Tom Gilson

Ten Turning Points: The Incarnation

From the series, Ten Turning Points That Make All the Difference

I had surgery to repair a tendon in my foot last Thursday. For the past five days, to prevent post-operative swelling, I’ve been under doctor’s orders to keep my foot elevated all day long. I’ve been on a couch, recliner, or bed 23-plus hours a day since then. Today I’ll see the surgeon, and I expect he’ll ease those restrictions so that while I won’t be able to stand or walk normally for a few weeks, at least I’ll be allowed to sit normally.

There have been times when this restriction has felt comfortably lazy, especially the first day or so. At other times it has been really frustrating to be so confined. There’s been no pain to speak of, thanks to a constant supply of local anesthetic the surgeon provided through a “pain pump.” Even that, though, has had a paradoxical effect on me: never before have I been required to act as if I feel so bad while feeling so good. There have been moments when it’s been quite maddening.

It is a hard thing to step down from one’s own self-expectations, to limit or to confine oneself. This has given me a new level of appreciation for Philippians 2:5-8:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

(I’ll come back to the triumphant close of this passage, Philippians 2:9-11, in a week or two.)

We call it the Incarnation: God’s coming to us in human flesh. The limitations Jesus accepted upon himself were infinitely greater than I could ever imagine. God the Son confined himself to the human form. From the helplessness of the manger to growing up as a child to the suffering and death on the cross, he accepted it all voluntarily, for love.

Early Christians struggled to understand how God could become a man. It’s a struggle we ought to enter into ourselves, for the answer is hardly obvious. It took until 451 AD for the Church to agree on a clear written explanation (you can judge in a moment how clear you find it to be). We know it now as the Chalcedonian Creed, for the city in present-day Turkey where they accomplished this work. This translation comes via CARM. (Protestants take exception to one clause, “Mary, the Mother of God;” although it’s likely that if it were expanded to explain what Catholics really mean by it, there would be less disagreement than one might think.)

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

I told you it wasn’t obvious. Let’s look at what this creed affirms.

Christ on earth was truly God and truly human. He was consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead. That means he was of one essence or substance, the same thing or the same kind of thing, to put it in less technical terms; but with respect to his humanity he was of one essence or substance, meaning that he was “in all things like unto us,” although without sin.

He was he continues now to be both God and man. This has always been the tough part: Is that contradictory? The Church in those early years asked whether they could resolve the contradiction by saying he was two persons in one body; but that would be going against the biblical evidence: Jesus never had conversations with himself, God-to-man, man-to-God, as two persons would have with each other. For that reason among others, clearly Jesus was and is one person. The council decided instead (and this has stood the test of time) that he was one person possessing two natures: He was of the nature of God and of the nature of man, both at the same time, united in one person.

Is that not contradictory, too? Is it saying one plus one equals one (one God-nature plus one human-nature equals one person)? It’s certainly hard to understand, for we have no analogy to it in our experience; there is no other example of such a person in history. That’s no surprise, though: Jesus was unique, and we already knew that. Thinkers through the ages have agreed that the Chalcedonian formulation resolves any logical contradiction, for it’s not saying that one nature plus one nature equals one nature. It’s two natures united in one person. The switch in terms from nature to person eliminates that contradiction. It’s not logically impossible.

That doesn’t mean it’s simple. We Christians today tend to be well aware of the difficulties of the Trinity than we are of Christ’s person. A preacher once said that the one who denies the Trinity will lose his soul, while the one who tries to comprehend the Trinity will lose his mind. I disagree strongly with that: the more we contemplate the nature of God, the healthier we are bound to become, even if we never achieve more than a tiny fraction of understanding. Still, it’s a pithy way of pointing out that the Trinity is beyond human comprehension.

The same is true for Christ’s dual nature. It’s tough, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. And as John Piper points out, reflecting on this personal union of two natures in Christ can be very good for our spiritual lives.

There is still more to the mystery of Christ, though. Tomorrow we’ll look at one of the greatest: Why did he do it? Why did he empty himself so, as the Philippians text puts it? This too will lead us to worship.


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