The Incarnation: Some Clarifications on An Abused Term: Post #2 Marcus Borg and Brian McLaren

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

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In my last post, I complained that the doctrine of  the incarnation had gotten a bad rap lately. For me, talk of “the incarnation” has become confused. Yet I think it is an important doctrine – especially for the missional church movement. And so last week I began a series 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 missional circles, and then the first of three positions ( as I see it) on the incarnation. I labeled the first position the “incarnation as singular event.” I pegged this position as the one ascribed to by John Starke at the Gospel Coalition (I think John’s position is representative of the Gospel Coalition as a whole) and people like Halden Doerge. Ironically, I see the “the Gospel Coalition” and Halden in the same camp although admittedly coming from different theological starting points.

Today, I’d like to describe a second position on the incarnation. It is equally as popular and finds its strongest advocates among the Emergent crowd along with people like Marcus Borg and Brian McLaren. It understands the incarnation primarily as God providing “the Way into the Father’s Kingdom.”

2.) The Incarnation as the Way Into the Father’s Kingdom

People like  Marcus Borg and Brian McLaren alert us (rightfully I think) to the problem within position 1.): the Incarnation as Singular Event. They say that such a position has the effect of making Jesus irrelevant for the daily challenges we face in our society. The Incarnation as Singular Event tends to focus intensely on the “event” of salvation in the individual as initiated in an already accomplished and completed work of Christ in the past. This has the effect of dis-enculturating the work of Christ, extracting salvation out of culture. So, paraphrasing the words of Brian McLaren, this view of Jesus says that “He is not the one who saves from poverty, captivity, blindness, or oppression” even though Jesus uses these very words to describe His mission (Luke 4:18-21). (NKoC  2010 p.128). This is a Jesus detached from the suffering world and the pains of our daily existence.

And so, as has become so popular these past twenty-five years (actually more like 100 years), people like Borg and McLaren (and many others) push us toward the gospels (as opposed to Paul) and the life of Jesus as the clue to understanding the incarnation, the mission of the Son and who He is. Here we see that Jesus is the revealer of God “not only in his teaching … but in his very way of being.”(Borg Jesus a New Vision 191). Jesus is a model for discipleship. Jesus modeled what it was like to live life in the Spirit, in the very center of God’s love for the world. He led us into life with the Father in His Kingdom and taught us how to always be engaging culture as God’s instrument to bring transformation for God’s purposes in the world. There is a new Kingdom of God at work here and Jesus teaches us how to live in it and asks us to go teach others to do the same (McLaren Secret Message p.75).

People like Borg. McLaren, and the Emergent church in general do a marvelous job of capturing this aspect of what God has done in Jesus Christ for the world. We see how God has entered into our world via full humanity, and has shown us the way to truly live in relationship with God and His coming Kingdom. As a human, Jesus shows us that God’s salvation embraces the whole of the world for a transformation that begins now (not just a future). We see in Christ how to live in the Spirit and be used to accomplish miraculous things God has done in and through Jesus (John 16:22).

This view of the incarnation puts the focus on discipleship. It puts the emphasis of following Jesus because to follow Him “is to be like him, to take seriously what he took seriously.” (pg 17 Jesus a New Vision Borg).  Jesus lived life to the fullest in God’s Kingdom by the power of the Holy Spirit and shows us how to do the same. In Him, we become his disciples for the transformation of the world.

My Assessment

And so I applaud and agree this view of the incarnation. It focuses on the humanity of Christ and thereby enables us to see the way God has offered all of us “a way” to enter into His life. It draws us into full and earnest discipleship. People like Brian McLaren, Mark Scandrette and Marcus Borg have opened up (in their popular writings) the fullness of the incarnation in ways rarely accessible in the past to Christians in N America.

