Veiled in Flesh: Can We Believe the Incarnation Today?

June 01, 2011

Veiled in Flesh: Can We Believe the Incarnation Today?

Christ by highest heav'n adored/ Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come/ Offspring of a Virgin's womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see/ Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell/ Jesus, our Emmanuel

These words which float ethereally from a choir, or thud less gracefully at community carols, or even bathe the shopping crowds are part of a comforting cultural ritual for many Australians. The serenity of the carol veils the problem of the carol. Hark the Herald Angels uses traditional terms to describe the central mystery of Christianity: that the transcendent, unlimited, eternal Creator, God the Son, became human – a historical, limited creature. The incarnation is a strange, difficult and even offensive idea.

The doctrine of most Christmas carols is much the same as the Chalcedonian Definition in 451 CE. At the Council of Chalcedon diverse views about Jesus and his divinity collided. The problem of understanding how humanity and God could coexist in Jesus generated several different approaches. Some people sought to keep the divine and human as separate as possible. This was the approach of Nestorius, who was accused of teaching that the human Christ was bound to the divine ‘Word’ (Jn 1:1) by a ‘moral union’ – a kind of deep love for each other.[1] On the other hand, some thinkers from the Alexandrian tradition tended to so unite Jesus’ humanity with his divinity that they thought of it as transformed and deified. The more mainstream view, promoted by Cyril of Alexandria, was that Jesus was the incarnation of the Son who had fully taken on humanity, and remained fully divine.[2]

Despite a very confusing debate in the lead up, the council produced a carefully expressed statement which has become the standard expression of the incarnation for most Christian churches in the East and the West.[3] The council declared that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. It deliberately used a term from the earlier debates about the divinity of the Son. Then the key term had been homoousios, which is usually translated into English as ‘of the same substance’. The term was used to say that the Son shares fully in divinity, he is homoouisos with the Father. Chalcedon used the same term about Jesus’ humanity as well – he is ‘of the same substance’ as us, fully human. How do humanity and divinity relate in Christ? The council’s answer was in negatives: the two natures are not mixed into each other so that one dilutes or changes the other, yet they are not split off from each other. The council declared that Christ is to be ‘acknowledged in two natures, without being mixed, transmuted, divided, or separated’. Christ is one person but in him, uniquely, there are united two ‘natures’.

This description of Christ, or ‘Christology’, of creeds and carols may be hallowed by long use, but is it still worth keeping?  Over the last two hundred years there has been sustained criticism of two-nature Christology from within the Christian church. Many people have wondered if it really is the best way to express the reality of Jesus of Nazareth, whether it can connect with a world in which Greek philosophical terms are obscure, and if it even makes sense.[4] At least since the deists of the 18th century, thoughtful, religiously inclined people have been sympathetic to Christianity and admired Jesus but have found the doctrine of the incarnation impossible to accept.

Islam regards Christian claims about the incarnation as blasphemy. The Koran repeatedly denies that Jesus can be thought of as God’s Son.[5] In part the idea is rejected because it seems to imply that God has had sexual union, but the Muslim objection to the incarnation runs deeper than this. It is contrary to the absolute distinction in Islam between God and his creation. Further, the notion that the incarnate Son could be crucified is, to the Muslim, both a puzzle and a blasphemy: ‘Theologically it need not happen; morally it should not happen; historically it did not happen’.[6]

On several fronts, then, there are possible problems with the incarnation. Perhaps the solution is to rethink it entirely. Things may be simpler for Christianity if that Christmas Carol Christology was declared redundant. In this article I will examine a few of the apparent weak points of traditional Christology and argue that there are good reasons to keep the creedal formulations. This is not an attempt to lay out a whole account of Christology, nor is it a fully formed apologetic argument for that type of Christology. I am not aiming to immediately convince the sceptic, rather I want to point out some recent thinking which responds to criticisms of Chalcedon.  You can think of this article as an exercise in Christological boundary riding—we are going to check the fences and see if they have holes.

