The Nature of Christ
What kind of human nature did Christ assume in the incarnation? Was it the nature of Adam before the fall, a sinless nature but with the potential to disobey God and fall into sin? Or did he take a fallen nature, like Adam and his successors after the fall, with an in-built bias to sin? Or was it a nature preserved from sin and its associated contamination, and, if so, how could he still be one with us?
In the last two centuries, an increasing number (including Edward Irving,1 most notably Karl Barth,2 and T. F. Torrance3) have argued that, for Christ to identify with us in our fallen condition, it was necessary for him to have a fallen human nature. By assuming humanity in its fallenness, he redeemed it from where it actually is. Unless he has done this, he cannot have saved us in our actual state as fallen human beings. Nor can he effectively sympathize or intercede for us if he has no experience of our own condition.
Barth argues that “[Christ’s] condition was no different from ours. He took our flesh, the nature of man as he comes from the fall. . . . His sinlessness was not therefore his condition. It was the act of his being in which he defeated temptation in his condition which is ours, in the flesh.”4 Consequently, Christ reversed the effects of the fall. Barth cites Hebrews 2:11–18, 4:15, and 5:8. In contrast to us, Christ suffers temptation on the offensive.5 At root, the Word is flesh, “all that we are and exactly like us even in our opposition to him.”6 “He did nothing that Adam did. But he lived life in the form it must take on the basis and assumption of Adam’s act.”7 So “there must 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?”8 In short, “he entered the concrete form of our nature, under which we stand before God as men damned and lost.”9 Barth acknowledges that this was the position of Gottfried Menken (1812) and Edward Irving (1827).10 Earlier, in 1912, H. R. Mackintosh refuted Irving. He suggested that Irving had misunderstood the Patristic use of flesh as a synonym for humanity, leading him to conclude that because Christ was liable to death, his humanity was fallen. He also thought Irving had a loose idea of sinlessness.11
The advocates of Christ’s having a fallen human nature want to avoid any tendency to docetism. An unfallen nature, it is held, would mean his humanity was not real, for it would be detached from the world we live in. Instead, they claim, Christ acted in redeeming love from within our own nature, sanctifying it and offering it up to the Father. T. F. Torrance cites Cyril approvingly to the effect that the Son penetrated into the disobedient sonship of our Adamic humanity and restored it to proper sonship in the image of God by living out within it a life of continuous and perfect obedience.12
Torrance cites Gregory of Nazianzus’s famous dictum “Whatever is not assumed cannot be healed” to argue that if Christ did not have the same nature as ours, we could not be saved. “One thing should be abundantly clear, that if Jesus Christ did not assume our fallen flesh, our fallen humanity, then our fallen humanity is untouched by his work—for ‘the unassumed is the unredeemed,’ as Gregory Nazianzen put it.”13 However, Torrance overlooks the point that this was written against Apollinaris, who claimed that the Son took the place of a human mind in the incarnate Christ. Gregory was opposing an ontological claim, not asserting an ethical one.14 Similarly, Thomas Weinandy appeals to Aquinas in support of this position.15 However, Aquinas refers to Christ’s assuming the defects of fallen nature, such as hunger, thirst, and death—the penalties of sin but not sin itself.16 The case has been supported recently in evangelical circles by John C. Clark and Marcus Peter Johnson.17 They refer to a range of historical sources in support.18 Their citation from Basil has the most substance to it, but he is opposing the idea that Christ has a heavenly body. He is dealing with flesh and soul, or with the soul using a body, with ontological realities without any reference to sin.19 Clark and Johnson’s reference to Irenaeus does not require a fallen or corrupt nature but requires a nature bearing the ravages of the fall.20 Tertullian writes that the flesh of Christ is called the nature of that which had sinned. It is so in its nature, not in the corruption coming from Adam, for “there was in Christ the same flesh as that whose nature in man is sinful,” and “in putting on our flesh, he made it his own; in making it his own, he made it sinless.”21 But Tertullian does not address the same question as Clark and Johnson pose.
