Challenging the Secularist Narrative

In former times, secularism denoted the state’s neutrality in the face of competing worldviews and comprehensive claims about reality. Ideas could be freely trafficked in a pluralistic environment, whilst no one religion or creedal system could claim official establishment. Although people adhered to a minimum set of shared values – the better to preserve social and political harmony – all were permitted to enter the public square according to their own lights and their own convictions.

More recently, however, a new conception of secularism has arisen. Unlike its intellectual forebear, the contemporary model is neither neutral nor passive in regards to contrasting worldviews. Quite the contrary. In fact, it is largely built upon a fundamental antipathy towards what it sees as the unwarranted encroachments of mere “belief”. Much of this ire has been directed, of course, at religion. Scientists like Richard Dawkins and Neil de Grasse exemplify this view, whilst Australia is also home to its own tribe of new secularists. Via various means, proponents of this view devote themselves to a vision of the public square expunged of the apparently baleful effects of anything allegedly lacking scientific objectivity.

The new secular project rests on two, complementary claims: that certain value-systems – particularly those codified in religious traditions – are hobbled by a corrosive irrationality; and that secularists enjoy the benefit of an objective, unmediated view of reality. For the new secularists, there exists an irreconcilable division between these two realms; between a grounded, life-giving realism, and an enervating superstition. However, despite their increasingly widespread popularity, these assertions are, I think, quite unfounded.

Let’s examine the first claim – namely, that religion is irrational. Dawkins encapsulates this view well when he condemns (religious) faith as “blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence”. For him and those of his ilk, religion is bereft of rational justification and evidentiary grounding. This isn’t merely the claim that this religious adherent is irrational or that doctrinal formulation is without foundation; it is, rather, the much stronger assertion that religion as such is rationally deficient – the product of delusion, wishful thinking or a stultified intellect. Unfortunately, it illegitimately flattens out the diversity of religious belief and religious experience, in both nature and origin. An impossibly broad claim, it ignores the rich intellectual traditions of some of the world’s major religions, and the sophisticated arguments that have been developed to substantiate such beliefs.

For instance, I myself am rather partial to Thomas Aquinas’ arguments for that most fundamental of religious questions, God’s existence. In his First Way, a type of cosmological argument, Thomas argues that the everyday objects our experience, and their causal interactions with each other, furnish a base from which a person might reason, via metaphysical principles, to a sustaining cause of the structures of reality. He saw that finite things are possessed of latent properties that can only be “actualised” (that is, brought from the realm of the potential to the realm of the actual) by external forces; change within an object is the result of those forces acting upon it, whatever they may be. To take a simple example, a red rubber ball left in the sun will eventually turn a lighter shade of pink; place it near a hot flame, and it will, over time, change into a puddle of viscous goo.

According to Aquinas, these apparently trivial changes are part of larger, and more complex, chains of causation. Each member within that chain has only secondary causal power, simultaneously depending on earlier members for whatever potency it exercises. Delving down into ever deeper layers of reality, the First Way takes one to its basic structures. Simultaneously, it also argues against an infinite regress – that is, an infinite ribbon of casual activity, stretching downwards ad infinitum. According to Thomas, it would be metaphysically “groundless”, having nothing upon which to become extant. And if so, then it must terminate in a fundamental cause, sustaining all else and actualising all secondary causes. Sitting at the foundational strata of reality means that it could not, in principle, be a part of it – as if it were merely some finite feature of our world. Rather, it would have to be the very ground of all being, the metaphysical basis upon which the world exists in the first place. And for Aquinas, it would have to correspond to what people traditionally know as God.

Of course, new secularists might retort that most religious folk don’t think this way, but rather construct their beliefs in a more unreflective manner. However, this fails to realize that many arguments for, say, God’s existence – no matter how intellectually demanding – actually build upon the quotidian experiences and intuitive impulses of ordinary people. Aquinas’ own explorations depend on empirical observation in order get off the ground. Other arguments of this kind are partly based on a person’s ordinary (yet reasonable) reflections concerning causal principles, a sense of the transcendent, a belief in the world’s rational intelligibility, and even its apparent contingency. As the theologian Keith Ward notes, belief in the kind of God Aquinas sought to substantiate plausibly fulfils many of these longings – “for God”, he writes, “is ultimate reason…[and] the only belief which gives reason a fundamental place in reality”. Such arguments may distil, challenge or stretch certain aspects of a layperson’s unfocused understanding of theism. Nonetheless, they are not fundamentally at odds, and imply that the basic drives people possess towards the divine may be quite consistent with rational theistic accounts.

New secularists might still contend that such arguments simply fail to supply evidence for God’s existence – and therefore, lack any rational warrant for religious belief. For them, a reasonable belief is largely synonymous with what is empirically demonstrable. But as the philosopher Edward Feser has perceptively argued, this criticism founders for the very reason that it adopts an a priori (i.e., non-empirical) assumption about what counts as “rational”, “evidence”, or “warranted belief”. The scientific enterprise is merely one avenue towards knowledge and truth; other methods of rational inquiry exist, including mathematics and philosophy, which do not rely fundamentally on empirical observation. Moreover, the very assumptions scientific study takes for granted – the existence of the external world, its rational intelligibility, the reality of causation, or the general reliability of one’s senses – suggest that such a project cannot even get off the ground without implicitly appealing beyond itself.

What, then, of the new secularists’ other assertion: that they alone, as people free from the encumbrances of bias (both religious and otherwise), enjoy an unadulterated understanding of reality? How should one respond, say, when a Neil de Grasse Tyson argues we need a new “country” – Rationalia – whose constitution stipulates that public policy should be stripped of all value-statements, and formed on the basis of pure (scientific) facticity?

One might point out that such an epistemological position is intrinsically impossible, for no one makes enquiries about the world in a vacuum. As Lesslie Newbigin has pointed out, human beings are inescapably bound by their finite vantage-points, and are invariably conditioned by prior plausibility structures that legitimise, reinforce or screen out certain patterns of thinking. Similarly, the sociologist and political theorist, Barrington Moore, Jr., wrote that,

…Human beings…do not react to an “objective” situation…There is always an intervening variable, a filter…between people and an “objective” [event], made up of all sorts of wants, expectations, and other ideas…”.

I’ve already noted that even those who prize empirical observation above all else must still begin with a received picture of the world. Moreover, secularists who tout the predominance of “facts,” and who ground their view of the world in an exclusive kind of empiricism, have unwittingly committed themselves to their own set of plausibility structures – in this case, presupposing that reality can only be captured by the methods and processes of modern science. The new secularist, just as much as the religious devotee, is inherently incapable of adopting a completely value-free position.

Additionally, facts by themselves can’t do all that much; they need to be strung together coherently, according to an overarching narrative or interpretive framework, if they are to mean anything beyond their own referents. The debate over abortion is a good example of this dilemma. Modern science might be able to determine in great detail when a foetus begins to develop vital organs, when it is able to feel pain, and so forth. But how can it tell us whether or not abortion is, under any circumstances, morally right? How can it determine when, if ever, a baby with developmental disabilities should be terminated? Even framing the questions in such terms is a category mistake: thanks to Hume’s observation that one cannot derive an ought from an is, it’s clear that simplistically trying to read prescriptive truths off descriptive data cannot be done.

Some, like Dawkins, think that one of the crucial questions regarding the morality of abortion is that of foetal suffering. Though important, such consequentialism is simply not the logical product of scientific enquiry. He proceeds to argue that the moment of birth forms a “natural Rubicon” between permissible and impermissible acts of killing. But again, how does the scientific enterprise lead to such a distinction? What essential difference is there between a child who has been in its mother’s womb for eight months, and a child just born? Dawkins’ line-drawing is arbitrary, having little to do with a pure, empirical appraisal of the situation. One might equally argue that conception marks the basic ontological transition from non-being to being, and is therefore the “natural Rubicon” one ought to use; indeed, everything subsequent to that epochal moment simply represents its unfolding. The point, however, is that these issues – the nature of personhood and the value one should ascribe to it – are fundamentally philosophical and metaphysical. Scientific enquiry alone cannot provide complete answers. Consequently, the secularist’s much-vaunted neutrality dissipates, and she once again finds herself in the same boat as the religious adherent – compelled, that is, to rely on a basic array of presuppositions to guide her ethical analyses and prescriptions.


As much as the new generation of secularists would have us believe their claims regarding religion, truth and reality, it is clear that those arguments are deeply unsound. It is therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that attempts to squeeze religious and other value-laden convictions out of the public sphere do not proceed from innocent scientific or rational enquiry. Rather, those methods have been pressed into service to help prosecute an agenda possessing quite different origins. If this essay has succeeded in anything, then it has at least shown that the self-styled opponents of myth and superstition have been shrewdly peddling a few myths of their own.

Technologizing the Good News

Not so long ago, I was enjoying a rather restful weekend on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Reading the daily newspaper one morning, I happened upon an advertisement for an upcoming business forum in Australia (I forget where exactly, but that isn’t important). One of the keynote speakers was Guy Kawasaki, an ex-Apple executive, who was dubbed a (former) “Chief Evangelist” for the tech-giant. The turn of phrase caught my eye, since I’d never come across it before. But it wasn’t simply the fact of the title’s unfamiliarity; what struck me in particular was the evocative use of a distinctly religious term: evangelist. It is, I think, quite instructive, and offers a window – unwittingly, perhaps – into the significance technology bears within modern (Western) societies. What I want to do here is reflect on what the title itself says about the kind of society we inhabit, and the values, priorities and constructs that dominate it.

Before moving on, however, it’s necessary to provide a brief summary of the concept of “Chief Evangelist” (hereafter, CE). The development of CEs marked an evolutionary shift in the way companies – particularly technology companies – market their products. Salesmen of previous generations would ply their trade during allotted hours, in order to sell discrete consumer items to potential buyers. By contrast, modern CEs style themselves, not as salespeople per se, but as heralds of personal and social transformation through the application and adoption of their favoured technology. This isn’t as a “snake-oil salesman” approach to marketing, where every kind of sales technique, no matter how crude or artificial, is used by the marketer to boost profits. Pioneers like Kawasaki urge CEs to live out the change they encourage consumers to pursue, to ensure their proselytization is genuine. Time-limited working hours are meaningless for a person who considers the product he commends to be a way of life. CEs seek more than just a burgeoning list of mindless consumers; their aim is the conversion of people to life-changing technology through the use of winsomeness, honesty and story-telling.

Why is this at all significant? Calling oneself an evangelist could simply be a rhetorical trick – an attempt to elevate the mundane activity of generating profits to a more rarefied, spiritual plane. But something more substantive than clever re-badging seems to be at work. Briefly, the word “evangelist” comes from the Greek evangelion, which simply means “gospel” or “good news”. The Christian evangel is the good news that in the person and work of Jesus Christ, God himself has come to inaugurate his kingdom, to bring about a new order of justice and peace, and to accomplish the comprehensive renewal of creation. An evangelist, then, is someone who spreads this message. For the chief salesperson at a technology company to adopt this as a title implies, at the very least, a belief in the fundamentally transformative power of technology. Drawing on a term with deep Christian roots is certainly suggestive; after all, CEs seek to win people, not merely to a new consumer item, but a new way of life. Customers are converted to a gospel-like narrative, which its proponents claim is guaranteed to bring about a dramatic change in the quality of one’s existence – a source of unmitigated good, in other words. The religious overtones are difficult to ignore.


