St. John Chrysostom on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians

St. John Chrysostom, Doctor of the Church (+407), wrote and preached extensively on the mystery of Christ as revealed in Scripture and Tradition. In his Homilies on Ephesians he comments on our predestination in Christ before the foundation of the world and how this economy of grace was foreordained. He also speaks of the immutable purpose of God and how all things, including the Angels, are under the headship of Christ.

Ironically, while he illustrates so many points that confirm the Franciscan perspective (which is the perspective of St. Paul, indeed of God Himself! – one can read my own exposition of the Pauline perspective here), St. John frequently speaks as if Christ’s coming was occasioned by sin. Here is but one example: “It was well near come to this, that man had been made in vain, brought into the world in vain, nay, rather to his ruin; when all were absolutely perishing, more fearfully than in the deluge, He devised this dispensation, that is by grace; that it might not be in vain, might not be to no purpose that man was created.” One senses from these words that Christ is a sort of “plan B” which God devised to salvage man. Although Chrysostom does not seem to have held what is today called the “absolute” primacy of Christ (sin or no sin), nonetheless, he offers many insights which clearly uphold the position of Christ’s absolute predestination and primacy.

Commenting on Eph. 1:4 he writes:

Ver. 4. “Even as,” he [St. Paul] proceeds, “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blemish before Him in love.”

His meaning is somewhat of this sort: Through whom He has blessed us, through Him He has also chosen us. And He, then, it is that shall bestow upon us all those rewards hereafter. He is the very Judge that shall say, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Mt 25:34). And again, “I will that where I am they will also be with Me.” (Jn 17:24). And this is a point which he is anxious to prove in almost all his Epistles, that ours is no novel system, but that it had thus been figured from the very first, that it is not the result of any change of purpose, but had been in fact a divine dispensation and fore-ordained. And this is a mark of great solicitude for us.

According to St. John Chrysostom, St. Paul is anxious to drive home the point that all graces, all spiritual blessings come to us from God the Father in Christ: “…ours is no novel system,” he writes, “…it had thus been figured from the very first, that it is not the result of any change of purpose, but had been in fact a divine dispensation and fore-ordained.” This plan to make us His adopted children in Christ was established by God before creation, before any consideration of the fall, and this was not “the result of any change of purpose.” From the Franciscan perspective (which, as one can see, is rooted in Scripture and Tradition) the decree of the Incarnation was an immutable one. Sin or no sin, God wills to bless us in Christ Jesus. Because of sin that purpose remains unaltered; however, as a result of Adam’s sin Christ comes also as Redeemer and manifests not only God’s love for us, but also His infinite mercy.

St. John Chrysostom continues:

What is meant by, “He chose us in Him?” By means of the faith which is in Him, Christ, he means, happily ordered this for us before we were born; nay more, before the foundation of the world. And beautiful is that word “foundation,” as though he were pointing to the world as cast down from some vast height. Yea, vast indeed and ineffable is the height of God, so far removed not in place but in incommunicableness of nature; so wide the distance between creation and Creator! A word which heretics may be ashamed to hear.

And this incommunicability of the divine and human nature, this abyss which separates creation from the Creator on the level of being, does it not make sense that for all of the elect, both the Saints and the Angels, that ontological separation would be bridged by a Mediator? “There is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, Himself a man, Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5; cf. Mt. 11:27; Jn. 14:6; 1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 8:6; 9:15; 12:24). Indeed this is what God “happily ordered for us before we were born… before the foundation of the world.”

But wherefore has He chosen us? “That we should be holy and without a blemish before Him.” That you may not then, when you hear that “He has chosen us,” imagine that faith alone is sufficient, he proceeds to add life and conduct. To this end, says he, has He chosen us, and on this condition, “that we should be holy and without blemish.”

