jesus, the fallible one?

My thoughts on John 8 led me to think about another topic related to Jesus’ sinlessness. This post is a sort of follow-up to yesterday’s.

The doctrine of Jesus’ sinlessness has often been contrasted with the doctrine of Jesus’ humanity. The early church did not want to give the impression that being sinless prevented Jesus from being truly human. It therefore drew upon instances that depict Jesus experiencing hunger or thirst (most notably, perhaps, the story of the woman at the well in John 4) to explain not only that Jesus was a real man, but also that he underwent some of the most basic human trials—malnourishment, suffering, even abandonment.

Dale Allison is a New Testament and historical Jesus scholar who has recently made a provocative addendum to the doctrine of Jesus’ humanity. Allison extends Jesus’ humanness to include fallibility—the possibility of being wrong.

Screencap from Little Miss Sunshine.

Allison thinks a fallible Jesus is the best corrective to the Docetism (the belief that Jesus is not a real human, but only seemed—from dokein, “to seem”—like one) still rampant in the Church. And fallibility is one area in which this Docetic prejudice prevails. Allison’s most convenient example is Jesus’ prediction about the apocalypse. This topic, along with the passages associated with it, is perhaps the most widely misunderstood—and therefore ignored—among thinking evangelical Christians today. The basic issue is this: What exactly did Jesus mean by “the end of the age” (Mark 13:3-8, 24-27; see also Matt. 24:3)? Did he really expect it to happen within “this generation” (Matt. 23:36)? Finally, did it happen? Are we still waiting? Or—here’s the kicker—was Jesus wrong

In Jesus Resurrected, a collection of essays on issues surrounding contemporary research and conclusions about the historical Jesus, Allison claims

A Jesus who proclaimed the nearness of the end in the first century must have been a real human being. This is no small point. Docetism may have been condemned lond ago as a heresy, but it has never gone away. Much of the popular Christianity I have known seems to think that Jesus was at least three-fourths divinity, no more than one-quarter human being. If we go back to the ancient church, it wasn’t much better. The theologians who confessed Jesus’ true humanity balked at the implications.

(pp.146-147)

I’m not sure I’m sold on Allison’s proposal. However, it would have interesting implications for how we deal with our own humanity, not to mention how we deal with our sinfulness.

Consider this: If Jesus himself was wrong about something, does that make him sinful? In other words, does being wrong fall into the category of “being sinful” or “being human”? Allison argues that being human not only involves hungering and thirsting, but also being fallible. Simply stated: Jesus was wrong. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t the Savior.

We’ve got to ask ourselves what we seek salvation from. “Sin,” sure—but what else? And what counts as “sin”?

This is not an attempt to minimize the number of things for which we ought to be held accountable (Lord knows we have enough of that these days), but it is to remind us there is a dimension of our humanity that, though we might be embarrassed by, we need not be saved from. Rather, true freedom to be human comes by embracing this dimension.

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One response to “jesus, the fallible one?

  1. Thomas Dixon

    Yes–I wonder when ‘human’ began to take on the negative connotation equating it with ‘flawed’ or ‘sinful.’ I wonder if ‘human’ used to be a term of praise. I forget who, but someone I’ve read (I want to say Chesterton or Lewis) laments the fact that we praise people by comparing them to machines (“he’s a machine”, “she’s got a mind like a computer”) while decrying them in their ‘humanness.’ Let us remember that God did not make angels in the image of God, who then fell and became humans. God made HUMANS in the image of God. Great points to bring up, Scott–we should not be seeking salvation from being human, but rather we should be seeking salvation FOR being truly human. Let us return to our humanity, not flee from it. As for Jesus, a wonderfully provocative author/pastor named Robert Capon writes (I think in Hunting the Divine Fox) that it is more important that we maintain Jesus’ humanity than that we maintain his sinlessness. I think that’s in the vein of what you (and maybe Allison) are getting at.

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