The incarnation was the wonder of all the wonders of the wonder-working God. All of the other wonderful works of God, both before and after this miracle, are so many satellites about this great star, or, more accurately, so many rays of light emitted by this glorious sun. “Great is the mystery of godliness,” the Church confesses in I Timothy 3:16, “God was manifest in the flesh.”
For this reason, the incarnation is known only by faith — unbelief has no eye for the dazzling light of the revelation of God’s greatness and goodness in the world; and even for faith this wonder is incomprehensible. This, of course, is not to say that faith cannot understand the incarnation, or that it cannot explain what it believes, or that it cannot defend what it believes — faith certainly can do these things; but it is to say that faith cannot exhaustively understand — cannot plumb the depths of — this work of God which we name the incarnation, and that faith adores the greatness of God that surpasses understanding, even as it seeks understanding.
The words quoted from I Timothy 3 begin, “Confessedly.” “Without controversy” in the King James is really “Confessedly — Confessedly, great is the mystery of godliness.” The manifestation of God in the world is a confession. It is a confession of faith. Faith is expressing what it believes.
Like Christ Himself, the incarnation is truth that is always spoken against. The great struggle for this truth was fought in the last part of the 4th century and the first half of the 5th century A.D., although the mopping-up operation lasted late into the 7th century. The decisive blow for the incarnation was struck by the church council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451. This council set forth the faith of the Church on the incarnation in a creed, the Symbol of Chalcedon. This is the creed which requires Christ to be acknowledged in two natures, “inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.”
But the opposition was not annihilated in A.D. 451, or, for that matter, in A.D. 680. Nor is this opposition limited, in our day, to the outright denial of Jesus’ Deity by modernist-Protestantism. Rome today is confronted by a challenge to her dogma of the incarnation on the part of certain of her own notable theologians. In my own tradition — the Dutch Reformed — men are questioning the Chalcedonian Christology, and questioning it in such a way as to raise the question, whether they deny the incarnation.
Opposition to the incarnation had the effect in the 4th and 5th centuries and has the effect today that it drives the Church to search the Scriptures for the living knowledge of Jesus the Christ.
Who is Jesus? Who is the Jesus revealed in Holy Scripture?
In the doctrine of the incarnation, we are concerned with Jesus; and our concern is exactly that of the question which Jesus Himself once asked about Himself in conversation with the Pharisees: “What think ye of Christ? whose son is he?” (Matthew 22:42) This was also the controlling question in the trinitarian controversy that preceded, and gave rise to, the struggle over the natures of Christ and their relationship to each other.
In her careful formulation of the truth of this doctrine, not only was the Church responding to various heresies, but she was also expressing the living faith of the saints (and let it be emphasized, it was not only the faith of the theologians and bishops, but also, and especially, the faith of the saints) as to Who and what Jesus is, on the basis of the clear testimony of Holy Scripture. We may not for one moment suppose that the doctrine of the incarnation as it is set forth in the creeds is the theoretical speculation of the theologians. Rather, it is the statement (and if you take the time to read it, you will discover that the statement is characterized by simplicity) and defense of that which the whole Church read in the Bible.
She read that her Saviour, Jesus, is a real man among men. She read that this Savior is, as well, God Himself come down to her from heaven. She read that He is, nevertheless, one Christ, not two Christs. And this is the doctrine of the incarnation.
The Church of Christ believed this from the first; the heresies did not lead the Church to believe something she had never believed before. All that the heresies did was to stimulate the Church to understand more clearly and sharply what she believed; to express more definitely what she believed; and to formulate her faith carefully.
Apart from this, it would be impossible to account for the steadfastness of the orthodox over so many years, in the face of so many adversities, and despite so many bewildering deviations.
Amid all the din of Arianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, Eutychianism, monophysitism, and monothelitism, to say nothing of the noise of the subtle variations on all these errors, besides the usual confusion contributed by the civil powers, there was the clear, certain, powerful sound of the Word of God, Holy Scripture; and the Church listened intently and obediently to the Word of God.
The Church heard Scripture say, “And the Word (Who was in the beginning, Who was with God, and Who was God) — And the Word became flesh” (John 1:14).
The incarnation was the act of the Word, Whom John identifies in John 1 as the eternal Son of God, of becoming flesh; it was the event of the union of the Word and flesh. It was the act, or event, of a moment — one, definite, particular moment of time (time’s fulness, according to Galatians 4:4), the moment that Jesus was conceived in the womb of the virgin, Mary, in Nazareth, Galilee. The word, incarnation, means this: ‘becoming flesh,’ or ‘coming in flesh.’ God became man; and this God-become-man is Jesus.
This was an act of real union. How this union was effected, in what it consisted, we put off explaining for a moment. But it was the union of God and flesh. The incarnation was not a close contact between God and a human being, a conjunction of the Divine and the human, a dwelling side-by-side of God and a man in the temple of the body and soul of one Jesus. The incarnation was not the turning of God the Word into a man, so that what we have as a result is one who is only a man, but no longer God. On the other hand, the incarnation was not the absorbing of the human into the Divine Word, so that what we have is one who is only God, but no longer man. Nor was the incarnation the mixture of Divine and human to form a third kind of being: a super-man or a demi-god. None of these isunion. But God united to Himself flesh, so that He is now both God and flesh.
Accordingly, Jesus is a real man. “Consubstantial with us according to the manhood,” confesses the Symbol of Chalcedon. He is flesh; and “flesh” is human nature, humanity. He derives His manhood from the mother in whom He is conceived and of whom He is born; and, thus, He derives it, as do we all, from Adam. He is a complete man; the flesh taken to Himself by the Word is full flesh, lacking nothing. Chalcedon had to contend for this against Apollinaris, who held that, although Jesus had a human body and a human soul, He lacked a human spirit (in the language of the day, a “reasonable soul”). In place of this supposedly highest part of man, said Apollinaris, was the Divine Word Himself. Chalcedon, therefore, was at pains to assert that Jesus was “perfect in manhood” and that He possessed a “reasonable soul,” i.e., a spirit.
What all this amounts to is the simple insistence that Jesus is a man. If He is a man, He is completely a man. Whatever makes up human nature composes Him. He is “in all things . . . made like unto his brethren” (Hebrews 2:17).
In one respect only does He differ from us, and that is that He is sinless: “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15); “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners” (Hebrews 7:26). But sinfulness is not of the essence of humanity.
At the same time, Jesus is very God. “Consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead,” Chalcedon says. He is, and remains, the Word, the eternal LogosWho is God and by Whom all things were made in the beginning. He has His Deity of God the Father by being begotten from the Father from all eternity. According to John 1:14, He is the only begotten of the Father — the Son, therefore. Having His Being from the very Being of God the Father, He is, as the best reading of verse 18 puts it, “the only begotten God.” Jesus claimed Deity, and forgave sins; the disciples recognized His Deity, and Thomas said to Him, “My God.”
In other words, Jesus has two natures. We understand by “nature” (or substance) the sum total of all the powers and qualities that make up a certain being; or, more simply, what someone is. Jesus is God; and Jesus is man.
These two natures always remain distinct. One of the teachings rejected by Chalcedon as an error was that known as Eutychianism: the flesh was so taken up into the Word as to be absorbed by the Divine Word. Even the body was deified. Hence, on this view, Jesus is one nature, the Divine. Chalcedon spoke against this when it wrote, “inconfusedly, unchangeably.” As has already been noted, the confusing of the natures can take other forms. (to be concluded)
* A Speech given at the University of Chicago for the University of Chicago Christian Fellowship.