The Prelapsarian Christ

When the Word became flesh, he assumed, not human nature as originally constituted in Edenic innocence, but human nature as marked by sin and the curse of death—thus declare many modern theologians. The controlling images, at least for Kallistos Ware, John Meyendorff, and T. F. Torrance, are the divine solidarity with sinners and the regeneration of human nature. In Jesus Christ God takes humanity to himself and within himself purifies and renews that humanity. Preachers and theologians have not always spoken this way, however. More typically they have insisted that in the womb of the Virgin Mary the eternal Word united himself to prelapsarian human nature, i.e., human nature untainted by sin and free from Satanic oppression. Only in this way could he be the sinless Savior that the world so desperately needs. “There was in the Savior,” writes St Leo the Great, “no trace of the things that the Deceiver brought upon us, and to which deceived humanity gave admittance” (Ep. 28.3).

We have noted in this series the ambiguity of the phrases “unfallen human nature” and “fallen human nature.” It is not always clear what is intended. Are we talking about human nature as a set of essential properties? a mode of historical existence? or something else? Those who debate this issue often do not clearly define their terms. Attentive readers may be forgiven for suspecting “that there is actually less disagreement than is often granted,” as Kelly Kapic remarks (“The Son’s Assumption of a Human Nature,” p. 155). Theologians on both sides of the debate agree that Jesus lived his life in perfect obedience to his Father; they agree that he did not suffer from concupiscence nor experience any form of interior bondage; they agree that in his life, death, and resurrection he accomplished the salvation and deification of humanity. Yet the debate continues, often with intense ferocity. Nothing less than the gospel and the integrity of the catholic faith is at stake, so we are told.

The christological literature of the past fifty years has been dominated by the fallen nature construal of the Incarnation. Greek Orthodox priest, Fr Emmanuel Hatzidakis, has recently sought to redress the scales. Weighing in at 651 pages, his Jesus: Fallen? is a massive work, and I tip my beretta to Fr Emmanuel for the investment of time and energy that he must have spent in study and writing. But I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I believe that it is a title that every Orthodox pastor and catechist will want to own. There’s some great material here, material one cannot easily find elsewhere. The patristic citations are copious and the scholarly references extensive. The author addresses a multitude of topics, from christology and atonement to the gnomic will and irreproachable passions to the immaculate conception of the Theotokos. One does not need to agree with Hatzidakis’s arguments in order to find the book useful. But I also find it exasperating. The tone is needlessly combative (how many times do we need to hear “This is the faith of the Orthodox!” “This is the faith of the Church!”), the argumentation repetitive, and the theological analysis often superficial. The Fathers are reduced to one homogenized voice, and there is little attempt to listen to the soteriological concerns that drive folks like Meyendorff and Torrance. There is only the hurling of anathemas. Yet despite these defects, I believe that Hatzidakis presents us with a cogent patristic case for the prelapsarian position. His views need to be heard and critically assessed.

Did the eternal Son assume a fallen or a pre-fallen human nature? This is the wrong question, Hatzidakis avers. Both positions contain elements of truth and falsehood. The correct question should be stated as follows: “Were certain consequences of the fallen human nature that Christ exhibited, i.e. the so-called ‘blameless passions,’ acting inherently and by necessity upon Him, or were they allowed in total freedom and without compulsion to act upon Him through the action of both His wills?” (p. 26).

Western readers unacquainted with the Eastern ascetical tradition will stumble at the mention of “blameless passions.” It’s not part of our vocabulary.  “The blameless passions,” Hatzidakis explains, “are characteristics of our humanity in its fallen state” (p. 156). They include hunger, thirst, fatigue, fear, emotional weakness, intellectual confusion, aging, corruption, suffering, mortality. These passions are judged to be blameless, as they are inherited rather than freely chosen. We do not choose to be thirsty or to grow old or to die. This is just the kind of beings that we now are:

Pre-fallen Adam hungered not, thirsted not, fatigued not, pained not, feared not, agonized not, experienced no weaknesses and was not necessarily subject to death. These passions that arose after the fall are not in themselves sinful, but can lead to sin if not controlled by an illumined mind and a strengthened will. (p. 156)

They are called the “blameless” or “innocent” passions and are carried by all human beings as limitations of our humanness resulting from the fall. We are not to be “blamed” or reproached on account of their presence in us, because they became part and parcel of the fallen human nature, which became deprived of God’s uncreated grace, that had kept them in an elevated state. (p. 61)

The blameless passions, therefore, characterize fallen existence and make us vulnerable to vice and disobedience; but they do not constitute human nature per se. As Hatzidakis notes, “they do not belong to genuine, healthy humanity as it was created by God” (p. 157). Prelapsarian humanity did not suffer from them; eschatological humanity will not suffer from them. They pertain only to the present aeon.

