Friday, August 12, 2011

The Theanthropic Theatre

Note: In response to this thread on Monachos I decided to put the paper I wrote for my Patristic Anthropology class online, since it deals with the pertinent subject of the Creation, Fall, and Redemption of man. Any mistakes in this paper in transmitting the teaching of the Holy Fathers are my own.

“I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:8)

For millennia, mystics, philosophers, and scientists have searched out the mystery of human existence. What is man? Where did he come from? Where is he going? These three questions have sparked endless debate. Some have searched the skies, others the depths of the earth. And other thinkers try to delve within the human psyche, trying to tease out an answer. However, the early church fathers, in particular Ss. Athanasius, Basil, and Irenaeus, along with Origen, began with the Creator rather than the creation. The key player in the drama of the creation, fall, and redemption of mankind is Jesus Christ, the Word of God. Man was created in the image and likeness of Christ, and after mankind fell away from the Word and descended into madness, Christ came in the form of a man, renewing creation.

The Creation of Mankind

The church fathers unanimously depict man as being the head of God’s creation, being made in His image and likeness. The first indication of man’s honor is the manner of his creation. God created heaven and earth through commandments such as “Let there be light.” However, when He made man on the sixth day of creation, He said: “Let us make man…” [1] St Basil writes: “He did not cast forth your origin by a commandment, but there was counsel in God to consider how to bring the dignified creature into life.” [2] St Irenaeus writes that God established the whole world with His Word, and set down laws, but “man He fashioned with His own hands…” [3] In other words, man was made through the Son and Holy Spirit, which St Irenaeus calls the “hands” of the Father. It is from within God, that is, a deliberation between the Persons of the Holy Trinity, that man was made. St Basil writes that this deliberation shows us that we ought to “glorify the Father in the Son, and the Son in the Holy Spirit,” because the creation is a common work of all three Persons. [4]

God not only made man in a special and direct way, He also made him in His own image. At first, the word “image” suggests the outer appearance of man. Indeed, St Irenaeus seems to ascribe divinity to the outer form of man: “He gave his frame the outline of His own form, that the visible appearance too should be godlike…” [5] However, both Origen and St Basil deny that the human body is according to the image of God. St Basil writes that this would imply that God also has a body with hands, feet, eyes, and so forth, which would “diminish the Great One in a Jewish way.” [6] Since God is incorruptible, and the body corruptible, there cannot be any similarity between the two: “Is something flowing the image of the immovable nature? The shaped of that which has no shape? How that shall we search out that which according to the image?” [7] Origen answers that “it is our inner man, invisible, incorporeal, incorruptible, and immortal which is made ‘according to the image of God.’” [8] Thus, both St Basil and Origen recognize “two human beings, one the sense-perceptible, and one hidden under the sense-perceptible, invisible, the inner human.” [9] The image of God is principally in the soul of man and consists of his superiority of reason, which allows him to rule all of creation. Throughout his first discourse On the Origin of Humanity, St Basil uses many examples of how man uses his superior reason to capture and tame many beasts, despite the weakness of his own flesh. [10]

Through his rational soul, man is called by God to rule all, including his own body. St Basil calls the body “the instrument of the soul.” St Athanasius likens the relationship between the body and the soul to that of a charioteer and his horses, as well as that of a musician and his well-tuned lyre. [11] God took the “purest and finest of earth” and mingled it with His power, creating the body. [12] St Basil interprets the two accounts of man’s creation in Genesis as being respectively the creation of the inner and outer human being: “He made the inner human being, He molded the outer.” [13] The fact that God Himself “molded” the body of man is an indication of its high honor; the body is not merely the instrument of the human soul, but also “an instrument fit for the glory of God.” [14] Man received a special structure making him distinct from the animals. For example, his upright posture encourages him to seek after heavenly things. [15] According to St Athanasius, man must use his soul to achieve a “better harmony” within his body, using the image of a musician with his lyre. It is through this inner harmony that man achieves the likeness of God.

God not only created man in His own image, but also in His own likeness. Ss. Athanasius and Basil, along with Origen, make a distinction between image and likeness: the image is ours by virtue of being human, but we achieve the likeness of God through exercising our free will. St Basil, speaking to his congregation, emphasizes the need to become righteous in order to be like God: “If you become a hater of evil, free of rancor, not remembering yesterday’s enmity; if you become brother-loving and compassionate, you are like God.” Through becoming righteous, we “put on Christ” and thus achieve likeness to God. [16] However, St Athanasius, who was writing against the enemies of Christianity, emphasizes the soul’s contemplation of God as being in the likeness of God: “For having no obstacle to the knowledge of the divine, he continuously contemplates by his purity the image of the Father, God the Word, in whose image he was made…” [17] And, in De Incarnatione, he seems to equate likeness to God with having “a share in the power of His own Word.” [18] These two views are of course complementary, for they both imply the soul ruling over the body and being superior to it, being fixed upon God “in unembarrassed frankness.” [19]

