Saturday, January 7, 2012

Person and nature and the freedom of the human will

After a short year and a half of exposure to Orthodox theology, I'm hardly fit to delve into weighty issues such as this one, but since it was a rather important issue to us as Lutherans converting to Orthodoxy, I pray I am able to do it at least some justice.  The impetus for me to write this was actually a very nice discussion several of us had on a Lutheran forum recently, where someone took a very hard position that (paraphrasing) "the will is bound to sin, and Scripture teaches this clearly."  Since it was a Lutheran forum, I did not want to wear out my welcome as a guest, so rather than dive neck deep into the issue I merely pointed out that if it was so clear, we would all agree on that point, and since we do not agree, perhaps the issue is more complex than it was being presented as being.  I also pointed out -- and this is more the point I am trying to make -- that the Orthodox view of "free will" and the Lutheran notion of a "bound will" are not as far apart as most Lutherans seem to believe when we Orthodox say we believe in "free will."  That is not to say they are identical or even similar, but they are not the polar opposites most Lutherans, unfamiliar with Orthodox theology, think they are.  In that light, I do not mean to be polemical, though I will discuss differences and compare and contrast.  As always, this is written from the point of view of a layman, and a very young one in the faith at that.  I welcome correction from Orthodox readers, as well as from Lutheran readers since I will be discussing some points of Lutheran theology as well.

Lutherans hold that the human will is bound to sin.  By this, they mean that before conversion, the human will is incapable of willing and doing the good and can only sin.  Lutherans do make a distinction between freedom of the will in "things above" (i.e., pertaining to God) versus "civil righteousness" or "things below" (i.e., whether to give to charity, what color shirt to wear, etc.).  But the basic understanding is that before conversion, the human will is bound to sin and can do no good in the eyes of God.  Luther's "Bondage of the Will" is the seminal text on this issue, and while it is a very difficult read (my copy is well worn and has notes and underlines all over it), it is well worth the effort for any serious Lutheran.  Luther was, in my estimation, a master theologian in many respects.  While I disagree with a lot of what he wrote over the years, and while I further disagree with some of the dogmatic points in the Book of Concord including those based on Luther's understanding of the human will, sin and how these apply in salvation, I want to say up front I remain an admirer of his work and in particular this text.  It has been a while since I read "Bondage of the Will," so I will not delve into it in great depth.  Rather, as noted above, my focus will be on the Orthodox understanding of the human will, the human person, the human nature and how the three concepts interact with one another.  This will be contrasted in part against the Lutheran understanding as I understand it, but only to demonstrate my belief that the Orthodox understanding of the freedom of the human will and the Lutheran understanding of the bondage of the human will are not as incompatible or mutually exclusive as might appear at first blush. 

To be clear, we do not agree on this issue.  My point here is not to pretend we do, but rather to point out that I do not think the disagreement is what most Lutherans think it is.  We Orthodox do not have a problem with the Lutheran understanding that we cannot "work our way to heaven," nor do we have a problem with the Lutheran understanding that the human person, bound as we are in our mortal flesh, is inevitably prone to sin.  The disagreement is in large part based upon how one categorizes person and nature, and how the will relates to those two philosophical categories.  Since I am at best a hack philosopher, I also welcome correction on any points of philosophy I raise here.

For the Orthodox, the issue of the human will and its relation to the human nature revolves around the questions of Who is God and who are we.  God, we would say, is eternal, He is life itself.  Put another way, there is no life without God, for there is no existence without God.  Thus, God's nature is eternal, life-giving, and good.  We are, by contrast, naturally dependent on God for our existence.  Any life we have, whether mortal (i.e., subject to death) or eternal is from Him.  "For in him we live and move and have our being."  Our nature as created is good, even "very good" (see Genesis 1:31), but cannot subsist in and of itself without God sustaining it.  This brings up a second distinction in Orthodox theology -- essence and energies.  We can never communicate with God in His essence.  In this sense, "essence" is roughly synonymous with "nature."  We can never be as God in our essence/nature, for we are created and not by nature eternal.  But we can communicate with God's energies, and in that communion we can have eternal life through Him.  This is the state of Adam and Eve before the Fall -- they were in communion with God's divine and life-giving energies.  Note:  they were not naturally immortal, because they were not divine.  Rather, they were creatures with the ability to live eternally through communion with God.  What Adam and Eve lost in the fall was this communion, not the ontological properties of the nature itself.

