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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


INCARNATION . It is a distinguishing feature of Christianity that it consists in faith in a person, Jesus Christ, and in faith or self-committal of such a character that faith in Him is understood to be faith in God. The fact on which the whole of the Christian religion depends is therefore the fact that Jesus Christ is both God and man. Assuming provisionally this fact to be true, or at least credible, this article will briefly examine the witness borne to it in the hooks of the OT and NT.

1. The Incarnation foreshadowed in the OT . Early religions have attempted to explain two things the existence and order of the universe, and the principles of conduct or morality. The Hebrews attained at an early period to a belief in God as the creator and sustainer of the universe, but their interest in metaphysic did not go beyond this. It is in their moral idea of God that we shall find anticipations of the Incarnation. ( a ) The OT conception of man . Man is made in the image of God ( Genesis 1:26; Genesis 9:6 ). Whatever may be the exact meaning of this expression, it appears to imply that man has a free and rational personality, and is destined for union with God. ( b ) God reveals Himself to man . A belief in the self-manifestation of God, through visions, dreams, the ministry of angels, the spirit of prophecy, and in the possibility of personal converse between God and man, is apparent upon every page of the OT. The ‘theophanies’ further suggest the possibility of the appearance of God in a human form. It is also remarkable that, although the sense of the holiness and transcendency of God grew with time, the Jews in the later periods did not shrink from strongly anthropomorphic expressions. ( c ) Intimations of relationships in the Deity . Without unduly pressing such particular points as the plural form of Elohim (God), or the triple repetition of the Divine name ( Isaiah 6:3 , Numbers 6:23 ), it may at least be said that the idea of God in Jewish monotheism is not a bare unit, and ‘can only be apprehended as that which involves diversity as well as unity.’ Moreover, the doctrine of the Divine Wisdom as set forth in the Books of Proverbs and Wisdom ( Proverbs 8:22 , Wis 7:23-25; Wis 8:1 etc.) personifies Wisdom almost to the point of ascribing to it separate existence. The doctrine was carried further by Philo, with assistance from Greek thought, and prepared the way for St. John’s conception of the Logos, the Word of God. ( d ) The Messianic hope . This was at its root an anticipation of the union of Divine and human attributes in a single personality (see Messiah). It developed along several distinct lines of thought and expectation, and it will be noted that these are not combined in the OT; but Christianity claims to supply the explanation and fulfilment of them all.

2. The fact of the Incarnation in the NT

( a ) The humanity of Christ . It is beyond dispute that Christ is represented in the NT as a man. He was born, indeed, under miraculous conditions, but of a human mother. He grew up with gradually developing powers ( Luke 2:52 ). The people among whom He lived for thirty years do not appear to have recognized anything extraordinary in Him ( Matthew 13:55 ). During the period of His life about which detailed information has been recorded, we read of ordinary physical and moral characteristics. He suffered weariness ( Mark 4:38 , John 4:6 ), hunger ( Matthew 4:2 ), thirst ( John 19:28 ); he died and was buried. He felt even strong emotions: wonder ( Mark 6:6 , Luke 7:9 ), compassion ( Mark 8:2 , Luke 7:13 ), joy ( Luke 10:21 ), anger ( Mark 8:12; Mark 10:14 ); He was deeply moved ( John 11:33 , Mark 14:33 ). He acquired information in the ordinary way ( Mark 6:38; Mark 9:21 , John 11:34 ). He was tempted ( Matthew 4:1-11 , Luke 22:28 ). And it may be further asserted with the utmost confidence, that neither in the Gospels nor in any other part of the NT is there the smallest support for a Docetic explanation of these facts (that is, for the theory that He only seemed to undergo the experiences narrated). ( b ) The Divinity of Christ . Side by side with this picture of perfect humanity there is an ever-present belief through all the NT writings that Christ was more than a man. From the evidential point of view the most important and unquestionable testimony to the early belief of His disciples is contained in St. Paul’s Epistles, especially those to the Romans, Galatians, and Corinthians, which are among the earliest books of the NT, and of the most undisputed genuineness. In these Epistles we find Jesus Christ ‘co-ordinated with God in the necessarily Divine functions, in a manner impossible to the mind of a Jewish monotheist like St. Paul, unless the co-ordinated person is really believed to belong to the properly Divine being.’ In the Gospels we have an account of how this belief arose. The Synoptic Gospels supply a simple narrative of fact in which we can mark the growing belief of the disciples; and the Fourth Gospel definitely marks stages of faith on the part of Christ’s adherents, and of hatred on the part of His enemies. The following points may be specially noted in the Gospels:

(1) Extraordinary characteristics are constantly ascribed to Christ, not in themselves necessarily Divine, but certainly such as to distinguish Christ in a marked degree from other men. There is a personal influence of a very remarkable kind. This is naturally not described or dwelt upon, but every page of the Gospels testifies to its existence. The earliest record of Christ’s life is pre-eminently miraculous. In spite of economy and restraint of power, mighty works are represented as having been the natural, sometimes the almost involuntary, accompaniments of His ministrations. Two special miracles, the Resurrection and the Virgin-birth, are noticed separately below. He spoke with authority (Mark 7:29 ). He claimed to fulfil the Law a law recognized as Divine to be Lord of the Sabbath, and to give a new law to His disciples. In all His teaching there is an implicit claim to infallibility. In spite of His being subject to temptation, the possibility of moral failure is never entertained. There is nothing that marks Christ off from other men more than this. In all other good men the sense of sin becomes more acute with increasing holiness. In Christ it did not exist. The title of ‘Son of Man’ which He habitually used may have more meanings than one. But comparing the different connexions in which it is used, we can hardly escape the conclusion that Christ identifies Himself with the consummation and perfection of humanity.

(2) He claimed to be the Messiah, summing up and uniting the different lines of expectation alluded to above. As has been pointed out, the Messianic hope included features both human and Divine; and although this was not recognized beforehand, it appears to us, looking back, that these expectations could not have been adequately satisfied except by the Incarnation.

(3) Of some of the things mentioned above it might be a sufficient explanation to say, that Christ was a man endowed with exceptional powers and graces by God, and approved by mighty wonders and signs. But even in the Synoptic Gospels, which are for the most part pure narrative, there is more than this. In the claim to forgive sins (Matthew 9:2-6 ), to judge the world ( Mark 14:62-63 ), to reveal the will of the Father ( Matthew 11:27 ), in His commission to the Church ( Matthew 28:18-20 , Mark 16:15-18 , Luke 24:44-48 ), and above all, perhaps, in the claim of personal adhesion which He ever made on His disciples, He assumes a relationship to God which would not be possible to one who was not conscious of being more than man.

(4) In the discourses in the Fourth Gospel, Christ plainly asserts His own pre-existence and His own essential relation to the Father. If these discourses represent even the substance of a side of Christ’s teaching (a point which must be assumed and not argued here), He explicitly bore witness to His eternal relation to the Father.

(5) What crowned the faith of the disciples was the fact of the Resurrection. Their absolute belief in the reality of this fact swept away all doubts and misgivings. At first, no doubt, they were so much absorbed in the fact itself that they did not at once reason out all that it meant to their beliefs; and in teaching they had to adapt their message to the capacities of their hearers; but there can be no question about the place which the belief in the Resurrection took in determining their creed (see Jesus Christ, p. 458 a ).

(6) One miracle recorded in the Gospels, the Virgin-birth , naturally did not form part of the first cycle of Apostolic teaching. The Apostles bore witness to their own experience and to the growth of their own faith, and they knew Jesus Christ first as a man. Apart from the evidence for the fact, it has seemed to most Christians in all ages that the idea of a new creative act is naturally associated with the occurrence of the Incarnation.

3. Purpose and results of the Incarnation

( a ) Consummation of the universe and of humanity . St. Paul ( Ephesians 1:10 ) speaks of the purpose of God ‘to sum up all things in Christ, the things in the heavens and the things upon the earth’ (cf. Hebrews 2:10 ). This is a view which is not often explicitly dwelt upon in the Scriptures, but the idea appears to pervade the NT, and it is conspicuous in Eph., Col., and Hebrews. Christ is represented as fulfilling the purpose of humanity and therefore of the universe, as being its first and final cause, ‘for whom are all things, and through whom are all things.’ It is hardly necessary to point out that the modern teaching of evolution, if not anticipated by Christianity, at least adapts itself singularly well to the expression of this aspect of it.

( b ) Supreme revelation of God . Christians have always believed that even the material universe was destined ultimately to reveal God, and St. Paul appeals to the processes of nature as being an indication not only of the creative power, but also of the benevolence of God ( Acts 14:17 , cf. Romans 1:20 ). The OT is the history of a progressive revelation which is always looking forward to more perfect illumination, and the whole history of man is, according to the NT, the history of gradual enlightenment culminating in the Incarnation ( Hebrews 1:2 , John 14:9 , Colossians 1:14 ).

