Matt Heltzel (4010530)CPO 549Systematic Theology IStep 3 The Emphasis of the Incarnation in the Gospel John Walvoord, in his book Jesus Christ our Lord boldly asserts, “The incarnation of theLord Jesus Christ is the central fact of Christianity. Upon it the whole superstructure of theChristian theology depends.”1 Now, a lot goes in with that, but if we think upon the implicationsof the denial of either the divinity or humanity or Christ, we’ll quickly see the ramifications thathas on Christology, Soteriology, and the Trinity. While there isn’t much contemporary inEvangelicalism over the full deity and humanity of Christ, I will attempt to show the utterimportance of this doctrine in theology and preaching; in addition, I will charge Evangelicalswith making the incarnation of Christ a footnote to the Gospel, rather than a central, if not thecentral aspect to the Christian religion. I will thoroughly look at the two natures of Christ anddefend a Chaldedonian definition of Christ’s two natures and one personhood. I will then look atthe enormous theological implications of this, as well as the practical ways in which this doctrineaffects the life of a Christian. Before taking off, we should ask what is incarnation? Incarnation, meaning “to enter intoor become flesh,” is referent to the Christian doctrine that Jesus Christ, the pre-existent Son ofGod, became man in time, space, and history. Although the term does not appear anywhere inScripture, it is none-the-less a highly Biblical-supported idea.2 Jesus Christ was the JewishMessiah and King. He was the long-expected one born of a virgin, from the tribe of Judah andkingly line of David (Gen. 49:9-10; 2 Sam 7:1-29; Dan 7:13-14; Isa 9:6; 52:13-53:12). Whenspeaking of Jesus’ incarnation, literally God becoming man, it’s important to note that this means 1 John Walvoord, Jesus Christ Our Lord, 96. 2 Frank J. Matera, “Incarnation,” HBD.
an eternal God entered into time. Therefore, we can ironically say that Jesus was “weak andomnipotent, increasing in knowledge and omniscient, finite and infinite.”3 There are variousviews on who exactly this man Jesus was, so I’ll first begin with the false views of Christ and histwo natures (deity and humanity). Typically, there are six different heresies regarding the incarnation, and as MillardErickson states, “They either deny the genuineness (Ebionism) or the completeness (Arianism)of Jesus’ deity, deny the genuineness (Docetism) or the completeness (Apollinarianism) of hishumanity, divide his person (Nestorianism), or confuse his natures (Eutychainism).”4 All of thesenatures, which will be discussed more in the orthodox view of the incarnation, fall short to meetthe Biblical standard of texts such as John 1:1-14, Philippians 2:5-11, and Colossians 1:15-23.There are a few individuals and groups that defend false views of the incarnation whose viewsshould be described in brief detail. First, going back to the most well known heretic regarding the incarnation, we’ll look atArius of Alexandria. He was a presbyter who believed that Christ was a created being, but notlike all other creation. Essentially, he thought that God the Father was fully and truly divine, butChrist was only partly divine because he could suffer. His quote, “There was when we was not”is widely popular because it sums up his doctrine regarding the eternality (which he denied) ofChrist.5 Individuals who deny the pre-existence and full deity of Christ fall under ‘Arianism.’ Docetists deny the other end of the spectrum, claiming that Christ was not fully human.Many times the Gnostics would claim that Christ only ‘appeared human,’ but he never fullyentered into humanity.6 Again, this fails to meet the standard of the whole counsel of Scripture, 3 John Walvoord, 116. 4 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 755. 5 Michael R. Barnes, Augustine Through the Ages, 61. 6 John Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 84.
