Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Could Jesus sin?

Orthodox Christians believe Jesus was sinless. They believe that in part simply because the Bible says so. In addition, the Bible doesn't merely say Jesus was sinless. Rather, there's an underlying principle: a sinner can't atone for the sins of another sinner. Therefore, the Redeemer had to be sinless. 

But over and above that issue is the related question of whether Jesus could sin. Was he impeccable? 

The question is somewhat ambiguous. Are we asking whether Jesus qua human could sin or whether Jesus qua divine could sin? Some might take the position that although Jesus qua human was peccable, the divine nature acted as a check on that possibility, rendering Jesus impeccable. 

Some might dismiss the whole question as one of those effete conjectures that theologians haggle over when they aren't numbering angels on pinheads. There are, however, freewill theists who take the position that unless Jesus was able to sin, he couldn't truly experience temptation. There was nothing to resist.

This typically has the adult Jesus in view. Say, Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

But suppose we consider the question from the standpoint of Jesus as a young child. And let's grant for the sake of argument that Jesus could sin.

It's hard to think of anything more dangerous than an almighty child. Imagine a temper tantrum magnified by omnipotence. 

Children can fly into a sociopathic rage. Yet no harm usually comes of it because they are ineffectual and the murderous mood is short-lived. But if the child was omnipotent…all hell would break loose.

Now, it might be objected that, unlike the average child, Jesus was sinless. Again, though, on the hypothesis I'm exploring, Jesus could sin. Assuming that's the case, what would prevent the realization of that potential? 

In the case of Jesus as an adult, or even a teenager, we can appeal to his self-restraint. That, however, assumes a level of cognitive development which young kids lack. Young kids don't have much impulse control. Little or no cognizance regarding the long-term consequences of their actions. They are in a state of diminished responsibility. 

So, if Jesus was peccable, it's hard to see what would prevent a two-year-old Jesus from sinning. 

I suppose we could redefine our terms by classifying sin in age-appropriate categories. What is sinful in an adult isn't necessarily sinful in a child.

But even if we grant that distinction, it doesn't rule out certain, like killing his mother or stepbrother in a childish fit of rage. We've just said that wouldn't be sinful at his tender age. 

Yet I doubt Christians who espouse the peccability of Christ wish to take it even that far. Moreover, this isn't just a question of what he could do, but what he would do given what he could do.

The question at issue is whether it's consistent to say both that he was sinless and capable of sinning. For even if adulthood supplies a firewall to maintain that distinction, that assumes a process of psychological maturation which can't be retrojected back into first few years of life. 

In addition, the more special you make him as a child, the less like normal children you make him, doesn't that undermine the rationale for denying that he was impeccable? The more sui generis he is, the more disanalogous temptation is for him than it is for us. So this seems to generate a dilemma for the freewill theist. 


  1. Hi Steve,

    This is a fun post, but I find your line of reasoning here odd. It seems to trade on a kind of Monophysitism - as if Jesus was Hercules. A sinful omnipotent child - how about a *sinless* omnipotent child? It seems to me that would be almost equally scary; since innocent non-malicious play by a toddler can be accidentally destructive; and it would be catastrophic if the child was all-powerful. Little Jesus running around happily swinging his arms, accidentally striking Joseph and sending the man sailing past Jupiter.

    1. I'm addressing freewill theist Christology on its own terms. A Calvinist can say Christ is impeccable because it's possible for even a mere human being to be impeccable (given compatibilism). Of, even if his humanity is peccable, his divinity acts as a check on his humanity, ensuring impeccability.

      But I'm considering a position which denies that Christ is impeccable. So, it in a sense, I suppose that's like a kind of Monophysitism inasmuch as it effectively brackets the divine nature and treats the human nature as peccable. It doesn't allow the inherently impeccable divine nature to act as a brake on the human nature, and given libertarian freedom, what's left must be able to sin.

      That doesn't represent my own Christology, but the implications of freewill theist Christology, according to which the temptations of Christ would not be real unless he was at liberty to sin. So that, in effect, treats Jesus as if he were merely human, and defines human freedom in libertarian terms.

      Now, you do make the interesting additional point that even a sinless omnipotent child could inadvertently wreak cataclysmic damage. Imagine, for instance, such a child having a nightmare. Omnipotence would make his nightmare a telepathic reality.

      If, however, we allow the divine nature to regulate the human nature, that won't happen.

  2. The incident in Luke 2:41-51 is interesting to bear on this. At age 12, he is taken to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Once there, he separates from his parents and spends several days in the temple, talking with the teachers. We're not clearly told whether his understanding is remarkable for a 12 year old or for anyone, but it is clearly portrayed as superior. When Mary complains about his unexpected absence, he gently rebukes her (and Joseph) for lacking insight. And yet, we are told that he returns to Nazareth and submits to them.

    (1) Even at age 12, Jesus has divine insight.

    (2) Even at age 12, Jesus claims a relationship to God that is more significant than to his parents. This is indicated not only by "I must be in my Father's house", but also in that he voluntarily leaves the Temple in order to submit to them, despite their lack of understanding. I think Luke's point here is not just that Jesus the teen was an obedient Jewish son, but that he chooses to remain under his birth-parents' authority despite spiritually surpassing them.

    Given this, I think we have to conclude that Jesus' divine nature (and some awareness thereof) was with him from birth, and is not subsequently imparted (e.g. at his baptism). At the risk of dualism, I suspect that his full divine awareness was always present, and gradually became more dominant as his brain developed from instinctive to conscious thought. This model would handle the issue of a baby's brain having access to cosmic power.

    Even under this model, I speculate on the effects of the Fall on human instinct. It doesn't take long for babies to move from a simple declarations of need to greed - the desire for more. And we also mis-perceive our needs. Babies are Fall-broken, but are they morally culpable for mis-perceiving their needs or does their behaviour only become morally culpable once they can desire? If the former, then Jesus-as-baby would need to be fall-frail but not fall-broken.

    (Also, how does John "leaping for joy" - Luke 1:44 - in utero play into this discussion? Saying that John has no awareness in the situation, that the leaping is entirely an external miraculous action imposed upon his unknowing foetal body, seems to me an uncharitable reading of the passage.)

  3. It's silly for free-willers to say things like Christ's temptations to sin weren't real if He couldn't actually sin.

    Do free-willers sin every time they're tempted? I hope not. Were those resisted temptations real? Surely.

    In fact Christ's temptations were worse, more difficult than ours because at some point we give in and sin. He resisted to the uttermost.

    I personally think we see a glimpse of this in Gethsemane.