Tag Archive for Christmas

Merry Christmas, Heretics, One and All

Security companies enjoy a kind of odd gratitude for criminals. After all, without the threat of crime, such companies would have little in the way of business. It’s thanks to the attempted and successful acts of crime that these companies develop their walls, fences, locks, and alarms.

Christians, too, should have a similar kind of gratitude toward heretics. If it were not for their attempted vandalism of the faith once delivered to the saints, we may not have developed such careful and ornate theological statements. Heretics helped shape our theology of Christ.

Our theology of Christ must, of course, be biblical. But at the risk of being misunderstood, it must be said that the Bible does not deliver systematic theology. The Bible delivers Spirit-inspired truth. That biblical data must be organised and harmonised, which is the work of systematic theology. And heretics have played an important role in that organisation, by helping us to recognise the borders and boundaries of what the biblical data reveal about Christ.

Very early, within the lifetime of the apostle John, the Docetists claimed that the Christ simply appeared to have a human form, but did not have one in reality, that Jesus was not a true man in the flesh. Around the same time, the Cerinthians taught that the human Jesus was distinct from the Christ spirit. The Christ spirit came upon the fully (and merely) human Jesus at his baptism.

One of the first Hebrew heresies was Ebionism: the Jesus was a man who had kept the Law perfectly, and God rewarded him by calling him ‘anointed’.

By the third century, another two heresies appeared. One was Adoptionism – that Jesus was only a man, but He was adopted by God at His baptism. A second was Sabellianism – the idea that God manifested Himself in three modes, but not in three persons.

The heresies came to full bloom in the fourth and fifth centuries. Arianism taught that Jesus was the first creation of God. Apollinarianism taught that Jesus was a mixture of divine and human, with the Logos replacing the human soul of Jesus.

In the fifth century, Nestorianism split the natures into virtually two persons, denying that Mary bore the Person who is God. Eutychianism taught that the human nature of Jesus was virtually absorbed and overwhelmed by the divine nature. Later, in the sixth century, Monophysites would teach that Jesus had only one nature, a divine one. Monothelites would deny that Jesus had a human will alongside the one will He has within the Trinity.

As these heresies developed, the church needed to respond. As security systems become more advanced with more sophisticated criminals, so the church’s statements about Christ developed from the “faithful saying” of 1 Timothy 3:16, to the Apostles’ Creed (A. D. 250), to the more developed Nicene Creed (A. D. 325 and 381). By the fifth century, we have the very precise statements of the Formula of Chalcedon (A. D. 451) and the Athanasian Creed (c. A. D. 500).


We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.


For the right faith is, that we believe and confess, that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man; God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of the substance of his mother, born in the world; perfect God and perfect man, of a rational soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching His godhead; and inferior to the Father, as touching His manhood; who, although He is God and man, yet he is not two, but one Christ; one, not by conversion of the godhead into flesh but by taking of the manhood into God; one altogether; not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person. For as the rational soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ.

Thank you, heretics, one and all.


The Unexpected Adoration of the Magi

In Kevin T. Bauder’s essay “The Completeness of the Incarnation“, he echoes and explains a series of insightful observations made by Leo Steinberg, writing for Harper’s Magazine in March of
1984. In explaining Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Adoration of the Magi, Steinberg explains how artists depicted a fundamental truth of Christianity, adored and celebrated at Christmas. The way they did so takes us aback at first, until we understand.

Domenico Ghirlandaio

Consider Ghirlandaio’s work. The scene is recognisable. Mary holds Jesus, as the Magi examine Him. What we do not notice at first, until closer scrutiny reveals it, is what exactly the Magi are gazing at. They are looking on, in astonished wonder, at the Child’s genitals.

Sandro Botticelli

One can see the very same posture and gaze in Botticelli’s version of The Adoration, and in many others, particularly Ricci and Veronese.

Note, this is not the profane treatment of sexuality so common in modern media, where prurient curiosity is satisfied with shameful exposure, and where the objectification of the sex act is foisted on us in the name of “gritty reality”. Nothing here is coarse or debased, but has instead the same tasteful veiling that is found in Song of Songs. It may be hard for those in a pornographied culture to imagine such a depiction of nudity as anything except a stimulant for immorality, but realising that these portraits were for religious edification should give us pause before assuming so.

But it is nevertheless an odd phenomenon, upon first encounter. Why would so many artists depict the Wise Men showing fascination with reproductive organs?

Filippino Lippi

The point is a theological one. As the Magi have come to worship the King, they are staggered to find out that He is human, in every respect. His humanity is not a mere appearance, a facade hiding His true Deity. His humanity is not a super-human, supra-human, or sub-human one. He is human in every respect, including that aspect most despised by Gnostics and celebrated by Epicureans: sexuality.

The Gnostics particularly despised sexuality. Certain strands of Gnosticism saw the body as evil, and either veered into asceticism or unbridled sensuality (since the body was not significant for higher, spiritual matters). But Christianity taught that God the Son added to himself a true human nature, including a rational soul and mind, so that His humanity was like ours in every respect, yet without sin. John responded to early Gnosticism with these words: “By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.” (1 Jn. 4:2-3)

Paolo Veronese

Paolo Veronese

“Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 Jn. 5:5)

For Christ to be human in every respect, it includes our sexuality. He did not bypass or omit this aspect of our humanness, because of its abuse or proneness to be used sinfully. Indeed, since man’s sexuality was part of God’s original creation, blessed and pronounced good by God Himself, the Second Adam was like the first in every respect.

Pieter Aertsen


Further, the Incarnation was a means to an end. For there to be a mediation between God and man, the mediator must have equal sympathies with both parties. For there to be union between God and man, there must exist between them a God-Man. In other words, the Incarnation took place so that the Cross could take place. On the Cross, Jesus redeemed only that which He participated in. If He participated in only 80% of our humanity, we could be only 80% redeemed, which is to say, not at all.

If the Enlightenment attacks on the Bible led some to diminish and dilute the Deity of Christ, perhaps the over-correction in our era has been to underemphasise His humanity. But a superhuman Saviour is not Good News, for He could only be a substitute for superhumans. A subhuman Saviour is not goodwill to all men, but goodwill to subhumans.

Sebastion Ricci

The Good News is Hebrew 2:14-18: “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham. Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.” (Heb. 2:14-18)

So it turns out that these paintings of the Magi were not really about the Magi at all. They were beautiful, discreet, and evocative ways of celebrating the Incarnation of Jesus Christ: “truly God and truly Man;…acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ.”

Lo, He abhors not the virgin’s womb. Come, let us adore Him.