Christ, Sinlessness of
Christ, Sinlessness Of.
The Christian Church has always held that Christ was absolutely free from sin. (This article is based upon Weiss, in Herzog's Real-Encyklopädie [Supplement, 1:193 sq.], and Ullmann, Sinlessness of Jesus [Edinburgh trans., 1858].)
I. Historical. —
1. To the minds of the apostles the perfect sinlessness of their divine Master presented itself as an unquestionable fact, and this view continued to prevail, through the period immediately succeeding, in the development of the Church's doctrine of the person and work of Christ. No explicit statement of it seems to have been made or deemed necessary, but the allusions in the early ecclesiastical writers show that the doctrine was neither rejected as unfounded nor ignored as unimportant. Tertullian inferred the sinlessness of Christ from his divinity; Origen regarded it as a peculiar property of the human soul of Christ, resulting from its union with the divine Logos, by whose virtue it was interpenetrated as red-hot iron is by fire, so that sin became for him an impossibility. Apollinaris, setting out with the belief that human nature implies limitation, mutability, conflict, sin, etc., held that no man can be a perfect man without sin; and in order to preserve, consistently with this view, the sinlessness of Christ, sacrificed his true humanity by adopting the opinion that the Logos took the place of the human soul in Christ, and imparted to him an irresistible tendency to the good. Athanasius held the doctrine of a sinless yet perfectly human nature in Christ, arguing that sin does not belong to human nature per se, which was originally pure and sinless; and that Christ could, consequently, assume the nature of man without thereby being made subject to sin, and thus, by his perfect life as a man, become man's exemplar and guide in his conflict with evil and progress towards the good.
2. At the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) the doctrine of Christ's true yet sinless manhood was formulized in the words, "truly man, with a rational soul and body of like essence with us as to his manhood, and in all things like us, sin excepted;" and there has not since been any change within the accepted Christological doctrine of the Church. The theologians of the Middle Ages contented themselves with the traditional doctrine, without any special efforts for its further development; though in the controversies with regard to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, her champions sought to add weight to their arguments by claiming that the acceptance of their views would recognize also the sinlessness of Christ. A doctrinal error of a different sort hence arose, viz. the putting Christ in the background as too holy for mortals to address, and substituting the mediation of the Virgin and the priesthood.
3. One of the chief merits of the Reformers is the fact that they taught that Christ is individually and immediately apprehended by faith, and that the Holy Scriptures, not the dogmatic and liturgical traditions of the Church, are the sources whence Christian truth is derived. They accepted the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church concerning the person and character of Christ, of which his sinlessness formed an essential part. It was received, as in the apostolical times, as an intuition not needing proof, but "above mere logical demonstration."
4. Socinianism might have been expected to open up a new and fruitful discussion of this subject, yet, apparently in antagonism with its views of the person and office of Christ, it asserted not only the sinlessness of Jesus as a fact, but also the non posse peccare, and indeed denied that he was really subject to temptation, because of his supernatural generation.
5. From the rise of German Rationalism, about the middle of the 18th century, this doctrine has been repeatedly impugned by writers of that school. Some (as Reimarus, Bahrdt, Venturini) even go so far as to characterize Christ as an impostor. So also, among English Rationalists, Newman, Phases of Faith, finds imperfections in the moral character of Christ. Strauss denied Christ's sinlessness on the ground principally of its á priori impossibility, or of the necessary connection of sin with finite existence. Pécaut, a recent French writer, adduces as proofs of Christ's moral imperfections (Le Christ et la conscience, Paris, 1859), his treatment of his mother (Lu 2:41-52; Joh 2:4); the expulsion of the profaners of the Temple (Mt 21:12-17, et al.); the cursing of the fig-tree (Mt 21:17-22; Mr 11:12-26); the destruction of the swine (Mt 8:28-34, et al.); his severe reproofs of the Pharisees (Mt 5:20, et al.); and also his supposed abnegation of the title good (Mt 19:17, et al.); but, in strange contradiction of his own views, he uses such language as this: "To what a height does the character of Jesus Christ rise above the most sublime and yet ever imperfect types of antiquity ... . Jesus Christ has been humble and patient; holy, holy, holy before God; terrible to devils; without any sin... . His moral life is wholly penetrated by God" (Schaff, Person of Christ, the Miracle of History, p. 208 209, 346-348). Other Rationalistic writers (as Kant, Jacobi, and others) have labored to place in clear light the unparalleled moral excellence of Christ, as the abiding type and proof of the divinity of his teachings. The denial of this doctrine, whether open or covert mostly arises from shallow moral and religious conceptions, or from lowering the fundamental moral nature of sin, justification, etc., into mere relations.
