Things Not To Say About Jesus At Christmas (Or Any Other Time)

In the spirit of Festivus, Reformed folk have historically had a lot of problems with both the ecclesiastical calendar, including advent, and Christmas. It is not because we do not heartily affirm the incarnation of our Lord—we do!—but because neither the Scriptures nor the earliest church know anything about an advent celebration, a feast of the nativity, or Christmas. The earliest vestiges of Christmas appear in the late 4th century. Recently someone asked me whether it was true that the early church calculated Jesus’ birth on the basis of feast of the annunciation. The best answer seems to be no since that feast developed after than the feast of the nativity. Nevertheless, Christmas is here and does give us opportunity to think about the incarnation of our Lord. Since it is such a widely celebrated holiday, it is a good thing for Christians to distinguish between genuinely Christian ways of speaking about Jesus and heresy.

Christological Heresies

Christological heresies are everywhere. Consider the theologian Ricky Bobby, who prefers to pray to “baby Jesus” because he’s an idolater but he is not materially different from the rest of us by nature. We are all idolaters by nature, we all prefer to make our own gods or to make God in our own image. Ricky Bobby’s version of idolatry may be more crass than some but all idolatry is substituting a god of one’s own preference instead of the holy, righteous, awesome God who is. Ricky Bobby also has a poor Christology. He likes to think of Jesus as an infant because he does not really understand, appreciate, or believe the true humanity of Christ. The denial of Jesus’ true humanity is one of the two great Christological heresies. The other is the denial of Jesus’ deity. There are related heresies but these are the two great heresies related to the person of Christ.

It is hard to get this right. After all, the two natures of Christ are a great mystery. How can Jesus be true God and true man? Well, how is beyond our knowing or saying. That he is, however, is something that every Christian must affirm upon pain of eternal damnation. In Definition of Chalcedon (451 AD), the church confessed:

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the God-bearer (θεοτοκος), according to the humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

Christians affirm the true, literal humanity of Jesus and the true, literal deity of Jesus. It would take volumes to detail all the ways in which the doctrine of the true deity and true humanity of Christ has been corrupted but here are a few.

Docetism. The Greek verb δοκεω (dokeo) means “to appear” or “to seem.” Some of the earliest heretics denied that Jesus was true man. They argued that he only “seemed” to human or only “appeared” to be man. The Apostle John wrote against this heresy. In John 1:14 he wrote, “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”. Jesus did not merely seem to be flesh. He took on true human nature. In John 6:53 our Lord himself said, ““Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” To the churches in Asia Minor he wrote,

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1–3; ESV).

Throughout this epistle he warned the churches against the docetists. He warned them about “antichrists” (1 John 2:18). What were the “antichrists” teaching? “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22; ESV). As we keep reading we see how the antichrists denied that Jesus is the Christ. They did so by denying his true humanity. He makes this plain in 1 John 4:2–3: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.”

We may be reasonably assured that he was combating docetists also because they had a similar approach to morality as the second-century heretics, who also denied Jesus’ true humanity (e.g., the Gnostics). Since the material world is not real, they reasoned, we may live as we please. Does this sound familiar? It should because it is widely held today. Some docetists came to the opposite conclusion: since the material world is not real, we should seek to subdue the flesh through asceticism in order to overcome it. There we have two great factions in early Christianity: libertines and monks. John wrote to the churches that we ought to live godly lives because we have been redeemed, because Jesus is true man and true God he affirmed the essential goodness of creation. The heretics reject the essential, created goodness of the world. They make the material world essentially evil, contracting God’s assessment in Genesis 1: “and it was good.” To be sure, the world is corrupted by sin but believers are redeemed by righteous suffering of the God-Man Jesus. His flesh and blood is real. John touched it. He saw it. It was no apparition.

Docetism is wide-spread in our age. The theological modernists (or the theological liberals) downplayed the deity of Christ and tried to re-fashion him into a mere man, a mere teacher of righteousness but in so doing they denied his person and ultimately his humanity. They reduced him to a symbol of their aspirations for society. Had they treated him as a real person they should have rejected him utterly as a madman or even as cruel. He did, after all, leave some of the lame and blind in their state. He sent pigs over the side of a cliff. He mocked the proud. He spoke harshly to a woman. It would not be hard to make a catalogue of all the ways Jesus did not fit the paradigm of the modernist, the liberal, or the social gospeler.

