When we study any aspect of Theology or the Scriptures, we need to be sure that we are not simplifying or misrepresenting what we read so that it fits neatly into whatever preconception we already hold. This is especially a temptation when we consider the Fall of Adam into sin, the purpose of the incarnation, the meaning of the cross, and the relationship of the Persons of the Holy Trinity in working out our salvation. We reduce the dangers of such a reductionism when we read widely in the most authoritative Fathers, and are willing to submit our own understanding to their teaching. We further avoid such an outcome when we allow the most authoritative Fathers, reflecting on the broad sweep of Scripture, to develop a variety of explanations, analogies and metaphors to help us to understand the depths of the divine action for our salvation and renewal.
Another useful method of study, it seems to me, is to deal with very narrow issues at a time, so that it is possible to gather a breadth of understanding of the Patristic interpretation and explanation of Scripture. In this series of posts, following this methodology, I want to ask what the authoritative Fathers say about the consequences of Adam’s sin, and it is necessary, in such a case, to allow them to speak before drawing conclusions, and before providing a summary or commentary on their own writings.
I want to begin in this first post with some passages from St Severus of Antioch, whose outstanding theological teachings and writings were built on the solid foundation of his understanding of St Cyril of Alexandria, and of St Athanasius and the other great Fathers. What does he say about the consequences of Adam’s sin. In Letter XXVII, in the collection in the Patrologia Orientalis, he writes…
If the first man had kept the commandment, and not gone astray after sin through the serpent’s deceitfulness, and lost the grace of immortality, having voluntarily drawn death upon himself, then creation itself also would have continued, acquiring for its own self the grace of immortality from God: for in accordance with the condition in which we are for whose sake it came into being its parts also pass away. For this reason then, when man himself was condemned to death, it itself also served corruption and ‘was made subject to vanity’, as the apostle says; but it hopes further to gain with us what it had from the beginning: and it will have continuance without corruptibility when we are admitted to the resurrection and the kingdom of heaven: for the most wise Paul himself also cries, “Creation itself also shall be freed from the bondage of corruption, into the freedom of the glory of the children of Gods”
This passage comes from a letter written to oppose a certain Alexander who was teaching the error that in the life to come there would be no bodies of flesh and bone, just a spiritual existence. He also held a very low view of the Creation, and here in this excerpt, St Severus is providing the Orthodox understanding that the Creation is united to mankind in some sense, so that when Adam fell into sin the creation also came to serve corruption, but as man is destined for the resurrection in Christ, so also the creation will be freed and become incorruptible. In regard to the consequences of Adam’s sin, we see that St Severus expresses the view that Adam..
- Lost the grace of immortality
- Drew death upon himself voluntarily
- Was condemned to death
- Plunged creation into corruption
It’s interesting that immortality is described as a grace, and not a characteristic of human nature. While we also see that Adam is described as being both condemned to death and as having brought death upon himself voluntarily. We often speak this way about the choice of a person condemning them to a certain way of life. We could say that a person crossing the road without looking and being hit by a car was condemned to a life of pain and disability. We would not mean that someone else had decided that he should suffer in such a way, but that his own voluntary actions had brought about a state of life from which he could not escape.
A little later in the same letter, St Severus explains what he means when he speaks of the creation being made subject to vanity,
What is ‘Creation was made subject to vanity’? It was made corruptible. Why and wherefore? On account of you the man. For, since you received a body that is mortal and passible, the earth also received a curse, and produced briars and thorns.
We can see in this passage that the curse which the earth received, that it would produce briars and thorns, is related to the state of man after he had sinned, and was a consequence of his sin. More than that, we see that for man himself as St Severus understands, he becomes mortal and passable as a result of the Fall.
In Letter XXXV, written to the Monks of the East, he says,
The impassible God united to himself those of our passions which do not fall under the description of sin, wishing in it to taste our death voluntarily, destroy its dominion over us, and by means of the Resurrection to set us free in incorruptibility, that is in impassibility and immortality, and raise us to our first state in which also we were created… that by means of a real death he might save the man who had died through the deceit of the serpent, and make his own Resurrection the gate and way of return to everlasting life… “For, since by man came death, by man also comes the resurrection of the dead. For, as in Adam all died, so also in Christ shall all live”.
