“Incarnational Ministry” and Christology: A Reappropriation of the Way of Lowliness – Missiology Journal

“Incarnational Ministry” and Christology: A Reappropriation of the Way of Lowliness – Missiology Journal

By J. Todd Billings

Missiology: An International Review 32:2, April 2004

“Incarnational Ministry” has been a significant missiological concept for over two decades. It has earned a place in missiological textbooks, and still spurs debates.[1] Yet, although the notion obviously has Christological roots, there has been little systematic theological reflection on the topic.

Certainly, some of this may be due to the variety of ways in which the concept is used. Writers employ it to promote and explain the process of missionary inculturation,[2] criticize the distant missionary compound approach as colonial rather than incarnational,[3] and justify “relocation” as a central principle for urban ministry.[4] In general, this cluster of related yet distinct meanings[5] is justified with a references to two sets of verses:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross. (Philippians. 2:5-8, NRSV)

And the Word became flesh and lived among us. (John 1:14a, NRSV)

God’s love is not love from a distance, but love up close, love made manifest in a culturally particular, person-to-person way. The Incarnation is the ultimate revelation of this character in the love of God. As those called to imitate this humble love (Philippians 2:5), missionaries must leave the compound, learn the language, becoming one with the people in need, just as Christ became one with a particular human culture.[6] This theological emphasis should lead to a basic shift in orientation from the condescension of distance to an assistance of the needy by becoming one with them. For some, this is used to promote the notion of grassroots community development, which seeks to address needs not by meeting them with outside resources, but by encouraging those in need to help themselves. This fundamental reorientation for mission is said to find its theological ground in the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Yet, as someone who has been on the mission field with such a rationale, as well as by a brief survey of the literature, there are practical reasons to have questions about following the full logic of “incarnational ministry” so described. As Harriet Hill and more recently Ken Baker have pointed out, practically speaking, it seems impossible to become “one” with the people.[7] Particularly for those working among the poor (for whom incarnational ministry is most aggressively advocated), the attempt to become “one” with the people is likely to leave a set of unanswered questions: How can I become one with the people when I have a different history and cultural background? How can I become one with the poor when I still have a network of family and mission that can bail me out of bad situations? Am I not being dishonest with myself and the poor by simply nudging for change from the ground up rather than using my own resources to help meet needs?

These are complicated questions which cut to the heart of contemporary mission to the poor. This essay does not seek to answer them in a definitive way. However, it will engage in a theological assessment and proposal on this key issue of the Incarnation, which has led to a great deal of missionary theology and practice. The first section of the essay seeks to illuminate the practical missiological debate by examining the Christological assumptions involved and giving a theological assessment of the sources for these christological claims. The outcome of this assessment is that the classical issues of a Chalcedonian Christology need to be revisited; thus a Chalcedonian and Barthian Christological corrective are proposed, which lead to the missiological outcomes stated in the conclusion. These missiological outcomes seek to uphold the challenge that incarnational ministry has properly given to certain “missionary compound” approaches to mission – that missionaries should be “with” the people in need. Yet, it also seeks to give sufficient theological grounding for norms of ministry which seek to be “for” the persons in need, through a concrete vision of vivification in Christ.

“For” and “with” in Incarnational Ministry

Although missiological literature has many references to incarnational ministry, there are relatively few theological defenses of the notion. Departing from this tendency is the theological account in the presentation of incarnational ministry by Orlando Costas, an account which continues to be influential.[8] While Costas’ account has more of a liberation edge than some other evangelical accounts, it is helpful to examine because he has great concern for giving a christological grounding to his project. Furthermore, his liberation emphasis is appropriate to the fact that incarnational ministry receives its most passionate defenses among those working among the poor and oppressed, especially in the city.[9]

Costas offers his most sustained exposition and defense of the notion of incarnational ministry in Christ Beyond the Gate.[10] In a chapter on “Contextualization and Incarnation,” he weaves together doctrinal issues related to the Incarnation with a particular missionary strategy of working among the poor. Although he begins the chapter by arguing that one can ground a notion of contextual theology in the Incarnation, he develops a missionary strategy for incarnational ministry which goes beyond contextualization in any simple sense.

For Costas, it is crucial to start with the New Testament testimony that the Word, the Logos, became incarnate, becoming one with humanity. God became human “in the man Jesus while remaining true to himself.” (1982:6) With this statement Costas has an important, four page endnote on the Council of Chalcedon and christological metaphysics. Costas sees himself as in fundamental continuity with the Chalcedon, affirming that “Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human.” (1982:17) Yet, Costas has a distinctive reading of Chalcedon, that its “concern is not philosophical, even though it speaks in ontological categories (the only ones available at the time), but soteriological.” (1982:17) Indeed, metaphysics seem to be far from the concern of Chalcedon, which he refers to as one among a number of “classical christological doxologies.” (1982:19) “The point of Chalcedon…is not explaining ‘how’ but affirming that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human, ‘without mixture, without change, without division, without separation.'” (1982:17) Thus, Costas appears to affirm Chalcedon as a soteriological hymn of praise, but not the first place to look for a Christological metaphysics.

