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INCARNATION . The concept of incarnation (Lat., incarnatio, "being in flesh") has been applied in the Christian community to the mystery of union between divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. More generally, the concept has been extended to take into account a variety of forms of incarnation that the history of religions has described in various lands and among different peoples. The term incarnation is broadly defined here as the act or state of assuming a physical body (as a person, an animal, a plant, or even an entire cosmos) by a nonphysical entity such as the soul, the spirit, the self, or the divine being.

Typologically speaking, there are two sharply contrasting evaluations of incarnation. One of them is a tragic view, according to which the union of the soul, the spirit, or the self with the world of matter, hence with the physical body, is interpreted as a fall from its proper place into an alien abode, an imprisonment, or an enslavement. Salvation consists, according to this view, in the soul's escape from the world into which it has fallen by dissociating and liberating itself through purifications, rites of initiation, or meditation, from the chains of its captivity. There is, on the other hand, a positive interpretation of incarnation, which sees the assumption of a bodily form by the soul, the spirit, or the divine being as occurring for the purpose of saving or sanctifying the phenomenal world. This type of bodily manifestation is seen, for example, in the leaders of small tribal communities, the founders of religions, and the heads of theocratic states. In a certain sense, the history of religions has been the history of persistent battles fought between these two distinctive visions of the incarnation.

The "Primitive" Tradition

The belief in the divine incarnate can be attested as early as the late Paleolithic period, in a considerable number of pictures of human beings in animal forms, often in dancing posture. Among the best known is a figure of the "great sorcerer" in a Trois Frères cave, sporting a deer's head crowned with huge antlers. The same cave has also preserved the portrayal of a dancer disguised as a bison, playing a bow-shaped instrument, possibly a kind of flute. It is certain that the early hunters wore masks and skins of animals for the celebration of their magico-religious ceremonies. These masked figures and many parallel examples were probably believed to be the incarnations of spirits or divine beings akin to the Lord of the Animals.

Wearing masks has been one technique for incarnating souls or spirits in premodern societies. In Inner Asia, for example, a shaman's mask symbolizes the incarnation of a mythical personage (ancestor, mythical animal, or god). For its part, the costume transforms the shaman into a spiritual being. In Polynesia and Melanesia, the souls or spirits of dead ancestors are believed to come from the land of the dead at certain fixed times, especially when the old year passes into the new year. They appear in disguise, wearing terrifying masks and strange costumes; the "dead" call on villagers, praising them for their good conduct and rebuking them severely for any wrongdoing they have committed. The "dead" also perform the rites of initiation for young novices. Finally, they give blessings for a good crop in the coming months and, after receiving hospitality from the villagers, return to their homeland far across the sea. In fact, the spirits of the dead are impersonated by members of secret societies (e.g., the Dukduk of the Bismarck Archipelago, the Arioi of the Marquesas Islands), but these awe-inspiring "sacred visitors" wield such terror over the noninitiated that they are truly believed to be the incarnations of the ancestral spirits. Significantly, the arrival of the spirits from the world beyond announces the renewal of time, the advent of the new year, and the renovation of the entire universe. A similar belief in the sacred visitors (marebito ) is also attested in Japan.

The belief in the preexistence and incarnation of souls is abundantly documented in the "primitive" world. According to the Caribou Inuit (Eskimo), for example, the immortal soul of a dead person leaves his body, ascending to the supreme being Pinga in heaven who receives it. If the person lived properly according to the rules of life, Pinga lets the soul assume a bodily form, human or animal. Such a belief is also widespread among the North American Indians. Especially noteworthy is the belief found among the Aranda in central Australia, according to which every human being has two souls: the mortal soul, which comes into being with the fetus as a result of intercourse between the parents, and the immortal soul, which predates and really creates the entire human personality. More concretely, the immoral soul is a particle of life of the totemic ancestor who unfolded his sacred history in the beginning of mythical time; every individual is what he is today because of the incarnation in him of the immortal soul, a spark of his primeval ancestor's life. The Aranda becomes aware of this mystery of life as he undergoes the rites of initiation, in which he learns the sacred history of his ancestors. It is a sort of anamnesis, a remembering of the preexistence of his immortal soul in the mythical sacred historya recollection accompanied by the acute realization of the immortal soul's involvement in temporary, phenomenal existence.

