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The Divine Incarnation
Jabez T. Sunderland
essay appeared as a pamphlet in 1901 as the first in the “Twentieth
Century Sermon” Series, put out by the Unitarian Club in Toronto.
"God was in Christ" (2 Cor. 5:19).
"If we love one another, God dwelleth in us" (1
The doctrine of the Divine Incarnation is of great
importance in religious thought, whatever form of faith we may hold.
There are in the Christian world today two widely and in
some respects radically different forms of this doctrine. Let us
inquire what they are, study them as candidly and carefully as we can,
compare them with each other, and try earnestly to find out where lies
In inquiring what the two forms are, we quickly get an
answer from the two texts which I have cited.
The Apostle Paul says: "God was in Christ." One
view of the incarnation bases itself upon this text and stops here,
saying, This is the doctrine, the whole doctrine—"God was in
Christ"—only in Christ—the
incarnation of God is confined to one person, supernaturally born, who
lived and died in Palestine, some nineteen hundred years ago.
The other view does not deny this one, except as to its limitation. It says
with Paul, ''Yes, God was in Christ." But it goes on from this
and adds, with John, the very important declaration, "If we love
one another, God dwelleth also in us." In other words, it affirms
the divine incarnation not only in Christ but also in all humanity.
Nor does this latter and larger view of the Incarnation
really array John against Paul. For, when we look further, we find
that the larger thought is just what Paul also teaches, if we take his
teaching as a whole. Turning over to Ephesians 4:6, we read the
following declaration, as strong and unequivocal as words can make it:
"There is one God and Father of all, who is above all, and
through all, and in you all." Paul's real
teaching, then, as well as that of John, is, that God was not in Christ alone, but that
he is also "in you all."
In thus teaching, both Paul and John agree with Jesus, who
taught, it is true, his own unity with God, but also just as strongly
the unity of all men with God. If he said, "I and my Father are
one" [John 10:30], he did not stop there, as so many teachers of
Christianity today so strangely do, but, going on, he added the other
half of the truth: "That they may be one, even as we are
one" [John 17:21]. 
One of our poet preachers has well expressed, in the form
of a prayer, this union of all with God which Jesus taught.
"O Thou Infinite One!
Let me Know myself as one with Thee;
Let me feel in my soul the vibrations of Thy Life.
Fill me, O God, with Thyself;
Let the Law that is in Thee
Come as truth into my soul.
Let the order that shapes Universes
Become the conscious Law within me.
Let my deeds and words
Take form from Thee as the stars do.
Let my actions be of Thy Law
As are the motions of the planets.
O God, fill, permeate, inform me,
That I may be one with Thee
Even as was Christ of old."
We have now the two views of the Divine Incarnation before
One view limits the incarnation; the other does not.
One view sees God incarnate in Christ alone. This is the
teaching of the so-called "orthodox" creeds, and of all the
churches founded on those creeds.
The other sees God incarnate not only in Christ, but also
in all Christ's brethren—in all the rest of the children of the
common Father. This is the view, not only of the Liberal Christian
churches, but of a steadily growing number of the broader and freer
minds in all the creedal churches, in spite of their creeds.
Nor is it strange that this larger view finds increasing
favor, for biblical scholarship is making it more and more clear that
this was the teaching of Jesus and his immediate disciples, and
historic study that this was the doctrine of the early Christian
churches. I believe also that philosophic and scientific study is
making it increasingly clear that this view has its foundation in fact
and reason as the narrower view does not.
Let us examine the commonly received doctrine of a limited
incarnation in Christ alone, and see to what extent it stands the text
The first thing to be observed concerning it is that it
was born late—long after Christ—and in a very dark age, when a
majority of men believed that God was to be seen only in the unusual,
the limited, the exceptional, the irregular, the supposed
miraculous—before it was understood that all things are governed
according to law.
Since we have learned that we live in a law-ordered
universe, we are fast attaining to a larger view of God and of his
ways of manifesting himself. We are learning to see him in the steady
on-going of nature. We are discovering that the regular displays him far better than the irregular,
the normal far more clearly than the abnormal, the orderly far more
surely than the erratic, the universal better than the limited. Indeed
we are learning that order and law are themselves the clearest of all
possible illustrations, the most irrefutable of all possible proofs of
him. For what are law and order in the universe except the
Universe-Power working intelligently, and therefore beneficently? And
that is just what we must mean by God—the Infinite Power at the
heart of the universe, operating in all, and through all, and forever
intelligently and to worthy ends. Order therefore is simply his
symbol; law is simply his sign his path of light as he pursues his
majestic way. This is the manner in which men are learning to think of
God in our age of growing knowledge and reason.