Nonetheless, in my view, this position tends to not go far enough because it fails to present the disruptive and radical nature of the incarnation as God’s incursion into the world for the salvation of the world.  In Christ, a victory has been decisively won for the world and that victory, via Jesus Christ, has entered into the world. We go therefore into the world as servants ushering in a unique victory, a new order in Christ. His rule and transforming work has invaded the world. This position, in my view, errs towards seeing Jesus as a Way into God’s Kingdom apart from Jesus also being the means.

And so, sometimes, when I hear some teachings about “the way of Jesus” within Emergent circles I worry we are putting forth a way of life that can turn into moralism or legalism. “This is what disciples of Jesus do!” Yet we are not being invited into the dynamic rule of Jesus as Lord and His victory over the powers. I agree much with the Emergent authors that this is a rich way of love and justice in God’s Kingdom. Yet devoid of the inbreaking power of Christ’s rule via the Spirit, will this not devolve into another moralistic ideal?  Jesus is not only “the way,” He’s the victor, the King, the One who is bringing in His Kingdom through a people who submit to and affirm in life and practice that “Jesus is Lord.” So, as I see it, there’s a backing off off here that creates a less radical, less prodigal gospel. What say you? Have I got this right? Does Borg do this? Does even Brian McLaren border on this error?

I suggest that the “Incarnation as the Way into the Father’s Kingdom” position too often domesticates the incarnation into a way to be followed as opposed to a new order that has begun. This rule is intrusive and radical because God in Christ, as fully God, comes into the world humbly to disrupt the world and bring forth His Kingdom. This often ends up fudging  on the divinity of Christ. Perhaps this is why their proposals cannot be radical enough for me to describe the dynamic of the incarnation for our lives today.

For sure Borg tells us that this Jesus invites us into the supernatural, that God truly is at work in the world. Borg decries the enlightenment for striping our world of the Spirit and God’s work in the world. He invites us into the fullness of God’s Kingdom and what God is doing to transform the world. He draws us into the experience of a relationship with God through the Holy Spirit that draws us into His work in the world.  All this is great!! Yet, Borg in the end wants to deny the divinity of the Son (See for example Jesus a New Vision, p. 191). By doing this, I contend, his portrayal of Jesus doesn’t match the prodigal nature of the radical incursion that is God coming to us in the Son in Jesus Christ. His version of Christianity is not radical enough.

What say you? Have I been too harsh on Borg? Have I wrongly associated Brian McL in the same camp as Borg?

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In the next post, I propose a third approach to the incarnation that goes beyond both the the Incarnation as Singular Event and the Incarnation as the Way into the Father’s Kingdom.

Posted in Incarnational, Missional Ecclesiology, Missional Theology
13 comments on “The Incarnation: Some Clarifications on An Abused Term: Post #2 Marcus Borg and Brian McLaren
  1. John Starke says:

    I should make it clear that the position that I hold about “incarnational” ministries is not the official position of The Gospel Coalition. There are many within the organization who would/does use the term.

    I realize that it’s difficult to sometimes distinguish a view that’s published on an organization’s website and the organization’s official stance, but as much as possible, I’d like to make that distinction. Thanks!

  2. davidfitch says:

    John, yes thank-you, and I’m cool with that. Sorry if I have misled folks. Yet I do want to say beyond what you said, that in my estimation, your view is representative (this is my observation/judgement) of the Gospel Coalition’s theology. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! :) So I changed the wording in the post to reflect that. Thanks!!
    DF

  3. Richard Yale says:

    I think there are even deeper issues with Borg’s concept of incarnation in the sense that Jesus does not constitute that way in his life, death, and resurrection, but he is merely an example of an universal way which exists prior and independently of Jesus of Nazareth. (Wish I had a reference for you, but don’t have any books on hand but some Yoder you have me reading.) Jesus is THE Way to the extent that he is the way for us who have chosen to construct our religious experience around the Christian mythos. But there certainly other ways that this universal Way can be “incarnated.”

