, the other as coming into being thereby. Now the created nature and the Divine essence being thus divided, and admitting no intermixture in respect of their distinguishing properties, we must by no means conceive both by means of similar terms, nor seek in the idea of their nature for the same distinguishing marks in things that are thus separated.3


It was noted in my previous essay that St Gregory of Nyssa posits an ultimate division of being, an absolute ontological and modal bifurcation of ‘all that exists’ into uncreated being άκτιστον on the one hand and created being τό κτιστόν on the other. To the former exclusively belongs the co-equal trinity of divine Hypostases whose uncreated nature or essence, its self-caused being and mode of existence, is precisely the very point of differentiation distinguishing the being and mode of existence of the latter. Created being obtains its existence (becomes or ‘comes into being’) from uncreated divine life, upon whose existence the created order wholly depends. It does not possess life in itself, but rather participates in the life of the άκτιστον Uncreate. Unlike illimitable uncreated self-existence, creaturely existence is marked by utter contingency and finitude. So it is for Gregory that the ex nihilo divine creative act implies that τό κτιστόν is upheld by God’s enduring power which from moment to moment sustains the entire created cosmos and without which it would return to nothingness. The ultimate division of being is for Gregory the dominant trope which governs his theology; indeed, it appears difficult to comprehend Gregory’s rhetoric in Contra Eunomium without an understanding of the division of being which functions as a first principle of his metaphysical understanding of all that exists. The Cappadocian father notes, ‘wide, indeed, is the interval in all else that divides the human from the divine; experience cannot point here below to anything at all resembling in amount what we may guess at and imagine there.’ The gulf between divine and creaturely existence is marked by an utterly insurmountable and indissoluble dissimilarity. The bi-fold division is not without problems however, as the absolute ontological and modal dissimilarity appears to forestall valid theological predication by reason of the complete equivocity posited by the άκτιστον/κτιστόν gulf of separation. Which is to say that Gregory’s division of being, in all its ontological clarity it does provide, raises an important question: in what way — if at all — can theology proceed to think and speak about God given the interval marked by a dissimilarity of infinite proportion? How can our words and concepts, grounded as they are in creaturely existence and bound by finitude, accurately signify divinity which knows no limits whatsoever and whose existence is utterly dissimilar to ours? Is it possible for the finite to signify the uncreated at all?

The purpose of this essay is to explore the problematic of theological predication by way of examining the instances in Contra Eunomium in which Gregory maintains the absolute interval of unlikeness while yet affirming the possibility of true signification of the divine. The possibility of theological predication seems of particular importance if the division of being is to be or remain a valid metaphysical principle worth consideration – a divine/​human interval which precludes intelligent and trustworthy human conception of the divine is ultimately irrational and an internally inconsistent construct. Without valid predication two alternatives remain: 1.) collapse the division such that God is within the hierarchy of creaturely being, or 2.) divinity remains inscrutably shrouded in impenetrable agnostic apophasis of negation. The former assures predication by way of univocal signification, whereas the latter aborts any theological predication. For Gregory neither of these are valid options – God is not to be identified with creation reckoned as a being among beings; on this basis he dismisses what he calls the ‘immediate sense’ of univocal predication. Neither are all human notions of the divine nature and attributes (‘divine distinguishing marks’) relegated to the status of impossible, and thus ultimately futile, approximations of the infinite divine abyss of absolute otherness. Throughout CE Gregory accuses Eunomius of straying from the division of being by committing the error of univocal predication: by means of the ‘immediate sense’ of the Son’s generation of the Father, the Anomoean party relegates Christ the creator to creation, thereby collapsing the divine/human distinction. The alternate error, the path of pure equivocity, Gregory maintains is precluded by the self-manifestation of God within creation – divinity is reflected in creaturely existence, albeit always exceeded by a span of greater dissimilarity. It is the twofold division of being which secures God’s transcendence from creation and guarantees a reflection of transcendent divinity in the immanence of creaturely existence. For Gregory the reflection of divine likeness within creation is surpassed by an always and ever greater interval of unlikeness implies that the only possible valid human signification of divine reality is one by means of analogous theological predication. What this may mean and how Gregory formulates such a theo-logic by analogy is explored below.

Dissimilarity and Generation

The division of being as conceived by Gregory represents an absolute ontological difference and unlikeness between God and creation. It is a modal and proportional disjunction, setting the absolute apart from the contingent, the infinite from the finite. As noted this divine unlikeness plays a significant role throughout CE; at times it appears the wide interval of dissimilarity denotes for Gregory a complete equivocation, such that knowledge about or predication of God is a complete impossibility. The pericopes which point to the most absolute form of pure apophatic equivocation are not intended in my estimation to imply sweeping epistemological limitations but function rather to accomplish a much narrower purpose in the wider scope of the Cappadocian’s argument. Comparing the differences between a horse and a man, Gregory demonstrates the inappropriate usage of univocal terms in signifying divinity by the ordinary meaning of expressions, ‘for each is naturally differentiated by its special property from the other, so neither can you express by the same terms the created and the uncreated essence, seeing that those attributes which are predicated of the latter essence are not discoverable in the former. For as rationality is not discoverable in a horse, nor solidity of hoofs in a man, so neither is Godhead discoverable in the creature, nor the attribute of being created in the Godhead.’4 Terms used to denote meaning in κτιστόν creaturely beings are not to be used univocally to express meaning in άκτιστον uncreated being. There seems little doubt then that the inability to express by means of the same signification of meaning the two divided kinds of being, the uncreated and the created being or essence, is for Gregory based on the ontological disjunction represented by the division of being. However, in asserting complete equivocation of terms the Cappadocian father here has a particular purpose in mind, for he is not speaking in generalities.

