Evil Trees and Leopard Spots

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.

About Gary Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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9 Responses to Evil Trees and Leopard Spots

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  3. The one who asked the questions says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to address my questions. I am honored. My silence so far is only because I have read this a couple of different times in order to try to get inside its inner logic (and will today read the new one on justification). As the following comments and questions will reveal, I may have a ways to go:

    – You say ‘persons precede natures’ because, were this not the case, there would be two persons in the Theanthropos. That makes *Christological* sense to me. But wouldn’t it be just as easy to say that ‘natures precede persons’ because otherwise there would be three natures in the Godhead? What privileges the former argument over the latter?

    – Of what exactly do you speak when you say that “the willing of concupiscence” is that which I must set aside?

    – If nature is the content of the person, then how does each of us not have a different nature? I would presume that the content of my person must be unique to my person, unless you are using ‘content’ only with respect to what is common to all persons and would use another word to describe that which is unique to me (or would just simply say that there is more ‘content’ to my person than just my nature). I have a hard time seeing how this is not itself a confusion of person and nature as it seems to identify them together… That said, I understand that one should avoid *separating* person and nature beyond merely making a necessary distinction, because this would make a lie and a mirage of human experience (we never encounter a natureless ‘person’ or a personless ‘nature’). Can my confusion be easily cleared up?

    Attempted Summary of your answer:
    ____My roots consist of both my nature (‘Imago Dei’ through union with Christ in his death and resurrection) *and* my person (more or less in the ‘likeness’ of God through my synergistic, habituating, unfixed use of the will one way or the other, the ‘use’ of which can be changed at any time before the eschaton *because* of the ever-present ‘call’ of God but which gets ‘harder’ to change toward the good upon further habituation toward the persona of ‘slave’ to sin). The former (nature) is fixed and the latter (person) is that which Christ challenges us to make as ‘good roots’ in order for the ‘good fruit’ (faith, hope, love, peace, patience, …, works of love, care for poor and sick and prisoners and rejected, etc) of Theosis to result.

    – Is this ever-present call to be understood as an external call or as the very presence *within us* of the God-image/logos in which we were all created and redeemed?

    – A related question that you may or may not want to answer: So nothing ‘determines’ or even in any significant way ‘affects’ our use of the will such that we could potentially, and without any influence against our will, reorient our use of the will? So do we then initially (as children, and then ipso facto until the end) ‘misuse the will’ in innocence? If ‘sinfulness’ doesn’t lead us to sin, but rather our lack of vision of the ‘good’ because of the ‘corruption’ that is no fault of our own, then how can I now be responsible for a habituated slavery into which I fell in ignorance and innocence?

    I hope some sense can be made of these questions and comments. Please understand that I really appreciate your words and am very confident that it is helping me to understand more deeply the perspective or the Church, and also to more deeply encounter the Truth to whom it all bears witness.

  4. Cyril Jenkins says:


    Quickly to two of your questions. 1) Person for us is primary because it is what constitutes us in the image and likeness of God, namely the Person of the Logos. This is why we must by grace become what He is by nature, and in no other way. In the divine Trinity we cannot think of nature apart from persons, or beyond persons. To think of a nature that way is, according to St. Hilary of Poitiers, an horror. Why, because the nature is of the Person of the Father, who gives this nature to his Son and to the Spirit. St. Gregory of Nazianzen warned that we cannot think of either apart from the other “I am at once illuminated by one flash of lightening and three flashes of lightening. No sooner is my mind drawn to the unity than it is taken back to the Trinity.” But the unity is always seen as predicated on the Person of the Father. And this is why we cannot say there are three gods. 2) Willing concupiscence is the willing we do know as fallen humans. We do not will a good end about the good things God has given us (we eat too much because we make a god of our belly, etc). Concupiscence is the tendency in us to have temptations to the evil, what brings vile thoughts to our mind, covetous desires about others’ goods, and hateful notions about those we should pity. St. Maximos contrasts this with looking to the inner essence (the logoi) of created things; that is to see them for their true, created purposes, and thus to know how to use them rightly, and to will toward their proper uses.

