Would Christ have died of natural causes?

If historians agree on anything, they agree that Jesus of Nazareth did not die of natural causes. His was a brutal death, caused by flogging and crucifixion. Yes, there have been an oddball few who have maintained that Jesus actually survived his crucifixion (raise your hand if you remember The Passover Plot?) or that he never existed at all (once upon a time The Christ Myth by Arthur Drews was popular among the followers of Ayn Rand), but they are few and far between. Jesus died. He did not die by cancer or some other disease. He did not die by an internal malfunction of the body not directly influenced by external forces. He died by violence.

So let’s add the hypothetical clause: If Jesus had not died at Calvary, would he subsequently have died of natural causes, say, old age or cancer or heart disease? Would Christ have died of natural causes?

It’s not a question explicitly addressed by the Church Fathers, but Hatzidakis believes we must explore it. “Depending upon what answer is given to this question,” he comments, “it will reveal, more than any other, one’s understanding of what kind of human nature Christ had, and how He saved us. We believe it will reveal how utterly un-theological the thesis advanced by the postlapsarianists is, that Christ’s human nature was inherently corrupt and mortal, and therefore Christ would have died regardless, as all of us must succumb to the universal law of nature” (Jesus: Fallen?, pp. 212-213).

I am uncomfortable with the raising and answering of this counterfactual question. It requires us to momentarily pretend the incarnate Son did not die on Calvary, to forget what we already know by divine revelation, namely, God came into this world to die on the cross for the salvation of the world. It requires us, in other words, to step outside the biblical story. What if Judas had changed his mind at the last second? What if the Sanhedrin or Pilate had ruled differently and freed Jesus? What if, what then? Would Jesus have returned to Capernaum and lived a long and happy life, with death finally catching up to him in old age? Perhaps, like Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, he would have freely laid down his life in a final sleep, before old age had unmanned him and made him witless. But all this is unbiblical speculation. What we know is that the Word became flesh for to offer his life as a ransom for sinners. Immediately after Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah, the Lord began to prepare his disciples: “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And when Peter objected, Jesus firmly rebuked him: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Matt 16:21-23). The Gospel of John also reports our Lord accepting his death as divinely ordained: “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour” (Jn 12:27). Hence the question “Would Christ have died of natural causes?” appears to be ruled out by the Gospels right from the start—not because we have any special insight into the “science” of Incarnation but because we have been given to know that, unlike all other persons who have lived on this planet, the existence of Jesus is completely determined by his salvific mission. In the words of St Athanasius: “If God is born and if He dies, it is not because He is born that He dies, but it is to die that He is born” (quoted by Vladimir Lossky, Orthodox Theology, p. 110).

But let’s run with “Would Christ have died of natural causes?” and see where it leads us. As we do so, I want us to keep in the back of our minds the 6th century heresy known as aphthartodocetism. I have found it difficult to get a good historical grasp of the heresy, as it’s not much discussed in the textbooks. Aloys Grillmeier discusses it in the second volume of his Christ in Christian Tradition, but I found his presentation impenetrable. St John of Damascus briefly describes the aphthartodocetist position in his catalogue of heresies:

The Aphthartodocetae who come from Julian of Halicarnassus and Gaianus of Alexandria, are also called Gaianites. They agree with the Severians in all things, with this one exception, that, while the Severians seem to hold a difference in the union of Christ, they hold that the body of the Lord was incorruptible from the first instant of its formation. They also confess that the Lord endured suffering hunger, I mean, and thirst, and fatigue but they say that He did not suffer these in the same way that we do. For they say that we suffer these by physical necessity, while the Christ suffered them voluntarily and was not subject to the laws of nature. (On Heresies 84)

The theological leader of the Miaphysite Churches, Patriarch Severus of Antioch, vigorously opposed the views of Julian of Halicarnassus. He accused Julian of reducing the passions of Christ to a phantasy.  In 728 the Syrian and Armenian Churches united in a common statement of faith. The fourth anathema states: “If any one affirms that it was not our mortal, peccable and corruptible body, but the body which Adam had before his fall and which by grace was immortal, impeccable and incorruptible, that God the Word united to Himself, let him be anathema” (quoted by V. C. Samuel, “The Manhood of Jesus Christ,” p. 162, n. 20).

