INCARNATION. The doctrine of the Incarnation is taught or assumed throughout the Bible and comes to explicit statement in such passages as John.1.14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (cf. 1Tim.3.16; Rom.8.3). In NT usage “flesh” means “human nature.” “Incarnation” is from the Latin meaning “becoming flesh,” that is, “becoming human.” The doctrine of the Incarnation teaches that the eternal (see Trinity) became human, and that he did so without in any manner or degree diminishing his divine nature. A somewhat detailed statement of the Incarnation is found in Phil.2.5-Phil.2.11. Christ Jesus, “remaining” (hyparchōn) in the “form” of God, i.e., with all the essential attributes of God, took the “form” of a servant and died on the cross.
Col.2.9). At the same time he became genuinely a man. To deny his genuine humanity is “the spirit of the antichrist” (1John.4.2-1John.4.3).
The biblical data on the Incarnation came to permanent doctrinal formulation at the council of Chalcedon, a.d. 451. That council declared that Christ was “born of the virgin Mary” and is “to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably...the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person....” This doctrine is concisely stated in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 21. “The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continueth to be, God and man, in two distinct natures and one Person for ever.”
The creed of Chalcedon was the culmination of more than three centuries of discussion in which the main stream of Christian thought eliminated a variety of false interpretations as follows: (1) The Gnostic Docetae, condemned in 1John.4.2-1John.4.3, denied the genuine humanity of Jesus and taught that he only appeared to suffer. (2) The Ebionites in the second century denied his deity. (3) The Arians, condemned at Nicea in a.d. 325, denied that his divine nature was equal with the Father’s. (4) The Apollinarians, condemned at Constantinople, in 381, denied that he had a complete human nature. (5) The Nestorians, condemned at Ephesus in 431, admitted the two natures but taught that he was two personalities. (6) The Eutychians, condemned at Chalcedon, in 451, taught that the two natures were so united and so changed that he was neither genuinely divine nor genuinely human. (7) The biblical doctrine of the Incarnation formalized at Chalcedon, a.d. 451, as stated above, is the christology of the true historical church.
But we need an understanding of the words of our doctrine, not just a formula to repeat. First, the emphasis on the unity of his personality means that he was, in himself, in his ego, his nonmaterial self, the same numerical identity, the same person. The person who was God and with God “in the beginning” before the created universe is the same person who sat wearily at the well of Sychar, the same person who said, “Father, forgive them,” on the cross. Second, the distinction of his natures means, and has always meant to the church, that Jesus is just as truly God as the Father and the Spirit are God, and at the same time, without confusion or contradiction, he is just as truly human as we are human. (His humanity as the “last Adam” is perfectly sinless, yet genuinely human, as was Adam before the Fall.)
In this second matter, we must remember that a “nature” in the biblical usage is not a substantive entity. A nature is not a personality in the sense in which we are speaking. A nature is a complex of attributes. Since man is made in the image of God (see Jesus’ argument in John.10.34-John.10.38 as discussed in the article on Trinity) it follows that for , without diminution of his divine attributes, to assume a genuine human complex of attributes, including a normal human body, involves no contradiction.
Bibliography: H. R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the
(Lat. in carne, “in flesh”). Although this term does not occur in Scripture, it is scriptural in the sense that it expresses the meaning of Scripture by teaching that Jesus of Nazareth was the eternal Word who became flesh (John 1:14). Jesus is the who, being sent by the Father, comes into this world “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3 KJV). At the heart of the Christian faith is the confession of the “mystery of godliness: He appeared in a body” (1 Tim. 3:16).
Having declared in the doctrine of the Trinity (a.d. 325) that the Father and the Son are co-eternal and consubstantial, the fathers of the church could not avoid the question: How could the eternal Son, who is equally God with the Father, so partake of our flesh as to become a man as we are men? Some (e.g., Apollinarius) suggested that the Son assumed a true body and soul, but in place of the human spirit had, or rather was, the divine Logos. Realizing that this impugned our Lord's full humanity, others (e.g., Nestorius) affirmed this humanity, but spoke of Jesus in a way that made Him virtually a distinct person from the divine Logos (“He who was formed in Mary's womb was not himself God, but God assumed him . . .”).
