In order to understand what is truly natural for man, it is important to discern what Adam was like before the Fall. After the Fall, this is easy enough to discern. This because we are all sinful and find ourselves like Saint Paul saying, “I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.” (Rom 7:15) In layman’s terms, we have a conscience that desires what is correct but we have this opposing desire to defy the conscience. This propensity is so strong, it is often a struggle to even discern what is right or wrong.
Was man like this before the Fall? How did Adam make the wrong choice if he had no desire towards evil? To answer these questions, its important to review the relevant Scriptures and their interpretations from the Fathers. In this article, I review what many of the earliest Church Fathers wrote.
Second Century Fathers. Even at so early a point we have a considerable amount of comments on what the prelapsarian mind was like before the fall by Saints Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Theophilus of Antioch. The following is of relevance.
From Saint Justin Martyr:
[T]he human race, which from Adam had fallen under the power of death and the guile of the serpent, and each one of which had committed personal transgression. For God, wishing both angels and men, who were endowed with free-will, and at their own disposal, to do whatever He had strengthened each to do, made them so, that if they chose the things acceptable to Himself, He would keep them free from death and from punishment; but that if they did evil, He would punish each as He sees fit. (Dialogue with Trypho, Chap 88)
Justin does not get into a lot of detail. We can see that he affirms that Adam’s sin changed the propensities of man (to be towards “death” and the devil’s “guile.”) Furthermore, man in the beginning had “free will” for the purpose of doing “whatever” God “strengthened each to do.” Elsewhere Saint Justin writes that “the serpent beguiled Eve, and [she] was cursed” (Chap 79) and “he had deceived Adam, so he hoped that he might contrive some mischief against Christ also [i.e. temptations in the wilderness].” (Chap 103) From this, we can see that Justin believes that both Adam and Eve were deceived into sin, which they freely chose with an uninhibited free will.
The issue of “free will” is important, because free will in the prelapsarian state has neutral (or even positive) propensities, while in the postlapsarian state as decidedly negative propensities.
Now back to Justin, who also makes the following observation:
[M]y discourse is not intended to touch on this point, but to prove to you that the Holy Ghost reproaches men because they were made like God, free from suffering and death, provided that they kept His commandments, and were deemed deserving of the name of His sons, and yet they, becoming like Adam and Eve, work out death for themselves; let the interpretation of the Psalm be held just as you wish, yet thereby it is demonstrated that all men are deemed worthy of becoming
gods, and of having power to become sons of the Highest; and shall be each by himself judged and condemned like Adam and Eve. (Dialogue with Trypho, Chap 124)
From the preceding we can see that it was believed Adam and Eve in the Garden were made free from sin and by right use of their will, would become deified.
Saint Irenaeus’ writings get into more detail as to what the prelapsarian mind was like:
Moreover he was free and self-controlled, being made by God for this end, that he might rule all those things that were upon the earth. (Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching, Par 11)
We can see that before the Fall Adam had a free will (“free”) lacking a propensity towards the passions (“self-controlled.”)
[M]an was a child, not yet having his understanding perfected; wherefore also he was easily led astray by the deceiver. (Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching, Par 12)
Irenaeus also asserted the Apostles taught Adam was not yet a man, but an ignorant child who was “easily led astray by the deceiver.” In other words, Adam (like Eve) was also deceived. The significance of “not yet having his understanding perfected,” shows that though without sin, Adam lacked the knowledge which would have prevented him from sinning. Jesus Christ, who’s human will cooperates with His divine will, does not have this problem by default because His human wisdom is deified. This is true even when it was humanly speaking less than it would become, such as when He was a child.
Back to Irenaeus:
[I]t was not possible for them to conceive and understand anything of that which by wickedness through lusts and shameful desires is born in the soul. For they were at that time entire, preserving their own nature; since they had the breath of life which was breathed on their creation: and, while this breath remains in its place and power, it has no comprehension and understanding of things that are base. (Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching, Par 14)
For those who would assert Adam was not simply deceived into sin, Irenaeus rejects this. “It was not possible,” for the prelapsarian mind, “to conceive and understand anything” pertaining to the passions. This is not credited to Adam or Eve’s childlike ignorance or lack of wisdom, but rather them “preserving their own nature.” Hence, they were by nature totally unable to conceive sin. This is why they had to be deceived in order to sin.
The case of Adam, however, had no analogy with this, but was altogether different. For, having been beguiled by another under the pretext of immortality, he is immediately seized with terror, and hides himself; not as if he were able to escape from God; but, in a state of confusion at having transgressed His command, he feels unworthy to appear before and to hold converse with God. (Against Heresies, Book III, Chap 23, Par 5)
We can see that Adam was “beguiled by another” (that is Eve, c.f. 1 Tim 2:14) “under the pretext of immortality.” In other words, Adam was deceived to believe that eating the fruit would grant him have an immortal, deified life. “A state of confusion” now reigns in his mind after the Fall, a feeling that did not exist when his mind was “free and self controlled,” constitutionally unable to even conceive of sin. In other words, gnomic willing entered after the Fall.
Irenaeus was not alone in making the previous observations. Saint Theophilus of Antioch also appears to have the same views.
