“The unassumed is the unhealed, but what is united with God is also being saved” (Ep. 101.5). With this one sentence St Gregory the Theologian overthrew the fourth-century heresy taught by Apollinarius. We may speculate all we want on the unity of the God-Man, but soteriology must ultimately norm all our speculations. The redemption received through baptism, Gregory declares, depends upon a genuine incarnation of God. If the divine Son did not assume a complete human nature (body, mind, and spirit), then he has not acted to save us, and there is no gospel to be preached and no healing to experience. So insightful and decisive was this response, the Nazianzen has ever since been the first one to whom the Church turns when any teaching arises that threatens the full humanity of Christ. “What has not been assumed has not been healed.”
During the past century an increasing number of theologians have spoken of the divine Son as assuming fallen human nature in the Incarnation. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has eloquently expressed this understanding in his book The Orthodox Way:
Christ shares to the full in what we are, and so he makes it possible for us to share in what he is, in his divine life and glory. He became what we are, so as to make us what he is. … Christ’s riches are his eternal glory; Christ’s poverty is his complete self-identification with our fallen human condition. …
This notion of salvation as sharing implies—although many have been reluctant to say this openly—that Christ assumed not just unfallen but fallen human nature. As the Epistle to the Hebrews insists (and in all the New Testament there is no Christological text more important than this): “We do not have a high priest who cannot be touched with the felling of our infirmities; but he was in all points tempted exactly as we are, yet without sinning” (4:15). Christ lives out his life on earth under the conditions of the fall. He is not himself a sinful person, but in his solidarity with fallen man he accepts to the full the consequences of Adam’s sin. He accepts to the full not only the physical consequences, such as weariness, bodily pain, and eventually the separation of body and soul in death. He accepts also the moral consequences, the loneliness, the alienation, the inward conflict. It may seem a bold thing to ascribe all this to the living God, but a consistent doctrine of the Incarnation requires nothing less. If Christ had merely assumed unfallen human nature, living out his earthly life in the situation of Adam in Paradise, then he would not have been touched with the feeling of our infirmities, nor would he have been tempted in everything exactly as we are. And in that case he would not be our Saviour.
St Paul goes so far as to write, “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for our sake” (2 Cor. 5:21). We are not to think here solely in terms of some juridical transaction, whereby Christ, himself guiltless, somehow has our guilt “imputed” to him in an exterior manner. Much more is involved than this. Christ save us by experiencing from within, as one of us, all that we suffer inwardly through living in a sinful world. (pp. 74-76)
When I read The Orthodox Way back in the late 80s or early 90s, I did not give the above passage a second thought. My reading of the Reformed theologian Thomas F. Torrance, as well as the Anglican theologian Thomas Smail, had prepared me for the claim that in Jesus Christ the divine Son united himself to postlapsarian human nature. It just didn’t seem terribly controversial, unless one was committed to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. In his two most recent books, Fr Patrick Henry Reardon, Orthodox biblical scholar and polymath, has reiterated the fallenness claim. Commenting on the 8th chapter of St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, with its remarkable statement that God sent “his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom 8:3), Reardon writes:
According to St. Paul, that is to say, the flesh assumed by the Son of God was identical to our own. Becoming like us (en homoiomati), He took on “the flesh of sin”—sarx hamartias. In view of the New Testament’s insistence that Christ was sinless—and that death, consequently, had no hold on Him—Paul’s description of the Incarnation in this text of Romans seems unusually bold. It is valuable for its clear assertion that the Son, in the Incarnation, assumed our humanity with the weaknesses and disadvantages of its fallen state. (Reclaiming the Atonement, p. 106; also see The Jesus We Missed)
Underlying the contention that in the Incarnation God assumed fallen human nature is the conviction that “salvation must reach the point of human need. Only if Christ is fully and completely a man as we are, can we men share in what he has done for us” (Ware, p. 73). The assumption of sinless, prelapsarian humanity would have missed the whole soteriological point. We do not live with Adam in the Garden. We have been expelled from Paradise and the angelic sword bars the way of our return. We are trapped in a world in which evil and death rule and sin is inevitable. “We are each of us,” states Ware, “conditioned by the solidarity of the human race in its accumulated wrong-doing and wrong-thinking, and hence wrong-being” (p. 62). To rescue us from this wrong-being, God graciously chose to become our companion in our fallen world: “God saves us by identifying himself with us, by knowing our human experience from the inside” (p. 78). The eternal Creator kenotically unites himself, not only to the fullness of human life, but to the fullness of human death.
