The Mystery of the Incarnation
The Church confesses the incarnation of Jesus Christ as a mystery. On the one hand He is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” On the other hand, He “for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man. . . .”
Jesus Christ is an eternal divine person, the Second Person of the Godhead. By His incarnation, He added to this deity a complete human nature. In adding this human nature, nothing was subtracted from His deity, nor was His divine nature changed. Since His incarnation the person of Jesus Christ is acknowledged in two natures: human and divine. He is complete in both His deity and His humanity. Neither nature is converted into the other. Neither must be confused with the other. Each remains distinct and unchangeable. Nevertheless, the natures are never so separated as to divide the person, but remain indivisible.
This union of two natures in one person—this hypostatic union—does not diminish the properties of either nature, but preserves them. Consequently, the properties of each nature communicate to the person, so that the person can be described by the properties of each respective nature according to that nature. Jesus Christ is omnipresent according to His divine nature, but spatially localized according to His human nature (Acts 7:55). He is omniscient according to His divine nature, but able to grow in knowledge according to His human nature (Lk. 2:52). He receives worship according to His divine nature, but worships God according to His human nature (Jn. 17).
While the properties of each nature communicate to the person, they do not communicate to the other nature. For example, His omnipresence (a divine attribute) communicates to the person so that the person is omnipresent. It does not, however, communicate to the human nature; the human nature is not omnipresent (or, as the Lutherans would say, ubiquitous). The human nature never becomes omnipotent or omniscient. It does not partake of or absorb any of the properties of the divine nature.
Nevertheless, the person cannot be divided. In the person, the human nature is inseparably joined to the divine. Consequently, the person cannot be made to act in any way that would be incompatible with the divine nature. So during the temptation, the human nature could have sinned, but the divine nature could not. Since sins are committed by persons and not natures, the impeccability of the divine nature safeguarded the impeccability of the person. By way of analogy, one might easily bend a paperclip, but not when it is welded to a steel girder.
When speaking of Jesus Christ, either the divine or human nature may be in view. Since the properties of each nature communicate to the person, referring to the person by the properties of the nature that is in view is always correct. For example, Scripture speaks of Jesus hungering, thirsting, and growing tired. This manner of speaking is just what might be expected.
What is less expected is that Scripture sometimes refers to one nature in terms of the properties of the other nature. This double reference does not indicate that the properties of one nature communicate to the other, but that each nature is fully present in the person at all times. Thus, Paul wrote that “God was manifest in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16), referring to the divine nature by a property of the human nature. In a parallel instance, Paul told the Ephesian elders that God purchased the church “with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). In these texts, Paul was not suggesting that the flesh or blood of Jesus Christ were somehow divine, much less that the divine nature actually possessed flesh or blood. Rather, he was noting that, in the hypostatic union, the person who is God (according to His divine nature) is the same person as the one who (according to His human nature) was shown in flesh and shed His blood.
This kind of language also works in the opposite direction. The Nestorian heresy suggested that Mary was not the mother of the person, but only of the human nature. The grain of truth in this heresy is that the divine nature certainly did not originate with Mary. Nevertheless, Mary gave birth to a person and not merely a nature. That person was both divine and human. Mary gave birth to the God-man, so it is entirely proper and fitting to refer to her as Theotokos. Indeed, to deny that Mary is the Mother of God is to lapse into heresy.
The incarnation of Jesus Christ is a mystery. Humans would never have known about it if God had not revealed it to them. They can only understand it to the extent that God has revealed it to them. It has been revealed, so Christians must believe and confess it. Nevertheless, our minds quickly balk at its impenetrability. In some ways, the walls of Bethlehem’s manger mark the boundaries of human comprehension. At that point, humbled by the smallness of our own comprehension, we must join the shepherds and worship the Christ.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
It Is My Sweetest Comfort, Lord
Edward Caswall (1814–1878)
It is my sweetest comfort, Lord,
And will for ever be,
To muse upon the gracious truth
Of Thy humanity.
Oh joy! there sitteth in our flesh,
Upon a throne of light,
One of a human mother born,
In perfect Godhead bright!
Though earth’s foundations should be moved,
Down to their lowest deep;
Though all the trembling universe
Into destruction sweep;
For ever God, for ever man,
My Jesus shall endure;
And fix’d on Him, my hope remains
About Kevin Bauder
Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.