A central doctrine of Christian theology affirming that the eternal Son of God, who is the Divine Logos and second HYPOSTASIS of the Holy Trinity, took human flesh from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary in order to accomplish the work of our salvation.
The doctrine is held to be a mystery difficult to understand by unaided human reason. It is revealed in the New Testament: “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14) and “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh” (1 Tm. 3:16). As a basic principle of the Christian faith, it forms part of the NICENE CREED (A.D. 325): “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, . . . who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven; He was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary; and He became man.”
References to the Incarnation appear in two early liturgies. The Liturgy of Saint James refers to the Word, “. . . who, having descended from heaven, and become flesh of the Holy Spirit and Virgin Godmother Mary, and having sojourned among men . . .” (Early Liturgies, p. 544). The liturgy of the Apostolic Constitutions contains the following prayer: “Holy also is Thy only-begotten Son our Lord and God, Jesus Christ. . . . He was pleased by Thy good will to become man, who was man’s Creator, . . . and was made of a virgin, and was in flesh, being God the Word, the beloved Son, the first-born of the whole creation, and was, according to the prophecies which were foretold concerning Him by Himself, of the seed of David and Abraham, of the tribe of Judah. And He was made in the womb of a virgin, who formed all mankind that are born into the world; He took flesh, who was without flesh; He who was begotten before time, was born in time” (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 8.12, 1951, p. 489).
Patristic writings also contain numerous texts on the Incarnation. According to Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, “There is one Physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and not born, who is God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God . . . Jesus Christ our Lord” (Ephesians 7.2, in Jurgens, 1970, Vol. 1, p. 18). Aristides of Athens says that “Christians trace their origin to the Lord Jesus Christ. He that came down from heaven in the Holy Spirit for the salvation of men is confessed to be the Son of the Most High God. He was born of a holy Virgin without seed of man, and took flesh without defilement” (Apology 15, in Jurgens, 1970, Vol. 1, p. 49). For Tertullian, “This Word is called His Son; and in the name of God He was seen at various times by the patriarchs, and has always been heard in the Prophets; and at last He was brought down from the Spirit and Power of God the Father into the Virgin Mary, and was made flesh in her womb; and having been born from her, came forth as Jesus Christ” (The Demurrer Against the Heretics 13.1, in Jurgens, 1970, Vol. 1, p. 120).
Saint Athanasius the Apostolic writes: “In the beginning, indeed, was the Word; but at the consummation of the ages the Virgin conceived in the womb and the Lord was made man. And He that is indicated by both statements is indeed but one; for the Word was made flesh” (Letter on the Opinion of Dionysius 9, in Jurgens, 1970, Vol. 1, pp. 325-36). And according to CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA, “We confess therefore that our Lord Jesus Christ is the Only- begotten Son of God, perfect God and perfect Man, having a rational soul and a body; according to His divinity, born of the Father before the ages, and in these last days, according to His humanity, born of the Virgin Mary for us and for our salvation” (The Celebrated Creed of Union 39, in Jurgens, 1979, Vol. 3, p. 207).
The question of the necessity of the Incarnation, that is, why the second hypostasis of the Holy Trinity had to become man, is closely linked with the doctrine of the ATONEMENT. Besides being the only possible channel to provide proper satisfaction to God the Father and propitiation for man’s original sin, Christ’s incarnation was also a unique opportunity in the history of mankind to learn from Him at first hand. This was a miraculous event, which left the deepest impact upon Christ’s followers. Hence the overflowing joy and exultation in the words of the Apostle John: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands concerning the word of life” (1 Jn. 1:1).
Hence also the deep sense of conviction conveyed by Saint Peter’s words: “For we do not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pt. 1:16).
In view of the inability of man, with his finite nature, to give satisfaction to the infinite Creator against Whom he sinned, the Incarnation was the only adequate means of reconciliation between God’s mercy and justice: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness but in virtue of his own mercy” (Ti. 3:4,5).
No other mode of satisfaction could have been as efficacious as the Incarnation of the Logos in bringing about full restoration of man to his earlier state of grace.
