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IT is impossible to lay down à priori definitions concerning the actions and dispositions of sinless beings. It would be but a perverted manner of treating the subject, to insist upon a series of abstract requirements in all special cases, and then to measure an actual character by such a standard. The right way of proceeding is, on the contrary, to ascertain from an actual character, how sinless perfection, where it really existed, was manifested in the several features of the life. And yet it is both possible and necessary first to state, at least by a few fundamental definitions, what we conceive to be essential under all circumstances to the notion of sinlessness. Alter what has been already advanced, a short discussion will, however, suffice.
The idea of sinlessness—anamartesia—does not in itself exclude the possibility of sinning. On the contrary, it is only where this possibility is in some manner presupposed, that sinlessness, properly so called, can be conceived. Absolute impeccability exists only in Him who is infinitely removed from evil, who never can be tempted with evil,—that is, in God.2121 Jas. 1. 13. But wherever there is human nature, and consequent liability to temptation, there is also, by reason of this very nature, the possibility of sin. In this case sinlessness consists in the fact that the basis from which the whole moral life is developed is a pure and energetic one; that in this development, moreover, no deviation from the divine order of life occurs, but that all which approaching from without would seduce to sin, is completely overcome by the victorious power within. He, then, of whom it may be said that by 34reason of his nature sin was possible to him, and yet by no special condition thereof necessary,—that he was, on the contrary, capable of abstaining from sin, and did actually continue to do so,—is a sinless being.2222 In applying to Christ the well-known formula, it is self-evident that sinlessness excludes the non potuit non peccare, since any kind of necessity to sin would make the remaining free therefrom à priori inconceivable. On the other hand, the fact of sinlessness directly involves not only the potuit non peccare, and the non peccavit,—the possibility of remaining free from sin, and the actual freedom therefrom,—but also demands, at least as the postulate of the whole moral development, the potuit peccare. Without this the temptation of Christ would be devoid of reality, and His example would lose an essential element of its importance. How far, however, when we take into account His office of Redeemer, and other circumstances, together with the potuit peccare—the possibility of sin, and the total abstinence therefrom—the non potuit peccare, and therefore a higher necessity of not sinning, might be predicated of Him, is a question which, as appertaining to the province of dogmatic theology or speculation, it is beside our purpose to discuss. Compare Steudel, Glaubenslehre, p. 241, and J. Müller, Lehre von der Sünde, ii. 225 and 226.
The meaning of the term sinlessness is, first of all, a negative one. But it is not applied in this sense to a single act of the will, or to the outward act. In such cases we employ the expressions ‘irreproachability’ or ‘guiltlessness.’ When, on the contrary, the far deeper term sinlessness is used, we always have in view the entire moral condition, and we contemplate this in its inmost nature. It is, however, also evident that here, too,—as in our definition of the nature of sin,—we cannot stop short at a mere negation. Sinlessness is indeed a notion which can be applied only to personal beings, called upon to will and to act as moral agents, and in whom, consequently, the very omission of such willing and acting is a violation of the divine order of life. This, in itself, requires the positive choice and practice of what is good. But this becomes still more decidedly the case, from the fact that sinlessness has to be maintained in a world that lieth in wickedness,—a world in which evil has become a ruling power. At the first commencement of the development 35of the human race, we might indeed conceive of sinlessness as a mere abstinence from sin,—as mere innocence not yet intermeddling with the opposition between good and evil. But after sin has entered and taken possession of human nature, the leading a sinless life becomes inconceivable apart from a most decided struggle against evil, even to its most hidden and deepest roots. And this fight for life and death,1 is no matter of mere childlike purity and innocence, but one demanding the most intense activity of the fully matured moral powers, and therefore something supremely positive,—the work accomplished by the moral personality; a work everywhere manifested by acts, and in which even endurance must become action.
