Using the Patristic Authors to Understand Adam

This is the 36th blog in this series which began with Adam & Sin, Paradise and Fasting.  The previous blog is The Expulsion of Adam in the Writings of St. Symeon the New Theologian (C).

The Patristic Authors did meditate on things that the Scriptures do not clearly define.   For example what exactly was the pre-Fallen state of Adam?  Was he created perfect or perfectible?  Was he immortal by nature?  What did it mean for Adam to be human yet without sin?  How long did this pre-Fallen condition last – how long did Adam live in Paradise before being expelled?

We have seen that the Patristic Fathers did not all come to the same conclusions about Adam and Eve in Paradise before the Fall.  Sometimes the differences are based upon what they understood happened after the Fall, and sometimes it was related to how they understood what salvation in Christ meant.

St. Athanasius (d. 373AD)  recounts the story of the advent of corruptible death in his tract titled On the Incarnation:

‘God set them [Adam and Eve] in His own paradise, and laid upon them a single prohibition.  If they guarded the grace and retained the loveliness of their original innocence, then the life of paradise should be theirs without sorrow, pain or care and after it the assurance of immortality in heaven.  But if they went astray and became vile, throwing away their birthright of beauty, then they would come under the natural law of death and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and corruption.”  (Vigen Guroian in ANCIENT AND POSTMODERN CHRISTIANITY, p 70)

For St. Athanasius, Eve and Adam were not created either immortal or perfect.  They needed to prove themselves – this is part of what many of the Fathers understood having free will to mean.  We actually had to choose our way to immortality and perfection.  It was possible, the choice was before us, but humanity went astray from the beginning choosing their way to death instead of to immortality.

St. Ephrem (d. ca 373AD) … believed, as did nearly all other patristic writers, that Adam and Eve were clothed in glory prior to their sin.  This meant that the moment of transgression was marked by an observable physical transformation. The discovery of nakedness was no metaphoric allusion to an internal transformation; it marked the loss of something physically real.”   (Gary Anderson, THE GENESIS OF PERFECTION, p 104)

The idea of Adam’s nakedness was not embraced as a sign of innocence and the natural state of humanity.  Instead as with St. Ephrem many of the Patristic writers believed Eve and Adam lost “something physically real” in their disobedience, namely the glorious garments with which God clothed them in Paradise.  Thus they ended up wearing “the garments of skins”, the meaning of which was variously interpreted by different writers.

“…Chrysostom (d. 407AD) avers that nature’s beauty and weakness demonstrates its utility and God’s own inherent goodness.  How so?  God foresaw humanity’s fall into sin and tendency to make an idol out of the created order.

‘For God, foreseeing these things of old, destroyed, in His wisdom, this plea of theirs.  On this account He made the world not only wonderful and vast, but also corruptible and perishable; and placed therein many evidences of its weakness …  For it was made corruptible by the command of God.  But God so commanded it for the sake of our race; for since it was to nurture a corruptible man, it was necessary that itself should also be of the same character; for of course corruptible bodies were not to dwell in an incorrupt creation.’”  (Christopher Hall in ANCIENT AND POSTMODERN CHRISTIANITY, p 33)

For St. John Chrysostom the corruptibility of the fallen world (sickness, weakness, death) was built into the world we live in.  This was done mercifully by God first so that the world would not of a higher spiritual level (incorrupt) than fallen humans.  Second the corruptibility of this world was meant to make us long for the Paradise we had lost, and to hate sin which caused us to lose it.  Thus the “imperfections” of earth were given by God in His mercy so that we could tolerate life here, but also so that we would want something other than this life.

Next:  The Expulsion from Paradise in the Liturgical Tradition