The plan is stupendous! But it is not by faith alone that it is accomplished in us. We must correspond to God’s plan for us in Christ by a life of virtue if we are to enter the eternal blessedness of His kingdom. As St. John of the Cross would say, “Love is repaid by love alone.” Chrysostom goes on to say:

Ver. 4, 5. “In love,” says he, “having foreordained us unto adoption as sons through Jesus Christ unto Himself.”

Do you observe how that nothing is done without Christ? Nothing without the Father? The one has predestinated, the other has brought us near. And these words he adds by way of heightening the things which have been done, in the same way as he says also elsewhere, “And not only so, but we also rejoice in God, through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rm 5:11). For great indeed are the blessings bestowed, yet are they made far greater in being bestowed through Christ; because He sent not any servant, though it was to servants He sent, but the Only-begotten Son Himself.

Christ is, to use the expression of Bl. John Duns Scotus, the summum opus Dei – the great Masterpiece of God’s creative hand. The Father does nothing in the universe without Christ, the Word Incarnate. If God gives us every spiritual blessing on high in Christ, as St. Paul says, then this means that God gives no spiritual blessing apart from Christ – whether to Angels or to men. While the blessings are great, they are “far greater in being bestowed through Christ.” Is it even possible to think that this perfect, sublime plan of God in Christ is but a remedy for Adam’s sin? Does Scripture reveal to us a different way, truth and life for the good Angels and for Adam and Eve before the fall? No. Before the foundations of the world God established one economy of grace in Christ.

St. John Chrysostom clarifies what St. Paul means in v.10 by the word ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι – often translated to re-establish.

Ver. 10. “Unto a dispensation of the fullness of the times to sum up all things in Christ, the things in the heavens and the things upon the earth, even in Him.”…

The fullness of the times, however, was His coming… [for more on St. Paul’s phrase “the fullness of times” one can read here]

That “He might sum up” [ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι] he says.

What is the meaning of this word, “sum up?” It is “to knit together.” Let us, however, endeavor to get near the exact import. With ourselves then, in common conversation, the word means the summing into a brief compass things spoken at length, the concise account of matters described in detail. And it has this meaning. For Christ has gathered up in Himself the dispensations carried on through a lengthened period, that is to say, He has cut them short. For “by finishing His word and cutting it short in righteousness,” (Rm 9:28) He both comprehended former dispensations, and added others beside. This is the meaning of “summing up.”

The root of the word ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι (anakephalaiosasthai) is κεφαλ- which comes from the Greek word for “head”. The prefix ἀνα- means up or upwards. What the Holy Apostle is literally saying is that God’s dispensation which is realized in the fullness of times is to bring all things – both in Heaven and on earth – under the headship of Christ. “Sum up” is closer to the Greek than the Latin instaurare or the English “re-establish.” The significance of the verb in Greek is clear – God’s will before the creation of the world was that all things be brought under the headship of Christ, summed up in Him. This is dealt with more in-depth in my commentary on the christocentric canticle of Paul in Colossians 1:15-20.

It has also another signification; and of what nature is this? He has set over all one and the same Head, i.e., Christ according to the flesh, alike over Angels and men. That is to say, He has given to Angels and men one and the same government… So also here He has brought all under one and the same Head. For thus will an union be effected, thus will a close bond be effected, if one and all can be brought under one and the same Head, and thus have some constraining bond of union from above. Honored then as we are with so great a blessing, so high a privilege, so great loving-kindness, let us not shame our Benefactor, let us not render in vain so great grace. Let us exemplify the life of Angels, the virtue of Angels, the conversation of Angels, yea, I entreat and conjure you, that all these things turn not to our judgment, nor to our condemnation, but to our enjoyment of those good things, which may God grant we may all attain, in Christ Jesus, our Lord, with whom to the Father, together with the Holy Ghost, be glory, strength, etc. etc.

St. John Chrysostom is only confirming the teachings of St. Paul that Christ is Head of the Angels: “the Head of every Principality and Power.” (Col. 2:10). But how can the God-Man be Head of the good Angels who have no need of Redemption? Because Christ was predestined as Head of the whole Church, of all the elect, before any consideration of sin. Below is a video where I explain this notion of Christ’s headship according to St. Paul.

