The Heart of It All: The Incarnation (Part 3)

July 12, 2011

by Peter Amsterdam

Audio length: 18:22

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(For an introduction and explanation regarding this series overall, please see The Heart of It All: Introduction.)

In the previous article we looked at how the church fathers in the first seven centuries worked through the doctrine of the Incarnation. We saw various teachings which attempted to explain the “mechanics” of how it worked that Jesus, who was the Logos, God the Son, was also fully human. Many of these teachings were condemned by the church councils as being false. In the debates where these teachings were discussed, language was agreed upon to either explain the doctrine, or in some cases, to set parameters within which further discussion could take place. After this period, debates regarding the Incarnation of Christ largely ceased for over a thousand years.

The shift from ecumenical councils to a divided church

As Christianity developed and spread during its first five hundred years, theological centers developed, the earliest two being Antioch (in present-day Turkey) and Alexandria (in Egypt), both situated in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. In time Rome, situated in the western part of the empire, became a center as well. Different schools of theological thought developed in these centers, which were often in opposition to one another. As we’ve seen, in order to determine which theological position was true, councils were convened. When representatives from the eastern church and the western church gathered together in such a council, these were considered ecumenical councils, meaning bishops of the whole Christian church were gathered together, rather than just bishops within a region. There were numerous other councils held throughout the centuries, but these were not normally ecumenical, as they generally only had local or regional representation. There were seven councils that were considered ecumenical by both the western and eastern churches.

While there were some differences in understanding and interpreting scripture between the church in the eastern and western parts of the empire during this early period, the church was generally united as one. There were some offshoots which still exist, but on the whole the church in the east and west was united.

The bishops throughout the east and west could meet to determine matters of doctrine. Later, over the centuries, for a variety of reasons, the eastern and western parts of the church began to grow apart in their outlook and application of theology, and eventually, in AD 1054, there was a formal split in the church resulting in two distinct churches—the Eastern Orthodox Church, with its head in Constantinople, and the Roman Catholic Church, with its head in Rome. Both the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches continued to hold to the doctrines determined in the first seven ecumenical councils and therefore fully agree on the core doctrines of Christianity. However, from that point on, the ecumenical councils held consisted of bishops from only the Roman Catholic Church, and thus are not considered ecumenical in the same sense as the early councils.

The Reformation and birth of Protestantism

In AD 1517 a major new factor exploded on the scene of Christianity. Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic priest in Germany, presented an interpretation of scripture that fundamentally differed from the view the Roman Catholic church had developed by this time. This started the period of history known as the Reformation. It had a profound effect on Christianity. Without going into all the details, Luther’s views differed from the Roman Catholic beliefs in two fundamental ways. He believed that scripture taught that salvation was attained through faith alone, as opposed to the Roman Catholic view that it was received through faith and through works. He also taught that scripture alone was the final arbiter of doctrine and belief, as opposed to the Roman Catholic belief that, besides the scripture, the teachings of the church and especially those declared as true by the pope were on equal footing and thus equal in authority. Luther’s views earned him excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church.

During the same time period, other reformers, such as Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich and John Calvin in Geneva, also split away from the Catholic Church and began to develop theology and thus beliefs that differed from Roman Catholic doctrine. The general category of “Protestants” encompasses all Christians who believe in salvation by faith alone.

It’s important to know, however, that the reformers all agreed with the fundamental doctrines hammered out in the seven ecumenical councils. Protestants today have disagreements among themselves on some issues, but in general they agree on the doctrine of the Incarnation. While Protestants of yesterday and today have theological differences with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, they agree on the basics of the Trinity and the Incarnation—that Jesus was fully God and fully man, as expressed in the early councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon.

One difference between the church before the Reformation and the post-Reformation church is that there is no longer any united definitive body of people who can convene to determine which new teachings are true and which are false, as was possible in the first six centuries of the church. In the past, when teachings were wrong, they were officially refuted and condemned as being false by the ecumenical councils, and these rulings were accepted by the majority of Christians at that time. Since the Reformation there has not been a universally accepted body which can make such judgments. (Roman Catholics have continued to hold ecumenical councils, but these councils only include Protestants and Orthodox participants as observers, with no right to vote on the issues decided, and therefore the decisions and declarations are not upheld by Protestant and Orthodox churches.) Thus, false teachings in recent centuries are not officially condemned—though that doesn’t mean they aren’t false.