Yet, as Costas continues his excursus on Chalcedon, he seems to use it as a metaphysical rule of sorts. He critiques Berkhof’s Christological reformulation as having a tendency “toward a one-sided Christology. He [Berkhof] does not feel comfortable with the other side of the Chalcedonion affirmation: the vere Deus.” (1982:18)–yet never uses the term “nature.” It seems that Berkhof, with his “qualified admiration” of Schleiermacher’s Christology, would avoid what Costas sees as key to the doctrine of the incarnation: that “God became part of history while remaining true to himself.” (1982:18)

At this point, Costas is at a crossroads. He can go the direction of Barth, who holds that God “is not untrue to Himself but true to Himself in this condescension,” and formulates this in a two nature Christology, like that of Chalcedon. (Barth, 1956:185) Or, he can take the path of Moltmann, who also uses the incarnation to help him reformulate a doctrine of God, showing how God can remain true to Godself in the Incarnation.[11] Following the path of Moltmann would bring him farther afield from Chalcedon, since Moltmann explicitly denies the two-natures language and affirms a notion of the passibility of God that would have been rejected by both sides of the Chalcedon settlement. Costas does not feel obliged to use Chalcedon metaphysically (even though he started to do so with Berkhof), but simply as a nonontological, doxological piece. Hence, Costas may not be disturbed by Moltmann’s decisive break from the language of “two natures” in “one Person” in Chalcedon.

Costas takes the path of Moltmann. Rather than resorting to a “two-nature scheme” or a “one-sided formulation” as in Berkhof and Schleiermacher, he says that “the unity of Jesus with God can be better explained with a ‘trinitarian framework in an eschatological key.'” (1982:19) To see how Costas develops these keys of trinitarian relations and eschatology with regard to the Incarnation, we must return to Costas’ main argument.

After stating a basic affirmation that “God had become human in the man Jesus,” Costas goes on to argue how “the New Testament teaches that Jesus was a thorough human being.” (1982:6) Jesus was a “poor, humble, enigmatic, lonely Jewish preacher.”[12] (1982:6) At the cross, the New Testament describe Jesus as “a poor and oppressed man.” (1982:7) It is at this point of the death on the cross that “the mystery of Jesus as the Son of God is most densely revealed.” (1982:7) Seen in light of the New Testament’s use of the suffering servant language of Isaiah, one can see that the cross is “on the side of the poor and the afflicted, the sick and the oppressed.” (7) Indeed, Costas argues that this is the focal point of the Incarnation, identifying with “humanity in its lowest form.” (1982:7) For early Christians, the doctrine of the Incarnation was that “the poor and oppressed preacher who died on Calvary was none other than the Son of God.” (1982:8)

Costas expands upon this by following the trinitarian explanation of Moltmann, wherein the Son is forsaken by the Father on the cross, with both the Son and the Father suffering. “At the cross we see the Father suffering the death of the Son even as we see the Son suffering his forsakenness by the Father.” (1982:10) For Costas, this affirmation of the passibility of God is important in emphasizing the total identification of God with the oppressed, suffering persons of the world. “God participated in the passion and suffering of the Son for the world. God refused to be identified at the cross by his power and glory. Rather, God was revealed in the helplessness and weakness of Jesus.” (1982:10)

This trinitarian relation of the Son suffering abandonment and the Father suffering for the death of the Son was not just an event in history; it also continues in history in suffering around the world. Costas interprets the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46 as meaning that Jesus Christ “continues to suffer” in the world, suffering in the orphaned, hungry, naked and imprisoned. (1982:10) In this situation, God continues to suffer as these suffer–”the Father suffers with Jesus the pain of sinners and the outcast.” (1982:10) This suffering of God will continue until God’s kingdom comes in fullness in the eschaton. (1982:12)

As Costas draws out the missiological implications for this understanding of the Incarnation, it is clear that what drives it is a strong impulse to develop a norm for the missionary to not simply do things for people, but to be with them. The pattern of the Incarnation is to be a model for the church, and the climax of the incarnation is that “Jesus died as a rejected criminal, suffering not only for but with humanity in the lowest and most horrible form of death.” (1982:13) There is no doubt that – with Bonk, Perkins and other advocates of incarnational ministry – Costas is calling missionaries to leave the compounds, leave their affluent, colonial methods of ministering “for” the poor, and become “immersed” in the situation of oppression. The Incarnation of the Word was an Incarnation to oppressed humanity, and that is what the church must also do.

Although this view of the incarnation gives the church grounds to go and be with the poor, the question arises as to whether the poor to be left in their poverty. This is a question that dissenting voices like Hill raise about incarnational ministry.[13] If a missionary has resources to help a poor person (for the other’s own good, not just the self-gratification of the giver), should not the missionary place helping the other above becoming “one” with them in identification? These are questions that one is left with not simply from the popular treatments of “incarnational ministry,” but specifically from Costas’ portrait of the Incarnation among the oppressed. God is certainly with the oppressed–God suffers with the oppressed in Costas’ view–but it is unclear how this view of the incarnation provides a model to do something for the oppressed. In Costas’ decisive sentence that “Jesus died…not only for but with humanity” is important because it highlights what is missing in his conception of the Incarnation: how Jesus’ mission and death was for humanity. Taking this particular trinitarian and eschatological approach from Moltmann, the differentiation between “for” and “with” seems to have collapsed.

