Friday, November 18, 2011

Laymen's guide to the Thirty-nine Articles

Article XV

Of Christ alone without Sin

Christ in the truth of our nature was made like unto us in all things, sin only except, from which He was clearly void, both in His flesh and in His spirit. He came to be the lamb without spot, Who by sacrifice of Himself once made, should take away the sins of the world: and sin, as S. John saith, was not in Him. But all we the rest, although baptized and born again in Christ, yet offend in many things: and if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

Christus in nostrae naturae veritate per omnia similis factus est nobis, excepto peccato, a quo prorsus est immunis, tum in carne tum in spiritu. Venit ut agnus absque macula esset, qui mundi peccata per immolationem sui semel factam tolleret: et peccatum, ut inquit Iohannes, in eo non erat. Sed nos reliqui, etiam baptizati et in Christo regenerati, in multis tamen offendimus omnes: et, si dixerimus quia peccatum non habemus, nos ipsos seducimus, et veritas in nobis non est.

Fr. Laurence Wells

As far as I know, the sinlessness of Christ was not under debate in the 16th century controversies.  Whatever new thoughts were circulating among the more radical theological currents of that period, there was no debate at all between Rome and the various wings of the magisterial Reformation regarding this point.   So it may come as a surprise to find this article bristling like a porcupine with a number of hot-button issues.
First, we have the assertion of our Lord's moral impeccability.  Next, we have the assertion of His exclusive uniqueness in this attribute.  The word "alone" lacks the punch of the original Latin, "Nemo praeter Christum."
Then there is a strong assertion that  otherwise, His humanity was in no respect different from ours.  Next, there is a definite nod in the direction of the doctrine of the atonement, anticipating a major theme dealt with more fully in Article XXXI.  Finally, there is yet a second assertion of the universality of our sinful condition, along with a statement on the vexed question of residual sin in those regenerate and justified. 
Before reflecting on the sinlessness of the Saviour, we need to review the nature of sin itself.  There are basically two ways of thinking about sin, which go back to the heresiarch Pelagius and the sainted Church Father Augustine.  In a Pelagian world-view, "sin" is a term which describes occasional occurrences which interrupt the normal flow of life for morally neutral creatures.  Occasionally they get angry, have impure thoughts, say unkind words, or even do more heinous things.  But these are deviations from the norm, extraordinary events, moral anomalies. But as Augustine heard the Word of God, sin is not only things we do or fail to do; sin is the underlying condition, the spiritual disease, which explains our behavior.  Worse than that, sin blemishes all our behavior and to a frightening degree controls it.  Understood as a spiritual disease, sin is a terminal condition, from which its victims cannot heal or extricate themselves.  Augustine grasped the painful Biblical truth that sin is rooted in human nature at its very core:

"But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.  For out of the heart comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander (Matt. 15:18--19." 

Sinful outward behavior originates in the heart itself.
Now the New Testament insists in many familiar texts that Jesus was "without sin."  It would tax the patience of our readers to enter into a scholastic discussion as to whether He was "able not to sin" (posse non peccare) or "not able to sin" (non posse peccare).   He Himself insisted on His sinlessness in John 8, with the stinging question, "Which of you convicts me of sin?" (John 8:46).  This follows on Jesus' own assessment of the human condition, "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin."  St Paul clarifies the "everyone" with an emphatic "all" at Romans 3:24, "For all sinned and are falling short of the glory of God."      
If Pelagius was right, then the sinlessness of Christ is hardly significant, save perhaps as an important (but not necessarily unique) moral example.  But from Augustine's Biblical point of view, the exemption of Christ from the fatal predicament of sin is both miracle and mystery.  Sin is not only an internal disease of our spiritual DNA; it is part of the warp and woof of social relationships in the human community.  Since God Incarnate did not live on earth as a "boy in a bottle," in an antiseptic cage of moral isolation, then how did he manage to stay sinless?  The New Testament does not invite us to believe that as the Second Adam He entered the world in Edenic safety and bliss.  His sinless humanity was still our miserable fallen humanity:  "By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, [God] condemned sin in the flesh" (Romans 8:3).  
The sinlessness of Christ is in itself a miracle.  The drama of His Temptation, told by Matthew and Luke and alluded to by Mark, comes across as a surprising Victory, like the Resurrection itself, an outcome the reader could not anticipate.  This miracle is rooted in His Virginal Conception (although that fact has larger meaning). Only a sinless One could redeem sinners, and for a truly sinless One to arrive in this fallen world a new beginning, a New Creation, was necessary.
Although Old Testament foreshadowings of His sinlessness are not lacking, no sinless human being existed between Adam and Christ.  To suggest such a thing diminishes His uniqueness and denies His role as "the only mediator between God and man."
When we look at the NT texts which state His sinlessness, the uniqueness of Christ is always close to the forefront.

