Listen To The Article
Lo, He abhors not the Virgin’s womb / very God, begotten, not created.
— “O Come All Ye Faithful”
Ideas Have Consequences.
—the title of a book by Richard Weaver (1948)
The Word Was Made Flesh
Incarnation is a word they say is… pregnant with meaning. The eternal Son of God took a true human nature and tabernacled among us. Yep, God the Son became a man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Yet, the nature of this union has always been a bit of a mystery, and for some good reasons. After all, how exactly deity and humanity can come together in a personal union is pretty tough for anyone to say. We can only confess what Scripture confesses many times and in many ways.
Here are just a few passages: “The Word was made flesh” (John 1:14). “God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law” (Gal. 4:4). “God was manifest in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16). “Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” (2 Jn. 1:7). “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
Through the centuries, humanistic thought (rationalism) has always argued against a true Biblical incarnation. In the name of oversimplifying or even rejecting outright what mankind has considered to be incomprehensible, many theologians and churchmen have dismissed outright the very idea of incarnation. Some say Jesus wasn’t fully God. Others say he wasn’t a real human being like you or me. Some have said that Jesus was a man who worked hard, made the right moral choices along the way and by his efforts, became God.
The truth is, the doctrine of the Incarnation (the Gospel) has been the target of those who will not have the Christ of Scripture as their Savior for a very long time indeed.
Christological Heresies In The Ancient Church: Gnosticism
In the days of the early Church, the Gnostics were among the first to promote a false and misleading version of Christ. Like most half-truths, there was a small degree of what seemed true in their argument. Deity, according to them, must remain accessible to anyone who seeks it. But the Gnostics didn’t want that accessibility in a physical Christ. They argued that flesh (all matter) has very little value in a mostly spiritual universe.
In fact, many Gnostics saw flesh (matter) as essentially evil. They argued that an absolute deity could never join itself to anything so at odds with what’s spiritual and heavenly. The Gnostics would still grant that God could take on a human appearance. Or more likely, they thought that a man in his quest for transcendence might grab a hold of the divine and realize the divinity already inherent in his nature, or something like that. And so, to the Gnostics, a God like this would never take on flesh (humanity) to tabernacle among us.
Christological Heresies: Arianism
In the early 4th century, the Arians offered their own revision of Christ. He was, according to Arius, God’s Son, but a son only by adoption. By and large, Arius’s version of Christ paints the Second Person of the Trinity as basically a Greek demigod. To Arius, Christ was the greatest of all creatures and certainly the creature whom the Father used to bring everything else about in the Universe.
The Father alone was truly God, the Arians said. Nevertheless, because he was transcendent in His essence and infinite in His perfections, the Arian God was incapable of revealing himself or communicating with us. But not just that, He was so distant that even the Son couldn’t hear or understand Him completely. How much less, they said, could mere mortals such as us comprehend him?
Christological Heresies: The Apollinarians
A generation or so later, the Apollinarians offered still another take on the Incarnation. They admitted that the Son was truly God. They also admitted that He was, in some sense, human. Nonetheless, the Apollinarians were uncomfortable with exactly how the Son became incarnate. They couldn’t believe that Jesus could possess created human intelligence and volition and at the same time possess divine intelligence and volition. They argued that an incarnation of this sort produced a Christ who was actually two people, one divine and one human.
Their solution was to make Christ an “almost human” in that He came with a human body and an emotional soul (such as animals have, they said) but yet lacked a human spirit (a rational soul). In their theology, the divine word or logos made up for any “lack” in Christ’s human nature. Christ’s mind was a divine mind only. The Apollinarian Christ had put on the look and feel of humanity… flesh, blood, and emotion… but this Christ couldn’t know the realities and limitations of human thought and reasoning. He was, at best, God masquerading in the flesh.
Christological Heresies: Nestorius
Fifty years later, Nestorius and his followers pushed back in the other direction. Nestorius insisted on a complete humanity of Christ. To defend this position, Nestorius believed he also had to divide Christ into two persons, the human Jesus and the divine Word. For Nestorius, Jesus was a good man who, through his moral excellence, effected a union with the eternal Word. Jesus and the Word were “one,” Nestorius argued, just as a husband and wife were one.
With regard to the conception and birth of Jesus, Nestorius said that Mary was the mother of Jesus. Furthermore, this Jesus was the man who would eventually become the Christ. In other words, Mary’s child was merely human. This human Jesus received the “Christ-spirit” later in life… at his baptism… and then performed miracles by and through that same Spirit. Nestorius said the Christ-spirit abandoned Jesus at the cross and then returned to him at the resurrection. Oddly enough, Nestorius taught his followers to worship the human Jesus as a way of “connecting” with the divine Christ. Nestorius, in the end, taught his followers to worship Jesus but only as a man.
Wait: There’s More!
About the same time that Nestorius was preaching his “divided Christ” gospel, another group, the Monophysites, were preaching a Christ whose human nature had become lost or “swallowed up” by and in His infinite divinity. Though Jesus had two natures, they said, He now existed in only one of his natures. They then proceeded to place an emphasis on his divinity. The Monophysites believed they were defending the deity of Christ and the unity of His person. But even as the Nestorians divided Christ’s natures only to confuse and weaken Jesus’ divinity, the Monophysites divided, confused and effectively destroyed Jesus’ humanity in the process.
