The Meaning of “Fallen Nature”

From my article “Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 1: Historical and Theological Background

…to say that human beings have “a fallen nature” refers to more than simply each individual’s inability to stop sinning; rather, it refers to the way human beings are oriented towards disordered affections that present substitute notions of what it means to flourish. These substitute notions of human flourishing compete with the God-given vocation originally bestowed upon mankind by the Creator God. Thus, the curse of Adam and Eve after they disobeyed God was not a purely juridical act that might have been otherwise – rather, being cursed with death was a natural and organic correlate to cutting oneself off from the ultimate Source of life. To use an analogy from Wright’s book The Day the Revolution Happened, the death and judgment that follows sin is like having an accident from driving around a corner too quickly rather than getting a speeding ticket (the latter is arbitrary, whereas the former is organically related to the offense itself). As human beings pursue substitute notions of human flourishing that are separate from the Source of life, human beings move away from everything that gives health to our souls. The result is that we become progressively subhuman….

Within this context, to say Jesus “saves” mankind refers to much more than simply that Jesus made it possible for believers to go to heaven when they die. Rather, Jesus saves humanity in the sense that He reunites human nature to the life of God. Instead of mankind being defined by death, man can now be defined by life. As such, death ceases to be the enemy because, even in the midst of death, it is the life of God that defines those who are united to Christ. Thus, as an instrument of death the cross also becomes a powerful symbol of life. In the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, the uniting of man with God that began at the incarnation continues as the life of God is mediated to mankind through the sacramental life of the Church. The ministry of the Church thus becomes the means for men and women to experience salvation, in the aforementioned sense of being reunited with the divine life. As such, salvation is as much medicinal as it is juridical. The incarnation of Christ—made present to men and women through the sacramental life of the Church—is the medicine of immortality through which the human soul is healed and able to move towards flourishing.

Misfiring of the Longing for Goodness

From my earlier post ‘Virtue and Classical Education: A Commencement Address to a Graduating Class’:

“We all long for Christ’s presence, for the beatific vision. We long for Him like flowers stretching forth towards the light of the sun, for it is in our nature as human beings to aim towards what is good, true and beautiful, and all goodness, truth and beauty is but a dim reflection of the Creator. But the impulse towards the good can misfire, as we follow after merely transitory and temporal goods rather than the Eternal Good, or as we pursue the fleeting ephemeral beauty of this world that cannot satisfy the soul. The power transitory goods have for enticing us away from the Ultimate Good lies precisely in the fact that they are genuine goods. Because of our fallen state, we do not approach God directly, but through the good things of creation. For example, the sense of wonder and awe we feel when contemplating objects of beauty prepares our hearts for the beauty of Christ; the sense of completion we feel when we love and are loved by another prepares our hearts for unity with God; when we experience human forgiveness, understanding compassion and encouragement, these qualities become icons of God’s love for us. The temptation, however, is to treat these things of creation (which, though good, are still transient goods) as if they are ultimate ends themselves rather than means towards the One who is Ultimate Good.”

Great Lent and Cultural Anthropology

During this season of Lent, I have thought more than once about the spiritual value of struggle. The Church would not have given us an entire season devoted to struggling if it were not appropriate to view struggle in a positive light.

Not everyone agrees that struggle is good. In my Touchstone article The Cross of Least Resistance, I quoted a number of influential evangelical leaders who taught that the presence of struggle in a person’s spiritual life is a sure sign that something is wrong. This present article will not attempt to expose the hermeneutical and exegetical errors in the opinions of these false teachers (for that, see here and here and here). Instead, I want to look at the question of struggle from the perspective of cultural anthropology. But first, why cultural anthropology?

