I would like to consider the dogmatic aspects of Sin, Death and the Fall which are the basis of man’s estrangement from God, and the cause of our needing a Saviour. We will look at these different aspects in turn, and we will begin in the Garden of Eden, when God gave Adam a simple command which he was to obey or face dire consequences. We read in Genesis 2:7 how it was that beyond simply making man another one the animals which he had created, God breathed into him his own life, the Holy Spirit of God, so that he might be able to enter into an experience of communion with God, sharing by grace some aspects of the divine character. It says…
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.
This idea of Adam as a living being has always been understood to mean more than simply his having an animal existence. And there is no other creature of which it is said that God breathed the breath of life into him. St Gregory of Nazianzus says of this in one of his Dogmatic Hymns…
The soul is the breath of God, a substance of heaven mixed with the lowest earth, a light entombed in a cave, yet wholly divine and unquenchable…. He spoke, and taking some of the newly minted earth his immortal hands made an image into which he imparted some of his own life. He sent his spirit, a beam from the invisible divinity.
And Tertullian says of this breath of life…
The soul has its origin in the breath of God and did not come from matter. We base that statement on the clear assertion of divine revelation, which declares that “God breathed the breath of life into the face of man, and man became a living soul.”
And St Basil the Great says…
And he breathed into his nostrils,” that is to say, he placed in man some share of his own grace, in order that he might recognize likeness through likeness. Nevertheless, being in such great honor because he was created in the image of the Creator, he is honored above the heavens, above the sun, above the choirs of stars. For which of the heavenly bodies was said to be an image of the most-high God.
It is especially of this breathing life into man that we are to understand that man is made in the image of God, when the Holy Trinity says in Genesis 1…
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.
It is necessary to remind ourselves of this state in which man was created before we begin to consider what has been lost and how we have come to the condition in which we now find ourselves. Man was created to be in the image of God, and he received a life which was more than animal, and was in some sense a divine gift, the breath or Spirit of God. It is not that some part of God has been changed into the soul of man, but that the soul of man is created directly by God, by his own breathing life into us. Tertullian says…
Thus you read the word of God, spoken to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” If God forms us in the womb, he also breathes on us as he did in the beginning: “And God formed man and breathed into him the breath of life.” Nor could God have known man in the womb unless he were a whole man.
The Fathers speak of the qualities of this divinely created soul as being immortality, rationality, and the possibility of union and communion with God. If we think of the soul as only being the thinking aspect of man, the mind and brain, then we will wonder what it means for the soul to have an existence apart from the body and brain. We will also wonder what it means when some Fathers speak of body, soul and spirit. We will also wonder why others speak only of the body and soul. We see this different approach to the same human nature in the Scriptures.
Ecclesiastes 12:7, for instance describes a dichotomy, and speaks of the body and the spirit, saying…
Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.
The dust here refers to that dust from which the body of Adam was created, and the spirit refers to the non-material aspect of man. And in Matthew 10:28, our Lord Jesus speaks of this dichotomy, saying…
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.
While in 1 Corinthians 7:34, the Apostle Paul writes…
The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit.
In these examples, and others from the Scripture, we can see that there is a description of human nature as being body and soul or body and spirit, so that the word soul and spirit seem to be referring to the same reality. But there are also passages in the writings of St Paul which speak of three aspects of human nature, and adopt a language of trichotomy.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:23 we read…
Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This seems to categorise three aspects of human nature, the body, the soul and the spirit. In Hebrews 4:12 we also find the words…
For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
This seems to discriminate between the soul and the spirit of a man and therefore represents a trichotomy. The reflection which developed in the patristic Church on the nature of man was therefore rooted in a varied use of language in the Scripture. Is man body and soul or spirit, or is he body, soul and spirit?
It was a subject that many of the early Fathers discussed. Sometimes the same Fathers speak in different ways. St Ignatius of Antioch, for instance, says in his letter to the Philadelphians…
The love of the brethren at Troas salutes you; … in whom they hope, in flesh, and soul, and spirit, and faith, and love, and concord.
Here he describes a trichotomy of flesh, soul and spirit. But elsewhere, in his letter to St Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, he says…
Therefore, you are made of flesh and spirit.
And this passage clearly describes a dichotomy. Likewise, in the second letter of Clement of Rome to the Church in Corinth, he writes…
By the inside he means the soul and by the outside the body.
And this passage also reflects a dichotomy when thinking about human nature. St Justin Martyr was one of the first to make some distinction between the human soul and spirit, though he is himself a very early writer, and was born in about 100 AD, as the Apostle John finally reposed. He says in his work On the Resurrection…
But, in truth, He has even called the flesh to the resurrection, and promises to it everlasting life. For where He promises to save man, there He gives the promise to the flesh. For what is man but the reasonable animal composed of body and soul? Is the soul by itself man? No; but the soul of man. Would the body be called man? No, but it is called the body of man. If, then, neither of these is by itself man, but that which is made up of the two together is called man, and God has called man to life and resurrection, He has called not a part, but the whole, which is the soul and the body.
This would seem to be entirely a dichotomy being described. He is insistent that man is not just the body, and is not just the soul, but is body and soul together. Yet in the same work he writes…
The resurrection is a resurrection of the flesh which died. For the spirit dies not; the soul is in the body, and without a soul it cannot live. The body, when the soul forsakes it, is not. For the body is the house of the soul; and the soul the house of the spirit. These three, in all those who cherish a sincere hope and unquestioning faith in God, will be saved.