Greece, India, Iran

The ancient Greek doctrine of metempsychosis presupposes the incarnation of preexistent and immortal souls in successive bodies, human and animal, and even in inanimate substances. Pythagoras certainly believed in the transmigration of souls (Xenophanes, frag. 7); according to him, the human soul, despite its immortality, has been imprisoned in the body and condemned to a cycle of reincarnation due to the fall from its original state of bliss. A similar idea was held by Empedocles: The immortal human soul has fallen from its proper abode into the world, into the physical body, due to its primal sin. Condemned to the physical world, the fallen soul is destined to wander through a series of incarnations until it is restored to the primeval state of bliss from which it has fallen. Plato contrasts the immortal part of the soul, which the Demiurge has created, with the mortal part, including perception, which is added by the created deities at the moment of union with the body (e.g., Timaeus 69cd). Immediately before incarnation, the immortal soul drinks from the waters of Lethe ("forgetfulness"); "burdened with a load of forgetfulness and wrongdoing," the soul "sheds her wings and falls to the earth" (Phaedrus 248c), that is, it falls into the physical world, into the body that is a "tomb" (Gorgias 493c), imprisoned by the cycle of becoming and incarnation. But, it is still possible for the immortal soul to learn, to recall its extraterrestrial experience of the perfect condition that existed prior to the fall (cf. especially Meno 81cd). For Plato, to live fully and meaningfully is, after all, to remember a discarnate, purely spiritual existence; it is an anamnesis of the soul's true identity, that is, a recognition of its heavenly origin.

This Greek mythology of the soul, more or less hostile to the world of matter and the physical body, was incorporated into Gnosticism, a set of doctrines characterized by anticosmic dualism. Humankind, as viewed by the Gnostics, is constituted by three components: the self, the soul, and the body. The physical body belongs to the deficient world of nature (phusis ), but the soul is also part of this evil world. Psychic human activities arise from and are limited by the continual flux of natural events. It is only the self that transcends the evil world. It is divine in nature, hence not subject to time and change; it is indestructible. Where is the original home of the divine self, the spiritual part of humanity? The Gnostic myth narrates, with manifold variations, the fate of the self, its origin in the world of light, its tragic fall into the alien world, and its imprisonment in the physical body. Salvation consists, in the last analysis, in the emancipation of the self from the dark world of matter and the physical body and its return to its genuine home, the world of light.

India presents a doctrine similar to gnosticism, namely, Sākhya-Yoga, whose central message may be summed up as follows: (1) humanity's destiny in the world is conditioned by the mysterious interplay between the self (purua ), which is indestructible, eternal, and not subject to change, and matter (prakti ), which is subject to time and transformation and which constitutes humankind's psychophysiological complex; (2) the self is essentially a stranger to the world of matter, into which for unknown reasons it has fallen and been enslaved, resulting in the oblivion of its original, true identity; and (3) deliverance (moka ) begins when the self remembers its eternal freedom and tries to dissociate itself through the practice of yoga from the world of matter.

However, in India the tragic view of the incarnation coexists peacefully with another, more positive view. The Hindu god Viu, out of his profound concern for the welfare of the universe, has frequently embodied himself wholly or partially in the phenomenal world. According to one of the earliest versions of the doctrine contained in the Bhagavadgītā, he incarnates himself in the person of Ka, but he is also able to manifest himself in other bodily forms, human and animal. "Whenever the law of righteousness withers away," Viu declares, "I come into being age after age for the protection of the good, for the destruction of evildoers, and for the setting up of the law of righteousness" (Bhagavadgītā 4.78). While Hindu myths and rituals have concentrated attention on Viu's ten primary incarnations, in some formulations four saviors appear as his avatāra s, or incarnations, each ushering in one of the four cosmic ages constituting a mahāyuga, a complete cosmic cycle. In the ktayuga, which lasts 4,800 divine years (with one divine year corresponding to 360 human years), Viu makes his appearance as the sage Kapila, while in the tretāyuga, lasting 3,600 divine years, he appears as the universal monarch Cakravartin. In the third cosmic age, dvāparayuga, of 2,400 divine years, the supreme being incarnates himself as the sage Vyāsa, and in the final cosmic age, kaliyuga, lasting 1,200 divine years, he will manifest himself as Kalki, a sort of messianic figure who will come in glory to establish the golden age, judging the wicked, rewarding the virtuous, and ruling over the entire universe in peace and prosperity.

The ancient Iranians of the Parthian period had an ardent hope or expectation for Mithra incarnate, who would come at the end of the world as the great universal monarch and savior. This king and savior will descend on the Mount of Victories in the form of a column of light or a shining star to be born in a cave. He will be given birth by a human mother, but in truth he is of heavenly origin; he descends from above with the light, that is, he is the child of light. There were, in fact, magi who lived near the Mount of Victories; every year, at a certain fixed date, they climbed the mountain in which there was a cave, and quietly prayed to the heavenly god for three days, waiting for the appearance of the star.

Kings, Emperors, Imams

The status of kings was often defined in terms of God incarnate. In ancient Egypt, for example, the king was believed to be divine in essence. His coronation, usually celebrated at the beginning of the new year, signified not an apotheosis but an epiphany, a self-manifestation of the god. As long as he ruled, the king was identified with the god Horus; in fact, he was Horus incarnate in his early existence, but upon his death he was mystically assimilated to Osiris, the god of rebirth and immortality.

