The Humanity of Christ

Ronald H. Hanko is pastor of Trinity Protestant Reformed Church, Houston, Texas.

2. The characteristics of Christ’s human nature.

Because of various errors that have arisen in the history of the church there are certain characteristics of Christ’s human nature that have been emphasized in church doctrine. These are worth our study, not just because of the errors they contradict, but because each of them helps us understand the wonder and significance of Christ’s humanity for our salvation. There are usually five of these characteristics or attributes that are given, the reality, completeness, weakness, sinlessness, and centrality of Christ’s human nature.

(1)A real human nature. That Christ has a real human nature would seem to be beyond question, and yet in the history of the church it was exactly this truth that was first and often denied, especially as a result of the influence of pagan philosophy. Many of the early heretics, some of whom are mentioned in Article IX of the Belgic Confession, particularly men like Marcion and Manes, not only denied the deity of Christ, but also His real humanity. They proceeded from the idea, borrowed from Greek philosophy, that evil is not a matter of bad actions and wrong choices but that material, created things are themselves inherently evil. Salvation, therefore, consists not in redemption from sin, but in deliverance from this material world, especially from our material bodies. Thus these men felt that a union between the spiritual Son of God and our flesh was not only unworthy of God, but unthinkable in light of the essential badness of this creation and of the body.

These men taught, then, that Christ’s incarnation was only an appearance, and that He did not actually become man. He simply took upon Himself for a time the appearance of a human body. For this reason these men and their followers were called Docetists (from the Greek word which means “to seem” or “to appear”). They were not a separate sect, however, but were found in many different heretical groups in the early church. The Manichaeans, for example, to whom Augustine belonged before his conversion, taught that Christ’s human nature was only a phantom. And so Augustine himself says in hisConfessions: “I was afraid, therefore, to believe Him to be born in the flesh, lest should be compelled to believe Him contaminated by the flesh” (V, x, 20).

The church saw clearly that this teaching destroyed the gospel, for if Christ’s humanity is not real, then all He did as a man, including his suffering and dying, is not real. Cyril of Jerusalem gets to the heart of the matter when he says: “If the incarnation was a phantom, salvation is a phantom also” (Catechetical Lectures, V, i, 9).

We know that this is the teaching of Scripture. Jesus Himself assured his disciples several times, both before and after his resurrection, that He was not a ghost or phantom (Matt. 14:26, 27Luke 24:39). Also passages such as Hebrews 2:14 very emphatically declare that He took our flesh and blood. In fact, these passages speak so clearly that many of the early heretics were forced into the same position of many false teachers today, that of denying that such passages are part of the Word of God at all.

Now there would seem at first thought to be little need for such a passionate defense of the reality of Christ’s humanity today, since, if anything, it would seem that the tendency today is to emphasize His humanity at the expense of His deity. But this is not the case. The errors of Docetism are to be found in the church today and she must still fight for this truth.

For one thing, as Berkhouwer points out, belief in Christ’s humanity involves much more than a mere acknowledgement of the fact that there was a man Jesus:

One must not think that the acknowledgement of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth is identical with the confession of the church touching the human nature of Christ. The acknowledgement of his historicity is not half of the Christological dogma (The Person of Christ, p. 198).

And insofar as any detracting from the significance of Christ’s humanity is really a form of Docetism, much of modern Christianity is docetic, having little real understanding of the necessity and value of Christ’s humanity.

There is, for example, an implicit devaluation of Christ’s humanity in Anabaptism and Dispensationalism, for in order to maintain a distinction of covenants in the Old and New Testament they are forced in one way or another to cut off Christ as the Saviour of the church from His Old Testament roots and thus they deny His real connection with humanity. Historically the Anabaptists have done this by denying that Christ’s nature was actually received from the virgin Mary (Belgic Confession, Article XVIII). Perhaps today it is more commonly done by making His humanity little more than a matter of sentiment and sympathy.

