Get thee behind me Satan, I think.


Back in the early 2000s, Greg Boyd and some friends (myself included) discussed the peccability/impeccability of Jesus, that is, whether Jesus was genuinely capable of sin (peccable = vulnerable to or capable of choosing sinfully; impeccable = not capable of choosing sinfully). It’s a question all Christians get around to eventually. Greg argued for the impeccability of the God-Man. His reasons were pretty straightforward:

Jesus is God.
God can’t sin.
Therefore Jesus can’t sin.

Years later in response to Dwayne and me, Greg clarified his Christology regarding Chalcedon (ReKnew, Jan/2014) and said that in becoming flesh, God sets aside the exercise of any divine attribute that contradicts what it means to be ‘human’ (‘omnipresence’, ‘omniscience’, and ‘omnipotence’ didn’t make the cut). But Greg argued passionately that God cannot set aside his perfect, loving, character; thus the impeccability of Jesus. Indeed, for Greg the one thing (actually the only thing) that makes Jesus divine is his perfectly loving character. For Greg, there’s no divinity apart from this essential benevolence and full divinity wherever you have it (whatever else you might not have).

However, to take the human journey does entail, Greg agreed, being capable of experiencing temptation. Greg leaned on the familiar passages in Hebrews which make it clear that Jesus suffered temptation. So in the end Greg’s position was the Jesus was not peccable, i.e., he could not sin, but he could and did genuinely suffer temptation to sin. To clarify, I’m just narrating the flow of an old conversation here. I’m not engaging Greg’s Christology at this point. Maybe I’ll weigh in on the question later. But for now I just want to reflect on Greg’s logic.

Greg was pressed to explain his commitment to Jesus’ impeccable character and goodness, and thus his inability to choose sinfully, on the one hand, and the reality of his temptations, on the other. After all, James 1 makes it clear that God’s impeccability precludes the capacity to be tempted. And if God cannot be tempted to do evil, he cannot do evil. And yet Hebrews makes it clear that the God-Man was tempted.

Greg eventually offered the following solution: Jesus was in fact incapable of choosing sin (impeccable), but he didn’t know this. Jesus was ignorant of his impeccability. He mistakenly believed himself capable of sinning. And being unaware of his impeccability was enough, Greg argued, to produce the required feeling of being drawn toward sin or, as temptationwe say, tempted. Even if Jesus could not in fact have followed through in choosing to sin, his ignorance of this fact permitted in him all the psychological aspects of temptation required to (a) fulfill an essential aspect of human being, and so (b) provide us the comfort, encouragement and inspiration we require as Hebrews 4 describes.

I’m not interested in agreeing or disagreeing at this point. I only want to show how Greg’s Christological move here is inconsistent with his kenotic view of the Incarnation and, more specifically, his objection to Chalcedonian Christology on the basis that it essentially makes Jesus’ suffering on the Cross a charade.

First, if it’s true that Jesus only thinks he’s capable of sinning when he’s not, as Greg holds, then clearly Greg doesn’t think Jesus’ false belief in his own peccability disqualifies his experience as genuine temptation. His temptations are no charade given his impeccability. This is similar to how an Orthodox person might make sense of a Chalcedonian view of Jesus’ sufferings on the Cross.

With respect to Christ’s suffering on the Cross as the God-Man, Greg argues that it is not enough for Jesus’ human subjectivity to suffer while the divine nature suffers not. With respect to Christ’s suffering temptations as the God-Man, however, Greg holds to the imperturbability of the divine nature with respect to its essential goodness. Jesus is impeccable and cannot sin, so his experience of temptation is grounded in his ignorance regarding his divine nature.

So in relating Christ’s humanity and divinity to each other relative to his genuine temptations, on the one hand, and his actual impeccability, on the other, Greg stands in the same challenging place that an Orthodox believer stands in relating Christ’s humanity and divinity to each other relative to God’s essential, unbroken triune beatitude, on the one hand, and the integrity of his being tempted, on the other.

