“The logos asarkos, the fleshless Word, is a metronomic thought experiment without purchase on the trinitarian economy”

A speculative position in trinitarian theology is that the flesh of Jesus is an atemporal fact about the LORD, and therefore belongs to the trinitarian economy essentially. Slightly more technically, in the metronomic temporal order, according to which time passes and is measurable by clocks and calendars, there was a time before the incarnation, and, therefore, a time when the second person of the Trinity was not enfleshed. But the triune LORD is not subject to that temporal order—the metronome, time whose law is measure, is time damaged, and the LORD is in no way subject to or responsible for damage—and so in the LORD’s time, the time of the diastolic/systolic circumincession of the three persons, what the LORD does in the world, ad extra, is atemporally, which is roughly to say, in the language of the metronome, always, present to the LORD. This entails that the flesh of Jesus is always present to the LORD as the flesh of that divine-human person. Which is in turn to say that the logos asarkos, the fleshless Word, is a metronomic thought experi­ment without purchase on the trinitarian economy. There may be reasons for using the locution, but there are none that require Christians to think that it labels anything. (Divisions of Christian opinion about this matter are, without exception, traceable to disagreements about the nature of time.)

Paul J. Griffiths

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Comments caught in spam queue

Dear readers,

I just found four comments in the spam queue. They appear to have been in there for several days. My apologies for their late approval. Legitimate comments rarely get caught by the WordPress filters. As a result I rarely check the spam queue more than once a week. Hence to find four legitimate comments in the spam queue was a shock. I have no idea why this sometimes happens, nor does WordPress. It shouldn’t happen, but it occasionally does. Those comments have now been approved and are visible in the respective threads.

I offer my apologies to the authors of these comments. I wish I could promise to check the spam queue more frequently, but since the odds of me fulfilling that promise are zilch, I’ll just stick with the “I’m sorry.”

If you submit a comment and 12 hours go by and it still hasn’t appeared, please feel free to email me using the hotmail address found on the “About” page.

Fr A

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“The story of Jesus is the projection of the trinitarian life of God on the rubbish dump that we have made of the world”

I want to argue that the doctrine of the incarnation is such that the story of Jesus is not just the story of God’s involvement with his creatures but that it is actually the ‘story’ of God. There is one sense in which we must say that God has no life-story—and it is essential to my thesis to insist on this, as we shall see—but there is is also a sense, the only sense, in which God has or is a life-story, and this is the story revealed in the incarnation and it is the story we also call the Trinity.

The story of Jesus is nothing other than the triune life of God projected unto our history, or enacted sacramentally in our history, so that it becomes story.

I use the word ‘projected’ in the sense that we project a film onto a screen. If it is a smooth silver screen you see the film simply in itself. If the screen is twisted in some way, you get a systematically distorted image of the film. Now imagine a film projected not on a screen but on a rubbish dump. The story of Jesus—which in its full extent is the entire Bible—is the projection of the trinitarian life of God on the rubbish dump that we have made of the world. The historical mission of Jesus is nothing other than the eternal mission of the Son from the Father; the historical outpouring of the Spirit in virtue of the passion, death and ascension of Jesus is nothing but the eternal outpouring of the Spirit from the Father through the Son. Watching, so to say, the story of Jesus, we are watching the processions of the Trinity.

That the missions in time of Son and Spirit reflect the eternal relations is, of course, perfectly ordi­nary traditional teaching. What I am venturing to suggest is that they are not just reflec­tion but sacrament—they contain the reality they signify. The mission of Jesus is nothing other than the eternal generation of the Son. That the Trinity looks like a story of (is a story) of rejection, tortue and murder but also of reconciliation is because it is being projected on, lived out on, our rubbish tip; it is because of the sin of the world.

There is such to say both to try and justify this position and to bring out its implications, but just for the moment I want to look at its bearing on the question of the ‘pre-existent Christ’. It is part of my thesis that there is no such thing as the pre-existent Christ.

The pre-existent Christ was invented, to the best of my knowledge, in the nineteenth cen­tury, as a way of distinguishing the eternal procession of the Son from the incarnation of the Son. It was affirmed by those who wanted to say that Jesus did not become Son of God in virtue of the incarnation. He was already Son of God before that. The pre-existent Christ marks the development from the ‘low’ christology of the virgin birth that you get in Matthew and Luke to the ‘high’ christology of John, with the pre-existent Word in the beginning with God …

I wish to reject the notion from two points of view. In the first place, to speak of the pre-existent Christ is to imply that God has a life-story, a divine story, other than the story of the incarnation. It is to suppose that in some sense there was a Son of God existing from the eternal ages who at some point in his eternal career assumed a human nature and was made man. First the son of God pre-existed as just the Son of God and then later he was the Son of God made man. I think this only needs to be stated to be seen as incompatible at least with the traditional doctrine of God coming to us through Augustine and Aquinas. There can be no succession in the eternal God, no change. Eternity is not, of course, a very long time; it is not time at all. Eternity is not timeless in the sense that an instant is timeless—for an instant is timeless simply in being the limit of a stretch of time, just as a point has no length not because it is very very short but because it is the limit of a length. No: eternity is timeless because it totally transcends time. To be eternal is just to be God. God’s life is neither past nor present, nor even simultaneous with any event, any clock, any history. The picture of the Son of God ‘becoming’ at a certain point in the divine duration the incarnate Son of God, ‘coming down from heaven’, makes a perfectly good metaphor but could not be literally true. There was, from the point of view of God’s life, no such thing as a moment at which the eternal Son of God was not Jesus of Nazareth. There could not be any moments in God’s life. The eternal life of Jesus as such could not precede, follow or be simultaneous with his human life. There is no story of God ‘before’ the story of Jesus. This point would not, of course be grasped by those for whom God is an inhabitant of the universe, subject to experience and to history. I am not, need I say, suggesting that it can be grasped intelligibly by anyone, but in the traditional view it is the mystery that we affirm when we speak of God.

From the point of view of God, then, sub specie eternitatis, no sense can be given to the idea that at some point in God’s life-story the Son became incarnate. But I also want to question the notion of the pre-existent Christ from another point of view.

From the point of view of time, of our history (which, of course, is the only point of view we can actually take) there was certainly a time when Jesus had not yet been born. Moses could have said with perfect truth ‘Jesus of Nazareth is not yet’ or ‘Jesus does not exist’ because, of course, the future does not exist; that is what makes it future. (There are people who imagine that the future somehow does exist, perhaps in the way that the past has a certain existence—in the sense that about the past there are fixed and settled true propositions. But these people are, in my view, mistaken. They are especially mistaken when they say, as they some­times do, ‘the future already exists for God’, for to say that is to attribute a mistake to God, and a philosophical mistake at that.) So, yes, Moses could have truly said ‘Jesus does not exist’, he could also have said with truth ‘The Son of God does exist’, and he could have made both these statements at the same time.

