Contend Earnestly: Incarnational Ministry and the Unique, Incarnate Christ: Part 2

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Incarnational Ministry and the Unique, Incarnate Christ: Part 2

Here is the second part to yesterday's article put out by Modern Reformation.


While I share Lingenfelter's practical missiological concerns, I think that his close analogy between the Incarnation and cross-cultural ministry is not the best way to address these concerns. It depends upon a questionable interpretation of Philippians 2 and a reduction of Christology to a problem of math. (How exactly is a "200 percent person" one person rather than "two sons," as the ancient heresy of Nestorianism claims?) But for our present purposes, I will focus upon two observations.

First, Lingenfelter's portrait of the Incarnation tends to conflate the unique Incarnation with our own process of learning about another culture. The deity of the Son is seen as a "culture" and the taking on of humanity as a second "culture" taken on in the Incarnation. Thus, Jesus, as the pioneer of our faith, shows us how to take on a second culture as well. But here is the problem: the divine nature is not a "culture," and we cannot (and should not) see ourselves as analogous to the pre-incarnate Word that then takes on humanity. The deity of the Word won't fit into the box of "culture" because God is not a creature-and culture is a characteristic of creaturely existence. Instead, God is the transcendent and mysterious creator of the universe. The truth of the Incarnation is that in the eternal Word, this same transcendent God takes on the flesh of human beings for the sake of our salvation.

Second, this doctrinal conflation can lead to a significant problem in practice: it can conflate the mission of Jesus with our own mission. While Lingenfelter certainly would not want to be promoting a messiah-complex among missionaries, the close analogy between the incarnational as a culture-crossing action and our own culture-crossing action makes this a constant issue. I recall times in which missionaries schooled in incarnational ministry told me they were "cheating" from the model if they gave something away to persons in need, or if they presented any ideas that were not already inherent in the culture of reception. Behind this sense of "cheating" is the assumption in that our identification with the culture is enough-that is our mission. Yet, while I agree that missionaries should seek to identify with the receiving culture, our identification with that culture is not inherently redemptive. We should identify with the culture so that our lives offer an intelligible witness to the one Redeemer of peoples from all cultures, Jesus Christ. It is not enough to bear witness to Jesus as the model for crossing cultures. Jesus is much more than a model.

Instead, in our teaching about the Incarnation, we must be crystal clear about the fact that this is a unique event. Jesus Christ is central to the gospel because the Incarnation is not something that happens in various forms to various persons. Jesus Christ is the one and only incarnate Word. There is redemptive power in the Incarnation; apart from the Incarnation, Christ's obedient life, death, resurrection, and ascension would be of no use to us. Because of the Incarnation, we know that it is none other than GOD who has sought us out and cleansed us from our sins. "In Christ" we know and have fellowship with God. If God and humanity were not united in Jesus Christ, then being "in Christ" would not be a locus of our communion with God.

Indeed, if we are to make analogies between the Incarnation and our own lives, it should point us to the reality that Jesus Christ is not a "200 percent person"-in which deity and humanity are framed competitively, two persons smashed into one. Instead, the Incarnation shows us how God's action in our life does not mean the evacuation of human agency, but the empowerment of it. Augustine points this out in his debate with Pelagius about grace. Augustine writes, "This birth [of Christ], which joined the human to God and the flesh to the Word in unity of one person, was undeniably gratuitous; Good works followed; they did not earn this birth." In other words, just as the divine Word takes on flesh in the Incarnation-before the flesh could merit anything on its own-so also God's work in our lives is received as an unmerited gift, with good works following.