Reacting against suggestion that the divine Son and Jesus were two persons, Cyril of Alexandria and his followers argued that, as a result of incarnation, the human and the divine were fused into one nature (Monophysitism*). After much controversy, following the lead of Pope Leo I, the church came to define the orthodox doctrine of the incarnation at the a.d. 451 by declaring that our Lord is true God and true man (vere Deus, vere homo), consubstantial with the Father in all things as to His divinity, yet in His humanity like unto us in all things, sin excepted. This one and the same Jesus Christ is known in two natures “without confusion, without conversion, without severance and without division, the distinction of natures being in no wise abolished by their union, but the peculiarity of each nature being maintained, and both concurring in one person and subsistence.” This union of the human and the divine natures in one person (known technically as the “hypostatic union,” from the Greek hypostasis, “person”) is the common confession of the church, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant.
It is not that the
As for the terms of Chalcedonian Christology, the following should be noted. The word “nature” (Gr. physis, Lat. natura), as used by the Fathers, does not refer to the physical order which is the object of investigation in the “natural” sciences. “Nature” rather designates “being” or “reality” in distinction to “appearance.” To say that Jesus Christ has a “divine nature” is to say that all the qualities, properties, or attributes by which one describes the divine order of being pertain to Him. In short, He is God Himself, not like God, but just God. So also with the affirmation that Jesus Christ has a “human nature.” He is not God appearing as a man; He is a man. He is not only a man or only God; He is the God who became a man. He did not cease to be God when He became a man, He did not exchange divinity for humanity; rather He assumed humanity so that, as a result of the incarnation, He is both human and divine, the God- man.
As for “person”
Gr. hypostasis, Lat. persona), this term was used by the Fathers to describe our Lord as a self- conscious, self-determined Subject, one who designates Himself by the word “I” over against a “thou.” The word hypostasis literally means “that which stands under,” i.e., what is there, in each individual case, at the deepest level. While we must ascribe to Jesus as the Christ all the qualities which belong to the human order of being (including bodily, physical, objective being-the Word “became flesh,” John 1:14), we cannot say that at the most ultimate level of His being He is a human person. He is a divine person, with a human nature. The Son of God did not assume a man's person to His own nature, but a man's nature to His own person. He is, then, a divine person who has assumed our humanity. (Were he not a divine person, He would not be the object of Christian worship, for Christians worship God only, never the creature. As for the personal qualities of Christ's humanity, the position generally-though not universally-held by theologians subscribing to Chalcedonian Christology is one which speaks of the “impersonal humanity” of our Lord (anahypostasy, enhypostasy). Not that there is no manifestation in Jesus of personality at the human level; rather, the thought is that this humanity, of itself, has no existence independently of the divine Person. That which is human, in Him, exists in and through the Word which is God Himself. There is, to be sure, a sense in which God is present to all created reality, especially in a gracious way in His word and sacraments. But howsoever we may conceive of this divine presence of power (creation-providence) and of grace (word-sacrament), there can be no thought of identity between God and the creature. But of the man, Jesus Christ, something absolutely unique is affirmed; this man is declared to be identical with God Himself, because He, the Person, is the “Word made flesh and dwelling among us” (cf. John 1:14). Therefore we can never think of Him as man, without at the same time thinking of Him as God.
If the incarnate Son of God unites true deity and true humanity in a personal self, then there is a communion of attributes in the person of the Mediator whereby we may speak of Him in any way that is proper to speak of God or of man (see, e.g., Acts 20:28, where the best text speaks of God's having purchased the church with His own blood). Lutheran theologians, in distinction to the Reformed, have gone further, arguing not only for a communion, but also for a “communication” of attributes (Article VIII,
Likewise, the church as a whole has rejected the Lutheran doctrine of kenosis* (from the verb kenoom, “to empty,” Phil. 2:7) though others besides Lutherans, especially in the
In all of these views the fundamental assumption of Chalcedonian Christology is not challenged; the Incarnation is understood to mean that a preexisting divine person, the eternal Son of God, has revealed Himself in history as the man Jesus of Nazareth. A significant shift, however, begins with Schleiermacher,* who observed that it is unfortunate that the church should speak of the union of the human with the divine in Jesus the Christ as the act of the person himself, rather than making it constitutive of the person. The “Son of God” is the subject of the union of the human and divine in Jesus, according to Schleiermacher, not the divine person who exists before the union took place.
Ultimately, for Schleiermacher, Jesus is a man “who was uniquely endowed with God consciousness”; for Ritschl, “Jesus taught a lofty morality, but in the exercise of this vocation never transgressed the limits of a purely human estimate of himself”; for Harnack, “Jesus knew God in a way no one had ever known him before.” In this tradition of German liberalism there is such a radical shift away from Chalcedon toward a view of Jesus as only a man, albeit an exceptional one, that it is hardly possible to speak of “incarnation” any longer. For this reason Tillich* has put the word “incarnation” in quotation marks and declared that its traditional meaning that “God has become a man” is “not a paradoxical statement but a nonsensical one.” For contemporary theologians who concur in this judgment, Jesus was a first-century Palestinian Jew, no different from other men, save that his ethical integrity and religious genius have made us all his debtors.
