God Creates the World from the Cross

“Since he who saves already existed, it was necessary that he who would be saved should come into existence, that the One who saves should not exist in vain.”1

This quotation from the great second-century bishop and theologian St Irenaeus of Lyons immediately jumped out at me as I was reading the meaty third chapter of Fr John Behr’s The Mystery of Christ. I had to read it multiple times just to make sure I had understood it rightly. Even after checking other translations of the Against Heresies, I’m still not sure if I do. First I turned to the translation of Robert Grant:

Since he who would save pre-existed, what would be saved had to come into existence, so that the saving one would not be in vain.

The punch of the sentence has been muted. “He who saves” (present tense) has become “he who would save” (future tense). Grant’s rendering almost makes Irenaeus sound like a scholastic theologian who has clearly distinguished in his mind the formal distinction between the immanent and economic Trinities—and that can’t be right. Irenaeus is just too early. Then I checked with two patristic scholars. They both preferred Behr’s translation over Grant’s. I found further confirmation in John Saward’s translation:

Since the Savior existed already, the one to be saved had to be brought into existence, so that the Savior should not be in vain.

The old Ante-Nicene Fathers translation renders the verse as follows:

For inasmuch as He had a pre-existence as a saving Being, it was necessary that what might be saved should also be called into existence, in order that the Being who saves should not exist in vain.

For the curious, here’s the Latin text:

Cum enim praeexisteret salvans, opportebat et quod salvaretur fieri, uti non vacuum sit salvans.

As you have already guessed, the punch of the sentence comes in the main clause: “it was necessary that he who would be saved should come into existence, that the One who saves should not exist in vain.” Irenaeus seems to be saying that God created the world in order to save it, as if evil and sin were somehow intrinsic to the world. Needless to say, that would be a contentious thing for any catholic bishop to say. It would contradict two critical orthodox convictions:

  • God freely chose to create the universe.
  • God is not the author of evil.

My first inclination is to jump in and immediately clarify what Irenaeus surely must have meant. Matthew Steenberg (now Bishop Irenei) offers precisely such a clarification in his book Irenaeus on Creation. Commenting on the sentence in question, he writes:

This is perhaps among the more controversial of Irenaeus’ statements on God’s nature, as it is susceptible to charges of necessitarianism in the divine essence and represents a manifestation of circular logic at which most first-year students of philosophy would balk. Such criticisms ought seriously to be addressed. But Irenaeus’ primary point is not that God was restrained by his nature to create the cosmos and humanity (for he points out elsewhere that God as God can, ultimately, do or not do whatever he likes), but that God’s good nature leads naturally to the creation of a universe in which such goodness can be fully expressed. Irenaeus employs the language of necessity to describe that which he believes is so fundamental to God’s free nature that it could not express itself in any other manner than that described—and, paramountly, that which the nature of the incarnate Christ discloses as the necessary background to his own recapitulative work.2

Sounds right, proper, and orthodox to me; but it does reduce the impact of Irenaeus’ statement, as if the saint were simply guilty of a poor choice of words. “Nothing to see here, move along.” So before retreating into clarification, let’s ask whether something else might be going on here with Irenaeus. Behr thinks there is:

In Adam, the Word sketched out in advance what would be revealed and established in the Son of God, Christ himself. The description of Adam as a ‘type’ implies the prior existence of the one of whom he is a type. As such, the one who was to come exists before Adam; it was by him and for him that Adam came into existence, and, furthermore, as he exists as the Saviour, Adam came into existence to be saved by him. Thus, though only appearing at the end, this one is, nevertheless, the true beginning.