What then is to be presumed as antecedently probable regarding an
incarnation? If God is to incarnate himself, will it be likely to take place in
manner different from anything else in nature—in a corner, in some
one special age, in some single special land, in a little special town in that land, in some one
human being born in an unusual and exceptional way? Is that according
to the manner of God's great works and ways? I think we must say that
at least the presumption is against an incarnation in such a special,
limited, and unnatural manner.
The case may be illustrated, I think, in some such way as
this: Suppose some person should go away to some great mountain valley
in Asia or Africa or Australia, and there find a single tree—perhaps
the largest tree in the world—but one single tree among millions,
hidden away in that one remote valley—and should say to you,
"There, in that tree, and in that tree alone, God manifests
himself, so far as trees are concerned." Would you believe him?
He might urge that the tree was the largest and finest known. That
would make no difference to you. He might even bring you reports,
believed by multitudes, that the tree had been planted by an angel
from heaven, or by inhabitants of another planet, or by God himself in
a manner different from that of any other tree that ever grew; but all
the same you would say, "No, I cannot accept your claim. Not any one tree can monopolize the manifestation of God.
Do you say God planted this tree? The God that I believe in and
worship planted all trees—and not by the poor expedient of special
miracle either, but by his great, wise, perpetually operative and
unfailing nature-methods. So far from this tree being the only
manifestation of God, I believe that God is the creator and the very
life of all the trees in all the lands of earth, and that every one of
all their millions is busy day and night, in every leaf and bud and
blossom and rootlet and fiber, in showing his handiwork, and
manifesting his power and wisdom." I think this is essentially
the reply you would make to one who should attempt to convince you
that God's sole manifestation in the trees of earth is in some one
single, special miracle-tree.
Turn now to the Divine Incarnation—God's manifestation
of himself in humanity—and must we not say essentially the same thing? When men come to us
attempting to confine God's incarnation to a single generation of
humanity's long history, and to a single land and province and village
in the midst of earth's vast continents, and to a single life in that
little village do we not see at once that they are thinking not
according to twentieth century methods, but methods of a darker past,
and that the conception of God involved is the conception of the
centuries before law in nature was known, and when the whole universe
was limited in men's thought not only to this earth but to a few
countries around the Mediterranean Sea?
How are we to account for this strange idea that God's
incarnation or manifestation of himself in humanity is confined to one
I suppose we may say that this astonishing limitation is
based upon the story of the miraculous birth of Jesus. We are told
that Jesus was born of a virgin. He had no human father. God was his
Father. This is cited as proof that he was a special incarnation of
God —different from anybody else.
Well, let us briefly examine this story of the miraculous
birth and see whether it really belongs in the Bible—whether it is
any part of the real gospel, or is only a later addition—a legendary
after-growth—and therefore whether it affords any basis for the
belief that God's incarnation was different in kind in Jesus from what
it is in humanity as a whole.
It should be noted that two of the four gospels, or
biographical accounts which we have of Jesus, say nothing about any
miraculous birth. These two are Mark and John; and Mark is pretty
generally conceded now by the best critics to be the earliest of all
the Gospels. But now here is something very strange. If Jesus was
really born differently from anybody else, and if this was the primary
proof that he was God, it seems unaccountable that two of his
biographers, and one of them the earliest of all, and therefore the
one nearest to Jesus in time, should have omitted this crucial fact,
this fact upon which everything else depended. Yet neither one gives
any hint of a supernatural birth.
Nor is this all. Turn to the Acts of the
Apostles—the book giving an account of the things which the
"early disciples preached, as they went forth to lay the
foundations of Christianity. What do we find here? Any account of the
great teacher, whose word they proclaimed, having been miraculously
born?—born differently from others, and therefore not really a man?
Not a word. Peter begins his great sermon on the day of Pentecost:
"Ye men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved
of God among you." No hint is given here or elsewhere in the whole book that Jesus was born
otherwise than as all men are.
Turn over still further, to the Epistles of Paul. If Paul
knows of Jesus being born miraculously, with God as his father, and
himself God, we shall of course find his epistles all aglow and ablaze
with the great the unparalleled fact. What do we find? In all of
Paul's writings not one word of anything of the kind. It is plain that
Paul does not know any such fact concerning Jesus.