Baby feet

The incarnation and the New Testament

For biblical Christians the most pressing objection to the doctrine of the incarnation is the claim that there is no way from the Jesus who lived to the confession of him in the traditional creeds. The route from history to confession is said to be obstructed by two huge gaps. The first gap is that between the historical Jesus and the description in the New Testament: do the New Testament documents claim far more for Jesus than he or his first disciples ever could? The first gap is the focus of the study of the historical Jesus. Because it has been well canvassed in so much recent scholarship I am not going to deal with these questions in this article.[7]

The second gap is the one which may lie between the testimony of the New Testament writers and the creeds. The argument runs like this: the New Testament has an exalted view of Jesus, but this is a long way from incarnational claims. Indeed, says the critic, the New Testament authors never talk about Jesus as God, and as Jews they never could have done so. While there are several verses which are traditionally understood as asserting that Jesus is God, it is pointed out that these are relatively few and each one has complications about it. Instead the suggestion is that over several generations Jesus was increasingly associated with God’s identity. Initially he was viewed as a semi-divine figure, something like an exalted angel, and over time the Christian community gradually came to identify Jesus with God. This idea is captured neatly in the title of Richard Rubenstein’s book When Jesus became God, in which he argues that only in the fourth century did the church determine that Jesus is God, as it was led (or rather bullied) by Athanasius.[8]

In the 1960s, A. W. Wainwright wrote a careful study of the New Testament evidence for the divinity of Jesus. He concluded that there are eight texts which seem, on balance, to refer to Jesus as God (Rom 9:5; Heb 1:8; John 1:1-2, 18; Titus 2:13; John 20:28; 2 Pet 1:1; Acts 20:28). However his conclusion was qualified, for he thought that the New Testament writers were expressing a truth which they could not fully see. He comments that ‘their faith outstripped their reason, and they were able to give joyful utterance to a belief which they felt incapable of expounding’.[9] It seems that classical Christology is built on a handful of enigmatic texts.

More recently Richard Bauckham has argued convincingly that this is not so. His view is that the Judaism of the time of the New Testament was clearly monotheistic and held tenaciously to the view that there is one and only one Creator and Sovereign. Jesus could not ‘become God’ in Jewish thought by gradation through semi-divine figures, because there are no such figures. He argues that when the monotheism of Judaism is taken into account, it becomes clear that Jesus is presented in divine terms. He is ‘Lord’, the one who rules over all things, including the angels, and who shares in worship. Bauckham’s case is that the New Testament writers present Jesus in terms drawn from Ps 110:1-2 and Isaiah 40-55, and in doing so portray Jesus as included in God’s identity. Bauckham argues that Paul deliberately rephrases the Shema, the central text of Jewish monotheism (‘the Lord your God the Lord is One’) adding that there is ‘one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist’ (1 Cor 8:6).[10] His conclusion is that the New Testament does not testify to Jesus’ divinity in a merely tangential way, in which the authors are not fully aware of the implications of their claims. Rather they ‘quite deliberately use the rhetoric and conceptuality of Jewish monotheism to make this inclusion unequivocal’.[11]

Is it logical?

Showing that the New Testament portrait of Jesus is historically plausible and that it presents Jesus as God does not solve the problem of the incarnation. One of the obvious criticisms of the doctrine of the incarnation is that it is outright illogical. According to the logical principle of non-contradiction (‘Nothing can both be and not be at the same time in the same respect’), the Christian doctrine of the incarnation appears to present us with a contradiction. That is, if, as Christianity claims, creature and Creator are mutually exclusive, it is contradictory to claim that someone is both Creator and not-Creator (creature). Similarly, if only God exists independently and all else that exists does so in dependence on God, then it is illogical to claim someone exists both dependently and independently. The incarnation apparently presents one person as both God and not-God at the same time: is this simply impossible?  If the doctrine is logically impossible, then it would seem that either it cannot be true, or at least it is not possible for someone to affirm it and also claim to have a rational faith.

One solution that is suggested for the presence of paradox is that doctrines such as the incarnation are not to be understood realistically, that is, the words do not refer to anything but simply regulate how we use other words or are a metaphor or a myth. That solution admits, in one way or another, that the doctrine of the incarnation is not ‘true’, in the sense of describing an objective state of affairs. Any such attempt to explain the doctrine of the incarnation as ‘word-play’ fails to do justice to the intentions of the framers of Chalcedon or to the way it has been understood in successive generations: the definition was intended to make ontological claims—claims about what actually is the case.[12]