The Holy Fathers of the Sixth Ecumenical Council

So with that as a very simple and rudimentary background, I'll turn to the human will.  Most Lutherans are familiar with the heresies of Nestorianism and Monophysitism.  The former was the heresy that the human and divine natures of Christ are disunited from one another.  The latter was the heresy that Christ only had one nature -- a human/divine nature.  Less familiar, in my experience at least, is the heresy of Monothelitism.  Monothelitism is a middle ground between these two heresies, and it held that Christ had two distinct natures that communicated with one another, but only one will, which was a divine/human will.  The Monothelites held that because Christ was one divine person, He had only one will, and His human will was essentially subsumed by His divine will.  The 6th Ecumenical Council at Constantinople rejected this heresy, holding that the human will pertains not to the person, but the nature.  The Council stated it thusly:

"Following the five holy Ecumenical Councils and the holy and approved Fathers, with one voice defining that our Lord Jesus Christ must be confessed to be very God and very man, one of the holy and consubstantial and life-giving Trinity, perfect in Deity and perfect in humanity, very God and very man, of a reasonable soul and human body subsisting; consubstantial with the Father as touching his Godhead and consubstantial with us as touching his manhood; in all things like unto us, sin only excepted; begotten of his Father before all ages according to his Godhead, but in these last days for us men and for our salvation made man of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary, strictly and properly the Mother of God according to the flesh; one and the same Christ our Lord the only-begotten Son of two natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, inseparably indivisibly to be recognized, the peculiarities of neither nature being lost by the union but rather the proprieties of each nature being preserved, concurring in one Person and in one subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons but one and the same only-begotten Son of God, the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, according as the Prophets of old have taught us and as our Lord Jesus Christ himself hath instructed us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers hath delivered to us; defining all this we likewise declare that in him are two natural wills and two natural operations indivisibly, inconvertibly, inseparably, inconfusedly, according to the teaching of the holy Fathers.  And these two natural wills are not contrary the one to the other (God forbid!) as the impious heretics assert, but his human will follows and that not as resisting and reluctant, but rather as subject to his divine and omnipotent will.  For it was right that the flesh should be moved but subject to the divine will, according to the most wise Athanasius.  For as his flesh is called and is the flesh of God the Word, so also the natural will of his flesh is called and is the proper will of God the Word, as he himself says:  'I came down from heaven, not that I might do mine own will but the will of the Father which sent me!' where he calls his own will the will of his flesh, inasmuch as his flesh was also his own.  For as his most holy and immaculate animated flesh was not destroyed because it was deified but continued in its own state and nature (ὄρῳ τε καὶ λόγῳ), so also his human will, although deified, was not suppressed, but was rather preserved according to the saying of Gregory Theologus:  'His will [i.e., the Saviour’s] is not contrary to God but altogether deified.'
We glorify two natural operations indivisibly, immutably, inconfusedly, inseparably in the same our Lord Jesus Christ our true God, that is to say a divine operation and a human operation, according to the divine preacher Leo, who most distinctly asserts as follows:  “For each form (μορφὴ) does in communion with the other what pertains properly to it, the Word, namely, doing that which pertains to the Word, and the flesh that which pertains to the flesh.”

(emphasis mine, parenthetical Greek in original).

If this is true -- if the will is natural and not personal -- this leaves us in a bit of a quandary when examining the Lutheran position that the will itself is bound.  Lutherans typically hold that the nature in man is not destroyed, but totally corrupted such that it is unable to will and do the good.  If this is understood as a corruption by virtue of the broken communion with the divine energies, I believe we Orthodox would agree to a point.  But if this corruption is natural -- if the nature itself is marred and ontologically changed such that it has lost the natural will as it was created and cannot be used by a human person to either will or do the good -- then we have a Christological problem.  St. Gregory the Theologian wrote "what is not assumed is not healed."  Therefore, Christ either assumed a human nature that was ontologically corrupted and could not be used to do anything but sin, or Christ assumed a different nature than Lutherans holding to this view would say we as human persons share, such that our nature is not actually healed.  I should note here that some Lutherans who are friends of mine do not go as far as to say the will itself is corrupted in an ontological sense.  I should also note that the Formula of Concord seems to reject that view as well, holding that the nature itself is not sin (but, in my opinion, being quite unclear on that point when read in context).  But that is the problem we see and that is the view we reject, to the extent any Lutherans or anyone else holds to it (and it is my experience that many Christians do).  To the extent the will is seen as existentially corrupted, we would say there is an irreconcilable Christological problem.

