The Incarnation of the Son of God

Its Biblical And Rational Bases

Rev. Leander S. Keyser, D.D., Hamma Divinity School, Springfield, Ohio


That the incarnation of the son of God is a Biblical doctrine can hardly be doubted. The language of Scripture is so explicit that it seems to the writer to be capable of only one interpretation. Still, we shall cite a few outstanding passages that teach this doctrine.

Perhaps the classical text is the prologue of the gospel according to St. John. “In the beginning was the Word (the Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things through Him were made, and without Him was not anything made that was made.” The intervening verses can refer only to Christ. Then comes verse 14:”And the Word was made (became, egeneto) flesh, and dwelt among us.” Thus the Logos, who was with God and who was God, assumed human form and nature. For the word “flesh” (sarx) in the New Testament often stands for human nature in its totality. Here it can have no other signification.

The meaning of this passage, therefore, must be that the divine person called “the Logos” assumed human nature and lived a human life here on earth. That spells a true divine incarnation, or in other words, the incarnation of a divine person.

A most significant statement is that of Matthew in the record of the visit of the Angel of the Annunciation to Joseph. Quoting Isa. 7:14, the gospel writer says (although it may be the language of the angel):”Now all this came to pass, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, which is, being interpreted, God with us.”

Analyze the word Immanuel. It is composed of Immanu, with us, and El, the first syllable of Elohim. And who is Elohim? It is the first name given to God in the Old Testament. It occurs in the very first verse of the Bible: “In the beginning God (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth.” Thus, wonder of wonders! the little child, who was to be born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem, was to be called Immanuel, God with us; and it was the God of the Old Testament, who is called the Creator of the heavens and the earth. If that does not mean that Jesus Christ was God incarnate, language can make nothing plain. With this interpretation the prologue of John’s gospel agrees in a wonderful way, for it says of the divine Logos, who afterward “became flesh,” that “through Him were all things made, and without Him was not anything made that was made.”

Whenever Jesus, although a man, identified Himself with the Father as one with Him, the statement can be explained only in the sense of a divine incarnation. Here is a most significant saying of our Lord: “And now, 0 Father, glorify thou me with thine own self, with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.” Here is surely a consciousness of His pre-existence with the Father from eternity, and a prayer to be restored to His pristine glory at the right hand of the Majesty on high; yet at the time of His speaking these words, He was a man with all the attributes and marks of humanity. With this saying another saying agrees: “What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where He was before?” Here is indicated a full consciousness of His pre-existence, of His present state of humiliation, and of His expected return to His rightful place in the transcendent realm.

Of course, Paul’s great saying is apropos here: “Though He was rich, yet for our sakes, He became poor,” etc. Also the classical passage in Philippians in which he says: “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not a thing to be grasped at to be equal with God; but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men; and, being found in fashion as a man, He emptied Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God hath also highly exalted Him, and given Him the name which is above every name.”

It is unnecessary to carry our Biblical citations further. The point is established that the Bible teaches explicitly and implicitly the doctrine of the incarnation of the divine Son of God. Those who reject that doctrine, therefore, must settle with the Bible and its author, and not primarily with orthodox theologians.

Now it is well to have a simple faith, a naive faith. There are many people who are satisfied with such a faith, and they are most blessed. Perhaps the vast majority of Christians know Christ as the way, the truth, and the life by such a simple act of faith, giving them an inner assurance that has no question-marks after it. My parents and grandparents, and yours too, no doubt, were people who had such a simple and precious experience.

But you and I who love to think, who cannot help analyzing and synthesizing, who care to give an answer to those who ask a reason for the hope that is in us, prefer to go a little further. In addition to our simple faith, which has given us our assurance of truth, pardon and salvation, we also seek a discursive faith, as it is called in our theologies—that is, a faith which we reason about and which may be shown to be rational. So in thinking about the incarnation of the eternal son of God, we may do some reasoning and investigating without becoming rationalists! True enough, if we had to depend on mere unaided human reason, we could never have even discovered the truth that is in Christ Jesus, but would be compelled to grope in spiritual darkness. However, once we have been enlightened through faith in Christ, our reason has been given a different attitude, a different ability, and different power of functioning.

