Reading the Fathers Today

by Father John Behr

Posted in Theology | 2 Comments

Was St. Maximus Merely a Hopeful Universalist?

by Mark Chenoweth

If St Maximus the Confessor read Jordan Daniel Woods’ essay on the differences between Hans Urs von Balthasar’s hopeful universalism and George MacDonald’s fully confident universalism, with which modern theologian would the saint find himself in agreement? I know some would say this hypothetical question is absurd because Maximus was con­vinced of the necessity of an eternal hell, and if you find yourself in this position, I would ask that you please thoughtfully consider the articles and books on Maximus by Andreas Andreopou­los, Ilaria Ramelli, and myself linked to in Fr Aidan’s “readings in universal­ism” page. For the rest of us who already see a definite universalist tendency in Maximus, if he was some type of universalist, surely the type of universalism to which he was closest should have some bearing on today’s conversation regarding the permissibility of the doctrine. Although I am taking what is probably a minority position, I’m going to maintain that Maximus would find Balthasar’s personal view rather exotic and innovative, and actually feel more at home with the fully confident universalism of MacDonald.[1]

I will begin by looking at whether Maximus would have been more familiar with Balthasar’s “tensioned” approach to the damnation and universalist passages in scripture or David Bentley Hart’s “dual eschatological horizon” view, wherein the damnation passages refer to one eschatological horizon while the universalist passages refer to a much further horizon after the long and circuitous period of judgment and purgation has reached its completion. Most of our investigation will consist of looking at some of Maximus’ favorite theologians (Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, but also Origen), and if they did advocate a universalist view, whether it was (anachronisti­cally) “Balthasarian,” or a more confident understanding. Following suggestions from my last post, I will also offer an explanation for how many fathers could have fully confident universalist statements on the one hand, but in other works, still give us horrifying pictures of hell that imply its eternity. Last of all, we’ll turn to a few popular reasons some deny Maximus was a universalist that I didn’t fully address in my last post. I contend that when interpreted with sufficient back­ground knowledge, some non-universalist readings of Maximus are a misunderstanding of his language of divinization, and other readings end up making his theology needlessly incoherent. Reading Maximus as a confident universalist along the lines of Nyssen makes better sense out of his language and allows the theology of this great philosophical mind to exist more seamlessly without internal contradictions. I admit that one of my criterion of a good interpretation of Maximus is one that lets his theology exist with the least amount of internal contradictions, but if anyone is familiar with Maximus’ exhaustingly precise logic, it seems unlikely for a thinker of his caliber to not notice when his theology contains glaring inconsistencies.

“Dual Eschatological Horizons” vs. “Scriptures in Tension”

Damnation: (Matt. 25:45; 2 Thess. 1:6 – 9; Rev. 14:11; 20:10 – 15)
Universal Salvation: (Rom. 5:18; 11:32; 1 Cor. 15:22; Phil. 2:11; Col. 1:20)[2]

For many hopeful universalists like Von Balthasar, these two sets of scriptures should not be harmonized but should sit side-by-side as two different possible eschatological out­comes. For Hart, these two sets of statements mark two different points in the history of the cosmos. The first set marks the final judgment, the second, the restoration and end of judgment. Since Balthasar’s view has been more prominent in Catholic and Orthodox circles for the last couple decades, we will look more at Hart’s “dual eschatological horizons” view, despite most faithful readers of this site being thoroughly familiar with it. In his That All Shall Be Saved, Hart writes:

Each horizon is, of course, absolute within its own sphere: one is the final verdict on the totality of human history, the other the final verdict on the eternal purposes of God—just as the judgment of the cross is a verdict upon the violence and cruelty of human order and human history, and Easter the verdict upon creation as conceived in God’s eternal counsels.[3]

Would Maximus see, for example, Romans 5:18 (“one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men” [RSV]) and Matthew 25:46 (“and they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”) as two contrasting possibilities for the end of history? Or would he read Matthew 25:46 as Hart does, as only describing the immediate outcome of Christ’s return in judgment, where aionios (translated above as “eternal” in the RSV) would mean “aeonal” chastisement, or chastisement pertaining to the future aeon (from which the word aionios is derived), but not eternal chastisement? One of the best ways to begin answering this would be to see how Maximus’ greatest influences interpreted the kolasin aionion (“eternal punishment” vs “age-enduring chastisement”) of Matthew 25:46.

Clues from Maximus’ Predecessors

Hart’s dual eschatological approach does indeed seem to be Gregory of Nyssa’s. For example, in his The Life of Moses, Nyssen speaks explicitly about restoration after those whose sentence in Gehenna has reached its limit and the newly purified and divinely transformed can be admitted into the kingdom of heaven:

Perhaps someone, taking his departure from the fact that after three days of distress in darkness the Egyptians did share in the light, might be led to perceive the final restoration, which is expected to take place later in the kingdom of heaven for those who have suffered condemnation in Gehenna. For that darkness that could be felt, as the history says, has a great affinity both in its name and in its actual meaning to the exterior darkness. Both are dispelled when Moses, as we have perceived before, stretched forth his hand on behalf of those in darkness. In the same way we would perceive the true meaning of the furnace of ashes which according to the text, produced painful boils on the Egyptians. In the figure of what is called the “furnace” we perceive the threatened punishment of fire in Gehenna which touches only those who imitate the Egyptians in their manner of life.[4]

Obviously, Nyssen interpreted Matthew 25:46 as implying that the wicked would depart into the fire of Gehenna in the age to come while the righteous would go into the life of the age to come, while indefinite ages later, those in Gehenna would finally be brought into heaven as well. Notice how matter-of-factly Nyssen says that this restoration is expected to take place. He does not display any anxiousness about expressing this interpretation. He isn’t even speaking for himself, since he says this restoration “is expected to take place,” which pre­sum­ably means that it is expected to take place by Gregory’s fellow orthodox Christians. This would seem to confirm that the non-eternity of hell, and the reality of “dual eschatological horizons” was a fairly prevalent viewpoint in Gregory’s day, just as Chrysostom, Augustine,[5] Jerome,[6] and Basil seem to say (much to some of their chagrins). Although Ilaria Ramelli overstates her case from time to time, her broad argument that for the first 500 years of Christianity, much of the Church in both East and West was universalist is a claim that patristic luminaries like Andrew Louth and Frances Young have mostly endorsed.[7] Citing Fr John Behr’s new translation of Origen’s On First Principles and the work of Ilaria Ramelli, Louth concludes that “the dismissal of universalism as an aberration (however influential) in the Christian dogmatic tradition on Origen’s part is less and less defensi­ble.”[8] The notion of a restoration after judgment, which was first fully articulated by Origen, was not an unusual one in antiquity.

Origen as the “Whetstone”

Most are aware that Origen of Alexandria was the first major craftsman of the doctrine of universal salvation, but it is sometimes forgotten what a great influence he had on many of our most beloved saints. We know that Gregory of Nyssa and his brother Basil were taught Christianity by their grandmother who converted to Christianity after hearing the preach­ing of Gregory the Wonderworker, who had himself converted by hearing Origen preach. Gre­gory of Nyssa refers to Origen favorably twice in his writings. Nazianzen, who was educated with Basil and Nyssen, is reported by ancient church historians to have called Origen “the lover of the good,” and “the pumice stone of us all.” He most likely praises Origen in one particular homily without naming him, and most scholars believe he helped compile Origen’s Philokalia along with Basil.

Because of Origen’s great influence, we shouldn’t be surprised to find universalist state­ments in Nazianzen. We can begin with this text from Nazianzen, which showed up in my last post, but it bears repeating here: “For all these fires belong to the destroying power, unless some prefer even here to understand this fire as showing more love to humankind, in a way wor­thy of the punisher.”[9] Whether Nazianzen himself actually adopts view of punishment, we find out in a different homily, when he says that God’s punishment of death for the first human beings was instituted “so that evil should not be immortal. And so punishment became an act of love for humanity; For I am persuaded that this is the way in which God punishes.[10] Nazianzen repeats this passage verbatim in both his Christmas and Paschal orations, so it is not just a haphazard throw-away statement. If Nazianzen adopts this understanding of punishment, this at least makes it possible that there would be a restoration after judgment. When we look further into his corpus to see how confident he was in such a restoration, there isn’t any indication from his Origenian interpretation of 1 Cor. 15:28 that he had any doubts about the restoration at all:

God will be “all in all” at the time of restoration (apokatastaseos) …God will be “all in all” when we are no longer what we are now, a multiplicity of impulses and emo­tions, with little or nothing of God in us, but are fully like God, with room for God and God alone. Paul himself guarantees us of this. What he predicates of “God” without further specification in this passage, he elsewhere assigns clearly to Christ. I quote, “Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision, nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free; but Christ is “all in all.”[11]

This interpretation of God being “all in all,” when no evil movements exist in the soul and everyone is made holy, is exactly the same as Origen’s and Nyssen’s. Furthermore, what Gregory hints at in one sermon by asking whether God freed all from Hades, or only those who currently believed,[12] he answers in several other places: Christ “loosed all those who groaned under the chains of Tartarus,” he restores “all, and not just some,” to salvation.[13] More­over, he insists that the “eighth day” symbolizes the life to come, which is given due to “our good works in this life and universal restoration [apokatastasis panton] in the next.”[14] We see no agnosticism here regarding what Gregory believed would happen. We are here, only dealing with small samplings of many more universalist texts, all of which can be found in either of Ramelli’s works. When Nazianzen does speak on universalism, he categorically affirms it, and there is little indication he sees it as one possibility alongside eternal damnation. He does, of course, have several texts that speak horrifically of hell, and we will address how to make sense of these opposite streams of thought in the next section.

Other less developed visions of this confidence exist in earlier Fathers other than Origen such as Athanasius. Regarding where Athanasius drew his universalist influence, there is no question that he held Origen’s theology in the highest regard. He wrote a biography of the Origenian St. Anthony, appointed the Origenian Didymus the Blind to be the head of the theological school at Alexandria, and explicitly referred to Origen as “Origen the hardwork­ing,” and the “the most learned and active writer among the ancient.”[15] Finally, he remarked that it was Origen’s arguments for the coeternity of the Son and the Father that won approval at Nicea.[16] Although his application of allegory was far more moderate than Origen’s, he still seems to have sided with Origen that Genesis represented paradise “figuratively,” as the “contemplation of intelligible reality,” and also believed that that being spiritually pure was essential to fully comprehending the meaning of scripture.[17]

St. Athanasius seems to clearly state that all will be saved when in one of his festal letters he writes that Christ’s mercy does not just descend to the perfect, or those in the middle, but

even among those who come third, in sum, in such a way as to redeem all human beings to salvation. To this intent He has prepared many mansions with the Father, so that although the dwelling-place is various in proportion to the advance in moral attainment, yet all of us are within the wall, and all of us enter within the same fence, the adversary being cast out, and all his host expelled thence.[18]

Athanasius is not simply making a statement of God’s intent to save, since his phrase “all human beings” should be linked with “all of us,” which he insists are within the walls, within the same fence, in contrast to the devil, whose army is expelled. This language of “entering” is not uncharacteristic for Athanasius either, since in a different festal letter, he says the same thing: “the totality of the peoples has entered so that every human be saved.”[19] How did sinners enter within heaven’s walls? Athanasius seems to provide us with an answer in another festal letter: Christ “wants the repentance and conversion of the human being rather in its death. In this way, evilness, all of it, will be burnt away from all humans.”[20] This was, of course, Origen’s understanding of the function of the fire of Gehenna. In another passage, he also hints that the fires of Gehenna are meant for painful and agonizing correction rather than eternal torment:

during the reign of Christ [evildoers] will be cast into the fire of the world to come [to pur to aiōnon]. Scripture calls ‘nations’ the iniquitous, because they do not live according to the law, but savagely, like pagans and barbarians. Of these people Scripture requires the exclusion, saying: ‘Go ruin’, and addressing them with a dreadful threat that these may revive, and those may correct themselves.”[21]

It is statements like this that make us take a second look at his plethora of other state­ments which most of us are used to reading as statements of Christ’s only opening up the potential of salvation to all, and nothing more. For example, “the Father works its [the world’s] salvation in the same one [Christ] who created it,”[22] or “Christ became a human being…to set free all beings in himself, to lead the world to the Father and to pacify all beings in himself, in heaven and on earth,”[23] or “flesh was taken up by the logos to liberate all humans and resurrect all of them from the dead, and ransom all of them from sin,” or his often repeated phrase that Christ is the “savior of all.”[24] Although Athana­sius probably didn’t intentionally make these statements with universal salvation in mind, his broader theology of Christ’s deifying all of human nature is a theme that Gregory of Nyssa (and arguably St. Maximus) extended into an explicit (implicit in Maximus’ case) affirmation of universalism.[25] Once again, in none of these statements does Athanasius sound agnostic or only mildly hopeful.

More on “Honorable Silence” in the Church Fathers

Despite all the quotes above, as most of us know, all we have to do is a simple internet search to find quotes from the same fathers mentioned above used to support an eternal hell. Even if, due to Ramelli’s work on the meaning of the Greek word aionios, we change “everlasting” or “eternal,” in these quotations to “age-enduring,” these quotes still seem to at least hint at eternal suffering. Ramelli could then provide some more universalist quotes from Cyril of Alexandria, Irenaeus and Ambrose, and we would simply end up stuck with two sets of warring quotes with no easy way to reconcile them. This is one reason some might argue that there is a “hopeful universalist” precedent in some fathers. Since we do in fact find terrifying hell statements and blatantly universalist statements in the same fathers including Gregory of Nyssa, one could argue that these Fathers saw either outcome as an equally likely possibil­ity, thus making them “hopeful universalists.” However, we have no statement from any author stating that this tensioned approach is actually how they thought about eschatology. We simply have one sermon with one view and another theological writing from the same father with a seemingly totally contradictory view. For some very early authors like Irenaeus, one can indeed find statements perhaps implying an eternal hell, annihilationism, and universal salvation, and it’s quite possible that he generally didn’t have a set view of hell. However, it’s much more difficult to believe that later theologians like Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa also didn’t know what they believed and just haphazardly threw around different contradictory statements on hell. I suggest, expanding on the ideas in Ramelli, and ironically, Balthasar’s historical scholarship on the fathers, that these apparent contradictions can be explained by understanding the eternal hell statements as correspond­ing to Origen’s understanding of the “letter of scripture,” and the universalist statements as corresponding to the “divine” meaning of scripture. Most of us are at least familiar with the fact that Origen believed there was a common literal meaning to scripture and another more elevated allegorical or spiritual meaning to scripture. It seems that for him and his followers, the New Testament’s literal statements on hell were one of the few occasions when sticking to “the letter” of scripture was a good idea when preaching to the masses.