In contrast with this “theology of the horizontal,” the Christian doctrine of incarnation affirms that in the Jesus-event God, like a “perpendicular from above,” visited our planet and became a part of our history. To understand this difference, in the light of the crucial question, “Whom say ye that I am?” is to perceive how important lucid theological thought can be for Christian faith, as that thought is preserved in the historic symbols of the church.
See also Christology; Jesus Christ.
A. Ritschl, Justification and Reconciliation (1902); F.E.D. Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (1928); H.E. Brunner, The Mediator (1947); D.M. Baillie, God Was in Christ (1948); P. Tillich,
INCARNATION ĭn kär nā’ shən. From the Lat. incarnatio, taking or being flesh. As a Christian term it refers to the event summed up in John 1:14, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
This term refers, in the first instance, to the act wherein the eternal Son “became flesh,” but it is extended to signify the whole experience of human life into which He entered, and also embraces within its reference the fact that Christ still bears forever His humanity.
The origin of the doctrine
While, in the light of the NT, certain OT passages can be seen to point to the Incarnation, the OT predictions were not such that the Incarnation was anticipated. The idea of God becoming man would have been and still is a scandal to the Jew, and only the overwhelming evidence seen in the person and ministry of Christ could lead any to believe that He was none less than the incarnate. This belief was no ideal that owed its origin to the fertile imagination of the Early Church which “wrote back” into the gospels myths of the miraculous birth and ministry of Jesus. The doctrine arose out of the observation of the actual life of Jesus and against all possible explanation of what had been observed.
Men found in their midst this Galilean, Jesus. By virtue of His manner of life and personal character they could not but ask who He was—Messiah? Prophet? Or more? There gradually dawned the almost incredible conviction that, human Messiah and Prophet that He was, He was so much more; man that He was, He was also divine. The Son of God had “become flesh and dwelt among us.”
The NT presentation
The synoptic gospels.
Both Matthew and Luke open with accounts of the miraculous conception of Jesus. Matthew interprets this unique birth to mean the special presence of God (1:23, citing Isa 7:14). In Luke the angelic messenger designates Jesus Son of the Most High, Son of God (1:32, 35). (See Virgin Birth.)
The synoptics carefully balance Jesus’ common humanity against this uniqueness. Constantly He uses His self-designation, “Son of man.” The full significance of this term cannot be discussed here (see Son of Man), but wherever the roots of this term may be traced and whatever else it may mean, it undoubtedly signified both the genuineness and the representative character of Christ’s humanity. He was truly human, sharing with all men that which belongs essentially to humanity.
The marked difference between this gospel and the synoptics is due largely to the different viewpoints from which they are written. Here, the primary view is not of the Man whom men came to see as more than man, but of the eternal Son who came into the world to live as man. It is not that John stresses the deity of Christ at the expense of His humanity; indeed, one reads more of the human experiences of joy, weariness and the like in this gospel than in the others. But the primary standpoint, regulative of the whole gospel, is that in an unbroken continuity He who was “from the beginning” entered into human history as a human participant in this history.
The primary question then is not, Who is this man? but, What kind of life and to what purpose did the Word, as man, live in this world? The key, then, to the whole gospel (and much more the foundation to the entire gospel than are the birth stories to Matt and Luke) is the prologue, 1:1-18. The heart of this are vv. 1-3, 14, 18, particularly: θεὸς ἠ̂ν ὁ λόγος...καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο (“the Word was God...and the Word became flesh”). Even more directly than the Pauline “human form” (Phil 2:8) the use of this term “flesh” indicates the full extent of the Incarnation, and by his statement John expressly counters the docetic error (cf. 1 John 4:2, 3).
The σὰρξ ἐγένετο of John 1:14 is to be compared with the ἐγένετο in v. 3. The significance is that all things “came into being”—what was not came to be. What the Word previously was not, He came to be, that is “flesh” (v. 14). Not, however, to say that from being God alone He became man alone, for He continued to be the “only begotten” (v. 18) manifesting the Father’s glory.
A certain temporality (see below) may perhaps be read into the verb ἐσκήνωσεν (“tabernacled”), but the primary reference is to the substantial reality and presence of the Word in this world. Just as the Tabernacle was a real feature of the Israelite camp, and enshrined the manifestation of the glory and presence of God, so was Christ in “real presence” among men, and in and from Him shone the divine glory—the glory primarily of love and moral grandeur (cf. Exod 33:18, 19. Other aspects of His divine glory were hidden—see below).