This is a remarkable statement and for our modern theological sensibilities perhaps rather jarring. Yet it is entirely consequential and coherent, and a position held right through to the end of the Byzantine era. It highlights the fact, as we have been emphasizing, that Irenaeus theologizes strictly from within the economy, from what can in fact be known and spoken about, with the right hermeneutic, of God’s activity and revelation in Christ. He resists any attempt to seek a higher perspective to speak about God prior to and independent from creation, a standpoint that would have to be supra-human and, indeed, above God himself; to attempt to speak from such a perspective would, for Irenaeus, be not only presumptuous but also groundless. Yet, since the starting point for Christian theology is the work of God in Christ, understood through the opening of the Scriptures, the Christ who is now known to be the one to whom God said ‘Let us make the human being’ is already known to be the Saviour, to ‘pre-exist’ as Saviour, and so Adam’s relation to his maker is always already that of being saved by the Saviour. We are here far removed from the debate between Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus about whether the Word would have become incarnate had Adam not fallen, a debate that has all too frequently set the parameters for interpreting Irenaeus. We are also far removed from any attempt to think of creation and salvation as being respectively, in rather crude terms, ‘Plan A’, followed by the ‘Fall’, which is then rectified by ‘Plan B’. Starting with Christ, Irenaeus would rather see creation and salvation, with carefully defined nuances considered below, as being not two moments within one economy, but rather as coextensive, as the one economy: God’s continuously creative work throughout the economy, resulting in the end in the one who is in the image and likeness of God, is salvation. And, as such, Irenaeus can even say that it was necessary for Adam to come into existence, not implying any lack or need in God himself, but simply as a consequence of the fact that the starting point for all theology is Jesus Christ, the Saviour.3

Irenaeus reflects upon Jesus Christ from within the economia of salvation. He does not come to Scripture as a detached academic but as a believer in Christ who lives within the world of eucharist and gospel. Of course, all orthodox theologians do so, in one way or another; but few have ever concluded that because Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world, therefore God had to bring humanity into existence; otherwise there would be no need for a Savior. Because Jesus, therefore Adam. Redemption intrinsically belongs to divine creation. The logic turns our heads upside down—but before we dismiss it, let’s recall a couple of verses from Scripture:

And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. (Rev 13:8)

Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins: Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. (Col 1:13-17)

“Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (Jn 8:58)

How is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world when the crucifixion took place in A.D. 33? How can St Paul say that the world is created through and by the man Jesus? What does the Son of God mean when he declares that he existed before his birth, before Abraham . . . before Adam?

“The mystery of the Cross,” writes Fr Georges Florovsky, “begins in eternity, ‘in the sanctuary of the Holy Trinity, unapproachable for creatures.'”

When Irenaeus reads Genesis 2, he sees first not Adam but the Nazarene, in whose image Adam was made. It’s as if time itself begins with the Crucified and flows and backwards and forwards from him. The eternal Father speaks the world into being from the cross. Those who are acquainted with the eschatological theology of Robert W. Jenson will not be shocked. Throughout his distin­guished career, Jenson insisted that the Trinity must be interpreted through the Logos ensarkos: “Our divine savior is not an extra metaphysical entity, whether the unincar­nate Logos of the Antiochenes or ‘the Christ’ of the more feeble sorts of modern theology. He is Mary’s child, the hanged man of Golgotha.”4 Behr would agree and astonishingly suggests that the creation of the universe is properly dated on the day of our Lord’s crucifixion!

We can only speak of creation as having been brought into being by and for its savior Jesus Christ, and its whole history as having been providentially by him, from the moment that he is revealed within its history, as the Passion. Theologically speaking, creation and its history begins with the Passion of Christ and from this “once for all” work looks backwards and forwards to see everything in this light, making everything new. Christian cosmology, elaborated as it must be from the perspective of the Cross, sees the Cross as impregnated in the very structure of creation: stat crux dum volvitur orbis—the Cross stands, while the earth revolves. The power of God revealed in and through the Cross brought creation into being and sustains it in existence . . . Just as the date of the Passion in antiquity was considered to be 25 March (which . . . was the basis for calculating the date of his nativity, nine months later), so also in antiquity 25 March was considered to be the very date of creation, the Creation which revolves around the axis of the eternal, immovable Cross. As paradoxical as it might sound, one can say, theologically, that creation and salvation were effected simultaneously on that day, 25 March, A.D 33, when Christ gave himself for the life of the world.5

“Since he who saves already existed, it was necessary that he who would be saved should come into existence, that the One who saves should not exist in vain”—has any catholic theologian said anything more metaphysically revolutionary than this?

(9 April 2017; rev.)

Footnotes

[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.22.3.

[2] Matthew Steenberg, Irenaeus on Creation (2008), p. 32.

[3] John Behr, Irenaeus of Lyons (2015), pp. 146-147.

