Wisdom’s Fire, Radiant and Unfading. Part VII-2 (The Fall Of Adam)

Wisdom’s Fire, Radiant and Unfading. Part VII-2 (The Fall Of Adam) November 16, 2010

Part VII-1

When we come to human sin, and its origin, things become quite difficult. Revelation seems to give us a history wherein we read how the first man and woman fell from God’s grace.[1] St Paul, moreover, seems to affirm this history, and uses it to show us the universality of human sin:

Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned — sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the effect of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (Rom 5:12 -17 RSV).

Evolutionary science, however, calls this into question. As speciation occurs, it is done not in individuals, but in large numbers. But, even more difficult for science to accept is the condition of the world humanity is said to have found itself in at its inception.  Genesis indicates that humanity was placed in an idealized world, a world which we find no record of ever having existed. We can also find apparent contradictions in the creation narratives. If death is said to come through humanity, much of the story itself does not make sense: how can one eat anything without killing it? Even if we argue that Adam and Eve only ate fruit, the cells of the fruit would be destroyed as they were eaten. Moreover, it is clear that there was death in the world before humanity; countless numbers of species came into existence and were killed off before the first human stood upon the earth. They fought each other, they killed each other, they reproduced as they reproduce now, and if they did not die from any other means, they perished of old age. How, then, can humanity have come into an ideal world without death? Or even if one could agree that death happened before humanity, can we really be blamed for it? While one could argue that Paul is talking about human death, what is said in Genesis indicates that Adam’s sin had cosmic significance; it affected more than just human destiny, but everything on the earth.

We must understand that with Scripture we are not given a history of the fall, but rather, a theological account of something which can never be read or understood as history. The fall is an ontological, transcendental event – outside of the bounds of history, though it was incarnated in history and integrated into it. What we see in Scripture, therefore, must be said to be mythology in the positive sense. Myths can employ real figures, places, and things, but they are used in ways which transcend empirical history. We can, and must, ask questions as we ask questions about any story, but in doing so, we must understand our answers are for the sake of understanding the myth and its significance to us. We are trying to interpret it and understand what it really means. We do so as we do so with all myths, realizing that if we take them apart, we might come up with interesting elements but we lose the spirit of the story itself. It is myth, and so we must not treat it as we do with history. We must not expect to study it as we study history; it does not give us what we need in order to make history from it (though we can, as with other myths, guess at some of the history employed by it). Origen understood this and pointed out that Genesis, as with much of Scripture, was not meant to be taken as history. Indeed, with the paradoxes and inconsistencies we would get if we tried to take Scripture as pure history, we have been given enough clues to realize this is not what it is:

When, therefore, as will be clear to those who read, the passage as a connected whole is literally impossible, whereas the outstanding part of it is not impossible but even true, the reader must endeavour to grasp the entire meaning, connecting by an intellectual process the account of what is literally impossible with the parts that are not impossible but are historically true, these being interpreted allegorically in common with the parts which, so far as the letter goes, did not happen at all. For our connection with regard to the whole of divine scripture is, that it all has a spiritual meaning, but not all a bodily meaning; for the bodily meaning is often proved to be an impossibility. Consequently the man who reads the divine books reverently, believing them to be divine writings, must exercise great care. [2]

Myths, to be sure, often include historical elements, but we must, like Origen, understand how those historical elements are used to point to something which transcends history, to what the story is telling us as a whole. It is by its nature as something transcendental that makes the fall of humanity as being outside of the realm of empirical history, as a kind of “meta-history,” using, as Bulgakov points out, mythic symbols because this is the only way we can properly discuss it:

Therefore the language of empirical history cannot be used to represent meta-historical events. The language of symbols or “myths” is the appropriate one. These symbols derive from mythologies that are stored in the memory of humankind as an echo or anamnesis of prehistoric or meta-historic events.[3]

We know, as Bulgakov points out, that there is a kind of universal human guilt which, on the one hand, was done by “Adam,” and yet in some other fashioned participated in and shared by all humanity. This guilt has tainted human nature, leading to humanity’s ever-widening separation from God.[4] The truth of our guilt we intuitively feel, as we know things around us are not right. Something about the nature of the world just is wrong. We do not know why; though Scripture gives us some help here, we must not expect more out of Scripture than what it gives; as Balthasar explains, Scripture is ripe with the fact of original sin and its effects on the world, but it leaves much about its how and why as mysteries which cannot be answered:

What theology calls peccatum originale, the “sin of origin”, has deep roots in the theology of the Old and New Testaments, yet it remains one of those “mysteries” of biblical revelation that can never be completely solved.[5]

