How can Jesus Christ be both God and man? That he is both fully divine and fully human is the clear testimony of scripture. The Bible shows that the Son shares the attributes and authority of God, the divine names and prerogatives, the glory and honour due to God alone. He is “above the line” that divides Creator from creation. He was sent by the Father and has returned to the Father, with whom he has shared and will share eternity. The Bible’s testimony is equally adamant that Jesus Christ was fully human, exactly like us but for two important differences; he was born of a virgin, and he never sinned. He was capable of being tempted, and was truly tempted, yet he never succumbed to temptation (Heb 4:15). He defeated sin in the very flesh in which it normally reigned (Rom 8:3); this was his salvific triumph in which we are graciously invited to share. Jesus was born and grew, he experienced hunger, thirst and fatigue; he was fully and truly human (2 John 1:7). The Son is distinct from the Father who sent him (Eph 1:3; John 8:42; 1 John 4:10, 14). It was the Son’s task to take on flesh and die for the sins of the world (John 3:16–17). Although he is God, the Son willingly humbled himself, submitting to his Father and taking on the form of a servant (Phil 2:5–11). A correct understanding of Christian doctrine requires an acknowledgement of the full humanity and well as the full deity of Christ.
Comprehending how the Son, eternally one with the Father and Spirit, could become flesh, become fully human, is not easy. This should not in itself bother us, because there is very little about God that we are able to understand, yet which we accept because this is how God has revealed himself, and his most complete revelation is in Christ (Is a 55:8; Heb 1:1–2; Matt 11:27). God’s eternity, having no beginning, his perfection, his unlimited power unsullied by any corruption, his knowledge of our hearts and his ability to hear millions of prayers at once, his providence over the complexities of creation; these are all very hard to understand, yet we accept them on the evidence we have and in faith. Ridiculing doctrines because they don’t make sense to our limited understanding is essentially an attempt to tame God, to insist that he be at our level. Just because humans cannot become God, we have no right to tell God that he couldn’t become human, when he tells us that he did. The problem is compounded when a doctrinal position is willfully misunderstood and misrepresented, as happened in a recent on-line discussion. Here are some of the accusations levelled at the Trinitarian position:
If you ask a Trinitarian which part of Jesus actually made Jesus Jesus, the God bit or the man bit, they’ll eventually admit it’s the God bit. Then if you ask them which bit died, they’ll admit it’s the man bit.”
“For Trinitarians, ‘God incarnate’ and ‘God’ refer to the same thing” – therefore their God died and is not immortal.
“The God I worship is immortal and can’t die. Sorry to hear yours is not.”
I have elsewhere addressed the distinction between the Father and the Son and also the important question of how God the Son could die. Trinitarians do not believe that the Father died on the cross; this is “patripassianism” and has never been mainstream doctrine. It was a result of the early heresy of Modalism. Christadelphians claim that the deity present in Christ was that of the Father, not the Son, that he was the Father manifested in the flesh, so it is they who come closest to patripassianism, not Trinitarians. However, Christadelphians vehemently deny that God could die, because they equate “God” solely with the Father. They do not knowledge that one person of the Godhead, the Son, could be distinct from another, the Father, and take on flesh, be “incarnate.” They seem to think it must be the whole Godhead, which for them means only the Father, who died, which is clearly not what Scripture teaches. God the Son became flesh in order to die; he took on mortality (John 1:14; 8:42; Matt 20:28; John 12:27; Acts 17:3; Gal 4;4–5). The Father did not.
But the Christadelphian doctrine of “God manifestation” never truly explains what “God manifestation” actually means in a concrete sense, that is, in what way divine attributes can be attributed to Jesus and in what sense the Father indwelt or influenced him. If the Father was “manifested” in Jesus to the extent that his human tendency to sin was completely controlled (even as a child) and he had the authority and self-understanding to do what he did and made the claims he made, then was God still in Christ when he went to the cross? Or did the Father leave his Son at this point, because “God,” (i.e. the Father) cannot die? This was what many of the Gnostics claimed, that the divine Christ left the body of the man Jesus at the crucifixion, because the divine could not be associated with fleshly death. If the Father was not truly “manifested” in Jesus as to afford him the ability to remain sinless and “do everything the Father does,” then was God truly manifest in Christ? But if “God manifestation” simply means Jesus demonstrated what God was like, or spoke as his representative, then what made Jesus who he was? You can’t have it both ways; enough divine influence on the man Jesus to ensure he achieved all he was destined to, yet that influence/ manifestation/ indwelling in no way connected with his death.
