From the Foundations

Among the more interesting statements in Holy Scripture is found in Rev. 13:8:

All who dwell on earth will worship it [the beast], everyone whose name has not been written in the book of life, of the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world…

That Christ is here described as the Lamb is not at all unusual: the Scriptures use that title for Christ from the time of John the Baptist forward. Indeed, though Christ himself is nowhere quoted as describing Himself as the Lamb of God, it is clear that the Church understood this to be true from its very beginning. He is not only the Lamb, but the Lamb slain. The easiest identity is with that of the Passover Lamb, though there are other lambs of sacrifice. St. Paul makes the connection with Passover in his statement:

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast…

These appellations for Christ have become so commonplace within the Christian world (in hymns such as the Agnus Dei), that we frequently fail to stop and listen to what is being said, or to consider how astounding the title itself is. It is clearly a title that has considered and understood the larger meaning of Christ’s death on the Cross. His death is not a martyrdom, but a sacrifice. It is the Passover (Pascha) in a new and more cosmic dimension.

I can recall pondering St. Paul’s statement that “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” and marveling at the wealth of content conveyed in that simple statement. It forced me to ask myself, “From where did St. Paul get this?” The obvious answer is that it was already a settled part of the Church’s teaching and Tradition. Paul did not find it necessary to argue or prove the point. It is stated, indeed, in order to make a further point.

Revelations does not repeat the mere assertion that Christ is the “Lamb of God.” It goes further and adds that He is the “Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth.” This lifts the event of Christ’s crucifixion from a point within history with a beginning in time and an end in time to the level of an event which transcends time. The Lamb who was slain on Calvary, is also the Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth.

In truth, He is not only the Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth, but also, in so saying, He is also the Lamb Who is slain beyond all time. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Lamb whose slaying is both historical event and eschatological event. Thus there is no time either before the first century nor since, nor yet to come, in which He is not the Lamb Who was slain.

This is a very unique and powerful proclamation. Those who would reduce the sacrifice of Christ into a momentary “once and for all” (based in a mis-reading of Hebrews 9:12), reduce the suffering of Christ into a mere three hours, His sacrifice into something which seems less than its fullness and its greatness. The witness of Scripture is otherwise. The Lamb who is slain for us, has been slain from before creation, and remains the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. As long as we suffer, He suffers. He is the Lamb always and for all.

This does not diminish the efficacy of His sacrifice: it magnifies the measure of the love of God.

There are many difficulties when Christians begin doing theology and introduce historical time into the mix. The sacrifice of Christ does not follow the sacrifices of the Old Testament (as their mere fulfillment). It precedes them. They are but its type and shadow. The reality both precedes them and comes after them for it was always the greater.

There never was suffering or sin on the earth that Christ has not taken upon Himself, though it was not always known to those who were suffering or sinning. None of those who have been born on earth were ever reduced to a category (“those who have not known Christ”). A human being is not able to be confined to a category. The love of God makes such confinements impossible. Each suffering, each sin, is infinitely borne by the Crucified Lamb, for all time and before all time.

Modern Christianity is afflicted with historical consciousness – it is a by-product of our modern philosophy. All things are simply discreet moments within the timeline of history. It is useful for teaching history to the young – but it is foolishness for adults. We should know better.

Simplistic and literalistic approaches to history simplify things for those who would prefer not to think. For the fundamentalist Christian, things are true because they happened in a literal, historical manner; there is no mystery within his view of history. By the same token, modernists (believers and unbelievers) accept things only according to their supposes historical veracity. Thus their concern is determining what “actually” happened (as though such could ever be determined). For some, historical (archeological, etc.) evidence is convincing and productive of “faith.” For others, history excludes the claims of the gospel. Their lives have risen above the claims of Christ, having relegated Him to the dustbin of history.

The faith of the Church and of the Fathers, transcends history. The modern historical perspective is a diminution of human thought – a shrinking of human understanding to its least possible meaning or significance. Nothing stretches beyond itself – nothing carries the irony or allegory of multiple meaning. The world has become flat and two-dimensional. It is the reduction of secularism to the level of the utterly banal.

The richness of the Scripture sees and understands Christ in terms that explode human understanding. The “Lamb” is slain even before the foundations of the earth. How can we comprehend such a claim? How can we conceive of His suffering on behalf of all and for all?

