The challenge in our age is not so much in answering the question of who God is. The Church has sufficiently tackled this question in by-gone generations. Our challenge, if we are to rightly understand the Christian faith, is to learn what a human is.
It seems to me that we Christians would do well to reflect on the orthodox doctrine of the incarnation: Christ is (was) one Person with two natures – i.e. the “God-Man.” In part, this doctrine holds that Jesus was both God and man in that He possessed both the divine will and a human will, yet remained one, undivided Person. There are two important views of human nature that should be gleaned from the incarnation of Christ:
1.) Jesus possessed a human will; a will which was free to follow or not follow God. Therefore humans have free-will.
If one holds to this doctrine as outlined in the great Ecumenical Councils of the Church then it reveals to us some essential characteristics of human nature. For Jesus to have been truly human, and therefore truly able to redeem mankind, He must have truly possessed a human will. And what do we see concerning Jesus’ human will as recorded in the gospels? We see a man who struggled with the temptation of sin in the wilderness, as well as a man who struggled with the divine will in the Garden of Gethsemane. In both circumstances Jesus had to exert his human will to submit to the divine will (“not My will, but Yours, be done” –Luke 22:42). It was not automatic, nor was it a matter of the divine will usurping the human will by divine fiat, i.e. “making” Jesus fulfill God’s righteousness.
This does serious damage to some western views of redemption. It is often taught, primarily from the Reformed view, that mankind has no free-will. God simply chooses who will be redeemed and who will suffer eternal torment without regard to the actions, mental or physical, of any given person. In short, one need not, or better put – cannot – cooperate with God in the process of redemption because man’s supposed “total depravity” makes him/her incapable of such. In addition, if man could somehow cooperate with redemption it would nullify the Reformed doctrine of irresistible grace and God’s sovereignty, among others.
But a proper understanding the incarnation of Christ demonstrates that Christ’s human nature was truly free to decide whether or not to follow the divine will. So the first step in forming an orthodox view of man requires one to acknowledge man’s part to play in his relationship with God. It is incorrect to see man through the lens of determinism, whether that determinism is of the scientific, the Gnostic (in the case of the early Valentinianism), or the Reformed varieties.
2.) If Christ was truly human then He must have been born with the same capacity to sin as the rest of us. Yet Christ remained sinless and could not have been sinless if He was born with the sin-guilt of Adam. Therefore, mankind does not inherit the sin-guilt of Adam.
The above statement does not imply that humanity did not inherit death from Adam, but rather the “sin-guilt” of Adam. If Jesus did not have a human will – i.e. free-will – just as we have, it could be said that Jesus had an advantage over other humans which made His life “easier” to live sinless. But this is not the case as Scripture makes plain: “He was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). But if He was somehow immune to sin in the same way as, say, Superman was immune to bullets then His life no more reflects our actual trials with sin than Superman reflects our actual trials with bullets.
But what is commonly said in this respect is that as a consequence of being born of a virgin Christ was born sinless, just as Adam was born sinless. Therefore His advantage rests in the fact that He was born without “Original Sin” (i.e. sin-guilt). But again, if Jesus was born without this supposed quintessentially human attribute, then how exactly can we claim that Jesus was fully human just as we are? One must wonder if Adam was any less susceptible to sin than the rest of us? Did he not sin even while living in perfect circumstances in the Garden?
Jesus was indeed every bit as capable of sinning as we are yet He remained sinless. And if He remained sinless then He could not have been born in sin. In short, He was not born with the guilt of Adams sin; and neither are we! This is one of the major theological differences between the Eastern and Western traditions.
I’m fully conscious of the fact that this is a big admission, primarily because western theology has taught for centuries that the human race inherits the sin-guilt of Adam and is thereby guilty of sin at birth. Under this view it’s easy to see how the doctrine of “total depravity” gained credence and why salvific grace is conceived as irresistible; and hence the creation of the doctrine of double pre-destination: those who are redeemed were created for redemption and those who are damned were created for destruction. But one need not accept this view merely because it abounds in the West. There is an entire world of Christian faith that contradicts this western view; a faith whose theological tradition extends back to the Apostolic age and has always been the measure, not the deviation, of orthodox Christian teaching – i.e. Eastern Orthodoxy.