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Can God Sin?
The question of God’s impeccability (whether or not God has the ability to sin) seems for most Christians to be an irrelevant (or even irreverent) question--to them God’s perfect goodness necessarily entails an inability to sin. Upon a more critical examination of the question, however, certain criticisms about the “doctrine of impeccability” must be examined and rectified if the fullness of the doctrine are to be realized. The importance of the question should not be overlooked, for not only is God’s impeccability closely connected with his omnipotence, but also with how humans can relate to him, as well as Christ’s dual nature as fully God and fully man. Therefore, the purpose of this paper will be initially to examine the traditional arguments about God’s impeccability and the problems raised by said arguments. Secondly, the paper will examine a new paradigm for conceiving of God’s impeccability. It is the authors opinion, therefore, that the best model of “divine impeccability”, which accounts not only for God’s omnipotence, but also accounts for the hypostatic union of Christ, is that while God is able to sin, he is certain not exercise it because in his nature he is perfectly virtuous, and as such perfectly inclined away from sin.
(1) Pike, Nelson, “Omnipotence and God's Ability to Sin” (American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 3.: Jul., 1969), 209
(2) Michael Canham points out (pg. 100) that even pre-fall, human nature had the “ability not to sin” but not the “inability to sin”, and thus concludes that, since Jesus’ human nature must have been of a prelapsarian type, then Jesus had the ability to sin in his humanity but exercised his ability not to sin. While there may be some flaws to the reasoning as a whole, in general, and for the sake of this paper, it will be assumed that Christ’s human nature “qua human nature” was able to commit sin.
(3) This is an issue most aptly raised in the beginning quote of Heb 4:15. This question is further implied in other authors (Canham and Pike), when they address the question of Christ’s temptation, and if it could be meaningful without the possibility of succumbing to temptation. While not the most common challenge to the argument of impeccability, it is one that this paper will take seriously.
(4) To the best of my knowledge, these are my terms of distinction not used in other literature.
Traditional Arguments On Impeccability
The Problem of Impeccability
Traditionally the teaching that God cannot sin has been taken as the normative teaching. However, the primary and most pervasive challenge to this teaching concerns the supposed difficulty it presents for God’s omnipotence and goodness. The argument states that if God is all-powerful, then he necessarily has the power to sin. However, God must also be all-good, and if he sins he ceases to be God. Therefore, God can be either all-powerful, or all-good, but cannot be both. But ceasing to be either of these also means that he ceases to be God.
Theologians have developed typical arguments to solve this challenge, the primary one being that God, at no expense to his omnipotence, cannot perform “logical contradictions” (such as making a “square circle”). Since a it would be logical contradiction for a being who is perfectly good to commit a sin, God does not compromise his omnipotence by being unable to sin. Nelson Pike also summarizes a traditional argument by stating that God’s omnipotence only refers to his “creative power”.(1)
It is the opinion of this author that both of these arguments are at the very least lacking the fullness of explanation that could be gained through a more complete study of the subject. Furthermore, these arguments seem to lack the proper weight that a theological theory must possess in order to properly defend its position. In other words, they seem like simple answers to a complex question, and thus they are inadequate.
However, I believe that the question of impeccability has wider implications than just God’s omnipotence; it also is essential to how we understand the dual nature of Christ. If Christ was fully human, than he must have had the ability to sin(2), but if God is impeccable, then how does this affect the human nature of Christ? Furthermore, if God is unable to sin, how is he possibly able to empathize with the human condition and the struggle of sin, and how are we to strive towards “Godliness” when it is a matter of God’s being that he cannot sin.(3) In other words, a God who is portrayed as one who cannot sin, is much more daunting and less “relatable” than one who can sin, but will not. The latter is seemingly more removed from the possibility of the human person's cooperation in achieving perfection, whereas the former offers more hope that, with God’s example and through his grace, the state of perfection is achievable. The theory of this paper will seek to give the fullness of explanatory power to God’s impeccability which will address the concerns of the three problems just discussed. Furthermore, the term “impeccability” shall be used in two ways. The first will be as “strict impeccability” which means that God can in no way act in a sinful way, and the second shall be “loose impeccability” which is the position of the paper, and means that God can sin, but will not.(4)
(5) Pike, Canham, Aquinas, Sahl, and Zathureczky all use this as the starting verse for their argument, although they in general come to two different conclusions concerning the verse.
(6) Summa Theologicae, Part I, Q. 25, A. 3.
(7) Pike, 211
(8-10) bid., 215
Much of the Impeccability arguments fall to interpretation of a few key verses. The primary of these being James 1:13-14, “No one experiencing temptation should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God is not subject to temptation to evil, and he himself tempts no one. Rather, each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.”(5) Habakkuk 1:13 also states that God cannot even bear to look upon sin, the logical conclusion that follows being that he himself then could not sin. Both 2 Corinthians 5:20-21, and 1 John 3:5-6, stating that there is "no sin in Him", are used as a foundation for logically extrapolating God's strict impeccability.
