Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Some Notes on the Fall

In doing some preparatory work towards a major posting on original sin, I came across the following passage, which expresses ideas with which I am completely comfortable:
God gave Adam free will--the power to choose between good and evil--and it therefore rested with Adam either to accept the vocation set before him or to refuse it. He refused it. Instead of continuing along the path marked out for him by God, he turned aside and disobeyed God. Adam's fall consisted essentially in his disobedience of the will of God; he set up his own will against the divine will, and so by his own act he separated himself from God. As a result, a new form of existence appeared on earth--that of disease and death. By turning away from God, who is immortality and life, humans put themselves in a state that was contrary to nature, and this unnatural condition led to an inevitable disintegration of their being and eventually to physical death. The consequences of Adam's disobedience extended to all his descendants. We are members one of another, as St Paul never ceased to insist, and if one member suffers the whole body suffers. In virtue of this mysterious unity of the human race, not only Adam but all humankind became subject to mortality. Nor was the disintegration which followed from the fall merely physical. Cut off from God, Adam and his descendants passed under the domination of sin and the devil. Each new human being is born into a world where sin prevails everywhere, a world in which it is easy to do evil and hard to do good. Our will is weakened and enfeebled by what the Greeks call 'desire' and the Latins 'concupiscence'. We are all subject to these, the spiritual effects of original sin.

Thus far there is fairly close agreement between Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and classic Protestantism; but beyond this point east and west do not entirely concur. Orthodoxy, holding as it does a less exalted idea of the human state before the fall, is also less severe than the west in its view of the consequences of the fall. Adam fell, not from a great height of knowledge and perfection, but from a state of undeveloped simplicity; hence he is not to be judged too harshly for his error. Certainly, as a result of the fall the human mind became so darkened, and human will-power was so impaired, that humans could no longer hope to attain to the likeness of God. Orthodox, however, do not hold that the fall deprived humanity entirely of God's grace, though they would say that after the fall grace acts on humanity from the outside, not from within. Orthodox do not say, as Calvin said, that humans after the fall were uterly depraved and incapable of good desires. They cannot agree with Augustine, when he writes that humans are under 'a harsh necessity' of committing sin, and that 'human nature was overcome by the fault into which it fell, and so came to lack freedom'. The image of God is distorted by sin, but never destroyed; in the words of a hymn sung by Orthodox at the Funeral Service: 'I am the image of Your inexpressible glory, even though I bear the wounds of sin.' And because we still retain the image of God, we still retain free will, although sin restricts its scope. Even after the fall, God 'takes not away from humans the power to will--to will to obey or not to obey Him'. Faithful to the idea of synergy, Orthodoxy repudiates any interpretation of the fall which allows no room for human freedom.

Most Orthodox theologians reject the idea of 'original guilt', put forward by Augustine and still accepted (albeit in a mitigated form) by the Roman Catholic Church. Humans (Orthodox usually teach) automatically inherit Adam's corruption and mortality, but not his guilt: they are only guilty in so far as by their own free choice they imitate Adam. Many western Christians used to believe that whatever a person does in the fallen and unredeemed state, since it is tainted by original guilt, cannot possibly be pleasing to God: 'Works before Justification,' says the therteenth of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, '...are not pleasant to God...but have the nature of sin.' Orthodox would hesitate to say this. And Orthodox have never held (as Augustine and many others in the west have done) that unbaptized babies, because tainted with original guilt, are consigned by the just God to the everlasting flames of hell. The Orthodox picture of fallen humanity is far less sombre than the Augustinian or Calvinist view.

But although Orthodox maintain that humans after the fall still possessed free will and were still capable of good actions, yet they certainly agree with the west in believing that human sin had set up between humanity and God a barrier which humanity by its own efforts could never break down. Sin blocked the path to union with God. Since we could not come to God, He came to us.

Kallistos (Timothy) Ware, The Orthodox Church (Penguin, New Edition, 1993), pp. 222-225.
Putting aside the useless ideas of Calvin and the antiquated ideas of the Thirty-nine Articles, we are left with those aspects of Augustinianism that are alleged to be a part of the Magisterium. It seems to me that there is very little, if anything, in Bishop Ware's account of Original Sin that I, myself, disagree with, and I find myself wondering what it is, precisely, that he has in mind here, other than the traces of Augustinianism that are undeniably a part of many a theological Weltanschauung, when he writes that east and west do not entirely concur on the doctrine. The two most obvious candidates are, first, the issue of freedom, and, second, what he calls "original guilt".

There is nothing in the Roman Catholic doctrine of Original Sin that entails that human beings are not free in precisely the same sense in which the Orthodox insist that they are free. It may be worth pointing out that all of the evidentiary footnotes in the Catechism sections dealing with Original Sin are references to Orthodox theologians and Councils which, with the exception of Trent, were held before the Great Schism. Surely Ware knows this, and has Calvin, not the West generally, in mind. Pelagius' view was that human beings, by virtue of the natural power of their own free will and without the help of God's grace, could lead a morally good life. Augustine interpreted this to mean, not that humans lack free will, but that Pelagius' teaching had the effect of reducing Adam's sin to a mere bad example, not the world-transforming event that Ware himself describes it as. Reformers such as Calvin did deny human freedom after the fall, but that is clearly a heretical view and it has been condemned as such. (It may be worth noting that, even if we accept the possibility that Augustine, too, rejected human freedom after the fall, it remains unclear why the view of one, albeit very important, theologian, should be conflated with the view of "the West" more generally.)

The worry about "original guilt", at least as described by Ware, is a new one to me. I can't find any reference to it in the Catechism, but that's not to say it's not there, only that I can't find it. I think it's worth noting that Gregory of Nazianzen, in a rather desperate move to make sense of the doctrine of the Trinity, said that "strictly speaking there is only one man", by which he appears to have meant that humanity itself, the nature, if you will, is a single thing perduring through time. On his account, then humans "inherit" Adam's "original guilt" simply by virtue of being literally the same thing that Adam was. But I don't think such an account will stand up to much testing--better to regard it as an a par with Augustine's: one theological view among many, and not necessarily indicative of what "the East" generally thinks about the issue.

Clearly I have some more thinking to do here, but this will do for a start. If free will and "original guilt" are the only things standing in the way of unity on this issue, then there are obviously more important things out there to worry about.

1 comment:

attilashrugs said...

The plans of the Creator of the Universe were thwarted by a Serpent and a ditzy woman? I think of when Jacob died, and his sons worried that now Joseph would take vengeance on them. Joseph understood their fear. He said, to paraphrase, fear not, for though you meant it (their selling him into Egyptian bondage) for evil God meat it for good.
So too the Serpent. He beguiled Eve for evil. But if he had not how would humanity have entered into the Moral universe. Knowledge of Good and Evil is required for there to be a Moral dimension to life.
God could have skipped the Serpent bit and creates Adam and Eve with knowledge of good and evil. However if/when Adam did evil and the Accuser pointed his finger at him at his arraignment, Adam would have been right to say he did not ask to be created and therefore whatever undesired consequence is being considered would be unfair.
That is why God allowed the Serpent, the Accuser: HaSatan to do for the sake of evil that which God meant for good. God being loving and kind and just wouldn't have created a morally responsible creature who would be at risk for doing evil and for being punished. Some degree of the JUSTICE was placed upon the Serpent, thus giving A&E the grace to live in sin.
God wants to,grow. The dimension into which He grows is the Moral world. We are created as potential partners for God.
Even within the Forbidden Fruit was the Seed of Redemption.