I’ll return to what a specifically Christian theological perspective might have to say about all this in a later post. At any rate, the phenomenon of technology firms draping their activities in religious language – to which CE is testimony – provides a particularly clear manifestation of the enveloping devotion the modern world has to technology, and the faith it places in such advancements to generate further progress. It simply makes explicit latent attitudes towards technology in societies saturated by it. Technology evangelism seems to represent a wider reality common to high- and post-industrial societies, the development of which certainly owes much to such advancements. Sociologists call it the fetishization of technology. “Fetishize” is an ugly word, but it aptly captures the enrapturing commitment the modern world has to technology. In its original context, a fetish was an object of extreme devotion. Often bearing religious significance, a fetish would be used in cultic and spiritual practices. But fetishes were also held to contain within them mystical or supernatural powers that could bring blessing and riches to devotees.

The concept of CE taps into both these streams: the constant allure of technology as something that gives substance to modern existence; and an almost mystical belief that the fashioning of technology can somehow bring about, not merely a more convenient or comfortable life, but a kind of salvation. It is, as I said, simply an overt example of a pervasive (if implicit) phenomenon, making itself felt in a variety of ways. At the same time, the message of technology evangelists fuels such fetishization by upholding and driving a narrative that casts technology in the role of saviour.

Fetishizing technology reflects the proclivity to accord great worth and value to the fruits of technical knowhow. Ours is truly a technocratic age, where technological accomplishments determine so much of modern life. We are soaked in technology, particularly those consumer products that have reached a point of complete ubiquity. Our lives, even our identities, are wrapped up with them. If this strikes some as an overstatement, just consider the extent to which we rely upon technology, even for the most mundane moments of our lives: the way we head home after work and fire up our gadgets has a faintly ritualistic quality, and reflects the deep value we unthinkingly place upon them. Certainly, it’s easy to ignore one’s own dependence on the luminous artifacts of our sophisticated age. However,  the centrality of technology in modern life, not to mention its pervasive – and invasive – presence in our lives, is palpable. This is true, not only in the case of technological expertise used for vital ends (e.g., medical technology), but for those instances where technology – and here, the role of CEs is especially germane – fills what may be called an existential “gap” with electronic amusements.

Even a cursory glace at contemporary data seems to bear out the claim that modern society is awash with, and drawn to, consumer technology. The Pew Research Centre, for example, has found that American teens, aged 13-17, are obsessive users of personal devices: 92% go online daily, with 24% reporting that they are “constant” users and 56% admitting they access the internet “several” times a day. Meanwhile, about three-quarters of adolescents have access to mobile technology, which means that are permanently “connected”. It certainly makes one wonder whether modern consumers of personal technology aren’t themselves consumed – filled with a need (unacknowledged, perhaps) to constantly curate their online selves, to view the world through a technological lens, and to allow their experience of reality to be constituted – shaped – by the complex electronic instruments they use.

Second, such fetishization also implies a near-religious veneration of technology and the allegedly transcendent power it possesses to secure dramatic, revolutionary – even redemptivechange for the human race. Again, we could point to a number of examples. Some contemporary advocates of development assume that simply imposing technical expertise upon an impoverished nation will ensure its entry into a new stage of  economic and social prosperity. Or what about neo-conservative advocates of military intervention and foreign nation-building? As political scientists Jonathan Clark and Stefan Halper have suggested in their book, America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order, belief in America’s ability to reshape other parts of the world is driven partly by an overweening faith in the power of weaponized technology to not only win wars, but to secure a stable platform for the radical transformation of countries according to the model of Western liberal democracy. Despite their obvious differences,  both examples encapsulate the central  belief that the mere application of technology to problems will invariably and inexorably solve them.

* * *

The fetishization of technology – of which the evolution of CEs is but one manifestation – is problematic, failing to account for the ambiguities and imperfections inherent within every human endeavour. The issue is not so much to do with technology per se. Rather, it is a question of framing: how modern societies frame and construct technological progress, what it is and what it does. How we invest technology with certain meanings, and the uses to which we put it are, therefore, fundamental. Specifically, the issue concerns the inflated sense of confidence that flows from the presence and application of technology to modern life. Talking about the “good news” of technology’s unremitting blessings to people simply elevates its significance to a point that it cannot hope to reach in practice. Unfortunately, advocates subscribing to this kind of underlying philosophy may not be able to see this, so committed are they to the narrative of technological salvation.

Technology, for all its undoubted benefits (and let’s be clear: technological change has enriched our lives in manifold ways), cannot hope to do what some of its advocates think it can do. Or, to put it more precisely, technology cannot be the basic subject of an evangelist’s message for two, related reasons. First, it is but an instrument in human hands; it cannot function as the ultimate basis for change (redemptive or otherwise), since it is only a contingent tool used by the individuals who create it. Second, technology needs to be framed morally if it is to be of any use to humanity. That is, if technology is to create the kind of change its advocates promise, then it must first be embedded in a particular moral structure. Recall the earlier example of development advocates tacitly relying on technology’s power to transform impoverished and under-developed nations. As the economist William Easterly has pointed out, technical knowledge must be integrated with a particular set of moral values if it to be of use. He himself argues that it needs to be wedded to a philosophical-economic commitment to strong property rights and open markets if it is to succeed (something with which I happen to agree). At any rate, Easterly’s wider point is clear.

Technology, then, can never function as the bedrock of positive, enriching, life-giving change without being married to a particular ethical and philosophical view which allows it to assume that role. By itself, it is morally inert, static – neutral. Humans are the ones who decide to develop and employ their technical expertise to harness the forces of nature so that suffering may be alleviated. Alternatively, it may be used to add to the sum total of human misery.  After all, nuclear energy can either power a city or destroy it; the technology itself remains the same. Nazi Germany produced a technological monster, pressing it into service as the instrument of a racist, genocidal ideology. As such, arguing for the inherently beneficent power of technological progress is simply reductionistic.

But aside from deeper moral structures, and the manner in which they influence the way we use technology, there is also the question of technology’s limits. This is not always readily acknowledged by advocates and evangelists for technological veneration. On the contrary, it can breed a certain kind of arrogance, which unjustifiably inflates the power of technology to produce desired results. Underlying such an attitude, it seems, is the human tendency to believe that the imposition of complete rational control over events is a possibility.

American neo-conservatives, who have been extreme in their zeal for war and regime change in the Middle East, are a case-in-point (Clark and Halper detail this in America Alone). Their faith in a relatively straightforward application of American power to achieve desired ends was buttressed by a deep belief in the power of sophisticated military technology to effect change – to bend reality, in other words, to the will of those who wielded it. It was the conviction of some, prior to the second Iraq War (2003-), that such power would allow the United States to accomplish a swift and comprehensive victory in that country, with very little cost. But that faith turned out to be tragically misplaced: the United States, for all its might, could not successfully fashion a functioning democratic state out of Iraq. Fourth-generation warplanes could identify and destroy enemy targets with impunity, but they could not seed an open, pluralistic culture – or even prevent the country from sliding precipitously into a sectarian bloodbath. The technology employed in that war could secure narrowly-defined aims, perhaps, but it was impotent in the face of a situation marked by diabolical complexity. Even if one couldn’t say that technological arrogance was the main reason for the disastrous forays the US has made in the Middle East in the last 15 years, it has certainly been a contributing factor. And, as if to underline the point, it is but one example of how technology – itself morally neutral, as we have seen – is viewed as the means by which man gives life to the delusion that he can exert mastery over the vagaries of objective reality.

* * *

The inability of mere technological advance to realize the utopian goals of technology evangelists is seen, too, in more mundane (though no less tragic) ways. The author and prison psychiatrist, Theodore Dalrymple, has written extensively about the plight of what he terms the “underclass”, or the lower reaches of Western societies. Having worked closely with many of those who languish in that environment – characterised, he says, by chronic relational instability, feeble family structures, domestic violence, resentment, enraged jealousy, child neglect, and so on – he argues that the problem faced by the benighted is not material indigence, “but poverty of soul”. In Life at the Bottom, Dalrymple  admits that he was forced to accept the “terrible conclusion” that what besets the denizens of the British underclass is “spiritual and emotional vacuity”, lives “emptied of meaning”. Its members are privy to the latest in personal forms of technological wizardry – smartphones, plasma TV screens (Dalrymple says that the modern Briton watches 27 hours of TV a week), tablets, games consoles, and the like – but seem to live lives that are bereft of anything that ennobles or enriches. Technology has not been able to prevent families from fraying, or arrested the moral enfeebling of wide swathes of society. Contrary to the beguiling message of the CE, the accumulated results of technological progress do not constitute a sufficient condition for human elevation.

Moreover, it seems that in the case of the lower classes of British society (and there’s no reason to think that the same hasn’t happened elsewhere) technology has actually contributed to the moral, spiritual and existential decline of certain sections of contemporary society. Again, I am not blaming technology as such; as I have said, its influence upon the state of human beings depends on the moral frameworks we have created for ourselves. It can be used to create networks and connections across vast tracts of land and sea where none existed previously. Equally, however, it can be used to wall people off, until their worlds have shrunk to the size of a glowing Android screen. Certainly, this is a phenomenon affecting all sections of modern society, even if the results amongst the lower classes are especially bleak. Such is the magnetic allure of digital TV (or the internet, or a smartphone app) that those whose lives lack the animating force of transcendent meaning may well be given over to that which only succeeds in further blunting one’s imagination and domesticating one’s ambition. If Dalrymple’s observations are anything to go by, products of this kind can, by themselves, only ever offer a superficial, yet ultimately empty, form of spiritual and psychological fulfilment. This is a far cry from the promise of technological salvation.

* * *

I have intimated already that the message technology evangelists seek to convey is simply a product of the world in which we live. It only has currency because of the present saturation we experience as members of the technological age. The original evangel was something entering the present world from outside, to change it, to heal it, and to renew it. By contrast, the gospel of technological salvation is a message that simply reflects the cultural and economic norms of contemporary Western society. Despite what its advocates may think, it is not a radically new word from above, for it simply articulates what is already a widespread (if mistaken) assumption. And, if what I have said is in any way true, then technology can never function as the basis for some kind of salvific “good news”. Rather, it seems to represent one more example of the tendency to try and realize one’s vision of utopia within the limits and chaos of the present world, simply through the application of human ingenuity. Ultimately, however, it is a Quixotic project that will dash the hopes of its adherents.

(Christian) Religion and Secularism: A Response to Brian Morris

Note: this article first appeared in the online newsletter Engage.mail, published by the Evangelical Alliance’s ethics think-tank, Ethos.

I am usually fairly sanguine about the place of Christianity within modern society. Claims that an aggressive secularism is systematically attempting to extirpate religion in general, and Christian faith in particular, from the public square can often seem exaggerated. Every so often, however, I find my insouciance disturbed by some honest pundit or commentator, who with unusual clarity reveals the intentions of a certain strand of secular thought. Aside from providing (some) warrant for those anxious about anti-Christian hostility, such candour does have the advantage of giving one a fairly clear target at which to aim.

