Recently a well-known Presbyterian minister posted a short sentence on a social media site that caused some controversy. My intent here is not to comment directly on his language but to notice and respond to some of the reaction because it illustrates a theological problem among evangelical laity and it points us to an important biblical, creedal, and confessional truth.
I first noticed this problem when I was teaching an undergraduate survey course in Christian theology. These students were bright and industrious—sometimes too much so. At some point in the course we were discussing the incarnation and to try to explain why the early church used the word theotokos (θεοτοκος) and to illustrate the true humanity of the incarnate Son of God I said in passing, “God the Son was in the womb of the Virgin and he had an umbilical cord.” As I recall, some students gasped. I was a little surprised. I have had occasion, however, to repeat this experiment and others like it, however, and I have had similar results. E.g., I find that evangelicals tend to assume that Jesus’ humanity changed when he went through the locked door (John 20:19).
Scripture says, “Therefore when it was evening on the first day of the week (σαββάτων) and the doors had been firmly shut (κεκλεισμένων), where the disciples were because of their fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and says to them, ‘Peace to you.’” The text does not say how Jesus entered the room when the doors were firmly shut (or locked—Louw and Nida point to Acts 5:23 as a parallel) only that he did it. When I ask how it happened students tend to assume that Jesus’ humanity changed. Why do they assume that? I submit that it is for two reasons:
- We are all more deeply influenced by Modernity than we realize and as (unintentional) Modern people, we know that doors do not change. We have a bias toward uniformitarianism. De facto we think as if we live in a closed universe. Thus, it does not seem to occur to us that just as he walked on water and fed the thousands, our Lord is quite capable of overcoming a locked door. If anything changed in that episode, it was the door and not the true humanity of our Lord. After all, we have much less riding, as it were, on the door than on his true humanity.
- We have been influenced by what I call the “Star Trek Christology.” We have seen Captain Kirk “de-materialize” and “re-materialize” and evangelicals tend to interpret this passage through the lens of late-modern physics.
The lens they (and we) tend not to use is the creedal and confessional interpretation of holy Scripture. In Galatians 4:4 Paul says, “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman (γενόμενον ἐκ γυναικός)…” (NASB). In the third article of the Apostles’ Creed Christians confess, “Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” (qui conceptus est de Spiritu sancto, natus ex Maria virgine). That prepositional phrase in Galatians 4:4 “of a woman” (ἐκ γυναικός) and its parallel in the Creed,“of the Virgin Mary” (ex Maria virgine) is more important than we might assume.
This passage and these phrases also get us back to the original question, why evangelicals squirm when I say that God the Son was in the womb of the blessed Virgin and that he had an umbilical cord. Another underlying problem is the influence of the Anabaptist “celestial flesh” Christology. This was widely held among first and second generation Anabaptists. It was a denial of the consubstantiality of Christ with our humanity. This is the ecumenical (universal) Christian faith confessed in the Athanasian Creed:
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.
It is the explicit teaching of the book of Hebrews:
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 (Heb 2:14–18; ESV).
Hebrews 4:15 says the same thing in virtually the same words. God the Son did not merely appear to be a man. That it docetism, the ancient heresy condemned by the Apostle John 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” (ESV). Docetism (from δοκεω—to seem or appear) claimed that Jesus merely seemed or appeared to be man. They knew a priori that he could not have taken on true humanity. Because of their over-realized eschatology, like the docetists, the Anabaptists knew that Jesus was not actually consubstantial with us. Well, he was and remains consubstantial with us. He is like us in every respect, sin excepted. He must be to be our Savior and to be our Mediator.
This is why the Reformed churches condemn the celestial flesh Christology in the strongest possible terms:
Therefore we confess (in opposition to the heresy of the Anabaptists, who deny that Christ assumed human flesh of his mother) that Christ is become a partaker of the flesh and blood of the children; that he is a fruit of the loins of David after the flesh; made of the seed of David according to the flesh; a fruit of the womb of the Virgin Mary, made of a woman, a branch of David; a shoot of the root of Jesse; sprung from the tribe of Judah; descended from the Jews according to the flesh; of the seed of Abraham, since he took on him the seed of Abraham, and became like unto his brethren in all things, sin excepted, so that in truth he is our Immanuel, that is to say, God with us (Belgic Confession, art. 18).
We should not squirm at the thought of Jesus having an umbilical cord. His conception was supernatural. We confess the Virgin conception of Jesus’ true humanity. Yet we also confess that he was in the womb of the virgin. By the miraculous working of the Spirit, God the Son took his true humanity from the Virgin. He was not a ghost child. He was and is true man, true human. He is God with us. True humanity was crucified, died, and was buried. That same true human nature was raised and ascended. It is seated at the right hand of the Father and shall come again with glory.
Our Lord himself said, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:38–39). He ate fish with them (Luke 24:39).
In course of the discussion over the controversial sentence, one commenter complained that the sentence made it seem that Jesus merely wanted to get close to us humans. He did come near to us but he did more than that. God the Son became one of us. He took on our humanity to be the representative of all his people. The Scriptures are plain about this as are our creeds and confessions. Christians are not docetists. We have no “celestial flesh” Christology. The “Star Trek” Christology is heresy against the Christian faith. We have a Savior and substitute, a Mediator, who is true God and true man, our older brother at the right hand of God.
For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying,
“I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise” (Heb 2:10–12; ESV).