The Cruciform Human

cimabueIn my March lecture in San Francisco, I made an assertion that is worth isolating for an article. That assertion is that we are created in the image of the Crucified Christ, and that this is essential in understanding what it means to be human. I have been asked where I got such an idea. The most simple answer is: the Scriptures.

Arguably, the first reference to the Crucified Christ occurs in Rev. 13:5.

All who dwell on the earth will worship [the Beast], whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. (Rev 13:8)

The Lamb, slain from the foundation of the cosmos (τοῦ ἐσφαγμένου ἀπὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου), is St. John’s reference to the pre-existent Christ. This is easily familiar from his description in the gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. (Joh 1:2-3)

However, in Revelation, the Word who exists before all of creation (through whom all things were made) is depicted as the slain Lamb. It is startling in what it suggests. Christ is not simply the One who will be incarnate in history and be slain for the salvation of the world, but is already the One who is slain even before the world is created.

Those who are married to literalism should listen quietly. This is obviously not a claim that Christ was somehow already crucified in time before He was crucified in time. Rather, it is a claim concerning the timeless Christ. The Crucifixion is not a distortion of the eternal Word of God, but a revelation of the truth of the eternal Word of God.

In Genesis 2, we have the story of the creation of woman. In it, God causes a deep sleep to come on the man, and He removes a rib from the man’s side, forms the woman and closes the man’s side. The Fathers consistently saw in this an image of the wounding of Christ’s side on the Cross, from which flowed blood and water (Eucharist and Baptism), being the birth of His bride, the Church. It is deeply part of the imagery of Christ as the Bridegroom, and the Church as His Bride. It is worth noting, however, that this “wounding” of Adam in Genesis 2 occurs before the Fall. It is not something that is done on account of the Fall. And, even more to the point, in Genesis 1, where the description of human creation is recounted, both male and female are mentioned.

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (Gen 1:26-27 NKJ)

However, as both accounts are seen together (as they normally are in the Tradition), the woman of Genesis 1, presumes the “wounded” Adam of Genesis 2. “In the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” What is this image according to which He created them (“wounded” man and “side-born” woman)? It is obviously St. John’s slain Lamb, the Crucified Christ.

This in no way contradicts Scripture. Rather, it explicates Scripture. But even more than that, it unmasks a common mistake and faulty assumption made by many (if not most). That common mistake is to see the Crucifixion as simply a moment in history, perhaps foreshadowed in various Old Testament figures. This pure historicization of the Cross fails to account for the language of St. John. And in doing this, it fails to rightly understand what it means to be truly human.

St. Paul says to the Corinthians:

For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. (1Co 2:2)

In saying this he does not mean that he is restricting himself to speaking about the historical Crucifixion and its role in salvation. Indeed, in the very passage where he makes this declaration, his topic is not the historical crucifixion but his own weakness and lack of excellence.

And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1Co 2:1-5)

He had earlier declared:

but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1Co 1:23-24)

This crucified Christ is the same Wisdom through which God has made all things (Ps. 104:24). All of this pushes us towards the mystery of the Cross and the fullness of its meaning for existence. Reducing the Cross and Christ’s death to mere atonement, a Divine arrangement to rescue man from his tragic, sinful predicament, is just that: a reduction. Of course, the Cross is all of that – but everything more. If the Crucified Christ is the Wisdom through which God created all things, then the Cross is also, somehow, at the center and meaning of all things. The Cross alone reveals things to be what they truly are.

It is in the light of this that we understand that being conformed to the image of the Crucified is the fulfillment of our true humanity and not simply a moral effort:

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death, even the death of the cross. (Phi 2:5-8)

The cruciform human is the true human. Kenosis is theosis.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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34 responses to “The Cruciform Human”

  1. Fr. Patrick Avatar
    Fr. Patrick

    Does this apply only to the human nature, as a creaturely expression or mode of agape? Does this opening of Adam’s side then serve as the precursor to the testing of Adam’s self-sacrificial love for his wife, so that he fails to be truly himself (created in the image of Christ), and so fails to grow in God’s likeness? And how does this relate also to the uniqueness of each person as a reflection of God’s image, where the life of all is intended to be cruciform, yet in unique ways?

  2. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    Fr Stephen, Your very last sentence so short in words, is probably the most profound statement I have read in quite sometime. Death to Self looms very large in this idea and is truly the center of our salvation. Sin emerges from the Self and only by death to Self can we be like Him. I have never seen kenosis linked to theosis like this before, but it is Truth.

  3. Joel Williams Avatar
    Joel Williams

    I enjoy your writing and I enjoy your oral presentation of those writings. For me it’s like the old 1+1=3, just saying.

  4. Christopher Avatar

    Fr. Patrick,

    Seems like your first question might (I say might – I really don’t know) a from of modalism – as if only Christ’s human nature is cruciform, and his divine nature is not. Is the “divine nature” also not crucified on the Cross, yet death of course could not hold such a nature?

    Your third question I think answers the first part (before first comma) with the second part (after first comma).

