A Response to Boethius


I have greatly enjoyed your series on Boethius. It is all very good and interesting stuff!

However, I must say that I disagree with some of the general contours of Boethius’ thinking on those matters addressed in your last installment, and I thought it might be fun for me to offer them here for some further discussion, etc. There are really two main points of disagreement:

  • Whereas Boethius affirms that Christ assumed a sinless / unfallen human nature, I affirm that Christ assumed a fallen human nature. “What is not assumed is not redeemed,” so that if fallen human nature is not assumed, fallen human nature is not redeemed.

One derivative point that I would want to press here is whether or not Jesus could have sinned. I think that we have to say that Jesus could have sinned, although he did not sin. If we are to say that Jesus’ temptations were actual temptations in which he underwent all the torment that we undergo in temptation, it must have at least been possible for him to have chosen to sin. He had opportunity. He was fully human, although also fully God. Because he was fully God, he did not sin; because he was fully human, he could have.

  • Whereas Boethius affirms that it is only through sin that humanity (Adam) becomes mortal, I affirm that humanity was created mortal and that immortality existed even then only as grace and promise. Why else should there be a Tree of Life from which Adam and Eve were banished?

One derivative point that I would want to press here is whether or not God would have become incarnate had humanity not fallen into sin. I tend to think that the incarnation would still have happened, although perhaps only with ramifications in the prophetic and maybe the kingly offices and not the priestly office. Of course, we are just speculating here (something that shouldn’t take up too much of our time), but I tend to think that the fellowship with God made possible after the incarnation is superior to that shown to us in the opening chapters of Genesis.

Yes, I am swimming against some very dominant currents of the Christian theological tradition, but I do not think that I am without certain supporting currents in that tradition, as well as recourse to some superior exegesis and the depth grammar of God’s self-revelation in Christ.

P.S. One of the most profound theological questions that can be be asked is this: "Where is true humanity found, in Adam or in Jesus?"


Shane said…
Actually, this material isn't properly speaking part of my series (which focuses on the Consolation). I just came across it in my other reading of Boethius and thought I'd bring it up.

Thanks for engaging with it, however, I think Boethius's division into three modalities of humanity blunts some of your criticisms.

Boethius (according to my first impression of the text) thinks that even prelapsarian adam was mortal in the sense of capable of dying. Death was not a necessity for prelapsarian adam, because he could have lived in the garden eating the magic fruit which prolongs his life. (My paraphrase--doubtless the garden is metaphorical for the presence of God). However, this is not true immortality, which Adam might have attained by a gift of God but with which he was not originally created. (I think this means that Boethius takes the incarnation as something that would have happened even if Adam hadn't sinned.) Christ assumed fallen human nature in the sense that Christ, once incarnate must die. (he can't keep eating the magic fruit because it's gone now.)

Boethius is well aware of the christological axiom you quote. In fact, he quotes it himself in the passage I cited. I think Boethius's point is that christ assumes all three modalities of humanity. He assumes fallen humanity insofar as his death is a foregone conclusion. he assumes prelapsarian humanity in that he isn't born with the stain of sin. And he assumed the perfected, beatified humanity in virtue of the hypostatic union. So Christ is all the possible kinds of humanity-he heals the fallen nature and does Adam one better in the unfallen nature and demonstrates to us the beatified nature which we will presumably have in the resurrection.


Thanks for bringing it on back.

I think the fundamental difference between Boethius and I on these points has to do with the postscript of my first set of comments: Are we to find true humanity in Adam or in Christ? We can generalize this: Are we to find true humanity outside of Christ or in Christ?

I think Boethius tends toward the former. From what I can tell, he sets up these three aspects of humanity and then fits Christ into them. Surely, things are more complicated than this, but it seems to me that this is the pattern. I think that this can be seen in his three aspects of humanity and how he understands them, because he seems to be dependent upon certain key notions that I don’t think necessarily fit with a Christ-centered understanding of these matters. I’ll hit a few of the more salient.

(1) He seems to reduce human fallenness to death, which is a horrible reduction. And, confusingly, he seems to separate death from separation from God, namely, there is physical death which could have been avoided but is not as a punishment, and then there is separation from God. I think we have to say that there is physical death, which is part of finite human nature, and to this death has been added the sting of eternal separation from God.

(2) This notion of beatified humanity is something utterly foreign to me, and – I think – unnecessary. It seems to carry with it connotations of super-humanity, that is, humanity that has passed beyond the bounds of its natural limits (deification in the bad sense). This is tied in with how we understand the garden and the tree of life. I take the garden to represent the provision of God for the flourishing of human life, and I take the tree of life to represent a sort of communion with God (cf. Calvin on this, who can speak of the tree of life as a proto-sacrament).

(3) We must ask about the relationship of humanity to Christ in all this. If Adam may have attained a super-human immortality (not just through eating of the tree of life) by the grace of God other than through Christ (Shane, you imported the Christological dimension at this point, as far as I can tell), then we have a Christ who is simply a recovery mechanism.

I’m not feeling particularly ‘on’ today, so this may all be a load of crap. But, here it is for what its worth. Hopefully you can discern the direction of my thinking amidst the clutter of the particularities.
Shane said…
I'm going to just challenge one thing briefly.

You assert that we must look to Jesus as true humanity and not Adam.

I've been uncomfortable with the whole 'true humanity' line for a while, because it implies that Adam isn't really human. If Adam isn't human, then human nature isn't sinful and whatever christ assumes in his incarnation it isn't what you and I have. What he didn't assume he didn't heal, ergo Christ's incarnation is of no effect for us.

If Adam isn't 'truly' human, then please explain to me why not. Why is Christ truly human and Adam isn't?

The point of this affirmation has to do with where we should look if we want to define what humanity ‘is’ in the proper sense, which is to say, if we want to define what humanity should be. Christ shows us this, for only in Christ do we see what our relationship to God should be and it is only in Christ that we even begin to plumb the depths of our sin.

I can set this up with a simple canonical exegesis move, a move that Barth gets close to but that I haven’t seen anyone do this directly.

Humanity was created in the image of God (Genesis). Jesus Christ is the image of God (NT). Humanity was created in Jesus Christ.

There is no ‘being’ of humanity with Jesus Christ – Jesus Christ is where we discover what it means to be human, both as God’s covenant partner and as God’s enemy.

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