No Incarnational Analogy? A Response to Kevin DeYoung

A friend of mine recently shared a link from The Gospel Coalition’s Kevin DeYoung.  On DeYoung’s blog from today, he merely provides the following quote from Eckhard Schnabel:

Some interpret Paul’s principle of “identification” as indicative of “incarnational mission.” The description of missionary identification with the term incarnation is not helpful–not because it might detract from Jesus’ “becoming flesh” (Lat. incarnatio) when he, the messianic Son of Man and Son of God, become a human being, but because despite all efforts of identification, an American missionary will rarely learn to speak Japanese without an accent, a black Nigerian missionary will never look like a Chinese, an English missionary from a privileged background will probably never fully understand the angst of an Argentinean campesino. (Paul the Missionary, 336)

It’s clear that DeYoung agrees with Schnabel, and it is consistent with his much discussed book What is the Mission of the Church?.

However, as much as I appreciate DeYoung as a young pastor-scholar who is gaining positive influence in the Reformed world, I’ve come to realize that both what I call the “no incarnational model” and the “incarnational model overload” positions aren’t biblically balanced.

I refer the reader to a post I wrote last year on this topic where I interact with various scholars (e.g. Michael Horton, J. Todd Billings, Pete Enns, John Murray, Herman Bavinck).
“Should Christians Use the Incarnation as an Analogy for Mission?”
Daniel F. Wells

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.


3 thoughts on “No Incarnational Analogy? A Response to Kevin DeYoung

  1. 1.) I rarely hear people use the verbal form of incarnation in everyday speak such as the example you give. Rather, I hear people say “epitome,” “personification,” “embodiment,” etc. The only contexts in which I hear incarnation as a verb is in this discussion/debate. Therefore, I don’t think this point is a good argument since you’re trying to argue for it in the context of the debate itself.

    2.) Your examples from Murray and Bavinck are only used in the noun form (not the verbal form) and in both instances, they are relating it to the nature of the Bible, not the mission of the church. So again, I don’t think your point follows. You would have to provide examples where it is being used as a verb and being related to the nature/mission of the church.

    I personally hate hearing the word used in a verbal form and used for the mission of the church and want it reserved to refer exclusively to the event. And I’m no fan of Horton. 🙂

  2. Love your blog, Daniel, but I gotta agree with Mark here. This post is unconvincing. 😉

    There is certainly a sense where we are called to emulate Christ and be a servant of the gospel. After all, the disciple takes the yoke of his master upon himself. Paul called us to be an imitator of him as he imitates Christ. However, are we called to incarnate Christ? It just doesn’t sound right to me. I get the point missional folks like Alan Hirsch are making and agree with the concept, but I just think we could do better with terminology.

    I think John Starke was on point when he wrote that incarnation is more about the nature of of Christ than about the mission of the Church. The mission of the church is certainly to make disciples by going, baptizing, and teaching (and there is certainly humility involved), but there is a sense where incarnation carries with it the divine-human essence that is only found in Christ.

    That said, I would be more okay with saying incarnational ministry, rather than saying we must incarnate Christ.

    1. Thank you both Mark and Ethan for your charitable comments.

      I’m not sure if my argument is clear or not. I’ve tried to be precise (given my philosophical training) in my claim that the doctrine of the Incarnation (the Father sending the Son on mission) is a valid analogy for the church’s ministry and mission. The claim is not that it is a ministry model or the dominant metaphor for church’s mission. Rather, my claim is rather humble in focus. And I said (in Framean/Poythressian terminology) that the Incarnation is not a dominant perspective in Scripture (but it is present).

      In terms of exegesis (which is more important than linguistic or historical theological issues I raised), I wonder if the theology of Luke-Acts is even more impetus for even an incarnational model of ministry. I am still not willing to claim that the Incarnation is foundational to our philosophy of ministry, but if it is I think Luke-Acts is the basis for it.

      So, just some innocent theologizing. 🙂

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