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.


Thursday Review: A Year of Living Like Jesus

A review of Ed Dobson, A Year of living Like Jesus, Zondervan, 2009
purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US

A few years ago British comedian Tony Hawks hitch-hiked around Ireland with a small fridge in response to a bet. The book he wrote of his adventure, Round Ireland with a Fridge [purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US], became a best-seller.

When I first picked up A Year of Living Like Jesus I took against it. The heavily bearded cover picture didn’t help. What a gimmicky idea, I thought. But then I wondered if I had positioned it in wrong category. Maybe I shouldn’t view this as a serious book on discipleship, but a Christian equivalent of Round Ireland with a Fridge. A quirky, semi-humorous book that also raised important issues for an audience that would never read The Ordinary Hero. purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US

So I gave it to my administrator Cari to read. Here’s her review …

How to summarise and review this book? I have found this book exciting to read and to use the cliché, ‘hard to put down’. Ed Dobson is a very engaging writer who seems to self consciously interweave an eye for the humorous in the mundane with a theological sobriety. Heralding from a deeply conservative Christian background (he is the pastor emeritus of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids and his family were recent immigrants from Ireland where they were part of the Plymouth Brethren group), I sense that Dobson enjoyed the adventure of pushing the boundaries of where a biblical faith could take him. In the course of the year, his journey takes him to the ‘expected places’, for example he significantly increases his commitment to prayer and scripture, he fasts, he seeks to honour the Shabbat and he draws alongside Jews to experience their festivals and rites. His journey also takes him to bars, to rosary beads, to wearing tassels on his clothes (‘one of the major problems in wearing the T-shirt with the tassels occurs when you go to the bathroom … there’s nothing like having wet tassels in your pants!’ 56) and to a kosher diet.

Dobson was inspired to begin this journey by a book he read called ‘The Year of Living Biblically’. This is a book authored by a nonreligious Jew who spent a year seeking to strictly adhere to the Biblical (Old Testament) commands. Dobson is saddened that although he may have started a journey towards God in this year, he certainly didn’t seem to ‘find’ God. He reflects that ‘as I read the book, I was deeply convicted by the fact that someone had taken the Bible seriously enough to attempt to live it out.’ After reading this book, he says that he wondered ‘what if I were to take the teachings of Jesus seriously?’ (12)

The concept of the book (and the front cover, with a picture of Dobson in his full beard) is clearly gimmicky. Dobson delves into risky waters by commenting on the American presidential election and by flirting with certain Catholic and Orthodox ideas. I am sure that much of the selling power of this book will have come from this gimmicky and controversial façade. However, I personally (and surprisingly!) found this book a stimulant to seeking to follow Jesus with a more open mind and a greater zeal.

Let me (Tim) add a closing comment. Much of the time it feels more like an attempt to live like a first century Jew than to live like Jesus. There’s remarkably little reflection on the ethical teaching of Jesus which is surely what you expect to be central to an attempt to live like him. So, for example, rather than living a cross-shaped life, Dobson describes how he feels wearing a wooden cross around his neck – something Jesus didn’t do! So I wouldn’t read it as a serious book on discipleship. But you might give it to an unbelieving friend and see what conversations it provokes.

Bookmark and Share

The political character of the church

The Desire of the Nations - Amazon UK

Here’s the next instalment in my series summarising and assessing Oliver Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (CUP, 1996). Click here for other entries in the series

Chapter Five: The Church

O’Donovan next turns to the political character of the church. He begins by arguing that this is not to be equated with structural order. Catholicity is prior to order so we should not equate ministerial order with political identity. So ‘informal Christian phenomena are found all around the margins of the structured church, and to deplore the untidiness of these is simply to betray an ignorance of what that rock is upon which the church is founded.’ (170)

Instead, the Spirit unites us to the authority of Christ so that we recapitulate the Christ-event. So the political identity of the church corresponds to the moment of the Christ events (171):

moments of Christ-event political character of church
advent gathering community
passion suffering community
restoration glad community
exaltation speaking community

Our order is a sacramental order. The sacraments ‘knit together’ the church (quoting Augustine and Cranmer) – making the church a visible society. (173) So to each moment of the Christ-event and the corresponding character it gives to the church, O’Donovan identifies a sacramental action:

moments of Christ-event political character of church sacramental action
advent gathering community baptism
passion suffering community Lord’s Supper
restoration glad community keeping the Lord’s day
exaltation speaking community the laying on of hands

1. Gathering community

The church is a missionary church. It is not ‘gathered’ as that implies the coming of the kingdom is complete. Gathering also presupposes a clear core which is the apostolic confession of Christ. Baptism is the sign that makes the gathering community. Each new believer sets aside existing collective identities to be replaced with a new collective identity.

