Friday, September 3, 2010

Unhelpful Answers: Two wills in Christ

One of the most distinguishing elements of the Christian view of salvation is the simplicity of it. It doesn’t require any esoteric knowledge, no painstakingly rigorous methodology. There isn’t even a particular distinguishing diet or dress code. Of course living the Christian life isn’t without its profound challenges but essentially God has done the heavy lifting. He has provided the solution and all that we have to do is to accept His work and trust Him. The Christian birth, the Christian life and the Christian death are all fundamentally the result of God’s work on our behalf. It is all of grace, a grace so amazing that it changes everything, but grace nonetheless.

Of course, there is an awesome profoundness to the way in which God works this out. Thankfully the faith required is trusting in what God has done rather than understanding all the mechanics of it. Although even the most basic Christian concepts, such as atonement or rebirth for example, involve implications that no human mind can completely understand, the things necessary for our salvation are straightforward enough that they can be understood by a young child. I have always appreciated the way that the Westminster Confession expresses this truth.

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.                        (WCF Chapter 1 Section 7)

However; as the Westminster divines admitted, there are many questions that are difficult to answer and are not “alike clear unto all”. Just the mysteries surrounding the created world are sufficient to keep us busy until Christ returns but when we consider that the chief end of theological reflection is greater understanding of God Himself the complexities of the questions that can be raised become infinitively inexhaustible. There are a great many things that are deserving of much study and reflection before we can even begin to conjecture a biblically sound answer.

We must think carefully about our positions to ensure that we do not trivialize the majesty and complexity of God in providing oversimplified answers to difficult questions. We live in a time that encourages pithy summarizations as opposed to weighty consideration and the tension and nuance that often accompanies it. From time to time I think it will be worth it to highlight certain common answers to difficult questions that just do not work.

Recently I heard one Christian ask another if they thought it were possible for Christ to have sinned. The person prefaced the question with the statement that they knew that He did not actually commit any sin but was curious if it were possible for Him to have done so.

This is an age old theological question that has been debated since the early church fathers. Those who believe that it was possible for Christ to sin (doctrine of peccability) typically point to scripture such as Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (ESV)  and take the position that if it were not possible for Christ to have sinned then the temptation (and thus the sympathy) is not real. Those who believe that Christ could not have sinned (doctrine of impeccability) point to a number of doctrinal implications, such as the fact that He has a divine nature, that they assert would make His sinning an impossibility. The brother who was asked the question replied (quite confidently) by saying “Christ could have sinned in His human nature but not in His divine nature”. A few words were exchanged and they left it at that, both appearing to be quite satisfied with this explanation.

This kind of quick off the cuff answer may sound reasonable at first but if anyone thinks about it for a moment they will realize that it is unsatisfactory. This answer doesn’t solve the problem for many reasons not the least of which is that it tends toward a heretical view of the relationship between Christ’s natures. While Christ has two natures, He is one person. Christ, being one person, has one will. Both of His natures, though distinct, are inseparable and converge in a single personhood. When Christ chooses to do something it is a single volition, a single movement of His will which is inclined according to a perfect union of His two natures. Neither nature on its own constitutes an individual person and therefore cannot “will” in contradistinction to the other because natures do not “will”, persons do.

The orthodox Christian view of the relationship between the natures was worked out at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. The definition of that council explains the relationship in this way:

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.                                                     -Definition of Chalcedon (451)

Admittedly this can get rather complex, particularly as one begins working through the implications of these questions on various other doctrinal understandings such as the atonement. The point, however, is that we need to be careful that in attempting to simplify the explanation of some of these complicated issues that we do not unwittingly promote unbiblical views.

Let us say for the sake of argument that it is true that natures can “will” and that Christ’s human nature was capable of choosing to sin and yet His divine nature was incapable of doing so. How would this resolve the issue exactly? This seems simply to be a restatement, with modifications, of the problem itself. If Christ’s human nature had chosen to sin but His divine nature remained pure what would have happened? Would Christ be frozen in some kind of indecisive tug-o-war or would one nature have to overrule the other? Which one would prevail? Why? As we try to work out the implications of this answer we quickly find ourselves in dangerous heretical quicksand. The more we try to wiggle our way out the more we sink.

The explanation that the brother above provided to the question tends toward the heresy of Nestorianism which teaches that Christ possessed both a human and a divine essence. This means that there are basically two persons in Christ; a divine person and a human person. According to this view the human and divine wills work together in harmonious coordination. There are a number of more modern theologians, particularly in the Reformed camp, who have flirted with this kind of view but it has been consistently held as heretical by ecumenical councils and the historical Church.

In this case there does not seem to be any way to split the baby. Christ is one person and therefore has one will therefore there really are only two options. Either it was possible for him to have chosen to sin or it was not. The closest thing to a middle ground I can think of would be to say that it was possible that He could have chosen to sin but His divine nature rendered it certain that He would not. Even that raises many issues. Regardless of which side you take on this issue it should be clear that the answer given above is not a good answer.

My purpose in this post is not to work out any particular view on this issue but rather to point out that too often we are satisfied with overly reductionistic answers that may be more problematic than living with the tension of an unresolved difficulty. For those who may be curious I hold to an impeccable view.  Perhaps, if there is any interest in it, at some point in the future I will write on why that is. Let us pray to God to help us understand His word recognizing that all wisdom and understanding come from Him. Secondly, as we depend upon Him to provide illumination, let us study well and think carefully before giving a quick answer to profound questions that deserve much reflection.

(See the follow up to this post "Am I a heretic")

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