6. On the other hand, Ullmann has laid the Church under lasting abligations by his monograph, Die Sündlosigkeit Jesu,(last ed. 1863, Gotha), transl. by Brown. The Sinlessness of Jesus (Edinb. 1858, 12mo). Dorner Schaff, and Weiss have still further contributed to it, elucidation (see references at end of this article). The subject has been more or less fully treated in relation to Rationlialism by Hase (Streitschriften, in, 1837; Leben Jesu, an Dogmatik); Schweizer, in Studiem und Kritiken, 1884, 3 and 4; 1837, iii); in connection with historico-critical examination of the person of Christ, by Keim (Der geschichtliche Christus, p. 43, 106-116); from the stand-point of the doctrine of Christian morals and Church history, by De Wette (Christliche Sitters lehre, vol. 1, § 50-53), Weisse (Evagelische Geschichte), Ewald (Geschichte Christus, p. 184 f.), Schenkel (Dogmatik, and very waveringly in his Characterbild Jesu, p. 35 and 39) Weizsacker (Evangelische Geschichte, p. 437); from the stand-point of Church confessions, by Thomasius, Hoimnan, Philippi, and Ebrard; from a purely biblical point of view, by Schmid, Beck, Gess, Garbett (Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King [Lond. 1842, 2 vols. 8vo]), Stevenson (On the Offices of Christ [Lond. 1834, 8vo]), and Riggenbach; from that of the mediation theology of Schleiermacher, in treatises on the life of Christ, by Neander and others, and in works on dogmatics and the history of dogmas by Rothe, Liebner, Dorner, Nitzsch, J. Miller, Lange, Martensen, Schoberlein, and others.
II. Statement of the Doctrine. — The term sinlessnes, ἀναμαρτησία, involves a twofold idea, first, a negative one, viz., "the absence of antagonism to the moral law and to the divine will, of which that law is the expression; and this not only in relation to separate acts of will and outward actions, but also in relation to the tendency of the whole moral nature, and to its most deep-seated disposition" (Ullmann, Sinlessness of Jesus, p. 41), which may be expressed by the term innocence, goodness of nature, etc.; and, secondly a positive one, viz., the expression in outward form of this inward harmony by a life of complete and perfectly holy activity, working out in full obedience to the will of God the duties of each hour, while keeping both spirit and life unstained by evil. This we term absolute holiness.
We hold, then, that our Savior, in his humanity was, in both these senses, sinless; at first relatively, just as Adam before his fall, with a perfectly human nature to which the liability to temptation must be conceded; otherwise no true manhood could have existed, no true example for our race could have been presented in his life. The doctrine of Edward Irving, however, that Christ partook of the sinful nature of Adam after the fall, cannot be allowed. It is not necessary at all to the true conception of his perfect example as a man for sinful men; which, on the contrary, implies that the second Adam should not be placed in his human nature below the original condition of the first, and thus burdened with the sin and weakness of sullied manhood. This view would demand of his divine nature so miraculous a support of the human as to destroy the force of his example. On the contrary, Christ, in his humanity, clothed with man's original purity of nature, lived, suffered, "was tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin," and so could "justify the ways of God to man," and show that man was made " sufficient to have stood, though free to fall." His relative sinlessness became absolute holiness in the development of his moral life, in his free, yet perfect, active, and passive obedience to the will of his Father. To use the terms of the schoolmen, the posse non peccare or impeccabilitas minor, in him, grew, through vanquished opposition and the achieved restitutes of perfect obedience in love, into the non posse peccare or impeccabilitas manr, "into the impossibility of sinning, which cannot Sin because it will not" (Schaff).