Turn back now to the Gospels, and let us examine a little
more carefully what we can find there. Matthew and Luke give the story
of the miraculous birth. But there is reason to believe that it is a
late legendary accretion—something which formed no part of the
earlier and more reliable biography. That it is a late addition is
indicated by the fact that it is contrary to so many things in the
Gospel narratives. For example, we read in Matthew that the friends
and acquaintances of Jesus said of him, "Is not this the
carpenter's son?" Evidently they had never heard but that he was
the son of Joseph. Luke represents them as saying, "Is not this the son of Joseph?" John
makes their question still more explicit, "Is not this Jesus,
Joseph's son, whose father and mother we know?" Several times we
read, in different places, of Jesus' "father" and
"parents." His disciple Philip calls him "the son of
Mary, his own mother, declares that Joseph is his father,
saying to him, of Joseph and herself, when he was a boy, "thy
father and I have sought thee sorrowing." Surely this should
settle the matter.
But even these things are not all. We have two separate
genealogical tables given us in the Gospels both tracing the ancestry
of Jesus through Joseph—something not only in the highest degree
absurd, but positively misleading and dishonest, if Joseph was not his
True, the different New Testament writers greatly exalt
Jesus in many ways, but never, with the exception of the two passages
already referred to in Matthew and Luke, in a way to teach or to imply
that he was miraculously born—much less that he was God. The Gospels
represent him as working miracles, but the working of miracles was
believed to be common; not only men, but even bad men, are represented
as workers of miracles. The Gospels call Jesus lord, but that was an
appellation given to many besides him, as in England today men are
called lords. The Gospels speak of him as the Jewish messiah. But to
the Jews the messiah was not to be God, but simply a man having
exalted power given him of God. The Gospels represent Jesus as dying
and then rising from the dead. But others too are declared to have
risen from the dead. If Jesus ascended into heaven, so had Elijah; and
if his disciples expected him to return again, so had Elijah long been
expected to return again. And Elijah was not God, but a man like other
men. If Jesus is called "son of God" and "begotten of
God," so are others spoken of as "sons of God,"
"children of God," "begotten of God," as we have
None of these declarations or representations imply an
unnatural or supernatual birth, or that he was God. Nowhere save in
the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke does the New Testament
anywhere hint at such a birth. And even this is contradicted and
corrected again and again, by the genealogies and by the utterances of
those who knew him best.
Everything indicates that Jesus himself claimed no
supernatural birth, and that nobody claimed it for him while he lived,
or for more than a generation after his death. Even forty years or so
after his decease, when Mark, the earliest of the Gospels was written,
the story of such a birth seems not yet to have been in existence, or
else was not credited. For if it had been known and generally
believed, surely it would have found a place in Mark.
How then did it arise? Let us see.
A full generation of time had gone since the
crucifixion. Those who knew Jesus personally were fast passing away.
He had left nothing behind him in writing. The recollections of those
who remained were growing a little dimmed with the lapse of years. It
was natural and inevitable that legends about
him should begin to spring up. In a little while there was
a multitude of such. Indeed a whole volume of them, called the
"Apocryphal Gospels," has come down to us. What could be
more natural than that some of these numerous legends which time and
distance wove about him, and especially about his birth and childhood,
should make their way into the Gospels which we have in our New
Testament? What was there to keep them out? We do not know certainly
the writer of a single one of these Gospels, or its editor in the form
in which it comes to us. It is well nigh certain that each Gospel
passed through several re-adaptations before it reached the form in
which we now have it. By the time Matthew and Luke received their
final revisions, twenty years or more after the writing of Mark, the
legend of the miraculous birth had come into existence; and as such a
story seemed to add to the luster of Jesus's fame and name, it became
in some way incorporated into these two Gospels. Once in, there was
not in that age the careful scholarly criticism to cast it out. And so
we have it today as a part of the New Testament.
This seems to be the explanation of the fact that we find
at the beginning of Matthew and Luke the story of the birth of Jesus
without a human father,—a story similar you know to what we have in
connection with the birth of Buddha, and a number of other oriental
Thus do all lines of testimony seem to unite to make it
clear that the story of the supernatural birth of Jesus was a late and
legendary accretion, and no part of the original and real history of
the life of the great Teacher of Nazareth.
What, then, follows from all this? Does it follow that God
was not in Christ? By no means. Does it follow that Christ was not
divine? Far from that. What follows is that Christ's divineness of
nature was not different in kind, but only in degree, from yours and
mine. God was in him, but also God is in all humanity. Jesus was simply the tallest soul among his brethren, one in whom the
divine spirit rose to an unwonted fullness and power of manifestation,
a man of rare genius, nobleness and strength, but whose crowning
spiritual quality lay in his seemingly perfect union in mind and will
with the mind and will of God, so that he was able to say with a
deeper and loftier meaning than had ever been given to the words
before, "I and my Father are one."
