How do you teach yourself and others to develop the habit of thinking rightly about the incarnation?
Articulating the glorious truths of the incarnation in a way that both glorifies God, and feeds our souls, can often seem like a challenge. It can be one of those things that we feel we hold clearly in our minds, and yet when asked to speak about it we stumble, and doubt whether we understood it at all. This can especially be the case when incarnational “problem texts” come up. Why, for instance, does Jesus say that the Son does not know the day or the hour, but only the Father (Mt. 24:36)?
In addition, those of us charged with teaching others often walk a conflicted tightrope when we hear people, who love Christ dearly, saying things about him which we know are flat-out wrong. Of course, we don’t doubt their salvation, and nor do we expect the theological precision from them that we expect of ourselves, or the big brains of church history. Yet we desperately want people to deepen their understanding of the incarnation (mysterious as it is) so that they can both honour God, and be moved to even deeper worship, growth, and joy in the Gospel by understanding the deeds of the Lord even more. Yet how do you do that without discouraging, or appearing to make things too academic? And how do you do it over the long haul?
We might learn something about this from Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376-444). Cyril was the great defender of the unity of Christ in church history, an architect of the theology of “the hypostatic union” (i.e. the belief that the incarnate Christ is one person in two natures, fully God and fully man). His work was instrumental for the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, which rejected the heresy of Nestorianism, which posited that there were two separate persons at work in the incarnation – the divine Word, and the human Jesus, making Christ merely a “God-clad man”.
In her fantastic book From Nicaea to Chalcedon, Frances M. Young asks “what are Cyril’s Christological writings actually like?” The answer: very, very repetitive.
“A perusal of [Cyril’s Christological writings] gives an overriding sense of repetitiveness. Certain phrases and arguments keep on recurring: the appeal to the title ‘Emmanuel’ – God with us; to the Nicene Creed; to Paul’s account of the incarnation in Philippians 2. Mary must be called the Theotokos, since she gave birth to ‘God made man and enfleshed’… There is one Son, one Lord Jesus Christ, both before and after the ‘enfleshment’… There is not one Son who is the Logos of God the Father and another who is from the holy virgin. The Logos who is before the ages… is said to be born from her according to the flesh. The flesh is his own, just as each one of us has his own body. Cyril insists on an ‘exact union’… These phrases come from the First Letter to Succensus, where Cyril is answering queries about his theology from his correspondent, the bishop of Diocaesarea, but they could be paralleled from almost anywhere else in his Christological work.”
It’s true. Cyril wrote three letters to Nestorius (the first and second very respectful, the third… less so), and all take the Christology of the Nicene Creed as their major jumping-off point–the belief in “one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is of the Essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father” etc. The first two letters are overwhelmingly similar.
Cyril banged the same Christological drum again and again across his works. A few key things come up again and again – key passages, and key phrases and articulations to help interpret those passages rightly. And, in time, it worked.
This repetition is a big part of how right Christological thinking sets in. I can trace the beginnings of my serious engagement with Christology back to 2016, and I can recall beginning to gather up certain key phrases: “What is unassumed is unredeemed”, “he became all that we are without ceasing to be what he was” etc. And I noticed, as I read more into historical Christology, that those key passages like Philippians 2 come up again and again, themselves with their own key phrases: “he made himself nothing” etc.
Over time, these phrases sink in and shape your thought reflexes. They are intellectual habits, which in time form intellectual virtues, and make orthodox thought a second nature. I recall wrestling through Cyril’s defence of Theotokos and calling Mary “the Mother of God”, with all my inner instincts reacting against the phrases. But, bearing with them, in time I came to see why they were right–and not just right, but good! Each phrase, in a way, both contains and safeguards the whole Gospel.
So in forming right Christological thinking in ourselves and others, we should bang the Christological drum like Cyril did. Certainly we should teach on them directly on a regular basis, but perhaps more significant is that they appear regularly throughout our ministries – in preaching, bible studies, one-to-one meetings. People can only endure drum solos for so long–really, drums are at their best when they’re keeping a whole band in time.
By bedding in a select group of key phrases and key passages, over the span of years, we develop habits of thought and, in time (by God’s grace and the Spirit’s work), virtues of thought. And, rightly formed, our virtuous thinking will overflow in praise and wonder at the mystery of the incarnation and the glory of the Gospel.
Frances M. Young, From Nicaea to Chalcedon: A Guide to the Literature and Its Background (London: SCM Press, 2010), 314-315 ↑