Now this fact might be called the ‘pre-existence of Christ’, meaning that at an earlier time in our history (and there isn’t any time except in history) those propositions would both have been true: ‘Jesus does not exist’, ‘The Son of God does exist’, thus apparently making a distinction between the existence of Jesus and the existence of the Son of God. But the phrase ‘pre-existent’ Christ seems to imply not just that in the time of Moses ‘The Son of God exists’ would be true, but also that the propostion ‘The Son of God exists now’ would be true. And this would be a mistake. Moses could certainly have said ‘It is true now that the Son of God exists’ but he could not have said truly ‘The Son of God exists now’. That propostion, which attributes temporal existence (‘now’) to the Son of God, is the one that became true when Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary. The simple truth is that apart from incar­nation the Son of God exists at no time at all, at no ‘now’, but in eternity, in which he acts upon all time but is not himself ‘measured by it’, as Aquinas would say. ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’

So, like those who speak in what I regard as a muddled way about the ‘pre-existent Christ’, I too wish to adopt John’s high christology and say that it is not the incarnation that brings about the divine sonship of Jesus; but I suggest that the incarnation and the whole life of Jesus is the sacrament of divine sonship; it just is the divine sonship as story as manifest in history.

Herbert McCabe, O.P.

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“We thus begin from the flesh of Christ and from there mount to communion with the deity of the Logos, and from there to communion with the entire Trinity”

It is also the nature of the hypostatic union that now after the incarnation the person of the Logos cannot and ought not to be considered or made an object of faith outside of, without or separate from the assumed nature, nor in turn the assumed flesh outside of and without the Logos, if we wish to think reverently and correctly. Indeed, since for us poor sinners there is no approach open to the bare divine majesty any more than for a blade of straw to a consuming fire, the divine nature of the Logos assumed a nature of the same substance with ours and akin to ours, in which He placed the whole fullness of the deity personally, so that in this object which is of the same substance with ours and akin to us we might know God, seek, and grasp Him. For in the flesh of Christ dwells the whole fullness of the deity of the Son, and the Father is in the Son. We thus begin from the flesh of Christ and from there mount to communion with the deity of the Logos, and from there to communion with the entire Trinity.

Martin Chemnitz

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Lewis and Tolkien discuss myths, lies, and materialism

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The Doxastic Problem: If you really, really believe in hell, you may already be in it

I have saved the best for last. Okay, that’s a tad inaccurate. I imagine that most readers of Sinners in the Presence of a Loving God will find the chapters devoted to the divine pres­ence model of hell to be the most interesting and profitable, as well as the author’s analysis of Calvinist construals of damnation in the early chapters. But for me personally, it was chapter 2 that grabbed my attention: “The Doxastic Problem.” Doxastic? I confess that I had not run into this word before, so of course I did a Google search and discovered that it has something to do with beliefs. There’s even a discipline in philosophy called doxastic logic. So what is the doxastic problem that deserves a chapter all to itself? Under this phrase Zachary Manis groups the “psychological consequences of thoroughgoing belief in hell” (p. 48). He stresses the thoroughgoing:

Among those who profess belief in the traditional doctrine of hell, it seems that there are many who either do not truly believe the doctrine or whose belief in it is at best irrational, and the doxastic problem that I wish to discuss do not apply to such individuals. The irrational nature of these individuals’ belief stems not from a lack of justification—or at least not only this—but rather from the incongruity arising from the combination of this belief with their other beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and actions. Being consigned to hell is, nearly by definition, the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone. We would judge a mother mentally ill who looked out the kitchen window, saw a neighbor child in the street in imminent danger of an oncoming speeding car, and continued tranquilly washing the dishes. Yet scores of theists profess to believe that multitudes of people around them are doomed to spend eternity in hell, without its having any apparent effect on their day-to-day actions or emotional states. It would be irrational, and probably a sign of insanity, for one to hold the belief that one might have terminal cancer in such a way that it was just one more belief among the many beliefs one held. Yet many theists seem to hold a belief in the traditional doctrine of hell in just such a manner. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that such theists do not really believe what they claim to believe, for if they do, the manner in which they hold this belief is highly irrational. (pp. 48-49)

We all hold beliefs, individually and collectively, that do not impact our day-to-day lives. 72% of Americans, for example, believe that global warming is a real threat, yet we remain unwilling as a nation to address the problem. Our belief in the impending cataclysm informs neither public policy nor our individual choices. We plan and work for the future as if all were right with the world, despite what we say we believe about that future. The ecological dystopia is too terrifying to think upon. And so with hell. Everlasting damnation has long been a doctrine commended by the Church for genuine belief—what Catholics call “the assent of faith.” We are summoned to affirm everlasting damnation as a teaching revealed by God and therefore incorporate it into our fundamental belief system and live our lives accordingly. Mere lip service is hardly adequate, yet the doctrine is so horrific, mere lip service remains the norm (even when vociferously defended). But if we do wholeheartedly believe the doctrine, the conse­quences to spiritual health and the mission of the gospel will be deleterious.

Underlying the doxastic problem are two theological assumptions:

  1. “Any doctrine revealed in Scripture ought to be genuinely believed, carefully reflected upon, and deeply appropriated” (p. 49).
  2. “Genuine belief in, careful reflection upon, and deep appropriation of any doctrine revealed in Scripture is spiritually edifying, both individually (to the believer) and corporately (to the Church)” (p. 50).

Manis identifies six possible dilemmas posed by the doctrine of eternal perdition. Let’s take a look at the one I find most compelling—coercion & liberty. The threat of damnation is so severe, the argument goes, that it subverts human freedom and the ability to love and trust the Creator:

The problem, however, is that if one believes—truly believes—the doctrine of hell according to traditionalism, it seems all but impossible that one could choose to do anything other than what one believes is necessary to avoid the fate of being consigned to hell. There is no greater threat than that of being damned for all eternity; as previously noted, hell is the worst thing that could possibly happen to a person. When a threat of such magnitude is made, and one believes the threat is real and not a bluff, it seems that any decision made in response to it is coerced. But if this true, how can one’s response (to receive God’s grace, to accept Christ, to give one’s life to the Lord—however one wishes to put it) be a free decision? (pp. 53-54)

As understood by many (most?) analytic philosophers, freedom requires the ability to do otherwise; but when con­fronted by the the threat of hell, there is no rational otherwise. Refusal is a “psychological impossibility.” By this term Manis means “that which one simply could not bring oneself to do, even if doing so is possible in some other sense” (p. 55, n. 17). If it is psychologically impossible for a person to choose to perform a specific action, then that person is not libertarianly free; ditto if it is psychologically impossible for a person to choose not to perform a specific action. Given that everlasting torment represents a maximal threat to one’s happiness and well-being, a rational being will do, must do, whatever is necessary to avoid this fate. He cannot rationally do otherwise. The threat of perdition, therefore, functions as maximal coercion. Within a Christian context where the benevolence of God norms proclamation and discourse, it weaponizes the divine love and renders a free response of love and faith—precisely the response God desires from us—impossible. It’s as if God has put a gun to our heads: “Obey me or else.” The only persons who will disobey the demand are those who disbelieve the threat. “But then,” Manis observes, “this seems to make the revelation of hell either useless or counterpro­ductive: it is useless to those who disbelieve it, and it is counterproductive to those who do believe it, for it renders the believers incapable of doing what is required of them in the manner in which God wants them to do it” (p. 56). If one believes that God truly desires from us a free response of love and faith, then one is duty-bound to reject the doctrine of hell, “for one ought not to do anything (including form any belief) that makes loving God impossible” (p. 56).