The tendency among all the Church fathers mentioned above seems to be to speak of hell in terrifying terms in their homilies while only making vague references to universal salvation, but to support universalism in more serious theological or philosophical works. Origen began this precedent by speaking openly of universal salvation in his On First Principles and Commentary on John, while his references to it in his homilies tend to be more muted. For example, in his homilies on Luke, when referring to the life to come, he says, “I do not know whether I should expose such mysteries before such a public […] it is dangerous.”[26] He hints at universal salvation again in his Lukan homilies when he says, “‘all flesh will see God’s salvation’ [Luke3:6] […] what does Scripture mean by saying ‘all flesh’? That there is no flesh that is excepted so as not to see God’s salvation. I leave this to be understood by those who grasp the mysteries of Scrip­ture.”[27] In Origen’s homilies, these veiled refer­ences to universal salvation are certainly not the triumphant statements of universalism we find in his far more technical and theological On First Principles.[28]

In another homily on Jeremiah, Origen says that God is portrayed as wrathful in scripture in order to convert those who are like infants, that they might repent, even though in reality, God has no wrath.[29] As Origen reiterates in Contra Celsum (see my previous piece), he believed threats of age-enduring punishments in hell without mentioning any hope of final salvation were helpful to spiritual “newborns” who could only progress in virtue through fear of punishment.

Although Nyssen sometimes speaks of universal salvation in his homilies more openly than any other saint, we still find him giving hellfire homilies that give John Chrysostom and Jonathan Edwards a run for their money.[30] He speaks in terrifying terms of the unquenchable fire and the undying worm (e.g. Mk. 9:48) and even makes it sound like we should interpret these images as implying something like an eternal loss of hope. In his homily on the beatitudes, he says that those who neglected to help the poor will receive no mercy in hell:

You prized want of mercy, so take what you have loved; you looked not with compassion, you will get no merciful looks, you ignored suffering, you will be ignored as you perish; you fled from mercy, mercy will flee from you…what use will [your wealth] be against weeping and grinding of teeth? Who will illuminate the darkness, who quench the flame, who ward off the undying worm? Let us then take note, my brothers, of the voice of the Lord, who has taught us so much about the future in few words, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.[31]

Gregory’s aim is made clear at the end of this passage: He wants to encourage repentance. But in this instance, he, like Origen, and like Jesus himself upon whose words these homilies are based, seems to think it beneficial to only speak of punishment without ever mentioning any hope of redemption (even if Origen, Jesus, and Gregory strongly held to this hope).

However, in what is probably his last work, his Homilies on the Song of Songs, Gregory tells us that many passages in the Old Testament, and the hell passages in the New Testament, should not be interpreted according to their most literal meaning. This helps us understand that in his homilies, he was giving the meaning of the hell passages “according to the letter” for the sake of his audience’s salvation. In his homilies on the Song of Songs, he doesn’t tell us how we should interpret the hell passages, but he does say that their literal meaning is ultimately unworthy of God. He begins his explanation by arguing against some people in the church who insist on interpreting all of scripture according to “the letter”:

It seems right to some church leaders, however, to stand by the letter of the Holy Scriptures in all circumstances, and they do not agree that Scripture says anything for our profit by way of enigmas and below-the-surface meanings. For this reason I judge it necessary first of all to defend my practice against those who thus charge us.[32]

Like Origen, he says that he is following Paul’s use of allegory in scripture (e.g. Gal. 4:22-24). He then goes on to write that many things in the Old Testament, if interpreted literally, make Christianity out to be an embarrassment, a myth, and entirely unhelpful in the spiri­tual life.[33] He gives a handful of examples from Genesis 1-3, and several other Old Testa­ment passages, such as Hosea’s fathering a child through “sexual malfeasance,” and King David’s adultery and murder. But then, he moves to the New Testament and says that Jesus spoke to his disciples through dark sayings and enigmas, but “in private,” he would reveal what his parables meant to those closest to him. Gregory then writes,

This [discerning a meaning worthy of God] applies not only to the words of the Old Covenant but also to the greater part of the Gospel teaching: the winnow­ing fork that clears the threshing floor, the chaff being blown away, the wheat remaining at the feet of the winnower, the unquenchable fire, the good granary, the fertile tree of the wicked, the threat of the axe that terrifyingly exhibits its sharp edge to the tree beforehand, the stones being altered to human nature (Matt. 3:9-12; Luke 3:8-9).[34]

Almost all the things in the New Testament that should not be interpreted according to the letter are the passages about hell or the final judgment. Just as Gregory says that “in private,” Jesus explained the meaning of his parables to his disciples, in what might be his last work, Gregory clues us in to why it seems like he and most other Fathers have such contradictory passages on hell. One set of statements is probably geared towards “infants” in Christ, who can only be urged to good works through punishment and attention to “the letter.” As Gregory writes in his first homily on the Song of Songs, “salvation comes to some people even through fear…in the face of the threats of punishment in Gehenna.”[35] However, for Nyssen and others, this “hellfire and brimstone” way of reading is only interpreting the text in its most literal and superficial fashion. On the other hand, the universalist readings of the same passages are discerning the meaning “worthy of God” that describes more accurately the true nature of hell to those spiritually mature enough to hear it.

We have to look to Gregory’s more theological or doctrinal works to get a sense of the more elevated meaning he believes God intended for scripture’s “hell” texts. Some may consider Nyssen’s Catechetical Discourse an exception to this rule, where Gregory tells a general audience about universal salvation. However, as Ignatius Green argues, the discourse was most likely intended as a handbook for catechists, and wasn’t something that Nyssen simply stood up in Church one Sunday and preached to everyone.[36] As Nyssen says in his preface to the work, “the same manner of teaching will not be made suitable for all who approach the word.”[37] Although this statement is in reference to his arguments against the truth of other religions, what he says equally applies to his teaching of universal salvation. The Catechetical Discourse contains the entire gospel teaching and catechists must pick and choose which teachings they deem appropriate to discuss with their catechumens.

In his more theological works (the Catechetical Discourse should be included here), when he speaks about the unquenchable fire, or the wheat and the chaff (both phrases men­tioned in his quoted text above), gone are his homiletical references to the (perhaps) endless burning of sinners. Now, all these gospel images are metaphors for the separation of evil from good. The unquenchable fire slowly and painfully burns up people’s sins rather than the sinners themselves.[38] As we saw in my previous post, he argues that because of evil’s finite nature, all people will eventually reach the furthest limit in evil possible, and when God gives them over to experience the painful consequences of their sins (presum­ably in Gehenna), this will at some point provoke in them a desire for the good.[39] They will then willingly submit to the unquenchable fire of God that “burns as long as it has fuel [evil]” until “no creature will fall out of the kingdom of God,” and the category of “the saved” will include every being.[40]

This emphasis on multiple levels of meaning in scripture probably made it possible for Church Fathers in the “Alexandrian” tradition to speak of hell in two totally different ways without feeling as if they were lying in one interpretation and telling the truth in another. Their biggest concern was interpreting scripture in a way that would bring spiritual benefit to their listeners. Sometimes this meant giving the meaning according to “the letter,” and telling one’s audience that in the age to come, the fire and worm would burn sinners unceasingly. On other occasions, it meant saying that the fire and worm in Gehenna actually eat away at sin and enable salvation (we can find both types of “contradictory” statements in Athanasius, Nazianzen, Nyssen, and of course, Maximus).

Did these Fathers we surveyed see the eternal damnation of some or many and the salvation of all as two eschatological outcomes that we just have to hold in equal tension? Gregory of Nyssa certainly did not. He, like all the universalist fathers, had one set of terrifying state­ments of hell, which contained the most “fleshly” (to use Origen’s terminology) meaning of scripture appropriate for spiritual beginners. For the more advanced, he had another set of statements advocating the deeper and more spiritual universalist meaning of these same exact scriptural texts. We also see evidence that Nazianzen was well aware of this twofold meaning of the hell texts, since he hints that the fire has another meaning in one of his public sermons: “For all these fires belong to the destroying power, unless some prefer even here to understand this fire as showing more love to humankind, in a way worthy of the punisher.[41] As was mentioned before, Athanasius did not speak as much as Nazianzen or Nyssen of the spiritual meaning of scripture, but we have no reason to believe he completely rejected Origen’s famous distinction between the “letter” and “the spirit” of scripture. No entirely literal interpre­tation of scripture would enable Athanasius to say that “no one else is found in the scriptures [the Old Testament] except the Savior common to all, the God Word, our Lord Jesus Christ,” which is a Pauline and Origenian statement if there ever was one.[42] It is therefore not implausible that he would have been somewhat familiar with a distinction between “the spirt” and “the letter” in regards to his interpretation of hell.

In addition to the textual evidence from the fathers above, as we saw in my last post, Maximus also has several passages that almost certainly suggest that he saw threats of punishment in Gehenna as suitable for beginners to contemplate while universal salvation was only suitable for the advanced to hear about.[43] With all that as a background, we have good reason to believe these fathers’ universalist statements represent their actual views while their terrifyingly violent eternal hell statements represent their condescension to what they saw as the spiritual infancy of their listeners/readers. On the other hand, the hypothesis that the fathers simply held the universalist scripture passages and damnation passages in equal tension fails to take account for both these fathers’ allegorical or “apocalyptic” way of reading scripture, their strategy to motivate spiritual beginners through fear, and their fully confident statements of universal salvation.

Maximus as an Inheritor of Intentional Duplicity

Although Maximus sometimes mentions fathers like John Chrysostom in his writings,[44] whose sermons could probably be used to more easily support an anti-universalist posi­tion, there is no question that Maximus’ greatest love was for more theological thinkers like Nazianzen, Nyssen, Athanasius, but also (with modifications) Evagrius and Origen.[45] If, as I argued in the last article, Maximus did not understand universalism to be condemned at the fifth ecumenical council, there is no good reason to believe he completely rejected the universalism of his predecessors . He did have to modify how openly he spoke of universal salvation because St. Justinian’s anti-universalist presence still loomed large in the empire, but this is only another reason for Maximus’ “honorable silence” on universalism (spoken about at length in the previous post), not his rejection of the doctrine. Before we leave this topic, we will look at one particular text from Maximus, the importance of which should not be underestimated:

[When Christ is experienced by a purified mind,] he does not include parables and enigmas, nor necessary stories and allegories; but when he is present to humans incapable of approaching denuded thoughts with a denuded mind, discoursing on the basis of means customary for them — framed through a diversity of stories, enigmas, parables and obscure words — he becomes flesh. For according to the first approach, our mind does not approach the denuded Word- who is Word by nature, but flesh by sight, so that the many see him seeming to be flesh and not Word, even though he is Word in truth. For that which does not seem to be the case to the many, but is other than what it seems, that is the meaning of scripture. For the Word becomes flesh through every single written word.[46]

If, for Maximus, the meaning of scripture is “other than what it seems,” this should give us great pause when considering how matter-of-factly we should understand his terrifying hell texts, which at times, do imply hell existing in perpetuity.[47] Since he has other statements that imply hell’s non-eternity, and we saw that these statements give us the more “spiritual meaning,” we should place Maximus’ terrifying hell statements in the category of the “flesh­ly” meaning of scripture, and the universalist texts in the category of the “divine” meaning of scripture. In one of Maximus’ most probable “honorable silences” on universal salvation, he does in fact say that the Fathers offered the more mystical (in this case, universalist) inter­pretations of a passage “only after they first discerned the capacity of their listeners,” and Maximus himself chooses not to offer this interpretation but “say what is suitable for all, and meaningful for both beginners and the more advanced.[48]

The very fact that Maximus has honorable silences makes more sense if he was in fact quite confident in his hope for universal salvation. There doesn’t seem to be a plausible pastoral reason to avoid speaking of something that only might happen. Aside from the question of whether “honorable silence” would be a wise pastoral practice for universalists today, one can at least understand these fathers’ fears that unqualifiedly telling every single parishioner that “all will be saved” could cause spiritual negligence in beginning Christians. But why keep an agnostic universalism so tightly under wraps? The very fact that an eternal hell may be real and I might end up there should be enough to put terror in even the laziest individ­ual. Maximus gives no indication in his “honorable silences” that the interpretation he refuses to disclose is simply “a possibility.” For example, in one “honorable silence,” he says, “the deeper secrets of the divine doctrines must not be committed to writing.”[49] It makes little sense to think of the mere possibility that all may saved as “a deep secret of a divine doctrine.” On another occasion, he calls this secret “sublime.”[50] Maximus seems to have something far more glorious and scandalous in mind here than universalist agnosticism.

Clues from Maximus’ Texts

Now that we have looked at whether Maximus’ universalist predecessors were timidly hopeful or confidently expectant, we can look further into this question in the writings of Maximus. Before we look at any new issues, however, I will briefly quote from the conclusion of my last blog post in order to remind the reader of what we have already seen from Maximus.

In Maximus, we have a saint that still had a chance to talk to those who were alive in 553, and he gives us no indication that he believed universalism was condemned. His theology of motion and rest, modes and logoi, particulars and universals all point exclusively in the universalist direction. His “honorable silences,” [I would also add that Maximus has a few explicitly universalist statements], and the conspicuous absence of criticism of the doctrine when given the perfect opportunity to do so also push us towards the conclusion that not only did Maximus consider the doctrine permissible but probably held to some form of it himself.

