The Doctrine of the Incarnation: A Historical Exploration – Part 1

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The Christian orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation makes a rather stunning and unique claim. This doctrine states that the eternal Son of God became a human being, maintaining a divine nature and a human nature within one Person. He lived a physical life, died a physical death, and was resurrected. Such a claim stands out from all other religious claims.

Through nearly two thousand years of Church history much ink has been spilled over the doctrine of the Incarnation. Building on the foundation of references in the Gospels and the epistles, the early church debated for nearly five centuries in an attempt to create a suitable formula to express the mystery of the Divine being united with humanity.[ref]John Macquarrie, “Incarnation,” in The Blackwell encyclopedia of modern Christian thought, ed. Alister McGrath (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), 269-270.[/ref] And while the formula created at the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) set the boundaries of orthodox discussion for the next fifteen hundred years, it also created more questions than answers.[ref]The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1997 ed., s.v. “Incarnation.”[/ref] So it was that the Scholastics and Reformers continued to mull over the details and implications of this one Person with two natures, often weary that their opponents were bordering on heresy.[ref]Rowan D. Williams, “Incarnation,” in The Encyclopedia of Christianity, vol. 2, ed. Erwin Fahlbusch et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1992), 675.[/ref] With the Enlightenment and the subsequent growth of liberal theology came a new wave of criticisms against the orthodox view that had seldom been questioned in the past. Now well into the 21st century, the questions concerning the Incarnation seem more numerous than ever, and yet the majority of evangelicals still hold to the basic tenets set forth in the ecumenical councils.[ref]Macquarrie, “Incarnation,” 271.[/ref]

The Christian doctrine of Incarnation makes a stunning and unique claim that stands out from all other religious claims. - Israel Steinmetz Share on X

This series will thoroughly examine the doctrine of Incarnation. Part one will address the doctrine’s biblical basis, part two will chronicle its historic development including related heresies and controversies, and part three will explore its current standing among evangelicals. In so doing we will discover many of the far reaching implications of the doctrine of Incarnation and gain an understanding of how it has taken shape throughout history.

The Biblical Witness

The Gospels

Whereas theologian John Macquarrie is probably overstating his case when he says that the gospel of John is the only New Testament occurrence of a “definitely Incarnational teaching,”[ref]Ibid., 270.[/ref] we do well to start with this book as it provides us with an explicit use of Incarnational language. In John 1:14 we read that, “the Word became flesh and lived among us,” thus we have the basis of “Incarnation” (Lat. in carō, stem carn meaning “flesh”) terminology.[ref]R.L. Reymond, “Incarnation,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2d edition, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 601.[/ref] Indeed the prologue of John’s gospel is probably the single greatest biblical witness to the Incarnation. The eternal Logos who was with God and indeed was God became the man Jesus Christ (John 1:1-18). The fourth gospel affords a number of other passages that appear to support the doctrine of the Incarnation (e.g. John 14:9; 17:1-25) but its witness does not stand alone in the New Testament.

In the synoptic Gospels we find traces of Incarnational teaching, notably in Matthew chapter one where Jesus is spoken of as being “conceived…from the Holy Spirit,” (v. 20), and “…Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’” (v. 23) Mark’s gospel opens with the title, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” (Mark 1:1). Further examples could be multiplied, but for the sake of brevity we will move on to the Pauline epistles and other New Testament writings.

The Pauline Epistles & Other New Testament Writings

Despite some claims that Paul is unlikely to have taught an Incarnational Christology[ref]Macquarrie, “Incarnation,” 270.[/ref], it seems clear that Paul does indeed make repeated references to the Incarnation. For instance, Paul speaks of “the gospel of his [God’s] Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power…” (Rom 1:3-4) and of the fact that, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law…” (Gal 4:4). And whereas much has been made of the relatively few references to Jesus’ earthly life and teachings in the Pauline corpus, the truth is that Paul testifies to both the humanity and the divinity of Christ in a number of passages (e.g. Rom 8:3; 9:5;[ref]For a discussion of whether Paul refers to Jesus as “God” in this passage see Leon Morris, New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 48.  For the opposing view see W.G. Kümmel, The Theology of the New Testament (London: Abingdon Press, 1973), 163-164.[/ref] 1 Cor 2:8; 2 Cor 8:9).[ref]See Morris, 41-42 for a more complete treatment of Paul’s interest in Jesus’ earthly life.[/ref] Paul’s theology appears to be explicitly Incarnational in 1 Timothy 3:16. Speaking of Christ he writes, “He was revealed in flesh, [and] vindicated in spirit…”[ref]It is not within the scope of this article to defend the Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles. For a helpful discussion of the problem see Raymond E. Brown, Introduction to the New Testament (Doubleday: New York, 1997), 662-669.[/ref]

Finally, Paul’s most poignant statements about the Incarnation are found in his letters to the churches in Philippi and Collosae. Speaking of Christ in his letter to the Philippians Paul writes,

“who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name…” (Phil 2:6-9)

In his letter to the Colossians Paul wrote that Jesus, “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created…He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col 1:15-17) and later he states that, “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” (Col 1:19; cf. 2:9).