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Calvin’s Fragile Doctrine of Divine Sovereignty

King’s College London

When I started my doctoral work at King’s College London, I was a Calvinist. When I finished my doctoral work, I was not. My transition away from Calvinism was largely a result of reading the primary sources, looking at what Calvin himself wrote as opposed to simply reading the writings of Calvinists. Since contemporary reformed thinkers tend to present a sanitized version of Calvin’s thought, it can be a real eye-opener to spend some time in his own writings.

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Calvinism’s Existential Problem

In Part 3 of the 5-part series I wrote for Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy on why I stopped being a Calvinist, I explored the existential problem that arises from the split teleology inherent in Calvinist metaphysics and their fragmentation of God’s will into competing modalities.

Reformed theology generally affirms that with respect to God’s revealed will, the telos or goal of each and every individual includes eternal union with Him, but with respect to His hidden will, the telos of certain individuals includes eternal disunion with Him. This means that for everyone that isn’t saved, there is a dual telos, for in one sense God’s desired end for such people is salvation, but in another sense it is damnation.

One of the problems I raised against this model in Part 3 of my series is a purely personal or existential problem I encountered when wrestling with this framework.

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Doing the World as it Was Meant to be Done

David Fagerberg’s book Consecrating the World: On Mundane Liturgical Theology explores ways in which the liturgy spills out into everyday life, and how all of the world can begin to be viewed through sacramental eyes. Here is a gem from pp. 79-80.
“…there is something wrong with how we look at [the] world. We have inherited amblyopia from Adam and Eve, and the eye that has become lazy is our spiritual one. We let our wandering eye rest not on creations true teleology, but only upon its usefulness to our own self-satisfaction. The world becomes worldly when we do not use our spiritual and sensible eyes together. That accounts for why Christian doctrine must walk the paradox of simultaneously affirming the good of nature, and rejecting the natural as the ultimate end of human existence. The world has not caused our idolatry, rather our idolatry has wronged the world. St. Paul says it groans in the travails of childbirth until man and woman take up their abandoned post of cosmic priest again (Romans 8), and Kavanagh says we can only finally do the world the way it was meant to be done if we are restored to this liturgical relationship with the world. Sometimes the overly spiritual Christian suggests that redemption consists of turning a blind eye to the world, but in fact redemption consists of having our proper activity returned to us in both domains–the profane as well as the sacred.”

Calvinism’s Christology Problem

Imagine someone set out to reinvent the wheel but got it all wrong. That’s the position that reformed theologians find themselves in. However, due to lack of historical consciousness, they usually don’t realize they are trying to reinvent the wheel. But the truth is that the Sixth Ecumenical Council (680-681) provided a framework for understanding the relationship between the human and the divine with a subtlety and sophistication that rendered unnecessary nearly all subsequent Calvinist metaphysics.

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Dr. Nathan Jacobs on East-West Theological Differences

There are important theological differences and emphases between the East and the West, and most of the time these differences are articulated it is done in a haphazard polemical and historically irresponsible way. But it is possible to articulate these differences accurately and with proper nuance. I was reminded of that last year when I listened to a podcast where Hank Hanegraaff interviewed Dr. Nathan Jacobs on the sophistication of the early church fathers. Jacobs is extremely well-read in the fathers of both the West and the East and is able to explain their different orientations in way that is more helpful than what I have encountered anywhere else. If you are Eastern Orthodox and wanting to give your Protestant friends a good overview of Orthodox theology, this podcast would be great to share.

You can listed to the podcast below. (And, by the way, this is not an invitation for those who hate Hank Hanegraaff to send me angry emails.)

Listen to “Sophistication of Early Church Fathers with Dr. Nathan Jacobs” on Spreaker.

Pain, Suffering and Resilience, Published by St. Sebastian Orthodox Press

St. Sebastian Orthodox Press has just released a new book Pain, Suffering and Resilience: Orthodox Christian Perspectives.

This collection of peer-reviewed essays explores the mystery of human suffering along with the spiritual and psychological resources that enable us to achieve resilience in the midst of pain.

