The Church as an Extension of the Incarnation?

Following on Kent’s reflections about how to approach Barth’s work, I’ve  found myself interested to post on something from Barth’s treatment of  divine omnipresence.  The discussion of omnipresence in Church  Dogmatics is intriguing in its own right (even where one disagrees with  Barth) and exhibits the dialectical tack with which, as Kent mentioned,  Barth often operates.  However, it’s the way in which Barth’s notion of  Christ as the focal point, or ‘basis and constituent centre’, of God’s ‘special presence’ might meet current talk of an ‘incarnational’ view of the church  and its mission that has caught my eye.

In Barth’s discussion of the difference between God’s presence in Christ and God’s presence among his people, Barth remarks that, since in the Son God personally takes upon himself the human nature of Christ, this union is qualitatively different from our adoption.

But God is himself this man Jesus Christ, very God and very man, both of them unconfused and unmixed, but also unseparated and undivided, in the one person of this Messiah and Saviour.  This is what cannot be said about any other creature, even any prophet of apostle.  Jesus Christ alone is very God and very man.  And it is on the basis of this unio, but clearly differentiated from it, that there is an adoptio (CD II/1, p. 486).

Though not under the rubric of God’s omnipresence, Michael Horton in People and Place strongly criticizes the notion of the church as an ‘extension of the incarnation’ and as the subject of an ‘incarnational ministry’.  Horton discerns in the work of Hauerwas, Jenson, and others an unfortunate Hegelian conflation of Christ and the church in one center of subjectivity wherein the ‘specificity and uniqueness of Christ’s person and work’ are easily lost and the church becomes the subject of redemption (pp. 166-7).

The theoretical questions themselves are of interest, but I wonder more practically how this impinges on ‘incarnational ministry’ as a popular phrase in evangelicalism.  Can one make the case that materially as well as formally practitioners using the phrase are guilty of subverting the sufficiency of Christ’s work and presumptuously taking it upon themselves and their churches to, among other things, ‘redeem the culture’?  Does this warrant sharp theological correction or do most practitioners need only to be made aware of the potential implications of this language, at which time they will gladly choose new language that better encapsulates what they’re more modestly aiming for in what they presently call ‘incarnational ministry’.  What do you think?


11 thoughts on “The Church as an Extension of the Incarnation?

  1. I have found the work of Reinhard Hutter helpful in thinking through this, as well as John Zizioulas (on whom Hutter is quite dependent). Zizioulas in particular wants to shift from a Christological foundation for the church to a pneumatological one. (The distinction he makes between missionary/historical pneumatology and eucharistic/eschatological pneumatology is very pertinent here, I think.) One reason not to view the church as the continuation of the Incarnation is that the work of the Spirit is virtually lost. Part of my problem with Barth is that I don’t think the lack of attention to the work of the Spirit is entirely due to the incomplete status of the Church Dogmatics; it’s inherent in Barth’s Christology. Re-emphasizing the eschatological work of the Spirit helps to remind us that the church is to be the iconic embodiment of the Kingdom of God within history, a witness that requires a very different form of evaluation than the missionary approach that measures success in terms of converts or cultural transformation.

  2. Great post, Steve. I am no fan of the buzzword “incarnational ministry,” but I do not think it is worthy of “sharp theological correction,” notwithstanding the position advanced by the ever-critical Michael Horton. Does not Paul repeatedly refer to the church as “the body of Christ”? At the very least that would seem to take the “sharp” out of any need for correction – there seems to be an “incarnational” aspect to the church in the Pauline literature.

  3. How strongly did the Bible endorse a Christian church as an incarnation of Christ?

    John’s Revelation for example, warns the “angel of the Church,” that God had “not found your works perfect.” While the opening pages of the last book of the Bible, criticize evils, in one church after another. Clearly, it is a corrupt body of Christ.

    For that matter? Paul himself warned constantly of false things in every aspect of religion; finally calling St. Peter, the founder of THe Church some say, “Satan” in Mat. 16.23. While most of Paul’s writings are formulated as letters to various churches – at Ephesus, Thessalonica, Corinth etc.. And Paul does not complement them on doing a perfect job, either.

    So we have in the churches – a corrupt body of Christ? One that can and does constantly make errors?

    So it would seem, biblically.

  4. With Bill, I’m not sure that “sharp theological correction” is in order, but I do worry over the issues you raise. I’m of the mind that the second option is most often appropriate: “practitioners need only to be made aware of the potential implications of [incarnational ministry] language.”

    The intention behind the words is usually something like, “We need to be incarnational (!), in our surrounding culture, not separated from it.” Rallying cries such as these (and I have heard them often in print and from pulpits) very rarely expand upon what calling something “incarnational” might entail for one’s doctrines of Christ or the Church.

