At the very heart of historic Christianity is a truly astounding truth-claim that is celebrated all around the world at Christmas.
This central article of the Christian faith is known as the doctrine of the Incarnation: God became man in Jesus of Nazareth. It is this truth that sets Christianity apart from all other religions of the world (including Judaism and Islam). For it is unique to Christianity to discover a God who takes the initiative in becoming flesh in order to redeem sinful human beings. As C. S. Lewis aptly put it, “The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.”1
The Christian teaching that the Savior of the world is both divine and human is certainly a mysterious and unfathomable doctrine. For that reason it is often misunderstood and misrepresented. This article will briefly explain the doctrine of the Incarnation, and respond to some critical questions concerning its origin, importance, historical development, and coherence.
The Historic Christian Doctrine of the Incarnation
The most important creedal statement concerning the Incarnation is the Creed of Chalcedon. It was the Council of Chalcedon (the fourth ecumenical council) in A.D. 451 that laid down the basic boundaries concerning the orthodox view of Christ’s person and nature. According to this council, Jesus Christ is one divine Person in two natures (divinity and humanity). Thus the Chalcedon Creed became, and continues to be, the normative standard for the orthodox doctrine of Christ. All of Christendom (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant) affirms the Chalcedonian formula that Jesus Christ is both God and man. This creed enunciates the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation (specifically Christ’s two natures) in the following manner:
We all with one voice confess our Lord Jesus Christ to be one and the same Son, perfect in divinity and humanity, truly God and truly human, consisting of a rational soul and a body, being of one substance with the Father in relation to his divinity, and being of one substance with us in relation to his humanity, and is like us in all things apart from sin. He was begotten of the Father before time in relation to his divinity, and in these recent days was born from the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos [God-bearer], for us and for our salvation. In relation to the humanity he is one and the same Christ, the Son, the Lord, the Only-begotten, who is to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation. The distinction of natures is in no way abolished on account of this union, but rather the characteristic property of each nature is preserved, and concurring into one Person and one subsistence, not as if Christ were parted or divided into two persons, but remains one and the same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as the Prophets from the beginning spoke concerning him, and our Lord Jesus Christ instructed us, and the Creed of the Fathers was handed down to us.2
The Chalcedonian formulation does not explain just how the two natures are united in one person, but it sets the crucial theological parameters for orthodox biblical Christology (doctrine of the person and nature of Christ).
The Christian Theistic View of God and the Incarnation
The doctrine of the Incarnation should properly be understood within the broader context of the Christian theistic view of God. The God unveiled in the Bible and later expressed in the historic creeds and confessions of Christendom is the one sovereign and majestic Lord. Historic Christianity thus affirms belief in one infinitely perfect, eternal, and personal (or superpersonal) God, the transcendent Creator and sovereign Sustainer of the universe. This one God is Triune, existing eternally and simultaneously as three distinct and distinguishable persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.3 All three persons in the Godhead, or Divine Being, share equally and completely the one divine nature, and are therefore the same God, coequal in attributes, nature, and glory. The doctrine of the Incarnation then properly emerges doctrinally from this explicit Trinitarian teaching.
The term “incarnation” is of Latin origin, and literally means “becoming in flesh” (Lat. in carne, Gk. en sarki). While the term is not contained in Scripture per se, the Greek equivalent is (John 1:14: Kai ho logos sarx egeneto -- “And the Word became flesh”). The doctrine of the Incarnation is at the heart of the biblical message for it reveals the person and nature of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation teaches that the eternal Logos (Word), the second person of the Trinity, without diminishing His deity took to Himself a fully human nature. Specifically, this doctrine teaches that a full and undiminished divine nature, and a full and perfect human nature were inseparably united in the one historical and divine person of Jesus of Nazareth. According to Holy Scripture, Jesus Christ is God the Son in human flesh (theanthropos, the God-man).
