Incarnation, Inspiration, and Pneumatology: A Reformed Incarnational Analogy

Lane G. Tipton

Ordained Servant: June–July 2008

Preaching the Infallible Word

Also in this issue

God Still Speaks

The Voice from the Pulpit: John Calvin and Preaching

Iain M. Duguid, Numbers

The Divine Voice: A Review Article


Incarnation, inspiration, and pneumatology—how do these theological realities relate to one another? How should one be distinguished from the other? While each topic is clearly worth a study in and of itself, precisely how we relate these three theological realities is important as well. Indeed, at stake is a proper understanding of Scripture, not to mention the person of Christ.

I propose in this essay what I take to be a Chalcedonian incarnational model and draw some meaningful analogies to the nature of inspiration. My thesis is that the proper analogy to the incarnation with reference to inspiration and hermeneutics resides not first in anthropology but in pneumatology. The incarnational analogy ought to yield both a theology of Scripture and a hermeneutic that take into account the primary theological and hermeneutical significance of the Holy Spirit's agency, on the one hand, and the subordinate theological and hermeneutical significance of human agency, on the other hand. The primacy of the divine in pneumatology finds a clear analogue in the primacy of the eternal person of the Son of God.

Therefore, the proper and central theological category from which to draw an analogy to the event of the incarnation is pneumatology—the divine person and work of the Holy Spirit. And it is the centrality and primacy of the divine that must always and at every point frame the human, placing the human and historical in proper theological context. The eternal persons of the Godhead remain primary, whether we speak of the human nature assumed by the eternal Son of God in the incarnation or whether we speak of the human agents inspired by the eternal Spirit of God in inscripturation. The person of the Son and the word of the Spirit remain divine in both the acts of incarnation and inspiration/inscripturation, while relating truly and meaningfully to the human and historical.

The Incarnational Model: Its Analogical Application to Inspiration

Preparing the Way Forward: A Chalcedonian/Reformed Incarnational Model

Chalcedonian orthodoxy offers us much more about the incarnation than a statement regarding the full deity and true humanity of the Son of God. Chalcedon also provides a formulation that maintains both the proper distinction and the real relationship between the eternal person of the Logos and the assumed human nature.[1]

According to Chalcedon, and as later affirmed by the Westminster divines, in the incarnation the eternal Son of God assumed a human nature, without ceasing to be a divine person, "so that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. And this person is truly God, and truly man, yet one Christ" (WCF 8.2). Chalcedon affirms with admirable clarity and cogency both the dual natures and unipersonality of the God-man, avoiding the errors typically associated with Nestorianism, on the one hand, and Eutychianism, on the other hand.

But this formulation raises the question how we ought to relate the eternal person of the Logos to the assumed human nature. Understanding more precisely how the divine and human relate in the incarnation will allow us to develop a sufficiently nuanced incarnational model, from which we can begin to draw appropriate analogies to inspiration.

Moving in the proper direction Chalcedonian orthodoxy maintains that the Son of God is essentially and eternally divine, yet contingently and truly human. This is the baseline logic of the incarnation.[2] This affirmation is reflected in the Westminster Confession of Faith (8.2) where it states that "the eternal Son of God became man." The Son of God preexists that point in history in which he assumed a human nature. For this reason, the Son of God is essentially divine, yet contingently and truly human, by virtue of the hypostatic union.[3]

More specifically, the human nature of Christ has no personality in itself, but derives personality from its union with the eternal person of the Logos.[4] As such, there is no human personality of Christ per se. Nor is it possible to speak coherently about the human nature of Christ apart from its union to the eternal Logos—the Logos asarkos. To isolate the human nature of Christ as a thing in itself, or to focus on the human nature of Christ independently of its assumption into the person of the eternal Logos, is an abstraction.

