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Understanding the Incarnation

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 Contents - May 2000AD2000 May 2000 - Buy a copy now
Editorial: Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference - Michael Gilchrist
Australian Catholic University student survey - Michael Gilchrist
News: The Church Around the World
How do we know whether a sacrament is valid or not? - Fr Peter Joseph
The priesthood: John Paul II's Holy Thursday Letter sets guidelines - Pope John Paul II
What are the foundations of a good Catholic education? - Dr. John J. Haldane
Understanding the Incarnation - Msgr Peter J. Elliott
Books: Francis Thompson: author of 'The Hound of Heaven' - Michael Daniel
How the future John Paul II saved a Jewish girl's life - Zenit News Service
Letters: Women's report: a reply (letter) - Dr Marie McDonald
Letters: Nothing to do? (letter) - Frank Mobbs
Letters: More on Adelaide (letter) - Margret E. Mills
Letters: Women in the Church (letter) - Marie Kennedy
Letters: 'Day of Pardon' (letter) - Paul MacLeod
Letters: Reply to Fr Frank Brennan (letter) - Richard Egan
Letters: God's love (letter) - Justin Ford
Letters: EWTN visit (letter) - Mike Keating
Letters: Mixed marriages (letter) - John Schmidt
Letters: Archbishop Pell defended (letter) - Fr Kevin Ryan
Letters: Year of the Lord (letter) - Fr Chrysostom Alexander
Books: 'Three Inns of Everlasting Happiness' by Fr Fabian Duggan - Catherine Sheehan (reviewer)
Books: 'The Wisdom of Adrian Fortescue' ed. Michael Davies - Michael Daniel (reviewer)
Books: 'The Legacy of Pope John Paul II' ed. Geoffrey Gneuhs - Anthony Cappello (reviewer)
Books: 'The Ever-Illuminating Wisdom of St Thomas Aquinas' by Peter Kreeft et al - Tracey Rowland (reviewer)
Reflection: Mary's divine motherhood: central to God's plan of salvation - Sr Mary Augustine Lane OP

Many issues are involved in accurately understanding the key Christian truth, the Incarnation. Our key is the majestic opening to the prologue to Saint John's Gospel, "In the beginning was the Word." These words echo the first sentence of Genesis "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." But John writes not of the creation of the universe but of its salvation through a unique event, the Incarnation, when God became man in Jesus Christ. Unlike the other Gospels that introduce the Incarnation with a human genealogy of Jesus of Nazareth, John chooses to give us a kind of divine genealogy, the "story of God", if you like. He has a specific purpose in mind.

"In the beginning was the Word" immediately calls for some explanation of this mysterious "Word", or logos in Greek. This language opens the mystery of God being in relationship with God: "and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." John goes on to describe this Word who is always with God in the divine act of creation: "He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made."

Key idea

But the key idea was set out in that first sentence, "In the beginning was the Word." John was affirming and underlining one of the essentials of the Incarnation, the eternal pre-existence of the Divine Son.

This simply means that the Word, the Son or second Person of the Holy Trinity, always is. He has no beginning or end. He is God from all eternity, one and equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit. As Catholics we may take this for granted, because it is the Church's own understanding of John's language. However, once we explore heresies that have denied or redefined the Incarnation, we find that Christianity in the 21st century faces errors about the Incarnation as did the era of Saint John in the late first century.

Under pagan Greek influences, gnostic heretics simply denied that God assumed a real human nature and a body that could suffer. Jesus only seemed human. This is known as Docetism. But other, more plausible and more rational, heresies moved in the opposite direction. They struck not at the humanity of Christ but at his divinity, especially by reinterpreting Saint John's affirmation of the eternal pre-existence and divinity of the Son of God who took flesh.

The most subtle denial of the divinity of Christ appeared in the fourth century, when the priest Arius (who died in 336) taught that the Word is divine but that this divine Son had a beginning. Reinterpreting John's Prologue, Arius said that the Son was not "co-eternal" with the Father. He reduced the Son to a being created by the Father, a demi-god or an emanation from God, an intermediary between God and the cosmos, but not fully God. Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 295-373) was the greatest and most persistent foe of Arius and his followers.

The Catholic response to Arius was focussed around the technical term we find embodied in the Nicene Creed, homoousios. In the current English translation this is rendered "of one being with the Father." The divine Son is of one being or one essence with his divine Father. Homoousios affirms the eternal equality and unity of the Father and Son.

These disputes and defining the creed remind us of how God the Word enters our words, how human language becomes the vehicle for divine revelation. Language is the usual way we know God revealing himself in the deeds and words of Jesus Christ. This is why I believe that divine revelation comes to us normally through human language, through propositions.

As the Second Vatican Council taught, there are two sources of the one Word of God - Scripture and tradition, sources of the teachings of the Church, her dogmas and doctrines. This is why technical words were so important when used by the Church to express and protect orthodox doctrine. Homoousios in the Nicene Creed is the supreme example.

Another heresy emerged in the 5th century, Nestorianism, named after the Patriarch Nestorius of Contantinople. He said that Jesus was a human person and a divine person joined together, so that the divine Logos dwells in the man, Jesus of Nazareth and his Mother cannot be called Mother of God, but only Mother of Christ. Nestorianism was condemned at the Council of Ephesus (431), which also affirmed Mary's title of "God bearer" - Mother of God. Nestorianism seems to have emerged from the adoptionist tradition, the heretical view that Jesus was merely a man adopted by God.

