Jesus Had a Fallen Nature, Just Like the Bible

This is the third post (see first and second) on Sparks’s most recent book Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture. In chapter 3, he looks briefly with how a proper, biblical view of Christ (Christology) can help us look at Scripture more realistically.

His main point is this: Jesus was really a human being, who “lived out his life within a finite human horizon” (p. 24). This has implications for how we look at the Bible. Drawing a connection between how we understand Christ and the Bible  is sometimes referred to as the Christological analogy of Scripture, which, as many of you know, is the central focus of my own book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament.

Citing some early Church Fathers, Sparks asserts that Jesus did not fake being fully human. He really was, and that necessarily means he was limited in his humanity. Part of that limitation, Spraks argues, is that Jesus necessarily participated  in our fallen nature, though without sinning. (See Romans 8:3-4, where Paul says that God sent Jesus “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” Also, Jesus was made like us in every way, as in Hebrews 2:17 and 4:15.)

It was necessary for Christ to take on the fallen human condition in order to redeem it. “Fallen creation is redeemed only when God participates in fallen creation” (p. 27).

The upshot of all this is summarized in Sparks’s citation of I. Howard Marshall and Colin Gunton. Marshall, speaking of Jesus’ references to hell in his parables, says that Jesus employs imagery “belonging to the time in society that was accustomed to such things” (see Marshall Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology pp. 66-69, cited in Sparks p. 26). Likewise, Gunton says, “no Christology is adequate which tries either to evade the material determination of Jesus or his Jewish particularity” (Gunton Christ and Creation p. 41, cited in Sparks p. 26).

Translation: you are barking up the wrong theological tree if you try to distance Jesus in any way from his full participation in his first century Jewish, Greco-Roman context, even while confessing Jesus was without sin.

OK, who cares about all this? You do and here’s why. If we are going to draw an analogy between Jesus and the Bible, we can’t have a Bible that keeps a safe distance from its culture but one that, like Jesus, is fully a part of fallen humanity.

The biggest problem with this analogy for Sparks is when it is used to promote an evangelical notion of inerrancy: the Bible has to be “sinless” like Jesus was, in other words without error. The equation is made between error in Scripture and sin in Christ.

But this completely misses the point of the analogy. The analogy requires that neither Jesus nor Scripture are “wholly insulated from the human condition” (p. 28). Sparks continues that, “Jesus expressed his theology using imagery (sometimes violent imagery) that was shaped and bounded by perspectives prevalent in his own day.”

Let me summarize this in my own way. The question, it seems to me, is how comfortable are we with the incarnation and its implications? How truly human a Jesus do we want? Can our theology really handle a Jesus and a Bible that so thoroughly reflect back to us the cultural perspectives of the time? Or, would we rather have a Jesus and a Bible that keeps their distance from the human condition?

Maybe the bigger question at the end of the day is what kind of God do we want?

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  • Larry S

    Dr. Enns,

    I look forward to reading Spark’s book. I’m wondering if using language about Jesus “nature” being “fallen” a category error? isn’t this type of language a Greek frame of reference rather than biblical? Here I’ve been influenced/helped by NT Wright in his work/lectures about Jesus’ self-understanding.

    I think this paragraph from the Thread makes perfect sense: “you are barking up the wrong theological tree if you try to distance Jesus in any way from his full participation in his first century Jewish, Greco-Roman context, even while confessing Jesus was without sin.”

    thanks for your Blog and writings – peace

  • Keith Dager

    From a management analysis perspective, Jesus choose his disciples based on their exhibiting good attitude and a hard work ethic. He hoped that would translate into an ability to learn on the job… but he became repeatedly frustrated at how slow they were to pick up the important details. Now I wonder if he had maybe an MBA among them, or sought backgrounds of similar disciple accomplishments, such as being a Congressional aid, whether what we’d know about Jesus today would be very different. Yes, he chose imperfect disciples and they reflected our imperfect human nature, but Jesus was “investing for the long run” in his staff and it paid off (except for one). Similarly, we can take a lesson that our human blemishes, accepted with grace and dealt with through Christ rather than cosmetically hidden, draw to us the strength of God, his compassion and acceptance. If Jesus was a fallen human being who cussed when stubbing his toe (those darn sandals!), then he was fallen by God’s will so to experience what is the human condition. How better to understand our turmoil and pain when showing the compassion to lift those whose faith in Christ and submission to God’s Will turns our fallen nature into spiritual bliss.

    • Mark Chenoweth

      “Then he was fallen by God’s will…”

      Words matter a very great deal here. Was Jesus fallen? Or did he assume a fallen human nature? They seem like two slightly different things. One sounds like He himself sinned, the other sounds like He assumed the human condition. The first is unacceptable by orthodox standards, the second is ESSENTIAL by orthodox standards. The incarnation IS the atonement, which IS salvation.

