In the previous post, we saw that Eastern Orthodox writers are able to talk about how fallen man is “captive” to sin and sin is an “inescapable” condition. But if they use language like this, why do they insist that man has a free will and can choose to cooperate with God in one’s initial conversion? I will try to get to examining this specific question in what may seem initially to be a “round-about way” – although I hope my reasons for proceeding in this way will become clear as we go along.
For the Eastern Orthodox, I understand that man’s immortality is a product of the Resurrection of the incarnate God-Man Jesus Christ, and is not due to any “natural inescapable immortality of man”. Here I think of words that we speak in our traditional Easter Vigil service: “This is the night when all who believe in Christ are delivered from bondage to sin and are restored to life and immortality”. Going along with this, they would also say that man’s nature is not “grounded in God’s eternality” by virtue of creation, but rather is only by virtue of the Incarnation. Here is where I think it makes sense to think about what I said in my last post (in a footnote): had Adam and Eve constantly looked to the Word, which was the way God intended for events to transpire, i.e. it was to be the “normal or regular course of things” (in other words, it was “natural” in this sense, not in a nature/grace-dichotomy sort of way), they would have not died.
That said, here is how one EO commenter put it:
“In order to truly actualize incorruptibility within human nature, there must be a person who is incorruptible already, and thereby actualizes this divine power within human nature. Anyone who lacks actual incorruptibility will not have the power to use human nature perfectly, thereby uniting it to incorruptibility. Thus, a divine Person is needed in order to give human nature a stable participation in God’s incorruptibility. This person must live each stage of human development—birth, life, death—to unite all of human nature to God. And in order to complete this process and make human nature predestined to move towards a final state of incorruptibility of soul and body, He must inaugurate a fourth stage of human life: resurrection…. So even if the fall had never happened, an Incarnation of the Word was needed. Otherwise, human nature would not have been recapitulated by an incorruptible Person who would unite it to God. And without this, there would always be the possibility of a fall into corruption.”
How are these views supposedly different than those of Western Christendom? According to some of the Eastern Orthodox persons I have spoken with, “Westerners say ‘yes’, man is naturally immortal, at least his soul is… The soul does not obtain eternality (more technically averternality) through the Resurrection [as it does in Eastern Orthodoxy], but like the angels, is, in its very creation, rooted in God’s eternality.” Further, one EO said to me “Adam was created neither immortal nor mortal, but with the potential of becoming immortal; that, because of separating from God, Adam became mortal and that mortality is transmitted to his descendants.”
From our standpoint as Western Christians of the Lutheran variety, I certainly think we also should question this notion of souls being eternal by nature. That said, I am at a loss to understand how death – which is a curse, an enemy, and not a part of the original plan – can be conceived of as a “stage of human development”. And if the fall had never happened (yes, I am playing “what if”), why would a resurrection, a “fourth stage of human life”, been needed? Would this be “resurrection” in a different sense? In any case, I am sure that many pious Lutherans believe that Jesus Christ would have become incarnate even if the fall had not occurred (this is interesting fodder to ponder!). However, I do not see why this absolutely needed to occur either for God to truly show His love for us or for us to be able to depend on Him fully – if some would insist on this. In sum, I think this belief is a very pious and comforting one, and perhaps I should have no problem with anyone being confident of these views. However, I think that problems would arise for myself and others if these views were imposed on other Christians as being necessary for salvation. We do uphold St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ dictum that “what was not assumed, was not redeemed”, but, as can be seen from above, do not see things in quite the same way here.
All that said, all of this seems to make more sense to me if I put it this way: in light of the fall, it was God’s move to redeem man by becoming man, and part of this meant that new “spiritual bodies” and the fullness of eternal life would be given to believers through, in part, His incarnation and resurrection. If I am thinking about this rightly, this would perhaps also be why, until the Promised Christ actually came in the flesh, believers who had died were not in heaven with God but in the “holding tank” of “Abraham’s bosom”. Evidently, it was not until Christ was resurrected that human nature was able to be prepared to “assume” (or, from our perspective, “re-assume” ?) this quality that it was made for. In addition, I think it is possible that this view might help explain the Scriptural teaching that unbelievers will suffer for eternity in hell – not because their souls are necessarily immortal, but because God is not the one who destroys relationships (the eternal life which is love) – or takes any pleasure in their dissolution. He is rather the One who renews them, and hence gives all men a share in His life by uniting Himself to man in the deepest possible way. It is a quality of sinful man that he destroys relationships, not God, who is holy (see Hosea 11)
Please note: I know that we still have not talked about why EO believe we can cooperate with God in initial conversion, but I promise that we are getting there… More background is necessary, I believe.
Lutherans are apt to get uneasy with the “God became man that man might become God” language of Athanasius. However, as the Lutheran pastor Will Weedon puts it, if we say “God became a child of man that man might become a child of God….”, much of our discomfort disappears. In any case, as noted already above, it seems that both Augustine and the Eastern Orthodox, for example, believed that Adam and Eve, while able to not to sin, were to eventually, by God’s grace, become those who were not able to sin. Further, in Augustine’s view, Adam was not made instrinsically immortal, but could die or not die depending on his response to the command of God (perhaps we could say that eternal life was “conditional” only in the sense that they needed to continually live from the life-giving words of God!)
I think that the traditional Lutheran view is similar to this, although I would want to nuance it a bit (see ** from the first post in this series), and I think this fits with the Eastern Orthodox view as well – namely that Adam and Eve would have only been and continued to be immortal – reaching the highest heights of what they were capable of – by participation in God’s grace (as one EO commentator said: “where ‘nature’ is synonymous with ‘essence,’ we are naturally immortal because immortality does not belong to our essence but is given to us by the grace of God”). That said, the key question here, of course, has to do with the abilities of fallen man.
And that discussion will be coming in the next post in a couple days.
NOTE: this post originally said: “I will try to get to answering this question in what may seem initially to be a “round-about way”. I did not want to say that.