The Hypostatic Union
As the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ is one person with two natures. In accord with the Chalcedonian definition, these two natures (divinity and humanity) “remain distinct, whole, and unchanged, without mixture or confusion so that the one person, Jesus Christ, is truly God and truly man.”4 Christ is one in substance (homoousios) with the Father in regard to His divine nature, and one in substance with humanity in regard to His human nature. The two natures are perfectly united forever in the one person (hypostasis) of Jesus Christ. The hypostatic union refers therefore to the union of the two distinct natures in the one person of Jesus Christ (neither dividing the person nor confounding the natures). Philosophically speaking, as the God-man, Jesus Christ is “two Whats”(i.e., a divine “what” [or nature] and a human “what” [or nature]) and “one Who”( i.e., a single “person” or “self”).
Ten Essential Points about the Incarnation
The following ten points convey essential information about the Incarnation, and will help one think through the most important elements concerning the doctrine.5
- Jesus Christ is one person possessing two distinct natures: a fully divine nature and a fully human nature (a unity of person and a duality of natures). The historic person of Jesus of Nazareth is therefore the God-man.
- While Christ has two natures, He nevertheless remains a single unified person (not two different persons). Christ’s human nature subsists only for the purpose of this union; it has no independent personal subsistence of its own. Christ is the same person both before and after the Incarnation. The difference is that before the Incarnation Christ had but one nature, namely divine. After the Incarnation, this very same Christ added to Himself an additional nature – a human one – that subsists together with the divine nature that He had and continues to have. While Christ has a divine and a human consciousness (and two wills as part of the two natures), He nevertheless remains one person. Christian orthodoxy rejected the Nestorian heresy that taught that there were two separate persons in Christ.
- Through His divine nature, Jesus Christ is God the Son, second person of the Trinity, who shares the one divine essence fully and equally with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Christian orthodoxy rejected the Arian heresy that viewed Jesus merely as a God-like creature.
- Through His human nature, Jesus Christ is fully human, possessing all the essential attributes of a true human being. Christian orthodoxy rejected Docetism, which denied the true humanity of Christ.
- The properties or attributes of both natures may be properly predicated of the one Person. In other words, the one person of Jesus Christ retains all of the attributes of both natures (e.g., through His divine nature He is omniscient while simultaneously through His human nature He may lack knowledge).
- The union of the two natures is not an indwelling, nor a mere contact or occupancy of space, but a personal union. This is similar to the union of body and soul in human beings.
- The two natures coinhere or interpenetrate in perfect union so that the human is never without the divine or the divine without the human, but the natures do not mix or mingle.
- The two natures, divine and human, are distinct, but inseparably united in the one person. The two natures retain their own attributes or qualities and are thus not mixed together. Christian orthodoxy rejected the Eutychian heresy that blended the two natures of Christ together to form one hybrid nature (monophysitism: one nature).
- The human nature is not deified, and the divine nature does not suffer human limitation.
- The word nature refers to essence or substance, and these two natures are inseparable, unmixed, and unchanged.
With these essential points in mind about the person and natures of Christ, one can now consider four important questions about the doctrine of the Incarnation.
Four Critical Questions about the Incarnation
I. Since there is no passage in the New Testament where Jesus Christ actually says “I am God,” how did Christianity come to formulate the doctrine of the Incarnation?
The doctrine of the Incarnation is the result of the Christian church’s sustained and critical reflection upon the overwhelming Scriptural evidence that Jesus is indeed both God and man. Jesus’ apostles were thorough-going Jewish monotheists; they nevertheless became convinced that while Jesus was indeed a man, He was far more than just a man. In fact, in various ways these same apostles placed Jesus on the level of Yahweh in their Scriptural writings. The apostles came to the astounding conviction that to encounter Jesus of Nazareth was to encounter none other than God in human flesh. While it is true that there is no specific passage where Jesus actually says in so many words “I am God,” there are at least seven (and possibly as many as ten) specific New Testament references where Jesus is called or referred to as God (Gk. theos).6 The Bible thoroughly supports both the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ.
