From Corinth to Hegel, on the Subjection of Jesus Christ

St. Paul teaches us what it means for the Son to be subject to the Father and God to be ‘all in all.’

The ‘Christ the King’ statue in Świebodzin, Poland
The ‘Christ the King’ statue in Świebodzin, Poland (photo: Johannes M. Graf / Shutterstock)

The second reading for the feast of Christ the King last Sunday is striking for a few reasons. One would be remiss not to note, first, that it is the source for two pieces from Handel’s Messiah — one a lovely meditative air that also draws on Job 19 and the other a dramatic musical semi-joke of which Haydn himself could be proud.

But the second reason is the odd phrase that St. Paul uses at the end of the passage, when he writes that Christ, having “put all his enemies under his feet” and destroyed “the last enemy” death, “himself will also be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

A modern reader of a certain Hegelian twist (and Hegel-influenced heterodox Christian thinkers, including arguably Karl Rahner and process theists) might read “God all in all” as confirmation of their evolving and immanent god images.

The Hegelian approach to Christianity tended to treat more orthodox or traditional Christian views of the divine, in which God is distinct from human beings, as passé. Man serving God, in this Hegelian view, was like a slave serving a master — a universal phase through which humanity goes, to be sure. But history will inevitably see to the master’s overthrow — politically through means as varied as constitutionalism or Marxism, and theologically through the rise of atheism.

Of course, for a Hegelian, the atheist antithesis to servile theism must eventually give way to a synthesis of theism and atheism, in which God is no longer distinct but becomes located in some immanent and indefinable union with humanity, as in 21st-century pantheism or the more subtle theology of Teilhard de Chardin. All things becoming one in Christ, Christ being one with the Father, and God eventually being “all in all” does, indeed, bear a superficial resemblance to this Hegelian approach to theology.

But there are two good reasons for thinking that St. Paul was no Hegelian here, puzzling as the “subjection” language might be.

In the first place, St. Paul would have been quite familiar with the subjection mythologies of the pagans, in which one god after another took over, the son supplanting the father, and so forth. In Greek mythology, for example, everything began when Uranus the Sky-Father and Gaia the Earth-Mother produced offspring; Uranus, however, turns out to be a tyrannical sort of father-god and is eventually overthrown by his son Kronos, who once again turns out to be a bad sort, and is overthrown in turn by his son Zeus, who is not much better, though about as good as most Greek gods were liable to get. 

Similar succession myths can be found in a variety of pre- and post-Christian sources, up to and including recent novels like Scott Hawkins’s dark fantasy The Library at Mount Char.

The Corinthians to whom St. Paul writes, certainly, would have been familiar with this theme of one god supplanting or consuming another — a mythological preview, if you will, of Hegel’s thesis-antithesis-synthesis.

But if St. Paul had wanted to bring in this theme, would he not have made explicit precisely how the pagan view of the divine was accurate, as well as where it was lacking? This, after all, is what he does when he brings in natural law in his letter to the Romans, and when he preaches on the unknown god of the Greeks in Acts 17. St. Paul is generally clear when he is drawing on pagan thought, and where the lines between it and Christian thinking are.

A second reason for being suspicious of any process-based interpretation of the Son’s unity with the Father and “God [being] all in all” is, of course, that St. Paul explicitly avoids the pagan (and Hegelian) version of divine conquest: Christ overcomes every earthly sovereignty, from brief petty human kingdoms to the most humanity-besetting problems, even up to death itself — but the Father is not his last stop on the way to universal rule. The Father is — just that — the Son’s beloved Father; and the Son’s conquest of all things is only so that he may return to be “subject” to the Father.

God will be all in all not because God has evolved or changed or grown more self-aware or been successively supplanted by gradually better and more inclusive gods. Rather “God … all in all” is the returning of all things to the God who made them, and even the uncreated Son returning to be subject to the Father who begot him.

Still, that word “subject” sticks. “Subject” by itself brings to mind unpleasant-to-our-modern-minds associations of peasants tossed under chariot wheels and the like; perhaps it is helpful to recall Latin etymology. Here “subject” indeed means, literally, “thrown under” or “brought under,” since it comes from the Latin prefix sub (under) and the verb jacere (to throw). A person can, of course, be “brought under” or even thrown under all the king’s horses literally and figuratively both — no pleasant experience.

But St. Paul suggests something rather different: the subjection in St. Paul is more like that of the lover who, having conquered the tribulations of a day pushing paper or digging ditches or nailing up drywall, throws himself (sometimes literally, always figuratively) at his beloved’s feet. The grammar leaves it open: “the Son himself will also be subjected.” But we Christians know how it is: the Father who “subjected everything to [the Son]” will receive everything back once it is made new.

Perhaps it is the Christmas (pardon, the Advent) spirit hanging about already, but I like to imagine a reverse sort of St. Christopher here, where Jesus carries me on his back — heaven knows we all need that from time to time. And since there are a lot of us in his mystical body, perhaps we are all huddled up together in his cloak, which is knotted over his shoulder like the little handkerchief packs that boys running away from (or back to) home are supposed to carry. Or are we not rather like toys in the sack on the back of a certain saint supposed at this time of year to travel about between heaven and earth?

And what image to follow that with I don’t quite know, when the Son gets back to the place he came from with the bundle of former misfits remade, and throws himself at the feet of the Father, and the Father raises him up — I don’t quite know. The journey has its metaphors, but there is no proper image for God all-in-all, because eyes have not seen it. We only know, because our end is promised to be better even than our beginning, that it will be “very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Cardinal-elect Víctor Manuel Fernández was appointed by Pope Francis on July 1, 2023, to become the next prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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