In v. 18 one purpose of the Incarnation is explicitly stated: that this was God’s word to men; this was He who has “declared” (ἐξηγήσατο—the verb has no object), that is, opened to men the divine mysteries (v. 18). The clearly attested reading μονογενὴς θεὸς (read in apposition, “only-begotten, God”) emphatically asserts that He who was made flesh is the unique Son, none less than God. This makes His revelation an immediate and direct and therefore a truly authentic representation and manifestation of God.
John apparently had no adoptionist error immediately in mind, nor does he make any reference to the mode of incarnation set forth in Matthew and Luke. His account clearly shows that Jesus was not simply a man in whom the Logos took up residence.
Though in this prologue philosophical and metaphysical questions of vast import are touched upon, the evangelist’s interest is intensely practical. The truths of the prologue lie at the base of the rest of the gospel; it is all that which gives validity and significance to the ministry of Jesus. As the Word, His life on earth is a revelation; as the only-begotten, God, incarnate, He can be the “lamb of God” able to “take away the sins of the world” (1:29). It is because of who He is that His works become “signs” (2:11; 20:30), and His personal claims can be taken at fullest value.
Throughout His earthly ministry He claimed immediate oneness with the Father. This oneness meant not simply a fullness of fellowship or unity of purpose, but a certain equality (5:18-23; 10:30, 38; 14:8-11). From this last reference at least two significant conclusions follow: (1) In the fullest sense possible Jesus claimed to be the “image of God,” a full and true revelation of God. (2) There is no “God beyond God,” none beyond Him who is made manifest in Christ. Not to say that all that God is, all that ever ultimately is to be known, was visible to men in the incarnate Christ. But all that is revealed in Him is a revelation of the true God, than whom there is none other. The Incarnation is the incarnation of the one true God (1:1, 14), and thus a revelation which will never be found to have been in any way false. To question or deprecate the full value of this revelation in Christ is to dishonor God Himself (cf. 5:23).
In theme the opening vv. of 1 John are not unlike those of the gospel, though the “heard,” “seen,” “touched,” more graphically present Christ as not only in the flesh but present to men of flesh: the Word was open to the most direct observation possible. None can deny in any regard the reality of the Incarnation without thereby being found to oppose Christ Himself, and to be estranged from the Father (2:22, 23; 4:1-3; 2 John 7).
The early chs. are esp. significant as representing the earliest understanding of the Church after the Ascension. There is not, perhaps, the full apprehension of Christ’s person that is found in the epistles. It is not true, however, as some assert, that there is to be found here an adoptionist theology—that Christ, the man, in due time was made divine. The assigning of certain OT passages to Christ (2:25-28, 34), and titles given to Christ, such as “the Holy and Righteous One,” “the Author of life” (3:14, 15; 7:52), recognize that Christ is more than mere man. Paul, upon his conversion, almost immediately called Jesus, “the Son of God” (9:20).
Pauline epistles, and Pastorals.
Paul sees the cross, by which Christ became the propitiation for our sins and reconciled men to God (Rom 3:25; 8:3, 32; 2 Cor 5:19; cf. Eph 2:13-16), and the salvation for men secured through the cross (Gal 4:5) as the real purpose and goal of the Incarnation. Moreover, it is that death, and not simply the incarnate life of Christ, that reveals to men the fact and measure of the love of God (Rom 5:8).
While the earthly life of Christ, and esp. His death and resurrection, is of great importance to Paul (see, for example, 1 Cor 15:3-5, 12ff.), the focus of his attention is on the present exalted Christ (2 Cor 3:17; Col 3:1ff.), though at the same time Christ is to us what He is, not only because of who He is, but also because of what He accomplished in His earthly ministry (1 Cor 1:23. ἐσταυρωμένον, “crucified”: the force of the perfect tense is to emphasize the present outcome of this event of the past).
Paul constantly designates Phil 2:11), but there is no suggestion that while he was on earth He was any less the Son of God. It was the Son who came from God (Gal 4:4), lived on earth, and is now exalted—the one person throughout. So important is it that Jesus is the risen Lord, that He must so be acknowledged if one is to know Him as Savior (Rom 10:9).as Lord, a term that appears unquestionably to recognize His deity. It is the risen, exalted Christ of whom he so speaks (
There is no doubt with Paul concerning the reality of Christ’s manhood. Christ is the “second Adam” (5:17, 18). However, in two passages claiming His physical descent from David (Rom 1:2; 9:5), and His real humanity, there is the careful qualification, “according to the flesh.” Christ is also of other Sonship.
