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

Updated: 6 days ago

Fr. Maximos Constas

(Part one of a four-part essay)

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."

To be continued...

[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).