Our first parents lived in the contemplation of God, but at the same time they were not yet fully developed. St Irenaeus writes that Adam was “a child” and needed a place for him to grow, and thus he was placed in the Garden. [20] God commanded Adam and Eve to “grow and multiply,” which for St Basil signifies the growth of the inner human being, the perfection of virtues. Man is also called to multiply and fill the earth with righteousness. [21] According to St Irenaeus, Adam and Eve walked with God in the Garden, having no evil thoughts or imagination; they were entirely childlike. But that meant that they lacked a developed discretion, thus becoming “easily misled by the deceiver.” [22]

The Fall and Decline of Mankind

Man fell from his high estate by taking his thoughts away from God and focusing them on himself, becoming self-centered. They could have remained in immortality, as long as they retained “the grace of the participation of the Word.” But sin caused death and corruption to enter the world, taking a strong hold upon mankind. [23] With every successive generation, the sins of mankind magnified.

Man was placed in Paradise in order to flourish spiritually, which is why God gave man a specific law: “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” [24] St Irenaeus writes that the law forbidding man from eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was given “so that the man should not have thoughts of grandeur, and become lifted up, as if he had no lord…and take up an attitude of self-conceited arrogance towards God…” God warned Adam and Eve that if they sinned, they would no longer retain immortality, but “die the death.” [25] St Athanasius interprets “dying the death” as “the natural corruption consequent on death.” [26] However, the devil, who was jealous of the favors man received from God, persuaded him to sin. [27]

St Athanasius paints a very vivid picture in Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione of the implications and aftereffects of the Fall. In partaking of the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve preferred earthly, fleshly things over the contemplation of God. When Adam and Eve realized their own nakedness and hid in the Garden, [28] “They realized that they were not so much stripped of clothing as stripped of the contemplation of divine things, and that they had turned their minds in the opposite direction.” Man forgot the divine power they received and instead focused on the body and its sensations, becoming imprisoned by fleshly desires. Thus, not only did they become subject to death, they also lost the likeness to God, descending into beastliness. In the beginning, their minds were focused on the one God; now, their thoughts are scattered among the competing desires of the body. Clinging to pleasure, man becomes afraid of losing it, leading to an overwhelming fear of death. Frustrated desires lead to all kinds of crimes. [29] Turning back towards the metaphor of the Charioteer, it is as if he, disregarding the goal, “were simply to drive his horses as hard as he could—and he can drive as hard as he likes; then often he would rush into other people and often drive over the edges…for he has eyes only for the track and does not see that he has gotten away from the goal.” Thus, squandering the inheritance the Father gives him, man becomes a prodigal son, wasting himself on selfish desires, driving himself towards oblivion.

Taking the eyes of his soul from God, man focused them on himself, and then began to invent in his mind many things which did not exist previously, in order to fulfill his desires. According to St Athanasius: “Evil has no existed from the beginning, nor even now is it found among the saints…But it was men who later began to conceive of it and imagine it in their own likeness,” causing idolatry to appear in the earth. [30] For St Athanasius, who was writing in a pagan milieu, idolatry was the epitome of evil, since idols depicted non-existent beings, and evil is essentially non-existence, turning away from the existent God. Man, enthralled by his desires, looked only at earthly things, and began to deify them, like someone, falling into an abyss, becomes mad and thinks only of what is around him and not of the outside world. [31] Men started with deifying the heavenly bodies, then the elements, and then, descending lower, “raised to divine status even men and images of men, some while still alive, and others after their death.” Even worse, they gave the name of “God” to inanimate materials and irrational beasts, and even to their own passionate desires. [32]

As a result of his descent into sin, man, though he is called to be ruler of creation, becomes himself ruled by his own desires, becoming, as St Basil eloquently illustrates, like the wild beasts: “Is not one sharp in insults a scorpion? Is not one who in hiding strikes out in revenge more dangerous than a viper? Is the greedy person not a rapacious wolf? What kind of beast is not in us?” [33] Becoming enslaved by death and desire, suffering the effects of the ancestral sin, man cannot hope to save himself, unless the One Who created man in His own image delivers them from their afflictions.

The New Creation in Christ

Man was rescued out of his sufferings through the Incarnation of the Word of God. Immediately after Adam and Eve sinned, God promised Eve that a Savior would come, defeating the devil. [34] St Irenaeus writes that God gave the Jews the Law and the Prophets as “heralds of the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ…” Thus, at “the end of this age,” the Word became Man, “resuming anew in Himself all things in heaven and on earth.” [35]

Why did God become man? St Athanasius endeavors to answer this question in De Incarnatione. First of all, God desired to save man out of love for His creation. Man was not only under the power of death, but also lost the likeness to God through his sinfulness. It would have been “most improper” that the works of God should perish. [36] However, God declared that they would die if they sinned, so saving them would make God a liar. Even if men repented from their sins, this would not alter their nature, but merely loose the sins: man would still be under the law of death. Thus, St Athanasius presents what could be called a “divine dilemma.” The only way to save man was to recreate him, and thus the Creator, the Word of God, sought to “bring what was corruptible back again to incorruption, and to save what was above all fitting for the Father.” [37]