The larger context is Gregory’s rebuttal of Eunomius’ usage of ‘generation,’ and he argues that the μονογενῆ ‘Only Begotten,’ although generated, is like the Αγέννητος ‘ungenerate’ Father in their shared divine nature (essence). This is to counter Eunomius contention that the generation of the Son from the Αγέννητος Father indicates a distinction between their respective natures (essences) based on Eunomian univocal signification of the term ‘generation.’ Accordingly, the Arian party rejected the consubstantiality of the triune Hypostases for to them the Γέννητος ‘generated’ Son is anomoean ‘wholly dissimilar’ in essence to the Father. The basis of Eunomius’ error, Gregory demonstrates, lies in his univocal use of the term ‘generation’ which is taken by Eunomius and his followers to mean the ordinary use of the term in creaturely existence, a coming into existence by human birth.5 This argument is quite important as a univocal understanding of generation introduces causation and temporality into the Godhead, such that the Father was not always Father, and there was a time when the Son was not.6 Gregory must denounce the ordinary usage of generation claimed by his interlocutor, and must insist on a radical dissimilarity of the signification of the term generation predicated of uncreated existence. So Gregory affirms, ‘if then the sense of Only-begotten points to absence of mixture and community with the rest of generated things, we shall not admit that anything which we behold in the lower generation is also to be conceived in the case of that existence which the Son has from the Father.’7 The meaning of the term generation, Gregory maintains, cannot be univocally applied to uncreated and created existence alike for following the division of being there is ‘an absence of mixture and community’ between the two separated realities. The method, means and mode of the ‘lower generation’ (that is the generation as observed in creation) cannot be used to ascribe meaning univocally to the type and mode of existence of the Son. To do so would be to collapse the division of being, to conflate the άκτιστον with τό κτιστόν. Gregory points to the ‘distinguishing marks’ which differentiate Creator from creation: ‘all things which the orthodox doctrine assumes that we assert concerning the Only-begotten God have no kindred with the creation, but the marks which distinguish the Maker of all and His works are separated by a wide interval.’8 The dissimilarity constitutes a wide interval of separation such that the created order cannot be relied upon as a way to define the paternal generation of the Son, as he affirms, ‘nature … appears not to be trustworthy for instruction as to the Divine generation.’9 Here again it must be noted that the strict apophaticism is in the immediate context of the generation of the τὸν Υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ. Equivoca­tion is indeed affirmed in no uncertain terms, but always in the context of the argument against the immediate, univocal Eunomian sense of generation.

I suggest we cannot look to Gregory for a theology of unconditional apophaticism: from these passages and the rhetoric in context the most absolute expressions of apophatic equivocation are not intended to imply a sweeping epistemological limitation across the entire spectrum of theological predication. The pericopes which indicate pure equivocity function only for the purpose to counter Eunomian utility of univocal predication of filial generation. Mutatis mutandis, the ultimate division of being for Gregory remains the fundamental trope; the ontological and modal distinction between the uncreated and the created must be upheld for his argument regarding filial generation to be valid. But there are other passages in CE which function differently in Gregory’s oeuvre and feature an interplay of likeness and unlikeness within as will be explored below.

Similarity in Name, Dissimilarity in Signification

In addition, or perhaps in contrast, to the passages foregrounding strict equivocation and dissimilarity regarding generation, Greg­ory on various occasions concedes that a real similarity between God and creation does indeed exist. The most frequent references which appeal to divine likeness in creation are based on humanity’s creation in the image of God. Yet, however true the likeness of God is reflected in creation, this sameness does not imply the validity of the reductive sense of univocal predication: similarity for the Nicaean father always presents — perhaps paradoxically — the need for what may be called a ‘signification of unlikeness.’ Although ordinary ‘creaturely’ terms and names may be used to signify divinity, the meaning of the terms has to reflect the gulf of difference between the two distinct ontological realities. For Gregory then, likeness, real or termino­log­ical, is not to be identified with univocation; likeness is always surpassed by the incon­tro­vertible distinguishing marks of the άκτιστον divine nature which demand the ‘signification of unlikeness,’ the attribution of a different sense of meaning. A prime example of Gregory’s rejection of the identification of similarity with univocation is a pericope in On the Soul and the Resurrection in which he uses the Imago Dei to affirm divine likeness in creation whilst noting the ever present dissimilarity: ‘that which is “made in the image” of the Deity necessarily possesses a likeness to its prototype in every respect; it resembles it in being intellectual, immaterial, unconnected with any notion of weight, and in eluding any measurement of its dimensions; yet as regards its own peculiar nature it is something different from that other. Indeed, it would be no longer an “image,” if it were altogether identical with that other.’10 On account of the infinite disjunction between the Maker and creation, all theological enterprise is to recognize the need for a meaning of terms which moves beyond conventional, univocal signification. Similarity of terms, pace Eunomius, requires even still the transference of ordinary meaning of terms and names to reach a higher comprehension, a ‘more exalted conception,’11 to properly signify and account for the infinitely dissimilar existence of the triune God as understood according to Nicaean metaphysics. Not surprisingly the signification of terms and names is a frequent point of contention in CE as both parties use the same terms and names. What sets the opposing groups apart is the meaning they assign to the signification of these terms. The Nyssan bishop accuses his interlocutors (Eunomius and his pupils) of failing to wean themselves ‘from the human application of words’ when theo-logizing about God:

These names have a different meaning with us, Eunomius; when we come to the transcendent energies they yield another sense. Wide, indeed, is the interval in all else that divides the human from the divine; experience cannot point here below to anything at all resembling in amount what we may guess at and imagine there. So likewise, as regards the meaning of our terms, though there may be, so far as words go, some likeness between man and the Eternal, yet the gulf between these two worlds is the real measure of the separation of meanings.12

Here the acknowledgement is made that similar terms indeed can be used to signify both creaturely and divine existence. Gregory uses the example of anthropomorphic language to ascribe both metaphysical realities: fingers, arms, eyes, ears, feeling, sight and hearing. All these and a myriad of other names are equally — and validly — applied to God and creature alike. The veracity of their respective signification however lies in the ascription of different meanings and senses to reflect the ‘gulf between the two worlds.’ Similarity in terms does not equate to similarity in signification, as Gregory opines, ‘each one of these names has a human sound, but not a human meaning.’ Another example that is used to demonstrate the need for signification of difference by identical terms is the use of the name of ‘father.’ The name equally applies to the divine and human mode of existence; however, the name “hides a distinction between the uttered meanings exactly proportionate to the difference existing between the subjects.13 Unless dissimilarity in signification is made, names or terms will hide the ontological distinction between Creator and creation. In the following passage Gregory exposes Eunomius’ failure to go beyond the univocal usage of theological language, remaining at the level of the ‘immediate’ and ‘apparent’ sense of names. Univocal predication is a collapse of the division of being — divinity’s inclusion into the realm of objects as a being among beings is the result:

Such are those arguments which are brought forward by them to establish their blasphemy, that we are taught by the divine Scriptures many names of the Only-begotten — a stone, an axe, a rock, a foundation, bread, a vine, a door, a way, a shepherd, a fountain, a tree, resurrection, a teacher, light, and many such names. But we may not piously use any of these names of the Lord, understanding it according to its immediate sense. For surely it would be a most absurd thing to think that what is incorporeal and immaterial, simple, and without figure, should be fashioned according to the apparent senses of these names … but we transfer the sense of these names to what better becomes the Divine nature, and form some other conception, and if we do designate Him thus, it is not as being any of these things, according to the definition of His nature, but as being called these things while He is conceived by means of the names employed as something else than the things themselves.14

Whilst the utilization of like terms is validated, thus barring absolute equivocation, transfer of the meaning of terms has to take place in order to account for ontological and modal dissimilarity according to the division of being. Failure to ‘transfer the sense of the names’ is to risk nullification of the ontological and modal division between the Uncreate and created being. The importance of the above examples is the demonstration that both pure univocation and pure equivocation are rejected as valid means of speaking about the divine existence. This is on account of the likeness within the unlikeness of the ultimate division of being: the absolute dissimilarity of divinity precludes univocal predication, whilst divine likeness reflected in creaturely existence avoids pure equivocation (which in turn would forestall all theological predication). What remains is the question as to the possibility of valid theological predication – how is a theology of likeness in an ever greater unlikeness possible without reducing or collapsing the distinction between God and creation? For the bishop of Nyssa the possibility for such predication comes from an unlikely source: the infinity of God’s existence.

Analogical Predication to a Higher Concept

For Gregory the distinguishing mark of divinity, the ontological basis for the interval of dissimilarity, is the infinity of God’s existence. Infinity is the reason for the utter inadequacy of human signification (be they words, concepts, names, terms, expressions, and the like) of the divine. The univocity of the ‘immediate and apparent sense’ of terms always falls short of interval between God and creation. Uncreated existence pertains to matters transcending human concepts, a transcendence which exposes the sheer inadequacy of finite existence and understanding. As Gregory puts it aptly, ‘the infinity of God exceeds all the significance and comprehension that names can furnish.’15 Infinity as such seems to imply that all human speech about God, all theo-logizing, is ultimately consigned to and dismissed as pure equivocation – the modal distinction between infinity and finitude is of such proportion that it always exceeds all what can be said or thought about it. The plenitude of infinity’s excess denotes the futility of all theo-logic, assuring the forever hiddenness of the subject of its predication. Or so it seems. In the following passage infinity of the divine nature is shown to be the distinguishing mark which apparently precludes signification in the finitude of the creative order:

But the Divine Nature, being limited in no respect, but passing all limitations on every side in its infinity, is far removed from those marks which we find in creation. For that power which is without interval, without quantity, without circumscription, having in itself all the ages and all the creation that has taken place in them, and over-passing at all points, by virtue of the infinity of its own nature, the unmeasured extent of the ages, either has no mark which indicates its nature, or has one of an entirely different sort, and not that which the creation has.16

The modal dissimilarity is of such proportion that no mark of uncreated illimitable nature can be found in the bounds of time and space in which creation has its finite existence. Yet CE holds that there remains the possibility of predication, a way of overcoming the infinite disjunction and the univocal/equivocal epistemological impasse. For Gregory of Nyssa theology is possible by way of analogical predication. The validity of theology by analogy is based on the Cappadocian father’s concept of infinity: infinity always transcends but does not preclude finitude. Infinity’s illimitation accommodates limits of the creative order and thus allows for predication by means of analogy. It can be noted in the above passage that infinity is understood by Gregory to have a fundamental compatibility with the limits of creation, for it paradoxically contains time and all the creation. The infinite power, which is without interval and circumscription, has in itself, ‘all the ages and all the creation that has taken place in them, and over-passing at all points, by virtue of the infinity of its own nature, the unmeasured extent of the ages.’ Infinity’s compatibility allows for the semblance and likeness of divine uncreated existence to be perceived by means of and within the finitude of creation, by the use of ordinary language, names, and terms. Furthermore, for Gregory it is God’s very transcendence, His utter unlikeness, which guarantees the possibility of His immediate presence in the immanence of ‘all the ages and all the creation.’ It is, as Gregory states, ‘by virtue of the infinity’ of God’s boundless άκτιστον nature that He contains the created order of time and space. Analogous predication is based on divine likeness which can be found within creation, made possible by infinity’s reflection of itself in creation as a likeness which points to a greater unlikeness. For Gregory this means that ordinary terms and names can be used to speak about God with the important proviso the always greater divine unlikeness is maintained within the signification of language. Analogous predication then utilizes ordinary terms, which are easily comprehended based on their common usage, but are to lead meaning beyond the ordinary sense to a ‘higher conception’ pertaining to the dissimilar existence of God. In Gregory’s words, ‘what we can easily perceive, it describes by terms well-worn in human use, facts that are beyond every name, while by each of the terms employed concerning God we are led analogically to some more exalted conception.’17 Analogy then acknowledges likeness but always looks beyond the ordinary perceived signification to the higher meaning as it pertains to the infinite uncreated existence of God. This for the Nyssan bishop requires a careful parsing of terms, always cognizant of the limitation of predication so as not to fall into the error of univocation (utilizing the immediate sense), but taking from ordinary terms or names, ‘so much from each as may be reverently admitted into our conceptions concerning God.’18 So for instance, it may be predicated of God the possession of certain qualities, actions, states and names (‘God works,’ ‘God thinks,’ ‘God’s arms,’ ‘God exists,’ ‘Son, ‘and the like). However, such expressions are not to be understood as creaturely possession, existence, state of being, title, etc., as they are customarily understood. Valid theological predication must signify God’s effective and operative power analogously, a correspondence of similarity encompassed by a greater dissimilarity. Gregory insists that terms predicated of God indicate, ‘those conceptions concerning God which correspond to them,’ without however thereby, ‘admitting the corporeal senses of the words … which our customary knowledge enables us to understand.’19 It is this correspondence of analogous likeness within creation – made possible by the compatibility of infinity to creaturely finite existence in time and space — which makes for Gregory theological speech about God a possibility, indeed the only valid way to theo-logize about the utterly transcendent God who is nevertheless immediately present to creation.



