The Incarnation: Some Clarifications on an Abused Term – Post#1

Warning: Academic theological discussion ahead. Read at own risk 🙂


The word “Incarnation” means “take on flesh.” The word itself is not used in the NT but rather is a doctrine of the church that describes for us that God has become human in Christ and the implications of that for our lives as Christians. The task of this doctrine has always been to not only describe how Jesus is both God and human (the metaphysics) but also to explore the implications of this reality for salvation, the church and the consummation of all history. The incarnation is one of the most central doctrines in all of church history.

Recently the doctrine of the incarnation has been the subject of some blog fire. Over here in this post we have John Starke of the Gospel Coalition upset with the way some “missional practicioners” (like Alan Hirsch) use the doctrine to describe the ways and means of contextualizing the gospel. Over here in this post, Halden Doerge complains about the way I use the doctrine to defend the idea of “inhabiting place”, what he perceives to be, a territorial practice of church. Of course, I find myself in agreement with much of what these folk say- including and especially Alan Hirsch. Yet, in each case I believe that both the NT and the history of the church demand we push the doctrine further than any of these three individuals are willing to do. In short, Jon Starke, Halden Doerge and even Alan Hirsch are not radical enough. From where I sit, they do not take the incarnation seriously enough to carry out the full implications of it into our life, salvation and cultural engagement.

Admittedly, this is a bold statement, so allow me explain by trying to diagram their positions in terms of 2 positions: Position 1. Incarnation as Singular Event, and Position 2, Incarnation as the Way Into God’s Kingdom. Then I want to argue for a 3rd Position which applauds the first 2 positions but takes them further by arguing for Incarnation as Extending Christ’s Presence in and for the World. Today, I’ll start with position 1.

1.)The Incarnation as Singular Event. Starke wants to confine the doctrine of the incarnation to the one time hypostatic union in Jesus Christ. For him, it is this past event of God the Son entering the world and becoming human 2000 years ago that we can properly refer to as incarnation. Starke contends that we must be careful in extending the incarnation into history via the church’s work. For that matter, one must be careful to not improperly extend the incarnation as a principle to be applied to the church’s engagement with culture and context.

To expand on this view a little bit, we might say that this view of the incarnation is punctiliar. God breaks into history at a point in history. God, the Son, invades creation in Jesus Christ and then ascends back to heaven having completed His work for the whole world. The church in the present looks to this event in the past and proclaims it’s salvific significance to all individuals who might by faith enter into what God has done (and/or receive its merits).

This version of incarnation is common among evangelicals. It is heavily confident in the preaching of the church to proclaim the good news across time and place. There is a stream of this thinking in the early dialectic Barthians. There is also a related version of this thinking in the “new apocalypticists” who emphasize that God in Christ was an apocalyptic “event” in discontinuity with all history bringing salvation over against all previous cultural forces at work. Christ comes anew each time he brings His salvation and therefore cannot be extended from within current social structures, places or habitats. Christ comes over against all structures instead of by entering into them. In some ways, the post-Bultmanians of the 70’s, the existentialists following in the wake of Kierkegaard, as well as apocalyptic NT scholars like J. Louis Martyn fall into this category.  Nathan Kerr, drawing from various other sources, can fall into this stream at times, and of course it often seems that Halden Doerge falls into this camp

My Assessment

I agree with certain aspects of this view of the incarnation. For instance I applaud the attempt to protect the uniqueness of the one time incarnation in Christ in terms of his divinity as well as his humanity and the work he accomplished during his death and resurrection. I affirm that.

However, I fear that in an attempt to protect the uniqueness and divinity of Christ these folk haven’t taken the incarnation to its full intent as revealed in Scripture, history and the church. For God came into human life in Christ to bring new creation, reconciliation, and righteousness (2 Cor 5 17ff..) These are social realities (altho this includes the personal as well). And yet this view of incarnation tends to over-individualize salvation (something the Reformation often tends to do in its later post-medieval developments). For these folk, Jesus comes to us in the proclaimed message to individuals. There is a confidence in preaching as universal language. We do not need a social contextualized en-culturated manifestation of the salvation God has birthed in the world in order to witness to who Christ is and what he has done. But, I firmly believe, that what has been set loose in the incarnation is profoundly social/en-culturated in its manifestation.

I disagree with those that say what God has done in Christ is discontinuous (in the extreme apocalyptic sense) with history and culture. I think this defies the incarnation. The reality is that God does something new or discontinuous, but this also has continuity with who God is, what He has done in the past (in OT) and his work in and among the socialness of human life. Christ comes into history in ways continuous with the ongoing history of God with Israel. In the incarnation, He comes and works within a social reality to manifest His redemption for the whole world. This invasion into history, culture and human life sets off a string of continuous “events” which continue the presence of Christ into the world socially. The church in inherently is and must be “incarnational.”

And so I profoundly disagree with those who limit the incarnation to the past “event” of Jesus Christ alone. God in Christ has entered fully into history. It is not singularly punctiliar (which borderlines on a Nestorian Christological error), Rather, in weakness and vulnerability, Christ revealed God in the hiddeness of the incarnation. He inaugurated the Kingdom and Christ’s presence was extended into the world via the birthing of a people to participate in the new Reign He is bringing for the whole world. This “church” was given the very presence of Christ by the Spirit to witness to the coming Kingdom inaugurated in and through the work of Christ by God the Father through the Spirit. Via this participation “in Christ,” the church is caught up in, and participates in the Triune work of God for the whole world.

So in a very real way, the incarnation did not end with Jesus ascension. Its effects are extended into history until he returns. We, through participation “in Christ” actualize His real presence, his dynamic rule into space and time, contexts, local places we I habit for the Kingdom. This is not territorial  (as Halden accuses me of) because, just as God the Son did not enter human history through domination, so Christ’s presence will be and can only be made manifest in us as we vulnerably, humbly give up all power to Him and serve the world. Of course, WE MUST BE CAREFUL to MAINTAIN THE INTEGRITY OF THE INCARNATION so that Jesus’ presence in us does not become colonialist. Nonetheless, just as God came in Christ for the very reason of revealing Himself in ways which would not dominate, so we too are called to enter the world “incarnationally” under the same modus.

For me then, in closing, Starke, Doerge and even Hirsch do not take the incarnation radically enough. The incarnation is not God coming in for a one time landing, to do the things He needs to do and then jettison back out. Instead, the transcendent God has entered into history in a new way in Jesus Christ, and does not leave us, but rather extends His very presence into the world via His people in the world. The implications of this are enormous for the church’s witness, for the church’s participation in the mission of the Triune God. I will deal with all this in my third post on incarnation!

Til then, what do you think. What are the inadequacies of  current views on the “incarnation”?

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