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.