The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God, and very Man; who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men.
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature” (Gal 6:15). We are so used to this verse that it rolls off our tongue as easily as “Jesus is Lord.” Many do not, however, realize just how startling a fact this is. The only reason that the servants of the God of Abraham could so easily say that circum- cision means nothing is because of the complete superiority of Christ over the patriarchs. Laws that have been a religious tradition for two thousand years do not change easily, to say nothing of it happening within a matter of a few years. This new “creature” or “new creation” that Paul advocates as being all that matters, is a mind- staggering reality. This had to be something on the scale of a radical intervention by God Himself into this world. Only if Paul truly believed that God “was made flesh and dwelt among us” could he make such a far-reaching statement. Old laws had changed because something had come into the world that would change the face of it forever; the world had been “re-created.”
The second Article of Religion describes this exact momentous event: the coming of God into human flesh. This Article can be divided up into three basic categories: 1) the divinity of Christ, 2) the incarnation of Christ, and 3) the sacrifice of Christ. Obviously the incarnation plays directly into the other two subjects. Since the incarnate Christ is Himself the revelation of the eternal God, we must understand Him in His incarnate state. Although Abraham and Moses encountered Christ before the incarnation, this will never happen again. He is “never to be divided” and thus will always remain incarnate. This is how all of us have met Him, and how He will always be seen.
Various Errors Down Through History
The Ebionites denied Christ’s deity; the Docetists denied His humanity, while the Arians essentially denied both. Later, Apollinarius came along and denied the perfect Manhood of our Lord. Nestorius denied the unity of the person of Christ, creating two persons (though he himself denied this is what he meant). Eutyches headed off in the other extreme and denied the distinction in the divine and human natures of Christ. There is not enough room in this essay to cover every aspect of these various heresies. Let it suffice to say that they arose in the earliest centuries of the church, and that the Holy Spirit of God prevailed by gifting men to stand for the truth. Councils met; Creeds were written; and the orthodox faith persevered.
Rarely today do we have new heresies of this sort arise. In fact, most of the modern non- christian cults are merely revised (or re- hashed) versions of the earlier heresies. While some of them deny association with the early heretics, others (like the Jehovah’s Witnesses) actually affirm it. We find today that these cults fit well into the modern mindset. Although they like to claim that they have found the “true Christian faith” they have found “nothing new under the sun.” Proof- texts and an overemphasis on selectively chosen definitions are used by them to try to overthrow two millennia of the Holy Spirit’s speaking to the Church. Mormons use this same claim that they found the “real truth,” but they do not realize that this is an outright attack on the power of God. They treat our Lord as though He was unable to protect the truth as He promised He would (cf. 1 Tim 3:15). During the first few centuries after the Apostles, some of these errors (while wrong) were understandable as the church was growing in her knowledge of the Person of her Lord. Today, these are just foolish attempts at self-aggrandizement. It is a pitiful god who cannot protect his truth from disappearing for nineteen hundred years.
Heresy does not, however, arise only from heretics outside the church, it also comes from heretics within. The liberalizing movement has perpetuated its own list of heresies, and some “scholars” have even flirted with the idea that the Gnostics were right after all. It was once said that every heresy has, at its core, a denial of one of the doctrines of the person of Christ. These are no different; they are either a denial of Christ’s divinity (most common today), a denial of His humanity (more common in the past), or a confusion of the relationship of these two natures (common throughout, but always related to one of the other two errors). Many liberal minded Christians have no problem with saying that Jesus was a good teacher, but they refuse to say that He is God Almighty. Like the Corinthians of the first century, these “liberals” have followed “another” Christ. By this, they show that they too do not know Jesus. The Corinthians had division, immorality and doctrinal errors; the same are rampant in those who have left their orthodox moorings.
It would be unfair to attempt a full exposition of every word of the Article in this place, yet the main points are easily defended. This is the faith of our fathers as they handed it down to us in the ecumenical councils and the Creeds. They did not make these things up, and were not merely influenced by Greek philosophy as is often claimed by today’s heterodox scholars.
