II. Cabasilas’ Answer
1. The Bottomless “Natural” Distance Between God and Man. Union “According to Energy” and Union “According to Hypostasis.”
"God did not differ from men by place, since He occupies every place, but was separated from them by dissimilarity. Our nature kept itself apart from God through being dissimilar to Him in everything that it possessed and having nothing in common with Him. God remained Himself alone; our nature was man, and nothing more" (572A).7
This passage creates some fundamental difficulties. For, if Cabasilas is referring to the postlapsarian state of man, the passage is of course comprehensible. But if he is referring to our prelapsarian nature, if from the beginning human nature “kept itself apart from God,” then what is the meaning of the revealed truth that man was created “in the image and likeness of God,” of St Maximos’ phrase “we are God’s portion,” or of so many other phrases in the Fathers which speak of man as “godlike,” etc.? According to his favorite method, without posing the question openly, Cabasilas deals with it in depth and with astounding dogmatic thoroughness.
It is clear in principle that here he is faithfully following St. John of Damascus, who, summarizing the entire Patristic Tradition be-fore him, teaches that “all things are distant from God not by place, but by nature.”8 The natural, essential distance between created and uncreated nature is bottomless and unbridgeable. The creature can in no way on its own participate in the Uncreated.
The Divine goodness, however, has been pleased to span that bottomless natural distance from the beginning through the uncreated Divine Energies. Thus, as soon as He had fashioned man as “dust from the earth,” God breathed into him a “breath of life,” and man became a “living soul”—that is, a being in communion with
God, because only God is living, and only in God and through God can a soul be living.
However, the fact that the chasm is bridged through the Divine Energies does not remove it completely. They really do span it, but only to the extent of being a “betrothal.” Here, too, Cabasilas presupposes John of Damascus, who teaches that there are three kinds of union: “according to essence,” “according to hypostasis,” and “according to energy.”9
Only the three Persons of the Holy Trinity are united according to essence; the Divine and human natures in Christ are united according to hypostasis. Union according to energy is preparatory to hypostatic union; it is the union and communion of a betrothal. This holds good both before and after the Fall; both before and since Christ. Energetic communion with God flows from the Incarnation both before and since Christ and activates the Incarnation. Communion according to energy is oriented and activated as hypostatization into Christ. This is the content of deification; this is what the uncreated Divine Energies effect and manifest.
We find ourselves, quite evidently, at the heart of the teaching of St. Irenæus and the other Fathers, especially St. Maximos and St. Symeon the New Theologian, for whom, as is well known, the Divine light, visions of God, etc., are always person-centered, Christocentric events; and equally at the heart of St. Gregory Palamas’ teaching about uncreated Energies.
If St. Gregory insisted more on the dogmatic question of whether the Divine Energies are created or uncreated, this is because it was on this point that he had to oppose Barlaam and the doctrine of created Divine grace. But a careful study of his works shows the hypostatic union of Divine and human nature in Christ to be the fundamental assumption and the core of his teaching, a core which the Divine Cabasilas expounded and developed with precision.
2. The Importance and Significance of Union “According to Hypostasis.”
This second great theologian of the fourteenth century examines the entire issue, employing the Biblical category of the image and delving into its depths. He writes:
"Indeed, it was for the sake of the new man that human nature was formed at the beginning, and for him both mind and desire were fashioned. We received reason, in order that we might know Christ, and desire, in order that we might hasten to Him; we have memory, in order that we might bear Him within us, since He Himself was the archetype for us when we were being created. For it is not the old Adam that was the paradigm for the new; rather, the New Adam was the paradigm for the old" (680A).
Consequently, the Archetype of man is Christ. Not simply the Word, but the incarnate Word. For
"Man yearns for Christ, not only on account of His Divinity, which is the goal of all things, but also for the sake of His human nature" (681AB). "The old [Adam] was an imitation of the second [i.e., the incarnate Word], and the first was fashioned according to His form and image" (680B).
