The Incarnation


These articles were first published in the March 15, 1980 and April 1, 1980 issues of the Standard Bearer for the rubric "Taking Heed to the Doctrine" and was written by Rev. David J. Engelsma, then pastor of South Holland (IL) PRC.

The Incarnation (2 parts)

The incarnation was the wonder of all the wonders of the wonder-working God. All of the other wonderful works of God, both before and after this miracle, are so many satellites about this great star, or, more accurately, so many rays of light emitted by this glorious sun. "Great is the mystery of godliness," the Church confesses in I Timothy 3:16, "God was manifest in the flesh." 

For this reason, the incarnation is known only by faith — unbelief has no eye for the dazzling light of the revelation of God's greatness and goodness in the world; and even for faith this wonder is incomprehensible. This, of course, is not to say that faith cannot understand the incarnation, or that it cannot explain what it believes, or that it cannot defend what it believes — faith certainly can do these things; but it is to say that faith cannot exhaustively understand — cannot plumb the depths of — this work of God which we name the incarnation, and that faith adores the greatness of God that surpasses understanding, even as it seeks understanding. 

The words quoted from I Timothy 3 begin, "Confessedly." "Without controversy" in the King James is really "Confessedly — Confessedly, great is the mystery of godliness." The manifestation of God in the world is a confession. It is a confession of faith. Faith is expressing what it believes. 

Like Christ Himself, the incarnation is truth that is always spoken against. The great struggle for this truth was fought in the last part of the 4th century and the first half of the 5th century A.D., although the mopping-up operation lasted late into the 7th century. The decisive blow for the incarnation was struck by the church council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451. This council set forth the faith of the Church on the incarnation in a creed, the Symbol of Chalcedon. This is the creed which requires Christ to be acknowledged in two natures, "inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably." 

But the opposition was not annihilated in A.D. 451, or, for that matter, in A.D. 680. Nor is this opposition limited, in our day, to the outright denial of Jesus' Deity by modernist-Protestantism. Rome today is confronted by a challenge to her dogma of the incarnation on the part of certain of her own notable theologians. In my own tradition — the Dutch Reformed — men are questioning the Chalcedonian Christology, and questioning it in such a way as to raise the question, whether they deny the incarnation. 

Opposition to the incarnation had the effect in the 4th and 5th centuries and has the effect today that it drives the Church to search the Scriptures for the living knowledge of Jesus the Christ. 

Who is Jesus? Who is the Jesus revealed in Holy Scripture? 

In the doctrine of the incarnation, we are concerned with Jesus; and our concern is exactly that of the question which Jesus Himself once asked about Himself in conversation with the Pharisees: "What think ye of Christ? whose son is he?" (Matthew 22:42) This was also the controlling question in the trinitarian controversy that preceded, and gave rise to, the struggle over the natures of Christ and their relationship to each other. 

In her careful formulation of the truth of this doctrine, not only was the Church responding to various heresies, but she was also expressing the living faith of the saints (and let it be emphasized, it was not only the faith of the theologians and bishops, but also, and especially, the faith of the saints) as to Who and what Jesus is, on the basis of the clear testimony of Holy Scripture. We may not for one moment suppose that the doctrine of the incarnation as it is set forth in the creeds is the theoretical speculation of the theologians. Rather, it is the statement (and if you take the time to read it, you will discover that the statement is characterized by simplicity) and defense of that which the whole Church read in the Bible. 

She read that her Saviour, Jesus, is a real man among men. She read that this Savior is, as well, God Himself come down to her from heaven. She read that He is, nevertheless, one Christ, not two Christs. And this is the doctrine of the incarnation. 

The Church of Christ believed this from the first; the heresies did not lead the Church to believe something she had never believed before. All that the heresies did was to stimulate the Church to understand more clearly and sharply what she believed; to express more definitely what she believed; and to formulate her faith carefully. 

Apart from this, it would be impossible to account for the steadfastness of the orthodox over so many years, in the face of so many adversities, and despite so many bewildering deviations. 

Amid all the din of Arianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, Eutychianism, monophysitism, and monothelitism, to say nothing of the noise of the subtle variations on all these errors, besides the usual confusion contributed by the civil powers, there was the clear, certain, powerful sound of the Word of God, Holy Scripture; and the Church listened intently and obediently to the Word of God. 

The Church heard Scripture say, "And the Word (Who was in the beginning, Who was with God, and Who was God) — And the Word became flesh" (John 1:14). 

The incarnation was the act of the Word, Whom John identifies in John 1 as the eternal Son of God, of becoming flesh; it was the event of the union of the Word and flesh. It was the act, or event, of a moment — one, definite, particular moment of time (time's fulness, according to Galatians 4:4), the moment that Jesus was conceived in the womb of the virgin, Mary, in Nazareth, Galilee. The word, incarnation, means this: 'becoming flesh,' or 'coming in flesh.' God became man; and this God-become-man is Jesus. 

