As debates over the missional church, church planting, and contextualization invade Reformed ecclesiasiology, a continuing debate exists over using the Incarnation as an analogy for ministry or mission. The fascination over ‘incarnational ministry’ has influenced young, missional pastors in the PCA and ARP to such an extent that Reformed theologians are publishing books to critique such a practice (J. Todd Billings, Union With Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church, Baker). Michael Horton in his People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology believes that the Incarnation used in a missiological context loses the “specificity and uniqueness of Christ’s person and work.” (p. 166)
As one involved in church planting in my own denomination, the ARP Church, I have a vested interest in this discussion. Indeed, I hope to host some lunch discussions on this topic in the coming months to sharpen and be sharpened by young men in my denomination.
Is the Incarnation a valid analogy for the mission of the church? My answer is yes, though I answer cautiously. Here are a few brief thoughts concerning my answer.
First, the word ‘incarnation’ in terms of its definition makes it open for churches to see themselves as incarnating particular principles or traits. While the word usually refers to a physical embodiment of a deity or spirit, or some other physical presemce, we often use the word ‘incarnation’ in its verbal form to speak of non-spiritual matters (e.g. “My wife is the incarnation of the loving wife”). Thus, the word itself is not disqualified in speaking about the church’s mission.
Second, there is historical precedent in Reformed circles in appealing to the Incarnation to speak about other doctrines or theological issues. While I agree that some abuse this privilege (e.g. Pete Enns’ incarnational creates more problems than it resolves), two of the most beloved Reformed theologians in church history have employed the Incarnation as an analogy for understanding the Divine and human agencies of Scripture. John Murray in the symposium published by the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary entitled The Infallible Word says on page 2, “The infallibility of Christ’s human nature wold provide us with simple answer to the urgent and difficult question: How can the Bible be the Word and God and at the same time be the work of man? The resolution of the apparent antimony would be provided by the fact that the person who wrote it was himself perfect God and perfect man.”
In addition, many know of Herman Bavinck’s description of Scripture, which he terms organic inspiration. In the first volume of his four-volume Reformed Dogmatics, Bavinck writes on p ages 434-35,”In the doctrine of Scripture, it is the working out and application of the central fact of revelation: the incarnation of the Word. The Word (Logos) has become flesh (sarx), and the word has become Scripture; these two facts do not only run parallel but are most intimately connected. Christ became flesh, a servant, without form or comeliness, the most despised of human beings; he descended to the nethermost parts of the earth and became obedient even to death on the cross. So also the word, the revelation of God, entered the world of creatureliness, the life and history of humanity, in all the human forms of dream and vision, of investigation and reflection…. All this took place in order that the excellency of the power…of Scripture, may be God’s and not ours.”
Even if missional Reformed types are wrong to use the Incarnation as an analogy for another theological topic, they are at least in great company.
Third, the Bible itself gives some warrant for viewing the sending of the Divine Son of God to earth in human flesh to redeem a people for himself as analogous to the church’s mission in the world. Two texts often discussed on this are John 17 and Romans 10:14-15. In John 17, the notion of “sending” or “being sent” occur in verses 3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25. Notably, in 17:18, Jesus makes the incarnational analogy himself, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” In Romans 10:14-15, this theology of sentness is mentioned by the Apostle Paul. A prerequisite for preaching the gospel is that one is sent from one place into another place.
Interestingly, while Horton opposes the incarnational analogy for mission, he makes the same point I am making in his The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way when he says on page 891, “Analogous to the Father’s sending of the Son and the sending of the Spirit by the Father and the Son, and their joint-commission of the apostles, is the wider church’s calling and sending of pastors and elders to their local post and the local church’s sending of its representatives to its wider assemblies.” Indeed, this description by Horton would differ from, say, an Alan Hirsch or Hugh Halter, but the notion that the incarnation may be employed analogically is supposedly valid to Horton.
I agree with J. Todd Billings in his book on this topic that the incarnational analogy is overused and that it would be more appropriate to emphasize union with Christ as the dominant analogy for mission. Indeed Philippians 2:1-2 has more to do with union with Christ than the Incarnation. However, Billings is wrong to claim that the Bible gives no warrant for the incarnational analogy. His treatment of John 17 is unconvincing to say the least.
To summarize, there is warrant for employing the unique Incarnation of the Son of God as an analogy for the church in her mission. This obviously opens up conversations about contextualization, which remains another topic for another day. However, even if the incarnational analogy is overused and sometimes abused, it isn’t entirely illegitimate. What is illegitimate are claims like that of Michael Horton in his The Christian Faith on pages 894 and 899 that the mission of the church is merely the execution of the marks of the church. Indeed, more is going on in the mission of the church than the preaching of Word on the Lord’s Day, administering the sacraments, and enacting church discipline. Perhaps if these marks were fleshed out as to include activities outside the Lord’s Day assembly, Horton would be onto something.
So, this debate deserves much careful thinking and charity in our Reformed bodies. A mere dismissal of the incarnational analogy for mission is too extreme, but making the incarnation the most dominant analogy would be the other extreme. In the end, we must rightly divide the Word of truth (2 Tim 2:15) and note all the various angles and perspectives to which God’s Word speaks about the mission of the church.