The retributive model of damnation would seem to be particularly vulnerable to the coercion & liberty dilemma. Once I have thoroughly embraced this model, then fear of eschatological punishment—and therefore fear of God—must become the supreme motivating force in my life, and I will dedicate all of my energies toward accomplishing whatever is divinely required to avoid condemnation at the final judgment. In the language of the Lutheran Reformers, my life is now existentially constituted by self-justification and works-righteous­ness: salvation is not a gift to be received but a task to be achieved by my doings (ethical, liturgical, ascetical). My picture of God invariably becomes that of a tyrant and law-giver, his love being conditioned by my performance and obedience. Scrupulosity and pride are common outcomes. And should I ever become convinced that I am incapable of succeeding in the task of salvation … my life will become the hell I believe and fear.

What of the choice model of hell? Manis suggests that it avoids the doxastic problem:

If the suffering of hell is a natural consequence of willful persistence in sin, there is no concern that it is cruel and unusual, and if God is not the one inflicting it, there is no concern that He is being unduly harsh or unloving. There is, furthermore, little if any concern that the doctrine of hell functions as a threat on such views; in fact, in FWA [free will annihila­tionism] and the direct form of the choice model, at least, it seems that creaturely annihilation/damnation is actually an expression of God’s love, since God is here simply giving the damned what they have freely and willingly chosen for themselves. So the most prominent doxastic problem is sufficiently ameliorated as well … Both the choice model and non-retributive forms of annihilationism place the central barrier to salvation in human free-will, which allows their various proponents to insist without duplicity that God loves everyone and does everything in His power to save every person He creates. (p. 233; my emphasis)

Yet is it true that the doctrine of hell does not function as a threat in the choice model? Only, I would think, if freely-chosen hell is never declared from the pulpit or taught in catechism classes. But once it is so declared and taught, it will always be heard as a threat, a threat not of retributive punishment but of the possibility of irrecoverable failure. The coercive exhortation remains: “Repent or be damned.” When con­fronted with this word, it doesn’t help me if the preacher appends the assurance that God has done and is doing all he can to make it possible for me to save myself. The love of God and his optimal grace are indeed proclaimed in the choice model, but my eternal happiness remains contingent upon the exercise of my free will. I still must do something: I must repent, I must accept God’s forgiveness, I must open my heart to the Spirit, I must become the kind of person who will gratefully receive the freely-offered divine love—always under the threat of interminable suffering. In the retributive model, the threat is directed to my performance and works; in the choice model, it is directed to the mysterious depths of subjectivity and character, over which I have even less control than my actions. In the retributive model, I fear that the divine Judge may judge my works inade­quate or insufficient; in the choice model, that my bondage to sin and vice (or just plain idiocy) may triumph over God’s desire to save me. It is true that the choice model portrays God as loving, but it is a love that is impotent before my (ostensibly) free will that may prove unable to conquer my egotism and blindness. Am I really more free in the latter than the former? Given the stakes, am I psychologically free to do otherwise? It’s swell to be told that God loves me infinitely, but the power of that message is undermined by the reality that God has placed me in what may turn out to be be a Kobiyashi Maru scenario. A gun is still being held to my head, only I’m the one holding it (with God’s hands wrapped around mine). The “pedagogy of intimidation and terror,” as Alexandre Turincev calls it, remains intact. In both the retributive and choice models, the burden of salvation ultimately rests upon the alien­ated self—that is the real doxastic problem. This becomes clearer when we consider that for both models preachers remain bound to the “if … then” structure of conditional promise (see my articles “Preach­ing Apokatastasis,” “To Preach the Gospel is to Justify the Ungodly” and “Preaching Gospel”). The doxastic dilemma remains, only in a different key. Perhaps we might name it “the existential problem of hell.”

The above concerns also obtain, I submit, under the divine presence model. Manis believes that his constructive proposal evades the doxastic problem, because like the choice model, it too rejects divine retribution. God does not intend retribution by his eschatological revela­tion of glory; it only feels that way to the damned:

Since exposure to the divine presence is imposed on them by God, against their own wills, it is experienced by the damned as a divine punishment … From the perspective of the damned, hell is an experience of divine wrath, judgment, and vengeance; it feels like a retributive punishment to those who suffer it. (p. 286)

However, if my analysis is correct, the threat of perdition not only remains in the divine presence model but becomes as explicit and decisive as in the retributive model. When the Holy Trinity finally manifests himself in the fullness of his glory, I will discover that I have either become one of the deified (but I cannot know this ahead of time, apart from a special revelation) or one of the irredeemable, forever condemned to torment. In the meantime, there remains the abiding threat of perdition. If preachers declare this threat, which they must, and if I thoroughly believe this threat, as I should, then I inevitably find myself trapped in the deadly structure of conditional salvation and works righteousness. I may not fear God as my Judge, but how can I love him as my Savior?

(Return to first article)


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Against Asymmetrical Christology: A Critical Review of Rowan Williams’s ‘Christ the Heart of Creation’

by Jordan Daniel Wood, Ph.D.


When I first met him, he had just given a talk on St. Teresa of Avila, I think. I waver because I had brought along my 18-month old daughter and, well, she wasn’t as interested in the subject matter as I’d hoped. I introduced myself with a sort of hackneyed fan-boy opening line, overtired infant in arms. “Dr. Williams,” I muttered, “thank you for your talk [whatever it was about]. Just wanted to say that your book on Dostoevsky remains one of the most theologically influential on my thinking.” He (rightfully) ignored this advance and advanced himself toward my daughter: “And who’s this little one?” Then he furrowed his brows, which proved notable even by my daughter’s high standards for attentiveness.

This is the Rowan Williams many of us have come to know and cherish: an uncommon concoction of erudition, wit, wisdom, prayer, and intellect. His latest work, Christ the Heart of Creation, offers nothing less. I’d drawn up a lengthy list of Williams’s astonish­ingly wide-ranging corpus (I failed to mention to him that day, for instance, that his work Lost Icons informs the way I parent my children), but you likely already know what value lies in the man’s work. So I restrict myself to this bit of adulation: for my part, Williams is perhaps the most formidable theologian writing in English today. That I find myself in significant disagreement with him on several crucial christological points doesn’t detract from that sentiment in the slightest—indeed it tempts me into trepidation. Rather it’s precisely because I regard Williams as representative of the best Christian theology currently on offer that it seems especially salutary to labor over where I think he’s wrong and why.

In the next section I try to summarize Williams’s proposals, noting points of agreement along the way. The third section registers some criticisms. I conclude with some pointed questions of my own.


In characteristic fashion Williams’s argument is at once a constructive proposal and a historical narrative. It’s a historically crafted constructive proposal and a constructively crafted narration of christological thought across the centuries. That’s as it should be, it seems to me. The deep riches of Christian wisdom unfold within and through its historical, living, and thinking tradition(s). That same tradition invites fresh reflection precisely because significant portions of its own makeup comprise highly refined “byzantine” or “scholastic” contemplation. And so Williams glides with ease from moments of sharp syllogism to narrating the flow and development of thought on the mystery of Christ. This also means—a truly praiseworthy trait of this study—that Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, proves magnanimously indifferent to deep party-divisions within Christian tradition: Aquinas plays the great christological synthesizer in this tale, late antique Byzantine theologians his rightful predecessors, Calvin his (perhaps unwitting) successor, Bonhoeffer a premiere theorizer and political practitioner in modern times—all while the Jesuit Erich Przywara and Anglican divine Austin Farrer provide the essential philosoph­ical framework for seeing the God-world relation and its proper disclosure in Christ. One might even get the sense, rare nowadays, that it’s speculation of the truth itself that describes Williams’s principal task here.