and furthermore this necessarily denies the incarnation and the need for atonement of sin. Merelyaffirming that Christ appeared to be real simply does not do justice to the passage in Philippiansmentioned before. More recently, numerous Liberal theologians have presented Christ in three ways: First,he’s merely a great teacher, but not to be worshiped or followed. Second, Christ is portrayed as aman full of goodness who was an honorable man that died for his beliefs. Third, Christ is lookedupon as an example or model for humanity. He was a noble man, one that should be imitated.7Again, all of these views specifically fall short of the evidence that Christ is both God and man,in which “the fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). In conclusion, the various hereticalviews on the incarnation simply fail to give Christ the glory that is ascribed to him throughout allof Scripture. We’ll now look at the orthodox view of the incarnation, and why exactly it is socrucial to Christianity. Since the death of Christ, much has been written and many views have been proposedregarding his deity and his humanity. For the first four centuries A.D. this was probably the mosthotly debated issue in Christianity. Indeed, the early church fathers saw this debate on the twonatures of Christ as one of salvation. They rightly understood that only a Savior that is fully Godand fully man could actually redeem humanity and reconcile a fallen world to God.8 Early on inthe second and third centuries, church fathers like Athanasius, Irenaeus, and Tertullian realizedthe extreme importance of the affirmation of both the full deity and humanity of Christ, and theystepped up to the plate to bat: 7 Walvoord, 108. 8 Stott, 84.
“Christ Jesus, the Son of God, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, humbled Himself to be born of the virgin. He Himself united man to God through Himself.” 9 – Irenaeus “He who remitted sins was both God and man.”10 – Tertullian “You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been manifest in bodily form… He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men. We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word who made it in the beginning.”11 – St. Athanasius We should see clearly from the writings of these prominent church fathers how crucial and delicate this topic is. In addition, as Athanasius pointed out, this is an issue of salvation, not merely an open-handed, semi-important doctrinal point. Without question, the most important defender of the full deity and humanity of Christ in two natures, yet existing in one person Jesus Christ, is St. Athanasius. Athanasius of Alexandria played a monumental part in developing an orthodox theology regarding the Trinity and the incarnation. He is often remembered as one of the key theological defenders of the incarnation, due to his writings refuting Arius’ notion of Christ’s natures. The big idea for Athanasius in this regard is this: “[He] is unable to conceive of any permanent salvation for human beings unless human nature is effectively united with the divine nature, and he can think of no other way to this union except the incarnation and death of the cross.”12 In much of his writing, he connects Christ’s obligation to destroy death and corruption with Christ’s putting on9 Ante-Nicene Fathers 1.417.10 Ante-Nicene Fathers 3.359.11 St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 26.12 K. Metzler, Dictionary of Early Christian Literature, 54-58.
of a human body. For Athanasius, that’s where the essential element of ‘truly God’ and ‘truly man’ took its deepest root.13 Before speaking of the four ecumenical councils, it is not time to speak of Christ’s deity, humanity, and the hypostatic union. A look at specific biblical texts as well as theological statements regarding these topics will help shed light on what exactly the councils were working with. First, the deity of Christ is a crucial theological truth to Christianity. Making a bold claim, John Walvoord states, “Without question, the crucial issue in biblical theology is the deity of Christ, and disregard or question of this central doctrine of the Bible leads to inevitable chaos in theology as a whole.”14 Seven passages from Scripture make it explicitly clear that both the human and divine natures were existent in Christ.15 Specifically dealing with the divinity of Christ, Colossians 1:15-23 and John 1:1-14, 18 will be particularly helpful.13 St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 40-41.14 Walvoord, Jesus Christ our Lord, 109.15 Phil 2:6-11; John 1:1-14; Col 1:15-23; Rom 1:2-5; 1 Tim 3:16; Heb 2:14; 1 John 1:1-3.
First, in Colossians 1:15-23, Paul says, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Note here, that Paul does not mean that Christ was created, but rather he is stating that Christ is the recipient of the first fruits. He is speaking in the realm of kingly inheritance. If he were trying to state that Jesus was created, it would have been rather abrupt for him to state in verse 16, “For by him all things were created…” Later in the passage, Paul points out in verse 19 that “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” and finishes off that thought by connecting that statement with reconciliation of all things to himself. In good Baptist preacher fashion, Daniel Akin asserts that Christ is Lord over His creation, the church, and Christians.16 If we as Christians want to claim Christ as Lord and Savior, we can only do so by acknowledging that he is fully God. Only then is he able to save us from our sin.16 Daniel Akin, Theology for the Church, 502-04.
