In his various essays and books, Fr John Meyendorff frequently speaks of God’s assumption of fallen humanity in Jesus Christ. As we asked in our previous post on Met Kallistos Ware, so we ask now of Meyendorff: What does the adjective “fallen” add to our understanding of the Incarnation? If we deleted the word, would it matter? Perhaps the best way to approach Meyendorff’s thought here is to state what the assumption of fallen human nature does not mean.
First, the assumption of fallen human nature does not mean that Jesus Christ ever separated himself from his Father by failing to choose the Good. It does not mean that Jesus became a sinner. Meyendorff is clear. Not only did Jesus never sin, sin was never a possibility for him: “He—being God—could not commit sin, a personal act, which only a created hypostasis can commit” (“Christ’s Humanity,” p. 24). The sinlessness of Jesus flows necessarily from the hypostatic union and his identity as the eternal Word. Jesus could no more disobey his Father than he could cease being the divine Son and Creator of the universe. Meyendorff appeals to the difficult notion of the gnomic will, as expounded by St Maximus the Confessor. “The expression,” Meyendorff explains,
comes from the Greek gnome, which means ‘opinion,’ implying the hesitation and the inevitable agony which accompanies options and decisions taken blindly in darkness. Gnomic will is therefore implied in the exercise of freedom in the ‘fallen’ world, where man either willingly ignores, or is incapable of finding ‘naturally’ the true will of God and the destination of his own existence. (p. 23)
Since the Fall, human beings have lived in existential uncertainty regarding the Good. We are confronted with choices between relative and apparent goods. We do not apprehend the right and true with intuitive immediacy; we are not sure what we want; hence we must weigh, consider, assess, judge. We make our decisions half-blindfolded, as it were. We vacillate between one choice or the other. Within this condition of gnome, sin becomes virtually inevitable. Whereas the “will,” i.e., the faculty of volition, belongs to human nature, the deliberative will expresses the created person embedded in history. It is a mode of hypostatic existence. When the eternal Logos became Man, he assumed the natural will; but he did not, and could not, assume the gnomic will, as it is not a constituent of human nature:
Gnome is intrinsically linked with hypostasis, or human person. …. Sin is always a personal action that does not corrupt nature as such. This explains why the Word could fully assume human nature, sin excepted. Sin remains on the level of the gnome, of personal choice. Christ possessed a natural human will, but since the subject of this being was the Logos himself, he could have no gnomic will, the only possible source of sin. (Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, p. 149)
To attribute a gnomic will to Christ would be, in the words of Maximus, “to consider him as a mere man, possessing a will like our own, ignorant, hesitant, and in conflict with himself. … In the Lord’s human nature, which possessed not a simple human hypostasis but a divine hypostasis, there could be no gnome” (p. 149; cf. Ian McFarland, “‘Naturally and by Grace’,” and Paul Blowers, “Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus on Gnomic Will (γνώμη) in Christ“).
The divine hypostasis, therefore, could not sin, even as man. As the subject and agent of his assumed humanity, he was not torn between good and evil, light and darkness. He was not ignorant of the Good and always desired the Good. At this point we may wish to ask Meyendorff how Jesus could be tempted in any vital sense of the word. Unfortunately, he does not appear to have addressed this question. He offers only this explanation: “It is because he was God, not as ‘mere man,’ that Jesus was able to overcome the temptations inherent in fallen humanity” (“New Life in Christ,” p. 495).
But there is one sentence in “Christ’s Humanity” that seems to suggest that Jesus experienced something akin to the gnomic will. While the gospels do not provide reliable access to the self-consciousness of Christ, “they do affirm—by describing several crucial moments of Christ’s ministry—that He felt, that He lacked knowledge, that He agonized and, finally, that He died in a way which is common to the whole of fallen humanity” (p. 26). If Jesus grew in knowledge and wisdom, if he was tempted, if he learned obedience through suffering, does this not suggest that he too must have deliberated upon various courses of action? Or as Joseph Farrell puts it: “As judgment, and therefore, doubt, hesitation and ignorance are proper to human nature, does not the denial of a gnomie to Christ therefore entail a denial of these properties of His human nature as well? Can Christ be truly tempted as we are if there is no possibility of hesitation in His human will?” (Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor, p. 161, n. 15). Just a question.
Second, the assumption of fallen human nature does not mean that Jesus was ever subject to sinful, or blameworthy, human passions, such as covetousness, lust, envy, greed, or disordered desire of any kind. He would then have needed a physician himself. “Christ was not ‘passionate’ in a sinful sense,” states Meyendorff, “but became subject to the ‘irreproachable passions'” (“Christ’s Humanity,” p. 29, n. 39). These blameless passions which the Son made his own include hunger, thirst, fatigue, fear, passibility, corruptibility, and death. Meyendorff thus endorses the judgment of St John of Damascus: “We confess that He assumed all the natural and blameless passions of man. This is because He assumed the whole man and everything that is his, except sin—for this last is not natural and it was not implanted in us by the Creator” (De fid. orth. III.20). Though experiencing these natural passions intrinsic to fallen existence, at no point does our Lord allow them lead him into sin and interior bondage.
