Incarnation and Immortality


The problem of the necessity of the Incarnation is something I touched on before here. After thinking about it for awhile, I realized that there were weaknesses in my first account of why God needed to be incarnate to save us from death. It doesn’t analyze or answer the question “why does the source of life have to be intrinsic to human nature in order for us to be incapable of dying? why can’t God just will us to be incapable of dying without becoming incarnate?” This naturally has a lot more to do with my own misunderstanding than with St. Athanasius, who gave the answer to this question (though I didn’t understand it at first).[1]

In this post I offer a revised account of the Incarnation’s saving effects.  To understand this, we must first understand what the Incarnation changed, which requires making a lot of distinctions.  The incarnation did not change the fact that we partake of God’s energies as something intrinsic to human nature.  After all, we have the image of God, which is the logos of human nature.  Instead, the change is in the mode of participation–the way in which humanity partakes of the divine energies. Two initial distinctions are necessary.

The first is the difference between the source of the energies being extrinsic to human nature as distinct from the source of the energies being intrinsic to human nature. Divine persons are the sources of the energies (insofar as they particularize and manifest them). As such, the only way for the source of the divine life/energies to be intrinsic to human nature is for a divine person to be intrinsic to human nature. At creation, God originates divine energy extrinsically, and imparts it to human nature to create it in the divine image. Even if the energies can be intrinsic constituents (formal causes, to be exact) of human nature at creation, they cannot originate from within it.  Such was the argument of my original post on the subject.  But this does not answer the question of why God couldn’t will to make humanity immortal from outside human nature.  Why couldn’t God permanently fix us in his immortality through, say, an act of will?

That’s where the second difference the incarnation brings about becomes important.  One can partake of the energies as supplying potentiality to human nature (which all humans have by nature).  Or one can actualize the natural capacities that partake of the energies to bring about a state of actively participating in them.  What Christ does that is uniquely necessary for salvation from death is this: He activates some powers of human nature in a hypostatically incorruptible way.  More specifically, He incorruptibly activates the human power to partake of immortality. That probably sounds weird and irrelevant, so let me explain.

There’s a difference between having the power to think (having an intellectual power that partakes of divine reason as giving it potentially) and actually thinking (using one’s human natural power of thought to partake of reason by performing a reason-partaking activity).  Many human capacities can be activated by us on a day-to-day basis. But apparently some of them can’t be just automatically activated. For instance, the power to physically partake of immortality is not something I can actualize at will. I can’t make my body immortal by a single immediate exercise of will at this moment. I have this power, but something keeps me from being able to actualize it (probably personal weakness and sin; I will explain the relevance of this below). The fact that some of the powers of human nature are not immediately accessible to us shouldn’t come as a surprise to us, because we already know that human capacities are layered. There are some first-order capacities (thought, arm-movement) that have to be actualized in order to access and energize second-order capacities (analysis of an idea, throwing an object).

Implicit in the biblical understanding of the fall is a distinction between having the power to lay hold of God’s immortality, and actually laying hold of immortality. Athanasius acknowledges this:

By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt.

On the Incarnation, Section 4

Adam failed to choose to perform actions that partook of God’s immortal life.  Consequently, human nature has been configured in a way that is alienated from God’s immortality.

Men, rejecting eternal things and through the counsel of the devil turning toward the things of corruption, became the cause to themselves of the corruption in death.

Section 5

So Athanasius thinks that instead of human persons permanently sharing in God’s immortality and other energies (eternal things), the first humans moved in a direction that estranged them from this immortality.  A natural consequence of this was the loss of life–death. God, of course, does not want us to die.  He wants human nature to become permanently immortal.  In order to do this, He has to make human beings actively partake of immortality. And he has to make them actively do this permanently, not temporarily. I will consider four different ways God might do this, though perhaps there might be others.  Three of these routes are problematic, and so the fourth will be suggested as the only known option.

The first way to secure a permanent, active participation in immortality is by means of God willing that human nature would become immortal. He could do this extrinsically from human nature. That is, he could simply decide by fiat apart from an Incarnation that he would bestow immortality on human nature. This won’t work, though, because the only way God could will to bestow immortality on humanity is by supplying the power of  the divine energy of immortality.  But humans already have this power in the image of God.  And if God is just supplying more of the power of immortality, that doesn’t mean human beings will lay hold of it. Perhaps they could If human beings never activate the created natural power by which they actively partake of God’s uncreated power of immortality, then its no good.  Humanity will still die if human persons continue to misuse their capacities from within.