      • peteenns

        I wonder if Jesus experienced the effects of sin without himself being sinful. After all, he got tired, died, etc., etc.

        • Jeff Martin

          To add to the list – I am sure he misunderstood a bee to be a fun insect to play with as a child and as a carpenter and/or mason made some blocks or tables that were not measured correctly.

          The Bible says he grew in wisdom.

        • Dr. Enns, how does the doctrine of Original Sin play into that question?

  • Mark Chenoweth

    This helps a little bit. Christ sanctified our human nature, so that we can become by grace what he is by nature. So I’m struggling with how the bible remained “free from sin” yet took part of our human nature. For example, Kent cites the law about the slave not being avenged because the slave is the owner’s “property.” It’s a sinful law. So how is the bible free from sin? I guess I’m questioning more the incarnational analogy more than I am that such a law is sinful. Maybe when stretched to its limit, the incarnational analogy just can’t account for certain things and another model needs to be proposed. Sort of like how models or metaphors for the atonement can only be stretched so far before getting into trouble.

    Or maybe the analogy just needs to be fleshed out a little more. Maybe the crux of what I’m saying is that progressive revelation (henotheist to monotheist, vengeance to forgiveness, etc.) and the incarnational model of scripture might be incompatible with one another. Any clarification would be helpful.

  • Thanks for putting thoughts like these out here in “bite size” pieces. Do you think that it works both ways here, so that we need to acknowledge not only that our belief about Jesus needs to shape our view of scripture, but also that our beliefs about scripture can shape our view of Jesus? I grew up in a conservative Anabaptist setting, and I wonder if it’s the supremely “high” view of scripture there that contributed to my impression of Jesus as a sort of hybrid superhero human.

  • It would be helpful to define what Sparks means when he uses the term “fallen nature.” Depending on his definition, his claim could be quite controversial, or quite tepid in its relationship to traditional orthodoxy.

    • peteenns

      Hopefully he will be able to respond, Bryce.

  • AT

    I am interested in this. I believe Jesus made ‘mistakes’, e.g. hitting his thumb with a hammer. I also believe that Jesus had a limited view, e.g. I don’t believe that he could speak french or knew astrophysics. However, I have trouble with the idea of Christ ‘participating in our fallen nature’. Sure Jesus became sin upon the cross but does ‘participation in our fallen nature’ mean that Jesus made mistakes about the character of God, spiritual concepts, morality and spirituality? Under Spark’s hermeneutic, could we even trust the teachings coming straight from Christ’s mouth? I feel this is too slippery for me. What do you think?

  • Bev Mitchell

    I have read the entire book. It’s difficult to get at what Kent means by Jesus’ fallen nature without reading carefully everything he says. That said, it’s possible that I’m still reading between the lines, but here goes. I’ll probably need to be set straight. 🙂

    It seems that Kent is saying that Jesus (God) really entered into humanity, really took on human nature, really had the potential to yield to temptation, really could have sinned, but, because he was the new Adam, the human who finally obeyed and followed the Holy Spirit, he lived a sinless life. Growing up I remember being taught this. If Jesus didn’t face the same possibilities as I was facing, then what did his complete avoidance of sin, through the power of the Holy Spirit have to do with me? How did it encourage me to be like him, if from the get go, I wasn’t starting from the same point after turning from myself to Christ? 

    If this describes our position, what of original sin? It seems to me that it is not the doctrine of Christ’s humanity that is being opened up for questioning here but the doctrine of original sin – and high time too! Not that we aren’t sinners in need of redemption. Rather we have a doctrine of original sin that needs some work, in the light of the full humanity of God in Christ.

  • Matthew B

    I agree with some other commenters that his analogy between Scripture and Christ seems to break down. From your last post, it sounds like he advocates saying that some passages actually express a sin on the part of the author; but that would be more like saying the Christ sinned than like saying that he had a fallen nature but never actually sinned.

  • Steve Aldridge

    I’m reading “Sacred Word, Broken Word” and I find he is articulating and clarifying some ideas I had in seminary, but was not able to freely express them without the stern look of my conservative profs. That is, I’m enjoying the book, especially the idea the our understanding of scripture is as flawed as what some leaders are saying about our understanding of science.
    But, stating the Jesus has (had) a fallen nature at first glance can be troublesome, even though I understand Dr. Spark’s thesis. Is there really enough evidence in scripture to form an opinion regarding the nature of Jesus’ human-side.

  • Kent Sparks

    Bryce et al.