What this involves in the case of an individual, will be evident if we bear in mind those main features of the nature of sin already stated. We saw that sin was disobedience to the Divine order of life,—a disobedience at first internal, but afterwards appearing in external actions; that it was, moreover, a severance, through lack of faith and love, from the Divine Ruler of the world Himself; from God, the only true centre of life, and at the same time a setting up of the false one Self and the world; which, instead of the satisfaction sought therein, yields only discord, disorder, and ruin, whether to individuals, or to the whole sin-possessed community. In contrast to this, we should regard as sinless, one who should render obedience to the Divine law in the whole extent of its requirements,—an obedience not only maintained under all, even the most difficult, circumstances and conditions, but itself a fundamental fact of the character. Hence the moral life resulting from this obedience is no patched and piecemeal product, but a tissue woven of one material throughout,—an inseparable, undivided whole. Nor will this obedience be rendered merely to the law as such, but through this to its holy Author. The life will consequently 36be an uninterrupted acquiescence in the Divine will, a walking before God, a walking with God; and the whole constitution of the moral choice and action, together with personal surrender to God, faith, and vital piety, will form an indivisible, harmonious whole.
Such a being is inconceivable, except as perfectly free, peaceful, happy, repelling all defilement and obscurity from the mental and corporeal life, and exercising, under all circumstances, a perfect self-control. From such a one, united by the band of perfect love to both God and man, might be reasonably expected the possession of an ‘incalculable power, both to conquer sin in general in the human race, and, in spite of all the might and authority of evil, to call into existence a moral and religious community, in accordance with the Divine purpose towards the human race.
It is in this its essentially positive as well as in its negative sense, that we apply the epithet sinless to the Lord Jesus. We view Him as the sinlessly Perfect, the absolutely Holy One, ever filled with the spirit of obedience, faith, and love, and so constantly and under all circumstances acting up to this spirit, that sin had no place in His life. It is self-evident that such a life could only have been developed from a pure basis: no original sinful tendency, no naturally evil inclination, is here conceivable, but only a fulness of moral power, perfect and inviolable even in its first rudiments. This, however, is not the point from which we start, but the conclusion at which we shall arrive in the course of . our discussion. Our starting-point is simply the historical manifestation of Jesus Christ, the actual facts presented by His human life; and our task is in the first instance to prove from these His sinless perfection.
In the fulfilment of this task, however, we are conscious of the limits imposed upon us by the nature of the subject.
Truths of the highest nature, especially those religious 37and moral truths which afford to our inner life its ultimate repose and inward satisfaction, are neither ascertained by the medium of the senses, nor are they susceptible of a demonstration which, like logical and mathematical axioms, possesses the quality of being utterly incontestable. The very nature of these truths places them beyond such means of proof, and this incapability is to be regarded, not as a defect, but as a mark of superiority. The region of moral and religious truth is a free one, and the supreme blessing which it offers can; only be appropriated by free and trusting acquiescence, i.e. by faith. Now faith—which, however decidedly it may be referred to a divine operation, must yet at the same time be ever regarded as a moral act—would forfeit its most essential nature if it were compelled by force of demonstration. All that can be shown is, that faith is the more reasonable and moral part, and that it answers to the requirements of human life infinitely more than its opposite.
This, too, is the case with the sinlessness of Christ. As all moral greatness appearing in human form may be denied, or, where its manifestation cannot be contested, may at least have a doubt cast upon its inward motive, so also may the moral dignity and purity of Jesus. Doubt and opposition cannot even here be absolutely excluded or refuted, and, least of all, where there is an absence of all susceptibility for receiving impressions from purity and elevation of character, and of a capacity to appreciate them, unless manifested in a striking and brilliant manner. What is wanted is a willing and joyful confidence in Him who is exhibited to us as so exalted and so unique a Being,—an elevation of our own minds when approaching one so elevated,—a moral soaring towards that height which He occupies. Such a confidence, such an exaltation, may, however, be justified it can be shown that they are based upon the soundest external and internal evidence, and that their opposites would involve us 38in a maze of contradictions, and especially in such as are of a moral kind.2323 Theologians, says even De Wette, must not, when bringing forward historical proofs, overlook the importance of faith, nor commit themselves to the vain effort of demonstrating, as evident, palpable truth, that which is to be apprehended by the faith which, though it does not see, yet seeing not, believes. Compare my article, ‘Polemisches in Betreff der Sundlösigkeit Jesu,’ Stud. und Kritik. 1842-3, p. 687, etc.
In this sense, then, we now proceed to prove, in its special reference to the person of Jesus Christ, the existence of that sinlessness of which we have hitherto spoken only according to its general features.39
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