The way in which God in Christ is for humanity is by being with humanity in suffering [for Costas]. Apparently, identification is what humanity needed most. “The Son of God humbled himself to the extent that he took the form of a servant and thus the identity of the poor, powerless, and oppressed.” (1982:13) If one is to follow the Incarnation, one must choose not only to be with the people, but to suffer with them as God suffers with them. (1982:12) Moreover, since Christ is still in the abandoned state (until the eschaton), it is unclear why one would want to bring someone out of this state. If the Christian is to participate in the true humanity of Christ as the second Adam, and this true humanity is conceived of in the socio-political terms of poverty, powerlessness and suffering, the character of redemption becomes murky. If a poor, oppressed person ascends to a middle class position, for example, have they not literally been transformed from the state of Christ-likeness into a state of ungodly worldliness? In this chapter, Costas even frames the “experience of the resurrection” in terms of suffering: sharing the suffering of Jesus as a way of “anticipating” life in the coming Kingdom. (1982:12)

Ironically, Costas also has material in this essay that would make the critics of incarnational ministry happy, norms of how the missionary should do things for the poor. The problem is that not only are they sparse, but they slip through the cracks because they do not have a strong Christological base in Costas’ account. For example, Costas identifies Jesus Christ as the “Lord and Savior of the oppressed” who is found “among the poor, the powerless, and the oppressed.” Then he says what this same “Jesus Christ” is doing: “healing their wounds, breaking their chains of oppression, demanding justice and peace, giving life, and imparting hope.” (1982:16) Presumably, missionaries are to be involved in this healing work. But Costas gives no explanation of how Christ’s work is healing in this way, besides solidarity in suffering.

Likewise, it is unclear how a missionary who completely identifies with “the poor, the powerless and the oppressed” (as Jesus did) is in the position to be vehicles for the work of “healing…breaking…demanding…giving… imparting.” (1982:16) Costas also speaks of a “transforming presence” of the church, “to incarnate Christ in our world” through enabling “a process of transformation from personal sin and corporate evil to personal and collective freedom, justice, and well being.” (1982:16) But what happens to make these soteriological results follow? With his portrait of the Incarnation of Christ and incarnational mission, he seems to expect it to happen through identification with the poor. His incarnational theory has provided a theory of being “with” the poor, but does not have a theory of being “for” them (besides being “with” them). Although it is clear that he wants to say that the church must work for transformation, his “abandoned Christ” seems to be simply waiting for a final eschatological transformation. The logical outcome of his view of incarnational ministry seems to leave incarnational ministries in the same place of waiting.

One possible way to locate Costas’ mistake here is recognizing that he lacks the sense of a partially realized eschatology. A certain charitable reading of Costas might argue that he emphasizes eschatology in such a way that one works to bring in the new Kingdom by actively working toward transformation. Yet, not only does Costas not use this language; it also seems that his Christology may push him to a more ‘passive’ form of waiting for the Kingdom. If the problem of evil is taken into the very being of God, such that the Son is alienated from the Father (until evil is vanquished), one is missing a Christological portrait of what redemption from evil looks like. Redemption is not yet accomplished, but will be when the rift in God is overcome and the new Kingdom is here.

One can take the way of the Incarnation, which is to become one with the oppressed, in order to protest the present order. But it is unclear how this protest leads to positive, constructive action. Missiologically, if one is to simply be with the oppressed, becoming one with them, it is unclear with what rationale one can be engaged in “healing,” “giving” and other ministries in which Costas (and most missionaries) still want to participate. Even more troubling is the fact that since there is no rationale given for becoming agents of healing and giving (besides identification), one is simply left with an (impossible?)[14] ideal that may undermine the central thrust of passages like Matthew 25:31-46 about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and so on.

At this point one should admit that it is not self evident that the Incarnation should be a significant “model” for the task of missions. There are many other starting points (e.g. love of God and neighbor, a theology of the kingdom, and so on) that may provide a more constructive rationale for mission. But if one is going to retain talk about incarnational ministry, one must be careful to avoid the danger of collapsing the christological rationale of between being for the poor and being with them. Unfortunately, it is not just Costas, but arguably most advocated forms of incarnational ministry (such as “immersion,” “inculturation,” “giving up of affluence”) only provide norms for being with the poor, leaving such styles vulnerable to the criticism that incarnational ministry gives an insufficient rationale to be for the poor.[15]

Another option which would avoid dispensing with the incarnational model is to fuse it with another model of mission that could provide positive norms. We need a lesson in “incarnational ministry” to get missionaries off of the compounds; but once missionaries are immersed and relating on the level of the common people, one should use the model of, say, the church as “hospital.” This approach, however, has serious disadvantages. One can read behind the frustration of complaints about incarnational ministry like Hill, that when it is taught, the practitioners will naturally try to bring it to its logical outcome.[16] If there is an unbalanced theological ground given, the practical results are likely to be unhappy – even if a missiology professor is quick to add another model to the incarnational model. If this “fusion” approach is taken, it should be done with a frank admission of the missiological (not to mention theological) inadequacy of the model, which is likely to rob it of its power.