III. Proofs of the Doctrine. —
1. A priori. We may argue, a priori, that as Christ's acknowledged mission on earth was the moral elevation and the salvation of our race from sin, it was fitting, nay, necessary, in order to accomplish these objects, that he should be superior to us in these respects. To raise man from his ruin, the Prince of his salvation must be one "who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens," while his heart, "touched by the feeling of our infirmities," would yearn for the renewal of humanity. How fully Christ's perfect life meets this ideal every Christian feels; and with what deep and grateful confidence does he, when oppressed by the temptations and conflicts of his probation, turn to him who "needeth not daily to offer up sacrifices first for his own sins," and "then for the sins of the people," as did other priests.
2. A posteriori, we find that Christianity has exerted and does exert a power for moral good upon the world. Wherever it has taken hold of the hearts and minds of men in its purifying power, we see that they have attained a higher moral and religious state, a condition of life far beyond the pagan or even the Jewish types. How shall we account for this, apart from the life of the founder of Christianity, imparting its renewing power to the hearts of his followers? Mere theories of moral conduct without example are not capalle of producing such results. Streams do not rise above the level of their sources; no more do followers of religious systems rise above the laws and principles of religious life prescribed in the conduct as well as teachings of their founders. We may justly claim that the higher moral condition of Christian nations is due mainly to the influence proceeding from the spotless life of Christ.
Many of the early as well as recent opponents of Christianity as a system bear testimony to the surpassing moral greatness of its founder. Pilate declared that he found no fault in him touching the things whereof the Jews accused him, and thrice asked the question, "What evil hath he done?" (Lu 23:22). The Roman centurion, who witnessed his sufferings on the cross, said, "Certainly this was a righteous man." Josephus, if the passage be authentic (Antiq. Lu 18; Lu 3, § in), says of him that he "was a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure." Forphyry (A.D. 304) says, "But himself is pious, and gone to heaven as other pious men do. Him therefore thou shalt not blaspheme." The celebrated tribute of Rousseau to the Gospel and its author need not be quoted here. A fuller view of the testimony of unbelievers to the person and character of Christ is given in the work of Schaff referred to above.
3. Biblical View of the Doctrine. — The doctrine of the Old-Testament writers in regard to the original purity and grandeur of man's moral and intellectual nature is shown conclusively by the language employed in describing his creation and endowments: that he was made in the image of God; that the dominion over the earth and lower animals was given to him, etc. When man by disobedience fell, the promise was given of one to come, who should repair, by his obedience and perfectness, the ruin made, and through whom man might be reconciled to God. The coming of such a Redeemer was prefigured in the worship and sacrifices of patriarchal times, in the separation and Temple services of the Jewish nation, and in those holy men who from time to time appeared as lights amidst the darkness of the world. Throughout all these preparatory manifestations the idea of the sinlessness of the coming Messiah appears. In the spotless victims, in the purifying services, in the strains of the poets of Israel, and in the magnificent imagery and language of the prophets are found, more or less complete, the elements whose union culminates in the idea of the sinless Son of Cod and Redeemer of men (Isa 9; Isa 40; Isa 42; Jer 31:31 sq.; Eze 36:8 sq., etc.).
The New-Testament writings bear unequivocal and harmonious testimony to the truth of this doctrine. Christ is described in them as the Holy One, the Just and Righteous (Ac 3:14; Ac 22:14; 1Pe 3:18; 1Jo 2:1,29; 1Jo 3:7); as tempted "like as we are, yet without sin" (Heb 4:15); as our example "who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth" (1 Peter 11:21, 22); as "a lamb without blemish and without spot" (1Pe 1:19); as "an high-priest who is holy, harmless, undefiled" . . . "who needeth not daily to offer sacrifices" "for his own sins," as did other priests (Heb 7:26-27); as the Mediator "who knew no sin" (2Co 5:21). These writings, indeed, are full of proofs that his apostles and followers recognized in Christ, because of his holiness, as well as his wonderworking power, the Messiah foretold by prophecy, coming in the fullness of the divine spirit to be the founder, lawgiver, and king of the kingdom of God on earth. Christ no less unequivocally claims for himself such perfection of nature and life, in the assumption of oneness with God (Joh 10:30), in the fact that he nowhere prays for forgiveness of his own sins, or recognizes that sin exists in himself, and, specifically, in the expression "which of you convinceth me of sin" (Joh 8:46).
