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The Person and Work of Christ — Part II: The Person of the Incarnate Christ

Article contributed by www.walvoord.com

[Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a series on the general subject, “The Person of Christ.”]

The study of the person of Christ is one of the most complicated and intricate studies which can be undertaken by a Biblical theologian. The many single volumes which have been produced, such as B. B. Warfield’s excellent book, The Person and Work of Christ, as well as such massive works as the five-volume set by J. A. Dorner on The Doctrine of the Person of Christ, are evidence of the importance of this subject. Contemplation on the person of Christ is an exhaustless mine of theology and vital preaching as well as at the heart of any true devotion of the Savior. Every systematic theology worthy of the name gives considerable attention to the person of the incarnate Christ.

The Preincarnate Person of Christ

The person of Christ incarnate is best understood in comparison to the person of Christ before He became incarnate. In any orthodox statement of the doctrine of the Trinity, the Second Person is described as possessing all the attributes of the godhead, being distinguished as the Second Person in contrast to the First or Third Person of the Trinity and as the eternal Son in contrast to the Father or the Holy Spirit. In such utterances as Hebrews 13:8 it is made clear that these attributes are the eternal possession of Christ continuing even in His incarnate state. Even before His incarnation, however, Christ had certain properties and ministries which distinguished Him from God the Father and God the Son. In the plan of God He was designated as the coming Redeemer. In the Old Testament He appeared frequently in the character of the Angel of Jehovah and other theophanies. His person, however, prior to the incarnation did not include any human or angelic attributes, and the theophanies did not involve any change or addition in His nature. In general the preincarnate person of Christ was not complicated, and does not present the theological problems which originate in the incarnation.

The Deity of the Incarnate Christ

When the Second Person of the Godhead became incarnate there was immediately introduced the seemingly insuperable problems of uniting God with man and combining a person who is infinite and eternal with that which is finite and temporal. Orthodox Christianity, however, has been united in the opinion that the incarnation did not diminish the deity of the Second Person of the Trinity even during the period of humiliation and suffering while Christ was on earth. Such limitations as may have been involved in the kenosis did not subtract one attribute or in any sense make Christ less than God. The central importance of the continued deity of Christ has been recognized by theologians from early centuries until the present, and any attack on the deity of Christ is justly recognized as an assault upon a central aspect of Christian faith.

Generally speaking, those who accept the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture do not question the deity of the incarnate Christ. Among the early church fathers a major defection on the deity of Christ was led by Arius which resulted in his rejection by the orthodox fathers and the formulation of the Nicene Creed in the fourth century. Earlier the deity of Christ had been denied by sects such as the Ebionites, the Alogi, and others. The defection from the Biblical doctrine of the deity of Christ was continued by Socinus, the sixteenth-century reformer, and was perpetuated by Schleiermacher and Ritschl in the nineteenth century. Though the denial of the deity of Christ was not embraced by the majority of the Christian church prior to the twentieth century, the Biblical doctrine has been openly questioned in many contemporary works, and Jesus Christ is considered the natural son of Joseph and Mary.

Representative of modern scholarship is the work of Millar Burrows, An Outline of Biblical Theology. Burrows doubts the validity of the birth accounts in Matthew and Luke which testify to the miraculous conception of Christ. He approves the poorly supported Sinaitic Syriac rendering of Matthew 1:16: “Joseph…begat Jesus.”1 He holds there is no support for the birth narrative elsewhere in the Bible.2 Though the Gospel of John frequently refers to the pre-existence of Christ, Burrows nevertheless says: “There is no indication that he ever thought of himself in that way.”3