Yet, if one is to retain a notion of “incarnational ministry,” we must return to the doctrine of the Incarnation and see whether there is a model that is more theologically and missiologically appropriate than the collapse of “for” into “with,” as with Costas and many other incarnational ministry approaches. Before turning to Barth, who keeps with Costas’ initial comments about the incarnation but parts with him at a decisive point, we offer a brief portrait of how the ancient christological controversies leading up to Chalcedon provide some decisive context for the issues at stake in incarnational ministry.

Duality and Oneness: Christological Tensions Leading Up to Chalcedon

In the christological controversies after Nicea, the fourth- and fifth-century church continued to struggle with the subordination of Christ advocated by the Arians and sought to bring greater definition to Nicene orthodoxy. In the developing christological controversy in the late-fourth and early fifth-century, there developed two competing schools of christological metaphysics, the Alexandrian and Antiochene.[17] The Council of Chalcedon combines the language of advocates of both schools, but excludes the extreme versions of both sides. On one “extreme” side was Nestorius, and on the other was Cyril of Alexandria, particularly in his early formulations. While Chalcedon ends up affirming a “middle ground” position between these two thinkers, it does so by drawing boundaries in Christological metaphysics which are instructive in evaluating the Christology of Moltmann and Costas, who follows him.

Both sides of the controversy leading up to Chalcedon sought to preserve the integrity of the divine and the human in Christ, as well as keeping in mind the soteriological concern that redemption is accomplished in Christ. In the earlier Nicene controversy, Athanasius presented an anti-Arian, soteriological argument that the Son must be of one essence with the Father if God is to be the agent of redemption, in making humanity like Godself. One of Athanasius’ followers, Apollinarius, was so emphatic in his formulation of Christ’s deity that he denied that Christ had a human “soul,” or denied “a human center of life and consciousness in Jesus.” (Norris, 1980:23) His position was condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

Cyril of Alexandria adapts a key phrase from Apollinarius, that Christ was the “‘one incarnate nature of the divine Logos,’” but in a way that seeks to affirm Jesus’ human nature (in Norris 1980:21, 27). For Cyril, the incarnate life of the Logos in Jesus is a human mode or form of existing, but the Logos is still clearly the subject of the person of Christ. There was a union of the human and the divine Logos into one before the birth of Christ. Although Cyril eventually admits to validity in the language of two natures (adopted at Chalcedon in 451), his emphasis is upon the union of the divine and human natures in Christ, such that there is no doubt that God is the agent of redemption through Christ.

On another side of the debate, frequently called the “Antiochene,” there was a different way of dealing with the pressure to preserve the integrity of both the divine and human in Christ: one should do this by avoiding confusion or mixture between the “two natures.” Thus, for Nestorius, Christ was born of Mary in his humanity but performed miracles in his deity. “I divide the natures, but I unite the worship.” (Norris, 1980:130). Not surprisingly, Nestorius and other less-extreme Antiochenes were suspicious of Apollinarian tendencies in Cyril and the Alexandrians. For the Antiochenes, the Alexandrians’ positing the divine Logos as the subject of Christ seems to threaten the real humanity of Christ.

But a core issue with the debate about the natures of Christ was that of whether God in Godself suffers in Christ, or whether in Christ God has intimate union and communion with the suffering of humanity. For the Antiochenes, a pre-incarnation union of the two natures seems dangerously close to a union which could mean a “mixture” or “confusion” of the two natures, such that God would literally suffer in Godself on the cross. This raises soteriological concerns. Persons in various parts of the church did speak in terms of the communication of idioms, wherein attributes traditionally attributed to Christ’s humanity are attributed to his deity, as in the statement that “God was crucified on the cross.” Yet, frequently this was used in doxological contexts, and the same persons would deny a ontological passibility (or mutability) in God. Nevertheless, particularly since Cyril was quite bold in his usage of the communication of idioms, the Antiochenes were suspicious that his one-nature Christology pushes too close to affirming divine passibility or mutability. On the other side of the debate, if there was not an intimate communion – and union – of the divine and human in Christ, then the distance between God and humanity has not, in fact, been overcome in the Incarnation.

Thus, on two counts, one ends up with a Christological situation that appears to be a zero-sum game. If one emphasizes Christ’s divinity, one risks de-emphasizing his humanity, and vice versa. Moreover, if one pushes two-nature language toward that of one nature, one risks making God a fellow sufferer as a creature (rather than a healer like a Creator, according to the fifth century logic). Yet, if one emphasizes the separation of the two natures, then an incarnational soteriology does not overcome the necessary distance for redemption. While the Council of Chalcedon does not provide a complete, constructive solution to these problems, its affirmation of “two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation” in “one Person,” provides guidance on how to avoid the soteriological pitfalls of the extreme versions on both sides.