The opinions of Brian Morris, which appeared in both print and online media outlets last year (see, for example “It’s Time: Make Politicians Wear Religion on their Sleeve,” New Matilda, 17th August, 2015), constitute one such example. Morris, a former journalist, has turned his hand to advocating for his particular conception of secularism. As part of this project, he called on MPs to openly declare their religious commitments, in much the same way that elected officials reveal any pecuniary interests that may conflict with their parliamentary duties. Morris contextualised his view by saying that ‘politicized religion’ has surreptitiously retarded progress on a number of fronts, including efforts to legalise same-sex marriage and voluntary euthanasia. For him, parliamentary debate around SSM ‘subverts any notion of a secular Australia’.

Targeting Christianity especially, Morris argued that in a multicultural and multi-religious country such as Australia, it made sense for Christian MPs to be more transparent about their views. He suggested that one way of ensuring greater openness was to have politicians’ beliefs – and their influence on whatever views they may happen to hold – placed on public record. Others, like Fiona Patten (head of the Australian Sex Party) appear to have gone even further, suggesting for example that some kind of register of religious affiliation might be appropriate.

But let’s stick with Morris for a moment. One might be tempted to agree with him, at least to some extent. Say an MP is both a staunch member of the Catholic Church and has parliamentary oversight for various social welfare organisations (many of which have roots in, and are connected with, institutional Catholicism). It’s fair and reasonable to think that such an individual would be completely transparent in revealing his or her religious links. If that’s what is meant by politicians’ religious commitments being registered or placed on public record, then one will hear no argument from me.

The trouble is that Morris means more than this. Indeed, the suggestion that the airing of religiously-grounded views in parliament (say, in relation to the SSM debate) is itself evidence of the subversion of secularism indicates as much. So, too, does his interpretation of the Australian Constitution, which he argues was intended to ‘keep religion out of politics’. At base, it seems that Brian Morris wants to excise religion and opinions rooted in religious devotion from the public square. This is not merely advocacy for the institutional separation of church and state – something with which we can all agree – but for the rather radical idea, common among a more aggressive species of secularist, that religion’s presence in public-political life should be completely uprooted.

There are, however, several glaring problems with that kind of position. To begin, one must ask how it would even be possible, logistically-speaking, to achieve such an aim. How does Morris and others of his ilk propose to interrogate politicians on their religious commitments or to ensure those beliefs are publicly registered? Lying behind this is the very basic question of how one actually defines religion, which – notoriously – eludes all efforts at delimitation. What counts as a ‘religious’ commitment in the first place? Mere church membership? General theistic belief? A relatively doctrinal construction of religious convictions? What about the certainty that the cosmos is unified by a ‘higher’ meaning? In an age of spiritual pluralism, where all kinds of beliefs may fall under the umbrella of ‘religion’ (including those of politicians), arguing for some kind of public record comprising such beliefs is to engage in a project that defies precision by its very nature.

Similarly, how would Morris propose MPs corral their religious convictions in order to approach contentious issues in a manner that pleases him? He dismisses, for instance, Eric Abetz’s complaint that only the ‘intellectually bankrupt’ could expect a religious individual to ‘leave their religion at the doors of parliament’. But what’s to object to here? In my view, it reflects the common-sense view that religion – like any kind worldview (even atheistic ones) – is often embedded in the deepest strata of a person’s thinking and behaviour. Asking, say, a Christian to view policy issues without framing them through the lens of his or her worldview is akin to asking someone who wears glasses to remove them in order to ‘properly’ appreciate the lines and contours of a landscape painting.

This appears to be joined to Morris’ (unworkable) suggestion that religion in Australia should be ‘re-positioned’ as a wholly privatized phenomenon. However, short of barring religious individuals from entering public life, it would seem impossible to guarantee that religiously-inspired beliefs – which constitute a ‘framework of reality’ that enables many people to make sense of their world – seep into public discourse and parliamentary debate. Indeed, as social entities, religious individuals are themselves evidence that religion cannot be a purely private matter; their very presence suggests that the public and private dimensions of life can never be truly walled off from each other. Moreover, it seems that Morris has ‘solved’ the question of how one is to define religion only by conveniently opting for a narrow conception – driven, one thinks, by Enlightenment dualisms. Unfortunately, he has ignored the phenomenological diversity of religious expression, substituting for it a reductive characterisation that simply assumes (wrongly, I might say) its inherently privatized nature. Morris adopts a very ‘thin’ understanding of spirituality, which, apart from anything else, fails to reckon with both its ubiquity and its formative role in driving many individuals to work for the common good by way of public and political service.

In promoting his views, Morris evinces a fundamental misunderstanding of religion. But he also fails to understand the nature of Australian secularism, and does so in two main ways. First, Morris’ view that the Australian Constitution was meant to banish religion from political discourse is quite misleading. It was not intended to purify the political process of the apparently baleful effects of religious thought. Rather, the Constitution’s provisions regarding religion prohibit the passage of laws that establish an official creed, hamper religious freedom or disqualify anyone from public office on the basis of their religious (or non-religious) convictions. Here is the relevant statement, from S.116:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

The text says nothing about individual politicians forming and articulating their opinions on a range of issues according to a religiously-grounded worldview, and to say that it does suggests adherence to a peculiarly aggressive form of secular absolutism. If anything, the Constitution ensures a kind of ideational pluralism, where a host of ideas, creeds, norms and principles – both religious and non-religious – can compete with each other on an equal footing. The infrastructure of the state may be free from formal religious control, certainly; but this in no way means what Morris thinks it means – namely, the public invisibility of religious or spiritual worldviews, or the people who embody them.

Second, in advocating a shift of religion’s place in contemporary Australian life, Morris seems to ignore the very deep roots it has sunk into the country’s political, legal and social landscape. As such, he has de-historicized the country’s institutions, divesting them of their religious-ethical content. I regard it as uncontroversial that Australia’s political culture, its laws and many of its normative principles (whether codified or not) owe a great debt to what might broadly be called its Judeo-Christian heritage. Of course, we are the beneficiaries of a number of intellectual streams, including that constellation of ideas known as the Enlightenment. But it is more than a little churlish to suggest that religion – in this case, Christianity – has no place in the very institutions it helps underpin. No one is suggesting, say, that Christian individuals should be given carte blanche simply because of the spiritual tradition they carry. But again, it would seem intrinsically impossible, given the origins of many of our political and ethical values, to completely leach the public square of religious influence. Calling for politicians to reveal their religious commitments (as they might their financial interests) frames the debate in terms of a basic conflict between one’s spirituality and a fully-orbed devotion to democratic processes. But if what I have said about the foundations of Australia’s political culture is correct, then there is no necessary conflict; quite the opposite, in fact.

* * *

Those like Brian Morris seem to be espousing a revolutionary kind of secularism, which seeks to effect a tectonic change in the conduct of Western politics, and religion’s place in modern society. Unfortunately, Morris badly misconceives both religiosity and secularism, even as he casts himself as the latter’s defender. Calling for elected officials to publicly declare their so-called religious interests – part of a wider attempt to ‘re-position’ religion as a purely private matter – is logistically impractical and intolerably intrusive. It fails to reckon with the ubiquitous reality of a dimension of life that can never be wholly privatized, whilst hollowing out a favoured concept in the interests of zealously prosecuting a particular agenda. Of course, this is not an implicit call for spiritual revanchism; I don’t think we should seek a return to the pre-secular past. That said, Christians ought to be confident as they step out into the public sphere, knowing that the cultural framework is not only not inimical to their values, but owes a great deal to them. The efforts of radical secularists notwithstanding, one’s attempt to influence public discourse or enter the political arena as (say) an avowed Christian is a legitimate enterprise.

The Promise and Presence of the Future

Note: this article first appeared in Merri Creek Anglican’s online magazine Headlight.

Richard Pipes, the venerable historian of modern Russia, once wrote that “the emotional appeal” of Marxism “is not much different from the religious faith in the will of God, inspiring [its adherents] with an unshakeable conviction that no matter how many setbacks their cause may suffer, ultimate victory is assured”.

Marxist ideology can ultimately be traced to Karl Marx, a nineteenth century philosopher and social theorist. He envisioned a future where private property had been abolished, and complete equality had been won for all. Marx thought that the economics of his time were teetering on the brink of failure. In his mind, they were corrupt and irredeemable; those exploited by the system would rise up and tear it all down, thereby preparing the way for a new society where inequity was a thing of the past. Marx not only saw such a future as desirable, but inevitable. For him, history was moving inexorably towards what he saw as its final goal.

Marx set about trying to construct a theory to show why all this was the case. Bundled up together, his ideas became an all-encompassing system of thought. Those inspired by Marx’s writings sought to transform their own nations, styling themselves as agents of the future. Self-cast as specially-elect groups, these individuals (sometimes calling themselves Communists) believed they could successfully mould entire societies according to the promises contained in Marx’s ideas.

Looking back on the events of the twentieth century, however, it seems Pipes’ observation was pretty close to the mark: despite widespread disaster, Communist leaders retained their faith in an ideology that seemed to have led down them down a blind alley – and their countries down the path of economic and social ruin. Some people continue to tout the virtues of Communist theories, even though most states operating under its enervating tutelage collapsed long ago.

But what do we make of Pipes’ characterization of religious faith as unswerving belief in a better world, even in the teeth of evidence? If Communism can be faulted for invincible confidence in the arrival of utopia, surely Christianity is susceptible to the same criticism? After all, the Christian faith also proclaims the eventual defeat of evil, and the final advent of a new world that will erase everything marring the present one. Christians everywhere continue to hold fast to this belief – 2000 years after the ministry of Jesus, and in the face of a litany of evils that seemingly undercut the claim that “ultimate victory is assured”. It’s tempting to lump Christianity in with Communism as yet another failed attempt to tell a “master story” about the world and its destiny (if indeed it has one). What evidence is there to suggest that, in the case of the Christian faith, the victory of God is certain, and the triumph of justice and peace in a world of chaos is guaranteed?

Here, a word about eschatology can shed some light on these questions. Now, when many people hear the word “eschatology”, images of odd cults predicting the end of the world, or of wild visions of the future, are bound to arise. But it’s not all that hard to grasp, really. In fact, eschatology is basically a way of saying that history has a goal to which it is drawn; that the world is moving towards something greater than the sum of its parts, such that the apparent randomness of so much of life is actually meaningful. One could even say it’s really just the conviction that there’s a point to it all!

Many big systems of thought seeking to interpret the world have their own brands of eschatology, of ultimate conclusions towards which the world is headed. Communism itself promises the erasure of private property and economic differences in a classless utopia. The specific concerns of the Nazi Party led it to try and claim the role of Germany’s martial elite, vowing to lead the nation into an idyllic realm of racial purity. Even the Enlightenment contains an implicit eschatology, proclaiming the eventual advent of a thoroughly secular world, where all instances of religious superstition have long since withered away.

In one sense, Christianity is no different from these other grand narratives, since it also operates with a “big picture” understanding of the world and it course. And yet, an authentically Christian eschatology depends, not on people, nor on the laws of history. Instead, it is founded upon the final purposes of God, as he sets about accomplishing creation’s renewal. Theologian Michael Bird writes that “God’s [eschatological] promise to put the world to right[s]” is the basis for all Christian theology.

