Did Christ Have a Fallen Human Nature?
The doctrine that Jesus Christ had a true human nature is probably the single most important article of the Christian faith. Indeed, the Apostle John insists that the denial of it is the mark of Antichrist (1 John 4:3). Yet denials there have been, in abundance. In John's own day, the Docetists denied that Christ had a true body. Later, the Apollinarians denied that he had a human spirit and later still Eutychus claimed that he was neither God nor man, but a mixture of both. Less drastically, some later Christian traditions, while not denying the Lord's humanity, spoke in a way which compromised it. Mediaeval Catholicism saw Christ almost exclusively as a remote divine emperor. Lutheranism, because of its insistence on the corporal presence of Christ in the Sacrament, had to formulate the doctrine that His body was ubiquitous, which is hardly consistent with its being a body at all.
It would be arrogant to claim that Reformed theology got it exactly right. But men like Calvin, Owen and Hugh Martin did strive to do justice to the biblical vision of 'the man Christ Jesus' and even the so-called Protestant Scholastics betray no reservations as to the manhood of our Lord. Calvinist theologians - and preachers - have testified, firmly and unambiguously, that Christ took a flesh-and-blood body, possessing the same anatomy and physiology as our own, and linked, through his mother, to the genetic stream of the race. They accepted fully that our Lord experienced such ordinary human emotions as joy, sorrow, fear, amazement and almost-despair. They highlighted his need for companionship, his discriminating friendships (closer to some than to others) and his pained sensitiveness to all the misery around him. They acquiesced unquestioningly in the clear teaching of Scripture that he was temptable and, on some matters, ignorant.
It is arguable, then, that more than any other tradition Reformed theology has sought to be faithful to the claim that Christ is of one and the same substance with us according to his manhood, just as he is of one and the same substance with the Father according to his godhead. Yet the insistence that 'He was in every sense a member of the human race' has its own dangers. As C. F. D. Moule has pointed out, 'According to New Testament writers, the humanity of Jesus is both continuous with and discontinuous from that of the rest of mankind." The discontinuity is particularly evident at two points. Christ's humanness, unlike ours, was originated supernaturally, in a virgin conception; and Christ's humanness, unlike ours, was sinless.
For the moment, we shall concentrate on the second point. Christ's sinlessness clearly means two things.
First, he was not guilty of any actual sin. Never for a moment does he betray any consciousness of having transgressed in word, in emotion, in desire, in ambition or in action. He never, for all his sense of the holy, prays for forgiveness. Nor can we adduce any utterance or incident from his life at which we can point and say, 'There, surely, is a sin!' From within the gospel records he still stands, challenging us, 'Which of you can convict me of sin' (John 8:46). Stated negatively, there is no transgression, no lawlessness, no want of conformity, anywhere in the life of the Saviour. Positively, his whole life is an acted righteousness as he goes out to meet the will of God in an almost aggressive obedience.
Secondly, there was in Christ no inherent sin. This again is something on which Scripture is adamant. He was a lamb without blemish and without spot (1 Pet. 1 :19), holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sinners (Heb. 7:26). In stating this we have to avoid compromising his participation in our nature, and the need for careful formulation is clearly seen in such a passage as Romans 8:3, 'God sent forth his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.' We cannot say, 'the likeness of flesh', because that would make his humanness ghost-like a mere seeming. We cannot say 'sinful flesh' because that would compromise his integrity. We can say that Christ was 'made sin' (2 Cor. 5:21) but we cannot say that he was made sinful. There is no moral or structural defect for Satan to exploit. There is no lust. There is no egotism. There is no proclivity to sin. There is no corruption of nature. There is no want of original righteousness. There is no fallenness.
The same fallen nature as ours?
But this last statement must give us pause. It has become a virtual truism of recent scholarship that 'Christ's human nature was indeed the same fallen human nature as ours'. For the most part, those who hold this view are careful to deny that he was sinful. But they regard it as not only true, but vital, that his humanness was fallen. Otherwise, he could feel no sympathy with us. More fundamentally still, if he did not take fallen human nature, then he did not redeem it.
The credit, if such it is, for the current respectability of this doctrine must go to two men, Edward Irving and Karl Barth.
Irving, an enigmatic and ultimately a tragic figure, was deposed from the ministry of the Church of Scotland in 1833. He never abandoned his own belief in the sinlessness of Christ, but the way he stated it was, to say the least, awkward: Christ's human nature had the grace of sinlessness and incorruption. He did not have his sinlessness from himself. He had it only from the indwelling of the Spirit: 'It was manhood fallen which he took up into his divine person, in order to prove the grace and the might of Godhead in redeeming it.' The Lord's humanity was indeed without guilt, but only because it was 'held like a fortress in immaculate purity by the Godhead within'.
Barth, too, held to the doctrine of the sinlessness of the Lord: 'Christ was not a sinful man. He did nothing that Adam did.' But he serves himself heir to all that Irving had said of the fallenness of the Saviour's humanity. 'There must,' he says, 'be no weakening or obscuring of the saving truth that the nature which God assumed in Christ is identical with our nature as we see it in the light of the Fall. If it were otherwise, how could Christ be really like us? What concern would we have with Him? We stand before God characterised by the Fall. God's Son not only assumed our nature but he entered the concrete form of our nature, under which we stand before God as men damned and lost.'