( c ) Restoration of man . It has been a common subject of speculation in the Church whether the Incarnation would have taken place if man had not sinned, and it must be recognized that to such a question no decisive answer can be given. As a fact the Incarnation was conditioned by the existence of man’s sin, and the restoration of man is constantly put forward as its purpose. Three special aspects of this work of restoration may be noticed. (1) Christ offers an example of perfect and sinless humanity: He is the unique example of man as God intended him to be. The ideal of the human race becomes actual in Him. His life was one of perfect obedience to the will of God ( Matthew 17:5 , Luke 3:22 , John 8:29 ). (2) He removed the barriers which sin had placed between man and his Creator. This work is invariably associated in the NT with His death and resurrection. It is described as an offering, a sacrifice, of Himself ( Hebrews 9:26 ), which takes away the sin of the world ( John 1:29 ). Many metaphors are used in the NT to describe the effect of His death and resurrection, such as redemption, which conveys the idea of a deliverance at a great cost from slavery; propitiation, or an act or process by which sin is neutralized; salvation, or bringing into a condition of health or safety; reconciliation with God, and remission of sin (see Atonement). (3) These two parts of Christ’s work for man were accomplished by His earthly life, death, and resurrection. But they do not comprise all that the Incarnation has done for the restoration of man. The completion of His work Christ left to His Church, the society which He founded, and in which He promised that He would dwell through the Holy Spirit. The Church, St. Paul says, is His body, living by His life and the instrument of His work. Thus the Kingdom of God which Christ brought to the earth, and which He constantly speaks of both as being already come and as still to come, is visibly represented in His Church, which is ‘the Kingdom of heaven in so far as it has already come, and prepares for the Kingdom as it is to come in glory.’

4. Relation of the NT doctrine to that of the Councils . It has been seen above that the disciples knew our Lord first as a man, and that they advanced by degrees to a belief in His Divinity. Men educated in Jewish habits of thought would not readily apprehend in all its bearings the Christian idea of a Person who could be both God and man. It is therefore not surprising that there should be in the NT a diversity of treatment with regard to the question of the Person of Christ, and that it should he possible to recognize what may be called different levels of Christological belief. Before our Lord’s death the disciples had recognized Him as the Messiah, though with still very inadequate ideas as to the nature of the Messianic Kingdom which He was to set up. The Resurrection transformed this faith, and it naturally became the central point of their early teaching. The conception of Christ prominent in the earliest Apostolic age, and emphasized in the first part of the Acts and in the Epistles of 1Peter , James, and Jude, regards Him primarily as the Messiah, the glory of whose Person and mission has been proved by the Resurrection, who has been exalted to God’s right hand, and who will be judge of quick and dead. St. Paul in his earlier Epistles regards Christ’s Person more from the point of view of personal religion, as One who has bridged over the gulf which sin has caused between God and man, and in whom man’s desire for reconciliation with God finds satisfaction. St. Paul’s later Epistles, as well as the Ep. to the Hebrews and St. John’s Gospel, deal with the cosmological and mystical aspects of the Incarnation, and contain the most definite statements of the Divinity of Christ.

It has been further maintained that the definitions of the doctrine made by the great Councils and embodied in the Creeds show an advance upon the doctrine contained in the NT. This was not, however, the view of those who drew up the definitions, for they invariably appealed to the NT writings as conclusive, and believed themselves to be only formulating beliefs which had always been held by the Church. The language of the definitions was undoubtedly to some extent new, but it has never been shown that the substance of the doctrine expressed by them in any respect goes beyond what has been represented above as the teaching of the NT. If the NT writers really believed, as has been maintained above, that Christ was a Person who was perfectly human and who was also Divine, there is nothing in the dogmatic decrees of the 4th and 5th centuries which asserts more than this. What these definitions do is to negative explanations which are inconsistent with these fundamental beliefs. It is not surprising that men found it difficult to grasp the perfect Divinity as well as the perfect humanity of Christ, and that attempts should have been made to explain away one side or other of the doctrine of the Incarnation. The attempt which met with the widest success, and most threatened the doctrine of the Church, was that of Arius, who taught that the Son of God was a created being, a sort of demi-god. This teaching found ready support and sympathy among men who had not shaken off pagan habits of thought, and in opposing it the Church was contending for a true Theism, which cannot endure the multiplication of objects of worship, no less than for Christianity. But although a word was used in the definition finally accepted, the celebrated homoousion ‘of one substance with the Father’ which was not used by any NT writer, it was used unwillingly, and only because other attempts to assert beyond the possibility of cavil the true Divinity of Christ had failed. Again, when the Divinity of Christ was fully accepted, the difficulty of believing the same Person to be both God and man led to attempts to explain away the perfect humanity. Apollinaris taught that the Word of God took the place of the human mind or spirit in Christ, as at a later period the Monothelites held that He had no human will; Nestorius practically denied an Incarnation, by holding that the Son of God and Jesus Christ were two separate persons, though united in a singular degree; Eutyches taught that the manhood in Christ was merged in the Godhead so as to lose its proper and distinct nature. These explanations contradicted in various ways the plain teaching of the Gospels that Christ was a truly human Person, and they were all decisively negatived by the Church in language which no doubt shows a distinct advance in theological thought, but without adding anything to the substance of the Apostolic doctrine.

J. H. Maude.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Incarnation'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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