In the Article, Christ is called “[T]he Son” to connote the vital relationship between the first and second persons of the trinity. It also points to the sense of “origination” that is seen in an earthly father/son relationship and is, itself, a refutation of any idea that He was created. We can be called “sons” (in the general sense) of God, but only Christ is the “Son” of God (in the singular and unique sense). From the Old Testament (Ps 2:7) to the New (Heb 1:2-3) we find this title used repeatedly. When He is called “the Word” it connotes personal communication and revelation. It should draw our minds to the concept that Christ is the “perfect expression of the mind of God”v since it is our words that reveal what is in our hearts. While we will be judged by our words, God will judge us by His Word. This title is used in the first chapter of the gospel of John (1:1) as well as in his first epistle (1 Jn 1:1, 5:7) and his apocalyptic revelation (Rev 19:13).
Adapting a phrase from John 1:18, Jesus is referred to in the Article as the One, “begotten from everlasting.” Although references to His pre-existence can be found in various places (e.g. Phil 2:6), this term goes farther than that. It connotes something of the relationship between the Father and Son to distinguish it from any idea of a temporal nativity. The idea of “begotten” connotes gen- eration and source, but not a crude flesh and blood event (as Mormons would claim). The inclusion of the phrase “of one substance” is helpful to explain this. Christ is the same “substance” as the Father, and has always been “begotten” of Him. The incarnation is a later event that is not to be confused with the eternal generation. These two also point us to the truth that the Son and the Father have the same nature. He is not a separate being that God made the “best” of all His creations.
It is also said that Christ “took man’s nature”; his humanity (cf. 1 John 1:1-2 & 4:2-3). The clearest reference to the incarnation itself is probably John 1:14: “the Word was made flesh.” The Word always was, and always will be. He was with God and was, Himself, God (unity with distinction). Then, at a point in human history, He “was made flesh.” He took it upon Himself and became a true man. Yet, more than man, since He was also God. In the first century, there were many “gods” in the world. Jesus was worshipped not just as another of the gods, but rather as the One True God, Who had become man and died in behalf of men. The incarnation is truly unique both in the past and today. The early attacks on this doctrine (Cerinthus, etc.) show that this truth was always hated by heretics; nothing has changed today.
The divine nature of the Son and the human nature that He took on Himself were “joined together,” never to be divided. Thus it is said that He “truly suffered” as this new single person. The various references to His continuing as the same resurrected person show this to be true (cf. Luke 24:39, Heb 7:25, Rev 11:15). The purpose of this joining is for Him “to reconcile” men to God “and to be a sacrifice” for them (cf. Rom 5:9). A man had to die to redeem fallen mankind; no man was worthy to do so; only God Himself was worthy. Thus the second Person of the trinity became man so that He could die and then intercede for them. Now that they have been redeemed, they are able to be in perfect union with God for all eternity since Christ ever lives to make that union remain (cf. Heb 7:25).
It is important to note that, grammatically, the phrase in Article number two: “ . . . which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father . . . ” is a subordinate clause. The essence of the sentence could be summarized in this way: “The Son took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin.” This is the main point of this Article; the incarnation of the second Person of the trinity. This is revealed also in the title to the Article: “Of the Word or Son of God, which was made very Man.”((W. H. Griffith Thomas, The Principles of Theology (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Theological Seminary, 1996) 35. Emphasis mine.)) This is important to us because we can easily get caught up in the details of the Article, and it is focused simply on the incarnation itself; what leads up to it, and what results from it.
