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Incarnation

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The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

    Incarnation

    Literally meaning “enfleshment,” incarnation is the entry of divinity into human form and life. In some religions this is thought of as something that happens repeatedly, but in the New Testament, incarnation is a once‐and‐for‐all occurrence in Jesus Christ.

    The earliest Christian terms for interpreting Jesus had been drawn from the eschatological hope for a future transformation of existence. In the gospel of John this hope became secondary, and incarnation—the bringing together of the human and divine in a specific person, Jesus—became the central way of interpreting the divine presence in him.

    The effort to express the full presence of God in Jesus led to the conclusion that this specific mode of presence had existed with God prior to the life of Jesus; this preexistent figure had been God's agent in creating the world (John 1.1–3). The existence of Christ before the creation is already present in Paul's writings as they are commonly interpreted (see especially 1 Cor. 8.6; Phil. 2.6; Col. 1.16 [possibly post‐Pauline]) and in the non‐Pauline Hebrews 1.1–3. Some question the presence of a clear belief in the preexistence of Christ before the relatively late gospel of John. According to this view, the belief developed gradually among Christians from Jewish wisdom theology, which was first applied to the full preexistence of Christ in John. But wisdom and word (see Logos) were spoken of in Jewish and early Christian circles as personified entities, and most scholars hold that this imagery had already provided a way of thinking about a preexistent Christ.

    Incarnation is meaningful when the distance between the divine and the human is strongly held. This dualism of flesh and spirit and its overcoming in the incarnation opened the way for the development of later incarnational theology, which held that the goal of the incarnation was the transformation of the human into a nature compatible with the divine.

    The Johannine theology of incarnation served as a focal point in the thought of the early church. It became a unifying center for the development of the doctrine of the full divinity and full humanity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity.

    The theology of incarnation has been actively debated in modern times. Some regard incarnation as an ancient mythological form of thought; others see in the incarnation a clue to the universal entering of God into human life; still others see the particularity of the incarnation in Jesus Christ as the distinctive core of Christianity.

    William A. Beardslee

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    Oxford University Press

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