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”?

Posted in Incarnational, Missional, Missional Ecclesiology, Missional Theology
16 comments on “The Incarnation: Some Clarifications on an Abused Term – Post#1
  1. Brad Brisco says:

    Great post! I love the thought that “the incarnation did not end with Jesus ascension.” I have grown weary of the cry that use of “incarnation” will some how dilute The Incarnation. When working on my dmin project, I had a seminary prof who took great exception with my use of the language. In fact, he asked that I stop using the terminology because “the incarnation was a unique, once and all event that we can not duplicate.” I said surely we can make a distinction between the Incarnation with a big “I” and incarnation/incarnational ministry. He didn’t think so

    For those who still struggle with discussion I would highly recommend Guder’s “The Incarnation and the Church’s Witness”. I like that Guder admits that there are some “risks” in using the language, but he believes that clearly the “risk” is worth taking for the life/ministry of the church.

  2. Lee Wyatt says:

    This becomes even more profoundly true if one takes a Scotist view (which IMHO is also a biblical view) that the incarnation would have happened even if humanity had not sinned! Incarnation was thus always God’s purpose and goal.


  3. Bret Wells says:

    Great post David,

    I’m interested in how you feel that Hirsch isn’t radical enough in his incarnational views.

    You said, “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.”

    It seems that this pretty closely describes Hirsch’s dealings with the topic as well, at least, projecting forward from Christ.

    Personally, while I find myself in agreement with a lot of what Hirsch says, I find his view a little TOO Christocentric. (I feel like I’m again betraying my Church of Christ roots for even suggesting such a thing…)

    I think the Incarnation of Jesus is most certainly a (if not THE) seminal event – but it is in no way a new trajectory for God. It seems to me that the Incarnation is in keeping with the nature of a God which exists in perfect community and yet is constantly making room for the Other: the God who walks in gardens, “negotiates” with Abraham over Sodom, wrestles with Jacob, hears the cries of nations of slaves as well as the single voice of a lonely, abandoned mother with her child (Hagar). If the Christ event were truly a discontinuous event of immanence then I would agree, it should not been applied to human actions. However, it seems that the incarnational approach is central to the revealed nature of God and thus central to the nature of those who bear the image of God.

  4. davidfitch says:

    I’ll flesh that out in post 2 and 3.
    I’ll just say … to be Trinitarian is to be Christocentric in the Barthian sense .. and to participate “in Christ” by the Spirit is to participate in the Triune work of God in the world.
    To me, it’s this version of the incarnation (articulated as “singular event” in my post) which leads us wrongly into the wrong kind of Christocentricism.

  5. Adam says:

    I’m also curious to hear how you hear Hirsch’s point of view…

    I think the Christian God has a long history of incarnation (even if described as “accommodation”, which I think is a theologically rich [and risky] term). He accommodates ancient Israel in 1 Samuel and gives them a king (even though he warns them); He accommodates his people by residing in the temple (even though he does not live in a house made with human hands) – as well as the cultural-religious impulse by giving meaning to a sacrificial system; He, finally, accommodates in morphing into humanity itself. I cannot think of a more profoundly meaningful way to distinguish this God from the bulk of religious history. The incarnation… past, culminated in Christ, and expressed in His body/bride the church.

  6. John says:

    Again, I am so with you on this…

    Some brief and somewhat disjointed thoughts…

    Coming from a Reformed background myself, those who take the very narrow view can, it seems tend to end up in an almost quasi-Deism.

    Moving beyond this…

    Briefly, it seems to me that Jesus, Paul and (2nd)Peter affirm this trajectory:

    Jesus says “in the same fashion the Father has sent me I send you”(John 20.21) Yes, many say that this is specific only to “forgiving of sins”… however, IMHO, the “forgiving of sins” is only the doorway to the bigger project of God’s whole project of the coming new creation.

    Paul then points to the reality the the Spirit takes up residence in His people. This is in individuals AND community and we actually become the “temple of the living God”. This is a living and moving reality. As we live and go we are now the emdodiment of the living God… co-recreators as God has invited us into His big project.

    This is then hinted at by Peter. That, as we lean into this life partnership with God we actually participate in the divine nature of the trinity! (2nd Peter 1)

    This participation is not just “salvation” for heaven or individualized piety but is the big process and project of bringing all things together and regaining creation.

  7. jim poole says:

    reminds me of the pastor who, on Baptism Sunday, took great pains to explain that “there is nothing magical or necessarily spiritual about Baptism. It is merely an acknowledgment on our part of our commitment to Him and how he saved us.”

    Sheeeesh! I’m already having enough trouble believing in the power of the, ah, “incarnation” for the here and now, thank you very much.

    and another thing: where’d we get this idea that we need to “protect” the uniqueness of the incarnation? i wonder if we could see it more in the here and now maybe we wouldn’t feel the need to protect its uniqueness so much. It’d be blatantly apparent.

    (btw, that’s a 97.305% exact quote, above, according to my calculations, but i don’t want to get into all the mathematics b/c i might have to include a warning at the beginning of my comment about the risky calculus discussion ahead… )

  8. Luke says:

    I really appreciate this post. I love the language and import of incarnation, and I was honestly surprised by peoples recent (starke’s in particular) reaction to its use. I understand the inherent risks, but I don’t hear anybody saying the church *is* the second incarnation of Christ, but that the church is *like* a second incarnation. I’m not sure how this is any more “risky” than saying that Christians are to be in or like Christ.

    Which of the central ecclesiological metaphors isn’t incarnational in it’s implications? I mean how much clearer do you get than to call the church Christ’s body. The body that walks, speaks and enters place and time. Or Temple? The actual dwelling place of God’s presence.