I present Williams’s project from two vantages. First I list and describe (almost analytically) his basic theses. Then I review the argument through the story he tells.

Three formal theses. The first and maybe most expansive proposal of the book is that christology is always (or ought to be) an exercise that clarifies the grammar of how we speak about and live within the mystery of Christ. There you have the book’s two constitutive components: sustained reflection on how we should and shouldn’t talk about Jesus (Introduction & secs.1.1-2.1), then the way this reflection informs and is informed by a responsible, ethical way of life (sec. 2.2). Christology grants us not only explanation but “a world to live in” (xi).

Williams’s second formal claim is that thinking about Christ must involve thinking about the God-world relation itself. Christology, we might say, cannot do without metaphysics (and the reverse). This is because in “both creation and incarnation, God has elected to live within the created order without ceasing to be what God eternally is” (107). Williams is quite right that this has been so throughout most of Christian history. There you’ll find that christology and metaphysics effect “mutual illumination”: not only will you encounter the same questions, but clarity about one will necessarily entail revisiting the other (xiii).

Last and most programmatic: classical christolog­ical doctrine both unveils and depends on a metaphysical non-rivalry between infinite and finite agencies. “God’s action cannot be added to the action of some other agent to make a more effective force. And this also means that God’s action is never in competition with any particular activity inside the universe” (xii, emphasis his). That divinity and humanity retain their full integrity in Christ—unconfused, unchanged, undivided, inseparable—verifies and crystalizes for us the fact that God need not suppress anything creaturely in order to be immanent to his creation. Nor does creation need to condition God to secure its relative integrity against the claims of the infinite. In Christ God “refuses, we might say, to be our rival at any imaginable level” (166—the proximate context here is Calvin’s doctrine of Christ’s merits, but the point recurs: cf. xii, 11, 221, passim). It’s exactly because we shouldn’t conceive infinite agency and being as yet another instance of finite agency that we must refrain from adding them together, as if (Farrer’s insight) “more of one means less of the other” (11; cf. 227). And so the title emblazons the essential thesis: “This is the sense in which Jesus Christ is at the heart of creation…as the one in whom the movement or energy of filial love and understand­ing is fully active in and as finite substance and energy” (223). The Creator can enact and self-identify as a creature just because “Creator” and “creature” do not vie for the same metaphysical territory: God acts in and as that man Jesus of Nazareth, and doesn’t for all that deplete his divinity.

So far I find myself in complete agreement. Indeed I unequivocally support the first thesis, though I say little more about it. Williams’s discussion of Bonhoeffer’s christological ethics—especially when it insists that ideology of any sort, radical or conservative, which would reserve for itself some exemption from our concrete complicity in socio-political sin “becomes a strictly Christological error” (206)—is arrestingly insightful. But these are formal theses. As such the differences don’t emerge until you consider the material content of Williams’s christology, particularly with respect to the final two theses. I will below, and there my disagreement emerges.

The story’s argument. First, though, Williams’s overarching narrative and the argument it makes. This story’s plot comprises roughly six Acts (this is my sequence and numbering, not the book’s). In Act I we have the New Testament’s highly compressed and often odd lan­guage surrounding the figure of Jesus. Williams’s really cogent here, particularly when he describes the way Paul’s theology of the Body of Christ moves “well beyond what is normally ascribable to a human individual,” and so proves already generative of christological specu­lation and development (48). Only a casual and false reading of patristic christological controversy imagines that it’s somehow foreign to the earliest Christian kerygma.

In Act II we see how Christ-talk develops steadily (though not easily) over the patristic and medieval eras around “the central issue of the relation of Creator to creation” (117). Chalcedon, to name one defining moment, awkwardly reasserted the full divinity and full humanity in the one Christ. Thus it merely reasserted the inseparability of thinking the God-world relation from thinking the mystery of Christ. Further refinements to the concept of “hypostasis” among Byzantine thinkers such as Leontius of Byzantium and Maximus Confessor provided a crucial “bridge” to the medieval synthesis achieved most brilliantly by Thomas Aquinas (83; cf. 37, 116, 122).

Aquinas is Act III. He perfects the christological results of the Byzantines. Not only, Williams alleges, was his christology closer to Cyril’s and John Damascene’s “than any of his Western predecessors” (116)—which might be news to readers of Eriugena or Hugh of St. Victor!—but Aquinas’s synthesis “can reasonably be thought of as an achievement of both Western and Eastern thought” (122). Williams thinks so for two reasons. First, the main burden of the many counterfactual questions Aquinas raises and addresses (esp. in ST III) is to demonstrate that “the union of divine and human in Jesus is in no way the fusion of two comparable metaphysical subjects” (26). That the Father rather than the Son might have been incarnate, for instance, shows just how unconditioned the Son’s identity is by the event of the Incarnation. And yet, second, the Word’s historical Incarnation demands that there is “nothing that can be said of Jesus of Nazareth that is not in a strict sense spoken ‘about’ the Word of God, considered as the final ground or condition of the historical identity of Jesus” (30-1). So while the Word’s personal esse is what and who it is from all eternity, it is this very same esse that alone makes the man Jesus to exist and to bear the unique character of the Son’s eternal filiation (34-5). Just here emerges Williams’s asymmetrical christology: the life of Jesus cannot be adequately grasped without reference to the fundamental ground and principle of its subsistence in the divine Word, but that same life “contributes nothing extra to that identifying esse” (35; cf. 89-90). If there is no Jesus without the Word—and that in a “unique” act of God the Word (36)—there could very well be the Word without Jesus. This, Williams claims, is basically what the late Byzantine thinkers meant by their doctrine that Christ’s humanity subsists only in his person, i.e. is “enhypostasized” in the Word’s own hypostasis. I return to this misleading claim below.

Acts IV and V ring radically orthodox. In the former the story takes a bad turn: late medievals—Scotus and especially Ockham—weaken Aquinas’s delicate synthesis to the extent that they separate God and world at every point, making every relation “extrinsic” in the extreme (123; esp. 127-141). They overemphasize God-world (and so Word-Jesus) disjunction at the expense of Aquinas’s tensively-poised asymmetry. Then the next Act narrates a mixed reaction among the Reformers. Luther overreacts to the late medieval cleavage between Christ’s humanity and divinity, all but asserting their “simple identity.” For Luther it’s right to say of Jesus, “There goes God down the street!” and “The man Christ created the world and is almighty!” (138, n. 22). Calvin corrects Luther’s pendulum swing by urging that (in Williams’s terms) “there can be no simple identity between divinity and embodied humanity; the unity that we affirm is a unity of action and of person.” The very core of the extra Calvinisticum declares just this: “there is no sense in which the embodied humanity can exhaust the single divine agency of the Word” (152, his emphasis). Thus Calvin “recovers” Aquinas’s asymmetrical christology, which confesses the utter dependence of Christ’s humanity upon his person while denying any hint of some mutual conditioning between the Word’s eternal, divine life and his earthly, temporal one—an unhealthy obsession, say, with the communicatio idiomatum (hence Osiander’s “error” of attributing to Christ’s glorified humanity divine omnipresence, which Calvinists deny).