In conclusion, let us ask St. John Chrysostom to intercede for us and obtain for us the graces to penetrate ever more deeply the wealth of Christology found in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.

St. Maximus the Confessor – The Mystery of Christ as the blessed end for which all things are ordained

St. Maximus the Confessor, a prominent Greek Father of the Church (d. 662), in his Questiones ad Thalassium (q.60; PG 90; 620-621) comments on God’s foreknowledge of Christ: “Foreknown, indeed, before the foundation of the world, He has been manifested in the last times for your sakes” (1 Pt 1:20).

Below are the pertinent passages (if you are interested in reading more of his Christology I would highly recommend On the Cosmic Mystery of Christ which provides translations from St Maximus’ two main collections of theological reflections, his Ambigua and his Questions to Thalassius, plus one of his Christological opuscula).

From the pen of St. Maximus the Confessor…

The scriptural text calls the mystery of Christ “Christ.” The great Apostle clearly testifies to this when he speaks of the mystery hidden from the ages, having now been manifested (Col 1:26). He is of course referring to Christ, the whole mystery of Christ, which is manifestly the ineffable and incomprehensible hypostatic union between Christ’s divinity and humanity…

This is the great and hidden mystery, at once the blessed end for which all things are ordained. It is the divine purpose conceived before the beginning of created beings. In defining it we would say that this mystery is the preconceived goal for which everything exists, but which itself exists on account of nothing. With a clear view to this end, God created the essences of created beings, and such is, properly speaking, the terminus of His providence and of the things under His providential care. Inasmuch as it leads to God, it is the recapitulation of the things he has created. It is the mystery which circumscribes all the ages, and which reveals the grand plan of God (cf. Eph 1:10-11), a super-infinite plan infinitely preexisting the ages. The Logos, by essence God, became a messenger of this plan (cf. Is 9:5) when He became a man and, if I may rightly say so, established Himself as the innermost depth of the Father’s goodness while also displaying in Himself the very goal for which His creatures manifestly received the beginning of their existence.

Because of Christ – or rather, the whole mystery of Christ – all the ages of time and the beings within those ages have received their beginning and end in Christ. For the union between a limit of ages and limitlessness, between measure and immeasurability, between finitude and infinity, between Creator and creation, between rest and motion, was conceived before the ages. This union has been manifested in Christ at the end of time and in itself brings God’s foreknowledge to fulfillment, in order that naturally mobile creatures might secure themselves around God’s total and essential immobility, desisting altogether from their movement toward themselves and toward each other. The union has been manifested so that they might also acquire, by experience, an active knowledge of Him in whom they were made worthy to find their stability and to have abiding unchangeably in them the enjoyment of this knowledge…

This mystery was known solely to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit before all the ages. It was know to the Father by His approval (ενδοκια), to the Son by His carrying it out (αυτουρια), and to the Holy Spirit by His cooperation (συνεργεια) in it. For there is one knowledge shared by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit because They also share one essence and power. The Father and the Holy Spirit were not ignorant of the Incarnation of the Son because the whole Father is by essence in the whole Son who Himself carried out the mystery of our salvation through His Incarnation. The Father Himself did not become incarnate but rather approved the Incarnation of the Son. Moreover, the whole Holy Spirit exists by essence in the whole Son, but He too did not become incarnate but rather cooperated in the Son’s ineffable Incarnation for our sake. Whether, then, one speaks of “Christ” or the “mystery of Christ,” the Holy Trinity alone – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – foreknew it. And no one should question how Christ, who is one of the Holy Trinity, was foreknown by the Trinity, when recognizing that Christ was foreknown not as God but as man. In other words, it was His Incarnation for humanity’s sake in the economy of salvation that was foreknown. For that which is eternal and forever transcending cause and reason could never be foreknown. Foreknowledge is of being who have a beginning of existence because they have a cause.