In this quotation, from a longer passage speaking about the purpose of the Incarnation, St Severus speaks of the dominion of death over mankind, and that we are no longer in the first state in which we were created. He states that man has died through the deceit of the Serpent, and that Christ came to save man by his own real death and resurrection. We can create some bullet points to highlight these thoughts.
- Death had dominion over us
- Adam had died through the deceit of the Serpent
- Adam introduced death to mankind
- We also experience death because of Adam
And St Severus continues in the same letter,
Since Adam was condemned to death after the transgression which was committed through the deceitfulness of the serpent, and heard the words, “Dust thou art and to dust shalt thou return”, and, “Cursed is the ground in the work of thine hands”, and, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat thy bread”, and Eve too was also condemned with him by hearing the words, “In pains shalt thou bear children”, so with us also who are sprung from them the charges of disobedience have been confirmed, and we ourselves are dust and to dust we return, and we are condemned to the curse and are creatures born in pains: and from that time we have been in subjection, being subject to lust and to the varied pleasure of this, according to the saying of the blessed Paul.
In this passage we see that St Severus speaks about Adam being condemned to death, and hearing the sentence of God against him, the curse which we also suffer. The charge of being disobedient has been confirmed in us, those who are the descendants of Adam, because we also have become disobedient. We also share in the mortality which he brought upon himself, since we also are dust and return to dust. And we bear the curse of working in sweat upon an earth which no longer brings forth its fruit without pain. Even more than this, we are subject to the disordered passions which rule over us.
It is important to reflect on the idea of condemnation. St Severus has already shown us that he considers Adam to have voluntarily brought death upon himself. He had not done something which then results in death being imposed as a legal penalty, but in the moment that he turned away from God in sin, death took hold of him as a deadly consequence. When we hear that someone has been condemned it does not always mean that a legal process has taken place, and a judge has imposed a sentence. Indeed, we often speak of people being condemned by their circumstances. A few examples illustrate this. One news report says,
Millions of children are condemned to lifelong suffering because they were born into poverty.
Of course this does not mean that a judge has imposed lifelong suffering on them, it means that their circumstances are such that they cannot escape such a situation. Likewise,
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Again, this does not mean that those who cannot remember the past, after taking an examination perhaps, will be presented before a judge who will sentence them to repeat the events of the past. On the contrary, it is using a different sense of the word condemn, which is very common, and means – that circumstances or some action have brought about an unpleasant situation which cannot be avoided. In another example we read,
Fr. Damian, gave himself to the lepers with such abandon that he condemned himself to death.
This shows how we often make use the idea of our actions having consequences. We do not mean that there is a legal connection between activities or circumstances and their consequences, but that there is a relationship between them. So when St Severus speaks of Adam drawing death upon himself, and being condemned to death, we should understand that this is not using the legal language of conviction and sentence, but is describing the relationship between Adam abandoning his union with God and discovering that he was lost in mortality and under the power of his passions.
A little further in this letter, St Severus speaks of the punishment of Adam and Eve, and we should not be unwilling to understand that the consequences of Adam’s sin were a punishment, but a punishment that Adam brought upon himself. He says,
The Only God the Word became perfectly man, that he might bestow upon us perfect salvation: for, as soon as he was born, he did away the punishment laid upon Eve, who was first led astray by the serpent. If Emmanuel had not been born, who is the Word of God who took flesh, who according to the saying of the prophet ‘removed weeping from all faces’, the curse, “In pains shalt you bear children”, would not have ceased: nevertheless it ceased because God was born. Further witness is borne to this by the actual unerring words of the gospel also: for it introduces to us the angel saying, “I announce unto you great joy, which belongs to all the world, that to-day there has been born to us a Saviour, who is the Lord Christ, in the city of David”. Note clearly that, if it were not that he who was born was the Lord, the joy that came to all the world, which is also the joy of the whole race of men, the curse, “In pains shalt thou bear children”, would not have ceased. But, if the birth is the cause of the joy, she who bore is also free from the punishment.