The question which thinkers ever raise is: How could there be an incarnation of a divine being? How could Christ be both God and man, both divine and human? Of course, we cannot hope to penetrate into the ultimate mystery of this doctrine. We cannot even cipher out how a human self-conscious personality can arise from a fertilized procreative cell by natural generation. Indeed, the cell, which is the unit of all living organisms, is so marvelous a structure, with its nucleus, its chromosomes, its genes, etc., that one might feel almost like falling down and worshipping this mystery, had not God in His word bidden us to worship the Creator and not the creature.

So, of course, we need not move up into the realm of a divine incarnation in order to find ourselves in the midst of mystery inexplicable. However, we believe we can show that it is not an absurd mystery, not something that is unreasonable and self-contradictory.

How, then, could the person of the Son of God assume human nature? If we can grasp the idea of the central fact in personality, it will help us greatly in our thinking upon divine things. The core of personality is the Ego, the English I, the German Ich, the Ihood, the Selfhood. This center of self-consciousness is the pivot around which man’s whole nature revolves. It is in reality his essential personality; all else being the addenda, the attributes which enrich his being. In a way we can mentally visionalize the Ego posited in some mysterious way in the center of our being.

Now God—the God of the Bible and Christianity—is one divine and absolute Being with three of these foci of self-consciousness. He is one in His nature, in His God-hood, in His essence. There are not three divine beings or essences, but only one. But in this one divine essence there inhere three Egos, each of which is distinctly self-conscious, but all of which are synthetically so joined and mutually en rapport as to constitute the one perfect, infinitely and absolutely self-conscious divine Being.

In this respect you and I differ from the triune God. While we were created in His image, and therefore have in our being some adumbrations of threefoldness, yet we are limited to a single center of self-consciousness. The Ego in us unus, not tres. This ego functions in our dual nature, mind and body, but it is limited to one central synthetic principle or power. In the divine Being, whose nature is infinite and absolute, there function three of the self-conscious I’s. So God is infinitely and perfectly self-conscious, for each of the three Egos possesses, and acts through, the whole divine nature. Therefore God is an immanent, an ontological Trinity, not merely an economic trinity, not merely a trinity of manifestation. He manifests Himself honestly and genuinely when He gives us a three-fold epiphany of Himself as Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Now a person, an Ego, has volition. If he wills to do so, he can humble himself; yes, in a way he can empty himself. Father Damien emptied himself in a real manner when he went to the leper island. So did Livingstone when he immured himself in darkest Africa; the same is true of Schwartz and Ziegenbalg when they went to India; of Hans Egede when he went to Greenland among the Esquimaux; of Paton when he went to the New Hebrides. These instances—and many others might be mentioned—evince a real act of self-immolating love for others. Whence came such a self-sacrificing spirit? What was its ultimate source? Could it have, arisen from insensate matter? Could it have evolved through an age-long, selfish struggle for existence? If we are going to trace it to its ultima thule, must it not have its source in the ultimate Being, God? Where else could it have its primal spring?

So God must have the spirit of self-sacrificing love. If he has, how else could He have displayed it, how else could He have performed a real act of self-immolation for man the sinner’s sake, except by one person of the Godhead taking upon Himself man’s nature, and thereby, in utmost love and sacrifice, taking man’s place and suffering in his stead the penalty of man’s sins? An unincarnate God, who is the source and ground of the holy law of God, could not put Himself under the law and thus redeem them that are under the law. No; the Son of God had to be “born of a woman”—that is, become human—in order to be placed under the law.

But how could this be done? Perhaps we can get some conception of it by going back to the real idea of personality as previously indicated. There are in God three centers of self-consciousness or three Egos. It is not difficult to conceive that one of them, namely, the Son, having volitional power, could surrender Himself, in condescending love for the human race, to the operation of the third person, the Holy Spirit, who would bear Him down into the realm of time and space, bring Him into the seminal being of the Virgin Mary, and by a divine supernatural act enfold and enshrine Him in human nature, so that after that He, the Ego of the Son, would function in and through His assumed human nature, just as our Egos are able to function in and through our human nature. In this way there would be a real divine incarnation. When we look upon Jesus, we can truly say, “He is the Son of God Incarnate,” for He is the divine person of the Son organically united with our human nature, consciously thinking and acting in terms of humanity. If this is impossible, then God is not omnipotent and omniscient, and there is no known way by which He can sacrifice Himself for us; no way by which He can redeem us from our sins.

