"LOVE came down at
Christmas," we sing. To this, each of the three great creeds of the
Church bears witness. This is the story of God born of God,
and born of Mary, of the Son's journey from the Father to
the dereliction of the cross, while still remaining in the Father's
bosom. It also tells the story of cavemen, and the General
The earliest of the
three, the Apostles' Creed, is the simplest. It covers the
incarnation with the words "who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
[and] born of the Virgin Mary". In the next one, the "Nicene"
Creed, we find a fuller discussion.
Most lavish of all is the
longest and latest text, which we call the Athanasian Creed
(although its attribution to St Athanasius is certainly wrong).
Each creed has the
incarnation at its centre, set within the logic of a Trinitarian
faith. This is clearest in the Athanasian Creed, where the section
on the incarnation follows an extended and lyrical discussion of
the doctrine of the Trinity. Even the short Apostles' Creed follows
a Trinitarian structure: Father, Son, and Spirit.
If we wish to explore the
creeds from a Christmas perspective, we might consider the Greek
word ek, meaning "from". With this word, the Nicene Creed
spells out the divinity of Christ: he is begotten eternally "of
[literally 'from' - ek] the Father"; he is "God from
[ek] God, light from light, true God from true God."
The word ek is
taken up again in the section on the incarnation, pointing, subtly,
to the link between Christ's birth in time and his eternal coming
forth from the Father. Just as the Son is begotten "from" the
Father, God from God, he comes "down from [ek] heaven",
and is conceived "of [again, literally 'from' - ek] the
Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary".
THE "mission" or
"sending" of the Son in the incarnation rests on his "mission" (or
eternal sending forth) in the Trinity. The Son is sent into the
world because God is always, and already, concerned with "sending"
in the eternal sending of the Son from - ek - the
With the word
ek, the creeds establish the divinity of Christ. In the
earliest days of the Church, it had also been necessary to
emphasise his humanity. The early theologians took that position
against the Docetists - those who held that Christ only seemed (the
Greek is dokein) to be human.
By the time the Nicene
Creed was written, and expanded at the Council of Constantinople,
the divinity of Christ, not his humanity, was under attack. An
emphasis on the humanity remains in the creed, all the same. We
might not notice it at first, but we will find it once again in
that small Greek word ek.
When the liturgies of
Common Worship were in the last stages of preparation, the
General Synod faced few disputes fiercer than the debate over this
single word, at the centre of the Nicene Creed.
Worship, the Church of England decided to translate into
English the original Greek of the Nicene Creed rather than the
Latin (itself a translation) familiar to many from musical settings
of the mass: Credo in unum Deum, etc. This shift also gave
us a creed that begins with the "We believe" of the Greek rather
than the "I believe" of the Latin.
translations had followed the Latin, and recounted the incarnation
with the words "was incarnate by the Holy Spirit, of the Virgin
Mary" (the Latin words are de and ex). That,
however, makes a distinction not present in the Greek, which has
the Son incarnate both from the Holy Spirit and from the Virgin
Mary: ek . . . kai - from . . . and from.
Christ is as fully human
as he is fully divine. He is as much "from" Mary (as to his
humanity) as he is from the Father (adding the caveat, however,
that ultimately everything, including his human descent, comes by
the gift of God).
IN THE contemporary
Church, we pass over the Athanasian Creed. It is long and
complicated, and its beginning and end are tough, even harsh, on
heretics, who, we are told, "without doubt" will "perish
everlastingly". All the same, it deserves our attention, since
there are points of theology, especially concerning the
incarnation, that find no more perfect expression than they do in
One of them makes the
point just recounted, that Christ is from Mary, as well as being
from God. He is "God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten
before the worlds, and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in
When it comes to being
divine, Christ takes his "substance" (or nature, or being) from his
Father, in the eternal gift that we call his "begetting". When it
comes to being human, Christ takes his "substance" from his mother,
born in time.
Jesus really is one of
us, as human as any human being ever born of a woman. This opposes
the subtle heresy, still encountered today, that everything about
Christ - his humanity as well as his divinity - was introduced
directly into the world by God, Mary functioning (as this position
sometimes puts it) as no more than a viaduct.
The Athanasian Creed may
seem abstract, but the point it is making here could not be more
earthier, physical and human. With the incarnation, God takes on a
human family tree.
What we are is determined
by where we come from, especially when it comes to being born or
begotten. Our new favourite word - ek - explains where
Christ "comes from" in this sense: that he has natures both human
As much as we use the
word "from" to describe closeness and continuity we use the word to
describe distance and departure. If I have travelled from London,
then I am no longer in that city.
WE NATURALLY describe the
incarnation as a journey, with this sense of "from". The tradition
that Christ was born in the middle of Christmas night comes from a
passage in the book of Wisdom, describing a journey. Or, rather, it
describes a leap: "For while gentle silence enveloped all things,
and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all-powerful
word leapt from heaven."