The dénouement, Act VI, shows how Calvin’s distinctive emphasis on Christ’s “solidarity” with humanity—unto the depths of hell in all its emotional duress—forms an immediate connection to Bonhoeffer’s intuition that the metaphysical non-rivalry Chalcedon commends ultimately issues in the ethical call for the Church to define itself as being-for-the-world (not simply over-and-against it)—a call to radical and self-sacrificing solidarity (Stellvertretung) on behalf of the world in the manner of Christ.1

So much for the narrative and its central constructive proposals. One might quibble with this narration, of course. Williams himself admits that the history of dogma is “rarely if ever a smooth story of advance towards consensual resolution” (127). But I want instead to address more substantive matters of disagreement, above all this business about “asymmetry.”


What troubles me most about Williams’s christology is how keen it is to deny “exhaustive identity” between the Word of God and Jesus of Nazareth (159-60). His asymmetrical framework means precisely to forestall any attempt to perceive in Chalcedon’s “one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten”—”a single hypostasis and a single person”—a simple Word-Jesus identity, still less some kind of symmetrical, mutually reciprocal relation between Christ’s natures. And so for Williams:

the agenda for the theology of the centuries immediately following Chalcedon was unmistakeably the clarification of the vocabulary and assumptions of the definition, so as to underline the asymmetry of the relation between the single hypostasis and the divinity and the single hypostasis and the humanity, and to avoid anything which might suggest that either hypostasis or essence could exist in a purely abstract way…. In fact we are already well on the way in these discussion [sic] to the recognition by medievals like Aquinas that the single esse of the incarnate Word could intelligibly be discussed from two significantly different points of view; and the working through of the asymmetry between Christ’s sharing of the divine essence and his sharing of human nature brought more clearly to light some of the ways in which the classical Christological model both reflected and illuminated fundamental convictions about the asymmetrical relation of creative and created act. (88, my emphasis)

The Chalcedonian Definition unsettles Williams’s schema because, while there’s quite a bit of identity (“one and the same Christ,” “a single hypostasis”) and even symmetry (“the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity,” “consubstantial with the Father…consubstantial with us”), there’s precious little that might be described as “asymmetrical.” This aspect had to be developed. Theologians became increasingly aware of the need to speak about Christ “from two significantly different points of view.” This amounts to the two “perspectives” delineated with utmost clarity in Aquinas: there’s the divine Word who is what and who he is from eternity, and then there’s the human Jesus who is what and who he is from a moment in time, though only because he subsists in that eternal Word’s own person (115-16).

That last elicits the doctrine of “enhypostatization,” which holds that Christ’s human nature has neither subsistence nor natural activity outside of the Word’s hypostasis. It is and is what it is only in his hypostasis—his humanity is “enhypostasized.”2 Crucial here—and what Williams misses—is that distinguishing a hypostasis as such from the nature(s) it “enhypos­tasizes” permits us to discern two remarkable implications of Chalcedon’s portrait of Christ: [1] even if they’re concretely inseparable, a hypostasis and its nature(s) are not simply reducible to one another—they bear different principles or “logics.”3 A “hypos­tasis” says that and who is, a “nature” says what (it is and how that kind of thing acts). This distinction also shows that [2] an “enhypostatic” nature (or accident) designates that nature’s mode of existing—not what it is or even how it naturally acts (i.e. its natural powers), but where it is determinately real and who is the agent of its natural powers. These two features of Neochalcedonian christology yield a basic but significant insight: when it comes to “one and the same Christ,” the person is the mode of real union between the two natures. As Maximus says:

For [one rightly] confesses with the Fathers that the unconfused [natures] from which Christ is composed remained on account of the difference preserved. Apart from the one hypostasis, these realities that differ from each other in their natural principle could never exist, and you could never in any way know them separately [from the hypostasis].4

In Christ, who is the very subsistence of the Word from the Father, divine and human nature subsist. Apart from him they do not exist at all.5 But since the hypostasis is the natures’ sole subsistence (divinity subsists in all three Persons, of course, only as Father, Son, Spirit), it is also the sole and sufficient way they are one. In fact, they can be an identical reality in the Word’s hypostasis exactly because the logic of hypostasis as such contains no essential content that might otherwise require that these two infinitely different natures (and modes) remain as really distinct as they are abstractly distinct. A hypostasis is hospitable to nature because a hypostasis has no natural content in itself. You could list every imaginable property of my (human) nature along with every accident attributable to me at any point in my life—and you would not list me, my very person.6 Identify every predicable characteristic of me; you still have not identified the one thus identified—the irreducibly singular one who bears these identifying characteristics. So too with Christ. Even if we could identify and speak the properties of his divine and human natures (and the accidents variously inhering in the latter), we would not then speak his person, the one who possesses and is both natures at once. The marks that identify are not themselves the one identified. For that, we typically reserve a proper name: “Jesus” (cf. Php 2.9-11).

And so a good deal of my issues with Williams’s christology derive, I think, from the way he often elides the logics of hypostasis and nature. Consider again the italicized part of the quote above: post-Chalcedonian christology had to establish “the asymmetry of the relation between the single hypostasis and the divinity and the single hypostasis and the humanity.” I can see an asymmetry between “divinity” and “humanity” abstractly conceived. The former causes the latter, not the reverse; the former is eternal, the latter bound by time; indeed the former is unconditioned and infinite in agency, the latter conditioned and finite in its action; and so ever on. But notice: humanity and divinity are not the only two terms on each side of the relation here. Is not the “hypostasis” that appears in both terms the very same? Presum­ably so, lest we revert to Nestorianism. But if they refer to the same hypostasis, how could they form part of what is compared and contrasted between each term in order to establish an asymmetrical relation? Isn’t it rather that this very hypostatic identity in which alone each nature subsists and thus subsists as one and the same—isn’t it this very identity that allows for any comparison at all? Isn’t the Word the same Word on both “sides” of the asymmetrical relation? Surely. But then he is not himself an asymmetrical relation. He is the identical relation that grounds whatever asymmetrical relation we abstract from his concrete oneness, his subsistence, his unity, himself.