Wouldn’t it be ironic if, on the question of the “fallenness” of Christ’s assumed humanity, the Oriental Orthodox Churches have better expressed the Orthodox faith than the author of Jesus: Fallen?


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Not Returning Evil for Evil: Simone Weil’s Advice in Troubled Times

by John Stamps

I’ve been thinking…

In a world convulsed with horrific suffering, what can we do that won’t contribute to the sum total of misery and evil? We hunger and thirst for justice. But we also don’t want to get caught up in a vicious cycle of violence and revenge. We don’t want to return evil for evil.

Simone Weil—the French philosopher, disillusioned Marxist, Christian mystic, political activist, social misfit, and world-class klutz—can perhaps provide us serious spiritual help in these troubled times. If you don’t know who she is, let me introduce you. Simone was a brilliant French intellectual and a serious disciple of Jesus Christ.

Like many intellectuals, Simone’s aspirations as a political activist vastly exceeded her abilities. She was a classic schlemiel at every physical occupation she ever tried. She desperately wanted solidarity with the common working man, but she was an utterly inept worker at the Renault factory. Despite her physical ineptitude, she was a great intellectual in the classic French tradition. In her graduating class at the École Normale Supérieure, she placed first while the lesser lumière Simone Beauvoir placed second. I’m not at all surprised that the French government honored her with her very own postage stamp. However, I am very surprised, indeed stunned, by her quote they put on it: “L’attention est la seule faculté de l’âme qui donne accès à Dieu.” That is: “Attention is the only faculty of the soul that gives access to God.”

She wrote this in April 1942 from Marseilles, soon on her way to New York City. Her family and she have fled Paris, just out of Hitler’s reach. The Soviet armies had recently beaten back the Nazi invasion at Stalingrad, but it was still a godawful time in a godawful war. And yes, she’s also Jewish. She successfully kept baptism from the Roman Catholic Church at arm’s length and hectored otherwise sympathetic priests with her own idiosyncratic Christian theology.

Here is what I think her famous quote means. We have no direct access to God. God is a secret, indeed a mystery. We cannot pry open the doors to heaven. But we can wait for God. (Waiting for God is the title of her most famous and accessible book.) And we can pay attention. “We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them.”

Lest we think for a moment that Simone Weil doesn’t know whereof she speaks, she most certainly does. Even though her family was Jewish, she grew up in a thoroughly secular French household. Neither parent were practicing Jews. More to the point, they were completely agnostic. But from an early age, she was deeply attracted to the Christian faith. To her complete surprise, she had three extraordinary encounters with God. As you might expect with someone who enjoyed such a … ahem… rich inner life (my apologies to Ignatius J. Reilly), she suffered from violent migraine headaches. Her own peculiar way of dealing with migraines was reciting poetry, especially George Herbert’s extraordinarily beautiful “Love.” (The poem starts out, “Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back…” and ends “So I did sit and eat.” If you haven’t read it, you should.) As she recounts the experience:

Often at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me.

Just to be clear, Weil the philosopher was a bit at odds with Weil the Christian believer. She believed in God; she didn’t believe that you could prove the existence of God. She couldn’t conceive of any possible way to break the logjam of her agnosticism. God the problem was insoluble, unless the answer came from God Himself. Later in life, Simone Weil reflected on her experiences with the living God: “In all my arguments about the insolubility of the problem of God, I had never foreseen the possibility of that, of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God.”

Even so, so-called “mystical” experience is no substitute for the cold, hard analytical search for truth. We cannot shirk the difficult work of seeking truth with our whole minds. In short, we need to learn to pay attention.