If Jesus was "Son of God," in this he was not
exceptional. His sonship lay not in any such questionable claim as
that of being born of a virgin, and therefore differently from his
brethren, but in the deep and essential divineness of the nature of
man. It lay not in his being less a man than others, but more a man
than others. He called himself "Son of God" and "Son of
Man"—shall we not say he was preeminent as Son of God because
he was preeminent as Son of Man?
What is incarnation? As the word signifies, it is God
manifesting himself in the flesh, that is, in the highest form of his
creation. But is there any part of his creation in which he does not
manifest himself? Surely not; for creation is just God—the Infinite
Power and Life and Goodness that is behind all nature—objectifying
himself, coming forth into manifestation. Thus the sun shines by his
light, Saturn and Uranus pull by his strength, the flower smiles by
his beauty. If we "live and move and have our being in
him" [Acts 17:28], so do the birds, so do the planets, so do the
Emerson puts it well in his Wood Notes:
"Ever fresh the broad creation,
A divine improvisation,
From the heart of God proceeds,
A single will, a million deeds.
Once slept the world an egg of stone,
And pulse, and sound, and light was none;
And God said "Throb," and there was motion,
And the vast mass became vast ocean.
Maker and original,
The world is the ring of his spells,
And the play of his miracles.
As he giveth to all to drink,
Thus or thus they are and think.
With one drop sheds form and feature;
With the next a special nature;
The third adds heat's indulgent spark;
The fourth gives light which eats the dark;
Into the fifth himself he flings,
And conscious Law is King of kings.
Thou seek'st in globe and galaxy,
He hides in pure transparency;
Thou askest in fountains and in fires—
He is the essence that inquires.
He is the axis of the star,
He is the sparkle of the spar,
He is the heart of every creature,
He is the meaning of each feature;
And his mind is the sky,
Than all it holds more deep, more high."
Do you ask, How is God in all things? I think we must
answer: In the lowest objects, that is, in the whole inorganic world,
he is present as simply Force or Energy. In objects higher, that is, in the organic world, he is present as Force or
Energy and Life. In man his manifestation is still more complete and on still higher planes.
That is to say, in man God is present as Energy, as Life, and also as Self-Consciousness, Will, Moral Nature, and highest of all, Love. Thus while God is no more truly in a human being than in a stone, his
manifestation in the human being is far more full and in far higher
ways than it can be in a stone. A man does not manifest God any more
really than does a flower. But a man manifests God on a higher plane
than the most beautiful and perfect flower can do. A flower is only a
thing. It cannot think, it cannot know, it cannot will, it cannot
love. But man can do all these things. Hence man partakes of the moral
and spiritual nature of God, as the flower does not. As we rise from
the lower to the higher objects of nature we rise from lower to higher
manifestations of God—the highest of all being man.
But in man himself there is also gradation. In the man who
is groveling and selfish, and who lives in material things, God's
manifestation is down on a plane only a few steps higher than that in
which he manifests himself in the brute animal; whereas in the moral
and spiritual man it is up almost on the plane of the angel. In other
words, as we rise in intelligence, in virtue, in love and moral
attainment, the incarnation of God in us becomes more full and
It follows that God's incarnation in the world is
perpetual and growing. This is what Evolution means. God did not come
into the world once and then retire. He did not create the world in
six days and then retreat back into some far away heaven to rest. His
creation is eternal. It was going on further back than our thought can
reach. It is going on still. Not only are new worlds being created in
the skies, but this world on which we live is being all the while
created anew—recreated to higher and higher ends. Especially is
God's creation on the earth going on in the realm of the intellectual,
the moral, and the spiritual. Here its progress is more rapid than
ever before, as seen in the constant rise of man.
There never was a time when God was not in his world, the
very life of all its life. But his manifestation grows in splendor—especially it grows in splendor
with the progress of the human race. So that God's incarnation was
never so glorious as now. And as the ages go on, and the race
advances, and man rises to still greater heights of moral and
spiritual attainment, what will that be except the fuller and more
perfect manifestation or incarnation of God in humanity?
How much higher and more full of meaning does
this view of the incarnation make everything! In the light of it,
all nature and all human nature become manifestations of the divine,
each in its degree. The sunshine which wraps the world in its warm
embrace, is a manifestation of God's loving and gracious presence. All
exhibitions of power are his power. All life is his life. All beauty
is his beauty. All right and goodness on earth are finite
manifestations of Eternal realities, whose fountain and whose fullness
are in God.
Especially what glory does this view of the Divine
Incarnation shed upon human nature, and how does it fill all man's
future with hope! Christ was not a strange, solitary, abnormal
manifestation of God in human form, once in all the ages, with nothing
in any way like it before or after. He was a type of our humanity. He
was a foretaste of what waits for the race. The sleeping possibilities
which are in your soul and mine came to full blossom in him. He is a
prophecy of what God holds in store for all humanity, sometime,
This, friends, is the new, the larger, doctrine of the
Divine Incarnation which is coming to our modern age.
