Well before St. Augustine expanded on the Theology of Grace, the theological anthropology of the early Church Fathers studied the composite of the human person with regard to their created being, history and subsequent relationship with the Persons of the Holy Trinity. Within this general scope there are specific themes which include: the created person, humanity’s original state, God’s gifts, and the social aspect of the prior three. This article will briefly touch on the relationship between the early Father’s views on theological anthropology in relation with their views on God’s gift of grace.
Similar to the development of other Church doctrines, theological anthropology and the doctrine of grace were not coherently defined for many centuries. They were a work-in-progress within the context of a large geographic area that was deeply Hellenized in culture and philosophy. Surrounded by Greek culture and subject to illegality by the Roman Empire, once again, the early Fathers proved themselves to be truly great as they purified and refined their thoughts.
The theology of grace in relation to theological anthropology falls under the theme of “God’s gifts” and is defined broadly here as God’s graciousness which included, among other things, God’s response to human sinfulness in the redemptive work of Christ. The early Fathers maintained that God’s gift of grace comes from the Holy Trinity and is a conveyance from God to man; manifested through the indwelling of the Trinity within the person. These themes of grace ran counter to the influential teachings of the Stoics and Gnostics; systems that negatively skewed human dignity. For example, in the development of theological anthropology the Fathers stressed two themes which contrasted the Hellenized culture of their times; personal liberty and imago dei (man as created in the image of God according to Genesis 1:26). These two anthropological themes are inextricably interwoven in the Father’s development of the theology of grace, but contradicted many the Greek philosophies which denied personal liberty (i.e. freedom to choose good over evil) and viewed the human body as inferior to the spiritual and for some, the body was just plain evil. For clarity, as well as the purpose of evangelization, the Fathers were compelled to address such negative teachings. Utilizing the platform of the written word, it is possible to see several themes within the theology of anthropology in relation to grace where the Fathers coherently crafted both a Christian defense and evangelical exhortation which readily countered Hellenistic beliefs of which four themes arose.
1. Grace and gifts are bestowed by the Holy Trinity, coming from the Father, by the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Such a statement ran counter to the Gnostics who espoused “self-redemption.” The great second century apologist, St. Irenaeus of Lyons refuted self-redemption by teaching the recapitulation of all things in Christ. In his work Adversus Haereses, St. Irenaeus wrote: “Indeed, through the first Adam, we offended God by not observing His command. Through the second Adam [Jesus Christ], however, we are reconciled, and are made obedient even unto death.”
2. Christian divinization as a consequence of such gifts. This teaching rebuffed the Stoics and other Hellenized philosophies that viewed the body as evil and unfit for God to indwell. Their error was countered by several Fathers who taught that to receive Baptism is to receive a grace of adopted sonship; sharing in the divine nature in a personal and supernatural way. St. Clement of Alexandria expressed baptism as the first in a series of steps leading to divinization. He writes, "Baptized, we are illumined; illumined, we are adopted; adopted, we are made perfect; perfect, we are immortalized. I have said, it is written, you are gods, and sons of the Most High, all of you." St. Basil the Great, in his Eulogies on the Martyrs and Sermons on Moral and Practical Subjects wrote regarding Baptism, “For prisoners, Baptism is ransom, forgiveness of debts, death of sin, regeneration of the soul, a resplendent garment, and unbreakable seal, a chariot to heaven, a protector royal, a gift of adoption.” St. Athanasius, in stressing the incarnation of the Word with divinization, related the divinization of the person as likened to the divinization of the Word in the sense that God became man that man may participate in God’s divine nature. Sonship by nature belongs to the Word and sonship by grace to the human person.
3. Grace is profoundly spiritual and mystical. Grace is not a secret knowledge for the chosen few, as espoused by the Gnostics, but it is transcendent and mystical. Origen and Gregory of Nyssa both wrote on the indwelling of the Trinity in the Christian which was a continuation of St. Paul’s teaching on the mystical indwelling of Christ in Galatians 4:19. Such an indwelling was also reflected by a new light, the light of Christ. The writings of St. John (John 1:4-5, 3:19-20, and 12:36-40) make great use of a theme of “light and darkness” and the Fathers often see salvation as new knowledge (light) brought by Christ's replacing former ignorance (darkness).
4. Liberty is gained by grace. The human person is like God by liberty and like God by grace. Man's original liberty was destroyed by sin which enslaved man. Faith in Christ and the grace of Christ restores liberty. Where the Stoics denied freedom of choice, espousing fate, St. Justin Martyr clearly advocated in his First Apology that, “…if the human race does not have the power of a freely deliberated choice in fleeing evil and in choosing good, then men are not accountable for their actions, whatever they may be. That they do, however, by a free choice either walk upright or stumble we shall now prove. …God did not make man like the other beings, the trees and the four-legged beasts, for example, which cannot do anything by free choice.” Likewise, in his work The Great Catechism, St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote, "Some are saying that God, if He wanted to, could by force bring even the disinclined to accept the kerygmatic message. But then where would their free choice be? …To be brought around to the purpose of another’s will belongs only to creatures without a soul or irrational.”
In the context of contemporaneous adversity, where several negative systems denied personal liberty and the dignity of the created human being, the early Church Father’s foundation, based upon a positive theological anthropology, played a critical role in the development and defense of the theology of grace.