Following up on that last sentence, we now want to ask, to what form of universalism did Maximus hold? As we saw last time, he certainly speaks of a terrifying judgment of the righteous and the wicked,[51] and in other places, speaks of a universal harmony, unison, and perfection of all creatures.[52] I gave many examples in my last piece, so here are just two new examples of each type of statement:

Universal Restoration: This [image] may perhaps be the subjection of which Paul speaks [1 Cor. 15:28] when he describes the Son subjecting to the Father those who freely accept to be subjected to Him…on account of which, the last enemy, death [he obviously interprets this as spiritual death], will be destroyed…henceforth [the will] has neither the inclination nor the ability to be carried elsewhere…it will become God by divinization…for in that state nothing will appear apart from God, nor will there be anything opposed to God that could entice our will to desire it, since all things intelligible and sensible will be enveloped in the ineffable manifestation and presence of God.[53]

Some may see his remark that “those who freely accept to be subjected to Him,” implies that some don’t freely accept this submission, but since the rest of the language here is universal, it’s more likely this is his very underhanded way of saying all will freely accept this subjec­tion, which would fit well with his honorable silence, and much more will be said about confusing phrases like this later. As a confirmation that Maximus understands the abolition of the “last enemy, death,” in 1 Corinthians 15 to be the complete eradication of spiritual death, in his Questions and Doubts he says:

“death is the last enemy to be destroyed” means whenever we, ourselves, submit the entire self-determining will to God, then the last enemy is also abolished. And it is called “death” since God is life, and that which is opposed to life is fittingly called death.[54]

Maximus interprets this death on an individual basis, but if the death being referred to in 1 Cor. 15 is a spiritual one, there is no question that this would mean a universal abolition of spiritual death. If spiritual death is totally and universally destroyed in all humans, all that is left is the submission of the entire self-determining will to God. St. Paul mentions no strag­glers still “in death” when God is “all in all.” This is confirmed in the rest of Ambi­guum 7, where Maximus speaks of all of humanity being divinized and being part of the body of Christ (see my previous article).[55] For Maximus, this abolition of death is universal salvation, and was explicitly interpreted as such by both Origen and Nyssen, and Maximus follows them on every single detail of interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15, only without explicitly spelling out the implications.

Now on to his “damnation” passage:

Damnation: [Beings] move in accordance with their possession or privation of the potential they have naturally to participate in Him who is by nature absolutely imparticipable, and who offers Himself wholly and simply to all – worthy and unworthy – by grace through His infinite goodness, and who endows each with the permeance of eternal being [or “ever being”], corresponding to the way that each disposes himself and is. And for those who participate or do not participate pro­por­tionately in Him who, in the truest sense, is and is good, and is forever, there is an intensification and increase of punishment for those who cannot participate, and of enjoyment for those who can participate.[56]

As I discuss in more detail in my last post, some scholars like David Bradshaw and Fr Ignatius Green, admittedly following the dominant (but by no means binding) interpre­tation of the Orthodox Church, argue that both sets of Maximus’ statements above apply to the same event: the Parousia where Christ is “all in all,” but for the wicked, this is experienced as eternal torment. Despite this being how most Orthodox saints after Maximus interpreted him, I just can’t bring myself to see how this is a reasonable explanation of Maximus’ statements, and I spend a considerable amount of time showing why in my previous piece. Even in the two contrasting statements above, it certainly doesn’t seem like “those who cannot participate” (“damnation passage”) are the same people that have “become God by Divinization” (universalist passage). The two sets of statements seem to be speaking about two different situations, and I suggest that one event is the final judgment while the other is the universal restoration.

Much more was said in the last piece about Maximus phrase “ever being badly” (each word is used above, but separated by a few phrases in between), but it should be pointed out that for Maximus, God gives everyone “eternal being,” while “being well,” or “being badly” are always subject to some type of change (not to be confused with the possibility of a “second fall”). “Being well” describes a life of dynamic and constantly increasing participation in the life of God, while “being badly” describes a life literally grounded in instability and finiteness and therefore, a life not necessarily subject to eternal suffering. As Andrew Louth points out, “aei eu einai and aei pheu einai [“ever being well” and “ever being badly”] are not parallel options; pheu einai seems to frustrate God’s plan for human kind. Maximos does not, so far as I can tell, dwell on this: he has reached a surd and refuses to incorporate it into his understanding of God’s purposes.”[57]

By way of further response to Bradshaw and Green’s interpretation, when Maximus says in many places that the whole human nature is divinized, sometimes he may only be speak­ing about the potential of each hypostasis to partake in the divinized human nature, but there are also several statements from Maximus where he speaks about every or all humans being divinized. It is much more difficult to take these statements as a reference to Christ’s poten­tially divinizing each individual. In some cases, Maximus specifically states that the divini­zation is present not just in potentiality but in actuality: “they [the prophets] researched and investigated that other time, by which I mean the age or aeon according to which diviniza­tion (ektheoseos) will be present in actuality to all (pantas), transforming (metapoiousa) all human beings into the divine likeness…”[58]

The above statement sounds about as explicit a universalist statement as anyone could make. One could perhaps respond that Maximus doesn’t actually mean divinization here, but only resurrection. However, as Jordan Wood helpfully pointed out to me, Maximus also uses the word transformation (metapoiousa) here, which he often uses in place of deification, and our own Eucharistic transformation into gods.[59] Maximus also uses two different words that mean all here, pantas, and omoiosin. This isn’t simply a reference to the one human nature that is divinized, but the deification of each individual hypostatsis or particular of human nature.

Other scholars dismiss statements like the above because Maximus immediately adds that this divinization which is present in actuality to all is present “in a manner proportionate to each, to the extent that each one is receptive of it.”[60] This little additional phrase makes many of us now reconsider whether what came before is actually a universalist statement. We assume that if God is in all but only in a manner “that each one is receptive of it,” this must mean that some people aren’t receptive of it for all eternity. But this would then mean that we have to evacuate Maximus’ phrase “divinization” (ektheoseos) of almost all its meaning. Under this interpretation, those in hell are individually divinized while being simultaneously eternally damned. While Maximus may be able to speak of Christ divinizing human nature while still damning some individuals for all eternity, his words begin to mean nothing if we start speaking of God simultaneously divinizing and damning the same individual. If in any other circumstance, we were to hear of an individual being divinized and made into the divine likeness, the last thing we would think this means is that the person has eternally rejected God in hell, and yet this is what Bradshaw’s and Green’s interpretation of Maximus ultimately seems to require us to believe. Fortunately, there is a more exegetically pleasing alternative that makes sense both of the “divinization” language and the language of proportionality.

Maximus’ Language of Proportionality

Like much of his theology, Maximus was trying to keep the good elements of the Evagrian theological system while discarding the bad elements that were condemned in 553. The anathemas of 553 give a perfect indication of exactly what Maximus was trying to avoid by stressing proportionality:

  1. If anyone says that there will not be a single difference at all between Christ and other rational beings, neither in substance nor in knowledge nor in power over everything nor in operation, but that all will be at the right hand of God as Christ beside them will be, as indeed they were also in their mythical pre-existence, let him be anathema.
  2. If anyone says that there will be one henad of all rational beings, when the hypos­tases and numbers are annihilated together with bodies, and that knowledge about rational beings will be accompanied by the destruction of the universe, the shedding of bodies, and the abolition of names, and there will be identity of knowledge as of hypostases, and that in this mythical restoration there will be only pure spirits, as there were in their nonsensical notion of preexistence, let him be anathema.

By speaking of God in all, but proportionately, Maximus was speaking against any sense of an abolition of hypostases, or a loss of each human’s identity in the apokatastasis. For Maximus, everyone is Divinized but retains their uniqueness as a human being. As Jordan Daniel Wood points out in one of his comments on my last blog, Maximus’ “point is nearly always that an expressed activity is expressed principally according to the character of the medium that expresses it…My face expresses my soul in one way, my big toe in another: and yet surely both parts possess and are identical with my one soul to the same extent; they just express my life ‘in their own unique way.’”

In Amb. 47, Maximus explains his own language of proportionality completely along the lines of what Wood suggests:

If Christ…is one, how is it that the law, when ritually celebrating the type of Christ, commands that a multiplicity of lambs be slain in the house of the families? [Ex. 12:3]…Thus it happens that each of us in his own rank…sacrifices the Divine Lamb, partakes of its fleshes, and takes his fill of Jesus. For to each person, Christ Jesus becomes his own proper lamb, to the extent that each is able to contain and consume Him. He becomes something proper to Paul…something distinctively proper to Peter…and something distinctively proper for each of the saints…becoming all things to everyone.[61]

In another passage in his Chapters on Theology, he writes that God has “become all things for all that he might save all,” and goes on to specify that God appears to spiritual begin­ners different from how he appears to the advanced “in a way appropriate to the capacity of each.” In both of these passages, (which properly represent Maximus’ larger corpus) there is no mention whatsoever of any sinners or wicked people, just people at different levels of holiness. It’s part and parcel of both Maximus’ and Nyssen’s vision of epektasis that all are at different levels of participation in God, and will always be at different levels, but all are ever moving into deeper participation in God. John might be further along than Peter, who is further along than Mark, but once universal salvation has been achieved, all are moving in the same direction towards deeper and deeper participation. Given this background of Maximus’ statements of proportionality, the great Maximus scholar Paul Blowers seems mistaken when he says that Maximus’ language of God being “all in all” should not be interpreted in a straightforwardly universalist manner because “Maximus stresses how the Logos becomes all things to all human beings ‘proportionately in each one.’”[62] This statement from Maximus doesn’t disqualify his universalist statements in the slightest.

Lastly, Maximus may have actually borrowed his language of proportionality from Gregory of Nyssa, who most scholars sees as the quintessential patristic universalist. Most would agree that by using this language, Gregory isn’t saying some are eternally in hell. Both Maximus and Gregory use the Greek word idios to emphasize that God appears in a partic­ular manner to each individual. For example, in his sixth homily on the Song of Songs, Nyssen describes how God is like an actor in a drama in that as people progress in perfec­tion, God appears to them in proportion to the degree of perfection they have reached:

In proportion to the perfection that each has attained for the moment through good things, some special quality illumines his manner of life, one such appearing and succeeding to another by reason of his increase in good things.[63]

Nyssen repeats these statements of proportionality throughout his corpus and most of them don’t mention anyone in hell, just different degrees of perfection in everyone.[64] Given that Maximus expanded on Nyssen’s conception of epektasis (terming it “ever moving rest”), it is quite probable that he would have picked up this language of proportionality from Nyssen. Maximus’ language is certainly not an argument for Maximus being identified as a univer­sal­ist, but neither should it be part of an argument against his universalism. The language of proportionality is compatible with Maximus’ hell statements and his universalist statements, and he uses the language in both. The terminology doesn’t have anything to do with who is saved or damned, but simply emphasizes the distinction and uniqueness of all people, all of whom are at different levels of perfec­tion. With this as a background, we can look with fresh eyes at Maximus’ statement quoted above and notice that he is not saying anything different from what Nyssen repeatedly asserted:

[The prophets] researched and investigated that other time, by which I mean the age or aeon according to which divinization will be present in actuality to all, transforming all human beings into the divine likeness, in a manner proportionate to each, to the extent that each one is receptive of it.[65]

Objection: God Will be All in All, but
the Righteous Will Experience Him as Torment

Another objection to reading Maximus a confident universalist would be that sometimes, Maximus appears to say that the final judgment is the final event of eschatological history, leaving no room for any restoration to follow. By far, the best passage to support this view comes from Ad Thalassium 59:

For nature does not contain the characteristics of the super-natural, just as it does not contain the laws of what is against nature. By ‘supernatural’ I mean the divine and inconceivable joy, which God naturally creates when he is united by grace to those who are worthy. By ‘against nature’, I mean the unspeakable anguish which is involved in the deprivation of this (joy), which God naturally creates when He is united with the unworthy against grace. For God is united with all, according to the quality of the fundamental state of each person; in a way that He understands, he supplies sensation to each one, corresponding to the way each is made by Him to receive the One Who is completely united to all, at the end of the ages.[66]

At first, much like Amb. 65, there seems to be absolutely no room here whatsoever for a universalist interpretation of Maximus. It is statements like this that push great Maximus scholars like Paul Blowers to say that Maximus considered eternal damnation one eschato­logical possibility alongside universal salvation. Maximus’ statement above that this will happen at “the end of the ages” certainly seems to mean that there is no restoration to be looked forward to after this. It is possible that this phrase of Maximus above, “completely united to all, at the end of the ages,” is actually a reference to the universal restoration, but it’s also possible that the phrase is referring to the last judgment, which tends to make better sense given its context. Supposing the phrase is indeed a reference to the final judgment and not to the restoration, we must keep in mind that for Maximus, there seems to be not one “end of the ages,” but three different “end(s) of the ages”! In Ambiguum 22, he writes,

existing here and now, we will reach the end of the ages. In the ages that will follow, we shall passively experience by grace the transformation of divinization, no longer being active but passive, and for this reason we will not cease being divinized … the power of the intellect, which by potential is unconditionally receptive of all knowledge, passes through the whole nature of beings and whatever can be known, and leaves behind itself all the ages…Thus in truth “the ends of the ages have come upon us,” though we have not yet received through the grace that is in Christ the gift of the good things that transcend the ages and nature…[The divinity] possesses the infinite power to divinize, a power which in fact transcends all infinity, and which never comes to an end in the things it has brought into being.[67]

As strange as it may sound, even though Maximus says God will be united to all, the worthy and the unworthy, at “the end of the ages,” this does not necessarily mean that he didn’t envision more ages to come, the last age being the “aeon according to which divinization will be present in actuality to all.” We can postulate three “end of the ages” for Maximus that show up in the passage above. The first would be Christ’s incarnation (“the end of the ages have come upon us”), the second Christ’s return in judgment (“existing in the here and now we will reach the end of the ages”), and last of all, the universal restoration of humanity (God divinizes all “the things it has brought into being”), when any last trace of time is transformed into absolute eternity, which “transcends all infinity.” Maximus also says the same thing in regard to the “ages” in his Chapters on Theology 2.85. With three different “ends of the ages,” we once again, seem to come close to a view of Hart’s “dual eschatological horizons.”

