The Gospels obviously tell the life story of a human being. Jesus was born. He lived in subjection to his parents, grew up, learned a trade, made friends and enemies, walked the dusty roads of Judea, climbed mountains, and sailed the Sea of Galilee. He wept at the grave of Lazarus, passionately rebuked Pharisees, and lamented over Jerusalem. When Jesus got hungry, he ate; thirsty, he drank; tired, he slept; cut, he bled; crucified, he died.
The question that rocked the early Church was whether the Gospels record the human life of God. Arius said no. Whoever it was who was born, hungered, wept, suffered, and died, it couldn’t be the Creator. God was too dignified to go through a birth canal or to shriek in agony from a Roman cross. Jesus must be a creature, albeit a creature so great that he deserves the honorific title “Son of God.”
On the premises of ancient theology, Arius’s conclusion was reasonable, but by the end of the fourth century, the Church had rejected it. Still, discomfort with the Gospel story remained even among those who confessed the creed. It reappeared in the early-fifth-century controversy that broke out when Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, objected to calling Mary the “bearer of God” (theotokos).
Scholars debate whether Nestorius held the views attributed to him. Whatever Nestorius’s own beliefs, Nestorianism poses the old Arian questions at a new level. For Nestorians, Mary cannot be theotokos because God isn’t the kind of being who can be borne or born. Nestorians confess that Jesus is true God and true man, but they read the Gospels as the record of a double life. Jesus’s humanity was born of Mary, grew, and became hungry and tired and thirsty; but none of that happened or could happen to his divine nature, which has no beginning or need, cannot grow up, and cannot be acted upon. On the other hand, when the Gospels record Godlike actions such as healing the sick or driving away demons or being transfigured on the mountain, they are speaking of Jesus’s divinity.
That sounds reasonable, too, but the Church again drew the unreasonable conclusion that God was conceived and born of Mary. Arians and Nestorians kept God at a respectable distance from the all-too-human Jesus, but the Church closed the gap by insisting that, from beginning to end, the Gospels present the life of a single hero, Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. Arians and Nestorians thought they could understand divine nature without the Gospel, and then they tried to retrofit the Gospel into what they already knew. The orthodox did the opposite: They discerned that the Gospel reveals the only God who is, strange and disreputable as he may appear. If that meant revising all they thought they knew about God, so be it.
Apart from sects outside the mainstream of Christianity—Jehovah’s Witnesses being the most prominent—Arianism is no longer a viable option. Nestorianism has had more staying power. Many instinctively read the Gospels in a soft-Nestorian fashion, shifting from Jesus the man to Jesus the Son of God as seems appropriate. That “Nestorian shuffle” is a hard habit to break.
But it needs to be broken, since the good news depends on letting the Gospels re-teach us about God, the God who was “made like his brethren in all things” (Heb. 2:17). To become a sympathetic, saving priest, God the Son was born as an infant, learned to turn over and crawl; he learned to walk on human feet and to speak the language of his parents; he went through puberty, and no doubt his legs and arms were gangly for a time. God came near, entered into our weakness and misery, so that he could know and redeem human life from the inside. That is the good news of God, because it proclaims the God of the good news.
Unless we become little children, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, Jesus said. The incarnation provides the deep rationale behind that command: We have not become like the God who is King in his kingdom until we mimic the God who humbled himself. And we don’t know the God who is until we know the God who became a baby.