In the previous article in this 2-part series on the incarnation, we looked at the wonder of the incarnation in the narrative of the Bible’s redemptive history. In this article, we take a look at its significance in Systematic and Historical Theology and then look at some implications for us in our witness today.
THE INCARNATION IN SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY
When we take a look at the incarnation, there are some important terms and concepts we must understand to fully appreciate its depth of the mystery and majesty. These truths should move us to awe and worship. Moreover, as we witness and testify to the truth of the Gospel, these issues inevitably come up. Many Christians are caught off-guard and unable to defend and explain the orthodox view of Christology to other religions or even their own inquisitive kids! So, let’s take a look at these important and beautiful truths.
i. The Hypostatic Union
What is the Hypostatic Union? It is a term used in theology to speak of the fact that Jesus Christ was truly God and truly man. He is God incarnate. The Hypostatic Union describes the union of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
Before we continue, let’s first define a few terms before we talk about the Hypostatic Union.
The term “nature” denotes the sum-total of all the essential qualities of a thing, that which makes it what it is. Nature refers to the sum of all of what makes a thing that type of thing. It is the qualities possessed in common for a given substance.
For example, what makes a cup a cup? It has a handle, it is made of some sort of material that can contain liquid, it has a shape that can hold liquid, it has a flat bottom so it can be rested on a flat surface, etc… that’s the “nature” of what makes a cup a cup. When we refer to the ‘nature’ of God – it is in reference to what qualities are proper to God. Similarly when we talk of human nature – it is in reference to the qualities that make humans, human.
The term “person” denotes a complete substance or thing endowed with reason or consciousness, and, consequently, a responsible subject of its own actions. Person refers to the “who” of a thing. Personhood can be a part of the nature of a thing, but is not necessarily part of the nature of all things. For example, a rock has no personhood, but it does have a ‘nature’. Louis Berkhof helpfully summarizes:
“Personality is not an essential and integral part of a nature… A person is a nature with something added, namely… individuality.” (L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (1938), 321–322)
The Hypostatic Union means that Jesus Christ has 2 natures: a human and a divine nature that are distinct and unmixed, and One Person – who is, the Second Person of the Trinity – God the Son.
As we will see later on, many of the early heresies of the early church centred around getting these details wrong. They either diminished the true deity or true humanity of Jesus Christ.
The Virgin Birth
Together with the Hypostatic Union, it is important to also understand the doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ. Why is this important? Again, Berkhof is helpful here:
If Christ had been generated by man, He would have been a human person, included in the covenant of works, and as such would have shared the common guilt of mankind. But now that His subject, His ego, His person, is not out of Adam, He is not in the covenant of works and is free from the guilt of sin. And being free from the guilt of sin, His human nature could also be kept free, both before and after His birth, from the pollution of sin. (L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (1938), 336)
What Berkhof is saying here is that the Virgin Birth is the reason why Jesus Christ is free from the stain of original sin we all inherit from Adam. If Christ were to be born through the natural means of procreation, he would have inherited the sinful nature from his biological father, Joseph (or whoever fathered him). However, Jesus Christ was miraculously conceived of the Holy Spirit without generation from a human father and is thus free from the stain of original sin. Therefore, he can be our perfect, sinless representative.
If we deny the Virgin Birth, we deny Jesus’s sinlessness and thus he cannot be an appropriate Saviour for humanity. This is not a perhipheral doctrine. However, this is also not a dry doctrine – for in it we affirm the amazing truth that the God of all the Universe who holds supernovas in His hands, at one time in history became a baby whose hands held the hands of teenage Hebrew girl. The One whom the highest heavens cannot contain chose to indwell the womb of the virgin, Mary. Oh behold the wonder of the incredible humility of the infinite God who stoops low to be with his creation!
ii. The Humanity of Jesus
It is vitally important that Jesus Christ is truly human, otherwise he cannot be an appropriate substitute for us since the sacrifice of animals could not truly substitute for a person (Hebrews 10:4). Neither could he be a fitting High Priest to represent us before God since the High Priest had to be chosen from among the people (Hebrews 5:1).
There are many Biblical passages that show us Jesus’s true humanity:
- Jesus referred to Himself as a man (John 8:40).
- The genealogies show His natural human descent (Matt. 1:1–17; Luke 3:23–37).
- Jesus attributed to Himself human elements as body and soul (Matt. 26:26, 28, 38).
- He grew and developed in normal human development (Luke 2:40).
- He experienced fatigue (John 4:6); His body required sleep (Matt. 8:24), food (Matt. 4:2; 21:18), and water (John 19:28).
- Human emotional characteristics: Jesus expressed joy (John 15:11) and sorrow (Matt. 26:37); He showed compassion (Matt. 9:36) and love (John 11:5); and He was moved to righteous indignation (Mark 3:5).
- He prayed for emotional and physical strength. He perspired under great physical strain (Luke 22:43–44).
- He died a real death (Mark 15:37; John 19:30).
