The first seven centuries of the Christian Era witnessed the church battling courageously against several heresies that mainly dealt with: a. the status of Christ as God, and b. the incarnate relationship between His divine and human natures. These two problems, both relating to Christ, were the subject of protracted controversies known as the Trinitarian and Christological controversies. While the Trinitarian controversy rocked the church in the first four centuries of the Christian Era, the Christological controversy followed it from the fifth to the seventh century, or until the rise of Islam.
Because of these two controversies the church called several councils to decide against heretical teachings. Some of these heresies have survived to this day, while others have been revived by some modern theologians and preachers. While we as a people have defined our position with reference to these two doctrines, many in our ranks are unaware of the disputes and finespun philosophies that exist and have existed with reference to the pre-existence of Christ and His incarnation. These disputes, not widely discussed in Christian lands (though discussed enough), are agitated continually in the predominantly Moslem areas of the world. Among the teeming millions of Moslems that constitute more than one tenth of the entire world population, Christians are daily confronted with the intricacies of these mysteries by their Moslem friends. What was settled by the church councils centuries ago is still unsettled by hundreds of millions of Moslems who believe in Christ as an Apostle of God and deny His deity. It is also debated by millions of so-called Christians.
The doctrines that were often debated in the first seven centuries are well worth our study. Following is a survey of the main different views about the person and nature of Christ that confronted the church in the first seven centuries as well as in later times. These controversies centered in the struggle of the church with the Nazarene, Corinthian, and Gnostic Ebionites (around the turn of the first century); the Docetae (A.D. 70-170); the Arians (Arius was condemned at Nicea in A.D. 325); the Nestorians (in A.D. 431 Nestorius was removed from the Patriarchate of Constantinople); and the Eutychians (condemned at Chalcedon in A.D. 451). The theories that were presented by these groups and others made the church deal with such questions as:
- If Christ is God, then would that be incompatible with the doctrine of monotheism?
- Is Christ a mere man who held a peculiar relation with God?
- Was the Son of God born of a virgin and was there a personal union between the divine and human in Christ?
- How could Christ have had a supernatural birth and how could there have been a pre-existing hypostasis of the Son?
- If matter is evil and Christ was pure and holy, then would that mean that the human body of Christ was merely phantasmal?
- Was Christ possessed of absolute god-hood or was He the first and highest of all the created beings?
- Was there any human soul in Christ and did Christ take into union with Himself a complete human nature?
- Did Christ possess two natures and two persons or did He have two natures in one person?
- Was Christ God incarnate or a deified man?
- Were the two natures of Christ distinct and coexistent or were both natures mingled in one?
- Are the two natures of Christ, the divine and the human, actuated by two wills or by one will controlling both natures?
- Were the birth, physical life, and death of Jesus real or did they merely give the appearance of reality?
These are some of the problems the church had to settle against the heretical teachings that aimed to destroy belief in the paradox of a triune monotheism and the mystery of the Incarnation. Such men as Irenaeus of the second century, and Athanasius of the fourth, and others, stepped forward heroically in defense of the orthodox doctrine. Later, to settle disputes concern: ing the nature of Christ, the council of Chalcedon was called in A.D. 451. This council promulgated what later was known as the Chalcedon Symbol, which reads in part:
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [coessential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence.—Pmur. SCHAFF, The Creeds of Christendom, vol. 2, p. 62.
This was the decision taken by the council centuries ago. How would you have settled or how would you settle at present such disputes concerning the nature of the Infinite One? What would be your answers to the above twelve questions? Here it must be stated that there is nothing wrong in raising such questions provided the correct procedure in answering them is followed. In discussing the question concerning the nature of the Eternal One certain fundamental principles must be followed:
- That the nature of God the Son can only be understood from what has been revealed by God.
- That God in His wisdom has seen fit not to reveal everything concerning it.
- That it would be impossible for finite man to comprehend fully the Infinite One.
- That the inability of man to comprehend the mystery of the Incarnation is only a proof of man's inability and not of the absurdity of what has been revealed.
- That it is rational for man to accept what has been revealed concerning the Incarnation even if he is unable to fathom its mystery.