Again, Williams worries over what seems to be the natural way to take Chalcedon:

There is indeed…a problem in Chalcedon’s language to the extent that it implies that there is a single hypostasis which relates in the same way to two sets of attributes—which is the implication of saying, as the formula does, that Christ is of one essence (homoousios) with the Father as regards his divinity and of one essence with us as regards his humanity. The difficulty is that, taken at face value, this would mean either that the hypostasis somehow pre-exists both ‘natures’ or at least is independent of them in some sense, or that two abstract sets of attributes somehow come together to be unified in one agent. (86-7, his emphasis)

Williams’s failure to distinguish sufficiently the logics of hypostasis and natures lures him into a false alternative: surely we cannot say the Son relates to his natures in the same way, lest we posit either the preexistence of the hypostasis-subject as such before it relates to its natures, or we envisage the hypostatic union as a conjunction of two abstract natures. But why can’t the Word relate to his two natures in the same way—namely as their concrete subsistence and most fundamental personal mode—as him? And this certainly needn’t require preexistence. After all, neither my soul nor my body are the whole of me, Jordan. And yet I am both of them at once, and they would not be at all were they not I. Therefore their logical and metaphysical distinction from me (“independent in some sense,” we might say) does not imply my actual preexistence of them, nor theirs of me.7 Nor does any of this imply a conjunction of abstract predicates. It implies only this: that precisely because a hypostasis bears a logic different from (any) nature, it cannot and need not relate to (any) nature naturally. No amount of comparison between natures as such, then, could ever describe a hypostasis’s relation to its nature(s). A hypostasis is its nature(s) in a mysteriously immediate way, unlike the way a particular nature is its nature (e.g. the way my soul is “soul,” that is, as naturally identical to other instances of the same genus). I do not need any sort of natural mediation to be the concrete identity that is my heart, brain, toe, emotions, soul, thoughts, etc. (They relate to each other that way, but I don’t). That Christ’s divine nature is eternal while his humanity is temporal, for example, says precisely nothing about how their one hypostasis relates to either—for he is both.

Jesus Christ is no more God than man. He is no less man than God. And that’s because he is “neither naked man,” writes Maximus, “nor naked God,” but is “double-natured” and essentially both at once.8 Asymmetrical christology only works if you neglect the immediacy of hypostatic identity and weigh, as it were, one abstract nature against the other and then mistake logical and abstract priority for real, hypostatic priority. Divinity “preexists” time in its eternity; therefore Christ’s divinity comes “before” his humanity, which is in time and thus arrives “after” the divinity he “already” possesses. But this is abstract and imprecise. Since hypostatic identity does not relate to nature as natures relate to one another, we must rather say: one and the same Christ, Son, Word, Only-Begotten, is the “before” and the “after” of both his natures.9

It’s unfortunate, then, that Williams’s principal strategy amounts to observing the many ways divinity is what it is quite apart from humanity (or the infinite apart from the finite), and to conclude from this that we ought not to identify the Word (divinity) and Jesus (humanity) too exhaustively. If there is anything about “being God” that necessarily includes something “outside” (Calvin’s extra) of or beyond reference to Jesus of Nazareth—eternity, infinite agency, omnipresence, aseity, simplicity, etc.—then Williams declares the case closed: obviously the incarnate life of Jesus cannot simply equate to “being God.” But Williams’s case thus depends throughout on an entirely abstract idea of “being God”—abstract even in the infinite concreteness of the tri-hypostatic life of the one God. When Williams summons Calvin to critique Robert Jenson, for instance, he puts it this way:

Even if we follow Jenson’s complex model of Jesus’s realized human sonship as something we must ‘project’ forwards and backwards on to the horizon of God’s life, we still have a question about whether the filial form of divinity is inextricably part of what it is to be God rather than something decided upon by God; and on this issue, Jenson seems to be with the majority view in classical Christology, allowing for some sort of formal extra, even if absolutely nothing can be said of it (except, presumably, that it is whatever is the necessary condition for Jesus being Jesus, for Jesus being the particular human individual he was/is). (160)

Here’s how I understand this argument: if the “filial form of divinity”—that is, the Son—is an essential “part of what it means to be God,” then God is already the Son in eternity, as it were, before the Son becomes Jesus in time; since therefore the Son was the Son in some sense “prior” to when he becomes Jesus, Jesus (i.e. the Word’s incarnate life) is not absolutely necessary to the Son’s identity. Since Jenson presumably concedes that eternal filiation (i.e. the Son) is necessary for God to be God, then this undermines Jenson’s signature thesis that the man Jesus is exhaustively identical to the divine Son.10

Again, Williams’s critique is doubly malformed and thus unconvincing.

First, being the Son is not essential for what it means to be God, since neither Father nor Spirit are Son and yet they are God. More precisely, as soon as we affirm that the Son is “inextricably part” of being God, we’ve moved beyond conceiving “God” in the abstract; but then the moment we move beyond this abstraction into the determinateness of Son (and Father and Spirit), we are indeed identifying the very one, the Son, who alone became incarnate: “Before Abraham was, I Am” (Jn 8.58). Conceiving the Son as inherent to divinity moves our contem­plation in just the opposite direction of Williams’s conclusion. If we think “God” as determinately Son (and Father and Spirit), we already distinguish the divine Person from the divine essence as such. And so this extra turns out not to be outside of the Son’s person at all. The “filial form of divinity” is just him, the Son, the one Lord Jesus Christ—the very same on both sides of the (asymmetrical) relation.

Second and what immediately follows: only a groundless abstraction can weaken the Son-Jesus identity so as to make one (eternal filiation) the “condition” or “ground” of the other (“for Jesus being Jesus,” as he says). Or if we insist on speaking this way, we should rather say that the Son is the ground of himself.11 Then we see once again that it’s the very identity (Son) of the terms (divinity and humanity) that is the real condition for the possibility for their distinction at all. If we deny or even just imagine that we must weaken this identity to secure difference, we’re either reverting to abstraction in order to qualify something real (the person who is just as much man as he is God)—which is never persuasive—or we’ve really just been conceiving “Son” and “Jesus” as two separate subjects all along. And that, of course, is precisely what Williams does not want to do.

Asymmetrical christology, Williams’s included,12 constantly worries that God’s becoming a creature will give the impression that God and world reciprocally condition each other. Conditioned things are finite things. Mutual conditioning would transgress the basic non-rivalry between God and creation Williams seeks: it would make both finite agents pressing on and forming one another. This explains Williams’s naughty list: Luther (101-3), Osiander (143-4), Eberhard Jüngel (158), Robert Jenson (158-60), Bruce McCormack (175-7), etc.13 Each in various ways and to different degrees risks adducing “simple identity” from the Incarnation.

Against this tendency toward identity Williams argues for a before-and-after picture of the Word-Jesus relation (and so also of the God-relation), where “one reality is informed and defined by another which is real at a completely different ontological level” (120), so that the “Word is identified quite independently of Jesus” since there is nothing “but a wholly one-sided relation between Word and Jesus” (77)—an amazing claim. This twin vantage, asym­metrical christology ends up denying (with Calvin and against Luther) that Christ’s two natures and their respective modes “interpenetrate” each other, a claim directly opposed to Gregory of Nazianzus and to the whole of Maximus’s christology (154-5, 163-4).14

Williams best articulates his central concerns in this passage:

If we say that the eternal Word is as he/it is in virtue of the quality of the incarnate life, and that the Word’s self-emptying is simply the Word’s acceptance of this, the question we are left with is whether the incarnate life, ‘imprinting’ itself on God’s eternity, modifies or adds to that life. Are the filial quality of the incarnate life, its compassionate selflessness, its devotion to the Father’s will shaped by temporal contingency and then ‘received’ in Heaven? Clearly there can be no simple ‘then’ about it: the Word timelessly relin­quishes all that is not Jesus in its/his self-defining action. But can we then say nothing about the eternal Sonship of the Word or indeed the eternal act by which the Father is Father in begetting the Son? Because if we do want to affirm this, we are allowing that the divine life is in some vital way the absolute condition of the incarnate; if not, we are left with both a ‘Father’ and a ‘Son’ existing in eternity somehow logically prior to the determination created in the incarnate life of Jesus—and who therefore may be thought to have no intrinsic relation between them as better and begotten. (179)

Consider two (by now familiar) steps of Williams’s argument here.