This was an act of real union. How this union was effected, in what it consisted, we put off explaining for a moment. But it was the union of God and flesh. The incarnation was not a close contact between God and a human being, a conjunction of the Divine and the human, a dwelling side-by-side of God and a man in the temple of the body and soul of one Jesus. The incarnation was not the turning of God the Word into a man, so that what we have as a result is one who is only a man, but no longer God. On the other hand, the incarnation was not the absorbing of the human into the Divine Word, so that what we have is one who is only God, but no longer man. Nor was the incarnation the mixture of Divine and human to form a third kind of being: a super-man or a demi-god. None of these isunion. But God united to Himself flesh, so that He is now both God and flesh. 

Accordingly, Jesus is a real man. "Consubstantial with us according to the manhood," confesses the Symbol of Chalcedon. He is flesh; and "flesh" is human nature, humanity. He derives His manhood from the mother in whom He is conceived and of whom He is born; and, thus, He derives it, as do we all, from Adam. He is a complete man; the flesh taken to Himself by the Word is full flesh, lacking nothing. Chalcedon had to contend for this against Apollinaris, who held that, although Jesus had a human body and a human soul, He lacked a human spirit (in the language of the day, a "reasonable soul"). In place of this supposedly highest part of man, said Apollinaris, was the Divine Word Himself. Chalcedon, therefore, was at pains to assert that Jesus was "perfect in manhood" and that He possessed a "reasonable soul," i.e., a spirit. 

What all this amounts to is the simple insistence that Jesus is a man. If He is a man, He is completely a man. Whatever makes up human nature composes Him. He is "in all things . . . made like unto his brethren" (Hebrews 2:17). 

In one respect only does He differ from us, and that is that He is sinless: "without sin" (Hebrews 4:15); "holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners" (Hebrews 7:26). But sinfulness is not of the essence of humanity. 

At the same time, Jesus is very God. "Consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead," Chalcedon says. He is, and remains, the Word, the eternal LogosWho is God and by Whom all things were made in the beginning. He has His Deity of God the Father by being begotten from the Father from all eternity. According to John 1:14, He is the only begotten of the Father — the Son, therefore. Having His Being from the very Being of God the Father, He is, as the best reading of verse 18 puts it, "the only begotten God." Jesus claimed Deity, and forgave sins; the disciples recognized His Deity, and Thomas said to Him, "My God." 

In other words, Jesus has two natures. We understand by "nature" (or substance) the sum total of all the powers and qualities that make up a certain being; or, more simply, what someone is. Jesus is God; and Jesus is man. 

These two natures always remain distinct. One of the teachings rejected by Chalcedon as an error was that known as Eutychianism: the flesh was so taken up into the Word as to be absorbed by the Divine Word. Even the body was deified. Hence, on this view, Jesus is one nature, the Divine. Chalcedon spoke against this when it wrote, "inconfusedly, unchangeably." As has already been noted, the confusing of the natures can take other forms. (to be concluded)

The Incarnation (concluded)

There is also the danger of dividing the natures, so that in Jesus are two different individuals. This brings us to a consideration of the union of the natures in one Person. The Church faced the danger of dividing the natures of Christ so as to posit two different individuals in Jesus. She confronted this in the teaching of Nestorius. We need not burden ourselves now with an examination of all the fascinating aspects of the controversy with Nestorius, particularly the intrusion into the controversy of the developing devotion to Mary in the description of her as "mother of God," which became the watchword of the orthodox party and, indeed, was used by the Symbol of Chalcedon. Nestorious pressed the Church to do justice to the oneness of Christ and the union of the natures.

This was also at issue in the doctrine of Apollinaris (who, you will remember, held that the Word replaces the human spirit, or "reasonable soul," in Jesus). His concern was to establish a union of the natures, an intimate union. Against Nestorius, Chalcedon said, "indivisibly, inseparably," and went on to say, "not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ." 

Jesus is one Person. By a "person," I understand the ego, the "I," the self-conscious and self-asserting subject of all one's action (another term is "subsistence" — that which stands under; the Greek word is hypostasis). Jesus' Person is the Divine Person of the eternal Word. The Word became flesh (John 1:14); the Son was made of a woman (Galatians 4:4). The "I" of the Word-become-flesh is the "I" of the eternal Word; the "I" of the Son-made-of-a-woman is the "I" of the eternal Son. Christ expressed this in His words, so offensive to the Jews, in John 8:58: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am." This makes all of the words and deeds of Jesus so weighty, so infinitely weighty: that which 'stands under' them is God. 

In this Divine Person, the two natures are united. The union is not by mixture; nor by the Divine replacing part of the human; nor by the human being defied; nor by the Divine being humanized; but by the two natures concurring in one Person. The Word took to Himself a human nature which was not itself personal, but which becomes personal in the Divine Person of the Word. John Owen put it this way:

In itself, it (the flesh of John 1:14 — D.E.) is impersonal — that which hath not a subsistence of its own, which should give it individuation and distinction from the same nature in any other person. But it hath its subsistence in the person of the Son, which thereby is its own.

