Questioning the incarnation as a model for mission

One of my blog posts that garnered the most ever comments was one questioning whether the incarnation is a right model for mission as expressed in the oft repeated phrase, ‘incarnational mission’. So I was interested to see two people independently questioning it along similar lines:

Eckhard J. Schnabel in his major work, Early Christian Mission Pt 2: Paul and the Early Church, says:

“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) (HT: Tony  Reinke)

Andraes Kostenberger argues along similar lines in an interview for The Gospel Coalition:

The term that I think captures the nature of our mission according to John’s gospel is “representational.” That is, we are to re-present the message of redemption and eternal life in Jesus on the basis of the finished cross-work and resurrection of Christ. Clearly, John’s Gospel presents Jesus’ incarnation as utterly unique (read the introduction, 1:1–18!), so it is hard to conceive of John teaching an “incarnational model” in which the disciples share in Jesus’ incarnation in some way … The major implication from this kind of “representational” model, then, is that we are to focus on the gospel message, not the messengers, and pass that message on faithfully and accurately in our mission to the world.

My argument is not with what people generally want to affirm through the phrase ‘incarnational mission’, but that this is the wrong theological category to use.


5 thoughts on “Questioning the incarnation as a model for mission

  1. I remember being there for the NTI seminar day at Tim’s house where we thrashed this one out a bit and Graham Beynon suggested that “Servant” would be a better category for what Paul is getting at in 1 Corinthians 9. If I remember rightly, a servant of the gospel and a servant of others. That might work well?

    Also, to add to the current list (contextualization, inculturation, representational, servanthood…) I wondered whether a better word would be “identification” which can be linked to the idea of incarnation (part of the incarnation is that Jesus identifies with us – Hebrews 2.17) without using the word incarnation (which should be reserved for the one-off event when Word became a man and made his dwelling among us).

    God calls us, as his ambassadors, to identify with our culture and the people we are trying to reach. To understand them, to connect with them etc.

    I am now going to read all 32 comments that Tim’s post provoked… fun


  2. I agree with Tim’s basic position here. ‘Incarnational mission’ is an inappropriate category to describe something that is often genuinely ‘Gospelly’ intentional. Paul

  3. You may well be right Tim but surely we all know what John Stott(see below) and others means by incarnational mission. Personally, although we can not literally become a Jew or Greek or slave or whatever in the same way God became man, I find the idea of ‘incarnational mission’ an inspiring picture especially when taken with Paul’s ‘becoming all things to all men’.

    ‘The Son of God did not stay in the safe immunity of his
    heaven, remote from human sin and tragedy. He actually
    entered our world. He emptied himself of his glory and
    humbled himself to serve. He took our nature, lived our
    life, endured our temptations, experienced our sorrows,
    felt our hurts, bore our sins and died our death. He
    penetrated deeply into our humanness. He never stayed
    aloof from the people he might have been expected to avoid.
    He made friends with the dropouts of society. He even
    touched untouchables. He could not have become more one
    with us than he did. It was the total identification of
    love …

    Yet when Christ identified with us, he did not surrender
    or in any way alter his own identity. For in becoming one
    of us, he yet remained himself. He became human, but
    without ceasing to be God.

    Now he sends us into the world, as the Father sent him
    into the world. In other words, our mission is to be
    modelled on his. Indeed, all authentic mission is
    incarnational mission. It demands identification without
    loss of identity. It means entering other people’s worlds,
    as he entered ours, though without compromising our
    Christian convictions, values or standards.’

    –From “The Contemporary Christian” (Leicester and Downers
    Grove: IVP, 1992), p. 357.

  4. I think Guder shares a helpful perspective from “The Incarnation and the Church’s Witness” when he writes:

    “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.”


    “The case for an incarnational approach to missional witness is based, on the one hand, on the character of the biblical record; that is, the way in which the church’s missionary vocation is shaped by the earthly ministry of Jesus. The emphasis upon the necessary congruence of witness is rooted in God’s way of revealing himself supremely and finally in the incarnation of Jesus. The comprehensiveness of the biblical understanding of witness calls for an incarnational interpretation.

    On the other hand, this approach helps us deal with some serious problems in our particular Western context. We see in both our mission history and our current evangelistic practices so much that is contrary to the incarnational character of the gospel. We see a gospel of peace proclaimed in divisive, judgmental ways. We see a Gospel of love conveyed manipulatively, insensitively, condescendingly. We see a gospel of healing obscured by distortions that hurt people and evoke resentment.

    Thus we arrive at the concept of incarnational witness as one way of expounding the character of our missionary vocation. In the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God revealed himself as the One who is with and for his creation.

    Now, as the Risen Lord sends his Spirit to empower the church, we are called to become God’s people present in the world, with and for the world, like St. John pointing always to Christ. The most incarnational dimension of our witness is defined by the cross itself, as we experience with Jesus that bearing his cross transforms our suffering into witness.

    Incarnational witness is, therefore, a way of describing Christian vocation in terms of Jesus Christ as the messenger, the message, and the model for all who follow after him. To speak of the incarnation missionally is to link who Jesus was, what Jesus did, and how he did it, in one great event that defines all that it means to be Christian.”

  5. Jesus’ comment in John 20:21 comes to mind. What does the ‘as’ mean in that statement ‘as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you’? I’m not sure I’ve ever come across anyone explaining it in terms of verse 22 – does this have a bearing on this exchange? Something to do with conferred authority as the message of forgiveness is passed on? I’ll now go and read your original post Tim.

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