The Concept of the Gnomic Will in St Maximus the Confessor – A Brief Investigation

In this paper I will address St Maximus the Confessor’s concept of the gnomic will, including (1) what he means by the term; (2) how does it differ from natural will; (3) the historical development of his usage of the term; (4) whether Christ has a gnomic will; and (5) what are its implications to deification. 

Gnomic Will – Definition and Distinction from Natural Will

According to St Maximus, especially in his later writings, there is an important distinction between natural will and “gnomic” will, distinction which has come to play an important role in Orthodox Christology. The distinction is that there is a natural will, rooted in nature, and a gnomic will, rooted in the personal exercise of the natural will.

There are two natural wills in Christ, as He unites two natures; he has two natural wills (pertaining respectively to his human and divine natures), since natural will is a property of nature. On the other hand, the gnomic will it is a mode (tropos, a manner, or way) of willing apropos to fallen humanity, in that it involves deliberation, either based on ignorance or sinful inclination.

Because it is a tropos, it is associated with the individual, or hypostasis; as opposed to logos, a definition or part of nature. The Person of Christ is not a human hypostasis, but a divine hypostasis. Therefore, human hypostases after the Fall have a gnomic will along with their natural will. The nature of the distinction is that between a natural and a deliberative will.[1] One may start by asking, what is natural will according to St Maximus? He argues that it is the power that longs for what is natural to the nature. He says,

For [the divine Fathers] think that [the natural will] is the natural appetency of the flesh endowed with a rational soul, and not the longing of the mind of a particular man moved by an opinion, that possesses the natural power of the desire for being, and is naturally moved and shaped by the Word towards the fulfilment of the economy. And this they wisely call the will, without which the human nature cannot be. For the natural will is ‘the power that longs for what is natural’ and contains all the properties that are essentially attached to the nature. In accordance with this to be disposed by nature to will is always rooted in the willing nature.[2]

With this definition of natural will, St Maximus then makes a further distinction between the will rooted in the nature, and the exercise of that will, which is rooted in the person, the ὑπόστασις. The will rooted in nature is the capacity, whereas the exercise is a hypostatic function. The natural will is the “movement of longing” which “best characterizes a nature as rational;” it is the “movement of desire constituted as the most proper and primary property of every rational nature.”[3] Without Christ’s natural will, He would not have been fully human, in the sense that the Logos would not have united a true, complete human nature to himself. If Christ did not have a natural will, he would not fulfil the hypostatic union with flesh, endowed by nature with a rational soul and intellect.

In Christ, the natural will is rooted in his concrete human nature, not an abstract human nature (as some modern philosophers of religion, who reject dyothelitism, haver argued).[4] It can be illustrated, e.g., by the nature’s capacity to speak, whereas the exercise of speaking, and how to speak, belongs to the hypostasis, the person who wishes. In the unique case of Christ, therefore, the will is rooted in this human nature, whereas the personal exercise of the will belongs to the Divine Person. St Maximus says,

For to be disposed by nature to will and to will are not the same thing, as it is not the same thing to be disposed by nature to speak and to speak. . . .  So being able to speak always belongs to the nature, but how you speak belongs to the hypostasis. So it is with being disposed by nature to will and willing. If then to be disposed by nature to will and to will are not the same (for the one, I said, belongs to the essence, while the other exists at the wish of the one who wills), then the Incarnate Word possesses as a human being the natural disposition to will, and this is moved and shaped by his divine will.[5]

Therefore, the relation between gnomic and natural will entails that as the nature wills, so the person chooses, accepting or rejecting that which the nature wills; and this freedom of choice is a result of imperfection and limitation of our true freedom. A perfect nature has no need of choice, for it knows naturally what is good. Human nature (other than Christ’s), on the other hand, as a result of the Fall, is wounded and human persons need to make choices between options as they deliberate between what they might consider the good. Our deliberation indicates the imperfection of fallen human nature and the loss of the divine likeness.[6]

The gnomic will then is a mode of the employment of the natural will, a process involving several psychological elements – involving doubt, uncertainty, hesitation, and deliberation. The gnomic will is in this way related to human sin as the means by which sin comes about.[7]  As Maximus says, “the mode of willing, . . . in other words, to will to walk or to will not to walk . . . or the contemplation of concupiscence or of the rational principles in beings – is a mode of the use of the will . . .  and as such it exists only in the person using it.”[8]

Maximus’ Progressive Usage of the Term

According to Polycarp Sherwood’s account of Maximus’ historical use of γνώμη, there was a progression in how he used the term.[9] His first use is on the Ep. 6 on the soul, in which Maximus uses it in the sense of disposition, διάθεσις. In the Centuries on Love, the term is used both as a synonym for opinion (δόξα), in the sense of disagreement, as well as the will to be conformed to God; as an example of the latter, he says that “God alone is good by nature, only the imitator of God is good through conformity of the will (γνώμη). As Sherwood writes, “in this sentence the whole of the spiritual life is placed in the imitation of God and the means for doing it are likewise indicated, conformity of our γνώμη with God.”[10]

In the limited sense of the process of willing, and the accompanying deliberations, Maximus did use he terms προαίρεσις and γνώμη with reference to Jesus (e.g., in his Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer he had openly ascribed to Christ the possession of a gnomic will perfectly fixed on the Good) [11] as he even equates “prohairetic”(προαιρετικόν) and “gnomic” (γνωμικόν) will;[12] but when he more clearly described such process in fallen human beings, γνώμη acquired a stricter sense that could not be used of Christ.[13] Sherwood argues that as late as 642 Maximus said (in the Letter to Marinus the Deacon) that in Christ there is no opposition, even between the γνώμη and the natural will; and that it is only after 643 that γνώμη came to signify sinful mutability and rebellion against nature – and thereby its existence to be denied in Christ. In the Ambigua, the concept is used to indicate a self-determination which needs to be surpassed in order to attain the imitation of God in His fixity in the good.

By then, γνώμη came to be understood as a certain willing (θέλησις) by which one adheres to a perceived good, a disposition on the appetitive deliberation. It is an election (προαίρεσις), a judgment between options that implies uncertainty about the good; it includes ignorance of the thing sought and an uncertainty as to the results of the things chosen.[14] When Maximus learned that some Monothelites were willing to concede two natural wills in Christ as long as they were united and controlled in one single will which they called ‘gnomic’ (γνωμικόν), he strictly denied that Christ has a gnomic will.

Maximus now defines gnomic willing as the deliberative inclining of the will beset by ignorance and doubt, an unnaturally-functioning will, which is pulled in opposite directions: “the gnomic wills of fallen human beings, being unable to choose the good freely, are tossed about by the choices that present themselves, under the sway of sin and the passions;” Only the incarnate Lord, whose human existence is liberated and divinized by the hypostatic presence of his divine being, is free of the oppressive distortion that Maximus now calls γνώμη.[15] He says, “the holy fathers who spoke of the free choice proper to the humanity of Christ were referring to the appetitive power proper to nature by essence, in other words, our natural faculty of will or free choice, which exists in the Incarnate God by [His] appropriation [of human nature].”[16]

St Maximus then argued that gnomic willing cannot exist in Christ in any way, for “the process of formulating an intention (γνώμη) as a necessary stage in coming to a decision and acting on it, is not part of the ‘mode of existence’ of a divine Person at all”[17] because gnomic willing depends upon the loss of the knowledge of the Good, which is not possible in the divine Persons.

In this way, Jesus “does not deliberate in ignorance, doubt, and inner conflict about the good” like we do, but he makes righteous choices, and experiences hunger, thirst, and the fear of death, naturally and with perfect freedom, naturally and always choosing good over evil. Thus the “newly redefined γνώμη becomes a fixed term in later Greek Christian tradition for the sort of enslaved willing that Christ became human in order to liberate and divinize.”[18]

As a result of  Maximus’ later precise definitions, and his influence, this concept was eventually canonized:

 The Dogmatic Statement of the Sixth Ecumenical Council distinguishes between “gnomic” and “natural will” and teaches that in Christ, there is the natural human will and not the gnomic one . . . as there are in Christ two natural energies and two natural wills of the two natures, united without division, or separation, or confusion, or change . . . the Council condemns as heresy the idea that there is in Christ a gnomic will, inasmuch as Christ as Logos was never forced to evaluate between two possible energies and to exercise his opinion and judgment as if he were not certain about the truth or his action . . . Having the essence of God as the theosis of his human nature, and God’s natural and eternal glory as natural glory of his human nature, which became, on account of the exchange of properties (communicatio idiomatum), i.e. the hypostatic union, source of the natural energies of God, he had a natural, created will as all human beings, but not a gnomic one.[19]

Therefore, the general usage of the term and the concept became more exact after the Sixth Council; St. Maximus had been more ambiguous in his earlier writings, as he was developing new, technical vocabulary, and struggling to find adequate terms for that part of the will which concerns the person exclusively. Some have argued that he never achieved a final, unambiguous meaning for the terms.[20]

Gnomic Will and the Trinity

Maximus rejected both a gnomic will attributed to Christ’s human nature, capable of choosing between opposite courses of action (gnomic will is never a part of nature, even in fallen human beings, because it is not a faculty but a mode. If it were a faculty, then the principle “what is not assumed is not healed” would come into play, and Maximus’ Christology would have to admit such in Christ); and also a gnomic will in Christ as hypostatic, for “if free choice is a of the hypostasis of Christ [as the heterodox argued], then by virtue of this will, they cut Him off from the Father and Holy Spirit, making Him different [from them] in will and thought.”[21]

Following the Chalcedonian definition, Maximus required a certain asymmetry in the hypostatic union in Christ, since the divine hypostasis of the Son divinized the enhypostized human nature, and so a “natural” human will could be deified, not a gnomic will prone to vacillation.