Thus Christ was foreknown not as what He was in Himself by nature but as what He manifested when, in the economy of salvation, He subsequently became human on our behalf. For truly He who is the Creator of the essence of created beings by nature had also to become the very Author of the deification of creatures by grace, in order that the Giver of well-being might appear also as the gracious Giver of eternal well-being. Since, therefore, no created being knows what itself of any other being absolutely is in its essence, it only follows that no created being by nature has foreknowledge of any future beings. Only God, who transcends created beings, and who knows what He Himself is in essence, foreknows the existence of all His creatures even before their creation. And in the future He will by grace confer on those created beings the knowledge of what they themselves and other beings are in essence, and manifest the principles of their origin which preexist uniformly in Him.

Indeed, we reject the argument of some who say that Christ was foreknown before the foundation of the world to those to whom He was later manifested at the end of time, as though those beings were themselves present with the foreknown Christ before the foundation of the world, and as though the scriptural Word were running awry from the truth and suggesting that the essence of rational beings is coeternal with God. For it is impossible to be completely coexistent with Christ, just as it is furthermore impossible ever to depart from Him entirely, since the termination of time is fixed within Christ, as the stability (στασις) of mobile created beings, as stability wherein no created being will know any change at all.

Creed – For us Men AND for our Salvation

The Emperor Constantine with the Bishops of the 1st Council of Nicaea (325), holding the Nicene–Constantinopolitan Creed of 381

One of the common objections to the notion of an unconditional Incarnation is the phrase from the Nicene-Constantinople Creed: “For us men and for our salvation He came down from Heaven…” On the surface it appears to be stating that the motive of the Incarnation is for the salvation of mankind. Since this is from the Councils of the Church one would cease to be a Catholic and begin to be a heretic by not embracing this revealed truth.

There are at least two ways that the Creed can be seen as coherent with the Franciscan thesis of the absolute primacy of Christ. The first is by following along the lines of St. Irenaeus, namely, that the term “salvation” is not restricted to redeeming man from sin, but is a much broader term which includes man’s salvation from sin, viz. Redemption. Salvation comes by justification through faith in Jesus – St. Paul repeats this tirelessly in his Epistles – and this justification makes us children of God, that is, it elevates us from the natural plane (creatures) to a supernatural plane (children of God). I maintain that this economy of grace is the economy of grace established by God from the beginning for Angels and Saints and that this economy is not contingent upon sin. Fr. Alessandro M. Apollonio, FI, explains this more in depth (see here) and I have also dealt with this topic in commenting on Eph. 1:7.

The second way that our Profession “for us men and for our salvation” can be seen as not only coherent, but even affirming the absolute primacy of Christ is by seeing this as two distinct motives: Christ came 1) for us men  AND  2) for our salvation. In this case salvation would be equivalent to Redemption. Christ comes for us men – to bring us into the divine life of grace as adopted children; because of Adam’s sin, Christ also comes for our salvation – to repair the fall and restore us to divine grace. There is a concise explanation of this by a blogger named “Johannes”. In response to the question, “Does Catholic doctrine teach that the Incarnation would have taken place regardless of Adam’s decision?” (original post is here) he writes:

…the open status of the issue within Catholic doctrinal orthodoxy is clear at the beginning of St. Thomas Aquinas’ answer to the corresponding question in his Summa Theologica (ST III, q.1, a.3), by the way he describes his position:

I answer that, There are different opinions about this question. For some say that even if man had not sinned, the Son of Man would have become incarnate. Others assert the contrary, and seemingly our assent ought rather to be given to this opinion.

Notably, a most authoritative text that is compatible with the position of “unconditional Incarnation” of the Son when rightly understood is the Nicene creed, where we profess that:

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

Salvation, in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologies, does not carry a purely negative meaning of taking out sin, but also, and most importantly, a positive meaning of making men “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pe 1:4), a notion the Greek call “theosis”. Though RCs and EOs differ in the way this is achieved (whether by sanctifying grace and charity or by the divine energies), they agree that it implies the elevation of human nature to a super-natural plane (= above the purely natural plane) and that it is a divine work different from the creation of human nature.

