Category Archives: Incarnation
This is the great season when we celebrate the Savior’s incarnation. Which also means it’s that time of the year when strange things are afoot—fruitcake, tensile, and questions about whether Jesus suffered from bed head, used the restroom, or vomited because he had a case of the flu.
Given the striking humanity of the Savior, it is easy to just assume that Jesus must have experienced the stomach virus and vomiting, just like we have experienced. However the question is a bit more complex.
This is one question addressed a long time ago in the book On the Incarnation by Athanasius (c. 293–373). It’s a section worth a more careful look.
Did Jesus get the flu?
Athanasius says no.
Here’s his argument (pages 50–51).
First, he argues that all men who die of ‘natural causes,’ die from some form of illness.
The death of men under ordinary circumstances is the result of their natural weakness. They are essentially impermanent, so after a time they fall ill and when worn out they die.
Yet, in contrast, Jesus died in full strength.
But the Lord is not like that. He is not weak, He is the Power of God and Word of God and Very Life Itself. If He had died quietly in His bed like other men it would have looked as if He did so in accordance with His nature, and as though He was indeed no more than other men. But because He was Himself Word and Life and Power His body was made strong, and because the death had to be accomplished, He took the occasion of perfecting His sacrifice not from Himself, but from others.
Here’s the logic: If Jesus was prone to sickness then he was also prone to natural death. So why not let his 80 years play out and then Jesus could just die quietly in a bed as the Savior? Seems more appealing than the crucifixion. But,
How could He fall sick, Who had healed others? Or how could that body weaken and fail by means of which others are made strong? Here, again, you may say, “Why did He not prevent death, as He did sickness?” Because it was precisely in order to be able to die that He had taken a body, and to prevent the death would have been to impede the resurrection.
Ah, but didn’t Jesus feed the hungry and himself become hungry? Yes, but …
And as to the unsuitability of sickness for His body, as arguing weakness, you may say, “Did He then not hunger?” Yes, He hungered, because that was the property of His body, but He did not die of hunger, because He Whose body hungered was the Lord. Similarly, though He died to ransom all, He did not see corruption. His body rose in perfect soundness, for it was the body of none other than the Life Himself.
Hunger is not a result of the fall—but sickness is. Hunger was born in the stomach of Adam and a garden of delightful food. However, sickness is the birth pang of death. Sickness is an enemy we battle until at some point we become too weak to fight any longer and we succumb to physical death.
In all this, it seems to me that Athanasius was really attempting to preserve the crucifixion. Jesus did not incarnate to waste away by sickness. Instead, Christ maintained his health and strength. To Athanasius, this is what makes the cross so amazing. His strength sets the stage for his crucifixion. It was in the vigor of his remaining strength that allowed him to yell that Jesus gave up his own life (Matthew 27:46, 50). Jesus did not waste away.
So if I understand correctly, here’s his point: The Incarnate Savior was not a dying man, who at some point in his descent towards natural death, determined to die for sinners. Rather, in fullness of human strength, Jesus freely gave his life as a ransom. This is what’s at stake for Athanasius. Jesus never would have died from old age because he did not get sick. Thus, the atonement could never be accomplished through a “natural” death. The question over whether Christ ever got the flu was inseparable from a discussion about the Savior’s cause of death.
Did Jesus ever vomit because he had the flu? Athanasius says no; the crucifixion prevents it. Some say yes; the incarnation assumes it. But of course the simple fact is that Scripture doesn’t tell us, and that is the strongest evidence that should really settle the whole matter in the end.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
David J. MacLeod writes [BibSac 161 (2004), 74–75]:
The words ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο (“the Word became flesh”) are unambiguous, almost shocking. Σάρξ (“flesh”) can speak of the soft parts of the body (skin, muscle, fat) as opposed to blood and bones.
Literally interpreted, flesh/σάρξ is the material that covers the human skeleton [BDAG]. Hence, the Word became skin, muscle, and fat.
We are quite familiar with this life of flesh. We want our skin to be clean, our muscles to be toned, and our fat to be minimized. When we think of humanness, we think primarily of these three things. It was this life of “fleshiness”—of skin, muscle, and fat—that the Savior assumed.
Taking for granted that we affirm the divinity of the Word (Jesus is God), the humanness of the incarnation is simply stunning.
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
Some say we should avoid reading two new books consecutively without sandwiching an old book in between them. I agree with this rule, it just happens to be a good rule I rarely apply in practice. So when my copy of St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation (St. Vladimir’s Press, 1977) arrived yesterday, I dove in, partly out of curiosity, but mostly out of guilt for my disproportionate time reading new books lately, and in hopes that an especially old book (originally written in c. AD 318) would make up for my negligence.