While literally hundreds of passages could be marshaled to support the doctrine of the Incarnation,7 the following is merely a brief survey of the biblical support for this distinctive and essential Christian doctrine.
A. Biblical Support for the True Deity of Jesus Christ
The Bible attests in numerous ways to the full and undiminished deity of Jesus Christ. Consider the following outlined material in support of Christ’s deity (this outline was derived from the works of Murray J. Harris and John Jefferson Davis).8
- Divine titles proclaimed by or attributed to Jesus Christ9
- God (John 1:1, 18; 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8; 2 Pet. 1:1)
- Lord (Mark 12:35-37; John 20:28; Rom. 10:9-13; 1 Cor. 8:5-6; 12:3; Phil. 2:11)
- Messiah (Matt. 16:16; Mark 14:61; John 20:31)
- Son of God (Matt. 11:27; Mark 15:39; John 1:18; Rom. 1:4; Gal. 4:4; Heb. 1;2)
- Son of Man (Matt. 16:28; 24:30; Mark 8:38; 14:62-64; Acts 7:56; cf. Dan. 7:13-14)
- Characteristics or actions of Yahweh proclaimed by or attributed to Jesus Christ
- Worship of Yahweh applied to Jesus Christ (Isa. 45:23 / Phil. 2:10-11)
- Salvation of Yahweh applied to Jesus Christ (Joel 2:32 / Rom. 10:13)
- Judgment of Yahweh applied to Jesus Christ (Isa. 6:10 / John 12:41)
- Nature of Yahweh applied to Jesus Christ (Exod. 3:14 / John 8:58)
- Triumph of Yahweh applied to Jesus Christ (Ps. 68:18 / Eph. 4:8)
- Divine names, actions, or prerogatives proclaimed by or attributed to Jesus Christ
- Creator (John 1:3; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2, 10-12)
- Sustainer (1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3)
- Universal Ruler (Matt. 28:18; Rom. 14:9; Rev. 1:5)
- Forgiver of sins (Mark 2:5-7; Luke 24:47; Acts 5:31; Col. 3:13)
- Raiser of the dead (Luke 7:11-17; John 5:21; 6:40)
- Object of prayer (John 14:14; Acts 1:24; 7:59-60; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 12:8-9)
- Object of worship (Matt. 28:16-17; John 5:23; 20:28; Phil. 2:10-11; Heb. 1:6)
- Object of saving faith (John 14:1; Acts 10:43; 16:31; Rom. 10:8-13)
- Image and Representation of God (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3)
- Divine attributes or qualities proclaimed by or attributed to Jesus Christ
- Eternal existence (John 1:1; 8:58; 17:5; 1 Cor. 10:4; Col. 1:17; Heb. 13:8)
- Self-existence (John 1:3; 5:26; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2)
- Immutability (Heb. 1:10-12; 13:8)
- Omnipresence (Matt. 18:20; 28:20; Eph. 1:23; 4:10; Col. 3:11)
- Omniscience (Mark 2:8; Luke 9:47; John 2:25; 4:18; 16:30; Col. 2:3)
- Omnipotence (John 1:3; 2:19; Col. 1:16-17; Heb. 1:2)
- Sovereignty (Phil. 2:9-11; 1 Pet. 3:22; Rev. 19:16)
- Authority (Matt. 28:18; Eph. 1:22)
- Life in Himself (John 1:4; 5:26; Acts 3:15)
B. Biblical Support for the True Humanity of Jesus Christ
The Bible attests in numerous ways to the full and essential humanity of Jesus Christ. Consider the following outlined material in support of Christ’s humanity.10
- Jesus Christ calls Himself or others call Him a man
- During His earthly ministry (John 8:40; Acts 2:22; 1 Cor. 15:21; Phil. 2:7-8)
- After His resurrection (Acts 17:31; 1 Cor. 15:47; 1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 2:14; 4:15)
- Jesus Christ was conceived supernaturally, but born naturally (Matt. 1:25; Luke 2:7; Gal. 4:4)
- Jesus Christ had ancestors (Matt. 1; Luke 3)
- Jesus Christ experienced normal growth and development (Luke 2:40-52; Heb. 5:8)
- Jesus Christ was subject to real physical limitations
- Weariness (John 4:6)
- Hunger (Matt. 21:18)
- Need for sleep (Matt. 8:24)
- Thirst (John 19:28)
- Sweat (Luke 22:44)
- Temptation (Matt. 4:1-11)
