The central tenet of Catholicism – and the foundation of the New Testament – is the belief that God became a human being. This belief, known as the Incarnation, is essential to understanding who Jesus is and His work of salvation.
I will begin by asking why the Incarnation was necessary and what it means that God became a man. Lastly, I will explore the purposes and effects of the Incarnation.
Why Was The Incarnation Necessary?
To properly set the ground for understanding the Incarnation, it is beneficial to ask why it was necessary in the first place. One way of viewing the Incarnation is an act of reconciliation. However, for reconciliation to occur, divine justice must be satisfied.
In a sense, sin is an offense, a crime against the will and dictates of God. Divine justice is so constituted that atonement for sin requires sacrifice. This fact is evident throughout the Old Testament. One need not read much of the Torah to come across efforts by human beings to seek atonement with God. These efforts often were in the form of blood sacrifices. However, owing to man’s fallen nature, these sacrifices were only partially and temporarily efficacious.
Since sin is an offense against a holy and eternal God, atonement requires a holy and eternal sacrifice. This essentially makes any human efforts at atonement effete.
Yet, it is certainly possible that God could have acted other than He did. He could have “started over” by destroying human beings and creating anew, or He could have forgiven human beings by divine fiat. The fact that He did neither leads to two inferences. First, God so loved what He created that He did not want it destroyed. The second inference is that a divine fiat would have failed to satisfy divine justice.
Suppose we accept the fact that any human effort at atonement would be lacking, and we further accept that God wanted neither to destroy human beings nor to forgive via divine fiat. In that case, we have, I think, a viable understanding of why God became a human being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It is only in a being that is both God and human that reconciliation can be effected.
What Does It Mean That God Became A Human Being?
Having sought to explain why the Incarnation was necessary, we can ask, what does it mean that God, Who is entirely other, entirely transcendent, became a human being?
To speak of God is to predicate certain attributes of a being who exists necessarily and eternally. Historically, those attributes include omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. That is to say that God is a being who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and present in all times and places. In comparison, a human being is composed of an animal (material) body and a spiritual, rational soul. and
Therefore, in the Incarnation, we have the remarkable event whereby God took to Himself a human nature (John 1:14). It is necessary, however, to be more precise. The Incarnation means that the Logos of God became a human being. That is to say that the divine reason and the principle by which God creates became a human being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
It is of extreme importance that one understands that God did not cease to be God after the Incarnation. That is to say that in Jesus, there exists both the divine nature and a human nature. One last caveat regarding the human nature of Jesus is to note that, unlike the rest of humanity (with the exception of Mary), Jesus was not subject to original sin. Or, to put it as Saint Paul does, Jesus is like us in every way, “Yet, without sin.”
Having sought to understand what the Incarnation is, I turn to the purpose and effects of God taking a human nature.
The Purposes And Effects Of The Incarnation
The most significant purpose and effect of the Incarnation were to effect our salvation. The impact of original sin was to create a separation between human beings and God that sinful human beings cannot mend. Furthermore, since salvation consists of a union with God, the separation of original sin made such a union and our salvation impossible. Additionally, a finite human being cannot unite itself to an infinite God; a created being cannot bind itself to its Creator.
These facts lead to a dilemma. God requires satisfaction for sin that human beings cannot pay. The solution is Jesus. Because Jesus has a sinless human nature, He can make atonement for humanity. Because Jesus has a Divine nature, He can forgive sin and reconcile human beings with God. It is through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection that salvation is made possible. Jesus takes upon Himself our sin and pays the price owed for sin by His death. The resurrection means that Jesus has defeated death and provided the pathway to eternal life (2 Corinthians 5:21).
I would like to conclude by briefly delineating six points regarding the effects of the Incarnation. First, God experiences, first-hand as it were, what it is to be a human being. Second, Jesus represents the link between humanity and divinity. Because Jesus is both man and God, He can act as both the redeemed and the redeemer. This leads to the third point, which is that Jesus, as the exemplar of the redeemed human being, can communicate to us how we are to live. Fourth is that the Incarnation is evidence par excellence that God loves us. The fifth point is the inverse position of the second point. Because Jesus existed as a human being, we are able to identify with Him, which makes faith in Him more attainable. Finally, the fact that God saw it necessary to take upon Himself a human nature is indicative of the fact that our salvation is tangible in the work of Jesus. We have not been saved by some divine fiat but by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
In this paper, I have sought to explain the foundational claim of the New Testament and of Christianity. That is, in order to save human beings from the devasting and deadly effects of sin, God became a human being and, in taking upon Himself our sins, reconciled God and humanity.