The Greco-Roman world generally dissociated itself from the notion that the king was the incarnation of a certain god, despite the fact that royal titles such as The Young Dionysos and Epiphanes were often used by kings in the Hellenistic period. According to Arthur Darby Nock, the only exception was Ptolemy XIII of the mid-first century bce, who demonstrably considered himself to be Dionysos incarnate, probably under the influence of the pharaonic conception of the king as Horus incarnate.

While the Chinese emperor was generally called Son of Heaven (tianzi ) and as such was considered the earthly representative of Heaven or heavenly will, some emperors were regarded as incarnations of the Buddha. For example, the founder of the Northern Wei dynasty (386534), Taizi, was regarded by the eminent monk Faguo as the Tathāgata in person, an incarnation of the Buddha. This idea was iconographically represented in the caves of Yungang to the west of Datong, the capital of the empire until 494. Moreover, toward the end of the seventh century the Empress Wu Zhao, who was a strong supporter of Buddhism, was considered to be the incarnation of Maitreya, the future Buddha. Among the Tibetans, the Dalai Lama has been accepted as an incarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara.

In ancient Japan, the emperor was explicitly called the akitsumi kami ("manifest kami "), that is, the god who manifested himself in human form in the phenomenal world. The essential part of the Japanese conception of sovereignty was the belief in the emperor's heavenly origin, and this belief was clearly expressed in the myths of Ninigi, the grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu. Ninigi is born in the heavenly world and then descends onto the summit of Mount Takachiho, carrying the three items of the sacred regalia as well as the heavenly mandate guaranteeing his eternal sovereignty on earth. The emperor was identified with this mythic figure at the annual harvest festival as well as on the occasion of his enthronement festival.

In Islam, more particularly among the Shīʿah, the imam enjoyed a truly exalted and significant status; while among the Sunnīs an imam is no more than a leader of congregational prayer at a local mosque, among the Shīʿah the imam was endowed with a power at once political and religious. Like the caliph, he was one who ruled the community in mercy and justice, but unlike the caliph, who had no legal authority, the imam was empowered to interpret the aqīqah, or esoteric meanings of the Qurʾān and Islamic law. This power was based on the Shīʿah conviction that Muammad's charisma, or spiritual gift, which he received from God, would be transmitted genealogically only within his household. It was natural that the imam became the central focus of Shīʿah faith to such an extent that he was believed to be the embodiment of the divine light. Some extreme sects of the Ismaʿīlī movement went even further in believing that the imam was the incarnation of the godhead itself. The Druze of the Lebanon Mountains hold the Caliph ākim (r. 9961021) of the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt to be the incarnation of the godhead, now in concealment but with the promise of a return.


Buddhism was founded by Siddhārtha Gautama of the Śākya clan in India, who left his home in quest of truth, devoted himself to the practice of meditation, and finally attained enlightenment. Hence he is also called the Buddha, the Enlightened One. During the early centuries of the history of Buddhism, this historical Buddha commanded the primary attention of Buddhists.

However, as a new trend of the Buddhist movement called the Mahāyāna developed in the course of the second century bce, a shift occurred in Buddhology; emphasis was now placed less on the historical Buddha than on the Eternal Buddha. This Eternal Buddha is transcendent, absolute, and infinite, embodying the universal and cosmic truth. Hence he is called the dharmakāya ("body of the law"), the essential Buddha who is the ultimate reality as viewed by Mahāyāna Buddhism. The Eternal Buddha does not wish, however, to hold himself aloof from the phenomenal world; out of his deep compassion for humanity in pain and suffering he has incarnated himself in the person of Siddhārtha Gautama, as the nirmāakaya ("body of transformation").

This doctrine is elaborated, for example, in the Saddharmapuarīka Sūtra, also known as the Lotus Sūtra. The scripture presents the Buddha in two aspects: his absolute aspect in the form of the Eternal Buddha, which is dealt with in the section following chapter 15, while the section preceding this chapter is concerned with his relative aspect in the person of the historical Śākyamuni Buddha, who assumed human form for the sake of benefiting all sentient beings. According to the doctrine of the "Tendai school" in medieval Japan, the absolute and the relative are in essence qualitatively equal; they represent the two different aspects of the Buddha but, in reality, are one and the same.

Japanese Buddhism, more particularly, the Shingon school of Buddhism, has also unfolded what may be called a cosmotheism, a fascinating conception of the cosmos as the embodiment of the Buddha Mahāvairocana. The place of central importance in Shingon Buddhism is occupied no longer by the historical Buddha but rather by the Cosmic Buddha Mahāvairocana (Jpn., Dainichi, "great sun"); just as the sun is the source of light, illuminating the whole universe and giving life to all forms of existence, so Mahāvairocana is the Great Illuminator of all existence, both animate and inanimate. He is transcendent, absolute, and eternal because he is identified with the dharmakāya. However, Mahāvairocana is not only transcendent but also immanent in the universe. This Buddha is cosmic in nature because, according to Shingon Buddhism, he embodies himself in the six great elements constituting every form of existence in the universe: earth, water, fire, wind, space, and mind. These six elements are interfused and in a state of eternal harmony. In fact, the whole universe is viewed as the "samaya (symbolic) body" of the Buddha Mahāvairocana. When the universe is referred to as the Buddha's samaya body, it means two things at the same time: First, the cosmos symbolizes and points to the ultimate reality, Mahāvairocana identified with the dharmakāya; and second, while the ultimate reality embodies itself in the cosmos, for its part the cosmos participates substantially in the ultimate reality itself. Accordingly, the cosmos is a sanctified world endowed with the quality of the sacred, assuming profound soteriological value.