These are fundamental principles that must be followed in dealing with any subject that has to do with the nature of the Infinite One. Because man cannot explain the nature of God or the mystery of the Incarnation is no evidence that God is not a triune God or that the Incarnation could not have taken place. It is, however, an evidence of man's insufficiency, ignorance, and inability. Man's ignorance cannot be taken as a proof against the revealed nature of God. But it is a proof of his ignorance and limitations.
It is not unthinkable to contend that man can never comprehend all the mysteries of the Incarnation. These mysteries are higher than the highest thoughts man can ever reach. They deal not only with how God has revealed Himself to us but how He is in Himself. The question really is, Can any human being fathom God? He cannot. Man cannot even fathom the physiology of his own digestive tract let alone the nature of the Unseen One. It is ever a wonder to man how his own digestive system digests almost everything edible except the stomach itself! Man may eat corn, cabbage, and half a dozen other varieties without the slightest knowledge of the chemical process that takes place in his own stomach. He will never fully comprehend the mysteries of how his own digestive tract selects the needed substances without any worry on his part as to whether his bones will have enough calcium or whether he will store enough fat for needed emergencies. The digestive system, unaided by its owner, feeds the hair, the nails, the bones, the hormones, stores up the fat and all. This mystery, as close as it is to man, is not fully comprehended by him. How then can man contend that if he cannot understand the Infinite, He is not? He might as well contend that his own digestive system is not.
Man can spend from now to the end of time in an endeavor to fathom the nature of God, but his efforts will be in vain. He may contend that he can understand God to be a solitary Being, and that a triune God is unthinkable. His contentions, however, are groundless, for man cannot even understand the nature of a solitary Being. How can any human being comprehend, let alone explain, regardless of how far we can go by our imagination in the unmeasured aeons of the past, that God existed? If that solitary God created the heaven and the earth and space and all things, where was He before He created space? Endless other questions could be asked those that deny the incarnation and triune nature of God on the basis that it is incomprehensible, to prove that no one, not even themselves who contend that they comprehend the nature of a solitary God, can really understand the nature of an Infinite Being. All that man can believe with certainty is what has been revealed by God concerning Himself and His incarnation. This revelation we must seek to find from the Bible and then accept what is revealed. This is the only sane course to follow.
With this in mind, the inquirer should seek to know what God has revealed in the Bible about the Incarnation. Following are some facts concerning the nature of Christ as revealed in the Inspired Book:I. The Bible expressly calls Christ "man."
John 8:40. "But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth."
Acts 2:22. "Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs."
I Corinthians 15:21. "For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead."
1 Timothy 2:5. "For there is one God, and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus."
Matthew 20:28. "The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister."
Acts 7:56. "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God."
Luke 2:40. "The child grew, and waxed strong in spirit."
Luke 24:39. "Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have."
John 4:6. "Jesus therefore, being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well." (See also Matt. 4:2; John 12:27; 19:28; Heb. 2:18.)IV. Christ died on the cross.
John 19:30, 34. "He bowed his head, and gave up the ghost." "But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water."V. Christ was sinless and therefore offered no sacrifice for any sins committed or inherited. He never asked forgiveness for Himself, but imparted forgiveness to others.
John 8:46. "Which of you convinceth me of sin?"
John 14:30. "The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me."
Luke 23:34. "Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them."
Matthew 9:2. "Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee." (See also Luke 1:35; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 7:26.)VI. Christ is God in the highest sense. He acknowledged Himself to be the Son of God; is identified as Yahweh; is equal to the Father and exercises divine powers and prerogatives.
John 9:35. "Dost thou believe on the Son of God?"
Hebrews 1:10. "And, thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth." (Compare Psalm 102:22, where Yahweh is used.)
John 5:23. "That all men should honour the Son, even as they honour the Father."
John 2:24, 25. "But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man."
Matthew 9:6. "The Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins."VII. Christ, who is God in the highest sense, became man.
John 1:14. "And the Word was made flesh." (Christ became what He was not.)
John 8:58. "Before Abraham was, I am" (cf. Ex. 3:14).
