“God of all things, having known in advance your worth, loved you; and because of this love, he predestined you, and at the end of times he brought you into being and revealed you as Theotokos”

O ever-virginal little daughter who needed no man to conceive! He who has an eternal Father was borne in the womb by you! O earth-born little daughter who carried the Creator in your God-bearing arms! the ages competed as to which one would be exalted by your birth, but God’s will, which had been determined beforehand, defeated the competition of the ages—God having created the ages [in any case]—and the last became first and were in happy possession of your nativity. Truly you became more precious than the whole of creation. For from you alone the Maker received a share, [that is], the first-fruit of our dough. For his flesh is from your flesh, and his blood is from your blood, and God suckled milk from your breasts, and your lips were united with the lips of God. O incomprehensible and ineffable matters! God of all things, having known in advance your worth, loved you; and because of this love, he predestined you, and “at the end of times” he brought you into being and revealed you as Theotokos, Mother, and Nurse of his own Son and Word. . . .

“A luxuriant vine” has sprouted from Anna and bloomed with a cluster of grapes of sweetness, a drink of nectar for those who dwell on earth which wells up into eternal life. Joachim and Anna have sown in themselves [a source] leading to righteousness and harvested a fruit of life. They have illumined in themselves a light of knowledge and have sought out their Lord; and an offspring of righteousness has come to them. Let the earth and children of Zion take courage! “Rejoice in the Lord your God” since “a wilderness has budded”; a barren woman has born her fruit! Joachim and Anna, like spiritual mountains, “have dropped sweetness.” Be glad, most blessed Anna, for you have born a female [child]. This female [child] will be Mother of God, gateway of light and source of life, and she will do away with the accusation against the female sex. “The rich of the people shall supplicate the person” of this female. Kings of nations will venerate this female, offering gifts. You will lead this female to God, the Universal King, as if “robed in golden-tasselled garments,” which are the well-ordered comeliness of her virtues, and adorned in the grace of the Spirit whose glory is within. For whereas the husband who comes from outside represents the glory of every woman, the glory of the 4eotokos is from within, [since it is] the fruit of her womb.

O desired and thrice-blessed female! “Blessed are you among woman and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” O female, daughter and mother of the King, daughter of King David and Mother of God, the Universal King. O divine, living image in whom God the Creator has rejoiced, possessing a mind which is governed by God and which is devoted to God alone, whose whole aspiration has been directed towards that which alone is desirable and worthy of love and whose anger is directed only against sin and against him who engendered it, [offering] a life that is better than [human] nature! For you did not live for yourself, just as you were not born for your own sake. Hence you lived for God, on whose account you have come into life, in order that you may assist in the salvation of the whole world, [and] in order that the ancient plan of God for the incarnation of the Word and for our deification may be fulfilled through you. [Your] appetite is to feed on the divine words and to be fattened on them, like “a fruitful olive in the house of God,” like a “tree planted by the streams of waters”  of the Spirit, like a tree of life, which gave its fruit at the time predetermined by God, [fruit which is] the incarnate God, the eternal life of all things. You draw on every thought that is nourishing and useful for the soul, but you reject every one that is superfluous and harmful for the soul before even tasting it. Your eyes are “continually before the Lord,” seeing eternal and unapproachable light. Your ears hear the divine words and delight in the harp of the Spirit; through them the Word entered that he might become flesh. Your nostrils are charmed with the scent of the Bridegroom’s ointments, who is himself a divine ointment which is willingly poured out to anoint his own humanity, for “Your name is ointment poured out,” says Scripture. Your lips praise the Lord and are attached to his lips. Your tongue and throat discern the words of God and are filled with divine sweetness. Your heart is pure and unblemished, seeing and desiring the unseen God.

A womb in which the Uncontained dwelt and breasts of milk from which God, the little child Jesus, was nourished! Ever-virginal gateway of God! Hands which carried God and knees, a throne that is higher than the cherubim, through which “weak hands and feeble knees” were strengthened! Feet which were guided by the law of God as by a lamp of light, and which run behind him without turning back until they have drawn the beloved One back to the one who loves him. Her whole being is the bridal chamber of the Spirit; her whole being is a city of the living God which “the flowings of the river gladden”; [that is] floods of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. She is “all fair,” entirely the “companion” of God. For she who was raised above the cherubim and the seraphim, as a transcendent being, was called “companion of God.”

O marvel above all marvels! A woman has become higher than the seraphim since God has been seen “made a little less than angels”! Let the most wise Solomon be silent and let him not say, “Here is nothing new under the sun.” O Virgin full of divine grace, holy temple of God which the Spiritual Solomon, Prince of Peace, constructed and inhabited; you are not adorned with gold and lifeless stones, but in place of gold you shine with the Spirit. Instead of precious stones you have Christ, “the pearl above price,” the coal of divinity. Beg that it may touch our lips so that purified, we may praise him together with the Father and the Spirit, crying, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts!” one divine nature in three hypostases.

Holy God: who is Father, well pleased in you you and in the accomplishment from you of the mystery which he had determined before the ages. Holy, Strong: the Son of God and Only-begotten God, who has brought you forth today as first-born from a barren mother in order that, since he himself is Only-begotten from the Father and “First-born of all creation,” he might be born from you a virgin mother as only son, “first-born among many brethren,” like us since he partook of flesh and blood from you. But he did not bring you forth from a father or from a mother alone, in order that to the Only-begotten alone should be reserved [the title] of Only-begotten in every way: for he alone is Only-begotten from the Father alone and alone [born] from a mother alone. Holy Immortal: the all-holy Spirit, who with his own divine dew kept you unharmed from the divine fire. For this is what the bush of Moses hinted at in advance.