Objection: But Only the “Worthy” are Divinized!

Finally, some argue that because Maximus repeatedly says that only the “worthy” are divinized, this implies that some, i.e. the unworthy, will never be divinized, and thus in hell for all eternity. This is probably one of the strongest arguments against seeing Maximus as a universalist, but as we will see, postulating that the qualifier “worthy” implies that some must be unworthy, ultimately creates needless contradictions in Maximus’ writings. More­over, there is again, a plausible reason why Maximus would keep using the “worthy” quali­fier despite the fact that it makes his writing quite confusing at times, and does create the initial impression that all are not saved.

Before we look at any particular passages, it must be stated that all Christian universalists agree that only the absolutely pure and totally holy will ever enter the kingdom of heaven, so asserting that only the worthy are saved does not in any way contradict universal salvation, and Maximus certainly knew this from his reading of Nyssen and other early fathers. This is why Maximus says that the fire of the final judgment will painfully transform sinners into saints over long aeons of anguishing yet corrective chastisement.[68] Emphasizing that only “the worthy” are saved was also another way for Maximus to endorse that it is only through our free will and cooperation with God that we can be saved. As for the historical reason behind using the term, this will have to wait until after our look at Maximus’ key texts.

In his commentary on the Divine Liturgy, Maximus sees the closing of the doors and the dismissal as symbolizing the final judgment and the sending away of the wicked to hell. We all know that the purpose of the dismissal of the catechumens in the first place is to prepare them to eventually partake of communion, and this fact was probably not lost on Maximus. His commentary on the “kiss of peace,” which comes after the dismissal, is striking. Its symbolic meaning takes on a universal scope since, as Maximus says, the mouth symbolizes rationality, of which all rational beings (logikoi, i.e. all people) partake. Still, Maximus specifies that only the worthy will participate:

The spiritual kiss of peace, which is addressed to all the people, prefigures and portrays in advance the unanimity, agreement, and identity in rationality that we all shall possess toward one another at the time when the unspeakable blessings to come will be revealed according to faith and love; and it is through this identity that the worthy [axioi] receive kinship with God the Word. For the mouth is a symbol of reason- the reason by which in fact all who participate in rationality are united to all things as rational beings and united to the first and only Word and Cause of all rationality.[69]

During the Sanctus in the Anaphora prayers, which again, occur after the dismissal of the catechumens and shortly after the kiss of peace, Maximus says that “human nature will be taught to sing in harmony with the powers above,” and have a “ceaseless motion around God,” and that there will be “oneness and equality of honor” between the “incorporeal and intellectual powers…[of] “everyone with everyone” (pros pantas panton).[70] Yet we must keep in mind that Maximus tells us elsewhere that this takes place only in the worthy. This is not Maximus’ description of the final judgment. There is no mention of any wicked people suffering torment, or anyone moving against nature. Given Maximus’ understand­ing of motion (see the previous post), if all of human nature moves ceaselessly around God, this means there would no longer be any human with any movement contrary to nature, which is often how he characterizes the damned in the final judgment. In other words, no one is damned in Maximus’ above description.

Yet, Maximus still adds the “worthy” qualifier. It should become obvious at this point that the only way that all of human nature can move ceaselessly around God, etc. and for this to only occur in those who are worthy would be if all of human nature (i.e. every human being) is, at this point, made worthy. Once again, if one argues that the phrase “the worthy” implies that some are in hell, then how is it that all of human nature is said to move ceaselessly around the Divinity? And if one argues that all of human nature ceaselessly moving around God does not imply universal salvation, then why is it that this is said to only take place in the worthy? Universal salvation is the only solution that makes sense of the text.

As in most cases, Maximus obscurely affirms what Gregory of Nyssa says explicitly. In Gregory’s On the Soul and the Resurrection, one notices three clustered themes Maximus speaks about above: The mention of all of human nature, the “unspeakable blessings to come,” and the “oneness and equality of honor.” Although the wording is slightly different, it’s difficult to argue that the clustering of these themes in both writers is simply coinciden­tal:

[God] has one goal: When the whole fullness of our nature has been perfected in each man, some straightaway even in this life purified from evil, others healed thereafter through fire for the appropriate length of time, and others ignorant of the experience equally of good and of evil in the life here, God intends to set before everyone the participation of the good things in Him [“oneness and equality of honor”], which the scripture says eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor thought attained [“the unspeakable blessings to come,” 1 Cor. 2:9].”[71]

Given all we know of Maximus at this point, the Origenian Eusebius of Caesarea summarizes beautifully what Maximus means when he simultaneously says only the worthy will experi­ence “the unspeakable blessings to come,” and yet all of “human nature” will ceaselessly move around the Divinity: “But after the end and perfection of all, at the constitution of the new aeon, God will no longer inhabit few, but all, those who by then have become worthy [tois tote axios] of the kingdom of heavens.”[72]

Given that Maximus sees a definite progression in the liturgy corresponding to a pro­gression in the life of the cosmos, there is good reason to believe we see here another instance of Hart’s dual eschatological horizons. We can think of the parallelism in this way: Catechu­mens/those in Gehenna have finally spent enough time outside of the nave/outside of the heavenly courts in preparation/purification to receive the Eucharist/ enter the heavenly courts. Although this is certainly a speculative out­working of Maximus’ thought, perhaps it is no coincidence that historically, catechumens are chrisma­ted or confirmed on Easter, the time of the Orthodox church year where the hymns most confidently proclaim Christ’s total emptying of the realms of hades (e.g. “Thou didst close the chambers of death, O Christ, Thou hast emptied all the palaces of Hell”). The season of Lent could be seen as symbolically mirroring the final suffering and purification of those in Gehenna before the final and glorious bestowal of “unspeakable blessings” (to use the Confessor’s terminology) upon everything and everyone God has created at his Paschal victory.

Was Maximus Speaking “In Code”?

Adding the word “worthy” to his statements made it possible for Maximus to speak of universal salvation without most people noticing, including imperial elites who were still undoubtedly quite averse to the doctrine after St. Justinian’s (unsuccessful) attempts to have it ecumenically condemned. Maximus probably knew that only the most attentive reader would catch on to what he was actually saying. We can see evidence of this stealthy approach in his interpretation of Luke 3:6 (“All flesh shall see the salvation of God”), where, at first, he says that the verse means only “all faithful flesh” will see salvation; but later says he knows a “loftier contemplation” of the verse, and here he writes with no qualifications that God “becomes ‘all things in all’ that He might ‘save all through the riches of his goodness.’”[73] We saw above that Origen also commented on this verse and said that he will “leave this [what is implied in the verse] to be understood by those who grasp the mysteries of Scripture.”[74] Maximus is following Origen here, implying that, yes, only faithful flesh will see salvation, but in fact, all flesh will be found faithful.

Lest someone think this suggestion my desperate attempt to “make Maximus into a uni­versalist,” there is more to be said in favor of this almost “coded” speech. As we saw above, Origen and the fathers that followed him only let the universalist secret out to those they felt were spiritually mature, but what was vague in these fathers almost had to become a secret “code” in Maximus’ time. As Istvan Perczel convincingly shows, after the condem­nation of “Origenism” in 553, “Origenists” like Theodore of Caesarea developed what could almost be called a secret code in their writings to allow themselves to speak of their “Origenist” myths without imperial detection.[75] By Maximus’ time, “Origenists” had had enough time to put their beliefs in-line with the 553 council while retaining the best of what Origen and Eva­grius had to offer. As Perczel argues, along with Blowers and Ramelli, Maximus most likely learned the monastic life in one of these “reformed” or “orthodox Origenist” Palestinian monasteries.[76] Still, any insight from Origen or Evagrius, even if it wasn’t condemned (universalism was not condemned, see here and here) was certainly not welcome on the imperial level, and so a certain degree of discreetness was necessary. Maximus’ famous refutations of “Origenist” myths are just as much responses to accusations that he himself was an Origenist as much as they are responses to an actual group of monks. This would make sense in light of the fact that one of his biographies tells us that he was put on trial in 665, and accused of the heretical Origenism condemned in 553.[77] This is not surprising since all of his writings, but especially his Ad Thalassium is more full of allegorical and spiritual interpretations of scripture than almost anything else in the seventh century.

As we saw last time, Maximus has several universalist statements that don’t have the “wor­thy” qualifier in them, and given the above analysis, it would be completely unnecessary to see the universalist sounding statements with the qualifier as speaking of some other eschatological situation. Both types of statements are speaking of the same universal restoration. Maximus had very good reasons to keep his opinion hidden, which is why it requires a considerable amount of work to realize he is in fact making a universalist statement. We must remember that for Maximus, one must also look beneath the surface of scripture to understand it as well: “For that which does not seem to be the case to the many, but is other than what it seems, that is the meaning of scripture.” Perhaps this is also how some of Maximus’ own texts work.


Was Maximus a hopeful universalist? It depends on what we mean by “hope.” If by “hope,” we mean an agnosticism regarding whether some will be forever lost, which is how Balthasar is traditionally interpreted, then no. But if we mean a confident expectation that God will persuade every last soul in Gehenna that only he can fulfill their deepest desires, then yes. If we mean an assured hope that after indefinite aeons in hell, all beings will voluntarily choose to undergo purification and enter the heavenly courts, then yes. However, I doubt Maximus would attribute all his confidence to a theological or philosophical argument. Although as we saw before, Maximus has several streams of philosophical thought that all point exclusively towards universal salvation, for him, as for all the Fathers and especially Origen, they copiously used philosophy to support what they first saw revealed through their crucified Lord who opened the scriptures. In my view, Kallistos Ware speaks for Maximus when he writes that universal salvation is not a “logical certainty.” However, if Maximus believed that Christ was proclaimed not just as the potential savior of all, but the actual savior of all (e.g. Lk. 16:16; Rom.5; Phil 2:9-11; 1 Cor. 15:28), if he believed that God gave all people to Christ, and in the age to come that Christ will give life to everyone God has entrusted to him (Jn. 17:2), then surely God wouldn’t have made these promises unless he knew he would be able to providentially bring them to a complete and perfect fulfillment. If Maximus firmly believed that the “divine” meaning of scripture was a promise of universal salvation, then to be less than a fully confident universalist would be to doubt what he saw as the assured guarantee of his savoir, and as we know from the epithet attached to the saint’s name, this is something Maximus would have rather died than do.


[1] I am making a distinction between Balthasar’s personal view and the view that he ascribes to Maximus, since Balthasar was a theologian in his own right, but also one of the greatest Maximus scholars that ever lived.

[2] Robin Parry, “A Universalist View,” in Four Views on Hell, ed. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2016), 102.

[3] David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), location 1433 of 3097.

[4] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1978), 73. Emphasis mine.

[5] Ench. 112.

[6] Commentary on Jonah 3.

[7] See their glowing recommendations of Ramelli’s work on the back of her newest book: A Larger Hope?: Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2019).

[8] Andrew Louth, “Response to Tom Greggs,” in Five Views on the Extent of the Atonement, ed. Adam J. Johnson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2019), 218.

[9] Or. 40.36, trans. Nonna Verna Harrison, Festal Orations: Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press), 132.

[10] Or. 38 (36.324) and 45 (36.633), trans. Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 457.

[11] Gregory of Nazianzus, Or. 30.6 (PG 36, 112), trans. Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 98. I slightly altered their translation inserting part of Ramelli’s translation of this passage. See Ramelli, Apokatastasis, 453-4. The word “guarantee” is more faithful to the greek word tekmerioi, which has the sense of “to prove positively.” The “guarantee” probably does refer to the following sentences, and Ramelli unfortunately gives the opposite impression. However, in a broader sense, the “guarantee” should probably apply to all of what it means for God to be all in all for Gregory.

[12] Or. 45.24

[13] Carm. 35.9; Or. 33.9, trans. Ramelli,

[14] Or. 34.5. I gladly rely here on Ramelli’s panoply of quotes from Nazianzus from her A Larger Hope?, 133-34.

[15] See ibid., 87.

[16] Ibid.

[17] On the Incarnation, 57.

[18] Festal letter 10.4, trans. Ilaria Ramelli, A Larger Hope, 92. The first sentence is Ramelli’s translation, and the rest of it is taken from Emphasis, mine.

[19] Festal letter 27.24, trans. ibid., 90.

[20] Festal Letter 3.4-8, trans. Ramelli, A Larger Hope, 91.

[21] Exp. In Ps. PG 92, trans. Ilaria Ramelli, from her book The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 254.

[22] On the Incarnation 1, trans. John Behr (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 2011), 53. Although all of these quotations can be found in either of Ramelli’s large works, I am trying, from time to time, to quote other translations of the fathers to avoid the accusation that I am biased. One might say that given Behr’s blurb on the back of Hart’s book, he is by no means unbiased. However, Behr’s translation came out in 2011, and at that time, he seemed to quite clearly dismiss universalism as an option. See his interview on the question of universal salvation here.

[23] Col. 1081, trans. Ramelli, A Larger Hope, 88.

[24] The first quote is from the Letter to Adelphius, and the second refers to a number of different places in Athanasius’ writings. See Ramelli, chapter 5, n. 29.

[25] For more on this, see my previous piece, particularly on Nyssen and the Confessor’s understanding of particulars and universals.

[26] Luc. 23, trans. Ramelli, Apokatastasis, 206-7.

[27] Luc. 22,5; cf. 32,5, ibid., 206, cf. Homilies on Jeremiah 5.4.

[28] See n. 53 in ibid, Cf. Ronald Heine, Origen: Scholarship in the Service of the Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[29] Hom. In Jer. 18.6, cf. 20.1.

[30] See Ignatius Green’s thorough citation of all these very frightening homilies in his introduction to St Gregory of Nyssa: Catechetical Discourse (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 2019), 51-57. Green attributes this alleged lack of coherence in Gregory’s thought to Gregory having an undeveloped opinion regarding the last things, but as I argue above, I think something more systematic and purposeful is going on.