American evangelicals, have also struggled with his humanity. Some have talked about his humanity as if it were a suit that he put on and took off upon his ascension. When I first began to teach undergraduate evangelicals I discerned by the way they talked that they did not have a firm grasp upon his humanity. When I told them that Jesus had an umbilical cord, they gasped. When my systematic theology professor, Dr Strimple, told us that Jesus’ got colds like the rest of us, I was taken aback. In my experience evangelicals just assume that his humanity is fairly ghostly, after all, they say, how did he get through a locked door? It never occurs to them that his humanity is a fixed reality but the composition of doors (as with water) is under his control.

Jesus is true man and true God. When Ricky Bobby prays to baby Jesus he is denying Jesus’ true humanity. Jesus “increased in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). He learned obedience by the things that he suffered (Heb 5:18). He wept. He bled. His flesh tore. When Mary laid hold of him, he told her to stop not because he is not true man but because she sought implicitly to keep him from ascending. He ate fish after his resurrection. When he returns it shall be bodily. He is now bodily at the right hand of the Father. He is glorified but what is glorified is true humanity, not apparent humanity.

Eutychianism. There are other ways of denying or diminishing Christ’s true humanity. Eutyches (c. 378–454 AD) was a supervisor of a monastery in Constantinople who so opposed Nestorius (d. c. 451 AD), whom he accused of turning the two natures of Christ into two distinct persons, that he adopted the monophysite view, i.e., the deity overwhelmed the humanity. He taught that, as consequence of the union of the two natures, there was only now one nature in Christ. Hence mono (one) physis (nature). He denied that Jesus’ humanity is of the same substance as ours, i.e., he denied consubstantiality of Jesus’ humanity with ours. The Definition of Chalcedon was intended to deny both Nestorianism and Eutychianism or monophysitism. Those Christologies that speak about our Lord’s humanity after the incarnation or after the ascension as if his humanity is ubiquitous or as if his humanity takes on the properties of the deity, run afoul of the Definition of Chalcedon, where we confess that he is “consubstantial with us according to the Manhood.”

Preserving the truth about Jesus’ true humanity and his consubstantiality with us matters because he became human to be the substitute for all of God’s elect. To be that substitute he had to be a true man because it was we humans who sinned. It was we humans who plunged ourselves into death and destruction. The justice of God is such that we who broke the covenant of works had not only to obey that covenant but also pay the penalty incurred in disobedience: “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die.” Jesus’ true humanity also matters for our ongoing Christian life. According to the book of Hebrews it is as true man that he is our surety (Heb 7:22) and our Mediator he stands before the Father (Heb 9:15; 12:24). Paul is perfectly explicit about this truth: “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (NASB 95). Chalcedon quotes Heb 2:17 and 4:15 when it says that he is like us in every respect, sin excepted.

The two natures are to be acknowledged by Christians using four adverbs: “inconfusedly” (the deity does not become humanity and the humanity does not become deity), unchangeably (Jesus remains immutably human and immutably divine), indivisibly (Jesus is one person, not two), inseparability (i.e., they must always remain united in one person). When we pray in Jesus’ name, we are praying in the name of the God-Man, one person with two natures. We pray in the confidence that God hears our prayers for the sake of Christ’s righteousness, because he is our high priest, because he is making our prayers known to the Father. With Chalcedon, we affirm that the two natures of Christ do not change. They are “preserved.” They “concur” (agree) in “one person and subsistence.”

The incarnation is a glorious mystery. The Christmas celebration has become what it has for a variety of reasons, few of which have to do with the incarnation. For us Christians, however, it ought to be an opportunity to remember precious, life-giving truths: God the Son took on true humanity for us and for our salvation.

A Third Error

Above I wrote that there are two classes of Christological errors. That is not strictly true. There are three: those the deny the humanity, those that deny the deity, and those that deny the union of the two natures, e.g., monophysitism and Nestorianism. The earliest denial of Jesus’ deity, of course, occurred during his earthly ministry. The gospel of Mark begins with an explicit declaration of Christ’s deity: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). When he returned to Nazareth and did wonders, demonstrating his deity, the people were astonished but unbelieving, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” (Matthew 13:54–56). The Jewish leaders sought to murder him because he made himself equal with God (ποιῶν τῷ θεῷ; John 5:18). When he healed the paralytic and forgave his sins (Luke 5:20), the scribes called him a blasphemer (Matt 9:2). Jesus gave them reason to be troubled:

Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death” (Matt 26:64–66; ESV).

