The Doctrine of the Incarnation: A Historical Exploration – Part 3

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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.

This series we have set out to thoroughly examine the doctrine of Incarnation. In part one we addressed the doctrine’s biblical basis. Part two chronicled its historic development including related heresies and controversies. Now we will explore its current standing among evangelicals.

The Conservative View

Despite the ongoing questions and the current theological debate, acceptance of the Chalcedonian statement, “remains the norm for the great majority of Christians”. 1 That is, most evangelical Christians continue to affirm that “the eternal Son of God took flesh from His human mother and that the historical Christ is at once both fully God and fully man.” 2 Furthermore, evangelicals assert “an abiding union in the Person of Christ of Godhead and manhood without the integrity or permanence of either being impaired”. 3

Evangelicals further assert that “Jesus of Nazareth is both divine and human. He is both essential deity and essential humanity”. 4 They posit an important distinction between natures and persons, stating that the divine Person (the Son of God) did not join himself to a human person, which would have resulted in the creation of two persons, but rather took on human nature. Thus statements about Jesus Christ are statements about a Person, not simply a “nature” or even two natures. 5

Jesus as a Historical Figure

Furthermore, most evangelicals also assert that the Son of God lived a historical existence in the flesh, accepting the limitations and constraints of an earthly existence. 6 This historical existence took place at a definite and known date of human history. The evangelical position is opposed to all theories of a mere theophany or transitory appearance of God in human form that is met with frequently in other religions. 7

Indeed the unique nature of the Christian conception of the Incarnation has been a distinctive hallmark of Christianity from the earliest definitions of the doctrine, 8 despite liberal claims to the contrary. As Erickson states, “The suggestion that the Incarnation of God in Jesus is paralleled in the teachings of other religions cannot be sustained. The doctrine of the Incarnation is radically different from the doctrine of divine immanence.” 9 Finally, the evangelical position continues to emphasize the “essential distinctness of the Lord’s Divine and human natures,” 10 in the face of liberal objections.

The Liberal View

Liberal scholars and theologians have proposed a number of views in stark contrast to those of the conservative evangelicals. Some view the essence of Christ’s Divinity as  the complete conformity of His human will with that of God’s. Others question the appropriateness of the Incarnation for expressing the true salvific significance of Jesus. 11 In both cases they see the Incarnation as something that is not to be taken literally. This approach was popularized in a book edited by John Hick entitled The Myth of God Incarnate. 12 The essays of this book build upon Rudolph Bultmann’s program of “demythologizing” the New Testament. Hick’s book was followed by one edited by Michael Goulder entitled Incarnation and Myth: The Debate Continued. 13

At the forefront of the liberal attack on the orthodox understanding of the Incarnation are a number of impressive theological figures including Rudolph Bultmann, Karl Barth, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jürgen Moltmann, John Hick, and Karl Rahner. 14

Four General Approaches

It is not within the scope of this series to defend the evangelical position against the various attacks and questions that have been raised. 15 However, we should note that for all the intellectual trappings and complex explanations many of the liberal notions about the Incarnation are little more than restatements of old heresies.

Erickson points out that there are four general approaches that have been taken to the Incarnation throughout history that ultimately lead to heresy: “(1) the idea that the man Jesus became God (adoptionism); (2) the idea that the divine being, God, took on impersonal humanity rather than an individual human personality (anhypostatic Christology); (3) the idea that the Second Person of the Trinity exchanged his deity for humanity (kenoticism); and (4) the idea that the Incarnation was the power of God present in a human (the doctrine of dynamic Incarnation).” 16

Six Common Heresies

These four approaches almost always result in one of the six common heresies or a form of them, that is, “They either deny the genuineness (Ebionism) or the completeness (Arianism) of Jesus’ deity, deny the genuineness (Docetism) or the completeness (Apollinarianism) of his humanity, divide his person (Nestorianism), or confuse his natures (Eutychianism).” 17 Having said this, we should also note that the questions raised by liberal, and even some conservative, theologians have created what can be considered healthy and important dialogue concerning the implications of the Incarnation.

Questions raised by liberal and conservative theologians have created healthy and important dialogue concerning the implications of the Incarnation. - Israel Steinmetz Click To Tweet

Issues for Reflection

Any attempt to understand the Incarnation invariably leads to reflection on a number of issues. These include the theology of history, the involvement of God in contingency, kenosis, and God’s vulnerability. Furthermore, when we examine the Incarnation we are faced with the paradoxes of time and eternity, infinity and finitude. 18

Exploring the Doctrine of Incarnation forces us to ponder the paradoxes of time and eternity, infinity and finitude. - Israel Steinmetz Click To Tweet

Divinity and Humanity

We also must face the implications of affirming both the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ. Erickson notes that among other things Christ’s divinity suggests that through him we have access to “real”, material knowledge of God, access to redemption, and a basis for worshipping Christ. His humanity has implications for the efficacy of his atoning death, his ability to sympathize with our weakness, his expression of true humanity, his role as exemplar, the goodness of human nature, and God’s immanence. 19