Roman Catholicism also deemphasizes the humanity of Christ, as for example in its official explanation of a passage like Mark 13:32, where it denies that Christ’s knowledge was in any way limited, explaining the passage simply as a reference to Christ’s withholding the knowledge of the time of His coming from His disciples. Perhaps this de-emphasis of Christ’s real humanity is connected (as it was with the Docetists of old) with the Roman Catholic teaching that evil is in things, and that flesh itself is inherently bad, a teaching which is seen most clearly in the Romish practice of holy orders. The fact remains, however, that the Roman Catholic Church has so entirely pushed the humanity of Christ into the background that it has been left without any human intermediary between God and man, and has had to invent its Mariolatory and Hagiolatory (worship of saints) to fill this void.

Of greater significance is the fact that most Christians today deny the reality of Christ’s humanity by denying the permanence of the incarnation. Most pastors and teachers in the church would be surprised to find how few of their people know or understand the truth expressed in Question and Answer 36 of the Westminster Larger Catechism, that “He continueth true man forever.” This is part of the reality of Christ’s humanity. His coming in the flesh was not something temporary, i.e., a mere appearance—as the old Docetists taught—but a permanent assumption of our flesh. Yet many have the idea that the incarnation ended with the resurrection of Christ, so that He is no longer a man like us.

Scripture teaches that the glorification of Christ through His resurrection and exaltation is the glorification of His humanity, not the loss of it. It is not just the Son of God who sits enthroned in glory and honor, but the Son of man (Luke 22:69), and it is also the Son of man who shall come again at the end with power and great glory (Luke 21:27). And it is the Son of man who rose from the dead the third day and ascended into heaven (Luke 24:7). This is, of course, the only explanation of the resurrection, for as God He can neither die nor rise again.

Again, the reality of our salvation depends upon the reality of His humanity also now that He is in heaven. It is because He intercedes for us as the Son of man that we also have boldness to enter into the presence of God (Heb. 4:15). The Belgic Confession reminds us of this most beautifully when it says:

But this Mediator, whom the Father has appointed between Him and us, ought in no wise to frighten us by His majesty, or cause us to seek another according to our fancy. For there is no creature either in heaven or on earth who loveth us more than Jesus Christ; Who, though He was in the form of God, yet made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of man, and of a servant for us, and was made like unto His brethren in all things (Article XXVI).

The Heidelberg Catechism also shows how the hope of eternal life for all Christians rests on the humanity of Christ, for “we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that He, as Head, will also take up to Himself, us, His members” (XVIII, 49). Here, of course it is the reality of our hope that depends on the reality of His humanity, but our hope is also part of our salvation, as Paul assures us in Romans 8:24.

Perhaps the present lack of understanding at this point is to be traced to a lack of emphasis on the reality of sin. Just as the early Docetists did not really believe in sin, ‘but taught that evil was in material things, so the church today has largely taken the same position by its teaching that the only evils in the world are the evils of poverty, war, inequality, and such like things; and thus she has no real need of One Who became man to pay for man’s sins. It is at least worth considering that this is the reason for the lack of any real emphasis on the humanity of Christ, even while the church still appears to hold to that truth.

Certainly it is true that with all the emphasis of modern theology on the humanity of Christ, one feels almost instinctively that a real appreciation of this truth is nevertheless missing entirely. So the church’s battle for this truth is not finished. It is a battle to be fought on every side. And we may not forget that in fighting this battle we are fighting for the gospel and for the reality and assurance of our own salvation. That alone can give us courage and conviction.

Nor may we forget that various other doctrines such as the doctrine of the virgin birth, the doctrine of the covenant (i.e., Christ’s birth as the seed of the woman and of David), the doctrine of His exaltation and intercession are inseparably related to this truth, and that in fighting for them we are also fighting for the true gospel, the good news that Christ was made man, like us in all things, that He might suffer and be glorified on our behalf.