The Incarnation is both cosmologically grand and appealingly chthonic at the same time. It supposes that the Great God of a universe of more than one hundred thousand million galaxies, the Supreme Being who created this universe and perhaps an infinite number of others, condescended to earth to live life as a poor Jewish man in the Eastern Mediterranean two thousand years ago. The story is full of miracle — virgin birth, resurrection from the dead — and yet strangely familiar. There is fear and love, hope and failure, loyalty and betrayal, with Jesus’ humanity palpable and proximate. Peter Steele captures well the Christian awe of this incarnate God: “in the face of this mysterious reality [the incarnation], either we could talk for ever, or we could find ourselves wordless.”
Incarnation, derived from the Latin incarnatio, refers to God’s being “made flesh.” In classical Christianity this means the human birth of God in his person as the eternal Son of God, who, as Jesus of Nazareth, was both fully human and fully divine. There is something unique in this Christian doctrine, but for a moment let us consider examples of divine incarnation beyond Christianity.
Belief in the human incarnation of pre-existent human souls is at least as old as Plato, and older still if we include the Indian notion of reincarnation. O’Collins demonstrates certain important differences, however, with the Christian view of God incarnate:
- Platonic embodiment/reincarnation is not something freely chosen;
- Such souls are neither complete nor divine;
- Embodiment will not necessarily be in human form;
- These souls do not have a mission involving the salvation of the world.
In contrast, God chose freely to come to Earth as a man; he was fully divine before birth; and he came to offer redemption to the whole world.
The Hindu Srivaishnava doctrine of Avatara, best illustrated by the fourth chapter of the Bhagavadgita, offers a view of incarnation closer to the Christian doctrine. Lord Krishna, an avatar or incarnation of Vishnu, explains how he comes to earth to combat evil and inspire good people to proper worship and conduct. Here again, however, there are important differences: Christ is a unique incarnation whereas Vishnu has ten primary avatars; Christ, as well as being fully divine was fully human too — Vishnu’s mortal incarnations only seem material (a view of Christ shared by the Docetist heresy); the Hindu avatars heroically vanquish local evil but do not submit to torture and death in order offer a universal salvation. Christ’s bodily resurrection is also unique.
There can be little doubt that the earliest Christians believed Jesus was both man and God. There were still puzzles to be solved, however, especially as nascent Christianity encountered the disciplines of theology and philosophy and faced internal doctrinal schism. In what way was Jesus the “Son” and what sense could be made of his own mortal references and prayers to his “Father”? Christianity’s Jewish heritage could not easily countenance a view that there were two Gods (the Jewish God Yahweh on the one hand, his Son Jesus Christ on the other). The modalist solution (Sabellianism) –- that Christ was a mode of God for human view only –- was considered apostate, although it is possible that at one time it was the dominant view in Christianity. To the casual view the difference may appear slight, but it is important to understand that the orthodox solution — classical Trinitarianism — does not believe that God only appears to have three forms, but that he is, as a matter of ontology, three distinct persons in himself. God has been and is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost eternally. These are considered to be intrinsic and immutable aspects of his being.
Despite certain historical misgivings in some branches of Eastern Christianity, the classical form of the Incarnation doctrine follows the Chalcedonian Definition of 451, viz., that Jesus is fully human and that Jesus is truly God. The idea of Kenosis -– how the Son “emptied” himself of certain divine attributes in order to be properly human -– points at some of the difficulties inherent in formulating a systematic theology of Incarnation. After all, in emptying himself to become human, how was he also divine? A more strident critique is the suspicion voiced by some that the historical Jesus has had “loaded upon him a back-breaking assortment of metaphysical longings” and that the result is the “labyrinthine complexity of the credal formulae”. Whilst the majority of believers are probably content to live with mystery, still others worry about prickly issues such as Jesus’ maleness (begging a feminist critique) and his specific, distinctly non-universal status as a Jew (rather than, say, a Sumerian or an Eskimo).
Most Christians do not worship with words like Incarnation, Kenosis, and Chalcedonian on their lips, but even without the vocabulary of theology, the belief in God-as-Man is central to Christianity and a source of continual religious inspiration. For Christians there is both the cosmic view of atonement and salvation made possible through the Incarnation, and the collapse of the gulf between God and man through a God who became man, who laughed, and cried, and grieved, and healed, and died. Such felicities can also have implications for practical Christianity: if God chose to live his mortal life among the poor, the unwanted, and the oppressed, Christian theologies of liberation find their raison d’etre.
That the Incarnation is heralded by Christians of all stripes is demonstrated by the “Hymn to the Only Begotten Son,” part of the Orthodox and Byzantine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:
O only begotten Son and Word of God,
Who, being immortal, deigned for our salvation to become incarnate of the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, and became man without change;
You were also crucified, O Christ our God, and by death have trampled Death,
being One of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit — Save us!
To these beautiful words I would add the stirring Christology of the Book of Mormon, particularly in Nephi’s vision (1 Ne 11):
And the angel said unto me again: Look and behold the condescension of God! And I looked and beheld the Redeemer of the world, of whom my father had spoken; and I also beheld the prophet who should prepare the way before him. And the Lamb of God went forth and was baptized of him; and after he was baptized, I beheld the heavens open, and the Holy Ghost come down out of heaven and abide upon him in the form of a dove.
And I beheld that he went forth ministering unto the people, in power and great glory; and the multitudes were gathered together to hear him; and I beheld that they cast him out from among them.
And I also beheld twelve others following him. And it came to pass that they were carried away in the Spirit from before my face, and I saw them not.
And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked, and I beheld the heavens open again, and I saw angels descending upon the children of men; and they did minister unto them.
And he spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked, and I beheld the Lamb of God going forth among the children of men. And I beheld multitudes of people who were sick, and who were afflicted with all manner of diseases, and with devils and unclean spirits; and the angel spake and showed all these things unto me. And they were healed by the power of the Lamb of God; and the devils and the unclean spirits were cast out.
And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.
And I, Nephi, saw that he was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world.
Interesting that one rarely hears the word “incarnation” in Mormonism, although “condescension” in Nephi seems like an adequate synonym. Perhaps it is too Latin to our low church ears. Nevertheless, beyond quarrels of ontology and Trinity, it is a belief we are happy to herald. Perhaps we can also sing with Athanasius, “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”
1. Peter Steele, “On Saying Yes,” unpublished sermon. Cited in O’Collins 2002, 1.
2. See O’Collins 2002, 9-10.
3. Tertullian, Against Praxeas, III.
4. Wells, 616.
O’Collins, G. (2002) Incarnation, London: Continuum.
Wells, S. (2005) “Incarnation,” in J. Bowden (ed.), Christianity: the Complete Guide, London: Continuum, 612-617.