John 1 also provides a mine of theological insight regarding the full deity of Christ. F.F. Bruce notes that the language of John 1:1 is similar in its beginning to Genesis 1:1. In using the same language, “In the beginning,” John is actually claiming that Jesus was with the Father at the time of creation. Furthermore, in verse 3 he makes an assertion that Jesus was actually the agent in all of that work. As Bruce cleverly states, “A man who lived in the Near East just under two thousand years ago is credited with creating the world aeons before that.”17 Elsewhere, Bruce points out that the ‘word of God’ in the O.T. actually points to God being active, most often in creation, revelation, salvation and deliverance.18 But what are we to make of Jesus being called “the Word”? We shouldn’t overlook the importance of this language by John, because it actually denotes a “divine meaning and order, and it is also the light of “all people” (1:4 NRSV)… In v. 14, John articulates one of the most compelling yet disconcerting ideas of all time: ‘Divine Logos became flesh,’ a person!”19 John is actually claiming that Jesus is not only God, but that God literally became a man and took on human flesh and came to Earth. Finally in this regard, 2 Cor. 4:4 states that Christ is “the image (or likeness) of God,” and verse 6 goes on, “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” The language of Christ being the image of God is full, and I’m not sure any exegesis or explanation of verse 6 would do any good. In fact, it might downplay the power and depth of Paul’s language in speaking of the uncontainable glory of Jesus Christ. In addition, it seems 17 F.F. Bruce, Jesus: Lord and Savior, 165. 18 Bruce, The Gospel of John, 29. 19 Ellen T. Charry, “Incarnation,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible,323.
awkward to me that Paul would attribute so much ‘glory’ to Christ if he did not see him as God. While speaking of Christ’s deity, there is an important side-note that is too commonly overlooked in Christology: that is, the link of Christ and OT ‘Wisdom.’ One of the key links that Christ has with the Old Testament is the personification of Wisdom. To demonstrate, Proverbs 8:22-31 reveals Wisdom speaking in first-person, claiming to be pre-existent before the world, fathered by God the Father, and a great instrument in the creation story. Therefore, in John 1:1-2, the repetition is not for the sake of redundancy.20 Rather, F.F. Bruce, in my opinion, rightly confirms that John wants to connect Jesus as the personified Wisdom from the Old Testament. Bruce is not alone in his interpretation of Wisdom. Reaching back to Athanasius, he claimed, “the Word submitted to appear in a body, in order that He… might centre their sense on Himself, and convince them through His human acts that He Himself is not man only but also God, the Word and Wisdom of the true God.”21 Furthermore, Hebrews 1:2-3 notes that the Son of God is the one “whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” The notion of Old Testament Wisdom in this passage is undeniable and very profound when compared to the aforementioned Proverbs 8 passage. To sum up, in Jesus is the full revelation of the wisdom, goodness, and beauty of God that was shown to humanity live and in person, without mistake, around 2000 years ago.2220 Bruce, Jesus: Lord and Savior, 168-69.21 St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 44.22 Charry, “Incarnation,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 324.
This humanity of Christ was not unlike any other human that lived. His appearance wasnormal, no different than any other human likeness. First century Jews saw him, touched him,hurt him, fed him, washed his feet, etc… He ate, drank, and slept as a typical human being woulddo.23 We should be careful not to downplay the importance of this. Many people, like theGnostics and Nestorians will say that he only appeared human or that he was not fully human,but this is not true. Those who deny that Christ was actually a human are equally as destructiveas individuals who deny the deity of Christ. This doctrine is just as important as the deity ofChrist, and one might even assert that in the context of Postmodernity, it might necessitate moreattention. Pointing out hoards of biblical texts from the NT seems a bit unnecessary, becauselooking at the life of Christ in the Gospels in reference to his birth, normal childhood growth(Luke 2:52), his condition of hematohidrosis in the Garden of Gethsemane when he sweat blood(Luke 22:44), and his death all lead to the conclusion that Jesus was truly a man. Theologically,we must affirm that Jesus was not some goofy-looking, halo-headed know-it-all religious freak.He really was fully human in his nature on Earth: he was birthed, grew up like a normal human,and died. Even though he was faced with obstacles, difficulties, and temptations to sin, Christremained sinless because of the unity between his divine and human natures. Having discussedthe divine and human natures of Christ, the tricky part comes when putting these two naturestogether in a Biblical doctrine. Here, the ecumenical councils prove themselves extremelyhelpful. At Nicea, it was affirmed that Jesus was ‘begotten not made’ and ‘of the same substance(homoousios) with the Father’. With that, the Chalcedonian definition, put forth at the Council ofChalcedon (451), will be especially helpful to term this correctly. The Chalcedonian definition ofthe hypostatic union claims that Christ was a single individual with two distinct natures. Thewords ‘two physes’, ‘one hypostasis’ were accepted by the Roman Catholic and Eastern 23 Russell F. Aldwinckle, More than Man, 125.
