The Uniqueness of the Incarnation

May 06, 2014Filed under theology#m. div.#papers#sebtsMarkdown source

The following was written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of Dr. Steve McKinion's Christian Theology II class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.


I. The Centrality and Uniqueness of the Incarnation

The Incarnation of the Son of God is the ground of all Christian hope. It is the “central miracle asserted by Christians.”1 Without the Incarnation, there would be no salvation. Not only would the other aspects of redemption (Christ’s life, teaching, death on the cross, resurrection, and ascension) not be possible, but parts of the restoration of humanity hinge on the Incarnation itself. The Incarnation was a unique event in history, with unique theological significance. At no other time has God manifested himself as a human being. The Spirit’s present indwelling of all believers is a direct result of and carries forward the reconciliation of divinity and humanity that occured in the person of Jesus Christ. A healthy church depends on a healthy Christology, for it is only in Christ and by Christ’s Spirit that the church exists—and there can be no healthy Christology without a robust doctrine of the Incarnation. It is in the Incarnation that Jesus the Messiah must be understood: a single person uniting all that it is to be God and all that it is to be human.

A. Biblical Affirmations

Each of the Gospels opens in a way that emphasizes the unique nature of Jesus Christ. Matthew begins with a genealogy that situates him in the story of Israel, then immediately shows in narrative that from his conception he was also divine (Matt. 1–2, esp. 1:1, 1:23). Mark, ever brief, introduces the Messiah with the astounding words, “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).2 Luke inverts Matthew’s order: miraculous birth first, genealogy second. He situations Jesus not only in Israel’s story but in humanity’s, tracing his lineage to Adam (Luke 1:26–28, 2:8–38, 3:23–38). John reaches out to Greek philosophy and turns it on its head, proclaiming the coming of the uncreated logos into creation (John 1:1–18). The sum effect of the gospel-tellers is to emphasize that in Jesus Christ, something profoundly unique had happened.

Perhaps nowhere are the importance and uniqueness of the Incarnation more evident than in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The anonymous letter emphasizes from its first words the uniqueness of Jesus’ incarnation and ministry (Heb. 1:1–2). It argues that the Incarnation was essential to his roles as priest (2:17–18, 4:15, 5:5–10, 7:26–8:2), destroyer of death (2:14–15), and propitiatory sacrifice (2:9, 7:27, 9:11–28, 10:12–14, 10:19–22). It is not only that Jesus died to save people from their sins, but that he became human and lived to that end and more besides—a consistent theme throughout the New Testament. Thus, Zechariah’s prophecy (Luke 1:76–79) includes salvation from sin, but also light coming into the world, death’s power coming to an end, and peace reigning in the cosmos. Likewise, John couples the Incarnation to the doctrine of adoption (John 1:12). Paul exults in the Incarnation as the grounds of the reconciliation of all things, humanity included (Col 1:19–20). Moreover, he explicitly couples the Messiah’s full humanity to humans being filled in him in turn (Col. 2:9–10)—a theme Peter picks up as well, noting that the saints actually become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

In short, the New Testament affirms that the Incarnation itself was an essential element in the salvation of humanity—not merely as a prerequisite for other parts of Christ’s work. The Incarnation is the means by which human nature is brought once again into fellowship with the Godhead. Christ is the eschatological firstfruits of this restoration. As he is, so will all the saints be in glory: restored to unbroken fellowship between humanity and humanity’s Creator.3

B. The Theology of the Church

The importance of the Incarnation has been affirmed by the church throughout her history. The Church Fathers fleshed out the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation over the first four centuries of the history of the church, with various controversies erupting every century.4 This work culminated in the lasting affirmations and denials of the Chalcedonian formula.5 In fact, nearly every theological controversy in the early church was a Christological controversy, and every such controversy hinged on issues pertaining to the nature of the Incarnation. The Fathers recognized that the details of God’s becoming man were essentials of the faith. The hope of human salvation would be lost entirely if Jesus were not a single person in whom “all the fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9) and who “likewise partook of [flesh and blood]” (Heb. 2:14).6