Second, if a human nature can be created impeccable, incapable of sinning (as was Jesus on Greg’s account) without sacrificing the reality of temptation required to qualify Jesus as a true and representative champion of the human journey, then why wouldn’t God have created us all like that? If God can give a human nature perfect benevolence without jeopardizing the genuineness of those struggles and temptations necessary to human spiritual development and personal becoming, why would a benevolent God not give us all this immunity? If one can be truly tempted and develop as a human being without risking sinful choosing, why aren’t we all impeccable from the get-go? (I have my own answers to these questions. I’m asking them of Greg’s position.)

Third, if Greg’s argument against Chalcedon stands, namely, if it’s not enough for Jesus to suffer in his human nature on the Cross but not in his divine nature since that would make his suffering a charade, then the same logic should apply to Greg’s construal of Jesus’ suffering temptation while being impeccable. Jesus’ temptations then would be a charade if in fact he was incapable of sin given his divine nature (to say nothing of the fact that James 1 not only makes ‘willing sinfully’ an impossibility for the divine nature, but also ‘being tempted’ at all). And if the charade Greg thinks is involved in Chalcedonian Christology empties Jesus’ life of its existential import for us, then so would his account of Jesus’ temptations fail for the same reason. If Greg’s claim is true that the integrity of Jesus’ temptations is not jeopardized by Jesus’ being nevertheless incapable of sin, then why cannot other types of human suffering (not just suffering temptation) be attributed to the God-Man without effecting change in the divine nature?

14 comments on “Get thee behind me Satan, I think.

  1. says:

    This is so worthy of serious reflection. I need to take a silent retreat soon!


  2. I was taught in Bible College the traditional, majority view of the impeccability of Christ. I have always maintained that Jesus could have sinned, but did not. It is not a denial of His Deity to say He could sin, but could be a denial of genuine humanity. It is somewhat moot/academic since both views affirm that He was/is sinless. I also disagree with traditional Augustinian ‘original sin’ views.


    • Tom says:


      Good to hear from you! Hope you’re well these days.

      I don’t have perfectly airtight answers to all this either, but…

      William: I was taught in Bible College the traditional, majority view of the impeccability of Christ. I have always maintained that Jesus could have sinned, but did not.

      Tom: I think ‘impeccability’ implies ‘cannot sin’, not just ‘not having sinned though capable of it’. To say God is impeccable is to say his doing evil is impossible/inconceivable.

      William: It is not a denial of His Deity to say He could sin…

      Tom: I’m curious William, what do you make of James’ statement (1:13) that God (i.e., deity) “cannot be tempted by evil”? If deity cannot so much as be tempted by evil, in what sense can it do evil?



      • I reject traditional impeccability that says He cannot sin. I would say He could sin, but did not sin. In both views, He is a sinless Savior (but for different reasons). I would think James is talking about God in general, not the pre-incarnate Christ specifically. I think there is some category confusion with essence/being (Aquinas, etc.) referring to things like eternality, omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience (ontology/metaphysics), while moral issues (holiness, love, sin, etc.) are in the philosophical category of ‘morals’ which involves mind and will (intellect/volition). So, I would say God rightly uses His faculties of mind and will to always choose the good, right, etc. In His humanity, Jesus had a genuine will that could have sinned, but did not. This makes temptation genuine vs robotic and praiseworthy to not sin (vs cannot sin). James is acknowledging that God will not do wrong. I would say it is eisegesis to say it means He cannot do wrong absolutely. It is still moot, but I would say morals are a volitional vs being issue (part of my issue with Oord/love/essential kenosis). This does reflect my Finney/Moral Government Theology thinking (caveat).


  3. Tom says:

    William: I would think James is talking about God in general, not the pre-incarnate Christ specifically.

    Tom: I’m confused. You’re saying God generally speaking is necessarily good but that specifically speaking (i.e., the pre-Incarnate Logos) he’s contingently good?


