Sunday, June 28, 2015

John 5:19-Does It Teach the Impeccability of Christ?

There are some, who think Jn 5:19 proves that Jesus (God Incarnate, they say) was impeccable (not able to sin). Robert M. Bowman asserts that we should understand 5:19 to say, "I would never act independenty of my Father." Or it appears to be teaching that the Lord would never sin against his Father and that he could not sin.

Jn 5:19 is a response to two accusations: (1) Jesus broke the Sabbath; (2) the Son was calling God his Father, seemingly making himself equal to God. In reply, the Lord does not say that "he would never act independently of the Father." Rather, he utters the words, Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, οὐ δύναται ὁ υἱὸς ποιεῖν ἀφ' ἑαυτοῦ οὐδὲν ἂν μή τι βλέπῃ τὸν πατέρα ποιοῦντα· ἃ γὰρ ἂν ἐκεῖνος ποιῇ, ταῦτα καὶ ὁ υἱὸς ὁμοίως ποιεῖ.

Paul N. Anderson (The Christology of the Fourth Gospel, 3, 267) observes that Jesus is asserting that he "can do nothing on his own authority" and is "totally dependent" on his Father. For Anderson, Jn 5:19 is a Johannine "subordinationist" passage. In other words, Christ is evidently stating that he does not have the ability (οὐ δύναται) or authority to act on his own initiative. He is not suggesting that he would never act on his own. Such an interpretation of 5:19 is much too strong and it misrepresents the pragmatic meaning of Jesus' words. Moreover, when the Lord insists that he does what he beholds the Father doing, the relative pronoun ἃ ("whatsoever") is delimited by the context. In particular, the things Jesus' Father does in this case regard sustaining the creation. Jn 5:17 supports this point by showing that God's ability to split seas or know all things is not the issue. Jn 5:19 is not claiming that Christ does exactly what the Father does in all respects. Robertson also offers this comment:

"Can do nothing by himself (οὐ δύναται ὁ υἱὸς ποιεῖν ἀφ' ἑαυτοῦ οὐδὲν). True in a sense of every man, but in a much deeper sense of Christ because of the intimate relation between him and the Father. See this same point in Joh_5:30; Joh_7:28; Joh_8:28; Joh_14:10. Jesus had already made it in Joh_5:17. Now he repeats and defends it" (Word Pictures).

If the utterance is true (in a sense) of all humans, then how could the text prove that Jesus Christ was impeccable? The quote above certainly indicates that Robertson does not think Christ's declaration means that he could not sin, even if the famed grammarian believed in Christ's impeccability.

In conclusion, I agree with Charles Hodge (Systematic Theology 2:457) who argued that the temptations of Christ were not genuine and were ineffectual, if he was impeccable (incapable of sinning). I also believe that a free moral agent always maintains the ability to perform A or to refrain from performing A. Christ was a free moral agent: he could choose to act independently of the Father, if he had so desired. However, he would then have been powerless, and incapable of healing anyone or doing any good portentous works (Acts 2:22 NWT):

Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, οὐ δύναται ὁ υἱὸς ποιεῖν ἀφ' ἑαυτοῦ οὐδὲν


Philip Fletcher said...

I really don't understand Robert Bowman, he feels he can add a new definition to word meanings, and we should accept it. I truly believe he may be brain damaged. Even Beduhn says he should get with his peers to see if they would agree with his assumptions.

Edgar Foster said...

Philip, I don't remember Bowman's answer to this post when I presented it to him, but he likely had to do acrobatics to explain why's he's changing the verb "could" to "would" in Jn 5:19. We could even call many Trinitarians as witnesses against his reading of the verse. Best!

Alethinon61 said...


You're right about the role of context in relation to John 5:19, as ignoring such can obviously lead to absurdities. The same could be said respecting any number of verses that orthodox folks sometimes tend to de-contextualize.

Take John 16:30 and Matt. 24:36 for example:

John 16:30: "Now we can see that you know all things and that you do not even need to have anyone ask you questions. This makes us believe that you came from God.”