Chalcedonian Christology, therefore, ought to constrain our Christological formulations in at least two ways. First, we must never construe the human nature of Christ to have any significance independent of the divine person of the Logos to which it is united in the hypostatic union. Second, we must always maintain that the eternal person of the Son of God remains the primary theological category. The divine and human in the God-man, therefore, are not equally ultimate, existing in some sort of parity with one another. The divine is primary; the human, while real, is subordinate.[5]

The Analogy: Christology and Pneumatology

How might we go about correlating this incarnational model with a theology of inspiration? I believe we do well to recognize this guiding principle: in the strict sense, the hypostatic union remains distinct from all other divine-human relations. While there may be analogies between incarnation and inspiration, there certainly can be no identity regarding the relationship between the divine and human in the incarnation of Christ, on the one hand, and the divine and human in the inspiration of Scripture, on the other hand. Any analogy we suggest will need to be clearly articulated, carefully qualified, and presented in a way that avoids ambiguity and misunderstanding. In other words, the incarnational analogy is something that needs careful—even painstaking—theological articulation and is therefore not to be introduced or applied in a popular or loose way. The issues are too complex and far too important for such a treatment.

B. B. Warfield is helpful along these lines. Regarding the limitations of an analogy between incarnation and inspiration, he observes that

it has been customary among a certain school of writers to speak of the Scriptures, because thus "inspired," as a Divine-human book, and to appeal to the analogy of our Lord's Divine-human personality to explain their peculiar qualities as such ... Between such diverse things there can exist only a remote analogy; and, in point of fact, the analogy in the present instance amounts to no more than that in both cases Divine and human factors are involved, though very differently.[6]

Commenting with greater precision, Warfield observes:

There is no hypostatic union between the Divine and the human in Scripture; we cannot parallel the "inscripturation" of the Holy Spirit and the incarnation of the Son of God. The Scriptures are merely the product of Divine and human forces working together to produce a product in the production of which human forces work under the initiation and prevalent direction of the Divine.[7]

Certainly Warfield is basically correct. The hypostatic union is ontologically unique, and the analogy between incarnation and inspiration is in a sense remote. But this raises the question: What does a Chalcedonian model of the incarnation actually yield in terms of an incarnational analogy for Scripture? What is the "remote analogy" between incarnation and inspiration? Can we state more precisely the sense(s) in which the analogy might prove useful?

I suggest that the incarnational model outlined earlier demands that we correlate as closely as possible Christology and pneumatology in the development of an incarnational analogy, recognizing the appropriate limitations in such a correlation.

Laying some groundwork for this observation, Vern Poythress has recently observed that, strictly speaking, there is no human author of the Decalogue. The oral form of delivery is simply the divine voice, whereas the written form of delivery is the finger of God. And this model becomes paradigmatic for divine communication to and through prophets. Hence, the formula of the prophet, "Thus says the Lord."[8] Divine authorship is therefore paradigmatic and central for understanding Old Testament prophetic literature.

The well-known locus classicus for the doctrine of inspiration, 2 Timothy 3:16, offers a conception of Scripture that is thoroughly and unapologetically pneumatic, focusing on the Spirit's agency in the divine authorship of Scripture. Scripture is the "expiration" (or out-breathing) of the eternal Spirit of God, the third person of the ontological Trinity. And this pneumatic qualification supplies the most basic category for our understanding of the nature of Scripture. What we understand Scripture, as a whole, to be follows from Scripture's own self-witness to its pneumatic origin; it is God-breathed, the product of the Holy Spirit.

It is at this point that the incarnational analogy seems warranted and useful. Just as Christ's person remains divine in the act of incarnation, so also the Spirit's Word remains divine in the act of inspiration. Just as assuming a human nature in the incarnation in no way compromises the divinity of the incarnate Word, so also using human intermediaries in the act of inspiration in no way compromises the divinity of the inspired Word. Jesus Christ remains truly divine, even though he assumes a human nature in the incarnation. The Spirit's Word remains truly divine, even though he employs subordinate human authors in the act of inspiration.

