Translation – St Severus and the Sinful Nature

Excerpt from St Severus against Julian

As for the word of philosophical significance which is pronounced by Job the valiant in these terms: “Who in fact would be pure from defilement? Nobody, not even if he lived only one day on the earth!” It is necessary to know that man is said to have lived this life because he breathes this air, that he feeds on various foods and that from his childhood, passing through all the other times of life, he achieves old age; as Job himself says: “I said that my age is getting older in the manner of a tree which for a considerable time makes branches appear and which is therefore able to become green again“. And in this we do not differ from each other. It is also evident that it is because, through his conduct and action, he lives in the exercise of virtues, that we say of any living person that he lives a virtuous life.

It is to him also that wisdom, in the book of Proverbs, addresses this exhortation: “Seek wisdom and live.” From those who engineer evil actions, we say that they live a bad life. It is about them that a wise man also declares: “Therefore also those who have lived bad lives in a life of madness, you tortured them under their own abominations.” He who, showing the glory of a life which is fulfilled in virtue, said again: “It is wisdom that gives men white hairs, and the time of old age is a life without blemish.” So, Job’s word is not expressed about life as it is commonly understood and does not apply to all men – when any come out of the womb, they breathe, and when they are nourished, they are alive! But it concerns the life characterized by virtuous or malicious acts, which comes to judgment before God and is made worthy of glory and punishment.

And it is also illustrative that he says: Even if someone lives only “one day” in showing a virtuous state! Even though (indeed) it was possible for someone to follow his path in virtue, he would not possess the state of innocence and he would not appear pure from the defilement of sin, since men are esteemed by you, the God of the Universe, who, as it is written, “scrutinizes the heart and the loins” and is the judge of thoughts and intention! Now there is neither verbal artifice nor cunning, but the authentic interpretation of the text itself, by the words of the same Job which precede it, show very clearly, when he speaks to God in these terms: “Man is short-lived, but is filled with anger”, to understand that he is in any case liable of a punishment and guilty in front of you, he who “like the flower barely blossoms and then fades” or “who flees like a shadow” you do not neglect it, neither do you despise it nor reject it, but you keep your word and diligently do it, and bring it to judgment in your presence, so that it may be worthy of retribution whatever it may be.

Who is the one who, when judged before you, appears pure, even though he has lived only one day? Does he follow his way on earth, so that you also want to scrutinize him! These words, therefore, have the following meaning: man, born of woman, has an ephemeral life, filled with anger, or he is like the flower that has blossomed and fades, and flees as the shadow; you do not neglect him, but you keep the word about him and you make him come to judgment before you. For who is free from defilement, even though his life was only one day on the earth?

All this shows very clearly that it is the life that man lives (actually and really) which comes to judgment, that what is said is that one is not free from defilement, even if one had only one day of life on earth; But, the one who is born from the womb of his mother and who has lived only one day on earth, does not come to judgment. How, indeed, would it be up to this audience to be judged by any of the chief of those who have breathed this air and lived? It is indeed ridiculous to think that God will make them stand trial before him!

So, Job speaks of the defilement that resides in the sins of actions and thoughts that also come to judgment and he does not show, as those who are Manichaeans think, that this defilement is mixed naturally with the generation of man!

But it has not been shown either, as those who, chaining up declare it, that the souls pre-existed and that it is as a result of some evil which took place in a time yet devoid of body, that which had first been accomplished by them passed then into the body! They find ways to get around this text in a way that suits them and to say that the little child himself is not exempt from the defilement of sin because of the mistakes previously made by the soul before it reaches the body. Job holds them in the face of their foolishness, too, he who has shown a keen philosophical sense, when he said that no one is free from defilement, even if his life on earth was only one day. To such a soul who had previously sinned, even before it had been joined to the body, the expression “its life on earth” would not be appropriate; but what is said about “life on earth” has been said in sound philosophy, and not about some other location out of the earth!