  5. Dino Avatar

    The parable of the Prodigal Son from the outset reveals to us the the Father’s response to the son’s demands, as one of the most generous sacrificial acts of the Gospel.
    In fact this act is comparable only to the Crucifixion, having the same ‘kenotic’ character, the same “self-emptying”. This is because the Father of the parable accepts to be behaved towards (by His children) as if He is already dead. Their relationship implies, on the part of the son, this perception of the Father’s death, He can already be inherited and forgotten. This means for the son that he has been granted a perfect and absolute freedom of self-determination towards his Father: freedom to act as if there were no longer a Father for him; freedom to behave towards the One Who begot him as if He is nothing.
    This is the freedom given by God to man in his creation. He left him free to behave as if He did not exist, as if He, the Creator, were dead. Man can kill his God, even if this means that Man manages to make his ‘paradise’ into his very own hell, or -if worded differently- Man mistakes hell as a paradise. God made children that will eventually self-determine towards Him like gods.
    In this respect the creation of man contains withinit the Cross right from the start. The creation of man by God, as an act of emptying and self-offering, includes the death of God on the Cross. The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8) went ahead and created entities whose salvation can (terrifyingly) eternally be either afirmed or denied by themselves alone – in that particular capacity of theirs: “gods”…

  6. Byron Avatar

    “What is this image according to which He created them (“wounded” man and “side-born” woman)? It is obviously St. John’s slain Lamb, the Crucified Christ.”

    I admit to being a little lost here; how is this “obviously” St. John’s slain Lamb? I’m not making, what is probably a very clear connection…. Someone help me out a bit, please!

  7. davidp Avatar

    Two good studies on the book of Revelation that I have gone through are: Homilies on the Bk of the Revelation by Arch Athanasios Mitilinaios (audio & book): and St Andrew, Archbishop of Caesarea Cappadocia (lived 563-637). This latter is in book form and analyzed by Dr Jeannie Constantinou. Both are online.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    My “obviously” is because this is the only description we are given in Scripture of the Christ before Creation. Also, it is “obviously” so, because the image of Adam and Eve, is of “wounded Adam” and “side-birthed Eve” i.e. the Crucified Christ and His Bride.

  9. Greg Avatar

    The Orthodox writers who have shaped my understanding the most along these lines are certainly Frs. Behr and Zaccharias, but I was intrigued to read some years ago a protestant academic by the name of Michael Gorman – Inhabiting the Cruciform God. In many respects, he argues that Paul’s whole theology can be summed up in the idea of kenosis as theosis, drawing on the texts alone (virtually no interaction with the Fathers): while it is not a methodological approach I would endorse, much of what he draws out seems spot on.

  10. Byron Avatar

    Many thanks for clearing that up for me, Father! May I ask though: are we not also given description of Christ as the pre-existing Word in Scripture? Or am I thinking incorrectly concerning this?

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Elder Sophrony draws an explicit identity between the kenosis of the Son towards the Father (self-emptying), as well as the Father’s “pouring forth His being into the Son,” as kenosis. Thus he says that the right understanding of Trinitarian relation is kenotic (self-emptying). I think this is right, but has not at all always been made explicit in writings concerning the Trinity.

    It is clearly there in St. John’s gospel. I think it is present in St. Paul as well.

    It is, I think, foundational in understanding the Elder Sophrony. Which would extend to Fr. Zacharias (his chief interpreter), and many others. The theological influence of Essex in the English-speaking world, as well as other places, is best found very much in this understanding. Fr. John Behr, may be Oxford trained, but has his own history with Essex as well.

    It has come to be primary for me.

  12. Michael Avatar

    Father bless,

    Thank you so much for elaborating on this. The only thing I can say is a confessional AMEN and a digital regurgitation;

    “The Crucifixion is not a distortion of the eternal Word of God, but a revelation of the truth of the eternal Word of God.”

    “…the Cross is also, somehow, at the center and meaning of all things. The Cross alone reveals things to be what they truly are.”

    “Reducing the Cross and Christ’s death to mere atonement, a Divine arrangement to rescue man from his tragic, sinful predicament, is just that: a reduction.”

    “It is in the light of this that we understand that being conformed to the image of the Crucified is the fulfillment of our true humanity and not simply a moral effort”

    “The cruciform human is the true human. Kenosis is theosis.”

  13. Michael Avatar

    More truth received and received and regurgitated! Spot on Dino, Thank you!

    “God made children that will eventually self-determine towards Him like gods.”

    “The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8) went ahead and created entities whose salvation can (terrifyingly) eternally be either afirmed or denied by themselves alone – in that particular capacity of theirs: “gods”…”

  14. Aaron Avatar

    I must confess I never saw the nature of the Church as the bride of Christ and “flesh of his flesh” in genesis in the way it was just made completely luminous.

    I’ll be chewing on this in amazement for some time, no doubt, and all of its interconnected glory.


  15. David Armstrong Avatar
    David Armstrong

    If you’ve not already, Fr. Stephen, you need to read Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis by Michael J. Gorman.

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There are also numerous connections to human marriage. Question: does the slain Christ suffer or is that only for the Incarnate?

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It would depend on what we mean by “suffering.” Not suffering as pain and death.

