Born Of A Woman: Against The Star Trek Christology

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).

 

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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8 comments

  1. This truth certainly argues for the reality of the first Adam as an actual flesh and blood individual human being, as well. (Contra some of today’s Bible teachers!).

  2. Hmmm…….The tweet by the well-known Presbyterian theologian told everyone the incarnation was ” all about you.” Very Joel Osteen-ish. Now I can’t get that Karen Carpenter song out of my head.

  3. Oh, those first two chapters of Hebrews! You have quotes from Psalms addressed to YHWH applied to the Son in the first, while the second so clearly spells out Jesus’ true humanity. Once, when much younger, I raised this with the Jehovah’s Witnesses when they called, and they sent their District Servant to answer me. He couldn’t, either. I still pray for their deliverance.

    And so we should pray for many of our Evangelical [?] brethren who are confused about Christ’s person. Further, ban every book that suggests that such-and-such an ancient heresy died out in the early centuries. I’ve run into more Docetists, Modalistic Monarchians, and suchlike than I care to count. I’m sure others could add a few more names to the list.

  4. Read Vos! I am very excited about studying his work since working through episodes of Vos Group on the OPC site Reformed Forum, on Vos’ book Biblical Theology. (Thanks to Adrian Clark for mentioning it.) Vos’ major theme, is that the Word became flesh that God might dwell and fellowship among us. No one can see God unveiled in His glory and live. In order that He might have intimate fellowship with us, He condescends to comes to us, robed in real human flesh, so that in His humanity He might be like us in every way except in our sin! God’s ultimate objective is to regenerate a people with whom He will have eternal intimate fellowship in glory. That we will be like Him and see Him face to face on that Day! I’m just getting started on Vos’ Self-Disclosure of Jesus. Wow!!!

  5. Without knowing what prompted this post (the opening is too vague for me to figure out what was posted) I am having a hard time following. What are the students surprised about in your class that wouldn’t have already been covered in catechism class? Is the shock from Mary as theotokos?

  6. Without compromising His true “humanity “, what part does his post-resurrection (glorified?) body play in His being unimpeded by the locked door?
    Also, in Luke 24:31, how do you account for the way He “vanished from their sight”, according to the NASB ? Or, in the same encounter, how is it that the Emmaus-bound disciples were initially “prevented from recognizing Him”?

    • Tom,

      As I argued in the piece, glorification does not change his essential humanity. That’s the point of noting Luke’s narrative, that Jesus encouraged the disciples to touch him, to see that he is still a true man. Hence I would not put his humanity in scare quotes. It is not “humanity” (as if his humanity is not real—which I don’t think you meant to signal—but just humanity. This is one of the burdens of Hebrews, as I noted. He is consubstantial with us. He remains true man and thus is able to represent us before the Father. He is a sympathetic high priest not because he used to be true man but because he is true man.

      How do we account for his disappearing from view or escape capture before his glorification? E.g., John 8:59, “But Jesus was hidden” (Ιησοῦς δὲ ἐκρύβη); John 12:36, “he had hidden himself” (κεκρυμμένος); John 10:39, “he went out from their hands” (ἐξῆλθεν ἐκ τῆς χειρὸς αὐτῶν); Luke 4:30, “having gone through their midst, he went away” (αὐτὸς δὲ διελθὼν διὰ μέσου αὐτῶν ἐπορεύετο). We face the same challenge in these passages. Did he de-materialize? No! Did he obscure their vision? Perhaps but whatever we say we may not jeopardize his humanity. How do we account for his walking on water, raising the dead etc? How do miracles work? Well, that’s part of the mystery of miracles, is it not? If we could explain them, they would not miracles. As I indicated in the article, we set boundaries. What we know from the repeated, express teaching of Scripture, is that Jesus is true God and true man. Thus, whatever we say may not jeopardize those articles of revealed truth and ecumnical/catholic (i.e., universal) confession.

      Luke 24:31 seems actually rather clearer than some of the passages we considered above: “And after their eyes were opened then they recognized him. And it occurred that he (was) vanished from their sight” (αὐτῶν δὲ διηνοίχθησαν οἱ ὀφθαλμοὶ καὶ ἐπέγνωσαν αὐτόν· καὶ αὐτὸς ἄφαντος ἐγένετο ἀπ᾿ αὐτῶν). This is a miracle of sight not of de-materialization. Just as he opened their eyes at the beginning of the verse, so he, apparently, closed their eyes at the end. It would be exceeding odd for such a careful scholar as Luke (and he really was) to spend the time he did to emphasize our Lord’s true humanity only to contradict it here, in the same chapter. There’s no need to resort to such an explanation when the correct explanation is, if you will, right before our eyes.

      I hope this helps.

  7. It helps a lot; thanks for the thoughtful, and well-reasoned response!
    (Btw, you are correct, I should not have put the quotation marks around humanity.)

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