And for his part David sang this psalm expressing repentance for murder and adultery: “Because I was conceived in sin and it is in sins that my mother conceived me“. Touching these same words, walk according to a thought inspired by the Divine Scripture … Paul, writing to the Galatians, said that from his mother’s womb he had been set apart for the service of the gospel, and to preach to the nations, not mentioning what had happened in the meantime, that he had persecuted the Church of God and had been blasphemous and outrageous, so that everything was left in the shadows as if his whole life was known only according to these other aspects which were good.

In the same way those who have passed their life in sins and are separated from God, having lived on the margin of his laws and his commandments, are considered and declared to have departed from God, who had advance knowledge from the moment of their birth, as it is written in a psalm: “The wicked have gone astray from the womb and the liars went astray from birth.” It is also like this that God declared by the prophet Isaiah to the Jewish people who had gone astray in total impiety: “For I knew you to be completely disloyal and you will be called unholy from birth.” It’s in an analogous manner that David also, who had returned to himself, and for this reason especially had been justified, said, “Because I was conceived in sin and it is in sins that my mother conceived me.” Indeed, as I have fallen into these faults and similar faults, by murder and adultery, without remembering how I have lived in accordance with the law and the ordinances, I am responsible for it all my life as if it had passed in faults, and I consider that it was passed in faults and in sin from the moment I was formed and conceived in my mother’s womb!

But there are some who wanted to interpret this text in another way which is proposed to us by declaring: It is the concupiscence or sinful desire itself that David called the mother of sin, she who, by the unseemly desires that she accepted and designed, gave birth to the acts of sin and the sinner who committed them; and what puts an end to such corruptions for one who has sinned is death! It is in this sense that James, one of the wise disciples, has spoken when he writes: “Everyone is tempted, drawn away, and seduced by his own concupiscence; and concupiscence conceives and gives birth to sin; and sin once consumed gives birth to death.” It is from this concupiscence or sinful desire that David says he was conceived and brought forth as the mother of sinners!

There is, moreover, another better interpretation that the text teaches: it is Eve herself whom the prophet calls his mother, who is the mother of all that lives, according as the Divine Scripture says – and he does so by reminding the Creator of the weakness of nature so as to attract mercy. And he said, I am the son of this mother, who, having succumbed in sin by the trick of the serpent, and become the mother of concupiscence or sinful desire, has lost the grace of immortality and the free disposition of her will; and it is by being mortal and weak in her nature that she also conceived, brought forth, and gave birth to sons. Because it is after (the statement) of the punishment: “You are dust and you will return to dust“, that Adam has then knew Eve his wife, whom she conceived and brought forth, and that she became, as was fitting, the mortal mother of mortal sons, of whom I too am the son; and it is because of the mortal nature and weakness of nature that I easily returned to sin. I ask for forgiveness, because it is by being in sin and faults, because of the transgression of the precept, and stripped of the vigour derived from the grace of immortality, that my mother and the mother of all mankind conceived me and gave me birth.

Now this is how the wise Basil teaches us to think and speak by commenting on Psalm one hundred and fifteen and he learns that it is Eve that the word is aimed at: “I am your servant and the son of your servant“: [Basil] “I am indeed the son of your maid, who, while still a little girl and child, the Enemy has trained; He has removed you from your service and made you the servant of sin. But I turn around and run back to the Master of the beginning and recognize my first servanthood. Since you liberated me from sin, descending into Sheol and freeing humanity chained by death and the doors of Sheol from which one cannot escape.” Also, in the discourse On the Epiphany of God, Gregory the theologian wrote: [Gregory of Nazianzus] “Alas for my weakness! It is mine because of our first father”.

It thus follows from all this that the sin of those who have engendered us, understanding the sin of Adam and Eve, is not naturally mixed with our substance, as the unhealthy and impious opinion of the Messalians, or those otherwise known as Manicheans; but it is because they had lost the grace of immortality, because of sin and transgression, so that the terms of condemnation and the sentence have spread to us, seeing that as a natural disposition, we are born mortal as we are born of mortal parents, and not born sinners while we are born of parents who are sinners. It is because sin is not a reality and it does not pass naturally, by procreation, from parents to their children. And if it were not so, no one could, while being the son of a sinful father, become righteous by the best practice of asceticism, for the properties of nature are immutable. In reality, we see many righteous sons come from sinful fathers, such as the godly Hezekiah son of the wicked Ahaz, and others who resembled them, born of mortal parents all of whose sons are born mortal; for the mortal character belongs to nature.