In Contra Eunomium the ultimate division of being is Gregory of Nyssa’s governing trope by means of which his defense of Nicaean metaphysics is upheld against the competing teachings of Eunomius and his followers. The importance of the division of being can be observed in Gregory’s refutation of Eunomius’ univocal and equivocal predication in his theology of the paternal generation of the Son. Eunomian univocal predication, the usage of terms and names in their immediate sense, establishes an identification of the Maker of all with creation, and constitutes a collapse of the ultimate division of being. In an effort to establish that filial generation was in time (following the infamous Arian axiom, ‘there was a time when the Son was not’) Eunomius equates the generation of the Son with the ordinary sense of creaturely generation. Gregory’s response is to establish the radical dissimilarity between God and creation, insisting on the need to assign a ‘higher conception’ to ordinary terms and names as it concerns signification of matters divine. Gregory affirms that theological predication is a possibility — indeed a necessity to avoid pure equivocation — if conducted analogically based on a divine reflections found in creation, resemblances which are always surpassed by ever greater dissimilarities. Gregory maintains that although divine likeness is to be found within creation, and likeness is the basis for analogous predication of the boundless plenitude of the existence of God, there remains then always an infinite proportion of difference due to the finitude of creaturely existence. Gregory opines about the difference remains due to the limitation of finite existence, ‘the reflections of those ineffable qualities of Deity shine forth within the narrow limits of our nature.’ These ‘narrow limits’ represent the inability of finitude to comprehend the infinite life of God in full – an inability which constitutes the dissimilarity of Gregory’s ultimate division of being. Even so, Gregory’s vision of the compatibility of divine infinity speaks of an openness of creation to the infinite divine existence; it is a given openness which allows creation to reflect, receive and to conceive of God’s transcendence analogically within the bounds of finite existence. The openness of creation, its ability to reflect and conceive divine life, avoids the epistemological dead-ends of pure univocation and equivocation. Gregory’s metaphysics of the ultimate division of being shows then its utility and genius: the absolute dissimilarity of divinity precludes univocal predication, whilst divine likeness reflected in creaturely existence prevents pure equivocation. The possibility of analogical theological predication is secured by God’s ‘immanence in transcendence’ – intelligent and trustworthy human conception of the divine is possible due to divine self-revelation of the Transcendent within the immanence of creation.



[1] Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium (hereafter CE) VIII (NPNF V, 208). Note: all references to works of Gregory in this essay are from NPNF (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Volume V. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1880ff.) p. 93.
[2] CE, p 204.
[3] CE, p 209.
[4] CE, p. 194
[5] Pointing out the Anomoeans’ error of univocal usage of ‘generation’ Gregory opines they, ‘deny His grand, sublime, ineffable generation from the Father, and would prove that He owes His existence to a creation, just as the human race, and all that is born, owe theirs.’ CE, p. 60.
[6] For an extended argument in regards to the introduction of time and causality into the Godhead by the univocal usage of generation (an introduction unanimously denied by the Nicaean fathers), see CE, p 67-68
[7] CE, p. 206
[8] CE, p. 208
[9] CE, p. 215
[10] On the Soul and the Resurrection, p.437.
[11] CE, p. 204
[12] CE, p. 93
[13] Ibid.
[14] CE, p. 149. Italics added for emphasis.
[15] CE, p. 147.
[16] CE, 209. Italics added.
[17] CE, p. 204
[18] Ibid.
[19] CE, p. 204-5 Italics added.

(4 October 2016)

* * *

Robert F. Fortuin is Adjunct Professor of Orthodox Theology at St Katherine College ( in San Diego, California. He holds an MLitt Divinity from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and a BA in Religious Studies from Vanguard University. 

Posted in Gregory of Nyssa, Robert Fortuin | Leave a comment

Division of Being in St Gregory of Nyssa’s ‘Contra Eunomium’

by Robert F. Fortuin

The ultimate division of all that exists is made by the line between ‘created’ and ‘uncreated,’ the one being regarded as a cause of what has come into being, the other as coming into being thereby. Now the created nature and the Divine essence being thus divided, and admitting no intermixture in respect of their distinguishing properties, we must by no means conceive both by means of similar terms, nor seek in the idea of their nature for the same distinguishing marks in things that are thus separated.1


The collection of writings known to us as Contra Eunomium (hereafter CE) is Gregory of Nyssa’s response to the teachings of Eunomius bishop of Cyzicus, whose extreme Arian convictions rejected the divinity of Christ as well as that of the Holy Spirit. The justifica­tion for Eunomius’ Anomoean position, in Gregoxry’s words, is the absolute unity of the Godhead which cannot allow for multiplicity of being, essence (ουσία), nor persons. Eunomius under­stands the generation of the Son by the Father as an erroneous division of the divine nature, thereby resulting in a multiplicity of the Godhead. Generation and begetting for him is construed as a creative act of the divine will. The Cappadocian father, in turn, rejects the charge of polytheism by way of explicating that multiplicity of persons does not denote multiplicity of the divine ουσία—he insists on making a distinction between ουσία and personal subsistence, ύποστάσισ. For Gregory the divine nature is shared in common by the three persons—God is one in ουσία, but subsists in three persons. The Paternal begetting then does not constitute a creative act. Germane to the subject of this essay is that during the course of the drawn-out and at times repetitive response to the Anomoean teachings of Eunomius, Gregory of Nyssa develops a fundamental, two-fold ontological division between created and uncreated existence ‘διαίρεσις είς τό κτιστόν καί άκτιστον’. This binary ‘division of being’ is absolute, not permitting a half-way or mixture of any sort, for each is essentially a different nature of existence. The purpose of this essay is to present a brief survey of the ‘division of being’ in CE and to establish that 1.) for Gregory there exists a primary onto­logical ‘division of being’ which spans an infinite interval of dissimilarity; all other bifur­cations fall under the primary division, and 2.) the division of being is central to Gregory’s argument for the divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit, and 3.) the primary bifurcation is an absolute ontological divide between uncreated and created existence, and 4.) it is precisely this ultimate division of being which constitutes for Gregory the possibility for, and guarantee of, true divine revelation within creation. Gregory’s radical ontology of being was not only an effective argument against Arianism, but serves us now also as a necessary metaphysical foundation to ground contemporary debates about the doctrine of God and the God-world relationship.

