Boethius on the Sinlessness and Death of Christ

In his Contra Eutychen, Boethius poses an interesting problem: if Adam would not have died if he had not sinned because death is the punishment of sin, how is it that Christ, being sinless and having a human body derived from Adam dies?

“In truth, the manhood which he assumed he likewise saved; but if he assumed such manhood as Adam had before sin, he appears to have assumed a human nature complete indeed, but one which was in no need of healing. But how can it be that he assumed such manhood as Adam had when there could be in Adam both the will and the desire to sin, whence it came to pass that even after the divine commands had been broken, he was still held captive to sins of disobedience? But we believe that in Christ there was never even any such will to sin, though especially if he assumed such a human body as Adam had before his sin, he ought not to have been mortal sinc Adam, had he not sinned would in no wise have experienced death. Since, then, Christ never sinned, it must be asked why he suffered death if he assumed the body of Adam before he sinned. But if he took on such condition of man as was Adam’s after sin, it seems that even on Christ lay the necessity of being both subject to sin and perplexed by passions, and, since the canons of judgment were obscured, of distinguishing good from evil without perfect soundness, since Adam by his sinful transgression incurred all these penalties.

“Against whom we must reply that there are three conditions of men to envisage: one, that of Adam before his sin, in which, though death was not with him and he had not yet defiled himself with any sin yet there could be within him the will to sin; the second, that in which he could have suffered change had he chosen to abide steadfastly in the commands of God, for then it might have been further granted him not only not to sin or wish to sin, but to be incapable of sinning or of wanting to transgress. The third condition is that after sin, in which man needs must be pursued by death and sin and the sinful will. . . .

“Each one, then of these three conditions somehow supplied to Christ a cause for his corporeal nature; thus his assumption of a mortal body in order to drive death far from the human race belongs properly to that condition which was laid on man by way of punishment after Adam’s transgressions, whereas the fact that there was in Christ no will to sin is borrowed from that condition which might have been if Adam had not surrendered his will to the frauds of the tempter. There remains, then, the third or middle condition, to wit, that which existed at that time when death had not come and while the will to sin could yet be present. In this condition, therefore, Adam was such that he ate and drank, digested the food he took, fell asleep, and performed all the other functions which always belonged to him as man, though they were allowed and brought with them no penalty of death.

“There is no doubt that Christ was in all points thus conditioned; for he ate and drank and discharged the function of the human body. For we we must not think that there was such great need in Adam that unless he had eaten he could not have lived, but if he had taken food from every tree, he would have been able to live for ever and by their fruits not die; and so by the fruits of paradise he fulfilled a need. And all know that in Christ the same need dwelt, but lying in his own power and not laid upon him. And this need was in him before the resurrection, but after the resurrection he was such that his human body was changed as Adam’s could have been changed but for the bond of his transgression. . .” (Loeb Classical Library pp. 125-129).

What is interesting about this text is the anthropology that emerges. Boethius distinguishes three human conditions: 1. Prelapsarian, 2. Beatified, 3. Postlapsarian.

As I understand his position, Prelapsarian Adam is mortal in the sense of capable of dying, just as it is capable of willing to sin. But Prelapsarian Adam is also capable of beatification, that changed state in which his mortal body is made immortal and the will made perfect and sinless. Because Adam sins, beatification is impossible. Instead, Adam’s mortality, which was present though suppressed in his Prelapsarian state, is no longer suppressed and Adam must die. Death gains power over Adam through sin.

Christ assumes aspects of all three of these modalities. Christ is beatified already in the sense that he is incapable of sin, but he is like both the prelapsarians and postlapsarian humanity in the sense that death is a genuine possibility for him. However, unlike Adam, death has no power to take Christ’s life from him. Rather, Christ lays it down of his own volition.

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