The Nature of Christ, The Nature of Sin and Perfection
If the two sides of the QOD debate can come to an agreement regarding Andreasen’s three-part atonement, there is hope that further progress is possible. In fact, I would propose that progress will prove easier than most might think because both sides of this debate have been mistaken to some degree.
What I am going to argue for the remainder of this section is that both camps in Adventism have failed to account for a major factor that differentiates us from evangelicals when it comes to these topics: that we don’t believe in an immaterial/immortal soul. And, once we do account for this, we will come to a third, more ‘Adventist’ position, that both camps will be able to agree with.
Christ’s Human Nature
Adventists did not concern themselves too much with the issue of Christ’s human nature until it was brought to our attention by the evangelicals. As far as Walter Martin was concerned, our position here was one of the few elements left that still placed our denomination in the ‘cult’ category. And, while some were eager to correct our stance and gain acceptance, others insisted that we remain faithful to our traditional position. What no one thought to do however, was to stop and figure out why exactly this issue was so important to the evangelicals.
From the evangelical point of view, when Adam and Eve sinned, their souls were tainted and depraved. And, this deprivation was passed down to all their descendants through the immaterial soul. Thus, attributing a fallen or sinful nature to Christ would mean that Christ was also born with a depraved immaterial soul, meaning He was born a sinner. In Adventist theology however, none of this rationale applies because we reject the Greek notion of an immaterial soul altogether.
What is Sin?
Inevitably, as debates over the nature of Christ continued in the church it became clear that an even more basic concern was how we defined sin. Was sin restricted to the voluntary actions only, such that Christ could have the same nature we have and yet still be without sin, or was human nature itself sin?
Those who argued for voluntary sin were concerned that assigning sin to human nature would immortalize it. After all, the bible teaches that only at Christ’s coming will corruption put on incorruption. If human nature is sin and this sin remains until the end, what is the point of calling people back to obedience to the law of God? It would be like trying to wash a car during a dust storm: a futile task. And, this was a legitimate concern.
The other camp saw in the Bible a description of sinful man that went way deeper than the voluntary actions. The whole head was sick; the heart was deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. To oversimplify sin as pertaining only to the voluntary actions belittled the sin problem and consequently God’s solution. And, this as well was a legitimate concern.
Thus, the battle lines were drawn around two positions that both had elements of truth and error; a false dichotomy of sorts. So, rather than asking what sin is, let’s instead ask what can and must be condemned in man.
First, evidently, God must condemn willful acts, words and thoughts, committed as well as omitted. But, second, God must also condemn character; even aspects of the character that are not evident to the individual and thus not voluntary. From the time we are born we begin to develop patterns of behavior driven by instinct. And, these become an integral part of who we are, even if we are not aware of it.
Consider as a case study the apostle Peter. As far as he was concerned, his dedication to Christ was complete. He was certain that he would not betray Christ under any circumstances. He gave evidence of his commitment by being willing to sacrifice his life fighting alongside his master. As far as voluntary sin goes, Peter had mastered the art of being committed to Christ.
Jesus however was able to see beyond this to the character itself. It was only once God orchestrated the perfect set of circumstances that Peter’s character became evident to him and everyone else. Under the right conditions, Peter did betray his master.
I would propose that what has up to now been seen as two positions, sin as action vs. sin as nature, should instead be broken up into three positions:
1) Sin as action
2) Sin as cultivated nature (character)
3) Sin as inherited nature (material biology)
And, sin should legitimately be attributed to both action and cultivated nature (options 1 & 2) but not to inherited nature. When Peter became aware of the dark flaws in his character, he deeply repented and was transformed by the grace of God. Our biological makeup however will continue with us until Christ comes.
Back to Christ’s Nature
Most people recognize the age of accountability to begin somewhere in the teen years. And, for Christ to be fully human, this would have to apply to Him as well. But no one would be willing to claim that, prior to the age of accountability, Jesus exhibited the same rebellious traits as other children: temper tantrums, disobedience to parents, selfishness towards others etc. The rest of us, from the earliest age, exhibit sinful patterns of behavior that become deeply ingrained in us and thus an integral part of who we are. And, in this, Jesus was very different.