- Lack of knowledge (Mark 9:21; 13:32)
- Jesus Christ experienced physical pain and death (Mark 14:33-36; Luke 17:25; 22:63; 23:33; John 19:30)
- Jesus Christ exhibited the full range of human emotions
- Joy (Luke 10:21; John 17:13)
- Sorrow (Matt. 26:37)
- Love (John 11:5)
- Compassion (Matt. 9:36)
- Weeping (John 11:35)
- Astonishment (Luke 7:9)
- Anger (Mark 3:5; 10:14)
- Loneliness (Mark 14:32-42; 15:34)
- Jesus Christ has all the essential qualities of a human being
- Body (Matt. 26:12)
- Bones (Luke 24:39)
- Flesh (Luke 24:39)
- Blood (Matt. 26:28)
- Soul (Matt. 26:38)
- Will (John 5:30)
- Spirit (John 11:33)
- Incarnational Passages
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us….” (John 1:14)
“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Phil. 2:5-6)
“For in Christ all the fullness of Deity lives in bodily form…” (Col. 2:9)
“This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God…” (1 John 4:2)
The passages cited above specifically and explicitly teach the doctrine of the Incarnation (see also Rom. 1:2-5; 9:5; 1 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 2:14; 5:7; 1 John 1:1-3).
II. Why is the doctrine of the Incarnation important?
It has been said that “Christianity is Christ.” The meaning behind this statement is, of course, that Christ is the center and heart of historic Christian truth. The Christian gospel message is all about the person, nature, and work of Jesus Christ. British theologian Alister E. McGrath articulately describes Christianity’s unique Christocentric focus:
If Christianity has a center, it is Jesus Christ. It is impossible for the Christian to talk about God, salvation, or worship without bringing Jesus into the discussion, whether explicitly or implicitly. For New Testament writers, Jesus is a window onto the nature, character, and purposes of God. Jesus is the ground of salvation. Since the time of the New Testament onwards, Christians have worshipped Jesus as the risen Lord and Savior of the world.11
In light of this Christocentric focus, the doctrine of the Incarnation has enormous significance for Christians. Through examining the Incarnation Christ’s person and nature are clearly revealed, and it is directly because of His identity (as the God-man) that He is able to perform His work of redemption. God the Son, second person of the Trinity, assumed a human nature and entered the time-space world. Living and acting here in a way that is open to actual historical investigation, he provided redemption for sinful mankind. As the God-man, He alone was able to represent both God and mankind and to provide redemption through His perfect life, sacrificial death, and glorious bodily resurrection from the dead.
Since Christ is the center of Christian doctrine and truth, His identity is of vital importance. It follows therefore that the doctrine of the Incarnation that reveals His identity is the foundation on which all Christian doctrine is built. This is clearly seen when one begins to analyze closely some of the central tenets of the Christian faith.12 For example, consider the following:
- God’s existence and characteristics: While one may know many important things about God via general revelation (i.e., through the created order, the providential ordering of history, and the human conscience), without the Incarnation, talking about God is highly speculative and knowing God personally is virtually impossible.
- The Trinity: The two other persons of the Godhead, the Father and the Holy Spirit, are uniquely understood and appreciated in light of the revealed person and nature of Christ. The Incarnation illumines the great truth about the triune nature of God.