St John of Damascus


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The Theology of the Icon

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The Immaculate Conception and the Orthodox Church

by Father Lev Gillet


I. It is generally agreed, I think, that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is one of the questions which make a clear and profound division between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Is this really the case? We shall try to examine quite objectively what Orthodox theological history has to teach us on this matter. Leaving aside the patristic period we shall start on our quest in the time of the Patriarch Photius.

II. It seems to me that three preliminary observations have to be made.

First, it is an undeniable fact that the great majority of the members of the Orthodox Church did not admit the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as it was defined by Pius IX in 1854.

Secondly, throughout the history of Orthodox theology, we find an unbroken line of theologians, of quite considerable authority, who have explicitly denied the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Among them I shall refer to Nicephorus Gallistus in the fourteenth century and Alexander Lebedev in the nineteenth, these two representing the extremities of a chain with many intermediary links. There is even an official document written against the Immaculate Conception: the letter of the Patriarch Anthimus VII, written in 1895; we shall come later to a discussion of its doctrinal value.

Thirdly, we recognize the fact that Latin theologians very often used inadequate arguments in their desire to prove that the Immaculate Conception belonged to the Byzantine theological tradition. They sometimes forced the sense of the poetic expressions to be found in the liturgy of Byzantium; at times they misinterpreted what were merely common Byzantine terms to describe Mary’s incomparable holiness, as a sign of belief in the Immaculate Conception; on other occasions they disregarded the fact that certain Byzantines had only a very vague idea of original sin. Speaking of the Theotokos, Orthodox writers multiplied expressions such as “all holy”, “all pure”, “immaculate”. This does not always mean that these writers believed in the Immaculate Conception. The vast majority – but not all – Orthodox theologians agreed that Mary was purified from original sin before the birth of Our Lord. By this, they usually mean that she was purified in her mother’s womb like John the Baptist. This “sanctification” is not the Immaculate Conception.

The question must be framed in precise theological terms. We do not want to know if Mary’s holiness surpasses all other holiness, or if Mary was sanctified in her mother’s womb. The question is: Was Mary, in the words of Pius IX, “preserved from all stain of original sin at the first moment of her conception” (in primo instanti suae conceptionis)? Is this doctrine foreign to the Orthodox tradition? Is it contrary to that tradition?

III. I shall begin by quoting several phrases which cannot be said with absolute certainty to imply a belief in the Immaculate Conception but in which it is quite possible to find traces of such a belief.

First of all – the patriarch Photius. In his first homily on the Annunciation, he says that Mary was sanctified ek Brephous. This is not an easy term to translate; the primary meaning of Brephos is that of a child in the embryonic state. Ek means origin or starting point. The phrase seems to me to mean not that Mary was sanctified in the embryonic state, that is to say, during her existence in her mother’s womb, but that she was sanctified from the moment of her existence as an embryo, from the very first moment of her formation – therefore – from the moment of her conception.1

A contemporary and opponent of Photius, the monk Theognostes, wrote in a homily for the feast of the Dormition, that Mary was conceived by “a sanctifying action”, ex arches – from the beginning. It seems to me that this ex arches exactly corresponds to the “in primo instanti“ of Roman theology.3

St Euthymes, patriarch of Constantinople (+917), in the course of a homily on the conception of St Anne (that is to say, on Mary’s conception by Anne and Joachim) said that it was on this very day (touto semerou) that the Father fashioned a tabernacle (Mary) for his Son, and that this tabernacle was “fully sanctified” (kathagiazei). There again we find the idea of Mary’s sanctification in primo instanti conceptionis.3

Let us now turn to more explicit evidence.

(St) Gregory Palamas, archbishop of Thessalonica and doctor of the hesychasm (+1360) in his 65 published Mariological homilies, developed an entirely original theory about her sanctification. On the one hand, Palamas does not use the formula “immaculate conception” because he believes that Mary was sanctified long before the “primus instans conceptionis“, and on the other, he states quite as categorically as any Roman theologian that Mary was never at any moment sullied by the stain of original sin. Palamas’ solution to the problem, of which as far as we know, he has been the sole supporter, is that God progressively purified all Mary’s ancestors, one after the other and each to a greater degree than his predecessor so that at the end, eis telos, Mary was able to grow, from a completely purified root, like a spotless stem “on the limits between created and uncreated”.4

The Emperor Manuel II Paleologus (+1425) also pronounced a homily on the Dormition. In it, he affirms in precise terms Mary’s sanctification in primo instanti. He says that Mary was full of grace “from the moment of her conception” and that as soon as she began to exist … there was no time when Jesus was not united to her”. We must note that Manuel was no mere amateur in theology. He had written at great length on the procession of the Holy Spirit and had taken part in doctrinal debates during his journeys in the West. One can, therefore, consider him as a qualified representative of the Byzantine theology of his time.5

George Scholarios (+1456), the last Patriarch of the Byzantine Empire, has also left us a homily on the Dormition and an explicit affirmation of the Immaculate Conception. He says that Mary was “all pure from the first moment of her existence” (gegne theion euthus).6

It is rather strange that the most precise Greek affirmation of the Immaculate Conception should come from the most anti-Latin, the most “Protestantizing” of the patriarchs of Constantinople, Cyril Lukaris (+1638). He too gave a sermon on the Dormition of Our Lady. He said that Mary “was wholly sanctified from the very first moment of her conception (ole egiasmene en aute te sullepsei) when her body was formed and when her soul was united to her body”; and further on he writes: “As for the Panaghia, who is there who does not know that she is pure and immaculate, that she was a spotless instrument, sanctified in her conception and her birth, as befits one who is to contain the One whom nothing can contain?”7

