The Mystery of the Incarnation: How Can the Word Become Flesh?

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.

 

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10 thoughts on “The Mystery of the Incarnation: How Can the Word Become Flesh?

  1. falonopsahl

    I think one of the greatest things I have gained from my first year as a graduate student is the articulation of the resurrection at the center of every single aspect of the Christian faith, including those that have traditionally been treated so separately, like the incarnation. We’ve had some really interesting conversations in philosophy of religion this semester pertaining to some of what you discuss here, and I kept wanting to raise my hand and say, “But if our framework was centered theologically around the resurrection…”

    This was a good study break!

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    1. rich

      i don’t know Edward maybe this is your issue

      Chapter I. What is this Actually: the World?

      You and the Universe

      Materialism

      Gabriel defines physicalism as the claim that all existing things are located in the universe and can, for that reason, be investigated physically. Materialism states that all existing things are made up of matter (28). Of course, materialism is variously understood, but here he employs it simply to state: 1) “everything is found in the universe” and 2) “everything that is found in the universe is material or has material foundations” (29). So the idea that my thoughts about unicorns are ontological in a way that is not material, is refuted on the basis that the thoughts are themselves merely the product of physical states. This entire set of claims, Gabriel argues, is problematized by two reasons and – even more importantly – flatly falsified by a further two.

      First, Gabriel asks:

      “How can one explain, for example, that, although brain states are material, they are able to refer to non-material objects in the form of images? How can material objects, in any way, be about anything that is not material? When the materialist admits that brain states are about something that is not material, he has already admitted that there is something that is not material, namely all of the non-material objects brain states can be about” (29).

      Quite simply: “Even if all our thoughts put be understood as brain states and, therefore, as material, it would still be about all sorts of things that we do not believe to be material” (29, italics mine).

      Second, if my non- material mental imaginations are based on material conditions, then it follows that the thought “there are only material conditions” is itself determined by material conditions. So the question becomes, “how does the materialist know that his thought ‘Only material conditions exist’ is not a fantasy?” (30). Of course, the materialist could imagine that he could proceed experimentally, to demonstrate that all objects and all thoughts are material, or based on material conditions. But the amount of material needed to substantiate this claim is too much. One cannot experimentally verify the materialist claim that “Only material conditions exist”. This is to say that the materialist claim is a metaphysical assumption.

      More significantly, materialism is simply false for the following two reasons. First, materialism struggles with the problem of identification. Gabriel illustrates this issue in the following way:

      “Materialism teaches that, in the end, my representation of the coffee table with coffee stains is reducible to the fact that coffee table with coffee stains consists of physical objects such as subatomic particles. Yet, in order to pick correctly out of all subatomic particles the relevant subatomic particles for the coffee table with coffee stains – that is, to identify the right cluster of particles – it is taken for granted that we are searching for the particles of the coffee table (and not, for instance, the particles of the remote control that is lying on the coffee table). In order to do that we must recognise the existence of the coffee table, for only the coffee table leads us to its particles” (31, italics mine).

      The point of this is to transfer the need to identify something before its material constitution is established, to fantasies: “we must recognise the existence of fantasies, and there with non-material representational contents, in order to be able to identify the group particles that are responsible for it” (31). This is to say that materialism needs to recognise “the existence of representations in order for it to be able to deny them that the next step”, which is simply a contradiction. Therefore, materialism is false.

      Second, materialism is false because the idea of materialism is not material. Materialism is a theory, and the truth of that theory cannot be established on the basis of materialism’s commitments.

      All of this is to say that not all things exist in the domain of the physical universe, a claim that would only work if physicalism or materialism were endorsed. And this we cannot do for materialism is false.

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      1. rich

        Of corse, this leads to reason,only the two choices That the trinity Must answer.For mankind
        EXACTLY what is an ontology?
        I just love these ?s….
        🙂

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      2. rich

        EXACTLY what is an ontology?
        The creations subjective anthropologic Center of self, projected outward,for validation.
        What is the other side of that coin…? That the servant, Jesus Shows us?
        1.The Trinities ontology
        Exodus 3:14
        now that is the Start…
        THE
        FINISH
        is THE DEATH OF ONTOLOGY,

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      3. ifaqtheology Post author

        Ontology is the part of philosophy that reflects on what it means to BE, rather on what it means to be this or that or to feel this or that or to be conscious of this or that. I used the term to distinguish between BEING something and being aware of something, even if that something is your own way of being. We can conceive of human consciousness and divine consciousness occupying the same mind. But that is not the essence of the idea of the incarnation. The incarnation means that the concrete existence of Jesus Christ is constituted (cause to BE) by divine and human natures.

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      4. rich

        THE
        FINISH
        is THE DEATH OF ONTOLOGY,
        2nd cor 5
        14 For the love of Christ controls us, since we have concluded this, that Christ died for all; therefore all have died. 15 And he died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised. 16 So then from now on we acknowledge no one from an outward human point of view. Even though we have known Christ from such a human point of view, now we do not know him in that way any longer. 17 So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away—look, what is new has come!

        now then
        this is where or at this summation of the creators I would go back and talk to

        the issue at hand.inside these known parameters
        The Mystery of the Incarnation: How Can the Word Become Flesh?

        the book above, that you wanted
        Markus Gabriel’s Why the World Does Not Exist

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  2. Matt Stinson

    I enjoyed this post a lot and your ontological view of the two natures seems to make room for Jesus to grow in wisdom and stature with God and Man (LK 2:52). It also seems to flow well with the recapitulation of humanity in Christ by allowing for him to have developed over time.

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  3. rich Constant

    In any way actually run I was trying to get Edward fudges post out of the way that question when he was a young kid now then on to the word

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  4. rich Constant

    And I think the word is anthropic it’s a long time since I looked up that but I think that everything that we are as far as ontology is anthropic looking at anything which amounts to ontology I hope that’s a good word

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