APPLIED THEOLOGY SERIES
What is it?
One of the central aspects of Christian theology is the belief in the Incarnation – that Christ came down and became human, taking on a human nature, but keeping His divine nature. It is also generally accepted that the incarnation is a mystery, that is, there really is no comprehensive or even adequate understanding of how the incarnation works. The best work dealing with this subject is Athanasius’ On The Incarnation, but even this work only shows how the incarnation works logically – it doesn’t explain how it actually works.
Why is it important as a belief?
One of the better summarizations of why the incarnation – that Jesus is both God and human – is found in Peter Kreeft’s book Because God is Real: Sixteen Questions, One Answer (Ignatius Press, 2006):
If it’s not possible for Jesus to be both fully divine and fully human, then either (a) Jesus is only the perfect human being but not God, or else (b) He’s only God but not a real human being.
a. If He’s only a human being, then He can’t forgive our sins. He can’t be our Savior from sin. And He can’t rise from the dead or raise us up from the dead. And He can’t unite us to God and take us to Heaven. For no merely human being can do any of that.
b. If He’s not fully human, if His human nature was only an appearance, like a movie or a dream, or “virtual reality”, then He didn’t really grow or tire or feel pain and frustration like us, so He can’t really understand our pains and weaknesses. God was never a human baby. God never had a mother. God was never a teenager. God never had to learn a trade like carpentry. God never got hungry and tired and lonely and angry and frustrated. God never suffered and died.
If either of these two “heresies” is true – if Jesus is not fully divine or if Jesus is not fully human – then we have no hope of Heaven. And that’s as big a difference to our lives as anything can possibly be. (p. 14)
What Kreeft points out is that if Jesus is not God, then He is no better than a righteous human – He holds no authority. If Jesus is not human, then He didn’t really live like us or take on our sufferings like we do, meaning He’s not an adequate example on how to live (or a proper sacrifice).
What scripture supports a belief in the incarnation?
The Catholic Encyclopedia states:
The Latin incarnatio (in: caro, flesh) corresponds to the Greek sarkosis, or ensarkosis, which words depend on John (1:14) kai ho Logos sarx egeneto, “And the Word was made flesh”.
In other words, the word “incarnation” is a Latin translation of the Greek word ensarkois, which is the idea presented in John 1:14. The whole of the New Testament, specifically the four gospels, explains how Christ was both God and man. The article linked to the Catholic Encyclopedia does an excellent job of showing the numerous passages that refer to Jesus being both man and God.
How can this belief be applied?
This belief is seemingly hard to apply to our everyday lives because we are not God, have never been God, and will never be God – so how can we be incarnated? We can’t come down as God in human form. Though perplexing, there are applications of the incarnation. The one I can think of the most is Missions. I was speaking with my friend from the Philippines the other day about American missionaries. He said it isn’t uncommon in his country and other countries in Southeast Asia to have American missionaries living like millionaires. They may only get $2,000-$3,000 a month from America, but when the currency is exchanged, they become the equivalent to millionaires in the country they’re “evangelizing.” They live in nice homes, have two cars, and continue to live the American lifestyle while “reaching out” to people.
An incarnational way of living, however, requires a drastically different approach to typical American missions. Just as Christ emptied Himself, took on human flesh, leaving behind the glory of Heaven, so we too must leave behind our wealth, our Americanism, our culture, and seek to embrace the new culture we find ourselves in. When living in a foreign nation we should seek to live amongst the people, adopting their way of life, eating their food, dressing like them, talking like them, and thinking like them. This doesn’t mean we adopt their philosophies, but merely that we learn to think like the indigenous people and understand their thought process and worldview.
We can look at Paul saying that we should become “all things to all people,” not meaning that we act like them or adopt their philosophies, but simply that we take on their culture, learn how to reach out to their culture, and embrace those people.
When Christ took on human flesh, though He adopted human culture (specifically the Jewish culture He found Himself in), He stood on principles of truth. He spoke their language, He knew their thought process, He knew their worldview, He lived amongst them, He ate their food – but not once did He adopt their philosophy. Instead, he took their culture and interjected it with the Truth of God. Likewise, in missions, we should do the same.
What other applications to the incarnation exist? There must be applications in everyday life, I was merely pointing out one.
Drum, Walter. “The Incarnation.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 13 Feb. 2009 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07706b.htm>