Here we see that the soul and body are described, but as the body is the house of the soul, so it is said that the soul is the house of the spirit. Now this spirit which is spoken of cannot be the Holy Spirit in this case, since St Justin Martyr speaks of it being saved together with the body and soul. It is therefore necessary to see what St Justin could mean. In his Dialogue with Trypho, which records his conversation with a Christian teacher who led him to faith, he remembers him saying…
For the truth is so; and you would perceive it from this. The soul assuredly is or has life. If, then, it is life, it would cause something else, and not itself, to live, even as motion would move something else than itself. Now, that the soul lives, no one would deny. But if it lives, it lives not as being life, but as the partaker of life; but that which partakes of anything, is different from that of which it does partake. Now the soul partakes of life, since God wills it to live. Thus, then, it will not even partake of life when God does not will it to live. For to live is not its attribute, as it is God’s; but as a man does not live always, and the soul is not for ever conjoined with the body, since, whenever this harmony must be broken up, the soul leaves the body, and the man exists no longer; even so, whenever the soul must cease to exist, the spirit of life is removed from it, and there is no more soul, but it goes back to the place from whence it was taken.’
This is a lengthy but important passage. In the first place he recognises that the soul must either be life itself or have life. But only God is life in himself without any other cause. And God does not live, rather he is the source of life in others, just as motion is not movement in itself but gives movement to those it acts upon. Therefore, St Justin concludes, whether he is describing what he was taught or using this as a literary device, the soul has life because it partakes in life as the gift of God, and therefore, contrary to some pagan ideas, the soul is not divine itself. Indeed, the soul receives life only as long as God wills that it does so, since it does not have life itself, but receives and partakes of life. Therefore, he is able to say that when man dies the union between body and soul is disturbed, and the soul leaves the body, and this is the meaning of death. But he also considers that if the soul were to cease to exist – and it is not clear if he has something in mind, such as the state of the wicked after punishment – but if the soul were to cease to exist, according to St Justin, this would be because the spirit of life had been removed from it.
All of this would seem to suggest that St Justin has in mind a synthesis of the two aspect and three aspect language. In this model he seems to indicate that the body and soul are created by God and that man is composed of these two elements. But that man also receives the spirit of life, which is not created, but is a participation in the life of God, and is that which gives the soul energy and allows the soul in turn to energise the body. This would seem to suggest that man is body and soul, but that he also receives the ‘spirit of life’, so that he is body, soul and spirit.
His disciple, Tatian, who later fell away from the faith, also wrote on this topic, particularly in response to pagan ideas about the soul. He says…
We recognise two varieties of spirit, one of which is called the soul, but the other is greater than the soul, an image and likeness of God: both existed in the first men, that in one sense they might be material, and in another superior to matter.
Here we perhaps see that he wishes to describe the soul as the material spirit of man. We might consider this the psychological aspect in some sense, and even shared with other creatures who also have a material soul and spirit. But there is something else, a higher spirit, which represents the image and likeness of God and which is more than created, as St Justin also seemed to indicate. Indeed, elsewhere, Tatian says…
For the soul does not preserve the spirit, but is preserved by it, and the light comprehends the darkness…. Now, in the beginning the spirit was a constant companion of the soul, but the spirit forsook it because it was not willing to follow. Yet, retaining as it were a spark of its power, though unable by reason of the separation to discern the perfect, while seeking for God it fashioned to itself in its wandering many gods, following the sophistries of the demons.
This gives us some sense that the spirit of life, of which St Justin speaks, and which Tatian describes as the image and likeness of God, was that which was given by God to Adam, as the breath of life, and which Adam lost through his turning away from God. But Tatian does not believe that man has entirely lost this divine breath, this spirit of life, and speaks of a spark remaining which leads the soul always to be seeking after God, yet easily lost in the worship of idols and demons.
If the spark of life, the spirit, is the image and likeness of God, much diminished in man, then it is possible to understand how it is able to also participate in salvation. Not as if the image and likeness of God was itself corrupt, but that the participation in this image and likeness in the spirit of life can be renewed, restored and perfected in those who seek after God with all their heart.
Clement of Alexandria describes the various aspects of human nature, including the parts of the body and the senses. But his description of the non-material elements is most interesting and useful to this study. He says…
We accordingly assert that rational and ruling power is the cause of the constitution of the living creature; also that this, the irrational part, is animated, and is a part of it. Now the vital force, in which is comprehended the power of nutrition and growth, and generally of motion, is assigned to the carnal spirit, which has great susceptibility of motion, and passes in all directions through the senses and the rest of the body, and through the body is the primary subject of sensations. But the power of choice, in which investigation, and study, and knowledge, reside, belongs to the ruling faculty. But all the faculties are placed in relation to one — the ruling faculty: it is through that man lives, and lives in a certain way.
This is rather complicated. But he is saying that there is a rational and ruling principle in man, but there is also an irrational and animal principle. He calls this the carnal spirit, which we can consider as operating the body and senses. The ruling faculty he considers that which wills and reflects and knows. This gives us a trichotomy of the body, the irrational spirit and the ruling faculty, which can be considered as expressing the idea of body, soul and spirit. The thinking and willing aspect of man, which bears the image and likeness of God, uses the animal soul, but is not identical to it, and this animal soul in turn uses and inhabits the human body and mind.