Christians often struggle with spiritual pride-we find it difficult to take a compliment in a way that does not give ourselves "spiritual bonus points" for our own faithful acts. We know we should give credit to God-but really, I was the one who performed that act of service and love, right? Ultimately, a competitive, non-incarnational view of divine and human work underlies this ambivalence. In the Incarnation we see that true God and true humanity are brought together in one person, Jesus Christ. When we perform an act of love and service, we can give the Spirit the credit while still recognizing that this act is our own in a secondary sense. Why? Because as we become more like Christ by the Spirit, we are not becoming "less human" by becoming more like God. Our true humanity is being restored as the Spirit unites us to God in Christ.
The Unique Incarnation and the Work of the Church

If it is misleading to see the Incarnation as an example of culture-crossing or to conflate Christ's mission and our own, what can we say positively about the ways in which our lives and ministries participate in the incarnate Christ and his mission? The Holy Spirit has united believers to the living Christ; thus it is important to think about the positive ways in which we participate in Christ. I think that the Heidelberg Catechism (HC) is very instructive on this point. Rather than taking the Incarnation as the point of departure for how we participate in Christ, it speaks in terms of the three offices of Christ:

Question 31. Why is he called "Christ," meaning anointed?

Answer. Because he has been ordained by God the Father and has been anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our chief prophet and teacher who perfectly reveals to us the secret counsel and will of God for our redemption; our only high priest who has redeemed us by the one sacrifice of his body, and who continually pleads our cause with the Father; and our eternal king who governs us by his Word and Spirit, and who guards us and keeps us in the redemption he has won for us.

Question 32. But why are you called a Christian?

Answer. Because by faith I am a member of Christ and so I share in his anointing. I am anointed to confess his name, to present myself to him as a living sacrifice of thanks, to strive with a good conscience against sin and the devil in this life, and afterward to reign with Christ over all creation for all eternity.

Note how the HC does two things simultaneously. First, it speaks about a profound union between believers and Jesus Christ-we are not lone-ranger Christians; we are profoundly connected to the living Christ: "I am a member of Christ and so I share in his anointing." Its language is strong and unequivocal on this important connection.

But secondly, note how our "membership" in Christ and "sharing" in his anointing are derivative and subordinate to the living Christ. Christ alone is the "chief prophet and teacher," our "only high priest," and our intercessor to the Father. In our own person, we can do none of these things. The Son is a child of God by nature, but we are children of God by grace. This difference has profound consequences for ministry.

The consequence of this distinction is that we should not seek to simply "copy" Jesus as the "missional blogger" advocated at the beginning, or as some other advocates of incarnational ministry suggest. We belong to Christ-"in body and soul, in life and death," as the first answer to HC states. But we are not Christ. And, in spite of a potentially misleading claim in the "mission statement" of my own denomination (the Reformed Church in America), we should be cautious about seeing ourselves as "the very presence of Jesus Christ in the world." We belong to Christ, but the only Savior is the living Christ himself-the Son by nature, not simply by grace. Our ministries should point to the Head of the body, the One to whom we belong. Paul brings together these teachings of union with Christ and yet pointing to Christ when he writes that God has made known his riches among the Gentiles in the mystery of "Christ in you, the hope of glory." But rather than follow up with this stunning affirmation of union with Christ by focusing upon our own redemptive action, Paul continues: "It is he [Christ] whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ" (Col. 1:27-28, NRSV). We are united to Christ in a profound way, yet we do not simply copy the action of the one Redeemer. We bear witness to Christ the Redeemer rather than ourselves; we find our maturity and identity as ones united to Christ but also as "servants" of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:1), the one Incarnate Word who reconciles us with God.