There are two important, complementary, responses to the criticism that the doctrine is illogical. One confronts the problem head on. James Anderson argues that, despite attempts by theologians to show something different, classic Christology is paradoxical, its affirmations appear to be logically contradictory and every attempt to show that there is no real contradiction ends up moving away from classical Christology.[13] Anderson does not want to give up the claim that Christianity is rational, rather he thinks that it is possible to have a ‘rational affirmation of paradoxical theology’.[14] Anderson’s claim is that it is not necessarily irrational to believe paradoxes in the case of thinking about God—indeed he goes further and argues that we should in fact ‘anticipate paradox in some of our theological knowledge’.[15] The reason for this is that God is ‘incomprehensbile’, that is he cannot be known fully and exhaustively by any creature, even on the basis of God’s own self-revelation.[16]

Anderson points out that if we take this view of God’s incomprehensibility, it reminds us that ‘considered both quantitatively and qualitatively, our cognitive apparatus is simply not on par with God’s’.[17] We do not and cannot understand God and his relation to the world in the depth and extent of God’s reality. This means that we would expect true statements about God and his relation to humanity to contain apparent contradictions. In light of God’s incomprehensibility it is not irrational to accept paradoxes. In fact Anderson argues the reverse, that the paradoxes in certain Christian doctrines ‘rather than threatening the rationality of Christian belief in these doctrines, actually helps to explain their rationality’.[18]

The second approach is that of Sarah Coakley who admits that Chalcedon has an ‘oddness’. She compares it with the kind of puzzles described by Wittgenstein in which ‘[w]e express and do not express a thing, see and do not see a thing’.[19] She argues that while Chalcedon is intended to be referential and to describe an ontological reality, it cannot do so ‘literally’.[20] The Definition ‘does not … intend to provide a full systematic account of Christology, and even less a complete and precise metaphysics of Christ’s makeup’. What it does is to set boundaries about what can be said about Christ, and ‘present a “riddle” of negatives by means of which a greater (though undefined) reality may be intimated’.[21] Coakley’s conclusion is that Chalcedon leaves a great deal about the incarnation unexplained and mysterious, though that does not discourage Christians from thinking further about those elements.[22]

Both Anderson and Coakley help us to see that the ‘problem’ of the doctrine of the incarnation does not lie in the apparent logical contradictions it contains. There is no need to pretend that such logical problems are not present, clearly they are. Yet if the doctrine of the incarnation is describing what it claims to describe—the personal presence of the infinite Creator in and through a human creature—then we would only expect that it would be beyond our full comprehension. The person who rejects the doctrine because it is illogical risks setting up their own rational capacity as the determination of what can be, even with regard to God.

Roman statue

Jesus and humanity

A further theological objection to classical Christology has been that it must end up denying the true humanity of Jesus. Critics recognise that the Chalcedonian Definition makes a formal affirmation of Jesus’ humanity, for it says he is homoousios with humanity. The problem is that the formal affirmation is not enough in practice. Theology is meant to help Christians read the Bible and think and worship as Christians. In the case of Christology it should help us think about Jesus and understand what we read about him. The critics claim that what actually happens in the Chalcedonian tradition is that believers lose sight of the place and importance of Jesus’ humanity.

That, for instance, was the view of theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg,[23] and Karl Rahner makes a similar case—that while the Definition and the traditions which accept it speak of Jesus as fully human, that assertion is an uncomfortable fit with the ideas of Chalcedon. It does not imply or support an account of Jesus’ full humanity.[24]  

This criticism is a bit like the political criticism of nations which have clearly stated commitments to human rights in a constitution, but political practices which do not show any regard for human rights. It looks as if such constitutions are unable to really deliver what they offer. Critics of Chalcedonian Christology say that it claims to affirm the full humanity of Christ as well as his full divinity, but it never manages to deliver that. The infamous Christmas carol example of this tendency is the line in Away in a Manger that ‘the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes’. The line seems to turn Jesus into something different to a normal human baby. Even those who defend Chalcedon often admit that Jesus’ humanity is a problem in classic Christology.[25]

Three points can be made about this criticism. The first is to admit that Christians have to keep remembering that Jesus is fully and completely human and working that into their contemplation, worship and Bible reading. Since the pressure in modernity has been to deny that Jesus is God, believers who accept classical Christology often seem to over-compensate by neglecting the humanity of Jesus’ life. For instance, we see Jesus’ miracles as immediate and obvious evidence of his divinity, when in fact we should also think about what it means for him to do his wondrous works as a man and even the model of humanity. Jesus did say that his followers would do greater works than those he did in his earthly ministry (Jn 14:12)!