In this passage, since we are narrowly concentrating on the consequences of the Fall, we see that a punishment was laid on Eve. St Severus describes it clearly, it was that in pains shall you bear children. We know that this is so because he is clear that this punishment ceased with the birth of the Lord Jesus. Not only did it cease for the future but in the Virgin Mary, the one who gave birth to the joy of the world, this punishment ceased. But this was not a punishment laid on Eve by God, as the cause of pain and suffering. Rather, it was the sin of Adam and Eve, their own separation from God, which brought about such a circumstance.
This punishment of pain in bringing forth children is, according to the Fathers – some of whom will be considered in due course – the increase in discomfort in childbirth, and an aspect of that natural mortality into which Adam and Eve plunged themselves. It is not a particular punishment, as if God delights in causing pain, but a consequence, together with the other aspects of mortality, of the death which Adam drew upon himself.
In Letter LXIII, St Severus says,
When therefore Adam was stripped of the blessedness of immortality, and was thereafter destined to be cast into the earth by means of death, then only there was introduced, as being necessary, the process of the generation of children, which preserves a succession to our race by means of the intercourse of copulation, and by means of the partnership of male and female, in the manner in which the quadrupeds also increase and multiply by generation.
This shows us that Adam, by his fall into sin, lost that immortality he had enjoyed and was faced with the experience of mortality which would, in the end, lead to his dying and being placed into the earth from which he had come. And in Letter LXV, he speaks about the relationship of Adam and Eve, saying.
After the fall from Paradise and the’ destruction of immortality, Adam knew Eve, and she conceived and bare; and this unstable intercourse, intercourse befitting beasts, was given for the propagation of our race, it being a kind of healing of the sickness, that the race of men might not be cut off through death. The woman was not at first given to Adam for the sake of the procreation of children, but that she might be a helper to him; for the Lord God said, “It is not good for Adam to be alone; let us make him a helper like to him”.
Again, St Severus speaks about the loss of immortality as one consequence of the Fall, but he also notes that sexual intercourse and the bearing of children became necessary for the preservation of the human race. He wants to express how it is that the relationship for which Eve was created, as a helper and partner of Adam, was subverted by the Fall. But he also speaks about the state of mankind in mortality is a kind of sickness, and a sickness requires healing and a Healer, it is not described as a punishment sent from God, here or in any of the previous references. In the same letter, St Severus continues,
When the woman gave up the duty of help, and like a weak person out of simplicity accepted the deceitful counsel of the serpent, then she herself also became an evil counsellor to the man, and immediately they were alien to God, and also to the life in Paradise, and by means of death were condemned; and Adam knew his wife, and she becomes a helper to him in the second line, through the procreation of children.
This is a useful passage. It shows us that St Severus does not consider that death is a punishment of God but it rather a consequence of Adam’s sin. It was immediately when they sinned that they became alien to God, separated from him, and lost the life in Paradise and were condemned to death. It was not after God spoke, as though everything had been OK until then, rather it was at the very moment of sin that the separation from God and the experience of death took hold of Adam.
In Letter LXXX, he writes.
“All things that are to be lo! they have been already”, does not apply to everything, but only to those things that belong to the weekly circle, and to this limited and temporal life, which revolves upon itself by means of nights and days, and blooms and withers by means of birth and death, and to the distraction and vanity to which Adam was condemned after the disobedience, and the fall from the immaterial and blessed life in Paradise.
Here, St Severus is discussing the verse from Ecclesiastes, and he is pointing out that it only applies to this created world in which we find the cycle of life and death. But it allows us to see that he considers these a consequence of the Fall of Adam. Again, a series of bullet points may be useful.
- The cycle of Birth and Death brought about by Adam’s sin
- The distracted nature of human life
- The vanity which afflicts us all
- The loss of the life of Paradise
Then in Letter CXI, St Severus writes about the loss of the indwelling Holy Spirit by Adam, saying,
Understand that, man having been created and possessing a soul, the inflation inserted only spiritual gifts and patterns of divine association. And the holy Basil in what he wrote about the Holy Spirit taught as follows: “For, when Adam had lost the grace derived from the divine inflation, Christ gave it back again, when he breathed into the face of his disciples and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit'”.
