From the book The Christ Who Heals, Fiona and Terryl Givens shared:

The Fall – From Educative to Catastrophic

He pronounced no curse against Adam personally, but against the ground. . . .The curse in all its fulness fell upon the serpent. ~Irenaeus

The original Christian story had been one that began with hope, with promise, with joyful anticipation: the human saga as an auspicious epic of ascent from primeval intelligence through mortal embodiment toward abundant life with God. In this original telling, rather than a story that is primarily about recuperation, repair, and rehabilitation, we begin “whole,” if unrefined, “from the foundation of the world.”2 Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish contemporary of Jesus, taught that “after having for habitat and country the most pure substance of heaven,” we transition into mortality. Reading the account of Genesis, he finds in the coats of skin with which God clothed Adam and Eve clear reference to the incarnation of their preexistent  souls.3

The New Testament itself does not speak of Adam’s fall as a sinful tragedy, but as the introduction of death into the world. (“In Adam all die,” and “by one man . . . death passed upon all men.”)4 One of the earliest influential voices in Christian theology was Irenaeus. Some lapse aside, the words of Irenaeus should have particular weight Christians particularly since he was a disciple of Polycarp, who, according to tradition, was personally taught by John the Revelator.5 The most accurate account of the Fall we find in early Christianity is, not surprisingly, that of Irenaeus. Irenaeus sees Adam’s quick contrition as showing “confusion” rather than rebellion in his action. In a reading with an astonishingly familiar ring, Irenaeus explains the expulsion from the Garden as an act of mercy rather than punishment and exile:

Wherefore also he drove him out of Paradise, and removed him far from the tree of life, not because he envied him the tree of life, as some venture to assert, but because he pitied him, [and did not desire] that he should continue a sinner for ever, nor that the sin which surrounded should be immortal, and evil interminable and irremediable. But he set a bound to his [state of] sin, by interposing death and thus causing sin to cease . . . so that man, ceasing at length to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live in God.6

Not only does Irenaeus see God’s response as merciful rather than punitive, he interprets the transgression itself as necessary rather than catastrophic:

Man has received the knowledge of good and evil, it is good to obey God and to believe on him, and to keep His commandment. . . as not to obey God is evil. . . . Wherefore he has also had a two-fold experience, possessing knowledge of both kinds, that with discipline he may make choice of better things. But how, if he had had no knowledge of the contrary, could he have had instruction in that which is good? . . .  How then shall he be a God, who has not yet been made a man?7

Origen also agreed that the Fall was necessary and educative, not tragic and misguided: “You (the soul) could not have reached the palm-groves unless you had experienced the hard realities; you could not have reached the gentle springs without first having overcome sadness and difficulties. . . . The education of the soul is an age-long spiritual adventure, beginning in this life and continuing after death.”8

Responding to those who wondered why Adam had not been created more immune to sin, Irenaeus said that God organized all things from the beginning for “the bringing of man to perfection, for his edification, . . . that man might finally be brought to maturity at some future time.”9 One theologian calls “the notion that Adam was not created perfect, but rather . . . intended to come to be in the likeness of God at the end of a process of development” one of the most “characteristic” teachings of Irenaeus.10 That Adam and Eve were still children when they sinned was commonly accepted,” not just by Irenaeus, but by others of the early Church Fathers—especially in the East.11 In fact, the Eastern Church succeeded for some time in keeping alive an understanding of mortality as a step forward not backward. 

Adam was not a perfect being who fell; on the contrary, wrote Theophilus of Antioch, “Adam was created for development.” At the time of their transgression, he and Eve were “infants” in maturity.12 Robert Payne writes that “again and again in the writings of the Eastern Church Fathers there appears this singular devotion to the dignity of man. . . . In the West this devotion to the dignity of man is only occasional; in the East it is perpetual.” As illustration, he quotes Gregory of Nyssa as writing that even after the Fall, ” man’s soul is a mirror in which he can see God. . . . You have only to return to the purity of the image established in you in the beginning. . . .There you will find purity, holiness, simplicity, all those gentle radiances of the divine nature.”13

That divine nature attached to the physical body as well. A thousand years later, with Luther soon to thunder forth about the human body, “what is more filthy?,”14 the Eastern Church figure Gregory Palamas writes that “by the honor of the body created in the likeness of God, man is higher than the angels.”15

These teachings were largely true to the gospel taught by Christ, his apostles, and many of those taught by the apostles of one generation removed from them, including Ignatius, Polycarp, an Irenaeus. Both Job (“in my flesh shall I see God”) and Jesus explicitly affirmed bodily, physical resurrection (“a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have”).16 Humankind’s restoration to a physical tabernacle can only be taken therefore as divine affirmation of the body’s eternal value. Tertullian  celebrates the body with an exuberance seldom known in subsequent Christian traditions: ” so intimate [is] the union that it. . . [is] uncertain whether the flesh bears about the soul or the soul the flesh.” Consequently, whatever good the spirit accomplishes or perceives, it does so in partnership with a physical body: “For what enjoyment of nature is there, . . .  what relish of the elements, which is not imparted to the soul by means of the body? Is it not by its means that the soul is supported by the entire apparatus of the senses—the sight, the hearing, the taste, the smell, the touch? Is it not by its means that it has a sparkling of divine power[?]” In this view, “the flesh, which is accounted the minister and servant of the soul, turns out to be also it associate and co-heir.”18 His contemporary, Clement of Alexandria agreed: the soul will only attain “its desired end” through the body, its “consort and ally.”19

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