Kees van der Knijff
Last week, we celebrated Christmas. As a number of my ABTS colleagues shared, the celebration of Christmas is a highlight of the Christian year and raises all kinds of beautiful feelings and thoughts. In essence, what we celebrate at Christmas is the Incarnation: the unheard-of, unthinkable, unrepeatable act of God becoming human. But I wonder whether we are at risk of cheapening this mystery by our use of the related adjective ‘incarnational’.
I consider the ancient words of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed an unparalleled expression of the utter contrast we celebrate at Christmas:
We believe in…
one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only-begotten Son of God,
begotten of the Father before all worlds,
Light of Light,
true God of true God,
begotten, not made,
consubstantial with the Father,
by whom all things were made;
who for us man, and for our salvation,
came down from heaven,
and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost and of the virgin Mary,
and became man.
The church has celebrated this unfathomable miracle for centuries, and we still celebrate it each year in awe and wonder. Yet, since a few decades, we not only confess the Incarnation, but the word ‘incarnational’ has become common among evangelical Christians. One of the tasks of theology is to look at the words we use in the church and in theology and to see whether those words are faithful and helpful. Therefore, let us pause briefly in those days after Christmas and reflect on this word ‘incarnational’.
Incarnational has become a go-to phrase to describe a number of Christian activities. It has the character of a buzzword: a term with mainly positive connotations that plays an important role but suffers from vagueness because it is seldom defined. The basic idea behind the term ‘incarnational ministry’ is that the incarnation is a crucial model for Christian ministry. That is, as Christians we are called to follow the model of the Incarnation in the way we reach out to those around us. ‘Incarnational’ can be used to refer to humility in our engagement, to the idea of being sent out into the world, to the self-sacrifice that comes with ministry, or to the need for embodied ministry. In all approaches, relationships are valued over programs.
It seems there is a lot to commend this idea of ‘incarnational ministry’. And, to be fair, many good things have come from those who use the terminology in their theologizing or their ministry practice. Yet, I still feel that the problems with the terminology far outweigh its usefulness. I will briefly mention the five main problems that convince me to use the word, if ever, with great care.
First, there is a biblical problem. The key passage for the ‘incarnational’ view is Philippians 2. Now, Philippians 2 is a very beautiful, but also a very difficult chapter. Modern commentators agree to a large extent that it is not the incarnational motif itself that is to be imitated, but Christ’s humility and self-emptying. Paul is calling us to live cruciform, not ‘incarnational’ lives. The key point for me is that it is hard to make sense of the second part of the Christ-hymn in an incarnational reading: are we also to imitate Christ’s exaltation? It is telling that proponents of incarnational ministry usually only discuss verses 5-8.
Second, I see a theological problem. The Incarnation of Christ is a unique event that forms (part of) the basis of Christian faith. It is a decisive divine act in which God became human in Christ. According to the Christian tradition, Christ was both fully God and fully human the moment he was born (or conceived). In that light, it is theologically absurd to speak about an ‘incarnational process’ we go through when we move from one culture to another for ministry. Jesus was fully human, he wasn’t learning to be. My fear with our use of the term ‘incarnational’ is that we either reduce the pure miracle of Christ’s incarnation to something small and understandable, or inflate the ‘sacrifice’ involved in the work of ministry to something it is not and was never supposed to be.
Third, I see a cultural problem. In discussions of incarnational ministry we often work with a very thin notion of culture. We pretend that it is possible to move from one distinct culture to another, while in reality we are always involved in a thick web of cultural layers and enter another such web wherever we move. Even if it would be possible to become fully one with one distinct different culture, it is impossible to do so with the complex and often global layers of culture we encounter in real life. As a cross-cultural missionary living in Lebanon, I regularly meet Lebanese brothers and sisters with whom I share way more in many areas of life than I ever shared with my neighbor back in Rotterdam.
Following the cultural problem, there is a related ethical problem. Whichever way we turn it, the one trying to do ‘incarnational ministry’ will always be the one in charge of the process. Hence, the idea of incarnational ministry could easily end up being just the next cover-up for not having to face all the complex power dynamics that are often involved in the work of ministry. By comparing our complicated quest for how to navigate those unequal relationships to Christ’s incarnation, we compare our home culture to the divine, and our host culture to the human side. By emphasizing the sacrifice involved in the process, what message is it we send to the host culture?
Finally, there are a myriad of practical problems, especially when it comes to cross-cultural ministry. For even if I give my utmost, I will never fully be able to become one with the host culture in which I am called to minister. So why pretend to be really one with it if I know that the power my passport brings, my access to medical care, the luxury of vacations and furloughs, and access to education for my kids will never be shared by many people around me? And I did not even mention the evacuations that often happen in times of crisis. Why pretend to be really one if the people I minister to will always be aware within seconds that I am not one of them? Is this what incarnational is meant to be?
Given all those challenges and problems, I think it would be wise to drop the term ‘incarnational’. To be honest, I am still searching for an adequate alternative. Although it lacks the emphasis on presence and ‘fitting into’ the community we serve, thus far I prefer to speak in terms of cruciformity. Recent work on ‘cruciform ministry’ shows great potential. In the meantime, let us try to live lives worthy of our incarnate Lord: lives of humility and self-sacrifice. And let us meditate so deeply on the Incarnation that our lives will be transformed by it. That way, we might be witnesses to His incarnation in word and in deed.
Kees is associate professor of systematic theology at ABTS. He is trying to get a good grasp of the cultures and languages of Lebanon without feeling any need to make this an incarnational process.