    • I was trying to distinguish the eternal God (spirit) from a different dynamic of the incarnation that has humanity added to Deity without ceasing to be Deity. The humanity of Christ brings in new limitations. We have parameters but do not know exhaustively about the triune relations or how the two natures relate in the one person of Word/Logos/Christ (Jn. 1; Phil. 2). I would say all personal beings, including eternal God, incarnate Word, angels, etc. have a moral issue that is tied into will and intellect, not causative nature/being (I wonder if that is more Aquinas, Anselm, Augustine, etc. vs biblical). So, God’s being/essence relates to attributes like uncreated eternal spirit, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresence. His moral qualities are volitional and intellectual (love, holiness, etc.). As we make choices, we do form a nature, but I do not think God is static (nor do you) and without merit in His moral excellence. Christ volitionally formed His character and made choices. Sin is not a substance, causative nature, etc. (metaphysical) It is volitional, moral, disobedience, rebellion, selfishness, lawlessness, etc.

      I guess I would not say God is necessarily good since morals are volitional (while metaphysics/being is not?). Moral choices are contingent for the eternal God, incarnate Christ, humans, angels, etc. i.e. God is personal and free. He is the ultimate free will moral agent and conforms His choices to what is wise, intelligent, good, loving, holy, etc.

      We cannot be like God in His essential qualities (uncreated/eternal, omni, etc.). We can be like God in a moral, spiritual sense (not to the same degree of perfections) which involves volition and right use of faculties (mind, body, etc.). God is praiseworthy, perfect, sinless because He chooses to be, not because He just is in being apart from right vs wrong choices. God knows perfectly, chooses perfectly, etc., unlike us, yet we are to be holy as He is holy (I Peter 1:13-16), but not God/gods in being/nature/ontology.

      So, it is a matter of ontology/metaphysics (being, substance) versus moral (volitional, intellectual, personal). Since Jesus is fully man (but not merely man as Deity), He has spirit, soul, body and is holy, sinless because He never sins, not because He is God. Likewise, the Father, triune God, etc. is sinless, holy, righteous because of His moral, volitional, mental choices, not because He is uncreated, eternal spirit being.


      • Tom says:

        William: I guess I would not say God is necessarily good since morals are volitional. Moral choices are contingent for the eternal God…i.e. God is personal and free. He is the ultimate free will moral agent and conforms His choices to what is wise, intelligent, good, loving, holy, etc.

        Tom: Thank you William for the clarity. It’s not my view, but I’m happy to understand your view better. If I could press you with another question or two:

        – If God ‘contingently’ conforms to “what is wise, good, & loving,” could you tell me what reality defines the “wise,” the “good,” or the “loving” as such and to which God conforms his will? For if God conforms to the wise/good/love (whatever it is), then it is the standard love and good as such. It has then to be some reality or other (not just abstract idea in God’s head that informs his choosing, because that would involve God in being necessarily good, and you deny that). So this cannot just “be” God since, as you say, God chooses contingently to conform to it (not it to God). Nor can it be created, since God’s will and character always conform to it.

        – Do you have any insight into what this ‘good as such’, this ‘love as such’ might be and how it relates to God? – – If it is good ‘as such’ and love ‘as such’, is it a ‘willing’ of the good? That’s important, because if it is a volitional reality, then it’s some personal reality other than God, and that would be highly problematic, wouldn’t you agree? And also if this reality is a willing/volitional reality (which seems required since this is the ‘good’ and the ‘loving’ as such), it is necessary (not contingently good as is God). But if this reality is necessarily good as such, then are you not just saying about this ‘good as such’ what you claim is impossible in the case of God, namely, that he is necessary goodness as such?

        The point of my questions, William, is this: If we God isn’t, necessarily, the good as such but that he conforms to the good as such, then we posit a necessary good outside and other than God to which God conforms. Besides it being hugely problematic to posit a necessary ‘good as such’, other than God and to which God conforms, it involves us in an infinite regress, for if God cannot be, necessarily, the good as such because the good can ONLY be freely-contingently willed (as you’re saying) then whatever ‘good as such’ you posit as other than God must be subject to your insistence that ‘the good’ must be freely chosen. We end up positing an infinite number of goods as standards of the good.

