Some Insufficient Models of the Incarnation

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1. Introduction

Scripture reveals that, at the Incarnation, the Logos (the 2nd Person of the Trinity) became man. John writes, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1 cf. 14). This does not imply the forfeiting of divinity, but the addition of a human nature to the Logos’ inherent divine nature.

During the first 4 ½ centuries of the church, many insufficient models of the Incarnation were constructed in order to explain this apparent paradox. Although none of these ancient models ultimately succeed, there is much value in studying them; for those who are ignorant of past failures may be susceptible to those failures themselves.

2. Nestorianism

Bishop of Antioch, Nestorius, took issue with the popular reference to Mary as Theotokos (mother of God) by arguing that a human woman could not have “generated a member of the Godhead.” 1 Mary, Nestorius contended, was merely the means by which God became man and therefore, Nestorius proposed the term Christotokos (mother of Christ) instead. 2 This lead to a long, complex, and aggressive dispute between Nestorius and Cyril of Alexandria, who accused Nestorius of teaching that there existed two separate persons in Christ. 3

Now, even though Nestorius denied ever teaching such a doctrine, he was indeed condemned as a heretic at the Council of Ephesus (431) for holding to the theory that there exists two persons (two distinct individuals) in Christ. Whether or not Nestorius himself was justly condemned, the Council of Ephesus was correct to condemn the theory that bore his name – Nestorianism. In the end, Nestorianism does not constitute a union of Christ’s natures, but simply juxtaposes the natures side by side while adorning the human nature with an entirely separate intellect. Wayne Grudem writes;

Nowhere in Scripture do we have an indication that the human nature of Christ, for example, is an independent person, deciding to do something contrary to the divine nature of Christ. Nowhere do we have an indication of the human and divine natures talking to each other or struggling within Christ, or any such thing. Rather, we have a consistent picture of a single person acting in wholeness and unity. 4

3. Monophysitism

The teaching known as Monophysitism (or Eutychianism) held that the human nature of Christ was absorbed into the divine nature, resulting in a third, composite nature (a God-man nature). 5 A good analogy of this view is to picture ink being dropped into a glass of water. As the ink spreads throughout the glass, the substance is no longer water, nor is it ink – it becomes a kind of third substance (ink-water). This reveals the problem with Monophysitism. To say that Christ has a composite, “God-man” nature, is to say that Christ is not genuinely divine or genuinely human! Thus, Monophysitism fails to offer a sufficient model of the incarnation as it assaults both the deity and humanity of Christ simultaneously.

4. Apollinarianism

Apollinarius was determined to maintain the unity of the Person of Christ as he sought to construct a Christological model that successfully united humanity and divinity. One of the keys to understanding Apollinarius’ model of the incarnation lay in his anthropology. 6 Apollinarius believed that every human being consists of three parts; a body (soma), an animal soul (psyche) and a rational soul (nous).  7

Now,  as J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig indicate, “The nous [the rational soul] was conceived to be the seat of the sinful instincts.” 8 So to say that Christ took on a full, tripartite human nature (including a rational soul) was absurd to Apollinarius as this would imply that Christ actually took on a depraved soul at the Incarnation! But, this could not be the case, since Christ was sinless and perfect.

Therefore, Apollinarius argued that Christ did not actually add another rational soul (nous) to Himself at His Incarnation, but only added a human body (soma) and animal soul (psyche) to Himself. 9 On this model, the human nous (soul) was simply substituted for the divine Logos, which resulted in Jesus being human physically, but not psychologically. 10

As ingenious as Apollinarius’ model was, it suffered from two deficiencies which his contemporaries saw as especially detrimental. Firstly, his model truncates humanity. That is, by merely assuming human body (soma) and animal soul (psyche), the Logos did not become entirely human because the nous (the rational soul) is an essential element of humanity 11 Secondly, if Christ lacked a human soul, then the human soul was not redeemed on the cross. The entire rationale behind the Incarnation was that in order to save humanity, Christ needed to become human – not semi-human. The author of Hebrews writes, “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect…to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). As it stood then, Apollinarianism fails as a model of the Incarnation because it: 1) denies the full humanity of Christ, which 2) eliminated the efficacy of the cross.

5. Adoptionism

In its simplest form, Adoptionism is the theory that Jesus was a typical man who, at His baptism, was “adopted” by God, becoming His Son. The rationale behind this theory is largely defended by those verses that refer to the Son as “begotten.” The author of Hebrews for example, quotes Psalm 2:7, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you,” two times and applies it to Christ (Hebrews 1:5; 5:5). Adoptionists then, would not think of Jesus as divine in nature, but as someone who was uniquely empowered by God. 12

The problem with this theory is twofold. Firstly, Adoptionism is more the idea that a man became God. 13 However, Scripture clearly teaches the opposite. John tells us that, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1 cf. 1:14). Secondly, Adoptionism assaults the pre-existence of the Son. The divine Son did not have a beginning. This  is why Jesus could say, “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58; cf. Exodus 3:14). Therefore, Adoptionism fails to constitute a sufficient model of the Incarnation.

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  1. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 729-730
  2. Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 92.
  3. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 245.
  4. Grudem, Systematic Theology, 554.
  5. Ibid., 555.
  6. Ibid., 554.
  7. Ibid.,555
  8. J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 598.
  9. Ibid.,599.
  10. Erickson, Christian Theology, 730.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Grudem, Systematic Theology, 245.
  13. Erickson, Christian Theology, 747.
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