The Limits of Incarnational Models Part 3: The Need for a Whole Gospel Approach

Here is final guest post from Dr Jonny Woodrow suggesting the need for a robust trinitarian theology to supplement an incarnational model of cultural engagement. This argument draws on reflections on Colin Gunton’s The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US. The first two posts in this series are here and here. Jonny  is a tutor with the Northern Training Institute and a church planter with The Crowded House.

I have benefited from the incarnational approach. I love the emphasis on contextualisation and cross-cultural mission. We practice this in our context with teams devoted to being part of the communities they seek to reach. It helps to bring culture to the fore in our strategising. But the more we seek to mobilise people for this kind of mission or try to pastor people through the inevitable personal and social battles this incarnational lifestyle forces to the surface, the more I find the concept of incarnation as a principle powerless to help. This is because it fails to address the real problem with humanity.

The Fall brought about relational brokenness between mankind, God and creation through man’s attempt to put a non-Trinitarian being (i.e. self) at the centre of the universe and crush difference. Post-Fall Adam wanted the death penalty to fall on Eve, removing the different one from the Garden, blaming God for creating her. The construction of the tower of Babel around the exaltation of man threatened to exchange God’s plan to fill the world with fruitful people for a monocultural existence. The key problem the gospel must over-come is not transcendence but every attempt mankind makes to define himself and the world by something other than relationship with the Trinitarian God. An incarnational approach does not address this problem. It simply wants to bring God down to earth. Having read Gunton, a truly relational approach to creation and redemption means we need the whole gospel to mobilise us and remake us as truly human and not just incarnational.

The incarnational approach has helped us to critique the mission of the church where we stay in our own cosy subculture. But it simply operates at the level of example. The Son of God became one of us so we become one of ‘them’. At this point we strategise our way into culture. Examples, devoid of life changing truth and grace in the end become sticks to beat people with. The incarnational approach alone fails to help people to missionally live out their identity in Christ.

Someone committed to incarnational theology might reply at this point that the incarnation enabled us to become truly human since God became man. Or they might say that the church is the body of Christ, therefore incarnation is a principle that directs our mission. But I want to suggest that this is category confusion. It is not the incarnation that makes us the body of Christ or that makes us truly human. Incarnation is the miracle of God taking on human flesh. What makes us truly human is putting on Christ and being remade in his image through baptism into his death and resurrection. Putting on Christ, being found in him at the right hand of the Father, and being remade in his image are not summarised by incarnation. Incarnation is not the correct term for this. Regeneration is the correct term.

Genesis 1 and 2 show that being in the image of God means being a community in fruitful, cultural engagement with creation. This, as we have seen, leads to a relational and Trinitarian view of being which the gospel affirms and enables. Therefore the basis for mobilising a culturally engaged church that takes particularity, diversity and creativity seriously is the call to become image bearers. This means we need to be reconciled to God through the whole Jesus story as he takes up humanity, kills us, resurrects us and brings us into the presence of the Father to receive the gift of the Spirit.  We don’t become image bearers through our own incarnational efforts. This is category confusion.  We become image bearers by being remade through death and resurrection into the image of God (e.g. Colossians 3:9).

Pastorally, I find it much more empowering to encourage Christians to live missionally by calling them to the death and resurrection of Jesus for them and to live in light of their new identity in Christ. It is helpful for a student entering the home of an alcoholic where many drug addicted and dangerous people hang out, to know that Jesus entered these kinds of places as well. But what really enables him to do it is the knowledge that he has died with Christ and now his life is hidden with the ascended Christ. Now his life is not found in the comfort and safety of socially acceptable company, he has died to these idols and he has been given new life in Christ.

It seems to me that relationship with the incarnate, resurrected and ascended Christ for our renewal in his image is the correct and most fruitful basis for missional contextualised theology. This relational approach reflects the mobilising categories of Scripture: in him, reconciled to God, adopted etc. It requires all moments of the gospel story to shape practice.

Without the incarnation there would be no true human to take humanity into the presence of God. Without the death of the true human, creation and humanity could not be brought through death to be renewed. Without the resurrection a new humanity would not be possible. Without the ascension renewed humanity would not be represented in the presence of God. We were made to live in the world in the presence of the Father. That was the Genesis 1 and 2 foundation for cultural engagement and now, through the Son, the new humanity again lives in the presence of the Father through Jesus’ ascension. If the ascension had not happened, the Spirit would not have been sent to begin the work of recalibrating the creation around the throne of Jesus. In other words, creation and culture are affirmed and renewed by every moment of the gospel story which brings us back into relationship with the Father, each other and creation.

We need the whole gospel to mobilise us for mission and to inform our missional practice. I want to suggest that to truly engage with culture, the missional church needs to become increasingly relational rather than incarnational. This will mean that the missional church needs to recover a robust Trinitarian and Biblical theology. For some, much of what they have packed into the incarnational category can be kept but it needs to be recategorized if we are to be able to let the biblical categories inform practice. We need to live in the whole Jesus story and not just one aspect of it if we truly want to engage culture for Christ and avoid worldly engagement with a Christian veneer.
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One thought on “The Limits of Incarnational Models Part 3: The Need for a Whole Gospel Approach

  1. Thank you Jonny. This is wonderful stuff! This lands some of the hesitations I’ve had while reading those focused on incarnational theology.

    Can you flesh out your definition of “relational” a bit more? You said “the missional church needs to become increasingly relational”. I can see a response of “our church is all about community”, but I know that’s not what you mean. Thank you very much!

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