Christological Confusion & China's Reforming Churches (part 3)

This is the third post in a twelve-part series on the current Christological confusion taking root in China's emerging Reformed community (see part 1 here and part 2 here).

The Question

In his own words, the question is "whether Christ's human nature and his physical body were created or pre-existent before the creation of the world." [1] The orthodox answer, which the Reformed tradition maintains, is that the human nature of the incarnate Son, body and soul, is finite and created just as ours and is assumed by him in the conception that occurs by the power of the Holy Spirit in Mary's womb. By the means of this conception the Son becomes fully human without ceasing to be fully divine.

As Paul writes to the Galatians, "when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law" (Gal 4:4). Clearly, the fullness of time came at a particular historical moment. Prior to this moment, from an historical perspective, the Son was not human; after this moment he is. That moment marks the unique event of the incarnation when the Son "became man" and has consistently been identified as the moment of the mysterious conception in the virgin's womb.

Christ's humanity does not exist abstracted from and independent of the particular man he became in the incarnation. On the contrary, the human nature he assumes and possesses today just is the humanity of the particular human being he is, body and soul, as conceived in Mary's womb, born in Bethlehem, crucified, raised again, and ascended. The Son is now consubstantial with us because he became a particular man, Jesus of Nazareth, at a unique historical moment. While it is appropriate to speak of human nature abstractly, there is no actual sense in which the Son shared our nature prior to becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ.

Ecumenical Creeds

This is what the church affirms in her ecumenical confessions. The Nicene Creed states that the divine person of the Word "came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man," something he otherwise was not. He did not merely assume a physical body in the incarnation but actually became fully human without ceasing to be fully divine.

Likewise, Chalcedon asserts that Jesus Christ is,

Truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.

The incarnation "in these latter days" made the Son, who remains "consubstantial with the Father" according to his divine nature, also "consubstantial with us" according to his human nature. Although neither symbol explicitly denies his human nature pre-existed the moment he became incarnate, neither one seems to permit such a view. To assert he possessed a human nature in any actual sense prior to becoming incarnate would appear to deny the orthodox understanding of the incarnation itself, that the divine Son assumed a fully human nature, body and soul, at a specific point in time.

As we shall see in the next post, what appears to be the case in the ecumenical creeds is made explicit in the Reformed standards.

1. All quotes of the author are from reliable translations of Chinese originals, consisting of both published literature and transcriptions of sound recordings of the source of these remarks. I am gratefully indebted to three individuals who translated and edited the English transcripts I cite, with only incidental modifications, in this essay. As mentioned before, I have decided not to identify the speaker by name in this series.