I have a problem with the Doctrine of the Incarnation, a doctrine that is as fundamental to Christian faith as the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The problem is with the word ‘and’: fully human and fully divine. I suggest that the ‘and’ causes us to separate many things in our spirituality that ought not to be separated. In fact, I think, to be fully human is to be fully divine; humanity is, in fact, the image and likeness of God which is breathed into us. Therefore, the doctrine is better read fully human, fully divine without the ‘and’.
Human nature is not the cause of our sinfulness; it is the sinful nature, a separate entity, which corrupts our human nature. Our task is to enable our human nature, as God created each of us uniquely to be, to be revealed.
As much as I have heard my colleagues give their agreement to this interpretation of the Doctrine of the Incarnation, there are two questions that I have had raised as a result:
- Does this mean that we are free to do and be whatever we like under the claim that it is human nature?
- Does this mean that we have no responsibility for our sin, when we sin?
I hope I have the answers to these two questions.
When Jesus comes seeking baptism by John, John acknowledges that Jesus is superior to him,
The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (Mar 1.7-8)
Mark does not include Matthews recording of John’s response to baptising Jesus in the light of this unequal relationship,
John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:14-15)
I have argued previously that, despite Jesus superiority to John, the ‘way to fulfil all righteousness’ means that it is important that he is baptised by John because it points to his shared humanity with all the others who are being baptised. The baptism affirms that Jesus is fully human.
Following his baptism, after he had come up out of the water (while he was praying, says Luke (3.21)),
[Jesus] saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11)
John the evangelist alone witnessed this event. In Matthew it was the gathered crowd who heard and saw, but for Mark and Luke, the voice and descent of the Spirit was only seen and heard by Jesus. With descending of the Holy Spirit on Jesus, whether for John alone, the crowd, or Jesus alone, Jesus’ identity as God’s Son, the Beloved, and his status of relationship with God as well pleasing, is affirmed. Here is one event in the gospels where Jesus comes to some understanding of who he is. Whether he understands that he is fully divine as a beloved son of God is, I think, debatable. He does understand himself to be fully human and, if he is fully human, like you and me, he will also have little comprehension of this reality.
So here is an important point for us as we consider Jesus’ baptism. He is fully human, but the coming to that reality of his identity as fully human, fully divine, it is a process of discovery. We should not expect that we know and understand our full human identity. It is a process for us as well as the layers of the sinful nature of that which we think is our identity and our humanity are peeled away. But this work is the work of the Holy Spirit. Our true identity is revealed by the Holy Spirit as it was for Jesus.
The second important aspect of this event was that Jesus’ baptism was in John’s baptism of repentance. (Acts 19:3) If John’s baptism was one to prepare for Jesus’ coming, there was no need for him to be baptised. And, if Jesus was without sin, there was no need for him to repent. Despite this, Jesus submits to this baptism of repentance to ‘fulfil all righteousness.’
Repentance in this process of discovering our true identity and humanness is, therefore, important. We cannot achieve that fully human identity without turning away from those things that are getting in the way. This is where I speak of those sins we commit against our self. Those things we believe to be true about our identity and the human nature that are actually getting in the way of our true identity and full humanity are the sins against our self. These things need to be repented of as the Holy Spirit reveals them to us.
So, then, the human nature does not give us permission to be free to do whatever we like in the name of it being our identity and our human nature. The test applies: is my behaviour, words or thoughts damaging my relationship, or potential relationship, with God, with others and even with myself?
It seems to me that the human nature yearns for all that we would see as good. It yearns to have good relationships with those around us, it wants to be generous, it desires to be loved and to love, it needs to having intimate monogamous relationship with another, just as some examples; anything else is that nature that is corrupting what is good and perfect. To be fully human is also to be an identity that is in relationship with the creator.
But this does not mean that we can excuse our self from any responsibility when we do sin. It is not right that we should say, ‘The devil made me do it,’ or in this case, ‘The sinful nature made me do it.’ God gave us freedom to choose. Indeed the sinful nature is entrenched in our lives and offers us an alternative understanding of who we are and how we can behave, however, in the growing knowledge of what it means to be human and who we are as a unique individual, we are responsible for choosing whether or not to live out that true humanity and true identity.
The baptism of Jesus reveals to us that we are meant to be fully human and the rediscovery of that and our unique identity is the work of the Holy Spirit. This work is what we call sanctification. Sanctification is not the process of escaping our humanness and becoming like God, it is the work of the Holy Spirit making us like Jesus, that is, fully human which is fully divine.