Monday, November 01, 2010

Mission, Incarnation, and John 20:21

My friend Mark recently commented on the use of John 20:21 in the missional church conversation. John 20:21 is one of the texts that is almost universally appealed to by missional advocates of “incarnational ministry.”

Dave Doran, last week at the MACP, commented on the problems with “incarnation” as a model for ministry.

Here are some helpful thoughts from Eckhard J. Schnabel, in Early Christian Mission, Volume 2: Paul and the Early Church.

“I submit that the use of the term ‘incarnational’ is not very helpful to describe the task of authentic Christian missionary work. The event of the coming of Jesus into the world is unique, unrepeatable and incomparable, making it preferable to use other terminology to express the attitudes and behavior that Paul describes in 1 Cor 9:19-23. The Johannine missionary commission in Jn 20:21 does not demand an ‘incarnation’ of Jesus’ disciples but rather their obedience, unconditional commitment and robust activity in the service of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is precisely John who describes the mission of Jesus as unique: Jesus is the ‘only’ Son (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:14, 18), he is preexistent (Jn 1:1, 14), his relationship to the Father is unparalleled (Jn 1:14, 18). For John, it is not the manner of Jesus’ coming into the world, the Word becoming flesh, the incarnation, that is a ‘model’ for believers; rather, it is the nature of Jesus’ relationship to the Father who sent him into the world, which is one of obedience to and dependence upon the Father. … The terms ‘contextualization’ or ‘inculturation’ certainly are more helpful” (pp. 1574-1575).*

Again, I would emphasize that one of my concerns is not whether or not we (as Christians or the church) should do something. The concern here is the theological basis for why we should do something if we do something.

Schnabel (as Doran) argues that the incarnation is not the basis for it. When Jesus incarnated, it was not a mode of ministry. It was becoming human. Since we are already human, we are already incarnated, and therefore everything we do is “incarnational.” In fact, I would submit that “incarnational” is the only way that ministry can take place, inasmuch as “out of body experiences” are better left to science fiction and the afterlife. 

So whatever we do, it is not because we are following the pattern of the incarnation of Jesus.

A second question is this: Should we harp on this word incarnational? Is there really that much mileage to be gained by objecting to its use?

My answer is, yes, kind of. I think it is actually pretty significant because Jesus’ mission is pretty unique, though I suppose “pretty unique” is like being “a little bit pregnant.” Neither pregnancy nor uniqueness admits to degrees. They are binary states: You either are or you are not.

“Incarnational” is just a bad word for it because it confuses what Jesus actually did with what we are to do. The Bible never uses the idea of incarnation for Christian living that I know of. It assumes that we are incarnate and it teaches us to go live like Christians while we are incarnate.

So what is the benefit of the word “incarnation”? At the risk of sounding harsh, I think it is possibly piety, meaning that it simply sounds betters because it connects us directly with Jesus. We can “love like Jesus did,” while not actually doing doing what Jesus did. It sounds so much better.

But I just don’t see the point of it. It confuses people about what incarnation really is, does not materially advance the cause, it is not something the NT expresses, and we have better ways to say it.

*I have forgotten which blog I got this quote from. My apologies for a lack of attribution to someone who reads more than I do.


Scott Buchanan said...

I have not read many of the primary sources in the missional movement; however, most what I have read seems to align closely with Phil. 2:5-8. It seems to me to provide a strong theological support for a missional understanding of John 10:21. In Phillippians, Paul explicitly directs us to emulate the mind of Christ in His incarnation ("did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men"). Quite interestingly, it is on that basis that Paul then proceeds to tell the Philippians to "work out your own salvation," living in such a way that they will "shine as lights in the world." This seems to imply pretty strongly that the incarnation should be a model for Christian living.

brad brisco said...

If you would like to study this topic further, I would HIGHLY recommend Darrell Guder’s “The Incarnation and the Church’s Witness.” Guder writes these helpful words:

“By incarnational mission I mean the understanding and practice of Christian witness that is rooted in and shaped by the life, ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The critical question that motivates this study is this: Can and should the unique event of the incarnation of Jesus that constitutes and defines the message and mission of the church have concrete significance for the way in which the church communicates that message and carries out the mission?

Understanding mission incarnationally . . . could prove to be a remarkably integrative way to approach the church’s missionary vocation. It could counter the typically Western reduction of mission to one of the many programs of the church. It could recast that mission as the definitive calling of the church. It could seek to read the biblical record in its own terms and to address serious problems in Western mission that have surfaced in this century.

Thus, the language of incarnational mission could be both constructive with regard to the biblical and theological understanding of message, and polemical with regard to the context and history of mission, especially in the Western tradition."


"Just as any theological concept is susceptible to distortion, there are ways of misconstruing the linkage of Christian mission with the incarnation. It is possible to dilute the uniqueness and centrality of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ when his incarnation becomes a model for Christian behavior. A primary ethical or moralistic interpretation of the life of Jesus, such as was characteristic of nineteenth-century liberal theology, often downplays or dilutes the event-character of the gospel.

But it is that event character, the historical ‘happenedness’ of Jesus’ life, that both enables and defines Christian witness. As we seek to explore the missional significance of the incarnation, we need to resist every temptation to dilute the centrality of the incarnation event. The risk represented by the concept of incarnational mission is worth taking, I think, especially as we are challenged to develop a viable mission theology for the Western world, which by common consent is now a very challenging mission field.”