The question of whether or not the eternal Son assumed a fallen or an un-fallen human nature is one that has long exercised theologians. Lately, thanks in no small part to Karl Barth, there is growing support for the position that the nature assumed was fallen. But, there has also been increased resistance to this idea. I recommend reading David Congdon’s paper proposal dealing with Barth and Oliver Crisp for a brief introduction to these matters.
What goaded me into writing this post was a recent post by Guy Davies over at Exiled Preacher. Therein, Guy reflects briefly on Barth on this matter and declares in favor of the ‘un-fallen human nature’ position. In the first comment on that post, I briefly indicated why this position may not in fact be correct. Guy’s response to that comment convinced me that a more complete treatment is needed.
The following is not by any means exhaustive. Nor does it deal explicitly with the work of Barth or others who have addressed this question. It is simply a collage of my own reflections on the theo-logic of salvation, on Scripture, and on the ‘un-fallen human nature’ position. I can only hope and pray that this will be a helpful exercise.
2 Corinthians 5.21[n1]
Now, to start at the beginning, 2 Corinthians 5.21 makes it clear that Jesus “knew no sin,” and it is a very important part of the theo-logic of redemption that we affirm that Jesus lived a sinless life. That is not up for debate here; I affirm Jesus’ sinless life. However, 2 Corinthians 5.21 goes on to say that God made Christ, who “knew no sin” to be “sin on our behalf.” So, despite the affirmation that Jesus lived a sinless life, he bore our sin. It could be argued that this making Christ to be “sin on our behalf” occurred at the incarnation, thus supporting those who argue for an assumption of fallen human nature. Others could argue that this occurs on the cross, thus maintaining the assumption of un-fallen human nature. Both are too reductionist precisely because the incarnation and the cross cannot be separated. They are mutually basic. You cannot have one without the other. The incarnation moves decisively toward the cross and the cross is the culmination of the incarnation (of course, the resurrection and ascension need to be added to this mix, but you get the idea).
We might be tempted at this point to make a distinction between the universal condition of fallen humanity, namely, the fact that we are all sinners, and unavoidably so, and the fact that we all commit sinful acts. The fallen condition would be addressed by the incarnation and particular sins by the cross. However, this is to move the above mistake one step further back. While we can make this distinction between sinful condition and actual sins, just as we can make a distinction between the incarnation and the cross, there are no actual sins apart from the sinful condition and no sinful condition apart from actual sins, just as there is no incarnation without the cross and no cross without the incarnation. These two are mutually basic as well, and ought not to be separated.
So, what we have at this point is the affirmation that Jesus “knew no sin” and that he was made to be “sin on our behalf.” In other words, Jesus committed no sin and yet bore our sins.
Romans 8.3[n2] and Philippians 2.7[n3]
These two passages are important in this discussion, and therefore I will address them as a sort of ground-clearing exercise. Guy Davies, in the second comment of the aforementioned thread, alludes to the language of these verses, noting that Jesus Christ was found to be in the likeness of a human person, but without sin. The implication is that “likeness” means that Jesus was the same as but also different from us. Romans 8 talks about God “sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh,” the implication being that this ‘sinful flesh’ is a reference to fallen human nature, and the idea of “likeness” being that he looked like us or appeared to be like us, but didn’t ultimately possess this sinful nature.
The problem with this that if you apply this meaning to the idea of “likeness” with consistency, you get in trouble with Philippians 2.7, which when speaking of the incarnation says that Jesus was “made in the likeness of men.” Now, if we say that “likeness” means here that the eternal Son only looked like or appeared to be human, we run headlong into the heresy of Docetism. So, “likeness” here must mean that the eternal Son was like we other human beings in every way. Indeed, kenotic Christologies based on Philippians 2 are devoted to trying to explain how this could be the case. So, how are we to reconcile this with the Romans passage? How are we to reconcile the fact that Jesus was completely human and also completely divine? And not just completely human, but found to be like we other human beings with reference to sinful flesh?
What is Not Assumed is Not Redeemed
What is the theo-logic of salvation? Gregory of Nazianzus got at the heart of it when he wrote that “What is not assumed is not redeemed.” The idea is that if we are to be saved, every facet of our existence has to be united with God so that God can overcome the sin that permeates our entire existence.[n4] This is what God does in the incarnation: the eternal Son takes our entire human existence upon himself and, through living a life of perfect obedience (this is the sinless life bit) to the Father, even to the point of total abandonment by the Father, reconciles humanity to God. Through Christ’s perfect obedience God both reveals how serious a problem sin is and destroys sin.
The question is: How can a fallen human nature be redeemed if it is not assumed? I personally do not think that there is a good answer for how this could be the case. Gregory of Nazianzus was right about this one, in my humble opinion. Of course, I’m not alone in this judgment. Apollinarius was condemned as a heretic on the basis of this principle: he argued that the eternal Son replaced the human mind in Jesus, but others were convinced that if this was so then the human mind could not have been redeemed, and we would still be in our sins.
How Could Jesus Have a Sinful Nature and yet Live a Sinless Life?