Ever the pedantic school teacher, she thought young people could start their search for God by paying attention to their school work, geometry of all things. (Weil was something of a Platonist.) The rest of us uninterested in mathematics could start by paying attention to our neighbors, that is, not their flaws but their needs.

But how do we deal with the evils we encounter? Weil argued that only contact with divine purity can deliver us from evil. Otherwise, evil does not get absorbed, but it bounces back to us. Eye for eye and tooth for tooth leaves the world blind and toothless. “If through attention and desire we put a part of our evil onto something perfectly pure, it cannot soil it; it remains pure; it does not return the evil; thus we are delivered from it.”

If we pay attention—really pay attention—to those places where God secretly dwells—the order and beauty of the universe, our neighbor, praying the Lord’s Prayer, or the Holy Eucharist—we most certainly can be delivered from the heavy burden of evil.

Simone Weil states with surprising boldness:

It is the part played by joy in our studies that makes of them a preparation for spiritual life, for desire directed towards God is the only power capable of raising the soul. Or rather, it is God alone who comes down and possesses the soul, but desire alone draws God down. He only comes to those who ask him to come; and He cannot refuse to come to those who implore Him long, often and ardently.

Dionysius the Areopagite, St Gregory of Nyssa, or St Maximus Confessor couldn’t have expressed it better. Of course we must purify our wandering desires. But we must desire Him as any ardent lover would their beloved; otherwise, our search for God is a total charade.

Atrocities smack us in the solar plexus daily. Paris, Orlando, Dallas, back to France in Nice, Baton Rouge … And these are just the evils our media happens to find interesting at the time. I can’t begin to fathom the untold horrors. At very least we can pay attention to the sources of goodness and purity that lie around close at hand and not return evil for evil. If you’re not a card-carrying Christian, Simone would still say, find a source of genuine purity and goodness and pay attention to it. We all need to do our bit to rebuild and repair this shattered world.

Finally, let’s be clear, or as clear as we can be when we speak about impenetrable mysteries. Simone Weil does not offer us a theodicy. In no way does she attempt to justify the ways of God to man, to quote Milton. In this world, we are exposed to grievous evils and afflictions, without any say so on our part. And we must not misunderstand the nature of the good that God offers us. Allegiance to the crucified and risen Jesus offers us a true good quite different than any of the limited, earthly goods we can acquire from wealth, power, or the intellect. “The supernatural greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering but a supernatural use for it.”


I cheerfully confess here that everything I know about Simone Weil or pretend I know about Simone Weil, I learned from Diogenes Allen, my philosophy professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, of blessed memory. Out of sheer principle, everybody should read Dr Allen’s Three Outsiders: Pascal, Kierkegaard, Simone Weil. But you could certainly do worse than read his 2001 article “The Divine Encounter” in Touchstone magazine. May his memory be eternal.

John Stamps is currently Staff Information Developer at BMC Software in Santa Clara, California. He holds a BA in Greek from Abilene Christian University, an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, and did work towards an STM in philosophy of religion at Yale University. He is married to Shelly Houston Stamps and attends St. Stephen Orthodox Church in Campbell, California.

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The Face of God

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The God-Man Who Freely Wills His Passions

In Jesus: Fallen? Fr Emmanuel Hatzidakis challenges the now popular thesis that the eternal Word assumed fallen human nature. We must distinguish, he says, between the blameless passions and the blameworthy passions—Christ only assumed the former. St John of Damascus represents the patristic view which Hatzidakis seeks to defend:

Moreover, we confess that He assumed all the natural and blameless passions of man. This is because He assumed the whole man and everything that is his, except sin—for this last is not natural and it was not implanted in us by the Creator. On the contrary, it grew up in our will from the oversowing of the Devil, freely and not prevailing over us by force. Now, those passions are natural and blameless which are not under our control and have come into man’s life as a result of the condemnation occasioned by his fall. Such, for example, were hunger, thirst, fatigue, pain, the tears, the destruction, the shrinking from death, the fear, the agony from which came the sweating and drops of blood, the aid brought by the angels in deference to the weakness of His nature, and any other such things as are naturally inherent in all men. (De fid. orth. III.20)