Incarnational thoelogizing did not end in the patristic period; it has remained foundational for further reflection on the natures of God and humanity. Indeed, patristic theology has been influential on nearly every major orthodox theologian since the Reformation—whether directly or mediated by the Reformers. Athanasius’ Christology, with its emphasis on the transformational effect of the Incarnation itself on humanity’s state,7 has proven particularly influential. If advocates of “incarnational” theologies have sometimes pressed this recovery in unhelpful directions (see below), they have also provided a helpful reminder of what God’s becoming man has already accomplished: the first step of the eschatological transformation of humanity. “The crucified Christ stands in solidarity with humanity, not merely as ane xample of confrontation with the world to be imitated by us but as the reality of new humanity in which we may and must participate.”8 Jesus’ humanity is an essential ingredient in human salvation and in the sanctified life of the believer in the present—the Spirit mediating Christ’s humanity to the believer’s—as well as of a glorified reality in the future.

II. In Life and Ministry

Given the importance—indeed, the essential character—of the doctrine of the Incarnation, it is clear that the church must strive to maintain the doctrine. It is insufficent only to affirm it in principle; the church must cherish this reality in practice and protect it from loss. Unfortunately, both in the Western church broadly and in evangelicalism in particular, the centrality and uniqueness of the Incarnation have sometimes been lost through neglect or abuse.

A. Absence

The church may first of all fail with regard to its theology of the Incarnation by losing it, whether by doctrinal negation or by simple unobservance. The threat of outright denial of the doctrine has been dangerously common in church history. As noted above, many of the early Christological heresies relted directly to the nature of the Incarnation, and variations on these heresies have continued to arise to the present day. In the Reformation era, for example, the Anabaptist movement included many who affirmed a “heavenly flesh” view in which Jesus was not Mary’s descendant but sent from heaven without human parentage whatsoever—a loss of Christ’s full humanity. More recently, both Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have affirmed adoptionist views—a loss of Christ’s full deity.

The anti-supernatural bent of many liberal theologies in the last several centuries has similarly resulted in a rejection of the doctrine of the Incarnation. For many liberals theologians, Jesus was representative of the God-consciousness in us all at its best and adopted by God as a special figure in human history accordingly.9 Any such outright rejection clearly results in the loss of all that the doctrine entails—not least any hope of real salvation. If Jesus was merely a man who was particularly helpful or holy, he could not redeem other humans. He could at best set others a good example. His death and his resurrection10 can have symbolic power only. They do not save. They inspire or impress at best, and intimidate with their inimitability at worst.

All such views leave those who embrace them without ultimate salvific hope. As Gregory Nazianzen commented during the Arian controversy, “For that which He has not assumed he has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole.”11

Though no conservative scholars would actively deny the importance of the Incarnation, their passive neeglect can be nearly as problematic. Sadly, the doctrine receives receives little attention among evangelicals. The crucicentric bent of the evangelical movement has often led to other aspects of the Son’s work being overlooked, so that the Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ are all often treated as mere prerequisites for or accessories to his atoning death.12 Even when unintentional, this loss-by-neglect results in real problems in the church’s understanding of God’s work in Christ and humanity. Many of the borderline gnostic tendencies latent in evangelical theology eschatology, and the corresponding spiritualization and de-physicalization of evangelical eschatology, must be laid at least in part at the feet of a deficient theology of the Incarnation. This can only lead to a dimming of future hope—who really wants to be a disembodied spirit somehow strumming a harp forever?—which in turn produces real challenges in the life and faith of believers.

B. “Incarnational Theology”: A Two-Fold Error

The church may also err by misapplying its theology of the Incarnation. It has become increasingly common to speak of “incarnational theology” as a way of describing the Christian mission to the world: Christians ought to “incarnate” Christ to the world as Christ “incarnated” the Godhead to humanity.13 There is much to appreciate in this sentiment. It represents an appropriate recognition that humans are God’s image-bearers. It pays heed to the New Testament’s assertion that Christians are representatives of Christ. It takes seriously Paul’s shocking language of “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1:24). It rightly points to the synthesis of missionary activity and social activism that represents the best of evangelicalism.14 Yet for all that, applying the language of incarnation to believers is a serious mistake in two ways.