Were he not God the Son incarnate they should have put him to death but he was telling the truth: “‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (John 2:19–22; ESV).

The demons, beginning with their leader, regularly announced the truth about Jesus’ deity. The Evil One himself tempted Jesus by challenging him to prove what they both knew to be true, that he was (and is) the eternally begotten Son of God (Matt 4:6). He proved himself to be God’s Son by refuting Satan from the Word of God and by conquering him in the wilderness. The demons knew exactly who he was and why he had come: “‘What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?’” (Matt 8:29; ESV). Is it not fascinating that the demons know that their time is short, that they were already on a leash, as it were, and that a judgment is coming? No one had to tell him who and what Jesus was.

The Jewish authorities wanted Jesus put to death because he claimed to be the Son of God (John 19:8). The Jews mocked him on the cross for saying that he was the Son of God (Matt 27:40). They quoted against him his claim to be the Son of God (Matt 27:43). The Roman centurion, who witnessed Jesus’ death (contra the Muslims, who deny that Jesus really died), exclaimed, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:38). Jesus’ self-consciousness, his testimony about his identity, the testimony of the apostles, that of the Roman centurion, and even that of the demons agrees: Jesus was the Son of God and he remains the Son of God.

Adoptionism. Not only did the Jewish leaders deny Jesus’ deity but within a decades of his death a group of Jewish heretics, known to history as the Ebionites (post-70 AD), claimed to follow Jesus but denied that he is consubstantial with the Father. Rather, they taught that he was a godly man whom God recognized and adopted into the deity. This is the heresy of adoptionism. It Typically, the adoptionists appealed to his baptism (Matt 3:16) as the moment at which the Father adopted him as his Son. Rather than seeing the descent in economic or redemptive-historical terms, they saw (and see) the baptism by the Spirit as the conferring of a kind of quasi-divinity. The early Gnostic teacher Cerinthus (c. 100 AD) denied that Jesus was God eternally and only begotten Son by nature. He argued that divine power descended upon Jesus at his baptism but deserted him at his crucifixion. The Gnostics wanted a theology of glory not a theology of the cross.

Monarchianism. The Monarchians argued that God is one principle (μον + αρχη)) such that any appearance of distinct persons is just that, a mere appearance. We might call them docetists of a kind. In their view, God is not really one in three persons, he merely appears to be three persons. In the 3rd century, Sabellius taught modalist monarchianism, i.e., the doctrine that God is one principle so that he takes on different modes or manifestations, so that he is not really three persons. This is unitarianism. The version of monarchianism most relevant to Christology, however, is dynamicmonarchianism. In the 3rd century, Paul of Samosata (Bishop of Antioch) taught that the Son was an attribute of the Father, a power (δυναμις), or even the reason of the Father. He was among the first to teach the heresy of the eternal subordination of the Son. He too had an adoptionist Christology. We may the grateful that he was deposed from office in 268 AD.

Arianism. Arius (d. 336) was possibly from Libya and a popular ascetic (withdrawing from secular society) pastor in Alexandria, Egypt. Think of Alexandria as a place of great learning (hence the great library) but also a hotbed of theological error and even heresy. It was the Berkeley of its time. About 319 he announced the doctrine that the Son is not consubstantial and co-eternal with the Father. His slogan was “There was when the Son was not.” Some of his followers taught that the Son is like the Father but not of the same essence with the Father. It was against this heresy that the Council of Nicea (325 AD) employed the term homoousios (ὁμοούσιος), i.e., of the same substance. In his own way, Arius was teaching the eternal subordination of the Son. The most well-known proponents of Arianism today are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who deny the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father.

