(St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney. Courtesy Wikipedia)
By Spencer D Gear
I’m an orthodox evangelical believer. I watched the Christmas Eve service 2011 which the Dean of the Cathedral, Phillip Jensen, led from St. Andrews Cathedral, Sydney, telecast on ABC1 TV in Australia. It was a magnificent Christ-centred service led by Phillip. I know that his church is a member of the evangelical Anglican diocese of Sydney and he has been an orthodox stalwart in the midst of an Anglican church in Australia that has become theologically liberal in many states.
What is happening to the liberal Anglicans in Australia? See: “Anglican Synod 2004: Are liberal Anglicanism’s days numbered?“; “Church needs new vision, says Jensen”; and “The Anglican Debacle: Roots and Patterns“.
The Sydney Anglicans news’ release about this event stated:
For the first time in many years, ABC Television is screening an evangelical service on Christmas Eve . St Andrew’s Cathedral has been chosen to host the annual carols telecast on ABC television at 6pm on the night before Christmas.
The National broadcast on ABC 1 will feature Dean Phillip Jensen and the Cathedral choir, along with guest musicians and orchestra. The Dean said “This broadcast provides a great opportunity to express the message of the birth of our Lord in a genuinely modern and Australian fashion”.
However, one phrase caught my attention, and he said it several times in the telecast, as he spoke about Christmas celebrating “the birth of God”. Could this kind of language give the wrong impression? He has a brief article online that is titled, “Celebrate the Birth of God” (published 2 December 2005). In it he talks about Christmas as a time to “celebrate the coming of the Lord Jesus, who is God in the flesh” and “give thanks to God for the great privilege of celebrating the birth of our Mighty God in this way”.
He seems to be trying to communicate that Jesus is both God and man, but does the language, “the birth of God” have potential problems? These are my questions:
- Is it misleading to speak of the birth of God when God the Son has always existed and has had no birth?
- Could it be better to say that the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, became flesh (a man) and we celebrate His birth at Christmas time?
- Many do not understand how a virgin could conceive and give birth to the Son of God as flesh, without the insemination of a male. Does the language of “the birth of God” convey orthodox theology, or is it meant to get the attention of secular people who celebrate Christmas for materialistic and holiday reasons?
The prophecy of Christ’s birth in Isaiah 9:6 states, “For to us a child is BORN, to us a son is GIVEN” (ESV). For this one event of the incarnation, there are two distinct matters.
(1) A CHILD is born – this is the human Jesus, and
(2) A SON is given. The Son was not born; Jesus the Son was GIVEN. He was from eternity.
I am not sure that he made this distinction as he should have. I consider that he should have made it clear about the humanity of Jesus (a child is born) and the deity of Jesus (the eternal Son is given). God was not born on the first Christmas Day. God the Son has always existed as God and he became a human being on that first Christmas Day but there was no “birth of God” as such.
Paul the apostle is very clear about this in Romans 1:3-4:
concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (ESV),
The eternal generation of the son is orthodox doctrine. Or, is he moving away from the teaching on the eternal generation of the Son. See, “The Eternal Generation of the Son: A Biblical Perspective”. The Nicene Creed states in part:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
The Scriptures state that the child was born at the first Christmas, but the Son was given. The eternal Son of God was not born at the first Christmas. He was from eternity the Son.
What about Galatians 4:4?
Gal. 4:4 reads: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law (ESV).
There is nothing here to state or insinuate that the incarnation was “the birth of God”. What does Gal. 4:4 mean? The late Herman Ridderbos, professor of NT at Kampen Theological Seminary, Kampen, The Netherlands, wrote:
The word translated sent forth [exapostellw] comprises two thoughts: the going forth of the Son from a place at which He was before; and His being invested with divine authority. By this the profound and glorious significance of Christ’s coming in the world is indicated. He was the Son of the Father, who stood by His Father’s side already before the sending (cf. 1 Cor. 8:6; 2 Cor. 8:9, Phil. 2:6, and Col. 1:15). The Sonship designates not merely an official but also an ontological relationship (cf. Phil. 2:6). The words, born of a woman, do not refer to the beginning of his existence as Son, but as the child of a woman. The expression serves to suggest the weak, the human, the condescending. The woman was not only the medium of His coming into the flesh, but from her He took all that belongs to the human [hence ek , not dia]. She was in the full sense His mother. That Paul in these words is also reflecting on the virgin birth is, as we see it, highly doubtful. For, as is evident from the absence of the article in the Greek, Paul is not putting the emphasis on His being born of Mary. Besides, the expression elsewhere is used to designate the human and nothing besides (cf. Job 14:1 and Matt. 11:11)”.