It is of no importance, continues Cabasilas, that Christ did not exist historically at the time when Adam was created. The Divine Œconomy radically transforms the natural division of time into past, present and future, and introduces a different conception of history. The Incarnate Word is the “Firstborn of all creation.” And the “introduction of the Firstborn into the world” (Hebrews 1:6) constitutes the preëternal counsel of God, the “mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations” (Colossians 1:26). This mystery has been fulfilled in Christ. But this constituted Adam’s original destiny. On this point Cabasilas is categorical: In relation to Christ, man
"was originally fashioned according to a kind of yardstick and criterion... so as to be capable of receiving God" (560D). And "God did not create human nature with any other purpose in mind... rather, He created it with this end in view, that, when it was fitting for Him to be born, He might receive His Mother from it; having first established this purpose [the Incarnation] as a kind of standard, He then fashioned man in accordance with it."10
This trajectory leads to the establishment of an anthropological dimension to Christology which is not unrelated to the events of the fourteenth century. We shall not concern ourselves with this here.
It is sufficient for our subject to remember that “according to the image,” for Cabasilas, contains two elements. The first is that of likeness or, as we would say today, a structural correspondence between the image and the Archetype, leading to a phenomenological anthropology which is profound and very apropos for our own day, and about which we have spoken in detail elsewhere. The second element is that of the nisus from within the image towards the Archetype, a nisus which pertains to the ontology of man. We should say something about this second element.
Inasmuch as man was “originally fashioned” in order to be united with God, insofar as he inclined towards God and his purpose was union, as long as that union remained unfulfilled, he was still imperfect. Even before the Fall, before Christ, man was an infant; he stood in need of completion, i.e. salvation (“he started to move towards [this purpose],... but failed to attain it,” writes Cabasilas (680B). He lacked the intrinsically human, Christlike “form,” Cabasilas explains, the Christlike “likeness,” and, even more fundamentally, “existence in accordance with Christ.”
The ontology of man in the teaching of Cabasilas, and of the whole Patristic Tradition for that matter, is dynamic, iconic; it consists in nisus-towards-being. Man finds his existence and being in Christ. Before and outside Christ, his being is a being-unto-Christ. And when it is not oriented towards Christ—when, to be more precise, it is defined in freedom and consciousness independently of Christ—then it is a being-unto-death, as Heidegger called it, quite correctly according to his own perspective. United with Christ, the iconic biological being of man becomes a true being-in-Christ. In Christ, man discovers his true ontological meaning.
Of course, these are not the words that Cabasilas uses. But his own words are more radical. Insofar as Christ is “the Head of the Body, the Church,” he says, it is evident that as long as human nature had not received the Hypostasis of the Word, it was devoid of genuine hypostasis, and the body of humanity was in some sense without a Head.
This is why believers
"were born when Christ entered this life and was born into it." For "the birth of the Head was the birth of the blessed members. For it was the birth of the Head which brought the members into existence" (604A).
Such is the fundamental position and importance that the Incarnation of the Word possesses in Cabasilas’ teaching. The “mystery of Christ,” which constitutes the preëternal counsel of God—how, indeed, could Christ be the result of the Devil’s wickedness?—, and is, therefore, transhistorical and independent of the temporal falls and vicissitudes of creatures, forms the central standpoint and the core of his theology. It would not, in fact, have been possible for him to construct his entire synthesis of spiritual life on the basis of the mysteries as paths to incorporation in Christ, if Christ had not occupied this ontological position in his anthropology. Cabasilas’ answer to the question “Cur Deus homo?” and its importance are already apparent from this. But there is more.
3. A View of the Mystery of the Incarnation Independent of the Fall, and Its Significance.
The passage by this theologian quoted at the beginning of Part II continues as follows:
"When flesh was deified and human nature obtained an hypostasis, God Himself... there was no room for that dissimilarity, since the single Hypostasis, being one thing [Divine], became the other [human]" (572A).
The bottomless natural distance which energetic or iconic (the terms are synonymous) prelapsarian communion had been insufficient to remove, had to be, and could be, removed, in accordance with God’s preëternal counsel, by hypostatic union.
Hypostatic union, more perfect than energetic union, completely abolishes the distance; it unites the natures “indivisibly”—according to the Divinely-inspired formulation of the Fathers of Chalcedon—, yet without confusing them in essence, without change or alteration.
The one hypostasis, as Cabasilas explains in a clearly Chalcedonian vein, “removes the distance separating Godhead and manhood, being a point of contact between the two natures,” precisely because “there could be no point of contact when they were separated” (572AB).