The distinction between natural will and the hypostatic usage of will become important for Trinitarian theology. In his Disputation with Pyrrho, when Maximus argues that if Christ has two natures, then he must also have two natural wills and operations (energies), Pyrrhus objects, arguing that this would entail two willing subjects (two θέλοντας).  Maximus then denies that there must be a one-to-one correspondence between natural wills and willing agents, since there are three Persons but only one will in the Trinity.[22] Hypostases always exercise natural wills; and yet, having two natures in Christ does not entail that there are two persons; if a will introduced a person and each person had his own will, then there would be either one person in the Trinity, because of the one will, or three wills because of the three persons. If these wills were natural, we would have three Gods, whereas if they were ‘gnomic’, there would be an internal opposition in the Trinity.[23]

The denial of the gnomic will to the three divine Hypostases, like the denial that the natural will is hypostatic, is seen in that “three hypostatic wills, or more accurately, three gnomic wills, would mean that there were three Gods.”[24]

Modes of Willing and the Fall

Maximus denies that Christ has a gnomic will because, although being a function of the person, it is a will that deliberates and disagrees: The gnomic will operates in us because our wills are not entirely submissive and in conformity to the divine will. As such, it acts with reference to sin, and therefore Christ does not and could not have gnomic wills:

The Fathers . . . openly confessed the difference between two natural, but not gnomic, wills in Christ. They did not however say that there was any difference of gnomic wills in Christ, lest they proclaim him double minded and double-willed, and fighting against himself, so to speak, in the discord of his thoughts, and therefore double-personed. For they knew that it was only this difference of gnomic wills that introduced into our lives sin and our separation from God. For evil consists in nothing else than this difference of our gnomic will from the divine will, which occurs by the introduction of an opposing quantity, thus making them numerically different, and shows the opposition of our gnomic will to God.[25]

For Maximus, what is distinctive about being human is self-determination (autexousios kinesis), the “unhindered willing of a rational soul towards whatever it wishes,”[26] as that is an expression of the image of God; as such, in the natural (unfallen) state, this self-determination is ordered toward God as nature finds its fulfillment in turning to Him as the source of their being. However, after the Fall, and the corruption of human nature, human beings no longer know what they want, and seek fulfillment in things other than God, being no longer aware of their true good. Other apparent goods now attract them and as a result, they need to deliberate and consider.

With respect to the relation between the natural disposition or appetite and the perceived goods, a parallel between Aristotle and Maximus becomes apparent. In his work On the Soul (III:10) Aristotle says, “the object of appetite always produces movement, but this may be either the real or the apparent to some real or assumed good;” and Maximus says, “So then gnome is nothing else than an act of willing in a particular way, in relation good.”[27] Maximus calls this willing in accordance with an “opinion, or intention, or inclination . . .  Such gnomic willing is our way or mode of willing, it is the only way in which we can express our natural will, but it is a frustrating and confusing business.”[28] The gnomic will is the inclination away from the purpose of God for his creation, and therefore it can become radically separated from the natural will.[29]

It is important to emphasize that Maximus did not deny gnomic will in Christ because he considered gnomic will to be inherent in the human hypostasis. On the contrary, the gnomic will (more exactly in his later writings) is a result of the Fall, and Christ came to heal our whole beings, including our fallen gnomic wills, so we may be oriented to will in conformity to God.

The Process of Willing and Deification

Maximus argues that the saint wills the good as a human hypostasis purified and divinized by Christ.[31] In Christ, the will is rooted in nature, which is the natural disposition of the will, is deified by the divine will, and thus always in accord with it:

What deifies and what is deified are certainly two . . . What deifies and what is deified are then related, and if they are related, they are certainly brought together . . . The Saviour therefore possesses as a human being a natural will, which is shaped, but not opposed, by his divine will. For nothing that is natural can be opposed to God in any way, not even in inclination, for a personal division would appear, if it were natural, and the Creator would be to blame, for having made something that was at odds with itself by nature.[32]

In the process of willing,  Maximus outlines four distinctions: The willing subject, ὁ θέλων; the will itself (τὸ θέλημα, ἡ θέλησις, τὸ θέλειν) as a faculty, capacity, or activity that belongs to nature; the manner in which one wills (τὸ πῶς θέλειν), particularly in the moral sense; and the aim or object of one’s willing (τὸ θελητόν).[33] The manner in which one wills (τὸ πῶς θέλειν) in righteousness or sinfulness does not belong to the willing subject by nature alone, but to the particular way (τρόπος) in which each individual (ὑπόστασις) exercises it.[34]

The ways in which we each make our choices and motivations, a process that starts with desire and is fulfilled in the deliberative process, can differ considerably, even though all humans share the same natural capacity of willing, and “whatever is rational by nature has rational desire as a natural capacity, which is called the ‘will’ of the noetic soul . . . when we will, we search and consider and deliberate and judge and are inclined toward and make a choice and move toward and use [things].”

It is our process of willing which Christ heals in the process of deification given to us by our mystical union with Him. He heals our nature (and our natural will, e.g. freeing it from fear of death), and thereby frees us to heal our process of willing, with His grace. St Maximus uses the concept of gnome to refer to universal fragmentation in creation which does not remain at the level of the individual. As a concept, “gnome is the principle which divides the one humanity. In general, gnome is associated with free will, opinion, deliberation, inclination, individual attitude, and so on. In its negative role, we could name it ‘the individualistic will’.”[35] St Maximus gives this example,

Should anyone, who is wealthy enough to do so, ignore those in need, he clearly proves to have cast them away from himself and cast himself from God, since he has ignored the nature on account of his gnome, or rather, since he has ruined the good things which belong to his nature. This applies to those who deliberately (γνωμικώς) have preferred cruelty to charity and who have judged their kin and compatriot to be of less value than money and who yearning after gold have blocked the way from God to enter themselves.[36]

Acting according to one’s gnome is unnatural and reveals the distortion and severance of one’s nature; as Maximus says: “evil by nature is scattering, unsteady, multiform and dividing. For since good unifies and holds together what has been divided, clearly then evil divides and corrupts what is united.”[37] The human natural will is distinct from the divine, but does not oppose it; it is the gnomic will which opposes the divine will when it moves against the logos of nature, and which conforms to the divine will when we cooperate with God’s grace. The gnomic will is a form of actualization of the human natural will that is marked by sinfulness. Sin, not nature, is the cause of our rebellion against God, but Christ was free from both sin and rebellion against God; the natural human will of Christ did not oppose the divine will because it was fully deified from the moment of the Incarnation and because it was moved and modelled by the divinity of the Logos. [38]

Quoting the philosopher Iris Murdoch in her work of moral philosophy (who asks, “are there any techniques for the purification and reorientation of an energy which is naturally selfish, in such a way that when moments of choice arrive, we shall be sure of acting rightly?”)[39] Andrew Louth concludes that “this is a good way of formulating the approach of Byzantine ascetic theology, not least the approach of Maximus. And Maximus’ ascetic theology is . . . closely bound up with his dogmatic theology.”[40] The communion with Christ in the ascetic life is the remedy to cure the gnome, “the sharp cutting edge which cuts whatever it touches . . . Only if we rise above our ‘individualistic wills’, can we hope to achieve restoration and unification of humanity both at the personal and the universal level.”[41]

The power of the will can determine our union or separation from God, as St Maximus says, “Just as evil is the privation of good and ignorance that of knowledge, so is nonbeing the privation of being . . .  Privations of the former depend on the will of creatures; privation of the latter depends on the will of the Creator;” and, “Whether the rational and intelligent being has eternal being or nonbeing lies in the will of the one who created all good things. Whether it be good or bad by choice lies in the will of the creatures.”[42] St Maximus believed that the affirmation of a human will in Christ was soteriologically vital since anything less would compromise the full humanity of the Word made flesh and thus render the incarnation a delusion unable to dissolve the divisions introduced by the transgression of Adam and restore human nature to its proper place in the cosmos.