The second way is that God could will to actualize the human power to lay hold of divine immortality. But the problem is that we have seen in the Garden of Eden that this power can only be activated by libertarian freedom. In order to actualize this power, an agent must choose to use his or her human natural power of “partaking of immortality”. It must be activated by the person as agent. Otherwise God could will that man would become immortal immediately, saving the trouble of the Garden.

The third way is that God could get us all (all human persons) to activate the power to be immortal individually (or maybe with one human person on behalf of the rest of humanity).  If each human person wills to be immortal, then we can all be preserved from death by activating the power of immortality.  Unfortunately this won’t work.  After all, we sin. And this stops us from partaking of God’s immortality in two (possibly three) ways. First of all, it means that whatever lower-order capacities we would use to activate the higher-order power to be immortal don’t get used correctly. As such, we can never access that higher-level power to be immortal.  This is analogous to a failure to learn how to use any higher-order capacity.  Consider the second-order capacity to analyze concepts.  How do we become capable of analyzing concepts?  Well, everyone has the ability, but not everyone practices the proper use of that ability.  In order to properly use that ability, we have to have other abilities first.  At the very least, we have to activate the power of thought.  But if we fail to learn how to think, or if we don’t learn to think well, then surely we can’t learn to analyze concepts.  Similarly, there may be various first-order capacities that have to be actualized in order for us to actively partake of immortality.  For instance, maybe we need to learn to be perfectly loving, or perfectly holy, or perfectly just, or something else.  In any case, its obvious that we can’t just immediately activate this power.

Secondly, it means that even if we could access that higher-level power, we couldn’t do so in an unwavering, permanent sort of way. Unless a person is fixed hypostatically in the good, (that is, the person cannot misuse his or her natural powers) he or she cannot activate a natural power in an unwavering, permanent sort of way. If a person were to activate the power to be immortal in a wavering, impermanent sort of way, then God wouldn’t have solved the problem of death, just put off dealing with it. It might be taken care of for the moment, but you could always fall back into death and mess things up for human nature again if actively partaking of immortality were impermanent and unstable.  Sin could re-start and the fall could happen again.

And, I suspect that the human natural fear of death would probably prevent this from happening if a human person were to be responsible for bringing salvation about. After all, a human person would not know the proper use of his or her natural faculties except by practicing the use of them properly. And this could only be done, I suspect, if someone already wasn’t irrationally afraid of death.  So only someone who isn’t irrationally afraid of death could truly will to be immortal; and no such human person exists, due to the fall, and our inherited experience of the horror of our own soulish, physical, and moral corruption.

So the state of the problem is this. First, God can’t make us immortal by bestowing more power of immortality on us, because we already have that power, and giving us more wouldn’t actualize our participation in that power anyway. Second, God can’t make us immortal by acting from outside human nature and actualizing the human natural power of partaking actively in immortality because that power has to be actualized by a person with a human nature; the faculty has to be used by an agent from within. Third, God can’t make us immortal by making us all actualize the power of immortality for two (maybe three) reasons. First, we sin, and this prevents us from actualizing higher-order capacities like our ability to lay hold of immortality. Second, we sin, and so even if we could actualize higher-order capacities, we wouldn’t do so in an incorruptible manner. Third, it may be that natural fear of death would prevent us from correctly actualizing higher-order capacities related to immortality in our death-ridden, fallen state.

So it seems God needs to (a) actualize the human natural power of partaking of immortality; He (b) needs someone (or some people) to do it as (an) agent(s) from within corrupt human nature, freely using human powers; and He (c) needs it to be done in a permanent manner.

