It there is, among the distinctive articles of the Christian faith, one which is bask to all the others, it is this: that our Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, became man for our salvation. This is the affirmation that we have in mind when we speak of the doctrine of the Incarnation.

While “incarnation” (a term of Latin origin, meaning “becoming-in-flesh”) is not itself a biblical word, it conveys a biblical truth—the truth which finds classic expression in John 1:14, “the Word became flesh.”

The incarnation of Christ implies his deity and humanity alike. To assert that any of us “became flesh” or “came in the flesh” would be a truism; it is no mere truism that John voices when he insists that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” and makes this confession the crucial test of truth (1 John 4:2). He means rather that one who had His being eternally within the unity of the Godhead became man at a point in time, without relinquishing His oneness with God. And by the word “flesh” he does not mean a physical body only, but a complete human personality.

Nor is John the only New Testament writer so to speak. Paul speaks of God as “sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3)—where “likeness” does not suggest that his manhood was less than real, but that his human nature was like our sinful nature except that his nature was unstained by sin. Again, in the early Christian confession reproduced in 1 Timothy 3:16, the “mystery of our religion” (that is, Christ himself, the “mystery of God,” as he is called in Col. 2:2) is said to have been “manifested in the flesh.” The writer to the Hebrews bears the same witness when he says of the Son of God, through whom the worlds were made (Heb. 1:2), that since those whom He came to deliver “are sharers in flesh and blood, he also himself in like manner partook of the same”—in order that he might accomplish his saving purpose through death, which he could not otherwise have undergone (Heb. 2:14 ff.).

The doctrine of our Lord’s incarnation, then, is broadly based throughout the New Testament. When John, Paul, and the writer to the Hebrews present such agreement as this, it is usually safe to trace their agreement back to a germinal principle in the life and teaching of Christ.

The Fact of the Incarnation. That Jesus of Nazareth was a real man none of his companions doubted. But sometimes it came home to them with special force that there was something extra-ordinary about him: “Who then is this?” they asked when he stilled the tempest with a word (Mark 4:41). Even when they came to acclaim him as the Messiah, they did not immediately appreciate all that was involved in Messiahship as he accepted and fulfilled it. Fuller apprehension followed his death and exaltation, however, and nothing is more eloquent in this regard than the spontaneous and unself-conscious way in which New Testament writers take Old Testament passages which refer to the God of Israel and apply them to Jesus, whom they all knew to be a real man. In Jesus, they claimed, God had drawn near to man for his redemption; in Him, indeed, God had become man. “The Word became flesh”; in the man Christ Jesus they recognized the crowning revelation of God.

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These simple affirmations, however, called for more precise definition. The relation of Christ as Son to God the Father raised questions to which conflicting answers were given; so did the relation of Christ’s divine Sonship to his manhood. Some answers offered to these questions might seem adequate at first blush, but they were quickly seen to create more difficulties than they claimed to solve, if indeed they did not positively undermine the Christian faith. There was the problem of vocabulary, too. Greek and Latin terms had to be used in new and specialized senses to fit a set of data with which these languages had not been called upon to deal before. And one thinker might use a term in a completely adequate sense while another would use it in a sense which did much less than justice to the data of biblical revelation and Christian experience.

In the first three or four centuries the major obstacle in the way of doing full justice to these data was the dualistic presupposition of much contemporary Gentile thought. This dualism involved a complete antinomy between spirit and matter, spirit being essentially good and matter essentially evil. This meant that any direct contact between the spirit world and the material world was impossible. In consequence, people whose thinking was based on this kind of dualism could not accept in its proper sense the biblical doctrine of the incarnation of the Son of God, nor yet the biblical account of his death and resurrection. They had to present alternative interpretations of these events. One of these interpretations, which began to emerge as early as the apostolic age (for New Testament writers are at pains to refute it), was Docetism, which considered our Lord’s humanity to be only apparent and not real. A later interpretation was Arianism, which thought of him as neither fully God nor fully man, but as a being of intermediate status. It is a matter of more than historical interest that such knowledge of Christianity as Muhammad had was derived from one of these defective interpretations. This accounts for those statements in the Koran which deny that he was the Son of God and also that he was really crucified.

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It was only slowly and painstakingly that the early Church achieved a statement of our Lord’s incarnation which has commended itself ever since as satisfying all the data. Before this happened, we can watch the tripartite baptismal confessions of the first three Christian centuries (tripartite because they affirmed faith in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) having their central section—that which affirmed faith in the Son—expanded so as to make a fuller statement of the doctrine of Christ. The familiar Apostles’ and Nicene creeds provide sufficient examples of this. But the statement which the historic Church has adopted as definitive is that approved by the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451. This statement acknowledges “one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin.…”

The wording of this Chalcedonian definition may seem remote from the modes of expression with which we are familiar today. Yet, according to so able a theologian as B. B. Warfield, it has well deserved to remain the authoritative statement of the Church’s Christology (although it does not mitigate the difficulty of the conception to which it gives expression) because it “does justice at once to the data of Scripture, to the implicates of an Incarnation, to the needs of Redemption, to the demands of the religious emotions, and to the logic of a tenable doctrine of our Lord’s Person” (The Person and Work of Christ, p. 189).

