The God-Man Who Freely Wills His Passions


In Jesus: Fallen? Fr Emmanuel Hatzidakis challenges the now popular thesis that the eternal Word assumed fallen human nature. We must distinguish, he says, between the blameless passions and the blameworthy passions—Christ only assumed the former. St John of Damascus represents the patristic view which Hatzidakis seeks to defend:

Moreover, 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. On the contrary, it grew up in our will from the oversowing of the Devil, freely and not prevailing over us by force. Now, those passions are natural and blameless which are not under our control and have come into man’s life as a result of the condemnation occasioned by his fall. Such, for example, were hunger, thirst, fatigue, pain, the tears, the destruction, the shrinking from death, the fear, the agony from which came the sweating and drops of blood, the aid brought by the angels in deference to the weakness of His nature, and any other such things as are naturally inherent in all men. (De fid. orth. III.20)

Though Jesus certainly did not personally experience concupiscence and the disordered desires of sinful humanity, he did experience human life in its fallen state, with its limitations, physical needs, temptations, and vulnerabilities, all the while remaining faithful and obedient to his Father. Would a Thomas F. Torrance, for example, ask more?  Torrance pushes the rhetoric of God’s kenotic embrace of human sinfulness, but he is no less insistent upon the triumphant sinlessness of the Lamb of God.  Christ became what we are, he says, yet differently. At no point does he intimate that our Lord suffered from the interior darkness of mind or bondage of the will that characterizes inherited sinfulness.

But the assertion of Christ’s assumption of the blameless passions does not, in itself, fulfill the christological vision of the Church Fathers. We must also stipulate, insists Hatzidakis, that Christ assumed the blameless passions freely and voluntarily, with both his divine and human wills. The critical point is the freedom of the God-Man who comprehends within himself both divine nature and human nature, both divine energy and human energy, both a divine will and a human will. While both parties in the fallen/unfallen debate affirm that our Lord freely submitted himself to the agony of crucifixion—“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father” (Jn 10:17-18)—yet one finds little discussion of our Lord’s free submission to the other innocent passions that characterize human life. Did Jesus choose to be hungry and thirsty and tired, or were these conditions imposed upon him as one of the necessities of life, just as they are imposed upon the rest of us? As Hatzidakis asks: “If the body of Christ was subject to corruption and death, was it because He had inherited our fallen human nature, or was it because He allowed the ‘blameless passions’ to act on his pure and deified flesh through conscious, voluntary acts of His free human will, in total submission to His divine will?” (p. 176). 

I admit it—this way of formulating the question is new to me. I have not spent much time studying the christology of the post-Chalcedonian Fathers. I have always affirmed the dyothetlite position of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, and with many of my fellow dyothelites, I have wrestled with the christological implications of Jesus’ Gethsemene plea—“Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Lk 22:42). But it never occurred to me that the dyothelite position might have implications for the submission of the incarnate Son to his natural desires and needs. If I had been asked about it, I’m sure that I would have pointed to the divine Word’s gratuitous pre-temporal decision to enflesh himself in our humanity In his eternity God determines to become Man, freely accepting the consequences of that act; in his eternity God determines to be conceived in the womb of a first-century Jewish maiden and to live within history; in his eternity God determines to subject himself to hunger, fatigue, fear, and death. All well and good. But Hatzidakis reminds us that the Church Fathers also insisted that the consent of Jesus in his human will was necessary to his work of redemption; otherwise he would have been as much a victim of fallen existence as the rest of us and therefore just as much in need of a savior as those he had come to save. You and I do not freely choose to experience or not experience the inescapable necessities of life. We are subject to them whether we will or not. Without the free participation of the human will of Jesus in the Father’s plan of salvation, the humanity of Jesus appears to be reduced to a passive instrument of the divine will—we might call it a practical monophysistism. “Postlapsarianism,” Hatzidakis complains, “does not leave any room for the human will of Christ to operate freely” (p. 197). Without the freedom, at every point of his life, to embrace the blameless passions, Jesus as man is trapped as man. If only the eternal decision of the divine Son matters, then how is the Nazarene not an automaton or slave? “The Lord did not enter the fallen world as a victim,” proclaims Hatzidakis, “but as conqueror and victor. There was no inevitability in His life, as there is in ours” (p. 197).  The incarnate Son freely subjects himself to the fallen necessities that cannot in fact be necessities for the One through whom the world is made.