Liberal theology

A number of teachings and speculations regarding the Incarnation of Christ arose in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Within the time period between the Reformation and the late eighteenth century, often referred to historically as the Age of Enlightenment, the Western world radically changed. The New World was discovered, new forms of government were tested, great strides were made in mathematics, science, astronomy, agriculture, economics, and philosophy. Generally speaking, the Western world accumulated a lot of new knowledge which did away with or modified the knowledge of the past thousands of years. Throughout this period, Christianity and the churches were not held in the same high esteem that they had been in the past. People became much more skeptical of faith in God.

In the late eighteenth century, and more so in the nineteenth century, the doctrine of the Incarnation once again came to the fore theologically. With the new knowledge available in many areas of thought and discovery, many theologians looked for better ways to explain the doctrine, ways that would be more in line with modern thinking, though some turned out to be variations of those condemned in the first six centuries. We will look at a few of them in general terms.

In the latter part of the eighteenth century, most notably in the work of the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), there was a move away from looking at the person of Christ from a theological perspective of being the God-man with two natures, and toward more of a historical perspective, focusing on Jesus’ humanity—leading to a Jesus that is a divine man, but not God. He was a man who had a unique “God consciousness,” a perfect and unbroken sense of union with the divine. The Incarnation was seen as the oneness of God and man.[1]

Schleiermacher’s influence carried over into the mid-nineteenth century in the teaching of Albrecht Ritschl (1822–1889), another German theologian. He taught that Jesus was a mere man, but due to the work He accomplished and the service He rendered to mankind, He can rightly be looked at as God. He ruled out Jesus being the pre-incarnate Logos, the Incarnation, and the virgin birth. Jesus made the purpose of God His own, and now somehow induces men to enter Christianity and the Christian community. He redeems man by His teaching, example, and unique influence, and is therefore worthy to be called God.[2]

Schleiermacher and Ritschl were not by any means the only theologians who believed and taught these things, but they were the most influential.

Several German theologians between 1860 and 1880, and several from England from around 1890–1910, championed a view of the Incarnation that was new in the history of the church. It was called kenotic theology.

Kenosis was based on something the apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians:

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.[3]

Kenotic theology claims that Christ emptied himself of some of His divine attributes—for example, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence—while living on earth. This theory is based on the Greek word kenoō, which means “to empty,” which in this case is translated as “emptied Himself.”

Theologian Wayne Grudem explained the argument against kenosis quite well when he wrote:

But does Philippians 2:7 teach that Christ emptied Himself of some of His divine attributes, and does the rest of the New Testament confirm this? The evidence of Scripture points to a negative answer to both questions. We must first realize that no recognized teacher in the first 1,800 years of church history, including those who were native speakers of Greek, thought that “emptied Himself” in Philippians 2:7 meant that the Son of God gave up some of His divine attributes. Second, we must recognize that the text does not say that Christ “emptied Himself of some powers” or “emptied Himself of divine attributes” or anything like that. Third, the text does describe what Jesus did in this “emptying”: He did not do it by giving up any of His attributes but rather by taking “the form of a servant,” that is, by coming to live as a man and “being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the cross” (Philippians 2:8). Thus the context itself interprets the “emptying” as equivalent to “humbling Himself” and taking on a lowly status and position. Thus, the NIV, instead of translating the phrase, “He emptied Himself,” translates it, “but made Himself nothing” (Philippians 2:7 NIV). The emptying includes change of role and status, not essential attributes or nature.[4]

Some kenotic theologians interpreted Philippians 2:7 as meaning that the Logos gave up all of the divine attributes. Some went further in saying that when God the Son became a man, He had no consciousness of His divine nature and no longer had the mutual indwelling of the Father and the Spirit, so that the Trinity was profoundly affected by the Incarnation.

Kenosis denies the Incarnation, because if Christ had given up some of His divine attributes, He would have ceased being God. In Philippians 2, Paul is speaking to the Christians in Philippi, exhorting them to humility, and uses Jesus’ example of not grasping or holding on to His heavenly glory, but rather His humbly taking on the form of a servant. He left the glory of heaven; He gave up His heavenly status. Instead of being an emptying of His divine attributes, it was a voluntary act of love and compassion. There is no scriptural evidence that Jesus gave up any of His divine attributes.