The answer to HC 32 above is also instructive for thinking through the implications of the three offices of Christ-the difference between Christ as prophet, priest, and king and our own lives that participate in the one prophet, priest, and king. We are "anointed" by the Holy Spirit to bear witness to Christ, to "confess his name." We are not the great prophet and teacher, but we confess the One who is. Secondly, we offer our entire lives as "a living sacrifice of thanks" to "strive" against "sin and the devil." Christ alone offers the perfect atoning sacrifice. Our own sacrifice is one of gratitude and thanksgiving-done with a "good conscience" because of the complete work of Christ our high priest. Finally, we "share" in the kingship of Christ by sharing in his resurrection and exaltation, looking to the day when we will "reign with Christ over all creation for all eternity." Christ is prophet, priest, and king. We are united to this same Christ. But as members of the body serving the one Head, we participate in Christ through acts of professing Christ and his truth, loving God and neighbor in gratitude, and living in hope of our final resurrection, exaltation, and reign with Christ. We do participate in Christ's "mission," in a certain sense. But precisely because Christ is the only mediator between God and humanity-the only perfect prophet, priest, and king-our "mission" is distinct from that of Jesus Christ himself.
In terms of Christian ministry, the result of this approach is one that gives a central place to the church's ministry of Word and sacrament. Negatively, this means we are not sent to go out and "take over the culture," or to seek to be the Savior to those around us. Positively, it means that we point to Christ, the Head, through the word of the gospel held forth in both Word and sacrament. There is no human set of activities-no matter how loving or revolutionary-that can bring redemption. Redemption comes through Jesus Christ alone, made possible by the Spirit's work in uniting us to Jesus Christ.

This approach toward Christian ministry overlaps, on some key points, with some visions of incarnational ministry. As Lingenfelter suggests, we need to seek out relationships with those to whom we minister, displaying our faith in lives of humility and service. We need to approach ministry as learners of the culture and history of those around us. Yet, it is not necessary to draw upon the Incarnation as a model for culture-crossing in order to promote these virtues in Christian ministry. These norms coincide with the humility and gratitude of those who know they belong to Christ but are not Christ themselves: we present our lives as "a living sacrifice of thanks," serving God and loving our neighbor in humility and gratitude. A life of gratitude humbly recognizes that we are not our own, but that we belong to Jesus Christ. Ultimately, the fact that we are "not our own" should call into question our allegiance to national or cultural priorities that fuel our ethnocentric tendencies that compromise our witness to the gospel. As a way of giving thanks to God, we are called to seek out relationships with those in need and move across cultural barriers that threaten to block our grateful witness to Jesus Christ, the One to whom we belong.

Moreover, in contrast to seeing incarnational ministry as the model for culture-crossing, the Heidelberg Catechism's teaching directly counters our own messianic tendencies: we are not the Redeemer-we belong to the Redeemer. We are freed from manipulating those to whom we minister because we do not need a list of spiritual accomplishments to please God; and it is with "a good conscience" that we strive "against sin and the devil." In the unique Incarnation and the once-for-all sacrifice on the cross, we have been cleansed from our sins and filled with the Spirit who brings new life. Precisely because the Incarnation is unique-and we do not need to copy it -we are freed for humble, non-manipulative witness and service for the sake of the gospel.

1 [ Back ] See
2 [ Back ] Sherwood Lingenfelter and Marvin Mayers, Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003). Lingenfelter also uses the analogy in Teaching Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Teaching and Learning, coauthored with Judith Lingenfelter (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003).
3 [ Back ] Lingenfelter and Mayers, 17.
4 [ Back ] For further analysis of the biblical and christological issues raised in proposals such as Lingenfelter's, see my article, "'Incarnational Ministry': A Christological Evaluation and Proposal," Missiology: An International Review 32:2 (April 2004), 187-201.
5 [ Back ] Augustine of Hippo, quoted from "On Rebuke and Grace" in Theological Anthropology, ed. and trans. J. Patout Burns (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1981), 101.
J. Todd Billings (Th.D., Harvard University) is assistant professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He is the 2008 winner of the John Templeton Award for Theological Promise for his book, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Belivers in Union with Christ (Changing Paradigms in Historical and Systematic Theology) (Oxford University Press, 2008).
Issue: "The Imitation of Christ" March/April Vol. 18 No. 2 2009 Pages 19-22
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be explicitly approved by Modern Reformation.

Copyright © 2010 White Horse Inn


Related Posts with Thumbnails