Ronald H. Hanko is pastor of Trinity Protestant Reformed Church, Houston, Texas.
The mystery of the incarnation is not so much that our Lord Jesus Christ is true God or true man, but that He is at one and the same time both of these. This is, in the final analysis, a mystery as great as the mystery of the trinity. Scripture itself reminds us of this by calling the truth that God is come in the flesh the beginning of the “great mystery of godliness” (I Tim. 3:16).
That the incarnation is a mystery means that it is not something which can be fully explained or logically analyzed, but a matter of faith and spiritual discernment. As one author has said, the incarnation is not a problem which we must or can solve, but a wonderful fact which we gratefully confess in the way God Himself presents it to us in His Word (H. Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, chapter 16). We must remember this if we are to avoid idle and profitless speculation in speaking of this truth.
The central question here has never really been whether there is a union between the two natures of Christ, but how those two natures are united in Him. The importance of this question is evident from the fact that a whole creed of the early church is devoted to answering various heresies that arose at this point. That creed is the Creed of Chalcedon. After the different heresies concerning the real humanity and real divinity of Christ had been answered by the early Church in the Niceno- Constantinopolitan Creed, a second phase of the Christological controversies began with questions about the union of Christ’s two natures. The Creed of Chalcedon was the church’s answer to these questions and a rejection of the new heresies that denied in one way or another the teaching of the Scriptures on this subject.
The necessity of this creedal statement is to be found in the importance of the doctrine of the union of Christ’s two natures for our salvation. Only if Christ is God and man in one Person can He be our Immanuel, God with us, the fulfillment of the covenant of grace and of all the promises of God to us. As the Athanasian Creed, another early creed, reminds us: “Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation, that he (who would be saved) also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In defending this doctrine, the church has adopted a certain terminology to define what she believes as exactly as possible, but she has never pretended that such dogmatic formulations are a complete or exhaustive explanation of the mystery of God manifest in the flesh. This terminology includes such words as person, subsistence (a synonym for person), and nature, none of which are to be found in Scripture itself. Bavinck explains the reason for this:
The terms of which the church and its theology make use, such as person, nature, unity of substance, and the like, are not to be found in Scripture, but are the product of the reflection which Christianity gradually had to devote to this mystery of salvation. The church was compelled to do this reflecting by the heresies which loomed up on all sides, both within the church and outside of it. All those expressions and statements which are employed in the confession of the church and in the language of theology are not designed to explain the mystery which in this matter confronts it, but rather to maintain it pure and unviolated over against those who would weaken or deny it. (Our Reasonable Faith, chap. 16).
These terms, therefore, are not infallible, but this does not forbid their use or make them useless.
What Calvin says in this connection is very much to the point. He grants that such words are human formulations and says that we must not fight furiously or mere words. But he also says:
Where names have not been invented rashly, we must beware lest we become chargeable with arrogance and rashness in rejecting them.
And he adds:
I was long ago made aware, and indeed on more than one occasion, that those who contend pertinaciously about words are tainted with some hidden poison; and, therefore, that it is more expedient to provoke them purposely (by the use of such words, R.H.), than to court their favor by speaking obscurely (Institutes, I, xiii, 5).
This warning is timely, for there are those again today who wish to do away with the terminology that has been used in connection with these doctrines or change its use on the grounds that it is not Biblical. Cornelius Van Til, a recent Presbyterian theologian and writer is a good example. He uses the word person in a new and different sense when he says that there is only one Person in the trinity, while at the same time expressing his faith in the full divinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is difficult to ascertain what he does mean, nor is that the point here, but rather that there is no reason for abandoning or changing such terminology, except to cover heresy.
Nor may we forget that the church, in using such terminology to defend the doctrine of the incarnation, was not without the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a fact which has been tested both by time and usage. It is indeed, then, the greatest possible arrogance to throw away such terminology or to insist on new language simply because the creedal statements of this doctrine are not literally Biblical. It is also foolish in that it opens the door to the old Christological heresies, many of which are still around today, though clothed in new garb.
We must, then, not only show what the confession of the church is on these points of doctrine, but be careful to define the terminology that is used as clearly as possible, and show that such terminology does indeed express the teaching of Scripture concerning the union of Christ’s two natures.
3. “Person” and “nature.”
The key terms used in speaking of Christ’s divinity and, humanity are the words person and nature. It is not easy to define these terms, though everyone has an almost instinctive idea of what they mean. Some definition of them is important, however, in order that it may be very clear that the church has not abandoned the teaching of Scripture by using these terms.
When we speak of a person, we are talking about all that makes him a unique individual. Personality, however, is more than mere individuality. Only rational and moral beings can be persons, and though other creatures such as plants and animals may have a certain individuality, they do not have a person. God is personal and so are men, angels, and devils, for all have intellect and will. The person, therefore, is that which consciously and responsibly says “I.” For the purposes of our discussion, however, it is probably enough simply to think in terms of uniqueness and individuality, for the truth that must be emphasized about Christ is that there is only one Christ, though He is both human and divine. He is not two Christs, one human and one divine, but one unique individual, one Person.
This is the clear testimony of Scripture, though Scripture does not use the word person in this sense. In I Timothy 2:5, for example, Paul says that there is “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” And in I Corinthians 8:6 he says the same thing: “But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.” There are also those passages such as Romans 1:3, 4, Galatians 4:4, 5, and Philippians 2:6-11 which refer to both natures of Christ while making it clear at the same time that they are speaking only of one person.
Christ, personally, is the Second Person of the trinity. We have already, seen the importance of this in another connection, but Scripture also indicates the truth of this. In Philippians 2, for example, Paul does not say that the divine nature assumed the form of a servant, but that Jesus Christ, already existing in the form of God (personally existing, that is) took on the form of a servant. Likewise, John in I John 1:14 does not say that the divine nature became flesh, but that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
When we speak of Christ’s nature or of a nature, we are speaking of certain kind of being, about what makes a man a man, an angel an angel, about the sum total of characteristics that distinguish one being from another. Christ has two natures, as we have already proved from Scripture, and is, in other words, two entirely different kinds of beings, while at the same time being but one individual, one Christ. This is, of course, the heart of the great mystery of which Paul speaks in I Timothy 3:16, and the foundation of our salvation in Christ. The Athanasian Creed perhaps expresses it best of all when it says that He is:
God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of the substance of His mother, born in the world. . . . Who, although He is God and man; yet He is not two, but one Christ.
That is the faith of the church, however it is expressed.
These terms were used already in, the Creed of Chalcedon:
We, then, . . . teach . . . one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; 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 Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same .Son, and, only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning Him; and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.
The Belgic Confession uses the same language centuries later:
We believe that by this conception, the Person of the Son is inseparably united and connected with the human nature; so that there are not two sons of God, nor two persons, but two natures united in one single Person (Art. XIX).
Let us not forget, therefore, that our faith in Christ is not only faith in the teaching of Scripture, but the faith of the church, to which we hold by speaking with one voice with the church of all ages to whom God Himself has promised that He will give the Spirit of truth. May that confession of the church, tested on the battlefield of faith and through time, be our guard today against all attacks on this cornerstone of our faith.