1 John 4:2. "Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God."
Christ became flesh. He was God in the form and fashion of a man. Not that Christ was two persons, a divine Christ and a human Christ, but the divine Christ Himself was clothed with humanity and dwelt among us. This is evidenced by the fact that Christ while on earth never addressed His own divine person in heaven as, for example, He addressed the Father in prayer. Christ reconciled the Jews and Gentiles "in one body" (Eph. 2:16), not two, by His atonement on the cross. "The Word was made flesh."VII. Christ was completely divine and human at the same time. He was called Son of God and Son of man.
Luke 1:35. "That holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God."
Philippians 2:7. "Made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men." (See Luke 19:10; John 6:62.)VIII. Christ will forever retain His human nature. The union of humanity with deity is eternal.
Hebrews 7:24. "But this man, because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood."
Luke 24:39. "Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have."IX. The union of the divine and human nature in one person is necessary to constitute Christ the only mediator between God and man. No creature can do that, for God is infinitely higher than the greatest creature. Christ can become man because He is omnipotent and because man in the beginning was created in His image.
Hebrews 2:17. "Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people."
Hebrews 4:15. "For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin."
Here are some scriptural evidences that throw light on the nature of Christ, which is represented in the Scriptures as a mystery (Matt. 11:27; Col. 1:27; 2:2; 1 Tim. 3: 16). In spite of the fact that this mystery can never be fully comprehended by man, we are encouraged to contemplate it and study it. That is, study what is revealed about it. (Phil. 3:8-10; John 17:3; 20:27.)
When we want a deep problem to study, let us fix our minds on the most marvelous thing that ever took place in earth or heaven—the incarnation of the Son of God—Ellen G. White manuscript 76, 1903, quoted in Questions on Doctrine, p. 65.
If we were to "fix our minds" on the abundance of light given to us in the Scriptures and the counsels of Ellen G. White on the subject of the incarnation of the Son of God, what conclusions would we reach? Were we to draw up a statement on the nature of Christ, as did the Council of Chalcedon, how would it be? I think the following could be a sample statement:
We believe that "the eternal heavenly dignitaries—God, and Christ, and the Holy Spirit—" are the "three living persons of the heavenly trio"—"one in nature, in character, in purpose," "in power and authority," in "substance" and in "attributes." And that Christ is "God essentially, and in the highest sense." He (Christ) is Jehovah, the eternal self-existent, uncreated One, Himself the source and sustainer of all" and that in Him "is life, original, unborrowed, underived." Like the Father Christ has life in Himself.
We further believe that "the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us" and that "Christ did not make believe take human nature; He did verily take it. He did in reality possess human nature." He "was a real man. . . . God in the flesh." However, He never parted "with His divinity." "Divinity and humanity were mysteriously combined." "He veiled His divinity with the garb of humanity" "and man and God became one."
We also believe that "in taking upon Himself man's nature in its fallen condition, Christ did not in the least participate in its sin." "The perfect sinlessness of the human nature of Christ" was free from "the propensities of sin." He took "the nature but not the sinfulness of man." "He vanquished Satan in the same nature over which in Eden Satan obtained the victory." Christ "is the second Adam. The first Adam was created a pure, sinless being, without a taint of sin upon him." So in Christ also never "for one moment was there in Him an evil propensity." "Not even by a thought could Christ be brought to yield to the power of temptation." This, however, does not mean "that it was impossible for Christ to be overcome by temptation." For "then He could not have been placed in Adam's position; He could not have gained the victory that Adam failed to gain. . . . Our Saviour took humanity, with all its liabilities.
He took the nature of man, with the possibility of yielding to temptation. We have nothing to bear which He has not endured." Yet Christ never sinned. He said, "The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in Me."
Nevertheless, "Christ . . . loved the church, and gave himself for it" and was crucified. "When Christ was crucified, it was His human nature that died. Deity did not sink and die; that would have been impossible."
Furthermore, we believe that "in taking our nature, the Saviour has bound Himself to humanity by a tie that is never to be broken. Through the eternal ages He is linked with us. 'God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son.'"
In conclusion we affirm that "the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ in human flesh is a mystery, 'even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations.' It is the great and profound mystery of godliness"—"a mystery that will not be fully, completely understood in all its greatness until the translation of the redeemed shall take place."
May God help us to be among the redeemed. Then we shall understand.