Although their fulfilment lies in the future, these purposes have present consequences. As Angus McCleay has written in these pages before, eschatology is, in part, about “making sense of the present in light of the future”. But it is even more than that. According to Christian theology, the future that has been set by God has also burst into the current world of sin, death, injustice and evil, in and through the person of Jesus. This is what so clearly sets Christianity apart from its rivals. The goal of a world freed from those malevolent forces has already been previewed in Jesus’ life, ministry and death. Crucially, however, it is in Jesus’ resurrection that one catches a present glimpse of what God will do for creation in its entirety.

It’s difficult to overstate the significance of the resurrection. Despite the apparent victory of evil, and the failure of every effort to bring about a better world, the raising of Jesus from the dead provides a concrete sign that such a world will be born – a window, if you like, into a newly fashioned creation, freed from the bondage of everything that defaces and ruins what now exists. More than just another miracle amongst others, it not only signals the presence of the future, ordained by a God of love and justice; it represents, in some sense, the beginning of that future – the radical in-breaking of the Creator’s just and wise plans for the world that he had made.

The writers of the New Testament saw this clearly. For them, the resurrection was not an isolated act of divine power, but represented a fundamental change of course in the fate and direction of the world. Or, to put it another way, it was the advance realization of new creation. The apostle Paul could say that a Christian’s present “labor is not in vain”, precisely because of the sure sign, seen in Jesus being raised, of God’s determination to consummate history (1 Corinthians 15:58). To Paul, even the deepest travails, the most unendurable hardships, made sense in light of that world-shattering event.

As such, the Christian’s conviction of the assuredness of victory is no forlorn hope, bereft of foundation, since it has already been anticipated in a foretaste of what’s to come. The “unshakeable conviction” of the followers of Communism is quite different from that expectation. Jesus’ followers are not simply sustained by a sheer will to believe (even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary); rather, their belief is based on the fact of Christ’s resurrection, and the redemption of the world it both looked forward to and ushered in. It is the guarantee that this master story will reach its end, and the promise of eventual peace – both personal and cosmic – will come to pass.

Journeying with Jesus: A Personal Recollection

Note: a version of this article first appeared in Merri Creek Anglican’s online magazine Headlight.

For several years now, I have been practicing as a social worker. Sometimes, I find myself reflecting upon the things that ultimately led me down this path. At least one experience stands out. It proved to be especially formative, challenging me to move beyond the narrow confines of my own comfort zone, towards a person whose life to that point had been marked by suffering and loss. If one were using scriptural language, he might be labelled a stranger or a sojourner. Contemporary sociologists would likely offer him up as an example of the “Other” – someone who, for whatever reason, languishes on the edges of established society, inhabiting a realm marked by alienation and estrangement. At any rate, it was through such experiences that I came to learn what it means to live in imitation of Jesus.


Elijah had arrived in Australia as a refugee from Nigeria, via a few years spent in Brunei. He’d been targeted because of his faith, and had embarked on an arduous journey in an effort to find sanctuary. I remember Elijah well, particularly his voice. He spoke in a quiet, sometimes mournful, way, which seemed to carry with it the hardships he had endured. His voice was deep and sonorous, as if welling up from the bowels of some abyss. If you were to meet Elijah for the first time, you might wonder what his intentions were, so taut – so tightly-wound – did he appear. But then he’d flash those two rows of impossibly white teeth, extend his sinewy right arm, and you’d know all was well.

For long stretches of time, Elijah had lived precariously on the margins of society. It was, for him, a life of frequent insecurity. Feelings of confusion often prevailed in Elijah’s thinking, as he struggled, not only to eke out a place for himself at the edges, but to make sense of his life. When I think about him now, the word liminality often comes to mind. It refers to a process of transition, or a position between worlds. For someone occupying liminal space, the experience is often accompanied by a constant sense of unsettledness or ambiguity. Elijah’s life, so stark in its transience, was a lot like that: sitting between the world that he had known; and the present one, of which he was trying bravely to be a part. It was, sociologically speaking, a shadowy existence.

At the time I met Elijah, I was attending a church in Melbourne’s East. He himself was searching for a number of things: spiritual nourishment, friendship, and practical aid as he sought to substantiate his claim to refugee status and put down roots in the community. Before Elijah came along, I hadn’t really encountered anyone claiming refuge or asylum here. My only acquaintance, as far as I can remember, was of tales of unspeakable horror reported in the news. Refugees were pitiable figures in my mind, though hardly more than that. I myself was fairly content with an easy, comfortable existence, and had given very little thought to the hardships experienced by others in my midst. Mine was a life that made just enough room for faith – but not so much that it would start to lead to the uncomfortable process of re-arrangement!

Elijah was different in so many ways. A young African man from a palpably foreign culture, his grasp of English was often a little loose. His faith was something that had cost him dearly, for it was far more than a just a garment of tradition. Moreover, Elijah’s experience of persecution and tribal chaos – not to mention the daily fight against both boredom and restlessness – meant that for all his outward strength (and my goodness, he was strong!), Elijah bore within him wounds that no mere salve could heal. I had endured none of this, having been largely shielded by the gentle boundaries of my own context. What with my stable family life, not to mention the good fortune to have been born in a prosperous country, I was well-placed to lead a comfortable, costless existence.

Elijah’s presence compelled me to confront the unreflective sense of contentment and self-satisfaction that had lain within me – silent, yet immensely powerful. In responding to his requests for aid (often made with a bracing dose of sincerity and directness), I was forced to recognize the uncomfortable truth that whatever I thought of my life, it had not been sufficiently shaped in a way that reflected the radical, sometimes costly, grace of Christ. Up until that point, I had not been schooled in the way of true discipleship, or the kind of expansive neighbour-love that Jesus extolled (e.g., Luke 10:25-37). The kind of faith I had been pursuing might have possessed the form of Christ-centred religion, but certainly not its substance. Meeting Elijah, however, irrevocably changed my definition of authentic devotion to Jesus.

Whether I drove Elijah to visit the local MP so that he could plead his case, or gathered letters of support from members of the congregation, or simply visited him on those meandering days when he had little to occupy him, I was learning – ever so fitfully – to offer the hand of grace to another. Certainly, my understanding of what I should do and why remained largely undefined. And yet, I was animated by the seed of an idea; an emerging conviction, however inchoate, that a person claiming to follow Jesus should follow his example by reaching out, across the gulf, into a world of suffering and lament.

As I sought to do what I could to alleviate Elijah’s travails, I found myself accepting the call to cross all manner of boundaries, whether they pertained to ethnicity, language or social position. In this, I knew that I was doing so as a Christian. It was not enough for me to smugly revel in my relationship with Jesus. I realized (slowly, to be sure) that such a relationship was the foundation for a work of transformation “out there” – beyond the bounds of the familiar and the comfortable – extending God’s rest and peace to the very edges of our world so that people like Elijah might enjoy it. I was, in other words, one of the so-called “sent ones”: having experienced the radical love of God in the form of his sent Son, Jesus, I was now being called to do likewise (John 20:21). He had reached out to the strangers. He had identified with the marginal. Indeed, he had torn down cultural barriers – as impregnable as any physical wall – with something as simple as a request for water (John 4:7ff). If I were truly to live as Christ did, then I could not do otherwise.


It’s difficult to imagine how I might have become a social worker without having met Elijah, given the seminal effect of that experience on me. Equally, it’s hard to see how this vocational shift could have occurred apart from the power of the Gospel – and with it, the radical, lavish, boundary-bursting example of Jesus. My time with Elijah challenged me to look at Jesus afresh, that’s for sure. Simultaneously, however, the loving justice that Christ embodied helped me to grasp – and indeed, be grasped by – the meaning and implications of that experience (and others) in ways I had not envisioned. Together, they formed a mutually reinforcing foundation, leading me towards a fully-orbed faith that continues to indelibly shape every arena of life.

Christian Theology and Democratic Politics: Part One

This piece is the first of a series of essays looking at the links between Christian theology and democratic thought. Not only does it contain the first substantive part, but also the introduction to the entire series.


“What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” This question, famously asked by the early church theologian Tertullian, was meant to interrogate the alleged relationship between Hellenistic philosophical methods (“Athens”) and a Christian-revelatory understanding of knowledge (“Jerusalem”). The implication of Tertullian’s rhetorical riposte to those who sought some kind of concord was that no such relationship existed; Christian theology and Greek philosophy were strangers on the road to truth.

The question came to mind as I pondered the relationship between Christianity and democratic politics. It’s particularly apt, since Athens is conventionally seen as the cradle of Western democratic thought – the place where the notion of participatory politics (variously defined) was first nurtured. Has Christianity – “Jerusalem”, in other words – contributed anything to that project? Is it possible to discern traces of Christian thought in the long, winding enterprise we call democracy? Or is the relationship characterised by antagonism and (mutual) misunderstanding? For my money, I think it is possible to uncover ways in which Christian theology has succeeded in shaping democratic political thought. To draw a straight line between the two is, of course, impossible; a number of influences, whether religious, philosophical, historical, economic, cultural or nakedly political, have contributed variously to the evolution of democracy, especially its liberal iterations in modern, Western experience. Although it’s unrealistic to think that those factors can be neatly distinguished, my concerns nonetheless lie with Christianity’s intellectual contribution to the democratic project. Here, I want to substantiate the proposition that Christianity has played an important – one might even say formative – role in the later development of democracy.

As such, if it’s difficult to argue that Christianity did not give rise to democracy in simple, one-dimensional fashion, then I think it’s equally implausible to say that it had nothing, or little, to do with this most cherished of Western inventions. For starters, given that democracy evolved in precisely those nation-states that were, for many centuries, soaked in Christian teaching (however corrupted it may have become), it would seem reasonable to posit some kind of connection. More than that, Christian theology has provided some of the deeper philosophical and ideological resources for later democratic thinking: not the democracy of ancient Athens (which preceded New Testament Christianity by some centuries), but of later stages of thought composing the substructure of Western politics. To be sure, uncovering those resources might require some work, so much of it being latent. Rather than forming part of the democratic superstructure (like voting and fixed terms for elected individuals), Christian theology helped form the bedrock of thinking that eventually produced ideas, individuals and institutions explicitly committed to many of those features we normally associate with modern democracy. Instead of being responsible for any one element of democratic politics, it is truer to say that Christianity fostered a culture conducive to this kind of political arrangement in the first place. It was, in other words, the seedbed in which democracy, watered and nurtured by further streams of thought, came to flourish.

The complicated, circuitous (though nonetheless strong) relationship between Christianity and democracy is one caveat that I wish to include. There are, however, others. Whilst I will point out the multifarious connections between Christian theology and democratic thought – such that the roots of democracy could even be said to have been nourished by religious doctrine – I am also aware that the church has had something of a chequered history when it comes to the evolution of Western political systems. Far from being a champion of liberty and equality, it has seemingly been a purveyor of tyranny, oppression and rigid hierarchy. Rather than furthering the cause of democracy, it has often seemed to have a retarding effect on its advance. I am certainly aware of the criticism, and wish to take it seriously (often made by rabid atheists, who seek to divest Western culture of anything resembling positive Judeo-Christian content). I also want to take seriously the beneficial influences of other intellectual and cultural traditions upon the evolution of democracy. I do not intend to claim that Christian thought and theology is uniquely responsible for the modern Western system of democratic government that many of us enjoy today. Such an assertion is not only supremely arrogant; it is also patently false. That said, only wilful blindness – a consequence, perhaps, of the searing glare of ideology – could lead one to deny the bequests Christianity has made to Western political thought.