That God was incarnated in the person of Jesus of Nazareth in order to save humankind is a basic tenet of Christianity. One of the earliest confessions of faith pronounced by the primitive church (Phil. 2:62:11) speaks of the preexistent divine figure Christ Jesus, who condescended to take on human form, won victory in his death over the cosmic forces of evil, and reigns now with God in heaven. In the Gospel of John, dating from the end of the first century, Christ Jesus is presented as the incarnate Word (Logos) of God (Jn. 1:11:14). In sharp contrast to the portrait of the life of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels, John identifies him as the preexistent divine being who, descending from heaven, moves mysteriously through human life, proclaiming heavenly messages and working miracles, and who even foretells his ascension to heaven following his impending suffering and death. John's language may sound preeminently Gnostic, but the content of his central message, namely, that the divine Logos had become human flesh, was certainly anti-Gnostic.

Christian Gnostics accepted the belief that Christ was the divine Logos, the chief intermediary between God and humans. However, they rejected the idea that the Logos took on human flesh, because to them the flesh was both evil and insubstantial. Characteristically, they denied the reality or historicity of the incarnation: The human life of Christ was spiritual but not material; Christ hovered over mortal life, never really participating in the birth, suffering, and death of the historical Jesus. The Christian church set itself against this docetic view in such affirmation of the Apostles' Creed as "God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth." By implication this was an affirmation of the goodness of all God's creation, material as well as spiritual. Similar affirmations concerning Jesus' birth, suffering, and death were directed against the Gnostic denial of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Moreover, the assertion in the Apostles' Creed of the resurrection of the dead affirmed the salvation of the whole person and not merely the discarnate soul, spirit, or self. It is thus significant that Christian orthodoxy affirmed the humanity of Christ and the goodness and reality of the cosmos against Gnosticism and any form of the Gnostic view of man and the universe. "After the Incarnation," Mircea Eliade states in his Myth and Reality (p. 172), "the World has been reestablished in its original glory." The phenomenal world, humanity's world, the world as it is, is a sanctified cosmos because Jesus Christ the Savior has dwelt in it.

The Christian church attempted to articulate the nature of the person of Jesus Christ as God incarnate at the First Council of Nicaea (325). It adopted a creed that included such phrases to define Christ as "begotten not made," "begotten before all ages," and "of one essence with the Father." Thus Christ was declared to be homo-ousios, "consubstantial," with God the Father, a doctrine that was to be formulated later by Augustine as una substantia tres personae ("one substance in three persons"); Christ was essentially divine without being a kind of "second God." Once this result was generally accepted, a further question arose: How are the divine and human elements related to each other in the person of the historical Jesus? After apparently endless debates and anathemas, the orthodox view was formulated at the Council of Chalcedon (451): Two natures of Christ, divine and human, are perfectly blended in one person; Jesus Christ is vere Deus vere homo ("truly God and truly man").

Twentieth-Century Views

While the affirmative view of incarnation has apparently won the victory, the tragic view of the destiny of the soul, as it was classically expressed by Plato, Gnosticism, and Sākhya-Yoga, is far from dead; on the contrary, it has often asserted itself ever since. In fact, as Martin Buber has aptly stated, human self-understanding has gained "depth" in those crisis periods in history when humankind has felt homeless in the physical world in which it lives, becoming aware of its acute alienation from the world. The twentieth century, one such crisis period, demonstrated a keen interest in the Gnostic outlook on life and the universe, as it is reflected in the writings of C. G. Jung, Hermann Hesse, and Martin Heidegger. For Heidegger, for example, the world is no longer a home for modern humankind but an alien realm; humanity is homeless in the world. Moreover, humankind lives in a period of cosmic night, and the darkness of this cosmic night is to continue for some time. According to him, the soul is not in its proper place in this evil world; here, it is a stranger, imprisoned in the physical body. The soul is destined to leave this world behind and, becoming "a blue soul," to set out for the dark wandering, journeying toward the land of the evening.

See Also

Avatāra; Docetism; Kingship; Masks; Reincarnation; Soul.


There is no single book dealing with the problem of incarnation in the general history of religions. On masks and their religious meaning in prehistory, see Johannes Maringer's Vorgeschichtliche Religion: Religionen im steinzeitlichen Europa (Einsiedeln, Switzerland, 1956), pp. 184ff., edited and translated by Mary Ilford as The God of Prehistoric Man (New York, 1960), pp. 146ff.