Aquinas further upholds the traditional arguments of God’s omnipotence and impeccability, saying that God can do all things that are absolutely possible, which does not include logical contradictions.(6) However, in his Reply to Objection 2 Aquinas affirms the words of Aristotle that, “God can deliberately do what is evil”, but further qualifies it as a conditional statement. Nelson Pike spends a great deal of time explaining what Aquinas could have meant by this affirmation, and eventually explains that the best possibility is that Aquinas was stating that the condition of God willing sin is certain not to come about.(7) In other words, God can sin if he wants to, but it is impossible that he will ever possess that desire.
This brings us to the key position of this paper, that of Nelson Pike in response to Aquinas. Nelson Pike argues that “all we can conclude is that if he does have this ability, it is one that he does not exercise.”(8) Pike goes on to elaborate that,
The term “God” has been so specified that the individual who is God cannot sin and be God. But it will not follow from this that the individual who is God does not have the ability to sin. He might have the creative power necessary to bring about states of affairs the production of which would be morally reprehensible. He is perfectly good (and thus God) insofar as he does not exercise this power.(9)
Pike also states that it is God’s character that strongly disposes him to act with only “morally acceptable actions”.(10) It is this assertion, that God’s loose impeccability derives from the character of his personality, that this paper will further explore using virtue theology.
(11) Zathureczky, Kornél. "Jesus' impeccability: beyond ontological sinlessness.",(Science Et Esprit 60, no. 1: January 1, 2008), 58
The Unique Position of Christ's Dual Natures
Before considering the nature of God as a whole, we must first examine the unique position that Christ’s dual natures plays in the argument of impeccability. Christ poses a unique concern for the question of Divine impeccability for three reasons. The first is that Christ has a human nature that is distinct but not separate from his fully divine nature. Human nature, even in its pre-lapsarian state, has the ability to sin. Therefore, what role does Christ’s human nature play in Him being able to sin despite the traditional views on the impeccability of divine nature?
The second concern Christ raises about his impeccability is that the Bible is very clear that he was tempted. The primary question to be examined here is does the temptation of Christ mean anything if he could not have sinned, or was it merely a formal trial to emphasize the fact that he was human. We will look more closely at the idea of Christ's temptation in the following section.
The third concern concerns Christ’s free-will. If Christ did have free will, which all human beings must necessarily have, then it logically follows that he had the ability to choose sin. Again, this is in contrast to the the idea that the divine nature cannot sin. All three of these concerns must be addressed in Christ if one is going to understand how the person of God the Father is impeccable.
Zathureczky aids much in the discussion of the questions by distinguishing further between two kinds of “sinless” as it concerns Christ--the first is de facto and means there is no actual sinful action on the part of Christ, whereas sinlessness de jure means that Christ’s sinlessness was part of his very nature.(11) This paper maintains through it’s thesis that Christ’s impeccability is de jure, an idea that must be rectified with the purely divine nature of the Father. This will occur through our discussion of God as virtue.
(12) Matthew 4:1-11
(13) Luke 22: 43-44
(14) Sahl, Joseph G. "The impeccability of Jesus Christ.", (Bibliotheca Sacra 140, no. 557: January 1, 1983), 11-20.
(15) The Eutychian nature of this argument cannot be denied.
The fact that Christ endured temptation is explicit in the Bible. At the beginning of his ministry he was lead out into the wilderness where he was tempted three times.(12) He also appeared to be tempted in the Garden of Gethsemane when he asked for the cup of suffering to be passed from his lips.(13) Despite this, the most important thing is that whether or not his temptation was “real”, Christ did not succumb to it. It is this stainlessness that enabled him to be the perfect sacrifice to accomplish our atonement.
However, the question of how genuine his temptation was is still a pertinent question, not only because it has implications for the impeccability of the Father, but perhaps even more so because, as the most relatable manifestation of God, the incarnate Christ must be able to sympathize with the plight of the common sinner. If Christ’s temptation was merely a matter of formal ritual which he simply had to undergo in order to start his ministry, than Christ’s temptation means nothing to the actual human person. Therefore, a few theories must be examined to understand the actual purpose of this temptation.
The first position, exemplified by Joseph G. Sahl, states that importance lies in Jesus’ personhood, rather than his natures, and thus since Christ is a divine person (whom cannot sin) it does not matter that he has a human nature, because the will resides in the person, not the nature.(14) A variation of this position holds that Christ’s personhood “trumps” his human nature, and that it influenced it in a such a way that it erased Christ’s ability to sin through his human nature.(15) The second position, that of Michael McGhee Canham, argues that Christ possessed both impeccability (in his divine nature) and peccability (in his perfect human nature) but did not sin because he was God. There are various Christological problems with these two positions and so I believe a third position best fits with appropriate Christological teachings and upholds the thesis of this whole paper.
