Did Christ assume a fallen human nature?

The theology of T.F. Torrance is a catholic theology in the true sense. Not only has he been in conversation with theologians from East and West, from the Early Church to the contemporary leading theologians, but he is also catholic in the sense that in general his theological convictions are in agreement with the great doctrines of the Ecumenical Councils. In that light it is the more remarkable that on a few, though not unimportant, doctrines he is in disagreement with the mainstream theological tradition. One such point is his conviction that Christ assumed a fallen human nature, whereas the standard doctrine maintains that Christ assumed an unfallen human nature. Torrance, of course, had good reasons for believing that his adjustment of the doctrine was necessary. In fact, one of Torrance’s core motives is his resistance against a logic of reconciliation in terms of ‘external relations’. Sin goes deeper than that; it’s a matter of ontology. Our very nature is deeply affected by sin. Therefore, Christ’s redemptive work must be conceived ontologically as well. He assumes not merely our human nature, but our fallen nature, corrupted by sin. By doing that, from birth to resurrection and ascension, he heals our fallen nature.

I’m very sympathetic to Torrance’s theological intentions. However, there are a few problems with his point of view. To make clear what I mean, I will have to appeal to soms logical distinctions. Despite his being acquainted with the latest developments in  science, Torrance didn’t make use of contemporary developments in semantics and logic. I will raise a few questions that emerge in applying modal logic to Torrance’s proposal. That doesn’t mean that these problems are insuperable. To eliminate these problems, however, some additional work has to be made. That, at any rate, is what I’m saying.

Let us think about the conception of Christ’s human nature as a fallen nature. The way Christ’s human nature should be understood, is of course a matter of great complexity and intense debate. But what is ‘a human nature’? Roughly it is something like this: ‘a human nature is the set of properties which are essential for being human’. The qualification ‘essential’ is important in this respect. My ‘sitting in a chair’ is not the kind of (accidental and contingent) property that is essential. What we mean by ‘essential’ is not even a universal property, but  stronger than that: a property which the person or thing in question has in every possible world. If we apply this to the way Torrance views Christ’s human nature, it raises several questions. Does he mean bij ‘fallen nature’, that ‘being fallen’ is an essential property? That however seems very implausible, because it would make the Fall necessary, instead of contingent. Torrance certainly couldn’t have wanted to claim that. Or could perhaps the distinction of Thomas V. Morris between ‘kind-essence’ and ‘individual essence’ help here? If we, on the other hand, interpret the ‘fallenness’ of Christ’s human nature as an accidental property, we run into new questions as well. How are we to understand that a nature consists not only of essential, but also (partly) of accidential properties? Moreover, it seems that Torrance needs more than an accidental property for his claim that Christ heals our nature by assuming it, because it would make the healing accidental as well. That is in congruence with the mainstream christian tradition, but does it sufficiently express what Torrance wanted to claim: a kind of ontological healing?

In short, the way Torrance speaks of Christ’s assumption of a fallen human nature raises several questions in the sphere of (modal) logic and ontology. But then, there is more to ask. For example, how does the ‘healing’ work? Torrance, for example, speaks of ‘sanctifying’ and ‘perfecting’ our nature (Theology in Reconstruction, 248). Somewhat more specific, he says that Christ is in the position to ‘transfer what is his to our human nature in him’ (ibid., 246). In another passage, he focuses on our willing, saying that Christ ‘laid hold upon our wayward human will, made it his very own, and bent it back into obedience to, and in oneness with, the holy will of God’ (ibid., 157). Despite the vivid imagery, new questions arise. Is it correct to speak of human nature , not only as having a will, but as willing (cf. an intriguing post on Out of Bounds last month)? Moreover, even if we grant that Christ somehow ontologically bent our human will back, into obedience to God’s will, why don’t we see much more fruit in humanity, in the past and present? How can we account for that?

