For this Christmas week I thought it appropriate to do some posts on the mystery of the Incarnation. The posts are prompted from a book I’m browsing by Oliver Crisp called God Incarnate: explorations in Christology in preparation for teaching a course on Christology in the New Year.
Today – could Jesus sin?
Crisp lives up to his name in how he writes. In a chapter called ‘Was Christ sinless or impeccable?’ he explores whether Jesus was sinless because he successfully resisted all temptation, (the sinlessness view) or was he sinless because he, the Word made flesh, could not sin (impeccability).
If asked, which option would you agree with?
The great weight of orthodox historical theology is on the impeccability side of the argument and it is this traditional view that Crisp sets out to defend as the only one that makes sense and which is consistent with the Incarnation.
Some conservatives and evangelicals have suggested the sinlessness view. Crisp names as examples Charles Hodge, Millard Erickson, Trevor Hart. Their concern is to affirm the full humanity of Jesus. How can Hebrews 4:15 really speak of authentic temptation if Jesus could not sin?
15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.
Again, a big detailed chapter. Here is a key quote summarising one of Crisp’s arguments against the sinlessness view – that it fails to take properly into account Christ’s unique identity that make him unlike any other human being.
It would make perfect sense to say that if an individual is fully and merely human as well as being impeccable, then he or she is incapable of sin. But the same cannot be said of Christ, for two reasons. First, he is fully but not merely human – he is also a divine. Secondly … one traditional account of the Incarnation suggests that the Divine Son of God assumes a sinless but peccable human nature, which, by virtue of being united to the Son, is rendered incapable of sin.
In other words, Crisp says we have to imagine the implications of a Chalcedonian Christology of the two natures of Christ working itself out in regard to sin and temptation. He suggests an interpretation of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness to turn stones into bread. Jesus’ human nature is ‘peccable’ (if taken in isolation from his divine nature). He is hungry, he is aware that to turn the stones into bread would be to give in to temptation, he knows he has the power to do so. He is thus in a ‘psychological state’ of being truly tempted. Yet he resists the temptation in the power of the Holy Spirit in his human nature. [So far both views are OK with this]. Yet if he were going to sin in his human nature, his divine nature would ensure he does not. Hence impeccability – Christ has the capacity to sin (peccable human nature) but cannot do so (because his human nature is united to his divine nature).
Why insist on impeccability? Because Christ is the God-man, fully human AND fully God in one person. To say that he could have sinned is to say that Jesus in his divine nature could sin. Or to put it another way, that God could be in opposition to God. Taken to its logical conclusion, the sinlessness view begins to undermine the essential goodness of God.
So, all clear then?