Yet Scripture says, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Tim 3:16) Who is the “he” here? If it is “the Father” manifested in the flesh, then it is “the Father” who was vindicated by the Spirit, “the Father” who was believed on in the world and “the Father” who was taken up into glory. Yet we know that all these things refer to the Son (John 1:14; Heb 10:5; Matt 12:28; Mark 1:10–11; Luke 4:8; John 3:34; 15:26; Rom 8:11; Heb 1:5–6; John 1:12; 3:15–18; 6:29, 40; 11:25–27; 14:1; 17:21; Matt 26:64; John 6:62; 17:5; Eph 4:8–10; Phil 2:9–11; Heb 2:9; 1 Pet 3:22; Rev 5:12). The word “manifested” (phaneroo) actually means nothing more than “appeared;” “He (God) appeared in the flesh;” it actually carries no sense of indwelling or incarnation. God appeared, and he will do so again (Titus 2:13). So the God who appeared in flesh is not the Father, but the Son, which is consistent with the rest of the New Testament.
Christians have long wrestled with what it means for the Son of God to be both fully human and fully divine. For orthodox Christians, the non-negotiables are; that we cannot minimise or downplay the divinity of the Son, nor can we deny or minimise his full humanity. Reconciliation of the divinity and humanity of Christ must be done without making him two persons in one body, or by blurring the distinctions between the two and allowing one to overwhelm the other. The fourth century christological controversies that resulted in the Chalcedonian definition of 451 AD rejected a number of heresies along the way.
• Adoptionism: Jesus was the natural son of Joseph and Mary, but became the son of God when the Holy Spirit entered him, and he earned the title of Christ
• Arianism: the Son was pre-existent but was only a creature, on whom divinity was bestowed
• Docetism: Jesus was fully divine but only seemed human; his humanity and suffering were merely in appearance
• Apollinarianism: the divine Logos took the place of a human soul in Jesus so he was a divine mind in a fleshly shell
• Eutychianism: Christ had only one nature, the divine
• Nestorianism: Christ’s divine and human natures were not fully united
When Christadelphians ridicule the concept of the divine and human in Jesus, they usually attack one of these heresies rather than the genuine Trinitarian position. This is the straw man fallacy, to tear down a caricature or misrepresentation of something, and pretend that the actual true position has been defeated. If we were drafting the Chalcedonian definition today, perhaps we would use somewhat different vocabulary and phrasing. Nevertheless, credit where credit is due, the orthodox statement carefully and correctly delineates the boundaries of truth. It was a statement for its time, addressing the heresies of the day, but I doubt we really could do any better:
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 reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin…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 occurring in one Person and one subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ…”
The Chalcedonian definition set the boundaries, outside of which there is an unscriptural imbalance between the divine and human aspects of Christ; it is primarily a statement of who/what Jesus is not, rather than who/what he is. Philippians 2:6–8 explains that the emptying the Son underwent when he was sent was not an emptying of his divine attributes. He displayed those attributes in abundance during his ministry. Rather, he relinquished the rights of equality with God and submitted himself to the Father, taking on the form of a servant and being found in appearance as a man. In doing this, he accepted certain limitations on the functioning of his divinity; he held his divinity in check. He was, according to one analogy, like the world’s greatest boxer fighting with one hand tied behind his back. These limitations were not the result of a loss of divine attributes, but the addition of human attributes, so he could experience and learn dependency on the Father, overcome real temptations and effectively bear sin to the cross and destroy it (John 14:28 cf Luke 2:51; Heb 2:14–18; 5:7–8; 10:7; Rom 8:3).