2. Suffering community

We suffer pressure, trials and martyrdom. Our suffering (like Christ’s) is vicarious: it is for others. We suffer to hold our the suffering of Christ to the world. The Eucharist is the sign that makes the suffering community.

3. Glad community

Gladness is a moral attitude, a disposition appropriate to the goodness of creation, now recovered and renewed in the resurrection. This creates a moral life. Though O’Donovan does use the language of social responsibility, in effect this is what the glad community is doing.

When we care for our neighbour’s welfare, it is because we are delighted by our neighbour: by the sheer facticity of this other human that God has made; by the fact that God has given, and vindicated, a determination of our neighbour to health, rationality and relationship. When we make artefacts and machines to exploit the forces of nature, it is because we delight in nature, both in its raw givenness and in its possibilities for co-operation, and we are glad that God has restored it to fulfil his purposes for it. At the heart of making and doing there lies discernment of what the world is and is meant for. Activity is responsive; otherwise it becomes tyrannous and destructive. (183)

Keeping the Lord’s day is the sign that makes the glad community: celebrating the completeness of creation and its recreation through the resurrection of Christ.

4. Speaking community

This involves speaking the words of God to the world and speaking the word of God to God in prophecy and prayer, exercising the authority of the kingdom in speech. ‘Prophecy is the archetypal charism, the paradigm of all the others.’ (188) The laying of the hands is the sign that makes the speaking community = the formal prayer for the gifts of Christ to be manifest in the service and discipleship of particular members. (Later used in confirmation, ordination and the anointing of the sick.)

John Owen on Christ’s Humbling Himself

More extracts from John Owen on The Glory of Christ.

Chapter Four: The Glory of Christ’s Humbling Himself

We may behold the glory of Christ in his infinite willingness to humble himself to take this office of mediator on himself, and uniting our nature to his for that purpose. He did not become mediator by chance. Nor was it imposed on him against his will. He did not have to become mediator. He freely chose to become mediator. He willingly humbled himself in order that he might make a righteous peace between God the Judge and man the sinner. (39)

Christ is a sanctuary, a sure refuge to all that put their trust in him. and what would a troubled man fleeing to a safe place be looking for? He would look for all his needs to be met, to be delivered from all his fears, to be protected from all dangers.  Such is the Lord Christ to all sin-distressed souls.
     Christ is a refuge to us in all our spiritual sorrows and troubles (Heb. 6:18). Are you burdened with a sense of sin? Are you weighed down under the oppression of any spiritual enemy? Do we, as a result of any of these things, ‘walk in darkness and have no light’? One look at the glory of Christ will strengthen and comfort us. (47-48)

Continue reading

Why I don’t believe in incarnational mission

I’ve always had a nagging suspicion of ‘incarnational mission’ – the use of the incarnation as a for mission. Yesterday I was leading a Northern Training Institute seminar day and our discussions helped clarify my unease.

The Problems with Incarnational Ministry

1. We can’t do it

Incarnation is the act of divinity becoming human. We can (and I think should) live among the people we are trying to reach just as Jesus came and dwelt among us. But incarnation is a precise theological term that means refers to a divine being taking on humanity. I can’t do that!

2. We’re not commended to do it

Much of what is commended in the name of incarnational ministry is good. Much of it is commended in the New Testament. But it is not commended in the New Testament with reference to the incarnation. We are sent in to the world as Jesus is sent in the world (John 17, 20). But we are not told to imitate the incarnation. (Perhaps because we can’t!?)

3. It doesn’t help

Incarnation offers no guidelines for involvement ministry.

The Dangers of Incarnational Ministry

If much of what is commended in the name of incarnational ministry is good then why worry?

Continue reading