Today, a lot of confusion, and a number of misunderstandings abound regarding what’s known as ‘the incarnation of Jesus Christ’. The incarnation is a central doctrine of Christianity. It involves God becoming flesh, and how God assumed a human nature and became a man in the form of Jesus Christ. Skeptics often ask how Jesus can be both God and man? This is a very old question. One which has troubled many people throughout history. So, how are we to think about and understand Jesus Christ’s humanity and divinity, and the relationship between the two?
Let’s begin by addressing three basic misunderstandings - dating back to the 5th century A.D. - about Jesus and His nature.
Monophysitism, Nestorianism, and Arianism
Firstly, at one extreme lies Monophysitism (meaning “one nature”) which, teaches that Jesus is divine, but not really human. Monophysitism recognised that Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity, but as a result, denied that he had both a human and divine will.
Secondly, at the other extreme you have Nestorianism which, teaches that Jesus is human but only divine in some limited, mitigated way. Many forms of Nestorianism exist today. For example, whenever someone claims Jesus Christ was simply a prophet, teacher or self-help guru.
Thirdly, Arianism represents a type of middle position between the two extremes. Arianism teaches that Jesus is quasi-divine and quasi-human. Arianism comes from the teachings of Arius, a priest from Alexandria, Egypt who lived from approx. 256 - 336 A.D. Arius denied the divinity of Jesus by espousing the view that Jesus was not God, but rather was a very high creature. At the same time he denied that Jesus was fully human because he taught that the Logos (the divine Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ) had forced out the human mind and will of the man, Jesus. According to Arianism, Jesus Christ is a type of demigod like those found in ancient Greek myths, such as Hercules or Achilles.
So how are we to truly understand the nature of Jesus Christ and how he can be both God and man? For that we need to look back through history to the council of Chalcedon and what’s known as the hypostatic union.
Council of Chalcedon and the Hypostatic Union
In 451 A.D. the Christian church met and, among other things, put forth its orthodox position on the nature of Jesus Christ. The church said that Jesus Christ is the hypostatic union of two natures in one person; fully divine and fully human. The Church said no to Monophysitism; He’s not just divine. The church said no to Nestorianism; He’s not just human. And the church said no to Arianism; He’s not some weird blending of the two. Jesus is fully divine and fully human; two natures in one person, without mixing, mingling or confusion. Jesus did not stop being God, nor is His humanity compromised. But rather, Humanity and divinity meet in Jesus where the two can coexist.
So what is the necessity and significance of Jesus the ‘God-man’?
The importance of Jesus being both divine and human cannot be overstated. The Heidelberg Catechism provides an extremely helpful and concise explanation.
Heidelberg catechism question 16:
Q: Why must he (Jesus) be a true and righteous man?
A: He must be a true man because the justice of God requires that the same human nature which has sinned should pay for sin. He must be a righteous man because one who himself is a sinner cannot pay for others.
Heidelberg catechism question 17:
Q: Why must he (Jesus) be true God?
A: So that, by the power of his divinity, he might bear the weight of God’s anger in his humanity and earn for us and restore to us righteousness and life.
To finish, a quote from Christian apologist Norman Geisler. In regards to the necessity and significance of Jesus being both fully divine and fully human, he notes that, “Both natures are necessary for redemption because as a man Jesus acts as our perfect sacrifice (Romans 3:25) and as God He acts as our high priest (Hebrews 7:26).”
As you investigate this matter further, it’s important to remember that the nature of Jesus Christ is to be understood as fully divine and fully human. This hypostatic union of two natures in one person, without mixing, mingling, or confusion, is necessary for the salvation and redemption of humanity.
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Further reading recommendations
'How God became Jesus' by Michael F. Bird, Craig A. Evans, Simon J. Gathercole, Charles E. Hill, and Chris Tilling.
'Jesus God and Man' by Wolfhart Pannenberg
'Jesus the eternal son' by Michael F. Bird
'On the incarnation' by Athanasius of Alexandria
'How on earth did Jesus become a God?' by Larry W. Hurtado
'When did Jesus become God?' by Bart Ehrman, Michael F. Bird, and Robert B. Stewart.