(16) This statement is not meant to negate the importance of the communication of idioms, but rather to say if a property can be communicated from a human nature, to a divine one, then a fortiori can it be said between consubstantial divine natures.
Divine Nature, Divine Person
Where Joseph Sahl is correct is that the personhood of Christ must play an important role, because it will necessarily influence how he actualizes his natural powers. But the bulk of the theological heavy lifting must be done with concern for the divine nature of Christ, in light of his personhood, for apart from saying anything about the human nature of Christ, if something can be said about the divine nature of Christ, it can most certainly be said of the Father as well. In establishing the person’s relationship to sin, it becomes much easier to establish what role the natures plays. Because this paper will discuss virtue, a discussion of natures is essential, and while one cannot credibly assert which of Christ’s nature’s is more important or dominant, the nature that Christ shares most fully and obviously with the Father is his divine nature. (16)
(17) Summa Theologicae, II-I, Q. 55, A. 3.
(18-19) Waldron, Martin Augustine. "Virtue." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912) <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15472a.htm>.
(20) 1 John 4:16
Argument from Virtue
In light of the thesis of this paper, the question that must be addressed as the crux of this paper is whether or not God can be considered “virtuous”. Virtue will be define for this paper as operative good habit which is a perfection of the powers appropriate to one’s nature.(17) Furthermore, there are two types of virtue--that which is virtuous only in a restricted sense (secundum quid), and that which is virtuous absolutely (simpliciter).(18) While the intellect is the subject of the former (which only enables the person to do good in a certain sense), the will is the subject of the latter (which enables the person to do good in all senses).(19)
A further distinction concerns that of moral virtues versus theological virtues. Moral virtues are rooted in one’s nature, and with grace can be perfected to help one more fully seek God. The four Cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance, while capable of being infused by God, are natural virtues the basis of which the human person possesses by simply existing. While God is typically thought to have these virtues (God is just, etc.), they are proper only to human nature, and thus in his divine nature, God does not need these virtues. God is just because he posses the qualities of omniscience and omnipotence that when exercised, results consistently in just actions.
Theological virtues are only infused by God, because they have God as their source. As concerns humans, they are the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, and they dispose man to more fully seek supernatural happiness. God, being the source of these virtues and of a divine nature, must naturally not only possess these virtues, but is these virtues in his essence. However, it is improper to say that God is faith and hope, since not only does God have no need of these virtues, but because these virtues are proper only to human existence apart from God.
Thus, the theological virtue that is left is Charity, the virtue towards which all other virtues flow. In this sense, “God is love”(20) takes on a greater meaning than merely a father who cares for us and desires good for us. When speaking of virtue, to say that God is love is to say that God is the efficient cause and subject of all virtue--all virtues flows from him and return to him.
Since all other virtues are oriented towards God, and thus are directed by the virtue of Charity, one who has perfected the virtue of love will manifest all the other virtues in their actions. So much more is this true of God, who is love in his very existence and because he has been love eternally, he is certain not to act contrary to love even though he has the ability to do so.
Not only do we see this “divine love virtue” in the Father, but in an even more recognizable way through the Son. It is more conceivable that Jesus should sin because of his human nature, but when framed by divine love virtue, one gains a more comprehensive view of a person who could sin, but who loves so perfectly that he wills not to . Yes, Christ is capable of sin in a special way through his human nature (even if it is a prelapsarian human nature), but because his human will is perfectly aligned with his divine will, his human will is perfectly oriented towards divine love and in his perfect virtue he will not succumb to temptation.
Why is this discussion important? Not only is it needed for a more complete view of the interaction between God’s impeccability and his omnipotence, but even more so because as humans, we need to know that God, especially in the person of Christ, can identify with our temptation. Hebrew 2:18 testifies to this, "For in that he himself suffered being tempted, he is able to aid those who are tempted".
In conclusion, this paper has sought to show that while God has the ability to sin (through his omnipotence and creative power), he is certain not to exercise this power because he is perfectly virtuous. The paper began by exploring the traditional challenges concerning common conceptions of impeccability, including God’s omnipotence, and concluded that current theories of divine impeccability are inadequate or incomplete. The author then examined the unique role of Christ has having both a divine and human nature, and concluded that the focus of study must be on the divine nature, which is shared with the other persons of the Trinity. Finally, using a study of virtue, this paper has concluded that God is the source and final cause of virtue, which is exemplified by his love, and thus while God has the ability to bring about any circumstance, his perfect virtue assures that he will only ever act in love.