St. Maximus the Confessor
Having thus described the Lutheran and Orthodox views, I would say at this point that I don't think the two positions end up all that far apart at the end of the road.  We Orthodox would say that in our person, insofar as the natural will remains disconnected from the divine energies, we are inevitably bound to sin.  We can will the good on occasion, and we can even do it in part (the natural will remains, but is obscured by what St. Maximus the Confesser referred to as the "gnomic will," which is a mortal use of the will that deliberates between good and evil rather than knowing and doing the good and knowing and rejecting the evil).  But we cannot consistently will the good or do it.  We are typically confused and blinded, trying to decide what is good and evil, and we are usually wrong -- even our choices to do what might otherwise be called "good" are marred by our self-interested, inwardly focused narcissism that is a result of our mortality.  In addition, while we don't hold to the primarily forensic notion of salvation that many Lutherans do, we would agree that our good works do not "please God" in the sense that they cannot attain our salvation (we, of course, would say salvation is not about "pleasing God" in the first place -- regardless of how many "good works" we do, we still "miss the mark" -- we are still sinners).  So the same problem of sin Lutherans see is also present in Orthodoxy.  It is just present in a different philosophical and theological framework.  When we say our will is free, we are not saying that our ability to use the will apart from the grace of God is free, only that the will is by nature free and capable of being used by a person to choose between good and evil.  What we as individual human persons enslaved by our mortal flesh and focused on ourselves and putting our needs above all others are actually capable of accomplishing with this natural will is a different matter entirely. 

As should be obvious, we maintain a sharp division between person and nature.  Because of this, we would say that natures do not sin, people do.  Which is to say, we cannot attribute our sinfulness to the nature, which is and remains good, but rather the nature is "sinful" only insofar as it is bound up in a specific person who uses it to sin.  There is no unhyposticized nature.  There is no such thing as a nature that is disconnected from a person.  It is my observation that when some Lutherans discuss the bondage of the will, they often use words like "our will" or "my will," and the possessive indicates that this is a conflation of person and nature.  No one has a nature that belongs to them, except inasmuch as that nature is hyposticized -- bound to their person.  As one example, I have heard it said frequently among Lutherans that "our will is bound to sin unless and until Christ converts us, after which our will is free to will and do the good."  My reading of the Book of Concord would agree with this view as being representative of Lutheran theology.  But in this sense, if we are to reconcile the Orthodox and Lutheran views, it must be that the use of the will is what is at issue, not the natural will itself.  If that is not the case, we would reject the Lutheran view because if it is true, the regenerate man has a different nature than the unregenerate man, and we have a category error.  If the regenerate man has a different nature than the unregenerate man, one of them is no longer truly human ("nature" means the essential properties of being for any given thing, in this case, humans).

We would say, by way of contrast, that the natural will remains free, but we as persons are bound, imprisoned, obscured, blinded, etc.  We are so bound because we are disconnected from the divine energies of God, not because our nature is ontologically changed.  We see the contrary claim as a confusion of person and nature.  A frequently used Lutheran liturgical confession says "I confess that I am by nature sinful and unclean."  We reject this out of hand.  But what we would agree with is that if, when one says "my nature" that is understood to mean the human nature as I possess it in my person, then that nature is inevitably used by me (as a person) to sin.

The Annunciation

How Christ rectifies this situation is perhaps another distinction between Orthodox and Lutheran beliefs.  We would say that Christ assumed our human nature, and in His person, He reunited that nature with the divine and life-giving energies (which subsist in His person because He is a divine person and He eternally has a divine nature).  In this sense, Christ did not assume a "glorified" nature, but rather He glorified the same nature you and I share in His divine person.  Glorification in this sense is not primarily forensic, as if Christ assumed a nature that is without sin in order that He might meet the demands of the Law, while we have a "sinful nature" that cannot possibly meet the demands of the Law.  This, again, would mean that Christ assumed a nature that was not fully human (or, alternatively, that we are not fully human).  Rather, we would say the nature itself is not sinful, but Christ, in His Person, did not put it to use to sin as we do.  He assumed our nature, albeit without sin.  We, then, are able to put the will to good use through union with Christ.  In that union, we are able now to both will and do the good.  This is, in a sense, similar to Lutheran theology which holds in the Formula of Concord that "before conversion" we cannot cooperate with God, but "after conversion" we can and must cooperate with God, albeit in weakness.  The primary difference being that we see this as being part of the ongoing and never-ending process of Theosis, whereas Lutherans would tend to sort out justification and sanctification, and keeping our cooperation in the latter category.  As a side note, I was surprised to learn recently that some Lutherans deny that we can cooperate even in sanctification, which is not how I was taught when I was a Lutheran, and is certainly not how I read the Lutheran Confessions. 