Isaac August Dorner (1809–1884), a German Lutheran, strongly opposed the kenotic theory. He taught that Jesus was God incarnate, but put forth the theory of progressive incarnation. His theory stated that “the incarnation is not indeed to be conceived as finished from the beginning, but as gradually developing.”[5] He taught that at the beginning of Jesus’ life He was not the God-man. Rather, as Jesus yielded to the Father in all things, the Logos gradually penetrated His humanity. The final stage of this progressive penetration was at the resurrection. This turned out to be a form of Nestorianism, yielding two persons in Christ.

Liberal theology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries generally considered the Incarnation a myth, teaching that Jesus was merely a man with a special connection with God. In the book The Myth of God Incarnate, John Hick states:

Jesus was a “man approved by God” for a special role within the divine purpose, and the later conception of him as God incarnate, the second Person of the Holy Trinity living in a human life, is a mythological or poetic way of expressing his significance for us.[6]

Such belief denies the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity.

In conclusion

We can see from Scripture that Jesus is God and also became man, God incarnate. And yet, no one can fully know how the Incarnation and the union of the two natures worked internally within the person of Christ; it’s beyond the realm of human understanding. Standard orthodox Christian belief adheres to the Chalcedon definition, which sets the limits but doesn’t explain how it worked. As Christians, it seems safe to stick within those parameters. Those parameters are:

  • Christ has two natures, one human and one divine, each one complete.
  • He has both a rational soul and a body.
  • He is perfect in manhood and perfect in deity.
  • There is only one person in Christ.
  • The union of the divine nature and human nature are without confusion, without change, without separation, and without division.

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.[7]

The doctrines of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the Incarnation of Christ are important parts of the bedrock foundation of Christianity. My prayer is that these first articles in The Heart of It All series have helped to give you a deeper understanding of these doctrines.

May our wonderful and amazing Lord and Savior, our loving Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son, the eternally preexistent Logos, the Word of God, the one who loves us so deeply, who cares for us in every way, who chose to suffer and die for our salvation, abundantly bless you each and every day!

Summary of “The Incarnation” articles:

  • Along with being fully God, Jesus is also fully man.
  • There are many scriptures in the New Testament defining Jesus’ humanity.
  • Only one who is God can bear the weight of the sins of the world. Only a human being can vicariously represent mankind. It took Jesus being both to bring about salvation.
  • The Incarnation means that Jesus is God in human flesh.
  • While Jesus was God living on earth in human flesh, He was fully human, with the same human attributes, needs, weaknesses, limitations, and temptations, as we have.
  • While He was tempted to sin, He did not sin; for if He had sinned, He would not be God, who is sinless.
  • Over the centuries, a number of doctrines about Jesus arose which proved false, as they denied either His full divinity or His full humanity.
  • Liberal theology in the eighteenth century and later introduced concepts that became popular, which also deny the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity.
  • While today Protestants and Catholics and Eastern Orthodox churches have their differences, all agree on the basics of the Trinity and the Incarnation, as expressed in the early councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon.
  • The description of Jesus’ nature that defines Christian doctrine was established at the Chalcedonian council. Jesus was “perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man. … to be acknowledged in two natures ... indivisibly, inseparably … concurring in one Person and one Subsistence … one and the same Son, and only begotten God, the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.”


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Other versions frequently cited are The New International Version (NIV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), The New King James Version (NKJV), and the King James Version (KJV).


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Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.

Cary, Phillip. The History of Christian Theology, Lecture Series, Lectures 11, 12. Chantilly: The Teaching Company, 2008.

Craig, William Lane. The Doctrine of Christ, Defenders Series Lecture.

Garrett, Jr., James Leo. Systematic Theology, Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, Vol. 1. N. Richland Hills: BIBAL Press, 2000.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

Kreeft, Peter, and Ronald K. Tacelli. Handbook of Christian Apologetics. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994.

Lewis, Gordon R., and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Milne, Bruce. Know the Truth, A Handbook of Christian Belief. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Mueller, John Theodore. Christian Dogmatics, A Handbook of Doctrinal Theology for Pastors, Teachers, and Laymen. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1934.

Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1960.

Stott, John. Basic Christianity. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1971.

Williams, J. Rodman. Renewal Theology, Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

[1] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 309.

[2] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 310.

[3] Philippians 2:5–7 NASB.

[4] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 550.

[5] I. Dorner, System of Christian Doctrine, Vol. 3 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1880–82), 340.

[6] John Hick, ed., The Myth of God Incarnate (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977), ix., quoted in Williams, J. Rodman. Renewal Theology, Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996. P. 326n115.

[7] 1 Timothy 3:16.