Ridderbos is affirming what I have stated that the child was born of a woman but was the Son of the Father God before Jesus was sent into the world, becoming a human baby.
J. B. Lightfoot agrees, stating that “sent forth … assumes the pre-existence of the Son” and “born of woman” means “taking upon Himself our human nature (cf. Job 14:1, Matt 11:11). These passages show that the expression must not be taken as referring to the miraculous incarnation”.
R. C. H. Lenski explained:
“His Son—out of a woman” pointedly omit mention of a human father. Why? Because this is God’s Son who is co-eternal with the Father. He became man by way of “a woman” alone. Incomprehensible? Absolutely so! A miracle in the highest degree? Beyond question!
It is not Lenski’s view that this refers to the pre-existence of Jesus, but he does state that when Gal. 4:4 stated that God “commissioned forth his Son”, the vivid verb is associated with the preposition, ek, and not the usual preposition, apo. “This means that the Son went out on his commission not only ‘from’ God but ‘out from’ God. John says that he was ‘with’ (pros) God (John 1:1) and was God and that he became flesh (v. 14)”. Lenski does believe in the eternal pre-existence of the Son, but he does not believe it is taught in Gal. 4:4. However, he does believe that this Scripture refers to the virgin birth:
“The Son of God” is the second person of the Godhead; he “became out of a woman” in executing his mission. This is the Incarnation, the miraculous conception, the virgin birth. God’s Son became man, the God-man.
The phrase that begins with ek denotes more than the separation from the womb, it includes the entire human nature of the Son as this was derived from his human mother. The word genomenon is exactly the proper word to express this thought, even the tense is very accurate. The Son’s going out from God on his mission is seen in his becoming man. He did not cease to be the Son of God when he became man. He did not drop his deity, which is an impossible thought. He remained what he was and added what he had not had, namely a human nature, derived out of a woman, a human mother. He became the God-man.
I have been warned not to be another Nestorius
Since I see that Christmas celebrates the birth of the humanity of Jesus, the God-man, some have written to me warning that my view could sound like the false teaching of Nestorius. Most Christians would not know of Nestorius and his teaching.
The Nestorian controversy came to a head at the Council of Ephesus in 431. This Nestorian website gives a summary of the Christological controversies surrounding the teaching of Nestorius:
1. Nestorius became bishop of Constantinople in 428. He came from the Antioch school and was taught theology there by Theodore of Mopsuestia. He opposed a relatively new theological and devotional slogan Theotokos – affirming that Mary was the “God-bearer” or “Mother of God.” Nestorius was concerned with the thought that God might be seen to have had a new beginning of some kind, or that he suffered or died. None of these things could happen to the infinite God. Therefore, instead of a God-man, he taught that there was the Logos and the “man who was assumed.” He favored the term “Christ-bearer” (Christotokos) as a summary of Mary’s role, or perhaps that she should be called both “God-bearer” and “Man-bearer” to emphasize Christ’s dual natures. He was accused of teaching a double personality of Christ. Two natures, and two persons. He denied the charge, but the term Nestorianism has always been linked with such a teaching.
2. He was an adherent of the Antiochene “school” and he wished to emphasize a distinction between Christ as man and Christ as God.
a. He did not deny that Christ was God.
b. He said, however, that people should not call Mary thetokos, the “mother of God,” because she was only the mother of the human aspect of Christ.
c. Great opposition developed against Nestorius’ teaching and his opponents charged that he taught “two sons” and that he “divided the invisible.”
d. Nestorius denied the charge, but the term Nestorianism has always been linked with such a teaching.
e. The leader of the opposition to Nestorius was Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, a man who was one of the most ruthless and uncontrolled of the major early bishops.
The possible danger in my discussing the birth of the humanity of Jesus at Christmas, which is true, and rejecting anything to do with the birth of God (as the eternal God cannot be born), is that when I speak of the God-man Jesus, that I try to attribute some of Jesus’ actions to his humanity and some to his divinity. That is not what I’m saying or teaching, but I want to make it clear that God cannot be born, either as ‘Mary the mother of God’, or the celebration of ‘the birth of God’ (Phil Jensen) at Christmas.
The language that “God was born” at Christmas does not provide biblical warrant. God, the Son, the second person of the Trinity, has existed eternally. At that first Christmas, the Son obtained his humanity through being born to a virgin. This inaugurated the God-man nature of Jesus, but the Son never ceased being God from eternity. That the first Christmas celebrates the “birth of God” in Jesus, is false theologically. It was the “fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4) at which God the Son became the God-man.
I would like to understand why Phillip Jensen is defining the incarnation as meaning the “birth of God” in his Christmas Eve service, 24 December 2011, at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, and telecast on Australian ABC1 television. I have emailed him to get his views, with much of the information above. To date, I have not received a reply.