Though Jesus certainly did not personally experience concupiscence and the disordered desires of sinful humanity, he did experience human life in its fallen state, with its limitations, physical needs, temptations, and vulnerabilities, all the while remaining faithful and obedient to his Father. Would a Thomas F. Torrance, for example, ask more?  Torrance pushes the rhetoric of God’s kenotic embrace of human sinfulness, but he is no less insistent upon the triumphant sinlessness of the Lamb of God.  Christ became what we are, he says, yet differently. At no point does he intimate that our Lord suffered from the interior darkness of mind or bondage of the will that characterizes inherited sinfulness.

But the assertion of Christ’s assumption of the blameless passions does not, in itself, fulfill the christological vision of the Church Fathers. We must also stipulate, insists Hatzidakis, that Christ assumed the blameless passions freely and voluntarily, with both his divine and human wills. The critical point is the freedom of the God-Man who comprehends within himself both divine nature and human nature, both divine energy and human energy, both a divine will and a human will. While both parties in the fallen/unfallen debate affirm that our Lord freely submitted himself to the agony of crucifixion—“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father” (Jn 10:17-18)—yet one finds little discussion of our Lord’s free submission to the other innocent passions that characterize human life. Did Jesus choose to be hungry and thirsty and tired, or were these conditions imposed upon him as one of the necessities of life, just as they are imposed upon the rest of us? As Hatzidakis asks: “If the body of Christ was subject to corruption and death, was it because He had inherited our fallen human nature, or was it because He allowed the ‘blameless passions’ to act on his pure and deified flesh through conscious, voluntary acts of His free human will, in total submission to His divine will?” (p. 176). 

I admit it—this way of formulating the question is new to me. I have not spent much time studying the christology of the post-Chalcedonian Fathers. I have always affirmed the dyothetlite position of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, and with many of my fellow dyothelites, I have wrestled with the christological implications of Jesus’ Gethsemene plea—“Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Lk 22:42). But it never occurred to me that the dyothelite position might have implications for the submission of the incarnate Son to his natural desires and needs. If I had been asked about it, I’m sure that I would have pointed to the divine Word’s gratuitous pre-temporal decision to enflesh himself in our humanity In his eternity God determines to become Man, freely accepting the consequences of that act; in his eternity God determines to be conceived in the womb of a first-century Jewish maiden and to live within history; in his eternity God determines to subject himself to hunger, fatigue, fear, and death. All well and good. But Hatzidakis reminds us that the Church Fathers also insisted that the consent of Jesus in his human will was necessary to his work of redemption; otherwise he would have been as much a victim of fallen existence as the rest of us and therefore just as much in need of a savior as those he had come to save. You and I do not freely choose to experience or not experience the inescapable necessities of life. We are subject to them whether we will or not. Without the free participation of the human will of Jesus in the Father’s plan of salvation, the humanity of Jesus appears to be reduced to a passive instrument of the divine will—we might call it a practical monophysistism. “Postlapsarianism,” Hatzidakis complains, “does not leave any room for the human will of Christ to operate freely” (p. 197). Without the freedom, at every point of his life, to embrace the blameless passions, Jesus as man is trapped as man. If only the eternal decision of the divine Son matters, then how is the Nazarene not an automaton or slave? “The Lord did not enter the fallen world as a victim,” proclaims Hatzidakis, “but as conqueror and victor. There was no inevitability in His life, as there is in ours” (p. 197).  The incarnate Son freely subjects himself to the fallen necessities that cannot in fact be necessities for the One through whom the world is made.