Gerasimo, patriarch of Alexandria (+1636), taught at the same time. according to the Chronicle of the Greek, Hypsilantis, that the Theotokos “was not subject to the sin of our first father” (ouk npekeito to propatopiko hamarte mati); and a manual of dogmatic theology of the same century, written by Nicholas Coursoulas (+1652) declared that “the soul of the Holy Virgin was made exempt from the stain of original sin from the first moment of its creation by God and union with the body.”8

I am not unaware that other voices were raised against the Immaculate Conception. Damascene the Studite, in the sixteenth century, Mitrophanes Cristopoulos, patriarch of Alexandria and Dosithes, patriarch of Jerusalem in the seventeenth century, all taught that Mary was sanctified only in her mother’s womb. Nicephorus Gallistus in the fourteenth century and the Hagiorite in the eighteenth century taught that Mary was purified from original sin on the day of the Annunciation. But the opinions that we have heard in favour of the Immaculate Conception are not less eminent or less well qualified.

It was after the Bull of Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, of 8 December, 1854, that the greater part of the Greek Church seems to have turned against belief in the Immaculate Conception. Yet, in 1855, the Athenian professor, Christopher Damalas, was able to declare: “We have always held and always taught this doctrine. This point is too sacred to give rise to quarrels and it has no need of a deputation from Rome”.9

But it was not until 1896 that we find an official text classing the Immaculate Conception among the differences between Rome and the Orthodox East. This text is the synodal letter written by the Oecumenical Patriarch, Anthimes VII, in reply to the encyclical Piaeclara Gratulationis addressed by Leo XIII to the people of the Eastern Churches. Moreover, from the Orthodox point of view, the Constantinopolitan document has only a very limited doctrinal importance. Although it should be read with respect and attention, yet it possesses none of the marks of infallibility, nor does ecclesiastical discipline impose belief in its teachings as a matter of conscience, and it leaves the ground quite clear for theological and historical discussions on this point.

IV. Let us now consider more closely the attitude of the Russian Church towards the question of the Immaculate Conception.

Every Russian theological student knows that St Dmitri, metropolitan of Rostov (17th century), supported the Latin ”theory of the epiklesis”;10 but young Russians are inclined to consider the case of Dmitri as a regrettable exception, an anomaly. If they knew the history of Russian theology a little better they would know that from the middle ages to the seventeenth century the Russian Church has, as a whole, accepted belief in the Immaculate Conception.11

The Academy of Kiev, with Peter Moghila, Stephen Gavorsky and many others, taught the Immaculate Conception in terms of Latin theology. A confraternity of the Immaculate Conception was established at Polotsk in 1651. The Orthodox members of the confraternity promised to honour the Immaculate Conception of Mary all the days of their life. The Council of Moscow of 1666 approved Simeon Polotsky’s book called The Rod of Direction, in which he said: “Mary was exempt from original sin from the moment of her conception”.12

All this cannot be explained as the work of Polish Latinising influence. We have seen that much was written on the same lines in the Greek East. When as a result of other Greek influences, attacks were launched in Moscow against the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, a protest was made by the Old Believers – a sect separated from the official Church by reason of its faithfulness to certain ancient rites. Again in 1841, the Old Believers said in an official declaration that “Mary has had no share in original sin”.13 To all those who know how deeply the Old Believers are attached to the most ancient beliefs and traditions, their testimony has a very special significance. In 1848, the “Dogmatic Theology” of the Archimandrite Antony Amphitheatroff, approved by the Holy Synod as a manual for seminaries, reproduced Palamas’ curious theory of the progressive purification of the Virgin’s ancestors, a theory which has already been mentioned and which proclaims Mary’s exemption from original sin. Finally, we should notice that the Roman definition of 1854 was not attacked by the most representative theologians of the time, Metropolitan Philaretes of Moscow and Macarius Boulgakov.

It was in 1881 that the first important writing appeared in Russian literature in opposition to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. It was written by Professor A. Lebedev of Moscow who held the view that the Virgin was completely purified from original sin at Golgotha.14 In 1884, the Holy Synod included the question of the Immaculate Conception in the programme of “polemical”, that is to say, anti-Latin theology. Ever since then, official Russian theology has been unanimously opposed to the Immaculate Conception.

This attitude of the Russians has been strengthened by a frequent confusion of Mary’s immaculate conception with the virgin birth of Christ. This confusion is to be found not only among ignorant people, but also among many theologians and bishops. In 1898, Bishop Augustine, author of a “Fundamental Theology”, translated “immaculate conception” by “conception sine semine“. More recently still, Metropolitan Anthony then Archbishop of Volkynia, wrote against the “impious heresy of the immaculate and virginal conception of the Most Holy Mother of God by Joachim and Anne.” It was a theologian of the Old Believers, A. Morozov, who had to point out to the archbishop that he did not know what he was talking about.15

V. There are three principal causes which provide an explanation for the opposition with which the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has been met in the Orthodox Church.

First and foremost, there is the mistrust felt a priori by many Orthodox about any doctrine defined by Rome since the separation of East and West. That, of course, is primarily a psychological reason.