Jesus, the Son, who is also called “the Word”, always existed and continues to exist as God. We know this from…
John 1:1-2 states:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. (ESV).
But this same Word (Jesus) entered our humanity, although he is God and existed in the beginning with God, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 ESV).
But it was the humanity of the eternal Son of the Father that began in Mary’s womb. The divine person of the Son always was, with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Maybe we do agree after all. Were you just in a disagreeable mood when you wrote?
I’m never in a disagreeable mood when I come on this forum, but I agree with the statement that you made in this quote, except the disagreeable stuff. Please remember that I wrote to you to state that Mary as the mother of God, was not a biblical doctrine.
False! God cannot be born. That’s an oxymoron. God is from eternity and is always eternally God so there can be no “birth of God” or “God was born”.
What does that mean? That God had a physical biological body for the first time at His conception. That at His birth, God the eternal Son of the Father breathed air, got hungry, felt His own mother’s warmth, slept, and grew physically. Who was born? The eternal Son of the Father? Was He true God?
At the incarnation, the second person of the Trinity, the Son, became the God-man. It was the virgin conception of the humanity of Jesus. It was NOT the birth of God.
<<Your statement implies that Mary was only the mother of the biological body of Jesus. >>
And that was what she was. She was NOT the mother of God – NOT the mother of divinity. Then you state:
I agree with this statement, but Mary is the mother of the humanity of Jesus. I’m indeed pleased that you admit that the RCC doctrine of Mary being the mother of God is false as you state that Mary was “NOT the mother of God”.
The only orthodox teaching is that Jesus was, from the moment of conception, fully man and fully God. Now maybe you don’t believe that. But if you do, then the person born on the first Christmas day was God the Son, and Mary was the mother of God the Son. Who else would she be the mother of? A plain human person? Or a mere human nature devoid of personhood?
I agree with and practise the orthodoxy you stated that Jesus was from the moment of conception, fully God and became fully man. He is the God-man. But that does not make Mary the mother of God. She was the mother of Jesus, the human being. I have never ever suggested that Jesus, the human being was devoid of personhood. That’s your invention against me.
That is rubbish! I spend a lot of time in studying historical theology. That’s why I’m having this discussion with you. If I didn’t give a hoot about the theology of the past, I would not have started this thread.
Here’s an instance where Calvin has it all over you. In agreement with Zwingli and Luther, he held that Mary was the mother of God. It’s in the Heidelberg Confession as well as the Augsburg Confession.
Richard supporting the Reformers. The day of miracles is not over! You know that there are issues with Calvin that I have opposed on this Forum, but since some Reformers believed that Mary was the “mother of God”, I have to disagree on biblical grounds. She was the mother of the full personhood, the humanity of Jesus.
You need to think clearly and regain your heritage. I’m not trying to start a feud here, but I do think you have a knee-jerk opposition to the idea of Mary being the mother of God. It could be overcome with some calm consideration.
This is your over-reaction. It is no knee-jerk reaction by me, but a considered post about the content of the God-man Christology.
We celebrate the birth of God, the incarnation, when God from before all ages became man and dwelt among us, Emanuel. We remember that God became a human being in time, with a real human mother, and that from His conception in Mary’s womb he was a unified being with both a human and a divine nature. No, we are not talking about the genesis of God, who has no beginning and has no end. Some people will never understand that, and I can’t help them.
I agree with this statement.
 Russell Powell, 11 December 2011, “Cathedral Christmas screening on ABCTV, available at: http://sydneyanglicans.net/news/stories/cathedral-christmas-screening-on-abctv (Accessed 26 December 2011).
 Christian Forums, Christian Apologetics, ‘The birth of God’ (a thread I started at OzSpen), ebia #10, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7618703/ (Accessed 26 December 2011).
 Herman N. Ridderbos 1953. The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia (The New International Commentary on the New Testament). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., pp. 155-156.
 R. C. H. Lenski 1937, 1961. Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, and to the Philippians. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, p. 200.
 He was Richard, Christian Fellowship Forum, Contentious Brethren, “The Birth of God”, #7. My response, ozspen, is #12. available at: http://community.compuserve.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?tsn=2&nav=messages&webtag=ws-fellowship&tid=120946 (Accessed 27 December 2011).
Jesus was God from eternity. His humanity began when he was conceived in Mary’s womb. The God-man began at that conception, but Christmas being the birth of God contradicts the Nicene Creed.
As for Mary being the mother of God, I consider that is as erroneous as saying that Christmas celebrates the birth of God. Mary was the human mother of Jesus’ humanity. She was not the mother of divinity. She was the mother who enabled Jesus to become the God-man and NOT the mother of God.
Copyright (c) 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 13 October 2015.