This doctrine of the vountary kenosis or humiliation of the Son will aid us in interpreting many passages of Scripture which would otherwise be enigmatical. For example, “And the child grew in stature and wisdom, and in favor with God and man.” Yet that child was Immanuel, God with us. He was God with us, because He was the divine person of the Son dwelling in and functioning through a human form. In one place Jesus said, “My father is greater than I.” This statement offers no difficulty, because during his earthly life He placed Himself in a state of humiliation, and hence of dependence on the Father. Many, many times in the gospel according to St. John, He acknowledges His subordination to the Father: “I always do the will of my Father;” “Whatsoever He biddeth Me that I do;” “The words that I speak I speak not of myself, but the Father who is with me;” “I have finished the work Thou gavest Me to do.” Thus we need not stumble over His saying in Gethsemane, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass,” etc. No difficulty arises, either, when Jesus disclaimed exact knowledge of the time of the end of the world. Also the despairing cry, “My God, my God why hast Thou forsaken me” becomes plain. We may not be able to understand all about the self-consciousness of Jesus and His objective knowledge, but it is clear that in His state of humiliation He did not at all times claim and exercise omniscience. However, all supernatural knowledge was restored to Him when He was exalted to the right hand of God.

A virgin birth, clearly taught in the Word of God, and” therefore a Biblical doctrine, is a necessary postulate of a divine incarnation. We do not understand how men can lay claim to belief in the incarnation of the Son of God and yet deny the virgin birth of Christ. If Jesus was naturally generated, he would have been a human person with only a human Ego; then, if the person of the Son of God had united Himself with this human person, the result would have been a being with two egos, that is, with a dual personality. But such a being would have been an anomaly. Moreover, Christ never gave any hint of a dual consciousness. He always used the personal pronouns of the singular number. His disciples always addressed Him and always spoke and wrote of Him in the singular number. Or, if He would not have “been two persons, the conjunction of the divine and human in Him would have been only a mystical unit (unio mystica), such as all regenerate persons have with the triune God. So a conception of Christ by the Holy Ghost in the pro-creative being of a virgin is the only thinkable way by which a true divine incarnation could have been accomplished. A divine Ego functioning in and through human nature—that, and that only, can rightly be called a divine incarnation.

Let us now enumerate a series of reasons why the Word was made flesh and tabernacled among us. We desire to show that it is just what we might expect of a good and holy God, and that it is too organic, too structural in the nature of things, too beautiful and uplifting not to be true.

First, we note how wonderfully the teaching of the Bible holds together; how part fits to part. Everything fits like the paper on the wall. When man sinned in the garden of Eden, he fell from God; and he fell far and hard. Of course, it was a moral and spiritual descensus. Now, having disabled himself by sin, man could not lift himself up to God again, any more than you or I could lift ourselves bodily into the air by taking hold of the tops of our shoes. But if man could not lift himself up to God, God could come down to man. And that is precisely what God did in the person of His Son when He came down into this world and in His own person united the divine and human natures. This union was achieved, therefore, in an organic and living way, not in a mechanical way.

Let us now note the living process that takes place in our restoration to divine favor. If you and I are united by regeneration and faith with Christ, the God-man, then humanity and divinity are reunited in the bonds of a living fellowship, our true life being derived from Him. This is implied in our Lord’s striking simile when He said, “I am the vine, ye are the branches.” Also, “I in you, and ye in me,” while Paul said, “Christ in you the hope of glory.”

Again, as we men are constituted, we can apprehend the concrete much more easily than the abstract, the relative better than the absolute. This is the method in all our pedagogy from the kindergarten to the university and technical institution. We pass from the concrete to the abstract, from the simple to the complex. Christ illustrated His discourses by means of parables.

God certainly knew our psychology. He surely knew the best way to instruct us. Now, we define God as a Spirit uncreated and perfect. But do we obtain a clear idea of an infinite and absolute Being who is pure spiritual essence? No; we may think and cogitate until thought is projected just so far, then we grow wearied with our effort, and thought vanishes off into mist.

