As we have seen in the first Article of the Creed we confess our faith in God the Father and in the second Article we confess our faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We looked at how in the longer conciliar version of the Creed, the Nicene and Constantinopolitan Fathers took care to use such precise language with regards to the deity of the Son of God as to preclude any interpretation that would make His deity a lesser sort than that of the Father. In the third Article of the Creed, which is our subject today, we confess our faith in the Incarnation, that God – more specifically God the Son – took human nature upon Himself and became a Man.
The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed was published and revised in the two ecumenical Councils of the fourth century. The primary heresy with which those Councils had to contend was Arianism which denied the co-equality and co-eternality of the Son with the Father and declared the Son to be a created being. This was a heresy concerning the deity of Jesus Christ. There were also heresies that concerned His humanity. Docetism, for example, denied His humanity by denying that He had a physical human body and teaching that He had the mere appearance of one. In the century that followed the century that gave us the conciliar Creed the foremost Christological heresies that the Church contended with pertained to the relationship between Christ’s deity and humanity. Nestorius, who was Patriarch of Constantinople until he was condemned and deposed by the third ecumenical Council held in Ephesus in 431 AD, sought to settle a theological dispute older than himself pertaining to the use of the title Θεοτόκος in reference to the Virgin Mary. This word means “God-bearer” and is more usually rendered “Mother of God” in English. Some objected to the title on the grounds that Mary was not the source of Jesus’ divine nature but of His human nature. This fact was not in dispute – nobody claimed that Mary was a divine being or that Jesus derived His deity from her – but the reasoning used to derive the objection to the title Θεοτόκος from it was problematic. Nestorius, by seeking to mediate in the dispute, ended up lending his name to the side which rejected the title and to the problematic Christological doctrine that was formally condemned as the heresy Nestorianism. The problem with Nestorianism was that the Virgin Mary was the Mother of Jesus, Who is a Person not a nature. That Person, Jesus, is God. Therefore Mary was the Mother of God. Of course, Jesus Christ, God the Son, always was God from eternity past, and derives His deity through Eternal Generation from the Father and not from His Mother, but to object to the title on these grounds is to divide what was forever united in the Incarnation – deity and humanity in the One Person of Jesus.
The condemnation of Nestorianism at Ephesus did not end the Christological disputes of the fifth century. Indeed, it opened the door to a new heresy. Eutyches, who had been a priest and monk under Nestorius in Constantinople where he was in charge of a monastery, strongly supported Cyril of Alexandria who presided over the condemnation of Nestorius at Ephesus. He took Cyril’s position to an extreme, however, and taught that in the Incarnation the humanity of Jesus Christ was swallowed up in the ocean of His deity so that not only was He One Person but had only One nature as well. This too was problematic because it was a denial of Christ’s true and full humanity and so twenty years after Nestorius was condemned and deposed Eutyches was himself condemned as a heretic at the fourth ecumenical Council at Chalcedon. His heresy sometimes bears his name, Eutychianism, but is more commonly called Monophysitism.
In the Council of Chalcedon the Church did not more than just condemn Eutychianism. It also issued a statement that positively affirmed what the orthodox Church did believe regarding the Person and Nature of Jesus Christ as opposed to both the heresies of Nestorianism and Eutychianism. This statement is sometimes called the Chalcedonian Creed although since it was not intended as a revision of the Creed nor is it a full statement of the Faith but is rather a supplement to the Creed it is more properly and more usually called the Definition of Chalcedon. It asserts that the Incarnate Jesus Christ is One Person, Who has Two Natures, and so that One Person is both fully and truly God and fully and truly Man. (1) As a positive affirmation of faith the Chalcedonian Definition has been more valuable than all the anathemas pronounced against the myriad of heresies that in one way or another take away from His deity, humanity, or unity of Person. It came with a cost, however, in terms of the unity of the Church. Six centuries before the Greek speaking and Latin speaking Churches followed the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Rome in mutually disfellowshipping the other, the Definition of Chalcedon produced a major and lasting break in Communion between the ancient Churches which confessed Christianity in accordance with the faith of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. While most Churches affirmed the Chalcedonian Definition, four ancient Churches (2) rejected it because they thought the language of two Natures was too close to Nestorianism for their liking. (3) The Chalcedonian Churches have historically regarded these Churches as Monophysite although they have always maintained that they rejected the heresy of Eutyches. Of themselves they say that they follow the faith as taught by St. Cyril of Alexandria, that the Incarnate Jesus Christ is One Person with One Nature but that this One Nature is such that He is fully Man as well as fully God, His deity and humanity being united into a single Nature in such a way that His humanity is not lost in His deity. They call their position Miaphysitism. In recent years dialogue has opened up between these and other Churches and the Chalcedonian Churches, especially the Eastern Orthodox have been more willing to take seriously their claim that their position is not the heresy condemned at Chalcedon.