God knows our temptations, because he has experienced them; God knows our sufferings, because he has experienced them; God knows our alienation, desolation, and death, because he has experienced them. God knows the human condition from the existential inside; and his knowing, avers Ware, is our salvation: “Totally, unreservedly, he identifies himself with all man’s anguish and alienation. He assumed it into himself, and by assuming it he healed it. There was no other way he could heal it, except by making it his own” (p. 80). One hears echoes of the Prophet Isaiah:
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Isa 53:4-5)
The evangelical power of the Metropolitan’s presentation of incarnate solidarity is undeniable; but there’s something missing. It is unclear how and why God’s existential knowing of the human condition heals the human condition. Ware’s argument would be strengthened by explicit elaboration of the vicarious dimension of Christ’s salvific work, culminating in the resurrection. Perhaps St Gregory of Nyssa can suggest a way forward: “Although Christ took our filth upon himself, nevertheless he is not himself defiled by the pollution, but in his own self he cleanses the filth, for it says, the light shone in the darkness, but the darkness did not overpower it” (Adv. Apol. 26). The Son becomes Man in order to purify, regenerate, and deify human nature. This is the salvation that Christ has brought us.
A question remains: What is a fallen human nature? In his discussion of original sin, Ware identifies the consequences of the Fall. On the physical level man becomes subject to pain, disease and the disintegration of old age, culminating in the terrible separation of soul and body that is death. On the moral level man becomes subject to disordered passions, frustration, boredom, depression, toil, guilt, and a divided will. All of these consequences I understand, but they do not constitute human nature, at least not in the strict sense. If you ask me what a dog is, I will list the essential properties that together make up doghood, i.e., those attributes without which a dog would not be a dog. When we speak of human fallenness, however, we cannot be speaking of an essential property (or collection of essential properties). A human being need not be a sinner in order to be a human being—indeed, quite the opposite. All orthodox Christians affirm an ontological continuity between prelapsarian and postlapsarian humanity. The Fall did not result in man’s degeneration into a totally different kind of created being. The children of Adam belong to the race of Adam, albeit now living under non-optimal conditions with specific inherited handicaps.
If fallenness is not an essential property of human being, perhaps it is accurately described as an accidental property—i.e., a property that does not constitute humanity but is rather acquired, like blue eyes or an alcoholic disposition. Oliver Crisp advances this suggestion in his essay “Did Christ Have a Fallen Human Nature?” If we accept this as a working hypothesis, our next step is to name the specific accidental properties that characterize fallen existence. Once having done that, we can then ask, When God became Man, did he assume one or more accidental properties characteristic of humanity’s fallen mode of existence? Was Jesus mortal? Did he know the kind of temptation that we sinners know every day of our lives? Did he suffer from concupiscence? Did he experience genuine interior conflict and fear of death?
And here the controversy begins. Until two years ago or so, I was blithely ignorant of serious controversy within Orthodoxy regarding the nature of Christ’s human nature. But then I was directed to the massive book by Fr Emmanuel Hatzidakis, Jesus: Fallen? Hatzidakis argues that Ware & Company have grievously departed from the Orthodox faith by their assertion that God in Christ joined himself to fallen human nature: “This, we submit, is a novel, erroneous and dangerous teaching, not supported by any Father of the Church” (p. 509).
Oh my. We need to explore the matter a bit further.