As yet another qualification, I must also acknowledge the ambiguous relationship between ideas and history generally. This phenomenon presents itself in the form of two main contentions, both of which are germane. First, one might argue that I am implicitly trading in abstractions of both Christianity and democracy, without attending to their diverse historical incarnations. Some might even argue that such “Platonic forms” do not exist at all; only the relative, and relatively messy, examples of what we have come to call Christianity and democracy have any purchase on reality, forever eluding universal definition. Second, I could be accused of failing to appreciate the complex historical circumstances surrounding the development of democracy. One might suggest that what follows ignores the myriad forces related to democracy’s evolution, as well as the vicissitudes of concrete historical experience, which blunts the otherwise marked influence of pure ideas. To be sure, I am cognizant of falling into the trap of some sort of idealism, without according due respect to history. And although my reflections will concentrate largely on the ideational structure of the connection between Christianity and democratic thought (whilst occasionally referring to the way it has manifested itself historically), I am sensitive to the ever-present influence of the often piecemeal, inchoate nature of so much of history. I certainly do not want to neglect the historical-cultural matrix, especially as it pertains to the development of Christian dogma and its relationship with democracy.

At the same time, however, I am no historicist, and I think that ideas – complexes of coherent intellectual concepts, formed with intentionality and deliberation – can, and indeed do, participate in the trajectory of the historical process. Similarly, it is possible, even advisable, to try and define Christianity and democracy (even at the risk of illegitimate abstraction). Unless we’re prepared to give up the pursuit and propagation of truth through language, then we must accept that words have limited fields of meaning. For present purposes, then, when I speak of Christianity, I am thinking of a religious and theological tradition that accords primacy to the Bible as a divinely-ordained witness to God’s ultimate revelation in Jesus Christ, and which holds to the major creeds of the early church. Furthermore – and despite its own diverse traditions – I think democracy (at least in its modern, Western, liberal guises) could be minimally defined as an institutional, political and philosophical concept that variously combines the following features: the rule of law; accountable government as an expression of the people’s will; legal and political equality; and the separation of political power, such that no one branch of government has unmitigated pre-eminence. Words, like suitcases, can carry a great deal, and these ones – “Christianity” and “democracy” – carry at least the kinds of contents I’ve just described.

Some Focal Images

So much for clearing the decks. How might the influence of Christianity upon democratic politics be detected today – if not in explicit statements of ideals, but in the marrow of Western political culture? I propose to examine this question through several focal images, each of which crystallizes the deep connections between Christian theology and dogma, on the one hand, and crucial features of later democracy on the other. Those images can be described as follows: the transcendence of law; servant leadership; human dignity in excelsis; a new way of social ordering; and the plurality of the triune God. Though distinct, they are, as we’ll see, deeply interrelated. In this first Part, I shall concentrate on the rule of law.

Part One: The Transcendence of Law 

Christianity has often appeared to have an ambivalent relationship to the concept of law, especially as it manifests itself in the various legal codes of the OT. In certain parts of popular evangelicalism, valuing the law means flirting with legalism; it was just such an attitude that saw the Jews reject Jesus (so it is argued), spurning the grace of God in an effort to merit their own salvation. Other streams of Christianity recognize, as the first Christians did, the ongoing relevance of the law. Thus, for example, the Gospel tradition preserved Jesus’ own declaration that he came, not to abolish the law, but to “fulfil it” (Matthew 5:17). The complexities involved in interpreting this statement are legion; but at the very least, it suggests the enduring importance of law, even in the new dispensation inaugurated through the ministry of Christ. Further, a letter like James indicates that the primacy of the law, however its appropriation may have changed as a result of the advent of Christ, was something to which the early church adhered. This is clearly seen in 2:1-13, where James’ condemnation of partiality in the church is grounded in an extended application of the OT law of neighbour love (Leviticus 19:18; cf. Jas 2:8ff). This and other admonitions reflect James’ broader dependence on Torah, particularly in the realm of social concern (cf. 1:25, 27; 2:8-12). How the notion of “ongoing relevance” is parsed remains a thorny issue, to be sure; but the theological and legal traditions the early church inherited when it appropriated the Hebrew Scriptures has ensured the enduring transmission of those texts – as well as the basic moral and political precepts they embody – throughout much of Western history. The influence of a Jewish – and subsequently Christian – understanding of law upon democratic thought extends, not merely to individual strictures or ordinances, but to the entire conceptual architecture of biblical legal thinking, and its importance to the ordering of a political community.

The transcendence of law is a necessary (though by no means sufficient) condition for the flourishing of a democratic political culture. It is certainly crucial to the establishment of a democratic framework that safeguards individual rights and substantiates equality of all citizens within a particular polity. Law’s supremacy ensures that people’s activities are judged and regulated, not according to the arbitrary whims of a capricious ruler or state system, but within the context of a transcendent and impersonal legal framework to which all are subject. It affords people predictability in their dealings with each other and with the state, where disputes and disagreements may be resolved with relative transparency. Meanwhile, it constrains behaviour (including governmental behaviour), which might otherwise undermine the basic aspirations of a polity that seeks to guarantee political equality and the integrity of its citizenry. Thus, the codification of an abstract body of law is absolutely essential to the ordered functioning of a community, holding together its diverse parts in relative harmony. As Hayek said, “Only the existence of common rules makes the peaceful existence of individuals possible”. Modern theories of constitutionalism owe something to this principle: a king or government that operates according to a prior legal structure (i.e., a constitution) is one whose behaviour is regulated. The rule of law tames governmental and state institutions, and the community itself is ultimately “constituted”, not by any one individual, or even by a cabal of individuals, but by an originating framework which stands supreme (even where it has been formulated by such a cabal).

Without the sovereignty of law, one of two states may prevail: either anarchy or tyranny, both of which are inimical to democracy. First, there is anarchy. The absence of a supreme legal code, siting above the diverse (and sometimes discordant) desires and goals of which a putative community is composed, can lead to the breakdown of civil order. Such a framework helps restrain and harmonise potentially conflictual interests that individuals seek to pursue. Remove it, and those interests are left to mutate, even metastasize, in a chaotic and wanton fashion. In such an environment, where law’s restraining power is non-existent, the powerful are able to dominate and exploit the weak, thereby destroying any aspirations towards political equality or individual liberty. All this may be news to devotees of anarchism, who naively believe that humanity’s fundamental goodness is such that the broad architecture of law is unnecessary, or even oppressive. But even a cursory glance at those states that have experienced the dissolution of law and order provides some evidence that apart from law, individual and communal existence rapidly descends into a Hobbesian state of nature. Here, the frail are preyed upon by the strong, and an enervating suspicion of one’s fellows (beyond, perhaps, family or kin) abounds.

Second, tyranny. A despotic ruler is well poised to use his power to establish himself as the embodiment, the very repository, of all legal wisdom. Law no longer possesses a transcendent reality apart from any one individual; on this view, it, too, it is subject to the impulses of a single ruling power (whether this is an individual or a clique of individuals). Again, empirical and historical evidence – not to mention a basic conceptual understanding of different political forms – suggests that despotic rule is antithetical to a democratic culture that affords each individual a degree of security, personal liberty, or the privilege of political participation. In those polities that are dominated by a single, tyrannical leader, the law is reduced to a plaything – the existence of which cannot be separated from those who claim to manifest it in themselves. Whereas anarchy represents the radical pluralization of law, such that everyone is a law unto themselves, tyranny substitutes that for a comprehensive legal monism, where all power to establish the boundaries of lawful (and unlawful) behaviour is focused in the person or body that rules. He, or they, sit atop whatever legal strictures have been enacted, untrammelled by any kind of institutional constraints. In either case, the suppression or contravention of individual rights, and the denial of democratic co-operation, is likely to swiftly occur.

* * *

Of course, the normative character of law cannot, by itself, quarantine democratic politics from Charybdis of anarchy and the Scylla of tyranny. Its mere presence is not enough to guarantee either adherence or harmony; here, an anarchic state of affairs is a constant threat. And, as noted, law itself is susceptible to use as a weapon by tyrants and dictators, and can become an unwitting agent in the attempt to legitimise the suppression of a person or people. Nevertheless, the rule of law – that is, the law as king – is of fundamental importance, providing a necessary pre-condition for successful navigation between these twin dangers. And it is this idea of law’s supremacy, to which every member of the community is accountable, that finds expression in the establishment and development of biblical law. There, the law maintained a pristine transcendence over every individual, and, as the Pentateuch has it, helped to constitute the very community of God. Both its identity and its status as a coherent entity were (in principle) safeguarded and substantiated by the law’s normative character. Here, we see the ancient stirrings that subsequently found expression in later constitutionalism. It was the law that bound the community together – an integrated body of people, drawn together through mutual deference to common rule. One only needs to glance at, say, Deuteronomy 4:1-14, to recognize the function of the law’s paramountcy over, beneath and within the redeemed community.

Importantly, even the king of Israel himself, who was otherwise well-positioned to test the law’s sovereignty, was subject to it. Deuteronomy 17:14-20, which functions as a kind of charter for kingship, is crucial to understanding this point. There, the people of Israel are told that if they desire to have a king rule over them upon entering the land, that man is to be selected by Yahweh (vv.14-15). After prohibiting any future regnant from accumulating too much wealth – lest he rise too far above his compatriots (vv.16-17) – Moses (assuming for the moment Mosaic authorship) commands complete royal devotion to the law he is propounding (vv.18-20). A prospective king is to assiduously study the law, so that he may come to know and obey it. However, what is most important is the assumption lying behind these strictures – namely, that the king does not create the law; he, along with every other Israelite, is to submit to it. The OT scholar Gordon Wenham suggests that this way of conceiving of the role and nature of law within a political community was unique to ancient Israel. In contrast to the nations and kingdoms of Mesopotamia, where the king was the author of law (and, to that extent, the author of ethical reality), an Israelite king was himself a subject – subject to the overarching covenantal legal code instituted by Yahweh, whose character formed the basis for its own, enduring transcendence. In theory at least, biblical law was meant to regulate and restrain behaviour – even the behaviour of those residing in the upper echelons of power – precisely because they themselves depended for their authority on that which was both more fundamental and utterly supreme. Indeed, we witness the unfolding of the principle of law’s supremacy over the Israelite community – not to mention the king himself – in later OT history. Even a cursory glance at the books of Kings and Chronicles reveals that the various kings were evaluated, not by military prowess or territorial expansion, but by fidelity to a legal code that was greater than themselves. The king lived under the law, to the same extent as the sojourner or servant. The repeated cycles of royal sin and divine judgment testify to the outworking of the idea that not even one so powerful as the ruler of Israel was above it.

In a slightly different – though no less relevant – vein, we see the umbilical link between the absence of law, and the consequent trampling of the rights and dignity of the vulnerable, in the book of Judges. There, in chapters 17-20, we find the repeated refrain, “In those days Israel had no king [everyone did as he saw fit]” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25; I will examine this a little more below). At the time, Israel was operating in a liminal phase of its existence: constituted as a people, identified by its possession of the law, it was not yet a nation in a formal, institutionalised sense. One of the major themes of Judges concerns Israel’s attempts to struggle against both external enemies and internal discord. By the time we reach the end of the book – that is, chapters 17-20 – we are confronted with a poisonous mix of broad-based anarchy and the intimate, personalised tyranny, flowing from a general lawlessness. The twin dangers that inevitably result from the absence of law are on display in this section of Judges, to which the thematic refrain, quoted above, emphatically points. The author laments the fact that the nation had frayed, and the sovereignty of law had been abandoned – such that every man was a law unto himself.