The Ultimate Division of All Existing Things

Upon an examination of Nyssa’s understanding of being, the ontology of all that exists, a reading of CE exposes a startling contradiction—the Cappadocian father refers not to one άνωτάτω διαίρεσις , but two ultimate divisions of being. In Book I, Gregory speaks of a division of being, which at first reading appears to be without question his governing trope. He unequivocally affirms that the ‘ultimate division of all being is into the Intelligible and the Sensible.’2 This division is construed to be between that which is unseen (the intelligible, νοητόν ‘noetic’ world of divinity, the immaterial and the mind) and that which can be seen and apprehended by the physical senses, the ‘esthetic’ world, αίσθητόν. Gregory explains, ‘in the division of all existing things, then, we find these distinctions. There is, as appealing to our perceptions, the Sensible world: and there is, beyond this, the world which the mind, led on by objects of sense, can view: I mean the Intelligible,’ and he then further explains his vision of an additional division nestled within the Intelligible, ‘…and in this [the Intelligible existence] we detect again a further distinction into the Created and the Uncreate: to the latter of which we have defined the Holy Trinity to belong, to the former all that can exist or can be thought of after that.’3 Here then he lays out what seems to be for him the primary division all that exists, namely the division of the Intelligible and the Sensible worlds. In addition, below the Intelligible world he ranks another, apparently secondary, division—that of the uncreated and the created. However, and here the puzzling contradiction comes into play, in Book VIII, in an apparent retraction he declares that the ‘ultimate division of all that exists is made by the line between ‘created’ and ‘uncreated,’ the one being regarded as a cause of what has come into being, the other as coming into being thereby.’ We are con­fronted here with a contradiction in Gregory’s ontology in which he declares not one, but two divisions to be ultimate! How then are we to understand Nyssa’s ruling ontology, what is the true governing trope? I believe that a consideration of the rhetorical contexts in which both divisions are situated bears out that the διαίρεσις είς τό κτιστόν καί άκτιστον, the uncreated/​created division (hereafter UCD) is Gregory’s governing trope, and a further ‘hierarchy of ontology’ can be observed in which the intelligible/sensible division (hereafter ISD), as well as any other division considered, fall below UCD in importance and meaning.

The incarnation of Christ, the understanding of which plays a pivotal role in the argument between Gregory and Eunomius, functions as a transgres­sion of ISD which cannot be accounted for on its own terms. It is in the incarnation that Gregory claims in which the uncreated nature takes on created nature, or if were to put it in the terms of ISD, the Intelli­gi­ble becomes Sensible. ISD then breaks down on the terms of the ontological argument formulated by Nyssa: pace Eunomius it is the Only-begotten God, the eternal Logos consubstantial in ουσία with the Father and the Holy Spirit, who takes on human nature. Which is to say—the ISD division has no purchase in Nyssa’s argument against Anomoe­an­ism—the long established Platonic division of νοητόν vs. αίσθητόν could not account for the incarnation and consequently a more radical division had to be construed, a division along the lines of being instead of mere noetic intelligi­bil­ity, of forms and perception. It is significant to note that ISD only appears early in CE, before Gregory has detailed the implications of the ‘enfleshed’ uncreated nature of the pre-temporal Logos in Jesus of Nazareth. Only at this early juncture of his treatise does Gregory insist that

… the ultimate division of all being is into the Intelligible and the Sensible. The Sensible world is called by the Apostle broadly ‘that which is seen.’ For as all body has colour, and the sight apprehends this, he calls this world by the rough and ready name of ‘that which is seen,’… The common term, again, for all the intellectual world, is with the Apostle ‘that which is not seen:’ by withdrawing all idea of comprehension by the senses he leads the mind on to the immaterial and intellectual.4

Alongside the handful of references to ISD, featured only in early chapters of Book I, no further mention of ISD in all of CE occurs. After establishing the incarnation along orthodox lines, Gregory then no longer refers to the ultimate division of being as ISD, but strictly identifies UCD as the ultimate ontological distinction of all that exists. The argument is formulated such that in the incarnation the unity of person does not violate the division of being: for Gregory, as it is for the pro-Nicene party, in the incarnate Christ essential integrity endures in the en-hypostatized union of the two distinct natures: the divine uncreated nature and the human nature are united without confusion or mixture. The implications for Gregory was that he could no longer fall back on the Platonic division of ISD to counter Anomoeanism—Gregory on several occasions makes it clear that both the created and uncreated nature belong to the Intelligible, indicating ISD was incapable to establish divinity of the Son.5 In the tussle with Arianism this meant that it was within the terms of ISD (for Eunomius) to claim that Christ was a creature, and thus essentially unlike the Father, while yet belonging to the Intelligible world. Gregory then had to employ a more fundamental distinction along ontological lines—the absolute, binary distinction between the uncreated and created nature. He could then maintain that the Only-begotten and the Holy Spirit shared the same self-existent, uncreated ουσία as of the Father, in contrast to all other existence which is created, derivative, acquired by participation. Gregory summarizes: ‘The whole controversy, then, between the Church and the Anomoeans turns on this: Are we to regard the Son and the Holy Spirit as belonging to the created or the uncreated existence?’6 The primary ontological ‘division of being’ for Nyssa then is that between the ‘uncreate’ self-existence and all other existence which is, in stark contrast, dependent on its existence on the uncreated Creator. The ontological gulf spans an infinite interval of dissimilarity; all other bifurcations fall under this primary division.