The Incarnation elevated mankind to a more honorable and dignified position, and entitled human beings to receive the divine graces and sacramental blessings: “By which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt. 1:4).
The unfathomable suffering undergone by the incarnate Son of God is in itself evidence to man of the magnitude of his sin, which necessitated such an immense sacrifice. In the words of the apostle Paul, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree'” (Gal. 3:13). Furthermore, the Incarnation is a clear indication to man of the inestimable merit and sublime value of the end to which the Incarnation was the means, namely, salvation, which no one less than the incarnate Son of God could achieve: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).
The incomprehensibility of the mystery of the Incarnation to many unaided minds led to various misconceptions during the early centuries of Christianity. These misconceptions can be summed up in two main groups:
- Those who denied the divinity of Christ and His miraculous birth from the Virgin Mary, among them the EBIONITES, a Jewish-Christian sect that flourished in the late first century; CERINTHUS, a Gnostic heretic of the first century in Palestine who held that the Logos had been created, not born; Artemas (or Atemon), a Roman heretic of the third century; and Paul of Samosata, a Syrian heretic who became the bishop of Antioch (260-268) before he was excommunicated.
- The Phantasiasts, on the other hand, held that Christ had an ethereal body, thus denying His manhood. Valentinus, Saturninus, Marcion, Tatian, Bardaisan (or Bardesanis), Mani (or Manis), Apollinarius, EUTYCHES, and Julian were all Phantasiasts. These heretics were condemned by the fathers of the church and anathematized for their unorthodox teachings.
No study of the Incarnation can be complete without reference to the subtle perception of this mystery as displayed in On the Incarnation of the Word (De incarnatione Verbi), a treatise written by Athanasius I before 318, while he was still in his twenties. According to J. A. Mohler (1796-1838), the German historian and theologian, it was “the first attempt that had been made to present Christianity and the chief circumstances of the life of Jesus Christ under a scientific aspect” (Bright, 1974, p. 181).
Athanasius opens his discussion of the mystery of the Incarnation “which Jews traduce and Greeks laugh to scorn, but we worship” (1.1), by stressing the fact that the sole remedy for corrupt human nature was its complete renewal by the Divine Word. The salvation of man necessitated the appearance of the Creator, the selfsame Word who made man in the beginning. To elucidate the point, Athanasius refutes the erroneous views of the Epicureans (who held that the creation was a fortuitous act), the Platonists (who taught the pre-existence of matter), and the Gnostics (who drew a distinction between the Demiurge and the Divine Being).
The following seven main points are significant in the course of Athanasius’ argument. In discussing each point, he employs an analogy to illustrate his concept of the Incarnation of the Logos.
- As a result of the fall of man and his loss of God’s graces, the human race was wasting. The Creator, in His divine mercy, could not tolerate this state of affairs for long. The dilemma could be resolved only by the Word: “He takes to Himself a body capable of death, that it, by partaking of the Word Who is above all, might be worthy to die in the stead of all, and might, because of the Word which was come to dwell in it, remain incorruptible, and that henceforth corruption might be stayed from all by the Grace of the Resurrection” (9.1).
A twofold purpose has thus been fulfilled: the Word gave His flesh as an offering for our souls and, by taking a human nature, He imparted immortality to us, “like as when a great king has entered into some large city and taken up his abode in one of the houses there, such city is at all events held worthy of high honour, nor does any enemy or bandit any longer descend upon it and subject it; but, on the contrary, it is thought entitled to all care, because of the king’s having taken up his residence in a single house there: so, too, has it been with the Monarch of all” (9.3).
- Making use of the same monarch-subject analogy, Athanasius shows how this great work of redemption was particularly suited to God’s goodness: “For if a king, having founded a house or city, if it be beset by bandits from the carelessness of its inmates, does not by any means neglect it, but avenges and reclaims it as his own work, having regard not to the carelessness of the inhabitants, but to what beseems himself; much more did God the Word of the all-good Father, not neglect the race of men, His work, going to corruption: but, while He blotted out the death which had ensued by the offering of His own body, He corrected their neglect by His own teaching, restoring all that was man’s by His own power” (10.1).
