THEOSIS and SACRIFICE: The Gendering of Salvation

Christianity is a religion of salvation. But in what does that salvation consist?

There have been no conciliar or creedal statements about the precise manner in which our salvation is achieved apart from the affirmation in the Nicaean - Constantinopolitan Creed that it was for our salvation that Christ became incarnate. Nonetheless, it was the question of salvation that was at stake in the Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries. However, these debates focussed upon the agent of salvation.

What was at stake is encapsulated by two axioms: the first by Athanasius of Alexandria who in defending the full divinity of Christ asserted that “the Son of God became human so that we might become God”[1]; the second by Gregory Nazianzen who in arguing for the full humanity of Christ insisted that “What has not been assumed has not been healed”[2].

But what is the source of this intuition about the divinity of Jesus Christ? How did a group of good monotheistic Jews come to affirm the divinity of a human being, and when they did, why did they still insist that they were monotheists?

Going back through the layers of interpretation and tradition, Christianity has its source in the Easter experience. Those who encountered the Risen Christ experienced the sort of forgiveness and reconciliation, wholeness and peace that only God can offer. The reign of God that Jesus proclaimed in his earthly ministry had become fully realised in the risen Christ.

And yet, while they experienced Jesus as being in the realm of the divine – in God and of God – he was still recognisable as the man they knew. This is significant. His uniqueness was not swallowed up in the great ocean of the divine but preserved. His humanity was not compromised through its identity with God but sublated / raised / exalted to it highest level.

Also central to the Easter experience was the conviction that the fullness of life that Jesus now enjoyed in God was also being offered to us.  Throughout the New Testament it is affirmed that through baptism we are “clothed in Christ” (Gal. 3:27) in the hope that we might also share in his resurrection. (Rom 6:4) We become daughters and sons in the Son, “sharers in the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).

In the risen Christ the fullness of humanity and our own divine destiny was revealed.  Christ is the head of the new creation who summarises or recapitulates in himself the whole of creation. His coming is the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4), the climax of human history. And so Christian’s celebrate the Lord’s Day, not on the Sabbath, but on the eight day.

SO at the heart of the Christian experience is an eschatological revelation and insight. The definitive revelation of the divine is also a revelation of the fullness of humanity. As expressed by Edward Schillebeeckx: “we do not have a pre-existing definition of humanity — indeed for Christians it is not only a future, but an eschatological reality”.[3] John Macquarrie similarly argues, “humanity is something unfinished, even now coming into being”.[4] For Christians, therefore, Jesus in his humanity mediates and orients us towards our divinity.

The nature of our salvation is unable to be captured in a definitive way because ultimately it is God who is our salvation. It is a thoroughly eschatological reality that defies all attempts to define or capture it within a system. The hope to which the Easter experience gave rise came to be expressed in a variety of ways according to whatever conceptual apparatus was available. In the New Testament it came to be expressed in a plurality of symbols: as a banquet (Lk 14:15-24); a wedding feast (Mt 22:1-14; 25:1-13); the new Jerusalem “prepared as a bride dressed for her husband” (Rev 21:2); or as the beatific vision as a face to face encounter in which “I shall know just as fully as I am myself known” (1 Cor 13:12). None of these images exhausts the content of that hope.

In the first few Christian centuries the emphasis would seem to have been upon an eschatological abundance that was best expressed through a plurality of symbols. Nonetheless, there was a need to develop a more systematic understanding that situated the Christian experience within a broader Hellenistic worldview. 



The shape of ones theology depends substantially upon the underlying metaphysical assumptions that one brings to such an enterprise. In looking at the development of Christian theology I find it a useful heuristic to identify two types of metaphysical orientation, by which I mean models for understanding the whole. Put simply I would describe them as a metaphysics of the past, and a metaphysics of the future, as an attempt to describe where one looks for an understanding of the order of creation. Was creation established in its perfection from the beginning or is such perfection yet to be realized? In other worlds, do we find the ideal God given order of things in the already created reality or is it still coming into being, yet to be fully realized.

From a specifically Christian perspective, these two different approaches seem to correlate with two responses to another question, namely whether God would have become incarnate if Adam had not sinned?

There are two traditions here. The first associated with Irenaeus and Duns Scotus, the second with Augustine and Aquinas.



The tradition associated with Irenaeus is one that I believe most consistent with the central Christian experience of salvation. Irenaeus holds that Adams sin is the result of immaturity rather than maliciousness. God could also “have endowed man with perfection from the beginning, but man was as yet unable to receive it, being as yet an infant.”[5] The strength of the Irenaean view is that the doctrine of salvation is consistent with the doctrine of creation itself. Salvation is, in fact, the perfection of creation. In this view creation, incarnation, and redemption are part of a single movement of God’s grace: Creation being the first grace, God’s first saving act. The incarnation of the Word flows from creation through the Word and inaugurates the process whereby creation itself is exalted and enabled to share in the fullness of the divine life itself. The process of becoming is according to this view apiece with the process of divinization.



According to the second view, the incarnation is simply a remedy for the misuse of human freedom which has marred God’s original creation, even if the sin of Adam comes to be seen as a “happy fault”. The very idea that Adam’s sin was a happy fault is, I feel, an implicit acknowledgement that this approach does not really do full justice to the incarnation. Nor does it do full justice to the eschatological reality of salvation. According to this view, becoming is a fall from the perfection of Being.

More significant, the metaphysics of the Past tends to canonize the status quo. This brings us to the question of sacrifice. Whether understood in Girardian terms of creating social harmony through the scapegoat mechanism, or according to Nancy Jay’s analysis where sacrifice seeks to constructs culture and male genealogies in opposition to the messiness of nature there is emerging a broad consensus that at its heart, sacrifice is about the maintenance of the social order. In both instances, difference is dealt with in terms of binaries (exclusion and opposition).

