Did Christ Repent? The Greek Fathers and the Vicarious Repentance of Christ

Updated: Dec 24, 2021

Fr. Maximos Constas


Modern theologians have raised questions about the human nature assumed by the Word of God in the incarnation: Was it a fallen human nature marked by sin or was it sinless? Those who advocate the former view contend that Christ consequently “repented” and experienced “contrition and compunction,” though his repentance was “vicarious” and offered to God on behalf of humanity. Proponents of this theory often invoke the work of T.F. Torrance (1913-2007), who is considered by some to be one of the most significant theologians of the 20th-century.


But the question remains: Is there a place in the patristic and Orthodox theological tradition for the vicarious repentance of Christ? I have little reason to believe so and am reluctant to import such a notion from the work of Torrance, and this for two reasons. First, Torrance’s belief that Christ assumed a fallen and sinful human nature[1] is based on a misinterpretation of Gregory the Theologian’s celebrated axiom that the “unassumed is unhealed.”[2] Second, repentance is something that Torrance’s Christ must necessarily undertake because human beings are “totally incapable” of repenting, which is an aspect of the doctrine of “total depravity,” which has no parallel in Orthodox Christianity.[3]


The first of these conundra is the result of a reductive either/or construction, namely, that the human nature assumed by Christ must be either fallen or unfallen, with Torrance affirming the former. The question, however, is wrongly posed and the binary opposition predetermines that both answers, while correct in what they affirm, are incorrect in what they deny.


Before we examine this question more closely, it should be acknowledged that Torrance was a rather selective reader of patristic texts, which at times he misrepresents, as can be seen in the following passage from his book, The Trinitarian Faith: An Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church. Here is Torrance:


We may turn here once again to Gregory Nazianzen’s account of the vicarious life of the incarnate Son. He pointed out how in his cry of dereliction on the Cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, “Christ was in his own Person representing us for we were the forsaken and despised before, but now by the sufferings of him who could not suffer, we are taken up and saved. Similarly, he makes his own our folly and our transgressions.”[4]


This passage is taken from Gregory’s Fourth Theological Oration (Oration 30.5), from which Torrance has omitted a critical qualification, which is in fact the central point of Gregory’s argument. Here is the passage in full, in which I have highlighted the parts omitted by Torrance:


We find the same distinction, it seems to me, in the words, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Ps 21:1; Mt 27:46), since it was not he who was forsaken either by the Father, or, as some think, by his own Godhead, as if it were afraid of the passion and withdrew itself from him in his sufferings (for who compelled him either to be born here below or to be lifted up on the cross?). No, but as I have said, in himself he expresses our condition (τυποῖ τὸ ἡμέτερον). For we were the ones who once were forsaken and disregarded, but now by means of the sufferings of him who could not suffer (τοῖς τοῦ ἀπαθοῦς πάθεσιν), we were taken up and saved. Similarly, he makes his own (οἰκειούμενος) our folly and our waywardness.”[5]


In the omitted passage, Gregory states quite clearly that the cry of dereliction does not mean that Christ was forsaken by the Father, and thus he disavows the very thing that Torrance affirms, namely, that Christ possessed a sinful human nature or human sinfulness. Moreover, the “distinction” that Gregory notes at the outset of this passage is a hermeneutical principle distinguishing the “principle of the divine nature” from the “principle of the Word’s accommodation to our human condition.”[6] Notice too that Torrance has translated the verb τυπόω as “representing,” which nudges the passage in the direction of his theory of vicarious repentance.


As is well known, the human experiences of the Son of God described in the Gospels—his ignorance, his subordination to the Father, his being made a “sin” and a “curse,” his cry of dereliction from the cross, and so on—were exploited by the fourth-century Arians in order to undercut the full divinity of the Son. The challenge for Gregory was to reclaim those experiences without attributing sin to Christ’s human nature, and thus he introduces a distinction which Torrance failed to note or perhaps simply chose to ignore. In short, Gregory distinguishes the Word’s assumption of human nature’s essential properties from the conditions the Word appropriated in the work of redemption. The word “appropriate” renders the participle οἰκειούμενος. This word became a technical term with a long history in patristic Christology, and we shall return to it below.


