The Incarnation — a longer study

Bible study notes, originally posted on Facebook in 2010

What this study is about
 
In leading this session I am responding to some questions (whether articulated or not) that have been raised on previous occasions: is Jesus the Son of God still human? What do we mean when we say that Jesus is both human and God? What is orthodox Christian belief? This follows on from ‘The Incarnation’.
 
How do we approach ‘the Incarnation’?
 
First of all, reverently, we are not discussing an academic subject but Jesus the Lord, the Saviour, and therefore also humbly. This should be the starting point for any Christology, it was for the early Church, though some may suggest that the early Church ‘Fathers’ got a little carried away …

One possible approach would be to propose ‘creeds vs. Bible’, though this could be tempting and provocative it is not the right approach. The creeds, whether we agree with them or not (and we do not have to do so, although they do determine whether we can call ourselves ‘Christian’, as recognised by the Church), seek to reflect the teaching of the Christian scriptures. It is therefore appropriate to start with the creeds, or rather the Chalcedonian Definition (see later), as a way in to what the Biblical writings are seeking to convey (the existence, and necessity of, the Chalcedonian Definition, indicates, what we already know, that the Scriptures seek to convey Christ the Lord, not doctrines about him). Having looked at how this statement puts forward an understanding of the Biblical material we can then ask — What is the role/authority of the creeds? Do they seek to straitjacket the interpretation of the Bible, or set out clearly Biblical truths and correctly explain what the Bible teaches? Some of us may also have difficulty with the idea of ‘the Bible’ ‘teaching’.
 
The other important and overriding reason for starting with the creeds is to identify the questions asked by the early Church. It would be an impossible challenge to start with the Scriptures and produce the Chalcedonian Definition from first principles in one session. This is the Chalcedonian Definition (please excuse the reference to ‘men’), followed by my attempt at a (semi-) plain language version:
 
Definition of Chalcedon (451 CE)
 
Following, then, the holy fathers, we unite in teaching all men to confess the one and only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. This selfsame one is perfect both in deity and in humanness; this selfsame one is also actually God and actually man, with a rational soul <meaning human soul> and a body. He is of the same reality as God as far as his deity is concerned and of the same reality as we ourselves as far as his humanness is concerned; thus like us in all respects, sin only excepted. Before time began he was begotten of the Father, in respect of his deity, and now in these “last days,” for us and behalf of our salvation, this selfsame one was born of Mary the virgin, who is God-bearer in respect of his humanness. We also teach that we apprehend this one and only Christ-Son, Lord, only-begotten — in two natures; and we do this without confusing the two natures, without transmuting one nature into the other, without dividing them into two separate categories, without contrasting them according to area or function. The distinctiveness of each nature is not nullified by the union. Instead, the “properties” of each nature are conserved and both natures concur in one “person” and in one reality <hypostasis> [usually translated ‘person’]. They are not divided or cut into two persons, but are together the one and only and only-begotten Word <Logos> of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus have the prophets of old testified; thus the Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us; thus the Symbol of Fathers <the Nicene Creed> has handed down to us.
 
‘He is truly God[1] and truly a human being[2], he has a human soul and a physical human body. He is the same as God[3] as far as his divinity is concerned and the same as us as far as his humanity is concerned, like us in every way, except without sin[4] [because he didn’t commit any, though, logically, he had the potential to do so]. He was begotten of God[5], in an eternal and mysterious sense and this Son was born of the virgin Mary [peace be upon her!], hence she is known as the ‘God-bearer’ [this was an important and controversial point, God the Son really did go through the experience of being born to a human mother]. He has two natures[6] (human and divine), he is not a divine-human hybrid[7], one nature does not cancel out the other, but they cannot be divided, nor can we talk of him in a way which excludes one nature. The two natures do not cease to be distinct because they are united in one person. All the attributes of each nature remain[8] — he is no less God because he is also a human being and no less a human being because he is also God. He is a single person with a single existence (the one and only and only-begotten Word <Logos> of God, the Lord Jesus Christ).’ (numbers are for footnotes)

What does the Bible say?
 
We have already looked at some of the relevant verses so have answered this question to some extent. It is easy, as demonstrated, to pick out key verses. These again, as we have seen, provide the source material for orthodox doctrine and to some extent for ‘heretical’ views. The orthodox task, via the Church, was (and remains) to combine the different strands and emphases into a consistent and harmonious whole. This presupposes that there is a harmony within Scripture which some may wish to challenge, and there are tensions, even disagreements in some parts. However, the unified acceptance of the basic credal statement — Jesus is Lord — does provide a harmony which flows through and out of the scriptures into tradition and the creeds. In formulating the doctrine of the incarnation it is not so much about trying to establish Jesus’ own self-understanding, which would lead us into the notorious problem of the historical Jesus (which I have no intention of seeking to resolve), but what the early Christians believed and taught about him. Everything that we have from that period is coloured by the post-Resurrection belief in Jesus as divine. Is the Bible ‘saying’ one (set) of particular things about Jesus? Are we expected to come up with a coherent statement of Biblical propositions?
 
‘Above’ or ‘below’?
 