St Irenaeus of Lyons, writing on this subject in his extensive work, Against the Heresies, says…
They do not take this fact into consideration, that there are three things out of which, as I have shown, the complete man is composed-flesh, soul, and spirit. One of these does indeed preserve and fashion the man-this is the spirit; while as to another it is united and formed-that is the flesh; then comes that which is between these two-that is the soul, which sometimes indeed, when it follows the spirit, is raised up by it, but sometimes it sympathizes with the flesh, and falls into carnal lusts. Those then, as many as they be, who have not that which saves and forms us into life eternal, shall be, and shall be called, mere flesh and blood; for these are they who have not the Spirit of God in themselves. Wherefore men of this stamp are spoken of by the Lord as “dead; “for, says He, “Let the dead bury their dead,” because they have not the Spirit which quickens man.
Here again we see a trichotomy which helps us to understand the language of dichotomy. In the first place St Irenaeus describes man as composed of body, soul and spirit. He states that it is the spirit of a man which preserves and fashions him. This seems to mean that he considers that the spirit is what makes a man a particular person. While it is the body to which the spirit is united. But in between these two there is the soul which can either be made spiritual or fleshly. Yet there appears to be another element, the Spirit of God, which is not the same as the human spirit, but which works to give life to those who have this Spirit of God, while those without the Spirit of God are called dead because even though they have an animal life they do not have the life of the spirit, or rather the life of the flesh dominates over the life of the spirit.
He continues to say…
Now the soul and the spirit are certainly a part of the man, but certainly not the man; for the perfect man consists in the commingling and the union of the soul receiving the spirit of the Father, and the admixture of that fleshly nature which was moulded after the image of God. For this reason, the apostle declares, “We speak wisdom among them that are perfect,” terming those persons “perfect” who have received the Spirit of God.
Here again St Irenaeus describes the soul and spirit, which is united with the body, but even while he speaks of the spirit as being part of the human nature, he again refers to the receiving of the Spirit of the Father, that is, the Holy Spirit, as a necessary aspect in man becoming perfected in the image of God. Perhaps it can be said that it is the spirit of man which is the aspect of human nature in which reception and participation in the Holy Spirit of God takes place in those who have received the Spirit. Just as it is the spirit of man which is the breath of life, the gift of God, the image and likeness of God, the spark of life even in humanity after the Fall, and which requires the Spirit of God, and participation in the Spirit to come be restored and perfected.
These discussions were taken up by later theologians. St Athanasius, for instance, in his Contra Gentes, says…
The rational nature of the soul is strongly confirmed by its difference from irrational creatures. For this is why common use gives them that name, because, namely, the race of mankind is rational. Secondly, it is no ordinary proof, that man alone thinks of things external to himself, and reasons about things not actually present, and exercises reflection, and chooses by judgment the better of alternative reasonings. For the irrational animals see only what is present, and are impelled solely by what meets their eye, even if the consequences to them are injurious, while man is not impelled toward what he sees merely, but judges by thought what he sees with his eyes. Often for example his impulses are mastered by reasoning; and his reasoning is subject to after-reflection. And every one, if he be a friend of truth, perceives that the intelligence of mankind is distinct from the bodily senses. Hence, because it is distinct, it acts as judge of the senses, and while they apprehend their objects, the intelligence distinguishes, recollects, and shews them what is best.
We see here that St Athanasius wants to distinguish between rational and irrational. Man has the unique ability to reflect on himself, and on circumstances that perhaps do not even exist in reality. He has imagination, and reason, and these are other and different to the simple experience of the senses. He draws attention to the distinction between the proper concerns of the body and those of the soul and concludes that they are not the same, and that the soul is not merely an aspect of the body. He says…
How is it, that whereas the body is mortal by nature, man reasons on the things of immortality, and often, where virtue demands it, courts death? Or how, since the body lasts but for a time, does man imagine of things eternal, so as to despise what lies before him, and desire what is beyond? The body could not have spontaneously such thoughts about itself, nor could it think upon what is external to itself. For it is mortal and lasts but for a time. And it follows that that which thinks what is opposed to the body and against its nature must be distinct in kind. What then can this be, save a rational and immortal soul?
The soul has a preoccupation with transcendence. It wants to go beyond itself, beyond the immediate experience provided by the body. St Athanasius continues…
For this is the reason why the soul thinks of and bears in mind things immortal and eternal, namely, because it is itself immortal. And just as, the body being mortal, its senses also have mortal things as their objects, so, since the soul contemplates and beholds immortal things, it follows that it is immortal and lives for ever. For ideas and thoughts about immortality never desert the soul, but abide in it, and are as it were the fuel in it which ensures its immortality. This then is why the soul has the capacity for beholding God, and is its own way thereto, receiving not from without but from herself the knowledge and apprehension of the Word of God.
There is something about the character of the soul which especially seeks and respond to God, and alone has the capacity for the vision of divine things. This is why St Athanasius is able to say…
For the soul is made after the image and likeness of God, as divine Scripture also shews, when it says in the person of God: “Let us make man after our Image and likeness.” Whence also when it gets rid of all the filth of sin which covers it and retains only the likeness of the Image in its purity, then surely this latter being thoroughly brightened, the soul beholds as in a mirror the Image of the Father, even the Word, and by His means reaches the idea of the Father, Whose Image the Saviour is.
This seems to me to be saying what some of the other Fathers have described. That is to say, that the soul, and especially the higher aspects of the soul which some others have called the spirit, is created in the image and likeness of God, and this image and likeness is not lost, even in fallen man, but is obscured and hidden, and when the soul seeks to be made clean by God, then this image and likeness can be seen again in the experience of a renewed and restored humanity.