It has been said that the Incarnation is not possible because a perfect, transcendent, holy God cannot join himself to a sinful, finite humanity. Yet Erickson contends that to understand the Incarnation we must allow Jesus Christ to shape our definition of what is truly divine and what is truly human. Thus in the Incarnation we see that God is immanent as well as transcendent. Furthermore we see that God created man as a “good” being and can be joined to humankind when it is not tainted by sin. 20

Ecclesiology

Among the far reaching implications of the Incarnation include issues related to ecclesiology (the study of the Church). For instance, Erwin Fahlbusch points out that there are significant differences in the Incarnational theology of the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Reformed churches. In his view these differences are often overlooked in the interest of ecumenical cooperation in certain worship forms. However, many of these forms (e.g. the Eucharist, baptism, ministry, etc.) are greatly impacted by the varied approaches to Incarnational theology and these differences must be reckoned with. 21

Balancing Viewpoints

As noted before, the liberal viewpoint doubtless has some insight that would prove beneficial to a discussion of the Incarnation. In a somewhat “post-Schleiermacher” manner Stanley Grentz suggests that the liberal position may serve as a needed corrective to what he sees as a historic over-emphasis on the initial act of Incarnation. In Grentz’ view the focus has rested too much on the historically pinpointed act of the eternal Logos becoming flesh and as such has inherent problems. He proposes that we should instead examine and define the Incarnation, and by extension Christology, from the perspective of the first believers, that is by looking at Jesus’ historical earthly life, death, and resurrection. 22

Conclusion

As evangelicals enter the 21st century they are faced with numerous questions about the Incarnation. This single doctrine has wide ranging implications for theology, Christology, ecclesiology, hamartology, and countless other doctrines of the Christian faith. Evangelicals would do well to revisit the biblical passages that speak to this topic and the councils of the Church that were held to address it. They would also benefit from careful, critical dialogue with some liberal theologians who can offer needed correctives to historic imbalances. These different perspectives will ultimately contribute to a more complete appreciation of the import of the Incarnation.

Each of these issues deserves a great deal of prayer, thought and reflection. And the topics discussed in this series only scratch the surface of the meaning and implications of the Incarnation. It has been noted that the existence of Incarnation-like teachings in other religions points up to the desire of man to bridge the gap between the human and the divine in religion. 23 If indeed the eternal Son of God became a man and lived among men what a phenomenal bridge has been created!

 


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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. You can become better equipped in your daily influence for Christ by taking advantage of the following resources:

Israel Steinmetz

Israel Steinmetz is dean of Academic Affairs for Artios Christian College and pastors New Hope United. In addition to teaching, Israel loves to write. He is co-author (with Whaid Rose) of Getting a Handle on Worship, contributing editor to This We Believe: Teachings of the Church of God (Seventh Day), and a regular contributor to the Bible Advocate and https://artiosmagazine.org. Committed to lifelong learning, Israel is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. He lives in San Antonio, TX, with his wife, Anna, and their eight young children.
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Notes:

  1. John Macquarrie, “Incarnation,” in The Blackwell encyclopedia of modern Christian thought, ed. Alister McGrath (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), 271.
  2. Oxford, s.v. “Incarnation,” 825.
  3. Ibid., 825.
  4. Grentz, 397-398.
  5. Reymond, “Incarnation,” 601.
  6. Macquarrie, “Incarnation,” 269.
  7. Oxford, s.v. “Incarnation,” 825.
  8. Williams, “Incarnation,” 674.
  9. Erickson, 681. For a closer examination of non-Christian religious traditions that are similar to the Incarnation see Ulrich Berner, “Incarnation,” in The Encyclopedia of Christianity, vol. 2, ed. Erwin Fahlbusch et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1992), 673-674.
  10. Oxford, s.v. “Incarnation,” 825.
  11. Ibid., 825.
  12. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977
  13. (London: Oxford, 1979). For a helpful summary of the primary points laid out in the books see Erickson, 677—680.
  14. For a brief mention of each of their contributions to the debate see Williams, “Incarnation,” 676. For a more thorough discussion of their theology see the corresponding articles in Alister E. McGrath, ed., The Blackwell encyclopedia of modern Christian thought (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993).
  15. For a brief defense of the evangelical position in the light of the issues raised in Hick’s The Myth of God Incarnate see Erickson, 680-681.
  16. Erickson, 730-731.  See Erickson, 731-734 for an analysis of each of these approaches.
  17. Ibid., 738.
  18. Oxford, s.v. “Incarnation,” 825.
  19. Erickson, 721-722.
  20. Ibid., 736-737.
  21. Erwin Fahlbusch, “Incarnation,” in The Encyclopedia of Christianity, vol. 2, ed. Erwin Fahlbusch et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1992), 678-679.
  22. Grentz, 402-405.
  23. Macquarrie, “Incarnation,” 269.

Israel Steinmetz is dean of Academic Affairs for Artios Christian College and pastors New Hope United. In addition to teaching, Israel loves to write. He is co-author (with Whaid Rose) of Getting a Handle on Worship, contributing editor to This We Believe: Teachings of the Church of God (Seventh Day), and a regular contributor to the Bible Advocate and https://artiosmagazine.org. Committed to lifelong learning, Israel is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. He lives in San Antonio, TX, with his wife, Anna, and their eight young children.