Am I not right in claiming that this doctrine is in
harmony with science, in harmony with philosophy, in harmony with the
thought of evolution and a law-governed universe, in harmony with the
real teaching of Jesus and his disciples? May we not justly claim that
it is the teaching of the New Testament restored to the world?
And does it not meet the needs of the human soul as the
old doctrine does not? It removes the distance between us and God. It
lifts the human up to the divine. It makes our very life the life of
God in us. And thus it teaches us to say with Jesus, "I and my
Father are one."
And how much nearer it brings Jesus to us! Now, with this
view, he is no longer the strange, the far off being that we have been
taught—incomprehensible, foreign to all our experience, half man,
half God! Now he is our brother—true, real, human, with nature like
ours, with joys and sorrows like ours, with battles to fight like
ours—our strong brother, clear-headed, great hearted, noble, brave,
gentle, waiting to take our weak hands in his strong hand, and lead us
up to hope, to trust, to peace, to the loving heart of his Father and
our Father, his God and our God.
Yes, "God was in Christ." That is a great and
precious truth. We cannot prize it too highly. But there is another
even better that crowns it, that completes it, that gives it full
significance and glory, and especially that brings it into practical
touch with our lives. That other truth is, "Every one that loveth
is begotten of God" [1 John 4:7]; "If we love, God dwelleth
in us" [1 John 4:12]. Thus our limitations, finiteness and
poverty become reinforced from the Infinite and Eternal Fountain of
all Power, Wisdom and Love.
It is much to recognize God in nature; it is more to
recognize him in human nature. It is much to see him in Christ; but it
is most to see him in ourselves.
Said Channing: "All minds are of one family."
Wrote Emerson: "If a man is at heart just, then in so
far he is God: the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty
of God, do enter into that man with justice."
William Blake, England's mystical and strangely gifted
artist-poet of the eighteenth century, wrote a poem entitled "The
Divine Image," which contains these profoundly suggestive lines:
"Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
Is God our Father dear;
And Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
Is man, his child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart;
Pity the human face;
And Love, the human form divine;
And Peace the human dress."
Two great illuminating and inspiring thoughts
are rising like morning stars in the sky of Christianity in our time.
Said the dying Baron Bunsen as he looked up in the face of
his wife bending in love over him: "In thy face have I seen the
In the First Epistle of John [3:2] we read: "Beloved,
now are we children of God, and it hath not yet been manifested what
we shall be. But we know that when it shall be manifested, we shall be
Thus we see the barriers fall away which have seemed to
separate the human from the divine; more and more clearly the vision
draws that all is divine.
In the book of Revelation [3:20] it is written:
"Behold I stand at the door and knock; and if any man hear my
voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and sup with him, and
he with me."
Oh friends, let us know, that whenever truth or duty, or pity or tenderness, or justice or aspiration, or any high thought or pure desire, knocks at the door of our hearts—but especially when love stands knocking there—it is God asking to be let in. And if we open the door he will enter, and become more and more fully incarnate in us. Thus our darkness will pass away; a rainbow of hope will illuminate every storm, our tears will be dried, our weakness will turn to strength, the peace of the Eternal will be ours, and we shall know what it means to dwell in heaven while yet we are pilgrims of earth, even as Jesus did, because God, whose Presence is Heaven, has taken up his abode within us, the Life of all our life.
 Jesus draws no line separating himself
from humanity. Instead, he most unequivocally classes himself with
humanity, making his relation to God the same as that of other men. He
calls his disciples his "brethren" (Matt. 28:10, John
20:17). Paul calls him "the firstborn among many brethren"
(Rom. 8:29). In 2 Peter (1:4) we, as well as Christ, are declared to
be "partakers of the divine nature." If he is called the
"son of God," so again and again, both in the Old Testament
and the New, are we also called "sons of God" and
"children of God;" and God is declared to be "our
Father" as well as the Father of Jesus. On this point Jesus
himself uses the strongest possible language, speaking of God to his
followers as "my Father and your Father, my God and your
God" (John 20:17). Thus we are taught most explicitly that in
whatever sense God was in him, in the same sense God is in us.
"Beloved now are we the sons of God" (1 John 3:2).
"Every one that loveth is begotten of God" (1 John 4:7);
"He that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God dwelleth in
him" (1 John 4:16); "Even as thou, Father, art in me, and I
in thee, that they also may be in us" (John 17:21).
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