December 16, 2011

The Controversy of Christmas

by Nathan Busenitz

Mention “Christmas” and “controversy” together in the same sentence, and most evangelicals will assume you’re talking about Santa Claus, Christmas trees, or the secularization of the winter holiday season.

But, from a historical perspective, a much more significant controversy surrounded Christmas for the first five centuries of church history; and its effects still linger in some circles today. It centered on the very essence of Jesus’ birth  – the doctrine of His incarnation.

There is, of course, an element of mystery in the incarnation. After all, how can one person be both fully God and fully man at the same time? Yet, that is precisely the miraculous truth that the Scriptures affirm regarding the Person of Jesus Christ.

Nonetheless, despite the clarity of biblical revelation, the doctrine of Christ’s incarnation came under attack from the very beginning.

The Ebionites, a legalistic first- and second-century cult, denied the Virgin Birth and the very idea of the incarnation. They accepted the fact that Jesus was a man, but utterly rejected the notion that He was God in human flesh.

In the second and third centuries, the Gnostics likewise denied the incarnation. Not only did they teach that Christ was one of many gods, they also rejected the idea that His humanity was real. In Gnostic teaching, Christ’s humanity was merely an illusion. Thus, the incarnation did not really occur; it was only a mirage.

In the fourth century, the Arians affirmed the humanity of Christ, but denied His full deity. In particular, they denied Christ’s equality with the Father.  Thus, while His manhood was upheld, His place as the Second Member of the Trinity was rejected.

It was the Arian controversy that led to the Council of Nicea where, in  A.D. 325, leaders from all over the Christian world gathered and overwhelmingly affirmed the fact that a biblical understanding of who Jesus is necessarily includes both His full humanity and His full deity.

The Nicene Creed, in essence then, was a defense of the biblical understanding of Christmas.

 As a side note, you might be interested to know that the Council of Nicaea occurred during the lifetime of a pastor from Asia Minor whose name was Nicholas of Myra. It’s quite possible that Nicholas was even present at the Council, supporting the biblical understanding of Christ’s deity and humanity. This fourth-century pastor would later be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint, and he became known as “Saint Nicholas.” Dutch sailors, among whom ‘Saint Nicholas’ was a favorite, referred to him as Sinterclaus; and from that name, we derive the English word “Santa Claus.”

 So, for what it’s worth, Santa Claus was a real person. His name was Nicholas. He was Greek, not Norwegian. He ministered in modern-day Turkey, not the North Pole. He did not keep reindeer; nor did he own a sleigh. There has been a lot of bad tradition, both religious and secular, that has arisen around Nicholas. But history tells us that he was a fourth-century pastor who worshiped Jesus Christ. Like other Christians of his day, he celebrated Christ’s birth. And when he did he marveled at the glories of the incarnation. (For the record, Nicholas would be appalled if he knew what American culture has done to his legacy.)

About a hundred years after Nicholas’s death, another council met at Chalcedon and again affirmed the fact that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man.

To the Ebionites, Gnostics, and Arians, we could add other Christological heresies–like Apollonarianism, Nestorianism, and Eutychianism–all of which fell short of a biblical understanding of Christ’s incarnation.

But where controversies abound in church history, the Scriptures are very clear.

The Apostle John opened his gospel with these words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). Those verses summarize the dual truths of Christ’s incarnation: The Word is God. The Word became man.

The rest of the New Testament affirms that same two-fold reality. Jesus Christ is “Immanuel” – God with us.

That, then, is the mystery and miracle of Christmas: that God became man so that men might be reconciled to God. Heretics have long tried to deny that truth, which is why the doctrine of Christ’s incarnation has been at the center of so much controversy. Yet, a right understanding of that doctrine is absolutely essential  – not only to the meaning of Christmas, but to the very heart of the gospel.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.