The Christian church confesses that the eternal Son of God became a human being in Jesus Christ, lived a human life, and died a human death for our salvation. The prologue to the Gospel of John begins, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God” (1:1). In verse 14, we hear that “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The man Jesus is the eternal Word of God. Paul speaks about the one who dwelt in the “form of God” emptying himself and humbling himself to take on the “form of a slave” and to die on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8). And in Colossians, he speaks of Christ as the one in whom “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” The writer of Hebrews speaks of one who secured purification from sins as the one “through whom also God made the universe” (Hebrews 1:1-4).
Hence the New Testament certainly teaches that the person we meet in Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, who existed with the Father before he was made flesh. But how did his disciples arrive at this knowledge, and what does it mean to say that the Word became flesh or that the fullness of the godhead dwelt bodily? These questions are not easily answered. It seems clear, however, that the doctrine of incarnation was not understood during Jesus’ earthly life. Only after the resurrection did this become clear. What changed?
It seems to me evident from the New Testament teaching about the resurrection of Jesus, his post-resurrection appearances, and his close connection to the sending of the Holy Spirit, that the disciples experienced the risen Jesus as one whom God had designated from all eternity as Lord, Savior, Revealer, Creator, and Judge. These functions cannot be carried out by a mere human or even an angel. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). But Jesus Christ could not be thought of as a mere instrument God used or a space in which God dwelt while doing this work. The risen Jesus is one with God in will and action. God acts “through” and “in” Jesus. But Jesus is not the Father. Nevertheless, in calling Jesus Christ the Word of God or the Son of God the apostles view Jesus Christ as some sort of “extension” of God.
The disciples did not realize fully the identity of Jesus as the Son/Word of God incarnate before the resurrection and the giving of the Spirit. However, once they knew his true identity they concluded that from the very beginning of his human life he had been the incarnate Son of God. The resurrection revealed the identity of Jesus in glory, but it did not constitute it. The question I raised earlier becomes relevant at this point. What does it mean to say that the Word became flesh? We can readily see that the resurrected and glorified Jesus has been united to God, filled to overflowing with divine life, one in will and action with God. His body was transformed and spiritualized and his consciousness united with the divine mind. But how shall we understand his divinity during his earthly life before his glorification?
The first thing to keep in mind in answering this question is the truth I stated above: the actuality of the incarnation before the resurrection is a deduction concluded from Jesus’ resurrection and his status after that glorious event. It cannot be known from experience of his humanity or from pure speculation. And it could not have been established merely by a claim by Jesus or his followers. However, once that conclusion has been secured by the resurrection we can retrospectively see signs of Jesus’ identity in his earthly life: his miracles, the authority of his teaching, and his claims.
But accepting the resurrection-grounded truth that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God incarnate from conception onward does not grant us understanding of how this is possible or complete insight into the nature of the union between the Son of God and the human life of Jesus. Our expectations of what an incarnate God would be like create difficulties in thinking of Jesus as the Word made flesh. We tend to think that a divine presence in Jesus would necessarily manifest itself in a special divine-like consciousness and action through the agency of the body. But we cannot imagine a human consciousness that includes all knowledge or a human agency that exercises omnipotence. In the same way, we cannot imagine a divine consciousness that is limited to a human mind and bodily senses or a divine power bound by the limits of the body. Hence we get hopelessly entangled in contradictions. Some theologians develop theories of divine self-limitation, wherein the Word gives up or refuses to use some divine attributes and others think up theories that lessen the humanity by replacing the human mind with the divine mind or making the entire humanity a mere appearance.
The Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds assert that Jesus Christ is “truly God and truly man” and that he is “one and the same Christ…to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.” These statements do not attempt to explain how this is possible or speculate about the psychological experience of the God-Man. Perhaps it is enough simply to confess the biblical and orthodox Christology and refuse to speculate further. I believe this stance is sufficient for the life of faith, and it is the foundation on which I base my thinking about the Incarnation. But we are curious to know the answers to these questions, and we cannot help imagining some sort of answer. And this curiosity can lead us to propose heretical or fanciful theories.
As I hinted above, I do not find it helpful to think about the Incarnation primarily in psychological categories, speculating about the union of divine and human consciousness and self-consciousness. I find it more helpful to think in ontological categories, that is, the being or existence of a thing rather than the self-consciousness of that thing. No right thinking person identifies their humanity fully with their consciousness. We are human even when we are not aware of the fullness of our human nature. Our humanity does not rise and fall with our self-consciousness. Human life is a life-long quest to understand and experience our full humanity and the humanity of others. The goal of all human existence is to become spirit, that is, to achieve identity between what we are in existence and in our self-consciousness.
Clearly, here and now there is a difference between my existing humanity and my ego or any other medium in which I am aware of my existence. Nevertheless, I can truly affirm that my existence is me and mine, even if I am not yet aware of all of it. I do not think or feel this way about the existence of other things, rocks, mice, planets or light beams. Why not? They are within my sphere of possible experiences. Indeed they are, but when I experience for the first time aspects of my existence, I experience them as me and mine, as having been me and mine all along. I do not experience other objects this way. I experience all dimensions of my existence as constituents of myself, and I realize that they were aspects of my constitution even before I knew of them.
Jesus Christ was fully human from conception onward. But like all human beings he grew in consciousness of his human existence and nature. It was not his consciousness and self-consciousness of his humanity that made him human. Jesus shared with other human beings the drive to know the fullness of his human nature and existence. But Jesus was also fully God from conception onward; that is to say, for Jesus the divine nature was a constituent of his existence. (For us, the divine nature is the cause of our existence but not a constituent of our persons.) In the same way that Jesus was not fully conscious of every aspect of his human nature from conception onward, he was not fully conscious of his divine nature always. And just as his lack of complete consciousness of his humanity did not make him less human, lack of full consciousness of his divine nature did not make him less divine. I think we can safely say that Jesus grew both in his awareness of his humanity and his divinity during his earthly life. And even if Jesus did not become fully conscious of the full depths of his humanity or his divinity until his glorification in the resurrection, this in no way diminishes the completeness of his pre-glorification divinity or his humanity!
Note: this is the 151st essay I’ve written and posted on this blog since August 2013.