Consider this passage from the Synodal Letter of St Sophronius, composed in 634 after his election as Patriarch of Jerusalem and subsequently approved by the Sixth Ecumenical Council:

Thus in this way he exhibited the humble and human things voluntarily and at the same time naturally, remaining God in the midst of them nonetheless. For he was his own steward of human passions and acts, and not merely steward but also governor of them, although according to nature he became incarnate with respect to a passible nature, and on account of this his human elements went beyond the human, not because his nature was not human, but because he became a human being voluntarily. And having become a human being, he submitted to these [human elements] voluntarily and not through tyranny or necessity, as sometimes happens to us even against our will, but at the precise time and to the extent that he wishes, and he himself consented to yield both to those things which brought the sufferings and to the sufferings themselves, which were effected in accordance with nature. (2.3.14)

Hatzidakis speaks as if this specific passage enjoys infallible authority, which is no doubt going too far; but it is part of a document that received the approbation of an Ecumenical Council. It faithfully represents the commitment of the post-Chalcedonian patristic Church to the absolute freedom and authority of the Savior. Compare it to the following citation from the Damascene, written eighty to ninety years after the death of Sophronius:

Actually, our natural passions were in Christ according to nature and over and above nature. Thus, it was according to nature that they were aroused in Him, when He permitted the flesh to suffer what was proper to it; whereas it was over and above nature, because in the Lord the things of nature did not control the will. For with Him nothing is found to be done under compulsion; on the contrary, everything was done freely. Thus, it was by willing that He hungered and by willing that He thirsted, by willing that He was afraid and by willing that He died. (De fid. orth. III.20; my emphasis)

I find myself wondering: How did the infant Jesus freely will his hunger and thirst?

But perhaps the real concern here for the Fathers, when they speak of Jesus as willing his passions, is the perfection of our Lord’s personal and moral integrity. In all things he seeks to glorify and serve his Father. His desires are rightly ordered to their proper end.  “The key to understanding this idea,” one patristics scholar wrote to me in private corresondence, “is to see that ‘willing’ is not nearly as narrow or merely cognitive a thing as moderns think, but the sum total of our drives, impulses, and reasoning, and yes, finally, an actual choice (when that’s applicable).” If Jesus did not will all of his passions and actions, then that would mean that he was divided within himself and against himself, that he suffered, in other words, from concupiescience—and this no orthodox theologian wishes to say.

(Go to “Would Christ have died from natural causes?”)

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21 Responses to The God-Man Who Freely Wills His Passions

  1. Tom says:

    Precisely. I may be way out on a limb, but I think there has to be an overlap of contexts in which the human nature truly passes through the developmental stages common to us all, and that means (I think) experiencing one’s existence as “given” or “received” and not as freely chosen. That’s part of the human (embodied) journey. But (and I have “he learned obedience through what he suffered” in mind) as Jesus’ sense of identity and mission emerges within these developmental stages, the human will does have to choose to relate to its environment in ways reflective of its most fundamental identity in God (not in ‘nature’). So even if not from the start as an infant, eventually Christ steps into an understanding of who he is that now freely appropriates nature in ways he couldn’t as an infant. He becomes, as a man, ‘subject of’ and not just ‘subject to’ created nature (e.g., in the transfiguration or walking on water). He could not have chosen as an infant to be hungry or thirsty. But as he learns to incorporated his identity and mission within the initial “givens” of embodied existence, he learns how too appropriate his body and existence in ways that transcend finitude and mortality. He can then say, “I lay my life down,” and “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” But I don’t see him being in a position to say this when he’s two or ten.



  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Those who are curious how Fr Emmanuel might respond to the question “How did the infant Jesus freely will his hunger and thirst?” take a look at his answer to one of his readers.


  3. john burnett says:

    You can’t figure out “how” the only-begotten Son and eternal Word “operated” in his incarnate nature, but Hatzidakis is completely correct. There has been a tendency lately to view Jesus as somehow forgetting or losing contact with his divinity by becoming incarnate— for how indeed could the babe in the manger by his nod control the entire universe? Yet we affirm that he did. In theological terms, “he became man without leaving the throne of the Father”.

    Tom says (above), “He could not have chosen as an infant to be hungry or thirsty”. But this is precisely what is affirmed. But how he can do that— that is, be both *really* an infant and *really* the Son of God— is not something available to our logic!

    But when you consider the implications of denying this, you see the problems. If he was in fact at amnesiac with respect to his divinity— somehow still divine yet so completely submerged in his (fallen) nature that he was basically unaware of it, then the universe would either have collapsed into nonbeing because he was no longer maintaining it, or else he himself would have been just some kind of a passive and unknowing instrument that the Father was using to keep all things going “through him”. Yet at all times the only-begotten Son and eternal Word was without change or diminution.