- In deviating from God’s way, humanity fell prey to various forms of lust, superstition, and mental degradation. “Once again, a merely human king does not let the lands he has colonized pass to others to serve them, nor go over to other men; but he warns them by letters, and often sends to them by friends, or, if need be, he comes in person, to put them to rebuke in the last resort by his presence, only that they may not serve others and his own work be spent for nought. Shall not God much more spare His own creatures, that they be not led astray from Him and serve things of nought?” (13.5-6).
- Another consequence of man’s fall from grace was the obliteration of God’s image in which he had originally been created.
The proper restoration of an effaced portrait must be from the original, hence the Creator took human flesh to renew man’s Godlike image. “For as, when the likeness painted on a panel has been effaced by stains from without, he whose likeness it is must needs come once more to enable the portrait to be renewed on the same wood . . . ; in the same way also the most holy Son of the Father, being the Image of the Father, came to our region to renew man once made in His likeness, and find him, as one lost, by the remission of sins” (14.1-2).
- Throughout Christ’s life on earth, there never was any incompatibility between His divine, limitless, all-pervading nature and His human nature, as the Incarnation did not limit the omnipresence of the Word, nor did it lessen His sanctity. “Word as He was, so far from being contained by anything, He rather contained all things Himself” (17.1). To illustrate this point Athanasius uses an analogy based on the ubiquity and purity of the sun: “For if the sun too, which was made by Him, and which we see, as it revolves in the heaven, is not defiled by touching the bodies upon earth, nor is it put out by darkness, but on the contrary itself illuminates and cleanses them also, much less was the all-holy Word of God, Maker and Lord also of the sun, defiled by being made known in the body” (17.7).
- Athanasius devotes a considerable section of his treatise to the anticipation of possible objections raised by nonbelievers regarding the Incarnation and the crucifixion, such as, if Christ’s death was inevitable, why did He not choose a more honorable and less ignominious death? Why did He not withdraw His body from the Jews? Why did He choose a public death? Why the cross, of all deaths? These and other objections Athanasius refutes with deep insight into the mystery of the Incarnation. “Just as a noble wrestler, great in skill and courage, does not pick out his antagonists for himself, lest he should raise a suspicion of his being afraid of some of them, but puts it in the choice of the onlookers, and especially so if they happen to be his enemies, so that against whomsoever they match him, him he may throw, and be believed superior to them all; so also the Life of all, our Lord and Saviour, even Christ, did not devise a death for His own body . . . ; but He accepted on the Cross, and endured, a death inflicted by others, and above all by His enemies, which they thought dreadful and ignominious and not to be faced; so that this also being destroyed, both He Himself might be believed to be the Life, and the power of death be brought entirely to nought” (24.3).
- Another significant theme in Athanasius’ treatise is that of the radical change the Logos has effected in the very nature of man, namely, endowing man with immortality, without which he would have remained, like Adam, subject to death. The analogy Athanasius draws here is that of straw and fire: “Just as, whereas stubble is naturally destructible by fire, supposing (firstly) a man keeps fire away from the stubble, though it is not burned, yet the stubble remains, for all that, merely stubble, fearing the threat of the fire— for fire has the natural property of consuming it; while if a man (secondly) encloses it with a quantity of asbestos, the substance said to be an antidote to fire, the stubble no longer dreads the fire, being secured by its enclosure in incombustible matter; in this very way, one may say with regard to the body and death, that if death had been kept from the body by a mere command on His part, it would none the less have been mortal and corruptible, according to the nature of bodies; but, that this should not be, it put on the incorporeal Word of God, and thus no longer fears either death or corruption, for it has life as a garment, and corruption is done away in it” (44.7-8).
- Athanasius. On the Incarnation of the Word. In A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2nd ser., Vol. 4, pp. 36-67, ed. P. Schaff and H. Wace. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1953.
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- Isidhurus, Bishop. Al-Matalib al-Nadhariyyah fi al-Mawadi‘ al- Ilahiyyah, pp. 158-66. Cairo, 1930.
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- Thornton, L. S. The Incarnate Lord. London, 1928.
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