What do Christians believe about the Incarnation? Was Jesus really God?

The Incarnation of Christ

In addition to the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of the Incarnation is held as a specifically Christian belief. For Christianity, the second member of the Trinity “became flesh.” This doctrine is important for two reasons. First, it assumes the doctrine of the Trinity. Second, it tells us that God became a man and walked among us. But this immediately raises questions. First, there are questions associated with the doctrine of the Trinity—is Christ really God? Does the Bible teach that? Is it necessary that Christ be God for salvation? Second, there are questions associated with the Incarnation itself—how can God become incarnate? What does it mean that Christ was born of a virgin? Did God cease to be God? Like many questions in Christianity, these are good questions; but they are hard questions.

In a different Landing Page, we’ve discussed the doctrine of the Trinity. Nevertheless, the divinity of Christ was a theologically charged topic for the Early Church. Many early Church Fathers argued for the Trinity on the basis of Christ’s divinity. They argued for his divinity from both the Biblical witness and the power and profundity of Christ’s life.

Traditionally, Christianity has also held that Christ was one person, with two natures. These two natures—one human, one divine—are “joined” together, not “mixed” together. This implies that Christ is both fully God and fully man. This formulation of the doctrine of the Incarnation was most clearly developed in 451 by the Chalcedon Council. Although this doctrine is not explicitly taught in Scripture, it represents the best synthesis of biblical teaching and theology. But the church still overcame many heresies to establish this doctrine. The selections here indicate the many different ways that theologians wrestled with the doctrine of the Incarnation.

  • The Epistle of Ignatius to the Antiochians by St. Ignatius (35-108) In this very early document, St. Ignatius argues that the Bible teaches that the unity of God and divinity of Christ.

  • Dialogue with Trypho by St. Justin Martyr (103-165O In this dialogue, St. Justin Martyr argues that the Scripture prophecies Christ’s incarnation; he also demonstrates, using several arguments, why Christ is Lord.

  • Book III Against Marcion by Tertullian (160-220) Tertullian defends the Christian view of Christ against an early heretic Marcion. In particular, Tertullian argues that Christ really was the incarnate God.

  • On the Incarnation of the Word by St. Athanasius (297-373) In this classic work, St. Athanasius provides a stimulating account of the Incarnation. A pleasant feature of St. Athanasius’ account is that it does not simply defend the doctrine; it provides a theological backing for it, explaining the theological motivations of the Incarnation.

  • Nicene Creed (325) The Nicene is the classic statement of orthodox belief, and contains an early formulation of the doctrine of the Incarnation.

  • A Treatise Against Eutyches and Nestorius by St. Boethius (480-525) In this long treatise, St. Boethius argues for the orthodox view of Christ—two natures, one person. He critiques both the view of Eutyches that Christ was one person with one nature, and the view of Nestorius that Christ was two persons with two natures.

  • Athanasian Creed Although not actually penned by St. Athanasius, the Athanasian Creed provides a clear statement of the doctrine of the Incarnation, which was important for the Middle Ages.

  • Cur Deus Homo by St. Anselm (1033-1109) Translated as “Why God Became Man,” St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo focuses on the why of Christ’s Incarnation, not the how. St. Anselm argues that Christ became incarnate to atone for human sins, and offers the first “satisfaction” theory of atonement.

  • Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin (1509-1564) John Calvin argues, first, that Christ had to become incarnate for the salvation of humanity, second, Christ truly had a human nature, and, third, that heresies which deny Christ’s dual-nature misconstrue the nature of the Incarnation.

  • Christologia by John Owen (1616-1683) In his Christologia, John Owen briefly describes Christ’s two natures. Owen’s treatment differs from others in that he tries to make modest, Biblical claims and not engage in profound, but groundless, speculation about the Incarnation.

  • Christ of History by John Young (1616-1683) In his Christ of History, John Young compares Christ to other prominent holy men. Young argues that the unique features of Christ’s life give good reason for thinking he was God.*

Additional Reading:

Written and compiled by Tim Perrine, CCEL Staff Writer