Three passages call for special note:
Galatians 4:4, 5, already noted, recognizes the pre-existence and deity of Him who was born in Bethlehem, but also His essential humanity in the phrase, “born of woman.” Further, the extent of His condescension in becoming man is seen in His becoming subject to the law designed for sinful men.
Philippians 2:5-8. Several phrases in these vv. have been given widely different interpretations. Full account of these cannot be taken here, but certain facts seem clear. The phrases, “form of God”...“form of a servant”...“in the likeness of men”...“in human form,” bring out the three essential aspects of the Incarnation: He who came into the world was the eternally existing . He, with no discontinuity of person, became truly man. The now highly exalted Lord is this same Jesus.
The phrase occasioning most controversy is ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν (2:7), variously rendered, “made himself of no reputation” (KJV), “emptied himself” (ASV, RSV), “laid it aside” (Am. Trans.), “stripped himself [of all privileges and rightful dignity]” (Amplified NT). Though “emptied himself” is the most literal tr., its adequacy may be open to question. In any case, the vital question still is concerning what it was He laid aside. Wesley’s “emptied himself of all but love” is purely poetical. It could not be that He renounced any essential elements of deity so that in the flesh He was no longer truly God. Too much elsewhere in Scripture makes this view impossible. Some suggest He laid aside at least the exercise of His divine attributes of omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence, if not the possession of them. Others that it was simply certain aspects of the divine glory that were set aside. Two things seem necessary to say: (1) It is not possible to determine with absolute certainty what was laid aside; one can only say that there was such self-renunciation as was necessary for the assumption of authentic human experience, which involves geographical location, human development in mind and body, the requirement of food and sleep, a real dependence as man upon the heavenly Father, and so on. Truly, “though he was rich...he became poor” (2 Cor 8:9). (2) It is wholly invalid, on the basis of this passage, to argue for the possible fallibility of the Lord in His earthly ministry.
Colossians 1:15, 20; 2:9. Paul speaks here of the one person “who is the image of God, in whom all things were created, who is before all things, first-born from the dead, in whom the fulness of God was pleased to take up residence...the blood of his cross...in him dwells....” Paul sees Him as the same one throughout His preincarnate existence, His incarnate earthly life, and His present glory. For the purposes of his epistle the emphasis is on the present Christ, He who as Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, Reconciler, is the all-supreme, all-sufficient Savior and Lord, than whom no other mediator is needed. The “was pleased to dwell” could refer to His “pre-incarnate status” (so Blackman), but it is more natural to see a reference here to the Incarnation.
The present tense “dwells” (Col 2:9), and the word “bodily” (σωματικω̂ς, G5395), refer to Christ in the present.
Obviously, from the way Paul elsewhere strongly contrasts a this-worldly “natural body” with a “spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44), there is some great difference between the “body of Christ’s humiliation” and His “body of glory.” The specifically earthly body is His “body of flesh” (Col 1:22; cf. Heb 5:7). It might therefore be argued that strictly speaking Christ is not now incarnate. He is certainly still possessed of a body (Col 2:9; cf. Phil 3:21), and is still man (1 Tim 2:5—see next paragraph).
Two passages in the pastorals are relevant: 1 Timothy 2:5, 6, and 3:16. Important in the first is the reference to “the man Christ Jesus,” and the present tense, “there is...one mediator.” Clearly Jesus is still man and by reason of His atonement (1:6) is able to act as a sufficient mediator.
In 1 Timothy 3:16 Paul incorporates an early credal hymn which refers directly to the Incarnation in terms of “appearing” (cf. 2 Tim 1:10).
1 and 2 Peter.
The theme of this epistle is the perfection of Christ’s ministry, past, present and future. He is the perfect Mediator by whom sinful men are reconciled to God. To establish this, the writer points esp. to Christ’s deity and humanity, and from this, and by comparison and contrast with the whole OT sacrificial system, to the superiority of His priesthood and the all-sufficiency of His sacrifice.
Reminiscent of John and Colossians is the opening chapter. Reflecting God’s glory and bearing “the very stamp (χαρακτήρ, G5917) of his nature,” the Son is the perfect Word, the one through whom supremely God has spoken. As the Son He is superior to angels (1:3ff.) and to all human prophets and leaders (4:3ff.). Through Him “all things were created” (1:2; cf. John 1:3; Col 1:16).
All this demonstrates the depth of condescension of the Son in becoming man (2:9, 14), in every respect like ourselves, including being subject to temptation (2:17; 4:15), even having to “learn obedience” (5:8), yet sinless (4:15).
