The Incarnation: Double Birth

One of my favourite Christmas hymns is Charles Wesley’s Glory Be to God on High. It’s not the most popular or familiar of songs for Christmastide, but, like Wesley’s other great hymn of the Incarnation – Hark the Herald Angels Sing – it’s full of great theology. One of the reasons I’ve always liked this hymn is that it uses language that’s almost shocking to us and so forces us to really think about the meaning of the Incarnation: ‘Our being’s Source begins to be, and God Himself is born.’

How can being’s Source begin to be? How can the eternal God be born? Yet that is the very truth of what has happened in the Incarnation of Christ. The One who is before all things, and through whom and for whom all things are created, began to be as a tiny baby in Mary’s womb. God Himself, the Eternal Son and Word of God the Father, was born in a stable in Bethlehem. Wesley’s startling language emphasises two glorious truths to us: the humility of God the Son in coming as a tiny baby, and the glory and majesty of the baby in the manger. The humility: God is a baby! The majesty: the Baby is God!

For the idea in Wesley’s expression of ‘being’s Source begins to be and God Himself is born’, there’s a sort of theological shorthand: the double birth of the Word.

So how does the Word have a double birth? Well, first of all, who is the Word? He is God the Son. And the Son is born (or begotten) of His Father from all eternity. Now, that doesn’t mean that there was a time before the foundation of the world when the Son was born. No. He has always existed along with the Father as His Well-Beloved Son. But to be the Son means to be born or begotten of the Father. The Bible even states that Jesus is the ‘Only-Begotten Son’ (e.g. John 3:16). But as there wasn’t a time when He didn’t exist, there wasn’t a moment in time when He was born or begotten. Instead we say He is eternally begotten of the Father.

And yet this Son who is eternally begotten of God the Father, came Himself to be born at a particular moment in time in the stable in Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary. So He was born a second time. Once eternally, and once 2018 years or so ago in Bethlehem. We even confess this truth of the double-birth of the Son in the Nicene Creed: the Lord Jesus Christ was ‘born [or begotten, depending on the translation] of His Father before all worlds … 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.’

And this double-birth is hugely important. During the fifth century it was in the middle of a major controversy. Certain influential figures in the church weren’t prepared to say that it was the One who was eternally begotten of the Father who was born of Mary in Bethlehem. They wanted to distinguish between the Son of God and Jesus Christ. They weren’t trying to deny the divinity of Jesus, but rather they were trying to introduce a significant distinction between his humanity and his divinity. For them, Jesus of Nazareth was born once – of Mary, and God the Son was born once – eternally of the Father, yet the two came together in a union in Christ. So that meant Christ was a man plus the Son of God. And so the humanity of Christ was not the humanity of God.

Cyril of Alexandria was greatly alarmed by such talk. He wrote a letter to the main propagator of the false teaching, saying: ‘The Word did not subsequently descend upon an ordinary man previously born of the holy virgin, but he is made one from his mother’s womb, and thus is said to have undergone a fleshly birth in so far as he appropriated to himself the birth of his own flesh … We must not divide the One Lord Jesus Christ into two sons.’ (Cyril’s Second Letter to Nestorius, pars. 5, 7)

Why did this matter so much? Well, if it wasn’t God the Word Himself who was born of Mary, but only a man who was subsequently endowed with the Word, then it wasn’t God the Word who walked on the water, or touched the leper, or upon whose breast John leaned. It would only have been a man (albeit peculiarly endowed with the Word) who did these things.

And so the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 – of Immanuel, God with us – wouldn’t be fulfilled. God had promised His own personal presence. But if Jesus was simply a man upon whom the Word descended, we wouldn’t have God’s personal presence, only an indirect, mediated presence. As Donald Fairbairn puts it: ‘Only if the Logos [the Word] was born twice could the Incarnation bring about God’s direct, personal presence in the world.’ (Grace and Christology in the Early Church, p.222)

And that would have an impact on our salvation. If Jesus who was born of Mary is the one who was eternally born of the Father, then it is God Himself who comes down to us to bring us salvation (which is what the Nicene Creed says). But if the one born of Mary wasn’t the One begotten of the Father, then salvation is accomplished by a human being, not by God. Instead of being God’s gracious descent to us, it becomes man’s attempt to climb up to God. Jesus, then, becomes merely a help along the way, a giver of the grace which he has received in receiving the Word.

Cyril saw this danger. And Cyril knew that salvation was not our climbing up to God, but God’s coming down to us in Jesus. Cyril knew that Jesus is not merely a help on our climb up, but rather that He is God Himself who has come down to lift us up. He is the Saviour who brings us into the family of the Triune God. And He can only do that because He is God: Jesus Christ is God the Word and Son of the Father who has become flesh for us and our salvation. It really was God in the manger!

P.S. That’s why Mary is the mother of God.

P.P.P.S. Here's a video of Glory Be to God on High

P.P.P.P.S. Here's Bob Kauflin/Sovereign Grace's contemporary reworking of Wesley's hymn