Arianism, Nestorianism and even variants of adoptionism still reappear in our times. The Jehovah's Witnesses seem to be crudely Arian, to say the least. But today we face other rejections of a pre-existent Word who took flesh in Mary's womb.


Current liberal Christian christology often reflects a kind of adoptionism, especially when the resurrection is described as the moment when Jesus became "Christ", and when we are told that he did not know who he was up to that stage. Modern theological expressions such as "Jesus who became Christ" hint at adoptionism. If one examines books, articles and television productions that currently promote extreme forms of liberal biblical criticism, they imply some kind of adoptionism within an "ascending christology." This problem emerges when Jesus is described as a "human person" filled with God or revealing God.

There is ample scope for scholarly analysis of Scripture, but the Church insists that this be carried out in the light of tradition, in faith and respecting the Magisterium of the Popes and Councils. On the other hand, liberal biblical criticism reinterprets the New Testament documents in the light of 19th century materialistic "scientism." This ideology, revived in our times, rejects any possibility of the supernatural, the miraculous or the spiritual. Then the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, with their emphasis on the virgin conception of Jesus, must be set aside as "myths." The Gospels must be "demythologised" and Saint John's words, "In the beginning was the Word," dismissed as the theories of a neo-platonic theologian.

A minimal historical description of Jesus is constructed by some liberal critics. Because they reject the supernatural, they strip away all miracles from the Gospels and slice off any of his teaching that implied his divine identity, such as claims to be one with God or predictions of the future. Jesus was just a good rabbi or a political radical or a popular country exorcist who fell foul of the Romans and powerful elements in his own religion. He was crucified and then his followers had "faith experiences" that changed their view of his failure, so they created stories about his rising from the dead, which appeared in heavily-edited Gospels many years after his death.


Once you reach that point one wonders why it is necessary to add any "divine" element to this tragic figure lifted from obscurity and failure by myth-makers. One wonders why any faith at all should be put in this figure or the organisation that rapidly emerged among his followers. These men and women seemed foolish enough to die for what some of them must have known were myths if not downright lies. But now I am entering the field that some liberal critics veto - apologetics. Yet basic rational questions need to be answered.

Why did Saint John write these words about the Incarnation? Was he writing fanciful theology or was there real history behind his work? In his First Letter he gives us the answer, and it may even be a reply to critics already picking away at the prologue of his Gospel. If he wrote the letter before the Gospel, as some scholars argue, he was certainly refuting heretics of a Docetic cast of mind, who could not accept God assuming our frail human flesh. He defended the historical basis of the Word taking flesh as he emphasised the human reality of the divine Word who took flesh. He gives us a new shorter prologue in his First Letter and his use of "we" and "our" seems to be an authoritative way of speaking on behalf of all the apostles:

"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life - the life was made manifest and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us - that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete" (1 John 1: 1-4).

John presents a supernatual event as historical and tangible. The Incarnation is not an event up in the clouds but happening here on earth amidst the dust and everyday life of Nazareth and Bethlehem. To express the supernatural dimension, he used a neo-platonic Greek philosophy of the logos, the creative Word or Wisdom of God. With Saint Paul, he is among the first in a long line of Christian theologians who took up the philosophy of the time and used it well to convey the reality and message of Jesus Christ. Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas are outstanding examples of this. Pope John Paul II stands firmly in this living tradition, where faith and reason come together in dynamic harmony.

Scholars still debate the exact influences on John. He may well have been influenced by Jewish platonic philosophy from Alexandria, the school of Philo. In this tradition there was emphasis on the divine presence working in and through all creation, the logos spermatikos, a celestial seed giving purpose, order and fulfilment to every atom of creation, ourselves included. This was a further development of the holy Wisdom theology that we find in some of the last writings of the Old Testament and it represents a convergence between Hebrew and Greek thought. But John goes far beyond Wisdom literature which presented Wisdom as a female emanation or spirit coming from God, because he bluntly says that "the Word was God". No Jew could say that unless he had become a Christian.

Bodily Resurrection

But why was this man a Christian? As always we are led back to the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, back to the decisive event that converted men and women to Christ, directly or through the teaching of brave witnesses. In that event Jesus of Nazareth was revealed as "the Lord". Because of that event the four Gospels were written as "good news". Because of the memories preserved in the living tradition of the followers and family of Jesus, his earthly beginnings were included in two of those Gospels, Matthew and Luke. Yet, in John's Gospel, we find something different, a startling philosophical and theological affirmation of the cosmic origin of the historical Jesus that will be decisive in all later attempts to water down or compromise either his divinity or his humanity.

The pre-existence of the divine Word is the key to the Incarnation, hence to the Trinity, for it is only through Jesus Christ that we know the Trinity. As Saint John put it: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life - the life was made manifest and we saw it, and testify to it ...".

What was John's task is ours today, to be witnesses to the Word made flesh and the abundant life he offers us.

Msgr Peter J. Elliott is Episcopal Vicar for Religious Education, Melbourne Archdiocese.

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 13 No 4 (May 2000), p. 10

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