Once more, I’m very sympathetic with Torrance’s intentions. But for the moment I’m not quite sure whether it is possible to give a satisfying explanation of his particular way of construing Christ’s redemptive work.


18 thoughts on “Did Christ assume a fallen human nature?

  1. Arjen,

    Interesting. I see what you’re saying, but I think TFT would simply resist the kind of analysis you are using to interrogate his approach. What I mean is that I don’t think TFT would succumb to the pressures that an Aristotelian anthropology provides in trying to parse an theological anthropology. I see what you’re doing, but what your doing sounds more like analytical theology versus the modified continental style that TFT operated from. It seems to me that this is probably why TFT comes to different conclusions than the ones you might be here. I.e. Because his prolegomena resists the prolegomena provided by classical theistic contours of thought.

    What do you think? Thank you for this thought provoking post!

  2. Pingback: The “Fallen Humanity” of Christ « The Evangelical Calvinist

  3. Bobby,
    Thank you for your comment! I appreciate that. I was aware of Torrance’s hesitance with regard to the kind of analytic approach I’m using here. Maybe, it can help to make a few clarifying remarks.
    First, the kind of logic I’m applying is not Aristotelian. I’m using contemporary modal logic. I can understand the connection in thought with Aristotle, since that was the dominant interpretation of medieval and later scholasticism. In fact, Torrance himself is a representative of this line of thought. However, recent research made clear that medieval logic was in fact an emancipation of the old ‘Greek’ logic. I know that Torrance’s criticism of scholastic theology reaches far more than this and I do agree with a lot of his remarks. However, it´s simply not true to state that a scholastic approach is equivalent with Aristotelian philosophy.
    Second, in one of his books (I think it is Theology in Reconstruction) Torrance speaks of the task of systematic theology as the ´hard work´ of thinking out the systematic connections of the different christian doctrines. If that is true, one can´t avoid posing the kind of questions I raised. The intentions of TFT are clear, as the quote on your blog shows. But my question remains, whether it´s the best way to conceptualize these intentions. I have my doubts about that.

    Anyway, thanks for engaging in this discussion!

  4. Hi Arjen,

    Thanks for the post (and the link!). I’ve been doing some thinking on this topic as of late, as well, and it seems to me that most everyone who argues for Christ’s human nature as ‘fallen’ would agree that this property is accidental and not essential to human nature — i.e. to what it means to be a human person. Either they’re being terribly inconsistent in arguing for fallenness anyway, or there is another place where they get traction.

    I think that (pace Torrance) Ian McFarland is probably right to suggest that Gregory of Nazianzen’s maxim the unassumed is the unhealed is wrongly applied to fallen human nature in this discussion. He suggests that if the effects of the Fall are damaging to human nature, then they are by definition not constitutive of it. Christ could then assume an unfallen nature that is completely like ours (no docetic theophany), but without the marr of sin. (McFarland suggests ‘fittingness’ as an alternative: God did not need to choose death on a cross to save us, but it was fitting that He did so. Likewise, God need not have assumed a fallen nature to redeem, but in His Son He did so because it was appropriate to the work of representation. This, as you’ll know, relies in turn upon an argument that the catetgory ‘fallenness’ need not entail ‘sinfulness’ by necessity.)

    I think this is right, but it’s also important to further interrogate one’s doctrine of the atonement to determine whether “like we’re supposed to be,” rather than “like we are in this unnatural state,” is sufficient for Christ’s vicarious substitution. Further, what does Paul mean when he says that Christ was “made to be sin” and “became a curse” for us? If he’s taken on sin in an unnatural and improper fashion, in order to put it to death on the cross, is this materially different from saying that the same sin is unnatural to the rest of us?

    Best to you.