Orthodox churches, but the ‘Monophysites’ and ‘Nestorians’ disagreed each on differentterminologies.24 In the end, the debating ceased with the theologians embracing a divine paradox.Christ was God in human flesh, and his humanity did not destroy his divinity nor did his divinityoverpower his humanity. His body, mind, and spirit were all consistently fully God and fullyman; “one person, two natures.”25 24 Richard Swinburne, Was Jesus God? 47. 25 Charry, “Incarnation”, Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 324.
So what exactly does that look like? Before we get too far, we should remember the words of Bonhoeffer when he warned that digging too far into the “how” of the incarnation could result in blasphemy. In dealing with the hypostatic union, 451 years of chaos should prove to us that this is not an easily defined doctrine. The additional 1500 years since then should also show us that it is not easy to improve much from Chalcedon. This doctrine, while absolutely crucial to Christianity and salvation, should not be delved much (if at all) beyond what history has shown us already. First, we must affirm that Christ is one person with two natures. The two natures are human and divine. He is both God and man simultaneously. As it was put in the Chalcedonian creed, “two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” The natures are not combined, nor is it completely separated; rather, they are united in the one person, Jesus Christ. To more fully explore this, it should be noted that the incarnation doesn’t mean so much that Christ lost divinity when becoming man (because that isn’t revealed in Scripture); rather, Scripture does affirm that he “took on” human flesh. He added human nature to his divine nature, thereby becoming truly God and truly man. Aside from what kenosis theology wrongly asserts, Christ lost literally none of His attributes in becoming man. Again, He is truly God and truly man. He may have chosen to limit his divine power, but in no way did Christ the Lord lose any of his attributes. Perhaps Philippians 2:5-11, which Gerald Hawthorne calls “a Christological gem unparalleled in the New Testament,”26 speaks most clearly of this mysterious union.26 Gerald Hawthorne, Philippians, 79.
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” – Philippians 2:5-11 (ESV) By way of observation, we should note that in this passage, as well as the passages mentioned before, Christ is always mentioned as a singular person. If Christ were two persons, he would have referred to himself as “we” or “us” or “our.” Christ is always referring to himself in a singular manner. In addition, it is not as if Christ was not a person before the incarnation. He is the pre-existent Son of God, who has always existed in the Trinity from eternity as a person. During the incarnation, he simply took on a human body, but still remained one single person.2727 R.L. Reymond, “Incarnation,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 601.
Further, the language “he was in the form of God” denotes his pre-existence and the language of “being found in human form” clearly and without question claims that Jesus held the form of God and the form of human in one person. By definition, God cannot change in his nature, so Christ did not lose his divinity when he came to Earth. He was and is fully God and fully man. To summarize, Thomas Torrance affirms, “It is to be taken in all its serious intention to mean that the Son of God has become man without ceasing to be the God He ever was, and that after the Incarnation He is at work within space and time in a way that He never was before.”28 Other than a theological treatise, what significance does the incarnation hold? This doctrine, as the context of all these other passages show29 relates directly to salvation. In fact, I believe this is the key doctrine relating to the salvation of man, although in modern theology the cross and resurrection of Christ has primarily taken that place. This issue is definitely more than a theoretical matter. If there is any confusion or mistreatment of the two natures of Christ, it is “a religious crisis.”30 28 Thomas Torrance, Space, Time and the Incarnation, 53. 29 John, in his gospel, claims he wrote so that humanity might believe in Jesus as theChrist and have life in his name. Paul speaks in verse 12 of Philippians 2 that we are to work outour salvation in fear and trembling, and again in Colossians 1 he points out that the fullness ofGod dwelling in Him was purposed in the reconciliation of all things to himself. 30 G.C. Berkouwer, The Person of Christ, 56.