The union thus established is a permanent union. It remains after the resurrection and ascension. According to the Reformed creed, the two natures of Christ "were not separated even by his death . . . the divine nature always remained united with the human, even when he lay in the grave" (Belgic Confession, Article XIX). This is a reason why the body of Christ did not see corruption in the grave. 

By this personal union of the natures, the Christ is one Christ, not two Christs. All that the creed is expressing is the perfectly plain fact of all Scripture, that Jesus is not two individuals, but one individual. 

Also, there is living communion of the two natures. This is not the same as confusion, or mixture. But there is such a relationship between the two natures that the Divine can sustain the human nature as it suffers the punishment of the infinite wrath of God against sin and can give infinite value to those sufferings, since they are the sufferings of God the Son; and the human nature can be the seat in which the Divine nature sustains the burden of the wrath of God. 

Because of this personal union, the properties of both natures are ascribed to the one Person of Jesus. Jesus says, "Before Abraham was, I am," thus claiming eternality — a perfection of the Divine nature. But the same Jesus says, I thirst; I am weary; I do not know the hour of the end; My Father is greater than I — thus acknowledging the frailties and limitations of His human nature. 

In truth, the Word became flesh! 

This wonder took place by means of the Virgin Birth, to which belongs conception by the Holy Spirit. The Virgin Birth was not only the sign of the invisible miracle of incarnation, but it was also the necessary means by which the incarnation occurred. Man's act must be excluded, so that God may act. Only in the way of the Virgin Birth is the Child God and man. If Jesus is begotten by a man, as well as born of a woman, He is a human person; and He is flesh only. On the other hand, if He is not born of a woman, He is at best merely the appearance of a man. 

Conception by the Spirit also safeguards the flesh of Jesus from the defilement of original sin. By this work of the Spirit, Jesus is both "Son of God" and a "holy thing" (Luke 1:35). 

Concerning the manner in which the Word became flesh, Scripture says, "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:35). 

The necessity of the incarnation was expressed, by the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed in these words : "who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven."

In his Cur Deus Homo, Anselm put it thus: 

...for what cause or necessity, in sooth, God became man (Book First, Chapter 1).

The answer is given is Book Second, Chapter XVIII (b): The restoring of mankind ought not to take place, and could not, without man paid the debt which he owed God for his sin. And this debt was so great that, while none but man must solve the debt, none but God was able to do it; so that he who does it must be both God and man. And hence arises a necessity that God should take man into unity with his own person; so that he who in his own nature was bound to pay the debt, but could not, might be able to do it in the person of God.

The incarnation was necessary for the redemption of sinners. This is the necessity of every aspect of the incarnation. He must be real and full, though sinless, man — for the redemption of sinners. He must be very God — for the redemption of sinners. His natures must be distinct, not confused — for the redemption of sinners. The natures must be united in one person, and that the person of God the Son — for the redemption of sinners. 

The death that shall be the death of death must be the death of the Son of God in our flesh; the blood that shall purchase the Church from sin must be God's own blood (Acts 20:28). The incarnation was also necessary for the renewal of the redeemed unto eternal and holy life. Only God can quicken, and only God can break sin's power. But only one who shares our nature can impart His own life to us. It is necessary, for a holy life, that the redeemed be conscious of the incarnation. The impelling motive of a holy life is thankful love — thankfulness for the incarnation. "In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world . . . to be the propitiation for our sins" (I John 4:9-10). Consciousness of this motivates us to love God and to love each other. 

A godly life is obedience to Jesus as Lord; and obedience to Jesus as Lord stems, ultimately, from reverence for Him as God the Son. 

And all of the Christian's life and labor in this world is permeated with the sense of wonder and awe that he is the friend, the disciple, and the member of God Incarnate. 

Salvation is friendship with God. In Christ Jesus, God dwells with His people in friendship — the covenant — because of the incarnation. 

Therefore, the Athanasian Creed speaks sober truth when it says, "Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation: that he (whoever will be saved) also believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ." I John 4:1-3 makes it the very touchstone of the Spirit of God and true prophecy, that it is confessed that "Jesus Christ is come in the flesh," whereas it is antichrist that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. 

We must believe rightly the incarnation of the Lord Jesus. For this faith, we must be born again, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God; so that we rightly and thoroughly know the misery of the guilt of our sins, our need of pardon by the righteousness of God in Christ's cross, and God's utterly gracious provision for our need in His own Son. Then, we believe in Jesus the Christ, as the Word become flesh for us poor sinners; and believing, we have eternal life in His Name.

* A Speech given at the University of Chicago for the University of Chicago Christian Fellowship.

Last modified on 13 December 2019
Engelsma, David J.

Prof.David J. Engelsma (Wife: Ruth)

Ordained: September 1963

Pastorates: Loveland, CO - 1963; South Holland, IL - 1974; Professor in the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1988; Emeritus - 2008


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