First, this kind of “incarnational” language is a misapplication of Paul’s “body” metaphor for the church, contra the proponents of “incarnational theology”, and notwithstanding Scripture’s many calls to imitate Christ.15 Paul uniformly used the language to teach the unity of the people of God—never evangelism. The authors of the New Testament chose other images for proclaiming Christ instead: fishermen (Matt. 4:19), harvest workers (Luke 10:2), servants working in the absence of their master (Matt. 24:45–51), or ambassadors and representatives (2 Cor. 5:20)—to name just a few. At no point, though, does the Bible use the metaphor of the body to describe Christian witness to the world. Nor does it support the idea that ordinary men and women can mediate the presence of God to people. The Incarnation may (and indeed should) prompt evangelism, but this response is not itself “incarnational.” The people of God do not incarnate God the Son, but represent him in other ways. That does not negate the helpful instincts expressed in the incarnational theologizing of the last few years. It simply means that this doctrine can be expressed more accurately and helpfully.

Second, the church loses a great deal when incarnational theology is about anyone other than Jesus. God becoming man was an astounding and singular event. As Lewis commented, “It was the central event in the history of the Earth—the very thing that the whole story has been about.”16 When theologians speak of “incarnating” Christ, the sheer shock of the event fades. The focus shifts from the Son’s work in humanity to the human response to the Son. The doctrine of the Incarnation above all ought to lead to worship born of reflection not on human endeavors, but on divine intervention to undo human brokenness.

III. Conclusion

Both the centrality of the Incarnation and its uniqueness are essential to healthy Christian theology. A robust doctrine of the Incarnation leads to greater worship and deeper future hope. Understood rightly, it leads to deeper faith in the Word who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), and so to more faithful obedience to the gospel. The believer seeks peace and justice and above all that others may know Christ not because the he himself incarnates Christ, but because the Incarnation has produced a radical transformation in his life (and in the lives of all who believe). “Christ gives his sanctified humanity to us, so that we may partake of him and his goodness…. God assumed our umanity in Jesus of Nazareth, healed our humanity with his own being, and gave our sanctified humanity back to us.”17 The church must therefore take care to protect the doctrine, both from reject or loss through neglect and from misappropriations of the language of incarnation that distract from the work of the Son. The Incarnation itself is essential and central in God’s work in the life of believers. It must never be obscured, diminished, or denied.

Appendix: The Chalcedonian Definition

18For the synod is opposed to those who presume to rend asunder the mystery of the Incarnation into a double Sonship, and it deposes from the priesthood those who dare to say that the Godhead of the Only-begotten is passible; and it withstands those who imagine a mixing or confusion of the two natures of Christ; and it drives away those who erroneously teach that the form of a servant which he took from us was of a heavenly or some other substance; and it anathematizes those who feign that the Lord had two natures before the union, but that these were fashioned into one after the union.

Wherefore, following the holy Fathers, we all with one voice confess our Lord Jesus Christ one and the same Son, the same perfect in Godhead, the same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, the same consisting of a reasonable soul and a body, of one substance with the Father as touching the Godhead, the same of one substance with us as touching the manhood, like us in all things apart from sin; begotten of the Father before the ages as touching the Godhead, the same in the last days, for us and for our salvation, born from the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, as touching the manhood, one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way abolished because of the union, but rather the characteristic property of each nature being preserved, and concurring into one Person and one subsistence (ὑπόστασις), not as if Christ were parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son and only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as the Prophets from the beginning spoke concerning him, and our Lord Jesus Christ instructed us, and the Creed of the Fathers has handed down to us.

Bibliography

  • Barnes, Kenneth A. “‘And the Word Became Flesh’: The Incarnation: A Model For Evangelism.” DMin diss., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary,
  • Bultmann, Rudolf. “New Testament and Mythology: The Mythological Element in the Message of the New Testament and the Problem of its Reinterpretation.” In Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate. Edited by Hans Werner Bartch. Revised and translated by Reginald H. Fuller. 1953. Reprint, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961.

  • Clifford, Ross and Philip Johnson. The Cross Is Not Enough: Living as Witnesses to the Resurrection. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012.

  • Darbyshire, David L. “Incarnational Evangelism: An Intentional Approach to Sharing the Good News in a Boundary Environment.” DMin diss., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1989.

  • Langmead, Ross. Word Made Flesh: Towards an Incarnational Missiology. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 2004.

  • Letham, Robert. The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship. Phillipsburg: P&R, 2004.

  • Lewis, C. S. Miracles: A Preliminary Study. London: Geoffrey Bless, 1947.

  • Morris, Leon. The Atonement: Its meaning and significance. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983.

  • William E. Pannell. “Evangelism: Solidarity and Reconciliation.” In Incarnational Ministry: The Presence of Christ in Church, Society, and Family: Essays in Honor of Ray S. Anderson, edited by Christian D. Kettler and Todd H. Speidell. Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1990.

  • Speidell, Todd H. “Incarnational Social Ethics.” In Speidell, 140–152.

  • Stevenson, James and B. J. Kidd, eds. Creeds, Councils, and Controversies: Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church A.D. 337-461. New York: Seabury Press, 1966.


  1. C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (London: Geoffrey Bless, 1947), 131.

  2. Scripture citations throughout from the English Standard Version.

  3. Athanasius On the Incarnation 14, 20.

  4. Cf. Justin Martyr First Apology (second century), Irenaeus Against Heresies (third century), Athanasius On the Incarnation (fourth century), Cyril of Alexandria, multiple volumes of works against Nestorianism (fifth century).

  5. See Appendix: The Chalcedonian Definition.

  6. Gregory Nazianzen Epistle CI.

  7. Athanasius On the Incarnation 14, 44.

  8. Todd H. Speidell, “Incarnational Social Ethics,” in Incarnational Ministry: The Presence of Christ in Church, Society, and Family: Essays in Honor of Ray S. Anderson, eds. Christian D. Kettler and Todd H. Speidell (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1990), 143. Emphasis mine.

  9. Cf. Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology: The Mythological Element in the Message of the New Testament and the Problem of its Reinterpretation,” in Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, ed. Hans Werner Bartch, rev. and trans. Reginald H. Fuller (1953; repr., New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961), 33–35.

  10. The resurrection is of course customarily denied in such theologies as well.

  11. Gregory Nazianzen Epistle CI.

  12. Cf. the reduction of all of Christ’s works to aspects of the atonement in Leon Morris, The Atonement: Its meaning and significance (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983); and see the similar critique in Ross Clifford and Philip Johnson, The Cross Is Not Enough: Living as Witnesses to the Resurrection (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012).

  13. Cf. Ross Langmead, Word Made Flesh: Towards an Incarnational Missiology (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 2004), 9, 20, 36, 47–58; David L. Darbyshire, “Incarnational Evangelism: An Intentional Approach to Sharing the Good News in a Boundary Environment” (DMin diss., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1989), 46–50; Kenneth A. Barnes, “‘And the Word Became Flesh’: The Incarnation: A Model For Evangelism” (DMin diss., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1990), 32–43, 48, 50, 57.

  14. Cf. William E. Pannell, “Evangelism: Solidarity and Reconciliation,” in Speidell, 203.

  15. Barnes (36–38) rightly notes that imitating Christ is an essential element in the Christian life, but makes numerous hermeneutical missteps in his attempt to extend those texts to justify an “incarnational” theology.

  16. Miracles, 131.

  17. Speidell, 149.

  18. “The Chalcedonian Definition of the Faith,” in Creeds, Councils, and Controversies: Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church A.D. 337-461, eds. James Stevenson and B. J. Kidd (New York: Seabury Press, 1966), 352–353.