Hutton Webster offers basic information on the periodic return of the ancestral spirits in Polynesia and Melanesia in his Primitive Secret Societies (New York, 1980). On the Aranda conception of the immortal soul, there is a fascinating account in Mircea Eliade's Australian Religions: An Introduction (Ithaca, N.Y., 1973), pp. 4459.

The incarnation of the soul in the Greek philosophical tradition has been competently discussed by W. K. C. Guthrie in The Earlier Presocratics and Pythagoreans (pp. 306ff.) and The Presocratic Tradition from Parmenides to Democritus (pp. 249ff.), volumes 1 and 2 of his A History of Greek Philosophy (Cambridge, U.K., 1962 and 1965). The best single book on the Gnostic view of the destiny of humankind and its immortal soul in the world remains Hans Jonas's The Gnostic Religion, 2d ed., rev. (Boston, 1963). On Sākhya-Yoga, there is a concise account in Robert C. Zaehner's Hinduism (London, 1962), pp. 67ff. Focusing his attention on the fate of the immortal self in the world, Mircea Eliade has compared Gnosticism with Sākhya-Yoga in his essay "Mythologies of Memory and Forgetting," now included in his Myth and Reality (New York, 1963), pp. 114138. There is a fine comparative study of the avatar beliefs of India and the Christian doctrine of the incarnation in Geoffrey Parrinder's Avatar and Incarnation (New York, 1970).

The eschatological expectation of the birth of the savior Mithra in ancient Iran has been elucidated by Geo Widengren in his Iranisch-semitische Kulturbegegnung in parthischer Zeit (Cologne, 1960), pp. 6286. See also Mircea Eliade's Méphistophélès et l'androgyne (Paris, 1962), pp. 60ff., translated by J. M. Cohen as The Two and the One (Chicago, 1965), pp. 5155.

Major problems of Greco-Roman kingship have been discussed authoritatively by Arthur Darby Nock in volume 1 (pp. 134ff.) and volume 2 (pp. 928ff.) of his Essays on Religion and the Ancient World (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), with an introduction by Zeph Stewart. On the conception of kingship in ancient Japan, see my article "Sacred Kingship in Early Japan: A Historical Introduction," History of Religions 15 (1976): 319342.

Mahāyāna Buddhism has attempted to explain the historical Buddha Śākyamuni as an incarnation of the Eternal Buddha. See, in this connection, a brief but illuminating account of the doctrine of the "three bodies" (trikāya ) of the Buddha by T. R. V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, 2d ed. (London, 1970), pp. 284287. On the conception of the cosmos as the embodiment of the Buddha Mahāvairocana, see Kūkai: Major Works, translated, with an account of Kūkai's life and a study of his thought, by Yoshito S. Hakeda (New York, 1972), pp. 76ff.

On the history of the Christian doctrines of the incarnation, there is an admirable account by Jaroslav Pelikan in The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 100600, volume 1 of his The Christian Tradition (Chicago, 1971).

New Sources

Bassuk, Daniel. Incarnation in Hinduism and Christianity: The Myth of the God-Man. Basingstoke, U.K., 1987.

Cross, Richard. The Metaphysics of the Incarnation: Thomas Aquinas to Duns Scotus. New York, 2002.

Davies, Oliver, and Denys Turner, eds. Silence and the Word: Negative Theology and Incarnation. New York, 2002.

Kingston, Richard. God and One Person: The Case for Non-Incarnational Christianity. Basingstoke, U.K., 1993.

Luoma, Tapio. Incarnation and Physics: Natural Science in the Theology of Thomas F. Torrance. New York, 2002.

Sheth, Noel. "Hindu Avatara and Christian Incarnation: A Comparison." Philosophy East and West 52 (January 2002): 98126.

Smith, James K. A. Speech and Theology: Language and the Logic of Incarnation. New York, 2002.

Manabu Waida (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 29 2018


The mystery of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity's becoming man, the mystery of Jesus Christ's being God and man, the mystery of His being the God-Man. The word Incarnation (from the Latin caro, flesh) means the putting on or the taking on of flesh. "Κα λόγος σρξ γένετο""And the Word was made flesh" (Jn 1.14). The word Incarnation may refer to the Word's becoming man; thus it would mean the operation by which the Triune God, forming a determined human nature in the womb of the Virgin, elevated it and efficiently united it to the Second Divine Person. The word Incarnation may also refer to the resultant union; thus it would mean the wondrous, singular, and eternally permanent union of the divine nature and the human nature in the one Person of the Word.

Scholastic theology considers the Incarnation in the following way. It first deals with the fact of the Incarnation, that is, that Jesus Christ had two natures, one divine, one human; it goes on to investigate the manner of this union; it then takes up the immediate consequences of the mystery: the holiness of Jesus, His knowledge, impeccability, power, His human limitations, divine sonship, mediatorship, as well as the adoration due Him, and the communication of idioms. All the above is the science of christology. Systematic theology then goes on to consider the work of Jesus Christ, His Redemption of man and how it was accomplished. This is the science of so teriology.