Notice the extremely close correlation of Christology and pneumatology that grows out of a Chalcedonian incarnational analogy. Just as the primary theological category for classifying the incarnate Word is the divinity of the Son in his person, work, and words, so also the primary theological category for classifying the inscripturated Word is the divinity of the Spirit in his person, work, and words. The eternal Son assumes a human nature; the eternal Spirit inspires human authors of Scripture. This is one area where the incarnational analogy appears both warranted and useful.

Therefore, the primary locus for our discussion of both incarnation and inspiration is the divinity of the person and word of the Son and Spirit, respectively. The primacy of the divine with respect to inspiration does not deny human authorship of Scripture any more than it denies the assumed humanity of Christ. But it does deny that divinity and humanity are equally basic, or share some sort of ontological parity, when it comes to either incarnation or inspiration. The divine is always primary in matters pertaining to incarnation and inspiration, since the divinity of the Son and the Spirit supply the presuppositions for the possibility of incarnation and inspiration.

And this critical fact of the inspiration of the Scriptures must provide the presuppositional point of departure for understanding the analogy between the incarnate and inscripturated Word in relation to mere human persons and texts. For example, if we investigate the phenomena of Scripture in relation to ancient Near-Eastern literature, we must begin with the categorical uniqueness of Scripture as the divine Word of God. Likewise, if we investigate the phenomena of Jesus in relation to his Jewish context, we must begin with the categorical uniqueness of Jesus' divine person. We must never temporarily suspend the full truth of biblical revelation as the Word of God in order to investigate historical matters in some neutral manner (i.e., in the sense of being blind to that revealed truth). On the contrary, we must affirm from the outset the non-negotiable ontological distinction between the Word of God (incarnate and inspired), on the one hand, and all other human beings and human documents, on the other hand.

These assertions are not some species of Docetism, which would imply a denial of the humanity of Christ or human authorship of Scripture. We must never lose sight of the human nature the Son of God assumed in the act of incarnation nor the human agents the Spirit used in the acts of inspiration. But we must always recognize that the human aspect of both the incarnation of the Son and the inspiration of the human author is nonetheless subordinate to the divine in theological importance and hermeneutical significance.

In fact, certain theologians within the Dutch Reformed tradition have argued in precisely this way. A Chalcedonian and Reformed incarnational analogy has accented the essentially divine, yet contingently and truly human, character of both the incarnate Word and the inspired Word. Abraham Kuyper is representative on this point. He says:

In Christ and the Holy Scripture we have to do with related mysteries. In the case of Christ there is a union between divine and human factors. The same is true of Scripture; here, too, there is a primary author and a secondary author. To maintain properly the relationship between these two factors is the great work of dogmatics ... Everything depends here on the right insight that the Word has become flesh in Christ and is stereotyped in Scripture.[9]

Richard B. Gaffin Jr. pinpoints Kuyper's concern nicely when he observes:

The basic thrust ... is plain: Scripture, like Christ, is both truly human and truly divine. Yet in the case of Scripture, as for Christ, these two factors are not equally ultimate; the priority and originating initiative belong to the divine, not the human. Specifically, the Word, in his antecedent identity as the Word, became flesh; and God is the primary author of the Bible, in distinction from the secondary human authors. This specifies the "related mysteries" of of Christ and the Bible.[10]

In short, then, a Chalcedonian/Reformed incarnational analogy turns on the fact that both in Christ and in Scripture, the divine and human are not equally ultimate. Rather, the priority and originating initiative belongs to the divine, not the human. And this entails God's primary authorship of Scripture, with human authorship being an important, yet subordinate, consideration.

Toward An Incarnational Analogy: Three Implications

What implications can we draw from the line of reasoning pursued up to this point? Let me briefly outline three areas where I believe we need to be particularly careful as we develop a Reformed incarnational analogy.