  5. @Travis: thank you for supplying the link. It seems to be not dated after all. In fact, it offers some interesting remarks about (bad) physiology.
    @ Darren: thank you for bringing in the quotes of McFarland. I hadn´t heard of him or of his writings, but what you wrote here, sounds very promising. What you add about the doctrine of the atonement is an important point. If substition has to be more than ‘role-taking’, it should be anchored somehow ontologically.
    I hope your upcoming dissertation will provide us with more clues for a solution! 😉

  6. Arjen,

    1) I wasn’t suggesting that the logic you were using was Aristotelian, but that the anthropological distinctions you are supposing are (e.g. essence/accident). On second thought though, these are terms that provide, at least, a heuristic value insofar as they provide grammar for us to try and make the kinds of parsings that we must (or must we?) in this type of discussion.

    2) I also wouldn’t want you to think that I was saying that scholasticism and Aristotelianism are necessarily linked, lock-step (although there were some scholastics who were heavily Thomist or Aristotelian). Ironically the case can be made that Torrance himself is Thomist; at least I’ve seen McCormack suggest this.

    3) I am all for using modal logic; I think my comment was a little sloppy and quick (like this one ;-)). My concern has more to do with what I mentioned in my first point here. And that brings me back; what makes working through essence-property-accident categories the best way forward for working through this discussion? Is it because this is the best we’ve got in terms of articulating and thinking anthropology?

    Anyway, I still have more thinking and reading to do in this area; but on the face, as it stands, I follow TFT and his ontological theory of the atonement.

    Thanks, Arjen!

  7. Pingback: The ‘Fallen-Humanity’ of Christ, again « The Evangelical Calvinist

  8. Arjen, I would like to ask a few questions, but go easy on me because I don’t know much about this stuff.

    you said, “But what is ‘a human nature’? Roughly it is something like this: ‘a human nature is the set of properties which are essential for being human’.”

    In your use of essentials and accidents, I am understanding you to say that sin is an accident because Adam was a human before the fall, he did not need the fall to become human, therefor ‘corruption from sin’ would not be a necessary part of being a human.

    I wonder though, is there not room for the possibility that sin, though being accidental, marred humanity so deeply, even in the mind, or the ‘will’ has been affected by, and so therefor has caused an ontological shift it what it means to actually be human after the fall? Therefor now it would be essential, though that was not always the case?

    If that could be the case, then I think that would go around McFarland’s point, quoted by Darren, that Christ’s assumption of the fallen nature was ‘fitting’, because what it means to be human after the fall would mean to partake of a bent ‘will’, one that was not created bent, but never the less was, and so now that is how it is. Therefor Torrance would still be right in standing with Nazianzen, because if Christ did not assume a bent will, then He did not assume the will that we share in as humans and therefor would leave us separated from God.

    What do you think?

  9. Hi Cody,

    Thanks for your comment. I can see what you’re aiming at. You want to make sure that the effect of sin will not be downplayed. However, the modal terms ‘accidental’ and ‘essential’ function somewhat differently. ‘Essential’ means not only that we are talking about an unchangeable property, but – even stronger than that – a property which is the case in every possible world. So, we are speaking about a defining characteristic of someone or something.
    But, you might ask, doesn’t that lead us to an underestimation of ‘sin’? That’s not the meaning of ‘accidentál’, however. Before commenting here, I was reading about a man who was beaten, humiliated and so forth in his youth, by his father. These are facts with tremendous consequences. It deeply influences the way one behaves, thinks, feels, etc. However, ontologically spoken, things could’ve gone differently. In that way these events are ‘accidental’. He could have had a loving and caring father. That’s the sense of ‘accidental’. So, it must be clear that ‘accidental’ doesn’t have the meaning of being less serious or important.
    So, according to me, we can maintain that sin is an accidental property, while at the same time maintaining that sin has enormous consequences for human beings. Sin indeed affects our willing, thinking, behaving, our position vice versa our Creator, etc.
    I hope I made my position somewhat more clear with these explanations.
    Best wishes!