There is also the fear of formulating a doctrine which might not seem to have sufficient foundation in Holy Scripture and the patristic tradition. We have left the patristic age outside the bounds of our discussion, limiting ourselves to the Orthodox theology of Byzantium: but it seems that (from St Andrew of Crete to St Theodore the Studite) much evidence can be produced from Greek sources in favour of the Immaculate Conception.

Finally there is the fear of restricting the redemptive work of Christ. Once you have exempted Mary from original sin, have you not exempted her from the effects of her Son’s redemption? Is it not possible for a single exception to destroy the whole economy of salvation? The Orthodox theologians who think on these lines have not given careful enough consideration, or indeed any at all, to the fact that according to Pius IX’s definition, Mary was only exempt from original sin in view of the merits of Christ: ”intuitu meritorum Christi Jesu Salvatoris humani generis“. Therefore, Christ’s redemptive action was operative in Mary’s case although in a quite different way from that of the rest of mankind.

We will add this, too. Orthodox theology has always insisted on the beauty of human nature in its integrity before the fall. Now it is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception which alone can justify this ‘humanism’. It is only in Mary conceived without sin, that human nature has reached its fulfilment and actualized all its possibilities. Mary is the one and only success of the human race. It is through her and in her that humanity has escaped total failure and has offered to the divine a point of entry into the human. Mary, said Metropolitan George of Nicomedia (19th century) “was the magnificent first fruit offered by human nature to the Creator.”16 “She is”, said Nicholas Cabasilas (14th century), “truly the first man, the first and only being to have manifested in herself the fullness of human nature.”17

VI. Let us draw our conclusions:

1. The Immaculate Conception of Mary is not a defined dogma in the Orthodox Church.

2. One can say that since the first part of the nineteenth century the majority of Orthodox believers and theologians have taken their stand against this doctrine.

3. Nevertheless. it is impossible to say that from the Orthodox point of view the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception constitutes a heresy; for canonically it has never been defined as such by an oecumenical council and in fact it has never met with the disapproval of a universal and unchanging consensus of opinion.

4. There does exist a continuous line of eminent Orthodox authorities who have taught the Immaculate Conception.

5. Therefore the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has every right to its existence in the Orthodox Church as an opinion of a school or as a personal theologoumenon based on a tradition worthy of respect.

6. It follows therefore that the Roman definition of 1854 does not constitute an obstacle to the reunion of the Eastern and Western Churches.

7. It is my own view that not only does the Immaculate Conception not contradict any Orthodox dogma but that it is a necessary and logical development of the whole of Orthodox belief.18

Regina sine labe concepta, ora pro nobis.



1. Photius, homil. I in Annunt., in the collection of St. Aristarchis, Photiou logoi kai homiliai, Constantinople 1901, t. II, p. 236.

2. Theognostes, hom. in fest. Dormitionis, Greek Cod. 763 of the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris, fol. 8. v.

3. Euthemius, hom. in concept. S. Annae, Cod. laudianus 69 of the Bodleian Library, fol. 122-126.

4. Photius, In Praesentat. Deiparae, in the collection of Sophoclis Grigoriou tou Palama homiliai kb’, Athens 1861.

5. Manuel Paleologus, orat. in Dormit., Vatic. graecus 1619. A Latin translation is to be found in Migne P.G. t. CLVI, 91-108.

6. Scholarios, hom. in Dormit., Greek Cod. 1294 of the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris, fol. 139 v.

7. Lukaris, hom. in Dormit., Cod. 263 of the Metochion of the Holy Sepulchre in Constantinople, fol. 612-613, and hom. in Nativ., Cod. 39 of the Metochion, fol. 93.

8. Hypsilantis, Ta meta ten alosin, Constantinople, 1870, p. 131. Coursoulas, Sunopsis ten ieras Theologias, Zante, 1862, vol. I, pp. 336-342.

9. Quoted by Frederic George Lee, in The Sinless Conception of the Mother of God, London 1891, p. 58.

10. See Chiliapkin, St Dmitri of Rostov and his times (Russian), in the Zapiski of the Faculty of history and philology of the University of St. Petersberg, t. XXIV, 1891, especially pp. 190-193.

11. See J. Gagarin, L’Eglise russe et L’immaculee conception, Paris 1876.

12. See Makary Bulgakov, History of the Russian Church (Russian) 1890, t. XII, p. 681. On the Polotsk brotherhood, see the article by Golubiev, in the Trudv of the Academy of Kiev, November 1904, pp. 164-167.

13. See N. Subbotin, History of the hierarchy of Bielo-Krinitza (Russian), Moscow, 1874, t. I, p. xlii of the Preface.

14. An article by M. Jugie, “Le dogme de l’immaculee conception d’apres un theologien russe,” in Echos d’Orient, 1920, t. XX, p. 22, gives an analysis of Lebedev’s monography.

15. Letter of Archbishop Anthony of Volhynia to the Old Believers, in the organ of the Russian Holy Synod, The Ecclesiastical News of 10 March 1912, p. 399. Morozov’s reply is contained in the same periodical on 14 July 1912, pp. 1142-1150.

16. Hom. III in Praesentat., Migne P.G. t. C, col. 1444.

17. Hom. in Nativ. B. Mariae, Greek Cod. 1213 of the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris, fol. 3, r.

18. On the whole subject see M. Jugie, “De immaculata Deiparae conceptione a byzantinis scriptoribus post schisma consummatum edocta”, in Acta II conventus Velehradensis, Prague 1910; and article “Immaculee Conception,” in Dictionnaire de theologie catholique, Paris 1922, t. VII, col. 894-975. This last article by Jugie gives a complete bibliography of the subject. Much will also be found in P. de Meester, “Le dogme de l’immaculee conception et la doctrine de l’Eglise grecque”: 5 articles published in the Revue de l’Orient chretien, Paris, 1904-1905.

