Saturday, August 15, 2009

Proper Distinction of Man


I was perusing St. John of Damascus' "An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith" the other day and I read this:

Chapter X.—Concerning Faith.

Moreover, faith is twofold. For faith cometh by hearing (Rom. x. 17). For by hearing the divine Scriptures we believe in the teaching of the Holy Spirit. The same is perfected by all the things enjoined by Christ, believing in work, cultivating piety, and doing the commands of Him Who restored us. For he that believeth not according to the tradition of the Catholic Church, or who hath intercourse with the devil through strange works, is an unbeliever.

But again, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Heb. xi. 1), or undoubting and unambiguous hope alike of what God hath promised us and of the good issue of our prayers. The first, therefore, belongs to our will, while the second is of the gifts of the Spirit.

Further, observe that by baptism we cut (περιτεμνόμεθα, circumcise) off all the covering which we have worn since birth, that is to say, sin, and become spiritual Israelites and God’s people.


There's a lot in there worth mentioning, but what resonates with me personally at this point in my catechetical journey is that St. John of Damascus describes faith in a twofold manner: what belongs to our will and what is of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

When I was a Lutheran, and especially in my seminary education, the first aspect – which St. John locates within the natural capability of man’s will even after the fall – was understood to be a gift of the Holy Spirit. In Lutheran theology man is incapable of believing or coming to faith on his own, because his nature – while still a good creation of God – is totally corrupted with sin. Or to put it more succinctly, the will of each individual is a direct aspect of human nature. Thus in Lutheranism the will is in bondage after the fall. Typical ways of explaining this or defending this to those who didn’t quite get it were, “How can one who is dead in sins believe?” or “Our wills are turned hostile against God (because our natures are sinful), so how can we possibly believe unless God converts our wills from unbelief to belief?”

I don’t wish to brow-beat the Lutherans with their own theology here, but to relate my own personal history and a hurdle for me in converting to Orthodoxy. Grasping how the Orthodox could talk about man’s free will before conversion baffled me, because I thought Scripture was so clear on this issue. (I didn’t realize how much of Scripture I was seeing through a uniquely Augustinian lense.)

Anyway, a clue to solving this issue lay in Christmas. It became clear to me in my study of the significance of Christ’s birth that Christ, by becoming true man, restored man’s nature to what it should be. He was born without sin and thus became what man is supposed to be, which is also what we all are called to become in Him. (Some Lutherans find nothing objectionable about this, and rightly so given the writings of Martin Luther.) So why didn’t Christ just close up shop and call it a job well done at that point? Because He needed to redeem us from sin, death, and the devil so that we might become partakers of that which was born on Christmas – of He who was born of the Virgin. (This was my thinking at the tail end of my time in Lutheranism; I’m not yet prepared to go back and evaluate my past thinking about redemption. I think I’ll stick to one issue for today.)

I had unwittingly stumbled upon a distinction between man’s nature and man’s person. And even then I was still rather blind to this distinction and the great importance it has in theology. Luckily as catechumens we have a good catechist who is in tune with us and our needs. Today we heard in passing about the distinction that exists between man’s unique person and the nature he shares with all mankind (we also heard about this when learning of the Trinity, but I digress). Upon hearing this I made sure to not gloss over it but to focus heavily on it in my typical way: questions.

I quickly came to realize that when I was a Lutheran I located man’s ability to believe squarely in his nature, when in fact it is a function of his unique person. In fact in all my theological training this distinction between nature and person really was never formally hit upon. Perhaps this stems from St. Augustine, who confuses nature and person in man (or so I’m told).

So what? What’s the significance? It is the nature of man that is bound by sin, death, and the devil. It is the nature of man that is held under dominion from within by the Evil One. The unique person, though, is stuck with the impaired nature and is limited by it (which is why my confirmands used to ask why God holds them accountable, when the sinful nature is someone else’s fault). So the person can look at the law of God and say it is good, and desire to carry it out, but because of the limitations of the nature he cannot do this. Even those in the OT Scripture who are called righteous only manage an external righteousness, not the internal+external righteousness that stems from a nature in communion with the Trinity and the person exercising his will in conformity with his godly nature (or we could say his nature enspirited by the Holy Spirit).

If man’s will is a function of his nature and not his person, though, then he can do nothing. He cannot even believe. God must prop him up and change him against his will, or alter the status of his will in some way. From here we can maybe see were the notions of predestination, bondage of the will, and other familiar Protestant doctrines come into play. Maybe, too, by juxtaposing the distinction of nature and person against the blurring of the same as happens in the Augustinian/Protestant traditions, we can see why Protestants sometimes accuse the Orthodox of having a weaker view on sin. It isn’t a weaker view on sin, but a more thorough grasp on the creation of man in the image of God.

Getting back to the main thought: if the will (and with it the ability to believe) is located in each of our unique persons (Ben, Emily, etc.), then what St. John of Damascus says about believing and the will rings true indeed. A person can at best desire what is good, but his (or her) fallen nature limits the abilities and wills of the person. But when the nature is freed and redeemed from bondage to sin, death, and the devil by communion with Christ, the new beginning and rejuvenation of our nature, then the inner bondage is released and in its place is the freedom of the Spirit, in which the person is called to walk and grown and to attain the full measure of Christ in one’s person. Now the will can desire, but the Spirit is the One who both teaches the will and gives Energy to the desires of the will in so far as those desires conform to the desires of the Spirit.

I am very thankful for our catechesis. I enjoy the deep conversations we have with our priest. Our topic tonight was over justification, but I promised him I would not post his notes on the Internet (which I certainly haven’t!). He should have them published. But this topic, and what I’ve related here, is a combination of conversation arising from my own questions and my own internal attempts to grasp the Orthodox experience around me. I don’t claim to be a master of this knowledge, but I do claim that this is significant for me.

From where does this distinction between nature and person in man arise? The Holy Trinity, in whose image we are made, and in Christ whose image we are called back to. But that is a topic for another time (and maybe another person? Only God knows…).


Today is the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the day she died, entered heaven, and when her body was taken into heaven by Christ. As the songs in the Liturgy proclaimed, she was translated into life, because she is the the Mother of Life (Himself). In the freedom of her will she said Yes to God, or as our blessed priest said, she heard the Word and kept it - kept Him. In the freedom of her will she said yes and God entered into the most intimate and mystical communion with her, cleansing her and perfecting her, establishing her as the New Eve (Mother of all the Living) and thus showing us in this divine mystery of the Incarnation what He wills to do for all who will say the Yes of Faith, in daily conversion and ascesis. And today we have set before our eyes in iconography and our ears in the Liturgy of the Church what that faithful Yes to God gets: passing over from death into life - into Life - by the Grace and Mercy of God.

1 comment:

Lvka said...

Will is located in our nature(s). Just like Christ's two wills and actions [energies] are located in His two natures. :-\ (6th Ecumenical Council, Maxim Martyr).

But it is the person that makes use of them. The person is like the "switch" who chooses which of the two wills to enact. And if he wants to actually succede in `doing the right thing`, he has to ask God for mercy, to help him accomplish that... even when he feels overwhelmed by the desire or inclination to the contrary.