The Incarnation: A Christian Battleground

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“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14, cf. John 1:1, 18)

This text is one of my favorite verses about the Incarnation. It tells us that the preincarnate “Word,” (the Logos), who was one with the Father from all eternity, who enjoyed face-to-face communion “with God” and “was God” (John 1:1), became flesh (became incarnate) and dwelt among us.

Let’s think together about the motivation for the Incarnation, the manner of the Incarnation, the battle over the Incarnation, and some important implications of the Incarnation.

The Motivation for the Incarnation

What possible motive could there have been for the Word to abandon His form (morphe) as God, to lay aside the glory He had with the Father (John 17:5), take upon Himself the form (morphe) of a servant to become a human being, and become obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:5-8)? Why would Deity, without laying aside Deity attributes, assume the finite limitations of manhood? Why would the Word permanently take on humanity?

He who became the God-man will remain the God-man throughout all eternity. According to John, a key reason for the Word becoming the God-man was to reveal the Father. “No man,” says John, “hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” The verb “declare” (exegeomai), from which we derive our English term “exegete,” means to “reveal, explain, describe, make fully known.”

In Jesus we have a visible disclosure of Deity—God clothed in human flesh. In Jesus, the eternal and invisible God reveals Himself to us as He really is, for Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), the “express image of his person” (Heb. 1:3). Jesus told Philip, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Thus, Jesus was called the “Word” (the Logos) because in His incarnation He fully and accurately reveals to man what God is like.

Prior to the incarnation of the Word, God’s self-revelation was progressive. Starting with creation, God manifested His glory and His righteousness in the heavens (Psa. 19:1; 97:6). Paul tells us that a thoughtful analysis of the physical creation will lead a person to the conclusion that there is a God who is eternal and powerful (Rom. 1:20).

God’s self-revelation continued in the mighty acts He performed on behalf of His people Israel, and in the symbolic teachings of the sacrificial system and priesthood. But it is only in Christ that we have God’s full self-disclosure.

The Manner of the Incarnation

Like John, Paul gives us some significant information about the Incarnation. In his Galatian Epistle he writes, ‘’But when the fullness 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). In these verses Paul asserts the truth of the Incarnation— “God sent forth His Son, made of a woman.”

“God sent forth His son.”

God sent forth One who through all eternity was His Son. Christ, the Son of God, enjoyed an eternal relationship of Sonship with His Father. John 1:1 tells us that “in the beginning was the Word.” In other words, go back in time to whatever “beginning” you wish, and you will find the Word already existing.

This means there was never a time in the past when Christ was not the Word, or the Son of God, just as there was never a time in the past when the Father was not the Father.

“Born of a woman.”

Luke reveals that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a morally pure young woman. She was a virgin (Luke 1:34). Therefore, the means of her pregnancy would be the result of a miracle from God. The angel announced to her, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).

The Battle Over the Incarnation

A study of the Incarnation is not theologically irrelevant. Did you know that many battles have been fought and are still being fought over the subject of the Incarnation? One of these battles revolves around the proper translation of the last part of John 1:1. Most translators translate it, “and the Word was God.”

The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bible, the New World Translation, translates it, “and the Word was a God.” They argue that Jesus is not co-equal with God the Father. He is a created being who is superior to all other created beings, but definitely inferior to God the Father. Why the differences in translation? The debate focuses on the question, “How do you translate a predicate nominative that does not have an article (kai theos en hologos)?”

The subject of the phrase under question is “the Word” (ho logos). The predicate nominative “God” (theos) does not have a definite article before it. How you answer the question will influence your understanding of Jesus’ relationship to God in His pre-incarnate state. To answer this question, several factors should be considered.

First, we should realize there are 282 occurrences of the word theos in the New Testament without the article before it. Most all of them are translated by all translators, including the Jehovah Witness translators, as referring to the true God. Second, the context suggests that in John 1:1, the word theos is being used in a qualitative sense.

According to grammarian Daniel Wallace, “the largest proportion of pre-verbal anarthrous [without the article] predicate nominatives fall into this category [expressing a quality].” He says that John is striking

a balance between the Word’s deity, which was already present in the beginning (en arke en ho logos, kai ho logos en pros ton theon, 1:1), and his humanity, which was added later (kai ho logos sarx egeneto, 1:14).

The grammatical structure of these two statements mirror each other; both emphasize the nature of the Word, rather than His identity. But theos [God] was His nature from eternity (hence, eimi [was] is used), while sarx [flesh] was added at the Incarnation (hence, ginomai [became] is used).

This interpretation, says Wallace,

does not at all impugn the deity of Christ. Rather, it stresses that, although the person of Christ is not the person of the Father, their essence is identical…The idea of a qualitative theos [God] here is that the Word had all the attributes and qualities that ‘the God’ (of 1:1b) had.

In other words, he shared the essence of the Father, though they differed in person. The construction the evangelist chose to express this idea was the most concise way he could have stated that the Word was God and yet was distinct from the Father. [1] In the fourth century A.D., two men from Alexandria, Egypt, divided Christendom over this issue.