There is a truth and a
falsehood in treating the word "from" - "came down from
[ek] heaven" - like this, as a journey. The Son comes to
be one among us, and one of us.
This, we might say, is
quite some departure. Yet, in another way, it is not: he comes to
be human, without ceasing to be what he was before. He comes from
heaven, while remaining in heaven.
"Heaven", here, does not
primarily mean a place, but Christ's relationship with the Father
and with his own perfect divinity. On this front, he departs
without leaving: "The heavenly Word proceeding forth, yet leaving
not the Father's side", wrote Thomas Aquinas in a hymn. "Remaining
in the bosom of the Father," Augustine preached, "he made pregnant
the womb of the Mother."
Our Christology is at its
most compelling when we hold to both the humanity and the divinity
in their fullness: to both departing and to remaining. Christ's
divinity makes his humanity all the more extraordinary and
significant. It is difficult to imagine why we should think that
the suffering of a Palestinian peasant in AD 33 urges us to defend
the poor at every turn, were this peasant not also Almighty
SIMILARLY, it is only in
Christ's humanity that we encounter God with the directness of one
who can be "seen with our eyes . . . looked at and touched with our
hands". What is revealed there shows God to be more extraordinary
than we could ever have imagined. The incarnation gives us a window
on to God as three and one: we see not only "God made visible", but
also this God living in the power of the Holy Spirit, and
addressing God as his Father. It is from here that Trinitarian
The Son of God was not
changed by the incarnation. As Augustine, again, put it, the
incarnation has him "remaining what He was in Himself, and
receiving from us and for us what He was not".
This is another point
where the Athanasian Creed gets to the heart of the matter, with
pithy directness. In Christ, we see a union "not by conversion of
the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the Manhood into God". The
incarnation was no "conversion" of God, which is to say that it was
no truncation of God.
On this, a great deal
rests. If the incarnation was a truncation of God, then Jesus is
not really Emmanuel, not really "God with us", but "God-reduced
with us", or "a sliver-of-God with us".
Only because the fullness
of God was incarnate in Christ ("in him the whole fullness of deity
dwells bodily," (Colossians 2.9) can we say with Karl Barth and his
followers (and, on this front, that means a great cloud of
witnesses in the 20th century), that God is as he is in
IN The Everlasting
Man, G. K. Chesterton takes great delight in the particular
destination of the Son's "journey": tradition has it that the
stable in which Christ was born was a cave. The Church of the
Nativity, in Bethlehem, was built in the early fourth century over
the cave that was held to be the site of the stable.
Archaeology confirms that
caves often served this purpose. "The human story began in a cave,"
Chesterton wrote, at least in as much as our imagination is
captured by the figure of the "caveman" drawing animals on the
walls. Caves with paintings, such as those in Lascaux in France,
stand at the beginning of human history.
At Christmas, we remember
that the "second half of human history", as Chesterton writes,
"also begins in a cave. Animals were again present; for it was a
cave used as a stable by the mountaineers of the uplands about
Bethlehem". And, whatever Pope Benedict XVI might write in his new
book, if there was a manger, there were probably also animals. At
the nativity, God, too, became a "caveman".
The Son "came down from
heaven", as the Nicene Creed puts it, not to be born on the surface
of the earth, but under the earth, in a cave: a cave that
Chesterton calls "a hole or corner into which the outcasts are
swept like rubbish", such that Jesus was "born like an outcast or
even an outlaw".
From the first moments of
his nativity, we see where the Son's journey is to take him: to a
cross between two bandits. After this birth in poverty, writes
Chesterton, who is always a "political" theologian, our sense of
our duties to the poor and outcast can never be the same again.
The word "from" presents
us with a journey, and, at Christmas, that journey-while-remaining
of the Son of God has only just begun. Ahead lie infancy and
childhood, adolescence and adulthood, death and resurrection; ahead
lie Egypt and Nazareth, Capernaum and Jerusalem, Hades and
The Church will follow
this story in the coming months, to Holy Week and beyond. Its
missionary challenge at Christmas is to encourage others to follow
the journey with us. Perhaps the very fact that we are concerned
with the infancy of Christ can be a spur, because with every birth
comes the fascination of a story begun. Again, Augustine makes this
point: "We have the infant Christ, let us grow with him."
The Apostles' Creed is
the creed of baptisms, and of the personal confession of the faith.
The Nicene Creed is the creed of the eucharist, and being one body
together. At Christmas - more than at any other time - the Church
can expand its "I believe" to a "we believe", which others can say
We do this in the hope
that, in time, they will be able to take this "we believe" and make
it an "I believe" of their own: an "I believe" that can grow into
the theological maturity of the "Creed of St Athanasius", that
poetic, profound and under-appreciated exploration of Christian
The Revd Dr Andrew
Davison is Tutor in Doctrine at Westcott House, Cambridge.