However, the early Christians, as an eschatological community distanced themselves from this sort of traffic with the divine. They understood that Christ had put an end to the need for sacrifice, even if this end to sacrifice was often expressed in sacrificial language.[6] It is precisely because Christians did not sacrifice in the way that pagans understood it that they were seen as a threat to the status quo and accused of “atheism”. But, as Robert Daly has argued in his The Origins of the Christian Doctrine of Sacrifice the “incarnational spiritualization of sacrifice that is operative in the New Testament and the early church”[7], is eventually superseded by “a secondary institutionalizing trend” which brings about a return of sacrifice to the centre of the Christian imagination.

As Christianity became more invested in the status quo it also became more invested in a metaphysics of the past. Consequently, it also came to associate salvation more completely with the death and sacrifice of Christ. How does this affect our understanding of salvation and sexual difference?



We can already see in Paul the tension between the sexual hierarchy in the present social order and the eschatological transcendence of such hierarchy in Christ. Being in the world of becoming is a problem for Paul. The problem for Paul is that while one remains in the world, one remains bound by the values of the world. It is better therefore not to marry or be given in marriage. Ultimately for Paul, it is the sexual relation that produces sexual hierarchy.

Paul believed that the transcendence of sexual hierarchy in Christ could only be achieved by what Lone Fatum describes as an asexual and “eschatologically qualified asceticism”.[8] A woman who was unable or unwilling to live according to this state remained bound by “this world and its sexual hierarchy, belonging to a man before she may be said to belong to Christ, and thus socially as well as theologically of course dependent on the superior male in her relation to God”.[9]

How should we interpret this? I think the best clue is offered by Philo, Paul’s contemporary and exemplar of Hellenistic Judaism.[10] For Philo, the essential self, what we would call the subject, is prior to gender and universal. The division into the sexes (in Gen 2) as a creative act is secondary and ultimately something to be overcome if we are to aspire to reflect fully the image of the divine once more. [11]

This perspective is clearly shaped by a metaphysics of the past where the ideal consists in that which was established in the beginning. Difference is seen as something to be overcome or disavowed, rather than part of the process of creation and transcendence itself.

Sexual difference, according to this metaphysics, can only entail a capitulation to the social order. Transcendence consists in aspiring to the status of universal subject (which is male) – to the original unity that precedes the realm of becoming. The body and sexual difference must be overcome; otherwise anatomy does indeed become destiny. With the metaphysics of the past the cross becomes central. Salvation as a remedy rather than a promise as the eschatological insight of Easter is displaced by the crucifixion.



This is to be contrasted with the metaphysics of the future, according to which difference becomes a value in itself to be valued, nourished and preserved. The division into the sexes in Gen 2 is a higher order of creation. Both creation narratives in Genesis identify creation with the process of differentiation, and life with diversity. Salvation as the eighth day of creation –  that is Easter – is not a return to the original unity but the fulfilment of difference itself.



We can begin to see how these two basic orientations shape our reading of sexual difference. This heuristic can also help makes sense of two very different responses to the fact of sexual difference. My own sense is that a concern for sexual difference only becomes essentialism when viewed from the perspective of a metaphysics of the past whereby the God given order established in the beginning lays down the norms for us to follow.

From an eschatological perspective, however, difference far from becoming destiny becomes the very condition of transcendence, of matter becoming spirit. The work of creation and salvation is the work of differentiation (and mediation) in which we, in the image of the creator, are called to be co-creators (and co-saviours).

Similar opportunities and caveats apply to issue of the feminine divine. From an eschatological perspective the feminine divine is a symbol that serves to orient women towards an authentic transcendence that is grounded in the particular conditions and finite limits of our existence. It continues the work of creation, differentiation and mediation. And takes its cue, I believe, from the Easter experience itself.

But if the feminine divine lacks this eschatological orientation, or is beholden to a nostalgia for immediacy, it also runs the danger of becoming ensnared by the metaphysics of the past.

[1] Athanasius, On The Incarnation, 54. 3.

[2] Gregory Nazianzen, Letter 101, to Cledonious.

[3] Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord. (New York: Crossroad, 1980)  731.

[4] John Macquarrie, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought. (London: SCM, 1990), 384.

[5] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4. 38. 1. Further, Irenaeus explains: “God had power at the beginning to grant perfection to man; but as the latter was only recently created, he could not possibly have received it, or even if he had received it, could he have contained it, or containing it, could he have retained it.” Against Heresies, 4, 38, 2

[6] David Power argues that in calling Christ’s death a sacrifice a certain violence is done to sacrificial language. “Words that Crack: The Uses of ‘Sacrifice’ in Eucharistic Discourse”, Worship, 53. (1979) 389.

[7] Robert, J. Daly, The Origins of the Christian Doctrine of Sacrifice. (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1978) 138

[8] Lone Fatum, “Image of God and Glory of Man: Women in Pauline Congregations”, in The Image of God: Gender Models in Judaeo-Christian Tradition, ed. Kari Elizabeth Børresen. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995) 78.

[9] Ibid., 79.

[10] Daniel Boyarin describes as Philo as exemplary of “a Hellenistic Jewish cultural koine throughout the eastern Mediterranean”. Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993) 4.

[11] “He that was after the (divine) image was an idea or type or seal, an object of thought (only), incorporeal, neither male nor female, by nature incorruptible.” Philo, “On the Account of the World’s Creation Given by Moses”, para. 134, in The Loeb Classical Libraray: Philo, Vol. 1. (London: Heinemann, 1929) 107.