Fallen and sinful
It is very doubtful, however, whether the idea that Christ took a fallen human nature can be held meaningfully in any form which is not heretical. There is no practicable distinction between fallen and sinful. 'Beyond a doubt,' wrote A. B. Bruce, 'the theory requires that original sin should be ascribed to Christ; for original sin is a vice of fallen human nature, and the doctrine that our Lord's human nature was fallen, means if it means anything, that it was tainted with original sin.'
The truth of Bruce's claim will appear at once if we recall the teaching of the Shorter Catechism: the Fall brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery (Answer 17). To be fallen means not only to be in a state of misery, but to be in a state of sin. And in what does that sinfulness consist? 'The guilt of Adam's first sin, the want of original righteousness and the corruption of (our) whole nature' (Answer 18).
This is really the crux of the matter. A fallen nature means a corrupt nature - indeed, one which is wholly corrupt. Is that what Christ had - a nature which lacked original righteousness and was totally depraved?
Both Irving and Barth strenuously protest their belief in the sinlessness of Christ and we must respect that. But there can be no doubt that as they work out what they mean by a fallen nature they use language which is totally inconsistent with his inherent perfection. As Irving saw it, the flesh which Christ took was one in which 'all sins, infirmities and diseases nestled'. Throughout his life, he had to battle heroically against temptations which sprang, not from the devil, but from his own nature - that 'fragment of the perilous stuff' which he had assumed. The Lord, Irving insists, committed no sinful act. But the possibility of sinning was there and he would have sinned but for the Holy Spirit keeping his flesh under control. He was holy only 'in spite of the law of the flesh working in him as in other men'. What can this mean but that something in him resisted the Spirit - something so powerful that it required the might of the Godhead to keep it in check?
Exactly the same kind of language appears in Barth: fallen equals corrupt. The flesh which Christ took was 'the concrete form of human nature marked by Adam's fall'. That was not a nature which was good in itself. It was a vitiated nature. 'Why does Scripture always speak contemptuously of the flesh unless corrupt nature is meant?' Barth quotes a seventeenth century source to the effect that 'it was not fitting that a human nature liable (obnoxia) to sin should be united to the Son of God', and comments: 'Not fitting? If that is true, then precisely in the critical definition of our nature, Christ is not a man like us, and so he has not really come to us and represented us.' When we move from Barth's treatment of the Incarnation to his treatment of the Fall of Man, the language only confirms our suspicions. Here, 'the essence of the Fall' is synonymous with 'the situation of man in the state of corruption' and Christ becoming flesh means precisely that he participated in our corrupted being.
In Irving and Barth the link between fallen and corrupt is not due to any lack of care. The corruptness of the human nature assumed by Christ is precisely what they want to express and the word fallen is the ideal word for the purpose. This fact alone is surely sufficient to make its use in evangelical theology thoroughly improper.
There are, however, several other considerations which have a bearing on the question.
First, the plea for total continuity between Christ's humanity and ours is misplaced. The Virgin Birth (which Barth himself defends and expounds so eloquently) is an immediate and unmistakeable reminder of discontinuity. So is the Resurrection: 'The Virgin Birth at the opening and the empty tomb at the close of Jesus' life bear witness that this life is a fact marked off from all the rest of human life.’ Christ is the new beginning, the One from outside - outside Adam, outside the Fall, outside guilt, outside corruption. He is God's man, who does not share in the sin of the first man nor in his loss of righteousness nor in the corruption of his nature. So long, indeed, as Christ is without actual sin, Barth cannot have unqualified continuity between him and us. All the rhetoric with which he turns on the unfallenness could be turned equally effectively against the sinlessness. How can he understand if he never sinned? What does he know of shame and sorrow and frustration and failure? What could have been the use to Paul of a Saviour who knew nothing of the anguish behind the words. 'To will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not' (Rom. 7:18)?
The answer is, of course, much use because the basis of his being 'touched with the feeling of our infirmities' is not that he was either fallen or sinful, but that he shared our nature, our deprivations and our temptations.
Fallenness a disadvantage
Then there is a second - and vital consideration: To be fallen would be a distinct disadvantage in a Saviour. This is something which becomes totally clear from Barth's own treatment of the Fall of Man. It is Barth himself who quotes Ephesians 2:3, 'We were children of wrath' and goes on to define our fallen nature as one inclined to hate God and our neighbour. If that is the nature which Christ took then he, too, was a child of wrath and in no position to save others. When one recalls how emphatically Barth stresses the incapacity of fallen man it is difficult to see how Christ could overcome the disadvantage of having a fallen nature: 'With the Formula of Concord we can call fallen man a stock and a stone in order to describe his whole incapacity to help and save himself.' Did Christ then take upon himself this whole incapacity? Again, Barth tells us that the corruption from which God's word of forgiveness calls us 'consists in the fact that man is God's debtor. He is a debtor who cannot pay.'