In his work, On the Incarnation, St Athanasius takes up this important theme again and places it in the context of the Fall of Adam into sin. He says, in Chapter 3…
He did not barely create man, as He did all the irrational creatures on the earth, but made them after His own image, giving them a portion even of the power of His own Word; so that having as it were a kind of reflexion of the Word, and being made rational, they might be able to abide ever in blessedness, living the true life which belongs to the saints in paradise.
What do we learn here? It is that man was not made in the same way as all other living creatures. Or rather being creatures as the rest, it was the intention of God from the beginning that man would receive more, by way of a free gift in the love of God. In the first place, man alone was created to be in the image of God, and so in some sense a participation in the divine life was granted – which we have seem called a spark, and the spirit of life. And man was endowed with rationality, which means more than simply the ability to think – since we see that even irrational animals are often able to exhibit such mental activity. Rationality has rather the sense of being able to understand and choose that which is good and perfect and divine. The word logical, which we might link with the idea of reason and rationality, comes ultimately from the word logos, and in a Christian context connects the proper working of man’s reason with the experience of participation in the Logos or Word of God.
St Athanasius says of man, as he was created in this blessed state…
But knowing once more how the will of man could sway to either side, in anticipation He secured the grace given them by a law and by the spot where He placed them. For He brought them into His own garden, and gave them a law: so that, if they kept the grace and remained good, they might still keep the life in paradise without sorrow or pain or care besides having the promise of incorruption in heaven; but that if they transgressed and turned back, and became evil, they might know that they were incurring that corruption in death which was theirs by nature: no longer to live in paradise, but cast out of it from that time forth to die and to abide in death and in corruption.
This teaches us that man was still not secure in his will, and there was always the potential for him to choose evil. The Fathers often repeat this idea of God providing a place and a law. And this was clearly not so that Adam might be trapped or tricked into sin, but that he might be preserved from it. In the Garden into which God brought him there was everything he could possibly need, and there was this one simple rule, by which he could learn maturity in the face of temptation, and firmness in obedience. There could be no sense in which Adam, and his partner Eve, could be said to have been left without a clear sense that there was required of them a choice for God, as the means of securing the benefits they enjoyed both in the present and into eternity.
What is clear is that if they did sin then they would find themselves in the corruption and death which was their own created nature. This was not a punishment being imposed, but a natural consequence of abandoning the divine gift which had been breathed into them and which preserved them from the natural mortality that belongs to all created beings. As we have learned, only God is life in himself, all creatures of God receive life from him as a gift, and are liable to the natural corruption and mortality which belongs to created beings if the gift of life is withdrawn.
But by “dying you shall die,” what else could be meant than not dying merely, but also abiding for ever in the corruption of death?
If death is both the experience of mortality, which immediately fell upon Adam and Eve, and all their descendants, and also the experience of the separation of body and soul, from which there was no obvious liberation, then this was certainly a dying which led to an even more certain death. This is consistent with St Athanasius’ argument in this work, which continues saying…
For transgression of the commandment was turning them back to their natural state, so that just as they have had their being out of nothing, so also, as might be expected, they might look for corruption into nothing in the course of time. For if, out of a former normal state of non-existence, they were called into being by the Presence and loving-kindness of the Word, it followed naturally that when men were bereft of the knowledge of God and were turned back to what was not (for what is evil is not, but what is good is), they should, since they derive their being from God who IS, be everlastingly bereft even of being; in other words, that they should be disintegrated and abide in death and corruption.
This could not be clearer. The transgression of Adam and Eve allowed them to experience unchecked the natural mortality and corruption in a life lived without the divine Spirit to sustain and enflame the human spirit. Adam and Eve had been created from nothing, and would return to nothing, since being is the natural property of God alone, and without God being turns to disintegration, death and corruption. It was not, according to St Athanasius, the loss of something that they possessed of themselves. The state in which Adam and Eve found themselves is what being a created being looks like without the grace of God. It is mortality, corruption and eternal death.
It was not that they found themselves contaminated with evil, since evil, as St Athanasius insists, does not exist. It is not a thing at all. Rather it is the lack of something else, of the good that man was intended to choose, and the gift that he had been freely given in God’s love. Just as darkness does not exist, but is the lack of light.
St Athanasius says…
For God has not only made us out of nothing; but He gave us freely, by the Grace of the Word, a life in correspondence with God. But men, having rejected things eternal, and, by counsel of the devil, turned to the things of corruption, became the cause of their own corruption in death, being, as I said before, by nature corruptible, but destined, by the grace following from partaking of the Word, to have escaped their natural state, had they remained good. For because of the Word dwelling with them, even their natural corruption did not come near them.
This passage from St Athanasius begins to help us to see what happened at the Fall. There was a rejection of eternal things and a turning to things of corruption. This represents the rejection of the divine life of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and the desire for created things, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the prideful desire to be like God on Adam’s own terms. It is this rejection of the life of God which is the natural cause of the falling of Adam into corruption and mortality. This is the natural state of all created things and the consequence of abandoning the special grace of God which preserved them free from this natural corruption.
The death into which Adam fell was an immediate death of his soul, which found itself without the grace of God, and the immediate experience of human mortality, concluding eventually after a long life, in the death of the body and the separation of body and soul. But Adam was already dead as soon as he ate of the fruit. But this was not a punishment, it was a consequence, and God’s commandment not to eat of the fruit of that one tree was not a statement of a special punishment, but simply what must happen if the divine life and union with God in holiness were rejected.
It was not simply the case that Adam was left without grace, and slowly experiencing his mortality leading to physical death. There was a corruption associated with his created and mortal nature. We see this in the liability to pain and suffering, to illness and disease in an increasing measure. But it is also seen in the moral corruption which seems almost unnatural in its excess. St Athanasius says of this,
For even in their misdeeds men had not stopped short at any set limits; but gradually pressing forward, have passed on beyond all measure: having to begin with been inventors of wickedness and called down upon themselves death and corruption; while later on, having turned aside to wrong and exceeding all lawlessness, and stopping at no one evil but devising all manner of new evils in succession, they have become insatiable in sinning.
The great benefits of the human rationality and intelligence, imagination and creativity, mean that beyond all other created beings, it is mankind which has used these gifts to sinful and evil ends. Having lost the presence of the divine Spirit of God which would have preserved and sustained man in holiness and obedience, instead mankind is much worse than any animal. We go beyond every natural wickedness to the committing of sins that are far beyond nature and unimaginable even to the most savage beast.
Yet man cannot say that he has been born with some innate disadvantage that is a burden imposed by God. We are certainly born into a circumstance that we did not choose. We are born mortal of mortal parents, as both St Cyril and St Severus state. But we are not born sinful. And even if we are born corruptible, we are not born corrupt. We are born into a state of separation from God, without the divine life within as anything other than a spark, and we are without that grace of God that would sustain and strengthen us in obedience and holiness. Nevertheless, even though born innocent and sinless, we will be responsible ourselves for every wrong choice we make, and for every turning away from God, and if we will become corrupted, it is because of our own actions and thoughts and desires.
Our problem is not that we will be punished for sin, it is that we are born into a state of physical, moral and spiritual death. This is why, to jump ahead of ourselves, all the souls of the departed before Christ were in Hades, a gloomy place of waiting. The bodies of the departed had returned to dust because of their mortality. Their souls had been separated from their bodies because of their mortality. And these souls did not experience the complete blessedness that God intended because they were also without the divine life that had been lost by Adam. Even these, the most righteous men and women before Christ, could do nothing by their own actions, to restore the state of their human nature to that which Adam had lost. All the grace which the most righteous undoubtedly received and experienced was not the same as that indwelling of the divine life which Adam had sold so cheaply.
We need to note that the word guilt does not appear at all in the work On the Incarnation by St Athanasius. The condition which we found ourselves in because of Adam’s sin was not one in which mankind was guilty, certainly not guilty of Adam’s sin, even if we become guilty of our own. Therefore, the incarnation is not a matter of dealing with man’s guilt, but with death and separation from God. Since every one of us is born into this state of death and separation, it would never be possible for any man or woman to restore the state of life and union with God which Adam enjoyed, even if they never committed any sin at all. St Athanasius says,
For this cause, then, death having gained upon men, and corruption abiding upon them, the race of man was perishing; the rational man made in God’s image was disappearing, and the handiwork of God was in process of dissolution. For death, as I said above, gained from that time forth a legal hold over us, and it was impossible to evade the law, since it had been laid down by God because of the transgression, and the result was in truth at once monstrous and unseemly.
We can see here that the problem is especially that of death and corruption, not sin. Sin is a symptom, an outworking, of the state of death and corruption. Our problem is not so much that we sin, but that we are dead and corruptible and are becoming corrupted. It is death which has a hold over us, because the sentence of God, given the force of a divine law, was that when Adam ate of the fruit of the tree he would surely die, and experience death in the fullest sense as separation from God who is our life. It is because of this separation from God that we enter into a life of sinful acts of the will. But we are already dead to God, and therefore experience death already in the most comprehensive sense.
The case of unborn infants who are not born alive or are miscarried is an opportunity to consider what the church teaches. St Gregory of Nyssa has a few words to say on this subject. He says that a life of blessedness belongs to the one whose spiritual sight is clear, and that in mankind this requires great effort and the grace of God to overcome sin, but it belongs already to the infant and is lost by us as we grow into sinfulness. He says…
The innocent babe has no such plague before its soul’s eyes obscuring its measure of light, and so it continues to exist in that natural life; it does not need the soundness which comes from purgation, because it never admitted the plague into its soul at all.
He goes on to suggest that the soul of an unborn infant, and even the infant reposing not long into their life, could not possibly suffer any torment because there is nothing in them at all deserving of it, and their infant soul is still turned towards God. Yet there is this difference. The soul of one who has spent his life in overcoming sin, and in hard-won repentance and many experiences of God’s grace, will participate in the blessedness of Paradise and of Heaven with a different character than the one who never sinned, never needed to repent, and has no experience of the grace of sanctification. Yet the blessedness is one, even if the participation is different.
And the dear and saintly Pope Timothy of Alexandria, addressing a woman who had lost three of her children, says…
I was in great grief, mourning and lamenting, as though I saw your small children, and at the same time I heard he voice of the Creator of us all admonishing me, saying, ‘Do you suppose, O man, that your tender mercy is greater than mine? Do you suppose I have no compassion equal to your own, and that I do not say, “Let the children come unto me, for to such belongs the Kingdom of Heaven”.
Do we doubt the mercy of God towards all those he has made, and especially those who have not drawn breath before passing away. St Timothy encourages the bereaved woman to remind herself when she feels her pain the most…
After a short time I will not be left separated from my child, if I am also worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven, then I will not be far from them forever.