    Moreover it is not just the divine nature that became flesh, but the divine Person, who never ceased being who he was (the only-begotten Son and eternal Word). Jesus was in fact that same divine Person now in human flesh, never less on earth than he was on the throne with the Father and the Spirit.

    The opposite challenge, as you point out, was expressed by monophysitism and docetism, wherein his human nature was simply overwhelmed by his divinity and really contributed nothing— but this would again make his human nature into some kind of a passive and unknowing instrument that he himself used, to do what he had to do for us. But we affirm he had a full and perfect (albeit non-fallen) humanity.

    I’m not quite sure how to interpret your remark that “perhaps” it would be “going too far” to say that St Sophronios’ letter enjoys dogmatic authority, when it was specifically approved by the Sixth Council. Isn’t that exactly what such approval implied? But in any case Sophronios was in agreement with the thinking of all the fathers and expressed their insight marvelously well.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “I’m not quite sure how to interpret your remark that “perhaps” it would be “going too far” to say that St Sophronios’ letter enjoys dogmatic authority, when it was specifically approved by the Sixth Council.”

      Fr Emmanuel treats the letter as if every assertion within it represents the infallible voice of the 6th Council; in fact, he cites the passage I have quoted at the beginning of chap. 26 and attributes it to the Council, with no mention of Sophronius. Only later do we learn that St Sophronius was the actual author and the letter was written decades earlier. This is misleading, though I’m sure Fr Emmanuel had no intent to mislead.

      I agree that the letter enjoys dogmatic authority, and I will need to go back and revise my phrasing. It was common for councils to put their imprimatur on specific documents. The Council of Ephesus approved the three letters of Cyril to Nestorius; the Council of Chalcedon, the Tome of Leo. Yet in neither case has the Church treated these letters as expressing irreformable dogma in every respect. Regarding the latter, Eastern theologians continue to have problems with some of its theological propositions.

      Sophronius’s letter covers a lot of theological territory. What makes it of dogmatic interest is its affirmation of the two wills of Christ, which was the doctrinal issue addressed by III Constantinople.


  4. brian says:

    Perhaps I am missing something in a quick perusal of Hatzidakis’ argument as presented here. It goes without saying we are touching on mysteries demanding nuance, paradox, and humility before a wonder too great for us to master. As someone heavily influenced by Balthasar’s theology and his thoughts regarding the significance of the Triduum, especially Holy Saturday, I think Christ’s existential identification with sinners is more radical than that countenanced by most traditional atonement theologies. So I see the dramatic action of Theo-drama as one where the God-Man acts theandrically in a manner more deeply imbued by the historical legacy of human choice. In this regards, it seems to me that some asymmetry between the freedom and knowledge of human nature and divine nature is inevitable.

    In short, I am sympathetic to Tom’s concerns. I think part of taking on human nature for Christ is taking on the proper developmental stages of human being. This does not require a kenosis to the point of an abandonment of the divine nature, but it seems to me it does require some genuine occlusion of divine knowledge. I really don’t see how one gets around that without significantly compromising Christ’s genuine adoption of concrete human nature. Jacques Maritain wrote a late work dealing with some of these issues in The Grace and Humanity of Jesus. Another work which has some insightful material on the difference between Christ’s natal development and those of us caught up in Original Sin can be found in Paul Quay’s The Mystery Hidden for Ages in God. There is a difference that allows Christ to heal the sick. Christ is not “thrown into existence” and I do think his pre-rational “ego formation” is in some manner “always already” aware of the Father’s loving presence in a mode quite distinct from fallen humanity. Nonetheless, I don’t think this logically implies the absence of kenotic difference between Christ’s human awareness and his divine knowledge.

    Again, the fundamental choosing involves the condescension of the Divine Person to become incarnate in the first place. Obviously, this stands outside historical existence. By the time one reaches the Temptation in the Desert, Christ has matured to the point where he consciously, rationally chooses with his human will the “long way” that involves all the limitations, suffering, and discomfort of fallen, temporal existence as opposed to the Devil’s suggestion that he circumvent those strictures. I don’t see how one is compelled to imagine this level of developed awareness was present in the creche. On the contrary, that would reflect the kind of precocious awareness more likely to be found in gnostic gospels and tales of Christ’s childhood. Surely, the agony of Gethsemane, the classic locus for Maximus for the revelation of Christ’s two wills, implies a struggle for the human will to realize a flourishing freedom. This struggle is undoubtedly exacerbated by an increasing interior identification with fallen humanity as an essential element of the Cross, but I think it is essential as part of finite existence per se. If it was merely chosen from the beginning and then in every temporal instant outside of any experience of alienating necessity, one would not have agony, (the agonic conflict is buried in the word.)