Fallen human beings are also subject to the blameworthy (sinful) passions (think disordered desires and the seven deadly sins); but whereas the blameless passions are innocent givens, the blameworthy passions are freely cultivated, at least initially. They are a product of the will. Hunger, tiredness, fear of death—these are inevitable features of our fallen existence. We cannot choose not to hunger or not to get sleepy; however, we can, and tragically do, choose to indulge our appetites and thus develop destructive habits. Blameworthy passions are activated by the will. We are thus responsible for their power over our lives. It is unclear to me whether Hatzidakis considers them to be grounded in inherited sinful dispositions or natural desires that become disordered through a person’s historical choices. Perhaps one of our readers can clarify this point for me.

Hatzidakis then asserts the following: fallen nature = blameless passions + sinful passions. This definition will, I suspect, generate discussion. Would either Ware or Meyendorff agree with it? Probably not, given that both claim that Jesus assumed fallen nature, without implication that he shared in our disordered desires. Torrance would probably also disagree, given his totalitizing construal of original sin. But the definition may nonetheless prove helpful, as it compels both sides in the fallen/unfallen debate to clarify exactly what they mean when they assert the eternal Son’s assumption of human nature.

(Go to “The God-Man Who Freely Wills his Passions”)

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13 Responses to The Prelapsarian Christ

  1. The argument seems to be centralized on how original sin should be construed. If the causes of original sin bring upon us susceptibility to death, etc., then Jesus would have to be fallen unless the causes of original sin are rather dealing with a susceptibility to sin. In which case, much debate can take place.

    Or perhaps are we looking at a more Catholic view of original sin in which we are born with original guild sharing in the guilt of Adam and Eve being freed by sanctifying grace which Mary and Jesus were both saved prior to their birth? In which case, they can voluntarily give themselves up to death without having stains of original sin.

    Complicated questions…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tony says:

      Hello newenglandsun!

      Can you explain what you mean by “if the causes of original sin brings upon us the susceptibility to death, then Jesus would have to be fallen”?

      From my understanding, Jesus was sinless, and everything He shared with regards to the consequences of the original sin (such as the blameless passions and ultimately death), He voluntarily and willfully allowed to happen to Him. He really experienced them, but not because it was a necessary condition as part of His nature, but rather because He submitted to them totally and completely voluntarily. The Incarnate Logos did not have to die by necessity (in other words, He did not have to feel hunger, or pain, or thirst, or death), but rather did so completely according to His lovingkindess and good will. Christ did not experience all things things to save Himself, which is the ultimate conclusion if one takes the postlapsarian position, for in His perfect being, there was nothing which needed to be redeemed. Rather, He puts on these things and suffers through it so that our own fallen nature can be healed and redeemed to the condition of our forefather Adam before the fall. Indeed, to a greater state according to many of the Fathers of the Church.


      • That he partook of the consequences of original sin.


        • Tony says:

          He most certainly did! But the question is whether it was out of necessity on account of His presumed fallen human nature or voluntarily submitted to in His perfect human nature by His divine will. No one would argue that Christ did not partake of the consequences of the fall, but partaking does not necessarily mean it was something ‘forced’ upon Him on account of His human nature. Also, as mentioned above, it was some that was inherit in His presumed fallen human nature, that would mean He died to save Himself, which is nowhere taught (from my knowledge) in the Church Fathers. That would sound like a teaching more consistent with one of the Gnostic sects in the early history of Christianity.


  2. Tony says:

    Thank you for the review of the book! I agree with much of your comments and your criticisms regarding his presentation (which runs a bit too polemic), but you are absolutely correct that there is a treasure trove of information in this heavy volume of work and much to contempate. I agree with Father Emmanuel’s conclusions, which seem to me to be the patristic belief on the matter (at least, according to the patristic sources he presents). I look forward to learning more!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mary Lanser says:

    The difficulty with “uniting with a pre-lapsarian human nature” is that such a critter no longer exists. Once Adam and Eve bit the apple and hit the low road, there was no more pre-lapsarian human nature to be had. Nature does not sit in vats labeled divine, pre-lapse human, post-lapse human and other….into which we dip the rest of it to get what’s on the label. So what some might say, and do say, is that the Incarnation deified His human nature at the moment of His conception. Which means that there’s no question of it ever being “fallen”…really. It was human and it was perfected and deified, and that was that.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Tony says:

      Hi Mary!

      I am not sure I understand what you mean by “So what some might say, and do say, is that the Incarnation deified His human nature at the moment of His conception.” I have never heard it said that way. I don’t understand how His conception “caused” His human nature to be deified. That would suggest that His human nature was not deified at some point and would separate Christ in a Nestorian way (in my understanding).