Matt. 24:36: "But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."

By ignoring context, orthodox folks will assert that Jesus must be God for he "knows all things" without exception. Yet we know that the verse shouldn't be read that way because Jesus' followers themselves tell us that "This makes [them] know that [Jesus] came from God" not that Jesus IS God. In other words, the disciples did not have in mind an all-encompassing reference, but they knew that Jesus was not lacking when it came to providing them with the knowledge that they’d need to be empowered for what was to come while they fulfilled their commissions as representatives of God and his Son. Thus, there's no contradiction between John 16:30 and Matt. 24:36, and no need to resort to verbal prestidigitation by asserting that as God Jesus knew all things without exception but as Man he had limited knowledge, as though that were even intelligible.

John 9:32-34 also comes to mind:

“32 From of old it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of one born blind. 33 If this [man] were not from God, he could do nothing at all.” 34 In answer they said to him: “You were altogether born in sins, and yet are you teaching us?”

Here Jesus healed a blind man who goes on to defend Jesus to the religious leaders. When the blind man said “If this [man] were not from God, he could do nothing at all”, he didn’t mean that Jesus would be unable to eat, drink, trim his ear hair, etc. The “nothing at all” clearly seems to be a reference to the sort of miraculous works Jesus had just done.

Note also John 15:5:

“5 I am the vine, YOU are the branches. He that remains in union with me, and I in union with him, this one bears much fruit; because apart from me YOU can do nothing at all.”

Although Jesus tells his disciples that apart from him they can “do nothing at all”, he clearly didn’t mean that in an all-encompassing way. He is speaking in reference to “fruit” that his disciples can bear as “branches”. In other words, he was speaking of the work they would do as representatives of him and his Father, not about other things like eating, drinking, buying fish at the market, etc. And he certainly didn't mean that without Jesus, the disciples would be incapable of sinning!

So then back to John 5:19:

“19 Therefore, in answer, Jesus went on to say to them: “Most truly I say to YOU, The Son cannot do a single thing of his own initiative, but only what he beholds the Father doing. For whatever things that One does, these things the Son also does in like manner.”

Here again I would argue that while the text says that the Son “cannot do a single thing of his own initiative”, this is in reference to doing God’s work in the carrying out of his commission as God’s representative. It does not mean that Jesus was incapable of eating, drinking, tying his sandal laces, blowing his nose, etc., without having first beheld “the Father doing [it]”;-)


Edgar Foster said...


Good examples of how context makes a big difference with exegesis. Bowman brought up John 16:30 in past discussions, and I did address it. However, I like your appeal to context when defusing this potential prooftext for Jesus' deity.

I think you'd also concur that we should take Jn 5:17-18 into consideration when trying to understand 5:19. Much of the discussion in that chapter hinged on Jesus healing people on the sabbath. But he addressed those charges by uttering the words in 5:19.



Philip Fletcher said...

Yes, I read Bowman posting on his evangelical & Jehovah Witnesses site in the past, I read his debate with Jason BeDuhn. He may be saying that something should be understood a certain way, because it doesn't make sense any other way he can think of. So it has to be his way, He seem arbitrary in his doing so. That's why to me he doesn't make any sense. He wants to say I can give new meaning to expression and then I am right. But others of his peers don't agree with him. Still he persist in doing so. Did one of his professors teach him to be that way? If not how did he end up being that way? Finally whether it John 5:19 or some other scripture, those who teach the Trinity always have to explain that the scriptural meaning should be understood this way, when the definition is not there for the meaning they have chosen then they make excuses as to why what they say is right. But mostly, for example they try to use scriptures that refer to Jesus only as God. Like John 1:1, 8:58, but there is no third person involved.
This is annoying, because the true equation should then be 3 is 2 and 2 is 1. It seems to me, they are having a coherence problem, like someone drunk or someone brain damaged. I know it sounds like I am attacking them, but they should make sense or at least find words that make sense, and see if they belong there, if not then they should just accept that their view point is not correct and move on.