IV. Objections. — But brief notice can le taken here of the objections to this doctrine, which are grouped by Ullmann (p. 143) under two classes, viz. (1) those resting "on a denial of the actual sinlessness of Jesus," and (2) those resting "on a denial of the possibility of sinlessness at all in the sphere of human life; and Weiss (1. c.) under three heads, viz.
(1) that unique individuality (Einzigkeit des Individuums) contradicts both the nature of the individual and the idea of the human race and its development;
(2) that sinlessness is irreconcilable with the nature of man; and
(3) that the same is irreconcilable with the actual sinful condition of mankind.
The former classification seems the simpler one, and we prefer to follow it. In regard to the objections of Pécaut, which belong to the first class, it may suffice to say that all of them except the last are founded on incorrect conceptions of the spirit and purpose of Christ in the several actions noticed, and of the duty which his office as Messiah imposed on him. Viewed in the pioper light, no disobedience of or disrespect to his parents, no outburst of angry passion, no wanton destruction of the property and disregard of the rights or feelings of others can be found. Attention to the scope and import of the question of Christ to the young man, "Why callest thou me Good?" (τί με λέγεις ἀγαθόν), will show that he does not reject the title good, but seeks to lead the questioner to its true application; the emphasis, as the order of the words shows, rests not on the expression good, but the why. "God only is good; but he that hath seen me hath seen the Father." In reply to the objection that the idea of sinlessness is inconsistent with the growth in wisdom and the development of his moral nature which the Gospel portraiture of Christ assigns to him, we may say that growth and development do not necessarily or commonly imply imperfection. A human being, possessing in infancy and boyhood the maturity and complete development of manhood and age, would be a monstrosity. We expect from infancy, youth, manhood, and age what befits each period, and regard as irregular and imperfect what is contrary thereto. Again, finite nature is not necessarily imperfect. The perfect action of such a nature in conformity with the laws and limitations of its being cannot be sinful, or evidence of imperfection as finite existence, but just the contrary.
The notion that individual pre-eminence is inconsistent with the nature of the individual or the nature of the race is not warranted by the actual past and present history of man. We see that through all periods of time individual men stand out prominently endowed above their fellows. Is it then irrational to suppose that in view of the great work which Christ came to do, he would be superior in purity to those whom he sought to elevate?
In all the relations of his life on earth, Jesus always did what was due to them. He did not seek, in virtue of the connection of his humanity in one personality with his divinity, to exempt his human nature from the influences which legitimately operate on it; but meeting fully life's duties as they came to him, he asserted in himself the triumph of one unfallen nature over the power of evil in the world. Thus his perfect holiness of life stands out clearly in the moral heavens, the unchanging, ever-brilliant star of hope whose light no cloud can ever dim, a safe and surely-guiding beacon to those who traverse the sea of life in search for the Promised Land.
Literature. — Ullmann, The Sinlessness of Jesus (Edinb. 1858, 8vo); Schaff, The Person of Christ (Boston, Am. Tract. Society, 16mo); Martensen, Christian Dogmatics (Edinb. 1866, 8vo); Knapp, Christian Theology, p. 336, 7 (Phila. 1853, 8vo); Weiss, in Herzog's Real- Encyklopadie (Supplem. 1:193 sq.); Dorner, De la Sanctiae parfaite de J. C. (in Suppl. to Revue Chretienne, Nov. 1861); Dorner, Person of Christ (passim); Niemann, Jesu Sundenlosigkeit (Hanover, 1866).