- The Atonement: Only Jesus Christ, who is both God and man, is able to offer Himself as a sacrifice that reconciles a holy God with sinful mankind. Christ can do what He did redemptively (Savior) because He is what He is ontologically (God-man).
- Resurrection: A bodily resurrection that conquers death is only possible for the God-man (Rom 1:3-4).
- Justification: Human beings are justified before God through faith (personal trust) in the person of Jesus Christ. The basis of humanity’s acquittal before the Father is directly tied to the actions of the divine-human Savior on the cross.
The doctrine of the Incarnation touches and influences every area of Christian theology. To change or distort the identity of Jesus Christ is to destroy the essence of the Christian faith (2 Cor. 11:3-4; Gal. 1:6-9). Jesus specifically instructs His disciples and others to consider and reflect upon His true identity (Matt. 16:13-16; 22:41-46, cf. Ps. 110). Jesus warned some of the Jewish leaders of His time that their eternal destinies rested on whether they would acknowledge and accept Him for who He really was (John 8:23-24, 28, 52-53, 57-58). Jesus and the apostles also warned the church about the ever present danger of counterfeit Christs (Matt. 24:4-5, 11, 23-24; 2 Cor. 11:3-4, 13-14; Gal. 1:6-9; 1 Tim. 4:1-2; 2 Tim. 4:3; 2 Pet. 2:1-2; 1 John 2:22-23; 4:1-3; Jude 3).
III. Historically speaking, weren’t there theological positions held by individuals and various groups that challenged and/or rejected the orthodox position concerning the person and nature of Christ?
The central doctrinal controversies of the first several centuries of Christian church history focused on Christological issues (questions concerning the person and nature of Christ). What follows is a brief explanation of the major Christological heresies,13 including what they taught about Christ, how it differed from orthodoxy, and how Christian orthodoxy responded.
A. Ancient Christological Heresies
- Docetism: A branch of Gnosticism, this view affirmed a type of dualism (the belief that matter is evil and spirit is good). Docetists insisted that Jesus only seemed to be human (Gk. Dokeo – “to seem”), even asserting that Jesus had a “phantom-like body.” Docetism denied the true humanity of Christ. The apostles encountered this heresy in the first century (1 John 4:1-3).
- Ebionism: According to this view, Jesus is a mere man, a prophet but the natural son of Joseph and Mary (no virgin birth). Ebionism denied the true deity of Christ. This view is traced to the second century.
- Arianism: Arius of Alexandria (A.D. 256-336) argued that Jesus was of like substance (homoiousios) with the Father, but not the same substance (homoousios). Jesus was viewed as the first and greatest creation of God, thus denying the true deity of Christ. This influential heresy, which the ancient church father Athanasius (ca. 296-373) successfully battled, was first condemned at the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325).
- Apollinarianism: Following Apollinarius (born ca. 310), the Bishop of Laodicea, this view taught that in the Incarnation the divine Logos took the place of the human soul and psyche of Christ. Jesus' humanity was restricted to his physical body, thus reducing his humanity. Apollinarianism denied the true humanity of Christ. This heresy was condemned at the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381).
- Nestorianism: This view affirmed both Christ’s deity and humanity, but saw the union between the natures as only a moral and/or sympathetic union, not a real personal union. This position represents an overemphasis upon the distinctiveness of the natures. As a result, Jesus became two persons in two natures, rather than the orthodox position of one person in two natures. This heresy was condemned at the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431).
- Eutychianism: Following Eutyches (ca. A.D. 378-454) this view held that Christ had one mixed or compound nature. The two natures merged to form a single nature that was neither divine nor human (a third substance). This position represents an overemphasis upon the unity of the natures. This heresy was condemned at the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451), and at the third Council of Constantinople (A.D. 680).
- Monophysitism: This view held that Christ had only one nature. Usually, it was argued that the human nature was absorbed into the divine nature. This heresy was condemned at the third Council of Constantinople (A.D. 680).