The fourth way God could deal with the problem of death and make us immortal is if a person permanently actualized the human power of immortality as an agent from within human nature. A divine person that assumes human nature can (a) actualize it (b) as an agent from within in a (c) permanent, fixed way. A divine person can actualize a human power because a person can use natural powers.  A divine person can do it from within if the person actually has human nature, instead of just acting on it from outside.  And because a divine person cannot sin, He can do this in an unfailing, permanent, incorruptible way. And that’s basically what Irenaeus, Athanasius, Cyril, Maximus, and others say. To quote Athanasius,

You must know, moreover, that corruption which had set in was not external to the body but established within it. The need, therefore, was that life should cleave to it in corruption’s place, so that, just as death was brought into being in the body, life also might be engendered in it. If death had been exterior to the body, life also might be engendered in it. If death had been exterior to the body, life might fittingly have been the same. But if death was within the body, woven into its very substance and dominating it as though completely one with it, the need was for Life to be woven into it instead, so that the body by thus enduing itself with lie might cast corruption off. Suppose the Word had come outside the body instead of in it, He would, of course, have defeated death, because death is powerless against the Life. But the corruption inherent in the body would have remained in it nonetheless. Naturally, therefore, the Savior assumed a body for Himself, in order that the body, being interwoven as it were with life, should no longer remain a mortal thing, in thrall to death, but as endued with immortality and risen from death, should thenceforth remain immortal. For once having put on corruption, it could not rise, unless it put on life instead; and besides this, death of its very nature could not appear otherwise than in a body. Therefore He put on a body, so that in the body He might find death and blot it out. And indeed, how could the Lord have been proved to be the Life at all, had He not endued with life that which was subject to death? Take an illustration. Stubble is a substance naturally destructible by fire; and it still remains stubble, fearing the menace of fire which has the natural property of consuming it, even if fire is kept away from it, so that it is not actually burnt. But suppose that, instead of merely keeping the fire from it somebody soaks the stubble with a quantity of asbestos, the substance which is said to be the antidote to fire. Then the stubble no longer fears the fire, because it has put on that which fire cannot touch, and therefore it is safe. It is just the same with regard to the body and death. Had death been kept from it by a mere command, it would still have remained mortal and corruptible, according to its nature. To prevent this, it put on the incorporeal Word of God, and therefore fears neither death nor corruption any more, for it is clad with Life as with a garment and in it corruption is clean done away.

Chapter 44

Notice the confluence of different patristic themes in this section.  First there is the distinction between essence and energy in God (whose immortality dwells within us) and man (who has the power to be immortal but doesn’t act on it).  There is also the distinction between nature (seen in God giving us the power of immortality by bestowing it from without to counter death as an extrinsic influence upon human nature) and person (as seen in God the Word actualizing the power to be immortal from within to counter corruption as an intrinsic influence that enters humanity by personal misuse of human nature).  Notice that Athanasius says the body still could have been corrupted if God had given immortal life by command (an act of will).  Instead, life needed to be “interwoven” in the body, implying the Word needed to act within human nature to fix it in its participation in God’s immortality.  This is Athanasius’ explanation for why a divine person must become incarnate to make us immortal and save us from death.

Now, this account makes a lot of assumptions about who God is and what immortality consists in and how human nature works. Some of these assumptions are easily defensible apart from assuming Orthodox beliefs about God, Christ, and humanity.[2]  This is neither surprising nor troubling, because any account has to beg some questions.  What would be troubling is if the account presupposed things that were false or implausible, which I don’t think it does.  But the point of this post is just that on some assumptions that are consistent with Christian beliefs, it is metaphysically necessary that the incarnation happen in order to save human nature from death.  And if my account works, that is a significant point.

[1] The following account is inspired by a variety of writers. In terms of primary sources, I am thinking of On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius the Great; the Fourth and Fifth books of St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies; some texts I can’t name from St. Cyril of Alexandria; and several of St. Maximus’ Ambiguum. Khaled Anatolios’ “Athanasius: The Coherence of his Thought”, Daniel Keating’s “The Appropriation of Divine Life in St. Cyril of Alexandria”, and Demetrios Battrellos’ “The Byzantine Christ: Person, Nature, and Will in St. Maximus the Confessor”.

[2] I’ve argued briefly for some of these presuppositions of the account above (like the distinction between power and act and between higher and lower capacities).  There are other presuppositions that I haven’t argued for here, but that are either intuitively plausible or can be argued from intuitive premises (libertarian freedom, the person-nature distinction, the essence-energies distinction, the idea that divine energies are the formal causes of creatures).  Other assumptions of the account are not as easily defensible without assuming the authority of the Orthodox Church’s interpretation of Scripture.  For instance, the idea that there was an historical fall (though even this has some plausibility by itself if theism is true).