Original sin, we must be sure, is not the same thing as personal sin; it is rather, the state of humanity (and the world) fallen from original justice, fallen outside of the original order of grace. Actual sin requires act, original sin is the defect which allows for the act:

Original sin is called the incentive to sin, namely concupiscence or the attraction to pleasure, which is called the law of the members, or the weakness of nature, or the tyrant who is in our members, or the law of the flesh.[6]

Theologians have tried to explore original sin, and to come to a better understanding of it. Their interests sometimes differ, as will the results of their exploration. Some, taking Adam’s sin for granted, tried to explore what this meant for humanity, and why humanity was all seen as sinning “in Adam” so that original sin was transmitted to his descendents. Peter Lombard, for example, saw something from Adam’s physical being was spread and shared by all humanity, that the potential to be came from Adam’s seed, and so all the seed, coming from Adam’s body, spread his substance throughout history:

For Adam transmitted some little portion of his own substance to the bodies of his children when he procreated them, that is, some little portion of the mass of his substance was divided and from it was formed the body of the child, and it was increased by its own multiplication, without the addition of anything extrinsic. And from that body so increased, some little portion is separated in the same way, from which are formed the bodies of posterity. And so the order of procreation proceeds in this manner by the law of propagation until the end of humankind. In this way, it is evident to those who understand it diligently and clearly that all were in Adam in respect to their bodies through seminal reason, and they descended from him by the law of propagation.[7]

Nicholas of Cusa similarly said:

For when Adam sinned and lost original justice, which he was supposed to keep and to pass on, all those who were in his loins potentially, and who were going to exist through a seminal cause, lost this very justice.[8]

In this fashion, we could talk about original sin as a kind of heredity – genetics shows us, for example, that there is indeed something which is being repeated and shared through descendents, so that one could look at this corruption as being found in our genetics. However, in saying this, we must follow Bulgakov and realize that such genetic history, if it is real, is more than empirical, but metaphysical. “Heredity belongs to metaphysics, or more precisely, to meta-empiricism, as a force that acts above or in the depths of visible reality.”[9] In this way, while original sin can be seen in heredity, it would be wrong to confuse it as heredity itself, and moreover, it would also be wrong to confuse original sin as the transmission of actual sin from Adam to us. It is, rather, our participation in the reordering of nature, where humanity, through the fall, has found itself closed off from grace; only when we personalize that in actual sin are we accorded with sin; it is also for this reason that original sin continues to be spread even by parents freed from original sin themselves:

Furthermore, original sin is not present in the soul by way of propagation, because it is not propagated; nor is it present in the flesh, for the flesh is not capable of virtue or of evil. Rather, original sin is present in a man potentially with respect to his soul, because of divine punishment. In particular, when the soul is conjoined to the flesh, then at that moment the soul lacks original justice and divine grace. And so, the remission of Adam’s original sin was of no benefit to us, because [Adam’s sin] was remitted not as a natural sin that concerned the whole of human nature but as a personal sin. Accordingly, baptized parents still beget a child who has original sin.[10]

While we might be talking about some sort of nature which is shared by all of humanity, a nature which has in some fashion been corrupted, we must emphatically state that original sin is not the transmission of actual sin throughout humanity. “For Catholic theology, therefore, ‘original sin’ in no way means that the moral quality of the actions of the first person or persons is transmitted to us, whether this be through a juridical imputation by God or through some kind of biological heredity, however conceived.”[11]

What is more important for us is that we, in some fashion, not only share in the corruption of human nature by the sin of Adam, but we somehow also participate in it:

The corporeality and objectification of each individual’s original decision of freedom participates in the essence of this original free decision, and this is true whether the decision was good or bad. But they are not simply the original goodness or evil of this subjective, original free decision. They only participate in it, and therefore they are inevitably characterized by ambiguity. For while history is still going on, it always remains obscure whether they really are the historical, corporeal objectification of a definite good or evil free decision, or whether it only looks this way because this objectification has arisen only out of pre-personal necessities.[12]

In this manner, we begin to see how it is a trans-historical event, a transcendent metaphysical event which is brought to light in human history. But how, exactly, can we go about describing this fall; what kind of choice is it that we were given, and why did we all, somehow together with Adam, follow the wrong choice, and turn our backs upon God?