The evidence of Scripture is so complete that one who denies the deity of Christ must necessarily reject the accuracy of the Scriptures. Berkhof summarizes the evidence for the deity of Christ in these words: “We find that Scripture (1) explicitly asserts the deity of the Son in such passages as John 1:1; 20:28 ; Rom 9:5; Phil 2:6; Titus 2:13; 1 John 5:20, ; (2) applies divine names to Him, Isa 9:6; 40:3 ; Jer 23:5, 6; Joel 2:32 (comp. Acts 2:21) ; 1 Tim 3:16; (3) ascribes to Him divine attributes, such as eternal existence, Isa 9:6; John 1:1, 2; Rev 1:8; 22:13 , omnipresence, Matt 18:20; 28:20 ; John 3:13, omniscience, John 2:24, 25; 21:17 ; Rev 2:23, omnipotence, Isa 9:6; Phil 3:21; Rev 1:8, immutability, Heb 1:10-12; 13:8 , and in general every attribute belonging to the Father, Col 2:9; (4) speaks of Him as doing divine works, as creation, John 1:3, 10; Col 1:16; Heb 1:2, 10, providence, Luke 10:22; John 3:35; 17:2 ; Eph 1:22; Col 1:17; Heb 1:3, the forgiveness of sins, Matt 9:2-7; Mark 2:7-10; Col 3:13, resurrection and judgment, Matt 25:31, 32; John 5:19-29; Acts 10:42; 17:31 ; Phil 3:21; 2 Tim 4:1, the final dissolution and renewal of all things, Heb 1:10-12; Phil 3:21; Rev 21:5, and (5) accords Him divine honour, John 5:22, 23; 14:1 ; 1 Cor 15:19; 2 Cor 13:13; Heb 1:6; Matt 28:19.”4

Charles Hodges has provided another summary of Scriptural evidence for the deity of Christ: “All divine names and titles are applied to Him. He is called God, the Mighty God, the great God, God over all; Jehovah; Lord; the Lord of lords and King of kings. All divine attributes are ascribed to Him. He is declared to be omnipresent, omniscient, almighty, and immutable, the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is set forth as the creator and upholder and ruler of the universe. All things were created by Him and for Him; and by Him all things consist. He is the object of worship to all intelligent creatures, even the highest; all angels (i.e., all creatures between man and God) are commanded to prostrate themselves before Him. He is the object of all the religious sentiments; of reverence, love, faith, and devotion. To Him men and angels are responsible for their character and conduct. He required that men should honour Him as they honoured the Father; that they should exercise the same faith in Him that they do in God. He declares that He and the Father are one; that those who have seen Him had seen the Father also. He calls all men unto Him; promises to forgive their sins; to send them the Holy Spirit; to give them rest and peace; to raise them up at the last day; and to give them eternal life. God is not more, and cannot promise more, or do more than Christ is said to be, to promise, to do. He has therefore, been the Christian’s God from the beginning in all ages and in all places.”5

All modern defections from the doctrine of the deity of Christ assume that the Bible is not authoritative or final in its revelation of this doctrine. If scholars are free to question the explicit statement of Scriptures on the basis of higher criticism, there can be no remaining norm for the theological doctrine of the deity of Christ. Though a denial of Scriptural infallibility does not necessarily result in a denial of the deity of Christ, it is impossible to evade the mass of Scriptures representing Jesus Christ as the eternal God without questioning the Scriptural record. Even modern liberals pay lip service to this in their recognition of the term the Son of God and their recognition of the term Lord and Savior as applying to Christ. Without question the crucial issue in Biblical theology is the deity of Christ, and disregard or question of this central doctrine of the Bible leads to inevitable chaos in theology as a whole.

The Humanity of the Incarnate Christ

Though the doctrine of the deity of Christ is generally recognized as the indispensable fundamental of Christology, the doctrine of His true humanity is equally important. On the fact of His humanity depends the reality of His death on the cross, His claim to be Israel’s Messiah, His fulfillment of the promise to David of a descendent to sit on his throne, and His offices of prophet and priest. Those who deny the true humanity of Christ such as modern Christian Science are just as effective at destroying the true Christian faith as those who deny the deity of Christ. As in the case of the doctrine of the deity of Christ, the Scriptures bear a full testimony to His humanity, and a denial of these aspects of His incarnate person would necessitate a denial of the Scriptures themselves. It is for this reason that the doctrine of the true humanity of Christ has always been a part of orthodox Christian faith.

The humanity of Christ is evident first of all in the fact that He possessed a true human body composed of flesh and blood, and, like the bodies of other men in everything that is essential except those qualities which have resulted from human sin and failure. The evidence for His human body in the Scriptures is if anything even more evident than the evidence for His deity.

According to the Scriptures, Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, fulfilling in this notable historical event of His incarnation all that would normally be expected of a human birth and fulfilling the many Old Testament prophecies which anticipated His genuine humanity.