One example that he gives is exceptionally eloquent. Let us imagine, he says, a phial containing myrrh. Naturally enough, the sides of the phial separate the ointment from the surrounding atmosphere. But if in some way the sides themselves turn into myrrh, then far from being a separation, they actually become the means whereby the myrrh pervades the whole atmosphere, to such an extent, indeed, that if one comes into contact with the sides of the phial, he comes into contact with the myrrh itself and is anointed with it.
It is evident that we are presented with a brilliant vision of the mystery of the Incarnation. Absorbed, as we habitually are, by the fact of the redemption of sinful man in Christ, we view the unconfused mingling of the two natures in Christ from the standpoint of the consequences of the Fall, and with this postlapsarian vision we correctly call it the entry of the Word into history.
The Fathers, and Cabasilas himself, zealously insist on this crucial aspect of the mystery. Nor should it in any way be thought that we downplay it here; besides, we shall return to it. But history, and time more generally, as we know these realities today, are for the Fathers “garments of skin”; that was not their nature prior to the Fall.
On the basis of this truth and in view of the peril of curtailing the axis of the Divine Œconomy from Creation-hypostatic Union/ Deification to Sin-Redemption, with the result that everything is relativized, Cabasilas insists, in the fourteenth century, on the other aspect of the mystery, which is likewise of the utmost importance.
Prior to the Incarnation, the Word was myrrh "remaining in Himself" (i.e., in the Holy Trinity, with the Father), he writes. But when "the blessed flesh which received all the fullness of the Godhead was created... at this time the myrrh, being poured out upon it,... both is, and is called, chrism. For being imparted [to the flesh] meant that He became chrism and was poured out. For He did not change place, nor did He breach or pass over a wall; but showing what stood between Him and us [human nature] to be what He is, He left no barrier" (569-572A).
Consequently, it is not a question merely of the entry of the Word into history.This is absolutely real, as we shall see below, but it does not exhaust the mystery. And, of course, there is certainly no question of the Word being changed ontologically into flesh.
The core of the mystery resides in the fact that the Word “assumes” flesh—Cabasilas also uses the term “takes up.” The ontological change occurred not to the Divine nature, but to the human. This fundamental truth is presupposed in all the Fathers, who, though they insist so much on the “Incarnation” of the Word, nonetheless never forget that the other, primary aspect of the mystery is the “assumption” of the flesh—just as the best of astronomers talk, in everyday life, about the rising of the sun, even though they know that it is the earth that changes position.
In his Interpretation of the Divine Liturgy, Cabasilas makes this point very clear in his analysis of the Service of the Prothesis:
The "Lord’s Body," he says, "was set apart from those of the same kind and consecrated to God." For He Who assumed it was the Word, Who was "never separated from the bosom of the Father." "He Himself," as Cabasilas summarizes the matter, "gave this, the Lord’s Body, as a gift to God... placing it in the bosom of the Father" (380C).
Consequently, in historical terms we do indeed see “the Lord’s body” conceived and growing, first in the blessed womb of the Virgin and then in Bethlehem, Nazareth, Tiberias, etc.; but in God’s reality, which transcends history, this Blessed Flesh is created through the assumption of human nature by the Word into the bosom of the Father.
Cabasilas is clear:
“There He created this [body] and clothed Himself in it, so that it was given to God as soon as it was fashioned” (380C).
In this way the “myrrh” became “chrism” and anointed humanity with Divinity. The movement is twofold: The Word “takes up” the created human nature and places it “there” in the uncreated bosom of the Father. Thus “He changes and transforms it into Himself, as a small drop of water is changed by being poured into a boundless ocean of myrrh” (593C). At the same time, thanks to the created nature that He has assumed, the myrrh is changed impassibly and immutably into chrism and is poured out upon creation; and the bottomless chasm between created and uncreated is closed in a way that is no longer external, through the energies, but from within, hypostatic.
The Son according to nature, the icon and express image of the Hypostasis of the Father (Hebrews 1:3), the coëssential Word, bestows adoption into sonship upon the created human nature that He has assumed. In Christ, man is exalted from being “in the image” to being an image; the creature is changed into a child according to Grace; the most crucial and fundamental antitheses—those that are ontological, and therefore unbridgeable in philosophical terms—are removed; the circle is squared. This is what is meant by the transformation of the creature into an offspring, a child by Grace—which is the true content of adoption or deification by Grace.