[4] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology (2001), I:145; also see his journal article “Once More the Logos Asarkos“; cf. Douglas Farrow, “St. Irenaeus of Lyons.”

[5] Behr, The Mystery of Christ (2006), pp. 90-91.

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15 Responses to God Creates the World from the Cross

  1. I do have a somewhat spurious question and before I ask, I do understand the typical track of not applying negatives to God, like evil for instance, so we’re all on the same page there from an understanding point of view with the classical view.

    But what does the Hebrew or Septuagint literally say with regards to Isaiah 45:7? I’ve seen 1000 different versions of it, but nothing definitively secure or merely is dancing around the “evil” part. Any thoughts on how we parse out that distinction even if it is metaphorical since the voice is that of God himself in the passage?

    Kind of makes me think of this same idea from the Upanishads:

    “He desired, “May I be Many”. He concentrated in Tapas(conscious force acting upon itself), by Tapas he created the world; creating, he entered into it; entering, he became the existent and the beyond-existence, he became the expressed and the unexpressed, he became knowledge and ignorance, he became the truth and the falsehood: he became the truth, even all this whatsoever that is. “That Truth” they call him.”

    – Taittiriya Upanishad 3

    I also think of the fragment from Heraclitus:

    “To God everything is beautiful, good, and just; humans, however, think some things are unjust and others just.”

    So in a sense, Creation must follow this path of overcoming the ignorance of a fractured world that would already have been assumed within the very notion of us as created beings within the idea of humanity as such in the mind of the Logos who gives us the power to create. So in a sense, Irenaeus posits the tension of overcoming the “Fall” as this type in itself, not merely just “Adam”. In a sense, there is this mirrored descent that occurs that allows for the Lamb to be ever what he was precisely because as God descends to save us, man, in a way descending in kind but not in the proper way. So, as we’ve talked about before, people like Origen and Maximus just follow the traditional idea shared with Irenaeus here that the salvific act is truly the creative act par excellence because it overcomes all distinctions in the identity it posits forwards and backwards as Behr I think also rightly points to. Its finality of meaning that in the Cross the act of creation truly…well…is. All becomes fully ontological. All becomes One. It has no real existence until its meaning is clear.

    Maybe our notions of distinctions (aka contraries) are more about matters of perspective than lack or privation. Our fractured views of ego that try to define the limits than realize that the acts around us are so multi-faceted that the sheen of ourselves glistens sometimes so strongly we miss the actuality that lies at our feet. There is one view and in the crucifixion, all now see it clearly.

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    • Joe says:

      “…there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions.

      I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.” ~ André Breton

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    • Iainlovejoy says:

      In Isaiah 45 7 the word is “rah”, which means “badness” “unpleasantness” “calamity” etc rather than moral evil, and is being paralleled with “shalom” which means “peace and prosperity”. The verse is saying that God brings both the good times and the bad times, rather than that God created evil as a metaphysical concept.

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    • Matthew Porter-Valbracht says:

      Because you know on this website somebody has to quote George MacDonald eventually: “What we call evil, is the only and best shape, which, for the person and his condition at the time, could be assumed by the best good” (From Phantastes)

      Liked by 1 person

      • I love Phantastes, and I LOVE THE END OF PHANTASTES! Those lines are some of the best ever written.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        How do you interpret your MacDonald quote? I don’t know what it means.

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        • Matthew Porter-Valbracht says:

          I believe the essential idea is that since God is love by nature, and all things have their ultimate source in Him, everything we experience will ultimately aim towards our own greater good, however little we enjoy it at the time. Relating it to the original question, when God says, “I create evil”, he cannot be referring to the theological definition of evil as what is contrary to the will of God, an obvious absurdity, but rather contrary to the will of the one experiencing it as evil. But knowing the nature of God, we can be certain that even though we may experience it as evil, the ultimate aim is for our good. We can see this clearly in the Old Testament when God says he will afflict Israel with all these calamities, until they turn back to him. The turning back is the best good intended, since if he had given them prosperity they would only turn farther away from him and their prosperity would become a curse. This is George MacDonald’s idea of the outer darkness, I think, for even though it is indeed the greatest evil possible it is still the best good if he is correct in his belief that it will ultimately lead everyone who experiences it to turn back to God.