The incarnation has numerous complications in our thinking because it has so many aspects. The early history of the church is the most clear case in point. One heresy after another sprouted up, each with a different twist on explaining the person of Jesus. Some of these questions we can answer, and others we have to leave to mystery. As western Christians, we tend to dislike the idea that there are mysteries; we enjoy having many volumes of systematic theology to explain every detail.((Well, not all of us do.)) This is where we can learn something from our Eastern brothers. There are times when we must leave some questions unanswered. We are, after all, talking about an unrepeatable event and dealing with an eternal infinite deity. Our forefathers wisdom should be heeded here. They led the way to seeing that it is safer to set down the boundaries found in Scripture, but avoid going beyond them. The definition of Chalcedon is a good example of this. “Not that it [the definition of Chalcedon] explains the mystery, but that it lays down the limits outside which we cannot go without sacrificing the essential truth of the New Testament and Christianity.”((Thomas 46.)) The incarnation is not subject to the techniques of the scientific method, and we would be wise to recognize that not every detail of “how God did it” will be available to us. Pagans want us to answer every scientific enquiry, but we are called to walk by faith and not by sight and should never give in to their demands.
On the other hand, the historic faith is not a “one-dimensional know-nothing” faith. Many Christians, however, think about the incarnation as nothing more than a “neat miracle” and consider it the helpful basis of some sentimental feelings during Advent (maybe). If the only conesquence of the incarnation that we retain in our minds is that it is fun to have a Nativity Scene and gooey feelings about “baby Jesus” then we have missed why our forefathers were willing to suffer and die. The impact of the perfect union of God and Man cannot be ignored, and for all Anglicans (all Christians for that matter) who think little of these “doctrinal issues” it is time to repent and admit that anti-intellectualism is just as rampant today as is scholasticism. The second Article of Religion is a helpful and balanced explanation of what the church has always believed, in every place, and by everyone.
We cannot perfectly solve this mystery, and yet it may take us many more generations to learn this. Does the unnecessary speculation lead our finite minds into errant ideas because we cannot wrap finite around infinity? We must differentiate between understanding and comprehending. We are given enough truth to understand the incarnation. The Son is God; He chose to take on human flesh; the two are together as one person. It is this Person Who truly died and suffered as a sacrifice for His people. We can never (even in eternity) comprehend the incarnation. Only God Himself truly comprehends these things.
“The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut 29:29). This verse has often been a helpful tonic to keep balanced as we seek greater understanding of the truths of our blessed Lord. We should remain humble enough to accept the fact that God may not want to answer our questions. The second Article of Religion is a finely balanced explanation of Christ’s divinity and humanity, as well as how they relate to each other. In this, we also find a healthy “limitation” because it does not seek to go beyond the Scriptural testimony itself.
Article number two says enough to be clear; it says enough to eliminate heresy; and enough to help our understanding of certain passages. Yet, while doing this, it also solidly and fairly avoids delving too much into specifics; thereby avoiding the problematic speculation of much theology (which often leads into the numerous heresies that have needed refutation down through church history). Our Lord warned of “false Christs” (Mark 13:22) and Paul said that men could preach “another Jesus” (2 Cor 11:4) and we cannot, therefore, put our hope in a false savior. This is a call to a balanced, humble knowledge, which goes no farther than Scripture; maintaining faithfulness to the Creeds, while not falling into unnecessary conjecture. This is not to say that we could never say more than the second Article does. There may arise various doctrinal and practical issues in the future that force us to consider other details of the incarnation that have not been considered before. This is instead a warning that unhealthy speculation leads to unhealthy theology; healthy study for the sake of defending the truth of Christ leads to a healthy church. As we seek to understand the person of our Messiah, let us find this “Via Media” in our hearts as well as our written words.
There have been some theologians who have posited the idea that the success of Arianism would have resulted in the total annihilation of Christianity. In other words, the Christian church and her faith would have disappeared and been replaced with a completely different religion. This is so because of the essential relationship between the person of Christ and the effects of the redemption that He has bought for us on the cross. Were He not both fully God and fully man in one person then our salvation would be lost, and this would eventually have been realized by our forefathers; the result would have been such a radical change in the Christian faith that it would have led to an entirely different religious system after all the logical and proper consequences would have taken effect as a result of Arianism. With this in mind, it should be clear that the effects of our theology of Christ have such far reaching consequences that we cannot get this doctrine wrong. We must accept and uphold all that has been handed down to us.