We have in our day a vocabulary for expressing the various concepts and problems associated with personality which was not available in the fifth century. It would be an exciting and rewarding task to use this vocabulary to restate the doctrine of the Incarnation in a form which would correct defective views held today as defective views of an earlier age were corrected at Chalcedon. But such a restatement ought to pass the same stringent tests as Warfield applied to the Chalcedonian statement.

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The Means of the Incarnation. The Church’s confession, as we trace it back to primitive times, sets alongside the fact of our Lord’s incarnation the claim that he became incarnate through being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary.

There are those, indeed, who acknowledge our Lord’s incarnation without believing in his virgin birth, just as others (Muslims, for example) believe in his virgin birth but not in his incarnation. But it is undeniable that his incarnation and virgin birth are intimately bound together in the historic faith of the Church. Nor is this surprising. The Incarnation was a supernatural event—an unprecedented and unrepeated act of God. The more we appreciate the uniqueness of the Incarnation, the more may we recognize how fitting—indeed, how inevitable—it is that the means by which it was brought about should also be unique. Our Lord’s virginal conception must certainly be understood as a pure miracle; attempts to explain it by analogies drawn from parthenogenesis in lower forms of life are worse than useless.

Only two New Testament writers, Matthew and Luke, record the virgin birth of Christ; but they are the only two who record his birth at all. Their birth narratives are independent of each other; all the more impressive, therefore, are the features on which they agree: not only that Christ was born in Bethlehem, the son of Mary, who was affianced to Joseph, a descendant of David; but more particularly that Mary conceived him by the Spirit of God while she was still a virgin. One of these two birth narratives, moreover (Luke’s), has claims to be regarded as one of the most archaic elements in the New Testament.

These two narratives do not exhaust the evidence for the Virgin Birth, although they command the special respect due to their canonical status. Ignatius (c. A.D. 115) also bears testimony to the Virgin Birth, which to some extent reflects a distinct tradition—preserved probably in the church of Antioch.

Whether other New Testament writers knew anything about the Virgin Birth or not, they say nothing to contradict it. Indeed, in one or two places some of them seem to betray some acquaintance with it. However, these are not definite enough to have evidential value.

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The argument that, if the chief characters in the birth narratives had known about the Virgin Birth, they would not have acted or spoken as they did on certain later occasions, makes insufficient allowance for the changing moods of human beings; besides, how can we make confident generalizations about the psychological effects of a unique event? The argument that our Lord would not have been perfectly man had be been virgin-born is hypothetical and undemonstrable; that he was indeed perfectly man is certain in any case.

The fact that he was publicly known as “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45) is irrelevant to the question of his virgin birth. There are other expressions in the Gospels which have been supposed to be inconsistent with it, but these are commoner in the two Gospels which exclude any misunderstanding by recording his virgin birth at the outset. Thus Luke, towards the end of his infancy narrative, refers to Jesus’ “father and mother” or his “parents” (Luke 2:33, 41), and reports his mother as saying to Him, “thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing” (v. 48). But the earlier part of his narrative shows how these expressions are to be understood. Later he reports the people of Nazareth as saying, “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary?” (Matt. 13:55). Whether these Nazarenes knew anything of the circumstances of his birth is doubtful; but the reader of Matthew and Luke is already acquainted with the real circumstances and is not misled by their question. Mark, on the other hand, who has no nativity narrative, reports them as saving: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” (Mark 6:3).

The conception and birth of Christ could not and cannot be susceptible to the laws of evidence in the same way as his resurrection, for which eyewitnesses were not lacking. But God did a new thing in the earth when his Son became incarnate, and the virginal conception was part and parcel of that new thing. In this way, for once, the entail of sin was broken within the human family. No one will suspect Dr. W. R. Matthews of obscurantism, but there is substance in his statement that, “though we may still believe in the Incarnation without the Virgin Birth, it will not be precisely the same kind of Incarnation, and the conception of God’s act of redemption in Christ will be subtly but definitely changed” (Essays in Construction, pp. 128 f.).

Riches for Poverty. In the light of the further revelation of the New Testament, this Old Testament affirmation acquires a deeper significance. It is because God made man in His own image that He could accurately reveal Himself in a human life. So when, in the fullness of time, “God sent forth his Son, born of a woman,” it was in the form of man that he sent him—the form which he had from the beginning intended man to have. Thus the Son of God became partaker of our nature so that we in Him might become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).

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He deigns in flesh to appear,

Widest extremes to join,

To bring our vileness near,

And make us all divine;

And we the life of God shall know,

Since God is manifest below.

(C. Wesley)

Bibliography: C. Gore, The Incarnation of the Son of God; E. H. Gifford, The Incarnation; W. Sanday, Christologies Ancient and Modern; J. G. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ; D. M. Baillie, God Was in Christ; H. E. W. Turner, Jesus, Master and Lord; O. Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament.

Rylands Professor of Biblical

Criticism and Exegesis

University of Manchester

Manchester, England

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