But Adam, being yet an infant in age, was on this account as yet unable to receive knowledge worthily…He wished man, infant as he was, to remain for some time longer simple and sincere. For this is holy, not only with God, but also with men, that in simplicity and guilelessness subjection be yielded to parents. (To Autolycus, Book II, Chap 25)
Theophilus likewise affirms that Adam was a child. The implication is that Adam was going to be slowly taught the life of God over time if the Fall did not occur (something useless to speculate more into, as God knew before He made Adam the entire course of history.)
Neither, then, immortal nor yet mortal did He make him, but, as we have said above, capable of both; so that if he should incline to the things of immortality, keeping the commandment of God, he should receive as reward from Him immortality, and should become God; but if, on the other hand, he should turn to the things of death, disobeying God, he should himself be the cause of death to himself. For God made man free, and with power over himself. (To Autolycus, Book II, Chap 27)
Theophilus also affirms that man was made unable to die, but not truly immortal (as the continuing keeping of the commandment of God was necessary to retain life.) The prelapsarian mind was “free” and had “power over” the body. This implies the same teaching as Irenaeus, that the passions were alien to man’s body and mind before the Fall.
Third Century Fathers. I am personally not as well read when it pertains to third century saints. Nevertheless, we can perceive that their teachings were consistent with what we found in the second century.
Saint Clement of Alexandria, who taught of an orthodox “gnosis,” was concerned with demonstrating that Adam by nature could be divinized. He writes about this in some detail:
[I]t is better than good to become free of passion, and virtuous by assimilation to the divine…On this wise it is possible for the Gnostic already to have become God…Man, then, genetically considered, is formed in accordance with the idea of the connate [i.e. united] spirit. For he is not created formless and shapeless in the workshop of nature, where mystically the production of man is accomplished, both art and essence being common. But the individual man is stamped according to the impression produced in the soul by the objects of his choice. Thus we say that Adam was perfect, as far as respects his formation; for none of the distinctive characteristics of the idea and form of man were wanting to him; but in the act of coming into being he received perfection. And he was justified by obedience; this was reaching manhood, as far as depended on him. And the cause [of the Fall] lay in his choosing, and especially in his choosing what was forbidden. God was not the cause…God is impassible, free of anger, destitute of desire…In the contemplative life, then, one in worshipping God attends to himself, and through his own spotless purification beholds the holy God holily; for self-control, being present, surveying and contemplating itself uninterruptedly, is as far as possible assimilated to God. (Stromata, Book IV, Chap 23)
What is not said is how Adam was perfect. Was he spiritually perfect (i.e. no passions, no gnomic will, etc?) Or, was he perfect as in he bodily had no defects? Or some combination of both? The latter interpretation is most likely. Adam, here a child reaching manhood, was perfect and simply had to maintain obedience–which implies a spiritual perfection alongside a physical one. We also see this in the following passage:
By which consideration is solved the question propounded to us by the heretics, Whether Adam was created perfect or imperfect? Well, if imperfect, how could the work of a perfect God — above all, that work being man — be imperfect? And if perfect, how did he transgress the commandments? For they shall hear from us that he was not perfect in his creation, but adapted to the reception of virtue. (Stromata, Book VI, Chap 12)
The implication of the preceding is that Adam was perfect inasmuch as he was created good, but not absolutely perfect in that he had to grow in virtue. This is the same explanation given in Stromata, Book 4. Hence, Adam was perfect in as much as he maintained obedience. What we cannot infer is a defect in his will. Yet:
What is base he [Adam] readily chose, following his wife, and neglected what is true and good; on which account he exchanged his immortal life for a mortal life, but not forever. (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book 2, Chap 19)
Saint Clement of Alexandria never answers why Adam so readily followed his wife and chose sin. Due to the implication he was a child, the probable answer is that he was ignorant and easily deceived.
Late in the third century, Christianity’s first canonized Latin theologian speculated on the same issues. Saint Cyprian of Carthage wrote the following on the topic:
He said that the children of God would thus become perfect. He showed that they were thus completed, and taught that they were restored by a heavenly birth, if the patience of God our Father dwell in us — if the divine likeness, which Adam had lost by sin, be manifested and shine in our actions. What a glory is it to become like to God! (Treatise 9, Par 5)
But that it may be more manifestly and fully known how useful and necessary patience is, beloved brethren; let the judgment of God be pondered, which even in the beginning of the world and of the human race, Adam, forgetful of the commandment, and a transgressor of the given law, received. (Treatise 9, Par 11)
The devil suffered with impatience that man was made in the image of God. Hence he was the first to perish and to ruin others. Adam, contrary to the heavenly command with respect to the deadly food, by impatience fell into death; nor did he keep the grace received from God under the guardianship of patience. (Treatise 9, Par 19)
We can see in Par 5 that Adam had a tentative perfection maintained by obedience, just like Saint Clement of Alexandria speculated. “Impatience” is twice cited as the reason as to how Adam fell, the implication being he was impatient on his path to deification.
Conclusion. In summary, we see continuity between the second and third century Church and their treatment of the Fall. Adam and Eve are portrayed as children with latent perfection that was lost by the deception that there was another path to deification other than literal obedience to God’s commandment.
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