How the Apostles viewed the incarnation is clear from their own words. Despite this, they did not give us an exposition of the implications of the incarnation. An important question is: “How does the incarnation relate to the change from Old Covenant to the New?” One consequence is that certain “material objects” are no longer off limits in the same way that they were before the incarnation. Yes, sin is still sin, but it is not a sin to eat bacon, and a priest is not prohibited from leading worship if he touched a dead body the day before. Paul showed us that those commands were only a shadow while the “body is of Christ” (Col 2:17); that is, the incarnated body, wherein is found all the substance of what these commands pointed to.
When the author of Hebrews says that “of necessity” there is a “change” in the Mosaic “law” (7:12) he is telling us that those used to be the laws, and they had to be so because Jesus had not yet been incarnated and thus creation was still under the “curse.” His death has paid the price for the redemption of “matter” along with men (cf. Jn 3:17, Rom 8:21-22). Presently though, creation has been touched by the incarnation; everything in existence has been touched by the fact that God took on human flesh and then died to redeem it. Jesus doesn’t just want the people, He wants the whole world, and He is going to get it because of what He did on the cross. Two perfect natures combined into one person redeeming all of creation; not just the people.
If the death, burial and resurrection of Christ could be called the bones of our redemption, then the incarnation is truly the flesh and muscle. The descent of God to the womb of the virgin Mary to grow and be born as a man was truly the underlying essential component. Yet, the incarnation cannot be viewed as merely a means to an end. God never chooses haphazardly. There are depths to the incarnation that we have not yet plumbed and this is sorely needed today. Many Christians are blinded by modern forms of Gnosticism when they perceive that the physical world is unimportant, and that only spiritual things matter.
The incarnation is central to our faith and this is often missed. It means more than the fact that Jesus truly died; more than the fact that He experienced human frailties. It means that something has happened to creation as a whole. It has been changed, forever. It means that redeemed man is not merely friendly with God; he is not just connected to God. Redeemed man has become united to God and this is by the incarnate Son of God. Without the incarnation God remains only transcendent; almost aloof. It is in the person of Jesus Christ that the Father has revealed Himself to us.
Jesus was always the Word of God— revealing and expressing all that is true of the triune Lord. Yet, now, in a human person, we have the divine presence. It is not a remarkable thing for men to be in covenant with one another. It is even possible for men to be covenanted to God almighty. Yet, a new type of unity has been found in the incarnation. Man and God in one person; perfectly and eternally. “It is through the instrumentality of Christ’s humanity that man is united to God.”((Edward Harold Browne, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles (New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1887) 78.)) Thus our covenant with God is at a whole new level because these are not two distinct covenants, but rather a single one that is perfectly consistent.
This is what our resurrection is founded on: union with the Person of Jesus Who has, Himself, been resurrected. “It is by virtue of incorporation into Christ’s Body, that the saints shall rise and reign.”((Browne 78.)) The incarnation has touched us in a covenant manner different from everything that came before. This explains the finality and the ultimacy that the author of Hebrews repeatedly gives to the sacrifice of Christ.
As the death and resurrection of Christ touches all of creation (John 3:17, Rom 8:21), so also do we find that the incarnation has implications for creation. Consider how Gnosticism condemns “stuff”—physical creation. The Gnostic “Jesus” could not come in the flesh because flesh is unredeemable. Yet, Jesus did come in the flesh. “Stuff” can be redeemed. Yet many of us today think in these very Gnostic (i.e. un-Christian) terms. The phrase “this earth is not my home” comes quickly to mind. Truth be told it is our home for now. God has put us here and we are to stay here until He calls us to our final home. Yes, your citizenship is in Heaven, but we are “strangers and pilgrims” who are journeying away from Heaven. We are aliens in this world, and yet we aren’t just here by permission, we are here by command. The whole point of the Apostle Peter calling us aliens in this world is that we are to reside here, while knowing that our ultimate home is elsewhere. Yet, how are we supposed to reside? Like those who are trying desperately to avoid our calling to live in this world?