It is the third Article of the Creed which asserts the truth the implications of which were debated in these fifth century controversies.
In the Apostles’ Creed the third Article is qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, natus ex Maria Virgine which is rendered in the English of the Book of Common Prayer as “who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary”. Grammatically, this is part of the same sentence that begins with the second Article and it begins a relative clause that continues through the seventh Article in Latin. The English inserts a sentence break after the fourth Article but this does not affect the meaning in any way. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is, as usual, longer here than the Apostles’ Creed. It asserts τὸν δι' ἡμᾶς τοὺς ἀνθρώπους καὶ διὰ τὴν ἡμετέραν σωτηρίαν κατελθόντα ἐκ τῶν οὐρανῶν καὶ σαρκωθέντα ἐκ Πνεύματος Ἁγίου καὶ Μαρίας τῆς παρθένου καὶ ἐνανθρωπήσαντα, which in the English of the Book of Common Prayer is “who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man;”. Note that the English translation in saying that Jesus was “incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary” follows the Latin text which uses “ex” instead of “et” where the Greek text reads καὶ (“and”).
We have already discussed how the conciliar Creed arose in a century in which theological controversy centered around the deity of Jesus Christ. This focus can be detected in the different way in which the Creeds word this Article. The Apostle’s Creed speaks of the Incarnation in terms of two events which are common to all descendants of Adam and Eve – conception and birth. Thus, although these were miraculous and supernatural in that the conception was the work of the Holy Ghost and so Mary gave birth to Jesus as a Virgin, this wording emphasizes Jesus’ sharing fully in the human experience. In the Nicene-Constantinopoltian version the same three Persons appear – the Holy Ghost, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus Himself – but the events are condensed into a single word, the participle σαρκωθέντα which, with the meaning it has here, is hardly a word that is used of common human experience. (4) It means what John 1:14 means when it asserts that “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”. This manner of speaking about the Incarnation throws the emphasis back upon the deity of the One Who was made flesh. Note that it is an ancient custom in many Western Churches to genuflect both at this point in the recitation of the Creed and when John 1:14 is read in the reading of the Gospel. Where the Nicene Creed stresses what God the Son became rather than what He always was is in the words καὶ ἐνανθρωπήσαντα – “and was made man”.
In this Article the Nicene Creed states that Jesus “came down from heaven.” This is, of course, something that can be inferred from the Creed’s declaration that Jesus is the eternally begotten Son of God Who was made man, but clearly the conciliar Fathers thought it important to state it explicitly, as Jesus Himself did in His interview with Nicodemus (John 3:13). When, later in the Article we affirm that Jesus “was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man” we affirm the aspect of the Incarnation in which Jesus’ role was passive. He “was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary”. In the wording of the Apostles’ Creed the passivity of Jesus in the Incarnation is particularly emphasized. That people do not get an active choice in their own conception and birth is proverbial. By saying that Jesus “came down from heaven”, however, we affirm another aspect of the Incarnation, one in which Jesus was indeed active.
The Gospel account of all that Jesus did for us has often been expressed in terms of a two-part journey. In the first part, His Humiliation, He started at the highest place (Heaven) and went to the lowest place (Hell). The second part of the journey, His Exultation, begins in the lowest place with His Triumphant entry into Hell as conquering Victor and ends with His return to the highest place in His Ascension back into Heaven. Both Creeds include the Ascension in the sixth Article, as well as the most important things Jesus did on earth in both parts of the journey. The beginning of the journey – His leaving Heaven to come down to earth – and the pivotal point where His Humiliation ends and His Exultation begins, do not appear together in the Creeds. The one appears here in the third article of the conciliar Creed, the other appears in the fifth Article of the Apostles’ Creed. The fullest picture of the Son of God’s entire Gospel journey, therefore, requires both Creeds.
In the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed this Article – and the longer relative clause of which it is the start – begins by stating the purpose for which the Son of God became Incarnate and did all that He did. It was “for us men and for our salvation”. In Greek and Latin “us men” is “ἡμᾶς τοὺς ἀνθρώπους” and “nos homines” respectively. ἄνθρωπος and homo are the Greek and Latin words that mean “man” in the sense of “human being”, as opposed to ἀνήρ and vir which are the words that mean “man” in the sense of “male adult human being”, so all people are the intended beneficiaries and not just males, not that there has ever been much confusion about this contrary to what the politically correct advocates of “gender neutral language” would have you believe. Salvation, like the Greek word it translates, basically means “deliverance”, i.e. from some sort of danger and “preservation”, with implications, depending upon the context, of health, well-being, safety, security, and freedom. In a spiritual or religious context, it has a specialized meaning derived from these more basic meanings, of deliverance from sin, the curse that sin brought upon Creation, including the evils of death and hell.
This part of the third Article is of particular importance because it shows that what we affirm in the Creed is the very Gospel itself. That the historical facts of the Gospel are affirmed in the Creed is not in dispute. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which St. Paul declares to be the Gospel in the fifteenth chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthians, are affirmed in the fourth and fifth Articles, and the Articles before these provide the necessary context to these events by affirming Who Jesus Christ is. What makes the Gospel the Gospel - the Good News that Christians and the Church are to proclaim to the world – is that everything that Jesus did He did for our salvation.
The Article about the Incarnation was a very appropriate place to put this because it is the Incarnation that made everything else Jesus did for our salvation possible. “For there is one God”, St. Paul wrote, “and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (I Tim. 2:5). Jesus could be such a mediator because He was both God and man. Jesus saved us by dying for our sins. He had to become man in order to do so, because God qua God cannot die, and because it having been man who sinned payment was required from man. Only the sinless God-Man could be the Saviour.
(1)This is called the Hypostatic Union from the Greek word ὑπόστασις. At one time this word was basically a synonym for οὐσία which means being, essence, or substance. In the theological disputes leading up to and including those of the first four ecumenical Councils it took on a different meaning. In the context of discussing the Trinity οὐσία was used for the way in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are One, while ὑπόστασις came to be used to denote the way in which they are distinct from each other. In the Christological context it denotes that of which the Incarnate Christ is One. In English we use the word Person for this, from the Latin words persona that came to be used in the place of ὑπόστασις in Latin theological discussion.
(2) These are the Coptic Orthodox Church, founded by St. Mark the Evangelist, the Syriac Orthodox Church which grew out of the Church of Antioch in the book of Acts, the Armenian Apostolic Church founded by the Apostles Bartholomew and Jude, and the Indian Orthodox Church which was established by St. Thomas. There is also an Ethiopian Orthodox Church and an Eritrean Orthodox Church both of which belong to this type of Church – they are collectively called the Oriental Orthodox Churches – but these were part of the Coptic Orthodox Church at the time of the Chalcedonian Controversy. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church became autocephalous when it was given its own Patriarch by the Coptic Pope in 1959. In 1993 the Eritrean Orthodox Church, which up to that point had been part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, also became autocephalous with its own Patriarch.
(3) Earlier, the ancient Assyrian-Persian Churches which like the Indian Orthodox Church trace their origins to St. Thomas, broke fellowship with the other ancient Churches over the Council of Ephesus which they condemned and canonized Nestorius as a saint.
(4) The Greek verb σαρκόω means “to make flesh”. Ordinarily this word was used for situations like when a smaller, weaker, person gets bigger and stronger or when flesh grows to fill in a wound. In the Creed it is used with the very specialized meaning of a spiritual being having been given flesh.