    Solution: we need to be equipping our future ministry leaders with the theological acumen and instinct to see down to the potential problems of language like “incarnational ministry.”

  5. If we trace out the implications and spirit of Jesus’ statement in John 20:21 we might find some ground for the incarnation as a sort of framework for ministry. Apart from that, the notion seems to risk stretching the theological taffy rather thin. However, I sympathize with the sentiments that propel the emphasis on incarnational ministry, e.g. a heavily and perhaps exclusively verbal approach to ministry that mistakes the formal Word for the material Word, leaving many wondering why more and more biblical words don’t seem to mediate the actual redemptive impact of Christ. Of course, there is also the issue (mentioned above) of how the Spirit so seldom shows up in the mix except as a formal affirmation.

    With Kent, I think some of the theological alarmism is a bit over the top, seeing theological goblins where they may not be. Wise theologians can have much more helpful influence by coming alongside and offering loving clarification than by assuming the role of alarmist prophet. Maybe this is what anesthetizes the Church to theologians at those times when theologians really do need to have a prophetic voice (you know, the old “crying wolf” syndrome).

  6. But even if we, under urging from interested parties, temporarily suspend investigation of “incarnational ministries” per se? Doesn’t that still leave in fact, a more general, massive problem?

    The problem that remains is this: the Bible itself (Paul and John for example) clearly indicated bad things, evils, even in the very earliest, foundational Christian churches. Things amounting in fact, to a corruption in the “body of Christ” itself; right in the very beginning of Christianity.

    So two major problems come out of this. First 1) how reliable are our churches, after all?

    And 2) for that matter, how pure is the “body of Christ”? In both its meaning as a) the churches, and their doctrines or dogmas. And/or, even b) the body of Christ, himself. And his own personal reliablity?

    If the body or flesh of Christ, was corrupt from the start, what does that say?

  7. So what DO we do with Paul? When he tells all-too-human churchgoers, “You are the body of Christ” (1 Corin. 12.27, 5.15-20, 10.17, 12.12-27, Eph. 4.4-16, Rom. 12.4-5).

    What does it mean, regarding the “body,” the “flesh” even of Christ himself possibly, when churchmembers, the body of Christ, make grave mistakes?

    It seems there is a general problem here, regarding the authority not just of self-consciously “incarnational” ministries, but all Christian churches.

  8. Dr. Duby,

    Hope studies are going well for you in Scotland. Great post here. As a church planter, I would want to retain the phrase “incarnational ministry.” But I see a qualitative difference in what we do as ministers of the gospel vs. what Christ has done as the grounding and substance of the gospel. Christ is both our message AND our model. So his work alone is what we proclaim as sufficient, and his incarnation is uniquely his…but we are called to be “little Christs,” living in an incarnational fashion. This seems clear to me when you read Phil 2, among other passages. So while I understand the danger in conflating the work of the church w/ the work of Christ, I believe that a proper understanding of atonement theology will subvert this tendency. Perhaps a better term could be used, but I know from a practical perspective that once people understand the incarnation as a model for living it can be a great catalyst for holy living for the sake of others. Your thoughts?

  9. Clint,

    Let me say that at first I thought someone I didn’t know called me ‘Dr’ and I was going to have to do the obligatory and bashful correction. Glad that it was you instead, brother.

    I would agree with what Kent and some others said above about most ministers not using ‘incarnational ministry’ with the intention of making the church and its work into the content of the gospel. I think that the kinds of things you’re focused on when you talk about using the incarnation as a model for ministry are obviously the right things to be gleaned from talking about ‘incarnational ministry’. And I would agree that having the theological wherewithal to clarify what it does and doesn’t mean will go a long way in alleviating the problems. I think that in the end each church and each pastor will have to weigh the value of using the phrase to inspire and also the liabilities of potential misunderstanding and then figure out the best way forward for their own church. If used well, this sort of language can make a helpful point even if formally and without proper explanation it would verge on theological error or even blasphemy. That’s my long-winded way of saying that I see your point and think everyone has to judge for himself or herself and, if they want to use the phrase, they need to do the theological work in preaching and teaching so that the people aren’t misled. I’m not pastoring, but if I were pastoring a church that talked about ‘incarnational ministry’ I might just be blunt about my hesitations, clarify the valuable stuff to be found there, and then use other complementary concepts a lot so that the incarnational idea wouldn’t get out of hand.

  10. I suppose we could always use the phrase “sacramental ministry” (God’s presence in the midst of our material workings). But then again, I am Anglican, and this phrase would probably be even less helpful and more confusing for many Protestants.

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