Division of Being: God and Creation

Having identified the ultimate division to be along the lines of uncreated/created being it is now necessary to take a closer look at how Gregory utilizes UCD, why it is the division of ontology is indispensable to his argument against Eunomius. As noted, the overriding concern in CE is to effectively demonstrate the divinity of Christ without compromising the humanity in the incarnation—to do so Gregory must formulate two metaphysical concepts simultaneously to avoid the construal of a multiplicity of gods on the one hand, and identifying creation with the Godhead on the other. He must allow for multiplicity within divinity whilst demonstrating radical dissimilarity of divinity from all other, that is to say non-divine, existence. Demonstrating Christ’s divinity, to put it in modern day language, he is to avoid polytheism, maintaining Christ’s humanity he is to avoid pantheism. Unity on the basis of being is how Gregory includes multiple subjects without division within the Godhead: ‘… we must not divide our faith amongst a plurality of beings, but must recognize no difference of being in three Subjects or Persons, whereas our opponents posit a variety and unlikeness amongst them as Beings.’7 Elsewhere he states, ‘divided as Persons, though united in their being.’8 It is then on the level of being, of ουσία, that unity is established by Gregory, pace Eunomius, and thereby he is able to avoid the charge of polytheism whilst insisting on the divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit. There are three subjects, but not three gods. God is one, as there is ‘no difference of being,’ whereas there is a difference according to προσώποις καί ύποστάσεσι. The three Subjects then have in common the one being—the question arises as to the nature of what is in common—does multiplicity not introduce pantheism, blurring the identity of existence, all existence? Not for Nyssa, for according to him the divine nature is radically dissimilar from all other being, ‘wide, indeed, is the interval in all else that divides the human from the divine; experience cannot point here below to anything at all resembling in amount what we may guess at and imagine there.’9 He introduces the unique divine attribute (held in common by the three divine persons) which sets it apart from all non-divine existence, ‘we regard it as consummately perfect and incomprehensibly excellent yet as containing clear distinctions within itself which reside in the peculiarities of each of the Persons: as possessing invariableness by virtue of its common attribute of uncreatedness, but differentiated by the unique character of each Person.’10 The divine nature is άκτιστον, uncreated. By raising an absolute διαίρεσις between the uncreated and created nature, the division of being UCD, he prevents pantheism: identities of each existence remain unmixed, separated one from the other according to its unique and distinct nature.

The division of being construed by Gregory is so fundamental and of such importance that to alter its meaning would be set to aside the very Gospel: ‘our conception of existences is divided into two, the creation and the uncreated Nature, if … we should say that the Son of God is created, we should be absolutely compelled either to set at naught the proclamation of the Gospel, and to refuse to worship that God the Word Who was in the beginning.’ Following this error of thought, if one were to worship the Son, then one puts ‘… the created and the Uncreated on the same level of honour; seeing that if, according to our adversaries’ opinion, even the created God is worshipped, though having in His nature no prerogative above the rest of the creation, and if this view should get the upper hand, the doctrines of religion will be entirely transformed to a kind of anarchy and democratic independence.’11 The stakes then are extremely high, and he returns to it time and again in his argument; in no uncertain terms the division of being must be upheld and each nature remain distinct and separate, the creator from that which is created: ‘now to create and to be created are not equivalent, but all existent things being divided into that which makes and that which is made, each is different in nature from the other, so that neither is that uncreated which is made, nor is that created which effects the production of the things that are made.’12 The division of being is fundamental to Gregory’s argument and serves a dual purpose: the ontological identity of divinity is juxtaposed to created existence and thus allows him to make an absolute distinction between God and creation, whilst establishing the divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Absolute Ontological Divide

The division of being for Gregory functions as a binary under which all other divisions are placed, which is to say that there is only one division which governs all other divisions. This could be represented as follows:

Uncreated     ≠    Created

Intelligible    ≠    Intelligible/Sensible
Infinite          ≠    Finite
Necessary     ≠    Contingent

Ranking order of the subordinate divisions is not of importance to Gregory. They are used inter­change­ably with no particular hierarchy, with the only exception that UCD is presented as the governing trope from which all other tropes derive their meaning in relation to it. I have used the not equals symbol ≠ to indicate that the binary division rep­resents acute difference (‘otherness’ if you will) to the point of signifying mutual exclusive opposition one in contrast to the other. Each side of the divi­sion is said to be unlike, dissimilar to, the other, so that the division serves as what Nyssa calls an ύπεναντίος13, or opposition, representing a logical and absolute contrary. For Gregory there can be no middle ground, each side of the division constitutes an undeniable contradiction of its opposite, for ‘the difference between contradictories is not one of greater or less intensity, but rests its opposition upon their being mutually exclusive in their signification: as, for example, we say that a man is asleep or not asleep, sitting or not sitting, that he was or was not, and all the rest after the same model, where the denial of one is the assertion of its contradictory.’14 In this framework of opposition then Gregory affirms that the uncreated is said to be self-existent (‘owning the same cause of His being’ as he puts it), without beginning or cause—the uncreated does not become, but simply ‘is’—and there was never a time when the uncreated was not. The created, however, for the reason of being created, cannot be self-existent (for if it were, it would be uncreated), has a cause for its existence, with a beginning in time (‘a time when it was not’), and is always in a state of becoming. The antithesis serves as a demarcation of setting apart the divine uncreated nature from created nature, so that it is said the two contrasting sides have, at least as far as their essential natures are concerned, nothing in common. Gregory utilizes this radical disjunction in his argument to demonstrate the divinity of the Holy Spirit. He posits that ‘… as the creation was effected by the Only-begotten, in order to secure that the Spirit should not be considered to have something in common with this creation because of His having been manifested by means of the Son, He is distinguished from it by His unchangeableness, and independence of all external goodness. The creation does not possess in its nature this unchangeableness.’15 So we see then that the idea of opposition and antithesis is key to understanding Nyssa’s division of being and its role in his argument for the divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit.

