Can Christians Be “Incarnational”?

Posted: July 21, 2011 in blogs, culture, evangelism, Jesus, missions, theology

Jesus called Christians to take his Gospel into all the world.  Among many of those who are seeking to be faithful to this command, one word has risen to some prominence: “incarnational.”  Alluding to the divine work of the second person of the Trinity in becoming fully human, “incarnational” is often used to describe the efforts of Christians to bring the Gospel to bear on life in a particular cultural context.  For them, “incarnational” would have a meaning similar to “contextualization” (though many would argue that “incarnational” is a far richer term).  For example, Alan Hirsch writes,

[The fact that Jesus] was in the neighborhood for 30 years and no one noticed says a lot about God and how he engages the human situation. The incarnation thus shows us that God speaks from within a particular culture, in ways that people can grasp, understand, and respond. The incarnation gives us the primary biblical model of engagement—this is how God does it and we who follow his way should take a similar path.

Ed Stetzer offers another good example,

Incarnationalism speaks of identifying with and living among the people God has sent us to. The incarnation was about the Word taking on flesh, but in taking on flesh Jesus didn’t live an isolated life divorced from the culture. He lived with and among people in such a way that his words and actions made sense to a specific people group. He was in many senses one of them, while remaining distinct as the Son of God.

Other Christians have pushed back against using this precious word to describe the work of God’s people.  They argue that, though not a biblical word, “incarnation” expresses an explicitly biblical truth, referring to the special condescension of the Son of God as seen in the Hypostatic Union.  Christians, according to their thinking, should not attempt to apply this term to themselves or their efforts, as doing so necessarily belittles Jesus’s unique work.  They would argue that the incarnation is, by definition, inimitable.  Therefore, even the word itself should be reserved for Christ and Christ alone.

It’s an interesting conversation, to say the least.  For an insightful and gracious example of someone who is wary of using the term, check out John Starke’s article entitled, “The Incarnation is About a Person, Not a Mission” at the Gospel Coalition blog.  He writes,

The problem lies in the fact that the doctrine of the incarnation is not necessarily related to the nature of the Son’s mission. Rather, it centers on the nature of the union of the divine Son with our humanity. The theological term is the hypostatic union. It emphasizes that Jesus identified with the Father as much as he identified with us. Therefore, the incarnation is fundamentally about mediation, rather than the manner in which Jesus carried himself and interacted with others during his earthly ministry.

Once you’re finished with that, head over to Ed Stetzer’s blog where he has begun a three-part response (Part 1 and Part 2).  He notes that,

Words have meaning–but they have meaning to groups…Such is the case with the word “incarnational.”  While I can find many bad uses of the the word, I can more easily find poor uses of the words “gospel,” “grace,” and “missional.” Just as I am not about to abandon the use of those words, I am convinced that the word “incarnational” and the idea behind it is so helpful we need not run away from it–though we do need to explain it.

Both men have some good points that are worth considering.

At this point, I would tend to agree with the likes of Hirsch and Stetzer, who argue that it can be appropriate to use the term to describe the work of God’s people.  The Apostle Paul, although not using the term itself (it’s not a biblical term), does not hesitate to call Christians to imitate the “mind” of Christ as expressed in his incarnation.  He says this despite the fact that we can’t literally do what Jesus did (go from being in the “form” of God to that of a servant, take on flesh, die on a cross, etc.).  Rather, Paul expects us to look at Christ’s unique actions, see godly principles illustrated in his life, and then imitate him in our own context.  That, it seems to me, is exactly what many Christians are attempting to do when using the term “incarnational.”

However, I acknowledge that there is a danger that the word will lose it’s significance through overuse and misuse.  But that danger is present in our use of all words, even biblical ones (consider “fellowship,” “church,” or even “Gospel”), and is not a good reason not to use them.  The word “incarnation,” although primarily and foundationally referring to the unique work of Jesus, has some startling (and, I think, neglected) implications for how we carry out the Gospel commission.

What do you think?  Have you used the word?  If so, in what context?


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