The healing of the gnomic will is a fundamental aspect of Maximus’ understanding of the ascetic Christian life: “the purpose is to bring it back home, to unite it with nature. Uniting the gnome with nature brings about also the unification of humanity as a whole: it means giving up one’s individual desires for the benefit of one’s neighbour, in other words, loving them as oneself.”[43] The sacraments also convey the grace of God to assist the ascetic life. Baptism, for example, implants a grace that will continue to unfold itself in the penitent and fruit-bearing life of the believer:

Baptism, he indicates, actually entails two dimensions, two births in one. On the one hand it implants, through the believer’s faith, the fully potential grace of adoption in the Spirit; on the other hand, it begins the actualization of that grace which must grow and continue through the believer’s active assimilation to God. The latter, he observes, involves the conversion of free choice (προαίρεσις) and of the gnomic will (γνώμη) as well as the acquisition of a knowledge based on and enriched by our spiritual experience (πείρα). Clearly for Maximus, the baptismal vocation reveals a synergy of the Holy Spirit and the will of the graced Christian, yet he strongly emphasizes the burden on the believer to discipline the will, to stabilize personal inclination, since the Spirit does not compel an unwilling gnome nor baptism nullify its freedom.[44]

Uniting the gnomic will with the natural will, reaching the likeness of God and ultimately deification, are different aspects of one and the same reality.

For this reason anyone who by chaste thinking and noble sagacity has been able to put an end to this deviation from nature has shown mercy above all to himself, because he has rendered his gnome to be in one accord with nature and because he by gnome has advanced to God for the sake of nature.[45]

Christ could thus be truly the savior of humanity because in Him there could never be any contradiction between natural will and gnomic will. Through the hypostatic union, His human will, precisely because it always conforms itself to the divine, also performs the “natural movement” of human nature. The doctrine of “deification” in Maximus is based upon the fundamental patristic presupposition that communion with God does not diminish or destroy humanity but makes it fully human.[46]

The exercise of our exousia, our self-determination, makes a fundamental difference in our union with God. The Theotokos, as a paradigm, had freedom of will either to turn towards or away from God; she was not merely a passive receptacle of God’s favor, but at the Annunciation she is given a choice between two goods (remaining chaste or becoming a mother): and she chose both. Exercising her free will which is capable of turning away as well as of accepting God’s decision, the Virgin responds, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be unto me according to your word.” [47] God’s work in the deification of human nature, by making us partakers of the divine nature, and our personal, hypostatic cooperation in choosing to redirect ourselves to God through his grace, work together (albeit synergistically, since we respond to God’s grace) for the healing of our will.

We have an active appropriation of freedom, which, though stunted by the Fall, has been renewed through baptism and comes to fruition in virtuous choices. We willingly surrender to the conforming of our inclinations and choices, by grace, to the “natural will” that is already predisposed toward God. The very purpose of the incarnation, says Maximus, is to draw us to Christ and his deifying love, so that the ultimate, transfigured state of the cosmos would be characterized by no “gnomic” variance within the universe of individual created beings.[48]

Works Cited

Bathrellos, Demetrios. Person, Nature, and Will in the Christology of Saint Maximus the Confessor. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Beeley, Christopher A. “Natural and Gnomic Willing in Maximus Confessor’s Disputation with Pyrrhus.” Papers Presented at the Seventeenth International Conference on Patristic Studies Held in Oxford 2015, 2017, pp. 167–179.

Blowers, Paul. “Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus on Gnomic Will (γνώμη) in Christ: Clarity and Ambiguity.”

Crisp, Oliver D. Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered. Cambridge Univ Pr, 2007.

Cunningham, Mary B. “‘All-Holy Infant’: Byzantine and Western Views on the Conception of the Virgin Mary.” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 1–2, 2006, pp. 127–148.

Farrell, Joseph P., Free Choice in Maximus the Confessor. St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press South Canan, Pennsylvania 1989.

Lossky, Vladimir, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (New York: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1976)

Louth, Andrew. Greek East and Latin West: The Church AD 681-1071. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007

Louth, Andrew. St. John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Louth, Andrew. Maximus the Confessor. Routledge, 1996.

St Maximus the Confessor, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ. Trans. Paul Blowers and Robert Wilken (New York: SVS Press, 2003).

St Maximus the Confessor, Selected Writings. Classics of Christian Spirituality (New Jersey: George Berthold, 1985).

Meyendorff, John. “Christology in the Fifth Century,” Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (New York: SVS Press, 1987)

Meyendorff, John. Byzantine Theology. Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes (New York: Fordham University Press, 1979)

Murdoch, Iris. The Sovereignty of Good. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970

Romanides, John. An Outline of Orthodox Patristic Dogmatics. University of Thessaloniki, 2004.

Sherwood, Polycarp. St Maximus the Confessor. Longmans, 1956

Törönen, Melchisedec. Union and Distinction in the Thought of St Maximus the Confessor. Oxford Univ Pr, 2007.

[1] Louth, Maximus the Confessor, 191.

[2] Ibid., 192

[3] Ibid., 193-196.

[4] Crisp, Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered p.48. “Some recent philosophical theologians, believing that possession of two wills implies two persons rather than two natures in one person, argue that an abstract-nature view of Christ’ human nature is preferable to a concrete-nature view, despite the fact that it seems Monothelite . . . for instance, William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, ch. 30.”

[5] Louth, 192; emphasis mine.

[6] Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 125.

[7] Farrell, Free Choice in Maximus the Confessor, 123.

[8] St Maximus, Disputations with Pyrrhus, PG91:292D-293A.

[9] Sherwood, St Maximus the Confessor, 58-63.

[10] Ibid., 59.

[11] Maximus, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 36.

[12] Blowers, “Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus on Gnomic Will (γνώμη) in Christ: Clarity and Ambiguity,” 46.

[13] Beeley, “Natural and Gnomic Willing in Maximus Confessor’s Disputation with Pyrrhus,” 8.

[14] Ibid., 61.

[15] Beeley, 9.

[16] TheoPol l, PG 91:29B-C.

[17] Louth, 59

[18] Beeley, 10.

[19] Romanides, An Outline of Orthodox Patristic Dogmatics, 71.

[20] Farrell, Free Choice in Maximus the Confessor. 121-122.

[21] TheoPol l, PG 91:29B-C.

[22] Beeley, 4, citing Disputatio cum Pyrrho, PG 91.288-353.

[23] Bathrellos, Person, Nature, and Will in the Christology of Saint Maximus the Confessor, 84

[24] Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 144-145.

[25] Ibid.,196

[26] St Maximus, Opusc. 26:277C

[27] Farrell, 102.

[28] Louth, 59.

[29] Törönen, Union and Distinction in the Thought of St Maximus the Confessor, 113.

[31] Beeley, 12.

[32] Louth,193

[33] This is also followed by St John of Damascus in his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, II.22.

[34] Beeley 5-6.

[35] Törönen, 181.

[36] Ep. 3 (PG 91), 409B.

[37] Qu. Thal. 16: 47–52 (CCSG 7), 107.

[38] Bathrellos, 85

[39] Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, 54.

[40] Louth, 60.

[41] Törönen, 181.

[42] St Maximus, Four Hundred Chapters on Love, III. 29; IV. 13.

[43] Törönen, 182

[44] Maximus, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 40-41.

[45] Törönen, 182

[46] Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology, 38-39.

[47] Cunningham, Mary B. “‘All-Holy Infant’: Byzantine and Western Views on the Conception of the Virgin Mary.” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 1–2, 2006, p. 147.

[48] Blowers 46, citing Ad Thal. 6, Amb. 7 and Ep. 2.

Melito of Sardis (d. 180AD) – the Passover and Christ in the Old Testament

Melito was the Bishop of Sardis near Smyrna in Asia Minor, a very early expositor and herald of Christianity (he died c. 180AD).

Melito of Sardis, d. 180AD

In his Paschal homily, an exposition of the Paschal event in connection to Christ, he prefigues much of later Biblical theology which has been established in the Church for two millenia. With a high Christology, he based his exegesis on a framework of type/antitype, shadow/substance, promise/fulfillment, images/realities.

In the original account of Exodus, the paschal Lamb is sacrificed and its blood is poured on the doorposts of the covenant people who are to be delivered from the Angel who brings death to the unbelieving and unrepentant Egyptians, represented and embodied in their king, Pharaoh, himself a type of the god of this world.

In this way, the model given in Exodus present in type all that is later accomplished in substance in Christ. The images prefigure the reality of the death, passion, and resurrection of the Son of God, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, for the redemption of His people delivering them from ultimate death.

