Tag Archive for Incarnation

The Doctrine of Impeccability: A Test Case for the Hypostatic Union

During this time of Christmas, the church rightly turns its attention to the mystery of the Incarnation. That God became man, while remaining fully God, is one of the deepest biblical doctrines to plumb. Whenever there is some intersection of the human and the divine, there is a fathomless mystery at work: divine election and human freedom, divine and human authorship of Scripture, divine agency and human action. So it is with the Incarnation: the mystery of how one Person could come to have two natures, without dividing the Person or mixing the natures. Orthodoxy always seems balanced on a knife-edge: the fall into heresy is swift if one attempts to explain away the biblical data while leaning too heavily to one side or the other.

One way to illustrate the peril and the precision which is required when handling this doctrine is to consider the doctrine of impeccability. Simply put, impeccability states that Christ was not able to sin. When it is put as prosaically as that, the usual pushback is that the doctrine of impeccability makes a farce of Satan’s temptation of Jesus. Why tempt One who is immune to temptation, and unable to fall? One may as well seek to lure herbivores with red meat, or entice the deaf with a beautiful melody.

Those comparisons are flawed, as we’ll see. Before we answer the question of temptation, we should begin with the two natures of Christ, and how they affect impeccability.

Christ is fully God. God cannot sin, for sin is a violation of God’s will and nature. God cannot be other than himself. For this reason, sin is not tempting to God at all (Jas 1:13).

Christ is fully man. Born of a virgin, and through the miracle of divine conception, Jesus was born without a sin nature. Adam before the fall was able not to sin. Adam after the fall, with a sin nature, was not able not to sin. Christ’s human nature was as Adam’s pre-fall: able not to sin.

Whatever is true of the nature propagates to the Person, according to that nature.  According to His divine nature, Christ was not able to sin. According to His human nature, Christ was able not to sin.

Whatever belongs to natures, Christ has two of, and whatever belongs to Persons, Christ has one of. Christ has a divine will (identical to the will of the Triune Godhead), and a human will (“not My will but Thine be done”, Jesus said in the Garden). It is impossible for the divine will to sin. It is possible for the unfallen human will not to sin. These two unite in the hypostatic union, where the Formula of Chalcedon describes the union as, “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 was parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ”.

Here we see the nearly unbearable weight of this doctrine upon human understanding. If we were to say that the divine nature cancelled out any ability to sin, that would be the heresy of Eutychianism, mixing the natures. If we said that he never did possess any real human inclinations but only a human body, we’d be guilty of Apollinarianism. If we claimed that “His human side” could sin, we would be guilty of Nestorianism – dividing the person into two. If we claimed that Jesus the Man could sin and only avoid sin because of God’s presence, we’d be close to Ebionism, denying the divinity of Christ.

Instead, we are left with the same kind of conundrums we have in other areas. According to His divine nature, Jesus is omnipresent; according to His human nature, Jesus is localised in a glorified body. According to His divine nature, Jesus was immortal; according to His human nature, Jesus could die. These are both true in the Person, without cancelling the other out.

In the case of impeccability, most theologians have landed on impeccability. There have been exceptions, Charles Hodge and A. W. Tozer being two notable ones. But most have decided that a nature that cannot sin, when united with a nature that is able not to sin, leads to a Person who is not able to sin. Impossibility united with mere potential seems to still result in impossibility. Natures don’t sin, persons do, and it is simply impossible that the Person who is God could sin.

This returns us to the Temptation of Christ. What was the point of tempting an impeccable Person? First, we are not sure of what Satan knew of the incarnate Christ’s peccability. If it is a mystery to us, it could certainly have been a mystery to spiritual forces of darkness. Second, the fact that Jesus could not sin is not the reason He did not sin. It is true that Jesus could not sin. But the writer of Hebrews never posits Christ’s divine nature as the reason for His perfection. Instead, we read that “He learned obedience by the things He suffered” (Heb. 5:8). In other words, Jesus did not sin because of His faith and obedience – the same tools available to us.

Bruce Ware illustrates this with a long distance open-water swimmer. Such swimmers have support boats trailing them. These make it impossible for them to drown. The support boats, however, are not the reason they do not drown. The reason they do not drown is because they keep swimming with endurance, and finish the race. Yes, Jesus had the “support boat” of His divine nature: He could not sin. But the reason He did not sink into sin was that He kept obeying, kept trusting, kept resisting Satan to the end.

Behold, the wondrous mystery: God and Man, the Word made flesh, the born child who is the Mighty God. Come, let us adore Him.

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.