The second response flows from the earlier discussion. If two-nature Christology is a paradoxical riddle which intimates a reality, then it does not set out to describe a precise relationship between Jesus’ humanity and divinity. The criticisms of Rahner and Pannenberg seem to assume that Chalcedon gives a very precise specification of the make-up of Jesus. If, however, the approach affirms a puzzle, then, properly understood, the Definition helps us to see both sides of the puzzle, even though together the two sides are puzzling!

The third element of a response to the problem of the diminution of humanity in the incarnation will lead us to the final area of discussion. One of the implications of classical Christology is that it is the divine Word, the Son, who came from the Father and was found in human likeness. This is the story the New Testament tells: the Son gave up glory to live and die and rise. It is not, in the first place, the elevation of a human, but the humiliation of God. Humanity is only elevated as a result of the incarnation: ‘for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’ (2 Cor. 8:9 ). There was never a human person ‘Jesus’ independent of the Son, but the Son—a person—existed from eternity before he became human as Jesus. So there is a sense in which the Son is the primary actor, though he acts as fully human as well as fully divine. The traditional way of expressing this, which developed after Chalcedon but in consistency with it, has been to say that the human nature of Christ is anhypostaticit does not supply the acting person, and it is enhypostaticit finds its person in the person of the Son.[26] These strange terms emphasise the grace of God in the incarnation. The incarnation shows up our weakness and inability, we could not find God, only he could find us. But in finding us he did not abolish our human existence, but participated in it in order to give us real and full fellowship with himself.

Why did God become man?

Finally we come to the question of whether we can discern the ‘theologic’ of the incarnation. Why did God become man? Anselm answered that question by saying that only in the incarnation could the debt of honour due to God be repaid in such a way that humanity could be redeemed and not destroyed.[27] Although his answer was framed in terms of the feudal honour code, the pattern Anselm discerned remains the key to understanding the ‘why?’ of the incarnation.

Throughout the Bible, God is the Saviour, and he works through his servants. Both sides of that statement matter. It is God alone who is the Saviour and his salvation comes through human servants. The incarnation brings this pattern to an intense focus: God himself is present as a man. So Jesus is the mediator in a way no other man ever was. God comes from outside creation and saves, as it were, from within creation. We could not save ourselves, but God saves us in a way that redeems and heals us and all creation.

The redemption of humanity occurs through the human life, death and resurrection of our representative. The New Testament highlights this saving from inside when it presents Jesus as the new Adam (Rom 5:14-19; 1 Cor 15:45-49). Adam tragically acted on behalf of all his descendants in disobedience and we suffer his curse and repeat his disobedience. Our predicament is one of human making. Jesus brings a new beginning for humanity and creation, we receive his blessing and in that are remade in his image. Our redemption comes from a human obedience.

Because Jesus is fully human and fully divine his death could be ‘for us’. In Hebrews 2 the writer concludes that it was because Christ shared in our flesh and blood that he could free us from death and the devil and make atonement for our sins (Heb 2:14-17). Yet Jesus’ death could not have such importance apart from his being the incarnate Son and so the crucified God.

The goal of God’s redemption is for his people to share in his glory. He does not strip away our humanity but fulfils and completes it. God does this as we are united and conformed to Christ. There is a series of New Testament passages that speak this way. Ephesians 4:15 says that together the church grows into Christ. How can we do this and not become God? The answer is that the Christ to whom we are joined and into whom we grow is the God-man, and so he can be the proper model for us. Indeed Jesus is already what we will be, he anticipates our glorification (Phil 3:21; 1 John 3:2). This all depends on the incarnation.[28]

So we finish our exploration of the incarnation thinking about redemption. The fact that we can tell a wonderful redemption story based on the incarnation does not make it true. We have traced the testimony of the New Testament to the incarnation and seen some reasons why the classic formulations are valid reflections of the witness to Christ, not only to his person but also to his work. The apparently paradoxical formulation of Chalcedon does not explain the incarnation or make sense of it, but it highlights for us the wonder of the humiliation of the Son for our redemption. Whatever problems the doctrine of the incarnation may present for Christians, the fact of the incarnation solves a greater problem for us.

Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace!/ Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings/ Ris'n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by/ Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth/ Born to give them second birth

Hark! The Herald Angels sing/ Glory to the newborn King.