In this way the principles of the Gospel are proclaimed beforehand, as a sketch, in the Law; and the Gospel is the Law’s explanation and fullness. In the Law, particularly in the account of Exodus, there is the sheep, the blood of the sheep, the lamb, the Jerusalem below and the narrow inheritance of the Promised Land, later known as Palestine. These prefigure the Lamb of God, the Great and Good Shepherd, the true Israel, and the One who bestows on His people not a plot of land, but the renewed cosmos.
Christ is God and human being. He is everything.

The Passover is old and new; it is old in the Law, a figure in time; it is new in the Word, eternal in grace. The sheep are corruptible, mortal; the Lord is incorruptible, immortal in his Resurrection. The Law is old, the Word is new. Christ, as human being, contains all crated things. As God, he creates all things. The shadowy account of Exodus gives the commandment and prefigures the grace to come; the figure eventually gives place to the reality. The Law judges, the Logos brings grace; Christ begets and is begotten, he is God and man, the sheep and the Lamb and Shepherd.

In the Passover, the lamb was slaughtered and eaten; the firstborn of those who were not consecrated was taken by the Angel of death. The sheep were sacrificed for Israel’s salvation, the death of the lambs brought life to the people. This was a prefiguration of the Lord, who died and was raised for the redemption of his people. Melito takes an etymological liberty with the word Pascha (originally a Hebrew term, Pesach, meaning passing over, skipping) correlating it with παθειν, to suffer.

As Abel suffered and was murdered, so was Christ; Isaac was bound to be offered as a sacrifice, Jacob was exiled, Joseph was sold in slavery, Moses was exposed, David and the prophets (Jeremiah, Isaiah) were persecuted and dishonored, the sheep were sacrificed. These all prefigured Christ, the One who was murdered, bound, sacrificed, exiled, betrayed, persecuted, dishonored, and raised for our sakes; the One who was killed and yet who smote Egypt.

Has made flesh in a Virgin, He was hanged on wood, entombed in the earth, raised from the dead, lifted up to heaven; He was the speechless Lamb, the One who suffered unjustly, God’s Firstborn who created all things. He was the Old Testament’s pillar of fire, the cloud, the manna that rained on God’s people as heavenly food, the Rock who gushed out drink to quench the ultimate thirst, the One who gave the Law, the One who gave Israel the prefigured inheritance, the One who sent the prophets, the one who raised the kings, and the One who came as the Prophet, Priest and King, to save and refashion all humanity.  

In summary, Melito sees Christ as

(1) Typologically prefigured in the events and persons of the OT,

(2) The fulfillment of prophecy, and

(3) Personally present in the Theophanies, and even as Creator

A Very Brief Synopsis of the Letter to the Hebrews

The Epistle to the Hebrews has no epistolary introduction (greetings come at the end of the letter), but it begins with the soaring rhetoric about the identity of Jesus and the significance of his work. God spoke in times past to our fathers, but now He speaks to us; he spoke before through the prophets, but how He speaks by His Son.  This gives the blueprint for the message of the letter, i.e., the superiority of Jesus in its manifold ways as compared to all that pertained to the shadows (the Old Covenant) that prefigured the realities which have now come (the New Covenant).

Jesus is superior to angels, to Moses, to the Law, to the Aaronic priesthood, and to the entire Old Covenant with its sacrifices. He is so because he is the Son of God, God’s final Word, holding the eternal and superior priesthood of Melchizedek; he has finished the true and ultimate sacrifice as Priest and offering, and has entered the true temple in heaven, of which the earthly temple was just a type and shadow.

In 1:4-2:18 the author shows that Jesus is superior over the angels, through whom the Law was given; he is the Son, the One to whom the inspired David says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,” and so “let all angels worship him.” He was made a “little lower than the angels,” i.e., he took human nature, but in that humanity he destroyed him who had the power over death (the devil) and was crowned with a glory the angels do not have.

In 3:1-4:13 Jesus is shown to be superior over Moses, as a Son is superior to a tutor and steward with respect to the inheritance and ownership of the house. He is a Son over his house (his people), and has entered the rest of God (the eschatological presence), opening the way for us. Moses was faithful as a servant, but Christ is faithful as a Son – and the Son is superior to the servant.

In 4:14-7:28 we see the superiority of Jesus’ priesthood over the Levitical priesthood; as the tribe of Levi came from Jacob, and Jacob was the grandson of Abraham, the father of faith, so Abraham is reckoned superior to Levi; and yet Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek (the superior receiving tithes from the inferior), who appears without genealogy, without beginning or end of days, and, as a priest, blesses Abraham with bread and wine. Jesus’s priesthood is eternal because he is risen and immortal, having the “power of an endless life;” so the Psalmist has said that God sworn that He is “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek,” the surety of a superior covenant, an unchangeable priesthood, once and for all offering up Himself.

In 8:1-10:18 the author speaks of the superiority of that offering up himself, which is Jesus’ sacrifice. The high priest of the old covenant could enter the Holy of Holies only once a year, to offer up sacrifices for himself and for the people, year after year. But now, in a trinitarian fashion, the blood of Christ through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God once and for all to remove all sin; and he did so as he entered not the earthly shadow of the temple, but entering heaven itself, in the presence of God, sitting at His right hand.

In 10:19-12:29 the author applies all the forgoing to how Christians avail themselves of  His priestly work, exhorting them to profit from Jesus’ sacrifice (10:19-39), and follows with the greatest examples of faith from the Old Testament (Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the judges, the Prophets, 11:1-40). They all died in faith, not receiving the promise, which has come now in the Son.

Why Theology?


Christian theology does not exist for the sake of the theologian. Theology is for the sake of the Church; it is for the sake of the challenges of the community. If it is not received by the Christian community, it has failed, for it has to echo the responses of that community. Christian theology has to be historical, and cannot be separated from contemporary issues. Christianity is an incarnational religion, which lives also within time and circumstances.

Systematic theology is a connection of the whole of Christian theology. Trinitarian theology is central and foundational to Christian theology, which has to do with the logos of theos. In the history of the development of Christian dogma, which has been played out in concrete circumstances, affecting concrete lives and palpable consequences, has been a struggle for the Christian understanding of who God is and how he related to Creation, particularly to the ones created in his image and likeness – and the foundational result has been the conception of the Trinity (which includes the attending Christology). Christians worship God, but God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Ontologically, Trinitarian theology is at the foundation of all things, for God is the creator, sustainer and redeemer of all reality. All our social, human, and historical problems are rooted in Trinitarian theology. This is why the Fathers spent so much energy grounding everything they did and taught in the outworking of the reflection of the Trinitarian life in time and space, in the Church.

This is why the medieval theologians also did so; the Summa Theologiae begins with the doctrine of one God and the Trinity. This is why Barth deals with Trinitarian methodology in his first volume.

Epistemologically, on the other hand – given our fallen state which has affected our intellect, our nous, our heart – we do not know God first and foremost. Our order of knowing does not include the Trinity at the very beginning; the Fathers’ formulations were the result of a long process of reflection and development. It is the Church’s role to bring us to the road back to God, which is the road of repentance, of restoration of His image, of remembering God, and remembering us in the context of God. Exitus, reditus.

One thing that is common from the earliest fathers (Justin, Irenaeus, Origin) is the very important distinction between God in his own essence and God in relation to the created world, as known through creation and special revelation. We do not know God in his essence, but only as he has revealed himself to us, in his energies and through his effects.

Christianity affirms both the essential incomprehensibility of God and God’s condescension to reveal himself to us. We do not have an insight into the Trinitarian God apart from what he tells us. Epistemologically, the place of Trinitarian theology in systematic theology is always a controversial topic, even if Trinitarian theology always has to be the ultimate horizon of Christian theology.

Contemporary Issues

As a reaction against essentialism, and under the impact of postmodern critiques, many modern theologians have been moving more to a pluralistic tradition, beginning with Father, Son and Holy Spirit (rather than the idea of the simple divine essence). There is a discernible tendency towards social trinitarianism. Essentialism – the emphasis on the unity of the divine essence as a starting point, among other things, is seen as totalitarian.

Trinitarian theology arose because of Christology, since, without the question of the divinity of Christ, simple Jewish monotheism would have remained. If, however, Christ is divine, are there two gods, is he a lesser god, or are there other options? Many today are looking for alternatives to the traditional conceptualities.

Also, it is perceived by many contemporary theologians that there is sexism in the traditional Trinitarian theology. Some, as a reaction, do away with Trinitarian theology and invocation. Others redefine it.

Importance of the History of Trinitarian Theology

Scripture does not explicitly spell the doctrine of the Trinity as such. Trinitarian and Christological doctrines are the result of historical development, even while have roots in Scripture. The failure to understand this basic concept has, in the context of fundamentalism, crippled some conservative theologians who in turn do not engage many of the ongoing challenges presented to them in modernity.