First, if we can speak of the Son’s relation to the Father in eternity without reference to his incarnate life as Jesus, then this implies that the Son’s eternal, intra-trinitarian identity must be the “absolute condition” for whatever comes after—e.g. his human life. This is another version of the before-after way of framing the infinite-finite relation; indeed it’s their juxtaposition.

Second, if we do not think it possible to speak with integrity of the eternal Son without reference to the conditions of his incarnate life among us, then we’re committed to saying that Christ’s humanity somehow “modifies” or conditions his divinity. This effectively denies that the divinity is “the absolute condition” of the Incarnation itself. Specifically, it would place divinity—what “being God” means eternally—in a reciprocal relation with its own effect (the created life of Jesus), which reciprocal relation undermines the very logic of creation/causality.

But what if both are true exactly because Jesus is identical to the Son? What if, I mean, the identity of the God-man entails both that we can speak of him abstractly as eternal “Word” (just as we can speak of him abstractly as a mere man—as many in fact did!) and that even speaking abstractly of him, to the degree this is really about the Son in his determinate­ness, is not in truth something other than speaking of him always in relation to the Incarnation?

Look again at the way Williams articulates his concerns here about identity. Three things puzzle me. First, he appears to elide person and nature by referring simply to “the eternal Word” “as it/he is”—as he is qua person or qua divine? This then, second, generates a recurrent false alternative: either the Son is complete in eternity or he is completed in time. If he is complete already in eternity, in the “divine life,” then we admit his eternal identity in the Trinity is “the absolute condition” of his incarnate life—and this would contradict a “simple” Word-Jesus identity. But if he is completed in time, this would seem to imagine a preexisting “Son” who is logically prior to his own determination in the Incarnation but must await, as it were, that event in order to be the Son he is (so that this event and not the Father is the determinative relation in the Son’s identity).

But this, third, is a familiar false alternative based on a familiar mistake, evidenced by what Williams does not say here. The Son as such, his person, is no more conditioned in himself by eternity than he is by time (otherwise “being eternal” would make Father and Spirit into the Son). And this is precisely why he can be both at once without contradic­tion: the same filial relation which the Son is, is both eternal (divine) and historical (human). If he is the “absolute condition” (divine) he is also the absolute conditioned (human). For you will find nothing in Jesus of Nazareth that is not concretely the Son—otherwise that thing wouldn’t subsist at all—including Jesus’ creation from nothing and his birth from the Virgin.15

Just here I sense Williams’s own furtive metaphysical rivalry: either the Son himself is the divine Son or the Son is Jesus—but not both at once. And this is, I think, the final rivalry to be overcome christologically. The Son is free to be both Creator and creature—and thus their concrete identity—precisely because his personal identity doesn’t even depend on the contrast between finite and infinite agencies and their respective modalities. More: we can only abstract about those modalities at all because he is both. And so we come upon a most remarkable contemplation: the very fact that we can misapprehend the truth of who he is by beginning with a false juxtaposition is itself a sign that his kenosis is more real than our abstractions. He is so identical to God that we might suppose his real identity simply must lie “outside” his humanity; he is so identical to man that we might regard him as mere man, “accursed by God” (Isa 53.4). We couldn’t properly misapprehend him were he not really identical to both in the most serious, positive, concrete, absolute way. Our very misappre­hension of him proves that he’s more than our misapprehension. It even proves the depths of his love.

Creation and incarnation must finally obey the laws of asymmetry, Williams thinks. In both cases we must be able to say: “God would be God without the world” (222). This might be the direst abstraction in the book. But if Christ’s identity as the (hypostatic) identity of (natural) identity and (natural) difference reveals anything, it’s that a God without his flesh or his world “is a conventional abstraction,” as Bulgakov knew.16 Nothing is more essential or stable or unstoppable or concrete than hypostatic love. It is precisely divine love that “humanizes God.”17


Williams’s entire frame for conceiving “incarnation” seems to be that the divine Word became human. But that’s not the whole truth of Incarnation. The truth is that the divine Word became divine-human. Not, “What does it mean that God became man?” but, “What does it mean that God became the God-man”? Not, “How do we go from eternal Word to temporal Jesus?” but, “How do we go from eternal Word to temporal-eternal Jesus, who is the very Word?” Conceiving Incarnation as if it were simply another instance, however unique, of the way a transcendent “agency” interacts with or encompasses or “activates” or “is signified by” an immanent “agency” already misconceives the heart of Incarnation.

Now there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that procedure. Indeed it’s difficult to see how it could have developed otherwise in the course of Christian reflection on the mystery of Christ. The problem lies instead in taking such great and uncritical confi­dence in the determinate content of that picture of things—of two “agencies” that are both distinct and yet free of competing for the same logical or metaphysical “space”—that you begin to think that the best we can do is affirm negations. They are not rivals; they are not two instances of some kind; they are not to be juxtaposed; they are not identical; they are “non-dual non-identical” (227).18 And that’s true. But it’s also inadequate to the mystery’s own content.

Neoplatonic metaphysics would happily agree that the One and the Many are “non-dual non-identical” (a decent summary of En. VI.4-5, as it happens). But “Christ crucified” becomes “foolishness” to the world (1 Cor 1-2) only when this is taken to affirm that “God was crucified,” and is crucified still today. There’s little scandal in pure negation; there’s plenty in the affirmation that “God dies.” For Williams this affirmation “depends on admitting that the two natures through or in which different things are true of the Word remain unaltered by its relation” (140). This is once again a half-truth. Affirming “God dies” doesn’t depend simply on keeping the natures intact during the dying; it depends on the identity of the one who dies. Is that man there, hanging on the tree—is he exhaustively God or not?

To the extent that Williams’s operative and determinative thought-picture is one of “two agencies” and not, as in Christ, two agencies that are positively one and mutually interpenetrating in one agent, his picture furtively imports the very premise he wishes to deny throughout: that infinite and finite agencies are not to be conceived as two finite agencies that must impinge upon one another to be united. But is not the very denial of their identity and bi-lateral penetration itself a result of the stipulation that their modal distinction must finally preclude their real sameness? And isn’t this stipulation an admission of at least modal rivalry in the realm of the real? Doesn’t asymmetry in fact require rivalry to be intelligible at all? Isn’t the greatest affirmation of metaphysical non-rivalry exactly the confession that Christ is the concrete identity of both modes in himself—not just that he is not not both? Perhaps the last and greatest metaphysical rivalry as yet unexposed is that in order for the Word to be God, he must not be who he is as human. Must we say that the Word’s divinity is revealed in Christ by the very fact that the Word could have done without Christ?



[1] Here I must quote this remarkable line from Williams: “The irony in the Church’s very being is that it is there to make a universal and comprehensive claim that has nothing to do with any aspirations to be a universal and comprehensive system of control” (202).