There is no reference to the mode of the Incarnation, but by a quotation in 10:5-7 from Psalm 40 (following the LXX), there is specific reference to the fact, and that it was a work of God. The phrase, “a body thou hast prepared for me...‘Lo, I have come,’” is clearly intended to indicate the pre-incarnate existence of Him who thereby came into the world (10:5; cf. 9:11) to be made an offering for sin (10:10).
Here, as elsewhere (cf. 1 Tim 1:15), the title “Christ” is not limited strictly to the Son after His Incarnation, though this might seem technically appropriate. (Elsewhere even the specifically human name “Jesus” is used thus, though in conjunction with the title “Christ” 1 Tim 1:15; cf. 2 Tim 1:10.) The point is that though at the Incarnation He became man, being made “like his brethren” (2:17), there was no discontinuity of person. He who was on earth, who lives as now and forever, is He who lived before and from His exalted position became man (“a little lower than the angels,” 2:9). In this, Hebrews is wholly consistent with other epistles.
The OT foreshadowing
Summary of doctrine
Nature of the Incarnation.
From the foregoing examination certain essential truths can be established.
1. The Church has spoken of the “preexistence” (more exactly the “pre-incarnate existence”) of Christ, for He who was born of the Virgin Mary was the Son of God who had lived from all eternity. “In the fulness of time” (Gal 4:4 KJV), He who was the Creator of all became Himself possessor of that human nature which He had created.
2. He became truly human. In saying “the Word became flesh” the evangelist asserts the completeness of the Incarnation, that His was the full physico-psychical nature that is essential to true humanity.
3. In the Incarnation there was a certain temporality yet also permanence. Reference to “the days of his flesh” (Heb 5:7) marks out His time as man on earth as a distinct and limited period during which His human nature was in every respect of that kind which God created for life within this physical environment. After the Resurrection Jesus appeared still in the flesh (Luke 24:39). Yet, at least from and after the Ascension, Jesus possesses, not a “lowly body” such as we have, but a body of glory fitted for the environment of the eternal Glory (Phil 3:21, into that form we shall be changed). There was thus a temporality in the assumption of the present bodily form and of the limitations that belong essentially to this present world, but also a permanence for He became man forever. Glorified, He is still “the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5).
4. In becoming man He did not cease to be God. It was an incarnation not a metamorphosis. Nevertheless He laid aside certain of that which belonged to His pre-incarnate existence. He set aside something of His divine glory (John 17:5); apparently also the exercise of His uniquely divine powers, at least on His own behalf (Matt 3:3, 4). He did, however, work miracles, not without the Father it is true; but He made no disclaimers such as did Peter and Paul (Acts 3:12; 14:14ff.).
5. From before, and through the “days of his flesh” and forever, He is the one person. Furthermore, in the flesh He was a truly unified, or integrated, personality. Though the “God-man” He was not, and did not act as, two persons, as though there was simply a co-ordination, albeit perfect, of the two natures. It was the one person, God incarnate, whose life and ministry is recorded in the gospels.
6. As Immanuel, “God with us,” Christ can be said to represent the absolute immanence of God. He who was present to men prior to the Incarnation, concerned with their needs, directing their history to achieve His providential purposes, drawing certain men into the privilege of more immediate fellowship with Him, became immediately present with and among men. The Incarnation both demonstrates in fullest measure the immanence of God and was possible because God is not only transcendent, but also immanent. Then, through the consummation of the ministry of the Incarnate Son, every believer experiences the immediate immanence of God in the presence of the indwelling Spirit (John 7:37-39).
Two passages only set out to describe the mode by which the Incarnation took place: Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38; 2:1-7.
Many have argued against the factuality of these narratives, mainly on the basis of assumed improbabilities and highly subjective standards of judgment. However, if the accounts are not accepted, then either Jesus was born of Joseph and Mary through normal sexual intercourse, or Jesus was the illegitimate son of Mary and some other man. In either case, it would make nonsense of the accounts, and it would become impossible to explain the complete untrustworthiness of the evangelists, the contradictory character (in that event) of Mary, and the whole nature, character and claims of our Lord.
The apparent silence of all other NT writers in this matter need not be explained, as by some, by asserting that they must have been entirely ignorant of any such thing, and that their ignorance must be taken as strong presumption against the credibility of the accounts. Where the Incarnation is elsewhere referred to, the attention is not upon its mode but upon its fact and the consequences. Many events described in Scripture are accepted on much less documentation. (See Virgin Birth.)
At least two purposes are indicated in Scripture, and by some a third is suggested.