But because sin was for the impious of our race the occasion of losing the grace of immortality and hearing the word of condemnation: “You are dust and you will return to dust” and “Cursed is the earth, object of your works“, for this reason we say that we have become subject to sin and curse, by the fact that we inherit the mortal character of nature, which Christ, the second Adam, destroyed, becoming for us, the first fruits of our resurrection, whose divine baptism we receive, the guarantee that we are no longer sinners, those the offspring of a sinful father, Adam, but mortal, as the offspring of a mortal father!

This is clearly taught by John, bishop of Constantinople, in the tenth homily of the Commentary on the Romans, in the following manner, explaining these words: “For just as by the disobedience of one man many have become sinners, so also by the obedience of one many will become righteous.” [Chrysostom] “And it certainly seems to me that what has been said presupposes an inquiry which is not brief. But, as long as you pay close attention to it, it will also be easily solved. What is this question then, when it says that by the disobedience of a single one many have become sinners? In fact, because this sinner has become mortal, those who descend from him also become mortal, this does not depart from what is reasonable. But that by the disobedience of that one, another becomes a sinner, what is normal to that! For whoever is in this situation would not be liable to judgment if he is not, on his own, a sinner. What does the word ‘sinners’ mean here? This seems to me to be those who are guilty and subject to death expressed in the sentence. He has shown clearly and by many considerations that we have all become mortal because Adam is dead! But what we are looking for is the reason why this was done. But this he does not add; for it was of no use to him in regard to the question which was put to the Jews.

The controversy indeed takes place with regard to the one who questions and derides this justice exercised according to only one! It is for this purpose that he has also shown that the sentence deriving from a single one has passed over to everyone; besides, he has not shown why it was done. – It is that he is not the man to say superfluous things, but he confines himself to retaining the necessary things. Indeed, the rule of controversy did not compel him, but the Jews, to say it: that’s why he left this problem unresolved.

If any of you, however, seek to learn it, we declare that not only have we not been harmed by this death and this sentence, provided that we are vigilant, but that we have even gained by becoming mortals! First, not to have sinned by being in an immortal body; in the second place, to have drawn from it innumerable motives of wisdom. Indeed, impending or expected death commits us to humble ourselves, to be temperate, to control ourselves and to free us from all evils. And with that, or rather before that, it brought forth other advantages in great numbers: it is from this that come the crowning of the martyrs and the trophies of the apostles; this is how Abel was justified, so was Abraham who had slain his son, so John slain for the cause of Christ, and so were the three young men, so Daniel! For if we desire it, not only death, but even Satan cannot harm us. And apart from these considerations, we can also say this, that immortality also will await us, and, after being admonished for a short time, we will enjoy the integral possession of future goods: we are thus educated in this world, as in a house of training, by infirmities, affliction, temptation, poverty, and by others which seem painful, to be disposed to receive future goods”…~

This is confirmed by what we quote from Cyril, who, in the Solution of Questions concerning the Dogma addressed to the monks, writes this: [Cyril] “We must inquire how Adam, our first father, transmitted to us the condemnation which weighed on him because of the transgression. He had heard: ‘You are dust and you will return to dust and he became corruptible as he had been incorruptible, and he was subject to the bonds of death. Since it is after falling there that he procreated sons born of him as a corruptible father, we are born corruptible. It is in this sense that we are heirs to the curse that weighed on Adam. Indeed, it was not in any way for disobeying with him the divine command that he had received that we were condemned, but because, as I said, became mortal, he transmitted to the seed from him the curse: we are indeed born mortals of a mortal! But our Lord Jesus Christ who was called the second Adam and the second first-fruits of our race after the first, reformed us for incorruptibility after having wrestled with death and destroyed it in his own flesh, the strength of the ancient curse was also dissolved in him. That is why the very wise Paul “said: ‘As death has come by a man, so it is by a man that comes the resurrection of the dead’, and again: ‘In like manner effect that all die in Adam, so all will live again in Christ ‘”.