The dark consequences of this chaos are plain, above all, in chapter 19. That passage – which frames the subsequent events by lamenting that Israel had no king (v.1) – sees a travelling Levite giving his concubine over to a group of rapacious men (19:22-26, esp. v.25). In response to her rape (and consequent death), he callously takes her body, dismembers her, and sends the pieces to the various tribes of Israel (vv.29-30). The meaning here is two-fold. First, the concubine’s broken body symbolized the fractured people of Israel, divided and without the unifying presence of the covenantal law. The author appears to be making a point, amongst other things, about the devilishly anarchic implications of the people’s abandonment of the law. However, the author makes a second, and subtler, point, critiquing both the prevailing situation and the Levite’s ruthless actions as a reflection of that situation. Indeed, there is no hint that whoever wrote Judges approved of what the Levite did. Quite the opposite, in fact. He implicitly condemns the priestly man’s actions as just one more example of what happens when anarchy, instead of God and his law, reigns (cf. v.1). Earlier, I spoke about the twin dangers of chaos and tyranny in the absence of a coherent body of law to restrain behaviour and harmonise the diverse members of a community. Here, they both find sad expression in the violent negation of one woman’s dignity and life.

But it should be noted that the author of Judges was not simply longing for a king who would put his despotic stamp upon the nation – thereby swapping the extreme pluralization and privatization of law for totalitarian legal monism. His sad refrain was not merely for the imposition of regal order, by whatever means, but for a righteous royal who would mediate God’s just and wise order to the community by devoting himself to obedience to the divine law. Even for the book of Judges, the law is pre-eminent, and a king is only desirable to the extent that he, too, submits to it. The writer stands against lawlessness and disorder, on the one hand, and the mere presence of a “lawless” ruler, on the other. Underlying his view is a firm belief in the normativity of law – an expression, he might say, of the transcendent God’s character – as something to which all are bound, and upon which the reality of an ordered society is possible.

Law’s sovereignty is incomplete, however, without the accompanying commitment to equal application to all citizens. Actually, it would seem that they go hand-in-hand, for the natural concomitant to an abstract body of legally binding rules is the narrowness of interpretation and application: only those features of a person’s behaviour that are relevant to the rule in question are to be taken into account. Thus, if someone is accused of murder (for example), it is simply irrelevant whether they have white skin or black, or whether they worship Jesus Christ or Vishnu. All that matters is whether they are guilty of breaking the identified rule. For all intents and purposes, legal subjects are abstracted subjects, and it is this abstraction – part of the same foundation upon which modern democracies are constructed – that also helps to protect individuals from arbitrary exercises of power, making predictable the consequences of one’s behaviour (whether for good or for ill).

How much this commitment owes to biblical thought is a question I can’t definitively answer. I merely observe that this, too, is an idea that finds some expression, however it is inflected, in OT legal codes. That is why, for instance, judges are commanded to determine cases with impartiality (Deut 16:18-20). Numbers 15:15-16, 30-31 also provides the raw ingredients for a fully-fledged conception of legal abstraction. There, we find Yahweh laying down instructions for offerings at the Temple. He declares that both native-born Israelites and foreigners are bound by the same rules, and in the same way. Notwithstanding other laws that reflect an imbalance between ethnic Israelites and non-Hebrew foreigners (for instance, some of the laws around slavery; foreigners appear to be a different category of people from aliens, in any case), it would seem here that ethnic and national differences are irrelevant to the duties prescribed for individuals living within the community of Israel. Equality before the law – and with that, equal application of the law – can be seen in verse 15: both types of people, Israelite and non-Israelite, will be the “same before the Lord”. It was precisely because of the law’s overarching role in regulating, prescribing and proscribing behaviour that there was no variance between an Israelite and a member of another tribe living within the confines of the covenant community. Anything less – say, if laws relating to Sabbath-keeping could be applied differently, depending on whether or not the individual was a Hebrew – would have meant the raw primacy of ethnic identity as the foundation of the community (as opposed to the law). Whilst OT law is not framed in so abstract or conceptual a manner, one may discern a relationship between Torah-inspired accounts of law, and later Western legal principles regarding equal application of rules and the fundamental parity of legal subjects.

* * *

OT law operated in a political environment sharply different from what prevails in Western societies today. Ancient Israel was no proto-democracy; it was a theocracy, with the king acting as God’s appointed representative, upholding and exemplifying his law. Further, we must recognize other streams of legal thought, particularly those of Ancient Rome, which have subsequently influenced Western democratic thinking. Nonetheless, we ought to consider the power of the general importance of the biblical concept of law-as-sovereign as it has been transmitted through the various stages of Western political evolution. As but one example, we may cite the framers of the Magna Carta, that great landmark in the development of the Western political system. In an interview with Mercatornet.com, freelance researcher, Thomas Andrew, commented that the charter codified the concept of the rule of law, such that even the king himself was subject to it. But he also suggested that this emphasis had strong theological roots. Medieval thinkers drew on the reflections of St. Augustine, whose writings on law and justice found their way into a conception of human authority – even royal authority – that was subordinated to law. This principle was eventually enshrined in the Magna Carta, reflecting the influence of both Christian theologizing and ecclesiastical influence. But of course, the views of Augustine and others were shaped by, and soaked in, the concerns and emphases of Scripture. The esteemed place that law occupies in the OT was woven into the very structures of Western legal and political thinking as a result.

Even if it has shed its explicitly religious trappings (e.g., its identity as the expression of God’s character and will for his people), the concept of the law’s supremacy, when transposed into a secular key, provides the basis for an ordered community, in which no one individual – and no one body – may act with unrestrained power. To be sure, one may question the ultimate basis upon which a secular society constructs a transcendent legal framework in the absence of an ethical standard that is itself grounded in God. However, the notion of law’s normative status certainly bears the hallmarks of an OT (and subsequently Christian) understanding of the concept. Despite having moved away from an explicitly Christian view of the world, secular Western societies have nonetheless retained and developed the idea that law exercises sovereign influence over all people, and that an ordered political community requires adherence to a legal code beyond the reach of even the most powerful institution or individual (with the caveat that it may be changed only in accordance with a pre-existing body of law, and only in accordance with a strict set of rules that limit legislative caprice). Indeed, the normativity of law has engrained itself into the political culture and the collective consciousness of the West, providing a necessary plank in a foundation which undergirds institutional restraint and respect for individual dignity.

Origen and Calvin: Christological Smackdown!

Debates around the Trinity can be bruising – if esoteric – affairs. I had reason to enter into one last year, when I surveyed the views of two great Christian thinkers, Origen and John Calvin. What follows below represents my thoughts on what they had to say about that most scintillating of topics: the origin of the Son’s divinity.


Biblical scholars, theologians and even philosophers have, through the ages, spilled much ink trying to clarify the internal relations within the Trinity. One particular issue concerns the Son and his divinity: if the Son is distinct from the Father, in what way can he properly be said to possess the same divine essence? Two men who gave thought to the matter were Origen and John Calvin. In this essay, I will examine and compare their conclusions regarding the origins of the Son’s deity. In the course of this comparison, I shall argue that although both men evince some linguistic and conceptual affinity in their reflections on the Son’s divine identity, they nevertheless differ significantly. Chief among those differences is precisely the origin of that identity. Indeed, whilst Origen thought of the Son’s divinity as derived – contingent, in other words, upon the Father – Calvin argued that the Son is autotheos (“God of himself”), whose deity is inherent and uncaused. This is what ultimately, and crucially, separates the two men. The essay itself will unfold in three main stages. First, I shall summarise Origen’s and Calvin’s views on the issue at hand. Second, I will highlight the key similarities and differences between them, at which point the salience of the notion of the Son as autotheos will become clear. Finally, I will evaluate their reflections, concluding that of the two, Calvin has provided an account of the provenance of the Son’s divinity that is, relatively speaking, more compelling. Origen’s undoubted genius notwithstanding, I shall suggest that the French Reformer’s view demonstrates greater sensitivity to the relevant biblical and theological issues.

Origen and Calvin: Getting to Grips

Before a proper comparison of Origen and Calvin can take place, it is first necessary to provide a basic summary of each man’s view regarding the Son’s divinity – the better to ground further analysis.


Origen (c.185-254) was a theologian and exegete of prodigious talent, whose accomplishments have earned him a reputation as one of Christianity’s most creative thinkers. His writings on the nature of God and the Son are no exception, reflecting an innovative blend of biblical exegesis and Hellenistic philosophy. Emulating the Classical milieu in which he was steeped, Origen contends that God is fundamentally one and simple.[1] He speaks of God as “ingenerate”, implying both eternality and absolute transcendence over temporal existence.[2] He is the “first principle” of everything else, revealed through the lower strata of reality.[3] Simultaneously, Origen argues that God is triune for all eternity; there was never a time when the Son (nor the Spirit) was not.[4] Origen refers to God’s Logos, wisdom or reason, which he identifies with the Son (cf. Prov 8:22ff).[5] A concept found in both Platonic and Stoic schools of thought, the Logos was seen as the medium through which the absolute God – the “first principle” – created the diversity of the mundane world, thus pervading it as a kind of universal reason.[6] In Origen’s hands, the Logos is identical with the mind of God, and in fact, has been with him for all eternity as the personal existence of his will and the manifestation of his being.[7] He is the eternal Son, timelessly begotten of God the Father.[8] Aware of the dangers of misinterpretation, the Alexandrian is careful to distinguish this begetting from all temporal instances of generation. Commenting on Hebrews 1:3, he compares the Father’s generation of the Son with “light” creating “brightness”: in both cases, there is no question of temporal generation, for both exist together, in an act of continuous begetting.[9] The Son, or Logos, is therefore not a temporal creation, but a being that eternally shares – participates – in the life of the absolute God.[10]

In wrestling with the relationship between the Son and the Father, Origen tried to make sense of the Godhead’s simultaneous unity and plurality using Middle Platonic categories. He also sought to rebut an inchoate modalism (the idea that God simply manifests himself in three modes) then prevalent in sections of the early church.[11] Origen thus lays great stress upon the Son as a discrete hypostasis – or subsistent identity – from the Father, although given the Son’s eternal inclusion within the divine life, he shares in the same ousia, or essence, as the Father.[12] Indeed, Origen is careful to maintain that both persons possess that nature.[13] Still, he thinks of God the Father as the centre and foundation of action, whose primordial role sets the boundaries of intra-Trinitarian relations.[14] Furthermore, Origen views the Father as God par excellence.[15] Relying on his philosophical heritage, he insists that the “…God and Father” is superior to all, whilst “the Son, being less than the Father” is only superior to rational creatures.[16] It is from the Father, he maintains, that the essence of the Logos-Son is drawn.[17]

John Calvin

We turn now to John Calvin (1509-1564), the great Protestant Reformer whose clearest statements on both the Trinity and the Son’s deity are encapsulated in his magnum opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Drawing on a rich and eclectic range of sources, Calvin contends that God is both one and essentially, eternally Triune.[18] He thus affirms the unity and (three-fold) plurality of God.[19] After making plain Scripture’s testimony to the Son’s divinity, Calvin expounds his eternal generation from the Father. For him, the Father is “unbegotten”, whilst the Son is the uniquely “begotten” one – though he emphatically rejects the idea that the Son was created in time.[20] Moreover, Calvin contends that the Son is one in essence and being with the Father, and so possesses the fullness of deity. He clearly insists that both Father and Son are completely God, each in his own right. Prominent in Calvin’s reflections on the matter is the notion of the Son’s essential aseity, or self-existence, which he shares with the Father.[21] He uses the language of autotheos (“God of himself”) to describe the Son’s divinity, which amounts to the idea that he, the Son, he fully God in himself. However, lest he be accused of failing to reconcile the Son’s “begotten-ness” with the intrinsic possession of deity, Calvin seeks to make a careful distinction between the Son’s underived essence and his begotten person. Indeed, he argues that “the Son simply, without reference to the Father…is of himself, and, accordingly… [is] the only beginning”; it is with the Son’s relation to the Father that one should make the latter the “principle” of the former.[22] According to Calvin, then, the Son, in reference to himself, is God without qualification. His deity is completely underived, and is his inherently, whilst his person has its “beginning” in the Father.

