Recently I went to a conference where one of the speakers was discussing the ability of the incarnate Jesus to sin. You can read a bit more about it in this post and read my understanding of his proposal as well as why I thought it was insufficient.
In this post I want to look at an alternative explanation to one the speaker put forward.
I should make clear this isn’t my explanation of the impeccability question in that I didn’t make this up. This is, as I understand it, the classical explanation. At least in broad brush stroke. It is what I think about the issue though.
Here’s the key quote from the speaker at the conference:
“The tension is not resolved by saying that Jesus is able to sin in his human nature but not able to sin in his divine nature. Such a conclusion is neither orthodox nor comforting. Theologically we have fallen into the Nestorian heresy of dividing the two natures of Christ that must rightly be held together in the one person. If Jesus’ human nature were to sin, then God would sin since it is the one person of the Son who is incarnate as the one person of Jesus. We cannot excise the human nature from the divine without undoing the incarnation.”
The first two sentences are absolutely mistaken. This is exactly the orthodox conclusion.
I think the issue here seems to be that the speaker may not have fully understood the orthodox conclusion. The last two sentences seem to indicate that the speaker thinks that the orthodox conclusion is to say that the human nature may have sinned but if that occurred Jesus still would have been impeccable. And in that case he’s exactly right, if the human nature sinned then God would have sinned due to the unity of the two natures in the person of the divine Son. And so we would be in danger of Nestorianism. (Check here if you can’t quite remember complex incarnational heresies) But that’s not what it means to say that Jesus was able to sin in the human nature but unable to in his divine nature.
The other reason why I suspect the speaker does not understand the classical position is that when I put forward the view – though admittedly only very briefly – that perhaps the way forward is that Christ has the capacity to sin but is incapable of exercising that capacity, his immediate response was that this view is incoherent and that if words mean anything then we cannot affirm this explanation.
It had been a big day and he was no doubt fairly tired so I’m not having a go at him. But as I understand it this is the traditional understanding of the impeccability of Christ. Let’s look at what it is in more detail and why it is not incoherent.
In the incarnation the divine Son takes on a human nature and unites it to himself in his person so that he remains one person but now with two natures, one divine and one human. So he is fully God and fully man, vere deus as well as vere homo as they say. Though disputed, one way traditionally of understanding the incarnation is that Jesus assumes a sinless, though peccable, human nature. A human nature that was capable of sinning. But with this nature being united to the divine person of the Son, and thus united with the divine nature, this rendered the human nature incapable of sin. And so you’d say: Christ had the capacity to sin – in reference to his human nature – but is incapable of ever exercising that capacity because his divine nature either prevents it or would prevent it if a circumstance ever arose, though in reality such a circumstance never eventuated.
The common objection to an impeccable view of Christ is that to be impeccable the person cannot have the capacity to sin. And if Jesus was exactly like other human beings then this objection makes a lot of sense is is quite right. If a person is fully and only human and at the same time impeccable then she is also incapable of sin. But there are elements of the hypostatic union that are so unique they make Jesus significantly different than other human beings. The main distinction being that while Jesus is certainly fully human he is not only or merely human. He is also divine. He is the God-man. And this makes him sui generis – absolutely unique.
And so we can say that Jesus had the capacity to sin in his human nature, and yet was incapable of exercising this capacity due to his divine nature preventing or protecting this from ever occurring. And since both natures are united in the person of the Son we can say that the person of Jesus both had the capacity to and was also incapable of sinning. He had the capacity, qua human but qua divine he was incapable of sin.
This has been the traditional and orthodox position.
In the next post we’ll look at a famous example from history articulating this position.