[2] For a magisterial but unfortunately neglected study of this doctrine (its absence from Williams’s book isn’t unique), see Benjamin Gleede, The Development of the Term ἐνυπόστατος from Origen to John of Damascus (Leiden: Brill, 2012).

[3] Cf. Leontius of Byzantium, CNE PG 86, 1277D; Epil. 8, PG 86, 1945AB—and Maximus Confessor, Opusc 16, PG 91, 205BC; Opusc 23, PG 91, 264AB; Ep 15, PG 91, 553D; Ep 19, PG 91, 344; Amb 2.2, passim. 

[4] Maximus, Ep 12; PG 91, 484b; my translation.

[5] This leads Maximus to the stunning claim that (anticipated, as far as I know, only by the anonymous Neochalcedonian treatise De sectis VII.2, PG 86, 1241B) the divine nature itself is anhypostasis, “without hypostasis”; cf. Opusc 13.7. 

[6] Cf. Maximus, Amb 17.5.

[7] Cp. Maximus, Ep 15, 552C; and Leontius of Byzantium, CNE 4, PG 86, 1285D-1288A.

[8] Maximus, Amb 5.3 and 18; cf. Ep 19, PG 91, 344.

[9] This is what Neochalcedonians meant when they called Christ a “composite hypostasis” (synthetos hypostasis)—namely that the one, whole hypostasis is his own parts in a way typical part-whole schemas can’t account for (since their relations usually depend on comparing specific qualities or properties, i.e. comparing the essence of one thing with another to determine whether they can be united and make one higher, synthetic nature, as body and soul make “human”). Williams misunderstands this idea to refer solely to the human life that is Jesus, “a finite set of phenomena” (37; cf. 109, 119). But the “parts” of which, in which, and which Christ’s hypostasis is are not confined to his human, temporal life: one of those parts is his divinity. This just rehearses Williams’s systematic error, namely neglecting the peculiar logic of person: the “non-composed” hypostasis of the Word (=divine) is not somehow other than the “composite” hypostasis that is Christ—he is who he is as both parts; see Maximus, Ep 13, PG 91, 296-304; and esp. Ep 15, PG 91, 556A (my translation): “So in this way He is mediator, according to hypostasis, for those parts from which He is composed: He comprises the interval of the extremes in Himself [ἵνα ᾗ καθ’ ὑπόστασιν μεσίτης τοῖς ἐξ ὧν συνετέθη μέρεσι· τὴν τῶν ἄκρων ἐν αὐτῷ συνάπτων διάστασιν].”

[10] For a handy summary of his general outlook, see Robert W. Jenson, “Jesus in the TrinityPro ecclesia 8.3 (Summer 1999): 308-18. 

[11] Cyril of Alexandria, Thes., PG 75, 281C; Maximus, Amb 42.11—This is arguably the necessary way of reading even the narrative logic of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed: The very same person—the “one Lord Jesus Christ” who is the “Only-Begotten Son”—was “begotten not made” (οὐ ποιηθέντα /non factum) and “was made man” (ἀνανθρωπήσαντα/homo factus est). On the way this narrative logic drives Cyril’s christology, see R.A. Norris, “Christological Models in Cyril of Alexandria,” Journal of Theological Studies 38.2 (1987): 341-67. 

[12] He is by no means an anomaly, and simply represents what seems to be the majority view in modern theology. Florovsky, for instance, explicitly embraces this view, which is taken up and applied to Maximus by Bathrellos; see Georges Florovsky, Collected Works, vol. 9: The Byzantine Fathers of the Sixth to the Eighth Century. Edited by Richard S. Haugh and translated by Raymond Miller, Annie-Marie Döllinger-Labriolle, and Helmut Wilhelm Schmiedel (Vaduz: Büchervertriebsantstalt, 1987), 231; Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ: Person, Nature, and Will in the Christology of Saint Maximus the Confessor (Oxford: OUP, 2004), 115. And of course adherents of the analogia entis are expressly committed to some form of asymmetry governing christology; e.g. Erich Przywara, Analogia Entis: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm. Translated by John R. Betz and David Bentley Hart (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014 [1962]) 399, 532-6, and Williams discussion of him (226-41).

[13] As noted, Williams also sees Scotus and especially Ockham as wrong in overemphasizing “separation” in Christ, so he does poise asymmetry as a good old Anglican (Catholic) via media.

[14] Gregory of Nazianzus, Ep 101, SC 208, 48: “Just as the natures are mixed, so also the names pass reciprocally (perichorouson) into each other by the principle of natural co-affinity”; cf. Or 29.19).—Maximus constructs his entire christo-metaphysics around what’s known as the tantum-quantum principle (Williams doesn’t discuss this), which claims that in Christ creation becomes God “to the same degree” that God became man; e.g. Amb 7.22: “[the deified person] places himself wholly in God alone, forming and configuring God alone throughout his entire being, so that he himself by grace is and is called God, just as God by His condescension is and is called man for the sake of man [καὶ τὸν Θεὸν εἶναι συγκαταβάσει καὶ καλεῖσθαι δι’ αὐτὸν ἄνθρωπον], and also so that the power of this reciprocal disposition might be shown forth herein, a power that divinizes man through his love for God, and humanizes God through His love for man. And by this beautiful exchange, it renders God man by reason of the divinization of man [διἀ τὴν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου θέωσιν], and man God by reason of the Incarnation of God [διὰ τὴν τοῦ Θεοῦ ἐνανθρώπησιν]. For the Logos of God and God wills always and in all things to accomplish the mystery of His embodiment [ἐνσωματώσεως]”; see too Amb 3.5, 5.14, 10.9, 60.4, QThal 22.4, schol. 3.

[15] Maximus, Amb 5.13, modified: “Thus, ‘though He was beyond being, He came into being,’ fashioning within nature a principle of generation and a different mode of birth [γενέσεως ἀρχὴν καὶ γεννήσεως ἑτέραν [Wis 7:5] τῇ φύσει δημιουργήσας], for He was conceived having become the seed of His own flesh, and He was born having become the seal of the virginity of the one who bore Him, showing that with respect to her mutually contradictory things truly exist together. For she herself is both virgin and mother, innovating nature by a coincidence of opposites, since virginity and childbearing are opposites, and no one would have imagined from nature their combination [ὧν ἐκ φύσεως οὐκ ἄν τις ἐπινοηθήσεται σύμβασις].”

[16] Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God. Translated by Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008 [1933]), 121.

[17] Maximus, Amb 7.22; cf. Amb 5.4.

[18] Williams’s love for the negative sits especially uneasily when he says the Son’s eternal relation to the Father is one of “non-duality and non-identity” (227-8; cf. 244). But surely we must affirm that the Father-Son relation is just as much one of duality and identity. The Son is so hypostatically distinct from the Father that he and not the Father was crucified. The Son is so essentially identical to the Father that “God died.” Negation’s not enough here, and it’s not enough for the mystery of Christ either.

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Jordan Daniel Wood is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology at Providence College. He wrote and defended his doctoral dissertation on the christological metaphysics of Maximus Confessor at Boston College. Most importantly, he’s the husband of an ICU nurse and father to three daughters under age 5.

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