Consider this passage from the Synodal Letter of St Sophronius, composed in 634 after his election as Patriarch of Jerusalem and subsequently approved by the Sixth Ecumenical Council:

Thus in this way he exhibited the humble and human things voluntarily and at the same time naturally, remaining God in the midst of them nonetheless. For he was his own steward of human passions and acts, and not merely steward but also governor of them, although according to nature he became incarnate with respect to a passible nature, and on account of this his human elements went beyond the human, not because his nature was not human, but because he became a human being voluntarily. And having become a human being, he submitted to these [human elements] voluntarily and not through tyranny or necessity, as sometimes happens to us even against our will, but at the precise time and to the extent that he wishes, and he himself consented to yield both to those things which brought the sufferings and to the sufferings themselves, which were effected in accordance with nature. (2.3.14)

Hatzidakis speaks as if this specific passage enjoys infallible authority, which is no doubt going too far; but it is part of a document that received the approbation of an Ecumenical Council. It faithfully represents the commitment of the post-Chalcedonian patristic Church to the absolute freedom and authority of the Savior. Compare it to the following citation from the Damascene, written eighty to ninety years after the death of Sophronius:

Actually, our natural passions were in Christ according to nature and over and above nature. Thus, it was according to nature that they were aroused in Him, when He permitted the flesh to suffer what was proper to it; whereas it was over and above nature, because in the Lord the things of nature did not control the will. For with Him nothing is found to be done under compulsion; on the contrary, everything was done freely. Thus, it was by willing that He hungered and by willing that He thirsted, by willing that He was afraid and by willing that He died. (De fid. orth. III.20; my emphasis)

I find myself wondering: How did the infant Jesus freely will his hunger and thirst?


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“But to know that God was good, and fair, and kind … there would be nothing left to be miserable about”

‘Do you think, Mr. Ericson,’ he said, at length, taking up the old question still floating unanswered in his mind, ‘do you think if a devil was to repent God would forgive him?’

Ericson turned and looked at him. Their eyes met. The youth wondered at the boy. He had recognized in him a younger brother, one who had begun to ask questions, calling them out into the deaf and dumb abyss of the universe.

‘If God was as good as I would like him to be, the devils themselves would repent,’ he said, turning away.

Then he turned again, and looking down upon Robert like a sorrowful eagle from a crag over its harried nest, said,

‘If I only knew that God was as good as—that woman, I should die content.’

Robert heard words of blasphemy from the mouth of an angel, but his respect for Ericson compelled a reply.

‘What woman, Mr. Ericson?’ he asked.

‘I mean Miss Letty, of course.’

‘But surely ye dinna think God’s nae as guid as she is? Surely he’s as good as he can be. He is good, ye ken.’

‘Oh, yes. They say so. And then they tell you something about him that isn’t good, and go on calling him good all the same. But calling anybody good doesn’t make him good, you know.’

‘Then ye dinna believe ‘at God is good, Mr. Ericson?’ said Robert, choking with a strange mingling of horror and hope.

‘I didn’t say that, my boy. But to know that God was good, and fair, and kind—heartily, I mean, not half-ways, and with ifs and buts—my boy, there would be nothing left to be miserable about.’

 Robert Falconer

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The Prelapsarian Christ

When the Word became flesh, he assumed, not human nature as originally constituted in Edenic innocence, but human nature as marked by sin and the curse of death—thus declare many modern theologians. The controlling images, at least for Kallistos Ware, John Meyendorff, and T. F. Torrance, are the divine solidarity with sinners and the regeneration of human nature. In Jesus Christ God takes humanity to himself and within himself purifies and renews that humanity. Preachers and theologians have not always spoken this way, however. More typically they have insisted that in the womb of the Virgin Mary the eternal Word united himself to prelapsarian human nature, i.e., human nature untainted by sin and free from Satanic oppression. Only in this way could he be the sinless Savior that the world so desperately needs. “There was in the Savior,” writes St Leo the Great, “no trace of the things that the Deceiver brought upon us, and to which deceived humanity gave admittance” (Ep. 28.3).