Mode of Union. How is the union of the two natures to be conceived? Under the guidance of the magisterium of the Church, theology rejects a moral or accidental union; it likewise rejects a union of coalescence, whereby the divine and human natures would merge into a divinehuman nature. The union that it accepts is a hypostatic union, a union in Person. The Divine person subsisting in the divine nature begins to subsist in a human nature. In its understanding of the terms nature and Person the magisterium of the Church does not canonize any purely scientific or purely philosophical definition of them, nor does it exclude such scientific or philosophical definitions. It is up to the theologians to reject definitions that are not in accord with the dogmas of the Church concerning this substantial union, that tend, on the one hand, to a Monophysitic, or Eutychian, understanding of the union, or, on the other hand, to a Nestorian understanding, both of which the Church has definitively rejected. The terminology of the Church itself, however, has undergone evolution.

There are, in Christ, consequently, two wills and two operations. Christ can act at the level of His divine nature, or He can act at the level of His human nature. This was denied by the Monothelites, who considered Christ to have only a divine will and only a divine operation. The impossibility of Christ's merit or satisfaction is a logical consequence of this heretical position. It is at this point that theology may aptly discuss the theandric acts of Christ.

It is of faith that the union of the human and divine natures in Christ, once effected, was never dissolved and will never be dissolved. The hypostatic union will endure forever.

Character of Union. Scholastic theology next takes up the question of the formal character (ratio formalis ) of the hypostatic union, the ultimate human explanation of what is in fact a strict mystery. There have been, historically speaking, three stages in the doctrinal progress of this core area of Christology: (1) the scriptural (e.g., Phil 2.58); (2) the ecclesiastical, as formulated definitively by the Council of chalcedon; (3) and the theological. At the theological stage, theologians ask (relative to the specifics supplied by Chalcedon) such questions as how can one, perfect, integral human nature be joined to the divine? How can two things complete in themselves become one being? Reflecting on the definitions of the Church, theologians see the opening to an explanation in the fact that this human nature lacks a human personality. Christology proceeds from there in its various theories of the ratio formalis presented by individual theologians and schools.

Consequences of Union. As for the consequences of the hypostatic union for the human nature of Christ, it is almost axiomatic to say that the human nature of Christ is ontologically and substantially holy by virtue of its intimate union with the Word. Sanctity in the divine nature is the very being of the divine nature insofar as it is the infinite good and the infinite love of the infinite good. Sanctity in creatures is a participation of the divine goodness; it is limited. According to most theologians, the human nature of Christ was sanctified by the grace of union directly and immediately. All theologians hold that Christ's humanity was sanctified by abundant sanctifying grace and the accompanying supernatural gifts; the gift of grace was in proportion to the magnitude of the gift of unionit was measureless in the sense that no one will ever receive more sanctifying grace.

Christ also had at every moment of His existence the beatific vision, and the support of magisterial affirmations in this regard has been greatly strengthened by the forthright statements of Pius XII's Mystici corporis (47,76). Along with the knowledge of vision, Christ had infused knowledge and acquired knowledge. He was, moreover, impeccable, although it is of faith that He had the freedom requisite for meriting, and theologically certain that He had the freedom of active indifference. It is in this connection that the interesting theological problem of the mandate is discussed.

Although He possessed in His humanity the power of working miracles, Christ assumed with His humanity for the time before His death all and only those natural defects that are common to mankind and unblameworthy.

Regarding the consequences of the hypostatic union for the God-Man considered in His totality, theology affirms a true communication of idioms, that is, a manner of logical attribution, of predication, that is possible in speaking about Christ and that is entirely unique to Him. Designated according to one of His natures, He may have attributed to Himself predicates that are His because of His other nature.

Theology is careful to affirm that this man Jesus Christ is the natural Son of God, in no way His adoptive Son. It also says that even in His humanity He should be the recipient of the cult of absolute latria, that is, that His humanity is the object of adoration in the strictest sense.

In summary, theology says that because of the Incarnation, because Jesus Christ is who and what He is, He is the ontological mediator between God and men, perfectly suited to take up the work of moral mediation. This He did by all the salvific actions of His life, but especially by freely undergoing His Passion and suffering death on the cross.

See Also: jesus christ, articles on; redemption, articles on.