Not to sound dismissive, but ask God. One of the things that we learn from Christ is just how serious sin in, namely, that we are all implicated. We exist under a condition of sinfulness, and we commit sins; and because we commit sins, we exist under a condition of sinfulness. This is a cycle that humanity would be hopelessly locked inside, were it not for Christ. Ultimately, this is why it was necessary for God to become human. We human beings are incapable of rendering to God the obedience required of us, so God did it himself. This is the mystery of salvation.
Is it really so much harder to imagine this possibility than it is to imagine the incarnation itself?
Implications of the Sinless Human Nature Position
There seem to be some things lurking behind the scenes of the position that Christ assumed and un-fallen human nature. Here is some of what I see:
The Person and Work of Christ
Above I toyed with the idea of separating the incarnation from the cross, and the condition of sin under which we live and actual sins that we commit. There I affirmed that though we can distinguish between these two things, we cannot separate them because they are mutually basic. It seems to be that separating these things is precisely what the ‘un-fallen human nature’ position is up to. But, to do this is to separate Christ’s person (incarnation) from his work or benefits (cross). With the likes of Torrance[n5], Barth[n6], Calvin and Luther (to name but a few), I reject this idea. To separate Christ’s person from his works is to imply that the person was simply a means to the end of his works. Thus, Christ is viewed as acquiring some kind of merit (paying a debt, etc) that is applied / imputed to us. I think that the more responsible position is to keep Christ’s person and work together, affirming that we are saved by the person of Christ through his saving work, who redeemed the sinful condition of human existence by rendering the perfect obedience that we could not supply. Through being united to Christ, we partake in this redemption. Salvation has to do not with external legal relations, but with internal spiritual ones.
Also lying behind the ‘un-fallen human nature’ position is an antiquated notion of how it could be that actual sins translate into a universal condition of sinfulness. The patristics believed that inside every sperm cell resided a miniature but fully developed human being. This cell, when deposited into a woman’s womb, would grow until it was of a suitable size to survive external to the mother, and was born. The woman added nothing to the child, simply providing a place for it to safely grow. Sin, it was argued, is passed ‘genetically’ from father to child. This was thought to be the point of Jesus’ virgin birth, namely, that since no man was involved, no sin was involved.
Of course, today we know that this is ridiculous. The sperm cell must unite with the egg in order to form a zygote which develops on the basis of the combined DNA of mother and father. Genetically, mother and father have an equal role in the production of a child. You could push the above lunacy back a further step and simply claim that the ‘sin gene’ is carried by the sperm cell, but this is simply stupid.
Sinful Human Nature?
While most of us would recognize this point, it cuts deeply because our conception of a ‘sinful nature’, especially in the West, is subtlety linked with biology. That is why it seems to make sense to us to say that Jesus’ human nature was not sinful: there existed biologically at one time a human being (Adam) who had not yet sinned, Christ simply bypassed the biological development subsequent to that first sin (I will leave to the side questions of Genesis interpretation at this point). But, as I have pointed out above, this ‘biological’ or ‘genetic’ view of sinful human nature is absurd. We would do better to think in terms of a universal condition of sin that covers all aspects of human existence (N.B. that the technical definition of a 'nature', namely, that it is a catalog of properties shared by each member of a class, avoids the 'biological' conception and fits well with my notion of a universal condition of sin). In other words, we are trapped within a system defined by sin, and this means that sin is unavoidable for us. We are born as sinners (into this universal condition of sin) and we all commit actual sins.
The difference with Christ is his perfect obedience, not the fact that he was born outside of the universal condition of sin for, as we have seen, if that universal condition of sin is not assumed by Christ, it is not redeemed and we are still governed by it, even if our actual sins are taken care of by some merit obtained by Christ.
[n1] - 2 Corinthians 5:20-21: Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
[n2] - Romans 8:1-4: Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
[n3] - Philippians 2:1-11: Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
[n4] - Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 39 - "Perhaps the most fundamental truth which we have to learn in the Christian Church, or rather relearn since we have suppressed it, is that the Incarnation was the coming of God to save us in the heart of our fallen and depraved humanity, where humanity is at its wickedest in its enmity and violence against the reconciling love of God. That is to say, the Incarnation is to be understood as the coming of God to take upon himself our fallen human nature, our actual human existence laden with sin and guilt, our humanity diseased in mind and soul in its estrangement or alienation from the Creator. This is a doctrine found everywhere in the first five centuries, expressed again and again in the terms that the whole man had to be assumed by Christ if the whole man was to be saved, that the unassumed is unhealed, or that what God has not taken up in Christ is not saved."
[n5] - Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 63 - "Since in Jesus Christ God himself has come into our human being and united our human nature to his own, then atoning reconciliation takes place within the personal Being of the Mediator. In Jesus Christ the Creator Word and Son of God incarnate, his Person and his Work are one. What he does is not something separate from his personal Being and what he is in his own incarnate Person is the mighty Act of God’s love for our salvation. Christ and his Gospel belong ontologically and inseparably together, for that is what he is, he who brings, actualizes and embodies the Gospel of reconciliation between God and man and man and God in his own Person. In him the Incarnation and Atonement are one and inseparable..."
[n6] - cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, 122-128.