The doctrine of the Incarnation (God coming in the flesh) stands at the very heart of historic Christianity and is celebrated around the world at Christmastime (known in the traditional church calendar as the Advent season). Borrowing from the fourth-century Christian church father Athanasius, C. S. Lewis unpacks the meaning of the Incarnation and explains the reason for the importance of Christmas in a single sentence:
The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.1
The Incarnation teaches that the eternal Word, the second person of the Trinity, took unto himself a human nature and became man without in any way diminishing his deity (cf. John 1:1, 14, 18; Philippians 2:5–6; Colossians 2:9; 1 John 4:1–3). Christian orthodoxy therefore views Jesus Christ as a single person who, nevertheless, possesses both a divine and a human nature. Those two natures find their union in the person of Christ (called the hypostatic union). This theological understanding of the Incarnation led the ancient Christians to refer to Jesus as the theanthropos (Greek: the “God-man”).
Undoubtedly, the Incarnation doctrine involves much divine mystery. When it defined the doctrine officially, the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) didn’t attempt to explain just how Christ’s two natures were unified with his personhood. But it seems biblically correct to infer that humankind’s creation in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27) at least anticipated the Incarnation.
It would appear that by making humankind in his divine image, God then also made it possible to take a human nature himself. In this way, the imago Dei status of human beings foreshadows and facilitates the Incarnation.
Theologian Anthony Hoekema asserts, “It was only because man had been created in the image of God that the Second Person of the Trinity could assume human nature.”2 In other words, God made humans in his image because, all along, he planned to become one at the Incarnation in order to redeem lost sinners (2 Timothy 1:9–10). So, in some sense, the human nature of Christ was specially adapted via the imago Dei to accommodate the divine nature. Thus Jesus was fully God and fully man but remained a single person.
Though the Incarnation remains enigmatic and beyond full human comprehension, I hope identifying this connection between the doctrines of creation and the Incarnation will provoke Christians to both think of and be grateful for the great and deeply mysterious truth-claim that stands at the very heart of Christmas.
Allow me to close with one of my favorite Christmas carols:
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’ angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 154. In this quote, Lewis slightly rephrases a statement made by the ancient church father Athanasius (ca. 296–373).
- Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 22.