Bibliography: a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al. (Paris 190350) 7.2:14451539. h. vorgrimler, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 195765) 5:678679. f. malmberg, h. fries, ed., Handbuch theologischer Grundbegriffe (Munich 196263) 1:706715. l. cerfaux, Christ in the Theology of St. Paul, tr. g. webb and a. walker (New York 1959). j. daniÉlou, Christ and Us, tr. w. roberts (New York 1961). h. m. diepen, La Théologie de l'Emmanuel: Les Lignes maîtresses d'une christologie (Bruges 1960). f. x. durrwell, The Resurrection: A Biblical Study, tr. r. sheed (New York 1960). j. giblet et al., Lumière et vie 7 (1958) 1122. r. w. gleason, Christ and the Christian (New York 1959). l. de grandmaison, Jesus Christ, tr. b. whelan et al. (New York 1961). l. lercher, Institutiones theologiae dogmaticae, v.3 (5th ed. Barcelona 1951). s. lyonnet, De peccato et redemptione (Rome 1957), 4 v. planned. Son and Savior: The Divinity of Jesus Christ in the Scriptures, tr. a. wheaton (Baltimore 1960), symposium. l. richard, Le Mystère de la rédemption (Tournai 1959). i. solano, Sacrae theologiae summa, ed., Fathers of the Society of Jesus, Professors of the Theological Facullties in Spain (Madrid 1962) 3.1. b. m. xiberta y roqueta, Enchiridion de Verbo Incarnato (Madrid 1957).

[e. a. weis]


views updated May 21 2018


From the Latin noun caro, or carnis, meaning "flesh," the term incarnation was appropriated by Christianity to designate its belief that in the historical existence of the man Jesus, known to Christians as the Christ, the very being of God has entered fully into human history and the created universe. The incarnation of God implies for believers not only that the person of Christ is the dwelling place of God, his human nature held to be substantially united with the Logos (the eternal Word) of God, but that by extension the entire material cosmos is the domicile of God.

In the history of religions, representations of incarnate deities have been a powerful way of communicating a common human intuition that the realm of the sacred is not separate or remote from the empirically given world and that the tangible world is embedded in a mysterious dimension of divine depth. In fact the idea of a divine incarnation is itself a specification of the more generically sacramental character of religions as such. Religions have almost always had a sacramental aspect, by which is meant that their devotees grasp the presence of God or the sacred primordially through the mediation of concrete things, events, or persons that function as revelatory symbols of the divine. The natural world in particular, with its sunlight, flowing water, fertility, life, oceans, mountains, and storms has provided a rich array of symbols by which the sense of a sacred mystery has been communicated to religious awareness. The idea of a divine incarnation in a human being may be understood in the context of the richly sacramental character of religions.

Incarnation in Christian doctrine

A sacrament is any property of the visible world through which humans have gathered the impression that the sacred or the divine is expressing itself in an especially intense way. In Christianity, for example, the person of Christ is taken to be the primary symbol or sacrament of God. Theological reflection has even led to the Christian conviction that the fullness of the Godhead has disclosed itself incarnately through the compassion and self-sacrifice of Jesus. Early Christian controversies about how to understand the incarnation led to the teachings of the early Ecumenical Councils (especially First Nicea in 325 and Chalcedon in 451) that Jesus is the incarnate Logos or "Word" of God.

It was an arduous and politically tumultuous process that led to the Christian doctrinal formulations surrounding the incarnation. Denials of Christ's divine nature in the early centuries took the form of Arianism and Nestorianism, both eventually condemned as heretical. And at the other extreme, the humanity of Christ was dissolved into his divinity, in a heresy known as monophysitism (literally, "having a single nature"). Christianity has never been completely divested of the tendency to deny that Jesus was fully human, and in recent centuries a decidedly monophysitic leaning has shaped much Christian spirituality. A case can be made that this monophysitic bias has brought needless complications into the dialogue between religion and science.

At the heart of Christian quarrels about the incarnation was the question of how the unchanging, eternal, and almighty God could coherently be said to be fully present in a finite man, one vulnerable enough to be killed by crucifixion. The doctrine of God's incarnation coincides at this point with the shocking idea of a divine kenosis, according to which the infinite God empties out the divine substance into the finite world in self-sacrificing love. The God-human paradox of Christ is one that subsequent centuries and contemporary theological discussion have not yet reduced to clarity. Moreover, attempts to clarify the so-called "mystery" of the incarnation have usually led either to the nonacceptance of Christ's divinity or to the suppression of a sense of his humanity. In either case the rejection of a divine incarnation entails a denial of the divine kenosis. The notion of a self-emptying God is one that even Christians have not yet come to terms with, even though it is an idea that can possibly contribute much to the reconciliation of religion and science.

Incarnation in the age of evolutionary science

In this age of evolutionary science, theological reflection on the doctrine of the incarnation has led to speculation that in God's taking on the corporeal reality of Christ the whole universe is, by extension, taken into the divine life. The physical body of Christ is, like every other living organism, the outcome of a cosmic and biological evolution. Hence one may conjecture theologically that the story of the entire universe is inseparable from the existence of the incarnate God. The cosmic story itself, therefore, becomes sacramentally the revelation of God. In light of the idea of God's incarnation in matter the notion of "revelation" can no longer be restricted simply to a brief series of salvific events in the narrow province of terrestrial human history as recorded in the Bible. Rather, the universe as a whole is now seen by many to be the sacramental disclosure of the incarnate God. To some Christian thinkers, especially the Jesuit geologist and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (18811955), the epic of evolution is endowed with the deeper meaning that it is from start to finish the process in which God becomes increasingly incarnate in matter, clothing the divine being in the stuff of the universe.