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  2. Milton Finch says:

    Think along the lines of what was said to Paul, by the Christ, upon his conversion. “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting!”

    We are He.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. njada2 says:

    Well this became so much more beautiful through the second half than what I was originally commenting on. I hear hints of this kind of thing but I love to hear it said so straight.

    But what I was thinking of was, while the debate goes on about whether it be possible for a creature to eternally damn itself, it becomes easily lost on us how mysterious it is that God created a world in which it is possible for a creature to /sin/ – period – to do not according to the Creator’s will. But that’s the part none of us ever deny, simply because it’s so manifest in front of us: God created a world in which it is possible for creatures to sin. But that reality is redeemable, and a trial for our faith, and an opportunity to love superabundantly like Him; but even the possibility of eternal suffering could never be redeemed, never justified no matter how few are damned or however many times more people enjoy eternal bliss. But in the world created by such a God that His creatures were always free such that they might sin, there was even before that always One who could and would redeem and save every errant creature who might and would sin. Does that match with what’s being said here, or am I off, or is Irenaeus going even further with that?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Robert F says:

    Is it possible that God created the world at A.D. 33? Did creation happen at the “beginning”? Sometime over the last year I read, in an online article speculating about the nature of time, a statement made by a physicist that though time (as we understand and experience it?) is real, it may not be basic to existence. If that is so, is it possible that creation could’ve happened at the Crucifixion, which would’ve been the point when/where the Lamb that was slain from the foundation of the world, and then retroactively spread back into past even as it prospectively spread forward into future? I’m no professional theologian or philosopher, so I don’t know how tenable it is, but I have been wondering about this idea for a long time, and would be interested to hear what the far more informed opinions of many of the contributors to this comment section might be in regard to it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s very hard to talk about these kinds of things for a few different reasons. One of them is that we don’t have the words for it. All our verbs are linked to time in a way that makes it really hard to talk clearly about a different way of perceiving/thinking about Time.

      That said … I think so. But try not to get too hung up on past/present/future cause/effect when considering this (something I understand is very hard, since our minds and language are shaped around it). Could there not be a sense in which the creation of Adam, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and even the Final Restoration are the same act?

      But I guess is “Creation could’ve happened …” Is that the way to put it? Or perhaps Creation should be seen as an ever-present act, expressed in the Crucifixion and the Resurrection? Perhaps ultimately expressed there. But not only expressed there.

      It seems to me like the sense very present in some Catholic theology of the Offering of Jesus on the Cross as an Eternal Act, a Forever Now, is relevant here.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Robert F says:

    What a wonderful post. The Cross of Christ as the center, axis, and origin of creation and redemption. It clarifies how “Christ suffered once for all”, and yet, though now ascended and glorified, still suffers with us and all creation as we move toward realization of the eshatological fulfillment that we expectantly wait for. Creation and redemption encompassed in the same person and event. My heart sang as I read this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Robert F says:

    Perhaps not just his Passion, but his entire Incarnation, could be rightly understood as the origin, axis, and center of creation and redemption? It seems to me that Jesus’ entire life was involved in his Passion.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Tom says:

    I’m known for being cantankerous and contrarian, so here goes.

    Good post and great question. I’ve said as much myself. But I no longer see how it can be the case that God creates the world “from the Cross.” True, the world comes into its final end, ‘is finally created’, only after confronting the Void through the imposition of death, etc. Creation has to take the full journey into and through the truth of its own finitude and the nothing from which God calls it to be.

    However, the final coming to be of Creation (as God’s intends), is the creative work of the Resurrection. Christ is the new creation. We wouldn’t have a Cross to speak of, not ‘this’ Cross, without the Resurrection, for only the Resurrected Christ thru the Spirit can tell the Church what his Cross even means. So the Resurrection is the creative act as such. It presupposes the death of the Cross, true. It is after all a ‘resurrection’. But that it can be said that God accomplishes this ‘from the Cross’ and leave it there? I don’t see how.

    More and more I find it impossible in principle to separate the two. The Cross is presupposed in the Resurrection. It seems far more accurate and helpful to say ‘God creates the world by rising from the dead’.

    Come on Brian. Fist pump me good Dr.

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