First, I believe we need to correlate as closely as possible the Spirit's word in relation to historical context(s), on the one hand, and the person of the Son in relation to the assumed human nature, on the other hand. Just as the assumed human nature of Christ is related to the unconditioned, yet all conditioning, divine person of the Logos, so an analogy emerges in the case of divine inspiration. The human author, and the culture in which he operates, are related to the unconditioned, yet all conditioning, divine Person of the Spirit. Both the divine Word that becomes incarnate and the divine Word that becomes inscripturated provide the eternally unconditioned, yet all conditioning, context in terms of which we frame the human and the historical. This means that just as the human in the incarnation is not ultimate, so also the historical in inspiration is not ultimate. Both the human and the historical are subsumed under the primary divine categories of Christology (the divine person and work of the Logos) and pneumatology (the divine person and work of the Spirit).

Therefore, my suggestion is simply that the way Christ's assumed human nature relates to his eternal person as the Son of God provides a paradigm for understanding the way human agents and historical context relate to the eternal person of the Spirit. In this sense, pneumatology is a powerful antidote to historicism and skepticism. The divine person and work of the Spirit supplies the ultimate context framing all hermeneutical considerations; the historical is not ultimate.

Second, we must recognize the primary hermeneutical significance of the dual authorship of Scripture—the divine primary, the human subordinate. Pneumatology, not anthropology, provides the most basic interpretive category for our understanding of a host of hermeneutical issues, including the New Testament use of the Old Testament, particularly when viewed in light of the analogy to the incarnation.

To clarify this point, the Spirit freely uses unique men in diverse historical circumstances as secondary human authors, but these men and places remain subordinate to the divine meaning and intention of the Spirit as the primary author of Scripture. This is true, even though access to divine intention involves discerning, as best we are able by the Spirit's illumining agency, human intention and meaning.[11]

Third, perhaps it is worth raising the question regarding the adequacy of a merely incarnational model. Incarnation is simply one aspect of the humiliation of the Son of God, and the humiliation of the Son of God cannot be artificially isolated from his resurrection and exaltation. An incarnational model must, perhaps ironically, include more than the incarnation alone; it must include the full complex of what is involved in Jesus' humiliation, as well as its outcome in resurrection and glorification. Because of this, our pneumatology must include a hermeneutic of the cross and resurrection to account for the Spirit's agency in regeneration and illumination (as well as the Spirit's agency in giving general illumination by common grace for understanding any fact whatsoever). Biblical hermeneutics, then, to the extent that it is truly incarnational, must press on in developing a much fuller pneumatological approach to hermeneutics—one that is God-centered to the core and safeguards at every point a rebellious assertion of human autonomy.

Summary and Conclusion

I have sketched what I believe to be the proper analogue to the incarnation with reference to inspiration, which is found in the divine person and work/word of the Holy Spirit. The way forward in both biblical and systematic theology is a recovery of the theological and hermeneutical function of divine authorship. What Reformed theology needs at this juncture of its development is more, not less, attention given to the reality and theological-hermeneutical implications of divine authorship. The way out of the maze of postmodern historicism and relativism lies in a full-blown development of pneumatology in both the production and interpretation of Holy Scripture, the very Word of God written.


[1] Chalcedon refers to the orthodox doctrinal formulations emerging from the fourth ecumenical council of the Christian church, held at Chalcedon in 451.

[2] Cf. Scott Oliphint, "Something Much Too Plain to Say: A Systematic Theological Apologetic," in Resurrection and Eschatology: Theology in Service of the Church: Essays in Honor of Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. eds., Lane G. Tipton and Jeffrey C. Waddington (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 2008), 361-382.

[3] The Westminster Shorter Catechism, answer 21, sums up the hypostatic union as follows: "The only Redeemer of God's elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God became man, and so was, and continueth to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever."