The publisher explains how the work

“includes eminent scholars, clergy, physicians, and psychotherapists seeking to serve people in their respective fields, through their respective disciplines informed and guided by the depth and riches of the Orthodox Christian Faith. This is the unifying thread for each of the contributors who bring this ancient Christian perspective into dialogue with the contributions of modern psychology and medical science as they seek to address the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions of pain and human suffering in a variety of contexts.”

I was privileged to be asked to contribute a chapter to this volume on the topic of practicing gratitude during times of suffering. My essay  develops material I began exploring in my chapter on Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Saints and Scoundrels. By drawing on classic spiritual texts (i.e., The Way of the Pilgrim, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Dorotheus of Gaza’s Saying and Discourses, etc) and integrating them with recent developments (i.e., advances in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, the twentieth-century prison literature, etc.) I make a case that suffering and gratitude are not related like two sides of a zero-sum transaction where an increase in the former entails a decrease in the latter. Rather, by receiving our sufferings rightly, we can use them as opportunities to actually grow in the cognitive, behavioral and emotional dimensions of thankfulness. From the essay:

“…true gratitude is not merely compatible with an acknowledgement of pain; it presupposes it. To be truly grateful is to acknowledge that life is difficult while framing that difficulty within a context of thanksgiving…. Gratitude releases us to lean into the pain, to stand face to face with the ambiguity and complexity of life and not to despair. In contrast to stoicism, cynicism and sentimentalism, gratitude-based reframing does not involve detachment from suffering; rather, it provides the inner resources for genuine engagement…. In so far as gratitude enables us to lean into pain, to be realistic rather than escapist, it provides the resources to engage with others who are suffering instead of insulating ourselves from their pain. In our comfort-oriented culture, many people’s default response is to avoid those whose lives are lonely, messy or filled with pain. Instead of going through people’s pain with them, we often numb ourselves to the suffering around us in order to protect ourselves. However, when the pursuit of comfort causes us to numb ourselves to the impact of suffering, what we are doing is numbing away the capacity to empathize, to feel love, joy and gratitude. This is because it is impossible to selectively numb emotion. When we harden ourselves as a defense against fear, grief, disappointment, shame, rejection or vulnerability, we are inadvertently reducing our capacity to feel the emotions that are important for our wellbeing, including gratitude.

Gratitude enables us to look pain straight in the eye and not to despair. Gratitude enables us to derive genuine enjoyment from small blessings even when evil, suffering and pain are crowding in upon us. This is important, not only so we can have the resources for weathering life’s storms, but so we have the inner resources to engage with others who are going through hardships. Instead of pushing people away because we cannot deal with their pain, and instead of numbing ourselves in order to be insulated from other people’s grief, a grateful person has the inner resources to empathize with those who are in pain and like the Apostle said, ‘rejoicing with them that rejoice, and weeping with them that weep.’ (Romans 12:15)”

What I don’t share in my chapter, but which I would like to share here, is that the research behind this essay was prompted by a very painful set of circumstances in my personal life. The Lord brought me to a point where I was ready to dig deep in ancient spiritual teachings on contentment and pain. What I found is the spiritual paradox encapsulated by Elder Alexander of Gethsemane who observed that “The amount of suffering that the soul can accommodate is also how much it can accommodate the grace of God.

The best chapters in Pain, Suffering and Resilience: Orthodox Christian Perspectives, are actually the ones written by others, including a contribution by Fr. John Behr and another by His Grace, Bishop Alexander (Golitzin), who serves as Bisohp of the Diocese of the South for the OCA and ruling bishop of the Bulgarian Diocese of the Orthodox Church in America.

Fr. John Behr’s chapter expands on material he presented in this fantastic podcast, where he observed that the greatest change in the modern world (greater even than electricity and the internet) is that we no longer have to deal with death in an immediate way. Until the last fifty years, ordinary people had constantly to deal with the process of dying and with dead bodies. But in the modern world we no longer see death or have to deal with dead bodies, and hence we have no practical horizon for understanding finiteness, vulnerability and transcendence, or even for fully grasping the mystery of the incarnation when God embraced death in order to trample it down.