Comparing Origen and Calvin

The foregoing summary of Origen’s and Calvin’s reflections on the Son’s possession of deity reveals a number of distinctive features. It remains now to highlight them in more detail, by juxtaposing their views. From the outset, one should acknowledge that the two men’s views do bear a degree of affinity. As the above summary indicates, both men hold to some notion that the Father timelessly generated the Son, who represents a distinct hypostasis within the Godhead. Simultaneously, the doctrine – for Origen as for Calvin – is meant to uphold the claim that the Son is not substantially different from the Father, but has the same substance.[23] Taken in isolation, the Son’s eternal generation ensures his deep, essential identification with the Father.[24] However, despite this degree of accord between the two men, there is, on a deeper level, division over the question of the origin of that identity. As I will demonstrate, it is, for Origen, derived;[25] for Calvin, it is emphatically intrinsic. The differences contained in these positions are significant and consequential.

The Scope of Eternal Generation

We begin with the rather revealing ways the two men parse the notion of eternal generation, which provides a convenient entry-point into their key dissimilarities. Origen, whilst plainly adhering to the Son’s deity, holds to a model of eternal begetting that encompasses the totality of the Son’s being. His image of light and brightness, though intended to point to a shared essence between Father and Son, is used to uphold the idea of continuous communication.[26] That is, Origen contends that that Father conveys the divine essence to the Son in dynamic and unceasing fashion. For him, it would seem that the Son’s eternal generation, whilst providing a safeguard against any notion that he is a temporal creation, includes the ongoing transmission of the divine ousia.[27] Some of his language gives the impression that Origen sees the Son as a “created” being (albeit in an atemporal act of begetting).[28] Evincing reliance upon his Middle Platonic background, Origen contends that the Son participates in the deity of the Father. He does not possess deity inherently, but rather by attribution.[29] Not only is Origen committed to the generation of a distinct hypostasis from the Father – i.e. the Son-Logos – but appears, in the case of the latter’s being, to endorse a kind of deity-by-derivation.

Calvin, on the other hand, whilst also affirming the Son’s eternal generation, is equally clear that this does not imply a continuous communication of essence.[30] In contrast with Origen, Calvin is very careful to say that although the Father is, in some sense, the “beginning” of the Son, he does not donate the Son’s divine ousia;[31] if there is a beginning, it is a relational one of (eternal) self-differentiation.[32] Indeed, in his debate with the anti-Trinitarian Peter Caroli, who argued that eternal generation corresponds with the Son’s possession of divinity from the Father, Calvin made this very point.[33] He explicitly rejects the notion that the Father is, as he puts it, the “essentiator” of the Son, thinking it “…a detestable fiction to maintain that essence is proper to the Father alone, as if he were the deifier of the Son.”[34] Calvin’s aforementioned distinction between the divine essence of the Son and the begetting of his personal subsistence – one that Origen does not appear to make – allows the French Reformer to parse the notion of eternal generation in such a way that the former remains an intrinsic possession, even as the latter finds its origination in the Father.[35]

Who is Autotheos?

The issue over precisely what was generated in the Father’s act of begetting the Son, and how it divides Origen and Calvin, leads naturally to the already-mentioned category of autotheos. Whilst both men use the term, the way they do so – and the exact referent(s) in each case – offers a crisp encapsulation of their fundamental variance over the provenance of the Son’s deity. It is at this point that their differences are starkest.

In concert with his view that the Son’s divine essence is derived in the Father’s act of eternal begetting, Origen contends that only the Father can justifiably be called autotheos. The Son, whilst fully possessing deity, cannot be seen as God in himself, precisely because of his participation in the Father’s underived deity.[36] He “streams” from the Father, the ingenerate One, who alone is God unqualified.[37] This introduces a strong subordinationist element into the Alexandrian’s Trinitarian thinking, and suggests a kind of gradation of deity:[38] whilst the Logos-Son is whatever the Father is, he is so in a different sense, and in a different manner.[39] Origen thus commits himself to saying that only the Father is downright deity;[40] it is the First Person of the Trinity who is God in himself. Origen draws such a distinction between the Father and the Son/Word in his reading of John 1:1-2,[41] and cites John 17:3 to substantiate this contention.[42] In addition, he states that some “incautiously assert that the Saviour [i.e. the Son] is…Most High God” – a criticism of those who would identify the Son with God (i.e. the Father) so straightforwardly.[43]

The contrast with Calvin could not be greater, for as we have seen, the French Reformer is at pains to argue that the Son, along with the Father, is autotheos.[44] The notion of autotheos dovetails with Calvin’s contention that the Son’s deity is neither contingent upon, nor communicated by, the Father. Noting the (eternal) derivation of the Son’s person from the Father, he nonetheless insists – vigorously – that the Son has deity in himself. Departing from Origen’s exegesis of Hebrews 1:3, Calvin argues that his preferred distinction is warranted from a reading of that passage.[45] Furthermore, he cites a battery of OT and NT texts to show that what is predicated of Yahweh is also predicated, without qualification, of the Son, and contends that Paul’s statement in Philippians 2:6-7 regarding the Son’s “equality” with the Father “admirably settles all disputes”.[46] Calvin’s emphatic rejection of the Father as “essentiator” of the Son thus naturally contains its corollary: borrowing the ecclesiastical concept of in solidum, he maintains that both Persons essentially hold the name “God” in common, and the divine nature it denotes.[47] Otherwise, he asserts, “…the essence which in the Father is unformed and unbegotten will in [the Son] be formed and begotten.”[48] For the Son, just as much as the Father, divine identity is causeless, timeless and “origin-less”.[49]

This is inextricably tied to the way the two men conceive of the Son’s existence. Whereas Origen thinks the Father is uniquely ingenerate, whose being depends on nothing else but his own nature, Calvin insists that the Son also possesses aseity (self-existence).[50] For both men, aseity is a property unique to God – but whereas Origen reserves it for the Father,[51] stating that the Logos exists in a different manner, Calvin plainly states that the Son, too, considered in himself, is God a se. He even quotes Exodus 3:14, where Yahweh famously declares his own self-existence, and applies it to the Son.[52] Calvin reasons that if aseity is an attribute of God, then it belongs to the Son fully and without derogation.[53]

Alexandria or Geneva?

Origen and Calvin exhibit several crucial differences in their writings on the origin of the Son’s deity. But which one provides a more satisfying account? Based on a number of formidable issues Origen’s account faces, I suggest that the French Reformer’s contribution is comparatively more persuasive (or at least less problematic), and that he navigates the various theological pitfalls with greater agility. I shall organise my evaluation under a series of broad rubrics.

The Son’s Deity: Underlying Logic. At the outset, it must be said that Origen’s advocacy for the Son’s derived essence leads unavoidably to his diminution. Indeed, it jars sharply with a basic understanding of God’s identity (shared, apparently, by the Son himself) as self-existent and self-subsistent being.[54] By saying that only the Father is autotheos, who conveys his unsourced deity, Origen implicitly undermines the Son’s claim to godhood, the result of which is a pronounced subordination.[55] Whether it is ontological in character is a matter of debate; certainly, some of Origen’s language implies the “existential” subservience of Son to Father, where the being of the one is dependent upon the power of the other.[56] One wonders whether the Son is truly and completely God, if his essence is conditional on something apart from himself (ie. the Father), and he lacks the self-existence unique to God. Paired with the complementary notion of a continuous communication of essence, the charge of some measure of contingency in Origen appears reasonable.

Calvin’s view of the Son as autotheos avoids this pitfall, and quarantines his identity against any risk of ontological diminution. He rightly points out that anything less reduces the Son to a “titular” deity – one whose nature has been bequeathed in an act of fatherly attribution.[57] If the Trinity is eternally comprised of three centres of personal activity, who together constitute the one divine essence, then the French Reformer’s account of the Son as autotheos seems to be a logical inference from such a view of God.[58] This isn’t to say that Calvin’s rendition is beyond question. One may argue that so defined a distinction between the Son’s intrinsic deity and begotten personhood represents an unwarranted abstraction, which fails to reckon with the inherent inseparability of these two dimensions. To think of the Son as God apart from his personage is as illusory as theoretical conceptions of his Sonship without reference to his divinity.[59] Calvin’s scheme seems to rest on a kind of theoretical deconstruction: artificially parsing, according to their respective sources, aspects of the Son’s identity that are necessarily one in order for him to exist as he is in the first place.[60] Can a being possibly bear his essence intrinsically – and, moreover, enjoy aseity – if he exists, hypostatically, by virtue of generation? Whether this critique ultimately succeeds, it exposes the insuperable mystery of God’s inner life, and the challenges involved in efforts – even those as careful as Calvin’s – to articulate it. Still, his is a venerable attempt to maintain both the Son’s absolute deity and relational distinctions within the Godhead. Difficult though it is to conceive of the Son apart from his deity (and vice versa), an Origenist understanding of the extrinsic nature of the Son’s essence within the three-fold unity of God appears to raise even larger theological obstacles.[61]

Influences and Doctrinal Implications. Origen’s rejection of the Son’s intrinsic deity is partly attributable to a consistent reliance upon his Middle Platonic frame of reference. The Alexandrian’s fundamental commitment to a Platonic view of God forces him to distinguish the Logos-Son to such a degree that his being is qualitatively different – a mediating influence between the ingenerate and generate realms of existence, but not quite belonging to either.[62] Similarly, the notion of essential communication rests on the Platonic assumption that an effect is inferior to its cause.[63] Origen’s analysis of Scripture is inordinately shaped by this framework, as his exegesis of John 1:1-2 demonstrates: forging an artificial distinction between the Father’s absolute deity and the Son’s mere “divine-likeness”.[64] Origen also moves beyond the import of the NT’s “subordinationist” texts (e.g., John 14:28) to argue that they self-evidently reveal something of the eternal, immanent status of the Son.[65] Of course, Calvin also acknowledges the (limited) viability of non-biblical terms and categories in Trinitarian reflection, but is careful to corral his speculations with Scripture.[66] He proceeds on the basis of the NT’s Christological re-appropriation of language reserved for Yahweh, of which his exegesis of John’s prologue is an example: eschewing an Origenist interpretation of the text, he insists (correctly in my view) that the passage pushes towards the essential unity between God and his Word, and the latter’s unqualified godhood.[67] Simultaneously, Calvin’s proffered distinction between the Son’s person and essence does have the advantage of negotiating the basic biblical ingredients in a way that better balances unity and plurality within the Godhead (cf. John 1:1-2).[68]