This is what we find in the text of the Doctor, but we learn at the same time many things: that “we were not associated with our first father in the sin“, – he said indeed that “we have not disobeyed with him the divine commandment and that we are born mortals of a mortal.” And we do not only give the name of corruption to him who is contaminated by sin, as the venerable Bishop Julian thought, but also to the one who is mortal.

Indeed, after saying about Adam: “Born of him as of a corruptible father, we are born corruptible,” St. Cyril said again to illuminate this same saying: “We are indeed born mortal of a mortal“. And in teaching us that this very corruption is death, he declared that it is not by the fact of his incarnation that Christ destroyed it, but by voluntarily dying and resurrecting from the dead: [Cyril] “Now our Lord Jesus Christ, who was called the second Adam and the second first of our race, after the first, has reformed us for incorruptibility: after having wrestled with death and destroyed it in his own flesh, for him the strength of the ancient curse was also dissolved in him. That is why the very wise Paul said: ‘As death has come by a man, so it is by a man that comes the resurrection of the dead’ “.

Now that the mortal character is in the order of nature, as well as passibility, and that similar natural deficiencies are peculiar to our nature, is clearly taught by the venerable John, bishop of Constantinople, in the twelfth homily of the Commentary on the letter to the Romans, which states [Chrysostom] “When Adam sinned and his body became mortal and passible, he also became subject to many natural deficiencies, like a horse that became slower and more restive.”

On the other hand, that Adam’s incorruptibility which precedes the transgression of the precept, let us understand it as immortality, a fact of grace and not of nature, the eminent Cyril also shows in the first book of the exposition of the Commentary of the Gospel of John: [Cyril] “Man is therefore a reasonable animal, but composed, meaning of a soul and of this earthly and temporal flesh. Because it had been made by God and he had come into being, without possessing of his own nature incorruptibility nor indestructibility, – these indeed belong by nature to God alone, – he had been marked by the spirit of life, enriched, by an intimate relationship with God, a good that goes beyond nature; because ‘he breathed the breath of life in his face and man became a living soul’. But because he had been guilty of the transgression of the precept, he rightly heard: ‘You are dust and you will return to dust’ “. He was stripped of grace and the breath of life left the earthly flesh, meaning the Spirit of him who said, I am life. And the living being fell into death, according to the flesh alone, while the soul remained in immortality, because it was only flesh that was said: ‘You are dust and you will return to dust‘.

And in the Solutions concerning the Dogma that he composed in the form of a rule in answer to the questions of a certain Deacon Tiberius and addressed to his companions, he defined, by gathering all at once, and declared that, As a result of the transgression, Adam did not lose a single natural good, nor our race by him. Now the statement of the Rule is as follows: [Cyril] “For we have lost nothing of what we have by nature.”

That it is by grace in fact that Adam possessed from the beginning incorruptibility, – which consists in immortality and impassibility, – enriched as he was by a good that goes beyond nature and by the generosity of him who created him, we have learned from the word of the Fathers instructed by God: if he had preserved the grace, the mortal nature, in conformity with nature would have remained hidden as well as the corruptibility of the human body, naturally fit, as a compound, to dissolve itself, and death, which completes all, would not have reached it at all. For he created man for incorruptibility, and as it is written ‘God was not the author of death’: death itself was swallowed up, as Paul says, by greatness exceeding the nature of immortality and life; this has by the way been previously recognized.

But because he had disobeyed the precept and he had deliberately evolved on the margins of nature, he was affected by sin; and he was stripped of immortality when he heard the word that condemned him “You are dust and you will return to dust“. …

And death has prevailed over all who come into this world by way of procreation and generation, by the very fact that those who are born and who die according to the order of nature are born mortal as the offspring of a mortal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.