Both Moltmann and Barth seek to overcome the zero-sum game described above. The decisive Christological move here is to deduce one’s doctrine of God from a reflection on the incarnate, crucified and resurrected Christ, rather than try to squash a pre-established understanding of divinity and humanity into one person. The Christological problem should not be one of math – how to make two “natures” into one “person.”[18] Instead, one should look to the incarnate Word to find out who God is. This is the fundamental insight in which Barth and Moltmann agree, expressed also with Costas’ statement that “God had become human in the man Jesus while remaining true to himself.” (1982:6)

This agreement sets the ground for the crossroads, however, which this article earlier mentioned. Moltmann develops a doctrine of God, influenced by post-Holocaust thought, in which there is a rift in the Trinity. The rift is the problem of evil, manifested by the Son being in state of being abandoned by the Father. Moltmann rejects two-natures Christology, boldly asserting that suffering is taken into the very being of God (thus going against Chalcedon’s restrictions against the mixture or confusion of the two natures). For Moltmann, this rift in the Godhead will not be repaired until the eschatological consummation, when “the Son [will] hand over the Kingdom to the Father.” (Moltmann 1974:278)

Costas follows Moltmann on all of these decisive points, using it as grounds to interpret Matthew 25:31-46 saying that Christ is in abandoned persons (because they are abandoned). This is necessarily the case, because Christ’s Incarnation was not just a general Incarnation to humanity, but specifically to the poor and abandoned, since that is the position the Son must fill until the final consummation in the eschaton. For Costas, Christ the human became one with the abandoned, having solidarity with the oppressed. Yet, this Christ who is an exemplar for Christians – displaying the new humanity into which Christian participate – is in a state of abandonment from the Father.

Costas’ Christology has the same flaw that Baker, Hill, and even Tiersma have discovered with many instances of incarnational ministry: there is a rationale for being with the poor and oppressed, but these ministries lack a substantive positive vision of the direction of redemption.[19] Chalcedon had soteriological reasons to avoid Christological formulations which assert the “mixture” of Christ’s two natures (lest statements like “God is crucified” be taken literally). So also, Christians today have reason to avoid theologies of incarnational ministry which make oneness with the oppressed the central or final goal of Christian ministry.

Barth and the Missiological Implications of the Incarnation

Barth agrees with Costas’ sensibility in developing a doctrine of God from the Incarnation. With Costas, Barth wants to set up Christ in his true, obedient humanity as a clear exemplar for Christians. Yet, Barth does not postulate a rift in the Trinity, and with it a entrance of suffering into the life of God (with a “mixture” of natures).

For Barth, in the Incarnation “God gives Himself, but He does not give Himself away.” (1956:185) God does not give up being God, nor does God allow “antinomy” or “division” in the Godhead. (1956:186) Barth affirms a two nature Christology (with Chalcedon), but nuances it by asserting that one can only speak about a divine or human “nature” when one starts with the revelation of God and the “real man” in Jesus Christ. Barth writes, “it is not for us to speak of a contradiction and rift in the being of God, but to learn to correct our notions of the being of God, to reconstitute them in the light of the fact that He does this.” (1956:186) Barth is clear that the free divine choice to show the divine power by entering into weakness, the divine glory by entering into a humble state, is an eternal decision. It did not “happen” 2000 years ago, but was an eternal decision of the Word in the Godhead to enter into the way of lowliness. The story of Israel shows this humble movement of God, with the culmination of God’s decision to take the form of a servant taking place in Christ.

Thus, Barth has a very strong affirmation that God [eternally] chooses the way of lowliness in the Incarnation. But the cross does not leave Christ in a state of abandonment from the Father. The Trinity, acting in unity, had decided to take this path of suffering love through the Word made flesh from before the foundations of the world. The cross is no surprise to God; instead, it reveals precisely how God freely chooses to take the contradiction of sinful humanity upon Godself, accepting “solidarity with the world” by taking on humanity. (1956:187) Yet while God “makes his own the being of man in contradiction against Him” God “does not make common cause with it.” (1956:185) God takes on humanity, but does not enter into the sin holding humanity down. Indeed, holding to a two-natures Christology, the divine nature does not suffer,[20] even as God enters into “the most perfect communion” with the suffering man Jesus. In the Incarnation God is not simply with humanity – God must take on humanity in order to “reconcile the world with Himself.” (1956:185) There is no part of humanity, besides sin, that the Word does not take on in Christ, but this solidarity with humanity is not, in the final moment, solidarity with sinful alienation from God; instead, it is solidarity for the purpose of bringing forgiveness and redemption.

There is an ethical and missiological dimension to the Incarnation, “that God as God is able and willing and ready to condescend, to humble Himself in this way is the mystery of the ‘deity of Christ.’” (1956:177) Articulating the practical implications of this mystery is very important for Barth, pushing his reflections in a direction quite similar to that of certain treatments of “incarnational ministry.” With a sense of awe and wonder, Barth reviews the vast amount of material in the New Testament about Christians taking the way of “lowliness.” In the epistles, Barth lists numerous passages in which the way to exaltation by God is through lowliness and humility. In the Gospels, the sayings are “even more radical,” calling for the denial of self and taking up of the cross (1956:190-1). Yet, in all of this, there is not a reflection of alienation in the Godhead but “a reflection of the New Testament concept of God,” as revealed in the “the lowly existence of the man Jesus as the Son of God.” (1956:190) God has not just taken on any humanity, but the humanity of the lowly, suffering love in Christ.