  10. Arjen, thank you.
    I feel like the consequences of sin are far greater than the example you gave of someone being beaten and then acting different because of that. It seems as though sin has done something ‘ontological’ because humans are now born ‘into’ a state that leads them to commit acts of sin. I don’t think there has ever been a human, besides Christ of course, that has lived without doing such things, and I can guess that there never will be. Scripture seems to be clear on this face, that’s the reason we needed a savior, because we are basically helpless.

    I say this because it just doesn’t seem like your position is really giving due credance to the fact that we are born with something actually wrong with us. We cannot control it. This state is the reason for death, sickness, suffering, and the fact that we are alienated from God, and therefor commit acts of sin. This would point towards an ontological shift in what it means to be human to me.

    Could you elaborate on how these things are possible using your model?

  11. Cody, I sympathize with the desire to speak of an ontological effect of sin upon the human condition. There is a great deal of value, both theological and pastoral, in the affirmation that “sin is not just what I do, but what I am.”

    That said, sin is also very much what we do and that for which we are responsible, as creatures who rebelliously turn away from our Creator. So in terms of the metaphysics of human nature, I also think it’s important to specify that any ontological change brought about by sin is utterly foreign to human existence as it is created by God. Sin is a disruption, and intrusion and a rupture, and not the way things are supposed to be. If we make humanity too fundamentally altered, we risk suggesting that God as Creator is ultimately the author of sin (God forbid!) or that his creation has been not just marred, but fundamentally undone. I’m not comfortable pressing my doctrine of humanity quite that far.

    In short: I think that we can affirm both a real, ontological change in human existence brought about by the human person’s sinful turn in upon herself, and that this change remains alien (“accidental,” if you like) to her read human existence as a creature of God.

  12. Both Cody and Darren, thanks for joining once more in this discussion!
    @ Darren: I fully agree with your stance, nicely summarized in your ‘in short’. That is precisely the point of the essential-accidental distinction.
    @ Cody: you are certainly right about the example I gave. I mentioned it as an illustration of ‘accidental facts’, which are nevertheless desastrous. I don’t want to say that sin has no ontological effect. It has. Let me try to elaborate that with regard to our will. I would say that ‘having a will’ is an essential property of human beings. But that’s not to say that we are still able to exercise that will in a good way. In fact, I believe our possibilities of willing are restricted to choices which are not completely good. Some may be very bad, others may be less bad, but in either case the option of always willing the G/good with the right motives is not in our reach. That is, according to me, an (dare I say it: accidental) ontological fact.

  13. @Darren and Arjen, thank you both so much for your explanations. Very helpful.

    I was wondering though, and this going back to my origional point. Arjen, when you try to get around Christ assuming a ‘fallen humanity’ in the incarnation, by saying that He can be fully human without the ‘accidents’ of the ‘mar of sin’ because that aspect is not ‘essential’ to what it means to be a human doesn’t really sound that solid to me. I wonder, if we agree that sin has caused an ‘ontological’ problem, though being an ‘accident’ upon the good creation of God, by causing an ontic problem does it not somehow then cause humanity to be other than what it was created to be? Therefor one could say that ‘falleness’ is actually now ‘essential’ to what it means to be human after the fall, since the problem is ontological? And therefor in order to become human Christ must take up that humanity that has been broken and marred by sin?

    I mean, yes humanity was not created to be that way, but it has ‘become’ that way. In it’s ontological depths, humanity has been corrupted, and since there is only one humanity, and that is the one that is corrupted, then doesn’t that have to be the one that Christ assumes in the incarnation?