Finally, in the early 600s, the Monothelites gave it another spin. They argued for a Christ who was truly God and almost truly man. Like the Apollinarians and the Nestorians, they couldn’t bring together the real humanity of Christ with the truth that He is only one person. The Monothelites believed in a Christ with human intelligence and emotion but they rejected His human will. Two wills, they said, had to mean two persons.
And so they thought that by giving Jesus a divine will only (taking away human will in the process) they would have a unified Christ. Instead, they opened the door to irrationalism and mysticism as their followers worked out the implications of this perspective for themselves and then attempted to mix their own wills with the will of God.
Our world today, like the centuries that preceded us, is impatient with theological truth and precision. (In fact, if you’ve made it this far, I’m impressed!) We want simple ideas that come with no discussion and especially no debate. Really, we want theological peace and will pay any price for that peace. As long as we confess that Jesus is… in some sense God… do we really have to work out the details or implications… let alone actually discuss them? Nevertheless, ideas have consequences. And sadly for us, we’re reaping the “bad idea” whirlwind associated with a “peace at any price” theological mentality.
All of these ancient attempts to redefine the Incarnation were rationalistic. Each heresy said, in effect, “The historic faith of the Church doesn’t make sense. Here instead are doctrines that sound more reasonable to me.” The truth is, once we apply our own logic and our own patterns of reasoning in an attempt to make God’s word make sense to us, we’ve already gone down a slippery slope.
What can we learn? The Christological heresies just discussed had one thing in common despite many differences. They all made man’s autonomous reason the ultimate standard of truth. And thereby, they all made man’s reason determine the scope of what was and wasn’t possible. Every heresy then, in effect, made man God’s judge. Further, every heresy attempted to control the very message of Scripture. All of the Christological heresies, then, rejected the ineffable, transcendent God and put in His place an idol of human reason. The implications are enormous.
The Christological Heresies Strip Away The Power Of The Gospel
These heresies also called into question the very nature of God. If an incarnation is impossible for God, then God, as Karl Barth and his followers said, is Wholly Other. He is beyond human words and categories of description. He can’t reveal Himself either in His Son or in the words of Scripture. But such a doctrine of transcendence, one that cancels out Biblical immanence, leaves us with little more than the name “God” as a banner for whatever we might like it to mean. The word “God” becomes a word heavy in connotation, extremely light in meaning and almost weightless in application.
Because the Christological heresies were always an attack on the gospel, they were also an attack on the good news of salvation. Because if Jesus Christ isn’t God, then obviously His life and death are extremely limited in their value. They certainly don’t bear the cosmic value necessary to satisfy the justice of an offended and infinite God. And if Jesus Christ isn’t truly human, He can’t represent man in any legal sense before the Father. He can’t be our substitutionary atonement. Only a real Incarnation preserves the unity and power of Jesus’ work. But there’s more…
The Christological Heresies Limit God’s Power And Deify Mankind
The Christological heresies also blurred the line between the Creator and His creation. But perhaps more dangerously, they re-introduced the pagan doctrine of the continuity of all being. If God is distant and not accessible, then all we have is the natural realm. Furthermore, autonomous man becomes the sole focus and goal of history.
If man blurs the distinction between Christ’s natures, the deification of mankind follows quickly. If Christ is a man who became God or a creature elevated to Godhood, then again… deification is a possibility for humans. Satan’s promise in the garden strikes at this premise, “Ye shall be as gods.” Lots of folks today are preaching a version of this.
The Christological Heresies Deny God’s Authority In Scripture
These Christological heresies, then, always open the door for a full-fledged return to paganism. This usually means a pagan form of statist tyranny. If Jesus Christ is not God’s son or is, in any way less than the divine Son of God made flesh, then He hasn’t given us a final or complete revelation of the Father. The Father may actually have a lot more to say.
In fact, the Father might even present us with new “sons,” each more relevant than the last, as we move forward in history. The Roman Empire, of course, was very familiar with the title “Son of God.” The Caesars had been declared sons of God and were worshipped as such. What new sons might God bring forth from among the great and powerful as history carries us further and further away from the manger, the cross, and the empty tomb? Who will be God’s next son and what will he demand of us?
Finally, these heresies left the Church without an authoritative word from God. Since God can’t reveal Himself infallibly, all we have of His will are human approximations, good guesses, and philosophical speculations. Scripture becomes an elaborative puzzle of allegory, fable, and supra-historical narrative that only seminary or university-trained scholars can expound. Practically, the word of the sovereign State replaces the word of the sovereign God. The crown rights of the new Caesars supersede those of Jesus Christ.
Conclusion: Antichrists Amongst Us
The apostle John warned the 1st century Church of false prophets and antichrists who denied that Jesus is the Christ and that He came in the flesh (1 Jn. 4:1-3). He called them deceivers and said that the spirits that animated them were not of God. John told the Church not to listen to them but instead to cling to the apostolic testimony. He said the deceivers were not to be welcomed as teachers or even houseguests (2 Jn. 10-11). Christians were not even to bid them “God’s speed” according to John, lest they be tainted by their evil.
And for good reason. God’s truth is absolute. It isn’t up for redefinition, revision, or improvement. It is the word of God. The very essence of this truth is that Jesus is the Christ. He came as an eternal deity in the flesh and “tabernacled” among us. This doctrine has staggering implications both for the human soul and for all of life and culture.
With Christmas at hand, we would do well to remind ourselves, our families and our churches once more of what those implications really are.