We have noted in this series the ambiguity of the phrases “unfallen human nature” and “fallen human nature.” It is not always clear what is intended. Are we talking about human nature as a set of essential properties? a mode of historical existence? or something else? Those who debate this issue often do not clearly define their terms. Attentive readers may be forgiven for suspecting “that there is actually less disagreement than is often granted,” as Kelly Kapic remarks (“The Son’s Assumption of a Human Nature,” p. 155). Theologians on both sides of the debate agree that Jesus lived his life in perfect obedience to his Father; they agree that he did not suffer from concupiscence nor experience any form of interior bondage; they agree that in his life, death, and resurrection he accomplished the salvation and deification of humanity. Yet the debate continues, often with intense ferocity. Nothing less than the gospel and the integrity of the catholic faith is at stake, so we are told.

The christological literature of the past fifty years has been dominated by the fallen nature construal of the Incarnation. Greek Orthodox priest, Fr Emmanuel Hatzidakis, has recently sought to redress the scales. Weighing in at 651 pages, his Jesus: Fallen? is a massive work, and I tip my beretta to Fr Emmanuel for the investment of time and energy that he must have spent in study and writing. But I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I believe that it is a title that every Orthodox pastor and catechist will want to own. There’s some great material here, material one cannot easily find elsewhere. The patristic citations are copious and the scholarly references extensive. The author addresses a multitude of topics, from christology and atonement to the gnomic will and irreproachable passions to the immaculate conception of the Theotokos. One does not need to agree with Hatzidakis’s arguments in order to find the book useful. But I also find it exasperating. The tone is needlessly combative (how many times do we need to hear “This is the faith of the Orthodox!” “This is the faith of the Church!”), the argumentation repetitive, and the theological analysis often superficial. The Fathers are reduced to one homogenized voice, and there is little attempt to listen to the soteriological concerns that drive folks like Meyendorff and Torrance. There is only the hurling of anathemas. Yet despite these defects, I believe that Hatzidakis presents us with a cogent patristic case for the prelapsarian position. His views need to be heard and critically assessed.

Did the eternal Son assume a fallen or a pre-fallen human nature? This is the wrong question, Hatzidakis avers. Both positions contain elements of truth and falsehood. The correct question should be stated as follows: “Were certain consequences of the fallen human nature that Christ exhibited, i.e. the so-called ‘blameless passions,’ acting inherently and by necessity upon Him, or were they allowed in total freedom and without compulsion to act upon Him through the action of both His wills?” (p. 26).

Western readers unacquainted with the Eastern ascetical tradition will stumble at the mention of “blameless passions.” It’s not part of our vocabulary.  “The blameless passions,” Hatzidakis explains, “are characteristics of our humanity in its fallen state” (p. 156). They include hunger, thirst, fatigue, fear, emotional weakness, intellectual confusion, aging, corruption, suffering, mortality. These passions are judged to be blameless, as they are inherited rather than freely chosen. We do not choose to be thirsty or to grow old or to die. This is just the kind of beings that we now are:

Pre-fallen Adam hungered not, thirsted not, fatigued not, pained not, feared not, agonized not, experienced no weaknesses and was not necessarily subject to death. These passions that arose after the fall are not in themselves sinful, but can lead to sin if not controlled by an illumined mind and a strengthened will. (p. 156)

They are called the “blameless” or “innocent” passions and are carried by all human beings as limitations of our humanness resulting from the fall. We are not to be “blamed” or reproached on account of their presence in us, because they became part and parcel of the fallen human nature, which became deprived of God’s uncreated grace, that had kept them in an elevated state. (p. 61)

The blameless passions, therefore, characterize fallen existence and make us vulnerable to vice and disobedience; but they do not constitute human nature per se. As Hatzidakis notes, “they do not belong to genuine, healthy humanity as it was created by God” (p. 157). Prelapsarian humanity did not suffer from them; eschatological humanity will not suffer from them. They pertain only to the present aeon.