[1] It is unlikely that Nestorius went that far in drawing the division.

[2] D. Fairbairn, Grace and Christology in the Early Church (Oxford: OUP, 2003) offers an excellent recent study of the controversy.

[3] Some of the Orthodox churches of the East did not accept it.

[4] See A. Torrance, Jesus in Christian doctrine’. M. Bockmuehl ed., The Cambridge Companion to Jesus (Cambridge: CUP, 2001), pp210-17.

[5] E.g. 4:171, 172; 5:19, 75-78, 119-120, 9:30-31; 19:35. See W. Larson, ‘Jesus in Islam and Christianity: Discussing the Similarities and the Differences’. Missiology: An International Review, 36/3 (July, 2008), pp329-31.

[6] Larson, op.cit., p332.


[8] R. Rubenstein, When Jesus became God : the epic struggle over Christ's divinity in the last days of Rome (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999).

[9] A.W. Wainwright, The Trinity in the New Testament (London: S.P.C.K., 1962), pp66-69.

[10] R.J. Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), pp31-40, 47-69.

[11] ‘Once we understand Jewish monotheism properly, we can see that the New Testament writers are already in a deliberate and sophisticated way, expressing a fully divine Christology by including Jesus in the unique identity of God as defined by Second Temple Judaism. Once we recognise the theological categories within which they are working, it is clear that there is nothing embryonic or tentative about this’. Ibid, p75f. See also p31.

[12] Sarah Coakley, ‘What Chalcedon Solved and Didn’t Solve’. S.T. Davis, D. Kendall, G. O'Collins (eds), The incarnation : an interdisciplinary symposium on the incarnation of the son of God (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2002), pp145-56; J. Anderson, Paradox in Christian Theology: An Analysis of Its Presence, Character, and Epistemic Status (London: Paternoster Press, 2007), pp111-14.

[13] Anderson, op.cit., pp60-106.

[14] Ibid., p218.

[15] Ibid., p241.

[16] Ibid., pp237-41. This is why classic Christian theology has held that all our language about God is analogical rather than univocal. When terms are ‘univocal’ they have precisely the same meaning even when applied to different objects, so a term means identically the same thing about God and creation. However, it is far better to think that our terms for God are ‘analogical’. That is, our terms and concepts can represent something of the truth about God, but will always fall short of fully describing that truth and will fall short in ways which we cannot know or describe (or else we could convert the analogical statements to univocal ones). See, e.g. M. Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), pp184-91.

[17] Anderson, op.cit., p240.

[18] Ibid., p242. It might seem that Anderson’s approach would allow any amount of woolly thinking entry into Christian thought, since any problematic element could be defended as an unavoidable paradox. He does not think this is the case, for he holds that a paradox should be allowed in Christian thought only when the elements of the paradox are warranted by God’s revelation and cannot be understood  non-paradoxically and ‘if the appearance of contradiction can be plausibly attributed to divine incomprehensibility’(p266). So it will apply to areas where we are thinking about God’s nature and his relation to creation, but cannot, for example, be used to explain apparent inconsistencies in the Bible’s account of historical events (pp264-266).

[19] Coakley, op.cit., pp152-56, quoting from C. Diamond, The Realistic Spirit: Wittgenstein, Philosophy, and the Mind (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), p267.

[20] Coakley, op.cit., pp156-59.

[21] Ibid., p161.

[22] Ibid., p163.

[23] W. Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, trans. G. Bromiley (Grand Rapids/ Edinburgh: Eerdmans/ T&T Clark, 1991, 1994, 1997), vol.2 p301.

[24] Karl Rahner, ‘Current Problems in Christology’. Theological Investigations Vol. 1 (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1965), p161.

[25] e.g. Thomas Weinandy, In the Likeness of Sinful Flesh: An Essay on the Humanity of Christ (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), p3 and G. C. Berkouwer, The Person of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), p212.

[26] I. Davidson, ‘Theologizing the Human Jesus: An Ancient (and Modern) Approach to Christology Reassessed’ IJST Vol.3 No.2 ,July 2001, pp134-50.

[27] Anselm Cur Deus Homo Book 2.5-15. B. Davies and G.R. Evans (eds), The major works: Anselm of Canterbury (Oxford: OUP, 1998), pp318-325.

[28] M. Horton, Lord and Servant: A Covenant Christology (Louisville: WJK, 2005), pp159-176.


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