Volume 43 - Issue 2

Christ’s Humanity in Current and Ancient Controversy: Fallen or Not?

by E. Jerome Van Kuiken

The question of whether Christ assumed a fallen human nature in the incarnation has captured the attention of many at least since the time of Karl Barth, and that interest shows no signs of declining with a recent stream of published monographs and scholarly articles bearing witness to the continued focus. E. Jerome Van Kuiken’s volume stands out from the crowd by providing a decidedly conciliar contribution. The author proffers his aim as a desire “to move this crucial debate [regarding Christ’s humanity] one step closer toward resolution” (p. 2).

Van Kuiken argues that the modern fallen view “was raised in Great Britain, revived in Germany (and Switzerland), returned to Britain, and received in America” (p. 13). This geographic movement corresponds to the five fallen proponents under view, namely, Edward Irving (1792–1834), Karl Barth (1886–1968), Thomas F. Torrance (1913–2007), Colin Gunton (1941–2003), and, Thomas Weinandy (b. 1946). Edward Irving was found guilty of heresy in 1830 and 1833 for his advocacy of Christ’s “‘fallen,’ indeed ‘sinful,’” human nature; a charge which Irving returned to his opponents. He argued for three types of sin—original, constitutive, and actual—in order to reconcile Christ’s “personal sinlessness” with “his sinful human substance” (p. 16), and he drew support for his doctrine from “scripture, church tradition, and theological reasoning” (p. 19).

In his discussion of the four remaining fallenness proponents, Van Kuiken continues by offering a summary of their distinct articulation as well as noting how they were influenced toward their position. Karl Barth, while mentioning Irving briefly as a precedent, “singles out … Gregory Nyssen and … Pope Honorius I,” seeing himself as taking a minority stance relative to the tradition (p. 22). Thus, Barth sees himself at odds with the very tradition to which Irving appeals. This discussion brings the reader to Thomas F. Torrance, whom Van Kuiken sees as taking a mediating position between Irving and Barth regarding tradition. Torrance draws upon “Eastern patristic theology” for support and, thus, critiques “much of the Western tradition” as being unnecessarily against the fallenness view (p. 31).

Torrance also drew from Barth, by way of his professor H. R. Mackintosh (1870–1936), for his view that “Christ bore a fallen yet sinless human nature”; in fact, so important was this assertion for Torrance that he considered it a matter of orthodoxy (p. 31; cf. p. 41). Notably, Torrance distinguishes his view from Irving (p. 33). In contrast, Colin Gunton’s view is clearly influenced by the latter (p. 44). The advocacy of the fallenness view by Thomas G. Weinandy marks, for Van Kuiken, the broadening of the view as the prior advocates were “European and Reformed,” whereas Weinandy is an American Catholic (pp. 49–50). With some qualification, Weinandy goes beyond Torrance by retrieving Latin theologians in support of his position (p. 55), a practice which raises the question: whose understanding of the historic church’s stance on the fallenness of Christ’s humanity is the correct one (p. 56)?

Of the five unfallenness proponents surveyed in chapter 2, only one, Philip Hughes (1915–1990), is not a Scot, a fact which is “indicative of the depth of Irving’s impact upon his compatriots” (p. 60). Marcus Dods (1786–1838), a contemporary opponent of Irving, argued that, within “the first four-centuries … neither the orthodox nor heretics” advocated such a view as Irving’s with the exception of two relatively obscure exceptions (p. 63). A. B. Bruce (1831–1899), though a generation later, argued forcibly against Irving; yet, he did not find much coherence within the tradition, considering “the fathers’ own record” as “relatively better” than that of Apollinaris (pp. 66–67).

H. R. Mackintosh is an ironic figure for, despite his opposition to the fallenness view, he actually served to buttress it. Mackintosh cited Irving in Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1913). This work influenced Barth’s one reference to Irving, which according to Van Kuiken, served to recover Irving, “bringing him to the attention of Colin Gunton and, through Gunton, to Thomas Weinandy” (p. 73). Mackintosh appeals to the fathers for “his kenotic concerns” rather than in support of the fallenness view contra Torrance (p. 74). The last two defenders of the unfallen view—Phillip Hughes and Donald Macleod (b. 1940)—also deny that tradition supports the fallenness view; rather, “all five theologians find the contention that Christ’s humanity was real and full, not fallen” in Scripture as well as Latin and Greek fathers (p. 90). Van Kuiken’s survey of both fallen and unfallen proponents demonstrates that there are considerable differences of articulation even amongst those who agree regarding the question at hand; thus, their views resist reduction to simple categories of fallen and unfallen.

In chapters three and four, Van Kuiken chooses five Greek and Latin fathers to survey based on breadth of citation by both those who affirm and those who deny that Christ assumed a fallen human nature. After surveying, from the Greeks, Irenaeus (ca. 130–202), Athanasius (ca. 296–373), Gregory Nazianzen (ca. 329–390), Gregory Nyssen (ca. 335–395), and Cyril of Alexandria (ca. 376–444), he concludes that they considered Christ’s humanity “fallen” (Irenaeus, Cyril) and “sinful” (Nyssen), yet they generally insisted on Christ’s sinlessness (p. 126). Taken conceptually, these fathers were convinced that “in the virginal conception, [Christ] heals and hallows … a human nature otherwise” captive to sin, yet, in “his earthy life Christ bears the consequences of sin.” Tertullian (ca. 155–240), Hilary of Poitiers (ca. 310–367), Ambrose (ca. 340–397), Augustine (354–430), and Leo the Great (ca. 400–461) are surveyed for the Latin fathers and are shown to be in essential agreement with the Greek fathers (p. 154).

The fifth chapter pulls together the previous chapters. In the main, the complex picture of the fathers is often missed by both fallen and unfallen advocates. While Torrance may have the clearest picture at this point, these different understandings are “mutually corrective.” Hence, regarding the question of orthodoxy: Irving has plausible Gnostic and Nestorian tendencies; an extreme form of Monophysitism in Dods is possible; but, other charges of heretical tendencies on either side are improbable (pp. 162–63). Drawing from and correcting two taxonomies related to the debate, Van Kuiken demonstrates that all but Irving (with some nuance) come to basically the same position (p. 165–66). This demonstration is followed by a helpful discussion of terminology (e.g., “unfallen,” “fallen”) as well as areas that fallen and unfallen proponents could discuss given their common ground (e.g., Mariology, Sanctification). Finally, an appendix attempts to locate the sources of Irving’s patristic citations.

Van Kuiken’s contribution to the debate is essential for those interested. His clear and careful reading of the ten modern and ancient theologians as well as his prolific engagement with secondary literature makes his account quite compelling not to mention even-handed. While some may wonder if his approach to original sin is too broad and others may quibble with some of his readings of the fathers, all interested in this ongoing debate will greatly benefit from this incisive and judicious book.

Thomas Haviland-Pabst

Thomas Haviland-Pabst
Asheville, North Carolina, USA

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