Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Incarnation, Incarnational Mission and its Dynamic Impact on the Church

The Incarnation and Incarnational Mission

The following offers a detailed look at the Incarnation, and explains the concept of incarnational mission, and how the church can effectively express incarnational mission in today's culture. 

Introduction to Incarnational Mission

Exploring the breadth and depth of mission is a challenging task. Even when we narrow down mission to the four gospel accounts, we have a plethora of issues to consider. The intention forthcoming then is to consider one aspect of the Missio Dei that plays a fundamental role in our understanding of mission today; the Incarnation. It is impossible to overlook the Incarnation if the pursuit is in comprehending a biblical, holistic view of mission. 

Firstly we look at what the Incarnation is, followed by a biblical rationale for the Incarnation, taken from the four Gospels. The question to pose then is how important the Incarnation is in establishing a missional paradigm. It leads us to an overview of incarnational mission and questions that are relevant for church congregations today, like, issues of what shape incarnational mission takes today, and how we can contextualise the gospel in the cultures in which we live.

The Incarnation

The Incarnation encapsulates the Father sending the Son to live amongst us; a radical, self-expression of love towards humanity. The Incarnation is part of God’s unique[i] redemptive plan of salvation at work in Christ. In fact, without the Incarnation we cannot have a crucifixion, nor a resurrection or a second coming. This is to say, that without the Incarnation, the fundamental truths of the gospel, of which our New Testament understanding of mission is developed, would not have come into being[ii]. The Incarnation of Christ to humanity is therefore significant[iii] and more so because in Christ incarnate, we have the embodiment of God in person.

What are the biblical texts that highlight the Incarnation?

The Gospel of John is the first place we look for a deep expose of the Incarnation and its role within the Missio Dei. John 1:1-18 unpacks the mysterious nature of the pre-existence of Christ in creation, and the subsequent incarnation to that creation. As John 1:14a says, ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’[iv]. The Father had sent Jesus into the world.
The four gospels tell the stories of Christ (albeit from different angles and to differing audiences), as he lived on earth, and they paint a great picture of what the dwelling amongst us looked like. In fact Jesus says himself that, ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9). He was professing, that if you have witnessed the life of Christ, you have captured the nature of God. It is in Christ, therefore, that we build our doctrine of God and an understanding of God’s character and attributes. Berkhof says, ‘The only proper way to obtain perfectly reliable knowledge of the divine attributes is by the study of God’s self-revelation in Scripture’[v] As the gospel of John declares, that the Word was God and he made his dwelling among us, and thus God’s self-revelation is found in Christ. Thus, we combine those thoughts and declare that the nature of God is found through God’s self-revelation in Scripture, found in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, as Bevans eloquently writes, ‘Incarnation is a process of becoming particular, and in and through the particular, the divinity could become visible and in some way (not fully, but in some way) become graspable and intelligible.[vi]
Why is this important? If we intend to build a theological framework for mission, then understanding who God is, is fundamental. The Incarnation is God’s self-revelatory way in which humanity can derive a deeper understanding of the nature of God, and further, they can learn how it is that they should live in response to the character of God. We explore that further, as the relationship of the Incarnation and mission is discussed.

What is the relationship of the Incarnation to mission?

As Frost and Hirsch say, the Incarnation ‘is an absolutely fundamental doctrine, not just as an irreducible part of the Christian confession, but also as a theological prism through which we view our entire missional task in the world’[vii]. To these authors the Incarnation links to mission through:
·         Proximity
·         Presence
·         Powerlessness
·         Proclamation
Proximity denotes Jesus living amongst the broken and lost (Luke 19:10). Presence captures the truth that God became incarnate, and became ‘present’ in the world. Powerlessness is that humbling idea of Jesus being a servant leader (Luke 22:25-27). There is no doubt, lastly, that Jesus incarnate came proclaiming a message of the inauguration of the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:15).[viii] These concepts taken in isolation create an imbalance, like merely proclaiming the good news of Christ, though when taken together, they provide a holistic picture of the link between the Incarnation and mission.

What is Incarnational Mission? How does this impact us today?

