By Jonathan Rice

The Incarnation, the Early Church, and You

One December evening many years ago, I attended a small traveling circus, where I witnessed something extraordinary. Under the heavy canvas of the circus tent, in air redolent of moist sawdust and roasted peanuts, I watched, breathless, as a petite woman wearing a black leotard set an inflated basketball on top of a wobbly, three-foot stepladder and, without so much as a nod to the audience, climbed the steps, positioned her dainty feet on either side of the ball, placed her right index finger in the center of the ball, and then slowly, gracefully, levitated her feet and legs, inverting her torso, until her entire body was upside down, supported on one index finger balanced on the basketball.

A few moments later, she floated back down. Then amid stunned silence, she skipped across the circus ring, turned around, curtsied, and waved good-bye, disappearing behind a tall, striped curtain. Applause, whistles, and cheers exploded from the audience. I wondered if I’d just seen a miracle.

At that time in my life, I was a non-Christian, but a spiritual seeker of sorts. And that Christmas I found myself thinking about miracles and the birth of Jesus Christ. I opened a Bible and searched the Gospels.

The Incarnation in the Gospels

I found that the Gospels record the birth of Jesus as a miraculous yet historical event. The Gospel of Matthew asserts that Mary “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (1:18b). The Gospel of Mark affirms Jesus’ claim of sonship with God (14:61b-62). The Gospel of Luke describes an angel’s annunciation of the Christ child’s birth (1:26-38). And the Gospel of John proclaims that God became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Clearly, the Gospel writers believed that Jesus is God incarnate.

Since my long-ago days of unbelief, I’ve come to learn that among first-century Christians the incarnation of Jesus Christ was indisputable. In the second century, however, convictions about the nature of Jesus became more theologically nuanced and precarious, balancing as it were between his divinity and humanity.

Second-Century Debates about the Nature of Christ

As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, the institutional church began to express beliefs about the incarnation—particularly the meaning of Logos—in terms of Hellenistic culture and Greek philosophy. In Hellenistic culture, the Logos was the impersonal Reason that established order in the universe. This concept stood in contrast to the Hebraic idea of the Logos, which asserted that God’s divine Word is personally active in creation and history. When Christians confused the Hellenistic meaning of an impersonal Logos with the Hebraic understanding of a personal Logos, problems arose about the nature of the Trinity and the personhood of Jesus Christ.

Some early church theologians held opposing views about Jesus. Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) believed that he is derived from God the Father. Irenaeus (c. 115-202) believed that he is not equal to the Father. Tertullian (c. 160-235) believed that the Father and the Son are of the same substance (that is, homoousion—a word that became important to future church councils), but the Son is not equal to the Father. And Origen (c. 185-254) believed that the Logos, namely, Jesus, is in the image of God, but the image is not truly God.

A theological imbalance between the divinity and humanity of Jesus was also evident in the teaching of Arius (d. 336), who held that the Logos is not God at all but merely human, though of greater spiritual refinement and higher status than other human beings. Arians believed that Jesus Christ somehow balanced between the Divinity’s spiritual purity and humanity’s physical impurity, which eventually brought questions about Jesus’ nature to a crisis.

What the First Council of Nicaea Saved Us From

The First Council of Nicaea in AD 325 was convened to resolve disagreements in the Church of Alexandria about Jesus’ relationship to the Father—in particular, whether or not Jesus was of the same substance as God the Father and coequal as God. Much of the debate hinged on the Greek definitions and Hellenistic understandings of the words born, created, and begotten. Arians used these three words synonymously, but the followers of Alexander from Alexandria, a city of great intellectual status in the church, did not. Other Greek words used in the debates at Nicaea—words unclear to speakers of non-Greek languages, such as ousia (essence), physis (nature), and prosopon (person)—bore meanings drawn from pre-Christian philosophers. The various vocabularies and word meanings caused misunderstandings.

In the end, the decision of the Nicene Council balanced on the choice between two words that differ by a mere letter but in meaning imply a profound theological difference: that is, homoousion (same in substance) and homoiousion (similar in substance). The Council declared that the Father and the Son are homoousion and coeternal, a belief now codified in the Nicene Creed established by the Council.

By affirming the full divinity of Jesus, Nicaea saved the church from the theological imbalances and heresies of Greek philosophy and a Hellenistic worldview, whose supreme being so transcends the created world that no human could aspire to a loving relationship with such a deity. The Nicene Council decided that the triune Godhead is fully present in Jesus, in whom the reality of God’s love for humanity is demonstrated. Furthermore, and most importantly for our understanding of missional Christianity, the incarnation implies our participation in this fallen world’s healing.

Incarnational Ministry in Our Day

Incarnational expressions of Christian faith find their wellspring in gratitude to God. In our appreciation to God for his love through Jesus Christ, we endeavor to love people in ways that transform their lives. When we express an “incarnational” style of ministry, demonstrating empathy for people’s suffering, we are no less than emissaries of God, assigned to his mission of healing this world by both calling people to a relationship with Jesus and offering them practical resources for flourishing.     

When it comes to flourishing, what we believe about Jesus Christ matters. If Jesus is merely a good man or even an extraordinary human capable of doing supernatural works, he is still inadequate to accomplish our salvation from sin. But the biblical Jesus is God and Man in one person who reveals in himself both the nature of God and the significance of Man.

Since the earliest days of the church, Christians have based their descriptions about the nature of Jesus on the biblical accounts of his incarnation. And with every Christmas season, the church is challenged anew to speak biblically about the balance between Christ’s divinity and humanity.

InterVarsity affirms that Jesus is both fully God and fully human. Our Doctrinal Basis in part reads: “The only true God, the almighty Creator of all things, existing eternally in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. . . .” And, referring to the nature of Jesus: “Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine. . . .”

InterVarsity’s witness to students and faculty continues to be the Gospel of the incarnate Son of God. This Christmas season we remember the birth of our Savior. And we ask him to keep us balanced.

Jonathan Rice is an editor and writer with InterVarsity.

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