    One may think he goes to far, but N.T. Wright rather famously suggested a far greater level of risk and “amnesia” regarding Christ’s certitude regarding his divine nature. I do think he goes too far, but I don’t think it’s a failure of theological or metaphysical thinking that allowed Wright to imagine the possibility. I, at least, do not see the logical necessity of the infant Christ having full cognitive awareness of his divine nature for the divine nature to function as the perduring foundational ground of creation.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Allow me to be very Hartian here – no you are not missing anything.

      Fr Hatzidakis is in danger of collapsing the antinomy of the hypostatic union when he states, ‘He could not experience harm even if He were deprived of food and sleep.’
      One wonders then as to the nature, nay possibility, of the harm afflicted on Him on the cross.

      The church resolved this issue a long time ago by the affirmation following Chalcedon that ‘God suffered in the flesh.’ It appears that Fr Hatzidakis position thus stated leads to a separation and division of the divine from the human in Christ which was emphatically denounced by the 4th council.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Robert, Fr Hatzidakis has a ready response to your concern: Jesus’ body became vulnerable to harm via the consent of his human will.


        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Fr Hatzidakis speaks of capability not will, which is the crux of the issue. His claim leaves it unexplained why the Infant was incapable of being harmed. What support from Scripture or Tradition does he imagine warrants such a position?

          Consent of His human will is besides the point. But to go along with this, supposing it is was by consent of the human will, it would be quite a feat for the human will of the Infant. Difficult not to avoid the a latent Docetism, in any case.

          Liked by 1 person

          • brian says:

            Guess the flight into Egypt was because the infant Christ chose to be vulnerable whilst Herod was alive — or he really wanted a good look at that Sphynx.

            Liked by 1 person

        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Fr Aidan,

          How does Fr Hatzidakis’ position differ, in substance, from Aphthartodocetism? Perhaps this is addressed in his book? It seems to me, if I understand him correctly, his construal of the blameless passions along the lines of eliminating ability of suffering (e.g. ‘He could not experience harm’) effectually equates to impassibility.


  5. Mary Lanser says:

    Being “incapable” is not an assertion with a singular meaning. The full understanding and that is clear in the complete text is that it is impossible for the Incarnation to come to harm unless He allows it. He is, after all, God.


  6. William says:

    I think St. Maximos’ distinction between natural will and gnomic will could come into play in this discussion, especially in regard to how Christ would freely will something as an infant. For Maximos, true freedom is not so much a function of deliberating and choosing from among options. There are at least two passages, one in the Ambigua and one in Questions to Thalassios, that address Christ’s assumption of human passions in terms similar to what you describe above, particularly in regards to Christ assuming only blameless passions. I’ll have to get home to look them up to comment further, but I mention this now just to bring it up.


  7. Mary Lanser says:

    I was sitting here re-reading the run of articles on this most wonderful topic. I was raised a Catholic and so the idea that the Incarnate one perfected His own human nature by grace, theosis, was never really in question. Other kinds of questions and answers pivoted on that singularity, but it was not, in itself, ever much in doubt as I remember. So I am always bemused by the issues that are raised. I tend to think in rather simple-minded terms about most everything and so it struck me as interesting that people who are quite willing to invest belief in miracles and wonder-works of healing and life-giving or life-restoring reprieves to human creation, would have a difficult time conceiving that this same vivifying God would not be able to “know his own mind” so to speak from the moment of His conception until they nailed him to a tree.


    • brian says:

      One of Gregory of Nazianzus’ famous dictums is “that which was not assumed is not healed.” You are mistaken to position this question as if it is a quibbling over what God can or cannot do. The degree of kenosis experienced by God certainly is freely chosen. No one is arguing otherwise. Here’s a further matter that I think Hatzidakis’ view should ponder. If there is a unity to human nature, and human flesh is historically situated, so that the mortality of Fallen human flesh is part of what needs healing, does it make sense for Christ to enter the world in a pre-Lapsarian state? If Christ does not Incarnate flesh sickened by human sin, does the Incarnation achieve a sufficient at-one-ment with humanity to heal it? But even if one rejects that level of identification, it is not a petty reservation to assert that some Christologies subvert the human experience of Jesus in an effort to secure the hegemony of the Divine Person. (And I say this as someone who strongly affirms a “high” Christology.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mary Lanser says:

        The Messiah voluntarily took the weight of the sin of all humanity to the Cross to die and conquer death. He assumed human nature and perfected it, yet we still suffer, die and corrupt, in sin and profound compunction and stunning hubris…either and both in the same lifetime.

