Two Theologians Go At It!

Two heavy-weight theologians going at it! This is what young theologians live for. In one corner is the heavy-weight champion of the Reformed faith- Charles Hodge himself. In the other corner is another lesser-known Reformed theologian- John F. Walvoord. What is on the line? The peccability or impeccability of Christ. Some Christians advocate that He was peccable (able not to sin), others that He was not able to sin (impeccable). Dr. Hodge argued in his Systematic Theology (found here) that:

A sinful Saviour from sin is an impossibility. He could not have access to God. He could not be a sacrifice for sins; and He could not be the source of holiness and eternal life to his people. This sinlessness of our Lord, however, does not amount to absolute impeccability. It was not a non potest peccare. If He was a true man He must have been capable of sinning. That He did not sin under the greatest provocation; that when He was reviled He blessed; when He suffered He threatened not; that He was dumb, as a sheep before its shearers, is held up to us as an example. Temptation implies the possibility of sin. If from the constitution of his person it was impossible for Christ to sin, then his temptation was unreal and without effect, and He cannot sympathize with his people.

The Princetonian of yesteryear agreed upon two things in the peccability and impeccability debate.

1-Jesus had to be holy for the atonement to be valid. He agrees that the incarnation and sinless life of the Son of God are essential prerequisites for the redemption of Adam’s fallen sons and daughters. Christ had to live a sinless life in order to accomplish redemption. A sinner is unable to rescue sinners. Only a sinless savior will do.

2-Yet, he was completely able to sin. If he was not capable of sinning, he was not a “true man” because to be truly human is to be able to make the choice to sin. If the hypostatic union prevented Jesus from having the ability to sin, he was not truly tempted and his humanity is called into question.

In his book The Person and Work of Christ, John F. Walvoord responded directly to Dr. Hodge (found here) remarking that:

The problem that Hodge raises is very real, and, judging by our own experience, temptation is always associated with peccability. Hodge, however, assumes certain points in his argument which are subject to question. In order to solve the problem as to whether Christ is peccable, it is necessary, first of all, to examine the character of temptation itself to ascertain whether peccability is inevitably involved in any real temptation and, second, to determine the unique factor in Christ, i.e., that He had two natures, one a divine nature and the other a sinless human nature. It is generally agreed by those who hold that Christ did not commit sin that He had no sin nature. Whatever temptation could come to Him, then, would be from without and not from within. Whatever may have been the natural impulses of a sinless nature which might have led to sin if not held in control, there was no sin nature to suggest sin from within and form a favorable basis for temptation. It must be admitted by Hodge, who denies impeccability, that in any case the temptation of Christ is different than that of sinful men. Not only is there agreement on the fact that Christ had no sin nature, but it is also agreed on the other hand, that as to His person He was tempted. This is plainly stated in Hebrews: “For we have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but one that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (4:15 ). It is also clear that this temptation came to Christ in virtue of the fact that He possessed a human nature, as James states: “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God; for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempteth no man” (1:13 ). On the one hand, Christ was tempted in all points except through that of a sin nature, and on the other hand His divine nature could not be tempted because God cannot be tempted. While His human nature is temptable, His divine nature is not temptable. On these points all can agree. The question is, then, can such a person as Christ is, possessing both human and divine natures, be tempted if He is impeccable? The answer must be in the affirmative. The question is simply, is it possible to attempt the impossible? To this all would agree. It is possible for a rowboat to attack a battleship, even though it is conceivably impossible for the rowboat to conquer the battleship. The idea that temptability implies susceptibility is unsound. While the temptation may be real, there may be infinite power to resist that temptation and if this power is infinite, the person is impeccable. It will be observed that the same temptation which would be easily resisted by one of sound character may be embraced by one of weak character. The temptation of a drunken debauch would have little chance of causing one to fall who had developed an abhorrence of drink, while a habitual drunkard would be easily led astray. The temptation might be the same in both cases, but the ones tempted would have contrasting powers of resistance. It is thus demonstrated that there is no essential relation between temptability and peccability. Hodge’s viewpoint that temptation must be unreal if the person tempted is impeccable is, therefore, not accurate. Temptability depends upon a constitutional susceptibility to sin, whereas impeccability depends upon omnipotent will not to sin.

Dr. Walvoord responds with a few points:

1-The temptations of Jesus are very real but they’re already different than the temptations we face. The dividing line is the origin of temptation itself. Humanity’s temptations flow from their sin nature which is an internal attack upon holiness. Christ’s temptations flow from outside of him because he lacks a sin nature.

2-God himself cannot be tempted. God literally lacks anything within his nature that merits desire for evil. He lacks any moral failing that would lend him to see sin as appealing. The incarnation was this holy being taking on human nature; He did not cease to be God but become the God-man. Jesus’ divine nature is literally untemptable.

3- His temptations were real even though he could not succumb to them because of his deity. A row boat can attack a battle ship despite the knowledge or ability that it will never take it down in victory. Because the fullness of the Godhead dwells within Jesus, he cannot fall into sin anymore than the Father could choose to sin.

4-There is no relationship between temptability and peccability. Hodge is wrong.

Who do you think is right?

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2 responses to “Two Theologians Go At It!

  1. Nice post, Austin. I appreciated this interesting little tid-bit of a read at around 11:30 on a Friday night (I totally know how to party). I, despite what most people would think, side with John F. Walvoord on this one. Charles Hodge is a brilliant man and fantastic theologian but I felt that he assumed too much without using much scripture to help side his point. Despite me liking both men (reformed people…Hoooray!) and understanding both views, I feel that point and match go to Walvoord.

    Again, thanks for posting.

  2. Team Walvoord shirts should be made for Jordan and I! He makes a superior argument synthesizing philosophy and exegesis.

    This match Hodge loses, though I think he was quite the defender of Orthodoxy in a heretic full time in America.

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