John Owen: Planning To Be Human

I said last week that I’m writing mostly here about the public side of Christianity – about the structures and systems of Christian thought. Following that, this week we’re going to talk about some of the most niche abstract hypothetical theology you’ve ever seen. Here’s the question: did God plan for Jesus to become human before Adam sinned, or only afterwards? Don’t care? Good. It’s not that important. But follow along – there are some fun little twists and turns, and then you can click away and immediately forget about it.

  • The book: Communion with God
  • The author: John Owen, 17th century British Puritan.
  • Notes: We’re working with an abridged version, with modernized language, courtesy of one R.J.K. Law.
  • Read it yourself: Here’s a free online version of the original text, or the version I’m working with is available here.

Every now and then, Owen has a little objection-response structure in his work. He’ll just say ‘Objection!’, raise an objection to himself, and then offer a reply. It’s very Aquinas. At one point, he raises an objection about Christ’s humanity: “How could Christ take our nature and not the guilt and the defilements of it?” The answer that Owen puts forward is that Christ “was never legally represented by Adam.” I’ll give you a chunk of his reply:

“Had Adam not sinned, Christ would not have been incarnate. He would not have needed to be a Mediator for sinners. Therefore the moral necessity that Christ should be incarnate took place only after the fall. So Christ could not have been legally represented by Adam and so Adam’s sin could not be imputed to him.”

There are a few different things to touch on here – let’s go line by line. If Adam hadn’t sinned, Christ would not have been incarnate. That’s an interesting sentiment. I guess the first question – was it ever a possibility that Adam would not sin? I mean, theoretically it should be an option, right? If Adam chose to sin, then he must have been able to choose not to sin, otherwise he’s not really choosing. And if Adam had the option not to sin, and if he’d taken that option, then, according to Owen, Christ would never have become incarnate.

But doesn’t that sound a little weird? Just imagine – there’s God and Jesus standing up in heaven, not knowing whether Jesus is going to have to come to Earth, and just watching Adam and Eve to find out what happens. And they’re standing there, and they’re watching, and Jesus is going come on, come on, don’t do it, and then Eve grabs the apple and takes a bite, and Jesus is like ah shit, guess I’ll have to incarnate myself then, and God’s like yeah tough luck mate, enjoy puberty lol. While Owen’s hypothetical technically makes sense, it doesn’t seem like it was ever a possible reality. If we think about God’s omnipotence, then surely He knew from the beginning that Jesus was going to have to come to Earth. And surely that factored into the planning stages of creation. The Incarnation wasn’t something that was slapped onto reality as a post-Eden bug fix – it wasn’t God flailing around for a makeshift solution after humans cocked everything up. It was part of the plan from the beginning.

From there, Owen’s argument begins to fall apart. Christ would not have needed to be a Mediator if Adam had never sinned – again, technically true, but it seems to imply that Jesus only adopted the role of Mediator after the Fall, when in reality he was the Mediator from the beginning. There’s a cause and effect that are out of place here: Owen makes out like Adam did a thing, and then Jesus picked up the mantle of Mediator in response, when in reality Jesus held the mantle of Mediator from the beginning, as he foreknew that Adam would sin. The point is that the Incarnation is not a Plan B for the universe. The Incarnation was always Plan A.

In Owen’s defense, you can understand where he’s coming from. Jesus is a descendant of Adam, and so when he’s born, he should inherit Adam’s sin. That’s the premise of Romans 5 – we all inherit the sin of Adam. Verse 15, we’re told “The many died through the one man’s trespass”; verse 18, “one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all.” When Jesus takes on a human form, he’s born to a human woman, and so he should inherit sin through that process – which would make him not perfect, and make the entire redemption-of-humanity arc null and void. Owen’s response kinda hinges on this imaginary future descendants idea. So – here’s the idea, right. We’ve got Jesus, who’s a spirit or whatever, and he’s got no plans to be human, he’s just up in heaven chilling out, totally innocent. Just doing his thing. Then Adam sins, and that sin is implicitly spread to every one of Adam’s future descendants – but not Jesus, who, again, is just a spirit with absolutely no plans to become human. So then the entire human race is tainted forever. They’re all just fucked. And then, after that happens, Jesus is like ugh, guess I’ll tap in and save them. He signs up to become a human after Adam’s original sin, meaning he’s not tainted, because the shockwave of the original sin has already passed. Christ was not a future descendant of Adam at the time of the original sin, because he had no plans to become human (was planning on just being a ghost), and so therefore he wasn’t legally represented by Adam, and so he doesn’t get tainted. That’s the theory.

Obviously the intentionality / foreknowledge thing is where that all falls apart. Owen’s argument hinges on the idea that Jesus only decided to become human in response to Adam’s sin. If Adam had been perfect, Jesus would’ve just never become human – he would’ve been very happy being a ghost or whatever. Would’ve preferred it, actually. But if the Incarnation was always the plan, and if Jesus created reality with the intention of becoming human, then he’s a guaranteed descendant of Adam and he should’ve inherited Adam’s sin along with the rest of us. You can probably counter that argument with some silly legalistic nonsense if you like – even though Jesus knew that he would have to become incarnate, because he knew that Adam would sin, he didn’t actually properly commit to becoming human until after the Fall. It wasn’t a moral necessity, Owen says. But it’s just not a great argument. For instance, if Jesus did sign up to become human after Adam’s original sin, and therefore actually did dodge getting tainted by that original sin, wouldn’t he still have been infected by, like, Adam’s second sin? Alternately, you could make some argument about the actual mechanisms of how we inherit sin. It doesn’t make sense to just magically apply sin to every hypothetical future human right at the moment of Adam’s transgression – instead, you could argue that it’s something that each human picks up only when they are conceived. Then you can argue some rubbish about the Virgin Mary being sanctified by the Holy Spirit – she was made perfect, totally cleansed of sin, and so there was nothing bad for Jesus to inherit from her. Owen makes this argument himself, actually: “The substance of the virgin Mary from which Christ’s human nature was made was sanctified by the Holy Spirit, so that the babe born was holy and undefiled.” It’s an avenue that you can go down if you’re really committed to explaining how Jesus was born without sin. Alternately, if you’re a normal person, you can just sort of shrug, accept that he managed it somehow, and then get back to whatever you were doing. Don’t get too caught up in it, yeah?

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