in the likeness of sinful flesh… (1)

Matt 11:27 (ESV)
All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father…

For some reason, blogs I’ve been dropping into recently often seem to be discussing the humanity of Christ.  Unfortunately, most conversations are unsatisfactory.  There are a couple of reasons for this.

  • A lack of basic reverence

The first thing that needs to be remembered by all of us when considering the person of Christ is we are reflecting on what is most holy.  Yes, it is possible to be unduly unctuous, however, this is not our modern failing.  Some comments I read by evangelicals are less than respectful.  Many are quite gung-ho in speculating about our Lord’s person in a way that the NT writers’ clearly would have considered presumptuous, if not prurient or profane.

The modesty of   Jesus was stripped from him at the cross to his great shame, it is a tragedy if  out of sassy speculation or in the interests of a provocative one-liner we are  just as happy to expose him.   And so, I repeat, let’s make sure we treat Christ with reverence and respect; he is not our mate but our Lord.  He is not a specimen to examine but a divine person to worship and fear.   Let’s be chary in discussing personal and private aspects about him we would be slow to discuss about ourselves.  Let’s remember Moses was commanded to take off his sandals at the burning bush; he was on holy ground.  In the OT, casual attitudes to holy things (non-levites touching the ark even for a supposed good reason) led to instant death.    And if, as Jude informs us, false teachers face trouble for speaking out of turn about Satan (Jude 8,9) we can be sure indelicacy about Christ will not pass unjudged.

Regrettably, all too often online reflections about the humanity of Christ by evangelicals are not only inappropriate they are also inaccurate.

  • starting from a wrong base

When reflecting on Christ’s humanity commonly commentators start from one of two assumptions; Christ had either a fallen humanity, like us, or an unfallen humanity, like Adam, before he sinned.  To be fair, among evangelicals, fewer voices declare that Christ had a fallen humanity like us even though, as Donald McLeod observes, ‘It has become a virtual truism of recent scholarship that ‘Christ’s human nature was indeed the same fallen human nature as ours’.  Some evangelical scholars of course do, especially those influenced by Karl Barth.  Barth (and Edward Irving a century before him) believed that although Christ remained sinless (and Barth with Irving is emphatic on this) his humanity was nevertheless fallen.   It must be so, they reasoned, if he is to be ‘like us in every respect apart from sin’.

More commonly, among evangelicals, the assumption is that Christ’s humanity was like Adam’s before the fall, unflawed but fallible.   Of course, those who so assume also assume they understand what unfallen fallible humanity was really like, a rather presumptuous assumption.   However, it is quite wrong to assume Christ’ humanity was either fallen or unfallen (or fallible).  Scripture certainly never so describes it.

Now I hear the sirens alerting us to the danger of docetism, not a  ‘hard docetism’ (that Christ’s humanity was merely phantom), but ‘soft docetism’ , a kind of evangelical docetism, where Christ’s divinity, as one blogger puts it, ‘eclipses his humanity’.  This is definitely a warning to heed, nevertheless I suspect there is also a bit of a bogey-man at work here that is in danger of allowing all sorts of edgy and erring notions about Christ’s humanity to invade evangelical thinking out of fear that objecting may brand us as docetic.  Docetism, in my view, is hardly the danger for educated evangelicalism today, quite the opposite.

I don’t intend at this point to delve greatly into these assumptions about Christ’s humanity.  Only to repeat that in my view both are mistaken.  Paul takes great care to point out that  Christ did not come in sinful flesh (fallen humanity) but in the ‘likeness’ of sinful flesh (Roms 8:3).   His humanity was similar to ours but not identical to ours.  Paul tells us the natural man  (the fallen man)  cares nothing for the things of God.  They are foolishness to him (1 Cor 2:14).  His mind is hostile to God’s God and will not submit to God’s law , indeed it cannot (Roms 8:7,8).  The fact is, a fallen nature by biblical definition means a corrupt nature, a nature inherently sinful.  The suggestion that such was/is the core humanity of Christ is blasphemy and the exact opposite of the clear statement of Scripture which tells us Christ’s delight was to do the will of the one who sent him (Ps 40:9, Hebs 10:5-8).  Christ we must affirm was not merely free of actual sin, he was free of inherent sin, of original sin.

But what of an ‘unfallen’ human nature, Adam’s before he sinned?

On the face of it, it seems much more plausible to identify the humanity of Christ as that of Adam before he sinned.  After all Christ is a son of Adam (Lk 3:28).  There is and must be real continuity between Adam and Christ.  He is ‘the seed of the woman’ (Gen 3:15) who at the time God ordained was  ‘born of a woman’ (Gals 4:4).  To accomplish salvation he had to be ‘made like his brothers in every respect’ and so  ‘as the children share in flesh and blood he took part in the same’ (Hebs 2:14).  If Christ’s humanity is not the same as Adam’s after the fall  then surely it must be Adam’s before he sinned?