To be sure, Gregory’s distinction exposes the false dilemma implicit in the question of whether Christ’s human nature was either fallen or unfallen. As this passage from his Fourth Theological Oration suggests, the patristic approach to this question is much more complex and is not, it seems, generally well known. In the next installment, we will consider St. Maximos the Confessor's understanding of the incarnation and his development of St. Gregory's views on the sinlessness of Christ and the notion of "appropriation."


St. Maximos the Confessor


The distinction established in the fourth century by Gregory the Theologian was taken up by various Church Fathers and given elaborate development in the seventh century by Maximos the Confessor, to whom we may now turn.


In his response to an exegetical question concerning 2 Corinthians 5:21 (“God made him to be sin who knew no sin”), Maximos begins by addressing the fall of Adam, which he differentiates into two distinct moments, suggesting that, with Adam’s transgression, two falls took place. The first fall was Adam’s freely chosen rejection of good for evil. The second, which came about as a result of the first, was the alteration of human nature from incorruptibility to corruption. The first fall, the Confessor says, was blameworthy, but the second was blameless:


Because Adam’s natural power of free choice was corrupted first, it corrupted nature together with itself, losing the grace of impassibility. And thus, the fall of free choice from the good toward evil became the first and blameworthy sin. The second sin, which came about as a result of the first, was the blameless alteration of nature from incorruptibility to corruption. Thus, two sins came about in the forefather through his transgression of the divine commandment: the first was blameworthy, but the second was blameless, having been caused by the first. The first was a sin of free choice, which voluntarily abandoned the good, but the second was of nature, which involuntarily and as a consequence of free choice lost its immortality.[7]


It is clear that there are two senses of “sin” that are operative here, namely, the sin of Adam and the sin of human nature, which latter is not sin properly speaking but rather the state of nature resulting from sin, which is marked by passibility, corruption, and death. It is called “sin” by metonymy because in itself it is involuntary and blameless. A contemporary scholion on this passage explains that: “The sin of nature is death, through which we are taken from existence against our will. The sin of free choice, on the other hand, is the choosing of things that are contrary to nature, by which we willingly fall away from well-being.”[8]


It follows that Maximos understands the fall as taking place on two intertwined but nonetheless distinct levels, namely, human self-determination and human nature, and this is the key to understanding his doctrine of the Incarnation. In response to another exegetical question (Colossians 2:15: “He stripped off the principalities and authorities”), Maximos argues that the Word assumed human nature in a correspondingly differentiated way, combining specific features of pre- and postlapsarian nature. On the one hand, the Word assumed the sinlessness (τὸ ἀναμάρτητον) of Adam’s original creation, and on the other the passibility (τὸ παθητόν) introduced into human nature through the fall and biological reproduction. In both cases, Maximos adds a critical qualification: whereas the Word assumed the sinlessness of Adam, he did not assume his incorruptibility (ἀφθαρσία); and whereas he assumed human passibility (through the blameless passions), he did not assume sin: “In order to rescue human nature, the Word of God, when he became perfect man out of love for mankind, assumed the sinlessness—but not the incorruption—of Adam’s constitution according to his creaturely origin (γένεσις). He also assumed the passibility—but not the sin—from the birth (γέννησις) that was subsequently introduced into human nature.”[9]


In another passage, Maximos brings these anthropological and Christological considerations to bear on Christ’s work of redemption:


Christ is the “curse” that God the Father sent forth “upon the face of the whole earth” (Zech 5:3), which in reality is the curse of the true curse. Adam’s primal disobedience ushered in the curse through transgression, preventing the commandment from bearing fruits of righteousness, through which creation would have received the blessing. In response, he who by nature is the Blessing of God the Father placed himself under the curse of Adam, becoming a curse upon the curse in order to oppose sin and cast down disobedience … and at the same time to render creation barren of its growth in sin. For according to the divine Apostle, he who freed me from my curse and “took away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) became for my sake a sin and a curse (cf. 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13). For I was subject to two curses: the one was the fruit of my own free will, that is, sin, through which the soul’s fecundity for virtue fell to earth; the other was death, to which nature was justly condemned on account of my free will, pushing nature by necessity, and against its own wishes, to that place where the movement of my own free choice had sown it by the inclination of my free will.[10]


Once again, there are two senses of sin operative here, the blameless “sin of nature,” that is, corruptibility, and the personal sin of individual free choice, which Maximos refers to as “my sin,” designating what is personal and voluntary, and it is this latter sense of sin that is absent in Christ, whose human will was always united to God. The repeated use of the phrase “my sin” is how the Confessor differentiates Christ’s sinless nature from human sin: “The Lord did not know my sin, that is, the turning away of my free will; he did not assume my sin, neither did he become my sin, but he became sin because of me, that is, he assumed the corruption of nature which came about through the turning away of my free choice.”[11] In a related passage using the plural “our sins,” Maximos discusses the same question in an exegesis of the biblical king Zerubbabel, which he calls a “mystical contemplation,” indicating that this is a matter of profound significance:


Let us now turn to another mystical contemplation, which presents us with the original truth of the biblical text. The true and new Zerubbabel, who is announced figuratively through the old one, is our Lord and God Jesus Christ, who, in the confusion of our nature,[12] was conceived, formed in the womb, born, and became perfect man according to nature, so that by separating our nature from confusion he might lead it back to himself. For he did not become a captive together with us, neither was he dragged away into the captivity of the passions, “for he committed no sin, neither was there any guile found in his mouth” (1 Pet 2:22; Is 53:9). Instead, he was born among captives as if he were also a captive, and he was “reckoned among transgressors” (Mk 15:28; Is 53:12), “assuming the likeness of the flesh of sin and concerning sin” (Rom 8:3). He was in the “likeness of the flesh of sin,” for whereas by nature he is impassible God, he deemed it worthy in his plan of salvation to become a naturally passible human being, without suffering any change in his divinity. And this was “concerning sin” inasmuch as he was led to death on account of our sins, and “for the sake of our sins he suffered, and on account of our sins he was wounded, and bruised on account of our iniquities, so that by his bruises we might be healed” (cf. Is 53:4-5).[13]


In Maximos’s understanding of the incarnation, the either/or dilemma of “fallen” or “unfallen” human nature gives way to a much more complex model, to which we may now add one more layer of complexity. In his later Christological writings, Maximos introduced a new concept into his understanding of Christ’s work of redemption, namely, the notion of “appropriation” (οἰκείωσις), which he took from Gregory the Theologian. Like Gregory, Maximos endeavored to show that while Christ cannot be the bearer of a sinful nature, he can be the bearer or carrier of sin. In a work written not long after he was drawn into the Monothelite controversy, Maximos notes that because sin is not an essential element of human nature, it cannot be ascribed to the human nature of Christ. The only way that non-essential items can be predicated of him is “by means of his compassionate appropriation (οἰκειώσει μόνον δι᾽ οἶκτον), for he is the head of the entire body, just like a doctor facing the sufferings of the sick, so that he might heal our wounds through the power of his embodiment.”[14]


Maximos has more to say about the nature of Christological “appropriation,” but at this point it will be helpful to turn to John of Damascus, who developed Maximos’s ideas in the great Christological synthesis which comprises the whole of book III of his On the Orthodox Faith. John includes an entire section on οἰκείωσις, which incorporates extensive verbatim citations from Maximos, along with some elements that are new.