        So even if God HAD assumed a so-called sin-nature, what kind of healing leaves us right where we began at the end of Adam’s day of learning about good and evil? What kind of healing is that? That is the bigger question I think. What are you thinking that is of any importance that was not assumed in a God who is the first and most perfect image of theosis?

        Do you think ti was easier for a 33 year old to choose this path than it was for an infant God based upon what we know of human development of the human person? I am not playing at this at all. There is no particular necessity for the Messiah to “occlude” his divine nature and power so that he could be a helpless infant. All he really had to do was NOT to sit up and preach.


        • brian says:

          You have a peculiar way of drawing inferences that are not asserted. I don’t feel compelled to defend a theological interpretation I have not made. I don’t think you understand the point about the historical flesh of mankind, which Christ took from Mary. If Mary’s flesh was pre-Lapsarian, why did she die? If her flesh was marked by human history, why would Christ’s flesh be different? And if different, could he have healed from a place of relatively extrinsic solidarity what required much more intimate closeness?

          There is no doubt we still suffer, die, and corrupt, in any event. Christ’s Paschal victory is both a finished eschatology and one that remains open to ecclesial participation. Hence, in 1 Col 24, Paul speaks of ‘[filling] up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions.” The Body of Christ participates historically in the transformation wrought by Christ. This has to do with the kind of continuing kenosis Bulgakov speaks of. The Holy Spirit is working transfiguration. All tears, death, and suffering is defeated in Christ, but it is also an action that permits a sharing in the Cross. Had Christ not placed Love in every place of desolation, there would be no victory and no hope. The meaning of death has been changed by Christ, but obviously the existential suffering of Fallen existence is still borne. By joining Himself to every act of suffering, every betrayal, every attempt to flee from God into nothingness, Christ has placed Trinitarian love where the sinner would have alienation and nothingness.

          So, if you take that somehow to be an inadequate basis for theosis, I think you are mistaken. I surmise you have a problem with kenotic theology in general. I have tried to point out some important soteriological implications to what you assume is the Orthodox view. Father points below to an alternative. I’m not going to engage in on-going polemic with you. Each person must discern to the best of their capacity the path of wisdom.


  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    An Orthodox priest pointed me yesterday to a chapter in Met Hilarion’s book Orthodox Christianity (vol. 2). He appears to be offering a very different understanding of the teaching of the Orthodox Church. He concludes with this sentence: “There can be only one Orthodox answer to the question of which nature Christ inherited from Adam: the same nature that needs healing.”


    • Mary Lanser says:

      I can easily read that as saying that he inherited a human nature. And then can just as easily go on to follow the patristic tradition through St. Maximus that indicates that nature was divinized at the moment of His conception.


  9. Mary Lanser says:

    To find a more brief and thereby even more pungent text on the Orthodox teaching concerning the deification of the Man-God, I would suggest Christopher Veniamin’s The Orthodox Understanding of Salvation, Theosis in Scripture and Tradition, Mount Thabor Publishing, 2013. Then you can argue with St. John the Damascene and St. Maximos, St. Sophronius and others and not worry about arguing with those whose grasp of the texts may be quite suspect.


  10. Mary Lanser says:

    From the Veniamin text on page 20: “Father Sophrony [of Essex] also makes a very interesting and important observation concerning the example given by Christ and our own theosis or deification. He points to the fact that even though the deification of of Christ’s human nature was, as St. John Damascene says, effected from the very moment in which He assumed our nature, nevertheless Christ as Man shied away from anything that might give the impression of auto-theosis, that is to say, self-deification or self-divinization. That is why we see the Holy Spirit underlined at His Holy Birth…” Earlier on pages 17 and 18 Veniamin makes reference to Father Sphrony’s emphasis on the “energetic interpenetration of the divine and human natures” which is the necessary forerunner of man’s full and perfect theosis. And then goes on to note that “Father Sophrony also highlights another mystery concerning the Life of Christ on earth as a model and pattern for our own Life in Christ.” This is revealed in the fact that even with the human nature of Christ, we may observe a certain grown, or dynamism, or as Holy Scripture puts it, a certain “increase”….” This is to demonstrate to us that all that is expected of us in our participation in the divine life is possible. And to emphasize, with respect to the deification of human nature, that the Trinity always acts as one.


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