Traditionally, it has been held that Christ's humanity, the humanity of the incarnate Son of God, was like ours in all respects save that of sin. Christ was certainly subject to temptation. But, being who he was, he could not possibly have succumbed. For God is necessarily good and if Christ was God incarnate, then it follows not only that he did not sin, but that he could not have sinned. Sinlessness was, and is, a necessary property ofthe incarnate one.
The view that it belongs to the very essence of being human to be a sinner is not too difficult to refute. Someone who did no wrong would not thereby be disqualified from belonging to the human race. But impeccability, not being able to sin, does appear to deprive a human being of significant freedom. And being significantly free surely does belong to the essence of humanity. The question of Christ's freedom is therefore one of the most crucial issues in debates over the coherence of incarnational Christology. John Hick regards the inability of a 'two-minds' view of the Incarnation to accord significant freedom to the man Jesus as a decisive objection to all attempts to revive and defend Chalcedonian orthodoxy.
Let us consider the ways in which Christian philosophers have attempted to face up to this problem. T. V. Morris argues that being tempted is an epistemic matter. It does not, as such, entail the real possibility of acting wrongly. It is enough, humanly speaking, for the incarnate one to have felt the power of temptation, even if, being who he was, he could not have done otherwise than what God willed. Morris is less persuasive in calling upon Harry Frankfurt's much discussed examples of how genuinely free actions do not necessarily entail that one could have done otherwise. Those examples showed how an act would still be freely one's own, even if all alternatives, unbeknownst to one, were causally blocked off. For the causal factors that blocked off the alternatives would have played no role at all in the actual decision and act in question. But, as Swinburne points out,36 the agent in this case could have tried to act otherwise. And that, for someone tempted to do wrong, would itself be a sin.
Swinburne's own solution, however, also fails to convince. He suggests that God incarnate, being who he was, could do no wrong, but that he was genuinely free to act in a variety of good ways, not only in the sense of duties but also in the sense of supererogatory acts (i.e. beyond the call of duty). So far we may concur with Swinburne. But, implausibly, he goes on to suggest that felt temptation to do wrong would be illusory temptation. Real temptation must involve desire to take another path. On Swinburne's view, Christ's temptations could only have been temptations to take some other good path than that of the supererogatory call to tread the way of the cross. But, as Thomas Flint points out, the temptation not to do his Father's will would, on this analysis, still involve a real inclination towards sin.
Flint's own solution relies on acceptance of the Molinist doctrine of middle knowledge, the view that God, in his omniscience, knows what any possible creature would freely do in any situation in which that creature were placed. Equipped with middle knowledge, God can actualize a scenario in which Christ will freely, and contingently, do his Father's will. Only so, claims Flint, can the divine Son's necessary impeccability be reconciled with the man Jesus' significant freedom.
In the previous chapter I questioned this doctrine of middle knowledge (see chapter 3, section 3.2.5), and in the final chapter I shall argue again that it must be rejected on grounds of incoherence, and hence that it can play no role in a doctrine of divine providence. But where does this leave the issue of Christ's freedom? Unless we go along with Hick's rejection of incarna-tional Christology, all we can do is try to hold together the more plausible aspects of Morris's and Swinburne's analyses, while dismissing the implausible ones. We are left with the following picture.
If, as Morris holds, the personal cognitive and causal powers of Jesus' life and mind were those of God the Son in incarnate form, then divine impeccability necessarily carries over into the incarnate life. Being who he was, Jesus Christ, necessarily, could do no wrong. This makes Morris's use of Frankfurt-style examples quite irrelevant, as Swinburne says. But
Swinburne's analysis of temptation will not do. Felt temptation is not illusory, even if it was bound to be overcome. It still cost agony and bloody sweat. And a desire overcome is not a sin.
Significant freedom is not always a matter of choice between good and evil. God's freedom is not like that, nor is the freedom of the blessed in heaven who have passed beyond the sphere of temptation. Christ's freedom to act in ways that were always good is to that extent like the freedom of the blessed in heaven. But, unlike theirs, it was exercised on earth and thereby subject to temptation to go astray. Where the rest of us are concerned, there is no guarantee that temptation will always be resisted. (We do not have to go so far as to entertain the logical possibility of'transworld depravity', the view that sooner or later every possible human creature will do wrong, as Plantinga does, curiously just because of his acceptance of middle knowledge vis-a-vis the problem of evil.39) But Christ's being who he was, the incarnate Son of God, did guarantee that temptation, however acute, would be resisted. But that did not make him less than human, any more than the absence of temptation makes the blessed in heaven less than human. To suppose that incarnation involves the real possibility of succumbing to temptation is no more theologically plausible than to suppose that sin belongs to the essence of being human.
Was this article helpful?