In a double sense Jesus Christ was the image of God. As Son in an immediate and unique sense revealing the divine nature, Jesus was the image of God. As man He also was the perfect example of what was in the mind of God when He said, “Let us make man in our image” (Gen 1:26). In Him is revealed ideal man, man in true and perfect fellowship with God, man as the reflection of the grace and goodness of God, showing the inner graces of love, joy, goodness, and such like. By this, Christ becomes a revelation of what sinful man is; by contrast with Christ he is so obviously short of the glory of God (contrast John 1:14 with Rom 3:23). At the same time He reveals God’s purpose for all who commit themselves to His saving purpose, for into this image God transforms men (Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18; cf. 2 Cor 5:17; Col 3:10).
There is nevertheless a certain hiddenness in the very form of the self-revelation of God in the Incarnation. God was, as it were, veiled in Christ so that men might look upon Him. Certainly, in human flesh the Son of God was not easily recognized (1 John 3:1b; cf. 1 Cor 2:8). For the unrepentant sinner, the full vision of God will occasion unspeakable terror (Rev 6:15-17); for the believer, the final transformation (1 John 3:2; cf. 2 Cor 3:18).
The last point leads to this, that the Incarnation was essential in the plan of God to deliver men from sin and all its dire consequences.
Furthermore, by virtue of His incarnation, death and resurrection, He became the new Adam and head of the new race of redeemed men (Rom 5:12ff.; Col 1:18b).
These two purposes, revelational and soteriological, are inseparably related. God’s revealing activity in all its forms, and supremely in Christ, is soteriological in purpose. This is His answer to man’s ignorance through sin. Christ is the light of the world (John 8:12), the one through whom God has shone into our hearts (2 Cor 4:6). The Son came that men might see their sin, learn of God’s grace, and so turn to God in true penitence and faith. God’s revelatory activity always involves a certain giving of Himself to men, and esp. was this so in the Incarnation. Then in self-giving, God is taking the initial act in restoring men to fellowship with Himself. This restoration could not take place, however, without that to which the self-giving of the Incarnation led, namely the cross (see Atonement). The cross, in turn, is a revelation: in it is revealed as in no other way the inestimable love of the Father and of the Son (Rom 5:8; 1 John 4:9, 10).
Consummation of creation.
It has been suggested that the Incarnation was in the mind of God independently of His redemptive purpose for fallen man; that even had men not sinned, the Son would still have become incarnate. Indeed, when Adam was created in the image of God, the pattern was that incarnate form which God purposed in due time for His Son. Of this idea, however, Scripture seems to give no clear hint.
Subsequent history of the doctrine
Even within the apostolic period the reality of the Incarnation was challenged. An early and persistent error, strongly denounced in 1 and 2 John (known as Docetism, from Gr. δοκέω, G1506, “to seem”), was that Christ only appeared to be human, that His inner spirit was divine, not human, or even that His body was not a truly human body.
Despite the emphatic scriptural condemnation of this error, many attempts to define the Incarnation have tended to be docetic. Any view which sees in Jesus less than a full humanity and a full experience of the limitations that essentially belong to human existence (not the additional limitations inherent in sinful humanity) is docetic. Jesus Christ was “made like his brethren in every respect” (Heb 2:17).
With the early rise of conflicting views and a natural continued interest in the nature of Jesus of Nazareth, the Church had to give increasing and urgent attention to the doctrine of the Incarnation. There were two main issues around which there was great controversy in the early centuries after the apostolic period: (1) The actual nature of Jesus Christ—to which the Church gave answer: He was both human and divine; and (2) This being so, how were these two natures united in one person? In answer to the second, the tendency was, and in modern theology still is, to commence from and emphasize either the deity or the humanity, to some diminution of the other.
An early attempt at solution, “Monarchianism,” insisted on the unity of God, either that Jesus was in the first place but man, though filled at baptism with divine power and after the resurrection existing as divine (“Dynamic Monarchianism”), or that the Father, Son and Spirit were only temporary phases (πρόσωπα) of the one God (“Modalistic Monarchianism”). This latter denied an essential element in the Incarnation: the Father sent the Son; it is the Son alone who became incarnate. And though the Son is truly divine (“What God was, the Word was” John 1:1 NEB), one cannot say that in the Word is the totality of God.
The occasion of the great Arian controversy of the 4th cent. was the assertion that the Son is a creature, different in essence (οὐσία, G4045) from and not co-eternal with the Father. Furthermore, in place of a human soul was the Logos (a denial, in effect, of His true humanity). The issues were at times clouded by problems of semantics, key words of high technical significance (such as οὐσία, πρόσωπα, persona) being used with subtly different meanings.