The idea that divine nature could not assimilate with human nature comes from Greek dualistic philosophy, not from the Bible. God made mankind in his image in the first place; why should it be thought incredible that God could enter into humanity? (Gen 1:26–27; Matt 1:23; Col 1:15–20). Perhaps deniers of the incarnation not only limit God, but limit the brilliance of his creation as well. Jesus is more truly “human” than we are, in that he accomplished all that Adam was meant to do, and more, undoing the effects of Adam’s sin on us too, who fail to live up to the intended human standard (Rom 5:12–19; 1 Cor 15:21–22, 45–49; 1 John 3:2). He is what humanity was meant to be.
In the accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds we do not ever get the impression that his divine and human natures functioned independently, still less that there was a “God bit” that made Jesus the Christ and a “man bit” that died, as my correspondent claimed. Jesus functioned as a whole person. He referred to himself in the singular and was regarded by others as an individual. To claim that orthodox Christians teach otherwise is to misrepresent our position. He was the Word, who was with God and was God, made flesh (1 John 1:1–2, 14; 1 Tim 3:16). He, the Son of Man who came from heaven, has now returned there (John 3:13; 6:62; 7:28–29; 13:3). The brief and precious account of Jesus’ childhood describe him as growing, becoming strong and wise (Luke 2:40, 47, 49, 52). The same child who was proclaimed to be the Saviour, Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11) grew and learned, and never sinned. Only by recognising the perfectly combined full humanity and full deity of Christ can the issue of Christ’s sinlessness be resolved.
The same man who hungered in the wilderness could have turned stones into bread to feed himself, but rather miraculously provided bread for thousands (Matt 4:2–4; 14:19–21). The same weary man who asked for a drink of water from a woman at a well told her everything she’d ever done (John 4:6–7, 39). The same man who slept, exhausted, through a storm was able to calm the winds and waves (Matt 8:24–27). Well might his awestruck disciples gasp, “Who is this man?” No one ever spoke like this man, or did the deeds of this man, but no one ever questioned that he was a man (Matt 13:54–56; John 7:46). Some of his divine prerogatives were directly connected with his being Son of Man (Matt 9:6; 12:8; 19:28; 24:27; John 5:26–27), and the necessity of his death was also a function of his Christhood as the Son of God (Luke 24:26; Rom 5:8; 8:3; Col 1:13–14; 1 John 1:7; Rev 19:13–16). The son of David is also David’s Lord (Matt 22:42–46; Luke 1:32, 35). The same man who wept for his friend raised him again to life (John 11:33–44). It was the Lord of glory himself who was crucified (1 Cor 2:8). The same man who bore the wounds of his crucifixion was addressed as Lord and God (John 20:28). The same Living One who died and is alive for evermore and has the keys of death and Hades is the First and the Last; the offspring of David is the Alpha and Omega (Rev 1:17–18, 22:13–16). Christ’s divinity and humanity are perfectly united.
Christ’s human nature and divine natures are inseparable, and both were essential to the task of redeeming his estranged creation (Col 1:22; Rom 5:1–2; 2 Cor 5:18–20). By his own blood, shed as a man on the cross, he justified, redeemed, reconciled, adopted and sanctified the children of God (Rom 5:9; Eph 1:7; Col 1:20; Heb 9:12; 10:19; 13:12). The reconciliation that occurred between God and man in the Lord Jesus has been made available to all who put their faith in him. The atonement is a work of God, from beginning to end and has been absolutely assured from all eternity. It did not depend on the tenuous ability of a gifted but merely human man. God’s own arm brought salvation (Isa 59:16), he reconciled us to himself in Christ (2 Cor 5:18–19) and purchased us with his own blood (Acts 20:28).
“Who do you say that I am?” is the essential question Jesus asked and continues to ask (Matt 16:15; John 3:36). Addressing the unbelieving Jewish leaders, who refused to accept Jesus’ divine claims, he stated, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he (ego eimi, YHWH) you will die in your sins” (John 8:23–24).
Who do you say that he is?