    I’m with you David in saying that to say anything less than that the church “is Christ’s presence on earth” (which believe it or not is the definition my professor gave in my pastoral theology and polity class) is a lesser and to the same degree, more impotent vision of the church, just as being anything less than “in Him” or a “co-heir” or to “no longer live, but Christ lives in me”, misses the core of being a disciple.

  9. Kim says:

    Thanks for the discussion. I’m looking forward to the next two posts.

    For me, the Incarnation is the foundation of all that I do in mission: the why, how, where and who. If it were indeed just a punctiliar event then we will have lost the revolutionary approach to salvation and reconciliation God wants to have with his fallen creation. Jesus demonstrated that amazing intertwining of divine and human, revealing the true relationship God desired with us from the beginning. The punctiliar event has history and life changing implications that cannot be denied or ignored. Everything is impacted by the Incarnation, especially the way we live as believers.

  10. len says:

    For the past few years I’ve been tracking a Spirit-Christology, prompted in part by the work of Amos Yong. Yong affirms Irenaeus, “The Word and the Spirit as the two hands of the Father” at work in the world. It seems to me that this approach to Christology helps us toward a Trinitarian recovery, and a much more lively view of the imago.

    But maybe can also help us beyond the narrowness of the “punctiliar” approach to the Incarnation.

    Jesus was both human and divine, Incarnate Word by the power of the Spirit.

    Something completely new in creation by the union of Word and Spirit. Not just a joining of two elements but something NEW.

    Applied to your typology, Position 1 is a Word event. Puntiliar. An event only. Rational, concrete, measurable.

    Position 2 is a Spirit event. The SPirit brings us into the kingdom and joins us to the living Body.

    Position 3 is the unity of Word and Spirit – Incarnation as ongoing Presence of Christ in the world.

    Ok, needs work but might be useful.

  11. David Fitch says:

    eureka …

    so close to where I’m going … and where I was at in The End of Evangelicalism?


  12. Matt Stone says:

    I’m of the view that we place far to much weight on the incarnation in missional theology and not nearly enough on the resurrection. In reflecting on Acts I can’t help notice that again and again, Christ risen is the core of the apostles’ message, hope, understanding of ‘sentness’ and justification for bursting beyond cultural boundaries to be all things to all people. The incarnation is a helpful framework, but I can understand why some question if it can hold the theological weight the missional movement has put on it. Should, however, we reflect more on the ‘sending’ implications of the resurrection I think we’ll find we have more theological resources than we realised. Its a forgotten way.

  13. David Fitch says:

    Of course, this is part of my contention Matt, (not mine alone :) ) that the resuurection is in fact an extension of the incarnation … not a disembodied event, nor an event which takes place outside history (Bultmanians) buit in fact something which births both the acsension and Christ’s Lordship over the earth … and through the Spirit Christ’s continued presence …

  14. Matt Stone says:

    I don’t disagree Dave, and I appreciate that you also reference the ascension in your previous comments, but nevertheless my experience is that “incarnational” language tends to bias our hope, gospel and missional theology towards Christmas more than Easter if you catch my drift. It leaves the resurrection too implicit.

    To my way of thinking, the problem with Reformed evangelicalism is not that it presents Easter as climax of the Christ story but that it’s gospel gets stuck on Good Friday. The empty tomb is overshadowed by the Reformed cross. We’re left with the gospel of guilt management, not of life transformation. Over time however I have found that a focus on a LIFE that cannot be defeated by death and a LIGHT that cannot be overshadowed by darkness provides me with far more missional resources than a bouquet of TULIPs, but I wouldn’t use the language of ‘incarnation’ to encompass that. In theory we could speak of ‘ongoing incarnation’ but in practice I find few do in any sort of consistent way and sooner or later it collapses back to a resurrection-less focus. So instead I go for the language of resurrection and reconciliation as a way of wrestling with the complexities of the missional task, hopefully in a holistic way. In truth, in terms of considering ongoing presence, I think we need to do a lot more work on recovering the ascension from the clutches of modern day gnostics.

  15. Keyaan says:

    You can always tell an expert! Thanks for conrtuitbing.

6 Pings/Trackbacks for "The Incarnation: Some Clarifications on an Abused Term – Post#1"
  1. [...] to follow on with The Ex-Reverend. Maybe you fear him to snarky. After you read here, head over and read David Fitch’s recent post on Incarnation. The two make the same case from different vantage points. They both know the Anabaptist tradition [...]

  2. [...] impulse that Fitch was arguing for is specific to how expressions begin (through humble, incarnational engagement), and not really restrictive of the forms they may, in time, [...]

  3. [...] of three posts on the incarnation to hopefully clear up some confusions and put forth a proposal. Post Number One in this series described the doctrine of the incarnation, the debate surrounding it within [...]

  4. [...] Over the course of 3 posts David attempts to rescue what he deems at the outset an abused word. Part 1, Part 2, Part [...]

  5. [...] There has been quite a bit of conversation in recent times about the term “incarnational” and whether it’s a good idea to use the moniker when talking about the things Christian’s do now. The debate has basically hinged around whether incarnation as a theological concept can be applied only to the advent of Christ (example of this view here), or whether it can be more broadly used as a description of Christian mission (example of this view here). [...]

  6. [...] There has been quite a bit of conversation in recent times about the term “incarnational” and whether it’s a good idea to use the moniker when talking about the things Christians do now. The debate has basically hinged around whether incarnation as a theological concept can be applied only to the advent of Christ (example of this view here), or whether it can be more broadly used as a description of Christian mission (example of this view here). [...]

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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