This is a blessed truth, of which I am convinced. That our Lord has not created any to be condemned because left without the possibility of baptism in the womb. And that each one who passes to life even before breath is sinless and innocent in the eyes of God. He will unite to himself those he has made and called to himself before birth. And of the blessed state in which they wait, St Timothy recounts a miracle he heard from the mouth of St Dioscorus, in which a young boy had been bitten by a poisonous snake and died, and being restored to life by Abba Longinus, the young boy said…
O father, I am burned by the love of the greenery which my soul saw, I have never eaten anything like it, nor is the eye of man able to look at it, or the mouth of man to describe it. I saw a man of shining appearance, and he took me into the Garden of Eden, and I saw trees which bear many fruits. Then he took me to the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, and he commanded that they take me to the children who are like me…
In this happy and blessed place the souls of all infants wait in peace and joy. God has made them and called them to himself. Gathered up those who are especially loved by him. The words of St Timothy are a comfort…
Your child was living, and now God has taken her to himself, where there is no death, so that they might live with him forever… their souls fly due to the greatness of the taste of their happiness.
From the experience of love to an experience of even more overwhelming and unceasing love. From the experience of blessedness to even greater experience of blessedness. The pain of loss and separation tempered by the hope and expectation of reunion and of the fulfillment of love in eternity. The mercy of God knows no bounds, and those fragile, innocent, sinless souls created in love to participate in his love are preserved in love now and forever, and wait to greet us and embrace us in love.
Many of the Fathers considered that a child did not become responsible or liable for sin until some years after birth, because sin is an act of the will, and the unformed will of an infant is therefore not considered to be able to consent or adopt any deliberate act of sin. The status of a child seems to very easily and clearly describe the views which were held about the nature of each human born into the world, or dying before birth and any human activity had taken place.
St Gregory Nazianzus says in one of his homilies,
For this is how the matter stands. At that time they begin to be responsible for their lives, when reason is matured, and they learn the mystery of life (for of sins of ignorance owing to their tender years they have no account to give), and it is far more profitable on all accounts to be fortified by the Font, because of the sudden assaults of danger that befall us, stronger than our helpers.
The issue being considered in this unit is not so much that of the means of salvation, and what it means to be baptized. Rather it is to consider the state into which each of us is born, whether we are baptized soon after our birth or not. In this passage from St Gregory we see that he does not teach, and nor do other Fathers, that an infant is able to be considered as committing sin, because they have not yet become responsible and their reason has not yet matured. Of course, this does not simply do away with the question of what God might do in the life of a small infant, or an unborn child dying in utero. But these Eastern Fathers seem clear that the infant does not have a problem of sin, and has not inherited any sort of guilt because of the sin of Adam. The problem is one of death and being born into a mortal and corruptible state, but the small infant is not sinful. And this is entirely the teaching of St Cyril and St Severus who state that we are “born mortal of mortal parents, but not sinful of sinful parents”.
This positive attitude towards humanity, even in a state of mortality, death and corruption is represented by statements from the Fathers such as St Severus, who says,
Adam did not lose a single natural blessing, neither did our race because of him. However, the rule is as follows. [St Cyril] For we have lost nothing of that which we possessed by nature.
Of course, this does not mean that man is not in a desperate plight, but it insists that the humanity we receive from our parents is essentially that nature in which Adam was created. What has been lost is grace and the gift of divine life by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, St Severus continues,
That it is by grace indeed that Adam possessed incorruptibility from the beginning – which consists in immortality and impassibility – enriched as he was with a blessing that was beyond nature by the liberality of Him who had created him, we have learned from the word of the Fathers instructed by God. If he had conserved the grace then the mortal character conforming to nature, would have remained hidden along with the corruptibility of the human body.
Our mortality and corruptibility are natural to us, they are not a punishment, but a consequence of being created beings. All that we have lost, and all that has plunged us into death and the habitual commission of sin, as turning away from God in the will, is the result of the loss of grace. Adam wanted to go his own way, and this is what it looks like. But his nature, becoming mortal and corruptible, did not become sinful, because sin is an action of the will and of a person, not of a nature.
This is also the teaching of St Cyril, who says,
Man is a rational animal, but composite, meaning of a soul and of this earthly and temporal flesh. Because he has been made by God, and has come into being, without holding in his own nature either incorruptibility or indestructibility – these indeed belong by nature to God alone – he had been marked with the spirit of life, enriched, by an intimate relationship with God, with a blessing which surpassed nature.
He agrees here, that the nature of man does not possess incorruptibility and immortality by nature because it is created, and depends on God for existence, but he had received a blessing which surpassed nature, which was more than natural, in his intimate relationship with God and which was the divine spirit of life. We have suffered a loss, by the sin of Adam, but this has not changed our nature and made it sinful. We are certainly much more easily and universally led into sin, and do so with energy and imagination, making ourselves lower than animals. But our sin is a matter of reason and choice and will, and so the infant and the unborn are without sin, even though they are in the same state of mortality and corruptibility. We become sinful and corrupt ourselves, we are not born in such a state.
St Severus says,
.. the sin of Adam was not mixed naturally with our substance…; but it is because they had lost the grace of immortality.
This is an important point. If sin is a matter of the use of the will to turn away from God, and therefore requires some reason and determination, then a small infant cannot be said to sin. If sin is not a thing, not a substance, and so is not mixed in with our humanity, then I am the one responsible for my sin, for my turning away from God. This seems to me to illustrate two aspects of the Christian message. In the first place, even living without sin does not provide for a human person the renewal of the grace of the indwelling Holy Spirit and the intimate relationship with God which was lost by Adam’s sin. Such a way of life may be commendable, and may be the object of blessing in many ways, but it cannot restore all that was lost. This is beyond us as human beings who now experience separation from God as mortality and corruptibility.