  14. Pingback: The Lord’s Supper and Christ’s participation in our death « Qualitative Theology

  15. Hi Arjen! Thanks for the post and interesting discussion. I came over from Bobby Grow’s blog. One think Bobby might add and I could pitch in, not being a trained theologian myself, I can’t contribute much in the way of theo-speech. But Bobby is fond of saying that we are sinners “all the way down”. I think Torrance would argue this way as well. Jesus Christ had to reach all the way down, condescend all the way down to bring humanity all of the way back up. He therefore had to be tempted in all ways like as we have been tempted. I recall several years ago hearing theologians argue that He could not have had a fallen nature, because that would have destined Him to be a sinner, and to sin. This disturbed me deeply, because “how could He have been tempted like me, if He doesn’t have my weaknesses, my desires, my temptations”. Another, teaching in an Adult Sunday School class, wondered if it was ever even possible for Jesus to sin, He being Divine. That made it sound like His life followed a keyway, that He could be propelled forward, but not possible to be diverted to the left or the right just like a key in a keyhole. That would be the antithesis of being tempted like us. Just a couple thoughts there. Thanks again!

    • Duane,
      Thanks for sharing these thoughts. You are certainly right about about the fact that Jesus had to reach all the way down. That’s the biblical message of the Incarnation. However, the classical hesitation about ascribing to Jesus some sort of fallen nature or weakness to temptations, has to do with another deep conviction, that God is absolutely good, perfection without blame. As we assert that Jesus assumed a fallen nature, doesn’t that impair God’s holy nature, somehow…? That seems to me the worry about ‘fallen nature position’.
      Let me draw an analogy. Suppose I’m in deep financial trouble. Is it necessary then that you become in financial trouble yourself in orde to be able to help me? I don’t think so. So, I believe, in spite of my deep sympathy to the intentions of Thomas Torrance, that Christ assumed an unfallen nature. That doesn’t mean that he keeps at distance from us, but just the other way around, He identifies with us, in our sinfulness.That means that He, although Himself blameless, willed to be treated like the worst of all sinners, in order to set us free.
      Just a couple of thoughts of mine.
      Best wishes!

  16. What kind of human being was Jesus? What kind of inheritance did Jesus receive from Mary? Was He exempt from the laws of inheritance by which we are born? Did His nature pull Him toward sin like ours does?

    What flesh did Jesus take?

    “God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh.” Romans 8:3

    True___ False___ Jesus came in the likeness of sinful flesh.

    The first thing to understand is that the word “flesh” in this text, and in many other New Testament references, means fallen nature as we know it in our own natures. It refers to the basic equipment we all inherit as a result of Adam’s sin. Sinful flesh in this verse means the fallen nature which we all share from our birth.

    But what does it mean when we read that Christ came “in the likeness of sinful flesh? What does “likeness” mean? Does it mean “real” or “similar to”?

    What likeness was Jesus made in?

    “And took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.” Philippians 2:7

    (A) ______ Jesus was made in the likeness of angels.
    (B) ______ Jesus was made in the likeness of princes.
    (C) ______ Jesus was made in the likeness of normal men.

    The same Greek word for “likeness” is used in both verses. Was Jesus made similar to human beings or did He become a real human being? I think all would agree that when Jesus came down to this earth He became a real man. But we don’t have to rely on our common sense or deductions here.

    How did Jesus come to earth?

    “Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.” 1 John 4:2,3

    (A) _____ Those who believe that Jesus came in the flesh are wrong.
    (B) _____ The spirit of antichrist says that Jesus came in the flesh.
    (C) _____ Those who are of God say that Jesus came in the flesh.

    Remember that flesh in the New Testament means our fallen nature. Here we have conclusive evidence that Jesus was not only a real flesh-and-blood human being, but that He really did take our flesh. In Philippians 2:7 we read that Jesus took the likeness of man. Clearly this means that Jesus really became a human being. Here “likeness” means “real.” In Romans 8:3 we read that He came “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” Did Jesus just look as if He had sinful flesh, or did He actually have sinful flesh?

    The Expositors Greek Testament comments on this verse: “But the emphasis…is on Christ’s likeness to us, not His unlikeness;…what he (Paul) means by it is that God sent His Son in that nature which in us is identified with sin.” (Vol. 2, pp. 645,646) It would seem that if we are to interpret likeness in Philippians 2:7 as our actual human nature, then we must interpret likeness in Romans 8:3 as actual sinful flesh.

