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The Birth of God, Part 1

By William Lane Craig


How can God, the uncreated Creator of all things, have a birth?  How can a being which is self-existent and eternal, the Creator of time and space, be born?  It doesn’t seem to make any sense. 

And yet at Christmas this is, in a way, precisely what Christians celebrate.  The Christian doctrine of the incarnation states that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh.  Jesus was thus truly God as well as truly man.  He was born of the virgin Mary; that is to say, Jesus had a supernatural conception but a perfectly natural birth.  Since Jesus was God in the flesh, his mother Mary is therefore called in the early Christian creeds “the Mother of God,” or the “God-bearer.”  This isn’t because God somehow came into existence as a result of Mary’s conceiving or that Mary somehow procreated God.  Rather Mary could be called the God-bearer because the person she bore in her womb and gave birth to was divine.  Thus, Jesus’ birth in this sense was the birth of God.

But that only pushes the problem back a notch.  For how can Jesus be both God and man, as Christians believe?  If anything appears to be a contradiction, surely this is it!  For the properties of being divine and the properties of being human seem to be mutually exclusive, to shut each other out.  God is self-existent, necessary, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present, and so on.  But human beings are created, dependent, time-bound, and limited in power, knowledge, and space.  So how can one person be both human and divine?

Now in case the Christian hard-pressed by this question is tempted to avoid the problem simply by denying that Jesus was really divine or denying that he was really human, let me say that the Bible doesn’t leave that option open to us.  The New Testament affirms both the deity and the humanity of Jesus Christ and so forces the problem upon us.  Take, for example, the opening chapter of John’s gospel.  The gospels of Matthew and Luke open with the story of Jesus’ supernatural conception and virgin birth; but John’s gospel takes a more cosmic perspective, in which he describes the incarnation of the pre-existent Word of God.  He writes,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. . . .

 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”  From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.

Here John describes Jesus as “God,” the Creator of all things, who became flesh and entered human history about 2,000 years ago in the land of Judea.  Thus, the implication is inescapable, as well as the problem it poses:  Jesus was both human and divine.

As succeeding generations in the early church struggled to understand the doctrine of the incarnation, some people resolved this apparent contradiction only at the expense of denying one or the other pole of the biblical teaching.  Groups such as the Gnostics or the Docetists, for example, denied that Christ was truly human.  He merely appeared to take on human form; the flesh of Christ was merely an illusion or a disguise, and his supposed sufferings merely apparent.  On the other hand, groups like the Adoptionists or the Eutychians denied instead the true divinity of Christ.  Jesus of Nazareth was just a mortal man whom God adopted as His Son and assumed into heaven.  In opposition to these groups on the left and on the right, the early church repeatedly condemned as heretical any denial of either Christ’s humanity or his deity.  However contradictory or mysterious it might seem, theologians staunchly stood by the biblical affirmation that Jesus Christ was truly God and truly man.

In time there eventually emerged in the early church two centers of theological debate about the incarnation, one in the city of Alexandria in Egypt and the other in the city of Antioch in Syria.  Both schools of thought were united in affirming that Jesus Christ was both human and divine; but each offered a different way of understanding the incarnation.  Let me try to explain them because these views will serve as a springboard for my own proposal later on.

Both the Alexandrian and the Antiochean theologians presupposed that things have natures, that is to say, essential properties which determine what kind of thing something is.  For example, a horse has a different nature than a pig, and both of these are different from a human nature.  According to the great Greek philosopher Aristotle the nature of a human being is to be a rational animal.  This meant that a human being is essentially composed of a rational soul and a physical body.  This understanding of human nature was accepted by the theologians of both Alexandria and Antioch alike.  Moreover, God, on this view, also has a nature, which includes such properties as being self-existent, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, and so forth.

Now the dispute between Alexandria and Antioch basically boiled down to this:  did Jesus Christ have one nature or two natures?  The theologians of Alexandria argued that the incarnate Christ had one nature which was a blend of divine and human properties.  One of the most ingenious proposals to come out of this school was offered by the bishop Apollinarius, who died about A.D. 390.  Apollinarius proposed that in the incarnation God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, took on a human body, so that Jesus Christ had a human body but a divine mind or soul.  God thus came to experience the world through a human body and to suffer in this body, while remaining sinless and infallible in His person.  Christ thus had a divine-human nature and so was both God and man.

The Antiochean theologians attacked Apollinarius’ view on two grounds.  First, they argued that on Apollinarius’ view Christ did not have a complete human nature.  He only had a human body.  But his soul was divine.  Being truly human involves having both a human body and soul.  What distinguishes man from the animals is his rational soul, not his physical body.  The Antiochean theologians therefore charged that on Apollinarius’ view the incarnation amounts to God’s becoming an animal, not a man.  Their second objection was related to the first.  Since the purpose of the incarnation was the salvation of humanity, if Christ did not truly become a man, then salvation was nullified.  The whole rationale behind the incarnation was that by becoming one of us and identifying with his fellow-men Christ could offer his sinless life to God as a sacrificial offering on our behalf.  On the cross Jesus Christ was our substitute; he bore the penalty of sin that we deserved.  Jesus is thus the Savior of all who place their trust in him.  But if Christ was not truly human, then he could not serve as our representative before God, and his suffering was null and void, and there is no salvation.  By denying Christ’s full humanity, Apollinarius undermined salvation through Christ.  For these reasons in the year 377 Apollinarius’ view was condemned as heretical.  The question which remains, I think, is whether Apollinarius’ view is totally bankrupt or whether it did not contain a valuable kernel of truth which is still salvageable.

What alternative, then, did the Antiochean theologians have to offer?  In contrast to Alexandria, the theologians of Antioch insisted that in the incarnation Christ had two complete natures, one human and one divine.  They held that God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, in some sense indwelt the human being Jesus from the moment of his conception in Mary’s womb.  One prominent bishop of the Antiochean school named Nestorius therefore objected to Mary’s being called “the God-bearer” because what she bore was the human nature of Christ, not God.  Christ’s human nature included both a human body and soul, which were somehow assumed or possessed by God the Son.

The problem with the Antiochean view in the minds of its Alexandrian opponents was that it seemed to imply that there were two persons in Christ.  First, there’s the divine person, the second person of the Trinity, who existed prior to Mary’s miraculous conception.  Second, there’s the human person who was conceived and borne by Mary.  So you seem to have two persons, one human and one divine!  Think of it this way:  a human person is constituted by a body and a soul.  So if Jesus had a complete human nature, including a human body and a human soul, why wouldn’t there be a human person, who began to exist at the moment of his conception and who was then indwelt by God the Son?  But in that case you don’t have a real incarnation, all you have is just a human being indwelt by God.  The hapless Nestorius was therefore branded by his critics as destroying the unity of Christ’s person, and so his view was condemned as heretical in 431.

So what was to be done?  In order to settle the dispute between Antioch and Alexandria an ecumenical council was convened at Chalcedon in the year 451.  The statement issued by the Council is a profound and careful delineation of the channel markers for an orthodox doctrine of the incarnation.  It seeks to affirm what is correct in both schools’ views while condemning where they go wrong.  Basically, the statement affirms with Antioch the diversity of Christ’s natures but with Alexandria the unity of his person:  one person having two natures:

We. . . confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhood and also per­fect in manhood, truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhood, and consub­stantial with us according to the manhood, like us in all things except sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhood, 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 without confusion, without change, without divi­sion, without separation, the difference of the natures being by no means taken away because of the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not divided or separated into two Persons, but one and the same Son and only begotten God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ. . . .

Read Part 2...

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