[31] Beatitudes 5.8, from Homilies on the Beatitudes, trans. Stuart George Hall (Boston, MA: Brill, 2000), 65.

[32] Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Song of Songs 1.4, trans. Richard A. Norris Jr. (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012), 3.

[33] Preface to Hom. in Song. 7-13.

[34] Preface to Hom. in Song. 12,

[35] Hom. in Song. 1.16, trans. Norris, 17.

[36] See Green’s enlightening introduction to the Discourse, 18-24.

[37] Prologue to Cat. Or.

[38] Ex. Cat. Or. 26.8.

[39] De Hom. Op. 21.2.

[40] In Illud 21 and 14D., trans. Ramelli, A Larger Hope, 110-11.

[41] Or. 40.36, trans. Nonna Verna Harrison, Festal Orations: Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press), 132, emphasis mine.

[42] Inc. 37, trans. Behr.

[43] Cap. Theol. 2.9, Cf. Cap. Theol. 2.99, Ad Thal. 43.2.

[44] Questions and Doubts 119.

[45] See Paul Blowers’ discussion of Maximus’ influences in his Maximus the Confessor: Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016), 66-68, 88.

[46] Two Hundred Chapters on Theology 2.60, trans. Luis Joshua Salés (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 2015), 145-47.

[47] E.g. On the Ecclesiastical Mystagogy (CCSG 44); Amb. 21.12; Ep. 1 (389 a8-b9).

[48] Ad Thal. 43.2, trans. Constas., 246, emphasis added.

[49] Ad Thal. 21.8, trans. Constas, 148.

[50] Ad Thal. 21.8.

[51] E.g. Amb. 42.15 (1329b), along with all the texts mentioned in my section on Maximus’ “hell” passages in “St. Maximus the Universalist?”

[52] E.g. Amb. 41.11 (1313b). Again, see Maximus’ most universalist texts at the beginning of my “St. Maximus the Universalist” essay.

[53] Amb. 7.11-12 (1076a-1077a), Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, Volume I, ed. and trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2014), 89-93.

[54] Questions and Doubts 21.

[55] Amb. 7.31 (1092c).

[56] Amb. 42.15 (1392a-1392b), trans. Constas, 149, notes in bracket, my own.

[57] Andrew Louth, “Response to Tom Greggs,” in Five Views, 222. Louth doesn’t say what he does with Amb. 65, where Maximus does seem to incorporate “ever being badly” into his theology. I offer an explanation in my previous post.

[58] Ad Thal. 59.11, trans. Constas, 421.

[59] Ad Thal. 1.2.18 (CCSG 7, 37; cf. too Exp. orat. dom. 2; CCSG 23, 32-3); Myst. 21 (PG 91, 697A); Myst. 24 (PG 91, 704A; CCSG 69, 55-6). I thank Dr. Wood for these excellent references.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Amb. 47.2 (1357d-1361a), trans. Constas, 207-11, emphasis added.

[62] Paul Blowers, Maximus the Confessor, 250.

[63] Hom. In Song., trans. Norris, 198-99, emphasis added.

[64] E.g. Hom. In Song. 33, 159, On the Soul and the Resurrection 104.4.

[65] Ad Thal. 59.11, trans. Constas, 421, emphasis added.

[66] Ad Thal. 59 (609B14-C12).

[67] Ad Thal. 22.7, trans. Constas, emphasis added.

[68] Q. et Dub. 159

[69] Ecclesiastical Mystagogy 17 (740), trans. Jonathan Armstrong (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 2019), 79.

[70] Myst. 19, 24, trans. Armstrong, 79, 87.

[71] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection, trans. Catherine P. Roth (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary press, 2002), 115-16.

[72] Eusebius of Caesarea, Eccl.Theol 2.8, trans. Ramelli, Apokatastasis, 328. Emphasis mine.

[73] Ad Thal. 47.8, trans. Constas, 262.

[74] Luc. 22,5; cf. 32,5, ibid., 206, cf. Homilies on Jeremiah 5.4.

[75] Istvan Perczel, “Theodore of Caesarea at the Court of Justinian,” in New Themes, New Styles in the Eastern Mediterranean: Christian, Jewish, and Islamic Encounters, 5th-8th Centuries, ed. Hagit Amirav and Francesco Celia (Bristol, CT: Peeters, 2017), 137- 171.

[76] Istvan Perczel, “Saint Maximus on the Lord’s Prayer: An Inquiry into his relationship to the Origenist tradition,” in The Architecture of the Cosmos: St Maximus the Confessor, New Perspectives, ed. Antione Levy, Pauli Annala, Olli Hallamaa and Tuomo Lankila (Helsinki, Finland: Luther-Agricola-Society, 2015), 221- 278. Cf. Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 738-39; Paul Blowers, Maximus the Confessor, 36.

[77] Life of Maximus, BHG 1234.23A;93A

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Mark Chenoweth received his M.Div. and Th.M. from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and is currently an adjunct professor of theology at St. John’s University.

Posted in Eschatology | Tagged , , , , , | 76 Comments

The Annihilation of Israel

Ezekiel 21

“The word of the Lord came to me,” declares the prophet Ezekiel:

“Son of man, set your face toward Jerusalem and preach against the sanc­tuaries; prophesy against the land of Israel and say to the land of Israel, Thus says the Lord: Behold, I am against you, and will draw forth my sword out of its sheath, and will cut off from you both righteous and wicked. Because I will cut off from you both righteous and wicked, therefore my sword shall go out of its sheath against all flesh from south to north; and all flesh shall know that I the Lord have drawn my sword out of its sheath; it shall not be sheathed again. Sigh therefore, son of man; sigh with breaking heart and bitter grief before their eyes. And when they say to you, ‘Why do you sigh?’ you shall say, ‘Because of the tidings. When it comes, every heart will melt and all hands will be feeble, every spirit will faint and all knees will be weak as water. Behold, it comes and it will be fulfilled,’” says the Lord God.

And the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy and say, Thus says the Lord, Say:

A sword, a sword is sharpened
and also polished,
sharpened for slaughter,
polished to flash like lightning!

Or do we make mirth? You have despised the rod, my son, with everything of wood. So the sword is given to be polished, that it may be handled; it is sharpened and polished to be given into the hand of the slayer. Cry and wail, son of man, for it is against my people; it is against all the princes of Israel; they are delivered over to the sword with my people. Smite therefore upon your thigh. For it will not be a testing—what could it do if you despise the rod?” says the Lord God. (21:1-17)

We cannot imagine the horror that filled the souls of those who first heard these words. YHWH declares total war against his people. As he once stood against the armies of Amelek and Ammon, now he stands against Israel. He has drawn his sword and will not sheathe it until Israel and her king are destroyed. Repentance will no longer avail to avert his ven­geance. Neither the Temple of Solomon nor the Throne of David will protect them. His fiery wrath has been unleashed. It will consume all, righteous and unrighteous, men, women, and children (Ezek 20:47). Into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar God has placed his bloody sword of slaughter. A pagan king will be his avenging angel. Israel will be reduced to nothing. Only a holocaust will satisfy his judgment.

And to the last king of Judah, Zedekiah, the LORD speaks an equally devastating word:

And you, O unhallowed wicked one, prince of Israel, whose day has come, the time of your final punishment, thus says the Lord God: Remove the turban, and take off the crown; things shall not remain as they are; exalt that which is low, and abase that which is high. A ruin, ruin, ruin I will make it; there shall not be even a trace of it until he comes whose right it is; and to him I will give it. (21:25-27; cf. 19:10-14)

“A ruin, ruin, ruin I will make it”—not only of the Davidic monarchy but Israel herself. The desolation is total, the temple razed to the ground, the royal house annihilated, the survi­vors made nothings and no ones in an alien land. YHWH casts down the established order. His judgment is an eschatological unmaking. (Does anyone else hear echoes of the waters of chaos in Genesis 7?) We are left with the question the LORD will soon pose to Ezekiel: “Can these bones live?” (Ezek 37:3).

Robert W. Jenson comments:

That the Lord punishes Israel by bringing war against her is a staple of prophecy, which we often see in Ezekiel. In this case, however, two features stand out. The Lord, having once drawn his sword, will not sheath it: God’s war with Jerusalem will not allow for repentance—this despite the demand for repentance that pervades Ezekiel’s prophesying. And Jerusalem’s faithful and unfaithful will alike perish—this despite the separation of the righteous from the wicked formally proclaimed in Ezek. 18 and elsewhere. How are we to understand these contradictions? (Ezekiel, p. 165)

Jenson suggests that we probably should allow the contradictions to stand, without artificial resolution, and no doubt he is right. Christians read the Scriptures as a coherent drama. “In a drama,” he explains, “the author can very well at different times promote principles and decisions that are formal contraries, particularly an author who—as often in Ezekiel and in some high-modernist plays—appears in his own drama” (p. 166). Yet for the Christian, questions still rise regarding the character of God and his promises. We read the Scriptures not only as a coherent drama—a disorienting and confusing drama, for its eschatological conclusion is prior to its protological beginning and therefore cannot be read in linear dramatic progression—but as testimony to the incarnate Word, crucified and risen. Who is this God who destroys the very people bound to him by covenant and blood?

In my previous article I raised concerns regarding the portrayal of YHWH as One who does (apparent) evil in order to accomplish his providential ends. But I do not want to dogmati­cally insist on my views, as long as absolute love triumphs in the eschatological consumma­tion and all is made well, not just for some but for all. I take it as a given that our hermeneu­tical and theological commitments must not be allowed to evacuate the Old Testament of all significance. Jenson proposes the “realistic” counterposition, discussed in “Violent YHWH”:

Since Judaism and Christianity do not in either Greek or Indian fashion deny the drama of time, they must then face a hard fact: in what we know as time, there is no drama without violence. There is no plotted sequence of events that arrives at its end without conflict on the way. Nor can there be any penultimate sorting out of history that does not find some guilty of capital evil. If, therefore, God is to be active in the history of this age, he too must be “a man of war” (Exod. 15:3 KJV). Had the Lord not fought for—and against—his people of Israel, he could have had no people within actual history, and so no Christ of that people and so no church of that Christ. (p. 76; emphasis mine)

Perhaps the harsh realities of fallen history requires divine violence within history. It’s difficult to imagine how the Hebrews could have been brought together as a holy people united in Torah and faith in the one God apart from the violence of Moses against the idolaters at the foot of Mount Sinai or the violence of Joshua against the various armies of Canaan or the violence of Elijah against the prophets of Baal. And so perhaps the destruction of both the southern and northern kingdoms of Israel were also historically necessary, if Israel was to become the kind of nation that could give birth to the Messiah. Perhaps. Origen appears to have advanced a similar position in his homilies on Ezekiel:

But there might be someone who, taking offense at the very word “anger,” would complain of it in God. To such a one, I will answer that the anger of God is not so much anger as necessary providential direction. Hear what the action of God’s anger is: to rebuke, to correct, to improve. “Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger, and do not reprove me in your fury.” He who says this knows that the fury of God is not without use for health, but that it is applied for the purpose of curing those who are sick, for improving those who scorned to hear his words. And the Psalmist prays that he may not be “improved” by such remedies for this reason: that he may not receive back his former good health with the medicine of punish­ment. It is as if a slave who has already been put into position in the midst of the whips were to beseech his master, promising again that he will carry out [the master’s] orders, and were to say: “Master, do not rebuke me in your anger, and do not reprove me in your fury.” All things that are of God are good; and we deserve to be reproved. Listen to what he says: “I will rebuke them in the hearing of their distress.” We hear those things that have to do with tribula­tion for this reason: so that we may be improved. Also, in the curses of Leviticus, it is written: “If after this they do not obey, and do not return to me, I will apply seven afflictions to them for their sins. If, however, after this they do not return, I will improve them.” All the things of God which seem to be bitter contribute toward educa­tion and remedies. God is a doctor; God is a Father; he is a Master—and not a harsh one, but a gentle Master.

If you come to [i.e., if you want to think about] those who have been punished, according to the words of the Scriptures, then combine Scriptures with Scriptures, as the Apostle teaches, and you will see that where the most bitter things are thought to be, the sweetest things are there. It is written in the prophet, “He does not take vengeance in his judgment twice in the very same matter.” He took vengeance once in his judgment through the Flood; he took vengeance once in his judgment on Sodom and Gomor­rah; he took vengeance once in his judgment on Egypt, and on 600,000 Israelites. Do not think that this vengeance on the sinners was only punishment, as if after death and [earthly] punishments they are to be met again by punishment. They were punished in the present so that they might not be punished perpetually in the future. Look at the poor man in the Gospel: he is crushed by squalor and want, and afterwards he rests in the bosom of Abraham; he received his ills in his lifetime. How do you know whether those who were killed in the flood also received their ills in their lifetime? How do you know whether for Sodom and Gomorrah their ills were given to them as recompense in their lifetime? Listen to the witness of the Scriptures. Do you wish to learn the testimony of the Old Testament? Do you wish to be taught that of the New? “Sodom will be restored to its ancient state” [Ezek 16:53]. And do you still doubt whether the Lord is good as he punishes the inhabitants of Sodom? “It will be more bearable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment,” says the Lord, pitying the inhabitants of Sodom. Therefore God is kind, God is merciful. Truly “he causes his sun to rise on the good and the evil” and truly “he sends rain on the just and the unjust”— not only this sun which we perceive with our eyes, but also that sun which is beheld with the eyes of the mind. I was wicked, and the Sun of righteousness rose for me. I was wicked, and the rain of righteousness came over me. The goodness of God is even in those things which are thought to be bitter. (Hom. 1.2)

We are confronted with difficult hermeneutical and theological questions, and underneath them lurks the even more difficult question of theodicy. But perhaps a bit of typological exegesis may yield further insight before we leave the prophecies of Ezekiel 21.

