Mention “Christmas” and “controversy” together in the same sentence, and most evangelicals will assume you’re talking about Santa Claus, Christmas trees, or the secularization of the winter holiday season.
But, from a historical perspective, a much more significant controversy surrounded Christmas for the first five centuries of church history; and its effects still linger in some circles today. It centered on the very essence of Jesus’ birth – the doctrine of His incarnation.
There is, of course, an element of mystery in the incarnation. How can one person simultaneously be fully God and fully man? Yet, that is precisely the miraculous truth that the Scriptures affirm regarding the Person of Jesus Christ.
Despite the clarity of biblical revelation, the doctrine of Christ’s incarnation came under attack from the very beginning.
The Ebionites, an early legalistic cult, denied the Virgin Birth and the very idea of the incarnation. They accepted the fact that Jesus was a man, but utterly rejected the notion that He was God in human flesh.
In the second and third centuries, the Gnostics likewise denied the incarnation. Not only did they teach that Christ was one of many gods, they also rejected the idea that His humanity was real. In Gnostic teaching, Christ’s human body was merely an illusion. Thus, the incarnation did not really occur; it was only a mirage.
In the fourth century, the Arians affirmed the humanity of Christ, but refused to acknowledge His full deity. Specifically, they denied that the Son was co-equal, co-eternal, and co-essential with the Father. They rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, teaching instead that the Son of God was in fact a created being.
It was the Arian controversy that led to the Council of Nicea where, in A.D. 325, leaders from all over the Christian world gathered and overwhelmingly affirmed the fact that a biblical understanding of who Jesus is necessarily includes a recognition of both His full humanity and His full deity.
That affirmation was articulated in the Nicene Creed which, in essence, was a defense of the true meaning of Christmas.
To the Ebionites, Gnostics, and Arians, we could add other Christological heresies – like Apollonarianism, Nestorianism, and Eutychianism – all of which fell short of a biblical understanding of Christ’s incarnation.
But where controversies abound in church history, the Scriptures are very clear.
The Apostle John opened his gospel with these words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). Those verses summarize the dual truths of Christ’s incarnation: The Word is God. The Word became man.
The rest of the New Testament affirms that same two-fold reality. Jesus Christ is “Immanuel” – God with us.
The Second Member of the Trinity, God very God, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father, the One by whom all things were created and the One in whom all things hold together, left the glories of heaven to become a man, being born in a primitive stable, so that He could grow up to die a criminal’s death in order to save hopeless sinners from the eternal consequences of their own foolish rebellion.
That, then, is the mystery and miracle of Christmas: that God became a man so that men might be reconciled to God.
Heretics have long tried to deny that truth, which is why the theology of Christ’s incarnation has been at the center of so much controversy. Yet, a right understanding of that doctrine is absolutely essential – not only to the meaning of Christmas, but to the very heart of the gospel.
If Christ had not come, our salvation would not have been possible.
As Charles Spurgeon wrote regarding the incarnation: “Man became royal when Christ became human. Man was exalted when Christ was humiliated. Man may go up to God now that God has come down to man.”
Commenting on that same glorious reality, the church father Augustine left us with these eloquent words:
The Word of the Father, by whom all time was created, was made flesh and was born in time for us. He, without whose divine permission no day completes its course, selected one day for His human birth. . . .
The Maker of man became man that He, Ruler of the stars, might be weaned as an infant; that He, the Bread, might be hungry; that He, the Fountain, might thirst; that He, the Light, might sleep; that He, the Way, might be wearied by the journey; that He, the Truth, might be accused by false witnesses; that He, the Judge of the living and the dead, might be brought to trial by a mortal judge; that He, Justice, might be condemned by the unjust; that He, Discipline, might be scourged with whips; that He, the Foundation, might be suspended upon a cross; . . . that He, the Life might die.
To endure these and similar indignities for us, to free us, unworthy creatures, He who existed as the Son of God before all ages, without a beginning, chose to become the Son of Man in these recent years. He did this although He who was subjected to such great evils for our sake had done no evil and although we, who were the recipients of so much good at His hands, had done nothing to merit these benefits.
Therein lies the heart of the gospel. It is the reason we celebrate this time of year; and the reason we will rejoice around our Savior’s throne for all of eternity.