        I suggest that we have no ‘good’ to freely conform ourselves to at all if there is no necessary good which is not itself a good that conforms to anything other than itself, and that God must be thought of as this good. If some reality can be the good as such (which you have to suppose), without having to choose freely to be such, surely it’s better to say GOD himself just is this good to which all other created wills conform than to say, as you do, that God conforms to it. Do you see the problem in supposing God conforms his will to some standard of good and love other than himself?


        Liked by 1 person

      • I do not have the background to be precise and technical, so my musings are probably imprecise and need tweaking for sure.

        I am saying sin and righteousness are volitional, not just a passive nature (we are sinners because we sin; we do not sin because we have a genetic, causative nature back of the will). The incipiency of the will is the seat of moral choice (with mind), not being.

        I would say God is the source of moral obligation and His character is the basis for morals (His character and nature is formed by right use of mind and will).

        I imagine this is a big philosophical debate, so my amateur musings will not be as robust as they need to be. Lex Rex, not Rex Lex. God’s character (vs being/essence) is the basis and incorporates intelligence, essential good, etc. God does not arbitrarily use His power that could make inherent evil right or right wrong. There are ? first principles/natural law that God conforms to. Murder is wrong because of the sanctity of life, image of God, etc. It is not that He just says this, but it would be right even if God did not exist (I think Swinburne would argue in line with this and thus would not use moral arguments as much for the existence of God). There is a Law that God conforms to. It is based on His wisdom, knowledge, character, not just passive being.

        I think the key is to distinguish ontology/metaphysics (being/essence/nature) from morals (which are volitional, not substance).

        Perhaps someone could refine my thinking into something more coherent?


      • Tom says:

        I get the necessity of our free will, of moral choices being volitional and not ‘given’ to us by our ‘nature’. The problem, William, is in viewing God to be simply a much larger version of human being such that this movement of the will toward the good (which is how we experience ourselves as moral creatures) is thought to be paralleled in God. I think this equivalence is fatal. The movement of our will toward the good in which we may choose to conform to the good (or choose not to conform) cannot coherently be thought equally to describe the movement of the divine will in conforming to what is good as such.

        This clearly creates a reality (your “Law”), ‘the Good’ or ‘the Standard’, to which God conforms. But this is logically and theologically fatal. You seem to recognize this when you say “there is a Law that God conforms to.” You say this because you assume God is a moral agent just like us but on an immeasurably larger scale. But if God conforms to this “Law” freely and contingently, then that “law” (whatever it is) cannot be God (or his wisdom or intellect or character). You rightly feel this problem and so immediately qualify “there is a Law that God conforms to” by saying “it [i.e., this Law] is based on his wisdom, knowledge, character.” The issue should be fairly simple. If God “freely/contingently conforms to” this “law,” that law cannot also be “based on” God (his wisdom or character), since God is (as you say) in the business of conforming his intellect, will, character, etc., TO this law.

        The safer, more consistent, route is to reason FROM our moral experience TO God as that ‘good as such’ and not as just another instance of moral agency as we experience it. God and we do not likewise conform to some law or standard of the Good. We conform (or not) to God who is the Good as such.


  4. kenn lutz says:

    Is not the whole of Creation the chosen emanation of the Love that IS the Triune God?
    How then can we speculate that this fundamental ‘essence’ is chosen? Would that not mean it will be UN-chosen at some point in fulfilling all possibilities?

    Lord, have mercy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tom says:

      Kenn, I agree that supposing God free to contingently will the Good as such is theologically fatal.


    • Our confidence is in the greatness of God’s love, intelligence, wisdom, etc. His character is such that there is no risk or propensity for God to not be perfect in love and holiness. We do not need a necessity view of impeccability to know that Christ will never sin. We do not need a wrong exhaustive foreknowledge view to know that God’s project will succeed due to His knowledge, wisdom, intelligence, power. We can trust the character of God with no risk of Him becoming a devil. It is based on His intelligence and choices, not a nature such as His eternal self-existence that is not volitional, but necessary. God is personal, not impersonal. Talking about volition for a personal being in the moral category does not just make Him a big human, but it does resonate with what the image of God means for us.


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