Meyendorff does not elaborate on the salvific significance of the Son’s voluntary submission to the innocent passions of mankind, but he does cite the Church’s rejection of the 6th century heresy advanced by Julian of Halicarnassus, commonly referred to as aphthartodocetism. Julian was a monophysite bishop who maintained that our Lord’s earthly body was necessarily incorruptible and immortal. Corruptibility and mortality are the consequences of freely chosen sin, consequences which all fallen human beings suffer and endure. Given that Jesus was totally free from the dominion of Satan and did not commit a single sin, his body, argues Julian, must have partaken in the same characteristics of Adam’s prelapsarian body. Christ was thus free from the physical necessities that we now endure. If he endured passions, it was because he consciously chose to do so at specific temporal moments throughout his life. In aphthartodocetic fashion, one can imagine Jesus thinking to himself: “I guess I’ll be hungry this morning.” Meyendorff agrees that our Lord’s subjection to the blameless passions was free and voluntary, but he locates that free decision within the Son’s eternal decision to become Man:
The Divine will, which is the reason for the Incarnation, concerned the entire incarnation process, not single moments of the life of Jesus taken separately by themselves. By the will of the Father and with the cooperation of the Spirit, the Logos “became flesh,” i.e. entered the fallen time where “death reigns” (Rom 5:14). There were not several distinct divine decisions: one for the Incarnation itself, another for each of Christ’s actions, and one final one allowing Him to die. In the fallen world, which the Logos entered, death is an overwhelming, pervasive reality determining human existence in every detail: it is the cause of all creatures’ struggle for survival (mostly at the expense of each other) and, in a sense, the cause of their sinfulness. It was that humanity which was assumed by the Logos, who consequently, as man, had to endure suffering, temptations and death; although as God He did not commit sin which is inevitable in the case of human created hypostaseis in the fallen world. (“Christ’s Humanity,” pp. 26-27)
Mortality, corruptibility, and the blameless passions were assumed by the Son in the womb of his mother. Meyendorff sees no reason to posit multiple temporal assents to fallen existence, as if Jesus believed that he was naturally invulnerable to disease, injury, and death. He did not and was not. Christ’s body would not become incorruptible until he was raised from the dead on Easter morning.
We are, I think, now prepared to answer the question, What does Fr John Meyendorff mean when he states that the eternal Son assumed fallen humanity If we are thinking of human nature as the conglomeration of essential properties (i.e., those properties that an entity must have to be classified as human), then the word “fallen” does not add anything and could just as easily be dropped. The Adamic Fall did not alter human nature in an essential way. “Sin is always a personal action that does not corrupt nature as such” (Eastern Christian Thought, p. 149). The prelapsarian state, the postlapsarian state, the glorified state—they are best thought of as three phases in the mode of human existence. Ian McFarland makes this point in a more Western idiom::
But while a human being is equally human whether in Eden, expelled from it, or raised to glory, human nature is marked by certain characteristic features in each of these phases of the economy. Thus, before Adam and Eve sinned, all human beings had an unfallen nature; after this primal transgression and before the parousia all have a fallen one; with the Judgment all will have a fully glorified one. In this way, human nature has a temporally indexed dimension that creates a real solidarity among all members of the race, even though these temporally indexed qualities are not characteristic of human nature as such (i.e. human beings are fully human in all three states). Because Christ came to be among fallen human beings so that he could be (as both Hebrews 2 and 4 agree) tested as they were, it would seem reasonable to suppose that he would need to share the damaged condition of postlapsarian humanity. From this perspective, it seems fitting (though not strictly necessary) that he should have assumed a fallen human nature. (“Fallen or Unfallen?“, pp. 407-408)
Despite the risk of misunderstanding, Meyendorff speaks of the Word assuming, not an abstract, prelapsarian human nature, but the corruptible flesh he received from the Blessed Virgin Mary. Meyendorff wants to draw our attention to the existence of Christ as existentially, concretely, and historically lived. “The Incarnation in all its aspects was an expression of the free will of God,” the French-Russian theologian explains. “But God willed precisely that, as man, Jesus, since his conception in the womb of Mary, would be fully conditioned by what our human, fallen existence is” (“New Life in Christ,” p. 494). The incarned God was not play-acting. He knew human existence from the dramatic inside-out. He knew our joys and our sufferings, because he knew his joys and his sufferings. God unites himself to our fallen human nature, so that in him we fallen human beings might be healed, regenerated, transfigured, glorified:
The true dimension of the humanity of Jesus can only be understood in the context of soteriology. He assumed human nature in its fallen state and He brought it to the Father in its original, transfigured form. This salvation act was done in time, not only in the sense that Jesus grew as a man, going through the normal process of human maturing, but also in the paschal sense. He was the New Passover leading Israel not from Egypt to Canaan, but from death to life: “Christ, Our Passover, was sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7), writes St Paul. “Passover” implies a passage from one situation to another, a radical change, salvation. The Christian Gospel tells us that this change happened precisely in the person of Christ. If He did not assume that fallen humanity which was to be saved, which was to be healed and transformed; if, as some had imagined, He was immune to disease or any death-causing event, and was destined to live indefinitely within fallen time, no true salvation or change would ontologically occur in and through His humanity. That humanity would have to conceived only as a screen, covering a theophany, which would be seen as operating by itself, in a sort of magic exercise of divine omnipotence, with the human nature ceasing to be what we are as soon as Divinity touched it. (“Christ’s Humanity,” pp. 27-28)
Meyendorff understands human nature as a dynamic movement toward the divine, a movement that has been interrupted, misdirected, and stultified by death and demonic oppression. Only the Incarnation of God himself—an incarnation within the conditions and burdens of this broken world—can deliver humanity from evil and restore its ecstastic openness to its Creator. Here is the gospel! In Jesus Christ, the New Adam, Son of God and Son of Man, the living God has come to redeem sinners—not by some juridical or magical act but by taking them through suffering and death into the glory of eternal Pascha.