“Exalt that which is low, and abase that which is high”—this verse triggers our New Testament imaginations. Recall the Magnificat of the Theotokos:

He has shown strength with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
he has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree. (Luke 1:51-52)

Recall also Jesus’ parable of the vineyard, which concludes with the words “So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matt 20:16). And finally recall the rejected Jew himself, whose passion, sufferings, and death recapitulates the history of Israel. As the last king of Judah is destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, so the divine King of Israel is destroyed by Pontius Pilate.

There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. Pilate also wrote a title and put it on the cross; it read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. The chief priests of the Jews then said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” (John 19:18-22)

YHWH’s repudiation of Zedekiah reveals the true meaning of his covenant with David (2 Sam 7). He never intended a historical succession of kings in the line of David ad perpetuam. He always intended the Davidic covenant to point to its eschatological fulfillment in Israel’s true Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, as hinted by Ezekiel 21:27: “until he comes whose right it is; and to him I will give it.” The LORD‘s promise to the anointed son of Jesse, remarks Jenson, can only be fulfilled in “another history than that of this age” (p. 152):

From its place after the fact, Christian theology can perceive that a king of Israel—whatever may be true of the rulers of other nations—would always find himself either defenseless against the world or fighting against the Lord. And Christian theology therefore supposes that in the last extremity no king of Israel could fulfill his role except by dying in the world, rising before God, and taking his people with him. It thus lay in the nature of Israel’s national existence that her hope finally devolved to hope not in the next anointed one, but in a last Anointed One. And that when he appeared he would be crucified and rise. (p. 193)

Only through death and resurrection can Israel realize her divinely ordained destiny.

The God of the Scriptures is a God of reversals. He casts down and raises up; he raises up and casts down. He slays and makes alive. He wounds that he might heal. He consigns all to disobedience that he might have mercy upon all. He justifies the ungodly. Such it must be under the conditions of our fallen world. Such is the inscrutable love and grace of the LORD.

“And he who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new'” (Rev 21:5).


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“Apostles must therefore take death into their new life and nail their sins to the Lord’s cross”

Christ commanded the apostles to leave everything in the world that they held most dear, adding: “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:38). For those who belong to Christ have crucified their lower nature with its sinful passions and desires.

No one is worthy of him who refuses to take up his cross, that is to say, to share the Lord’s passion, death, burial, and resurrection, and to follow him by living out the mystery of faith in the newly received grace of the Spirit.

“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 10:39).

This means that thanks to the power of the word and the renunciation of past sins, temporal gains are death to the soul, and temporal losses salvation. Apostles must therefore take death into their new life and nail their sins to the Lord’s cross. They must confront their persecutors with contempt for things present, holding fast to their freedom by a glorious confession of faith, and shunning any gain that would harm their souls. They should know that no power over their souls has been given to anyone, and that by suffering loss in this short life they will achieve immortality.

“Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me” (Mt 10:40).

Christ gives us all a love for his teaching and a disposition to treat our teachers with courtesy. Earlier he had shown the danger facing those who refused to receive the apostles by requiring these to shake the dust off their feet as a testimony against them; now he commends those who do receive the apostles, assuring them of a greater recompense than they might have expected for their hospitality, and he teaches that since he still acts as mediator, when we receive him God enters us through him because he comes from God.

Thus whoever receives the apostles receives Christ, and whoever receives Christ receives God the Father, since what is received in the apostles is nothing else than what is received in Christ; nor is there anything in Christ but what is in God. Through this disposition of graces to receive the apostles is to receive God, because Christ is in them and God is in Christ.

St Hilary of Poitiers

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Justification, Faith, and the Radical Question of Existence

by Robert W. Jenson

The gospel, in anyone’s version, is a promise that our life will be fulfilled by Christ. When­ever this promise is made, someone will rise and ask, But if he is to bring our meaning, what then is our role? What is the point of our works of culture and religion?

It was the great task of the patristic and medieval church to conquer and assimilate the cultural and religious heritage of the ancient world. Obviously this could not be done if all cultural and religious works were, in advance, declared irrelevant to the principal mean­ings of life. Therefore the medieval church sought, with great spiritual and intellectual subtlety and persistence, so to speak and enact the gospel as to reassure the aforemen­tioned questioners. However this might have been done, it was in fact done so: the availability of fulfillment was acknowledged as the sole work of Christ, temporally back there on the cross; our participation now in that fulfillment was made dependent on “cooperation” between God’s influence in our lives, “grace,” and our “natural” religious and natural energies. The completion of Christ’s past work was defined by Anselm of Canterbury’s doctrine of atonement; the exact nature of the cooperation was the great probem of subsequent “scholasticism.”

The trouble was, Christian theologians and pastors obviously could not leave the matter quite like that. For since the availability of “grace” is universally guaranteed by Christ’s past work, all the practical difference would be made by our present cooperating or not; and God would be left without a role in actual life. Medieval theology and pastoral practice sought to avoid this consequence by what we may call the “anti-Pelagian codicil”: If, they said, our religious and ethical response to grace is in fact that we cooperate and so come to participate in the fruit of Christ’s work, this fact of our cooperation is itself a work of God’s goodwill and grace. If we do respond properly to God’s offer, this response itself shows that we are of the “elect,” those whom God freely makes his own. The pattern should be familiar, having remained that of most of the best preaching: twenty minutes of ethical and religious exhor­tation, with the closing qualification, “of course, all this is by grace.” It was exactly this codicil that undid Luther and provoked him to revolt also against the doctrine of “coopera­tion” which made the codicil necessary.

As an item of academic theology, the anti-Pelagian codicil may appear adequate. But in the situation of a man hearing the church’s message in deep concern for the value of his life, it works differently. If I hear of God’s offer of fulfillment, and am told that I will receive it only if I do such-and-such, as “accepting” it, it will in most circumstances make no difference whatever to my existential situation to be told that only by grace can I accept it. I must still set out to do the accepting, knowing that salvation depends on this work. I am thrown back on the normal churchly and moral arrangements for becoming religiously affirmable as the real objects of my concern. And so it went throughout the Middle Ages: the anti-Pelagian codicil remain existentially empty, and the religious life of the people, as the Reformers would charge, remained straightforwardly works-righteous.

But if the normal religious arrangements fail, the anti-Pelagian codicil may acquire meaning. And in the actual situation of religious crisis, that meaning must be destructive. Its effect must be to suspend me over the awful question of whether or not God will indeed enable me to cooperate, whether or not I am one of the”elect”—and there will be no way to answer the question. The gospel can in this case provide no answer, for it is exactly whether the gospel is meant for me that is in doubt. The person who arrives at this point is asked—and cannot answer—whether his life has any point at all. God, the reality of all possible meaning, has himself become the threat of meaninglessness.

It is this experience of a radical threat to all meaning which, for Luther and his followers, attached to standard theological topics about “justification.” In Reformation language, Am I justified? acquired the sense: Have I any justification for existence? What is my excuse for taking up space and time?

This usage, moreover, closely resembled Paul’s use of the language, and so opened up a new possibility of understanding Paul. The image behind Paul’s talk of “justification” is that of the accused at the bar of a court, awaiting the verdict that will either “justify” him or condemn him; the court in question is that of “the last judgment,” the judgment about the value or lack of value of his whole life.

The radical question could, of course, have settled on some other language-complex than that of “justification.” Luther might have asked, for example, Is there any hope at all? or, Is God real? (Contemporary atheism is not necessarily a more radical questioning than that of the Reformation—as it in fact happens, quite the contrary.) That “justification” became the place of pain was determined by the tradition: by Pauline usage, by the Augustinian lan­guage of the medieval church in general, and Luther’s Augustinian order in particular, and probably also by the central place of “justifications” in the feudal social and legal order.

The Reformers’ fundamental insight was that the radical question about ourselves can accept as answer only an unconditional affirmation of the value of our life. An affirmation which sets a condition of any sort whatever, which in any way stipulates “you are good and worthy if you do/are such-and-such” only directs me back to that very self that is the prob­lem. The point made by “without works” is: any affirmation of our life which says “if you do/are …” is not merely a poor answer to the Reformation question about justification, it is no sort of answer to the question being asked; for what is being asked is whether it is worth doing or being anything at all.

We can already see why “justification without works” is a doctrine by which the church stands or falls; in times of meaning-crisis, preaching and teaching which disobeys this rule is not merely inadequate in certain respects, it speaks altogether past any possible issue. Perhaps we can also begin to see why the doctrine might be more relevant to our own time than its desuetude in the church would make it seem.

The Reformation discovery was that the message about Jesus, told without the medieval past tense, is an affirmative answer to the radical question, and so was so intended by its original speakers. If the gospel is allowed the present tense, if it is allowed to invade the previous reserve of  “cooperation,” it says: The Crucified lives for you. This affirmation is unconditional, for it is in the name of one who already has death behind him, and whose love can therefore by stopped by nothing. As Luther usually put it, Jesus died in order that his will to give himself to us might be a “last will and testament,” and so be subject to no further challenges.

With the present tense, and the transcending of conditions, we come to “faith.” In Refor­ma­tion language, “faith” is not the label of an ideological or attitudinal state. Like “justifica­tion,” the word evokes a communication-situation: the situation of finding oneself ad­dressed with an unconditional affirmation, and having now to deal with life in these new terms. Faith is a mode of life. Where the radical question is alive, all life becomes a hearing, a listening for permission to go on; faith is this listening—to the gospel.

Again there is a bridge to Pauline usage. With his talk about justification, Paul evokes the situation of the last judgment. He asserts that the gospel is the last judgment let out ahead of time, and as affirmative. Paul’s “faith” is the whole possibility of entertaining daily hopes and making daily choices as person irrevocably judged worthy rather than unworthy.

According to the Reformation insight and discovery, the gospel is a wholly unconditional promise of the human fulfillment of its hearers, made by the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The gospel, rightly spoken, involves no ifs, ands, buts, or maybes of any sort. It does not say, “If you do your best to live a good life, God will fulfill that life,” or, “If you fight on the right side of the great issues of your time …,” or, “If you repent …,” or, “If you believe …” It does not even say, “If you want to do good/repent/believe …, “or, “If you are sorry for not wanting to do good/repent/believe….” The Reformation’s first and last assertion was that any talk of Jesus and God and human life that does not transcend all conditions is a perversion of the gospel and will be at best irrelevant in the lives of hearers and at worst destructive.

Moreover, this assertion is itself unconditional. It cannot be agreed to with moderation, as “one legitimate concern” among many, or as a doctrine to be honored on some occasions but not on others. That is what offended such admirable and reform-minded Renaissance moderates as Erasmus or Thomas More or Cajetan: the line the Reformation draws between itself and medievalism allows only the one form of proclamation on its side, and calls all deviations therefrom evil. But that is the very logic of the case. For the only way to practice a conditional affirmation of the Reformation position is occasionally to speak the gospel conditionally—whereupon the Reformation discovery is wholly denied. Either we whole­heartedly and exclusively affirm the unconditionality of the gospel-promise, or in all that was of importance to the Reformers, we join the medieval church against them.

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Slowly Reading St Athanasius: The Divine Dilemma

by John Stamps

Everybody loves a good moral dilemma. The current favorite dilemma is the infamous trolley car problem popularized in The Good Place. A trolley car hurtles down the tracks out of control. You are standing at the switch, ready to pull the lever to one of two different tracks. If you pull the lever and switch the runaway trolley to the right track, there stands your beloved Aunt Sallie. But if you switch the runaway trolley to the left track, there stands four nuns and a Nobel Laureate who will create a vaccine to cure Covid-19. You have to choose who gets smashed by the trolley. The choice is literally in your hands. Both choices are pretty grim, right?

But my favorite dilemma is the Euthyphro dilemma found in Plato’s dialogue. The com­pletely clueless Euthyphro wants to take his very own father to court for the murder of a servant. Socrates, on his own way to court, is puzzled by Euthyphro’s actions. Doesn’t pressing charges against your father violate a core value to love and respect your parents? But Euthyphro replies, I’m taking this particular action because it’s what God wants me to do. His loyalty to God’s command overrides his familial obligations. Or does it? The Euthyphro dilemma boils down to these questions: Is a particular action good because God commands it? Or does God command this action because it’s good?1

Here, as always, C.S. Lewis elegantly crystallizes the philosophical problem at hand. God’s righteous laws are neither capricious nor arbitrary. Mercy is a very good thing and murder is a very bad thing, not simply because God indiscriminately said so. God isn’t one day on a sudden whim going to say, “Listen up, people! I’ve changed my mind. Murder is now a very good thing and mercy is a very bad thing.” Lewis offers us solid wisdom to pay attention to. We know “that the Lord (not merely obedience to the Lord) is righteous and commands righteousness because He loves it. He enjoins what is good because it is good, because He is good. Hence His laws have emeth, truth, intrinsic validity, rock-bottom reality, being rooted in His own nature.”2 God is goodness Himself. Goodness is God.

But here’s the rub. God is also truthfulness Himself. Truthfulness is God. And so according to St Athanasius, God faces a moral dilemma of His own. Will God stand fast with His truthfulness and let sinful and corrupt humans die as the penalty for their sins? Or will His goodness prevail and He will indeed rescue all humans from annihilation?

As you’ll recall, the goodness of God created us ex nihilo into being. But the evils of our own invention have de-created us ad nihilum. At this critical juncture in human existence, God must do something. But what?

Let’s now unpack the precise nature of the Divine Dilemma.

For these reasons, then, with death holding greater sway and corruption remaining fast against human beings, the race of humans was perishing, and the human being, made rational and in the image, was disappearing, and the work made by God was being obliterated. For as I said earlier, by the law death thereafter prevailed against us, and it was impossible to escape the law, since this had been established by God on account of the transgression. And what happened was truly both absurd and improper. (De Inc. §6)

We are in a monstrous situation. St Athanasius piles up one horrific verb after another to describe the human condition. We are perishing, we are disappearing, and we are being obliterated. Could things get any worse for us? If we ponder the horror and damage caused by human sin, what should God do?

