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)

* * *

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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3 Responses to Divine Mercy as ‘Immanent Transcendence’ According to Nicaean Metaphysics

  1. In a sense, mercy becomes a placeholder for “goodness.” God’s goodness brings the transcendent into the immanent and then realizes itself in its return. The event of the Incarnation demonstrates that point. Origen has this really cool passage in his commentary on John, book 1: 253-254 where he talks about how there are some(Gnostics) who draw a division between the just and the good(as you’ll see, I think that is a substitution). We see this conversation play out later in the distinctions between justice and mercy. God’s goodness is only ever in proportion to his mercy. Justice is always wrapped up in the overarching order of what is established, it feels transcendent. Mercy is always wrapped up in what is here now, it always feels immanent. Both are a good thing. And so it’s interesting to go even further back to someone like Origen and see that same dichotomy play out and give birth to a more fleshed out (pun intended) appeal from someone like Nyssen.

    He says in the above mentioned text that Christ becomes the justice of God….that He manifests for himself the renewal of all things, even as far as saying that we must be “disciplined by the justice of the Son….and perhaps the Savior, by his own justice, is preparing all things in their appropriate times by reason, and discipline, and punishments, and if I may put it in this way, by his resources for spiritual healing, that they may receive the Father’s goodness at the end.” Mercy is, as both above say, the full act of kenosis in every encounter of every moment. And that is the definition of the good. Overcoming the limit of gulf between us, and yet also realizing that the gap is never really fully there The God-man event becomes both the most truly transcendent, and yet truly immanent act. It is the double glory (Millbank is good on this in his response to Zizek)….and paradox of all mystery becoming fully immanent.

    I enjoy these dives into Nyssen so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tom says:

    Thank you Robert. As always, thoughtful and enlightening.

    I’m wondering whether ‘grace’ would be better than ‘mercy’ to get at what you’re going for. I may misunderstand each, but my sense is that while ‘grace’ represents God’s abiding, unchanging offer of himself (as source and ground of being), ‘mercy’ represents God’s compassionate approach to us in our sinfulness and fallenness. Where mercy grasps humanity (and I may be mistaken here) under the terms of its sin, grace (wider and more abiding), comprehends us in our createdness and finitude as such. Not that I’ve ever been free from actually needing his mercy because of my sin and despair – as you know – but I hope to be so one day; though I can’t imagine ever being anything but grounded in his grace.

    Just a thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      This was a presentation at a conference that was specifically tasked to focus on God’s mercy, but I think you are right – grace and mercy are really close, if not completely interchangeable. This could just be my own limitation but it seems that there’s a tendency to think of grace as some sort of force, an impersonal ray of light, or some sort of power. It seems especially a temptation for Orthodox to think of grace as impersonal in the context the essence/energy distinction (the essence of God can’t be experienced, but we can experience the divine energies – beam me up Scotty!). Perhaps this impersonal aspect is a latent juridical approach to salvation? In contrast to this, mercy is personal – a person extends this from the goodness of their character. But I don’t want to take this too far and hard. It is just a reflection, food for thought….


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