The Beauty of the Incarnation

Februrary 7, 2018

by Andrew C. Thompson

“For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

How can the God who created the heavens and the earth become a part of his creation?

That question speaks directly into the heart of the Christian teaching on the Incarnation: the remarkable fact that the eternal Son of God, through whom all things were made, has taken on the flesh of man in the person of Jesus Christ. The Nicene Creed tells us very clearly why God would want to do such a thing—“for us and for our salvation.” The creed’s teaching on the Incarnation thus reveals to us the relentless, never-ending pursuit that God has undertaken to find his wayward children and bring them home. There is great beauty in Christian doctrine, and nowhere is doctrine more beautiful than in the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Christians through the ages have not always found it easy to believe in the Incarnation. That was particularly the case in the early church. On one end of the spectrum there were those who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was just a man (even if a specially anointed man) who was “adopted” by God to be the Messiah at the moment of his baptism. At the other end of the spectrum were those who held to a Docetist (from the Greek dokein “to seem like, to have the appearance of”) position, contending “that Christ was totally divine, and that this humanity was merely an appearance” [1]. Adoptionism saw Jesus Christ as human but not divine, while Docetism saw him as divine but not human. The problem for the early church was that neither of these positions seemed to do justice to the biblical witness. The Gospel of John tells us both that the “Word was God” (1:1) and that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). Colossians tells us that “by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth” and that “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (1:15-19). Yet the First Letter of Peter insists that “Christ suffered in the flesh” (4:1), which is something only a man could do. So how are we to reconcile the fact that the Bible speaks of Jesus as both human and divine?

The creed took its final form in A.D. 381, and it gives us the true teaching about Jesus in summary form: that the Son of God is indeed “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” but that nevertheless he “came down from heaven” and “by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Later, the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) would further elaborate on this dual nature of Christ, teaching that Jesus Christ is “at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man.” He has “two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation” which have come together “to form one person and subsistence [or hypostasis], not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ” [2]. He is the God-man, and his two natures are perfectly united so that he is both fully human and fully divine.

The doctrine of the Incarnation is beautiful in itself, but its beauty is not limited to itself. That is because the Incarnation was undertaken by God for the purpose of salvation—this is what the creed affirms, and there is a logic to why God had to take on flesh in order to redeem all flesh. The Letter to the Romans tells us that “none is righteous, no not one,” for “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:10,23). And the cry of the psalmist is rightly applied to us all: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). Since the Fall, the whole creation has been subject to death because of sin, and the effects of sin upon the human race are such that our corruption is total. We are so weighed down by the guilt and power of sin that we have lost our ability to know God and the things of God. The coming of Jesus Christ into the world therefore is God’s design to cancel sin’s guilt and break sin’s power. In his great work On the Incarnation, the fourth century church father St. Athanasius shows us how the saving work of the Incarnation begins to bring healing to us:

For seeing that men, having rejected the contemplation of God, and with their eyes downward, as though sunk in the deep, were seeking about for God in nature and in the world of sense, feigning gods for themselves of mortal men and demons; to this end the loving and general Saviour of all, the Word of God, takes to himself a body, and as man walks among men and meets the senses of all men halfway, to the end, I say, that they who think that God is corporeal may from what the Lord effects by his body perceive the truth, and through him recognize the Father [3].

We needed the Son to take on the material form of a human being because our sin-damaged souls were no longer capable of perceiving true divinity. Indeed, the assumption of the flesh by the Son of God was fully necessary. All of creation came under the dominion of sin after the Fall, and so there was nothing within the created order untouched by sin’s disease. Only the Creator of all could act as the Great Physician to bring redemption and healing from sin. The eternal Son of God therefore assumes the fullness of humanity so that by his divinity he can fully heal that which has been fully corrupted. “For that which he has not assumed he has not healed,” St. Gregory of Nazianzus says in his First Letter to Cledonius, “but that which is united with his Godhead is also being saved” [4]. Or as St. Athanasius puts it in a phrase that sums up the power of the Incarnation for our salvation: “He was made man that we might be made divine” [5].

The creed’s teaching shows us the beauty of the Incarnation—both in itself and in the saving work it inaugurates. When St. Augustine reflected on that beauty, he was moved to confess, “He who for us is life itself descended here and endured our death and slew it by the abundance of his life.” He then went on: “First he came into the Virgin’s womb where the human creation was married to him, so that mortal flesh should not be for ever mortal.” The Incarnate Lord Jesus Christ was born, died, and rose again; and he has ascended into heaven. Yet he has not left us. “He went away and behold, here he is,” St. Augustine says. “He has gone to that place which he never left, for the world was made by him; and he was in this world, and came into this world to save sinners” [6]. This is why we confess the creed: because it teaches us who God is, and who God is for us. He is our Savior and Lord.

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 46.

[2] Henry Bettenson & Chris Maunder, eds., Documents of the Christian Church, new edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 56.

[3] Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation, ¶15, in Christology of the Later Fathers, ed. Edward R. Hardy (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1954), 69.

[4] Gregory of Nazianzus, Letter to Cledonius the Priest Against Apollinarius, in Letters on the Apollinarian Controversy in the New Advent Fathers of the Church website. Online at: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3103a.htm (accessed February 6, 2018).

[5] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, ¶54, in Hardy, ed., Christology of the Later Fathers, 107. I am using here the translator’s alternate “…be made divine” rather than “…be made God,” in Athanasius’ phrase to avoid confusion as to his meaning. See n.79 in the original text.

[6] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, ¶IV.19 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 64.

Dr. Andrew C. Thompson is the senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Springdale, Arkansas. He previously served as Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Wesleyan Studies on the faculty of Memphis Theological Seminary.

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