(in cahr nay' shuhn) God's becoming human; the union of divinity and humanity in Jesus of Nazareth.
Definition of Doctrine Incarnation [Lat. incarnatio, being or taking flesh], while a biblical idea, is not a biblical term. Its Christian use derives from the Latin version of
John 1:14 and appears repeatedly in Latin Christian authors from about A.D. 300 onward.
As a biblical teaching, incarnation refers to the affirmation that God, in one of the modes of His existence as Trinity and without in any way ceasing to be the one God, has revealed Himself to humanity for its salvation by becoming human. Jesus, the Man from Nazareth, is the incarnate Word or Son of God, the focus of the God-human encounter. As the God-Man, He mediates God to humans; as the Man-God, He represents humans to God. By faith-union with Him, men and women, as adopted children of God, participate in His filial relation to God as Father.
The Humanity of Jesus The angel of the Lord, in a prophecy of Jesus' birth, plainly stated the purpose of the incarnation: “[Mary] shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21; compare
1 Timothy 1:15). The liberation of humanity from everything that would prevent relationship with God as Father requires incarnation. The biblical materials related to incarnation, though not systematically arranged, portray Jesus as the One who accomplished the mission of salvation because He was the One in whom both full divinity and full humanity were present.
Jesus referred to Himself as a man (John 8:40), and the witnesses in the New Testament recognized Him as fully human. (For example, Peter, in his sermon at Pentecost, declared that Jesus is “a man approved of God among you… ,”
Acts 2:22). That the Word was made flesh is the crux of the central passage on incarnation in the New Testament (John 1:14). The respective genealogies of Jesus serve as testimonies to His natural human descent (Matthew 1:1-17;
Luke 3:23-37). In addition, Jesus attributed to Himself such normal human elements as body and soul (Matthew 26:26,Matthew 26:28,Matthew 26:38). He grew and developed along the lines of normal human development (Luke 2:40). During His earthly ministry, Jesus displayed common physiological needs: He experienced fatigue (John 4:6); His body required sleep (Matthew 8:24), food (Matthew 4:2;
Matthew 21:18), and water (John 19:28). Human emotional characteristics accompanied the physical ones: Jesus expressed joy (John 15:11) and sorrow (Matthew 26:37); He showed compassion (Matthew 9:36) and love (John 11:5); and He was moved to righteous indignation (Mark 3:5).
A proper understanding of the events preceding and including His death requires an affirmation of His full humanity. In the garden, He prayed for emotional and physical strength to face the critical hours which lay ahead. He perspired as one under great physical strain (Luke 22:43-44). He died a real death (Mark 15:37;
John 19:30). When a spear was thrust into His side, both blood and water poured from His body (John 19:34). Jesus thought of Himself as human, and those who witnessed His birth, maturation, ministry, and death experienced Him as fully human.
Although Jesus was fully human in every sense of the word, His was a perfect humanity—distinct and unique. His miraculous conception highlights distinctiveness and originality of His humanity. Jesus was supernaturally conceived, being born of a virgin (Luke 1:26-35). To be sure, the Bible records other miraculous births such as those of Isaac (Genesis 21:1-2) and John the Baptist (Luke 1:57), but none attained to the miraculous heights of a human being supernaturally conceived and born of a virgin.
The New Testament also attests to the sinless character of Jesus. He, Himself, asked the question, “Which of you convinceth me of sin?” (John 8:46). Paul declared, God “made him to be sin for us who knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The writer of Hebrews held that Christ was “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The New Testament presents Jesus as a man, fully human, and as a unique man, the ideal human.
The Deity of Jesus Paul, in a statement on the supremacy of Christ, asserted, “For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell” (Colossians 1:19; compare
Titus 2:13). Jesus, was aware of His divine status (John 10:30;
John 14:9). With the “I am” sayings, He equated Himself with the God who appeared to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:14). The assertion of the New Testament is that Jesus was God (John 6:51;
John 10:7,John 10:11;
John 15:1; esp.
The Bible affirms the preexistence of Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2; see also
Philippians 2:5-11). Jesus realized accomplishments and claimed authority ascribed only to divinity. He forgave sins (Matthew 9:6) and sent others to do His bidding, claiming all authority “in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18-20). The central proclamation of the gospel is that He is the only way to eternal life, a status held by deity alone (John 3:36;
John 14:6; compare
Romans 10:9). The New Testament pictures Him as worthy of honor and worship due only to deity (John 5:23;
Revelation 5:12). He is the Agent of creation (John 1:3) and the Mediator of providence (Colossians 1:17;
Hebrews 1:3). He raised the dead (John 11:43-44), healed the sick (John 9:6), and vanquished demons (Mark 5:13). He will effect the final resurrection of humanity either to judgment or to life (Matthew 25:31-32;
The titles ascribed to Jesus provide conclusive evidence for the New Testament's estimate of His person as God. Jesus is “Lord” (Philippians 2:11), “Lord of lords” (1 Timothy 6:15), “the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8), “the mediator” (Hebrews 12:24), and “who is over all, God blessed for ever” (Romans 9:5). In addition, the New Testament repeatedly couples the name “God” with Jesus (John 1:18;
2 Thessalonians 1:12;
2 Peter 1:1;
1 John 5:20).
Formulation of the Doctrine The problems of the incarnation begins with John's assertion, “the Word was made flesh” (John 1:14). Clear expression of the relation of the Word to the flesh, of divinity to humanity within the person of Jesus became a matter of major concern during the first five centuries of the Christian era. The unsystematized affirmations of the New Testament were refined through controversy, a process which culminated in the ecumenical councils of Nicaea (A.D. 325), Constantinople (A.D. 381), Ephesus (A.D. 431), and Chalcedon (A.D. 451).
The Council of Nicaea marked the meeting of church representatives from throughout the Christian world. Its purpose was to settle the dispute over the teachings of Arius, a presbyter in the church of Alexandria. He taught a creature christology—that is, he denied the Son's eternal divinity. Against Arius, the council asserted that the Son was of one substance with the Father. Jesus was fully divine.
The Council of Constantinople met to clarify and refute the christology of Apollinarius, Bishop of Laodicea. Apollinarius insisted that Jesus was a heavenly man dissimilar to earthly men. If a human is body, soul, and spirit, the bishop asserted that Jesus was a body, soul, and Logos [lit. “word”], a man not having a human spirit, or mind. Against this doctrine, the council affirmed the full humanity of Christ.
The Council of Ephesus considered the marriage christology of Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople. He held that the union of the human and divine in Jesus was like the marriage of a husband and wife. As a result, the Council accused him of teaching that there were two separate persons in Christ.
The Council of Chalcedon was perhaps the most significant church council for Christianity. It met in debate over the teaching of Eutyches, a monk from Constantinople. He denied that Jesus had two natures. This reaction against the christology of Nestorius prompted the council to express the incarnation of Jesus in terms of one person with two natures—human and divine.
The mystery of the incarnation continues, and the statements of the first four councils of the Christian church preserve that mystery. Jesus, God incarnate, was one Person in two natures—fully divine and fully human. See Christ.
Walter D. Draughon III