As George Santayana immortally uttered in The Life of Common Sense, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Christian theology is utterly rich in its understanding of both God and humanity. When divinity and humanity unite in Jesus Christ of Nazareth, sparks fly in the minds of theologians and philosophers.
Most cultic doctrine begins by “discovering” some new and exciting truth that really is neither new nor exciting. Virtually every question asked today of how Jesus could be both human and divine has been asked within the first seven centuries of church history in the various “christological controversies.” The ultimate formulation of the “orthodox” Christians is known as the Hypostatic Union: the doctrine that Jesus is one Person with two natures. In other words, the One Whom we know as Jesus of Nazareth is the Person of the Son (not the Father or the Holy Spirit) with two full natures: His eternal divine nature as God, and a full human nature which He took on through the incarnation.
Questions of the incarnation
Let us think about what the incarnation means.
- Was Jesus a manifestation of God Who didn’t really have a real human body? It may have looked and felt like one, but, if he was really divine, he couldn’t be completely human, right? If we believe that, we would be thinking like a Docetist.
- Was Jesus like a divine spirit clothed in what would otherwise be a human corpse? If we believe that, we would be thinking like an Apollinarian.
- Was Jesus like a human being who would get special powers from God during His life on earth? If we believe that, we would be thinking like an adoptionist.
- Was Jesus like a “superman”? Kind of like a mix of “divine” and “human”? If we believe that, we would be thinking like a Eutychian or a monophysite.
- Was Jesus like Dr. Jeckel and My. Hyde, such that He was a human being but had a resident alter-ego divine personality in him that would act out when provoked? If we believe that, we would be thinking like a Nestorian.
Perhaps we have not thought deeply through the question of what does the incarnation mean and why is it relevant. We may boldly proclaim that “Jesus is God” and that “Jesus is both and God man,” but not entertain what that involves, how that is, and why that matters.
Incarnation, Substitution, and Redemption–Oh, My!
The truth of the matter is that understanding the incarnation of the Son as Jesus of Nazareth does matter because the incarnation is inextricably linked to the atonement itself. First, the purpose of the incarnation was so that Jesus could live the perfect life and fulfill the demands of the Law that we could not fulfill. Second, the purpose of the incarnation was so that Jesus could die as a perfect substitute in behalf of those who will be saved and reconciled to God.
And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.
— Matthew 1:21
The purpose of the Son being born and given to us (Isa 9:6) was ultimately so that He could “save His people from their sins.” Therefore, what we understand about the incarnation ultimately affects what we will understand about salvation.
Let us ask ourselves this question: could God the Son have become incarnate as a goat and die for our sins on a stone altar? That would still be an amazing miracle if God came in the flesh as a goat, right? However, we would be missing the point if the incarnation were all about the power of God to become incarnate as a goat.
For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.
Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me:
— Hebrews 10:4-5
The Scriptures are clear that the sacrificial system of killing animals was but a type and shadow of the real thing. God could not accept this as a permanent nor real atonement for the sins of humans. Why not?
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
— Genesis 1:26
God created humans in His “image.” He gave His law to humans. If the law is to and for human beings, if humans break this law, only a true human being–one who is perfect–could satisfy the penalty of the law to substitute for a law-breaker. A goat cannot substitute for a human being. A goat cannot keep the law of God, because a goat is not subject to the law of God. A goat could not be our example, our substitute, our mediator, or our advocate.
For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.
— John 1:17
Moses was a human being who was God’s instrument to provide a written form of God’s law to human beings, which included himself. If Jesus Christ were to be the antitype of Moses in this case, to reverse the condemnation that the law reveals about our disobedience to God, He would likewise have to be a human being.
Could Superman do that? Regardless how many Superman fans there may be, Superman is still not a true human being. He may look, talk, and act like one, but he is an alien creature from Krypton. He could not be subject to the law of God and could not be a representative of humanity.
If Jesus were a demigod–half God and half human–or if Jesus were a divine Spirit clothed in the corpse of a human body, could he be our substitute? Why not? Because anything less than a full human being would be some other creature. If He were some other creature, He could not live among us under the law and fulfill its requirements in our place, and, thereby, pay the penalty demanded of the law in our behalf.
But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law,
To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.
— Galatians 4:4-5
To redeem human beings from the curse of the law, Christ had to be made under the law. To be made under the law, Christ had to be made of a woman. He had to be born of a woman. Therefore, the perfect substitute had to be fully human. Not simply look, act, and talk like a human! He had to be just as much human as we are, yet without sin. The incarnation of the Son as a full human being was entirely necessary to satisfy the law.
But, wait a minute! Was an “incarnation” really necessary? Couldn’t God simply create a perfect, sinless human being “from scratch” and let him be the substitute? Why did the Son as God have to become incarnate as a man? Did He simply change from divine to human? Or, is the Hypostatic Union true, that Jesus is both fully God and fully man at the same time? Is there every bit a reason that our substitute had to be fully divine as well as fully human? And how does that work? What do the Scriptures say? We will answer these questions by looking at the Scriptures in the next entry of this series.