Fallen human beings are also subject to the blameworthy (sinful) passions (think disordered desires and the seven deadly sins); but whereas the blameless passions are innocent givens, the blameworthy passions are freely cultivated, at least initially. They are a product of the will. Hunger, tiredness, fear of death—these are inevitable features of our fallen existence. We cannot choose not to hunger or not to get sleepy; however, we can, and tragically do, choose to indulge our appetites and thus develop destructive habits. Blameworthy passions are activated by the will. We are thus responsible for their power over our lives. It is unclear to me whether Hatzidakis considers them to be grounded in inherited sinful dispositions or natural desires that become disordered through a person’s historical choices. Perhaps one of our readers can clarify this point for me.

Hatzidakis then asserts the following: fallen nature = blameless passions + sinful passions. This definition will, I suspect, generate discussion. Would either Ware or Meyendorff agree with it? Probably not, given that both claim that Jesus assumed fallen nature, without implication that he shared in our disordered desires. Torrance would probably also disagree, given his totalitizing construal of original sin. But the definition may nonetheless prove helpful, as it compels both sides in the fallen/unfallen debate to clarify exactly what they mean when they assert the eternal Son’s assumption of human nature.

(Go to “The God-Man Who Freely Wills his Passions”)

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Parousia as Fulfillment of Pentecost

Just as we may speak of the eternal Son emptying himself of his glory in the Incarnation, hiding himself, as it were, in the flesh of the man Jesus, so we may speak of an analogous movement of the Holy Spirit—the Spirit coming upon all flesh in Pentecostal outpouring yet limiting himself to a covert mode of indwelling, apprehended through faith and noetic enlightenment. Sergius Bulgakov describes the similarities and differences in their respective kenoses:

The kenosis of the Son after His descent from heaven presupposes the removal of the Glory, not, certainly, in “heaven,” in the “immanent” Trinity, but in the world. It presupposes that He will appear in the world in the humble form of a man … In the kenosis of the Son according to Divine-humanity, the dyad without separation and without confusion of the Son and the Holy Spirit, underwent a kind of inner, mutual kenosis consisting of a certain separation, as it were. The Son’s glory was removed in His kenosis, and the Holy Spirit separated itself from the Son in its own kenosis. The Holy Spirit thus limited the fullness of its gifts and reduced the degree of its repose upon Christ, so to speak. … The kenosis of the Holy Spirit also began with its descent from heaven (although, according to its hypostatic character, the Holy Spirit does not leave heaven but unites heaven and earth). In itself, this descent of the Holy Spirit is a kenotic act as such, for its action in the world remains limited by the measure of creaturely reception: the world cannot experience the full force of the Holy Spirit’s action without melting and burning up. In the kenosis of descent into the world, this force limits itself and is diminished, as it were: the synergism of grace with creaturely freedom leads to such a self-limitation.

By contrast, the parousia, the coming of the Lord in glory, brings into the world, first of all, the cessation of this kenosis of glory, that is, of the Holy Spirit, which began at the Pentecost. “The Spirit of glory and of God” (1 Pet. 4:14), which already abides in the world, becomes explicit in the appearance of Christ’s glory (v. 13). The glory that accompanies the parousia not only belongs to Christ but is also communicated through Him to the world in which the Holy Spirit already abides kenotically. … In this sense, Christ’s Second Coming is also the parousia of the Holy Spirit, which only begins with the Pentecost and is concretely accomplished together with Christ’s parousia. (The Bride of the Lamb, pp. 397-398)

This passage sent me scrambling to Aidan Nichol’s primer on Bulgakov, Wisdom from Above. It almost sounds as if Bulgakov is a espousing a full-blown 19th century kenoticism, with the Son abandoning his divine prerogatives and properties. Nichols reassures us, however, that Bulgakov is not reproducing the errors of the Lutheran kenoticists. The Russian sophiologist affirms the immutability of the divine nature. The Son does not cease to be God when he enters into history and becomes Man. Yet Bulgakov equally affirms that in the Incarnation the Son strips himself of his glory and genuinely immerses himself in the conditions of humiliation, suffering, and death. Hence within the economy of salvation we may properly speak of a real descent, when the Eternal Son assumes human nature as the man Jesus, and a real ascent, when Jesus in his resurrected body metaphysically departs from the world into heaven, thus rendering himself inaccessible to normal physical contact and communication.

