A DEFINITION: Incarnation: The Christian belief that God has disclosed the divine self in human reality in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Incarnation from the Latin incarnatio, literally meaning ‘take on flesh’.
At Christmas we shall hear again the familiar words of the Apostle John,
“the word became flesh”.
It is a particular reminder of John’s, and of other writers at the time of John and later, of an eternal truth. Each writer was protecting the principles, doctrine, tenet, belief, precept, canon, creed, code of belief, dogma of the incarnation from other interpretations. These other interpretations including one where Jesus was just a child who became a man but was ‘adopted’ by God. (This interpretation is something along the lines of the ‘selecting’ the Dalai Lama, who was chosen as a baby to be the spiritual leader of his people1.)
In the early centuries of the Christian church believers in Jesus, Christians struggled, and there are those who to this day struggle, to explain a belief in the incarnation. Certainly, then as now, there were those who vigorously denied Jesus’ divinity and came up with every alternative their imaginations could conjure to explain God in Christ entering the world as he did and who he was in relation to God the Father. This struggle was resolved and explained and set out in what we know as the Great Creeds referred to as the Nicene and Chalcedon; expressed as,
“We believe in one God, the Father …. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God
… of one Being with the Father
… was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human …..”
The what we believe, the doctrine of the incarnation, has sought to set out three truths:
1: Jesus Christ was a divine person;
2: Jesus Christ was an authentic human being;
3: The divine nature and the human nature existed in a combined state in the person of Jesus Christ.
Sit quietly and reread the opening chapter of John’s Gospel and these truths are laid out for us. What John, and other writers, set out to tell those who will read his words that here was one, this individual we know as Jesus, who was the divine personhood of the One who was born of Mary. Further he consisted of a touchable, physical, solid, tangible, material, earthly, worldly, human corporeal substance of a human body. (There were those who argued that Jesus was none of these things. One theory was that he was something like we might think of as a ghost’, without substance.)
John and the others understood Jesus as a fully human person in the same way that all other humans – everyone we can see, touch, speak to, hear speaking to us, have a relationship with and so on – were understood to be human. The word ‘became’ in the phrase ‘became flesh’ takes us a step further in that the becoming flesh was without any diluting of the divine person, suggesting he wasn’t divine. There are two halves here – was flesh, and became flesh.
Over the years this doctrine of the incarnation has been subjected to attempts to modify it, revise it and even reject it. Take for example Unitarianism. (You may not have heard of Unitarianism. If you haven’t then read on and see the aside below.) Unitarianism is a theological movement, named for its understanding of God as one person, in direct contrast to Trinitarianism. Trinitarianism? Defines God as three persons coexisting as one being: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Unitarians maintain that Jesus is solely the “son” of God, but not God himself.
Twentieth century thought has often sought to modify the doctrine. One side have been those who argued that the incarnation is nothing more than a continuing of ‘ancient religions’. And others have argued that in our multicultural, multi-faith world the Christian belief in the incarnation is a barrier to the world being one people living at peace with each other and sharing in all the world provides for all people to enjoy. The first argument may have an element of truth in that God has revealed himself slowly and gradually to humankind culminating in the incarnation and Christ alive today. The other argument smacks of let’s dump all belief systems and start anew with a new belief system which is something like the one that has been dumped.
Go back to the Creeds and express and shout out your belief in the incarnation,
THE WORD DID INDEED
Acknowledgement for inspiration: Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible edited by David Noel Freedman etal.