    By “fallen,” I mean that Jesus was a human being who participated fully in the same “fallen” nature that we share as children of “Adam” (speaking metaphorically). Yes (Larry S), this terminology is borrowed from Greek philosophy, but as Ratzinger has pointed out, much of our Christian theology was so formed (Nicea, Chalcedon, etc.), probably because the Greeks were really smart. But for good or ill, the term “fall” is so much a fixture now that we’re better off to redefine it than to fight its origins. Some have proposed “rebellion,” but I believe this connotes human volition when, by fallen, we are often referring not to what we do but to what we inherit as human beings either essentially or existentially.

    To be clearer, I think that we should distinguish “sin” in the sense of a fallen, broken world from “sin” in the sense of culpable action. Jesus shared in our sin in the first instance, but not in the second.

    I will try an example. Theologians often use the term “concupiscence” to refer to our warped (fallen) human appetites and desires. Given that the biblical faith calls upon all of us to avoid sin and praises those who succeed, it follows that even we, who suffer from concupiscence, are able to avoid sin by the power of the Spirit. We could well argue, then, that Jesus inherited our concupiscence (and hence, was tempted as we are) but did not sin (a success that we sometimes achieve but that he always achieved).

    Not sure that works, but it’s how it might work. Bottom line: Whatever I mean by “Jesus had a fallen nature,” it cannot mean that he was actually culpable for sinful contraventions of the divine will.

    • Mark Chenoweth

      I’m sure a Patristics scholar could help us out, but your comments definitely help. Kent, your understanding of Original Sin is obviously very, very Eastern or sympathetic with the newer Roman Catholic view (in contrast to Augustinian as understood and elaborated on by Luther and Calvin).

      Your view of how Christ was free from personal sin but participated in ancestral sin (if you don’t mind me using Eastern terminology) is actually exactly how Eastern Orthodox understand Mary (although not dogmatically)! I’m not exactly sure how Christ is understood with regard to ancestral/personal sin. Obviously he didn’t sin personally, but I don’t know FOR SURE about ancestral, at least within my Eastern Orthodox tradition.

      Glad we can all talk about this without shouting (we’re talking about the nature of Christ, for goodness sake!) but I’m also glad that everyone here really wants to maintain an orthodox Christology. That means that really thinking hard about the doctrine of scripture isn’t going to make us into Arians or something. haha

    • I wonder if there isn’t an inadequate conflation here between finitude and fallenness. Adam and Eve were the former before the fall but not after. They were the latter before and after. In the same way, being culturally situated is something that was true of Adam & Eve both pre- and post-fall. So equating human fallenness (whatever you mean by that–and it is somewhat disconcerting that you don’t know!) to human situatedness can’t do the job you want it to. The too are not the same. Given that, I still don’t see a reason why we can’t have our incarnational cake and eat our inerrant Bible too. Now, whether you want to or not is another matter altogether. Am I missing?

      • Whoops! The second sentence should say “latter” and the third should say “former.” (Incidentally, none need wonder about my own grammatical fallenness.)

    • Kent: Thanks for the clarification. Very helpful. Wouldn’t it be helpful if we also had two different English terms for: 1) Sin as an action; and 2) Sin as a state of being? And yes, in agreement with you in your comment to Larry, the Greeks were very smart…and I don’t think that there is any problem with using terminology from really smart people (if so, all of our contemporary conversations are in big trouble, as we use paradigms developed by Hume, Kant, Nietzche, et al, without even knowing it. The Reformers would have been in trouble as well due to their reliance upon Aristotelian paradigms).

      Mark: As your tradition well understands, there developed different conceptualizations of human sinfulness, especially as the Eastern Empire continued while the Western Empire fell and slowly became Europe. Very generally, the East moved on with great focus on Nazianzus while the West moved forward with Augustine (although these two are much, much more closely related than their devotees tend to admit. For example, Augustine read Nazianzus, and there is reason to think that his understanding of the Trinity was influenced by Gregory. The East/West split is not as distinct as we assume it was today until, at least, after Rome’s official collapse in 476.)

      In terms of Kent’s position, I do not think that it is completely at odds with Augustine, but his hesitation to include human volition is. Augustine postulated that we were participants with Adam at the Fall, and thus are fully culpable, rather than heirs of his action (forgive my lack of reference here…I’m typing quickly in between meetings and my memory is failing me ATM. If it is helpful, I can post a reference later).

  • This looks rather Orthodox in some ways – sin is a disease that Jesus has and conquers, bringing the cure to all of us. Moreover, God is so far beyond us that any attempt to speak to us will have to do so in terms that are, strictly speaking, quite wide of the mark. Jesus can bridge that gap by coming to us as God and man but this is still a translation of the divine in some sense. I’d hazard a guess that if one has a rather more mystical view of God (in the sense that God is infinitely beyond our comprehension even as He is also infinitely far in the direction pointed to by the Bible, not in the sense that it’s all fuzzy and anything goes) this would all feel quite comfortable. At least, it feels comfortable to me.