Two trains of thought come to prominence in relation to the Incarnation and its function within mission today; one of incarnationalism and one of representationalism. The former is about recognising the presence of Christ in the church and world today and about ensuring ministry closely reflects Jesus who walked the earth. The latter emphasises the discontinuity between the ministry of Jesus and his disciples, and reflects on witnessing about Jesus.[ix] While Hesselgrave believes in representationalism[x], the incarnationalist’s approach seems more fitting as its approach pushes for the continuity of Jesus’ ministry and the people of God. The Father sent Jesus into the world, and Jesus now sends the disciples (John 20:21) to continue on with the mission he first began.
By embracing the incarnational approach to mission, church congregations must ask some pertinent questions regarding incarnational missiology.
1.       What shape should incarnational mission take today?[xi]
Langmead offers three insights into incarnational mission and suggests disciples today need to firstly, follow Jesus, secondly, live in the presence of Christ, and thirdly, join the cosmic, incarnating mission of God.[xii] Interestingly after much study, Langmead only offers very broad definitions of what incarnational mission should look like today. We must ask further questions like, ‘What does following Jesus look like today and how do the gospels inform the answer?’ ‘What does living in the presence of Christ actually mean?’ ‘When we join with Christ in incarnational mission, what are we joining?’ Let me attempt to offer a brief answer to these complex missiological questions.
Following Jesus begins with becoming holy as Christ is holy (Matt 5:48), or further, letting your life reflect the character of Christ. Some of the characteristics of Christ are humility (John 13:5) and powerlessness (Luke 22:26), compassion (Matt 9:36), faith (Matt 17:20), self-sacrifice (Matt 27:45-56) and a complete focus on the Father (Luke 4:8) and these are aspiring values for believers.
Living in the presence of Christ is to embrace the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised the Father would send (John 14:16). It is to understand that God is with every disciple until the end of the age (Matt 28:20). It is also about recognising that those who have faith in Christ, have him living inside of them. The incarnated Christ now dwells in the lives of believers, and thus incarnational mission is lived out in the presence of Christ.
Followers of Jesus join with God in incarnational mission; they live as a ‘sent people’ (John 17:18), with an outward movement of one community or individual to another.[xiii] They embody the gospel, that is, put simply, they have Christ living in them, and therefore their lives express incarnational mission.
2.       What does contextualisation mean and how does it relate to your congregation?
Contextualisation relates to the expression of mission being relevant to the ‘context’ in which mission happens. As Bosch asserts, the basic argument of Transforming Mission has been that, ‘...from the very beginning, the missionary message of the Christian church incarnated itself in the life and world of those who had embraced it’.[xiv] That is to say, that the contextualising of the whole gospel message cannot help but incarnate itself into the socio-political realm in which it stands. As disciples then, we have a choice to discover and learn how to effectively express our commitment to Christ within the fabric of the community in which we live and minister.
A snapshot of the gospels shows Jesus using differing emphases to communicate to farmers (Luke 8:1-15), fishermen (Luke 5:1-11) and religious leaders (Matt 23:1-39), amongst others. In every instance he appears to change his tone, content and use of metaphors/parables depending on the context. We have to move to the book of Acts to see how the apostles fair in their capacity to live and preach in the various Jewish and Hellenistic cultures of their day.[xv] Though we glean enough from Jesus himself, to understand that he was ingenious in his ability to contextualise his Kingdom message to the various cities and cultures in which he travelled.
The local church must recapture the art of contextualisation. We must shift away from bland, purely soul-saving, empire building, Christian Institutions that attempt to revamp some dated Christendom style of mission[xvi]. As Kelly puts it, ‘The church is the historically embodied mediation of Christ’[xvii]. The body of Christ must embody the gospel message in word and deed, and incarnate itself within its particular culture and let incarnational missiology be developed and grasped from a grass-roots missional level. It is only then that the people of God will be living out the Missio Dei in a way that acknowledges the importance of the Incarnation and the subsequent expression of incarnational mission.