St John of Damascus


Like his theological predecessors, John of Damascus was obliged to consider the question of Christ’s “ignorance,” his “progress in wisdom and grace,” his “fear” in the face of death, and also his prayer. John maintains that, in the case of Christ, prayer cannot be understood as the “ascent of the mind to God,” because Christ’s mind was never separated from God. Rather, Christ was “appropriating our persona” (οἰκειούμενος τὸ ἡμέτερον πρόσωπον), “impressing” (τυπῶν) our features upon himself, becoming our model (ὑπογραμμός) and showing us the way of prayer.” And when Christ said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46), the same dynamic of appropriation was at work, because Christ was “never abandoned by his divinity,” and “when he was saying these things, he was appropriating our persona.”[15]


In his further remarks on “appropriation,” John offers a helpful clarification. He says there are two kinds of appropriation: one is “essential” or ontological (οὐσιώδης), having to do with nature and substance, while the other is “prosopic and relative (προσωπική καὶ σχετική).” The former is the appropriation of all that is essential to human nature; the latter is a relative appropriation, through which Christ adopts the persona of sinful human beings, giving voice to their experience, even though the words that are spoken do not, strictly speaking, belong properly (οὐ προσήκοντες) to him. Τhis is how Christ “is said to have appropriated our ‘curse’ and ‘dereliction’ and such things that are not according to nature.” He maintains that Christ “did not appropriate these things because he was or became them (οὐκ αὐτὸς ταῦτα ὢν ἢ γενόμενος ὠκειώσατο),” but rather because “he took upon himself (ἀναδεχόμενος) our persona and ranked himself among us.”[16]


While much of this is taken more or less directly from Maximos the Confessor, the language of persona is new. John describes the face (prosopon) as the locus of a personal revelation: “The face of God is an indication and manifestation (ἔνδειξις καὶ ἐμφάνεια) of his works, since we too are revealed by our faces” (ἐκ τοῦ ἡμετέραν ἐμφάνειαν διὰ προσώπου γίνεσθαι).[17] For John, the “face” represents something like the integral presence of the self, the manifestation of one’s inner depth. It is not a false appearance, which would be a προσωπεῖον, a simulacrum, a mere mask. And if Christ can appropriate the faces of sinful human beings, he can also bestow upon them his own face. Gregory of Nyssa, in his exegesis of the Judgment Parable in the Gospel of Matthew, contends that “the poor and the afflicted have been clothed in the persona of our Savior, for in his goodness and love for mankind he has given them his own face, so that they might shame the faces of those who hate them, just as those being robbed thrust before their assailants the image of the king to shame the enemy with the appearance of the ruler.”[18]


In Greek, to “appropriate” can also mean to “reconcile” in the sense of “to befriend,” and this somewhat unusual use of persona suggests that Christ reconciles himself to sinners while remaining sinless. The distinction between essential and relative forms of appropriation mirrors the distinction between nature and person, between the ontological and the personal dimensions of incarnation and redemption. “Appropriation” is thus a true representational mode of being, allowing the bearer to be “reckoned among transgressors” (Isa 53:12). Through a kind of communication or exchange of idioms, Christ assumes the role or status of the sinner, the sinner’s status is imputed to Christ, and Christ’s righteousness and life is given to the sinner. Yet there is no strict analogy here because Christ does not become sinful but remains sinless, while sinners become righteous and holy (and after baptism, sinless), not simply through imputation but through a true transformation. Though the Word’s assumption of human nature did not include sin (which is not an essential part of nature), his solidarity with sinners comes about through a process of appropriation and assimilation which is neither illusory nor inefficacious.