The incarnation has always been purposed as a redemptive act of God, therefore we should note that the very notion of the incarnation denotes humanity that is fallen, depraved, and helpless. It is almost worthless to hold to a Biblical view of the incarnation and simultaneously affirm a synergistic view of salvation. It undermines the utter importance and necessity of God becoming man.31 In addition, a denial of the incarnation completely throws the need for atonement out the window. Upon looking at the doctrine of atonement, we fully see the implications of the incarnation.32 31 Chris Green, “Incarnation and Mission,” The Word Became Flesh: Evangelicals andthe Incarnation, 121. 32 J. Denney, The Death of Christ, 121.
In recent days, a true and holistic theology of the Incarnation is lacking. I won’t say that the cross is over-emphasized, but rather I believe the doctrine of the incarnation as demonstrated in Scripture has become merely a footnote to the Gospel. There seems to be a notion that God becoming man was solely for the purpose of bringing the fullness of creation, and possibly for the redemption of sinners. To say that the incarnation was secondarily for the purpose of the redemption of sinners is absurd and has no Scriptural support.33 The Biblical texts consistently mention the incarnation in relation to the salvation and redemption of God’s people. (Col. 1:15-23) Even in passages that talk about God revealing himself in the incarnation, it is nearly always in the context of reconciling men to Himself. Paul seems to have an agenda, that is, to make clear that Christ’s pre-eminence, his divine and human nature, and his incarnation all lead up to the reconciliation of man to God. Only by God becoming man can humanity be saved from sin. And indeed, during His time on the Earth, Jesus confirmed that he came “to seek and save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:10) We absolutely must see the incarnation, Christ fully becoming a human being, as the greatest act of salvation and reconciliation. That is not to downplay the cross, because the truest meaning of the incarnation is found in the cross, as is the truest meaning of the cross found in the incarnation. In the overwhelming emphasis of the cross in American Evangelical theology, the incarnation has become a footnote to the Gospel. In essence, the Gospel message in many churches has become, “Jesus loves you, He came down to Earth, and He died for your sins.” Sunday School teachers, pastors, theologians, and the like are happy to attempt to describe the cross as the forgiveness of sins, but scarcely do we hear a weighty explanation regarding the33 J.I. Packer, “Incarnation,” New Bible Dictionary, 502.
implications of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. This does little or no justice to the depth and profoundness of a passage such as John 1:1-14. In summary, this doctrine is absolutely, without question, essential to Christian’s theology and life. Augustine summarizes the practicality of the incarnation in a few ways in book 13 od De Trinitate: By seeing God’s great act of humility on human flesh, our pride is obliterated. If we thought there was reason to boast before the incarnation, that is altogether destroyed in a perfectly humble act by Christ. Further, by grasping the importance of the incarnation, we realize our pitiful state before God, and our overwhelming need of His grace.3434 Brian E. Daley, S.J., Augustine Through the Ages, 446.
Finally, in missiologist David Bosch’s studies he found, “Protestant churches, by and large, have an under-developed theology of the incarnation.”35 Further, what’s happened because of this failure to teach the doctrine of the incarnation is this: “The mission of the church is one of communal, spiritual, and social improvement.”36 Athanasius, like many church fathers, saw this doctrine as the crux of all theology, and defended it with passion, calling the heresies of Arius and others “fables in mockery of the Lord,” and “irreligious phrases.”37 While speaking of this glorious doctrine and our glorious Christ, John Owen summarizes the importance of the incarnation of Jesus Christ: “[It is] the most noble, useful, beneficial object that we can be conversant about in our thoughts, or cleave unto in our affections.” Although a profound mystery, we are called to embrace this beautiful doctrine of redemption and worship God for his wisdom in the incarnation.38 This will inevitably help us to see that the incarnation is inseparable from the Gospel, and that we are first and foremost to announce to the world that our glorious God became a man to reconcile us to Himself. Bibliography 35 David Bosch, Transforming Mission, 512. 36 Chris Green, “Incarnation and Mission,” The Word Became Flesh: Evangelicals andthe Incarnation, 115. 37 Ante-Nicene Fathers, 4.161-62. 38 John Owen, The Person of Christ, 311.
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