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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

A Commentary
on the
Shorter Catechism

Alexander Whyte

Q. 22. How did Christ, being the Son of God, become man? A. Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to himself a true body, and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.

Christ, the Son of God, became man— “It was not that, being man, He afterwards became God; but, being God, He afterwards became man” (Athanasius). “While it may be true to say ‘Man is God,’ as well as to say ‘God is man,’ it is not true to say ‘Man became God,’ as it is to say ‘God became man’ ” (Newman).

by taking to himself—The phrase is a scriptural one : “He took part of flesh and blood,” “He took on Him the seed of Abraham” (Hebrews 2:14, 16). But when the Son of God took our nature He did not circumscribe or enclose it with a human personality like ours, he took a true body and a reasonable soul as instruments He might make use of in His manifold work as Mediator between God and man. Our manhood is like a new attribute added to the Godhead of the Second Person; it is a new avenue of access and egress to the Divine Mind and Heart of the Son of God. Since He took our nature, His capacity for feeling and affection has been enlarged, and His ability to act for us has been increased. And hence our nature endowed, ennobled, and glorified in Him above all conception of ours is after all but a means to an end. For nothing of knowledge or experience or sympathy that enters into or is awakened within our Lord’s Human Nature remains stored up there, it all passes on to become motive to move the Divine Will, and awake tha Divine Arm. And hence also the everlasting love that was in the Godhead comes out now on the world in the form of the manhood love of Jesus Christ He who loved us and loves us is the Eternal and Unchangeable God, but since the Incarnation He loves us with a love that has all those and all their kindred attributes in it, with this new attribute added, that it is now human, made human by rising up within and running toward us through the human heart of the Incarnate Son. All the indescribable attributes of Divine Love, and all the lovely and familiar, tender and yearning attributes of human love are now mingled together to make that new manner of love, the love that passeth knowledge, the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

a true body – This phrase is the abiding protest of the Church against an ancient and deadly heresy. Docetism (Greek, to seem, to put on the appearance) taught that our Lord took to Him only the appearance of a body. The Docetics were led to take up this position through a ruling opinion they held, that all matter was essentially and irredeemably impure. And accordingly they believed and taught that our Lord’s body was not and could not be real and true flesh and blood, like the bodies of sinful men. This great error was already showing its presence in the Church as early as the days of the Apostle John. For it is against this false doctrine that be directs such passages as these : “We have seen with our eyes, we have looked upon, and our hands have handled the Word of life.” And again: “Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is not of God. And an early Father combating the same error says: “If the Incarnation is a phantom, so is salvation.” And hence the phrase coined for the early creeds, and thence incorporated with our own Catechism — Christ took “a true body.” “That body which it hath pleased Him to make His own, that body wherewith He hath saved the world, that body which hath been, and is the root of eternal life, the instrument wherewith Deity worketh, the sacrifice which taketh away sin, the price which hath ransomed our souls from death. The leader of the whole army of bodies that shall rise again, His body is a body consubstantial with our bodies” (Hooker).

a reasonable soul — Possessing reason, rational. This clause of the Creed was originally directed against the Apollinarian heresy, a heresy “held loosely by Arius, but afterwards shaped into consistency by Apollinaris.” No one who has not studied early Church history can have any conception of the struggles the Church had to carry on with all manner of false doctrine concerning the Person of Christ. The Apollinarian heretics admitted, as against the Docetics, that our Lord had a “a true body,” but they contended that the Divine Nature stood Him instead of a soul. They failed to carry out scripturally and symmetrically the whole doctrine of the Incarnation. They could not accept that Christ had a finite intelligence, and human affections, and a human will. They accepted, without demur, the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation as far as Christ’s body went, but they could not accept it in the region of the mind. It was to correct this defective teaching on a fundamental article of her Christological Creed that the early Church inserted the clause, “a reasonable soul,” — a clause that Scripture enabled, and indeed compelled her to insert. For every page of the gospel narrative testifies to the reality of our Lord’s humanity in His soul as well as in His body. At one time He rejoiced, and at another time He was in sorrow, and joy and sorrow are affections of a reasonable soul. He had a human will distinct from His Divine Will, for he said, “Not my will, but Thine be done.” He spoke of what He felt when He said, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.” And teaching us how to die, he said, “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”

by the power of the Holy Ghost — “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee.” These words of the announcing angel point to a forthputting of divine power which had never been exercised before, and has never been repeated since. For Jesus Christ was born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of the will and operation of the Holy Ghost “The same Holy Ghost who at the first creation moved on the face of the waters, when darkness was on the deep, and out of the chaos produced light, and order, and harmony, and beauty, did at the commencement of the new creation, out of the corrupted substance of the Virgin, form a human body, as perfectly separated from all corruption by the divine workmanship as the symmetry, and light, and beauty of the material world were separated from the darkness, confusion, and shapelessness of the desolate abyss. And at the moment when this body was conceived by the divine operation of the Holy Ghost, the power of the Highest united to it a soul, formed also in perfect purity and holiness. And at the same moment too were both body and soul united to the Godhead in the Person of the Son, by a personal union, never to be dissolved” (Marcus Dods in Christian Instructor, 1830). The student will be rewarded who consults the able and elaborate paper referred to. He will also find it an interesting and instructive study to compare Psalm 40:6 with Hebrews 10:5, consulting the best commentaries on both passages.