    The result, in my opinion, is a sort of christopaganism, with Jesus being one religious option among many. But I think (and once had the opportunity to ask Borg about this, with no good answer given), that in a pluralistic society there ultimately will need to be some arbiter to distinguish between good and bad constructions of these ways: Sufi mysticism vs. al Qaeda; David Fitch vs. Fred Phelps. Enter Caesar to arbitrate with his
    advisors in academia.

    Are you too hard on Borg? No. Am I?

    • davidfitch says:

      versus Fred Phelps? Ouch

      • Richard says:

        David,
        This is a contrast. You are the good guy!

        OK, so maybe I could have expressed that a little better, but my point above was that I think that while Borg’s theology of the incarnation seems to have some compelling points as it suggests the invitation into the Kingdom activity of God, I think it has serious, if perhaps unintended, consequences, including the political invitation to a new sort relationship with Caesar, unlike Constantinianism, where we consent to being just one of the religio-spiritual options deemed appropriate in our pluralistic setting. We do so, because the authenticity of our belief and practice is gauged not through our fidelity to the Gospel, but by recourse to some universal way prior to Jesus.

        Theologically Borg’s type of incarnational view subordinates Christology to Pneumatology. Missionally, it is a return to the old “world setting the agenda for the church.” And epistemologically, foundationalism sneaks in by the back door, with the truth claims of the Christian faith grounded in a societally sanctioned view of the contours of this universal way.

    • Richard says:

      From Borg:
      ‘the way’ that John speaks of is not about believing doctrines about Jesus. Rather, ‘the way’ is what we see incarnate in Jesus: the path of death and resurrection as the way to rebirth in God. According to John, this is the only way – . . . it is ‘the way’ spoken of by all the major religions of the world. Dying and rising is the way. Thus Jesus is ‘the Way’ – the way become flesh. Rather than being the unique revelation of a way known only in him, his life and death are the incarnation of a universal way known in all of the enduring religions.

      -cited by Kevin Genpo Thew Forrester, “Approaching the Heart of Faith.”

      • John says:

        I think you have this right… as I was reading DF’s post I immediately thought of John.

        John says to know God is to know “him” (jesus). In fact this is what Jesus says about himself! (Not doctrine, not religion, not the ways of the “world”… but HIM)

        I believe Dallas Willard also makes this point in The Divine Conspiracy.

  4. Tripp says:

    Well played!

  5. John B. Munger says:

    David-

    From my (students) reading of Borg, I think you have got it pegged. Any closer reading would seem to get to trivial differences. Looking forward to your third post!

    John

  6. CURBY says:

    The whole concept of ‘The Incarnation’ surely begins with Genesis. – The result of the fall and the destruction of ‘The Likeness’ of God in Man. Not only the are we the Image but we were more importantly created in the Likeness of God. (This is a very ‘Jewish’ view). The Physical manifestation of God in Christ remains – our ability to walk and talk, reason and create etc. Though limited and decaying due to sin.The Likeness however- lost and needing restoration, that is where the ‘Rubber hits the road’. To Be Like Jesus! – The Holy Spirit dwelling within me restores me, within the church restores the Kingdom, within the world restores eden. God Manifest!

  7. John says:

    “…in my view, errs towards seeing Jesus as a Way into God’s Kingdom apart from Jesus also being the means.”

    YES! Over the last 10 years or so as I have moved in some of the emergent conversations I have often been concerned that we could be just introducing another “legalism”.

    Again, Willard spends much of The Divine Conspiracy walking through this conversation. And… is further supported by Paul as he points towards the indwelling of the Spirit…

  8. Darrell muth says:

    David
    Like Borg, NT Wright challenges much of what the Protestant church believes and teaches about Heaven and Earth Christ’s role and ours, but regardless, for him it still hinges on this:
    “I hope I have said enough to make it clear that the mission of the churh is nothing more or less than the outworking, in the power of the Spirit of Jesus bodily resurrection and thus the anticipation of the time when God will fill the earth with his glory… ” Surprised by Hope. Rethinking Heaven, the resurrection and the Mission of the Church pg 264,265 NT Wright -

    I look forward to more

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