History means contamination – by blood, power struggles, etc. This is part of any history of human ideas; the more important they are, the more blood is likely to be spilled. This has been true of revolutions such as the American, French, Russian, etc. Some enlightenment rationalists put blame in religion without realizing that ideologies of freedom (as with many other ideologies, including, for example Marxism), have always been abused by the State. State persecutions have killed millions of people.

Historically, Nicean orthodoxy has prevailed – as believed and affirmed by the Church, under divine providence and inspiration guiding infallible councils – but it was not a foregone conclusion, and at many times it seemed as though it had failed. An important question, then, is to consider whether orthodoxy can be measured by the status quo; the place of God’s providence also has to be assessed. Outside of dogmatic formulations of Ecumenical Councils, what criteria can we build Trinitarian theologies today, and how are they binding?

Essential Questions

We cannot avoid using human models, since, again, we do not have an insight into the essence of God. How do we avoid the problems inherent in any human models – anthropomorphism and its attending ideologies? It seems as though contemporary theologians are often unaware or unconcerned with these two essential problems.

Human beings historically have used ideas to oppress other people, which is the development of ideologies. Are we projecting our own ideologies in our conception of the Trinity? Are we projecting our ideologies when we want to determine who God is, and thus how our imitation of him should be? When we want to determine what is or is not important or central in Christian theology? When  we want to determine how God should me made relevant, or how we should worship him? (or her?)

Moltmann, for example, begins with a contemporary critique of oppression, and argues that monotheistic conceptions of God need to be discarded because of their inherent oppressive character. For him, it needs to be replaced with social trinitarianism, which is the only way to preserve equality. Thus, he projects his own ideas into the reconstruction of Trinitarian theology, where equality and plurality come first. Then, he derives from that theology a reconstruction of social relations and structures. This amounts to Feuerbach’s idea of theology as anthropology.

Today, under the influence of Derrida, Heidegger, and others, there are some important metaphysical categories of being, relation, etc.

  1. How do explain the unity and plurality of God using such categories?
  2. How do speak of one God as three irreducible distinct realities?
  3. How do we speak about their relations?
  4. What are the pitfalls to avoid (modalism, subordinationism, etc.)?
  5. How do we speak of the relation of the Triune God in relation to the world?

These are all important issues that still call for theology to be done today.

Jürgen Moltmann’s Trinitarian theology (part 2 of 2)

Jürgen Moltmann

Personalism and Social Trinity

Another potential difficulty in Moltmann’s theology is his concept of person. He approvingly cites the philosophical personalism of Hölderlin, Feuerbach, Buber, Ebner, Rosenstock and others who argue that the “I” can only be understood in the light of the “Thou,” i.e., it is a concept of relation. As he states, “without the social relation there can be no personality.”[1]

This is intended as a needful criticism and guard against understanding the persons of the Trinity as independent, individual centers of activity. This is also part of his criticism of Rahner, who, in Moltmann’s view, is liable to the same dead end as Barth,[2] viz., idealistic modalism.[3]

However, the concept of personality as something that does not exist apart from relationships is open to question. However corrective this may be to an overtly individualistic modern culture, and however true it may be in practice that ordinarily people develop into who they become according to the various personal influences they receive throughout their lives, it is far from universally established that the concept of person cannot be thought of except in reference to relation.

Moreover, it could be argued that from the moment one accepts a Trinitarian theology in which there is some conception of one essence and three persons (as Moltmann favorably quotes Tertullian as formulating), there is introduced a unique category that does not necessarily require a one-to-one correspondence to human persons, relations, and essences. In a Trinitarian theological framework, no person in this world (except Christ) exists in one essence with (or in) other persons, however the concepts of persons and essences are defined.

An interesting illustration of the difficulty is that Moltmann quotes from the Genesis account to substantiate his argument that one is only God’s image in fellowship with other people: “in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). What is curious about this is that, given that Moltmann wants to cite the Genesis account, it is that very book which presents Adam as created first (as explained after the summary account of creation he cites, cf. Gen. 2:15-18). Presumably, in the book of Genesis, Adam was a person in the image of God before Eve ever appeared on the scene.

Moltmann’s understanding of personality being defined in terms of relationships is paramount to his construal of a social Trinity that provides a theological framework for socio-political structures. This is the main reason for Moltmann’s criticism of a monarchic understanding of the Trinity, since this monarchy is also reflected in society and politics, which, in his view, generates injustice. As a solution, a Trinitarian framework where there is equality of persons and personal relationships is posited. But there is also a theological danger here. It could be argued that in Moltmann’s social Trinity, “God” then refers to a composite of persons and relationships just as society is a composite of its constituents and their relationships, and that as persons in society coexist, define each other, and must be finite, so with each person of the Trinity.[4]

Doxological Trinity

As seen above, Moltmann’s concept of creation in relation to the Father loving and seeking responsive love of the Other (which must be a love that goes beyond the responsive love of the Son, who is not the Other), makes the distinction between immanent and economic Trinity necessary. However, Moltmann explicitly subscribes to Rahner’s dictum, “The immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity, and the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity.”

He argues that the distinction between the two would be necessary if, in the concept of God, there were really only the alternative between liberty and necessity; but, as he argued, God is love, which combines liberty and necessity in which none could be asserted without the other. For Moltmann the notion of an immanent Trinity in which God is simply by himself, without the love which communicates salvation, brings an arbitrary element into the concept of God which means a breakup of the Christian concept.[5]

It introduces a contradiction, because the God who loves the world (economic) does not correspond to the God who suffices for himself (immanent). Clearly, Moltmann gives preference and emphasis to the economic Trinity. But despite his effort to minimize the distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity, this distinction cannot be done away with completely even within his theology. Therefore, Moltmann has to ground such distinction somewhere, and his answer to this problem is to ground the immanent Trinity as a Doxological Trinity.

Moltmann argues that there can be no real theology without the expression of praise, thanksgiving and adoration. In theology, we know only insofar as we love.[6] Therefore, in the early church, doxological knowledge of God is called theologia in the real sense, being distinguished from the doctrine of salvation, the oeconomia Dei. As such, the economic Trinity is the object of proclamation (kerygma), whereas the immanent Trinity is the content of doxological theology. This is reinforced by the idea that we do not merely give thanks to the giver for the gifts he has given; we actually worship him for what he is, for he himself is good.[7]

Therefore, we worship the Trinity as it is in itself (God in se) because what it has done in history (God pros nobis) but there is only one, single Trinity, and only one single divine history of salvation; thus, the triune God can only appear in history as he is in himself and in no other way. One cannot think of God in the abstract, he argues, for if we know God and worship him based on his historical acts, God is from eternity to eternity the “crucified God.”[8] For Moltmann, then, the cross stands not only in the economic Trinity (i.e., in the history of salvation), but also in the immanent Trinity.[9]

By affirming a fundamental identity of the immanent and the economic Trinity, Moltmann, paradoxically, does not mean to erase all distinctions between them, but, as he argues, to bring out the interaction between substance an revelation, the “inwardness” and the “outwardness” of the triune God. In fact, the surrender of the Son on the cross has a retroactive effect on the Father and causes infinite pain; therefore, the economic Trinity has a retroactive effect on the immanent Trinity.[10] The pain of the cross determines the inner life of the triune God from eternity to eternity.

This account clearly requires that the immanent Trinity, worshipped in praise and thanksgiving, is revealed by the economic Trinity which acts in the world and elicits the responsive love expressed in doxology. The danger here, however, is that Moltmann’s concept of human relationships as determining the concept of person, without proper caveats in regards to the uniqueness of the Trinity, coupled with the idea of an economic Trinity as a mirror of the immanent Trinity,[11] might eliminate altogether any trace of mystery in the Trinity. This is precisely James P. Mackey’s criticism of Moltmann. Mackey argues that Moltmann’s theology is

a refusal to accept classic Trinitarian theology . . . a rejection of the very move that finally made it orthodox, namely the move . . . that prevented us from taking our story of God’s encounter with us in history, from taking our myth, literally, as an analysis and description in its key terms of God’s own inner being.”[12]

This, Mackey states, was what the Arians did; they extrapolated from biblical statements of the subordination of the Son to the Father to an inner life of God in which there is a difference in divine status. Mackey approvingly quotes Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, in saying that the creed of Nicaea is the first step in the critical demythologizing of Christian discourse.

Mackey argues that we know no more than the fact that there is some self-differentiation in the inner being of the God who is present and active in creation, in the historical Jesus and in the Spirit, but that gives us no knowledge of the being of God.[13] This is an important criticism, for if indeed the mystery of the Triune God is at least compromised, if not made reducible to analogous human relationships of love and thankfulness, then the very doxological theology for which Moltmann argues will be seriously undermined. Worship, praise and thanksgiving become no longer qualitatively different, but only quantitatively different, that that offered to any other human benefactor.