St Maximus the Confessor hints at the fundamental issue at stake. The choice was one of either keeping ourselves entirely open to God, and God’s order of grace, or turning in on ourselves, becoming narcissistically enamored with ourselves so much that we try to become our own god. The way we do this, however, is by a disordering of our nature, by closing in on the pleasures of the senses:[13]

As the forefather Adam did not pay attention to God with the eye of the soul, he neglected this light, and willingly, in the manner of a blind man, felt the rubbish of matter with both his hands in the darkness of ignorance, and inclined and surrendered the whole of himself to the senses alone. Through this he took into himself the corruptive venom of the most bitter of wild beasts, and did not benefit from his senses apart from God, and instead of God, as he wished, nor take care to possess the things of God, in accordance with God, as it ought to be, as something inconceivable. For when he decided to be guided by his senses, which are much more like the serpent than God, and took the first-fruits of food from the forbidden tree, in which he had been taught beforehand that fruit and death went together, he changed the life that is proper to fruit, and fashioned for himself a living death for the whole of the time of this present age.[14]

Why, however, would we turn in on ourselves, thereby closing off a path of God’s grace? St Irenaeus points out that because we had been made special, that we saw ourselves as being given lordship over the world, it was easy then to translate that limited authority and think we had the potential for absolute authority. God’s law was put in place to tell us that such potential is not ours for the taking, that, if we strived for it, we would find out we cannot have it:

But so that man should not have thoughts of grandeur, and become lifted up, as if he had no lord, because of the dominion that had been given to him, and the freedom, fall into sin against God his creator, overstepping his bounds, and take up an attitude of self-conceited arrogance towards God, a law was given him by God, that he might know that he had for lord the Lord of all.[15]

Nonetheless, goaded by the devil, we overstepped the boundary, and tried to claim that which is not ours to claim, that of being the absolute; and thus, we fell. We abandoned God, and so God let us be all that we could be in and of ourselves:

Man was justly abandoned by God in the beginning as he had first abandoned God. He had voluntarily approached the originator of evil, obeyed him when he treacherously advised the opposite of what God commanded, and was justly given over to him. In this way, through the evil one’s envy and the good Lord’s just consent, death came into the world. Because of the devil’s overwhelming evil, death became twofold, for he brought about not just physical but also eternal death.[16]

This, however, brings up the question, what exactly was so great about humanity, that it was given stewardship over the earth, and that it was capable, through self-love, in falling into sin? And it also brings back to the question, how, exactly, can we all be said to act in and share in this sin?  And how, exactly, can we tie this all in with what we know of history, that is, human history comes out of the history of biological evolution?

To answer these questions will require metaphysical answers. For what we are dealing with are things which transcend what science can provide. Yet, it must be something which at least does not contradict what we can find in the scientific record. Thus, the general theory of evolution must be accepted. On the other hand, what science cannot say, what philosophy might suggest, is what theology also adds to the equation: there is something special about humanity, something which makes humanity a fulcrum on the chain of being, so that what happens to humanity (or what humanity does) affects not just itself, but those under it on the chain of being. Evolution leads to the possibility of humanity, but there is something ontological about humanity that the placement of humanity in the evolutionary line is done not by created Sophia, but by Divine Wisdom. “Man is a supramundane principle in the world, although his manifestation and actualization belong to history.”[17]

Humanity was brought into the world to be its steward, and in this way, to help harmonize the world and save it. As mediator, humanity is expected to overcome the effects of the angelic fall. However, as a creature given freedom by God, God has also given humanity the freedom to choose for itself whether it will follow God, and thus use its gifts to heal the world from the effects of the fall, or to turn against God, increasing the effects of the angelic fall exponentially. Created Sophia, seeking to overcome the effects of the fall, was working to develop a mediator who would heal the world; evolution is the process in which created Sophia makes this physical, material precondition for this mediator to exist. But it is only from uncreated Sophia, from the Godhead, that this special mediator can be born – it is only by a special grace that allows created Sophia’s work to come to fruition in the creation of humanity. Through evolution, humanity is materially possible, through the work of God, humanity is spiritually possible. Humanity came into the world with a special grace: humanity came into the world freed from the effects of the fall and given the freedom to choose or deny God. If it chose God, it would have been able to mediate for God and to work out the world’s salvation. It was the responsibility given to it by its very essence, by its placement in the great chain of being. However, to come into the world in history, to at once be that mediator and yet a part of history, humanity came into the world with a graced conception, giving the all-united-humanity in Adam the chance to fulfill its obligation by obedience to God or by disobedience through a turn-to-the self; and by turning to the self, we created the historical destiny of Adam and in Adam, the historical destiny of humanity:

All this belongs to meta-history, and one should therefore not seek this in the historical world and time. It belongs to history only as its prologue. Prior to his fall, Adam is the only “progenitor.” After the fall, he is one of many progenitors; he belongs to a specific generation and is empirically connected with the whole organic world. And Eve becomes “the mother of all who love,” that is, she represents the unitary naturalness of humankind, which is actualized in a series of natural births. One can say that an ontological abyss lies between the meta-history of the first three chapters of Genesis and the history of Adam’s race.[18]

We were united in Adam; in first human person in history, humanity was ontologically one; in Adam, we all acted together and rejected God together. Or, rather, in the first creature which would eventually be of the human species, because at the point of Adam, there was no species in the evolutionary sense, only this unique, all-humanity, this one Adam who like God was one and plural. This, of course, is how we can come to understand original sin and how it applies to us. While after the fall we find ourselves divided, metaphysically, before the fall, we find ourselves as one in Adam. It is only after our fall from grace that we become divided and try to become independent individuals. And, even in that division, we can never become pure individuals; we remain related to each other, by our common, though hurt, human nature, so that we not only experience our own guilt, but also, we sense that there is indeed a collective guilt which molds and shape our own experience in the world. Karl Rahner explains what this means, not only metaphysically, but practically as well:

We say first of all: we are people who must inevitably exercise our own freedom subjectively in a situation which is co-determined by objectifications of guilt, and indeed in such a way that this co-determination belongs to our situation permanently and inescapably. This can be clarified by a very banal example: when someone buys a banana, he does not reflect upon the fact that its price is tied to many presuppositions. To them belongs, under certain circumstances, the pitiful lot of banana pickers, which in turn is co-determined by social injustice, exploitation, or a centuries-old commercial policy. This person himself now participates in this situation of guilt to his own advantage. Where does this person’s personal responsibility in taking advantage of such a situation co-determined by guilt end, and where does it begin? These are difficult and obscure questions.[19]

But, if, as we said above, history is the enfolding of what has happened in eternity, we then are given a place in history to help create, just like the angels. Metaphysically we existed prior to much which existed to us historically, but we entered a point in history to enact our metaphysical condition. What we did in one point of time not only affects that time, but somehow, is connected to and united all time. This explains how we were, and in a sense, are, united in Adam. We have been given a chance to help create our own history; our fall in Adam is a co-creative work with Adam, leading to the dire consequences of sin which we see around us today. This is similar to what Bulgakov is getting at when he says:

This idea must be linked with the more general idea (see above) that man himself participates, in a certain sense, in his own origin, accepting his being from the Creator. And this acceptance is characterized not by monotonous sameness but by the individual qualifiedness of self-determination. Every person pre-enacts Adam’s fall (with differences in mode and intensity). Every person repeats this fall, as it were, by his agreement to enter into a world damaged by Adam’s sin, thus accepting the infirm human nature, the sick flesh that already bears the seeds of death. This acceptance becomes the equivalent here to the acceptance of being in general, for after Adam’s fall there is no other world, no world without sin.[20]

This is what the teaching of original sin is really about. It is about how we are united in Adam in creating the fall. That is, the first person, called by Scripture as Adam (with all kinds of implications involved with this naming), is involved in a decision which is not only his, but a decision enacted by the whole of humanity. Evolution is at once a sophianic search for Adam, but it also is affected by, both positively and negatively, by that Adam – because what it searched for, it found, and what it found, however, failed to do what it meant for Adam to do. Once it found Adam, it had found humanity, the mediator. But because humanity turned its back on God, the world immaculate, ideal world around Adam, around humanity, a world outside of history because it was the world of the eschaton, could not come about. The world knew salvation was to come about through humanity; but it groaned in pain and sorrow when its would-be savior fell from divine grace:

Eden was a preparation for what was hidden in the recesses of all natural being. It was a sort of eschatology of natural being: the image of the new Eden sketched out in Revelation 22:1-5, with the river and tree of life, includes what was in the original Garden of Eden. But the original Eden, which appeared on the earth only in connection with the sinless state of man, becomes inaccessible, transcendent to creation, and as if nonexistent after its fall.[21]

In a sense, one could say that a kind of Eden was coming about around the unfallen all-united humanity-in-Adam. As long as that special Adam had not abandoned its mission in the world, Eden was spreading into the world; the world was beginning to be healed from the angelic fall. It was a special state created out of the chaos before it, lifting up what was in it to its ideal earthly possibility because humanity was capable of transfiguring it – we are given the ability to affect such change over the earth:

As the intermediary between heaven and earth, Man was destined to be the universal Messiah who should save the world from chaos by uniting it to God and incarnating eternal Wisdom in created forms. This mission involved Man in a threefold ministry; he was to be priest of God, king of the lower world, and prophet of their absolute union: priest of God in sacrificing to Him his own arbitrariness, the egoism of humanity; king of the lower world of Nature in subjecting it to divine law; prophet of the union of the two in aspiring to the absolute totality of existence and in realising it progressively by the continuous cooperation of grace and freedom, in regenerating and reforming Nature outside the Godhead until its universal and perfect integration is achieved …[22]

But, when we turned to ourselves, closed ourselves to the order of grace, thinking we can handle creation as gods, the result was obvious: humanity was overtaken by the chaos it was meant to heal. The ontological unity which we possessed, allowing us to be one in Adam, was fractured:

The infinite disintegration of material parts in space is translated into human terms by the indeterminate and anarchic plurality of co-existing individuals; to the infinite disjunction of moments in time corresponds, in the life of mankind, the indeterminate succession of generations which vie with one another for actual existence and in turn supplant one another; and finally the material mechanism of the physical world is transferred to mankind under the form of that heteronomy or rule of fate which subjects the will of Man to the force of circumstances and his inner being to the dominating influence of external environment and temporal conditions.[23]

Because the world was put into our stewardship, even after the fall, we have great power over the world; we can modify it, affecting it greatly. We can still work on it and seek its improvement. On the other hand, we can exploit it. Often the two go hand in hand; some improvements are based upon exploitation, and where there is benefit in one area, there are consequences in others. We do not know how to holistically improve it, because we lost such wholeness in ourselves. But, what hurts the world more is that we do not follow the path of self-sacrificial love in our work on the world; rather, we seek to improve it for our own gain, ignoring the proper order of nature; it is no wonder the world often responds with a violence of its own. We have become tyrants over the world we were meant to heal. Its response can be seen as a kind of rebellion against our cruelty towards it.

Since we were the ones called to creation in order to fix it, and instead, we turned it into a plaything for ourselves, what, then, was created Sophia to do?


[1] Gen. 3.

[2] Origen, On First Principles. Trans. and intr. G.W. Butterwork (Glourcester, Mass: Peter Smith, 1973),296 [IV-III.5].

[3] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, 170.

[4] See ibid., 164-5.

[5] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama IV. Trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 183.

[6] Peter Lombard, The Sentences Book II: Creation. Trans. Giulio Silan (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2008), 149.

[7] ibid., 152.

[8] Nicholas of Cusa, Nicholas of Cusa’s Early Sermons: 1430 – 1441. trans Jasper Hopkins (Loveland, CO: The Arthur J. Banning Press, 2003), 110.

[9] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, 181-2.

[10] ibid., 110.

[11] Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith. trans. William V. Dych (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), 111.

[12] Ibid., 107.

[13] We must understand that this is not to say the senses, or the pleasures of the senses, are evil; it is, rather, our turning in on them in exclusion to higher goods, making them the higher good for ourselves has disrupted the balance of nature, leading to our fallen nature. Evil, as always, comes about by the corruption of some good, making more out of that good than it is capable of holding, disrupting therefore the entire balance of nature.

[14] St Maximus the Confessor, “Difficulty 10” in Maximus the Confessor. Trans. and intr. Andrew Louth (London: Routledge, 1996), 126. In this way, St Maximus sees the cycle of sin as being a cycle of pleasure-seeking, where people pursue what they think will bring them the greatest pleasure, leading to further corruption of nature and therefore, greater suffering and pain. Death, physical and spiritual, as with all suffering, is therefore caused by the ignorant pursuit for inordinate pleasure. Christ, coming into the world apart from the pursuit, is seen by Maximus as overcoming the cycle of sin because he takes on death without the inordinate pleasure, leading, therefore, to a new humanity, one founded in him, where death itself is now transformed, and with it, what was corrupt in nature now can be repaired.

[15] St Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Teaching. Trans. Joseph P. Smith, S.J. (New York: Newman Press, 1952), 56.

[16] St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies. ed. and trans. and intr. By Christopher Veniamin with the Monastery of St. John the Baptist Essex, England (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing Company, 2009), 115-6.

[17] Sergius Bulgakov, Bride of the Lamb, 176.

[18] ibid., 180.

[19] Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, 110-11.

[20] Sergius Bulgakov, Bride of the Lamb, 184.

[21] Ibid., 179.

[22] Vladimir Solovyev, Russia and the Universal Church, 179.

[23] Ibid., 180.


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