Let earth receive her King. —Isaac Watts

Incarnation and Politics

The word incarnate means “in the flesh.” For the pagan world, the State was God incarnate. The pagan world worshipped god-kings, and raised pyramids and ziggurats to the religion of political power. Polis and empire were religious institutions, and pagan man defined himself in terms of them. The State was savior; the State was sovereign; the State was God incarnate. This is why the birth of Jesus Christ was inevitably a political issue. The birth of Jesus was the Incarnation of the divine Son of God.

The Church has not always understood this. After all, the Church wrestled with understanding exactly who Jesus is for four hundred years. There were always false teachers offering a counterfeit Jesus, a Christ who was something less or other than the true God incarnate. The Gnostics, for example, presented Christ as a divine Ideal who merely appeared to be flesh. Or they taught that Jesus was a man who acquired the Christ-Spirit as a first step toward complete deification. Either way, a true incarnation was out of the question.

The Arian Heresy

More serious was the Arian heresy. The Arians taught that the Father and Son were two separate beings; they taught that Christ is not true and eternal God, but a created smaller godling through whom the real God, the Father, created the rest of the universe.

Arian theology was rationalistic. It appealed primarily to reason, not Scripture: the doctrine of the Trinity simply didn’t make sense. It was incomprehensible as a proposition and utterly foolish in that it presented a God who condescended to the humiliations of human existence. For Arianism, “God” must be remote, unknowable, and uninvolved with creation. This god was incapable interacting with history or of revealing himself either in his created Christ or in Scripture. This “God” existed beyond phenomenal categories of description and was in the end completely irrelevant. Revelation was impossible, and salvation was left a matter of human merit and effort.

Though Arianism was supposed to be monotheistic and unitarian, it was in fact polytheistic in practice. If Christ were the Son of God merely by grace and adoption, then God could have many sons. Each adopted “son” would offer another perspective, another slant, on eternal ineffability. Buddha, Confucius, and Mohammed might all be sons of God for their time and culture. This is multiculturalism on steroids.

Of course, Jesus was not the first one in the Roman Empire to be honored as the Son of God. The Caesars had claimed that title as well. But Arianism made possible the re-divinization of the State. If Christ could be God’s Son by grace, why couldn’t the emperor receive similar grace? And since the emperor was actually physically present on earth as well as head of the imperial bureaucracy—and Christ was absent—wouldn’t the emperor actually be the more relevant and powerful of the two? The imperialists of that age loved Arianism, as religious statists in America have loved Unitarianism.

The Council of Nicea

The Council of Nicea was the first of four major ecumenical councils to address the doctrine of the Incarnation. It met in AD 325 at the emperor’s request. The Arians had claimed that the Son was of a “different essence” from the Father (heteroousios). At Nicea the semi-Arian party suggested the compromise term “like essence” (homoiousios). The Council, however, insisted that the Father and the Son were of the “same essence” (homoousios). The last two Greek terms differ only by an iota (the letter “i” in our alphabet), but the issue at stake was whether Jesus is like God or whether He is God. By adopting the term “same essence,” Nicea drew a sharp line between the orthodox faith and Arian unitarianism. The decree or creed of the Council left no room for compromise:

I believe in…one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God; begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God; begotten, not made; being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made: who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man….

Nicea, and after it, Constantinople (381) declared the Church’s faith in the Triune God and the deity of Jesus Christ. The next theological battle centered on the Person of Christ. Jesus Christ is both God and man, but what does that mean? The Gnostics had taught a divine Christ only masquerading in human flesh. The Apollinarians had argued that the divine Word had taken to Himself a human body and soul, but no human spirit. The Church had rejected these ideas in the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creeds respectively. Now new heresies entered the playing field. The most significant were those of the Nestorians and the Monophysites.

The Nestorian Heresy

The Nestorians taught that the divine Son and the human Jesus were two separate persons who were joined together in some sort of moral or ethical union. The Son of God, they said, had joined Himself to the man named Jesus because of Jesus’ own moral excellence. And so Jesus the man was born, grew to manhood, hungered and thirsted, suffered pain, and was crucified, and buried. The Son of God, on the other hand, endured none of these things. He was with Jesus—so much so that Nestorians taught that this man Jesus should be worshipped—but He was a different person altogether, one incapable of experiencing anything human.