[4] This statement encapsulates the dominant Reformed view of anhypostatic (literally "no person") Christology. Louis Berkhof writes, "The Logos furnishes the basis for the personality of Christ. It would not be correct, however, to say that the person of the Mediator is divine only. The incarnation constituted him a complex person, constituted of two natures ... The human nature has its personal existence in the person of the Logos. It is in-personal rather than impersonal ... His human nature is not lacking in any of the essential qualities belonging to that nature, and also has individuality, that is personal subsistence, in the person of the Son of God ... the Logos assumed a human nature that was not personalized, that did not exist by itself" (Systematic Theology [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986], 322, emphasis added). In addition, Francis Turretin makes precisely the same point when he observes, "By this union ... the human nature (which was destitute of proper personality and was without subsistence [anypostatos] because otherwise it would have been a person) was assumed into the person of the Logos ... (the Logos may be said to have communicated his own subsistence to the flesh by assuming it into the unity of his own hypostasis so that the flesh is not a hypostasis, but real [enypostatos]; not existing separately, but sustained in the Logos [as an instrument and adjunct personality joined to it] in order to accomplish the work of redemption)" (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. II [Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 1994], 311, 317, emphasis added). Herman Bavinck summarizes anhypostatic Christology within the Reformed tradition with characteristic penetration: "This, now, is how Christ's human nature is united with the person of the Son. The Son does not just become a person in and through human nature, for he was that from eternity. He needed neither the creation nor the incarnation to arrive at himself, to become a personality, a spirit, or a mind. The incarnation does mean, however, that the human nature that was formed in and from Mary did not for an instant exist by and for itself, but from the very first moment of conception was united with and incorporated in the person of the Son. The Son increated it in himself and, by creating, assumed it in himself. Yet that human nature is not for that reason incomplete, as Nestorius and nowadays still Dorner assert. For though it did not complete itself with a personality and selfhood of its own, it was nevertheless from the start personal in the Logos" (Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006], 306-307, emphasis added). John Murray observes: " ... the consciousness of his intradivine Sonship is in the foreground as defining the person that he is. And the inference would seem to be that our Lord's self-identity and self-consciousness can never be thought of in terms of human nature alone. Personality cannot be predicated of him except as it draws within its scope his specifically divine identity. There are two centres of consciousness but not of self-consciousness" ("The Person of Christ" in Collected Writings of John Murray [Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, 1977], II:138, emphasis added). John Owen makes virtually identical observations when he says, "We deny that the human nature of Christ had any such subsistence of its own as to give it a proper personality, being from the time of its conception assumed into the subsistence with the Son of God" (The Works of John Owen, vol. 12 [Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, 1979], 210, emphasis added). In addition, Owen makes a critical and nuanced distinction between the assumption of the human nature and hypostatic union proper (cf. Works, I:225-226 [my thanks to Carl Trueman for these references from Owen]). The quotations above, spanning the 17th to the 20th century, represent the historic Reformed doctrine of anhypostatic Christology. Revisionists, who are impacted by actualistic ontology and deny the Logos asarkos and extra Calvinisticum (e.g., Bruce McCormack, "Grace and Being: The Role of Gracious Election in Karl Barth's Theological Ontology" in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000], 97-102), may assert that the quotations above do not express the historic Reformed view on the matter. Such a position, however, would prove indefensible if primary sources were properly understood.

[5] As G. C. Berkouwer asserts, expressing agreement with Herman Bavinck, "The human nature, though without any deficiency, is thus subordinate to the Logos" ("The Impersonal Human Nature" in The Person of Christ [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973], 311).

[6]B. B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R), 162.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Vern Sheridan Poythress, "The Presence of God Qualifying Our Notions of Grammatical-Historical Interpretation," a paper presented at the November 2005 annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, 5.

[9] Richard B. Gaffin Jr., God's Word in Servant Form: Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck on the Doctrine of Scripture (Jackson, MS: Reformed Academic Press, 2008), 22.

[10] Ibid.

[11] For an extended and insightful discussion of this point consult Vern Sheridan Poythress's article, "Divine Meaning of Scripture" in The Right Meaning from the Wrong Texts: Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New, ed. G. K. Beale (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994), 82-113.

Lane G. Tipton is associate professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant, June-July 2008.

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Ordained Servant: June–July 2008

Preaching the Infallible Word

Also in this issue

God Still Speaks

The Voice from the Pulpit: John Calvin and Preaching

Iain M. Duguid, Numbers

The Divine Voice: A Review Article

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