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Guide to the Mystery of the Incarnation

By Kenneth R. Samples - March 1, 2013
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Greek mythology notwithstanding, it seems impossible that God could assume the nature of a horse or a dog and yet somehow remain divine.1 Why? Categories of being are fundamentally different between God and animals. And while it is deeply paradoxical and mysterious that God could take a human nature and live on Earth as the God-man as historic Christianity affirms, it seems from a biblical perspective that human nature was specifically created in anticipation of this extraordinary event.

God in Human Flesh

The Incarnation stands at the heart of historic Christianity and is celebrated around the world during the Advent season.2 This biblically derived doctrine teaches that the eternal Word, the second person of the Trinity, took on a human nature (became man) without in any way diminishing his deity (John 1:1, 14, 18; Philippians 2:5–6; Colossians 2:9; 1 John 4:1–3). Christian orthodoxy therefore views Jesus Christ as a single person who possesses both a divine and human nature. The two natures find their union in the one person of Christ (referred to theologically as the “hypostatic union”). This theological understanding of the Incarnation led ancient Christians to refer to Jesus Christ as the theanthropos (Greek: the “God-man”).

The Incarnation in Light of the Imago Dei

The Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) officially defined the doctrine yet did not attempt to explain exactly how the two natures that Christ possessed were united with his personhood. But it seems biblically correct to infer that humankind’s creation in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27) at least anticipated the Incarnation. It would appear that by making humans in his divine image, God also made it possible for himself to take a human nature. In this way, the image of God (in Latin:imago Dei) creation status of human beings foreshadows and even facilitates the Incarnation.

Theologian Anthony Hoekema asserts that “it was only because man had been created in the image of God that the Second Person of the Trinity could assume human nature.”3 In other words, God made humans in his image because he planned to become one at the Incarnation in order to redeem lost sinners (2 Timothy 1:9–10). In the atonement, Christians believe that Jesus Christ could reconcile God and man because he represented both parties by nature.

Though still mysterious and beyond comprehension, the human nature of Christ that resembles God in a relative way (imago Dei) was specially adapted to accommodate the union with the divine nature. Thus, in accord with Chalcedonian orthodoxy, Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man but remained a single person. Hopefully, identifying this connection between the doctrines of creation and the Incarnation will provoke Christians to think about and be grateful for the grand, mysterious truth at the core of the faith.

Endnotes
  1. Greek mythology contains the story of Pegasus, a winged divine-horse. See Wikipedia, s.v. “Pegasus,” last modified January 25, 2013.
  2. For more on the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, see Kenneth Richard Samples, “How Can Jesus Christ Be Both God and Man?” chap. 9 in Without a Doubt (Baker, 2004).
  3. Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 22.

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