  18. Peter Avatar

    Father, as per a comment of yours in a recent thread, may we infer that this is the first of what will be a series of posts (and perhaps eventually a book?) articulating the anthropology underlying conjugal marriage?

  19. marios Avatar

    great site, thanks

  20. Michael Avatar

    Thanks for the tip on the Revelation audio! I drive 3 hours each day in traffic and good Orthodox audio is hard to find. I downloaded the whole file to my MP3 and am now good to go, thanks so much.

  21. Fr. Patrick Avatar
    Fr. Patrick


    I should have said “according to His human nature.” I am asking whether what He did was done by His Person according to the ability of His human nature, as enabled by the divine nature communicating divine power to His human nature in the Personal Union, or whether it was also done by His Person “according to” the attributes of His divine nature also in such a way that the divine nature is doing God’s proper work, so to speak. And, if so, what this fully means, given God’s impassibility. Is that clearer, or even more obscure?

  22. Michael Avatar

    Fr. Patrick?
    From St. Peter the Apostle Orthodox?

  23. Wayne Avatar

    Simply beautiful…

  24. Alec Brooks Avatar
    Alec Brooks

    Excellent word. To reduce the cross, as so much theology does, to simply something God does to redeem us rather than as revealing who God is is to truncate the Gospel and to miss so much of what it means for us to be made in the image of this God. The N.T. scholar, Michael Gorman, makes this point most clearly in his writings on the Cruciform God and his desire for a cruciform people.

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Patrick,
    Ah, I see it now. The question of the Divine impassibility (God, by nature, does not suffer). I think we have to state this in a way (the Lamb Slain from the foundation of the cosmos) that does not violate the Divine Impassibility, but we should also understand, as Elder Sophrony teaches very clearly, that the Person of the Trinity are kenotic, and that kenosis does not apply only to the Incarnate Christ. He speaks of the Son’s “self-emptying love of the Father” from all eternity, etc.

    Thus, what the eternal Word of God does as the Incarnate Son of God is perfectly consistent.

  26. lilium45 Avatar

    Wonderful! Glory be to God! thank you reverend father!

  27. Panayiota Avatar

    The words Agia Sophia take on their true meaning when I read this.

  28. Panayiota Avatar

    Thank you for your beautiful comment on the “Prodigal Son”.

  29. Tom (aka Volkmar) Avatar

    Very enlightening, Father.

    Robert Capon held much the same perspective as relates to “The Lamb, slain from the foundation of the cosmos.” He calls this “the mystery of Christ”.

  30. Michael Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I also loved what you had to say about bearing shame and that it is our shame that saves us. I loved your statement that in confession we should feel a little ashamed. Very insightful and helpful.

  31. Marie Eliades Avatar

    This blog was written on May 23, 2015 exactly nine years to the day after the repose of +Elder Athanasios Mitilinaios, which assures me that he is “keeping his eye on things”. May his memory be eternal! The Elder spoke the most grounded and beautiful words of our days on hundreds of topics but most especially in his 104 – one hour lessons on the Revelation over the course of 4 years (in Larisa, Greece). We at Zoë Press are grateful to have published volume 2 of his homilies in 2014 (Revelation – The Seven Seals) and volume 3 (Revelation – The Seven Trumpets) should go to press in a few weeks. God willing, there will be two more books to complete the series. Father, thank you for your work!!!

  32. Dino Avatar

    Indeed! The Elder spoke the most grounded words on the topic!

  33. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen! So many more things in the Scripture make sense.

  34. Christina Chase Avatar

    To this beautiful piece, Fr. Stephen, I say Yes!

    I’ve often pondered upon the impassability of God…. Of course, the Divine does not suffer bodily or psychological pain, and does not suffer death. But… God loves. And what is true love without the willingness to suffer for the sake of the Beloved?

    When I gaze upon the Crucified Christ, I see perfect love. For love is the gift of self. We are made by love, in order to love, for love… Love that is perfectly willing to sacrifice self for the beloved. This is the image in which we are created, the image of love. For, it is only in giving ourselves away to the other (love) that we are found. Is there any greater image of love than Christ Crucified?

    My own human form is twisted and deformed, I am weakened to immobility; far too thin, “I can count all my bones.” This is suffering, it’s true. There was a time when my suffering would have been seen as a punishment or chastisement from God for my sins or the sins of my parents. With his many great miracles performed on earth, Jesus Christ made it clear that this is not how God works.

    Not all suffering is punishment. When one is willing to suffer for another, then suffering is an act of love. This is Christ Crucified… And, this is me, one tiny human, as I am created to be. I am most willing to suffer what I suffer in order to be the person that God created me to be. Loving God with my whole heart, I am willing to love Him through my littleness, my brokenness, my powerlessness. I have no greatness in physical strength or beauty. I have no power in health or ability. Small, weak, disabled, I am seen as all the greater, stronger, wiser when I love as Christ loves, when I emulate Christ Crucified. Love shines most brightly through the gift of self-sacrifice – and I am willing. This is the calling of every human being. This is, indeed, the image in which each one of us is made.

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