Chapter Fifteen: The Incarnation in Light of the Christological Councils

Does the Incarnation of Yahweh Really Make Jesus Pictureable?
The unpictureable Yahweh assumed a pictureable body. Two conflicting conclusions (diametrically opposite to each other) are drawn from His incarnation.

1. He can be pictured, say those who look at His body.

2. He cannot be pictured, say those who look at His Divinity.

But both conclusions cannot be applied to Christ at the same time.
How can this dilemma be resolved’? Some try to resolve the problem by separating His manhood from His divinity: they try to picture His manhood, not His Deity. Pictures only show Jesus as a man, they say. This division of His manhood from His Deity raises problems of its own. It seems to make Him into two persons. Or it implies that His humanity can be divided from His divinity. Is this schism possible and legitimate?

The Incarnation of Yahweh in human flesh adds human nature to the eternal Yahweh, the Son. Doesn’t His human incarnation legitimize pictures to represent Yahweh incarnate?

Assumptions Required for Pictures to Represent Christ

Persons who use pictures to represent Christ usually rationalize it from the fact of His humanity, although others do so from a variety of theological and Christological persuasions. Here are some of the rationales:

1. Some people actually think God can be pictured. Most of them probably are not aware that the Bible rejects this concept of God as being false and illegitimate. Yet even some who think of themselves as Biblical Christians think God’s image and man’s physical image are the same kind of physical image. Or they may add a halo to depict His Divinity, since they recognize the painting of a man cannot do it. This gets them back to the faith that God can be pictured, only they think painting a sun is the proper form for revealing Yahweh.

But those who use pictures to represent Christ usually do so on the basis of His manhood. They start with His humanity, not His unpictureable Divinity. Various interpretations of this supposedly pictureable humanity may be found.

2. Some people think Jesus Christ was only a man. For instance, pagans have no argument with picturing Christ as a man. And liberals have no argument with it either.

But when we come to those who count themselves as conservative Christians, who believe that the Incarnation somehow permits them (or requires them) to use pictures to represent Christ, we find several possible interpretations of the Incarnation.

3. Some people think they can separate Christ’s humanity from His Divinity, and thus legitimately picture His humanity. “We’re only painting Him as a man!” they say.

4. Some people think His Divinity was changed into humanity. “God became a man” is their basic premise. Do they really intend to say that God changed Himself into a man and is no longer God?

Theology of the Councils

The first general councils of the church dealt with Christological issues, the same Christological issues that we face in our decisions as to whether or not Christ is pictureable. The council findings help the church to understand the nature of the Incarnation, thereby we know whether or not Christ is pictureable.

Christological Questions and Answers at the First Four General Councils
325 AD Council of Nicea
Question: Is Christ divine, is He really God?
(Answer: Yes, Christ is truly God.)

381 AD Council of Constantinople
Question: Is Christ truly human?
(Answer: Yes, Christ is truly human.)

431 AD Council of Ephesus
Question: Is Christ one or two persons?
(Answer: Christ is only one person.)

451 AD Council of Chalcedon
Question: Does Christ have one nature or two?
(Answer: Christ has two natures: He is fully God, and He is fully man. The two natures cannot be separated, and they cannot be confused.)
The first four general councils helped the church to understand the nature of the Incarnation.

Each of the first four general councils confronted a question about the nature of the Incarnation. The church, step by step, progressively answered the different theological questions about the nature of Yahweh’s incarnation.

Each question demanded to be answered when disagreements threatened the peace and unity of the church. Somebody would bring the problem to a head by promoting and popularizing an obvious error, then the correct Biblical answer had to be formulated and called to the attention of the church. The councils met to provide these answers.

Council of Nicea (AD 325): Christ has a divine nature

Arius taught that Christ was only a man, a created man, not divine. Multitudes followed Arius. The entire Christian church seemed headed in that direction at one time.

Athanasius opposed Arian teaching. Eventually the council at Nicea met to resolve the conflict. This first Nicean council faced “the most challenging heresy in the history of the church,” says historian Will Durant. (Caesar and Christ, Vol. III, p. 658.)

Athanasius forced Arius to admit that if Christ is not God, it means that Christ could change like any other creature can change. Athanasius insisted that Christ is of the same being (homo-ousion) as the Father, the unchangeable One.

The council deliberated. The wording of their decision is quite familiar, and is summarized for us in the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father. (Percival, p. 3).
So this first general council identified Christ as being the Son of God and of the same being or substance (homo-ousion) as God. Christ is God.

Council of Constantinople (381 A.D.): Christ has a human nature

If Christ is really God, then the next question pertains to His manhood: Is Christ really a man?

The question had to be answered because of the popular teaching of Apollinaris, a man trained in Platonistic psychology. Apollinaris taught that the Logos (the Word) took upon Himself a real human body and real human soul, but no human spirit. Apollinarianism left Christ being less than completely and truly human.

The Constantinople Council rejected Apollinarianism. The council said that the full humanity of Christ, not only His divinity, must be held by those who would hold the Biblical faith.

So the first two councils found that Christ is God and that Christ is man. That raised another question: Is Christ one or two persons?

Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.): Christ is one person

The crisis came when Nestorius (patriarch of Constantinople) opposed calling Mary the “mother of God.”

Cyril (patriarch of Alexandria) managed to get a council convened to hear the matter.
The Ephesus Council rejected Nestorianism. Although Christ is both a divine person and a human person, it is incorrect to say that He is two persons.

It remained for the next great general council to state the relationship between the two natures of Christ.

Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.): Two natures abide in the one person of Christ

The findings of Chalcedon are of critical importance for the question of whether or not the Incarnation changed or deleted God’s nature so that now Christ can be pictured.

Chalcedon faced the question of whether Christ in the Incarnation retains the original divine and human natures separately, or are they transformed and changed by their union in the one person of Christ?

Eutyches of Constantinople brought the question to a head; he taught that Christ was of two natures before the union (the Incarnation), but after the union, one nature.

Pope Leo opposed Eutyches by publishing a letter (called the “Tome”). Leo declared that in Christ are two full and complete natures. These two natures came together in the one person, without detracting from the properties of either nature or being.

The large council that met at Chalcedon agreed with Leo.

The Chalcedonian Creed goes into helpful detail. It describes the divine nature of Christ with such statements as:
“He is God from the essence of the Father, begotten before time;
... completely God.
... equal to the Father as regards divinity, ...”
The Creed describes the human nature of Christ as:
“and he is human from the essence of his mother,
born in time ...
completely human ...
with a rational soul and human flesh;
... less than the Father as regards humanity.”
The Creed states that Christ has two natures, but is one person.
“Although he is God and human, yet Christ is not two, but one.
“He is one,
... by the unity of his person.”
Unchanged two natures: Christ’s humanity and divinity cannot be confused with each other: the human nature forever remains human and the divine nature forever remains divine:
“He is one, however,
not by his divinity being turned into flesh, but by God’s taking humanity to himself. He is one,
certainly not by the blending of his essence, ...”
Inseparable two natures: Christ’s two natures cannot be separated from each other any more than a person’s mind and body can be separated (and that person still remain a true human being):
“For just as one human is both rational soul and flesh,
so too the one Christ is both God and human. (Psalter Hymnal, 816)
Reading the Chalcedonian Creed, one is struck by the symmetrical development: the creed balances phrase against phrase to maintain and reveal the two natures, the divine and the human, yet to show how perfectly and how permanently the two natures are united and maintained in the one person of Christ.

Comparison of Pictures-to-Represent-Christ-”Christology” Versus Councils’ Christology

Whenever the church uses pictures to represent Christ it is opposing or distorting one of the Christological answers found by one or more of the first four general councils.

1. Nicea found that Christ is God.

But pictures to represent Christ communicate a different message. Pictures cannot portray God, so the message of the pictures is either that Christ is not God, or that Christ is a different god than the unpictureable Yahweh God of the Bible.

2. Constantinople found that Christ is man (but also agreed with Nicea that He is also God).

Pictures to represent Christ may agree that He is human, but pictures limit “Christ” to be nothing more than human. Pictures say He is a man, but not God.

3. Ephesus found that Christ is both human and divine, but is only one person—not two persons.

Pictures to represent Christ show only that He is one person with only a human nature. Or else they can be interpreted to say that God can be pictured, thus changing God.

4. Chalcedon found that the two natures (human and divine) forever dwell indivisibly in the one person of Christ. Chalcedon analyzed and brings into focus both the human and the divine natures of the one person of Christ. Each of these issues is of the greatest importance for the picture to represent problem. Following is an item by item comparison of Chalcedon christology versus pictures-to-represent-Christ christology.
1. Christ is God.
This is the God who cannot be pictured.

2. Christ is man.
If this were all that Christ is, then he could be pictured, because man can be pictured.

3. Christ is one person.
If we picture Him we are picturing the total person: God, man, or whatever the union of the natures makes him to be.

4. The two natures (human and divine) forever abide in Christ.
Any picture that is a true picture to represent Christ must be true to both of his natures:

(A). The two natures cannot be divided or separated from each other.
So a picture of only His humanity is impossible. A picture of his human form must necessarily be also a picture of His divine form—which is impossible, because God has no such form.

(B). The two natures cannot be confused or changed into each other or into anything else.
So a picture of His human form implies that His divine nature has been converted into human nature—and this is impossible, because God’s nature is never changed into something else, not even in the Incarnation.

The first four Ecumenical Councils, in their Christological statements, are consistent with the Biblical concept of Christ as being the incarnation of God the Son. They interpret the Incarnation in such a way that both His human and His divine natures are seen to exist forever in the one person of Christ.

These council findings contradict the necessary assumptions that would justify pictures to represent Christ.


The Christology of the first four general councils, in the light of the Law’s revelation of the unpictureable nature of Yahweh God, shows that any picture to represent Christ is impossible because Christ is the same divine person that the Bible reveals to be unpictureable.

Any attempt at picturing Christ contradicts the creeds and the Bible:
1. If the picture is intended to picture Christ as God: that is impossible.

2. If the picture is intended to picture Christ as man: that is impossible, because Christ’s humanity cannot be separated from His unpictureable divinity.

3. If the picture is intended to picture Christ as the union of God and man: that is impossible because of the unpictureability of God.
Any picture to represent Christ is, at best, only a picture of half a Christ—it unavoidably excludes His divine nature that must be present for Him to be the Christ.

Bibliographic References & Notes

“Athanasian Creed,” Psalter Hymnal (Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1988), pp. 815-816.

Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ, Vol. III of The Story of Civilization (N. Y.: Simon & Schuster, 1944), p. 658.

Leith, John H. (Professor of Historical Theology, Union Theological Seminary in Virginia). Creeds of the Churches (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co., 1963).

Percival, Henry R., ed., The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, Vol. XIV of A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, eds; Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), p. 3.

Walker, Williston. A History of the Christian Church. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950). See the study of Council of Chalcedon on pp. 151-152.