(From Chrysostom, Vol. VI, No. 5 [Spring 1983]: 151-159)

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Journeying Through the Inferno: Canto 3

by John Stamps

Today we stand with Dante and Virgil in front of the gates of Hell. We hear the horrible shrieks, cries, and groans coming from “the bad seed of Adam.” If you know anything at all about Dante, you know these (in)famous lines from Canto 3:

I am the way into the city of woe
I am the way into eternal pain
I am the way to go among the lost.

Justice caused my high architect to move:
Divine omnipotence created me,
the highest wisdom, and the primal love.

Before me there were no created things
but those that last forever—as do I.
Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

Dante offers a tragic parody of the words of Jesus: “I am the way . . .” Step into Hell and you have lost all hope, truth, goodness, beauty, and life. These are hard words. You have lost your way forever. Dante paints before our very eyes a terrifying vision of God’s omnipotence, justice, and . . . gulp . . . His love.

Fred Sanders, professor of theology in the Torrey Honors College at Biola University, in his video on Canto 3 asks one powerful—but horrific—rhetorical question after another:

Question. What moved the divine architect to establish the gates of hell?
Answer: Justice.

Question: What power made them?
Answer: Divine omnipotence.

Question: From what source?
Answer: The highest wisdom.

Question: To what end?
Answer: Primal love.

My bones chilled as I listened to this litany of question and response, question and response. Primal love? Are you kidding me? The earnest 21st century reader of Dante might be seriously confused here. But Dante here is simply being perfectly faithful to the Thomistic view that there is a necessity for divine punishment, and that punishment is done out of ultimate love, which is a purely western medieval (and juridical) notion. Tony Esolen helpfully notes:

The just punishment of the wicked is an act of charity toward them (justice and charity cannot finally be at odds), even when that punishment does not or cannot result in their correction. At least it restrains them from deeper depravity.

No wonder God sounds like a cosmic sadist and Christians sound like masochists, even with the best of intentions. Virgil comments to Dante, at this layer of the Inferno, heaven has driven out the cowardly sinners, “to keep its beauty pure.” And no wonder so many of us feel completely unworthy to enter Heaven. I do not belong in this Heaven. But I don’t think I belong in this Hell either.

In Dante’s dystopian cosmos, without Hell, there is no divine order, no divine justice. And what type of love is this? It’s the power “to do whatever it will.” Nobody and no thing can shirk the omnipotence of God. Hell is a terrifying place. What you loved in life—to be free from God—has become God’s ironic and eternal judgment upon you in Hell: “Justice Divine so goads and spurs them on, that what they fear turns into their desire.” So be careful what you want. You might just get it.

Thus our inheritance in the Christian West. If St Augustine haunts your theology, it’s difficult indeed to resist falling into visions of double predestination, human depravity, and eternal damnation.1

But there’s a very different story we can tell. It is truly good news.

Every single Pascha in every single Orthodox church in the world, we make our own detour into Hell and find it replaced by the Kingdom of God in all its glory, goodness, and light. The King of Glory busts down the gates of Hell and plunders it of all its trophies. We enter inside. The crucified Lord descended into Hades before us. He freed the entire human race from Hell and He bound and conquered Death.

Hell is empty.

Not one single dead person is left.

None. No, not one.

All of Hell is emptied out. No tortured souls. No shades crying out in sorrow. Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead on the third day, has evacuated Hell of its trophies.

Instead of Virgil, St John Chrysostom acts as our tour guide every Pascha. He joyfully proclaims:

Christ is risen, and life reigns.
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.

Odysseus, Orpheus, Aeneas, Dante would be shocked (but delighted). But no cross-carrying Christian should be.

Hell was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions.
It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.
It took a body, and met God face to face.

St John’s paschal sermon is the most powerful five minutes in all Christian theology. I say that without any equivocation, hesitation, or mental reservation. Golden mouth indeed. Jesus Christ the risen Lord has opened the doors of salvation to all.

Let me stipulate from this point on—no commentary on the remaining Cantos in the Inferno indicates my approval, tacit or otherwise, of Dante’s eschatology. We have a different story to tell, a quite different faith to narrate.2



[1] If you don’t believe me, just read his Enchiridion. It’s the best condensation of Augustinian theology I know, written by St Augustine himself.

[2] If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev. Read his full-length treatment, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective.

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Introducing William Desmond: God as Agapeic Origin

by Christopher Ben Simpson, Ph.D.

The metaxological sense of being is a vision of being that entails genuine otherness, tran­scen­dence, and difference in the midst of community. Central to this vision is the way in which divine otherness or God relates to this metaxological community. If being is an over­determined excess made up of unrepeatable singulars that constitute genuine differ­ence in the midst of community, does this have a bearing on how we are to talk about God?

