By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – February 9, 2017) — Over my academic career I’ve taught multiple subjects and hosted a nationally syndicated radio broadcast Pastor’s Perspective. In all of these arenas I’ve been asked hundreds upon hundreds of questions. Some were fairly easy: Whom did Alcuin of York assist with educational reform? Answer: Charlemagne. Other questions require much more thought.
Recently a young woman at Calvary Albuquerque’s School of Ministry by the name of Tabitha, asked a question that falls in the later category. She asked, “Did Christ have a sin nature?” On one hand the answer is simple: No. But if you know anything about the question, it has connections to the doctrine of the incarnation, which can be a tad more difficult to provide a full-orbed answer.
And though there’s not enough space in an article like this to give a complete explanation on the sin nature question, the answers given usually revolve around variations on three main points: the father’s line (genetic), the human notion of sin (sociological), and the spiritual nature of sin (spiritual) .
But generally when someone asks a question about doctrine — the incarnation or otherwise, I remind them to keep in mind three items, which may lead to a fourth.
1) The doctrine must have Biblical integrity.
2) The doctrine must have theological integrity (the nature and character of God)
3) The doctrine must have logical integrity (it cannot be illogical). Remember: God embodies that which is true, including logic.
4) There are times, however, when a doctrine transcends these three points (but not contradict them), leading to a mystery, that which we can’t fully comprehend.
In relationship to the incarnation, which is at the heart of Tabitha’s question, there are a variety of opinions and answers, ranging from the Kenotic Theory (Jesus shed or emptied his divinity) to various shades of neo-Gnosticism (Jesus wasn’t really human). Again, there’s too much information to unpack in an article like this .
But using the simple three-point framework that I listed above, one must conclude that elements of the Kenotic Theory (“putting off” his divine nature) would fall outside theological integrity: How can God not be God? Jesus, as God, can’t stop being God, can he? Logically, Jesus couldn’t have made an essential change to His ontological nature—his very essence: if He is God, He must remain God. And to say that Jesus was not human goes starkly against the Biblical record.
However, there’s another angle to the question: can — or did — Jesus choose not exercise certain metaphysical qualities? Here we balance theological integrity with Biblical integrity. The Biblical record seems to indicate that Jesus did at least choose not to exercise some of His metaphysical characteristics . As an example, omniscience (all knowing): Jesus didn’t know the end of time (see Matthew 24:36).
But this doesn’t mean that omniscience or any other attribute of God was not part of His essence, his being. Again, logically, how can something be something that it is not? So rather than not having a certain attribute (which is inconsistent with His divine nature) Jesus submitted His divine nature to the Father’s will to procure God’s plan and purposes.
My point is that one must keep in balance all the elements stated above (Biblical, theological and logical) when helping construct proper doctrine.
Using this approach, let’s now head back to Tabitha’s question, “Did Jesus have a sin nature?” To help answer it I’d like to hone in on two important words that help keep the balance between Christ’s divinity and His humanity, and consequently, ensuring both theological integrity and Biblical integrity are kept intact.
When dealing with Jesus’ human-divine nature we must distinguish between potential (possible and hypothetical) and capacity (faculty, aptitude, or yearning). I hold that Jesus did have potential as a human being, but He did not have capacity (the aptitude or yearning) in certain areas. As an example: some of the things Jesus had the potential to do as a human He acted upon, such as eating, walking, talking, etc. Other things that had potential, He didn’t have the capacity (propensity, yearning, or aptitude) to do, namely, sin; but the temptation was real, a consequence of his humanity.
As an analogy: let’s say that someone offered me a double-fudge ice-cream cone. Is the offer (the temptation) real? Yes. Is the potential there for me to grab the cone? Yes. But do I necessarily have the yearning to receive the ice cream? Maybe, maybe not! For me, I need to watch my cholesterol — as noted by my doctor, so I’m not apt to take the ice cream cone, my capacity is tempered by that which I know is not good for me; my yearning is lost according to my doctor’s will to keep my cholesterol in check. This is how I see the difference between potential (possible) and capacity (yearning or aptitude).
In a similar vein, Jesus was really tempted in several areas, but his capacity to follow through with the temptation was tempered by his yearning to please the Father; Jesus’ capacity is alleviated in a mutual exchange of wills between the Father and Son (more on this in a moment).