Our responsibility in this world is to incarnate it with the gospel and as we do so, Jesus Himself is incarnating the world with His presence. Before the incarnation God’s special presence was localized in the temple. Now the temple is gone because Jesus has come in the flesh; He is the true temple. We have no need of a temple (cf. Rev 21:22) because Jesus is the presence of God and He is infiltrating this world with His grace. He starting infiltrating it when He was incarnated. Although nothing else will ever be incarnated in creation the exact way that Jesus did when He was born from the womb of the blessed virgin, still He is filling everything with His presence and continues to do so in this age until the Day of Final Judgment. This means that we are “speak of Jesus when we rise up, sit down, and walk by the way.” Our calling is to incarnate the gospel in our children. It has been given to us by our Lord and He calls us to give it to them. We “enflesh” (incarnate) the word, by drenching our children in it. It becomes hidden in their hearts (Ps 119:11) and then finally, by the grace of the Spirit, it becomes a part of them.
Many today, though, live in fear of the world around. A life lived in fear of this world is not a life that is being lived with a view to the ramifications of the incarnate Son of God. Sin is not in the “stuff” it is in our hearts and we carry it into the world by what we do. A gun is not sinful; fire is not sinful; chocolate is not sinful; yet each of these can be used in a sinful way to harm ourselves and others. Likewise, pork is not sinful, but if God says, “do not eat it,” then we must obey. If He later says “it is okay” then to refuse is also to disobey. Admittedly, there are many Christians who do not think that they are disobeying God when they live in fear of the things of creation. They are, however, picking the blessings based on Gnostic categories.
The Gnostics weren’t stupid, they were just wrong. They saw what the consequences of the incarnation were, much better than most Christians today. They saw that if the incarnation were true, then stuff would not be automatically bad. Stuff could be redeemed, and thus we could enjoy it with God’s blessings. We can drink wine because Jesus has flesh. “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works” (Eccl 9:7). Those who live in fear of the “stuff” cannot do this. When the Jews were warned not to touch or eat certain things, it is because they were still in the old era, and creation had not yet been touched by the sanctifying blood of Jesus. It was not because these things were inherently sinful, or else the law would never have changed.
His incarnation also means that He has overcome all our diseases. Some of this He will show to us here and now, but whether or not He does, He promises to do so fully in eternity. The present work of the Spirit is not limited just to propositional revelations. He comes to us daily, imparting the gifts and blessings of Christ that come from His wondrous intercessory work at the right hand of God the Father. None of this intercessory work would mean anything at all were He not the “God-man” that the Article tells us.
The second Article of Religion is thoroughly biblical and in full accord with the historic faith of the church. It properly delineates the deity, humanity and unity of the person of Christ. At the same time, it gives essential details to the doctrine of the incarnation to verify its legitimacy and reality. The manner in which it is worded is a valuable lesson in itself. Neither too specific nor too vague, the Article helps to chart a course for our minds to understand sufficiently Who our Lord is and what the orthodox faith says about Him. It gives us balance that protects us from improper speculation and theologizing.
The importance of this doctrine does not stop here. There are applications that can be drawn easily as well as many others that we have yet to consider. When the Son of God took on human flesh, lived, breathed, ate and slept, He did something to the world. He stated, by His own actions, that creation is not evil in itself, but rather fully redeemable. He said it is good to enjoy food, revel in the beauty of tall mountains and grand oceans, and play with our children. Jesus’ incarnation pointed to this, and His death and resurrection accomplished it. This is where other verses of “newness” come into play. Paul says that this world is not the same as it was before the cross: “old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor 5:17); creation itself has been changed. Christ seated on His heavenly throne says that this is the character of the entire messianic age: “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:5). Jesus’ incarnation said that when He has finally “delivered up the kingdom to God” (1 Cor. 15:24), creation itself will also “be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21).
This article was published in the Winter of 2008.