A possible rejoinder is that Mackey might be advocating such a sharp distinction between God in himself and God revealed, so as to almost import a Kantian separation between the two, where a “noumenal” Trinity is utterly unknowable. This seems to be go beyond Calvin’s argument (which Mackey approvingly cites) that the point of contact between the economic and immanent Trinity lies in the accommodation God makes in revealing himself to us, finite and sinful beings. That is to say, the economic Trinity is neither a clear mirror of the immanent Trinity, nor an arbitrary revelation of something that is absolutely unknown.

Another difficulty inherent in Moltmann’s grounding of the immanent Trinity in the doxological Trinity is the implication that what we worship is not really the Trinity, but merely our reflection upon the Trinity. That is to say, if doxological theology is not worshipping the economic Trinity, it is worshipping a merely conceptual, artificial, and arbitrary construal of the Trinity in itself. This is Ted Peters’ criticism of Moltmann. Peters complains,

“I think that for Moltmann there finally can be only one Trinity, the economic Trinity . . . the immanent Trinity is the product of pious imagination, and abstraction from the concrete economy of the divine life which is actualized in history.”[14]

Also as Randall Otto argues, the immanent Trinity in Moltmann’s theology seems to be robbed of reality, becoming a passive product of an historical process, and the result is a Trinity so open as to be threatened with loss of transcendence by being dependent upon the contingencies of history.[15] Moreover, the desire to posit an immanent Trinity in a doxological Trinity implies that God is more than his actions in the world; but this seems to prove too much for Moltmann. In other words, if the triune God is not merely the sum total of his activities in salvation history, in what way does the immanent Trinity transcend the economic Trinity?


Moltmann has made many important contributions to theology, and to the doctrine of the Trinity in particular. His emphasis on the necessity of a robust Trinitarian theology is a needful corrective to often unclear theological systems and statements. His social trinitarianism is also a fertile field for a vital theological contribution to society, politics, and interpersonal relationships. Moltmann certainly is not a tritheist, as some imply, and he brings to the fore important aspects of God’s love in relation to creation. However, there are difficulties in his concepts of personality, in his formulations of the immanent Trinity, and in his development of the doxological Trinity that need to be corrected and fine-tuned for a more consistent systematic program.


Click here for Part 1


[1] Moltmann, 145.

[2] Although Moltmann argues that Rahner and Barth get there through different routes.

[3] Moltmann, 148.

[4] Ted Peters. “Moltmann and the way of the Trinity.” Dialog 31 (1992): 278

[5] Moltmann, 151.

[6] Ibid., 152.

[7] Ibid., 153.

[8] Ibid., 159.

[9] Ibid., 160.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Moltmann states that “Statements about the immanent Trinity must not contradict statements about the economic Trinity. Statements about the economic Trinity must correspond to doxological statement about the immanent Trinity.” Cf. Moltmann, 154.

[12] James P. Mackey. “The Preacher, The Theologian, and The Trinity.” Theology Today, 54.3 (1997): 359-360.

[13] Ibid., 362.

[14] Peters, 277.

[15] Otto, 221-222.

Roman Catholic Theology Bibliography – From Johann Sebastian Drey to Vatican II

(This list does not include Catholic theologians whose major works appeared after Vatican II, such as Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan, Hans Kung, Edward Schilleebeecxs, Johann Metz, Avery Dulles, and many of the Latin American liberation theologians.)


Johann Sebastian Drey (1777-1853)

Brief Introduction to the Study of Theology With Reference to the Scientific Standpoint and the Catholic System (1819)

Johann Adam Mohler (1796-1838)

Unity in the Church or the Principle of Catholicism Presented in the Spirit of the Church Fathers of the First Three Centuries (1825)

Symbolism (1832)

John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

     The Arians of the Fourth Century (1832)

     Parochial and Plain Sermons

     An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845)

     The Idea of a University

     “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” (1859)

     Apologia  pro Vita Sua (1864)

     An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870)

     Via Media (1877), retitling of Lectures on the Prophetical Office viewed relatively to Romanism and Popular Protestantism

      Matthias Scheeben (1835-1888)

     Mysteries of Christianity (1865)

Friedrich von Hugel (1852-1925)

     The Mystical Element of Religion (1908)

     Essays and Addresses on the Philosophy of Religion (1921, 1926)

     The Reality of God (undelivered Gifford Lecture, 1931)

Alfred Loisy (1857-1940)

     Gospel and the Church (1904), response to Harnack, The Essence of Christianity

Maurice Blondel (1861-1949)


     The Letter on Apologetics; and History and Dogma

George Tyrrell (1861-1909)

     Letters from a Modernist The Letters of George Tyrrell to Wilfrid Ward, 1893-1908

A. D. Sertillanges (1863-1948)

     Saint Thomas Aquinas and His Work (1932)

     The Intellectual Life Its Spirit, Condition, and Methods (1959)

Karl Adam (1876-1966)

     The Spirit of Catholicism (1924)

     Christ Our Brother (1926)

     The Son of God (1933)

     One and Holy (1948)

     The Christ of Faith (1954)

Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)

     The Phenomenon of Man

     The Divine Milieu

Romano Guardini (1885-1968)

     The Spirit of the Liturgy (1918)

     The Lord (1937)

     The End of the Modern Age (1950)

Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977)

     Transformation in Christ (1940)

     Liturgy and Personality (1943)

Erich Przywara (1889-1972)

     On Newman, Augustine, analogy of being (his major work on analogy is now in the process of being translated;  this is the book at issue between Barth and Catholicism)

Emile Mersch (1890-1940)

     The Whole Christ (1933)

     The Theology of the Mystical Body (1946)

Charles Journet (1891-1975)

     Theology of the Church (1957)

     The Meaning of Grace (1957)

     The Church of the Word Incarnate

Marie-Dominique Chenu (1895-1990)

     Aquinas and His Role in Theology

     Is Theology a Science?

     Towards Understanding St. Thomas Aquinas

     Theology of Work

Henri de Lubac (1896-1991)

     Catholicism (1950)

      The Mystery of the Supernatural (1967)

      The Splendor of the Church

      The Drama of Atheist Humanism

      Corpus Mysticum  The Eucharist and the Church in the Middle Ages

      Medieval Exegesis  The Four Senses of Scripture

      Paradoxes of Faith

Jean Mouroux (1901-1973)

     The Meaning of Man (1948)

     I Believe The Personal Structure of Faith (1959)

     The Mystery of Time (1964)

Yves Congar (1904-1995)

     True and False Reform in the Church (1950)

     Lay People in the Church (1957)

     Mystery of the Church (1960)

     Tradition and Traditions (1966)

     I Believe in the Holy Spirit (1979)

John Courtney Murray (1904-1967)

     We Hold These Truths (1960)

Jean Danielou (1905-1974)

     God and the Ways of Knowing

      The Lord of History


      Myth and Mystery

      The Bible and the Liturgy

      Christ and Us

Josef Fuchs (1912-2005)

     Christian Morality The Word Becomes Flesh

     Natural Law A Theological Investigation

     Human Values and Christian Morality

Bernard Haring (1912-1998)

     The Law of Christ

     Free and Faithful in Christ

Louis Bouyer (1913-2004)

      Spirit and Forms of Protestantism


      The Word, Church, and Sacrament  in Protestantism and Catholicism

      The Christian Mystery

      Mystery and Mysticism

      The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers


    Catholic Philosophers

   Joseph Marechal (1878-1944)

Jacques Maritain (1882-1973)

Louis Lavelle (1883-1951)

Etienne Gilson (1884-1978)

Gabriel Marcel (1888-1973)

Martin D’Arcy (1888-1976)

Edith Stein, St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross (1891-1942)

Jean Lacroix (1900-1986)

Albert Dondeyne (1901-1985)

Mortimer J. Adler (1902-2001)

Josef Pieper (1904-1997)    Emmanuel Mounier (1905-1950)

Frederick Copleston (1907-1994)

Emerich Coreth (1919- )

Peter Geach (1916- ) and G. E. M. Anscombe (1919-2001)

Michel Henry (1922-2002)

Alasdair MacIntyre (1929- )

Charles Taylor (1931- )

Jean-Luc Marion (1946)

Jean-Louis Chretien (1952)

Jean-Yves Lacoste


Catholic Theologians after Vatican II

Karl Rahner (1904-1984)

Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984)

Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988)

Edward Schilleebeckx (1914- )

Avery Dulles (1918- )

Juan Luis Segundo (1925- )

Joseph Ratzinger (1927- )

Hans Kung (1928- )

Gustavo Gutierrez (1928- )

Leonardo Boff (1938- )

Jon Sobrino (1938- )

David Tracy (1939- )

Jürgen Moltmann’s Trinitarian theology (part 1)

Necessity and Freedom: God’s Love

Jürgen Moltmann

Moltmann’s project in The Trinity and the Kingdom involves answering the question of whether creation is a product of God’s nature or a product of his will. This, of course, involves answering the question of whether creation is a product of necessity or of freedom, respectively. Moltmann’s solution is to ground creation as an expression of God’s love – and it is precisely that love that combines necessity and freedom in a perfect balance, so that neither can be affirmed without the other.