St Symeon of Thessaloniki


Before concluding this essay, it will be worth considering what to my knowledge is the only Greek theological text that associates Christ with repentance, and which also follows the principle of appropriation we saw in Gregory the Theologian, Maximos the Confessor, and John of Damascus. The text in question is from the late Byzantine theologian Symeon of Thessaloniki (ca. 1381-1429), who was a prolific author of commentaries on the services and liturgical practices of the Orthodox Church. In a short treatise On the Sacraments, Symeon’s aim is to associate all of the Church’s sacraments with the person of Christ, which admittedly poses challenges. He argues, for example, that even though Christ did not marry, he participates in marriage through virginity, because virgins are brides of Christ. Symeon’s remarks on repentance (μετάνοια) follow the same logic: “The Savior did not repent (ὁ Σωτὴρ οὐ μετενόησε)” and “had no obligation to perform works of repentance for his own sake (εἰς ἑαυτὸν τὰ τῆς μετανοίας μὴ ὀφείλων εἰργάσατο), but rather performed such works, such as fasting, in order to reveal to us the things concerning repentance … for he who alone is without sin, and who alone is holy and pure, did not repent, but rather taught us repentance, because, he says, ‘I did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance’.” (Mt 9:13)[19]


Conclusion


The notion of Christ’s vicarious repentance was introduced into Christian theology in 1856 by Scottish Reformed theologian Joseph McLeod Campbell and adopted by subsequent Scottish Reformed theologians down through T.F. Torrance, who was arguably its greatest proponent. In general, the position of these theologians is that, whereas Christ did not personally and voluntarily sin, he assumed a sinful human nature, by which they do not simply mean a human nature subject to the blameless passions (when Christ allowed these to operate), but a nature marked by blameworthy and sinful passions.[20]


However, such a view is not found among the Greek or Byzantine Fathers, who explicitly reject it and instead offer a much more nuanced and biblically based theology of the Incarnation (cf. Heb 4:15). Far from having any need for repentance, Christ had no personal knowledge or experience of sin or evil. Shortly before his crucifixion, he announced that: “The prince of this world is coming, and he has nothing in me (ἐν ἐμοὶ οὐκ ἔχει οὐδέν)” (John 14:30). “This means,” as Maximos the Confessor explains, “that at the departure of his soul, the devil could find nothing at all in the natural passibility of his human nature that was properly his own.”[21] In other words, Christ’s human will never inclined toward or manifested a sinful movement or volition, and thus to speak of his “repentance” is to redefine the word without the core meaning which everywhere else defines it. Repentance by definition implies a change of mind, heart, and life, and this cannot be applied to Christ even in a vicarious way. Thus, to speak of Christ’s repentance is to use words wrongly.[22] But there is more at stake here than an abuse of language. From the perspective of Orthodox theology, the notion of “Christ’s repentance” completely contradicts the thinking, principles, and carefully articulated dogmatic tradition of the Orthodox Church.


It is often noted that Reformed theologians developed the theory of Christ’s vicarious repentance in response to an excessive emphasis on the physical sufferings of Christ, which often tended to regard his redemptive work as the discharge of an official function without any need for his sharing in the actual experience of those on whose behalf he suffered. The result was that Christ’s work was artificially separated from his life, and the atonement reduced to a remote operation of divine omnipotence. It was truly praiseworthy to have resisted such views, and one cannot but appreciate the impulse of Campbell and his disciples to repent, as it were, for the sins of less thoughtful theologians. However, the notion of the vicarious repentance of Christ, while seeking a way out of the dilemma, ends by imposing on Christ a relationship with sin that he did not possess, and which is contrary to the Church’s traditional theology of the Incarnation, however much Christ can be said to have appropriated to himself the weaknesses and struggles of fallen human nature.


 

[1] See, from among many examples that could be cited, Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1992), 39: “The coming of God to take upon himself our fallen human nature, our actual human existence laden with sin and guilt, our humanity diseased in mind and soul in its estrangement or alienation from the Creator.”


