Creation and Freedom

Source: Pastoral Ponderings

Gregory
the Theologian placed the synthetic —body and
soul—quality of human existence in the larger
context of the whole created order, within which he
distinguished three stages. The first stage, he said,
was the creation of the angels, described as a
created projection of the “first light,”
which is God Himself (Orationes 40.5).

These creatures are the most like God, Gregory declared,
noetic spirits described in Holy Scripture as an
immaterial form of fire. Indeed, so great was
Gregory’s awe of the angelic nature, he confessed,
that he would have thought angels incapable of falling,
except that they did, in fact, fall! Rebelling against the
eternal light, they became powers of darkness and
evil—in truth, “our tempters” (38.9).

Creation’s second stage, according to Gregory, was
that of the material universe, a compound of such physical
elements as earth, water, and sky. Although lower than the
order of angels, this physical universe was blessed with
beauty, harmony, and order. Until God created human
beings, however, there was nothing in the material world
capable of thinking; purely material creatures are the
least like—and the furthest removed from—God
(38.10).

The third stage of the created order began on the sixth
day of Creation, when God formed the human being in His
own image and likeness. Man, the being created in this
third stage, combines in his own existence the diverse
qualities of the other two stages, the spiritual and the
material.

Man is the only sub-angelic creature endowed with the
faculties requisite for free, conscious, and sequential
thought. Unlike other physical creatures, which are
governed entirely by environment and instinct, human
beings are able to make choices. Their deliberate
decisions transcend the influences brought to bear upon
them. This is what distinguishes man from the other
creatures with whom he shares the earth. Thus, unique
among God’s creatures, man is distinguished by a
capacity for historical experience.

Indeed, the very notion of “history”—as
something distinct from “nature”—is
meaningless without man’s ability to choose a
direction for his existence. When God created man, He
created him, the Fathers declared, avtexsousios,
“possessing self-determination.” This
distinctly human quality, freedom of will, pertained to
man’s very being from the beginning. It is
presupposed in the very fact that God gave Adam and Eve a
command—and, therefore, a choice whether or not to
obey it—in the original Garden of his existence.

Early Christian witnesses to this thesis include the
second century Bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus, who cited the
Lord’s many commandments as proof of man’s to
avtexsousion, “self-determination” (Against
the Heresies 4.37.3). Why would the Creator have given a
“law” to man unless man was able to make a
choice with respect to that law? There is “no
coercion in God,” Irenaeus reasoned; “God made
man self-determining (avtexsousios) from the
beginning” (4.37.1). Irenaeus went on to declare
that Man’s freedom of choice is modeled on the very
freedom of God, “in whose likeness man was
created” (4.37.4).

Gregory the Theologian followed Irenaeus and other Church
Fathers very closely on this question. The commandment
given to Adam and Eve in the Garden was not intended to
limit man’s freedom but to provide him with the
opportunity to use that freedom: “[God] gave him a
law as the matter (hyle) upon which to exercise his
self-determination (avtexsousion) (Orationes 38.12).

Although the final purpose of their creation was not
manifested until its culmination in Christ, God made human
beings in order that they might seek Him, adore Him, and,
by obeying Him, to be like Him and to become united to Him
(39.7, 13; 45.28). In short, man was made for deification,
theosis. This is the true destiny of “the living
being, placed here but transported elsewhere, and, to
perfect the Mystery, destined to be deified (theoumenon)
through his attraction to God” (38.11).

Gregory provides an integrated picture of the narrated
historical process through which human beings, endowed
with free well in their very creation, may grow to the
final perfection of that endowment through
theosis—likeness to God and union with God. God, who
freely gives Himself to man, summons and enables man to
give himself back to God. Only theosis explains
man’s original endowment with freedom. For Gregory,
the significance of freedom does not lie in a mere
possibility among choices but in the potential for a
transformed and transfigured life. Theosis is what God had
in mind when He determined, “let us make man in Our
image, after Our likeness.’ True anthropology means
deification.

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