    What did Jesus actually take?

    “Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same.” Hebrews 2:14

    True___ False___ Jesus did not take our flesh and blood.

    Jesus actually took the same flesh and blood that we receive at our birth. This debate about the nature of Christ could easily be settled with some basic questions. Was Jesus born with the same “flesh” with which we are born? Does the Bible teach that He had a special exemption from our “flesh” so that He could have a perfectly sinless nature?

    How much like us was Jesus made?

    “For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham. Wherefore in all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren.” Hebrews 2:16,17

    (A) ______ Jesus took the nature of angels.
    (B) ______ Jesus took the nature of Adam.
    (C) ______ Jesus took the seed of Abraham.

    If Jesus was born in the seed of Abraham, then we only have to ask the question, What nature did all the seed (descendants) of Abraham receive? Clearly they all received fallen nature as a birthright. Notice also that the text says that Jesus was made like his brethren (us) in all things.

    Another inspired reference supports this conclusion. “It would have been an almost infinite humiliation for the Son of God to take man’s nature, even when Adam stood in his innocence in Eden. But Jesus accepted humanity when the race had been weakened by four thousand years of sin. Like every child of Adam He accepted the results of the working of the great law of heredity. What these results were is shown in the history of His earthly ancestors. He came with such a heredity to share our sorrows and temptations, and to give us the example of a sinless life.” The Desire of Ages, p. 49. (Emphasis supplied)

    What are the results of the law of heredity for us? What nature did Jesus’ ancestors inherit? The answer to these questions is all too obvious. The only possible conclusion is that Jesus came with the same heredity that David and Abraham had.

    Conclusion: There is no inspired evidence that Jesus inherited only the physical results of the fall, such as hunger, weakness, thirst, and mortality, but that He did not inherit dispositional traits. These areas cannot be separated. If the law of heredity was operative, it was operative totally. If we receive traits of character from our parents, then Jesus received traits of character from His mother, for she was a fully human mother. If we do not believe that she was immaculately conceived, then we must believe that she had the same fallen nature than all human beings possess, and that she passed that nature on to her Son. There is no inspired evidence to suggest that the chain of heredity was broken between Mary and Jesus.

    The only reason that this clear Biblical evidence is denied is because many Christians believe that to have a fallen nature is to be a condemned sinner. Therefore, they say, it would have been impossible for Jesus to have received a fallen nature from Mary, because that would have made Him a sinner, too, and He could not have been our sinless Saviour. This is the reason for the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary–to protect Jesus from any stain of sin. This is why many Christians talk about Christ being “exempted” from the normal laws of heredity. The real issue here is the nature of sin (Lessons 1-4) . This is why we began this series of lessons on righteousness by faith with the study of sin. If we do not understand the Biblical definition of sin, we cannot understand the Incarnation of Christ, and we will develop a false gospel, based on false premises about sin.

    If Christ did not fully descend to our level, Satan would have cried “Foul” immediately, and nothing in the name of justice would have been accomplished in answering basic questions in the plan of salvation. To place Him above our nature, living in Adam’s perfect nature, is to obscure the amazing victory He gained for us.

    Where does the strength of our temptations lie? Surely within our fallen nature. Christ knows by experience what it means to be tempted from within. We can rejoice that Jesus did not sidestep the ugliness of being born into a fallen world, to fallen parents, with a fallen nature. We indeed have a Saviour who is very near to us. He did not quarantine Himself from the disease of a fallen nature, giving us instructions by long distance communication, but He stepped right into the battle zone with us. He takes our hand and will lead us out of the quagmire in which we find ourselves, if only we do not resist. Praise God for such a Saviour!

    See: Nature of sin : http://everlasting-gospel.blogspot.com/2010/03/what-is-real-gospel.html

    A list of authors who believe in the fallen natue of Christ: http://everlasting-gospel.blogspot.com/2011/09/christs-fallen-human-nature.html

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