- When a spear was thrust into His side, blood and water poured out (John 19:34).
iii. The Deity of Jesus
Equally important is the true divinity of Jesus Christ. For Jesus to be a capable Saviour, He must be truly God. We see many attestations to His true deity in the Scriptures:
- “All the fullness was pleased to dwell in Him” (Col. 1:19; John 20:28; Titus 2:13).
- Jesus was aware of His divine status (John 10:30; 12:44–45; 14:9). With the “I am” sayings, He equated Himself with the God (Exod. 3:14).
- The NT asserts that Jesus was God (John 6:51; 8:58; 10:7, 11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1).
- The preexistence of Jesus (John 1:1–2; 1:15; 8:58; 17:5; Phil. 2:5–11).
- Jesus did accomplishments and claimed authority ascribed only to divinity: He forgave sins (Matt. 9:6) and claimed all authority “in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18–20).
- He is worthy of worship due only to God (John 5:23; Heb. 1:6; Phil. 2:10–11; Rev. 5:12).
- He is the Agent of creation (John 1:3) and sustains it (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3).
- He raised the dead (John 11:43–44), healed the sick (John 9:6–7), and vanquished demons (Mark 5:13).
- He finally resurrect all humanity to judgment or to life (Matt. 25:31–32; John 5:27–29).
- The titles ascribed to Jesus: “LORD” (Phil 2:11), “LORD of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15), “the LORD of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8), “the mediator” (Heb. 12:24), and “who is God over all, blessed forever” (Rom. 9:5).
- The name “God” is coupled with Jesus (John 1:18; 20:28; Acts 20:28; Rom. 9:5; 2 Thess. 1:12; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8; 2 Pet. 1:1; 1 John 5:20).
Both of these truths – the true humanity and true divinity of Christ – must be held faithfully to be in line with the historic Christian faith which has been “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Most modern cults distort either Jesus’s true humanity or divinity. However, we worship Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible and the God-Man who walked the Galilean shores in history, who ever lives as the God-Man who is one day coming back to judge the living and the dead and consummate His rule.
3B. THE INCARNATION IN HISTORICAL THEOLOGY
We’ve looked at how the Bible presents the incarnation in terms of a systematic definition of the union of the human and divine natures in Jesus Christ. However, many people and groups have gotten these things wrong and fallen into heresies from since the earliest times. These early heresies are still around today, so it is profitable to look at them and learn how the church responded to them so that we would be equipped to give an answer today.
i. Heresies and Councils
GNOSTICISM & MARCIONISM: denying the true humanity of Jesus
The first group to challenge the traditional doctrine of the incarnation was the Gnostics, who in the 2nd century denied that Jesus was truly human.
Their Greek belief that the physical creation was evil led them to deny the incarnation. They believed Christ to be a quasi-spiritual being who merely appeared human. Marcionism, based on Gnostic thought, also accepted a docetic interpretation of Christ (his humanity was only apparent). There is an old legend that rises out of the Gnostic heresy of Jesus walking on a sandy shore but leaving no footprints. This idea has found its way into some sentimental posters even today which you may have seen. This was because in Gnostic thought, the physical realm was bad and the spiritual realm was good. So the goal was to escape the physical in favour of the spiritual or ethereal realm. Some Christians today practically act like Gnostics when they spiritualize everything to the point of denying the goodness of God’s created world.
However, contrary to Gnostic belief, God’s word says that his physical creation is ‘good’ (Gen 1:31). Furthermore, if Christ only appeared to be human, but was not truly human, he could not represent us truly. Also, as Calvin points out from 1 Corinthians 14:12-20, unless Christ had one bodily nature with us, Paul’s reasoning that “if Christ arose, we also shall rise from the dead…” would be meaningless. (see John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (2011), 477)
ARIANISM AND KENOSIS: denying the true deity of Jesus
The next challenge to the orthodox view came through the Arian, Apollinarian, and Nestorian controversies in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Arianism denied the full divinity of Christ and held that Christ the “Logos” was not fully God. It taught, like modern cults such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons, that Jesus was a created being or creature—that is, it denied the Son’s eternal divinity.
Against Arianism, The Council of Nicaea (325 AD) asserted that the Son was homoousios – meaning “of one substance with the Father.” It reaffirmed that Jesus was fully divine.
There is a funny legend in church history that at the council of Nicea, Saint Nicholas, the saint that Santa Claus is often connected with, became so enraged at the heresy of Arius that he got up and punched or slapped Arius in the face. Not so jolly-ole Saint Nick! You better watch out, you better not doubt the deity of Christ… Santa Claus is coming to town, and he’s got a mean right hook!
This is the view asserting that the eternal Son of God by virtue of the incarnation gave up some or all of the divine attributes which were incommensurate with a fully human existence. This view is primarily based on Phil. 2:5–11, especially verse 7, which states that Christ “emptied Himself.” The idea of self-emptying is taken from the Greek verb kenoo which means “make empty.” (Doros Zachariades, “Kenosis,” Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (2003), 979)
This heretical view of Christ is even taught today by some popular and well-known churches and pastors.