The third great type of error that has been made under the doctrine of Christ (Christology) is the denial of the union of the two natures. Above we considered the Eutychian confusion of the two natures. Nestorius  (c. 351 –c. 451), the Patriarch of Constantinople, was accused by Eutyches of teaching that the two natures of the Son are essentially two distinct persons. Whether he actually taught that doctrine is hotly disputed by scholars today but certainly there were and are those known as Nestorians, who taught and teach what Nestorius is accused of teaching. He was so worried about the monophysite error (confusing the two natures) that he rejected the language of the “union” (ένωσις) of the two natures. He preferred to speak of the “conjunction” (συνάφεια) of the two natures, implying to some a division between the two natures. He was strongly committed to what we call the Creator/creature distinction or what I call, in Recovering the Reformed Confession, the categorical distinction. So, he also ejected the term God-bearer (θεοτοκς). He preferred to speak of her as “Christ-bearer.” He was condemned by Celestine (Bishop of Rome) in 430 and deposed by the ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431. The Definition of Chalcedon (451 AD) repudiated both Eutychianism and Nestorianism.

The second part of the Athanasian Creed (poss. 5th century) speaks to these issues by giving us a vocabulary to use when speaking about Jesus. We confess:

29. Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation: that he also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
30. For the right faith is, that we believe and confess: that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man;
31. God, of the Substance of the Father; begotten before the worlds: and Man, of the Substance of his mother, born in the world.
32. Perfect God: and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.
33. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead: and inferior to the Father as touching his manhood.
34. Who although he be God and man; yet he is not two, but one Christ.
35. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the manhood into God.
36. One altogether; not by confusion of substance: but by unity of person.
37. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man: so God and man is one Christ;
38. Who suffered for our salvation: descended into hell: rose again the third day from the dead.
39. He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of the Father God Almighty.
40. Whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
41. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies;
42. And shall give account for their own works.
43. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting: and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.
44. This is the catholic faith: which except a man believe faithfully, he can not be saved.

All Christians confess that Jesus is true God and true man. He is consubstantial with the Father (ex substantia Patris). We confess that, by the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit, he took his humanity from the blessed virgin Mary (ex substantia matris). He “subsists” of (ex) a rational soul (anima rationali) and human flesh. He is “equal” to the Father according to the deity and subordinate to the Father according to his humanity (minor Patre secundum humanitatem). Here we could end most of the current debate over the alleged “eternal subordination of the Son” by getting back to the ancient, agreed, ecumenical language of the Athanasian Creed. We speak of the subordination of the Son relative to the incarnation. Full stop.

This way we do not separate the two natures nor divide him into two persons. There is but “one Christ” (sed unus est Christus). We deny that the humanity is converted (non conversione divinitatis) into deity nor was the humanity assumed (assumptione) into the deity. Christians are not Eutychians or monophysites. Christ is a unified person (unitate personae). The person of Christ suffered for our salvation (pro nostra salute)—the substitutionary doctrine of the atonement pre-dated Anselm by centuries—he died, buried, was raised, ascended, as is seated at the right hand of the Father one person. We are not Nestorians. This is the ecumenical or catholic (not Roman) faith.

This is important. It must be believed “faithfully” (fideliter) and “firmly” (firmiter). It is not possible for anyone to be saved (salvus esse non poterit) who denies this doctrine.

Christmas has its problems. Among them are sentiment and confusion about what Scripture teaches and what the Christians confess about the incarnation but the doctrine of the incarnation of the eternally begotten Son of God is a glorious, biblical, ecumenical truth in which all Christians rejoice in every season. This season, however, gives us opportunity to remember (or to learn) these great truths, to rehearse them with our children and grandchildren and with anyone who will listen. This season may the Lord, who became incarnate for us and for our salvation, renew us in the biblical and ecumenical truths of the incarnation, the two natures, and the one person of Christ.

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  1. Regarding the Chalcedon definition, what are your thoughts on the line about, “Mary, the God-bearer”? This comes up a lot in my conversations with Roman Catholics who use that line to refer to Mary as the “Mother of God.”

    • Bob,

      Mary was the “God-bearer” but “Mother of God” is an unhelpful and gratuitous translation. The word literally means God-bearer and we affirm that. Mary carried in her womb God the Son incarnate and that person was delivered by her. It’s a glorious truth.

  2. It has come to my attention that both the 2nd Hevletic Confession and the Synod of Dort “Church Order” explicitly say that Christmas should be observed, while the Westminster Standards forbid all holidays. I’m not sure what to think of this.

    Dort Church Order: “Article 67 – The Churches shall observe, in addition to Sunday, also Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, with the following day, and whereas in most of the cities and provinces of the Netherlands the day of Circumcision and of Ascension of Christ are also observed, Ministers in every place where this is not yet done shall take steps with the Government to have them conform to the others.”