The central metaphor for God in Desmond’s work to date is that of agapeic origin. God, for Desmond, is the original transcendence—the origin and creator of the world that is other, transcendent to the creation, to the becoming of the world (BB 447; PU 187). There is, in the metaxological conception of God, a clear (and distinctly monotheistic) alternative to the “holistic self-creation” of Hegel’s dialectical God (HG 8). The transcendence of the origin—of God as the unique, singular, “first” and “primal” giver (BB 506; EB 202, 505; HG 136; AOO 6)—entails a radical sense of origination, a “genuine” origination that is absolute and uncon­ditional (DDO 197; AOO 6, 288). Such creation is a hyperbolic thought, a metaphysical metaphor for something that exceeds determinate intelligibility (BB 269; HG 131). God’s origination is creation ex nihilo (DDO 242; BB 262)—bringing being into being from nothing. The nothing so names the “qualitative difference” between the radical origin and the radically originated and the “hyperbolic asymmetry” between the creator and the creation such that the latter’s being is utterly dependent on the former. Thus, as created from nothing, as coming to be in an unconditional origination that is bound by nothing, the created universe is “shadowed” by the nothingness (nihilo) from which (ex) it was made (creatio)—nothingness is ontologically constitutive of finite creation (BB 269; HG 129–30).

The agapeic origin is the possibilizing source of being-at-all. The origin’s originating of finite being (creation of creation), as a radical creation out of nothing, has to do with the primal “coming to be” of finite being (HG 128–31). God here is an answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing, the question of being-at-all, and as such is presented as the ground of “the fact itself “—the fact of given finite being at all (DDO 180–81, 188). The agapeic origin is the “possibilizing source,” “the primal and ultimate power of creative pos­si­bilizing,” the ground of possibility that makes being able to be at all (BB 231, 335, 338). It is the original power of being (BB 330, 335) that is the sustaining (and thus relatively or rather relationally immanent) ground of being and thus human origination and creativity (AOO 288).

The origin of the world is not an empty transcendent beyond or an erotic lack or defect seeking fulfillment (DDO 193; HG 139), but an always-already-full-ness. The agapeic origin’s origination issues from a “superplus” (HG 139) surplus—a plenitude that is “an excess of completion and wholeness” (DDO 193; BB 166, 255, 330). Creation does not come from a compulsion, from a desire to remedy a defect, but from an already present completion, a perfection or “pluperfection” (DDO 193; BB 215). The origin’s wholeness beyond lack, far from being the basis of God’s merely (univocal/equivocal) insular, static self-enjoyment, is a surplus out of which it transcends itself in asymmetrical creation—creation of the other that is not merely a function of self-relation (as with the dialectical, erotic origin) (BB 215, 255).

Finally, the agapeic origin is the source of the com­munity of created being as plural, singular, and good. The agapeic origin is the originating and sustaining ground of the metaxological community of being (PO 113; BB 263). As such, it is the ground (the source and sustainer) of the genuine, nonre­ductive plurality of creation (DDO 180; BB 264, 338; AOO 293)—a true community of plurality made up of unique (idiotic) singularities in commu­nicative relation to one another (BB 330; PU 48). This cre­ated plural yet singular community of being bears a certain doubleness—at once independent of and depen­dent upon God as agapeic origin. It is independent of the agapeic origin in that the origin originates the other as truly other and thus as given to itself, freely released into being for itself (PU 187, 218; EB 202; AOO 6). In giving being to the other, God gives the gift of free otherness to the other. Finite being is ontologically dependent upon the origin in that there is yet an asymmetrical relationship between them as finite being has been radically originated from nothing by the origin—its being as finite, as having come-to-be, points back to its origination and to its origin (HG 164). Finally, finite beings are given to be themselves as good in themselves—as bearing inherent value from but not for the sake of the origin (so as to make the value of finite being extrinsic, instrumental for divine self-fulfillment) (BB 186, 511–12; PU 196; EB 44; BR 229; HG 140).

The agapeic origin, as Desmond’s preeminent metaphysical metaphor (BB 208, 231, 330; PU 137, 207, 230; HG 3) or “hyperbole” for God, designates the particular character of God’s/​the origin’s creation/​origination as agapeic. As intimated above, agapeic origination is creation not from lack but from surplus or plenitude. Here, the agapeic origin is to be understood in contradistinction to the erotic origin, which, because of some lacking in itself (some indeterminacy or lack of wholeness or completion), seeks to produce/​fulfill/​complete itself in the production of creation—a creation always provisionally other. The agapeic origin does not need to produce itself in its origination—it is “always already itself.” The agapeic origin is instead a plenitude that freely originates out of a fullness and not a lack or internal necessity (BHD 79–80; BB 166; PU 188, 207, 231; HG 135)—a “creative excess” out of which genuine creation happens (BB 256, 261).

Agapeic origination generously gives forth genuine otherness (PU 196). It lets the other of creation be as other (as other to the agapeic origin) (BHD 80; PU 216–18, 231; HG 70; AOO 288)—as an irreducible otherness (BHD 90; BB 261–62) “in itself” (BHD 80, 116) and for itself (BB 262, 448; EB 164). The being of the world is “released”—given as free from the origin—into being for itself (BB 257, 263–64; EB 164, 200; HG 136; AOO 6). Thus, agapeic creation cannot be reduced to self-mediation (BHD 80; PU 218–19; AOO 287).

In giving otherness, the “agapeic One” gives rise to more than one, to a genuine plurality (HG 138). Desmond describes this in terms of an affirmative doubling or redoubling that is not the self-division of the One but a “real Secondness” (BHD 80-81, 116, 120; PU 220). Thus, agapeic creation is the source of difference and plurality (DDO 242; PU 238; EB 502; HG 70)—the excessive generosity that gives rise to plurality (BHD 81). The plurality of the created world is composed of singulars—finite beings that are not only other to God but other to each other. The agapeic origin is thus the ground of singularity and genuine (“idiotic”) self-hood as well. As creator of this plurality of singulars, the agapeic origin is the giver of “the between,” “the middle” as the “space of open being” (BB 262). God is the origi­nal (originating) ground of metaxological community of being (DDO 242; PO 8, 113; BB 263; PU 137, 234, 238).