Beyond the gospels and the epistles there is further New Testament evidence for the doctrine of the Incarnation. One may think of the high Christology of the book of Hebrews (especially chapter one) or of the litmus test provided by the author(s) of first and second John for judging the spirits (“every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” 1 John 4:2, cf. 2 John 7), or of the vision of an enthroned, eternal Jesus in the Apocalypse. Simply put, the biblical evidence seems rather substantial in support of a doctrine of Incarnation.


The passage from Philippians has drawn a great deal of attention throughout the years and bears special mention at this time.

In Philippians 2:7 Paul states that Christ Jesus “emptied himself.” The exact meaning of this phrase has been the subject of a great deal of debate. As New Testament scholar Leon Morris admits, “It cannot be said that the passage is easy to understand.”[ref] Morris, 44.[/ref] The Greek word that is translated “emptied” is a form of the word kenovw which can mean, “to empty oneself, to divest oneself of rightful dignity by descending to an inferior condition, to abase oneself.”[ref]Spiros Zodhiates, ed., The Complete Word Study Dictionary, New Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 1992), 857.[/ref] However, theologian Albrecht Oepke states that this sense is ruled out by the context. He suggests that the meaning of the passage is “that the heavenly Christ did not selfishly exploit His divine form and mode of being but by His own decision emptied Himself of it or laid it by, taking the form of a servant by becoming man.”[ref]Oepke, “kenós” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 3, ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. and ed. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1995), 661.[/ref] Biblical scholar Spiros Zodhiates concurs stating that the Son in his pre-incarnate state was in the form of God, but chose to take on the form of man.[ref]Zodhiates, 857.[/ref]

The Kenosis Theory

The meaning of the kenosis passage became particularly important in the wake of the Reformation. Debates arose between the Lutheran and Calvinistic schools over the communication idiomatum (the communication of the divine attributes within the person of Christ). Out of these debates arose the “kenosis theory,” which in varied forms stated that the divine Logos divested himself of some or all of His divine attributes (omnipresence, omniscience, etc.) leaving only those attributes that were compatible with mankind (e.g. love, mercy, justice). However, the theory faced stiff opposition as it seemed to oppose the accepted notion that there were two natures (divine and human) within Jesus Christ.[ref]Stanley Grentz, Theology for the community of God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 400.[/ref]

Over the years kenosis theorists have attempted to adapt the theory to orthodoxy and yet salvage what they see as the essential truth of the doctrine. They assert that the divine Logos did not completely set aside his divine attributes, but did so in a limited way, submitting the use of them to the will of the Father while he was on earth, thus giving up the independent exercise of certain powers.[ref]Ibid., 401.[/ref] This belief has gained popularity among evangelical scholars and is put forth well in a modified form by Millard Erickson in his Christian Theology.[ref]Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 734-735.[/ref]

Looking Ahead

Though it has been a matter of debate, there is substantial biblical evidence in support of a doctrine of Incarnation. - Israel Steinmetz Share on X

Now that we have built a foundation of biblical evidence for the doctrine of Incarnation and briefly examined the kenosis passage, we are well equipped to investigate the historic development of the doctrine in the Church.

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As a believer who has been recreated to lead through Christ, it is important to recognize that you are also a theologian. Theology gives you the tools to examine your own beliefs about God, and also helps you communicate Christian beliefs in a meaningful way that others can understand. Watch for parts two and three of this series, but in the meantime, you can become better equipped in your daily influence for Christ by taking advantage of the following resources:

Israel Steinmetz
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Israel Steinmetz is dean of Academic Affairs for Artios Christian College and pastors New Hope United Church in San Antonio, TX, where he lives with his wife Anna and their eight children. In addition to teaching, Israel is a prolific writer, having co-authored four books and contributed over fifty feature articles to the Bible Advocate. Committed to lifelong learning, Israel holds a Bachelors in Pastoral Ministry, a Master of Divinity, Master of Arts in Theological Studies and is pursuing the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary.