Not Two Things: Introducing the Incarnation in Eight Steps

1. Introductions to the classical doctrine of the Incarnation fall at the first hurdle when they begin by attempting to explain how two can be one, or how Jesus may be said to possess two things of various kinds—natures, wills, minds, personalities. Some of these options are wrong a priori (Jesus did not possess two “minds”); but others are important (he did possess two wills). But, in order to see why they are important we must not begin with those due. Rather, we must begin with a narrative. This narrative may also cause us problems if we are not careful, and that is why the end of this article is as important as the beginning.

2. The narrative of which I speak is one found in various biblical forms, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14), "though he was in the form of God . . . [he] emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men." (Phil 2:6ff). Sometimes this narrative is implied, if not laid out in order: “. . . in these last days [God] has spoken to us by a Son . . . He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe” (Heb 1.2-3). All three of these texts (and there are many others), give us a story in which the Word or Son has become flesh, has entered the temporal created order as a human being. The most important thing to note is that the main agent or actor here is the Word, God's Son. At this point you need to remember your Trinitarian theology. The Word or Son is God, one with the Father and the Spirit, possessing by nature all that it is to be God, the transcendent source of all.

3. If we remember that the agent in this story, the Word who “becomes” flesh, is not a “thing” in the created order at all, we will begin in the right place. The Word who becomes flesh is the one through whom the world was created; the Word possesses by nature the full majesty and power of God. But this means that when we speak of Christ as human and divine, we do not speak of two things in this world being unified (or distinct).

Think for a little about the transcendence of God. Because God transcends the created order the Word of God, being fully God, does not “compete” for space in the world. If one tries to “enhance” a human being by adding in some computer chips, the chips have to go somewhere; there must be a place for them. Finding such a place will no doubt create problems for the surgeons involved. This is because created realities compete for space.

Because Father, Son and Spirit transcend the created order, they can be present anywhere and at any time without competing for space. This is an essential point if we want to understand what we can say about Christ as the Word made flesh. It is also a point that can help us to see why some questions are simply misleading. Questions which begin by assuming that in Christ we deal with two “things” in the world may be interesting, and certainly occur with ease, but are also simply mistaken. The Word of God is one with the Father and the Spirit in the Holy Trinity and transcends all things as their source. It is this Word who became flesh in Christ.

4. Christians confess that the Word “became” flesh, but they know that they do not really know what “became” means in that phrase. But what can we say? One useful way of summarising how early Christian theologians eventually came to understand the Word “becoming” flesh is to say that the Word, in Mary's womb, took to itself a human individual. This phrasing is carefully chosen, if lacking the poetry of any of the scriptural summaries. It should, with some explication, make clear a number of key points.

First, once again, it is the Word who acts here. The power active in the incarnation is that of God, that which created all things out of nothing. And yet Mary gives her full assent (Luke 2:38), and this is vital, for God does not simply overpower human beings. Rather, throughout the economy of salvation God sanctifies and restores so that true human freedom may emerge.

Second, the phrase I offered above emphasizes that Jesus in his human nature is not a pre-existing individual adopted at some point in his existence, at any point in his existence. The Word did not come to dwell in a carpenter's son whose name was Jesus and who was already wandering around in Galilee; indeed, there was not even a fetus growing in Mary's womb into whom the Word of God came. Such a way of putting the matter would imply that Jesus's humanity or even what we might now term his personality was at some point in his existence overcome by the indwelling of the Word. What then of human freedom?

The same sorts of views would also imply that there were in Jesus two people—the one he had already become (or was becoming) and the newly indwelling Word. If our presentations imply this duality then we have missed the radical Christian claim that God did not merely associate with us, but chose to be born as one of us. And thus, we must say that Jesus Christ as human comes into existence in Mary's womb through the action of the Word.

He is conceived by the action of Word and Spirit in Mary's womb, and Mary, the Mother of God gives birth to the Word incarnate. One reason why emphasis on the virgin birth has traditionally been seen as an integral part of belief in the incarnation is because it helps to focus our attention on the reality that Christ's humanity came into existence in Mary's womb through the work of Word and Spirit, and in union with that Word.

Third, the phrase “a human individual” is important. When Christ acts and speaks it is the Word with and through his human body and soul who acts and speaks; Christ's person is that of the Word. Hence, we need to be careful about how we talk about his human nature. It clearly is an individual human nature—Jesus Christ is an identifiable human being!—and yet do not make the mistake of thinking that there is, in modern terms, a human “personality” there characterizing who Jesus is, besides the Word of God.

Thus, the phrase "a human individual" is an admittedly odd one, but it is trying to draw to our attention some features of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. The Word has united with himself that human individual, drawing it into his person, such that Christ's body and soul must be said to be the very body and soul of the Word. The Word of God is thus the source of the integrity of Christ as human and divine.

5. Before we proceed further we should return for a moment to the question of what can and what cannot be understood when we speak of the incarnate Word. Because, when we speak of divine action, mystery will always attend at some point. Just as we do not understand how God created all things out of nothing—because the divine power remains mysterious to created beings—so too the act of union in Mary's womb is beyond our comprehension. The power that from eternity maintains that union is a mystery to us. But, as many theologians have noted, “mystery” here is a complex term. It does not indicate only a puzzle that could be solved with greater attention or information.

A theological mystery is something revealed (and hence not something comprehensible by our natural cognitive abilities), and which can be known only by analogical reasoning, only by reaching toward it on the basis of what can be known to us. Even when the mystery of God is in some sense seen in eternity the infinite nature of the divine light remains inexhaustible mystery to the created. But, as well as pointing out that mystery necessarily attends on certain sorts of statements about Christ because there we speak about divine power and action, it is important also to note that this ignorance is not simply a cause for lament, or a frustrating limit to our rational capacities.

In the first place, this mystery is an education for the human mind, constantly revealing its limits, inviting it to epistemological humility. Such humility is recommended in classical Christian thought because human pride constantly seeks to escape its limits and in so doing often falls into forms of idolatry—identifying as God that which is not God, or claiming knowledge about God that is not ours. And thus, in the second place, careful attention to what remains incomprehensible to us and why is also a constant education in the true relationship between the creation and the Creator.

Attention to mystery may also be an education for the imagination, enabling us to think far better about how the mystery of the divine enfolds all, is present to all, and yet transcends all. This strong emphasis on mystery does not mean that theological thought has little left to do; understanding where and why there is mystery, where and how the incomprehensible is made manifest, is a task of thought and attention to which theologians are called. From the fifth to the seventh centuries AD questions about how Christ should be understood were at the center of theological debate, and some of the arguments pursued were deeply philosophical, even as one of the great accomplishments of this period was an clear affirmation of where divine mystery attends.

6. It is time to return to the union of divine and human in Christ itself. How close a union do we speak of here? Can we say that divine and human become one, or even that they are mixed? If divine and human stay separate, how far is there truly a union? These are all good questions, and there is much analytical thought that can usefully be applied to these questions.

But it is in the light of what we have said so far that we should approach them. The answers of classical Christology are anchored not only in the decisions taken at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, but also in the debates over Chalcedon that occupied much energy over the two following centuries. Chalcedon itself says this:

So, following the saintly fathers, we all with one voice teach the confession of one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects except for sin; begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from Mary, the virgin God-bearer as regards his humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being; he is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets taught from the beginning about him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ himself instructed us, and as the creed of the fathers handed it down to us.

The first thing to note here is the repeated phrase “one and the same.” By this phrase (which probably stems, at some remove, from Irenaeus), the council fathers emphasized that Christ is always one; the result of the union that the Word has effected is that we speak always of one and the same subject when we have any sentence of which Christ is the subject (such as "Christ is God" or "Christ is a human being").

Later councils of the Church would state with absolute clarity that which is only implicit here: that one subject is the Son or Word of God. The union which the Word effects means that whenever we speak about Christ in his humanity or divinity, whenever we speak of him acting or speaking, we are speaking about the Word of God (with his own flesh and soul) doing so.

The second thing to note is the text parallels expressions affirming the unity of Christ—the lack of division or separation between the humanity and divinity in Christ—and expressions affirming that the two natures are not confused with each other, and do not undergo any change. To understand this paradoxical set of affirmations it is important to remember the principle that we do not deal here with two created realities. The mere language of “two natures” can lead almost unconsciously to the assumption that we do. In reality God the Word is God, and as the transcendent source of all God does not change—and does not need to change in order to unite to himself an individual human nature. To think of the Word changing in this context would be to forget who God is. Christ's human nature does not change from being a human nature; if it did he would not be human!

Of course, the character of Christ's human nature still presents a complex task for the understanding as he is like us, but without sin. At the same time, his unique union with the Word means that our quite natural attempts to try and enter Christ's psychological state as we read of his loving, weeping or suffering need always to be shaped by our awareness of his unique graces and union with the Word. These particular questions I will take up in a later installment of this series.

It is also important to remind ourselves constantly why it matters that Christ is one, but without divine or human ceasing to be what they are. As I have already noted, if God is no longer God in Christ then we have become confused about what it means for God to be, from eternity, the transcendent cause of all and the upholder of all in existence. If Christ is no longer human then God has not "become human and dwelt among us." But behind these reasons sits a fundamental aspect of the Christian claim. Only God could restore the creation to the fullness of relationship to its Creator. And yet, God wished the creation to be restored in the freedom that he had intended for it. And thus human beings had to be led to their own freedom, to be given that knowledge of truth and freedom to follow it that they had lost. What was more fitting than that this was done by the Word of God (the one through whom all was created) coming as human and uniting us all to him through his true humanity?

7. My fifth thesis concerned the importance of our attending the mystery present whenever we speak about the incarnation. There is a little more to be said here, because the doctrine of the Incarnation is not only subject to general constraints on theological language, but it has also generated and shaped the ways in which we speak of divine mystery. In many ways this is not at all surprising. One of the most important principles of the earliest Christian exegesis is that the Scriptures—by which I mean the Jewish Scriptures inherited by Christians—are to be read in the light of Christ. Christ provides the key to reinterpreting those texts, a unifying principle around which all scriptural language and prophecy may now be conceived.

As the collection that we now call the New Testament came into being, it was the Church's understanding of Christ's life and message which enabled the unity of the two testaments to be grasped. The doctrine of the incarnation reached its classical form as an attempt to read and understand that which Scripture (and the Church's teaching) gives us. But, for example, the more one develops an awareness of the paradoxical unity of Christ's person, the more one realizes that Scriptural accounts of Christ acting and speaking, and accounts of who was in Christ, all offer us tiny if highly significant windows onto a mysterious reality that escapes full comprehension. Considering Christ's person thus helps to develop a sense of Scripture's modes of speaking and of its mysterious depths.

At the same time, developing the classical account of Christ's person helped to refine how the relationship between Creator and creation was conceived. Clearly enough, belief that the love of the Creator for the world is most clearly revealed in the Incarnate Word focuses our attention on how we speak of God. But, more broadly, attention to what we can and cannot say about the human Christ's closeness to the Word, about the presence of God in the world because of the divine transcendence, should open anew for us windows onto the presence of all things to God. The doctrine of the Incarnation was (and should be) a significant force in shaping patterns of Christian thinking and attention.

8. I said at the beginning that the narrative with which I began could lead us astray. It is time to see why. Any narrative of the Word becoming flesh uses temporal and spatial language—language of before and after, to and from—that is not true of God. That language enables us to understand the particularity of the incarnation—that from our perspective Jesus Christ was born at this time in this place. And it enables us to grasp the newness of what happened—with the Word becoming flesh history received its center and looked towards its end. But we must also remember that God transcends our limitations (this also is indicated to us by Scripture: e.g. Isa 55:8-9), and so we encounter the mystery in any temporal or spatial language used of God. From eternity God the Word unites to himself a human individual. But does this mean that God was incarnate before Jesus was born in Bethlehem?

This question is a perfect example of one that seems both naturally to follow and yet contains within it signs that in its very words a mistake has been made. From our perspective, as creatures who live in time there is a “before” the incarnate Christ and often we speak thus; but the divine eternity has no before and after. From eternity the Word takes to himself a human individual, but we can proceed further only by reflecting carefully on the meaning of eternity. In the same way, Scripture speaks of the Word coming “down,” and of Christ “ascending.” But the very same Scripture insists that the Word was already “in” the world, reminding us that God transcends all and all is present to God.

One tradition of modern theologians in the Protestant tradition has invested much in the notion of Christ's “kenosis” or emptying of himself at Philippians 2:7, speaking of Christ as setting aside his divine attributes in becoming human. For classical Christian theology this is a problematic way of putting the matter, because in this case Christ is not any longer God. Once one grasps that it is because the Word is fully God that through divine power the human nature is united to the Word then one can see that it is the mystery of the Word's power that makes possible the true humanity of Christ.

But this leaves us with many many questions. What does it mean for the one “in the form of God” to empty himself? To some extent, while we may work toward partial answers—and those emphasizing that it is in Christ's acts of love among and for humanity that we see the nature of divine love go not astray—mystery will again always attend. The one in whom all things hold together (Col 1:17) has “become” human, but all things continue in him to hold together.

The narrative that Scripture gives us is one shot through our creeds, liturgies and prayers, but so also are the seeds that may flower into an awareness that we necessarily struggle to speak of eternity. The more deeply we understand it, the more we come to see that the “becoming” of the Word expresses no “stage” in the Word's story, for God is beyond time. And yet God invites us to speak thus, and realize the failure in our speech.

This is why all the mysterious richness of the Christian symbolic universe, the language drawn from Scripture and imbued with Christianity's Jewish heritage, a language replete with ascents and descent, with accounts of the heavenly court and the shining light of the divine offers us the surest guide to speaking of what lies beyond our comprehension. That language enables us to speak of God and Christ, it provides points of departure for our attempts to understand (and tells us that God calls us to such attempts), and yet it also provides a poetry for the imagination that will remain ours until the end (to be continued...).

Where To Go Next

Robert Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Presence of God (New Haven: YUP., 2003) Chapter Five offers a powerful and brief introduction to the debates over Christ's person that occupied so many of the early centuries of Christianity.

Andrew Louth, "Christology in the East from the Council of Chalcedon to John Damascene," in Francesca Murphy, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Christology (Oxford: OUP, 2015) offers an excellent more detailed introduction to the debates with which Wilken's chapter culminates.

Thomas Weinandy OFM Cap, Does God Suffer? (Notre Dame IN: UNDP, 2000). This book, excerpted here, offers an excellent and extensive consideration of how we should approach the mysteries of Christ's cross. But along the way it also provides an excellent introdcution to the fundamentals of classical Christology.

Thomas Joseph White OP, The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology (Washington DC: CUA, 2017). This book offers a series of essays on some of the fundamental topics in Christology, focusing on showing the power of the classical Christological vision over against some modern reinterpretations.

Cyril of Alexandria, "Second Letter to Nestorius" and "Second Letter to Succensus," in Lionel Wickham, ed., Cyril of Alexandria. Select Letters (Oxford: OUP, 1983). These two texts by the mighty Bishop of Alexandria who is a foundational figure in early Christian accounts of Christ are a good place to begin with his writing.

Finally, for a Christmas sermon that takes us to the heart of the Christian claim see Pope St Leo the Great's Sermon 21.

Featured Image: Albert Chmielowski, Ecce Homo, 1879; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Lewis Ayres

Lewis Ayres is Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology at the University of Durham, UK and Professorial Visiting Fellow at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia.

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