Several weeks ago one of you Gentle readers sent me some questions, and at last I shall start addressing them. I have chosen a more simple one, though I must admit, that this is a relative term, as they were all actually good and weighty questions. To wit:
“When Jesus says that a good ‘tree’ produces good fruit and a bad ‘tree’ produces
bad fruit, is this ‘tree’ referring to *nature* or *person*? Have we all become ‘good trees’
via Christ’s consubstantial incarnation/death/resurrection/ascension or do we
personally choose which type of tree to become via free will and synergism?
If the latter, how can a ‘bad tree’ *person* make herself into a ‘good tree’ *person*
on the Orthodox paradigm if the former category can only produce bad fruit? So
I guess the question might be ‘do the roots of these trees go down into our
*nature* or our *person*?’
There are a couple things to note by way of prolegomena. First, we must be careful not to hold our theology captive to metaphors. Now there are certainly other verses which resonate with the thoughts here expressed, and my mind runs immediately to Jeremiah 13, about whether the Ethiopian can change his skin or the leopard his spots, so can we who are accustomed to doing evil, can we do good? Now the answer to all these questions is a resounding no, just as an evil tree cannot bring forth good fruit. So how does a leopard change his spots? But secondly, this conundrum is of course a conundrum for all Christians, since we from the womb go forth speaking lies, and so how does one stop sinning and start acting righteously. In the Calvinist take on this, God gives us a new heart, and by regeneration we exercise faith, by which we then obtain justification and a right standing before God. Having said that, we find all sorts of other imagery and language which present divergent ways of thinking about human nature, the actions of the heart, etc. Since we have these conflicting images within scripture we should be hesitant, when looking at any isolated scripture, to think that its interpretation arises naturally from the discrete text itself, but rather that it gives up its meaning when taken with the whole reading of all Biblical texts when done within the life of the Church.
And so for the Orthodox we would see these texts differently than do the Calvinists. First, unlike the Calvinist notion that our nature is dead, we say that our nature is corrupted, we should even say it is sinful, but natures don’t sin, sin being an end for which or to which the will moves, guided by our own personal mode of willing. Since it is corrupt, however, it is dying, it has turned from life and to death, turned from reality and to non-existence, and it is in this sense that it is dead. Now I must note that the human animal is a double creation, and is at once partaking of created and uncreated. (Note, the distinction is not between nature and grace, nor between physical and spiritual.) The created, since it is from nothing, and in its present state without the energies of God and toward God, must tend to nothingness, that is, to non-existence. However, the logos of our creation when properly ordered is aligned toward the contemplation of God, and our ultimate goal union with God, or theosis. Our individual logos of existence, that aspect within our human nature which makes us human, is the Image of God. The Likeness, however, said the Fathers, is to be united to God, it is something we obtain through synergy on the personal and hypostatic level.
And thus to the metaphor of the good and bad tree, and so also to another vegetable metaphor, that Christ is the Vine, and we the branches. As we were created with the end of union with God, it is only in union with Christ that we can produce good fruit. There are branches, Christ said, that are united to him that don’t bear fruit, and these the Father prunes out. If we think also about the olive tree metaphor in Romans 11, the trunk is holy, but branches are pruned off because of unbelief. Thus, when Christ assumes our nature to give it back the life that it lost, He establishes us again to be able to partake of life in Him. But apart from the personal union with Christ, wherein we now have regained the full image, we must grow into the likeness, for apart from Christ we cannot do it (“Apart from my, you can do nothing. John 15). In Christ we have all, everyone one of us, been given an eternal, undying existence. But for those who have done evil, this existence will be unto judgement, for those who by patient good works are faithful, unto eternal life. And so the question about roots is that it is an aspect of both. Our nature, now being taken up into the divine life, will necessarily be without end. This is why even the damned will be raised on the last day. But having been given this life, just as with Adam, we are still required to contemplate God, to see “the good” and to do it. But also like Adam, the wicked turn away. Since God has deified our nature, they cannot ever be so severed that they could tend to ultimate nothingness (though there is something here to be said about our modern notion to nihilism), for they will exist eternally in a state of willing somewhere. Lewis noted that the doors of Hell are locked from the inside, that is, that people have now by the exercise of their own wills turned away from the good and seek only evil.
How is it then that the evil turn to God in this life, how does a bad tree start to bear good fruit, how does the leopard change his spots? I think the verse in Jeremiah gives us the clue, when the prophet notes “you who are accustomed to doing evil.” In giving priority to our disordered passions, by making them ends in themselves (think gluttony, pornography), we habituate ourselves into sin, and take on more and more the persona of a slave to sin. But as God is always present in our lives, for we cannot escape the fact that naturally we are created after the image of God, we are never without the call of eternity (God has set eternity in our hearts, says the preacher, Eccl. 3:11), and thus never without opportunity to partake of the Life in Christ. We must turn to God, and exercise our will toward that end, that is, via the personal mode of willing that sets aside the willing of concupiscence, and instead seeks the inner reasons of created things, that is, their true and proper ends as created by Christ.
Finally, natures do not precede persons, but quite the other way round. Were this the case, then Christ would have had a human person as well as the Divine Person of the Logos. As this is the case, we must think, as Lossky said, and as expressed by the Fathers, that the nature is the content of the person, the person the existence of the nature. Drawing from this we see that evil is an act of the personal mode of willing, and why guilt is personal, and not corporate, nor arising within the race in general. We are corrupted as humans in our nature, this corruption passed on via death inherent in us. Thus the roots of our fruit being bad or good occurs because of death in us, but are made real by the sinful misuse of our personal (gnomic) mode of willing.