  • Great post Pete! I think this would resonate deeply with those who want to do away wit impassibility, myself included.


  • James

    “Tis mystery all, the Immortal died.” We can say Jesus has a human nature, and he does, but what does it mean? From a human perspective, our nature is so inextricably bound up in sin that to imagine human nature (fallen or otherwise) without sin is nearly impossible. It’s like trying to imagine Adam’s state of innocence before the fall. All analogies aside for a moment, let’s admit the God-Man (Scripture too) is unique but not unapproachable.

  • Mark Chenoweth


    After really digging for a while, what I found is really interesting regarding whether or not Christ assumed FALLEN human nature. There are theologians of very high caliber on BOTH sides of this issue.

    Apparently, Barth affirmed that Christ DID take on fallen human nature. However, many, if not most of the Church Fathers believed that Christ assumed Pre-fallen human nature.

    But what I think we have to take account of is Gregory of Zazianzus’ wonderful statement, “What is not assumed is not healed.” To me, this certainly means Christ had to IN SOME WAY, assume fallen human nature.

    Kallistos Ware certainly believes Christ assumed sinful NATURE but never willfully sinned: Christ “assumed not just unfallen, but fallen human nature,” from “The Orthodox Way.”

    “How far was Christ subject to temptation? The testimony of Scripture is explicit: ‘in every respect as we are, only without sinning’ (Heb. 4:15). A human will and human freedom imply liability to human temptation. We are to affirm of the incarnate Christ, not that he was incapable of sinning, but that he was capable of not sinning; not non posse peccare, but posse non peccare. His sinlessness was moral, not ontological; as regards his humanity, he was sinless by virtue of his will, not of his nature. Sin was a real possibility for him as man.”

    Since this is Ware saying this, and he knows Patristic thought better than almost anyone, I definitely think one could call such a position a minority one but nevertheless acceptable within an orthodox Christology. What I do notice though, is that I’m not sure inheriting a propensity to sin (ancestral sin) and a sinful human nature is the same thing. It seems to be that most theologians are saying he assumed sinful human nature but not the ancestral propensity towards sin.

    Some helpful links:

    Didn’t mean to drag this into a Christological discussion BUT, I think understanding this has profound effects on our doctrine of scripture also.

  • The life and experiences of Jesus included many moments of human frustration with his disciples . In the temple, Jesus vented rage at the merchants and money changers. On the Cross, he also asked why God had forsaken him… doubt and insecurity at a moment of extreme pain. So, Jesus may have been “without sin”, but he exhibited some very human character traits. Did God create this in Jesus for us… so we may better cope with moments when we feel great pain, insecurity and face death?

    There are darker human character traits that Jesus did NOT exhibit. Those are the cruel and mean instincts baked into our DNA that leads us to sin. They are the “Exhibit A” of Man’s “Fall”… the hubris of ego, coveting of power, instincts of jealousy, avarice, hoarding, gluttony. These traits drive men to empower themselves in an elite status by the exclusion of outsiders and the abuse of the weak with indifference to human or animal suffering. These are the sinful human traits that create the brutal nature of humanity. They seemed to be character traits missing in the life of Jesus. Am I wrong? (Okay… About His turning water into wine… that was done not from hubris or gluttony, but rather to fulfill a prophesy.)

    There’s one more negative human character trait, and I don’t know how to label this. Man’s Fall instilled in our DNA the trait of satisfying immediate needs or urges without care of long term consequences. Jesus understood the long term consequences of his life’s “mission”. He willingly sacrificed living comforts, declined sex, and suffered great pain on the cross to create His desired long term outcome. Being God, Jesus could have eliminated his personal discomfort as a man, but he chose not to do so.

    So, Jesus exhibited in his life some base instincts or traits of being human but eschewed others, particularly those that lead man to sinful acts. I think this is more than just about semantics and repulsion to combining the name Jesus with the word “fallen”. How human, how “fallen”, was Jesus the man? Can we address that? He was a force of goodness while walking on this earth. He executed God’s plan. Does it matter to you if Jesus was born “free of fallen Man’s original sin”, or whether he felt all human instincts and urges but resisted those that lead to sin? The former, “free of sin” state had to be baked into the DNA of Jesus. If that was His state, then Jesus did not fully experience what it is to be human. Any problems with that? Being human certainly includes failing, and perhaps to recognize and regretting one’s failures. The latter, feeling Man’s base instincts but resisting sin, is experiencing what being fully human is like, including the “drama” of Man exercising free will to choose a righteous path. What does “being sinless” mean in relation to Jesus when he lived as a man? If Jesus was God as a man and God is all-knowing, then Jesus knew not to sin and had God’s awesome power to “just say no” to sin. Maybe this is just semantics?