The life of Christ subsequent to His birth in Bethlehem reveals the same normal human development and growth. According to Luke 2:52: “Jesus advanced in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and men.” His bodily growth was normal like that of other children. More difficult to understand, however, is the statement that he advanced in wisdom or knowledge. This is commonly interpreted to refer to His humanity rather than to His divine consciousness. Other aspects of His experience correspond to that of ordinary human beings. He experienced in His life similar feelings and limitations as other human beings, and His physical movements were such as corresponded to a genuine human nature and human body. He, according to the Scriptures, was able to suffer pain, thirst, hunger, fatigue, pleasure, rest, death, and resurrection. Both before and after His resurrection He could be seen and felt, and His human body was tangible to human touch just as other human beings. No one seems to have ever doubted that He possessed a true human body prior to His death, and even after His resurrection He went out of His way to demonstrate the genuineness of His human body. The elements of the supernatural evident in miracles such as walking on the water, though admittedly beyond human powers, did not change the essential character of His body any more than in the case of Peter who also walked on the water.

The true humanity of the incarnate Christ is also recognized in Scripture in the human titles which were given to Him such as Son of man, the man Christ Jesus, Jesus, the Son of David, man of sorrows, etc. The Scriptures also testify specifically to the fact that His body possessed flesh and blood (Heb 2:14; 1 John 4:2-3). A denial of His humanity, therefore, must also carry with it a denial of these important Scriptures which are essential to the New Testament revelation of the person of the incarnate Christ.

The Scriptures not only bear testimony to the physical characteristics of the human body of the incarnate Christ, but also speak specifically of the fact that He possessed a human rational soul and spirit. According to Matthew 26:38 Christ said to His disciples: “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.” This could hardly be attributed to His divine nature and therefore is a reference to the fact that He possessed a human soul. A similar statement is given in John 13:21 in regard to His human spirit where it is recorded: “When Jesus had thus said, he was troubled in the spirit.” According to these and other Scriptures, it is therefore evident that Christ possessed a true humanity not only in its material aspects as indicated in His human body, but in the immaterial aspect specified in Scripture as being His soul and spirit. It is therefore not sufficient to recognize that Jesus Christ as the Son of God possessed a human body, but it is necessary to define the human aspect of His person as that of a complete human nature including body, soul, and spirit. hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” (cf. Mark 14:62; Luke 22:69-70). The appearances of Christ after His resurrection also substantiate the continuity of His true humanity. When the worshipping women met Christ in Matthew 28:9 it is recorded: “They came and took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.” Mary Magdalene, according to John 20:17, actually clung to Christ in her joy at seeing Him after His resurrection. Further evidence is found in the other appearances in the postresurrection ministry as well as in the fact of His bodily ascension into heaven (Mark 16:19; Luke 24:30-31, 39-43, 50-53; John 20:22, 27-28; Acts 1:1-11; 7:56 ). According to Philippians 2:10, the human name Jesus is continued in connection with the final judgment. His humanity seems also to be essential to His work of mediation. According to 1 Timothy 2:5: “There is one God, one mediator also between God and men, himself man, Christ Jesus.” The term “Son of man” which Christ uses Himself in Matthew 26:64 as describing His reign in heaven is mentioned also in Revelation 1:13; 14:14 .

Though certain aspects of His meditorial work will terminate according to 1 Corinthians 15:25-28, there is no indication anywhere in the Bible that His humanity will ever be terminated. By its very nature a human personality once brought into existence never ceases to exist, and what is true of ordinary human experience is also true of Christ who became man. His continuance as a human being in eternity seems to involve also the continuance of a human body. This is demonstrated, first, in the resurrection of Christ where His body was raised and prepared for heaven; second, in the fact of His ascension which was a bodily ascension into heaven; third, in the fact that He will return bodily to the earth, and, fourth, that His body is a pattern of the body of believers who are raised or translated. There is every reason, therefore, to believe that the humanity of Christ will continue throughout all eternity to come.

Among conservative theologians the fact of the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in Christ is well established. The problem does not lie in the fact of the union, but rather in the relationship of the two natures of Christ, the nature of the self-consciousness of Christ and how the two natures relate to the will of Christ. These items will form the burden of subsequent discussions.


This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.


1 Millar Burrows, An Outline of Biblical Theology, p. 101.

2 Ibid., p. 101.

3 Ibid., p. 102.

4 L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, pp. 94-95.

5 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, II, 582.