Conceiving sinlessness?

As I return to my series on the Anglican articles, I start this post on Article XV slightly baffled as to what its doing there in the first place. As far as I know (which isn’t, in all honesty, all that far, so if anyone can shed some light …) there were no significant debates about Christ’s unique state of being without sin going on at the time. The precise issue of Mary’s possible sinlessness was a relatively erudite dispute between theologians that was nowhere near being settled or presented as anything other than a pious opinion, and it’s not obvious that’s in view here either. Neither the Augsburg Confession nor the Westminster Confession have anything really comparable. Anyway, here’s the article.

XV. Of Christ alone without Sin
Christ in the truth of our nature was made like unto us in all things, sin only except, from which he was clearly void, both in his flesh, and in his spirit. He came to be the Lamb without spot, who, by sacrifice of himself once made, should take away the sins of the world, and sin, as Saint John saith, was not in him. But all we the rest, although baptized, and born again in Christ, yet offend in many things; and if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

There is a rather odd conflation of texts: Hebrews 4:15 and 1 John 3:5 are clearly referred to, although the article conflates 4:15, where Jesus “in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” with 2:17 “Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect.” This blurs a difference: the former refers to “being tested” and not sinning, the latter simply to sharing the same flesh and blood, with no mention of sin. Hebrews doesn’t share the view that sin is a sexually transmitted disease, and so does not conflate these two different statements. Then, linking and dominating the two explicit references is a traditional interpretation based on John (also drawing for it’s language on 1 Pet 1:19) that links Jesus to the Passover Lamb, and so transfers the physical quality of that sacrifice being without blemish into the moral quality of Jesus being without sin. It is an object lesson in the inseparability of tradition and reading.

There is not a single straightforward doctrine of original sin in Scripture, at least not one which looks like Augustine’s, and which is presupposed here. (We are back, again, to some of the problems I noticed in dealing with the article on Original Sin which began this section). For Paul, who is intriguingly ignored in this article, human sinfulness seems to be primarily (not exclusively) being under the domination of a power which frustrates not only our own desires and actions, but also God’s calling of us to a holy life. That power is perceived as having particular dominion in our mortal “flesh” – a term which characterizes this-worldly existence, both physical and moral. It is doubtful whether Paul, or any of the NT writers, conceived of some kind of hereditary sinful nature in the way that Augustine does, although it is certainly possible to see how easily some texts led to Augustine’s interpretation, once that sinful nature had been deduced (and deduced partially from the probably later practice of infant baptism). In the NT Christ’s sinlessness essentially means that he did not sin, and does not ask or answer questions about a sinful or sinless nature.

For people who, however loosely, conceive of themselves as children of the Reformation, that should stimulate possibilities of rethinking the question. If one takes Gregory Nazianzus’ maxim seriously: “What he did not assume, he did not heal” then we could well  ask whether Jesus took human nature as it is for us, flesh under the dominion of sin (in Pauline terms) in order to live out the life of God in human flesh with, as it were, one hand tied behind his back. Or does God in Jesus take a human nature that is, as it were, a pristinely rebooted disk image of God’s archetype? 

There are problems with both views, to my mind, which I think owe something to the ways in which our understanding of “human nature” is less essentialist and uniform than that of either the biblical or patristic authors. I find myself inclining more to the former, preferring to see the “rebooting” of that nature in the resurrection rather than the incarnation. It’s why, for more than any other reason, I struggle with the Roman doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (or at least most common versions thereof). I don’t think that the Son of God needs an added layer of insulation from the common run of sinful humanity.

Alternatively, of course, we could continue to rethink the question more broadly in the light of what one could almost call the pre-Augustinian consensus (and the tradition of the Eastern church), that the condition of original sin is fundamentally one of mortality before it is about morality. In which case, we might read the letter to the Hebrews rather differently from this article. In that letter’s argument it is precisely as the one who will “taste death” (Heb 2:9) for everyone that Jesus shares the temptations of his fellow mortals, but withstanding them without sin, he will be able to enter the realm of life, bearing his death not as natural consequence of his own mortality but a liberating and redeeming offering.

That doesn’t let us off the problems we have as modern thinkers with that essentialist understanding of nature. And it isn’t intended in any way to refute the main practical and pastoral thrust of the article’s doctrine, that (with St John) “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” While I’m all for the reframing of the underlying questions, I think we should remember that (whatever theoretical underpinnings we give it) original sin is the only doctrine for which we have an overabundance of empirical evidence.

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)

2 Replies to “Conceiving sinlessness?”

  1. For once, Doug, I do have a bit of academic background to engage with this – my Lambeth Diploma was awarded for a dissertation entitled “Sin and Atonement, Personal and Cosmic”. That was 20 year ago and I think I would want to re work it now! Even so I would suggest that if we follow Tillich’s understanding of “Being” (so dependant on Heidegger’s “Dasein”, I’m sure) we see sin as our unasked-for ontological condition for which we are yet responsible. There’s the paradox.
    Sin isn’t action, but seen in action. The problem is more about the fact that we “exist”- ie stand out from the background creation. In that “standing out” we are alienated from the cosmos, from each other and from God. The perfection of Jesus is that, dwelling in the same existence, he never acts out of the split but always closes the gap. In that sense sinless.
    I’m not sure Tillich would approve of my précis of his position but I think it at least points in the general direction of what he is saying. I doubt if the Reformers were ready for a view of “Being” that requires the insight of the physics of relativity and quantum mechanics, though! And Heidegger/Tillich does, I suggest. Any theology which isn’t steeped in contemporary physics if futile, I believe. That’s what my dissertation was about, and that bit is still holding up, 20 years on.
    So, for me, it’s the BOTH Incarnation, AND the resurrection that “reboots”! The both/and is key to a good doctrine of redemption, giving a cosmos affirming “this-world-hoi poli-redemption” where a “just resurrection ‘reboot’ ” has, perhaps, encouraged a “next-world- pickily-personal ‘salvation’ “.
    Anyway, I expect marks for spelling Heidegger and Dasein correctly before 9 in the morning, if for nothing else!

    1. Thanks, Wyn. That’s interesting, and yes I agree with a both/and approach at base, although in this slightly limited rebooting analogy, I suspect we’ll get into trouble if we follow it too far!

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