One December evening many years ago, I attended a small traveling circus, where I stumbled upon a mystery that helped to change my life. I happened to be in a Northridge neighborhood of Los Angeles. I was just passing through town on my way to San Francisco when I impulsively stopped to watch some circus acts under a red-and-white striped tent in a shopping center parking lot.
Under the flapping, heavy canvas of the tent, in air redolent of moist sawdust, roasted peanuts, and elephant dung, I leaned forward on the bleachers like everyone else, breathless, as I watched a woman wearing a pageboy haircut and black leotards set a firmly inflated basketball on top of a wobbly, three-foot stepladder and without so much as a nod to the audience, climb the steps of this little ladder, position her dainty feet on either side of the ball, place her right index finger in the center of the ball, and then slowly, gracefully levitate her feet and legs, inverting her torso, until her entire body was upside down, supported on one index finger balanced on a basketball. I wondered if I was witnessing a miracle.
After about ten seconds, she floated back down. Then amid stunned silence, she skipped across the circus ring, turned around, curtsied, and waved good-bye—applause, whistles, and cheers simultaneously exploded from the audience—and the woman disappeared behind the tall, canvas curtain. That night as I drove up the Pacific Coast Highway, I gave myself permission to accept this mystery and was surprised to find myself thinking about Christmas and the Christ child and the Incarnation.
Of course, the Incarnation is infinitely more mysterious than balancing on one finger atop a basketball. As miracles go, the Incarnation is stunning, unexplainable.
Yet throughout the history of the church, theologians have offered explanations about the incarnate nature of Jesus Christ, wherein the essence of his nature is balanced on the selection of a word (indeed, at the Council of Nicaea, the choice of one Greek letter), a selection that has altered the theological—and cultural—trajectory of vast populations.
The earliest recollections of Christ’s Incarnation may be found in the New Testament Gospels. The Gospel of Matthew asserts that Mary “was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit” (1:18b). The Gospel of Mark records 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.
Among the first-century Christians, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ was indisputable. In the second century, however, beliefs among Christians about the nature of Jesus Christ became more nuanced, and his nature balanced on how theological weight was distributed between his divinity and humanity.
As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, the institutional church expressed its beliefs about the Incarnation—particularly the meaning of Logos—in the terms of Hellenistic culture and Greek philosophy. Jewish people had a concept of the Logos as God’s divine Word who is personally active in creation and history. In Hellenistic culture, the Logos was the impersonal Reason that established order in the universe. When Christians confused this Hellenistic meaning of the Logos with the Hebraic understanding of Logos, the early church began experiencing divisive differences among the various emphases given to Jesus’ divinity and humanity.
One problem that arose from the confusion of Hebraic and Hellenistic ideas about the Logos was that Christologies based on Hellenistic ideas gave greater emphasis to the subordination of Jesus Christ to the Father God, so that the Father and the Son could not be understood as co-equal. For Justin Martyr (c.100-165) Jesus is derived from God the Father. For Irenaeus (c. 115-202) Jesus is not equal to the Father. For Tertullian (c.160-235) the Father and the Son are of the same substance—a word that will become increasingly important to future church councils—but the Son is not equal to the Father. And for Origen (c.185-254) the Logos 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).
Arius held that the Logos is not fully God at all, but a created being, a demi-god of greater spiritual refinement and higher status than human creatures. Arians believed that through the Incarnation Jesus Christ delicately balanced between Divinity’s spiritual purity and humanity’s physical impurity; indeed, fallen grossness. Since Jesus Christ was not fully divine, he could relate to human reality; but because he was not fully human, he could relate to divine reality.
Arius’s notion about the nature of Jesus Christ, balanced as it were between divinity and humanity, was instrumental in bringing questions about Jesus to a crisis. Who is Jesus Christ? was the crux of the matter.
The First Council of Nicaea in AD 325 was convened to resolve disagreements in the Church of Alexandria about the nature of Jesus’ relationship to the Father; in particular, whether or not Jesus was of the same substance as God the Father and co-equal 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; so various vocabularies and word meanings caused misunderstandings.
In the end, however, the decision of the Nicene Council balanced on the choice between two words that differed by a mere letter but in meaning implied a profound theological difference; namely, homoousion (same substance), and homoiousion (like substance). The Council declared that the Father and the Son are homoousion and co-eternal, a belief now codified in the Nicene Creed.
By affirming the full divinity of Jesus, Nicea saved the church from the theological emphases, imbalances, and heresies of Greek philosophy and a Hellenistic worldview, whose supreme being, for example, so transcended the created world that no person or community could aspire to a loving relationship with such a deity. The Nicene Council decided that, because the triune Godhead is fully present in Jesus, the reality of God’s love for humanity is demonstrated. Furthermore, despite the values of monasticism, Incarnation implied not retreat from an impure world but a sacrificial commitment to its healing.
While the Nicene Creed declared that Jesus Christ is the same divine substance with the Father God, Arian views teaching that Christ was created by the Father continued in parts of the church. And other heresies arose about the nature of Jesus Christ and the Trinity. Among such heresies were Nestorianism, which posited a dual personality in Christ, and Eutychianism, which declared that the incarnate Christ had only one nature. Nestorianism was put down, but Eutychianism continued to threaten the fragile unity of the Holy Roman Empire and precipitated the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451.
At this council there existed two paradoxical concerns—maintaining the unity of Christ’s person and establishing the truth of Christ’s dual natures. The council concluded that the deity and humanity of Christ exist “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” Thus the two natures coalesced in one person and one substance.
The Chalcedonian Creed safeguarded both the divine and human natures of Christ existing in one person in unchangeable union. The Council of Chalcedon accepted that there were indeed two natures in Christ so that he should be understood as both perfectly human and perfectly divine—one in being with the Father as to divinity and one in being with humans as to humanity. Consequently, Jesus’ humanity is not just a costume: He had a human body that suffered and a human will that made human decisions in the face of doubt and risk.
The Chalcedon Council also taught that Jesus’ dual nature did not in any way compromise the essential unity of his person, since there is only one and the same Christ. Effectively, Chalcedon had solved the problem of Jesus’ identity by using Greek categories of substance, person, and nature: Jesus Christ is of the same substance as the Father and the same substance as us; and although possessing two natures, divine and human, these are united in the one person.
Since the earliest days of the church, Christians have sought to balance descriptions about the nature of Jesus Christ on the biblical account of his Incarnation. And every Christmas season, the church is challenged anew to speak accurately about the balance between Christ’s divinity and humanity.
For over sixty years, InterVarsity has affirmed that Jesus is both fully God and fully human. Today our Fellowship’s 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–full of love and glory.” 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. We thank God for his grace and love. And ask him to keep us balanced.
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
We then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [coessential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, 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; inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us; and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.