Tag Archives: Sinlessness of Jesus

The Sinlessness of Jesus 3: Wolfhart Pannenberg

In his classic work Jesus – God and Man (German original 1964) Wolfhart Pannenberg argues for the sinlessness of Jesus, as most of the Christian tradition has done.

Pannenberg begins his treatment of the topic with a survey of the doctrine in the history of theology, beginning with the New Testament texts which affirm Jesus’ sinlessness. These, Pannenberg argues, together with the earliest Patristic theologians, assert that Jesus did not sin, although his humanity was like ours in every respect. Later Christian theology shifted this understanding of Jesus’ sinlessness, however, to an affirmation of his impeccability: the idea that Jesus could not sin, and so that his humanity was decisively different to ours. Augustine explained this with recourse to the ideas of original sin and virgin birth, and the conciliar tradition with recourse to the impersonal humanity of Jesus in the anhypostasia-enhypostasia doctrine.

In the nineteenth, however, the idea of human personality and agency, along with questions about the doctrine of orginal sin, led some theologians to locate Jesus’ sinlessness in his “inner life,” or his “moral exemplarism.”

Pannenberg rejects all these options, and develops his argument in three moves. First, he follows the witness of the New Testament and the earliest theologians, that Jesus’ sinlessness is to be understood as his “not committing any sin” during his earthly life, rather than any concept of his incapacity to sin. He rejects these later views because they render the biblical testimony to his temptations and struggles impossible to understand, and so his humanity as qualitatively distinct from normal human life.

Second, while he rejects the Augustinian doctrine of original sin as an explanation for the transmission of sin to each succeeding generation, he finds in it a valid description of the empirical existence of humanity, if not a description of human essence.

If sin is not associated with the essence of the divine destiny of man, but with the structure of present human existence, one cannot conceive of a natural sinlessness of Jesus. It is inconceivable that Jesus was truly man, but that in his corporeality and behavior he was not stamped by the universal structure of centeredness of animal life that is the basis of the self-centeredness of human experience and behavior, but which becomes sin only in man. The conception that at the incarnation God did not assume human nature in its corrupt sinful state but only joined himself with a humanity absolutely purified from all sin contradicts not only the anthropological radicality of sin, but also the testimony of the New Testament and of early Christian theology that the Son of God assumed sinful flesh and in sinful flesh itself overcame sin (362).

Thus Pannenberg argues that the eternal Son did indeed take sinful flesh (Romans 8:3) when he became human, and hence faced the kind of temptation and struggle that all humans face. And it was from within this solidarity with humanity generally, and not exempted from it, that he overcame sin. That he did so is known – both to himself and to us – only in the resurrection.

This is Pannenberg’s third move. It is pointless for us to try to prove the sinlessness of Jesus on the basis of his virgin birth, or his “inner life,” or his moral superiority. The testimony of his life, like that of every person, is ambiguous. Only in the light of the resurrection can we assert Jesus’ sinlessness, and apply it retrospectively to his life on the basis of the divine vindication expressed in this event.

The Sinlessness of Jesus 2: Hendrikus Berkhof

Although I cannot agree with some aspects of Berkhof’s christology, I have long appreciated his brief chapter on Jesus’ Life and Humanity (Christian Faith, 293-299).

In the history of theology the life of Jesus has always stood in the dark shadow, on the one hand of the two-nature doctrine, on the other of the doctrine of reconciliation.  … Even today in all kinds of orthodox instruction in the faith the impression is given that Jesus came to earth only to suffer and to die. The fact that the Apostles’ Creed has no article about Jesus’ life, but immediately moves from “born” to “suffered” is also responsible for that. 

Berkhof is correct to insist on the theological significance of Jesus’ life, and not simply his “humanity” understood in a vague or abstract way. Perhaps in the history of theology, it is the Anabaptists who have best understood this. That Jesus was born, grew up as a child, as part of a family, that he worked, hungered and thirsted, loved and served, taught and healed, had compassion, had friendships, suffered and prayed, fasted and went to synagogue, and so on, cannot be incidental to theology, to an understanding of his person and work, or our own person and work.

For Berkhof, Jesus is representative humanity, himself truly human and exhibiting a truly human life. This life was exemplified in his love for and obedience to the Father, and his passionate willing of the Father’s will. As representative humanity, Christ accomplished a kind of priestly work, establishing the covenantal order between God and humanity in his own person, and bringing forgiveness and healing to guilty and wretched humanity.

As such the truly human life is one bound to God in love, fellowship and obedience, and as such, truly free.  Jesus enjoyed, on the basis of his fellowship with the Father, an utter freedom,

with respect to the temple and the cult, synagogue and commandment, priests and scribes, sabbath and government, mother and brothers, food and clothing, property and money, popularity and the power of the state. … It was the fruit of a strong carefreeness, which in turn was born from the absolute priority of the Father and his gracious lordship” (296-297, original emphasis).