As if anticipating criticism for posing an ontology of opposition, Gregory leans on the prophets and apostles to support his position,

And let no one think it unreasonable that the creature should be set in opposition to God, but have regard to the prophets and to the Apostles. For the prophet says in the person of the Father, ‘My Hand made all these things’, meaning by ‘Hand,’ in his dark saying, the power of the Only-begotten. Now the Apostle says that all things are of the Father, and that all things are by the Son, and the prophetic spirit in a way agrees with the Apostolic teaching…so that we are hereby taught the difference of nature between the created and the uncreated, and it is shown that, in its own nature, that which makes is one thing and that which is produced is another.16

Below it is noted that the ontology of an absolute division of opposites poses some difficulties for Gregory, but here a brief summary of the main aspects of the uncreated and create being is in order. The unique, uncreated nature of God, Gregory notes the main dimensions or attributes which belong to God exclusively and in contrast to created being: divine immutability, infinity, simplicity, perfection and aseity. Uncreated nature ‘does not possess the good by acquisition, or participate only in the goodness of some good which lies above it: in its own essence it is good, and is conceived as such: it is a source of good, it is simple, uniform, incomposite …’17 Divine immutability signifies God is unchanging as meaning that He ‘always is identical with himself,’18 for the divine nature does not degenerate, neither becomes nor is altered in any way. This also means for Gregory that there is no ‘reckoning of time’, that there is no prior, during or after—immutability then means a timelessness, or perhaps more accurately, that all is instant and simultaneous to God, there is no succession of events or passing of time. As he puts it, ‘…within that transcendent and blessed Power all things are equally present as in an instant: past and future are within its all-encircling grasp and its comprehensive view.’19 Closely related for Gregory is the absence of a beginning and end for God, and this signifies the infinity of God’s existence: God always exists, there was never a time when God was not, ‘He is always to be apprehended as in existence; He admits not a time when He was not, and when He will not be.’20 Gregory calls infinity ‘divine illimitation’ marking the absolute absence of limitation whatsoever for the uncreated nature. But infinity not only speaks to the absence of time, but also to the absence of dimension in space: there is no spatial extension to God and this points to simplicity—the divine nature is not composed of parts. This simplicity signifies the incomposition of the divine nature: God is one and simple for if God were composite this would denote a limit—a beginning and end of a particular attribute of the divine nature. But for Gregory, God’s being, his existence, will or power, does not have limits of any kind whatsoever. God is therefore ‘unlimited in goodness.’ What this means is that for God attributes are not possessed, as one who participates in, shares partially in, something or someone else. For God, unlike created existence, attributes are identical to His being: God is what He has or what He does. Thus Gregory can assert that ‘God is truth’ or ‘God is love.’

God then does not change, exists infinitely without beginning or end, and is simple without composition. Quite naturally for Gregory divine perfection is another aspect of uncreated, divine being: God was, is and will be always be perfect, without necessity of anything or anyone whatsoever. Perfection denotes then an absence of ‘increase and loss,’ for nothing could be added to make the divine nature perfect. Gregory grounds perfection then in immutability, for God neither becomes, nor comes into being: He is always perfect and without need nor dependency on anything outside himself. This for Gregory then also points to divine aseity: the divine nature is self-existent, complete without dependency on something outside itself, nor contingent in any way. For uncreated existence then there is nothing that is greater than, or prior to, itself.

Divine self-existence Gregory calls the ‘only true existence’—all other existence, created existence, in contrast, is contingent, subject to and participating in something greater and prior to itself. Gregory’s understanding of created being in CE can be summarized as follows: it is wholly contingent and derivative—it comes into being out of nothingness by the command, or Logos, of God by whose will and goodness it derives its existence and its ultimate fulfillment. Likewise it will, or at least can, return to the state of nothingness or non-existence. Created existence comes into being, there was a time when it was not, and as such it is mutable, subject to change, time, and limitation. Mutability also signifies a degenerative degeneration according to Gregory, and this means that it possesses itself partially, in degrees—it merely participates by a smaller or greater measure in the Good, in Truth, in Love, etc.; change then is a movement towards or away from its Cause. Gregory explains that created existence, because it has its origin from God, is drawn to God who is the Good and its Cause. Quite interestingly there exists a ‘natural’ attraction to God, a quest which like its Cause is in some way infinite in that it is a ceaseless movement towards the divine, never ‘overtaking its Object’ but always, infinitely moving towards it. The creature then is never able to reach its Good, although it does paradoxically attain it truly and in measure, for its goal is always infinitely beyond its reach.21 In every consideration then created being is the ‘contrary opposition’, ύπεναντίος, of the uncreated. Whereas the uncreated is perfect, simple and infinite, having no spatial or temporal extensions limits, nor ‘inactualized’ power, the created is defined by limitation of place, time, unrealized potential, fragmentation and composition. For Gregory this is then the fundamental reality of all that exists, the fabric of the cosmos (and beyond), the metaphysical conceptualization of which he returns to time and again.

Creation.jpg~original.jpegThe absolute division of being raises an important question—in what way can theology proceed, speak about God, given the infinite interval of dissimilarity? Can words and concepts, grounded as they are in created existence bound by finitude, accurately signify divinity which knows no limits? Is it possible for the finite to signify the uncreated at all? Gregory recognizes this problematic and addresses it in several passages. At one point he posits an apophatic epistemological abyss which does not allow for univocal signification of ‘those matters which transcend language’ whatsoever: ‘wide, indeed, is the interval in all else that divides the human from the divine; experience cannot point here below to anything all resembling in amount what we may guess at and imagine there.’22 Elsewhere he faults his interlocutor for speaking univocally about ‘generation’ and points to it as the source of Eunomius error, for he ‘has in view this material generation of ours, and is making the lower nature the teacher of his conceptions concerning the Only-begotten God …’ The generation as applied to uncreated nature is fundamentally dissimilar to created generation. Gregory concludes that concerning created an uncreated existence, ‘we must by no means conceive both by means of similar terms.’23 One can however theologize, following Nyssa, but to do so is not possible by univocal/equivocal means. Rather it is by way of analogy and the admission of the symbolic quality of our concepts—although words can signify the uncreated in truth, words always remains ineffably dissimilar and beyond the bounds of our complete comprehension. So it is that utilization of anthropomorphic language is appropriate for ‘… it describes by terms well worn in human use, facts that are beyond every name, while by each of the terms employed concerning God we are led analogically to some more exalted conception.’24 To sum up then, the primary bifurcation of all ‘that is’ is according to the Cappadocian father an absolute and fundamental ontological divide between uncreated and created existence. This divide is indeed infinite, yet theology is possible by way of analogy and recognition of the limitations inherent in creaturely finitude.