St Athanasius argues (quite rightly) there are two exceedingly wrong theological alterna­tives, although one alternative is arguably more wrong than the other. Does God perform the absurd or does God perform the improper?

  • The absurd alternative sacrifices God’s truthfulness to preserve His goodness. To prevent humans from dissolving into nothingness, God disregards His own law that He com­manded, that we would die if we disobeyed Him. But that’s preposterous. A God who is not truthful is exceedingly absurd.
  • The improper alternative surrenders God’s goodness in order to conserve His truthful­ness. The law is the law is the law. God’s hands are tied. God simply lets death tyran­nize human beings and He lets corruption run rampant. But a God who does not love what He created is not goodness Himself. Such a God is improper indeed.

The Catch-22 pits God’s truthfulness against His goodness.3 We are threatened to be impaled on the horns of a nasty dilemma. And neither horn of the dilemma looks especially promising.

It was absurd, on the one hand, that, having spoken, God should prove to be lying: that is, having legislated that the human being would die by death if he were to transgress the commandment, yet after the transgression he were not to die but rather this sentence dissolved. For God would not be true if, after saying that we would die, the human being did not die. (§6)

Here is the absurd horn of the dilemma. God could dismiss the law entirely so humans wouldn’t die if they sinned.

If we grab hold of this horn and God terminates the law He enacted, we end up saying God is not truthful to His own Word. God didn’t really mean it when He told us that we would die if we spurned His commandments.

St Athanasius says thinking about God this way is absurd. God is not a liar. God did not lie, because God is truth Himself.

It truly is absurd that God would renege on His commitments and promises. Rowan Williams’ description of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia surely applies here to God the Word: “Aslan cannot break his laws. He is not bound by anything except what and who he is, but that is a real and unbreakable bond. He cannot be other than truth.”4

God declared with no equivocation that if humans disobeyed His commandment, they would surely die by death. I don’t want to belabor the following point. But death is a natural consequence when you disobey God. This cause-effect relationship is written into the very fabric of the universe. This is the Deep Magic of Aslan if you will. Or we can state even more basically: “Death and corruption are not punishments imposed on sin from without. They are internal to sin itself; they are the very embodiment of sin.”5

St Athanasius states God’s decree with apodictic certainty. It is impossible to run away from God. Just ask Jonah. The intent of the law was not to threaten us but to protect us. God wanted us to guard the grace of our gift. He gifted us with responsibility for our own existence (described in §3 and §4). We cannot elude or dissolve God’s commandments. We cannot escape the law of God.

St Athanasius’ next move is a bit unusual. He doesn’t so much frame God’s edict in terms of God’s justice, but rather God’s truthfulness. We are not weighed on the balances of justice and found wanting. Instead, Fr Patrick Reardon once again sums up the issue quite nicely:

The death of Christ in the flesh, in the eyes of Athanasius, was directed, then, not at God’s offended justice, but at man’s bondage to corruption. God had not told Adam, “In the day that you eat of it, you will upset the just order of the universe,” but “In the day that you eat of it, you will die.” Sin entered into man. It did not affect God. For sin to be defeated, then, something in man had to change.6

God cannot violate His own character. God is “true to His creative word.”7 The Creator of all things visible and invisible cannot deny Himself and He cannot negate His own being. He cannot lie. For if God lied, He would negate His own truthful being. If God said that human beings would die because they sinned, then human beings would die when they sinned. God cannot make a promise (albeit a harsh negative promise) and then simply break it. For then God would be a liar.

And so we died. We cannot escape the consequences of our actions.

On the other hand, it was improper that what had once been made rational and partakers of his Word should perish, and once again return to non-being through corruption. It was not worthy of the goodness of God that those created by him should be corrupted through the deceit wrought by the devil upon human beings. And it was supremely  that the workmanship of God in human beings should disappear either through their own negligence or through the deceit of the demons. (§6)

Here is the improper horn of the dilemma. God could simply let human beings vanish into the nada, into the nothing. St Athanasius finds this alternative simply repulsive. God in His goodness had ex-nihil-ated the entire cosmos into existence because He did not begrudge our existence at all (§3). Certainly it was not fitting, proper, or worthy of the Goodness of God to let His beloved creation perish back into the nihil.

If we grab hold of this horn and God lets creation squander her glorious inheritance into utter oblivion, we end up saying God’s goodness is a cosmic charade.

It would be supremely improper that God’s good creation disappear up in smoke simply because humans didn’t care about their own gift. It would also be supremely unworthy if we disappeared simply because demons deceived us. Neither deceit nor negligence are sufficient reasons to let us disintegrate back into nothingness.

God takes our self-destructive de-creation as a direct challenge to His goodness as the Creator of all things.

Therefore, since the rational creatures were being corrupted and such works were perishing, what should God, being good, do? Permit the corrup­tion prevailing against them and death to seize them? (§6)

What should God, being good, do? That really is the question, isn’t it?

In what follows, I don’t have a textual syllable to stand on. I don’t hear any particular echo of Epicurus or Lucretius in St Athanasius. 8 But having read recently how much Lucretius heartily detests the gods and religion, I can’t help but think that St Athanasius is engaging in a silent argument with Epicurus and his school. In this intense, quiet debate, we ponder what is proper to God and what is improper to God. Lucretius summarizes the problem as he understands it. What is worthy of the gods?

And unless you spew out all this from your mind and banish far away thoughts unworthy of the gods and alien to their peace, the holy powers of the gods, degraded by thy thought, will often do thee harm; not that the high majesty of the gods can be polluted by thee, so that in wrath they should yearn to seek sharp retribution, but because you yourself will imagine that those tranquil beings in their placid peace set tossing the great billows of wrath, nor with quiet breast will you approach the shrines of the gods, nor have strength to drink in with tranquil peace of mind the images which are borne from their holy body to herald their divine form to the minds of men. And therefore what manner of life will follow, you may perceive. (De Rerum Natura 6.68-79)

For Lucretius, the gods don’t care about us one bit and we shouldn’t care about them. Every human religion is a cruel delusion. Human beings created the gods in our own image, and not vice-versa. The gods reflect the deepest fears, anxieties, and terrors of humans in an uncertain and perilous universe. Of course the gods are a mixture of good and evil. Because we are a mixture of good and evil.

And in this silent (perhaps imaginary) debate between St Athanasius and the Epicureans, Athanasius quite rightly insists that our own thinking about God must be truly worthy of God. Lucretius has completely misunderstood God and His goodness. Does He smite us because we invent one evil after another? No, our dire situation moved God to act in goodness and love. God doesn’t reign in heavenly bliss, unmoved by human corruption and death. God Himself took the initiative to un-do our descent into the Nihil and to re-create us.9

What need was there for their coming into being 10 at the beginning? It was proper not to have come into being rather than to have come into being to be neglected and destroyed. The weakness, rather than the goodness, of God is made known by neglect, if, after creating, he abandoned his own work to be corrupted, rather than if he had not created the human being in the beginning. (§6)

The God who is goodness Himself would not allow Himself to be defeated by corruption and death. What is the point of bringing human beings created in the image of God into existence in the first place if you’re going to neglect these glorious creatures? Why let them be des­troyed? Why abandon them? It would indeed be better if God had not created human beings at all. But as we already know, God loves to lavish gifts upon His creation. It all comes back to God’s goodness. Blessing and goodness is what a good God does.

A good God does not neglect His creation. If God simply let His creation degenerate into nothingness out of a false sense of lèse-majesté, now that would be completely unbecoming for God!

If God let corruption and death win, St Athanasius concedes it would be better off if God didn’t create us at all. What possible sense does creation make if humankind is ruined?

All this sounds like the nightmare scenario described by David Hume. The cosmic designer is grossly incompetent or, even worse, indifferent. Humanity created in God’s image becomes like a science experiment that’s gone awry.

But in theological fact human beings are not an Etch-a-Sketch drawing that fickle deities draw, erase, and then start all over again. Human beings are not a sloppy sketch drawn up by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur on a napkin in Buck’s of Woodside and then discarded when the vision didn’t pan out. Human beings are not demo software that didn’t meet customer expectations and then quietly shelved.

For us to sink into nothingness and decay would demonstrate God’s weakness, not His Goodness. Creation and Salvation link together as integral pieces of the same divine mystery. God’s goodness was demonstrated in His creation of us out of nothing. And God’s goodness is once again demonstrated by preventing us from “relapsing into nothingness.”11

And St Athanasius assures us repeatedly that, if nothing else, God is Goodness itself.

For not making him, there would have been no one considering the weakness, but once he made him and created him into being (εἰς τὸ εἶναι/eis to einai), it was most absurd that his works should be destroyed, and especially before the sight of the maker. It was therefore right not to permit human beings to be carried away by corruption, because this would be improper to and unworthy of the goodness of God. (§6)

It’s not just absurd to consider that God is capable of lying. It is the height of absurdity that God’s work be destroyed.

St Athanasius circles back to the conclusion of this section. God’s goodness doesn’t allow Him to act in improper and absurd ways.

But maybe there are some other options open to the Almighty. We will explore them next in De Incarnatione Verbi Dei §7.



[1] To be more precise, ‘Is the holy holy because it is loved by the gods, or do they love it because it is holy?’ (Euthyphro, 10a)

[2] If your Hebrew skills are rusty, emeth means truth, faithfulness, stability, or firmness. Lewis’s discussion is found in his Reflections on the Psalms.

[3] This raises famous questions in philosophy of religion. Is the very notion of God coherent? When we ponder God, does the bundle of attributes we typically attribute to God yield logical sense? The famous Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne makes the case for the coherence of theism as well as anyone.

[4] Rowan Williams, The Lion’s World: A Journey Into the Heart of Narnia, p. 64.

[5] Patrick Henry Reardon, Reclaiming the Atonement: An Orthodox Theology of Redemption, p. 125.

[6] Reardon, p. 126.

[7] Here is the entire quote by Khaled Anatolios: “In the context of the entire framework of his ontology of creaturely giftedness, the point is not merely that it is inappropriate for God to go back on His word, as if God’s original word was simply an arbitrary whim to which He was subsequently bound for the sake of maintaining His own consistency. Rather the word of God’s law is true precisely in the sense that it is true to His creative word, true to the most fundamental and ineluctable and radically gracious terms of the relation between God and creation.” From “Creation and Salvation in St Athanasius of Alexandria,” in On the Tree of the Cross.

[8] §2 is not an echo of Epicurus. St Athanasius faces the Epicureans head-on.

[9] Now you might be asking yourself, “Wait a minute, John! Doesn’t God do more than His fair share of smiting sinners with His mighty wrath in the Old Testament?” It’s a fair question, one I can’t answer right now in this blog piece. But in the meantime, read and digest David Steinmetz’s “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis.”

[10] Not “out of nothing.”

[11] Anatolios,  p. 132.

(Go to “The God We Didn’t Invent”)

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“Let us glorify and thank our Lord and God, who sent into our sinful world the greatest of all, the ascetic and preacher of higher truth, the Forerunner John”

His birth was glorified with the prophetic word of Zechariah, who said: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, with which the Dayspring from on high has visited us; to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Lk. 1:76-79).

The whole life of the Forerunner was a harsh life. Regarding the years of his childhood, we know only that which is told us by the Evangelist Luke, in other words, “he grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the desert until the day of his public ministry towards Israel” (Lk. 1:80). How and when the child was found in the desert we do not know for sure. According to tradition, King Herod, after the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem, wanted to kill John, but he couldn’t find him. This angered him greatly, and because of this he ordered his father Zechariah be killed. His mother, having learned that the soldiers were looking for the child, took him and went with him to a desolate mountain region. There having lived a short time, his mother died and the small John remained by himself in the desert.

We do not know how the Lord God fed him, how he protected him from the wild animals, neither do we know how the young Forerunner learned to eat locusts and wild honey. But we firmly believe that for God all things are possible. See, therefore, that from the beginning, the life of him who would be called greatest of “those born of women” (Matt. 11:11) was an unprecedented and unheard of life. He remained in the desert totally by himself until thirty years of age. What did he do in the desert? What did he occupy himself with? He did not have any handiwork, and didn’t have books, neither did he know letters.

The biographies of the great philosophers, such as Descartes and Kant, relate that these men spent whole days and nights sitting in their armchairs, engrossed in their thoughts. Philosophy is deep, but deeper still is theological contemplation, the greatest form of prayer, which the holy fathers call noetic prayer. The depth of communion in Spirit which the saints have with God is inconceivably great. For 91 years the Venerable Paul of Thebes lived in the desert unknown to the world, having communion only with God. For entire nights until the rising of the sun Arsenios the Great stood with hands lifted up to heaven. For a thousand days and a thousand nights the Venerable Seraphim of Sarov prayed to God on a slanted rock. Likely the same was the work of John the Forerunner during his stay in the desert.

In the ceaseless contemplation of God and of the fortunes of the world, in deep communion of prayer with God, his spirit grew and his understanding of the ways of salvation increased, to which he would teach the people who were being lost in their sins. He would have to change their thoughts and the senses of the people, to make them deeper, to urge them to repent and to change their perverted and evil ways.

This was roughly the purpose which He preordained for His great Forerunner: to prepare the path for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is precisely why all his life, from a young age until the moment he began preaching on the banks of the Jordan River, was unprecedented and unheard of. This preaching of repentance drew towards him thousands of people submerged in the futility of worldly life.

Let us glorify and thank our Lord and God, who sent into our sinful world the greatest of all, the ascetic and preacher of higher truth, the Forerunner John. And on this blessed day which is full of grace, his day of birth, let us bend our knees and our hearts, praising and glorifying him. Amen.

St Luke of Simferopol


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Introducing St Theodore of Tarsus

by Fr James Siemens, Ph.D.