the Virgin Mary — The Romish Church has much more to tell her people about Mary than the Scriptures have to tell their readers. But the Popish doctrines concerning the immaculate conception, perpetual virginity, and assumption of Mary, are wholly unscriptural and legendary. There is not an atom of authentic history about her till we come to the narrative in the opening of the Gospels. We know nothing of Mary till Gabriel discovers her to us. And important and interesting as her history subsequently would be, it is yet told us in the most incidental way. Though it is to be avoided and blamed, yet it is not to be wondered at that Mary has been too much made of in some parts of the Christian Church. Other women have partaken of Christ, have been grafted into Him, and have received of His spiritual fulness; but Mary, while enjoying this grace with a multitude of her fellows, had this transcendent honour, that her Lord and Saviour took His human life of her, was bone of her bone, and flesh of her flesh, and was to her a child and a Son.

“Hers was ths face that unto Christ had most resemblance.”
The unhappy way of glorifying Mary, which has issued in such a portentous development of arbitrary dogma as we now see in the Romish creed, took its rise in an orthodox interest and with a right intention. The Greek Fathers, “delighting in the happy compositions of their language,” called her Theotocos, the mother of Him who is God. This epithet was sanctioned by several of the greatest and most orthodox of the early Councils, and it was first used as a “criterion of a true belief in the Incarnation.” This name was not at all intended to add to her honour; it was rather used as another way of vindicating the true divinity of Him who was her Son. And when scripturally and intelligibly used, the epithet is unchallengeable. But as the event showed, the addition of this Christological designation to the scriptural titles of Mary was speedily productive of great error and superstition. The undoubted fact is, that this orthodox definition of the early Councils was a distinct, though unintentional, step toward the deification of the Virgin Mary.

The sum of Scripture teaching about Mary is this: She was blessed among women in being chosen to be the mother of our Lord. And as His mother her name is to be held in love and reverence by all who believe on and worship her Son. Remembering her service to Him, all generations may well call her blessed.

born of her — “O much wished-for birth, without which we ourselves might well wish we had never been born! But do thou thyself, reader, see that thou makest sure of the benefit of that nativity !“ (Bengal).

yet without sin. “A eulogium peculiar to Jesus” (Bengal). “He had a mother, and His mother conceived Him; but she did not conceive Him in sin, because it was not by the way of ordinary generation (Matthew 1:20). He came not under (and it was well for us He did not) the law of ordinary generation ; hence He escaped being defiled with original sin” (Goodwin).

To see the full force of this, it must be recollected that till Jesus was born all the children born of woman had been born in sin. To be a man hitherto was to be a sinner. Till his advent there was none righteous, no, not one. But He was not only not sinful, but He was “not capable of sinning.” (See Marcus Dods on Edward Irving, Christian Instructor, 1830.)

1. This then is “the Redeemer of God’s elect” We do not yet know from our Catechism what this wonderful Person is to do. We are simply told up to this point who and what He is. He is God and He is man. Man, with a true body and a reasonable soul; and as such born without sin. Knowing as we do that He was the eternal Son of God, equal with the Father in power and glory, and that He took a body and soul prepared for Him by the Holy Ghost, we might well expect something surpassingly great to come of a union of Godhead with manhood. Had we not already known, we must have waited with the deepest wonder to see to what this would grow. Let us follow it out with understanding, faith, and love.

2. Let us learn from this also that man is not necessarily and always a sinner. To be a man and to be a sinner are not necessarily and always one and the same thing. There has been one child born, yet without sin. There was once a man on the earth who did not need to confess, “I was shapen in iniquity.” Sin did not reign in the body of Jesus Christ. His garments were never spotted with the flesh. He was sanctified from His mother’s womb, and He kept Himself, and the evil one touched Him not.

3. The life of Christ the God-man is, or may be, our life. As Adam was the bitter fountain of original sin, as all infirmity, impurity, languor, and mortality of the body, and all unbelief, ignorance, malice, hatred, falsehood, and selfishness in the soul has its rise in Adam and in his sin, so all our graces, faith, love, peace, holiness, hope,—all have their wellspring in Jesus Christ. He is the Vine, we are the branches. He is the Head, we are the members. He is the Son, we are the children. Great is the mystery of godliness; God manifest in the flesh; and then in the flesh made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.


1. Derive and explain Docetism, Apollinarianisrn, and Impeccability. Point out whence the clause, yet without sin, asserting impeccability of our Lord, is derived, and give kindred scriptures.

2. What is the dogma of the Immaculate Conception? What do you know of its history and publication?

3. Point out the leading passages in John’s Epistles directed against Docetism.

4. Show how the Johannine doctrine of Antichrist bears upon the doctrine of the Catechism.

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