On Obedience And Subordination In Thomas A Kempis’ Imitatio Christi

It is striking and telling that when C.S. Lewis wished to speak about his belief in the subordination of Jesus Christ to the Father [1] in his book The Four Loves that he sought to ground it not in frequent or detailed biblical citation, but rather by quoting the noted medieval mystic Thomas A Kempis. In this text, to a degree that is seldom seen elsewhere, the distinct and variable translations that exist of this book and the strikingly variant readings that can be taken of its elegant and repetitive Latin text mean that it can be hard to see exactly what part is being taken by Lewis and others who see in the Imitatio Christi (or Imitation of Christ, for speakers of English rather than Latin) a model for the submission on the part of the believer to the inscrutable wisdom of God just as Jesus Christ submitted to Him. Let us therefore quote a few passages that show this subordination and then comment a bit on why they are viewed as being Orthodox.

Before doing so, it is important to state why it would be worthwhile for someone to go through the frustrating task of writing about what people profess to be wisdom even if it is foolishness in the eyes of God and gives one a headache to try to wrap one’s head around given the immense logical and doctrinal inconsistencies and contradictions that are engaged in the explanations and explorations of various religious matters found in the world. To be sure, this is not a task that is profitable on many levels, not least in terms of personal enjoyment. Nevertheless, even where we disagree with the perspective and worldview that someone else has, it is important at least to recognize the standards by which others are judged so that we may know where we are likely to run into trouble with others when we come from the Word of God itself. If, for example, we know that our opponents who lack God’s Spirit and a belief in biblical truth have certain mistaken ideas about God, it is worthwhile to know what those mistaken ideas or so that a bridge can be built between that error and the truth, so that people may be encouraged to walk according to God’s ways, and provoked with the vanity of their present thoughts. Let us never forget that the thoughts of the Imitatio Christi, as is the case with much Hellenistic Christian work, is full of vanity and folly, but rather let us recognize that these thoughts are viewed so highly by many that to neglect to mention them is to let them remain unanswered, which would lead to the assumption that they are unanswerable. For textual purposes, please note that I am quoting from William C. Creasy’s translation of the Imitation of Christ below, published 1989 by Ave Maria Press in Notre Dame, Indiana.

Selection From “Of The Royal Road Of The Holy Cross:”

“No one feels in his heart what Christ felt in his Passion, except the person who suffers as he did. So, the cross is always ready and waits for you everywhere. You cannot escape it no matter where you run, for wherever you go you are burdened with yourself, and wherever you go, there you are. Look up, look down; look out, look in. Everywhere you will find the cross, and you must endure patiently if you wish to have inner peace and gain eternal life.

If you bear your cross willingly, it will carry you and lead you to your desired goal where suffering will end, but that cannot happen here. If you bear your cross unwillingly, you will make a greater burden for yourself—and you must carry it, in any case. If you fling aside one cross, you will certainly find another and, perhaps, a heavier one.

Do you expect to escape what no one has ever avoided? What saint was there in the world without crosses and afflictions? Not even our Lord Jesus Christ spent one hour without the anguish of his Passion as long as he lived. It was necessary that Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead and so enter into his glory. So why do you seek another way, different from the royal road, which is the way of the holy cross?

Christ’s entire life was a cross and a martyrdom, and will you look for rest and happiness? You are deluded if you look for anything other than affliction, for our entire mortal life is surrounded by crosses. And the more we progress in the spiritual life, the heavier our crosses will be, for the pain of our separation from God increases in proportion to our love of God (79).”

Selection From “Of Setting Aside All Created Things That We Might Find The Creator:”

“A person should, therefore, soar beyond every created thing, leave his self-importance completely behind, and stand enrapt to see that you, the Creator of all, have no equal in your creation. And unless one were cut loose from clinging to created things, one could not freely attend to spiritual things. This is why there are so few contemplative men and women today: very few people know how to let everything they do in this world flow from their love for God.