Just as the Incarnation was not strictly necessary for God to forgive men’s sins, but was the most fitting way to do it, neither was the Incarnation strictly necessary for God to make men partakers of the divine nature even in the absence of sin, yet, IMO, it was the most fitting way to do it.

Therefore, with “salvation” understood in its positive sense, unconditional Incarnation is wholly compatible with the Son becoming man “for us men and for our salvation”, even if Adam had not sinned.

Bl. Gabriele M. Allegra – absolute primacy of Christ central to understanding the Scripture

I found a concise biographical description of Bl. Gabriele Maria Allegra here and thought I’d repost the text. The original link has a number of photos, including his grave. I have translated some of his pertinent writings on the Franciscan thesis here, here and here.

Bl. Gabriele M. Allegra

Bl. Gabriele M. Allegra (December 26, 1907–January 26, 1976) was a Franciscan Friar and Scripture scholar. He is best known for performing the first complete translation of the Catholic Bible into the Chinese language and is popularly known as the “St. Jerome of China.”

As a Franciscan, missionary and biblical scholar, he saw the doctrine of the absolute primacy of Christ as being central to understanding Sacred Scripture and God’s design in creating and redeeming the universe.

He was renowned for his knowledge of the theology and philosophy of Bl. John Duns Scotus. His Studium Biblicum Translation is often considered the definitive Chinese Bible among Catholics.

Fr. Jack Wintz, OFM – John Duns Scotus: His View of Christ

Below is a delightful synopsis of the Subtle Doctor’s doctrine on the primacy of Christ by Fr. Jack Wintz, OFM. The original post can be found here. Fr. Jack mentions Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, as holding the Franciscan perspective, but it should be noted that 1) Chardin did not embrace the metaphysics or theology of Bl. John Duns Scotus (although Bl. Gabriele M. Allegra, OFM, did try to dialogue with Fr. Chardin on these points and published a book on his dialogues: I have translated excerpts of Bl. Gabriele Allegra’s explanations of the primacy of Christ according to Scotus and posted them here, here and here) and 2) that Chardin’s books were riddled with theological and philosophical errors (which can be seen from this piece by Dr. Dietrich von Hildebrand and this piece posted by the Kolbe Center for Creation). Chardin aside, Fr. Jack was able to summarize the Franciscan view of Christ and the universe in a way that any reader can grasp… and summarizing the Subtle Doctor so that the average person can understand it can be challenging, to say the least.


From the pen of Fr. Jack Wintz, OFM:

Fr. Jack Wintz, OFM

John Duns Scotus was born in Scotland in 1266 and educated at England’s Oxford University. He was ordained a priest in 1291. Scotus also studied at the University of Paris and returned to lecture at Oxford and Cambridge. In turn, Scotus went back to teach at the University of Paris.

Eventually, the Franciscan Minister General assigned Scotus to the Franciscan School in Cologne, Germany. Scotus died there in 1308.He is buried in the Franciscan church near the famous Cologne Cathedral. Known as the “Subtle Doctor,” Scotus was beatified in 1993. His beatification is rightly seen as a belated vote of confidence by the church regarding his holiness and virtue, as well as a vote of confidence in Scotus’ theological contributions.

The Word of God

A key point of the Franciscan/Scotistic view, which catches many people by surprise, is this: The Word of God did not become a creature, a human being, because Adam and Eve sinned. Rather, the Divine Word became flesh because, from all eternity, God wanted Jesus Christ to be creation’s most perfect work. Christ was to be the model and crown of creation and of humanity — the glorious destination toward which all creation is straining. In short, the Word would have been incarnated in Christ even if the first man and woman had never sinned.

Scotus’ viewpoint has gained prominence in recent times. It has been adopted by such notable Catholic thinkers as Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet; Thomas Merton, the Trappist writer; and Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit-priest-anthropologist. “Christ is not an afterthought in the divine place,” writes Chardin. “He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all things.”

