Did Christ have a fallen human nature?
November 4, 2015
I came across a fascinating passage in Thomas Aquinas’ Compendium Theologiae wherein he discusses the “defects” in the humanity of Christ’s flesh, prior to his resurrection and glorification. Yes, defects. De defectibus assumptis a Christo. Immediately this had me thinking about T. F. Torrance’s emphasis on the “fallen” humanity assumed by the Son in becoming flesh. Is there common ground here between Thomas and Thomas?
Let us look at the Scotsman first and then the Italian.
Torrance on the Fallen Human Nature of Christ
Thomas F. Torrance is well-known for advocating that the Son assumed the flesh of fallen humanity, that is, a “fallen flesh.” For example, he writes in his Edinburgh lectures:
But are we to think of this flesh which he became as our flesh? Are we to think of it as describing some neutral human nature and existence, or as describing our actual human nature and existence in the bondage and estrangement of humanity fallen from God and under the divine judgment? [Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, p. 61]
For Torrance, if the humanity assumed by the Son is not our fallen humanity, then our fallen humanity is “untouched” by the work of Christ (ibid., 62). He then quotes Gregory Nazianzen’s formula, “the unassumed is the unredeemed.” The flesh which Christ healed was a corrupted flesh, and this is the wondrous “great exchange” where he took our infirmities and we take his regal health. This is a basic pattern in the theology of the early fathers, according to Torrance:
Patristic theology, especially as we see it expounded in the great Athanasius, makes a great deal of the fact that he who knew no sin became sin for us, exchanging his riches for our poverty, his eternal life for our mortality. Thus Christ took from Mary a corruptible and mortal body in order that he might take our sin, judge and condemn it in the flesh, and so assume our human nature as we have it in the fallen world that he might heal, sanctify and redeem it. [Ibid.]
In a powerful way, Torrance connects this with the obedience of the Son in his earthly devotion to the Father. This obedience in the flesh “was not light or sham obedience.” He continues, “It was agonisingly real in our flesh of sin: ‘he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross,’ [Phil 2.8] and ‘he learned obedience through what he suffered’ [Heb 5.8]. …His obedience was a battle. The temptations make that abundantly clear” (Ibid., 64).
I do not see a problem with any of this, though I am aware of others who have criticized Torrance (and Barth) on this matter. Torrance is, of course, firm in his belief that Christ’s humanity is not sinful, albeit fallen. Christ’s humanity is necessarily not sinful or else the condemnation of sin in his flesh could not have been achieved. Torrance writes, “His taking of our flesh of sin was a sinless action, which means that Jesus does not do in the flesh of sin what we do, namely, sin, but it also means that by remaining holy and sinless in our flesh, he condemned sin in the flesh he assumed and judged it by his very sinlessness” (Ibid., 63). His holiness triumphs over the falleness from within — by condemning sin in the flesh.
Does it make sense to say “fallen but not sinful”? That is an obvious objection to Torrance’s usage of the term,”fallen,” for Christ’s human nature. But Torrance is making distinctions in the type of defects in Christ’s fallen humanity versus our fallen humanity.
The defects which the Son assumed in our humanity needs to be parsed carefully. Precisely what defects did the Son assume in his becoming flesh? The Son did not assume the defects of a sinful will, but he did assume the defects of a cursed, suffering, and dying flesh, which invariably presses upon a fully human will (e.g., temptations of Christ). It is this latter sense in which Christ bore a “fallen” human nature. And this is what I see Thomas Aquinas saying in his Compendium Theologiae.
Saint Thomas Aquinas on the Caro of the Incarnatio
I am perhaps venturing too far here, without adequate gear. I have not compared this section in the Compendium to any corresponding material in his two Summas, nor have I consulted any secondary sources on the issue. But let’s go ahead anyway.
In chapter 226, Thomas is discussing the satisfaction necessarily rendered by humanity in order to be redeemed. “No punishment undergone by any man could suffice to liberate the whole human race. …God alone is of infinite dignity and so He alone, in the flesh assumed by Him could adequately satisfy for man, as has already been noted [Cf. chap. 200]” (Light of Faith: The Compendium of Theology, trans. Cyril Vollert, S.J., 284). This is all very Anselmic, and we need not detain ourselves with a comparison of the different set-up here to that of Torrance.
For our purposes, the following material is relevant to our question of whether — or, in what way — the Son assumed a fallen humanity. This excerpt is kinda lengthy but necessarily so:
…Christ ought not to have assumed those defects which separate man from God, such as privation of grace, ignorance, and the like, although they are punishment for sin. Defects of this kind would but render Him less apt for offering satisfaction. Indeed, to be the author of man’s salvation, He had to possess fullness of grace and wisdom, as we pointed out above [Cf. chap. 213]. Yet, since man by sinning was placed under the necessity of dying and of being subjected to suffering in body and soul, Christ wished to assume the same kind of defects, so that by undergoing death for men He might redeem the human race.
Defects of this kind are common to Christ and to us. Nevertheless they are found in Christ otherwise than in us. For, as we have remarked, such defects are the punishment of the first sin [Cf. chap. 193]. Since we contract Original Sin through our vitiated origin, we are in consequence said to have contracted these defects. But Christ did not contract any stain in virtue of His origin. He accepted the defects in question of His own free will. Hence we should not say that He contracted these defects, but rather that he assumed them for that is contracted (contrahitur) which is necessarily drawn along with (cum trahitur) some other things. …Therefore in Him they were not contracted but were voluntarily assumed.
Yet, since our bodies are subject to the aforesaid defects in punishment for sin — for prior to sin we were immune from them — Christ, so far as He assumed such defects in His flesh is rightly deemed to have borne the likeness of sin, as the Apostle says in Romans 8:3: “God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.” Hence Christ’s very passibility or suffering is called sin by the Apostle, when he adds that God “hath condemned sin in the flesh,” and observes in Romans 6:10: “In that He died to sin, He died once.” For the same reason the Apostle uses an even more astonishing expression in Galatians 3:13, saying that Christ was “made a curse for us.” This is also why Christ is said to have assumed one of our obligations (that of punishment) in order to relieve us of our double burden, namely, sin and punishment.
…Again, since He came chiefly to restore human nature, He fittingly assumed those defects that are found universally in nature.
So, to answer our question in the title of this post: yes, Christ assumed our fallen human nature. Aquinas does not use the term, “fallen,” and he may have objected to doing so. But he does make clear that the Son assumed our “defects,” his preferred term. These defects are common with the defects of general fallen humanity, though Christ does not assume every defect. The Son does not assume those defects that would render his sacrifice unacceptable. He does not sin. He is not separated from God through any privation of grace. He remains holy. Likewise for Torrance, Christ remains holy and pure, thereby overcoming the power of sin.
This is not to say that Torrance and Aquinas are identical in how they are framing this. As I already alluded, Aquinas favors “satisfaction” for how Christ undoes the curse, whereas Torrance favors an ontological undoing of fallen nature in Christ, in which we partake by the Spirit in union with Christ glorified. These are probably not mutually exclusive, however, especially if we take-in the whole scope of these two theologians’ writings.
Differences aside, I think there is some interesting common ground here.