Conclusion to Incarnational Mission

God’s redemptive plan of salvation was manifest in the arrival of Christ to first century Palestine. All four gospel writers embark on revealing this incarnational plan through stories about the life and ministry of Christ that fill us with a sense of the nature of God, and what the embodiment of God on earth is. Therefore, in Christ, the local church congregation have a picture of what mission looks like and what it entails. We understand as God sent his son into the world, that the son now sends us. We have Christ in us, and thus become involved in incarnational mission, in following Jesus, embracing his abiding presence and continuing on in playing our part in his redemptive plan of salvation. Mission is such an extensive and thought-provoking topic and through the Incarnation and the writings of the four gospels, we are able to continually shed light on how the local church can operate effectively in mission.


copyright Pete Brookshaw, May 2012. Email: petebrookshaw@gmail.com or Comment Below.

[i] Christopher Wright mentions regularly the ‘uniqueness of Jesus’, who came to complete the redemptive plan for humanity that began with the people of Israel. See Christopher Wright, (2006). The Mission of God. Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press. (p. 385).
[ii] Kathryn Tanner expresses it differently. She says, ‘It is in virtue of the incarnation that humanity is saved.’ She argues for an incarnational model of the atonement. This being said, the point being, that the Incarnation is vital within the mission of God. See Kathryn Tanner, (2004), p. 41.
[iii] Darrell Guder says the mission of God reaches its relevatory climax in the Incarnation, and thus is significant.  (1998). Missional Church. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing. (p. 4). David Bosch calls this mission ‘dynamic’ Transforming Mission p.9.
[iv] John 1:14a (GNT) - Καὶ ὁ Λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν
[v] Louis Berkhof, (1939). Systematic Theology. Great Britain: Cox & Wyman Ltd (p. 54).
[vi] Stephen B. Bevans. (2002). Models of Contextual Theology. New York: Orbis Books. (p. 12).
[vii] Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, (2003). The Shaping of Things to Come. Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers (p. 35).
[viii] Adapted from Alan Hirsch, (2006). The Forgotten Ways. Michigan: Brazos Press.
[ix] See David J. Hesselgrave, (2005). Paradigms in Conflict. Michigan: Kregel Publications.
[x] As above, p. 152.
[xi] Question adapted from Ross Langmead, (2004). The Word Made Flesh. Maryland: University Press of America (p. 215).
[xii] Ross Langmead, (2004). The Word Became Flesh. Maryland: University Press of America (p. 216).
[xiii] Alan Hirsch, (2006). The Forgotten Ways. (p. 129). Also see Darrell Guder, (1998). Missional Church. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing.
[xiv] David Bosch (1991). Transforming Mission. New York: Orbis Books (p. 421).
[xv] As this essay is more so about what the four gospel writers say about mission, I will not delineate from that at this point.
[xvi] Many authors labour this point. See Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi (2002). Mission an Essential Guide. Nashville: Abingdon. (p. 32).
[xvii] Anthony J. Kelly. (2010). p. 799.


Berkhof, L. (1939). Systematic Theology. Great Britain: Cox & Wyman Ltd.
Bevans, S. B. (2002). Models of Contextual Theology. New York: Orbis Books.
Bosch, D. J. (1991). Transforming Mission. New York: Orbis Books.
Cardoza-Orlandi, C. (2002). Mission: As Essential Guide. Nashville: Abingdon.
Frost, M., & Hirsch, A. (2003). The Shaping of Things to Come. United States: Hendrickson Publishers.
Guder, D. L. (1998). Missional Church. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing.
Hesselgrave, D. J. (2005). Paradigms in Conflict: 10 Key Questions in Christian Missions Today. Michigan: Kregel Publications.
Hirsch, A. (2006). The Forgotten Ways. Michigan: Brazos Press.
Kelly, A. J. (2010). The Body of Christ: Amen! The Expanding Incarnation. Theological Studies , 792 - 816.
Langmead, R. (2004). The Word Made Flesh. Maryland: University Press of America.
Tanner, K. (2004). Incarnation, Cross, and Sacrifice: A Feminist Inspired Reappraisal. Anglican Theological Review , 35 - 56.
Wright, C. J. (2006). The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative. Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press.

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