For the Orthodox, union with Christ is not obtained either by not sinning or by having our will (and thus our nature) ontologically changed in some sense.  We obtain union with Christ by communion with Him, i.e., by communion with the divine energies of God, i.e., through the Sacraments, i.e., through the Church.  God saves us by reuniting our nature to His divine energies in the person of His Son, and by uniting us as persons to His Son in the Sacramental life of the Church.  Our nature remains as it was before, but illumined, having abilities and power that it lacked before.  This union is ongoing -- it is a process rather than an event.  But it is the union that we see as salvific, not merely the juridical status before the Law (though, we would say, that is certainly part of salvation, and an ongoing part at that).  The Lutheran Confessions use the iron/fire analogy to discuss the two natures of Christ in the Formula of Concord.  We would use the same analogy (and the Fathers did as well) to describe not only proper Christology, but also our union with the Godhead.  Our nature (typified by iron) is not ontologically changed.  But once illumined, as the analogy goes, the iron can heat, give light, burn, etc.  And yet it remains iron, such that if it is removed from and therefore without illumination, it can do none of those things.  It is cold, dark, lifeless.  This is analogous to how the human nature is healed according to the Orthodox.  Not by being changed in an existential sense, but by being illumined by the divine energies of God.

I am certain this does not do justice to the topic, and I am sure I have erred somewhere in all of this, but I do hope it offers a basic framework of understanding and perhaps a springboard for further discussion.  I have also not dealt with the Orthodox understanding of synergy, which is the next logical step in this discussion.  But I do hope I have given at least a simplistic understanding of what the differences are and, more to my point, what the similarities are, between the two views.  Please forgive me where I have erred.


Judy said...

A a lay Lutheran, I followed you on the explanations of the 2 positions. Of course I had to read and re-read for my brain to grasp the explanations. But you do have my brain scrambled when you try to explain (I confess) the Lutheran use of "by nature" and the Orthodox use of "my nature". By nature, are you/we talking about the creation of Adam or after the fall of Adam?

David Garner said...

Hi, Judy! It's difficult to sort out because you, like me, come from a background that assumes quite a lot in its theology. I don't say that to be flippant or condescending -- the Book of Concord goes into great detail to explain these matters, so it's not exactly begging the question. It's just that most lay Lutherans know the basics but not the details, and so it's difficult to wrap your head around. We had to study both the Book of Concord and Orthodox writings to sort it out.

We would say that ontologically speaking, the nature is no different post-fall than pre-fall. The difference we attribute to the fallen nature is that it is disconnected from the divine energies. It is not ontologically changed, but rather it is disempowered (for lack of a better word) due to the lack of communion. This is the corruption we see described in the Scriptures and spoken of by the Fathers -- not that the nature has ceased to be what it was in an existential sense (again, this would mean it is no longer human), but rather that it was previously in communion with God and now that communion is broken. And while this communion was natural as well as personal, once broken, the nature that was passed on to us did not have the communion restored, so we inherit this mortal condition. Christ had to restore the communion. That's what He came to accomplish. This is why we would reject a statement that we are "by nature sinful and unclean." If that is true, then either Christ was also "by nature sinful and unclean," or He assumed a nature that is not fully human. Either option is a Christological error.

We would not typically use a term like "my nature" to refer to humanity, because nature is not a personal attribute. We see this as a confusion of person and nature. The distinction I was trying to make is the only way this notion works is if we are talking about a personal use of the nature rather than the nature itself, in which case we would prefer to speak more clearly and clarify that we are speaking of person and not nature.

Judy said...

Thanks for the further explanation. You are right about the background. I was raised LCMS, my father was raised Russian Orthodox, so I'm intrigued with what the theological differences are and why.