If Jesus was born of "the substance" of the Virgin Mary, how was He without original sin?
SPROUL: When we talk about Jesus receiving “the substance” from His mother, the Virgin Mary, we’re talking about His human nature. Because we’re talking about His deriving His human nature from His mother, you would think that human nature would pass along all of the ramifications of original sin, as is the case with every other human being. That raises all kinds of theological questions that touch upon this.
One of the oldest theological questions is the question of how the soul is transmitted from parents to their children. The two schools of thought on that are creationism and traducianism. Traducianism says that the whole person, body and soul, is transmitted from the parents to their progeny through the natural process of birth. Creationism argues that every time a human being is born, that person is a brand new creation by the immediate and direct power of God’s creativity. So, for creationism, it’s not a matter of transmitting human nature by natural processes.
The reason I say that this question touches on the dispute over creationism and traducianism is that if you’re a creationist, you have no problem with a human nature coming from the mother of Jesus, yet at the same time Jesus being born without original sin. The soul, in this view, is a direct and immediate act of divine creation. If you’re a traducianist, on the other hand, you see the body and soul being transmitted through the natural process. Then the question becomes a more difficult problem.
Others have argued, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church, that the reason for the virgin birth was not that original sin was transmitted by the male rather than the female, but rather because God partly designed the virgin birth to interrupt the normal transmission of human nature from parents to their children. That would make it possible for a human being, post-Adam, to be born without original sin.
In the mystery of the incarnation, we don’t know exactly what process God used to make it so that Jesus was born without original sin. We do know, as the Scriptures teach us, that He was made like us in every respect except one; namely, He was without sin, and therefore without original sin (Heb. 4:15). Some have argued against that, saying that if Jesus didn’t have original sin, He wasn’t truly human. The problem with that is this: Adam was truly human before the fall, and we will still be human in our glorified state in heaven when we are without sin. So, original sin is not an inherent necessity for humanness.
So, we know theologically that God could have this child born through the virgin birth, bypassing the normal process of original sin.
WEBB: Did some of the earliest church councils wrestle with that question?
SPROUL: Yes, they did. Early on, there was a debate about from where Jesus’ divine nature came. Mary was called theotokos, the mother of God, but not in the sense that Jesus derived His divine nature from His mother. Rather, this was only to point out that the One whom she bore and nurtured was God incarnate.
This transcript is from an Ask R.C. Live event with R.C. Sproul and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, just visit Ask.Ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.