Review: Sinless Flesh

Sinless Flesh: A Critique of Karl Barth’s Fallen Christ, Rafael Nogueira Bello. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020.

Summary: Drawing upon the doctrines of inseparable operations, grace of union and habitual grace, and original sin, argues against the contention of Barth and Torrance that the Son of God assumed fallen human flesh in the Incarnation.

You probably never discussed this question in Sunday school: was the human nature assumed by the Son of God sinless or fallen? We may have discussed this in seminary, but if so, it made no impression on me. Nevertheless, it distinguishes two giants of the twentieth century, Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance from most theologians in church history including Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin.

The author of this monograph argues that Barth and Torrance get it wrong. He doesn’t see this as heresy because both affirm the orthodox convictions that Christ was without sin and the relation of the two natures in one person. However, he would argue that this proposal has impact upon trinitarian relation, weakens the orthodox understanding of the hypostatic union of the two natures, and reflects a flawed understanding of original since with implications as to how Christ can act as the second Adam on our behalf.

Bello draws upon three doctrines to highlight the deficiencies in the idea of the Son of man assuming a fallen nature or what is considered non assumptus. First, the doctrine of inseparable operations is the idea that all three persons of the Trinity act as one. The assumption of a fallen nature would require separate operations of the Spirit to perfect what is effected by the Father and Son. Likewise in orthodox theology, the grace of union precedes habitual grace in the life of the incarnate Son. This is reversed in Barth and Torrance involves a growth in grace before the grace of union but raises questions about the hypostatic union of these natures if one grows into union with the other. Finally, the non assumptus view reflects a defective view of original sin. If, as is held in post-Calvin Reformed theology, original sin includes original guilt (that all of us sinned in Adam and are therefore guilty with him, then assuming a fallen nature means assuming Adam’s guilt and raises the question of whether Christ can act as the second Adam through whom we are made righteous (Romans 5:19).

Bello makes a strong case if one accepts the logical inferences drawn in his theological discussion. My hunch is that Barth and Torrance would not accept these inferences. At the beginning of this monograph, Bello quotes Gregory of Nazianzus, who in another context stated, “that which He has not assumed He has not healed.” He sees Barth and Torrance applying this idea to the fallen human nature. I fail to be convinced by Bello’s argument that a Son who had assumed a sinless human nature could “learn obedience” and be like us in all ways except for sin. It seems that one who bears Adam’s guilt without recapitulating Adam’s sin but rather bear’s humanity’s sin and Adamic guilt is truly the second Adam whose obedience makes the many righteous.

What my challenge is, being new to this discussion, is thinking through his argument. Does non-assumptus necessarily compromise inseparable operations? Does non-assumptus jeopardize our understanding of the hypostatic union of the two natures. Does original sin imply original guilt (which Calvin did not affirm)? And even so, does this call into question Christ’s fitness to serve as the second Adam? Bello makes a careful and rigorous argument deserving careful consideration. It both made me think, but also reflect on how what we believe about one thing has implications for other matters. I am also grateful for the irenic spirit of Bello’s argument. Difference is not always heresy, and one’s perception of a real weakness in the thought of another does not, for this scholar, diminish his respect for the substantial contribution of Barth and Torrance to the theological enterprise. All in all, this is a fine monograph and I look forward to further theological writing from this scholar!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.