Yet, the dimension of suffering and poverty are not fundamentally constitutive for Barth, but the result of the world coming into conflict with the self-giving, grateful and responsible humanity chosen by God in Jesus Christ. Thus, Barth argues that Christians should not imitate the sufferings of Christ for their own sake, but that the path of Christ’s self-giving humanity will lead to times of conflict with a world alienated from Christ. Rather than constituting this true humanity of Christ by the “poverty” and “oppressed” state (as Costas does), Barth describes it as a humanity which is loving, grateful, free, and responsible.

Barth thus has positive norms built into his Christology: he recognizes that church which must bear the cross is also the church which both anticipates and experiences the new life in Christ through the Spirit, participating in Christ’s new eschatological humanity. As the second and true Adam, Christ displays gratitude to the Father for all of His lavish gifts of creation. As the one who shows humanity in its fullness, Christ does so by being the perfect penitent one, accepting the “no” of God to creaturely sin. As the one who fulfills the covenant of God with humanity, Christ displays freedom in voluntarily performing the tasks of God’s law of love. As the one human who is truly free, Christ shows his freedom through voluntarily giving himself to the poor and sick in a mode of lowliness, even though “there is no lowliness which is divine in itself and as such.” (1956:191)

The lowly path of Christ does show his love and freedom. But one must be very clear here as to what matters christologically: Christ meets humanity in the extreme limits of human experience, but “salvation is not in those limits.” (1956:192) As such, the suffering of the Christian is not redemptive in and of itself; one must always sharply distinguish between the cross of Christ and the cross of the Christian. God is the one who redeems humanity, entering into perfect communion with our humanity in Christ, but not making suffering enter into the very being of God. As such, by affirming the unity of the two natures without a mixture, one is free to see how in Christ God has taken on a full, true humanity which can love in humble, active freedom, but without sanctifying poverty or abandonment.[21]

Conclusion: Missiological Outcomes

If one finds christological norms in Chalcedon and Barth for one’s missiological reflection upon the Incarnation, certain aspects of the “incarnational ministry” discussion and practice must be altered. The hymn to Christ in Philippians and the many scriptural calls for love and self-giving in light of the cross must continue to provide fuel for missiological reflection. God’s choice to take on the humble, loving, humanity of Christ means that all who are “in Christ” come to participate in his full humanity, which showed an astonishing amount of freedom. Christ was free of the domination of self-interest, which has comfort and the avoidance of suffering as a supreme goal. He was also free of a mentality associated with the missionary compound, which can thrive on distance from those in need, with a condescending attitude toward outsiders.

In this way, the ethics of lowliness in the New Testament can combine with a theology of the cross, which presents a stark challenge to comfort ethos and individualism that permeate much of middle-class Western culture. True freedom in Christ means the freedom to enter into relationship with persons who bring one outside of one’s socioeconomic or religious comfort zone – freedom to break bread with the outcasts, the poor, and all of the other “neighbors” that Christians are commanded to love. Yet this Christologically grounded humble courage – which is willing to condescend in self-giving love – is not simply solidarity, or being “with” the poor or needy as Costas and many other advocates of incarnational ministry emphasize. Its direction and orientation is vivifying – for although Christ suffers in his self-giving love, this suffering is simply the worldly consequence of the free, grateful and loving humanity which he enacts – the true, eschatological humanity into which Christians participate through the Spirit.

What effects would come for specific ministries with this theological orientation? While there are a wide variety of possible implications, I suggest just two possible outcomes. First, in situations where one is dealing with persons who are both oppressed in society and yet also being oppressed by their own sin and need, one can respond in a balanced way. This is often the situation with persons seeking to minister in urban environments, particularly with a group of people like the homeless in the United States. It is important to leave one’s comfort zone, to come to these persons in relationship, and also to advocate for these persons on a socio-political level for their needs. This is all part of the responsibility of humbly coming close to persons in relationships of love.

Yet, the Christian should not finally be content with solidarity and protest. Rather, there are christological reasons for challenging persons to take steps out of the lifestyles and habits that contribute to their condition. There is a christological rationale for challenging and expecting an alcoholic, for example, to take steps toward recovery. In the actions of taking responsibility, developing gratitude for each sober day – all in the context of opening themselves up to fellowship with God – they partake in Christ’s own life, Christ’s true humanity. With a christological rationale, one is not “balancing” social and personal needs, or social ministry with religious ministry. Rather, in Christ the true humanity is revealed that encompasses all of these dimensions – all of these vivifying steps are oriented toward the fullness of human life in Christ.

Likewise, for those who are seeking to encourage “self-determination” among “underdeveloped” peoples in the Two-Thirds world, a Christology with a vivifying vision is important. Are Christian development workers doing more than encouraging capitalists, who are dependent upon themselves, or disciples of Jesus Christ? This antinomy can be overcome (not just conceptually, but in practice) when one realizes that self-determination and the voluntary taking of responsibility are constitutive dimensions of the true humanity taken on by God in Jesus Christ. It is not a self-determining humanity that is closed off from God. But precisely in being open to God, acting in gratitude and responsibility, one is put into action toward what God the Master has called the person or community to do.