How different when we think of Jesus! We can envisage Him at once. It requires no effort of the imagination to picture Him as He lay as a babe in Bethlehem’s manger. How vividly He appears as a youth of twelve in the temple talking with the doctors of the law! How clearly we visualize Him as He goes about doing good! We see Him lying prone on His face in dark Gethsemane; we see Him standing in Pilate judgment hall, while His tormentors spit upon Him, slap Him on the face, crush a crown of thorns upon His head; we see Him carrying His cross up the via dolorosa, and breaking down beneath its weight; we see Him hanging on the cross in utter anguish; and, if we are quiet, we may almost hear Him as He lifts His eyes to heaven and cried, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Thus we may say that Jesus Christ is God made simple and plain to us. We might almost put it, He is God’s A. B. C. Who is Jesus Christ? He is God come down out of the abstract realm into the realm of the concrete that we might more readily apprehend Him. Who is Jesus Christ? He is God come down out of the sphere of eternity and infinity into the realm of time and space where we dwell that we might know Him. And this is precisely the teaching of Holy Writ. “No man hath seen God at any time: the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath revealed (exegeted) Him.” “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father also.” He is called “God manifest in the flesh.” “God . . . hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” “Neither knoweth any man the Father save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal Him.”

Another reason for the incarnation of the Son of God lies in man’s need of a perfect example of human living. One might make an epigram by saying, “An ounce of example is worth a pound of precept,” no matter how apt and helpful the precept might be. Had God merely issued mandates and suggestive sayings, from His throne, we might well have replied to Him: “Thy commands and precepts are all very good, but we need some one to show us how to live a human life in this world of sin, temptation and sorrow.”

Certainly God, who created us, knew our need, and made reply to this cry of the human heart by saying: “Yes, my weak and sinful people need an example: I will send mine only begotten Son into the world; and in order that He may set them a pattern of human living, He shall empty himself and become ensphered in human nature, and shall live as a man among men.”

And that is just what Jesus did. He became our model of human living. Within the proper bounds it is right for us to ask, “What would Jesus do?” Of course, this can refer only to His moral and spiritual relations, not to His supernatural acts; but in the moral and spiritual domain Christ is our example. At a teacher of young people, we more than once ask the question, “What kind of a teacher would Jesus be if He were here in my place?” I feel sure that He would be a kind and patient one, and yet would exact the proper kind and amount of work from His students. On one occasion Christ Himself said to His disciples: “For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done unto you” (John 13:15). All His injunctions to follow Him would connote that His disciples are to try to model their lives after Him. Paul enjoins, “Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus.” Peter: “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow His steps.”

Yes, our Lord lived a model human life in this world of mingled joys and sorrows, victories and defeats, so that we might by His grace pattern after Him. There is no thinkable way by which a divine person could have set an example of human living before the world save by Himself assuming human nature.

Then there is the matter of sympathy. The world in sorrow needs just that. And, since we are human, it is human sympathy that we need. It is true, the unincarnated God can and does sympathize with us. If He did not, He would not have had compassion upon us and sent His Son to save and help us. “Like as a father pitieth His children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him.” But, after all, we human beings could not appreciate sympathy from a purely divine being as much as we can from one who has directly known our human experiences. There is nothing that brings Christ nearer to us than the knowledge that He was human and passed through the whole gamut of human experience. Whatever experience His people have, they know that Jesus knows how they feel. No matter what hard and rugged pathway they must travel, they can feel that Jesus has passed that way. This will account for that sweet fellow-feeling that subsists between Christ and those who love and trust Him. Never was there a more precious and comforting sentence indited than that of the writer of the letter to the Hebrews: “For we have not an high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but one who was tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin.”

Still another reason why the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us is this: Nothing so appeals to the human heart as does unselfish sacrifice for others. The story of a mother’s sacrificial love for her children always melts the heart. Altruistic love is the most winsome and touching quality of which men know anything.

Well, our heavenly Father knew our natures through and through. One can imagine His saying: “I know what will melt the heart of humanity, sinful as it is. If my only begotten Son will go down to earth, assume their nature, take upon Himself in self-immolating love the burden and pain of their sins, and suffer the penalty of their transgressions in their stead—that will touch and tender their hearts and bring them to repentance; that will win them back to the Father’s love.”

And is not that precisely what has taken place? Have not more people been won to the better life by the “old, old story of Jesus and His love” than by any other principle or appeal? Some people may be affected by the minatory parts of the Bible, which have their place in the plan of redeeming grace; but, after all, a vastly larger number of disciples have been won through the winsomeness of Jesus and the love He displayed in His giving Himself for us.