Mary’s Boy Child

This meant that the Nestorians saw in the baby Jesus a human child and nothing more. After all, God is eternal and infinite, they argued; He cannot be born. Of course, this is true with regards to the Divine Essence. But from this the Nestorians concluded that the Child born of Mary could not be God, could not be the Son of God, the eternal Logos. In believing this, they rejected the gospel.

“The Word was made flesh,” John writes in his Gospel (John 1:14). Later, in his first epistle he warns us:

Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist…(1 Jn. 4:2-3).

Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh; He is the Son of God. In the womb of the Virgin, the eternal Logos assumed a true human nature. Without giving up His deity, the Son of God took to Himself true humanity. This is the Incarnation, and it is the consistent teaching of the New Testament. The Apostle Paul tells us plainly that we have but one Lord (1 Cor. 8:6; Eph. 4:5). And to that one Lord, he and the other New Testament writers attribute birth, hunger, and blood, as well as eternity, omniscience, and sovereignty. So when Elizabeth greeted Mary, calling her “the mother of my Lord,” she spoke truly. (Luke 1:35) Her words recognized that the Lord of heaven claimed the conception and birth of His flesh as His own. Mary was in truth the mother of our Lord, and the Child she brought forth was truly God.

The Council of Ephesus (431) rejected Nestorianism and its doctrine of no Incarnation with hearty anathemas. The Council confessed the reality of Christ’s two natures—that He is both God and man—and yet recognized Mary as “the God-bearer,” the one who gave birth to the Son of God.

The Council of Chalcedon

As the Nestorians drove into one ditch, the Monophysites drove the car into the ditch on the other side of the road. They taught that Christ’s human nature had been absorbed into His divine nature and destroyed it altogether. In the name of preserving the one Person, they confused the two natures.

A new council met at Chalcedon in 451 A.D. The Council of Chalcedon rejected both Nestorian and Monophysite theology, as well as affirmed the biblical doctrine of the Incarnation. It described Jesus as:

… at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation…..

One Person, two natures. True God incarnate in true and complete humanity. We are neither to divide His Person nor confuse His natures. We are required to receive Jesus as the gospel reveals Him to us.

The Incarnation and Liberty

The Incarnation lies at the heart of the gospel and at the very heart of Western liberty. Any attempt to redefine the Incarnation is an attempt to replace Christianity with another religion, and Jesus with another Christ. If the Incarnation was unreal, then the immanent power of God still rests in the State. If Jesus Christ were only a created being who received worship or an ordinary man who somehow became God, then the doorway to divinity might well be open to any and all, including the state. God might have many sons, kings and U.S. presidents among the divine. If Christ’s two natures are confused in any way or if one is absorbed into the other, then there is no final distinction between Creator and creature. Satan ends up being right: God is fundamentally no different from man, and we are all potentially or actually divine. In all of these cases, salvation becomes a matter of works, of moral effort or magical manipulation, and its goal is climbing the power ladder to deification. “Who then will play God?” becomes the operative question.

The doctrine of the Incarnation reminds us of the infinite gulf between the uncreated being of God and the created being of man. Man cannot become God. Period. God became a man only once, and even there, in the Person of Christ, there is no mixture or confusion of being. Deity remains deity; humanity remains humanity. The Incarnation leaves no room for private or collective mysticism. Put simply, no man, group of men, or human institution can become God or act with divine sovereignty. None of us is God. None of us will become God. Our thoughts, actions, and feelings will never be anything more than human. Salvation is not deification, but the restoration of man to his proper role within creation. Jesus Christ alone is the Son of God; He alone has all power in heaven and earth (Matt. 28:18). All human authority is necessarily “derivative” or secondary and is therefore limited, and subject to greater, transcendent law. These are God’s law and are revealed in Scripture. No king, no emperor, no democracy or republic, political institution of any kind, can rightly maintain a claim to divinity or to divine sovereignty. And so the doctrine of the Incarnation makes possible real religious, economic, and political liberty. The birth of the divine King puts all other kings in their place. As we forget our great King, we bring tyranny upon ourselves and our children.

For further reading see:

Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Foundations of Social Order, Studies in the Creeds and Councils of the Early Church (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon, 2003).

Rousas J. Rushdoony, The One and the Many, Studies in the Philosophy of Ultimacy and Order (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1978),

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