posted on Jul, 11 2013 @ 04:13 PM
What does the church mean by the teaching of the Incarnation”?
The best way of approaching this question is to go back to the roots of the word.
It stems from the Latin word for “flesh”.
To be “incarnate” is to be IN CARNE- that is, housed in a fleshly body.
The main Biblical ground of the teaching is the first chapter of John’s gospel, where John tells us about two aspects of the Word.
On the one hand, what the Word was “in the beginning”.
The Word was with God and the Word was God.
Everything was made through him, and nothing was made without his agency.
Which means, of course, that it’s logically impossible for the Word himself to be included among the “everything that was made”.
He is the light shining in the darkness, which the darkness cannot extinguish- John ch1 vv1-5
On the other hand, what the Word became.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”- John ch1 v14.
When the Word becomes flesh, as we see from that sentence, he does not cease to be the Word.
Just as Abraham Lincoln “became President” and went to live in the White House, without ceasing to be “Abraham Lincoln”.
“Becoming”, in both cases, means gaining an extra quality.
The Word remains God, as from the beginning, but now combines that with the fleshly body of a man.
In that form, as John says, his disciples “beheld his glory, as of the only-begotten [Son] of the Father”.
The Council of Nicaea was called in the time of the Arian controversy, when the divinity of Christ was disputed.
Then the purpose of the Nicene Creed was to confirm the church’s teaching on the subject.
We believe, it says, in God the Father
“…And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
The only-begotten Son of God,
Begotten of his Father before all worlds.
God of God,
Light of Light,
Very God of Very God,
Begotten not made,
Being of one substance with the Father,
By whom all things were made,
Who for us men and for our salvation
Came down from heaven
And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost
In the Virgin Mary,
And was made man…”
(All right, this is not strictly the Council’s version.
It’s the form I can quote from memory)
The Council declares its faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and then defines what this faith means.
“Only-begotten Son of God” picks up that last phrase quoted from John.
“Begotten before all worlds” picks up what we learn from John, that the Word was “in the beginning with God”.
“Begotten, not made” picks up what we learn from John, that the Word was not part of the “created” world.
The phrases from “God of God”, including “Having the same substance as the Father”, are picking up what we learn from John, that “the Word
was with God and was God”.
“By whom all things were made” comes direct from John.
“Came down from heaven” is the equivalent of John’s “dwelt among us”.
Finally “was made man” is the equivalent of John’s phrase “became flesh”.
In this Creed, “the Word” is replaced by the expression “the Lord Jesus Christ”.
Otherwise, the Creed speaks of the same two aspects of the Incarnation that can be found in John.
The first aspect, of course, the divinity and pre-existence of Christ, receives more attention than the humanity of Christ, which nobody was openly
But the full teaching of the Creed combines the two.
As the church discovered over the next couple of centuries, the key to understanding the doctrine of the Incarnation is getting the balance right.
Once the divinity of Christ had been questioned, believers were tempted to emphasise his divinity at the expense of his humanity.
A good example is Apollinarius, who proposed that the LOGOS or “Word” in Christ took the place of the NOUS, the “reasonable soul”.
This theory was rejected, because it had the effect of making Jesus less than fully human.
If the church is affirming both the divinity and the humanity of Christ, the next question is how closely the two are connected.
The teaching of Nestorius was rejected, because it seemed to separate them and place distance between them, undermining the teaching that the Word
became flesh, that the Son of God became man.
In reaction to this, the Monophysites went in the opposite direction.
They emphasised the single nature of Christ to such an extent that his humanity, in the words of one of them, would have been absorbed into his
divinity “like a drop of vinegar absorbed into the ocean”.
Once again, then, they were in danger of losing sight of that full humanity.
The purpose of the Council of Chalcedon was to restore the balance.
The Definition that was agreed at Chalcedon is rather technical, so I’ll quote the semi-official Athanasian Creed, which has the same theology and
is a little more accessible.
(In the sense that it’s on my bookshelves. If you possess the old Anglican Prayer Book, it can be found just after the “order for Evening
The relevant portion of the Athanasian Creed says this;
“We believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ , the Son of God, is God and man;
God of the substance of the Father, begotten before all worlds;
And Man, of the substance of his mother, born in the world;
Perfect God and perfect Man; of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting;
Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead, and inferior to the Father, as touching his manhood.
Who, although he is God and Man, yet he is not two, but one Christ;
One, not by the conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God;
One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of Person;”
There’s a very careful balance, in this passage, between the statement that Christ is God and the statement that Christ is Man.
On the one hand, he has the full nature of divinity (“perfect God”), derived from the Father.
On the other hand, he has the full nature of humanity (“perfect Man”), derived from his mother.
The statement that he has a “reasonable soul” is a direct rebuff to the Apollinarian theory; Christ is fully human in mind, as well as in
The next line answers the old Arian quibble about “My father is greater than I am”.
Christ is both God and Man, you see.
Inasmuch as Christ is God, he is equal to the Father.
Inasmuch as Christ is Man, he is not equal to the Father.
The last three lines give a balanced understanding of the connection between the two aspects of Christ.
The two extremes are ruled out.
The Nestorian view is answered by “not two, but one Christ”.
The Monophysite view is answered by “not by confusion of substance” (that is, not a complete fusion which obliterates the human side of
Finally, “not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh” corrects a possible misunderstanding of “becoming”, one that I’ve already pointed
The Son did not cease to be God, in becoming flesh; instead, he “took up” his humanity, and brought it into conjunction with his divinity.
As far as we know, this combination of divinity and humanity is permanent.
Which implies that the person of Christ is a permanent and unbreakable bond between Creator God and created world, holding them together like a
That ought to be a mind-blowing thought.