Work by unknowns is easy to ignore. Those whose contributions failed to find a recorder in their time, or a relay later, slip from memory and get dismissed as insignificant. This is especially the case when the figure in question represents a place not known for its ideas. After all, when it comes to theological life in the later Patristic period (the ragged border between late antiquity and the early middle ages), we tend to cast our minds to what was happening in Constantinople and its environs, to Rome and its environs; not to the mossy stones and damp thatch of some windswept islands off the Northwest coast of Europe. In the simplest of terms, people tend to think of Britain at the time as post-Roman: a place where, in the wake of the Roman exodus, rough, pagan Anglo-Saxons had pushed indige­nous, Christians Britons West, dividing the land into a patchwork of small kingdoms over which there were constant wars, and where the only memory of Christianity was an eccentric, ‘Celtic’ sort, notwithstanding some papal mission in Kent. Only, perhaps, the most avid reader of the Venerable Bede will be aware that there was more to the Insular picture than that.

Yet, it is in light of such notions that the memory of Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury from 668 until 690, has languished. Although he was a presence at the Lateran Synod of 649 alongside Maximus the Confessor and is named in its Acta; although he was so respected and renowned as to have been sought out by a pope in advance of the Sixth Ecumenical Council; although he had a reputation for learning that would earn him a place in the hearts of poets, historians, and theologians alike, it has been possible for this great figure to become obscured by the mists of time and, eventually, hardly thought of at all as among those worthy of study.

To be fair, it is not as though Theodore left behind a body of work easy for the student of theology to locate and consider. Even what we, in posterity, do possess is hardly going to set the library alight with its luminosity of language, depth, or scope. But that is not to say that the theology of Theodore of Tarsus is insignificant, or that it should be ignored. In fact, even if – on a popular level – little remains known of him today, Theodore is of supreme impor­tance for showing us how theological ideas were transmitted across the Mediterranean world in late antiquity, how Eastern thought and practice could be synthesised with Western at a time when the theological and political language of Greek and Latin were already becoming estranged, and, perhaps above all, for serving as an example of what theology looked like when undertaken in the midst of a life of practical, pastoral service.

Prior to the 1990s, little was known about Theodore of Tarsus other than what could be extracted from Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. To be sure, his name could be found peppered here and there across the literature, but hardly in the most obvious or accessible of places. The poet Aldhelm, in the first instance, who had himself studied with the Greek master, referred to him in a letter in which he wonders aloud why anyone would choose to go to Ireland for study, when just by going to Canterbury they could encounter so great a teacher as Theodore. Then there was the biography of St Wilfrid, written by Stephen of Ripon, in which the conflict between Theodore and Wilfrid over the division of Wilfrid’s see of York was recorded not inaccurately, but in a way that clearly favoured Wilfrid. The penitential that bears Theodore’s name, meanwhile, tended to be discounted due to a perceived problem: it never professed to be of Theodore’s own hand, but merely to represent his teaching. That this was an unfortunate misconception, and that to have read the penitential was indeed to have read material from Theodore’s mind if not his hand, bearing as it does all the hallmarks of his work, formation, and thought, has only been latterly understood. But that is not where his appearances stop. 

After the penitential, and somewhat confounding for more than a generation of historians, was Theodore’s mention by Pope Zacharias in a 748 letter to the missionary Boniface, as one who had been educated in Athens. The problem with this reference is that by Theo­dore’s time, the academy at Athens had long since been closed, and while there is no reference at all to Athens in any of the literature we now have to hand – formerly or latterly identified – there is to its intellectual successor, Constantinople – a centre that, precisely when Theodore would have been there, had been established under imperial patronage as a major centre of learning. Yet for all Pope Zacharias may have been mis­guided and led others astray with his Athens reference, it is actually another papal men­tion that takes on the greatest significance, especially where Theodore’s Christology is concerned. For prior to the Sixth Ecumenical Council of 680, in response to encouragment from Emperor Constantine IV, Pope Agatho called for Theodore’s advice on the question of monotheletism, as he was the only one still alive who had direct knowledge of the issues involved. That Theodore was unable to attend to Agatho’s request in person was a matter of great regret to the Pope, and he said so to the emperor: ‘We were hoping, there­fore, that Theodore, our co-servant and co-bishop, the philosopher and archbishop of Great Britain, would join our enterprise, along with certain others who remain there to the present day’ (recorded in Concilium Universale Constan­tino­politanum Tertium, Concilii Actiones I-XI; trans. M. Lapidge, Biblical Commentaries, p. 80).  So Theodore, alongside no less a name than Maximus the Confessor, was considered an expert on the Christolog­ical issues reflected upon, and determined at, the Lateran Council of 649, and was held in such high standing that his absence was a matter of personal regret to Pope Agatho as the Church headed into the Sixth Ecumenical Council.

Assembling, then, what we know from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History together with the evi­dence expounded since the 1990s, we can say of Theodore that he was born in 602 in the city of the apostle Paul, and that he died in Canterbury eighty-eight years later, having served as ‘archbishop and philosopher of Great Britain’ for twenty-two. Prior to his appointment to the archiepiscopal see of Canterbury by Pope Vitalian in 667 , he had spent a childhood in Tarsus under the boot heels of the Persian army, followed by time at Antioch, then Edessa, in Syria, then a period of study in Constantinople, before taking up residence in the Monas­tery of St Anastasius at Rome whence he attended the aforemen­tioned Lateran Synod, came under the notice of the pope, and ultimately found himself England-bound as archbishop.

In the midst of this, his written legacy is limited, but if we are to understand anything of his thought, it is necessary to be aware of the following texts: the Passio sancti Anastasii (the life of St Anastasius the Persian, patron of Theodore’s monastery in Rome, and the text mentioned explicitly by Bede as one he himself re-translated as it was written in such poor Latin); the Biblical Com­men­taries (a series of commentaries on a number of books of the Bible, made up of notes taken in classes taught primarily by Theodore and, to a lesser extent, the abbot Hadrian); the Penitential (a handbook of penance – a common genre in the early Middle Ages – made up of Theodore’s judgements and pastoral advice in response to sins that might have been raised in the context of confession); the Laterculus Malalianus (half chronicle text, half exegetical text dealing with the life of Christ, it is alone in being complete and entirely of Theodore’s hand. Jane Stevenson made the initial case for its ascription – a case which has since been strengthened and broadly accepted.). Of these, only the Later­culus explicitly explores the theology of the person and work of Christ; the Biblical Commen­taries, meanwhile, due to their nature and certainty of ascription, serve as a litmus test against which anything said about Theodore must be measured. Consequently, it is these two together that serve as the first stop in discerning Theodore’s personal theological assumptions.

The first thing to say about the theology of Theodore of Tarsus is that, while few figures boast the same extensive cosmopolitan formation as he, despite his sojourn in Rome and his manifest fidelity to the faith of the universal Church, his theological and hermeneu­tical bias is toward the East. The influences he cites directly in the Biblical Commentaries, the Penitential and, above all, the Laterculus Malalianus, are almost exclusively Greek or Syriac. In terms of his Christology specifically, his assumptions are built on an Irenaean foundation bolstered by Ephremic imagery, leading to a soteriological picture that would sit comfortably alongside other exemplars in, for example, Norman Russell’s magisterial work on deification. Russell is particularly worthy of mention here because, while count­less others have dealt with the idea of deification (theosis), in passing terms, as being of central importance to any Eastern model of salvation, and some, such as Nellas and Mantzaridis, have proffered specific theological treatises on its genesis and meaning, to date only Russell has undertaken such a critical historical survey, accounting for its appearance across the tradition – Greek, Latin, and Syriac – so effectively in a single volume. In dissecting it as an idea, though, and exploring how it develops in history, he also names a principle at the very heart of deification which happens to represent the single most prominent idea in the Laterculus: the ‘exchange formula’, the notion that God became as we are in order that we might become as He is.

The ‘exchange formula’, which first appears in the preface of Book Five of Irenaeus’ Adverses Haereses, and is then taken up by Athanasius in de Incarnatione and elsewhere, becoming a leitmotif of soteriological discourse in East and West (even if significant differences existed between them in terms of how it was developed), represents a theological interpretation of the Pauline principle of anakephalaiosis, or recapitulation. This principle posits that, in light of Adam’s failure as prototype, all a human being experiences bears the mark of failure. It takes Christ then, as New Adam and perfect prototype, to go through all the same experi­ences and so restore what had failed. It is this language that permeates the Laterculus, and this idea that informs even the composition of the Penitential. At least in this work – the sole explicitly theological of his known bibliography – Theodore comes across as being enam­oured with the idea. Yet even if a count of such words as restaurare and reparator across the text yields seven occurrences, Theodore’s interest in portraying Christ as restorer is established in more than technical terms. So, for example, his account of the Nativity narrative in chapter 14 uses neither of the above terms explicitly, but begins, in somewhat chiasmic fashion, with kenosis (Christ in the manger, as ‘food for the draughts animals’) and ends with restorative purpose (by which Christ, the paterfamilias of the apostles, directs the apostles in their task of feeding the world). The food becomes the feeder, granting to the fed what they need in order that they might live. The props of the Gospel story are turned into instruments of human salvation, whereby humanity is liberated from bondage, restored in the imago Dei, and led in the direction of eternal consolation, the paradisical day.

The development here is important, as it indicates something both theological and herme­neu­tical: something Daniélou described as the “Jewish-Christian” tradition. This is an early theological tradition associated with specific authors of the Semitic near east, generally Greek, but sometimes Syriac in language, and bearing the marks of Semitic thought and Semitic hermeneutics. Among the authors and works that match this description are Aphrahat and Ephrem the Syrian from within the Syriac milieu, Ignatius, Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, Clement, the Didache, and Irenaeus. Each of these figures share an interest in such themes as apocalypticism, millenarianism, and the aetates mundi, all of which are paramount to Theodore in the Laterculus, all of which have been shown in some way to feed into the stream of deification.

The intervening language, meanwhile, is also of immense significance.

Beginning and ending as it does in eucharistic metaphor, the middle of chapter 14 is filled in with the healing imagery of Christ often associated with Ephrem the Syrian, whose influence on Theodore was considerable. Of the infant in the manger Theodore declares, ‘Truly by his garments he is humbled, undergoing our trials; and so applying bandages to us, he produced remedies for our wounds.’ Not only does this connect Theodore with a particularly Eastern conception of Christ (Ambrose and Augustine, for example, when using Christus medicus imagery, apply it exclusively to the sin of the individual; simply put, between East and West, there is humanitashomines division), it weaves the language of restoration together with healing in a way reminiscent of Gregory Nazianzen: ‘That which is not taken up is not healed’ (Ep. 101:32). And although Gregory was here more concerned with illustrating the importance of the fullness of Christ’s humanity – a concern that Theodore would certainly have shared as a participant in the monothelete controversy – the convergence of imagery is both propitious and something that will find increasing traction over subsequent centuries, leading, as it does, toward a fuller, deifying, soteriology.

How does this all coalesce in a single, theological picture we might call Theodore’s Chris­tology? Above all, brightly. For Theodore seems fundamentally optimistic when it comes to God’s forgiveness in Christ. Not so concerned with the sins of individuals – none of which, as he demonstrates in the Penitential, are beyond the threshold of grace – he is instead interested in the bigger picture of what God accomplishes for humanity. This, he asserts across his principal work, is healing and restoration, and by framing it in language of aetates mundi, the historico-eschatological structure that necessarily concludes with the eighth age – that is, the eternal Sabbath, the day of paradise – he gives it a cosmic implica­tion. ‘For Theodore, restoration means the enjoyment of the Sabbath, as the consumma­tion of the divine operation – the ongoing work of creation and re-creation – the ultimate work of God: Et tunc vere sabbatizabunt iusti cum Domino et diem primam fit octavam in resurrec­tionem sanctorum’ (James Siemens, The Christology of Theodore of Tarsus, p. 80). His Christology then, is about a generous, healing Word that restores humanity to its original, iconographic, purpose. Meanwhile, lacking in the speculative depth of someone like his famous contemporary and fellow conciliar alumnus in Rome, Maximus the Confessor, Theodore’s thought nonetheless merges naturally with the doctrine of deification as developed across the Greek tradition whence he originally emerged. Indeed, drawing on Syriac, Greek, and Latin sources and vocabulary, Theodore might best be described as a synthesiser for whom notions of Christ and his restorative work had ultimately to be applied in the office of archbishop, the classroom, and the (proverbial) confessional, as healing balm for the soul.

Yet even if reading the Laterculus on its own tenders a remarkable picture of Theodore’s Christology, it is the fact that his assumptions and understandings are sustained across all his work – the Commentaries, the Penitential, and even the English councils over which he presided – that lends it further weight. Irenaeus, the Cappadocians, John Chrysostom, Ephrem the Syrian, Sophronius of Jerusalem, among others, all make an appearance in his writings, and while his marked desire is to remain in good stead with the teaching of the universal Church, it is important that his predominant christological influences and vocab­ulary are expressive of his formation in the Eastern Mediterranean world. In the end, though, it must be admitted that what we get from Theodore is not the profound philo­soph­ical Christology of someone like Maximus the Confessor; as something altogether more homely, it is unlikely to earn treatment in a dedicated volume on the Fathers. Rather, it is a Christology born of decades spent in study of the dominant disciplines of late antique Constantinople, formed within the Church, and applied to pastoral context. What it contains is a view of wounded humanity in need of healing, met by Christ the Physician who, in response, recapitulates all human experience in order that humanity might be restored. Perhaps most telling, though, is that Theodore does not leave ‘restora­tion’ unexplained. Indeed, it is not merely a re-introduction to some pre-lapsarian state; rather, is to a paradisical day, an eternal sabbath, an eternal day beyond the ages of the world, and it is perfection. At no point does Theodore of Tarsus use the words ‘deification’ or ‘theosis’ for Christ and what he accomplishes for humanity, but he almost certainly means it, and on this basis at least, he is worth extracting from the archives, blowing off the dust, and getting to know first-hand.

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Fr James Siemens is a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest in Wales whose PhD on Theodore of Tarsus, completed in 2008, was published as The Christology of Theodore of Tarsus. Affiliated with Cardiff University, his work since has explored questions around early Christian historiography and eschatology, as well as Anglo-Saxon penitential practice. He was elected as a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2012, and is currently working in cooperation to develop a new centre for theological education based in the UK.

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