11 Responses to “Incarnation and Immortality”

  1. Jordan Says:

    I haven’t read the whole post yet, but I have an initial question since the first part of this post is in the business of making distinctions. What on earth does it mean that, “After all, we have the image of God, which is the logos of human nature.”

  2. Jordan Says:

    sorry, i tag the “=)” at the end! so let me reiteriate . . . =)

  3. Jordan Says:

    doh! spelling error too! . . . i’m on a role

  4. MG Says:


    The logoi are a subset of the divine energies. More specifically, they are energies that express divine plans of action. They are the formal causes of creatures. Logoi are intrinsic to creatures, constituting them from within.

    The logos of a thing has three roles. First, it provides a creature with its telos (or, rather, teloi–there are multiple proper directions of human nature). You can say that the logos of human nature is the “blueprint” of human nature, because it is a plan for how human nature ought to be used, and for how God will empower it.

    Second, a logos provides potentiality to a creature. The divine action of “logos of human nature”, for instance, is a power-bestowing activity. In other words, created human capacities like the power to think or to move or to see exist and derive their power/potentiality from the logos of human nature.

    Third, a logos moves a creature along its way toward its proper end. The logos of a thing is not just a formal cause of a thing’s powers; it also is an efficient cause of some of the activities of a creature. The logos of a tree is an efficient cause of a tree’s growth, for instance.

    It is because of these three aspects that a logos can be called “a divine predestination”. The logos of human nature predestines humanity to immortality because it (a) makes immortality the proper goal of human nature (b) gives human nature the power to be immortal (c) moves human beings towards actualizing the power to be immortal.

    We can think of human nature as having a created component and an uncreated component. The created component is the human powers and energies of the soul and the body. The uncreated component is the formal cause of human nature, which is its logos. Grace (the divine energy of the logos of human nature) is intrinsic to and constitutive of nature (the creaturely powers and capacities of humanity).

    Maximus says that the many logoi are the one Logos. He thus thinks that each of the logoi are uncreated, and are manifestations of the Son of God. If I could somehow point to the logos of human nature, I would say “that’s Jesus”, similarly to how I can point to my hand and say “that’s me”.

    Does that help explain it?

  5. David Nilsen Says:


    This might just be nit picking (sorry if it is), but you can’t really point to your hand and say “that’s me” can you? If your hand wasn’t connected to your body it would cease to be “you.” Is it just an imperfect analogy?

  6. MG Says:


    I meant point to my hand while it is attached to my body. Does that still fall prey to your objection?

  7. Bratislav Says:

    A small sidenote: Much of this argument does in some way hinge on the oft forgotten and trivialised “in” of the Chalcedonian horos. I often wonder why this tiny word isn’t more frequently used as a guage of folks’ position regarding christology, person/nature, etc. Sorry, I don’t mean to move off track from the post.

    Also, thank you gents for many wonderful posts over the last couple of years. It IS appreciated.

    A long time lurker,

  8. ZSDP Says:

    “First, it provides a creature with its telos (or, rather, teloi–there are multiple proper directions of human nature).”

    No! BAD MG! You are confusing formal and final causes, which I absolutely cannot allow. I would also like to disallow further discussion of “telos”, but I’ll let that slide for now, you crypto-nihilist.


  9. MG Says:


    Thanks for your readership. Please comment more often!

    I’m curious if you could explain what you think the relationship is between the “in” of Chalcedon and these issues. I agree that there is a connection, insofar as the “in” is what ensures that the hypostatic union is more than just a matter of extrinsic relationship. And the fact that Christ exists in his human nature is precisely what means that deification is possible by means of Christ mending human nature from within. But did you have something further in mind?

  10. MG Says:


    Note “teloi” not “telos”…

    I guess I could say “directions” instead of “ends”. But if I’m gonna do that, you’ll need to look up the Greek for “directions” for me. 🙂

  11. ZSDP Says:

    Yes, yes, I know you used the plural. Many annihilations await your poor creatures.

    And the Greek for “directions” is obviously “direktoi”. Obviously.

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