The Great Panagia (Our Lady of the Sign)
Finitum (non) Capax Infiniti
Finitum non capax infiniti: the finite cannot contain the infinite. This is the argument of the Reformed (Calvinist) confession against the idea that the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ is present in the Eucharistic bread and wine. The Lutheran position states finitim capax infiniti: the finite can contain the infinite — that god is everywhere present, but makes Himself known only where and how He wills. The theological shorthand for this argument is (non) capax, meaning it is a question of whether the infinite God who is everywhere present and filling all things can also be locally and bodily present in the bread and wine.
The source of this disagreement is Aristotle: specifically, the application of Aristotle’s philosophic speculation to theology. In Book 3 of Aristotle’s Physics, he writes: “the infinite body will obviously prevail over and annihilate the finite body.” Following Aristotelian logic, the finite cannot contain the infinite. This means the Son of God cannot be contained by the bread and wine.
If we accept the argument that the infinite God cannot be contained in the bread and the wine, we must extend this argument further to encompass both the Incarnation and the person of Jesus Christ. If the infinite Son of God cannot be present in the bread and wine, how then can the infinite Son of God be present in Mary’s womb? If the finite cannot contain the infinite, then how can Christ be fully God and fully man?
Some Protestants deal with the problem through Kenotic Theology, which is derived from the Carmen Christi, or the Hymn to Christ.
Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Ph 2:6-11)
In Kenotic Theology, the passage from Philippians 2 is taken to mean the kenosis (or self-emptying) of the Son of God had to do with the Son of God emptying Himself of his divinity so as to fit within the confines of the human body. Kenotic Theology is contradicted by the Apostle Paul, who writes: “For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Co 2:9). Clearly we cannot accept any diminution in the divinity of the Son of God, for then the fullness of the Godhead would not be present in Jesus Christ.
In 451 A.D., the Fourth Ecumenical Council was called to settle disputes as to the relationship of the divine and human natures in Jesus Christ. They settled the issue as follows:
Following the holy Fathers we teach with one voice that the Son [of God] and our Lord Jesus Christ is to be confessed as one and the same [Person], that he is perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, very God and very man, of a reasonable soul and [human] body consisting, consubstantial with the Father as touching his Godhead, and consubstantial with us as touching his manhood; made in all things like unto us, sin only excepted; begotten of his Father before the worlds according to his Godhead; but in these last days for us men and for our salvation born [into the world] of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God according to his manhood. This one and the same Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son [of God] must be confessed to be in two natures, unconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparably [united], and that without the distinction of natures being taken away by such union, but rather the peculiar property of each nature being preserved and being united in one Person and subsistence, not separated or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son and only-begotten, God the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, as the Prophets of old time have spoken concerning him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ hath taught us, and as the Creed of the Fathers hath delivered to us.
If orthodox theology is correct, if Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, then God built for Himself a body of flesh taken from the Virgin Mary and took up residence in Mary’s womb. The Virgin Mary became the container of the uncontainable (χώρα άχωρήτου), just as the human body of Jesus was united with the divinity of the Son of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Iconographically, this is represented by the icon of the Panagia (a.k.a. Our Lady of the Sign), which depicts the Virgin Mary at the moment of the Annunciation, a medallion showing Jesus Christ in her womb, and her hands raised in prayer. Her extended hands also depict the boundlessness of Him who is contained in her womb. Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306-373 A.D.) writes the following in Hymn 3 of his Hymns on the Nativity.
Glory to that One Who never before could be measured by us;
our heart is too small for Him and our intellect too weak.
He dazzles our smallness by the wealth of His forms.
Glory to the All-knowing Who cast Himself down,
and asks to hear and to learn what He already knew
to reveal by His questions the treasure of His benefits.
In this hymn, St. Ephrem is describing the vast gulf that separates us from God. Our finitude is too small to contain God — that is, until God Himself enlarged our finitude by His presence. Our Lord’s infinitude was hidden behind the veil of His flesh and revealed only when He desired it for the salvation of souls. By uniting our humanity with His Divinity, our Lord Jesus Christ made it possible for our common humanity — by God’s grace — to grasp His likeness.
