Thursday, December 20, 2012

Original Sin & Christ's Full Humanity

The Gospel Coalition has a series of installments answering theological questions that are emailed to them. The most recent installment has Luke Stamps, a professor at California Baptist University, addressing a question that was submitted regarding whether Christ assumed a fallen human nature -- the view of Protestant luminaries Barth and Torrance, as well as that of the Orthodox Church.

The piece essentially answers the question in the negative: there are too many 'problems' with the view that Christ assumed a fallen human nature (and therefore, full human nature as it actually exists). Stamps does at least acknowledge the validity of the motivation for adopting the view but ultimately rejects it. He gives a series of reasons for rejecting it, though they all ultimately hinge on the fact that "the mainstream Reformed understanding of original sin [is that] to possess a fallen nature is to be guilty before God." But this amounts to question-begging. The very question at hand is whether this view of original sin is correct.

In Stamps' first reason for rejecting the view, he says that fallenness is not an essential feature of human nature as such, but rather a result of the fall. "Fallenness is a not a 'part' of humanity that must be healed." While it's true that fallenness is not an eternal feature of human nature, it is still an aspect of human nature post-Fall and outside of union with Christ. Stamps is positing human nature as a static, eternal thing rather than something subject to change, and he does so without any justification given.

His second reason is the one that directly invokes the Reformed understanding of original sin, and as such is the one that makes the least sense. "Presumably 'fallenness' in [the FHN] context means possessing a propensity toward sin, even if no actual sin is committed. But how could a human being in this state not be condemnable in the eyes of a holy God?" His question seems to answer itself. How can God neglect to find something condemnable which is not worthy of condemnation? If your premises force you to ask such questions, it's time to re-examine your premises.

The third objection appeals to a christological conundrum that doesn't actually exist. Stamps asks "how could the infallible Son of God be joined to a morally fallen human nature?" Could one not also ask how the uncircumscribable God could become circumscribed in the womb of the Virgin? Or how the infinite God became finite? Or how the impassible God suffered on the Cross? Are any of these mysteries of the Incarnation any less irresolvable for us? Unless you're rejecting the Incarnation itself as self-contradictory on rationalist grounds -- which no Christian is permitted to do -- then this just is not a difficulty. Further, it calls into question the necessity of, for example, the Cross. If Christ has taken on pre-Fall human nature only, then is the 'flesh' of fallen man really being crucified at the cross? And if not, what good does it do us who indeed possess a fallen human nature?

He goes on to make a specious distinction between the scripturally undeniable "fallen experience" of Christ and taking on a fallen human nature. If Christ is just dwelling amongst fallenness as a passer-through, and not taking it into himself, then how is it that our salvation is affected?

Stamps quotes St. Gregory the Theologian's maxim that "that which is not assumed is not healed." Just so.


  1. I believe most Orthodox bodies recognize Chalcedon as authoritative. Would the language that Chalcedon evokes, "sin only excepted" be a good enough reason to accept the view that Jesus didn't take on sin nature?

    If not, how do you understand those words? I guess my question, put more succinctly, is, do you (or your Church body) deny the validity of Chalcedon or do you understand those words quite a bit differently than I do?

    1. Hey James,

      The Orthodox Church accepts all 7 of the Ecumenical Councils as authoritative, Chalcedon included, so it must be in the understanding of the meaning, if you're saying that you affirm Chalcedon but take that clause to mean that Christ didn't take on fallen human nature.

      Christ certainly is without sin, which is all that clause means, according to Orthodox teaching. Orthodox would contend that Original Sin *as* inherited guilt is something that only developed later in the West. And, once you have that understanding, it's easy to see why Christ's nature can't be considered fallen, since being 'in Adam' and fallen itself makes one worthy of condemnation.

      This is what lead to the Catholic development of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. If Christ takes his humanity from Mary, and her sin is imputed to her progeny in the way that it is to all human progeny, then Christ has the 'blood-guiltiness' by virtue of being truly man. Which can't be, hence the Immaculate Conception.

      Orthodox just reject inherited guilt and believe that the fallenness of original sin that man inherits from Adam is an unavoidable inclination to sin, a sickness, etc. -- but each man is only accountable for his own sin that he actually commits.

      Short version of the difference in understanding.

    2. You have a good understanding of the difference between the East and West on the issue of Original Sin. Even though I REALLY admire St. Augustine (I will probably name a son after him) when the difference is articulated the way you did here, I tend to agree with the Eastern position. Interestingly enough, the first guy I heard articulate that view of original sin was a Baptist (Stanley Grenz).

      The issue here is that although there is a real difference in understanding about what original sin is, unless I am mistaken I think there is a consensus that Christ didn't have it. In other words, whether the fallen condition is an imputed guilt that comes from our relation to Adam, an unavoidable propensity toward evil, or both, I think both the East and the West agree that Christ didn't receive it.

      I am by no means an authority on Eastern theology so I may be wrong. Your spiritual father will be a great place to seek understanding. I would love to hear what he says.

  2. Accidentally deleted your other comment, James. My bad. It was this:

    "jameslinton: I thought this post on the subject had some good quotes:"

    1. Interesting post. The Florovsky quote is particularly unequivocal on the question at hand (the others less so), and Florovsky is well-regarded in the Church, from what I can tell. I'll ask my spiritual father about it.


  3. The only reason that this clear Biblical evidence is denied is because many Christians believe that to have a fallen nature is to be a condemned sinner. Therefore, they say, it would have been impossible for Jesus to have received a fallen nature from Mary, because that would have made Him a sinner, too, and He could not have been our sinless Saviour. This is the reason for the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary–to protect Jesus from any stain of sin. This is why many Christians talk about Christ being “exempted” from the normal laws of heredity. The real issue here is the nature of sin . If we do not understand the Biblical definition of sin, we cannot understand the Incarnation of Christ, and we will develop a false gospel, based on false premises about sin.

    If Christ did not fully descend to our level, Satan would have cried “Foul” immediately, and nothing in the name of justice would have been accomplished in answering basic questions in the plan of salvation. To place Him above our nature, living in Adam’s perfect nature, is to obscure the amazing victory He gained for us.

    Where does the strength of our temptations lie? Surely within our fallen nature. Christ knows by experience what it means to be tempted from within. We can rejoice that Jesus did not sidestep the ugliness of being born into a fallen world, to fallen parents, with a fallen nature. We indeed have a Saviour who is very near to us. He did not quarantine Himself from the disease of a fallen nature, giving us instructions by long distance communication, but He stepped right into the battle zone with us. He takes our hand and will lead us out of the quagmire in which we find ourselves, if only we do not resist. Praise God for such a Saviour!