This is the second in a series of articles on the Incarnation. Previously: The doctrine of the Incarnation.
If Jesus is the God-Man, fully divine and fully human, how are we to understand the way in which these two natures work together?
Think about it. At times, Jesus exhibits the fullness of deity – demonstrating His sovereign control over nature, forgiving sins, receiving worship, and knowing the thoughts of human beings.
But He also displays the full range of humanity – getting hungry, growing tired, and, at times, not knowing certain things such as the time of His return.
So, when Jesus is walking the earth, is He partly divine and partly human? Does He toggle back and forth between deity and humanity? Or is He simply an extraordinary human who is able to exhibit divine powers?
The hypostatic union
The message of the Incarnation is that the eternal Son of God became flesh — that is, He added sinless humanity to His deity, never relinquishing His deity or abandoning His humanity. This is sometimes explained by the term “hypostatic union” (from the Greek hypostasis).
This refers to the union of Jesus’ two distinct natures in one person, without dividing the person or confounding His natures. Christ is one in substance with the Father in regard to His divine nature, and one in substance with humanity in regard to His human nature. The two natures unite perfectly in the one person of Jesus Christ.
In God Among Sages, Kenneth Samples writes, “Philosophically speaking, as the God-man, Jesus Christ is two ‘whats’ … and one ‘who.’” That is, Jesus possesses both divine and human natures (the “whats”) in one person (the “who”).
In Phil. 2:7, Paul writes that Jesus “emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity.” The Greek term for “emptied himself” (ekenosen) gives rise to “kenosis,” an attempt to explain how the two natures of Christ relate in the Incarnation.
A prominent heretical view of kenosis is that in order for Jesus to be human, He must shed certain attributes such as omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. The phrase “emptied himself,” it is argued, means that Jesus lays aside His divine attributes. Therefore, the incarnate Christ is something less than God.
A more biblically faithful view is that instead of stripping Himself of divine attributes, Jesus retained them in His divine nature. But in union with His human nature, He may have voluntarily chosen not to exercise certain attributes.
Proponents of this view understand Phil. 2:7 not as undermining the deity of Christ, but expressing the surrender of the status and privileges He enjoyed in heaven. As Samples writes, “This action involved surrendering of divine glory rather than divine power.”
Theologian Bruce Ware provides marvelous insight into the two natures of Christ in The Man Christ Jesus.
He begins with an exploration of Phil. 2:5-8, which expresses the self-emptying of the eternal Son as He takes on human nature.
First, Ware notes that Paul expresses no doubts about the deity of Christ. The phrase “though he was in the form of God” (v. 6) employs the Greek word morphe, which refers to the inner nature or substance of something, not its external or outward shape.
Therefore, Paul’s point is clear: Jesus, being in the “form of God,” exists in very nature as God, with the inner divine substance that is God’s alone.
Second, when Paul writes that Christ “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (v. 6), he cannot mean that Christ gave up equality with God or that He ceased to be fully God.
Rather, Jesus did not cling to His privileged position at the Father’s right hand, or to the rights and prerogatives that go along with full equality with the Father, so that He could fulfill His calling to become the servant of all.
Third, Jesus “emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant” (v. 7). The Greek ekenosen means Christ “poured out himself.” In other words, all who Christ is, as eternal God, is poured out. He loses nothing of His divine nature in pouring His deity into a human skin.
Fourth, Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (v. 8). As Ware notes, “This is the obedience that accepts suffering, rejection, ridicule, and agony. Surely the Son, in eternity past, never had to embrace this kind of obedience in his relation to the Father…. To obey to the point of death requires the ability to die, and for this, Jesus had to be human.”
Ware summarizes: “Apart from the incarnation, there was nothing to ‘hide’ or conceal his full deity, so it could show forth in full brilliance. But when he became also a man, he ‘covered’ himself with a created, limited, and finite human nature. So, even though Christ is fully God in the incarnation, he cannot express the full range of his divine qualities or attributes owing to his having also taken on full human nature.”
Next: Ten truths about the Incarnation