Over the last few years, the doctrine of the incarnation has had a particularly powerful impact on my life and through a greater understanding of the doctrine I have experienced perhaps the single most significant transformation of my entire Christian journey.
Some of these ideas are drawn from teaching I have read, some are personal. Take what is written here primarily as food for thought; these thoughts are developing ideas which could as easily be nonsense as be anything else. I am not a theologian, I simply like to read a lot and ponder the implications of what I read. Personally, I find the more I ponder the incarnation, the less I understand it, and yet the closer I feel to Jesus. Which is to say, most of what follows may well be complete theological nonsense; I can’t completely wrap my mind around this stuff, but at the very least I have fun trying.
My thinking on this subject is particularly influenced by Frank Sheed’s Theology and Sanity, Pp. John Paul II’s The Theology of the Body and St Athenasius of Alexandria’s On the Incarnation.
Incarnation and Trinity back to top
In my quarter century struggle to comprehend the Trinity, I have found that Frank Sheed’s description of God having one nature and yet being three persons is key to understanding this doctrine. It is not a case of three Gods and yet one God; neither is it three persons and yet one person; rather there is God, one nature shared by three persons. Stop and ponder that idea. We as human beings are familiar with one person having one individual nature; this idea of three persons sharing one nature is difficult, but it’s not impossible to apprehend. Consider the infinite nature of God; such a nature is by very definition without limits. It is not possible for such a nature to exist except singularly, for it is nonsensical to speak of more than a singular infinity – there cannot exist two separate yet limitless entities.
Now consider what scripture has to say on the humiliation of Christ:
… 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Phillipians 2:6-8 (ESV)
and again, in Hebrews:
3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
8 … Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. 9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
Hebrews 1:3-4 and 2:8b-9 (ESV)
So it is we see that in some manner of understanding Christ, having the exact imprint of God’s nature, was made for a time “lower than the angels” and “emptied himself” to be “born in the likeness of men.”
Given these scriptures and various other accounts of Jesus’ ministry given in the gospel narratives, we observe clear scriptural evidence that in his earthly ministry Christ operated in some considerably more limited fashion than an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God; by my estimation he operated as a man in perfect communion with the indwelling Holy Spirit. It seems that the Incarnate Christ, during his earthly ministry for our salvation voluntarily ceased to exercise his divine nature and that the second person of the trinity took on the nature of man (a human nature, not a fallen, sinful nature) with all its limitations.
This idea made me wonder: Could the way in which Christ was wholly God and wholly man be understood to mean that he was wholly God in person, and wholly man in nature? Of course, this has to be balanced with the idea that it is the Word of God, that is Christ, by whom everything was created and by which that which was created is sustained; that sustaining influence did not cease while Christ walked the earth – in some sense Christ was at the same time (in our temporal perspective) limited incarnate man and unlimited eternal God.
In the end, the matter seems to be decided by the church’s sixth general council (the Third Council of Constantinople, 680) which defined that in Christ there were two wills and two activities, the human and the divine (activity referring to the seat of consciousness and thinking). Furthermore, the human will was not at all in opposition to the divine, but was perfectly subject to it. That there were two wills in Christ seems evident from such statements as “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42). If I correctly understand, this argues for Christ having two natures simultaneously in one person – no harder to apprehend, I guess, than a trinity of three persons sharing one nature; but things are getting complicated with three persons sharing one nature and one of those persons having two natures.
As one final thought, could it be that sense in which God the Son put off the devine was to relinquish his glorified body to assume a frail, mortal human body?
Incarnation and Humanity back to top
Permit me for a moment to take an intellectual walk where angels fear to tread… actually, come think of it, a third of them didn’t so fear; hmmm, how’d that work out for them? Interestingly, the very thing which Satan coveted, that with which he first tempted mankind, that state of being that mankind grasped after, is apparently the very thing which God always planned for us as a free gift.
3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.
2 Peter 2:3-4 (ESV)
One thing that has strikes me as interesting is that every world-religion has some element of men becoming gods. It seems to me that mankind has coveted this idea since the very beginning; that was the temptation in the garden of Eden, to “become like God”, but on our terms. It seems that the qualitative difference is that of becoming a god, self-sufficiently, apart from and in opposition to God. But God’s plan was to share his divinity with us in communion and unity. The more I ponder the idea the more it seems to me that in eternity we will be sharing in the community of the Holy Trinity.
John Paul II makes the brave statement that it was always in God’s plan to divinize mankind, that the sin in the garden was in the willful taking of something which God would have freely given at the appointed time. John Paul speculates too, that perhaps it was that Satan beheld the plan of God to divinize mankind and raise us superior to the angels and it was against this notion which Satan rebelled.
And, too, the words of the Catholic mass are interesting, “may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity”. The New Testament scriptures repeatedly reaffirm this idea that we will become partakers of the very nature of God:
18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 3:18 (ESV)
And is this not the promise and prayer of Christ? That we be transformed into his very image, to share in his glory as one with him is the same way as he and the Father are one?
20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.
John 17:20-23 (ESV)
When Paul spoke to the Corinthians of the resurrection state he describes a body far more glorious than anything we can imagine in this life:
42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.
1 Corinthians 15:42-49 (ESV)
Reading this description of the resurrected body it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that our redeemed state is one that can only be described as god-like. It always seems to me that this describes a qualitatively higher state of being than that of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden – which makes sense if our resurrected state partakes in the nature of God, since it’s clear that Adam and Eve had a separate, strictly-human nature.
It would seem to follow then, since the plans of God are never thwarted, that Adam and Eve were created in a lessor state than was their destiny. They were destined to be transformed, but they sought to take something for themselves, never realizing that it was the very thing which God would one day give freely – this propensity for instant gratification seems to be the human condition.
Incarnation and Time back to top
In response to a question on http://christianity.StackExchange.com on the nature of God, I made the following statements:
God’s omnipresence applies not only to space but also to time. God created time at the same point that he created space (and science also concludes that time began with the material universe, FWIW). God is outside of time; he is not temporally limited in any way. For God, all time is present - he is the great I AM.
Furthermore God’s omniscience is therefore not constrained to temporal thinking; he knows everything in the present. He has no conflict with what will happen in the future, and the future does not limit him, because for him there is no future - all of existence is now.
God’s choices happen in the eternal-present and in no way limit him because they are made according to his perfect and infinite nature. Whatever God does he does in this capacity and doing something other than what he has done is not within his nature because what God wills simply is. “And God said, let their be light, and there was”.
Pondering this idea, it always seems to me that every event in our history is necessarily present to God. But then, it seems to me, in some sense the crucifixion is also eternally present to God. Supposing for a moment that this is in some way true, does it not make the magnitude of his sacrifice even more mind-blowingly, astoundingly, incomprehensively amazing!
Does this not imply that the incarnation itself has some timeless quality to it. Especially considering that Jesus was raised bodily – if that body is his from the resurrection forward in eternity, then surely it is also his eternally backward in eternity from his birth.
But that means that one of the persons of the Trinity has a bodily existence – can this be so? Or must we conclude that for some part of eternity God was without flesh, and for some (post-incarnate) part, he has flesh?
Could this mean then when God walked in the garden “in the cool of the day”, it was actually the person of Jesus, physically present? Could it be that the image of God we bear is not merely moral and spiritual, but is that of a personal, embodied spirit?
Athanasius: On the Incarnation
Catholic Encyclopedia: The Incarnation
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