The Doctrine of the Incarnation

But what precisely is the doctrine of the Incarnation? It is well known that its classical formulations in the creeds and confessions of the Christian Church were the result of centuries of contested debate, and that they remain subject to very different interpretations, not least in contemporary Christian theology. Readers who wish to scrutinize the relevant New Testament texts, and the first agreed summaries in the Chalcedonian Definition and the Athanasian Creed, will find them cited in the very useful article on 'Incarnation and Christology' by Peter van Inwagen in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, together with interesting reflections on the metaphysics and the logic of incarnational belief.I will offer my own summary statement as a starting point for our survey and discussion here.

The doctrine of the Incarnation sums up mainstream Christian belief that the first-century Jewish rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, was more than a prophet, more than just a normal, even extraordinary and highly influential, human being. Partly as a result of the impact of his life, teaching and fate, partly as a result of their post-Easter experiences — not only the Resurrection appearances but also their experience of him as a living presence in their hearts and in their worship — the early Christians came to think ofJesus as having come to them from the side of God, indeed as God made man. They came to see the history and faith of Israel as culminating in God's personal presence here on earth in and as the man Jesus, bringing salvation, in the sense of both forgiveness and, eventually, eternal union with God, for all humankind. Centuries of debate and controversy led to the classical formulations, whereby Jesus Christ was held to be both God and man. Without ceasing to be the God he ever was and is, God, in one of the modes or centres or 'Persons' of his eternal being, had taken our nature upon him, lived out a human life and died a human death, and, by his Resurrection, taken humanity into God for ever. The risen Christ, they held, remains the human face of God for all eternity, and remains the focus and the fulcrum of our eternal destiny. As I say, the trinitarian implications of the doctrine of the Incarnation will be examined in the next chapter, but it needs to be stressed here that, according to Christian belief, Jesus was and is not God made man simpliciter, but the divine Word or Son incarnate. As we shall see, some such differentiation or distinction in the theology of God was necessary if sense was to be made of the conviction that God himself had come amongst us in and as a man who prayed to God.

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