Neither does Calvin write of these issues. Rather, he magnifies the descent undertaken in the incarnation and the lowly condition into which Christ came, a matter not in dispute.22 Thus, “[Christ] manifested himself as but a lowly and despised man” and in “a lowly and debased condition,” neither of which requires the assumption of a fallen nature.23 Similarly in the same section Calvin argues that what Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:18 would have been meaningless unless the Son of God in his humanity had been weak. Indeed, he was “true man but without fault or corruption.” He was free of all stain by virtue of the sanctifying operation of the Spirit.24 Calvin makes similar comments on Colossians 1:22.25 Barth cites Calvin on John 1:14, where he talks of the “low and abject state” to which the Son of God descended, taking to himself “that flesh addicted to so many wretchednesses.” However, Calvin immediately qualifies this, adding: “‘Flesh’ here is not used for corrupt nature (as in Paul), but for mortal man. It denotes derogatorily his frail and almost transient nature.”26
All the references cited by Clark and Johnson are anachronistic, used to address a question posed later in the nineteenth century. As Kelly comments, “I have not yet found a passage in the Fathers that clearly shows they taught Christ’s participation in fallen flesh.”27
The argument that Christ assumed a fallen nature raises more questions than it purports to solve, for it requires Christ’s own assumed humanity to be healed. Clark and Johnson also cite Kuyper, who appears to insist that Christ took a human nature that was fallen, just like us.28 However, the wider context indicates what Kuyper means. He points out that corruption inherited from Adam is a by-product of the guilt incurred. The question involves whether Christ was guilty of the sin of Adam and whether he inherited original sin.
The answer Kuyper gives is an emphatic no. This “does not imply the least participation of our sin and guilt.” Christ is like us in one sense and not like us in another. What Kuyper means is that the nature Christ took is identical to ours in the effects of the fall that engulf it so that it is “susceptible to its temptations,” but, on the other hand, “he is completely cut off from all fellowship with its sin.”29 The argument that Christ assumed a fallen nature has a certain appeal. It appears to paint a satisfying picture of Christ living a sinless life within the precise conditions we are in, thus achieving a complete and thorough deliverance for us. Not only Irving but also Barth and Torrance defend Christ’s sinlessness. Indeed, they argue that his triumph is magnified by his living a sinless life from out of the depths of our fallen nature. However, all is not as straightforward as it seems.
Macleod thinks the problems with the claim that Christ took a fallen nature are as follows: First, it implies a Nestorian separation of the human nature from Christ’s person. Second, its understanding of what “fallen” means entails that Christ inherits original sin, for a sinful nature and original sin are inextricably linked. Third, it ignores the state of humiliation; Christ assumed into union not a nature like Adam’s before the fall but one bearing the consequences of the fall.30
- Edward Irving, Collected Writings (London: Alexander Strahan, 1864–1865), 5:126, 129, 137.
- Barth, CD, I/2:151–55.
- Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), 48–52; Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008), 60–65, 204–6.
- Barth, CD, IV/1:258–59. 65.
- Barth, CD, IV/1:260–61.
- Barth, CD, I/2:151.
- Barth, CD, I/2:152.
- Barth, CD, I/2:153.
- Barth, CD, I/2:153.
- Barth, CD, I/2:154.
- H. R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Christ (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1912), 276–78.
- Thomas F. Torrance, Theology in Reconciliation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), 170; Torrance, Incarnation, 82.
- Torrance, Incarnation, 62.
- “Whoever has set his hope on a human being without mind is actually mindless himself and unworthy of being saved in his entirety. The unassumed is the unhealed.” Gregory of Nazianzus, Letter 101, to Cledonius, in St. Gregory of Nazianzus: On God and Christ, trans. Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 158.
- Thomas G. Weinandy, “The Marvel of the Incarnation,” in Aquinas on Doctrine: A Critical Introduction, ed. Thomas G. Weinandy, Daniel A. Keating, and John P. Yocum (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 84n9.
- Aquinas, ST 3a.4.6., 3a.14.1–4, 3a.15.1. SCG 29, citing Rom. 8:3, says, “Christus veram quidem carnem habuit, sed non carnem peccati, quia in eo peccatum non fuit; sed similem carni peccati.”
- John C. Clark, The Incarnation of God: The Mystery of the Gospel as the Foundation of Evangelical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).
- Clark, Incarnation, 114–17.
- Basil, Letter 261, to the Sozopolitans (NPNF2 , 8:300).
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.18.7 (ANF, 1:448).
- Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ(ANF, 3:335–36).
- Calvin, Institutes, 4.17.2.
- Calvin, Institutes, 2.13.2.
- Calvin, Institutes, 2.13.4.
- “. . . corpus humanum quod nobiscum habuit commune Filius Dei . . . eandem nobiscum naturam induisse Filium Dei . . . humile, terrenum et infirmitatibus multis obnoxiam corpus gestasse.” John Calvin, Commentarii in Pauli Epistolas, Ioannis Calvini opera exegetica (Geneva: Droz, 1992), 406.
- John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries: The Gospel according to St. John 1–10, trans. T. H. L. Parker (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1961), 20.
- Douglas F. Kelly, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, Grounded in Holy Scripture and Understood in the Light of the Church: The Beauty of Christ: A Trinitarian Vision (Fearn: Mentor, 2014), 312.
- Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit, trans. Henri De Vries (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), 84.
- Kuyper, Holy Spirit, 84–85.
- Macleod, Christ, 224–29.
This article is adapted from Systematic Theology by Robert Letham.
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