This explosion is the invitation to the human heart to be “enlarged” in the words of St. Paul. Dare we allow ourselves to be ravished by such a fullness? It will rob us of words and even understanding. It invites us into an understanding that itself belongs not to a specific time, but to the ages.

It is the sacrifice of this Lamb that we approach in the feast of Pascha that draws near. It is both invitation to salvation – but a salvation that invites to step outside of every limitation which we have known.

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast.

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26 Responses to “From the Foundations”

  1. Yannis Says:

    I see the point of your post, which is very important indeed – no doubt about it.

    The missing link, imo, between the historical event and the event that transcends time, is that the latter is everpresent in the inner world of man, that contains at once both – the tempral and the everlasting.

    This is unfortunately not always made apparent by clerics and teh Church at large, including Orthodox clerics and the Orthodox Church. Many ferrociously cling to the exoteric (outward) aspects (the historical manifestation) to the point of denying the very existence of the esoteric (inner) aspects (the everlasting principle) contained therein outside the exoteric ones.
    In my view – at least at present – there is somewhere asignificant mistake in this attitude. For example, someone could say to counter your post that there is even less evidence to the claim for Christ being sacrificed from the beginning of creation than there is for his earthly ministry, and hence he would find it difficult to see why its true or how its true.
    However the means for such a “proof” are infact within each man, and hence are far less vague than most non-believers and probably quite a few believers think or may think.

    In my opinion its monasticism that has played a very important part in saving Orthodoxy from this rift that happened big time in the western branches of the Church as in monasteries the outward (exoteric) aspects of religion are thoroughly made one with the internal (esoteric) ones and hence the split is cured.
    No doubt that very many believers are troubled with it though because they miss this connection, and i think that it is or it should be, especially given the times we live in, part of the duty of the priesthood to make it apparent.

    Thank you for the post.

  2. mike Says:

    …judging by the rate of comments i must not be the only one wrestling with this one..:)….for me this is one of those rare outstanding meditations that gently nudges you out of “The Matrix’ of common/ordinary thinking into a new dimension of thought that is outside the manmade constraints of measured time..and..in a manner of speaking..places us hidden within Christ before the foundations of the world ..ive always thought of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice as an event in recorded time and history..much as i do with my own life..but this post “explodes” that understanding and in a sense repositions or prefigures our souls within the eternal mind/breath of God since before time itself…….”before i formed thee in thy mothers womb i knew you” …..and redeemed you ?

  3. fatherstephen Says:

    Mike,
    It obviously doesn’t stir up much controversy – but I think you are correct in your observations. What we see evidenced in the Scripture’s treatment of the Cross is a true and proper Eschatology (doctrine of the last things). The common version is simply an end of chronological time, but this certainly fails to do justice to Scripture and to the Tradition. There are a number of articles I’ve done on the general topic. Search on the word eschatological on the search bar on the front page of the blog. You might find a number of the articles of interest. I also have given a fair amount of space to the topic in my book.

  4. Sibyl Says:

    The Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth…sounds a continual event that occurs inside time, outside, above, and throughout time, including the ‘end times’ – an Eternal event, not just an Eschatological one, perhaps?

  5. Sam Says:

    There might be a typo in your scripture verse, father.

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    To say “eternal” probably says more than we can say. Christ is Alpha and Omega, Beggining and End – all of which are often put together as “Eschatological” beyond time.

    But the Lamb slain ultimately has to do with His creation – thus it would not normally be read back as eternal. God does not eternally create the world, for instance.

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    Thanks Sam!

  8. Rebecca Says:

    To me, this is yet another reason why Calvinism is so difficult and wrong. It absolutely puts the Triune and Eternal God within our human understanding of knowledge and time. How can we possibly comprehend what all this means other than to be grateful He is so far beyond us. How great a Salvation!

  9. Bill Says:

    Reminds me of Ephesians…”With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

    I think this ‘gathering up’ extends outward from the cross into all time and space.

  10. zeitungzeid Says:

    I would think, dear Yannis, that Christ’s sacrifice cannot be grasped at all from the exoteric standpoint. I too have been guilty of this error. All human knowledge is relational, with the Person of Christ being both start and end point.

  11. Yannis Says:

    Hello zeitungzeid,
    imo the exoteric plays certainly an important role, just its not the end in itself. It would be very difficult, if not outright impossible, for man to grasp the formless starting from it (the formless) – its best to start from the concrete and when the time comes trancsend it to reach the formless that was behind the concrete all the while.

    The mistake is as you say staying in the concrete/exoteric for good and never making the step forward.

