As a Christian holy day, Christmas is about one great Christian doctrine: the Incarnation. The first thing to say about this is that the word means what it says. “Incarnation” is a Latinate word that means, literally, “enfleshment”—the act of being made flesh. And the doctrine of the Incarnation—the idea that Jesus was God come bodily into the world—is a central belief of Christianity.
And because of its relevance to the Holiday, we might call this the “Doctrine of Christmas.”
I have had many debates about Christian beliefs like this over the years, and I always have to remind myself when some atheist or agnostic questions the truth of Christian beliefs like this that at least he appreciates the magnitude of the claim. As modern Christian people raised on the idea of the Incarnation, we tend to take it for granted and have trouble imagining how stunning this belief might appear to someone who has never heard it before.
The doctrine is not only an issue between Christians and non-Christians, but, in the early Church, was an issue among Christians themselves. It wasn’t decided upon without a great deal of discussion and disagreement. It is probably the greatest theological controversy of the Church, one that was a primary issue in four ecumenical councils (Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon). It was in these councils that the doctrine of the Incarnation and the nature of Christ was set forth in words. When those of us in liturgical traditions recite the Nicene Creed today, we should think about all the effort that went into its formulation at these councils.
Perhaps the greatest heresy of the Church, the Arian heresy, involved a dispute over this doctrine. Arius, an Alexandrian priest, denied that Jesus was God in human flesh, but thought Him to be a subordinate, created being. Arian belief was, at some points in the early Church, the majority belief, and it was only at the Council of Nicea that Arianism was finally rejected.
The battle over this doctrine in the early Church was heartfelt and sometimes violent. Today we look back on these episodes and turn up our noses because they conflict with our sense of brotherly love, but we should try to appreciate the fact that at least the early Christians appreciated the importance of ideas, something we today probably appreciate too little.
The early Christians debated the idea on the basis of whether it accurately reflected the beliefs of the original apostles, as given to them in the writings of what we now know as the New Testament.
The Incarnation was a hard belief also for the Jews, given their belief in a completely transcendent God. It was hard, too, for the Greeks, who were heirs to the Platonic tradition, which tended to see heaven as a place of perfection (it was the abode of Plato’s forms or perfect ideas) and Earth as a place of corruption and imperfection. For God to come to Earth in the flesh was a very unheavenly thing to do. On the Incarnation by Athanasius puts it this way:
[L]et us follow up the faith of our religion, and set forth also what relates to the Word’s becoming Man, and to His divine Appearing among us, which Jews traduce and Greeks laugh to scorn.
Later in the Church, and in more recent centuries, the belief of the Incarnation has been attacked by liberal theologians and religious skeptics. Probably the most historically common assault on the doctrine of the Incarnation comes in the form of the philosophical argument against miracles in general. The most famous statement of that argument comes from the eighteenth-century British philosopher David Hume. Hume leveled two arguments against miracles. The first was that miracles are, by definition, violations of the laws of nature, and the laws of nature cannot be violated. Hume said:
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.
In other words, miracles cannot happen by definition. Of course, this argument ignores the fact that no one (nor everyone put together) has witnessed every event that ever took place and so could not possibly know whether the laws of nature have never been violated.
Hume’s second argument is that miracles have not, in fact, ever happened. He argued that, because of the inherent weakness of human testimony, we could never justify believing witnesses who claim to have seen a miracle over believing in the laws of nature.
Hume’s first argument fails because it doesn’t prove anything just to assert that there are no violations of the laws of nature and there are no miracles because they violate the laws of nature. The second argument fails because it simply dismisses the testimony of witnesses for no good reason.
There have been many refutations of Hume’s argument. The first was that of Bishop Whately, which targeted Hume’s first, philosophical argument. Whately wrote a satirical book called Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte in which he applied Hume’s arguments against miracles to the existence of Napoleon Bonaparte and concluded that, on the basis of these arguments, Napoleon Bonaparte could not exist—despite the fact that Napoleon was still living in exile on the Island of St. Helena at the time he wrote the book. Clearly an argument with such absurd implications cannot be sound.
The other great refutation of Hume’s argument against miracles came from Harvard law professor Simon Greenleaf, who wrote the classic text on the use of evidence that was utilized for over a hundred years in American law schools. Greenleaf targeted Hume’s second, historical argument. In his book The Testimony of the Evangelists, Greenleaf argued that if we applied all the criteria that we use in the rules of witness testimony in American courts of law, we would have to accept the testimony of the Gospel writers and therefore accept the claims they made about Jesus.
But it awaited G. K. Chesterton to produce perhaps the greatest refutation of Hume, laying waste in one short paragraph to both Hume’s historical and philosophical arguments:
The historic case against miracles is also rather simple. It consists of calling miracles impossible, then saying that no one but a fool believes impossibilities: then declaring that there is no wise evidence on behalf of the miraculous. The whole trick is done by means of leaning alternately on the philosophical and historical objection. If we say miracles are theoretically possible, they say, “Yes, but there is no evidence for them.” When we take all the records of the human race and say, “Here is your evidence,” they say, “But these people were superstitious, they believed in impossible things.”
The tendency of Christian belief is to outlive its critics. While intellectual fashions come and go, orthodox Christian belief, as it was clarified by the early Church councils, has remained the same for almost 2,000 years. The doctrine of the Incarnation—and that of the Virgin Birth—are as relevant and believable today as they have always been. It is the critics in whom it is hard to believe.