On the one hand, it is impossible to conceive of a God who is not a creative God, because he is love, and love seeks responsiveness. On the other hand, love acts according to its nature, and that is freedom. Thus, God creates according to his nature, i.e.,  he creates necessarily and freely.

Necessity and freedom coincide in the nature of God, since for God to love is axiomatic, self-evident: he cannot deny himself. For God it is axiomatic to love freely, for he is God.[1] His love is his liberty and his liberty is his love, and he is not compelled to love by any outward or inward necessity, for love is self-evident for God.[2] This love, which God is and which brings about the creative act, is the same love with which God the Father loves the Son, but it is a love that seek responsiveness in creation – and the Son is not creation.

Therefore, the love with which God creates in order to be glorified in the response of his creation is intimately related to, and yet not identical in all respects, to the love with which he loves his uncreated Son.

This distinction in God’s love of self and love of the Other will be one of the main reasons for Moltmann’s upholding the distinction between the economic and the immanent Trinity. From eternity God has desired not only himself, but the world too, for he did no merely want to communicate himself to himself; he wanted to communicate himself to the one who is other than himself. This extrapolation of God’s love not only in himself but to another requires that a distinction be made between the immanent and economic love, and therefore, between the immanent and economic Trinity.

Another important consequence of his distinction in God’s love is that changes of tritheism are refuted from the outset: for a tritheistic God would have had this want of communication of love “to the one who is other than himself” already fulfilled in the other persons of the Trinity

This is reinforced by Moltmann’s concept of the Trinity in relation to the act (or rather, passion) of creation. Moltmann normally prefers to speak of God taking the Trinity as a starting point, as it has been revealed in history, to only then arrive at the God who is one essence.[3] He starts with the Persons not the essence – in an attempt to reverse what has been perceived as the Western approach since Augustine. Moltmann’s preference in starting with the Trinity to arrive at God generates an important difficulty: unless we first have some clarity on what we mean by “God,” we have no way of knowing that our Trinitarian experience is in fact related to what is properly called God.[4]

But here, he affirms that creation, as a self-limitation of God, is actually the work of the Father, which is then ascribed to the Trinity.[5] The Father creates the one who is his Other by virtue of his love of the Son, and he creates through the Son. Moltmann’s distinction between the “Other,” which is created, and the Son, who is God himself and is begotten, should make evident that charges of borderline tritheism in Moltmann’s theology are not justified.

Another of Moltmann’s concepts that makes the distinction between immanent and economic Trinity necessary is the differentiation between the responsive love of the Son as the Logos (immanent) and as his image (economic). Through the incarnation of his Son, the Father acquires a twofold response for his love: his Son’s (which is self-evident, a matter of course) and the free response of his image, in which are included the free responses of the Son’s brothers and sisters.[6] This differentiation is impossible without making some distinction between the Son as the Logos, which refers to a relationship of God in himself, and the Son as the incarnate image of God, uniting humanity to himself and responding freely as his image in creation.

Monotheism and Monarchianism

Moltmann’s theology of creation, however, generates some tensions with other aspects of his Trinitarian theology that are difficult to resolve. For example, Moltmann rejects strict monotheism because it makes proper Christology impossible (i.e., it leads to either Arianism or Sabellianism).[7] But Moltmann also states that monotheism and monarchianism are only the names for two sides of the same thing.[8] What becomes problematic is that Moltmann sees monarchianism as intrinsically related to the rule of one over the many.[9] This of course is not problematic in and of itself, but it becomes difficult to reconcile with his idea of the Father as the one who, strictly speaking, creates, and the Son who responds. There seems to be an element of precedence, if not superiority, in the Father, loving and willing to limit himself as he may be.

This is also what Randall Otto complains about when he states that Moltmann’s adherence to the traditional concept of the Father as the “fount” or “source” of divinity within the Trinity necessitates a dubious distinction between the “constitution” and the “inner life” of the Trinity.[10] The result is that the monarchy of the Father can be affirmed in his constitution, even if not in his inner life, and that will undermine Moltmann’s project of social trinitarianism in which equality of persons and relationships is paramount.

This distinction between the constitution of the Trinity and the inner life of the Trinity emphasizes the idea that God as Father of the Son has a status different from the Son and the Spirit, and thus despite the equality of the three persons in the divine life, there is still a monarchy of the Father at the level of constitution.[11] Moltmann states that while the Son and the Spirit proceed eternally from the Father, the Father proceeds from no other divine person, and so he is the one without origin or beginning, while being himself the origin of the divine persons of the Son and the Spirit.[12] The Church Fathers would have approved of this formulation, but it is hard to see how that can contribute to Moltmann’s own social trinitarianism. His Trinitarian-based theology is meant not to support the rulers of the political establishment – as he thinks traditional theism does in legitimizing the powerful – but rather to show God’s identification with the oppressed, weak, and lowly ones.[13]


Click here for Part 2


[1] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 107.

[2] Ibid., 151.

[3] I.e., Moltmann rejects the opposite approach, viz., to start with the conceptual one-essence God to then try and arrive at the Trinity.

[4] Richard John Neuhaus. “Moltmann vs. monotheism.” Dialog 20 (1981): 240.

[5] He rejects what he calls the Augustinian tradition (in this matter), according to which creation is actually the work of the Trinity, which is then appropriated to the Father. Moltmann takes the opposite route.

[6] Moltmann, 121.

[7] In most places, Moltmann will be careful to attach the word “strict” to monotheism, i.e., he is not rejecting the idea that God is one essence, but a strictly monotheistic, unbalanced theology that undermines a robust understanding of the Trinity.

[8] Moltmann, 130.

[9] Ibid. 131.

[10] Randall E. Otto. “The use and abuse of perichoresis in recent theology.” Scottish Journal of Theology 54 no 3 (2001): 225-226.

[11] Warren McWilliams. “Trinitarian Doxology: Jürgen Moltmann on the Relation of the Economic and Immanent Trinity.” Perspectives in Religious Studies 23 (1996): 31-32.

[12] Moltmann, 165.

[13] Willis, W. Waite. Theism, atheism, and the doctrine of the Trinity: the trinitarian theologies of Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann in response to protest atheism (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1987), 178-179.

Begotten not Made – or, Why Santa Claus slaps heretics.

St Nicholas smacks Arius at the council of Nicea.

The pop icon Santa Claus is a caricature of a real person, St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra, who died in 343 AD and attended the first Ecumenical Council in Nicea (325). St Nicholas is famous for his charity, care for the poor, selfless life, zeal and suffering for the faith.

Speaking of his zeal, also famous is the story that he slapped Arius in the face during the Council of Nicea. It seems as though Santa is not so jolly if you deny the deity of Christ. If you’re a heretic, you should be thankful if an empty stocking on Christmas day is all that befalls you.

The following are Arius’ claims as far as they can be gathered from Athanasius (in his Discourses Against the Arians)

  1. There is one unoriginate being, God the Father
  2. There are creatures which have been made
  3. Creatures could not have been made by the Father, so a mediator was needed
  4. The mediator was the Word, the Son
  5. There was a time when he was not, he came to be
  6. Therefore, there also was a time when God was not the Father

Common to Arius and the Fathers was the idea of Wisdom as a blueprint. Human making is mediated by an idea, a blueprint of the thing to be made. As this is applied to the Word – all things were already there in the Wisdom, in the mind of God before things were created. The mind of God is the antecedent exemplar of all things created for God creates all things according to his wisdom, his intellect.

What then is the status of this wisdom, this mind? According to Arius, this Wisdom and Word was prior to the creation of all things, but was itself brought into being by God (Prov. 8:22).

It is interesting to note that Arius had tons of Scripture he quoted. Which reminds us of that ongoing problem in Protestantism – what is it that the Scriptures actually mean (not just what they say)?

Who is this creature through whom all creatures came into being? The best metaphysics of the time affirmed that there were basically two kinds of beings: divine and created (out of nothing). There was a basic division between creator and creature. The question then becomes on which side the Son should be placed.

For Athanasius, it is through union with the Son that we are saved by being divinized, and so he has to be divine. As he puts it, we cannot be redeemed and united to God – divinized – if the one whom we’re united with is a semigod.

The question then becomes how to allow for the existence of two divine persons (Father, Son), while avoiding polytheism.