Division as Sublimation

There is another, quite profound, function of Gregory’s formulation of UCD beyond division and opposition. That is to say that the division of being signifies for him not merely a fundamental opposition of absolute ύπεναντίος, but it also constitutes, as if it were counter-intuitively, a relation between the opposites, an interrelation grounded in ontology. Created existence, for Gregory, is always a work of, by, and for God—as such there is a sense in which the opposites of the division are inseparably related. On the one hand we see the infinite interval of difference, while on the other we see divine causation, sustenance, and presence in creation. The tension between the difference and relation is demonstrated by means of Gregory’s formulation of so-called absolute and relative names of God. The absolute names, such as ‘immortality’, ‘infinity’, ‘simplicity’, denote divine aseity (the name containing ‘in itself a complete thought about the Deity’25); the relative names signify God in relation, such as ‘savior’, ‘healer’, ‘conqueror’, etc. He also supposes names which signify both difference and relation at the same time, such as ‘God’ and ‘good’. The significance of this lies far beyond an abstract theory of the meaning and signification of words—for Nyssa the very possibility of salvation of creation is at stake. It is the absolute difference, the ontological opposition which makes God ‘God’ and not a being among beings, which constitutes the possibility and guarantee of salvation. Only the Creator who by nature, ουσία, is life and not merely participates by degree in that life, who is able to accomplish creaturely salvation. As Gregory explains it, the preternal Logos in the incarnation took ‘… to Himself humanity in completeness, and that He mingled His life-giving power with our mortal and perishable nature, and changed, by the combination with Himself, our deadness to living grace and power. And this we declare to be the mystery of the Lord according to the flesh, that He Who is immutable came to be in that which is mutable, to the end that altering it for the better, and changing it from the worse.’26

The ontological division is always already for Gregory a sublimation of transcendence, a relation of absolute difference and ‘otherness’ to the ύπεναντίος of creation. It is UCD that secures the very possibility for immanence, the revelation of God in creation. When, and only when, contrary to Eunomius, the infinite interval of dissimilarity is maintained in the division between the uncreated and created, can the presence of the divine be a reality. Few indeed would dispute that Gregory’s radical ‘ontology of being’ as presented in Contra Eunomium was an effective argument against Arianism to establish the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit. His vision of an absolute division, and relation, of ‘all that exists’, however, has a use beyond the fourth century Christological debates—contemporary debates about the doctrine of God, and theologies concerning God-world relationship would be served well by paying close attention to Gregory of Nyssa’s metaphysics.



[1] Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium (hereafter CE) VIII (NPNF V, 208). Note: all references to works of Gregory in this essay are from NPNF (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Volume V. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1880ff.)
[2] CE. p. 60
[3] CE, p. 62-63
[4] CE, p. 60
[5] That ISD is defunct can be observed during the late stages of his argument against Eunomius, in Book XI, in which Gregory quotes Eunomius and demonstrates the central disagreement is over ontology of being and has formulated his rhetoric accordingly. The passage starts with a quote from Eunomius: ‘‘We affirm that the Son is not only existent, and above all existent things, but we also call Him Lord and God, the Maker of every being, sensible and intelligible.’’ Gregory then follows, ‘What does he suppose this ‘being’ to be—created or uncreated? For if he confesses Jesus to be Lord, God, and Maker of all intelligible being, it necessarily follows, if he says it is uncreated, that he speaks falsely, ascribing to the Son the making of the uncreated Nature. But if he believes it to be created, he makes Him His own Maker.’ CE, p. 237
[6] CE, p. 56
[7] CE, p. 57
[8] CE, p. 74
[9] CE, p. 93
[10] CE, p. 61, italics added for emphasis.
[11] CE, p. 172
[12] CE, p. 116
[13] Ύπεναντίος denotes a very strong sense of opposition, and can be used to signify ‘hostile adversary’. See Walter Bauer, A Greek –English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1979), p 838.
[14] CE, p. 248, see also p. 98-101.
[15] CE, p.61, italics added for emphasis.
[16] CE, p.194, italics added for emphasis. It is of interest to note that for Eunomius (as his position is related to us by Gregory) opposition plays a pivotal role in his ontology as well. The key difference is however that for Eunomius opposition of nature is placed within the Godhead, an opposition Eunomius bases not on the particular characteristics of each Person, e.g. the Father is unlike the Son and the Holy Spirit based on personal differences, but in respect of a difference of nature by reason of ‘generate’ and ‘ungenerate’. Eunomius claims the Son is of a created nature in contrast as that of the divinity of the Father by reason of the Son’s is generated whereas the Father is ‘ungenerated’. Gregory returns to this argument re: άγγεννετος repeatedly and thus the issue of division of being, and where to place it, looms large in CE. See page 143 for an example of this argument.
[17] CE, p. 60. Elsewhere he states ‘For It does not perceive any other good outside of Itself, by participation in which It could acquire any accession, but is always immutable, neither casting away what It has, nor acquiring what It has not: for none of Its properties are such as to be cast away.’ P. 103.
[18] See CE, p. 90. ‘but that which the God now existing is He always is….He is always identical with Himself,’ and ‘we must remember God is not a compound; whatever He is is the whole of Him’.
[19] CE, p. 70
[20] The scope of this essay does not permit to go into further detail. This quote is taken from a fascinating passage on the eternity of God, see p. 98ff. Gregory uses the notion of timelessness to argue for the divinity of Christ, frequently alluding to the opening verses of the Gospel John.
[21] CE, p. 62. Gregory construes a fascinating understanding of the capacity of created nature to receive the infinity: ‘The First Good is in its nature infinite, and so it follows of necessity that the participation in the enjoyment of it will be infinite also, for more will be always being grasped, and yet something beyond that which has been grasped will always be discovered, and this search will never overtake its Object, because its fund is as inexhaustible as the growth of that which participates in it is ceaseless.’
[22] CE, p 93ff
[23] CE, p. 206-210
[24] CE, p. 2044. For an extended treatment on this issue, see CE Books VIII and IX.
[25] CE, p. 88
[26] CE, p. 179

(11 July 2016)

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Robert F. Fortuin is Adjunct Professor of Orthodox Theology at St Katherine’s College in San Diego, California. 

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