However, as Teilhard de Chardin repeatedly emphasized, "true union differentiates." God's incarnate union with the world is one in which the world becomes even more, not less, distinct from God. Incarnation implies that God foregoes any annihilating relationship to the world. The doctrine of the incarnation, at least as understood by the Council of Chalcedon, implies that God wants to relate to a world that is "other" than God. In order to constitute such a relationship to the universe, however, the presence of God to the world cannot be one in which the divine presence dissolves the world. To seek such an annihilating union of the world in God is an expression of monophysitism, the view that the distinctively human nature of Christ loses itself in the divine nature.

A case could be made that the longing on the part of some anti-Darwinian theists to have a world carefully designed by God, rather than one that evolves more self-creatively and spontaneously, is by implication indicative of a hidden longing for a divine presence that abolishes the world's distinctness from its divine ground. Beneath much current religious anxiety about the implications of Darwinian evolution perhaps there is evidence of a persistent monophysitic hankering for a kind of divine union with the world that melts the world into God.

Any concept of God that theology hopes to reconcile with biological and cosmic evolution, however, would not obliterate the cosmos or human existence in freedom, but would allow for a world that could become increasingly independent. Today a number of Christian theologians see in the doctrine of divine incarnation the basis for such an understanding of the relationship of God to the world.

See also Christology; Embodiment; Kenosis; Revelation; Teihard de Chardin, Pierre


brown, raymond e. jesus, god, and man: modern biblical reflections. milwaukee, wis.: bruce, 1967.

grillmeier, aloys. christ in christian tradition, trans. john bowden. atlanta, ga.: john knox press, 1975.

pannenberg, wolfhart. jesus, god and man, trans. lewis l. wilkins and duane a. priebe. philadelphia: westminster press, 1977.

rahner, karl. foundations of christian faith, trans. william v. dych. new york: crossroad, 1978.

teilhard de chardin, pierre. christianity and evolution,trans. rene hague. new york: harcourt, 1969.

john haught


views updated May 11 2018

in·car·nate • adj. / inˈkärnit; -ˌnāt/ (esp. of a deity or spirit) embodied in flesh; in human form: God incarnate he chose to be incarnate as a man. ∎  represented in the ultimate or most extreme form: here is capitalism incarnate.• v. / -ˌnāt/ [tr.] embody or represent (a deity or spirit) in human form: the idea that God incarnates himself in man. ∎  put (an idea or other abstract concept) into concrete form: a desire to make things which will incarnate their personality. ∎  (of a person) be the living embodiment of (a quality): the man who incarnates the suffering which has affected every single Mozambican.ORIGIN: late Middle English: from ecclesiastical Latin incarnat- ‘made flesh,’ from the verb incarnare, from in- ‘into’ + caro, carn- ‘flesh.’


views updated May 11 2018

in·car·na·tion / ˌinkärˈnāshən/ • n. 1. a person who embodies in the flesh a deity, spirit, or abstract quality: Rama was Vishnu's incarnation on earth. ∎  (the Incarnation) (in Christian theology) the embodiment of God the Son in human flesh as Jesus Christ.2. (with reference to reincarnation) one of a series of lifetimes that a person spends on earth: in my next incarnation, I'd like to be the Secretary of Fun. ∎  the form in which a person spends such a lifetime.


views updated May 18 2018

incarnation Act of appearing in or assuming bodily form, especially the assumption of human form by a divine being. All orthodox Christians believe that the eternal Son of God, the creator and sole deity, took on bodily form and lived on Earth as a mortal human being, Jesus of Nazareth. The doctrine of the Incarnation was confirmed amid controversy by the first general council of the Church at Nicaea in 325. incest Sexual relations within a family or kinship group, the taboo on which varies between societies. In many countries, incest is a crime that carries a prison sentence. It is likely that the rules of many primitive communities prohibited marriage between close relatives, long before the possible adverse genetic effects of such relationships were realized.


views updated May 23 2018

Incarnation (Lat., in carne, ‘in flesh/body’). The belief that God is wholly present to, or in, a human life and body. The term may be used to ‘translate’ the Hindu understanding of avatāra, but is more commonly used of the belief that in Jesus Christ, the divine and human natures were united in one person, and that God was, consequently, in carne, incarnated. See further CHRISTOLOGY.


views updated May 17 2018

incarnate embodied in flesh XIV; flesh-coloured XVI. — ecclL. incarnātus, pp. of incarnārī be made flesh, f. IN-1 + carō, carn- flesh; see CARNAL, -ATE2.
So incarnation embodiment in flesh XIII (concr. XVIII); †flesh-colour XV. — (O)F. — ecclL.