But because this is a thoughtful issue, I reached out to my friend and colleague Dr. Joseph Holden, President of Veritas Evangelical Seminary (VES- 4). I asked Joe the same question. Dr. Holden responded with a counter question, “How can Jesus be fully human if he had no capacity (potential) to sin like other humans have? It would appear that Jesus’s humanity is different than our humanity in this regard. And if his humanity is different, how could one who has no capacity to sin sympathize with those humans who do have a capacity to sin?”
I then asked Dr. Holden how Veritas Evangelical Seminary’s co-founder Dr. Norman Geisler would respond to the issue. Dr. Holden stated, “I think Dr. Geisler answered this problem by asking two questions about Christ because Jesus had two natures. He would say Christ’s divine nature had no capacity or potential to sin, but his humanity did have the capacity/potential to sin (because he was human with all faculties as we have) but chose not to sin. In this way He can sympathize with our human weakness because he was made like us.”
I like this as well.
It appears the crux of the issue revolves around the potential-capacity elements. And though we may approach the two words from different angles—a possible definition difference, our methodologies are similar. I tend to separate the potential-capacity concepts, whereas Dr. Geisler keeps them closely associated. But in the end, we are saying an analogous thing: Jesus chose not to sin in his humanity. And in regard to his divinity: He cannot sin; this is something that goes beyond the realm of God’s nature as pure goodness and truth. So the essence of Christ’s nature is without sin.
In the end, as I learned from Dr. Geisler at VES, we must approach many theological doctrines from two perspectives when discussing Christ due to his divine nature and his human nature. In short, there are times when we need to ask the same question twice.
Yet what most Classical theologians do hold in common is the emphasis that Jesus cannot set aside divine attributes . We believe that many people make the mistake of assuming God can suspend his attributes or knowledge if He wants. This goes against both common, theological logic and the Biblical text.
And if you dig deeper (as referenced above), this potential-capacity duality deals with the will of Christ aligned with the Father’s will; the Two are One. Put another way, the act of submission by Jesus was a point of consent and compliance to the Father’s purpose for Jesus’ life within the world; a mutual exchange of wills rooted in shared love and resolution. Theologically, the mutual exchange of will and love within the Godhead is called Perichoresis in Greek. In Latin it is referred to as circumincession.
But again, don’t think that Jesus set aside His deity in this mutual exchange; He didn’t. And don’t think the temptations and the pain (his humanity) He experienced was a sham, a game played by God (wink, wink: Jesus is just playing with the temptations); they weren’t. Jesus was fully God and fully human. In my mind, the potential-capacity duality keeps in balance both the divine and human natures of Christ, ensuring both Biblical and theological integrity.
And because Jesus is simultaneously God and man (as the Biblical record teaches and early creeds support) how do we make sense of the incarnation? Here’s a thought using simple math, providing an example of the logic: Jesus didn’t subtract His divine nature, but added a human nature at the incarnation. Think of it in regard to an equation: 1×1=1.
As the Chalcedonian Creed states, Jesus is “Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of nature’s being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence.”
So within a potential-capacity framework all three components of doctrinal integrity are met: Biblically, theologically, and logically (as the easy math will attest). But because it meets the criteria doesn’t mean we fully understand it. Our apprehension of a truth is not always based upon a full comprehension of the doctrine. And I’m ok with this; I’ll let God be God, His mystery and majesty in all its beauty.
For a nice introduction to the issue I recommend Bodie Hodge’s article found here: https://answersingenesis.org/sin/original-sin/sin-nature-passed-through-fathers-genetic-line/
2) As one can imagine, there’s lots of debate concerning the kenosis (the humbling of Christ as described by Paul in Philippians 2:7. In Greek, kenosis means emptying). But this isn’t the place to unpack all the views. To learn more, click here: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/christiantheology-philosophy/
3) As one influenced by Classical theology, this is an area of mystery. How Jesus as God — who is a Pure Act (actus purus) with no potential whatsoever for change — had potentiality in his human form is beyond my grasp. I can apprehend its truth, but not fully comprehend the connections.
5) Classical theology adheres to the historical-ontological arguments of God’s being as taught and promoted by various Christian thinkers throughout the past, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas being the main representatives of the school of thought.
Photo captions: 1) Ancient painting of Christ. 2) Dr. Joseph Holden, Veritas Evangelical Seminary. 3) Dr. Norman Geisler, Veritas Evangelical Seminary. 4) VES Logo. 5) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon.
** You may republish this, and any of our ANS stories, with attribution to the ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net). Please also tell your friends that they can receive a complimentary subscription to our news service by going to the ANS website (see above) and signing up there.