At the outset let me say the book’s title is a bit misleading. Athanasius covers the Incarnation well but he sets the incarnation within the contexts of creation, the imago Dei, the fall, redemption, and the consummation of all things while at the same time showing how the Incarnation relates to the full scope of our Savior’s life and work—from his birth, throughout his life, death, resurrection, and forthcoming return. Much more could have been said on all these topics, but the theological breadth of the work is very impressive. For Athanasius the Incarnation is a gospel truth and his chapter on the cross (4: The Death of Christ) was brilliant and devotionally rich, something that came as a bit of a pleasing surprise.
When I finished the book its brevity was another impressive feature (I read it in just over 2 hours). The book is clear and pointed, and of course clear/pointed books are rarely lengthy. C.S. Lewis praised it saying, “only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity.” And later, “The whole book, indeed, is a picture of the Tree of Life—a sappy and golden book, full of buoyancy and confidence.” High words of praise from a man who knew a bit about good books (and bad ones).
Lewis’ introduction on the importance of reading old books (perhaps the most famous Christian introduction ever penned) was a treat at the beginning. The book closes with an appendix, a letter written by Athanasius on the importance, value, and Christ-centeredness of the Psalms. That letter was a treat at the end.
I’ve been waiting for a few years to read On the Incarnation. I finally got around to it and I confer with Lewis: this book is great.
Before you read another new book, read this one.
Cool portrait by Zach Franzen
Occasionally I’ll catch the Metro south and ride into the heart of D.C., jump off the train and hit the retro two-story Starbucks at 7th and E with just enough remaining time in my walk to finish my venti Americano before reaching the front door of the National Gallery of Art. It’s a great museum (over 30 Rembrandts, including The Apostle Paul).
Inside the museum I’m struck by the number of paintings and sculptures that feature Christ, very often portraying Him as a baby. Popular are portraits of the nativity, and the virgin with the Child. This is a glimpse into church history. Study the writings of the early centuries and you’ll notice that the incarnation of Christ often trumps the crucifixion in its redemptive priority. But why? Why does the manger trump the cross?
The reason, says Reinhold Niebuhr, can be traced to the influence Greek and Hellenistic philosophy on the early theology of the Church. Greek philosophy centered man’s greatest need, not around freedom from personal sin nor freedom from God’s judgment, but around freedom from human finiteness. Man is limited in his humanity, and of course Jesus’s incarnation, rather than His atonement, answers this time-eternity question. Thus, being influenced by Greek philosophy, Christians like Gregory could write: “The word became man in order that thou mayest become a god.” It’s not uncommon to find Greek-influenced statements that point to the incarnational center of redemptive history and I believe you can pick up on this theme in modern literature like in the writings of Pope John Paul II (see his Redemptor hominis [Latin: "The Redeemer of Man"] for one example).
“The issue of Biblical religion,” Niebuhr writes, “is not primarily the problem of how finite man can know God but how sinful man is to be reconciled to God” (1:147). Very true. And when the center of redemptive history moves away from the atonement to anything else, we should be aware that secular philosophy is at the wheel determining the problem of man. And that problem will sound strangely different than the problem of personal sin, for which we need a crucified Savior.
You can read Niebuhr’s argument for yourself in The Nature and Destiny of Man (Westminster John Knox, 1941), in several places but especially in 1:144—147 and 2:59—60.
The incarnation, as glorious and magnificent as it is in the divine act is in itself, cannot be separated from the atonement. The connection between the two is unmistakable in passages like Matthew 1:21, John 3:16, Romans 8:3, and Galatians 4:4-5. Herman Bavinck insightfully wrote:
The incarnation is the beginning and introduction to the work of Christ on earth, it is true, but it is not the whole meaning, nor the most important meaning of that work. It is good to try to get a true understanding and a right idea about this, for there are those who think that the assumption of the human nature itself completes the full reconciliation and union of God and man. … The incarnation of the Son of God, without anything further, cannot be the reconciling and redeeming deed. It is the beginning of it, the preparation for it, and the introduction to it, but it is not that deed itself.
The nativity paintings are a good reminder of the historicity of Christ’s incarnation. But they are also a reminder that if we center redemptive history on the incarnation we will have missed the full scope of God’s redemptive plan, most likely misunderstood the holiness of God, and failed to understand man’s greatest problem and greatest need.