A great grace is needed for this, which may lift the soul and carry it above itself. Unless a person is lifted up in spirit, is cut loose from worldly values, and is wholly united to God, whatever he knows and whatever he has mean nothing. Anyone who considers anything to be great, except the One, the immeasurable and eternal Good, will always be a small person, tied to the earth. Whatever is not God is nothing by comparison and should be recognized as such (122).”

Selection From “How A Lonely Person Should Place Himself In God’s Hands:”

“O just and ever-praiseworthy Father, the hour has come for your servant to be tested. Beloved Father, it is fitting that at this hour your servant should suffer something for you. O Father, ever-worshipped, the hour has come, which from all eternity you knew would arrive, when for a short time your servant would break down and be overwhelmed, though in his heart he would be with you through it all. For a little while he will be ridiculed, humiliated, and brought to nothing in the eyes of other people; he will be crushed with sufferings and weariness. All this will happen so that he may arise with you again in the dawn of a new day and be glorified in heaven.

O holy Father, you have declared it to be so. Such is your will. And since you have ordained it this way, it has come to pass. This is a grace to your friend that he should suffer and be afflicted in this world for love of you, no matter how often, by what means or from what person it comes. Nothing on earth happens without your allowing it to happen and without your knowing about it beforehand (145-146).”


What can be seen about subordinationism from these passages. For one, it is fairly obvious that the author has an abject view of his relationship with his creator, to such a level that is uncomfortable to read. It should be noted that some of this language mirrors, perhaps intentionally, the prayers spoken by Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane before He was taken and crucified. Thus in some way, at least, the imitation of Christ gives believers a vicarious understanding of what it means to submit to the ultimate level of what Jesus Christ suffered, should it be necessary, in that we can extrapolate from our own suffering to what Jesus Christ suffered on our behalf. Even taking into account the author’s mystical desire to identify with Jesus Christ, it is clear that the author is not viewing obedience or subordination in the sense of a formal look at the Godhead, but rather in terms of Jesus’ obedience while on earth and its implications for us.

It is clear, even without wading into very deep waters, why this would be acceptable. Focusing on the Passion is clearly an easy decision to make for meeting any test for Orthodoxy. There is no wading into the difficult waters of the Godhead, areas that the author views as being beyond comprehension and therefore not worth dealing with. Instead there is a focus on the subordination of Jesus’ will to the will of the Father in accepting upon His righteous and blameless shoulders the weight of the burden of all human sin. And in that particular realm there is no doubt that Jesus Christ was subordinate to the Father, and no doubt at all that this subordination and obedience unto death is a model for believers. We may hope that it will not be necessary for us to suffer in such a fashion, but if it is, the decisions of the Lord are true and righteous altogether, and our place is not to demur or to defy but to obey.

Besides the clear placement of obedience in the context of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, where it is entirely unobjectionable, it is here worth noticing as well that a big part of what makes Thomas A Kempis’ discussion such a commonly cited one for Hellenistic Christians who have no interest in leaving themselves open to charges of subordinationism or modalism or semi-Arianism is the fact that it focuses its force on emotional grounds—namely the intensity of the suffering of Jesus Christ on our behalf and of His obedience to the extreme—rather than focusing on questions of rational importance. The question of the precise structure and nature of the Godhead is an intellectual question in the extreme, hard to frame, depending on navigating one’s way through an interpretive minefield. The question of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, and the fact that we may be called upon to suffer as He suffered as a result of being godly and righteous and redeemed in a wicked and rebellious world, is not an intellectual question at all, but a personal question of great emotional power and resonance, and one that by focusing on the essential and core aspects of Christianity avoids running afoul of heresy hunters, at the risk of avoiding certain parts of the Bible, like most of the Gospel of John, where these interpretive minefields exist for good reason. Nevertheless, for those who are not inclined to either delve into difficult biblical areas and whose interests are on the Passion rather than intellectual matters, Thomas a Kempis has chosen an appealing way out of the potential area of trouble.

[1] See, for example:







About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to On Obedience And Subordination In Thomas A Kempis’ Imitatio Christi

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