Translation from the work of St Severus by Father Peter Farrington
It depended on his own free will, to sin, I say, and not to sin. It was in this way that he was deprived of the grace of immortality, by disturbing with the shadow of sin the image of the divine likeness, by virtue of which, formed as being intelligent in regard to his soul, he had been filled by the presence of the Holy Spirit and rendered capable of all knowledge and all virtue – it is this indeed which is the meaning of the breath of life which, as the divine Word said, had been breathed into his face by his Creator – for he had previously received the warning: “The day you eat it, you will surely die”.
Now it is the true death that is envisaged here: the separation from life and the separation from God who is life by nature and immortality, and it is in this connection that it was also written by one of the divine sages: God is not the author of death.
Moreover, God had, beforehand, formulated the warning of what was to result from sin, so that man, remaining firm in the observance of the divine precept and rejoicing in the favor and enjoyment of the divine presence, rendered death inoperative and was not separated from God.
But when he had sinned against him, God, in his mercy and compassion towards that he had created, did not inflict on him a cruel, but a very mild condemnation. Indeed, since it is specific to created things to dissolve, he decreed upon him: “You are dust and you will return to dust”. He dissolves the one which had been constituted by the composition, while at the same time saving him for regeneration and resurrection by the divine incarnation.
Not bringing about the dissolution of the one who had been struck by sin, would it not have been nothing other than allowing the evil that flowed from it to remain immortal?
Moreover, before the transgression, it is the whole man who God warns of death, if he should violate the precept: and he declared without discrimination: “The day you eat the forbidden fruit, you shall surely die”, to restrain, by fear, any voluntary impetus towards sin.
But after he had broken the precept and sinned, God was moved to pity and granted forgiveness to the rational soul, which had deviated towards sensual pleasure of the earthly body because of its union with it. For, “He knows of what we are formed, and he remembered that we are dust”, according to the word of the prophet and psalmist.
He divided the sentence, reduced the decree by half, we can say, and reserved to the flesh alone the condition of being mortal, saying: “You are dust and you will return to dust”, so as to avoid the rational soul, again condemned by the divine word, departing completely from God, so that it could never rise again nor look to the summits from which it had fallen.
This is a beautiful passage from St Severus, in the same volume I have been translating. He reminds us that the sin of Adam was in his own hands, and that he had the free will to sin, or not to sin. We learn that he had been filled by the presence of the Holy Spirit and this undeserved gift gave him the opportunity to know all things and be preserved in all virtue. It was in this condition that he was deprived of the grace of immorality, by disturbing with the shadow of sin the image of the divine likeness. This expresses the understanding that the grace of the Holy Spirit was given to Adam beyond and apart from his creation and his human nature. It was a grace and therefore it was not natural to him. It was the very presence of the Holy Spirit, and this was lost when he disturbed the image of the divine likeness by sin. So that, when he sinned, he lost both the immortality that did not belong to his human nature but was a grace, and the indwelling Holy Spirit, who had been breathed into him.
Adam had received a warning, that when he ate of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but we see that St Severus places this in the context of Adam’s free will, and not God’s punishment. That he had received a warning shows us that he had the opportunity to heed the warning and preserve himself in obedience. But more than this, we are to understand that God have given every possible benefit to Adam, the indwelling Holy Spirit, so that his disobedience and sin is even less justified.
St Severus speaks about the death that Adam had been warned of, if he disobeyed. He makes clear that it is the death of the body, the experience of mortality, and also the separation from God who is life. But this death is not a punishment of God, since God is not the author of death. If God is not the author of death, then it is at Adam’s hands that we find mortality and the separation from God introduced. Even if we remember that St Severus says that man is created mortal, nevertheless at his creation he received a grace of immortality, so that God can in no sense be called the author of death. It is in turning away from life that Adam has come under the power of death.
The warning which God had given Adam was not to threaten punishment but to strengthen him in the choice of life virtue, so that his natural mortality might not affect him, and he might not be separated from God.
Then we come to a very interesting section of St Severus’s argument. It is that when Adam had sinned, God acted in mercy and compassion towards his creation. We read that Adam was only given a very mild condemnation. He both allowed that which was made of dust to begin turning back to dust, but very importantly, he also and immediately acted to save him for regeneration and resurrection by the divine incarnation. St Severus says that God both allows death to come upon Adam as the consequence of his sin, but also, in mercy and compassion, acts to save him from the same consequence.
When he speaks about the natural dissolution which came upon Adam, St Severus understands this as a mercy. Otherwise it would have meant that Adam was left in his sinful state for ever, and the consequences of his sin would have been eternal. So death was a mercy.
But St Severus has more to say about the mercy of God when Adam sinned. He says that Adam had been warned that his whole being would die and would be entirely separated from God in the true death. Yet God spared the soul of Adam, even though it was also an aspect of his human nature and was associated with the body, and so also fell into sin. He says…
God was moved to pity and granted forgiveness to the rational soul.
This is at the moment of the Fall. This is when Adam will be cast out of Paradise. At this very moment we read in the words of St Severus that God is seen to be acting in mercy and compassion towards Adam, whom he already intends to save by becoming man himself.
In a wonderful explanation he says that God divided the just penalty of Adam’s sin, those consequences of which he had been warned, and he only applied the penalty of death to the body. What was the purpose for this mercy? It was…
To avoid the rational soul, … departing completely from God, so that it could never rise again nor look to the summits from which it had fallen.
God intended that mankind, in Adam, and in our own experience, would not be so completely seperated from God that we would not always have the memory of Paradise drawing us back towards God, always a sense that there is more to life, and the possibility of rising again, in God’s grace and as he wills. How great is the mercy and compassion of God, that even in this moment of utter ruin, he acts only for the salvation of his creation, and the renewal of what had been lost.