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.