The main issue of debate and disagreement in developing the doctrine was over whether to begin Christology from above or below. Christology from above was associated with Alexandria, from below with Antioch, there were inevitably tensions and disagreements between the two. These two strands marked the boundaries for theological development, if one went too far one could slip into heresy (haeresis or ‘division’), going in an uncorrected direction would divorce one from the mainstream. Orthodoxy, like Islam, is the ‘middle path’. Too much emphasis on above could lead to docetism, i.e. Christ was so wholly God that he only ‘seemed’ to be a man; on below could lead into adoptionism, Jesus was a man who became God after his Resurrection/Ascension, without being truly divine in his lifetime. One could start in either direction, as the early Church did, our creeds however, though without slipping into docetism, bear the stamp of Christology from above. We can see these strands in the Gospels, compare, say, Mark with John. We can say that it was important to the Church that the impression should not be given that Jesus became God at his baptism, hence the virgin conception stories which introduce the agency of the Holy Spirit. These texts may (potentially, my own opinion) suggest that Jesus was less than human as he had no human father. Some deficient doctrines of the Incarnation reflect this, either in that God seems to be crashing into the world in a way which contradicts human origins, he was not a human being but God being born of a woman or he was some kind of divine-human hybrid, both, I believe, scenarios which can be found in Greek mythology.
 
These heretical possibilities may remind us of Chalcedon and bring home to us its importance. Modern (non-Evangelical) theologians naturally begin from below, to avoid compromising the true humanity of Jesus. We can see how this works out among our fellow-Christians by observing whether they stress the pre-existent divinity of Jesus or his real humanity, including all that might entail. We can also see how this works out in discussion of and exploration for the ‘historical’ Jesus. Should we begin from above or below? Is Jesus like us? What does it mean that he is so different from us?
 
5. Other approaches/different answers
 
The finer points of the Chalcedonian distinctions were worked out, more or less successfully, by the Church to avoid the errors of:
 
Arianism — Christ is the firstborn of all creatures;
Apollinarianism­ — Christ had a human body but his soul was not human but the Logos;
Nestorianism — recently discovered not to be the opinion of Bishop Nestorius, separating the humanity and divinity of Christ so sharply that he ended up with two Sons or with a double personality in Christ;
Monophysitism — only one nature in Christ.
Monothelitism — only one will in Christ, post-Chalcedonian debate argued that if there were two natures there must be two wills. This was agreed at the Third Council of Constantinople in 680 CE. Although an agreed statement this particular doctrine is most contested amongst orthodox Christians and makes least sense in the modern world.
 
We may, or may not, wish to discuss these thoughts. But, in any case, they all take us back to Chalcedon, this is the official statement of orthodox Christianity. This should provide the, doctrinal, answer to who Jesus really is and who/what he is now. Or is the real question, putting concerns about orthodoxy to one side - Who is Jesus for you? This, of course, opens up the need to explore Jesus’ work, i.e. the atonement, which we will not go into. Does doctrine impact on your link with Jesus? Where does doctrine fit in?
 
How do we respond to Chalcedon today?
 
This takes our answers to the last question and seeks to relate them to a statement agreed by our ancestors in the Church 1500 years ago. Can we still use Chalcedon today, does it still speak for us? How would we explain the Incarnation today? Would we want some kind of statement that excludes unapproved beliefs?
 
Bibliography
 
John MacQuarrie — Jesus Christ in Modern Thought
 
Footnotes:
 
[1] Phi 2:6 who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped,
[2] Phi 2:7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself; Rom 1:3 concerning his Son, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh: 8:3 For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh [there may be ‘Gnostic’ approaches to this text which emphasis ‘likeness’, i.e. resembling rather than being, however, Paul’s argument collapses if the Son is not truly flesh] 
[3] Joh 10:30 I and the Father are one.
[4] Heb 2:14 Since then the children are sharers in flesh and blood, he also himself in like manner partook of the same; 4:15 we have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but one that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.
[5] Heb 1:5 For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, This day have I begotten thee? [Ps. 2.7] and again, I will be to him a Father, And he shall be to me a Son? And when he again bringeth in the firstborn into the world he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him. [strictly speaking the reference to Ps. 2 is misused here, however, it was used by the early Church to ascribe divine and Messianic sonship to Jesus. The references to Deut 32.43 (LXX) and Ps. 97.7 are even more questionable, Deut only works in the corrupted Greek translation and Ps. 97 refers to ‘gods’, i.e. pagan gods. It also raises the question why God is presenting the Son to the angels (post-ascension?!). There is, though, an interesting parallel to the Islamic (Qur’anic) tradition of Adam being presented to the angels for worship, Iblis (Satan), who is not an angel, refuses of course.
[6] Phil 2:6,7 seems to be one of the most suitable verses alluding to the two natures. Also Rom. 1.3, see above, where Paul talks of God’s Son being born according to the flesh.
[7] These expressions all safeguard the continuance, reality and distinction of the two natures. They logically follow so as not to destroy what has already been stated. No Biblical references seem suitable.
[8] Phi 2:6 who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself [some modern (19th C) scholars have proposed a ‘kenotic’ Christology whereby some of the divine attributes are laid aside. This is not feasible (and therefore ‘heretical’!) as Jesus would no longer be God and the two natures statements would be denied. The Son is just as much God after the Incarnation as before it. The marvel of God, who, for some Biblical theologies is always presupposing/prefiguring Incarnation, is that God can humble Godself, as Charles Wesley said ‘incomprehensibly made man, our God contracted to a span’]