OBJECTIONS TO THE KENOSIS HERESY
If Jesus, the divine Son empties himself of His divine attributes, it means a virtual destruction of the Trinity, and therefore takes away our very God.
A careful reading of Philippians 2 rules out this heresy. Paul does not refer to Christ emptying himself of his deity. Rather, the already incarnate Christ (v.5) is said to empty himself – and Paul defines what that emptying is in what follows:
Paul is thinking in scriptural categories, having Isaiah’s prophecies concerning the servant of Yahweh in (Phil. 2:10–11 with Isa. 45:23). The words “emptied Himself” suggest that the incarnate Christ is to pour out His life, having taken a position of a servant and (already) the likeness of humanity, as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s conceptual parallel in Isa. 53:12: “poured out Himself to death” (NASB). To this Paul adds “even to death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8 HCSB). (Doros Zachariades, “Kenosis,” Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (2003), 979)
Subsequent Christological Heresies: confusion over Christ’s natures and person
After this, a further question soon arose as to the relation between his two natures.
Apollinarius (310?–390?) taught that only the body of Jesus was human; his soul was absorbed completely into the divine Logos. So Apollinarianism denied that Jesus had a human soul. Nestorius (after 381–451) taught that the union of the human and divine in Jesus was like a marriage and equated to two persons in Christ. So Nestorianism made Christ the schizophrenic combination of two persons. However, the orthodox teaching is that Jesus Christ is the one Divine Person of the Son made flesh. Eutyches (378–456) denied that Jesus had two natures. So Eutychianism merged the divine and human natures into a sort of demigod mixture.
In response to these heresies, there were 3 councils held:
- The Council of Constantinople (381 AD) affirmed the full humanity of Christ.
- The Council of Ephesus (431 AD) denied the Nestorian teaching that there were two separate persons in Christ.
- The Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) was perhaps the most significant church council for Christianity. It expressed the incarnation of Jesus in terms of one person with two natures—human and divine. Its Creed still remains until today as the orthodox expression of the Hypostatic Union.
ii. The Chalcedonian Creed
Here is the text of the Chalcedonian Creed concerning the Hypostatic Union:
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with us according to the manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the virgin Mary, the mother of God, according to the manhood; 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(Being), 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 taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.
Note the intentional precision of the Creed in saying “truly God and truly man” not “fully God and fully man” nor “100% God and 100% man” as is popularly stated today. To say that Jesus is fully or 100% both God and man is to assert nonsense. For if something is fully one thing, it cannot at the same time be fully another. Instead, it is more precise to say that Jesus was truly God and truly man – meaning that he truly had a real human nature and truly had a divine nature which were both joined to the person of Jesus Christ.
HOW THE INCARNATION EQUIPS US FOR WITNESS
This theology of the incarnation and Hypostatic Union is not just an excercise of theological intelligence. Nor is it only for us to wonder at the mystery of this doctrine. It also has real implications for how we think about our mission as followers of Christ and our witness to the world. Though there are more, we’ll briefly consider two ways the incarnation equips us for witness:
I. AN EXAMPLE
The incarnation serves as an example for us of God’s heart in salvation. Jesus prays in John 17:18 and repeats it again in John 20:21 that ‘as the Father has sent him, so he sends us.’ The incarnation shows us that God stoops low, humbles himself and becomes one of us in order to bring salvation to us. Likewise then, our outreach and evangelistic efforts must be ‘incarnational’. Our Gospel presence is meant to be ‘enfleshed’.
We must consider, how can we, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, ‘become all things to all people so that by all means I might save some.’ God the Son humbled himself, became a man to reach us, sympathize with us, suffer together with us, bear our burdens and related with us. Do we have that attitude to reaching those around us? What does it mean to become all things to all people when you’re reaching out to the poor or marginalized?
Also, the incarnation meant that Jesus put aside what was rightfully his for the sake of others (Philippians 2:5-8). How does that challenge us as Paul argues in Philippians 2 to do nothing from selfish ambition but rather count others’ needs more significant than ourselves? In the incarnation, we see that it was incredibly costly to God to show his love and bring salvation – so too, it is appropriate that we be willing to extend costly and sacrificial giving of ourselves in seeking to reach the lost.
In what ways is your witness “incarnational”?
II. AN APOLOGETIC
We have studied the doctrine of the incarnation and saw how many various cults and groups get the doctrine of Christ wrong. If you have the wrong Christ, you have the wrong Saviour. A Jesus who is not truly God and truly man cannot be your substitute to save you from your sins. So, this doctrine equips us apologetically to help others understand the need for a Mediator between God and Man: Jesus represents us to God. May this doctrine help inform and deepen our evangelistic conversations!
Merry Christmas to you and your loved ones! May we continue to go tell of this glorious news!