- Monothelitism: This view held that Christ had only one will. The orthodox position is that if Christ had two natures He must have had two wills, though the human will conforms in every way to the divine will. Monothelitism was also condemned at the third Council of Constantinople.
IV. Isn’t the very concept of the Incarnation (one person as God and man) logically incoherent?
Christians embrace the doctrine of the Incarnation as an indispensable truth of divine revelation. God coming in the flesh to redeem lost sinners is at the very heart of historic Christianity’s gospel proclamation. However, just how Jesus Christ is both God and man (two natures united in one person) is an unfathomable mystery. In fact, this may indeed be the most profound Christian mystery of all. But while the Incarnation is incomprehensible to the finite mind, it should not be rejected as incoherent or absurd. Divinely revealed truth may indeed move above reason, but never against reason, for God is the source and ground of rationality itself. The following two points briefly address two logical challenges to the Incarnation.
Some have argued that the Incarnation is absurd because it asserts that the infinite (divine nature) is contained in the finite (human nature). But the Incarnation does not imply that the infinite is contained in the finite.14 This criticism is clearly a straw man. The divine nature of Christ was not confined or limited to the human nature (or to the body of Christ). While the divine nature is in union with the human nature in the one person, the divine nature certainly extends beyond the bounds of the human nature.15 Biblical scholar and Protestant Reformer John Calvin explains:
For even if the Word in his immeasurable essence united with the nature of man into one person, we do not imagine that he was confined therein. Here is something marvelous: the Son of God descended from heaven in such a way that without leaving heaven, he willed to be born in the Virgin’s womb, to go about the earth, and to hang upon the cross; yet he continuously filled the world even as he had done from the beginning.16
The Incarnation should be understood as “God plus” (God the Son plus a human nature), not as “God minus” (loss of deity or divine attributes) or “God limited” (the infinite limited in the finite). The Incarnation should be thought of as the divine Logos, a preexistent (eternal) person, assuming a human nature unto Himself, without laying His deity aside.
Some think that since God is unlimited (omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal, uncreated) but humans are limited (non-omnipotent, non-omniscient, non-omnipresent, time bound, created), then the very concept of someone being both God and man is logically contradictory and therefore impossible. But could there be another way to look at this proposed logical dilemma? Some contemporary Christian philosophers definitely think so.17 They argue that ordinary human beings are fully human (possessing the essence of humanity) but are also merely human (possessing the previously mentioned limitations). Jesus Christ, on the other hand, is fully human but not merely human. These Christian thinkers have suggested that the limitations of human nature may be common human properties (common to members of a particular kind) but not essential human properties (indispensable to a particular kind). If this is correct, Jesus Christ could have a human nature that makes Him fully human (possessing the essence of humanity) without being merely human (possessing the above mentioned limitations). Therefore Christ’s fully human nature (essential humanity without limitation) is not at odds with His fully divine nature.
The True Meaning of Christmas
During the Christmas season, Christians celebrate the great truth of the Incarnation. For in the Christ child of Bethlehem, God enters into human history and reveals Himself up close and personal. The astounding truth is that in Jesus Christ, God is encountered in a real, personal, historical, and tangible way. Alister E. McGrath reflects upon the ultimate significance of Christmas:
What sorts of things does the incarnation tell us about the ‘God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’? Perhaps most obviously, it tells us that the God with whom we are dealing is no distant ruler who remains aloof from the affairs of his creatures, but one who is passionately concerned with them to the extent that he takes the initiative in coming to them. God doesn’t just reveal things about himself –- he reveals himself in Jesus Christ…. The incarnation speaks to us of a God who acts to demonstrate his love for us. That ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8) is a deep and important truth—but far more important is the truth that God acted to demonstrate this love. ‘In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him’ (1 John 4:9). Actions, as we are continually reminded, speak louder than words.18