The recreation of man was brought about by the Incarnation of the Savior. By taking a mortal body, the Immortal One was able to die, but since the body was that of the Word, it sufficed for the death of all. He offered the body to death and thus abolished death. Since He was united with humanity, Christ bestowed on all men incorruption. [38] St Irenaeus emphasizes the parallels between the Fall and the Redemption. Eve’s disobedience was unmade by the Virgin’s obedience. Since we were under “the bonds of death” through our being consubstantial with Adam, Christ, by becoming man, became the second Adam and loosed these bonds. Since death ruled man through the tyranny of the body, it was through Christ’s body that it was destroyed. Finally, since our sin came through a tree, salvation came through another tree, the wood of the Cross. [39] Thus, all of mankind now has the gift of immortality and will rise again on the last day. But that is not enough.

Besides abolishing death, Christ also restored the original likeness that we had lost. St Athanasius compares this restoration to that of a subject of a portrait coming again to renew a ruined painting. Since man was created according to the image and likeness of the Word of the Father, only the Word—Christ—could renew him. He did this through becoming man and teaching the people, redirecting their fallen minds to the divine vision. Man cast his eyes on the earth and looked only on visible things, and also worshiped the demons. Christ came in a visible form for man to see Him, and cast out the demons, showing that they had no power. He also, by His works, overshadowed all the heroes and great men that men deified and worshiped. Through His Incarnation, Christ “both rid us of death and renewed us, and also…by his works he revealed and made himself known to be Son of God and the Word of the Father, leader and king of the universe.” [40] The redemption of mankind is essentially a reversal of the effects of the fall, providing a way back to the original state of man: walking with God in communion and contemplation, and growing towards immortal and blessed life.

Conclusion: Coming out of the Abyss

The creation, fall, and redemption of man can be aptly illustrated in the parable of the Prodigal Son. [41] Taking his inheritance, that is his rationality and free will, man departs from the contemplation of God and uses his body in the pursuit of “riotous living.” He becomes so depraved that, he becomes lower than the animals, envious even of the swine. But, if he returns to the Father, he will return to his former state, receiving the share of the fatted calf: the sacrifice of Christ. “For just as they turned away from God with their mind and invented gods from non-existent entities, so they can rise towards God with the mind of their soul and again turn back towards him.”

Through His death and resurrection, Christ allows men to cleanse themselves of every stain of sin and purify the image that is within them, thus being able to “contemplate as in a mirror the Word, the image of the Father, and in Him meditate on the Father, of Whom the Saviour is the image.” [42] St Basil also writes: “What is Christianity? Likeness to God as far as is possible for human nature. If you are shown to be a Christian, hasten to become like God, put on Christ.” [43] By “putting on Christ” and becoming Christian, we return to the original path which Adam tread upon before departing the Garden. When Christ comes again, we may receive the kingdom of heaven. But, if we remain outside, refusing to follow the way of Christ, there can be only “eternal fire and outer darkness.” [44]


1 Genesis 1:26 (KJV).
2 St Basil the Great, On the Origin of Humanity 1, §4, tr. Nonna Verna Harrison (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2005).
3 St Irenaeus of Lyons, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, tr. Joseph P. Smith (New York: Newman Press, 1952), §11.
4 St Basil 1, §4.
5 St. Irenaeus, §11.
6 St. Basil 1, §5.
7 St. Basil 1, §6.
8 Origen, First Homily on Genesis, tr. Ronald E. Heine (Washington: Catholic University Press, 1982), §13.
9 St Basil 1, §7.
10 St Basil 1, §§9–10
11 St Athanasius, Contra Gentes, tr. Robert W. Thomson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), §§5;31.
12 St Irenaeus §11.
13 St Basil 2, §3.
14 St Basil 2, §4.
15 St Basil 2, §16.
16 St Basil 1, §17.
17 St Athanasius, Contra Gentes, §2.
18 St Athanasius, De Incarnatione, §3.
19 Ibid.
20 St Irenaeus, §12.
21 St Basil 2, §5.
22 St Irenaeus, §12.
23 St Athanasius, De Incarnatione, §5.
24 Genesis 2:16–17.
25 St Irenaeus, §15.
26 St Athanasius, De Incarnatione, §4.
27 St Irenaeus, §16.
28 Genesis 3:8.
29 St Athanasius, Contra Gentes, §3.
30 St Athanasius, Contra Gentes, §2.
31 Ibid., §8.
32 Ibid., §9.
33 St Basil 1, §19.
34 Genesis 3:15.
35 St Irenaeus, §§28;30.
36 St Athanasius, De Incarnatione, §6.
37 Ibid., §7.
38 Ibid., §9.
39 St Irenaeus, §§31–34.
40 St Athanasius, De Incarnatione, §§15-16.
41 Luke 15:11–32
42 St Athanasius, Contra Gentes, §34.
43 St Basil 1, §17.
44 St Athanasius, De Incarnatione, §56.

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