This unease is difficult to communicate because there is a subtlety to this word usage as I have heard it; there is some good and some not-so-good involved here. I posted a while back on the word ‘missional.’ My trouble with the concept of incarnation in popular evangelical discourse is related to the whole ‘missional’ thing.
The contexts in which I’ve heard the words incarnation / incarnational used are positive in terms of intent. In other words, I don’t think that the usage is meant to denigrate Christ’s actual Incarnation in history. One real-life illustration will have to do at this time.
In November, right around the time I started this blog, my wife and I went to our association’s Pastors’ and Wives’ retreat. One of our traditions is to share in the Lord’s Table together on Sunday morning [the appropriateness of having Communion apart from a local fellowship of believers is another topic altogether]. I was asked to be one of the servers of the elements and to pray before we distributed the bread. When I prayed, I betrayed my Reformed leanings by thanking God for the physical nature of the elements because they point us to the physical, objective reality of Christ coming in the flesh for us and giving his body and blood for us in history. The next person to pray picked up on that and thanked God that Christ is incarnated in us as we serve the church and the world. I didn’t say anything afterwards, but I was uncomfortable with that.
The Communion service wasn’t the only time that ‘incarnational’ language was used during this weekend. It just doesn’t sit right with me. It has taken me a couple of months to do a blog post on this – some of my readers were at that retreat and may be offended at what I am writing in these posts. If so, I’d love to hear from you in the comments or by email.
For the rest of this post, I’m going to try to state positively what is meant by the adjective “incarnational.” Next post, I’m going to cut loose with my criticism. Although I haven’t read anything on this issue, I believe I have a handle on the motivation for ‘incarnational’ language.
- To speak of being ‘incarnational’ is to recognize that Christ lives in and works through His people in the church. After His Ascension, Jesus no longer walks the earth, but He continues to work through the ministry of the church.
- Though this may be a reach, I think modern incarnational language may have been influenced by Tony Campolo. Campolo was charged with heresy many years ago because he talked about looking into an orphan’s face and seeing Jesus looking back at him. He argued that his rationale for this came from Matthew 25:31-46 – if we serve others, we are serving Jesus. This is the other side of the coin from the incarnation of Christ in His people, but the two are related.
- My suspicion in that the greatest influence that lead to ‘incarnation’ language is a reaction of the modern (so-called postmodern) church to the formal, cognitive imbalance in the Western evangelical church. It is much more relational and ‘spiritual’ to speak in ‘incarnational’ / ‘missional’ terms than it is to use more formal, theological language. A faith outside of us, as in the alien righteousness of Christ, is a foreign concept to most contemporary evangelicals, let alone those outside the church.
I don’t want to pick a fight with these posts, but if you use the word “incarnational” in terms of the ministry of the church, I urge you to reflect on what you mean. If this is a new word to you, then keep your ears open – it is all over the place in contemporary evangelicalism.
So, what is wrong with the word ‘incarnational’? Stay tuned for my next post.