Not an Afterthought of God

According to Scotus, God’s first intention — from all eternity — was that human nature be glorified by being united to the divine Word. And this was to happen regardless of the first humans’ innocence or sinfulness. To say that the Incarnation of Christ was an afterthought of God, dependent on Adam and Eve’s fall, would be to base the rich Christian theology of Incarnation on sin! Theologians could do better than that — and Duns Scotus did.

Given humanity’s sin, the way Christ eventually came was in the form of a savior whose great act of love and self-surrender set us free.

In Scotus’ view, however, the God-man would have entered creation and human history as the perfect model of the human being fully alive under any circumstance. It was not Adam who provided the blueprint or pattern that God used in shaping the humanity of Christ.

It was the other way around, insists Scotus: Christ was the model in God’s mind according to which Adam and Eve, as well as the rest of the human race, were created. We can rightly say, therefore, that the Incarnation was not simply some kind of “Plan B arrangement,” or “last-minute cure,” to offset the sin of Adam and Eve. On the contrary, it was God’s Plan A from the beginning.

Franciscans and the ‘Primacy of Christ’

Most Franciscans have, in one way or another, embraced this vision. Whether conscious of it or not, we tend to see all created things as pieces of a beautiful puzzle that only makes sense when fitted into the larger framework, that is, into the image of Christ.

For several years, I’ve kept an audiotape on Saint Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and Colossians by Stephen Doyle, OFM, a well-known Franciscan Scripture scholar and popular preacher. I’ve often listened to these tapes because I find in them an engaging explanation of the Franciscan/Scotist approach to the primacy of Christ. Franciscan spirituality simply exudes naturally from this friar as he talks about Paul’s view of Christ, “the firstborn of all creation.”

According to Father Stephen, “There is nothing in this world that makes sense apart from Jesus Christ” and “whatever exists in this world was made for the sake of Jesus Christ.”

He waxes poetic: “If we looked around and listened to this world about us, and if the singing birds could be formed into a chorus and the rustling breeze and tinkling rain could have a voice and the roar of the ocean could be put into words, they would all have one thing to say: ‘We were made for the sake of Jesus Christ.’”

More from Father Stephen

The friar also offers a good answer to the riddle: How can it be that Christ, who came after Adam and Eve, nonetheless came before them in the mind of God? How can the Incarnate Word be first and last at the same time? Borrowing a popular analogy found in Saint Francis de Sales’ Treatise on the Love of God, Father Stephen explains:

If you wanted to make wine, what would you do? First of all, you would have to plant a vineyard. Then you would have to fertilize the vines. You would have to trim them, pick the grapes and let them ferment. Finally, you would get some wine.

What was the first thing on your mind? The wine. What was the last thing you got? The wine.

In the same way, Jesus’ late arrival on the scene, notes Father Stephen, does not contradict his holding first place in God’s mind at the creation of the universe. Christ is the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega.

I hope my two blogs help explain John Duns Scotus’ awesome view of Christ as the “head over all things” (Ephesians 1:22) and the glorious destination toward which all creation is straining.

All Road Leads to God

Similarly, in the ongoing process of creation, there are many elements: minerals, plants, animals, and human persons. In the Christian view, as Saint Paul expresses so well, all these elements and individuals are coming to a culmination in Jesus Christ. God’s plan, indeed, is “to bring everything together under Christ as head” (see Ephesians 1:10, Jerusalem Bible).

It is as though each one of us plays a part in that one sacred Word, that one mysterious drama of love, present in the mind of God from all eternity.

It’s a beautiful, developing drama, a beauty whose end we cannot see. Starting with the first day of creation, the Word of God—the co-eternal mirror of the Father—has been slowly emerging down the ages. The Word has become visible in the Incarnation and will reach its full revelation when Jesus returns in glory on the last day.

Fr. Jack Wintz, OFM