But unfallen humanity will not measure up either.  Laying aside for a moment the whole question of our Lord’s deity (if this is even possible) we are still confronted with a humanity that is not merely Adam’s in the garden.  Adam, for example, had no ‘knowledge of good and evil’, but Jesus did.  Adam was not indwelt by the Holy Spirit, but Jesus was.  He was conceived of the Spirit (Matt 1:18); baptized in the Spirit (Matt 3:11); led by the Spirit (Matt 4:1); anointed by the Spirit (Matt 12:18); empowered by the Spirit (Matt 12:28); his words were words of the Spirit (Jn 6:63); he offered himself to God as a sacrifice by the eternal Spirit (Hebs 9:14).   He had the Spirit without measure (Jn 3:34).  Indeed he ‘sends’ the Spirit to others (Jn 15:26; 20:22).  And as I say, this is to say nothing of the fact that he is a divine person, the Word made flesh.  The NT invites us to distinguish between Christ’s incarnation and exaltation but it never tries to distinguish  his humanity and his deity (while distinct they are indivisible).  In Scripture these are a seamless robe.  Quite simply, to categorise Christ’s human nature as merely unfallen humanity is grossly inadequate.  Jesus’ humanity is connected to Adam but is not a mere copy of Adam.

There are about Christ’s humanity distinctions that imply discontinuity as well as continuity.  As Paul says,

1Cor 15:47-48 (ESV)
The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven.

I do not hesitate to say that any ‘theory’ about the humanity of Christ that does not take into account along with continuity this Pauline discontinuity has not sufficiently grappled with what the Bible reveals about the identity of the Christ.  The correlation between Adam and Christ is not precise.  Their correlation is that continuity/discontinuity story that dominates Scripture, the story of promise and fulfilment.   Christ is not a mere Adam, he is the ‘last Adam’ that is the final Adam.  Adam is the ‘type’ of which Christ is the ‘antitype’.  Adam is the anticipation of a humanity of which Christ is the realization.  Adam is the first creation and Christ is new creation. Christ is the new beginning.  He is from ‘outside’ from ‘heaven’.  It’s fair to say that the problem with much modern theology is it does not give sufficient weight to the issue of discontinuity, continuity has virtually eclipsed discontinuity, and the person of Christ is no exception.   Yet right at the outset, the virgin birth profoundly signals continuity and discontinuity must both be held in proper proportion and regard if we are to honour Christ.

But how can we find this proportion?

I entitled this section ‘starting from a wrong base‘ for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, to indicate that defining Christ’s humanity as merely Adamic humanity, either unfallen or fallen, is wrong, but secondly, and importantly, to signal  a ‘false base’ hermeneutically.  Mistakes are made about the person of Christ because theologians start with man-made assumptions, speculations and philosophies about the nature of Christ’s humanity rather than starting from what the Bible actually reveals.  Our task as Christians, in all areas of theology is to listen to revelation and nowhere is this more important than when considering the unfathomable enigma of he that ‘no-one knows but the Father‘ (Matt 11:27); if we are to know anything about Christ at all then we must listen carefully to what the Father says.  We must resist idle speculation, specious rationalization and submit humbly to revelation.

The problem with much modern theologizing about the humanity of Christ is that it is all too human, too fallen.

In a future blog we will consider the human Christ Scripture presents to us.

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2 Responses to “in the likeness of sinful flesh… (1)”

  1. February 14, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    John, this is a high quality article. You are asking questions and exploring themes which I have hardly ever seen in theological writing about the person of Christ.

    In your next article perhaps you can tease out what has always been intriguing to me.

    Adam was created into a world that was not under the curse of sin and death. Moral evil was apparent at some moment in creation before Adam sinned. But the curse of death is one of God’s responses to Adam’s sin. I take this to include the curse upon the ground of the earth, and the frustration of creation now under bondage (Roms 8.18-22). One of the many consequences of all this was that Adam and Eve, and all their children, now lived with physical bodies damaged and prone to decay, ultimately physical death.

    How do we articulate that this is the world into which Christ was born? It is the world in which Christ’s body was created for him. More, even taking account of Psalm 16.10, Christ’s body was a part of this world and this old creation order. It was a body prone to decay, illness and physical death. I grant the last sentence makes theological leaps, but we know its truth to some extent because we know he died.

    I think this is the problem I see for current orthodox christology. How do we understand the incarnation of Christ and Christ’s relation to the old and new creations? It may require more constructive work on the old creation/new creation continuities and discontinuities – a theme I think that recurs in your own writing.

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the cavekeeper

The Cave promotes the Christian Gospel by interacting with Christian faith and practice from a conservative evangelical perspective.


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