In all of this, the “agapeic” character of the agapeic origin’s creation/origination is best described in terms of the “gift.” God’s creation, the giving of being to be as other and for itself, is a gift (PU 133, 144, 196, 216–17; EB 505)—a true gift of love. It is a giving that gives the given as a gift. Agapeic creation is a gratuitous origination, a “non-possessive dispen­sa­tion” (DDO 191), an act of pure generosity exceeding itself for the sake of the other—not merely giving something to the other but giving the other to be as such, giving the other itself (BB 418, 501; EB 207). There is a disproportion and asymmetry in the directionality of giving—God’s creative gift is something that could not ever be returned; it would ever exceed any attempt. It is difficult for us to think this excessive gift, to think agape—it is foreign, other, transcendent to our (all too erotic) conceptual economies (BB 410, 542; PU 195).

Creation as agapeic gift implies a certain freedom in created being. Beings and human beings in particular are given, are “released” into (BB 257, 264) an ontological freedom, a freedom to be for themselves as other (BHD 182; BB 79; EB 138)—a freedom “given from,” a being given free(ly) from, the agapeic origin. In creating, the agapeic absolute “absolves” itself from its creation—makes it other and free. In so doing, the agapeic origin allows creation the freedom to absolve itself from the origin such that there is a permitting, a “letting be” of evil—a patience to evil (BB 263)—that can be horrifying to us (PU 249). Yet there is a conceptual consistency between the existence of the agapeic origin and the existence of evil, for a creation without the possibility of evil is not the result of agapeic creation, not truly other to the creator, not released, free.

As agapeic, for Desmond, the origin is good or rather, the Good (BB 71; EB 281). The agapeic good is not extrinsic to God; God is “aga­peic transcendence,” the “free identity of being and the good” (PU 195). And, as the agapeic origin gives forth being, so does it give goodness to being (BB 71; PU 195, 216–17; EB 495, 503). God cre­ates being as good for itself, as valuable in itself. God creates the world and says “It is good” (BR 224). As such, the agapeic origin is the original ground of goodness in being (EB 200, 496). And, as such, it can provide both a way out of the nihilism of instrumental mind and a ground for our trust in being and knowledge (BB 71, 359).

(26 June 2018)

(Return to Part 1)

* * *

[Much of this two-part introduction was drawn from my Religion, Metaphysics, and the Postmodern originally published with Indiana University Press in 2009 and reprinted with Wipf & Stock in 2016. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher. There are A LOT of parenthetical references to Desmond’s works: The intent is that the reader can find therein many points of entry to dive into Desmond’s own writings.]


AOO = Art, Origins, Otherness. Albany: SUNY Press, 2003.
 BB = Being and the Between. Albany: SUNY Press, 1995.
 BHD = Beyond Hegel and Dialectic. Albany: SUNY Press, 1992.
 DDO = Desire, Dialectic and Otherness. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1987.
 EB = Ethics and the Between. Albany: SUNY Press, 2001.
 GB = God and the Between. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.
 HG = Hegel’s God. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003.
 PO = Philosophy and Its Others. Albany: SUNY Press, 1990.
 PU = Perplexity and Ultimacy. Albany: SUNY Press, 1995.

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Christopher Ben Simpson is Professor of Philosophical Theology at Lincoln Christian University in Lincoln, Illinois. He is the author of several books, including Modern Christian TheologyReligion, Metaphysics, and the Postmodern, and The Truth is the Way, and the editor of William Desmond and Contemporary Theology and The William Desmond Reader.

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Journeying Through the Inferno: Canto 2

by John Stamps

“I understand from your words and the look in your eyes,”
That shadow of magnificence answered me,
“your soul is sunken in that cowardice
That bears down many men, turning their course
And resolution by imagined perils,
As his own shadows turns the frightened horse.”

The Cowardly Lion, Dante, and I all have one thing in common. We lack courage. Fear makes great cowards of us all. Dante the pilgrim had an especially good reason to be terrified. His exile from Florence is bad enough. But what sane human being wants to sojourn into Hell? Dante quickly complains to Virgil, his guide. I’m not Aeneas, I’m not St Paul. I’m just a poet.

As Dante had to face down those three horrific beasts—the leopard, the lion, and the she-wolf—now the prospect of journeying into the Inferno terrifies him. But Virgil disagrees. You have a pilgrimage to make and you must make it. Don’t shirk your God-given task in this life. You cannot be a coward and a Christian. Just ask St Peter. Our faith is constantly put to the test. We are constantly tried and tested.

Without any say so on our part, we are thrown into this life “in media res“—right smack dab in the middle of things—and God wants us to face the present task with courage. Our choices are not naked decisions, with no rhyme or reason. We have friends along the way, friends we don’t see. But they are there nonetheless.

We do not live in a secularized universe, disenchanted and emptied out of hope and purpose. The universe depicted by Dante is a genuine cosmos, ordered and filled with God’s grace. Intercessors abound and they pray for us. Step into any Catholic Church—or in my case, step into any Orthodox Church—and you quickly realize we are indeed surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. They pray for us and they cheer us on, to finish our race with courage and endurance, all the way to the finish line.

In Dante’s case, three strong intercessors prayed for his soul. His beloved Beatrice—she launched his quest for beauty—interceded for him from heaven. Beatrice was followed by no less than the Mother of God, the Theotokos herself. “She broke the rigid sentence from above.” Yes, the Mother of God has that kind of power. The Queen of Heaven then enlisted the help of St Lucy to assist Dante in his terrifying journey.

