Here’s my working assumption. From the second to the twentieth century Christian “truth” was sustained by a theological superstructure or scaffolding. Recently, that superstructure has begun to look unstable, indeed liable to collapse. If Christian “truth” is to survive into the age to come, the theological framework needs to be dismantled and replaced with a historical or narrative-historical framework. The only Jesus who can save the church is the historical Jesus—the Son who was sent to the vineyard of Israel, in the infinite wisdom of God, to proclaim the coming of a new regime, who was killed, who was raised from the dead, who was exalted to the right hand of God to reign as king over both God’s priestly people and the nations throughout the age to come.
A recent article by the British Reformed theologian Oliver Crisp in Christianity Today provides a good example of a theologian, perhaps unwittingly, shifting the weight of theological explanation towards narrative. You may not be able to access the article without a subscription, so I’ll summarise it in some detail.
Was Christ tempted in every way?
Crisp is addressing the question of the sinlessness of Jesus. The writer to the Hebrews says that Jesus was tempted in every way, just as we are, but he did not sin (Heb. 4:15). But there are problems with this.
On the one hand, Crisp says, the Gospels do not depict a Jesus who was faced with the “more pedestrian temptations Christians undergo daily, temptations toward cheating, overindulgence, pride, corrupt sexuality, and the like.”
On the other, Jesus is God, and God cannot be tempted and cannot look upon evil (James 1:13; Hab. 1:13). So we have a dilemma. How can scripture assert both that Jesus is God and that Jesus was tempted in every way?
It gets worse. Paul says that Jesus was made “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3), that God “made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21), and that Jesus became a curse for us (Gal. 3:13).
Again, the problem is that evil, or an evil condition, appears to be attributed to God: “just as God cannot become sinful, and yet does in some way become sin for us in Christ, so also God cannot be tempted by sin, and yet he in Christ is tempted like us in every way yet without sinning.” A conundrum, indeed.
Theologians from the early church fathers onwards have tied themselves in knots trying to explain this paradox. Crisp appears to think that there is “a relevant difference between being fallen and being sinful”—just as a person may have flu-like symptoms without actually having the flu. He then offers two ways of explaining the paradox—“two basic views in historic Christian teaching.”
According to the “sinlessness view” Jesus is capable of sinning but he does not actually sin. But if Jesus is God incarnate, and God cannot be tempted, we cannot say that Jesus is capable of sinning. “We need some solution that means Jesus can really be tempted, but is configured so that it is impossible for him to realize the capacity to sin.”
So let’s try the “impeccability view,” which says that Jesus is incapable of sinning, just as a blind man is incapable of seeing. That fits the claim that God cannot be tempted, but how can it be squared with the belief that Jesus was “like us in every way, and yet did not sin”?
Perhaps Jesus is like an invincible boxer. He can be hit, he feels pain, he really experiences the fight, but he cannot be knocked out, he cannot be defeated.
Perhaps Jesus’ human nature is “capable of sinning like any other human nature” (he gets knocked around in the fight), but because it is united to his divine nature, he is prevented from sinning (he cannot be knocked out).
But, Crisp asks, does that really resolve the paradox? “Isn’t someone who is impeccable really unlike us in important ways? Can such a person really feel the gravitational pull of temptation as we do?”
The shift towards narrative
To break the christological deadlock, some theologians have proposed that Jesus is susceptible only to certain types of temptation. He is impervious to temptations that “require a person to be in a state of sin to find the thing in question attractive, such as murder or lying.” But disobedience to God belongs in a different category. You don’t have to be a sinner already in order to be tempted wilfully to disregard a divine command—the story of Adam and Eve is a case in point.
Jesus was tempted by the devil—both in the wilderness and in the garden of Gethsemane—to “deny divine commands, or deny his messianic mission.” He was not in a state of sin, but he could “feel the gravitational pull of such temptations.”
This is as far as Crisp takes the argument. The whole question is fraught with theological difficulty. Quite possibly complete understanding eludes us “because we are limited in what we know and how we can grasp the mysteries of the divine nature.”
So we haven’t solved the theoretical problem. We are still having to bolt together incompatible ontologies that are, in any case, alien to the argument of Hebrews. But the narrowing of focus has moved us firmly in the right direction.
The writer to the Hebrews puts Jesus forward as a realistic exemplar of the faithfulness expected from these vacillating Jewish believers. Obedience in the face of persecution is difficult because of fear—the fear of ostracism, the fear of hardship, the fear of torture, the fear of death, and, for that matter, the fear of being wrong. Jesus is able to sympathise with their weaknesses only because he himself was weak. Their great high priest knows exactly what it is like to be tested—what it feels like to be tested. He has experienced the same weakness, the same helplessness, the same uncertainty, the same fear. But he did not sin, he did not disobey, he did not turn back, he did not capitulate to Satan, and as a consequence he now has direct access to the throne of grace in heaven and can, therefore, help them in their time of need (Heb. 4:16).
The infinite wisdom of God
The doctrine of incarnation, as traditionally formulated, is a major hindrance to understanding this argument. At no point do we see the authors of the New Testament wrestling with theological paradoxes generated by the belief that Jesus in his mission to Israel was, as a matter of unique ontology, God incarnate. No one argues that God became sin for us in Christ. Paul is clear enough: God made Jesus to be sin, therefore the apostles are the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).
Of course, God approved of, identified himself with, and vindicated a messiah who appeared to Jewish eyes to be a sinful, blasphemous, and accursed messianic fraudster. But that is a different thing altogether.
Bracket out the clumsy, post-biblical theological premise, and everything becomes much more straightforward. Theologians have tied themselves in knots unnecessarily.
What the New Testament does say is that the obedience of Jesus under the eschatological conditions of the crisis facing first century Israel was an expression or demonstration of the creative wisdom of God.
It is because Christ endured suffering and persecution—a stumbling block to the Jews, an absurdity to the Greeks—that he was “the wisdom of God”, that he “became to us wisdom from God” (1 Cor. 1:22-24, 30).
According to John, the word or wisdom of God became flesh in Jesus, who was baptised as the anointed Son who would faithfully fulfil the purposes of God, who would be the lamb who takes away the sin of the world (Jn. 1:14, 29-34).
Jesus was the incarnate wisdom of God in the specific sense that through his suffering and death he catalysed or triggered or initiated a profound and far-reaching transformation of the historic people of God. The readers of the letter to the Hebrews were caught up in that protracted transformation; they were living it out; they were working out their own salvation in fear and trembling. It wasn’t going to happen over night. So just as Jesus in Gethsemane “learned obedience” from what he suffered (Heb. 5:8), they would have to learn obedience at the moment of fear and weakness.
The early church necessarily, in my view, had to translate the complex narrative of wisdom-becoming-flesh and Jesus-becoming-king into the coherent abstractions of Trinitarianism. Now, however, for good historical reasons, we have to translate it back again.