Arius [a historical precursor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses] taught that Jesus “was the incarnation not of God but of a great creature of God—the Logos, who had a beginning in time and remained forever subordinate to the Father not only in terms of his role but also in terms of his very being.” [2]

Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria, maintained the eternal equality of the Logos with the Father. Underlying Arius’ view was the belief that divinity in its essence or being (ontology) is so perfect that any change would deny the immutability of God.

For deity to alter its form (morphe), argued Arius, would involve a change in that which cannot change. God would not be God if He could change! The debate between the supporters of Arius and those of Alexander become so intense that “there was some rioting in the streets of the city when Alexander’s supporters marched against Arius and the two groups met in front of the cathedral.” [3]

In 318 A.D., over one hundred bishops gathered at the synod in Alexandria and condemned Arius and his teaching about Christ as heresy, and deposed him from his position as presbyter. He was forced to leave the city of Alexandria. He did not, however, accept this verdict. He found influential bishops to help him, (most notable was Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia), and continued to propagate his teachings.

Arius exploited the word “begotten” used to describe Jesus Christ as the Son of God (see John 3:16). He argued that “if the Son of God who became Jesus was ‘begotten,’ he must have had a beginning in time, and since it is of the essence of God to be eternal—without beginning or and—then the Son of God must be a great creature and not God himself.” [4]

Bishop Alexander fought against Arius’ beliefs by using Arius’ main argument against him. He argued that Arius “denied the immutability of the Father by saying that he was not always Father but only became so by creating a son.” [5]  In 325 A.D., the Roman Emperor Constantine convened an empire-wide ecumenical church council at Nicaea.

Three hundred and eighteen bishops were present at the opening ceremonies and the council lasted two months.

According to one account, soon after the council opened someone called for a reading of the Arian position so that all could know exactly what was to be debated. At that point the Arians—or at least some of them—made a serious strategic error. Alexander and his bishops must have been delighted. Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia [the primary supporter of Arius] stood before the council and read a clear and blatant denial of the deity of the Son of God, emphasizing that he is a creature and not equal with the Father in any sense. Before Eusebius finished reading it, some of the bishops were holding their hands over their ears and shouting for someone to stop the blasphemies. One bishop near Eusebius stepped forward and grabbed the manuscript out of his hands, threw it to the floor and stomped on it. A riot broke out among the bishops and was stopped only by the emperor’s command. [6]

The Nicaean council eventually settled on the following statement,

We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance [homoousios] with the Father, through Whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, Who because of us humans and because of our salvation came down and became incarnate, becoming human, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead; And in the Holy Spirit. [7]

In spite of the condemnation of Arianism at Nicaea, his doctrine was not decisively expelled from the church.

For more than fifty years the controversy raged on until it was definitively condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. Thanks to the perseverance and tenacity of one man, Athanasius, the successor of Alexander, Christianity was rescued from the Arian error.

Olsen suggests that “it may not be much of an exaggeration to say that all Christians have Athanasius to thank that the theology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is not the ‘orthodoxy’ of most of Christendom. Athanasius is truly one of the great heroes of the faith…” [8]

The Implications of the Incarnation

The implications of the Incarnation are glorious. Because Jesus is truly God, we can see what the love of God, the holiness of God, the power of God, and the wisdom of God are like. We need only look at Jesus.

Because Jesus is truly God, we know that the substitutionary death of Christ for our sins is sufficient for all sinners who have ever lived. It was not merely a finite human who died; it was the God-man who died. Jesus’ deity imparts infinite value to His atonement.

Because Jesus is truly God, mankind can be reconciled to God. It was God Himself that crossed the chasm created by sin to bring mankind redemption.

Because Jesus is truly God, He is worthy of our worship. Jesus “is God in the same sense and to the same degree as the Father. He is as deserving of our praise, adoration, and obedience as is the Father.” [9]

Because Jesus is truly man, the atoning death of Jesus can avail for us. It was not an angel or an outsider to the human race who died on the cross.

It was Jesus, man of very man, who alone qualified to become our High Priest and offer himself as our sacrifice for sin. Because Jesus is truly man, He can sympathize with our infirmities and intercede for us (Heb. 4:15). Because Jesus is truly man, He can be our example (1 John 2:6). Because Jesus is truly man, He presently serves as the one and only mediator between God and mankind. [10]

As you celebrate the Incarnation this year at Christmas, let us remember the motivation of the Incarnation (God the Word became the God-man who reveals the Father), the manner of the Incarnation (God sent His Son who was born of the virgin Mary), the battle that was fought and is still being fought over the Incarnation (Jesus is truly God, equal with the Father, and not a created being), and the wonderful implications of the Incarnation (we can know God in personal relationship and be reconciled to Him). May we all join with the Apostle Paul and exclaim, “Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift” (2 Cor. 9:15)!


Originally published in the Ministry Library of God’s Bible School & College.

Footnotes

  1. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, p 269. Italics and bold emphasis are his.
  2. Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1990, p 142.
  3. Ibid., p 145.
  4. Ibid., p 146
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., pp 153-154.
  7. Ibid., p 155.
  8. Ibid., pp 161-162.
  9. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, Grand Rapids: Baker Publications, 1991, p 704.
  10. Ibid., pp 721, 722.
Allan Brown
Allan Brown
Dr. Allan Brown is Professor and Chair of the Division of Ministerial Education at God's Bible School & College. He holds his PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of several books and articles.
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