With these spiritual powers on his side, Dante is emboldened now to follow Virgil down into Hell. Like Dante, we humans are on a pilgrimage. Life is not just one damn thing after another. Every step, every decision really does make a difference. We must make life-altering existential choices without all the evidence at hand.

What is it, then? Why stand here, why delay?
Why let such cowardice come take your heart?
Why are you not afire and bold and free?

Why indeed? The Christian faith is not for the faint of heart. Faith doesn’t respond well to a cost-benefits analysis. Each one of us has a God-appointed destiny. The Cowardly Lion and Dante each found unexpected courage. So can you and I. Don’t let fear shackle our hearts. God’s Holy Spirit can set our souls on fire. Let us step out boldly in faith.

* * *

Next installment:
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” in Canto 3.
Or rather: “Not so fast, Dante and Virgil!”

(Go to Canto 3)

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Journeying Through the Inferno: Canto 1

by John Stamps

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost
. . .
I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
So full was I of slumber at the moment
In which I had abandoned the true way.

Along with the rest of the Western World, I decided to join the 100 Day Journey of reading Dante. Yes, we’re reading the entire Divine Comedy. With Dante the pilgrim as our guide, Dante the poet leads us from the Inferno through Purgatory into Paradise. New videos are released every Mon-Wed-Fri and they only last about 10 or so minutes. You can read any translation you want—I’m using Anthony Esolen’s. The plan is to read three cantos per week, an eminently do-able practice as long as you don’t get bogged down in the notes. The 100 Days of Dante will end Easter 2022. Can you think of a better way to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth than with Dante and Beatrice in Paradise? I sure can’t.

Reading Dante fulfills a number of personal bucket list goals. For starters, the dreadful Western Civilization class I took as an undergraduate at a fundamentalist college—wow, was it really back in 1973?—was the low point of my academic career. I’ve been remediating my invincible ignorance ever since.

The Canto One video was narrated by Ralph C. Wood, former Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University. I know about Ralph Wood as a Flannery O’Connor scholar. I didn’t realize he knew so much about Dante as well. One remark he made really struck me. In fact, I copied it into the front page of my copy of the Inferno.

“We will not discover truth, goodness, happiness, and beauty until we know we have lost them.”

That observation might not be self-evident. But I think Dr Wood is correct. We sleep walk through life. Our careers or simple busy-ness consumes us. Who has the cycles to contemplate truth or beauty?

But we can start our pilgrimage simply by seriously ruminating why am I so unhappy? More money won’t make me happy. Self-medicating in all its various adult forms won’t make me happy. I don’t make enough money to be on permanent vacation.

But Dante isn’t writing about run-of-the-mill happiness such that you’d find from a trip to Maui or at the bottom of a bottle of a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. He wants us to ponder what constitutes our true beatitude, from the Latin word beātus, “happy, fortunate.”

As we descend into the inferno with Dante and Virgil as our guide, we can begin to cross off one vice after another that most certainly won’t make us happy. Canto Two warns us, you’ll never be happy if you’re a coward.

(Go to Canto 2)

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“Human sin made the road rough but Christ’s resurrection leveled it; by passing over it himself he transformed the narrowest of tracks into a royal highway”

When the Lord tells us in the Gospel that anyone who wants to be his follower must renounce himself, the injunction seems harsh; we think he is imposing a burden on us. But an order is no burden when it is given by one who helps in carrying it out.

To what place are we to follow Christ if not where he has already gone? We know that he has risen and ascended into heaven: there, then, we must follow him. There is no cause for despair—by ourselves we can do nothing, but we have Christ’s promise. Heaven was beyond our reach before our Head ascended there, but now, if we are his members, why should we despair of arriving there ourselves? Is there any reason? True, many fears and afflictions confront us in this world; but if we follow Christ, we shall reach a place of perfect happiness, perfect peace, and everlasting freedom from fear. Yet let me warn anyone bent on following Christ to listen to Saint Paul: “One who claims to abide in Christ ought to walk as he walked.”

Would you follow Christ? Then be humble as he was humble; do not scorn his lowliness if you want to reach his exaltation. Human sin made the road rough but Christ’s resurrection leveled it; by passing over it himself he transformed the narrowest of tracks into a royal highway. Two feet are needed to run along this highway; they are humility and charity. Everyone wants to get to the top—well, the first step to take is humility. Why take strides that are too big for you—do you want to fall instead of going up? Begin with the first step, humility, and you will already be climbing.

As well as telling us to renounce ourselves, our Lord and Savior said that we must take up our cross and follow him. What does it mean to take up one’s cross? Bearing every annoyance patiently. That is following Christ.

When someone begins to follow his way of life and his commandments, that person will meet resistance on every side. He or she will be opposed, mocked, even persecuted, and this not only by unbelievers but also by people who to all appearances belong to the body of Christ, though they are really excluded from it by their wickedness; people who, being Christians only in name, never stop persecuting true Christians.

If you want to follow Christ, then, take up his cross without delay. Endure injuries, do not be overcome by them. If we would fulfill the Lord’s command: “If anyone wants to be my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me,” we must strive with God’s help to do as the Apostle says: “As long as we have food and clothing, let this content us.” Otherwise, if we seek more material goods than we need and desire to become rich, we may fall prey to temptation. The devil may trick us into wanting the many useless and harmful things that plunge people into ruin and destruction.

May we be free from this temptation through the protection of our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.

St Caesarius of Arles

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