Again,

here is the complete structure of what it is to be man, in his threefold relationship to God, the neighbor, and nature. Here is also the highest quality of what it is to be man, as love and freedom. Here human existence has reached its full maturity and therefore has fully become God’s partner and instrument.

Berkhof notes that this account of Jesus’ humanity is typically summed up in the term “sinlessness.” Berkhof considers this an “unfortunate” term as it is “too negative, too static, too limited” (297). He does, however, insist that Christian faith

stands or falls with the belief in Jesus’ sinlessness. But like us all, he had to become what he was. … Jesus did not know that in advance and he felt the full impact of the opposing forces. He had no idea of his sinlessness on which he, encouraged by it, could fall back. … Instead of the negative “sinlessness,” we have in the heading used the word humanity to express the core of Jesus’ life (297).

Berkhof opts for a functional kind of sinlessness in which Jesus did not sin, rather than Jesus was “without sin” (he compares the AV with the RSV to illustrate this difference). It may be that with respect to his being, Jesus was constitutionally unable to sin (this is my language, not Berkhof’s), but “human existence realizes and discloses itself only in a series of choices whose outcome is also for the chooser uncertain in advance, but which in retrospect yields a coherent life pattern” (299).

To consider the question otherwise, suggests Berkhof, is to render Jesus less than human with respect to our perspective of him. This is a pastoral issue, but perhaps also an accurate representation of the New Testament witness with respect to Jesus’ sinlessness.

The Sinlessness of Jesus 1: Donald Macleod

For Donald Macleod, Jesus is ontologically sinless and so incapable of sin. Jesus’ humanity is genuine in every respect, but also utterly sinless. The human nature and flesh assumed by the eternal Son in the incarnation was a sinless human nature, sinless flesh. As such, Jesus Christ was free of both actual sin and inherent sin (Macleod, The Person of Christ Contours in Christian Theology, IVP, 1998, 221).

There was no lust. There was no affinity with sin. There was no proclivity to sin. There was no possibility of temptation from within. In no respect was he fallen and in no respect was his nature corrupt (222).

Macleod develops his own position in dialogue with, and refutation of, Edward Irving’s doctrine, whom he accuses of a Nestorian separation of the human nature from the person of Christ. He rejects Irving’s idea that in the incarnation, the Son assumed a ‘fallen’ human nature on the grounds that “it is impossible to maintain a distinction between ‘fallen’ and ‘sinful.’ Fallen Adam is sinful Adam. Fallen nature is sinful nature, dominated by ‘the flesh’ and characterized by total depravity” (228). According to Macleod, it is not enough to say that Jesus did not sin; one must go further and insist that he was unable to sin.

The crucial issue is whether Christ could have willed to sin. The answer rests entirely on his identity. He was the Son of God, ‘very God of very God’. If he sinned, God sinned. At this level, the impeccability of Christ is absolute. It rests not upon his unique endowment with the Spirit nor upon the indefectibility of God’s redemptive purpose, but upon the fact that he is who he is (229-230).

This is not to say that Jesus knew and relied on his sinlessness. Indeed, faced with temptation, he utilised every resource also available to Christians generally, in order to overcome temptation: scripture, the Holy Spirit’s presence, etc. By standing against and resisting temptation, Jesus serves as an example to all believers.

Macleod’s doctrine raises certain questions. Perhaps most importantly is his view of Jesus’ temptations which he limits to what he calls “sinless human weaknesses”: although Jesus could be tempted by such things as hunger, there was nothing within his person that could issue in temptation. If it is the case, however, that Jesus “was tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15), Macleod’s proposal is too narrow, fails to do justice to the portrayal of Jesus’ temptations in scripture, and leaves us with a sense that in fact, Jesus was not really like us at all, and thus not really equipped to be the kind of faithful and sympathetic high priest that Hebrews describes.

Another concern is Macleod’s rejection of Gregory Nazianzus’s teaching that “what is not assumed is not healed.” Macleod rightly notes that this teaching arose with respect to Gregory’s rejection of Apollinarianism, but then proceeds to insist that it can have no relevance beyond that provenance. Is it actually “quite perverse to suggest that ‘the unassumed’ in this statement is ‘fallen human nature’” (224), as Macleod insists? In fact, Apollinaris’s reason for rejecting the idea that Jesus had a human mind was because the mind was “filthy,” a great source of sin.

In the end, Macleod fails to convince. In seeking to say more than what scripture says, he ends up saying less, and in so doing, diminishes the glory of the gospel and the comfort believers can gain from it.