Can we think of any way by which God could have made such an exhibition of true altruistic love than by becoming incarnate in human form and nature? In a former day we remember feeling distinctly rebellious and resentful when we went to a church service and the minister preached about hell. We would say defiantly to our-self, “You cannot scare me into accepting your religion.” But if a minister told tenderly and unaffectedly the story of God’s love in giving Himself for our well-being and suffering in our stead that we might be good and happy forever, we could not repress the thought: “Well, that is the best story ever! If we only knew that it is true!” Sometimes, then, the thought would come that, if we were ever convinced that the story of Christ’s love was true, we would be impelled to preach it. Afterward we found it to be true, blessedly true; and that is why we entered the ministry, and are today rejoicing in Him who loved us and gave Himself for us.

And we must remember, too, that, if this appeal is to be persuasive and effective, the sufferings of Jesus in our behalf must have been real and necessary suffering. It must have been truly vicarious and substitutional. He must truly have taken our place. No mere so-called “moral influence” figment would meet the situation. A mere spectacular and histrionic display of love that was not grounded in necessity would not win men’s hearts and draw them from their sins. “Knowest thou not,” said Paul, “that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” It is when we read, “He was wounded for our transgressions,” etc., that we surrender to His wooing love, for that is true love which is willing to sacrifice itself for the object of its affection and suffer in the place of its loved object.

In the next place, it would seem to be reasonable and sequential that the same species of being that committed the transgression should endure its penalty. At least, that would be the logical way. But if that principle were carried out, the human family could not be saved. Could not divine love and wisdom find some way by which the race could be saved in an ethical way, while at the same time the righteous government of the universe is upheld and the majesty and holiness of the law kept inviolate? Yes, love found the way. The son of God could take upon Him man’s nature, and pay the price of man’s redemption. Thus “God could be just, and yet the justifier of every one that believeth on Jesus Christ.” When we look upon Mt. Sinai amid its thunderings and lightnings, we get some view of the heinousness of sin and God’s condemnation of it through His holy law; but it is when we look upon Mt. Calvary, and view the transaction that took place there nineteen hundred years ago, and realize what it brought upon the Son of God—yes, it is then that we get a real view of the guilt, malignancy, ignominy and destructive character of sin.

Now we cannot see how the Son of God could have died for mankind, could have suffered the punishment due for the sin of the race, could, in short, have become man’s substitute under the law, without becoming human. The cross is the central symbol of our Christian faith. But had not God’s son become incarnate, He could not have died upon the cross. We see, therefore, that the incarnation, making reparation for sin possible, lies in the very structure and constitution of a moral and redemptive economy.

A closing thought. If man was to be saved by what we might call a consistent and organic procedure, instead of by a merely mechanical and arbitrary method, a new Federal Head of the race had to be constituted. The first federal head, Adam, failed. Christ, the Second Adam, becomes the new Federal Head. Now, if we follow the old federal head and continue our adherence to him, we shall be led downward to destruction; but if, by repentance we are detached from the old sinful federal head and by regeneration and faith are attached to the new Federal Head, Jesus Christ, He, the Captain of our salvation, will lead us onward and upward to eternal victory.

By these tokens we see that God acted in a rational and fundamental way in decreeing and carrying out the plan of redemption through the incarnation of His eternal Son—the only way, as far as we can understand, by which all the needs, physical, psychical, ethical and spiritual, of the human race could have been met and satisfied; the only way toy which the human family could be saved from sin in accordance with ethical principles; the only way by which the moral government of the cosmos could be justified and upheld; the only way by which the love and grace of Gold could save man without violation of the eternal principle of righteousness; the only way by which all the attributes of God could subsist in the synthesis of His own accordant being. Had man been saved by a mere fiat, by doing violence to fundamental ethical principles, that procedure would have caused a diremption in the moral universe from periphery to periphery that would have wrought universal catastrophe. Surely it is not mere sentiment, indeed, that lies in the soul and reason of things, when all Christians, who know that they have been redeemed through the incarnation and sacrifice of the Son of God, can join with heart and head in the singing of Isaac Watt’s persuasive hymn:

When I survey the wondrous Cross
     On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
     And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
     Save in the death of Christ, my God;
All the vain things that charm me most,
     I sacrifice them to His blood.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
     That were a tribute far too small:
Love so amazing, so divine,
     Demands my soul, my life, my all.