Additionally, commentators have reasonably argued that Origen’s view of the Son’s subordination to the Father unwittingly provided a “stepping stone” to later Arianism.[69] Whilst the Alexandrian was certainly no proto-Arian,[70] his rendering of the Logos’ derived deity provided the seedbed for conceptions of the Son as a temporal creation, possessed of only relative eminence.[71] Calvin’s insistence on the Son as autotheos guards against such deviation, and helps conserve the umbilical link between the deep tri-unity of God and other aspects of Christian doctrine and practice. For instance, can worship of the Son – praxis that appears to be an extremely early aspect of the church,[72] and is part of the warp and woof of Christian spirituality – retain the same legitimacy if the Father alone is the primordial bearer of the divine nature? Similarly, if the Son represents God’s movement into created multiplicity (so Origen), is it possible for such a being to be the agent of redemption, given the possible susceptibility to change and mutability?[73]

Consequences for Intra-Trinitarian Relations. Apart from reflecting a diminution of the Son’s rank and status, Origen’s subordinationism entails a hierarchical view of God[74] – a gradation of deity, that is, where Father and Son occupy different strata.[75] Unfortunately, his simultaneous commitment to Platonic notions of divine simplicity leads to an unremitting tension, even confusion, in his understanding of God’s being. On the one hand, he attempts to preserve God’s monarchical simplicity via the Son’s substantial diminution.[76] On the other hand, he cuts across that simplicity by insisting that the Son is nonetheless incorporated into the divine nature, despite his qualitative difference. Origen thus undermines his own commitment to God’s (read: the Father’s) radical oneness by welding a subordinationist Trinitarianism to it. Ironically, he ends up with a kind of hierarchical “composite” of the divine nature – of which the Son’s ambiguous ontology is symptomatic – at odds with his stated commitment to God’s utter unity.[77] At the same time, if a thoroughgoing Trinitarianism requires that the divine essence only exists as it is equally instantiated in the three hypostases (of which the Son is one),[78] then Origen’s monarchical tendencies – thus delimiting underived essence to the Father – threaten to subvert that conception. This is closely linked with Origen’s participatory understanding of the Son’s deity, since it implies a deeply unequal view of the Son’s relationship with the Father, with the former acting as an instrument of the latter’s will.[79]

Recognizing the risk inherent in this kind of division,[80] Calvin adopts a perichoretic understanding of the Triune God’s unity, where the Son exists in intimate union with the Father (and the Spirit), completely and equally sharing in the underived and indivisible being of the divine monarchia.[81] Protecting the parity of their relationship (functional-economic subordination notwithstanding), it also leads to a more satisfying view of divine inter-relations, where Father and Son – autotheos both – utterly indwell and permeate each other.[82] The Son is not merely an organ of the Father’s will, nor an isolative individual, but an equal partner in creation and redemption. Cohering well with Scripture (e.g., John 14:10-11; 17:21-23; cf. Rom 8:9), Calvin’s model of the Son’s deity aids him in conceiving of God’s nature as a dynamic unity – grounded in an equality of essence, and substantiating relational harmony.


The foregoing examination has attempted to uncover the major differences that exist between Origen’s and Calvin’s views on the provenance of the Son’s divinity. Though sometimes obscure, those differences are, in fact, significant. Chief among them, and underlying all else, is the distinction between Origen’s contention that the Son’s deity is derived from the unsourced being of the Father, and Calvin’s emphatic insistence that the former is autotheos – “God in himself”. Of the two men, it is Calvin’s rendition that faces less difficulties. Of course, any comparative evaluation is in some sense unfair, for the French Reformer had the benefit of 1300 years of intensive Trinitarian reflection. Nevertheless, Origen’s ingenious attempts to give voice to the Son’s divine identity are ultimately hampered by his fundamental commitment to Middle Platonic categories of thought, leading to a significant diminution of the Son’s deity, a marked subordinationism, and a confused conception of God’s being. Calvin’s scheme, though not entirely unproblematic, offers an account that is more satisfying theologically, facing squarely the natural implications of the Son’s eternal inclusion within the identity of God. Furthermore, it is subtle in its distinctions, relatively judicious in its speculations, and sensitive to biblical pressures and intimations. Calvin preserves the Son’s genuine deity and provides a clear, more coherent, re-statement of historic Trinitarianism.

[1] Origen, On First Principles, 1.1.6; G.L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought (London: SPCK, 1952), 9.

[2] Presitge, Patristic Thought, 51; Henri Crouzel, Origen (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1989), 183.

[3] John Peter Kenny, “The Greek Tradition in Early Christian Philosophy,” in The Columbia History of Western Philosophy, ed. Richard H. Popkin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 124; Robert M. Berchman, From Philo to Origen: Middle Platonism in Transition (Brown Judaic Studies 69; Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1984), 119.

[4] FP, 1.2.9; Kevin Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012), 99; cf. Charles Kannengiesser and William L. Peterson, Origen of Alexandria: His World and His Legacy (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 242.

[5] See, for e.g., FP, 1.2.2

[6] Berchman, From Philo to Origen, 126; Franz Dunzl, A Brief History of the Doctrine of the Trinity in the Early Church (London: T & T Clark, 2007), 23.

[7] FP, 1.2.2; Berchman, From Philo to Origen, 127; R.A. Norris, God and World in Early Christian Theology: A Study in Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Origen (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1966), 128.

[8] Giles, Eternal Generation, 100-101.

[9] FP, 1.2.2; Dunzl, A Brief History, 38.

[10] Cf. Origen, Comm. John, 1.22; FP, 1.2.9. Joseph W. Trigg, The Early Church Fathers: Origen (London: Routledge, 1998), 24.

[11] Paul R. Hinlicky, Divine Complexity: The Rise of Creedal Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 180.

[12] Giles, Eternal Generation, 101.

[13] Berchman, From Philo to Origen, 135.

[14] Crouzel, Origen, 185.

[15] Hinlicky, Divine Complexity, 181.

[16] FP, 1.3.5.

[17] FP, 1.2.13; Hinlicky, Divine Complexity, 183; Robert S. Franks, The Doctrine of the Trinity (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1953), 93.

[18] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.13.16.

[19] Institutes, 1.13.17; 1.13.20.

[20] Institutes, 1.13.23; Giles, Eternal Generation, 177.

[21] Brannon Ellis, Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism and the Aseity of the Son (Oxford: OUP, 2012), 1-2.

[22] Institutes, 1.13.19.

[23] Giles, Eternal Generation, 177.

[24] See Ellis, Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, 42, and his comments about Calvin’s views at this point.

[25] Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology and Worship (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2004), 106

[26] Letham, The Holy Trinity, 103.

[27] Crouzel, Origen, 187-188.

[28] Peter Widdicombe, “The Fathers on the Father in the Gospel of John”, Semeia 85 (1999): 109; Berchman, From Philo, 128.

[29] Widdicombe, “The Fathers,” 111.

[30] Institutes, 1.13.29; Giles, Eternal Generation, 185; Ellis, Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, 33; Young-Ho Chun, “The Trinity in the Protestant Reformation: Continuity within Discontinuity”, in The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity, ed. Peter C. Phan (Cambridge: CUP, 2011), 139.

[31] Ellis, Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, 34.

[32] Institutes, 1.13.25.

[33] Ellis, Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, 49-50.

[34] Institutes, 1.13.24.

[35] Institutes, 1.13.20; Thomas F. Torrance, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity”, CTJ 25 (1990): 179-180; Ellis, Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, 45, 47.

[36] Comm. John, 2.2; Franks, The Doctrine, 92-93.

[37] Norris, God and World, 128.

[38] E.g., Berchman, From Philo, 118; Dunzl, A Brief History, 38; Widdicombe, “The Fathers”, 111; Cf. Roger E. Olson and Christopher Alan Hall, The Trinity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 25.

[39] Norris, God and World, 128.

[40] Widdicombe, “The Fathers”, 111.

[41] Franks, The Doctrine, 92.

[42] Comm. John, 1.20.119.

[43] Contra Celsum, 8.16.644; Hinlicky, Divine Complexity, 180.

[44] E.g., Institutes, 1.13.25; cf. Chun, “The Trinity in the Protestant,” 140.

[45] Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, trans. John Owen (reprint; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 37.

[46] See Institutes, 1.13.23, 24.

[47] Institutes, 1.13.23; Torrance, “Calvin’s Doctrine”, 182-183, 190-191; Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin (Louisville: William John Knox Press, 2008), 67.

[48] Institutes, 1.13.24.

[49] Torrance, “Calvin’s Doctrine”, 183.

[50] Ellis, Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, 45

[51] See Stephen Edmonson, Calvin’s Christology (Cambridge: CUP, 2004), 19, where he makes this comment of Origen.

[52] Institutes, 1.13.23; Ellis, Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, 43.

[53] Ellis, Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, 33; Torrance, “Calvin’s Doctrine”, 183.

[54] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (London: Banner of Truth, 1941), 58.

[55] John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2001), 477.

[56] Bryan Liftin, “Origen”, in Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy, ed. B.G. Green (Nottingham: Apollos, 2010), 137.

[57] Institutes, 1.13.23.

[58] Letham, The Holy Trinity, 257; Donald G. Bloesch, God the Almighty: Power, Wisdom, Holiness and Love (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1995), 184-185.

[59] Roger Beckwith, “The Calvinist Doctrine of the Trinity,” Churchman 115 (2001): 310.

[60] Beckwith, “The Calvinist Doctrine”, 310-311.

[61] Cf. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (2nd edition; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 362, who argues that qualitative and extensive equality is an essential component of an orthodox conception of the Trinity.

[62] Franks, The Doctrine, 94; Stephen R. Holmes, The Holy Trinity: Understanding God’s Life (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2012), 79.

[63] Giles, Eternal Generation, 100.

[64] See the direct quotations in Franks, The Doctrine, 92-93.

[65] Widdicombe, “The Fathers”, 111.

[66] Institutes, 1.13.21; Letham, The Holy Trinity, 265; Torrance, “Calvin’s Doctrine”, 176.

[67] See Andreas Kostenberger, John (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 28-29, for a complementary analysis of this passage.

[68] Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, Volume 1, trans. William Pringle (reprint; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 28-29.

[69] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 82.

[70] Presitge, God in Patristic, 134.

[71] Holmes, The Holy Trinity, 83.

[72] See Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (2nd edition; London: Continuum, 1998), 100-115.

[73] Bloesch, God the Almighty, 173; Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 26, for further analysis of the integral relationships between the Trinity and other Christian doctrines; cf. Kenny, “The Greek Tradition”, 124.

[74] Giles, Eternal Generation, 100.

[75] Bloesch, God the Almighty, 173; Franks, The Doctrine, 93.

[76] Cf. Feinberg, No One Like Him, 479.

[77] See Feinberg, No One Like Him, 479; cf. Olson & Hall, The Trinity, 25.

[78] Erickson, God in Three, 264.

[79] Bloesch, God the Almighty, 173.

[80] Institutes, 1.13.23.

[81] Cf. Torrance, “Calvin’s Doctrine”, 190-191.

[82] Institutes, 1.13.19.