This movement from passivity into action is, in fact, a form of self-determination, of finding one’s true self in Christ’s true humanity – through responsible, grateful, free acts. Christian development ministries should encourage self-determination, not of a type that ultimately trusts in the market, but in the God who calls persons into grateful and responsible action. When a Christian development worker encourages persons to have an active prayer life and encourages responsible action in agricultural development, he is encouraging one and the same thing: growth into the true and full humanity of Jesus Christ.

Christians must continue to be challenged by the New Testament call for self-giving love, which, like Christ, is willing to condescend and to enter into relationships that threaten pride and comfort. Indeed, the humanity which God has taken on Godself in Christ is one that is willing to suffer for the sake of self-giving love and reconciliation. Yet, Christians must not lose sight that this humanity is also the true, full humanity of the second Adam, the grateful, free, loving creature into whom believers participate in a vivification that comes from God.

References Cited

Baker, Ken, with response by Jonathan Bonk
2002 “Incarnational Model: Perception of Deception?” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, Vol. 38/1:16-24.

Barth, Karl
1956 Church Dogmatics, IV(I): The Doctrine of Reconciliation, ed. Geoffrey Bromiley, Thomas F. Torrance, transl. Bromiley. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Bonk, Jonathan
1991 Missions and Money: Affluence as a Western Missionary Problem. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

Coakley, Sarah
1996 “Kenosis and Subversion: On the Repression of ‘Vunerability’ in Christian Feminist Writing,” In Swallowing a Fishbone? Feminist Theologians Debate Christianity. Daphne Hampson, ed. Pp. 82-111. Reading, UK: SPCK Press..

Costas, Orlando E.
1982 Christ Outside the Gate: Mission Beyond Christendom. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

1989 Liberating News: A Theology of Contextual Evangelization. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Engen, Charles van and Jude Tiersma
1994 God So Loves the City: Seeking a Theology for Urban Mission. Monrovia, CA: Marc.

Hill, Harriet
1990 “Incarnational Ministry: A critical Examination” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, vol. 26/2:196-201.

Lingenfelter, Sherwood G. and Marvin K. Mayers.
1986 Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

McElhannon, Ken.
1991 “Don’t Give Up on the Incarnational Model.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 27 (October).

Moltmann, Jurgen
1974 The Crucified God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press edition (printed in 1993).

Norris, Richard A.
1980 The Christological Controversy. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Perkins, John.
1984 With Justice for All. Ventura, CA: Regal Books.

1993 Beyond Charity: the Call to Christian Community Development. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.


[1].See the recent discussion between Ken Baker and Jonathan Bonk in Evangelical Missions Quarterly (2002:16-24). For an earlier version of the debate, see Harriet Hill, “Incarnational Ministry: A critical Examination” EMQ, April 1990 with a response by Ken McElhannon, “Don’t Give up on the Incarnational Model” EMQ, (1991). Examples of recent missiological textbooks which incorporate incarnational ministry are Missiology, ed. John Mark Terry, et. al. (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1998); and Global Missiology for the 21st Century, ed. William Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic 2000).

[2]. See Lingenfelter and Mayers (1986).

[3]. See Bonk (1991), who interprets “incarnation” as meaning “giving up the power, privilege and social position which are naturally our due.” (117)

[4]. As Tiersma writes in God So Loves the City: Seeking a Theology for Urban Mission, “The idea of incarnation, of walking with and dwelling among people, of identifying with their sufferings, is essential for mission in the city. A theology that looks in from the outside, that sees the sin and wants to go in an rescue the city, is inadequate.” (Engen and Tiersma, 1994). John Perkins also has a strong emphasis upon incarnational ministry. In With Justice for All, relocation to live with the poor is presented as the first of three core missiological strategies. As part of his theological grounding, Perkins writes (after quoting Philippians 2:5-8), “Jesus was equal with God yet He gave that up and took on the form of a servant. He took on the likeness of man. He came and lived among us. He was called Immanuel—‘God with us.’ The incarnation is the ultimate relocation.” (1984:88). Incarnational theology is still central for Perkins when he writes Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development in 1993. In the final chapter he writes “throughout this book I have intentionally limited my use of the most important single word that describes Christian community development. I have avoided the word for fear that its familiar ring would leave the work of Christian community development itself powerless to communicate. That word is Incarnation.” (1993: 177.) Testimony to the fact that “relocation” is still a central tenet of many urban missions is reflected in the Statement of Purpose of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA).

[5]. Some of these meanings of “Incarnation,” specifically dependent upon interpretations of Philippians 2, are in strong need of considering the large body of literature in New Testament studies on Philippians 2. See the definitions of incarnation in Bonk (n. 3, above) and Perkins (n. 4, above). For a review of the literature, see Ralph Martin, A Hymn of Christ: Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Interpretation & in the Setting of Early Christian Worship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997).