Thus, we have to acknowledge that Christ not only did not commit any sinful acts but also lacked a sinful Cultivated Nature. The only way this could be explained is in that we are born separated from the Holy Spirit while Christ was born fully connected with the Spirit, since, for those early years, He was not old enough to choose obedience on His own accord. But was Christ also born with a sinful Inherited Nature?
To the evangelical mind a human being’s personhood or character resides in the immaterial soul. This soul is something that is present at conception and is depraved from the very start. If therefore God judges us on character as well as actions, then, a condemnation-worthy character is already there from conception.
But can it also be said that we are born with a condemnation-worthy character apart from a belief in an immaterial soul? I would propose that the weakened biology we are born with cannot properly be called ‘sin’ because it cannot properly be called ‘character.’ And, only character or willful action can be considered legally culpable. We wouldn’t, for example, say that a rock, a tree, or even a beast of prey, is morally guilty for breaking a window, falling on a car, or slaying a rabbit respectively. Why then would we say that the sequence of molecules that come together at conception carries any inherent condemnation, apart from belief in an immaterial soul?
Moreover, if we do away with the immaterial soul, the question of mankind’s sinful condition suddenly becomes a question of biology and genetics. Adam and Eve were created physically perfect with perfect genetics. They sinned and this sinful condition somehow came upon the entire race. Because we don’t have a soul to account for this the only thing left to account for it is genetics. But, our present understanding of genetics cannot explain how such a thing would work.
We are left with only one other possible explanation for human depravity: separation from God. Unlike Adam and Eve, all other human beings are born separated from the Holy Spirit and this is what leads to the development of a sinful character, even prior to the age of accountability. Without the fall, the Holy Spirit would have had full control of the individual from conception until mature enough to make sound decisions. Instead, without the Holy Spirit, we are mostly driven by instincts and outside influences throughout our developmental years. Even people whom the Bible says were filled with the Spirit from birth, like Samson or John the Baptist, were not completely under the Spirit’s control as we would have been had Adam and Eve never sinned (John 3:34).
Because Adventists did not recognize the need to develop a uniquely Adventist theology of original sin, the nature of Christ and character perfection, we ended up stuck between two equally deficient positions.
Those who followed the logical implications of the traditional view, that Christ took Adam’s nature after the fall, began to think of sin as something more external and voluntary. Because the depths of our sinfulness were no longer as easily recognized, room was made for legalism, spiritual pride and a slew of other problems. An incomplete recognition of the sinfulness of sin led to a decreased appreciation for what Christ had done for us on Calvary. It often resulted in an spirit of superiority and a desire for separation from others perceived to be less dedicated. And, many of the problems the church faced in later years came as a reaction against this attitude.
On the other side, those who followed the logical implications of a pre-lapsarian position, began to think of sin as an integral part of who we are and not something that we can gain complete victory over. Those who felt the need to remain in harmony with Ellen White came up with new definitions of ‘character perfection’ that better lined up with their theology but which caused suspicion and alienation in those familiar with her writings. Moreover, by adopting a more defeatist attitude toward sin, the theological stage was set for many of the challenges faced by the next generation.
Lastly, a third group of people, losing hope that this theological divide will ever be resolved, turned their attention instead to evangelism, bringing in large numbers of people into a fragmented and confused organization. Decades later, we seem not to have progressed very far beyond this point.
– Only willful action and depraved character (not fallen biology) can be considered legally culpable and therefore, can properly be called sin.
– Only if human beings consist of a physical body and an immaterial soul can character be present from conception. Without a soul, what we have at conception cannot be called character and therefore cannot be called sin.
– Jesus therefore had the same fallen biology we do but, like Adam, was born connected with the Holy Spirit. Thus, He never developed a sinful character from infancy like we do.
– By not taking into account that, as Adventists, we reject the doctrine of the immortal soul, and, by not differentiating between Birth Nature and Cultivated Nature, we have allowed an unnecessary debate to split Adventism for decades.