Furthermore, humanity “anointed with Divinity” is exalted, through the hypostatic union, into the medium which henceforth truly unites God with man, into a conduit through which the life of the Divine nature flows and vivifies creation, into a mystery, into a Church. It becomes the “raiment” and “body” of the Word.
In order for man to be Baptized, to put on God in Christ, to be deified, it was first necessary for God to have been Baptized or have emptied Himself in man, for the Word to have put on man, for there be an hypostatic union.
Thanks to the hypostatic union, God
"imparts Himself to us by giving us what He had assumed from us. As we partake of [His] human flesh and blood, we receive God Himself into our souls, and God’s body and blood, and God’s soul, mind, and will, no less than those of His humanity" (593B).
If man can address to God the words “Thine own of Thine own,” it is because God first addressed the same to man. He took “fleshly flesh” and gave us “spiritual flesh” in return.
Thus, “it is possible for the Saints,” Cabasilas writes, “not only to be disposed and prepared for that life, but also even now to live and act in accordance with it” (496D). For the present and the future have been “joined,” “mingled,” and “blended together.”
The uncreated has permeated creation, the uncontainable is contained, space and time have been expanded, the created has transcended its limits, the life of the last times can be lived in the present:
"That future [life] is as it were infused into this present life and mingled with it, and that Sun has risen upon us also in His love for mankind; and the heavenly myrrh has been poured out into the malodorous places; and the bread of Angels has been given to men" (496CD).
This is the mystery of God’s love: the marriage of the Creator with his creation, which takes place within time, but in its inner nature transcends history. All the rest are historical events.
The preëternal counsel of God which “before the foundation of the world” “hath chosen us in Him,” (Ephesians 1:4) which willed “that all things might be gathered together in Christ” (Ephesians 1:10), was realized thanks to the hypostatic union in the Blessed Flesh of the Lord in the reign of Cæsar Augustus.
This is why the conception of the Blessed Flesh is the good news of the ANNUNCIATION to mankind, and the birth of the Blessed Flesh was greeted by the Angels as the manifestation of the Glory of the Most High God, as peace on earth and the realization of God’s good pleasure—which was before the foundation of the world—among men.
This hypostatic, complete mingling of created and uncreated natures without division or confusion—as complete as it could possibly be—had as its direct consequence the deification of the created nature in Christ; and it is the presupposition for the twelve-year-old Jesus’ manifestation of the Wisdom of God in the Temple, the revelation of His almighty power in miracles, of His uncreated Glory which shone forth at the Transfiguration and, par excellence, of the revelation of the Triune God at His Baptism in the Jordan, i.e., the THEOPHANY.
Thus, one might be so bold as to say, as an indication and pure hypothesis (not, of course, as an opinion or view),11 that if the other two factors separating man from God had not existed (i.e., sin and death [527BC]—the first being, as we saw, our very nature which “was separated by dissimilarity because it had nothing in common with Him”)—if, in other words, the Fall had not occurred first, the hypostatic union of the two natures in the Word would have shone out as an ASCENSION12 of human nature as it is taken up by the Word “there,” “into the bosom of the Father”; this would have bestowed upon man the INCORRUPTION which he had received only potentially at his creation. And it would, at the same time, have shone forth as the “anointing of humanity” by the “Myrrh,” in other words as an outpouring of the Spirit upon all flesh and “Spiritification” of the universe, as PENTECOST.
4. The View of the Mystery of the Incarnation in Relation to
the Fall, and Its Significance.
Man’s temporal Fall, however, created two other impediments, which in a tragically real way obstruct the outpouring of the Spirit and the full realization of salvation (or completion, recapitulation, deification, or whatever we may call it). And these real impediments, which exist within time, need to be dealt with in a way which is equally real and temporal.
This is why the Son of Man comes
"as a giant to run the course of our... nature and through suffering to make His way to death, and to bind the strong man and plunder his goods... and lead the erring sheep back to the heavenly land,"
as St. John of Damascus writes poetically.13
"And, as the Divine Cabasilas says, This is what happens, then. God makes His own the struggle on behalf of men, for He is man. Man, being pure from all sin, overcomes sin, for he is God" (513B).
Thus we arrive at the postlapsarian, historical view of the mystery of the Divine Incarnation, and the postlapsarian application of the passage of Cabasilas which we quoted at the beginning of the theological section of our study.
We shall not concern ourselves in detail here with this postlapsarian view of the mystery of the Divine Incarnation—not because it does not bear on our subject, but for the sole reason that space is limited.