I hope all the essays in this book can prove an encouragement to ordinary men and women facing struggles and pain.

I would be grateful for people to buy the book on Amazon and then write a review (Amazon always privileges reviews if the person writing the review has bought the book through them).

You can read more about the book on the St. Sebastian Orthodox Press website.

Further Reading

The Meaning of the Gospel

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

Go on up to a high mountain,
    O Zion, herald of good news;
lift up your voice with strength,
    O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
    lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
    “Behold your God!”
  Behold, the Lord God comes with might,
    and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
    and his recompense before him.
   He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead those that are with young.

Isaiah 40:9-11

We often use the phrase ‘the gospel’ as short-hand for the message of personal salvation, and also a formula for how a person gets saved.

In his book What Saint Paul Really Said, Tom Wright suggests that this may be too small an understanding of the gospel. In its original context, the ‘gospel’ included the message of personal salvation, but it also involved a lot more.

The word ‘gospel’ comes from the Greek word euangelion which literally means ‘good news’ or ‘glad tidings.’ The Hebrew equivalent occurs quite a lot in Isaiah’s prophecies, and it is always connected to the Messianic kingdom coming to earth. Isaiah 40:9-11 and 52:7 are just a few examples of where the prophet declares the good news (gospel) of the Messiah coming and establishing Yahweh’s kingdom on the earth.

The references to “good news” or “glad tidings” in the New Testament draws on this Old Testament background, pointing to the fact that Israel’s long-waited Messiah had finally arrived in the person of Jesus Christ.

For example, when the angels spoke to the shepherds announcing the birth of our blessed Lord, they said, “’behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.’” (Luke 2:10) It is certain that this phraseology would have been understood in the kingdom context of its Isaianic background, since this is what the people of God had been eagerly waiting for.

Earlier, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, he described to her exactly what these glad tidings would be:

“He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Lk. 1:32-33).

Notice what the glad tidings were not: they were not that Jesus was coming to offer a system of personal salvation, or that He was coming to make it possible for every person to have a relationship with Him. These things are part of the good news by extension and should never be minimized. But Gabriel’s emphasis is more universal: he announces that Jesus is coming to sit on the throne of David, to reign over the house of Jacob and that His kingdom will have no end.

All this can be summarized by saying that the gospel is the announcement that Jesus is Lord, that His Kingdom is being established. The full realization of this will not be apparent until He comes again; however, the work of new creation has begun, and it began with the gospel proclamation.

Tom Wright explains all of this most helpfully in What Saint Paul Really Said. But as an historian of the first century, Wright is also able to put this theology in the context of the Roman empire. One of the fascinating points he makes is that it was not just in ancient Israel that the heralding of glad tidings was associated with the coming of a king. Throughout the Roman world of the 1st century, euangelion (‘gospel’) was used regularly to refer to the birth, announcement, accession or victory of a great emperor.

There is an inscription in Priene on the Asia Minor coast from 9 BC which refers to the birthday of Augustus. The inscription talks about this day as “the beginning for the world of the glad tidings that have come to men through him…” In this context, as in Isaiah, glad tidings were associated with the creation of a new world, an era of peace and justice made possible by the new emperor. Thus, the inscription refers to Augustus as “a saviour for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere…”

Against this backdrop, it was no small thing for Paul to speak of “the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Paul’s ministry was that of a royal herald announcing a new king. The gospel is just that: the announcement that Jesus Christ is King. To the extent that Jesus is king of all things (Mt. 28:18), there is no area of life that the gospel doesn’t touch. The gospel proclamation is the announcement that He is Lord over all of creation.

So while the gospel includes a message of personal salvation, it includes much, much more. It includes every area touched by the curse.