    2ndHC: “The Festivals of Christ and the Saints. Moreover, if in Christian Liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly.”

    Also, the term “Christmas” comes from the Roman Catholic “Mass,” which in itself should make it unsuitable for Confessional Protestant use. Right?

    • Nick,

      Yes, there was a range of opinion in the 16th and 17th century about what to do with the old, medieval church calendar. Some favored retaining the so-called “evangelical holy days,” i.e., those directly connected to the NT history of salvation. Others rejected them. In some cases, as in Geneva and in the Netherlands, civil officials favored their observance. The Dort Order was a compromise with civil officials. There was a history of conflict over them (and the use of organs).

      See the resources in this post:

      The word mass is not objectionable per se but it would be confusing to use it today to describe a Protestant service. The etymology of “mass” in this context is probably from the end of the service, from the dismissal. What is objectionable is the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation and the eucharistic sacrifice of Christ.

  3. Did He get colds? Smeaton seems to suggest that Christ would not have contracted diseases in one of his books on the doctrine of the atonement.

    • Smeaton’s reluctance is part of a long tradition in the West and the East but it is not what we confess and strains against the teaching of Hebrews: “like us in every respect, sin excepted.” Jesus is true man and true God. This reluctance to acknowledge all of the ways Jesus experienced our humanity is a reminder to re-assert the Chalcedonian truths again in our age.

  4. The Word of God warns us against asking foolish questions, as in Titus 3:9-11, and I Tim. 1:4 If the Lord has not made it clear in His Word, I think it is not our business to speculate, but rather to simply accept what God does tell us. It seems to me that such speculations are a type the quest for illegitimate religious certainty.

  5. Re-reading the passage in Smeaton, he is very careful about what he says but does make the point that Christ did not take upon Himself sin the way humans do, by contagion. This seems quite reasonable. If Christ could contract the flu the way we do, what about a fatal disease? Could He have developed cancer? He would not have died from such diseases and the means by which He would have prevented His death would be through His divinity. Therefore, why is it necessary that He be able to contract them at all?

    Scripture testifies that He did take the sicknesses of His people upon Himself, but the focus of this is in regards to fellow feeling and the cost to Himself in the curing of disease. But to talk as if He could be sick in the way that fallen humans can be sick seems to go beyond what the Scriptures and the best of our commentators and ministers would have said.

    • Alexander,

      Is there not a substantive difference between being touched by the effects (and affects) of sin and being a sinner? It is not speculation to say that Jesus suffered. He grieved. He bled. He ate. He became tired. He needed sleep. To catch cold or the flu is not sin. It is to suffer from the consequences of the fall. We know our Lord voluntarily suffered from the consequences of the fall.

    • Thanks. He relies on Smeaton.

      I am not persuaded by Smeaton’s argument for the reason’s given.

      I don’t know that he was ever actually ill. We ought to be very careful to observe the clear teaching of Scripture: “like us in every respect, sin excepted.”

      I want to be very careful not divinize his humanity. That said, this is not a “hill,“ as they say, “on which I am prepared to die.“

  6. I don’t think it has to be a hill to die on, but it’s worth considering and you did bring it up.

    It certainly isn’t speculation to say Christ suffered, but how He suffered is worth discussing. He was the sin bearer but He had no sin of His own, He was without sin. He did not assume a fallen human nature. If He could be the sin bearer without assuming fallen human nature, why must he have been able to contract disease the way fallen humans do? Surely such corruption is a result of our fallen human nature whereas hunger and tiredness are not.

    We read of Him being hungry and being tired, of being grieved in His soul but as Smeaton points out we don’t read of Him being sick. Isn’t it therefore safer to stick with what is revealed rather than draw inferences?

    • Alexander,

      Fatigue isn’t the result of the fall? That does not seem to square with the curse in Genesis 3. I think one area of disagreement is over the relationship between sin and illness. I see the latter as a consequence of the former but not identical with it. Our Lord was conceived and born without sin but he endured the consequences of the fall for us. Scripture even says that he was tempted as we are, yet without sin. If he learned, if he was tempted, if he bled, sweat, and hungered then he endured the effects of the fall. It seems like special pleading to exclude illness.

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