[2] Gregory the Theologian, Letter 101.32: “Τὸ γὰρ ἀπρόσληπτον, ἀθεράπευτον” (SC 208:50). This formula from Gregory is so central for Torrance that it provides the title for a monograph on his Christology: Kevin Chariot, The Unassumed is the Unhealed: The Humanity of Christ in the Christology of T.F. Torrance (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013). Torrance also faults the Council of Chalcedon for not stating that Christ’s human nature was “under the servitude of sin; a corrupt human nature taken from our fallen creation, where human nature is determined and perverted by sin,” Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 201. Once again, the argument rests on a superficial reading of Gregory.


[3] This is a Calvinist doctrine held in varying degrees by many Protestant denominations, on which see Christian D. Kettler, “The Vicarious Repentance of Christ in the Theology of John McLeod Campbell and R.C. Moberly,” Scottish Journal of Theology 38 (1985): 529-543, at 537, n. 36.


[4] Thomas F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2006), 167.


[5] Gregory the Theologian, Oration 30.5 (SC 250:232-36).


[6] Gregory established this distinction toward the end of Oration 29.18: “In sum, you must ascribe the loftier expressions to the divinity, to that nature which transcends sufferings and the body; but the lowlier ones you must ascribe the composite condition (τῷ συνθέτῳ) of him who for your sake was emptied, became flesh, and (yes, it is no worse to say) became man and was afterwards exalted. The result will be that you will abandon these carnal and earth-bound doctrines; you will learn to rise above these things and to ascend to his divinity; you will not remain permanently among visible things but will raise yourself to be among spiritual things. Then you will understand which passages refer to the principle of his divine nature (φύσεως λόγος), and which to the principle of his accommodation to our condition (λόγος οἰκονομίας)” (SC 250:216).


[7] Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios 42.2, translated by Maximos Constas, Maximos the Confessor: On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018), 241-42.


[8] Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios 42, scholion 1 (Constas, 244).


[9] Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios 21.4 (Constas, 145).


[10] Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios 62.7 (Constas, 454-55).


[11] Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios 42.3 (Constas 242-43).


[12] Maximos had previously noted that the name Zerubbabel means “rising out of confusion” or “rising in confusion” (Responses to Thalassios 54.2-3) (Constas, 333-34).


[13] Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios 54.14 (Constas, 340-41).


[14] Maximos the Confessor, Opusculum 29 (PG 91:237B), dated to 641; compare id., Opusculum 19 (PG 91:220), dated to post-ca. 643 and perhaps 645; id., Opusculum 9 (PG 91:128A), dated to late 645 and possibly later; and id., Disputation with Pyrrhus (PG 91:304AB), dated to 645; and see the remarks of François-Marie Léthel, Théologie de l’agonie du Christ. La liberté humaine du Fils de Dieu et son importance sotériologique mises en lumière par saint Maxime le Confesseur (Paris: Beauchesne, 1979), 50-51.


[15] John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith III.24 (Kotter 2:167-68).

[16] John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith III.25 (Kotter 2:168).

[17] John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith I.11 (Kotter 2:34).

[18] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Love of the Poor (GNO 9:98-99).


[19] Symeon of Thessaloniki, On the Sacraments 17 (PG 155:193C-196A). I am thankful to Fr Demetrios Bathrellos for calling this work to my attention.


[20] The natural, blameless passions (i.e., hunger, thirst, weariness, death, etc.), which human beings have no choice but to endure patiently, become in Christ freely chosen acts of the will; see Maximos the Confessor, Dialogue with Pyrrhus: “These natural things of the will are present in him, but not exactly in the same manner as they are in us. He truly experienced hunger and thirst, not in a manner similar to ours, but in a mode that surpasses us, in other words, voluntarily” (PG 91:297D); and John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith III.20: “Nothing is perceived in him as taking place by necessity, but rather all things are voluntary, for he willed to be hungry, he willed to be thirsty, he willed to fear death, and he willed to die” (Kotter 2:163).


[21] Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios 21.7 (Constas, 147).


[22] I cite this phrase from Hugh Ross Mackintosh, Some Aspects of Christian Belief (New York: George H. Doran, 1923), 88, to which I am indebted for some of the points that follow.