In Hebrews 4:15, we read, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin."  His unique sinlessness is part and parcel of His unique priesthood.  To indulge in speculations of any other sinless mortal compromises His unique role in the Gospel and inexorably leads to unwholesome thoughts of co-redeemers and co-redemptrices. He is exclusively our Great High Priest and we are not invited by God's Word into any sentimental notions of a Great High Priestess.

Fr. Robert Hart

Fr. Wells has provided the meat of what this Article is saying, and closes with an obvious allusion to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a doctrine that was never a dogma of the Universal Church, though declared a dogma exclusively by the See of Rome in the nineteenth century without even so much as the appearance of conciliar assent. In the centuries prior to the sixteenth, going as far back as St. Thomas Aquinas, the theory of the Immaculate Conception was under debate, and so it remained even in the Church of Rome until 1854 when Pope Pius IX issued Ineffabilis Deus. It was not a doctrine of the Church of Rome when this Article was composed.
What matters in that connection is that Mary’s sinless state was a matter of grace at the moment of the Virginal Conception of the Lord. The Scriptures use a word that is stronger than the standard word for “grace,” and in the King James it takes two words to translate it; “highly favored.” This is obviously echoed in the famous “Hail Mary” as “full of grace” (i.e. instead of the standard χάρις Luke used the word χαριτόω).
But, the theory of the Immaculate Conception does not flow naturally from the texts of Scripture. It is a theory that, if true, certainly solves no problem. The Medieval “problem” that Christ needed a mother free of original sin in order to be free of it Himself, fails to take into account the miraculous nature of the Incarnation and the power of God. You may believe the theory if you want to; but I cannot teach it as doctrine, for it is not a doctrine of the ancient Church, nor of the Universal Church to this day; which is to say, it is not revealed and is not recorded in Scripture among all things necessary to salvation.
The unique sinlessness of Christ, however, perfectly meets that whole standard as necessary and infallible doctrine. Without this understanding we fail to understand the One for the many as set forth in the Suffering Servant passage in the Book of Isaiah (52:13-53:12) and the fifth chapter of St. Paul's Epistle to the Church in Rome.

It also seems likely that the ending of the Article was aimed at Enthusiasts of the time, among some Puritans and Anabaptists, who believed themselves to be sinners no longer after a personal conversion. We hear echoes of this error today from people who say they were once sinners, but now are saints. Therefore the Article closes with a quotation from chapter one of the First Epistle of St. John, to remind everyone of the need to confess and repent daily. 


Anonymous said...

So loving these posts on the Articles. Thanks for both of your contributions!

Steven Badal
ACC Layman

Kevin said...

I'm coming to this years after the fact, so I don't necessarily expect an answer, but I'd appreciate one.

You spend some time discussing the Immaculate Conception of Mary and rightly state that it isn't something at all clear in Scripture or the Fathers. Most educated Roman Catholics I know would agree (they'd say it's development). But, that particular doctrine is really only a peculiar version of a larger idea, namely Mary being free from any particular sin (as opposed to original sin) and that seems to have much great patristic merit. Yet it is still something that seems to be contradicted by this article. What do you make of that?