In the second place, our own personal sins, which are a turning away from God, lead us to a deeper participation in death, in non-being and darkness, however attractive they seem. The judgement of God will be considered in due course, but it seems to me that sin is already its own punishment, if we wish to speak in such a manner. If sin is turning away from God, then what greater punishment could be imagined than for this to become our experience? We imagine, perhaps, that sin is a matter of legal offences against God, and we hope that various ways can be used to mitigate our offence, but if sin is an act of the will in turning away from God, who is life and light, towards death and darkness, then it already carries its own, often unnoticed and unrecognized, penalty.
What can we propose as the Orthodox view of these things? It is that Adam and Eve were created with that mortal and corruptible nature which belongs to all created beings, but that they received a divine gift and grace at their creation which made possible every blessing God intended for them. When they sinned, they exercised their free will to turn away from God and they immediately lost the grace and gift which was a divine life within them. They were left in their natural mortal and corruptible state, and without the strengthening grace of the Holy Spirit both they and their children turned away from God more and more often, and with greater and greater energy and imagination, as the effects of the divine grace were increasingly diminished. There was no essential change in the nature of humanity, but it had lost the grace of God. The children of Adam were not responsible for his sin, nor did they bear any guilt of it, but they were born into the condition of mortality and corruptibility he had created. Therefore, an infant is without sin at all, since sin is the exercise of the free will against God. But an infant is nevertheless born mortal and separated from God in corruptibility, though not corrupt. Our sinfulness and our corruption are our own responsibility, and being a choice for death, darkness and non-being, they already constitute their own penalty.
The situation of man, which God willed from the beginning to restore in love, is therefore not the punishment of sin, but the reconciliation and renewal of mortal man, already bound by physical, moral and spiritual death. Salvation is not essentially the freedom from some future punishment, since Adam and all of us born of him are already dead and separated from God. There is no greater consequence of sin. Adam received this judgement at the moment he turned away from God, and God himself had said, in Genesis 2:16,
You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.
He did not physically die at the moment he turned away from God in sin, but he certainly became mortal according to his nature, and he certainly lost the grace of the divine life at that moment, and certainly and immediately experienced the separation from God, which is true death. Therefore, the consequence of sin was already its own penalty and it occurs in the moment of sin, in the act of will that turns away from God. And experiencing this total death, this separation from God who is life, we find that it becomes easier and easier, more and more attractive, to turn away from God again and again, until the world becomes as at the time of Noah, as recorded in Genesis 6:5,
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
This is not the state of man as God intended. It is not the state of man experiencing the gift and grace of divine life. But it is the condition of man living without the divine life, seeking the fulfillment of his desire for God in the desire for the created order and for temporal satisfaction. Man’s problem is not that he sins, but that being dead to life with God he finds himself incoherent and disintegrating in the darkness into which he is born, and turns away from God in his instability and corruptibility.
This is certainly the view of the Fathers such as St Athanasius, St Cyril and St Severus. Man’s problem is that he is dead, not that he sins. Sin is a consequence of this death, and this state of death is the disease we inherit. This death is the separation from the grace and gift of God. Until the 4th century this was the view in the Church. There was an Ancestral Sin, which Adam had committed, and which had consequences for us all. But there was no sense that we inherit any responsibility for, or guilt of that sin. If my ancestor had been very wealthy, and had spent all of his money on gambling, then I would be born poor, as my parents had been born into poverty, but I would not be at all guilty of my ancestor’s prodigality and wastefulness.
But with Augustine of Hippo a rather new idea was introduced, which was that human nature itself was made sinful, and so each human being born into the world was already guilty of sin, and liable to the judgement of God. Tertullian, writing in North Africa some time before Augustine, still spoke of “the innocent period of life” belonging to infants. And he distinguished between infants and children, saying,
This antithesis is impudent enough, since it throws together things so different as infants and children, an age still innocent, and one already capable of discretion.
The consideration for Tertullian in Latin North Africa was still one, shared in the East, of the use of reason and will with discretion. An infant is not liable to be considered sinful because she lacks such a developed rational power, but as the infant grows into childhood there comes a time when increasingly what is chosen and committed can be considered deliberate and willful and therefore sin. Even Cyprian, a rather hard line bishop of North Africa, who absolutely rejected the value of the baptism of anyone outside of the formal bounds of the Church, spoke about infants, and therefore describes the nature of humanity we receive, saying,
For, with respect to what you say, that the aspect of an infant in the first days after its birth is not pure, so that any one of us would still shudder at kissing it, we do not think that this ought to be alleged as any impediment to heavenly grace. For it is written, “To the pure all things are pure.” Nor ought any of us to shudder at that which God hath condescended to make. For although the infant is still fresh from its birth, yet it is not such that any one should shudder at kissing it in giving grace and in making peace; since in the kiss of an infant every one of us ought for his very religion’s sake, to consider the still recent hands of God themselves, which in some sort we are kissing, in the man lately formed and freshly born, when we are embracing that which God has made… how much rather ought we to shrink from hindering an infant, who, being lately born, has not sinned, except in that, being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth.
This is a rather beautiful passage, which describes the new born baby as not having any sins, but having entered into that state of mortality to which Adam’s sin dooms us all. This remains consistent with the Eastern view it seems to me.