    In such cases, even the life giving Cross of the Lord – a profound and very striking symbol both in the metaphysical/inner, religious and anthropological/sociological sense – can be turned into a symbol of earthly power that hides the lust of those that crave it rather than the nexus where Holy Death (to the ego/flesh) acts as doorway to Holy Life (to our true selves/the Kingdom) It actually is.

    Regards

  12. zeitungzeid Says:

    To place the cross in the same category as “symbol” risks compounding error. Better it be disregarded than confused with something else. This I believe is what some have attempted to do.

    Yannis, thank you for your reflection.

  13. fatherstephen Says:

    Brothers, (Zeitungzeid and Yannis)
    There is a range of error associated with the exoteric/esoteric distinction (from an Orthodox point of view) and I would prefer that such discussions take place somewhere other than this site. Forgive me.

  14. Yannis Says:

    Certainly, F.Stephen.

    Could you expand on the error in principle? I’d be very interested to hear it, and i absolutely promise not to argue at all : ) If you don;t want its ok, i understand.

    Thanks

  15. Yannis Says:

    Actually, its ok F.Stephen, i call off my request – there is no need on my account to expand on the matter. Thank you regardless.

  16. fatherstephen Says:

    The heart of the error is the use made by Jim Cutsinger (American) and others, who use “esoteric” to mean the “true inner meaning of something” versus “exoteric” to mean “the changeable outward form things take.” Cutsinger uses this to argue that there is an esoteric truth shared by all religions, and the exoteric forms (such as Christianity and Orthodoxy) are only forms. This is a modern version of an ancient variety of gnosticism.

    I heard a debate between Dr. Cutsinger and Met. Kallistos Ware on the topic (Cutsinger had been a student of Ware’s). And Met. Kallistos, very kindly, very gently, and in a very kind Oxford manner, simply told him he was wrong.

    The very heart of Orthodoxy, in light of the incarnation, would argue that the outward and inner should be in conformity – thus our insistence on certain aspects and form of the liturgy that must not change.

    That’s sort of it in a nutshell.

  17. Yannis Says:

    Any Christian exclusivist, like yourself, would – understandably – be uncomfortable in admiting that the essence of something is more than its manifestation, as then he’d have to admit that the special significance of the Incarnation is in fact present in more things than just the Incarnation. St Basil’s, if i remember correctly, liturgy says “reveal bread and wine as the body and blood of JC” instead of transform.

    Exclusivism is one of the reasons why so many people are blind to the Truth of religion – genuine metaphysics are for the most part substituted with exclusivist pious sentimentalisms that require from adherents to uncritically conform instead of critically assert what they are presented with. Christianity is no exception. Ironically it uses Platonist and Plotinist wittings to set up its theology which it then it actually officially rejects (the “Orthodox view point” won’t have them in any way although it uses them big time). Exclusivism is essentially a large part of the reason why so many people, including at times yourself, cannot tell the religious forest for the trees.

    Resorting to other’s critical ability and views – no matter how famous or widely well regarded – in forming up your own isn’t exactly being true to your intuition and self. But you being a priest and speaking ex-ufficio and in your blog there is no way and no point for arguing this here.

    Incidentally hardline communists and christians often honor the follower of the mainline “point of view”(which as you should know better than me is far more in flux and dynamic than any ex-ufficio person would like to admit) no matter how unworthy and denounce any diverging from it no matter how worthy. In that sense they unfortunately have oftenimes more in common than they think or they like to think.

    If you happen to see me as a “mole” of sorts you lose, because i’m not. I stepped down from my question as per your original request but in a nutshell, seeing that you won’t, if you are bold enough to accept a challenge then please be bold enough to accept a reply.

    Regards

    PS There is no need to call me brother and ask forgiveness when you want to exercise your authority in your own blog. I certainly appreciate your consideration but being frank is best.

  18. fatherstephen Says:

    Yannis,
    In brief, I do not think it is possible to know anything “esoteric” apart from its form “exoteric.” It is impossible to know “human nature” except as it is revealed to us in the persons we encounter.

    My experience is that non-exclusivists have mostly themselves as their own authority and little that offers a correction for delusion. I am a priest, and as such I try never to contradict what has been given to me. A servant is not greater than his Master. And without “exclusivity” I’m not sure that anyone has a Master other than himself (the ego).