  5. The one who asked the questions says:


    If you are still planning on replying to some more of the above questions, then I look forward to it. If you have moved on from this post then that is fine as well!

    I just wanted to say that the question that I didn’t ask, and would have thought better discussed on the phone, had very much to do with the post linked below (although the issue of the ‘Holy Father’ was only one aspect of a greater issue). I am hoping that you would consider a response to that post. I suspect that Perry would be stewing up a response, but I don’t sense that a conversation between Perry and Timothy would bear much fruit…


  6. Cyril Jenkins says:

    Joel, I got to look at most of that, and found it all underwhelming. So often I find such items have a “yes, but” quality about them. I find far more telling the work of such people as the medieval historian Walter Ullman and his work on St. Leo I and the pseudo-Clementines. But be that as it may, while I am happy to grant the pope a primacy, I don’t see that as the esse of the church, nor even as a necessary bene esse of the Church, and it is an illogical jump from the points this author is trying to make to get to that. I commend to you Karl F. Morrison’s Tradition and Authority in the West. While I don’t think he does the best job in setting out his own understanding of tradition, and distinguishing such things as apostolic, ecclesial, disciplinary, ascetic, etc. What he does do is trace the clear movement of the papacy from what it was at the time of Leo to what emerges in the Dictatus Papae of Gregory VII, that is, that the Bishop of Rome assumed every facet of St. Vincent of Lerins “everywhere at all times by all men.” In this, Rome removes itself from what had been recognized as its prerogative of guardian and even at times guarantor of the deposit. Such posts also for some reason make no mention either of Honorius or Vigilius (though if you track through the comments you will see that Perry has posted there, and he does bring it up). To be honest, it’s nice that the author wants to reassess his assumptions, but I found most of the post a selfrecrimination for not liking the west, or being too happy to track onto what he thought were poor assumptions about the Pope. To be honest, I generally admire most of the popes. I like the present one lots. I hardly find myself ignorant of Latin theology, and read lots of it. If you have specific questions about that article, perhaps it would be easier to talk.

    Keep the faith,

  7. The One Who asked,

    You could turn it around that way as a matter of implication, sure. But as a matter of experience, the privileging seems to be a function of what is revealed, namely the persons. That seems straightforward.

    As far as leading to sin, inclinations aren’t causes so “leading” is different than determining.
    You ask how can we be responsible for the resulting slavery. This is given the lack of vision of the Good (sic Goods) and corruption. In part, ignorance isn’t a cause or at least not a sufficient cause for corruption. One can be ignorant and innocent. Second, if the slavery is habituated then you are responsible in part because you chose the actions that lead to it, in a similar way that any addict repeatedly chooses the action. This is true even in cases of biochemical dependence because it is usually accompanied by psychological dependence.

  8. Joel says:

    Thanks Perry. It does seem right that we privilege that which is revealed. That is a concise way to frame the issue.

    I get that we are responsible because we choose, or chose, the actions leading to our habituation, but I guess I struggle to see how this responsibility can make us *culpable* given that we didn’t personally choose not to have a vision of the Good(s) – unless I am misunderstanding that. We don’t choose the Goods, but we don’t even have a choice as to whether we will (at least initially in life) be able to have the vision of the Good(s). So that is what I meant by our ignorance of the vision of the Good mitigating us from responsibility for not choosing the Good(s). Conversely, the responsibility would be clearer to me if we *did* have a vision of the Good(s) and then chose against it/them.

    Am I totally misunderstanding the issues?

    By the way, I am hoping that your conversation with Timothy on Joseph’s Vanguard will continue because it could be a very helpful interaction!

  9. androgen says:

    Joel, this might help you to clear up some confusion… http://maritain.nd.edu/jmc/ti04/budz.htm
    I would highly recommend that you also read The Significance of Free Will by Robert Kane

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