      • Mary Lanser says:

        I don’t understand how His human nature could have existed other than as it became Incarnate at his conception? So “when” would there have been a time when his human nature was not deified?


  4. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.


  5. David Bradshaw says:

    Very interesting. It’s always seemed to me that St. Maximus dealt with this question adequately through his distinction between between the human “principle of nature” (logos tes phuseos), which never fell, and our fallen “manner of existence” (tropos tes hyparxeos). I’ve pasted below a few lines from one of my articles where I explicate this distinction. Could you tell me whether Fr. Emmanuel discusses this view? If so what does he say about it?

    Maximus follows Gregory of Nyssa in teaching that man was originally created without the passions of pleasure, grief, desire, fear, and the like, save for a natural desire for God and pleasure in His presence (Quest. Thal. 1, 61). After the Fall, we became subject to the passions as well as to natural and social inequality, corruption, and death. In Maximus’s terms, there is now a sharp incongruity between our principle of nature (logos tēs phuseōs), which was unchanged by the Fall, and our sinful and passion-ridden manner of existence (tropos hyparxeōs). This rupture affects not humanity alone, but the entire created order. In a reworking of the traditional Platonic conception of man as microcosm, Maximus sees humanity as capable of uniting within itself the two poles of each of the five divisions of being: uncreated versus created, intelligible versus sensible, heavenly versus earthly, paradisiacal versus worldly, and male versus female (Ambig. 41). To perform this unification is the special vocation intended for us by the Creator. Because of our sinfulness, however, instead of transcending these divisions we find ourselves trapped within them.

    It is against this background that one can understand Maximus’s treatment of the Incarnation. In the Incarnation the divine Logos took on human nature in a new tropos hyparxeōs, one that was free of the ancestral curse passed down through human generation (Ambig. 42, Quest. Thal. 21). In taking on human nature, the Logos took on even human passions such as hunger, pain, and the fear of death, using them mercifully for the salvation of all (Opusc. 3 and 7, Disp. 297B-C). He thus joined human nature to “a manner of being that is beyond nature,” opening up to all the possibility of this new manner of existence.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Fr Emmanuel quotes St Maximus multiple times in his book. As I’m working on this series of articles, I’ll keep an eye out to see if he specifically discusses the point your raise.


  6. I recently finished “On the Incarnation” – by St. Athanasius and a couple of early quotes stand out for me –

    “No, He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father—a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man”.


    “Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.”

    These are powerfully insightful churnings of the Spirit and leave one deep in thought. Now for me, it’s comforting (although potentially theologically naive) to believe that he was and is completely ‘human’ like me in every way but yet Infinitely so much more in every dimension. As my ‘Creator’; and I mean that in less of a ‘possessive pronoun’ sense, he knows my physical, mental and moral constitution more intimately than I do myself. There’s no autonomic, random or intensional move that I can make that he hasn’t already anticipated and or foreseen the full ramifications of – yet in all that, there is quintessential ‘Love’. The kind of true and effervescent love that requires a freedom of ‘Being’. So in his Incarnation, that same freedom of being is afforded his humanity; both ‘Blameless’ and ‘Blameworthy’ passions were part and parcel of his physical and mental landscape. But the Hypostatic bond inextricably woven into the fabric of his One person; the Perichoresis or circuminsession of Triune Love was so pure that he (‘WOULD’ not act) upon ‘blameworthy’ passions should they potentially arise within his flesh; But……not that he (‘COULD’ not act) upon them. I tend to think that the Incarnation would have been a bogus disingenuous act of condescension if he were unable or chose not to be, fully as we are. If it were not so, the Resurrection then becomes a farcical magic trick designed to impress, rather that to demonstrate the infinite purity of his relational love for us, as it also demonstrates the infinite purity of his sinless beautiful obedience to the will of the Father.

    There is an inherent mystery within this simultaneous union that cannot fully be reconciled in the mind, it borders on the nonsensical contradiction of ‘squaring the circle’. We simply cannot see it or fully appreciate it in our current state; our dichotomist or trichotomous frame of reference. Only the Holy Spirit dwelling in us can lead us in and through the seeming contradiction of fallen flesh and eternal redemptive love.

    The reality of this spiritual obfuscation is in a way ‘intensional’ in that it leaves room for doubt, faith and growth as we wrestle like Jacob with what it means to be ‘created in his image’.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Mary Lanser says:

    David Bradshaw responds to the question asked of me above in some detail. I am sorry that it has taken so long for me to get back to it but here are two, relatively easily accessible books, that treat the topic of the Incarnation as the true, real and perfect measure of theosis. One is: On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, St Maximus the Confessor, SVS Press and the second one is: The Orthodox Understanding of Salvation. Theosis in Scripture and Tradition, Mt. Tabor Publishing. Hope these are useful…..Mary


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