But Augustine introduces a new opinion. It is that the infant just born into the world, and even the one in the womb, is already sinful and already guilty of Adam’s sin. Rather than considering that a child inherits the consequences of Adam’s sin, and becomes responsible and guilty of only his own sins, Augustine taught that the child was already guilty of Adam’s sin and was to be considered as having participated in it, and therefore to be already sinful. It is not surprising that Augustine’s view of the state of those infants who might die before baptism or in utero is a negative one. He says,
Even if there were in men nothing but original sin, it would be sufficient for their condemnation. For however much heavier will be their condemnation who have added their own sins to the original offence (and it will be the more severe in individual cases, in proportion to the sins of individuals); still, even that sin alone which was originally derived unto men not only excludes from the kingdom of God, which infants are unable to enter (as they themselves allow), unless they have received the grace of Christ before they die, but also alienates from salvation and everlasting life, which cannot be anything else than the kingdom of God, to which fellowship with Christ alone introduces us.
What he says here is that even if a person were not to commit any sin at all, and even in the case of infants and we may say those who die before birth, there is a such a condemnation due to every person because of the guilt of the sin of Adam which we all inherit according to his understanding, that it must exclude all from any participation in eternal life. This is not because of the separation from God due to the loss of the divine grace and life, but it is because, says Augustine, each person, even a new born infant, is already guilty of sin.
By the generation of the flesh only that sin is contracted which is original.
This proposes a view which is the opposite of St Cyril and St Severus. They insisted that we are not born sinful but mortal. Here, Augustine insists that we are all born sinful. But both St Cyril and St Severus teach that we cannot inherit any guilt or condemnation for sin from another’s sins, we are guilty only of our own. But Augustine’s views, followed to their conclusion, require him to state, as he does, that those infants who die before baptism, must find themselves in Hell and subject to condemnation, even if it is a light condemnation. He says,
That person, therefore, greatly deceives both himself and others, who teaches that they will not be involved in condemnation.
This is a novel idea which Augustine develops and which then has a great influence on the history of Western theology, leading it further away from Orthodoxy. We may certainly be sure that even an unborn child is mortal and without the gift of the divine life, but our Orthodox Fathers have not taught that such a child is condemned by God, either for her own sins or those of Adam. Rather such an infant is in a condition which entirely moves the love and mercy of God. If it was while we were yet sinners that Christ, the Son and Word of God, was incarnate and suffered and died for our sake, and if it was because God loves the world so much that the mystery of our salvation has taken place, how much does he love those he has created, and as Cyprian says, are fresh from the hands of God and are without any sin, though undoubtedly in need of the grace of God.
He says elsewhere,
For sins alone separate between men and God; and these are done away by Christ’s grace, through whom, as Mediator, we are reconciled, when He justifies the ungodly.
This seems to me to be a significantly different teaching. The Orthodox Fathers speak about death as the real issue, and that sin is an expression of this death. But since we are born into a state of death, which is separation from God, we need a reconciliation to take place, and for the Holy Spirit to be renewed in man. But Augustine views sin as the problem, and so he has to propose that even infants are sinful, and share in Adam’s sin. He doesn’t understand the problem as one of life and relationship, but of legal guilt and justification. The Orthodox teaching is that even is a person never sinned, they would still lack the divine life which was a gift to Adam. They would still lack immortality and incorruptibility. But the Augustinian approach is that all are guilty of sin, and therefore liable to judgement and punishment, but God has provided a way for us to escape this punishment in Christ. These are not the same ideas at all.
It is not surprising that the Augustinian model was further developed in the West. In the Middle Ages, Anselm described our situation as one in which God, who is infinite, had been infinitely offended by our sin, and therefore required an infinite satisfaction. This is simply a model taken from the feudalistic society in which Anselm found himself. The more important a person was who had been harmed or offended in some way, the more costly it was to satisfy their honour. This is not the Orthodox understanding at all, and is unknown until Anselm introduced it in the 11th century. None of the Fathers understand God as being offended by sin, on the contrary, the incarnation and the whole salvation history is always described as being rooted in the love of God for mankind. If there is ever a consideration of God’s honour, as in St Athanasius for instance, it is in the context of it being unworthy of God to allow his creation to fall into corruption.
To some extent these different views, the Orthodox and the Western, can be categorised as understanding our situation as one in which mankind needs healing and restoration, and one in which mankind needs to be able to escape a deserved punishment. These produce different views of the incarnation and of salvation as we shall see in later units.
In summary, then. Orthodoxy teaches that sin is a matter of the will and not the nature of man. It is a choice of that which is not God, for that which is not-life and light and being, however much it might appear desirable. Adam was created naturally mortal and corruptible but given at his creation a gift of divine life, the indwelling Holy Spirit which would have preserved him in immortality and incorruptibility. When he sinned he lost this gift and divine life, which remained as a spark, and he found himself immediately mortal, separated from God, and without any moral or spiritual constancy or strength. We inherit this state of mortality and separation from God, but we are not born sinful in any sense, or guilty of any sin. Indeed, an infant is not able to sin, since sin is a matter of reason and will. Nevertheless, all of us need the mercy and grace of God, because even if we never sin, we are still in this state of death. Augustine and those who followed him, introduced a new idea, that each of us are born sinful and guilty and therefore condemned by God. This distorts the Orthodox understanding and produces ideas of an angry God. But Orthodoxy is convinced that God is love, and in love he has acted to restore the intimate relationship which Adam once enjoyed and which he call us all to participate in.