  19. Christian Time « Travelling Mercies Says:

    […] Okay, enough of my brilliant theological insights While writing this, it occurred to me that Fr. Stephen Freeman had probably written something on this too, and he had! Much better than me, though the passage he discusses is drawn from Revelations 13:8, “the Lamb who was slain from the foundations of the world,” which is both another mention of foundations, and a conundrum — when was Jesus slain? Why couldn’t the NT writers been more co-ordinated and systematic in their theology and description of the when of this saving sacrifice? Anyway, you can find Fr. Stephen’s post here. […]

  20. Will Says:

    A very late post Fr Stephen but a question I’m compelled to ask. Would it be like praying for an ancestor, as in the Communion of Saints–and God, existing outside of time, could take that prayer and make it work during the lifetime of the ancestor–not only in Purgatory or Heaven? The change and or Blessing from God for that ancestor, in their lifetime, came about because you are now praying for them and/or their soul, wherever it might be?

  21. fatherstephen Says:

    Will,
    Orthodoxy would not include purgatory as among the possibilities – generally – I agree with your thoughts. We exist in a communion of prayer, that is the communion in the life of God. It is greater than time. It’s mysteries are largely unknown to us – but I think that “linear” time lines, when applied to our life with God are pretty useless, except to create boundaries that do not exist.

    We certainly believe that Christ’s death on the cross was salvific for those who “came before him.” Thus grace does not have such limits. Ultimately, I think Christ gathers all things unto Himself in His “highly-priestly” prayer in John’s gospel – a priesthood displayed on the Cross – but also an eternal Priesthood. It is Christ’s prayer in which we all participate – indeed it could possibly be said that there is only the one prayer. Nevertheless, His prayer clearly stretches outward to include all (everywhere and always). Why should we pray any other way?

  22. Will Says:

    Thanks for the response. My father-in-law and I have been having a similar discussion; he is compiling a very comprehensive account of his ancestors.

  23. PJ Says:

    Father,

    I know this is a very old post, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the Cross lately. I read St. Paul’s letters and I find myself … baffled. I simply can’t wrap my head around what it means to be saved by Christ’s “blood.” I realize that’s a Hebraism for “life,” but even so — How are we saved by the sacrifice of His life? This sort of post helps, but I’m still struggling.

    Was the Cross necessary, or was it just that God chose this particular path on account of its debasing and humiliating nature, so as to provide a model for mankind? Was the power in the self-sacrifice or in the actual death? Both? What is the salvific power of the resurrection, and what is its relationship to the Cross?

    Oi…

  24. fatherstephen Says:

    PJ,
    I approach this question with the prior understanding that the enemy is death. Death in its larger sense of a movement towards non-being, a threat to true existence, and thus a diminishing of my relationship with God (all of that to me is under the heading of “sin, death and hell”).

    With that in mind, our union, communion, participation in Christ is the heart of our salvation. He becomes what we are (though without personal sin, He takes upon Himself our sin). Christ unites Himself to us, entering sin, death, hell, etc. We are united with Him through His incarnation and our Baptism. In uniting ourselves to Him, we entering sin, death, hell with Him, are emerge in righteousness, life and paradise.

    The Cross? It is voluntary (self-sacrifice) but it is also death. The power is in His resurrection.

    I think that we can say that the path of the Cross is the particular path which God accepted, but it was always accepted (from before creation). Thus it is prefigured even in the Garden.

    Those who tend to see sacrifice in terms of a payment have created many problems for our understanding. They have omitted the role of sacrifice as a proper substitute. It is not that the sacrifice takes my place so that I don’t have to be sacrificed. Rather, in the sacrifice I, too, am sacrificed. Christ does not die so that I don’t have to. Christ dies so that I can die in Him. That changes the nature of death. Death is no longer the threat of non-being but the gate of paradise.

    I can say much more…

  25. PJ Says:

    That helps. Hmm … I don’t know … I often find myself overwhelmed by St. Paul’s writing. I am much more at home with St. John and the Gospels. Not that I don’t love the Apostle, especially I and II Corinthians, Ephesians, Romans, and I Timothy. It’s just that his letters are so theologically rich, so dense with mystical insights. As you say, one could spend an entire lifetime studying a single sentence — a single phrase, even. I myself am always struck by:

    “14 For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,

    15 Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named,

    16 That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man;

    17 That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love,

    18 May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height;

    19 And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God” (Ephesians 3:14-19).

  26. Father Stephen Says:

    He writes from within the mystery.

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