THE ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN CONCEPT OF MAN
by Fr. Stephen Fraser
The following is the text of the sermonette given by Fr. Stephen Fraser at the 26th Archdiocese Convention in 1971 in Boston, Mass. Fr. Stephen has just completed his theological studies at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and is the pastor of St. John of Damascus Church in Boston.
God, in His infinite goodness and love willed existence, or being, from out of nothing or non-being. By an act of His almighty will, He created entities, distinct from Himself, capable of knowing and sharing in His existence and goodness. He endowed them with His image and likeness. This existence which was brought from “non-being,” this “entity” created in the Creator’s image and likeness is called Man.
Now, it can be learned from the “Book of Genesis,” especially the first two chapters, that man was the final act of God’s will in the creation of the universe. The Cosmos was created from nothing and man’s existence was effected by this creation.
The Church teaches that: Creation was God’s free act and that it occurred in time; the cosmos has an aim and an end; God orders and guides His creation according to His almighty will and wisdom.
It is quite correct to say that creation of the cosmos effected man’s creation, for, man, when he existed in potentiality, was conceived by his creator as being both material and spiritual. As such he needed, of necessity, a material environment in which to exist. He is, therefore, the link joining the material and the spiritual orders of creation. In body, man belongs to the physical order of matter, while in soul or spirit he belongs to the spiritual.
Yet man is not two, he is not divided. He does not have two natures. If we say that ordinary man has two natures, then we have to say that Christ has three — the two necessary for His manhood and the divine one. Of course to believe such a teaching would plunge us into the deepest heresy. The fifth Ecumenical Council of the Church (Chalcedon), as well as her conscience, proclaims only two natures in Christ — human and divine.
There is no “dualistic antagonism” between a man’s soul and body as though he were also endowed with intrinsic schizophrenia. To overemphasize either aspect would lead to a denial of the truth. The body does not imprison the spirit as was taught by Platonism, but is meant to be forever united with it. Spirit and matter in man are not in opposition to each other. Man has one nature —human. He is a unity of body and soul, the latter being called “spirit” in its higher aspect.
In Genesis, first and second chapters, we are told that mankind is derived from a single pair, our first parents. This fact is born out not only from scripture which tells us that all men share in a common state of sinfulness and in a common need of redemption, but also through the study of Psychology, History, and Philology. All men, for example, regard the family as the unit of human life: also, there is a sense of corporate unity with the rest of mankind. Furthermore, in his relationship with God, each man shares a certain consciousness of the necessity of religion and the worship of God. Whether or not man evolved from a lower species is of no consequence, for, even if he did, there would still have to be a certain period in time when the lower species became infused with the image and likeness of God and given the gift of an immortal soul. The Church, as a wise mother, has made no formal pronouncement for or against the theory of evolution.
Holy Scripture and the Ecumenical Councils of the Church teach that the soul has its direct origin from God. While the fifth Ecumenical Council did not define any particular theory of the soul’s origin as being “DE FIDE”, it did condemn the doctrine of the preexistence of the soul. Neither can the Orthodox Catholic entertain the “Pantheistic theory,” i.e., the human soul is a part of the very essence of the divine nature. The Church believes that the origin of the soul lies in a combination of Divine and human activity, with God’s creative power involved and exercised in the generation of each individual.
Of the immortality of the soul, the Church teaches that man’s soul is not immortal by nature. The gift of immortality was given by God as a free expression of His love for man, so that man, if he so chooses, may be able to share in the bliss of his creator. In all of creation, only man, as far as we are able to know, was endowed with this most sublime gift.
All of creation has an aim and an end, and so, man was created with all the physical and spiritual endowments necessary for the fulfillment of the end for which God has foreordained him.
Psalm 8, verse 6, tells us that man was made “a little less than the angels.” He therefore stands second in the order of the creation of spiritual beings. The Church and Scripture also teach that some of the first order fell by disobedience, and became evil spirits.
The Bible says “Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26) … “in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27).
Now, while Orthodox theologians differ as to the meaning of image and likeness, perhaps the closest explanation would be that “image” indicates the mind and the will as innate powers, and “likeness” expresses the desire and the impulse which the first man would need in order to use his mind and will to become like God, and develop as much as lay in him, actual perfection. It does not refer to the bi-sexuality of God, or to the divinity of man.
The original state of man was one of harmony in a three-fold relationship—towards himself, towards nature, and towards God. However, the first man (according to I Cor. 15:45-47, and Eph. 4:24) had to develop his own powers. The original state of man was, therefore, one of potential perfection. Had man been absolutely and completely perfect, the fall would have been impossible. This view is in contrast with the Roman Catholic and Protestant views. Protestantism teaches that man was created with complete and perfect holiness and righteousness and that this was a natural endowment independent of Grace. The Roman Church teaches the same except that man’s perfection was attained by means of a special super-added gift, or grace, of God.
But there occurred in the history of mankind a most unfortunate transgression against obedience toward God. The first man fell away from original righteousness because of this “and with him fell the whole human race which descended from him.” He committed a grievous sin in disobeying the will of God and fell away from his own true end foreordained by his creator. The Evil One appeared to him and man easily succumbed to temptation.
Adam in his original state had need of trial and testing, so God gave man a free will which enabled him to make choices. Therefore, man is not a slave of God but can freely choose to either obey or disobey him. Had Adam chosen to resist evil and maintain obedience to God, this one free exercise of his free will would have firmly rooted mankind in perpetual obedience and the vision of God. But alas, Adam sinned by disobeying God and he and his entire progeny were estranged from God and suffered a diminishing of wisdom and knowledge. It became more and more difficult for man to discern and practice what was good. Sin darkened his spiritual eyes and the truth was made difficult in attainment and understanding. Man was cursed with “Original Sin.”
Here we must use caution when speaking of Original Sin. The non-Orthodox teach that Original Sin is the Personal sin and guilt of Adam transmitted from him to all mankind. The Church does not agree with this teaching. Original sin is the “sinful state” of our nature with which we are born. Because of the fall, human nature is disposed toward sinfulness: human nature is corrupt and that which we refer to as man, is really less than man: human nature has been weakened, therefore, the ability to resist every temptation (without the special Graces of God) has been taken away.
The Church teaches that when man fell he did not receive Adam’s sin and guilt — but his punishment, which is corrupt human nature. He also lost physical immortality. And since the bond between the individual soul and God was broken, there occurred an eternal separation between God and man.
Yet, man was not abandoned to the penalties and consequences of Original Sin, for, there was promised to him a Saviour, a redeemer, the Son of God and the second person of the Blessed Trinity.
As redeemer and Saviour, Christ came to make salvation possible. He bridged the gap between man and God. He was Himself the atonement for sin, and the means of our salvation.
It was impossible that a finite created being could offer atonement and thereby achieve salvation for all of mankind. We needed a being who was God and man. As man he had to be perfectly obedient to the will of God. In these ways Christ brought salvation through his incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, and through his mystical body — the Church.
One of the greatest single mysteries to man is that he is. To be, and to contemplate the truth of being, is to approach the Royal Doors that lead to the answer to the secret of life itself. On this earth only man stands consciously and subconsciously in this vessel of truth. The way which leads assuredly to the source of truth and consequently to its possession is Christ and the Church. Only in the Church and by living according to her teachings can man arrive at the true concept of himself.
From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America