The word inflation is referring to the account in Genesis of the breath of life being breathed into Adam. We see here that St Severus, together with other Fathers, understands this breath of life to be none other than the Holy Spirit. For St Severus is teaching here that Adam already possessed a human soul and therefore what was being given and received is both the gifts of grace and the beginning, or pattern of a union with God. This passage is relevant to our study since this is, according to St Severus, another consequence of the Fall. This grace of the indwelling Holy Spirit and the beginning of an association with God was lost when Adam chose to sin. Yet we see that this was also a consequence, and not a punishment imposed by God.
St Severus was not only a great correspondent. He also composed a great many hymns, and some of these treat of the consequences of Adam’s sin. In Hymn #13, worth quoting at length, he says,
After the expulsion from the blessed life in the Paradise of Eden, when the sentence concerning sin had gone forth, and it had been said to Adam, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return”, like a wheel running rapidly downwards, all our race was hastening and being driven to utter destruction, and it had no power to turn and look toward heaven, and there was no plan or device which could draw and drag upwards those who had been hurled downwards and had fallen…
Here again we see that the consequences of the Fall include…
- Expulsion from the Paradise of Eden
- Experience of mortality
- Increasing domination of the passions leading to destruction
Just as in his letters, we do not find that he is describing the Fall of Adam into sin as bringing about an angry and legalistic response on the part of God, so that the consequences should be understood as a legal penalty. This does not mean that they were not of the most serious and devastating degree. But when God says, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return”, he is not determining to punish man, but is describing what is the truth of Adam’s circumstance as soon as he turned to sin. Adam is dust, he is made of the earth. This is not a punishment, it is the truth. And without the gift of immortality he must return to dust. This is not a punishment either, because, as the Fathers teach, all created natures are mortal. Only God is immortal by nature. When Adam turned away from God and lost the gift of the breath of life, the Holy Spirit, then he became subject to his natural mortality. This is a consequence of Adam’s own actions, not a special punishment of God.
In another hymn, #334, we read,
Through the transgression committed by Adam the beginning of our race, we heard the words, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return”. And in consequence of such a sentence greedy death has since that time swallowed us up., having by strength prevailed over us. But again, he who is the Son and Word of God, having become a man without change, removed all tears of weeping from every face, and caused them to pass away by means of the rising from among the dead…
This hymn also seems to present the consequences of Adam’s sin as being his subjection to the natural mortality of his humanity, and more than that, the domination of death in the fullest sense, as separation from life. In this hymn, and many others, the incarnation is presented as the victory over death, and the problem which man is facing seems to be expressed primarily as death, the mortality of the body, and the spiritual separation of man from God.
What can be concluded from these excerpts from the letters and hymns of St Severus? It is to be noted that St Severus does not speak about God’s anger or wrath in this context. The consequences of Adam’s sin are not presented as a deliberate act of legal judgement against Adam after his case had been considered. We do not read anywhere that it is because of the divine anger that Adam falls under his natural mortality, becomes subject to lusts and passions, is separated from the life of God, loses the grace of the Holy Spirit and is expelled from Paradise. On the contrary, all of these are presented as serious, but necessary consequences of turning away from God towards sin.
It is appropriate to say that we can be condemned by our own actions, and that the statements which God makes are matters of spiritual fact, not expressions of particular divine punishment. Indeed, St Severus, in these references, does not speak about divine punishment in these passages, even though there is certainly a punishment which comes upon Adam and is the consequence of his sin. It is death, in the widest sense, which St Severus seems to consider the real and most significant aspect of the Fall, but far from describing God as either imposing death as a penalty, or as the result of his anger, it seems that God, the Holy Trinity, treats death as a sickness and an illness which can be healed only by a divine action in the nature of man, by the incarnation of the Word for our salvation.
In this continuing study we will turn to other important patristic sources to understand what they taught about the consequences of Adam’s sin.