Athanasius argued that the wisdom and the power of God are as eternal as God himself. How then could God be distinguished from his wisdom? How can two things be distinguished that are so internally related to one another? Jesus always refers to God as his Father, and so the Father/Son language was standard. What is unique about generation is that parents generate their children and therefore the children are not the same individuals as their parents (like extensions), but different individuals; at the same time, there is a communication of the human nature, and therefore they have identical human natures. The nature a parent communicates to his child is something internal to the parent, and it is communicated in its totality. This was a perfect model of identity of nature and distinction of persons.

Can this be applied to God? This is when the moment of negation comes in. Human beings communicate the same generic human nature to their children in time; but God eternally communicates the same numerically identical nature to the Son (and the Holy Spirit).

Just as it is the whole of human nature that is communicated to the children, so in the case of divine generation; the Father communicates his own entire divine nature to the Son, and they are distinct persons. The whole divine nature is communicated, and so there is an identity of nature between the Father and the Son, so that the Son shares the same essence of the Father, being therefore a natural Son, not something created out of nothing. Everything else has the power to become sons of the Father only by participation, not by essence.

Making is an external act, and requires parts and temporality, as well as the will of the maker. In the case of the communication of the nature of the Father, this is an eternal act of divine generation. No succession of time. The Son did not begin to exist.

The language of participation and of adoption is Scriptural and used by the Fathers, as they repeatedly emphasized, especially in their discussions of theosis, that we are children by grace, but not by nature.

St Athanasius of Alexandria (298-373 AD)

One of the distinctions between human generation and divine generation is that the former involves materiality, even though it is the whole of the human nature that is communicated. It also involves time; and it is a communication of a generically identical nature, not numerically identical nature. Peter begets a man, not Peter. Human nature exists in numerically distinct individuals. No human individual can exhaust human nature, because it exists always divided and multiplied, concretized in different individuals.

Divine nature, on the other hand, is indivisible. There is only one nature, and that is the nature of the Father that is communicated to the Son and the Holy Spirit. They inhere in each other, one God fully sharing the same numerical identical nature.

What then guarantees the distinction between the persons? The model of generation has the virtue of preserving both the identity of natures and the distinction of persons. The sharing of the numerically identical nature guarantees the unity of God, and generation requires that the Son is not the same as the Father. The distinction is also maintained by the relations between the persons.

The power and monarchy of the Father lies precisely in the fact that he shares the totality of his essence and power with the Son and the Holy Spirit.

I am not capable of sharing the totality of my power with another human being. The paradox is that the almighty power of the Father is exercised in sharing the totality of his power and superiority with the Son and the Holy Spirit, eternally generating and spirating them equal to himself. This paradoxical monarchy that sublates itself refutes modern criticisms which argues that monarchy and equality of persons are mutually exclusive. This is an important aspect of Trinitarian theology that needs to be expounded in contemporary discussions.

The divine begetting is not temporally successive. The word or wisdom through which the Father makes the world cannot be a third entity, other than the Father. Athanasius insists that the Son is the natural, proper offspring of the Father. Creatures are contingent beings who need to participate in the being of God, the one who is (ὁ ὤν).

There are two ways something can be an image of something else: in a complete, perfect way, or in an imperfect way. As Plato says in the Timaeus, time is the moving image of eternity.[1] We are created in the image of God in an incomplete way, but the Son is the perfect image of the Father, because he receives the totality of the Father’s nature. God cannot find himself completely in a creature. To say that Christ is the image of the Father is to say that he is also divine and a perfect reflection and expression of the Father. We are created in the image of the Son, and only through the Son we share the image of the Father.

Athanasius also uses the term “work;” a creature is a thing made, produced. The Son is not a work because there is a difference between what is generated and what is made. This is the opposite of what Arius argued, when he equated begotten (γεννηθέντα) with made (ποιηθέντα). Things made are contingent upon the will, but not things generated. The Father’s generation of the Son is eternal, but God’s creation of the world is contingent and temporal.

Santa Claus Brought Presents and Abuse, and He Ran Out of Presents

So Saint Nicholas was one of the 318 bishops who were present at the First Ecumenical Council held in Nicea in 325 AD. This was just a few years after emperor Constantine made Christianity legal. Many bishops had been killed for the Faith by that time. Now, the whole Church gathers publicly do define doctrine.

And now a priest from Alexandria (having been trained in Antioch) will be writing pop Christian songs about how there was a time when the Son was not?

Santa Claus didn’t think so.

Neither did the council.

1,700 years later, the Church still publicly confesses, in every Divine Liturgy, what the Fathers affirmed then:

Jesus Christ is begotten (γεννηθέντα) but *not* made (οὐ ποιηθέντα) because he is of the same essence (ὁμοούσιον) as the Father.  As the Creed (later completed at the Council of Constantinople) affirms:

I believe in one God, Father Almighty, Creator of
heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of
God, begotten of the Father before all ages;

Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not created, of one essence with the Father through Whom all things were made.

Who for us men and for our salvation
came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.

He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried;

And He rose on the third day,
according to the Scriptures.

He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father;

And He will come again with glory to judge the living and dead. His kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Creator of life,

Who proceeds from the Father,

Who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke through the prophets.

In one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

I look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the age to come.

[1] “When the father creator saw the creature which he had made moving and living, the created image of the eternal gods, he rejoiced, and in his joy determined to make the copy still more like the original; and as this was eternal, he sought to make the universe eternal, so far as might be.

Now the nature of the ideal being was everlasting, but to bestow this attribute in its fullness upon a creature was impossible. Wherefore he resolved to have a moving image of eternity, and when he set in order the heaven, he made this image eternal but moving according to number, while eternity itself rests in unity; and this image we call time. For there were no days and nights and months and years before the heaven was created, but when he constructed the heaven he created them also.

They are all parts of time, and the past and future are created species of time, which we unconsciously but wrongly transfer to the eternal essence; for we say that he “was,” he “is,” he “will be,” but the truth is that “is” alone is properly attributed to him, and that “was” and “will be” only to be spoken of becoming in time, for they are motions, but that which is immovably the same cannot become older or younger by time, nor ever did or has become, or hereafter will be, older or younger, nor is subject at all to any of those states which affect moving and sensible things and of which generation is the cause. These are the forms of time, which imitates eternity and revolves according to a law of number.

Moreover, when we say that what has become is become and what becomes is becoming, and that what will become is about to become and that the non-existent is non-existent-all these are inaccurate modes of expression. But perhaps this whole subject will be more suitably discussed on some other occasion.”

The Essence and the Energies of God

Vladimir Lossky, in his book The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church argues that Orthodoxy makes three kinds of distinctions in God

1. The three hypostasis

2. The nature or essence (ousia)

3. The energies.

The Son and the Holy Spirit are personal processions, whereas the energies natural processions. The energies are inseparable from the nature, and the nature is inseparable from the three Persons.

These distinctions are of great importance for the Eastern Church’s conception of mystical life for 3 reasons:

First, the distinction of essence and energies is the dogmatic basis of the real character of all mystical experience. God, who is inaccessible in His essence, is present in His energies “as in a mirror,” remaining invisible in that which He is; “in the same way we are able to see our faces, themselves invisible to us, in a glass,” according to St. Gregory Palamas. (Sermon on the Presentation of the Holy Virgin in the Temple). Wholly unknowable in His essence, God wholly reveals Himself in His energies, which yet in no way divide His nature into two parts–knowable and unknowable–but signify two different modes of the divine existence, in the essence and outside of the essence.

Second, the doctrine makes it possible to understand how the Trinity can remain incommunicable in essence and at the same time come and dwell within us, according to the promise of Christ (John 14:23). The communication of God to us in his energies is precisely the meaning of grace (which is a very different hermeneutical grid than the West’s tendency of viewing grace mostly in penal categories). It is by God’s grace, his deifying operations in us, his energies, that he communicates himself to us. In receiving the gift–the deifying energies–one receives at the same time the indwelling of the Holy Trinity–inseparable from its natural energies and present in them in a different manner (different mode) but nonetheless truly from that in which it is present in its nature.

Third, the distinction between the essences and the energies preserves St. Peter’s words “partakers of the divine nature.” We do not become partakers of the divine nature by becoming another Person in the Trinity (which would be a hypostatic union) nor by our human essence merging into the infinite essence of God (a substantial union). Rather we are united to God in His energies, or by grace.

Lossky also points out that these distinctions do not contradict the apophatic attitude (i.e., the human necessity to describe the indescribable nature of God more in terms of what he is not than what he is) in regard to revealed truth. “On the contrary, these antinomical distinctions are dictated by a concern for safeguarding the mystery, while yet expressing the data of revelation in dogma.”  The distinction between the essence and the energies is due to the antinomy between the unknowable and the knowable, the incommunicable and the communicable. This reveals to us the mystery of God, “dwelling in the profusion of glory which is His uncreated light, His eternal Kingdom which all must enter who inherit the deified state of the age to come.”