Prolonged controversy issued in the declaration of the full deity, full and perfect humanity of Christ, but left unresolved the question concerning how these two natures were united in one person, and this question gave rise to further division.
Apollinarius (4th cent.) argued that two natures would mean two persons, and that therefore though the body and soul of Christ were purely human, the human mind or spirit was replaced by the Logos. This denied that Christ was truly man, for the mind is the distinctly human element in man’s nature.
Nestorius, on the other hand, held Jesus to be truly a man, but not in Himself divine; rather that God was present in Him as He was in the prophets, though in perfection. Any substantial union, he urged, would have meant an alteration in the Logos. This would have meant, not a true Incarnation, but simply a unique conjunction, a concord of will and purpose, not the oneness of a single, personal life.
Eutyches, strongly anti-Nestorian, asserted that in the Incarnation either there was an absorption of the human nature into the divine, or a fusion of the two natures making one new nature (“monophysitism”). Christ then would not have been true man, nor could He be man’s true representative, substitute or mediator.
At the a.d. 451, the last three views were condemned. The formula accepted had at heart the assertion of two natures in the one Christ “without confusion, without mutation, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved and concurring in one person and one hypostasis.”
The formula is open to certain serious criticisms: it is overly negative in form; it is static in form and impersonal in feeling, remote from the living Christ; its terms are too closely linked with the background philosophies of the day. Yet, it was a worthy attempt to preserve the essential scriptural truths.
This formula has dominated Christian thinking ever since, though the last cent. and a half have seen much dissatisfaction with the Chalcedon formula and many new attempts to explain the nature of Christ.
Schleiermacher, consistent with his approach to Christian doctrine through personal and subjective religious experience, saw in Christ the supremely God-conscious man, divine in experience rather than in essential nature. Ritschl, critical of much of the traditional formula as being purely speculative, insisted that the inner nature of Christ transcends inquiry. Jesus is known only to the believer, and then mainly as the bearer of perfect revelation.
Of another sort is the Kenosis theory. There are many variations of this theory, but they are alike in two respects. Their beginning point is the pre-existent Son who became incarnate, rather than the man, Jesus; and they attempt, then, to define specifically the “self-emptying” (from the Gr. verb κενόω, G3033, “to empty,” Phil 2:7) involved in His becoming man. There is much difference of opinion as to what this latter entailed. For most, it means at least the laying aside of the divine attributes of omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence. The major danger is that in strictly defining the “self-emptying,” Christ is seen as less than truly divine. Thomasius was the first advocate of this theory. More modern advocates are A. B. Bruce, Fairbairn, Gore, Forsyth and Mackintosh.
A “back to the Jesus of history” movement rightly repudiated docetism, but so emphasized Christ’s humanity and generally denied any supernatural activity in His ministry, as to reduce Him to the supreme religious hero. D. M. Baillie has likewise emphasized Jesus’ humanity, and charges much traditional thinking with the error of docetism. He insists on the human nature (and human limits) of Christ’s knowledge, the human character of His miracles and of His moral and religious life. This insistence tends to question the reality of His deity, leaving the impression of Christ as the supremely inspired man.
Into the radical break with all traditional understanding of the gospels made by Bultmann, and his demythologizing of the gospels, one cannot go here. With the denial of the historicity of the recorded life of Christ, including the Resurrection and Ascension, and the emphasis not on the historical, incarnate Son and His earthly ministry, but on the Christ of the kerygma, so much of the NT explanation of Christ is thrown aside.
From the metaphor of the Church as the body of Christ, one modern school of thought sees the Church as the extension of the Incarnation, the continuation upon earth of the incarnate Christ, His present visible body. However, though the metaphor of the body is used of the Church in the NT, it is not used in this way, but simply to stress the relationship between members of the body of Christ and with one another, and to emphasize the mutual dependence and harmony that should prevail. To develop the metaphor in this further way is to lead to dangerous ideas as to the authority of the Church, and to the Church becoming an object of worship and trust as the now incarnate Christ. (See Church.)
Conclusion. On the evidence of Scripture one is compelled, basically, to hold to the traditional formulation of the doctrine of the Incarnation, though holding this subject to and not as regulative of the NT presentation. Further, one must guard against such a determination to answer all possible questions that much more is dogmatically asserted than God has been pleased to reveal. One must unreservedly accept what is revealed in Scripture, and humbly acknowledge and accept the limitations of our understanding of this divine mystery. Sufficient is revealed to constrain adoring worship of, and the fullest faith in, the Lord of Glory “who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Jesus Christ.
A. B. Bruce, The Jesus Christ.)