The cumulative effect of this is overwhelming. Christ took a nature which made him a child of wrath, rendered him incapable of helping himself and turned him into a debtor who could not pay. How can his power to save be salvaged from such wreckage?
A fallen person
Thirdly, it is impossible to speak of Christ having a fallen human nature and yet refrain from describing him as a fallen person. 'If a fallen nature exists at all,' wrote the elder Marcus Dods, 'it can exist only as the nature of a fallen person.' A nature is an abstraction. It neither acts nor suffers nor falls. Only persons can fall or be fallen. This is certainly the way theology has traditionally spoken. The Shorter Catechism, for example, does not say that our nature fell. It says that our first parents fell (Answer 13). The Westminster Confession is equally careful: 'By this sin they fell from their original righteousness' (ch. VI:II). It was they, not their nature, which became dead in sin and 'wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body'.
To say that Adam had a fallen nature is to say that Adam was fallen. The same logic must apply to Christ. If he had a nature that was fallen, then he himself was fallen. The principle of the communion of attributes is sufficient to establish this: whatever is true of either nature is true of the person. If the human nature was fallen, the person was fallen.
The implications of this are totally unacceptable to reverent thought. When did Christ fall? In Adam? Or in his own experience? It seems unnecessary to press these points. Christ was one person, one self, one agent, bearing the name, the Son of God. To say that the Son of God was fallen is impossible, especially when by fallen we mean 'wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body'.
Fallenness not part of humanness
Two other considerations deserve a brief mention.
First, fallenness is no part of the definition of humanness. The underlying motive of Barth's exposition is to maximise the identity between Christ and ourselves. As he sees it, the denial of fallenness jeopardises this: 'precisely at the critical definition of our nature Christ is not a man like us.' The answer to that, surely, is that to be fallen is not part of what defines our nature. If it were, then the newly created Adam was not a man. Indeed, on these terms God did not create a man at all. What he created only became a man by falling. The same conclusion would apply at the other end of human destiny. Glorified man would not be human certainly not in 'the concrete form of our nature marked by Adam's fall'.
Finally, those who argue that Christ had a fallen human nature misconceive the reason for his sufferings. The Lord suffered in every dimension of his existence; physically, socially, emotionally and spiritually. Furthermore, the agony which this involved brought him to the very limits of his human endurance. Even though upheld by the Spirit he is at last close to being overwhelmed.
But the reason for his suffering was not that he was fallen. It was, instead, that he was the Vicar of the fallen. He was their Representative and Substitute. He was under their curse, sharing their low estate. His liability to the anathema is not personal. It is contractual. As to himself, he has no debts. He is meeting the debts of others. His manhood has become the place of judgment - the very Gehenna to which all the world's guilt is gathered. He is the Holocaust consumed by God's anger against sin. But the sin is not his own. It is never, in any sense, inherent. He is the atonement for the fallenness of others.
It is superficial to imagine that this unfallenness protected him from the highest levels of pain. On the contrary, it made him uniquely vulnerable. A Nazi could have walked unmoved through Belsen. Bonhoeffer could not. He would have been moved to the depths of his being by the misery and the criminality. In the same way Christ moved among men with an exquisite, unfallen sensitiveness to the pain, the squalor, the oppression and the degradation around him. He had to live amid the manifestations of sin, see it, hear it, feel it, everywhere; suffer for it, bear it - at last, take his very name from it (2 Cor. 5:21). And how could he bear the loss of God? To the fallen, that is a familiar and not altogether unwelcome experience. To Christ, living eternally with God and towards God, it was an unspeakable horror. In prospect, it filled him with overwhelming fear. In actuality, it rendered him desolate. The Far Country was infinitely more harrowing for the Only Begotten than for the Prodigal.
That, we said, was the final consideration. But the most important thing of all remains unsaid. Surely if he was fallen, Christ could not have been tempted. That, unfortunately, cannot be dealt with in a few sentences. But we will discuss it in the next chapter.
C.F.D. Moule, 'The Manhood of Jesus in the New Testament' in S.W. Sykes and J. P. Clayton (eds.), Christ, Faith and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1972), p. 103
Cited in H. R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2nd edition 1913), p.277. For a fuller, first-hand account of Irving's views see The Collected Writings of Edward Irving (London,1865), Vol. V, pp.114-257.
Cited in Mackintosh as above, p.277
K. Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark,1956), p.152.
Barth, as above, p.153.
A. B. Bruce, The Humiliation of Christ (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1876), p.271
Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2, p.182.
Barth, Church Dogmatics IV. 1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), pp.481, 484
M. Dods, The Incarnation of the Eternal Word (London, 1831), p.279.
- 1 Corinthians
- 1 John
- 1 Samuel
- 1 Timothy
- 2 John
- 2 Kings
- 2 Samuel
- 3 John
- Biblical Theology
- New Testament
- Old Testament
- Old Testament Theology
- Song of Songs
- Wisdom Literature