In the Christian West, the issue of whether the finite could contain the infinite is extremely important. In the Christian East the issue is not even raised. Indeed, this is an example of how the Christian East considers Roman Catholics and Protestants to be two sides of the same coin, for they ask the same questions — only their answers are different. The Christian East looks at the issue quite differently. Of course, the finite can contain the infinite; in fact, that is the very purpose of creation itself.
In the first creation account, God says: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Ge 1:26). God is by definition infinite; we as His creation are finite. And yet what does it mean for God to create humanity in His image and likeness? Does it not imply that humanity was created to be like God in all things, excluding God’s essence? How can the finite be like the infinite if the finite does not contain within itself the capacity for infinitude — if the finite is not meant to share, by God’s grace, in God’s infinitude?
In the tabernacle, we see the Holy of Holies as the dwelling place of God. We see this recapitulated in Solomon’s temple. Once the temple was built, the ark placed within the Holy of Holies. In the book of 1st Kings we read:
And it came to pass, when the priests were come out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the LORD, So that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud: for the glory of the LORD had filled the house of the LORD. Then spake Solomon, The LORD said that he would dwell in the thick darkness. I have surely built thee an house to dwell in, a settled place for thee to abide in for ever. (1Ki 8:10-13).
The glory of the LORD filled the temple, for God dwelt there. How can this be? How can the infinite God be fully present with His people in such as way as to dwell among them? Somehow, in a way beyond our understanding, God is not constrained by His infinitude. He is fully present with His people while at the same time being everywhere present and filling all things. Although the Son of God chose to empty Himself and took our poverty upon Himself, yet in accordance with His judgments, He used the gift that He received from us for His own adornment and majesty.
God revealed Himself to Moses not as the impersonal absolute, but as a person. Elder Sophrony writes: “But He Whom I had discarded as ‘unnecessary’ …suddenly put before me the Bible text, the revelation on Mt. Sinai: ‘I AM THAT I AM’ [Exod 3:14]. BEING is I. God, the absolute Master of all the celestial worlds is PERSONAL — I AM.” [Brackets in the original.] In speaking of the relationship between human persons and the personal God, Elder Sophrony later said: “By the grace of God, I am.”
So yes, the finite can contain the infinite. By grace, the Holy of Holies contained the glory of God. By grace, the Holy Virgin’s womb contained the uncontainable God. By grace, the body of Jesus contained the infinite Son of God. By grace, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is (1Jo 3:2).
Anonymous. 2005. Finitum capax? Some tricky theology. November 21. Accessed June 8, 2016. http://www.christianforums.com/threads/finitum-capax-some-tricky-theology.2325926/#post-20117952.
Archimandrite Aacharias (Zacharou). 2015. Man, the Target of God. Essex: Stravropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist.
Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov). 2006. We Shall See Him as He Is. Platina: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood.
Aristotle. 350 B.C.E. “Physics.” The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed June 7, 2016. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/physics.3.iii.html.
Cabasalis, Nicholas. 2013. “Homily on the Annunciation by St. Nicholas Cabasalis.” MYSTAGOGY RESOURCE CENTER. March 25. Accessed June 7, 2016. http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2013/03/homily-on-annunciation-by-st-nicholas.html.
Peltomaa, Leena Mari. 2001. The Image of the Virgin Mary in the Akathistos Hymn. Boston: Brill.
Schaff, Philip. 2005. NPNF2-14 The Seven Ecumenical Councils. Vol. 14. 14 vols. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
St Ephrem the Syrian. 1989. Hymns. Translated by Kathleen E. McVey. New York: Paulist Press.
 (Anonymous 2005)
 (Aristotle 350 B.C.E.)
 In Kenotic Theology, the Son of God is said to have emptied Himself of his divinity prior to His resurrection.
 (NPNF2-14, 388)
 (Peltomaa 2001, 138)
 (St Ephrem the Syrian 1989, 85)
 (Cabasalis 2013)
 (Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) 2006, 28)
 (Archimandrite Aacharias (Zacharou) 2015, 79)