As the incarnate Son veils his divinity with the cloak of a mortal body, so the eternal Spirit hides himself within the Church. Bulgakov speaks of the Spirit flaring out brilliantly in fiery tongues at Pentecost, only to disappear “as if extinguished, and the Spirit’s tumultuous breath became silent, as if dissipated in the air” (p. 399). His kenosis consists in a limitation of gifts and attenuation of energy. The Spirit accommodates himself to creaturely finitude, thus providing space for a free human response to the Church’s proclamation of the gospel. In the absence of this kenotic restraint, Pentecost would have been the final conflagration.

The apocalyptic return of the eternal Son in his deified humanity represents not only the conclusion of his personal kenosis but also the conclusion of the Spirit’s kenosis. “Christ again appears in the world, but this time in glory,” declares Bulgakov. “That is, not only does He Himself once again become visible and accessible to the world, but the glory itself becomes visible, the glory of the Pentecost, the Holy Spirit. The parousia signifies the power not only of the Incarnation but also of the Pentecost, of Christ in glory and glory in Christ, the appearance in Him, with Him, and through Him of the Holy Spirit” (p. 399).

Yet where we speak of the second coming of the Ascended Son into the world (or more accurately, into the new world), we do not properly speak of a second coming of the Spirit: the Spirit has already been poured out upon creation and has never departed from it. Bulgakov prefers to speak of parousia as a tryst—the glorified Son descending to meet the Spirit in the world. Yet with this qualification he also speaks of a new sending of the Spirit by the Father, for when the risen Christ comes again in glory he necessarily brings with him the glory of the Spirit who rests upon him. The parousia is thus the revelation of the Spirit as glory. Pentecost is fulfilled, and the power of the Spirit is unleashed for the glorification of all creation. The following paragraph beautifully summarizes Bulgakov’s understanding of the parousia:

The Incarnation is accomplished in the Church and through the Church, the body of Christ in the world and the temple of the Holy Spirit. However, prior to the parousia this sanctification and deification remain incomplete and preliminary, for the action of the Holy Spirit is as yet kenotically limited. But this kenosis of the Holy Spirit ends with the parousia; the whole power of the Pentecost is revealed to the world. The world is sanctified, deified, and glorified by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the parousia arrives by virtue of this action of the Pentecost. It is impossible to say what comes before and what comes after, for this is a single act that occurs both in heaven and on earth, signifying the end of God’s kenosis and the beginning of the world’s deification. The Father sends the Son into the world and, secondarily as it were, He sends with Him the Holy Spirit for the joint accomplishment of the parousia and the transfiguration of the world. The Son wills again to carry out the will of the Father, this time by a conclusive and universal act, in order to accomplish the salvation of the world and to “unite the things of earth with those of heaven,” as the liturgical hymn says. Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit accompanies the descent of the Son from heaven, surrounding Him with glory, which is the same both in heaven and on earth and which existed before the foundation of the world and is now proper to Him. The world is now ready to receive this glory, for it has already received and has Christ and the Holy Spirit who reposes upon Him. (p. 404)

In the parousia of the Kingdom, the hypostases of the Holy Trinity will be manifested in the fullness of their uncreated Beauty, Truth, and Power: the Father sends the Son; the Son descends in incandescent glory; the Son meets the Spirit in the world for the making of the new creation.

[Originally published on 8 July 2014; mildly edited]

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