For it is a truth just as fundamental as that previously stated that man, broken, degraded, and enslaved to sin, the Devil, and death on account of the Fall is in need of redemption. And he cannot achieve redemption on his own. Man was obliged to “retrieve his defeat,” Cabasilas says. But he was unable to win the battle.
Indeed, no human wisdom, strength, virtue, or righteousness could overcome death, a boundary which, by historical standards, is fundamental and decisive.
On the other hand, God, Who could have destroyed sin, the Devil, and death by a single thought did not do so, because that would have been unjust; it was man, and not God, who had been defeated, and man had to retrieve the situation.
It is at this point that Cabasilas sums up the second aspect of the mystery of the Incarnation, that “God makes His own the struggle on behalf of men, for He is man,” and its corollary: “Man, being pure from all sin, overcomes sin, for he is God.”
Cabasilas dwells at length on this postlapsarian aspect of the mystery, and in my book Ἡ περὶ δικαιώσεως τοῦ ἀνθρώπου διδασκαλία τοῦ Καβάσιλα [Cabasilas’ Teaching on the Justification of Man] I expounded it in detail.
It would truly be a grave spiritual, pastoral, and also theological error to ascribe a secondary importance to the reality of sin and the need for redemption. From this standpoint, we would not have had the right to treat the subject as we do here if we had not previously written an entire book on the Sin Redemption dimension. Yet it would be an equally grave error to limit salvation, that is, deification, to redemption alone.
In the first case, Christianity would be transformed into an unrealistic mysticism; in the second, it would be degraded to a legalistic ethical system. As a true theologian of the Catholic Church, Cabasilas took into account both of these truths; and, in contrast to Anselm, who restricted Christianity and man to the Fall Redemption polarity, he gave this polarity the attention that it merits and, at the same time, placed it in its proper context, at the same stroke giving man his true scope.
After this crucially important observation, to which we ask the reader to pay special attention, it is time to return to studying more directly the problem that we posed at the outset, that of narrowing the axis of the Divine Œconomy from Creation-Deification to Fall-Redemption.
7. References for passages cited from Cabasilas are to the Patrologia Græca, Vol. CL; i.e., 572A = Patrologia Græca, Vol. CL, col. 572A. Furthermore, as the reader will have noticed, we avoid supplying footnotes of a scholarly nature here; such references may be found in the works listed in note 5.
8. St. John of Damascus, Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, I.13, Patrologia
Græca, Vol. XCIV, col. 853C.
9. St. John of Damascus, “Third Apologetic Discourse Against Those Who Slander the Holy Icons,” §26, Patrologia Græca, Vol. XCIV, col. 1348AB; St. Gregory Palamas, “Epistle to John Gabras,” §29, in Γρηγορίου τοῦ Παλαμᾶ Συγγράμματα [The Writings of Gregory Palamas], ed. Panagiotes K. Chrestou (Thessaloniki: 1966), Vol. II, pp. 356-357.
10. Ἡ Θεομήτωρ: Τρεῖς Θεομητορικὲς Ὁμιλίες [The Mother of God: Three
homilies on the Mother of God], ed. and trans. Panagiotes Nellas, 2nd ed., Vol. IIin Ἐπὶ τὰς Πηγάς (Athens: Ekdoseis Apostolikes Diakonias tes Ekklesias tes Hellados, 1974), pp. 150-152.
11. We would ask that in this article the reader distinguish between its central theses, which are worked out in detail with supporting documentation and offered for discussion in full responsibility, and ideas peripheral to the central thesis of the article, which could be formulated differently, and certainly more correctly.
12. Cf. the following phrase from the Eighth Pre-Communion Prayer, by St. Symeon Metaphrastes: “[B]y Thy glorious Ascension [Ἀναλήψει] Thou didst deify the flesh that Thou hadst assumed [τῆς σαρκὸς θεώσας τὸ πρόσλημμα] and didst honor it by seating it at the right hand of the Father” (Ωρολόγιον τὸ Μέγα, 9th ed. [Athens: Ekdoseis Apostolikes Diakonias tes Ekklesias tes Hellados, 1986], p. 516)—Trans.
13. St. John of Damascus, Ἡ Θεοτόκος, Vol. III in Ἐπὶ τὰς Πηγάς (Athens: 1970), p. 70.