[6]. See Baker (2002), 18-19.

[7]. See Baker and Hill. Baker describes the “vast difference” between “voluntary poverty” and missionary identification with the poor. (2002:20) Hill illustrates this difference with a poignant example: “I recently talked to a couple who were trying to identify with the people and assume an insider role. They lived on the level of the villagers, even though this brought discomfort, stress, and health problems. They tried to convince the villagers that they were not rich; they just wanted to be one with them. However, their [incarnational] model crashed when their newborn became ill and they rushed him home to the States for treatment. No villagers would have had that option.” (1990:198)

[8]. In addition to being a common missiologist still read in Theology of Mission courses (e.g. in Wheaton College and Fuller Seminary syllabi, available online), Costas is repeatedly referred to by Perkins, who (along with the CCDA) is very influential (see references in Beyond Charity).

[9]. See n. 4 (above) on connection of incarnational mission with urban mission. Arguably, the whole movement of incarnational ministry is somewhat dependent upon liberation theology. Tiersma writes “Liberation theology has emphasized the Incarnation. And since we also find much of the suffering and oppression that provides the context for liberation theologies concentrated in our cities, it is not surprising that we should find the theme of Incarnation there as well.” (Engen and Tiersma, 1994:10)

[10]. For example, when Costas refers to incarnation in his later work, Liberating News (1989:160), he directs the reader back to his more full development of “Incarnation as the point of departure for the communication of the gospel” in chapter 1 of Christ Outside the Gate. (1982).

[11]. Obviously, there are more than two possible directions to go than Barth or Moltmann. Costas himself quotes James Dunn and Wolfhart Pannenberg in his initial development of this trinitarian, eschatological approach. Yet, Moltmann is repeatedly drawn upon for the rest of the chapter on the Incarnation, and Costas follows him in decisive ways. The reason why Barth should be considered as an alternative is twofold. First, Costas’ repeated statement about God becoming human yet remaining true to Godself is a virtual quotation from Barth (who says that God “is not untrue to Himself but true to Himself in this condescension,” 1957:185), even though Barth is not cited. Second, although Barth and Moltmann agree on this principle, they take it in decisively different directions. Indeed, Moltmann develops his position in explicit rejection of Barth’s. As such, there does seem to be an either/or between the Moltmannian path that Costas takes and a Barthian approach.

[12]. While Costas claims to look to the New Testament for his portrait of Jesus, some of his language (e.g. “enigmatic, lonely Jewish preacher”) sounds more like a Jesus that is a product of historical Jesus studies, perhaps from a liberation perspective. However, Costas does draw upon the intertextual link of the Isaiah suffering servant language to justify some of this language.

[13]. This is a question apparent in Hill’s discussion on (1990:200-1). Also see Tiersma (Engen and Tiersma, 1994:18).

[14]. For a case which questions how realistic it is for the missionary to become “one” with the poor, see n. 7 (above).

[15]. Baker somewhat overstates the case when he describes the “the goal” of incarnational approaches as “identification.” (2002:21) Certainly, identification would be included, but advocates like Costas and others would want to have a dimension of transformation also. What Baker is pointing to, however, is the slippage that in its popular forms incarnational ministry can often be reduced to simply “identification.” The argument of this paper is that this “slippage” is because only the norms for identification (rather than the norms for transformation) are present in the Christologies underlying many “incarnational ministry” approaches. Tiersma, even as she advocates incarnational ministry, complains about the same slippage to which Baker points (of collapsing “for” into “with”). She says that some incarnational ministries emphasize being with the poor, or “walking alongside” them, to such an extent that they “albeit unintentionally, act on the premise that this is the end of the story.” She testifies to the need for incarnational approaches to move beyond simply “being” with the poor, “reducing the incarnation to only ‘being’ is less than what God intends.” (1994:18)

[16]. See Hill (1990:200-201).

17. There is a sense in which Alexandria and Antioch can be considered the centers of competing schools of Christological reflection—particularly in the debates between Nestorius and Cyril. Yet, Frances Young has shown how this differentiating typology should not be overemphasized, in Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Indeed, for the purposes of this paper, a key point is their agreement in denying passibility to the trinitarian Godhead. Nevertheless, in order to show the tensions that are revealed in the debate between Nestorius and Cyril, I retain the language of Alexandrian and Antiochene “schools,” which has been conventional in historical accounts of the fifth-century christological controversy.

[18]. Unfortunately, Lingenfelter and Mayers do seem to make Christology of math, describing Christ as “a 200 percent person” who is “100 percent God” and “100 percent human.” (1986:17)

[19]. See Tiersma for an account of this danger, amidst her overall positive evaluation of incarnational ministry (Engen and Tiersma, 1994:18).

[20]. “As God was in Christ, far from being against Himself, or at disunity with Himself, He has put into effect the freedom of His divine love, the love in which He is divinely free. He has therefore done and revealed that which corresponds to His divine nature. His immutability does not stand in the way of this. It must not be denied, but this possibility is included in His unalterable being. He is absolute, infinite, exalted, active, impassible, transcendent, but in all this He is the One who loves in freedom.” (Barth, 1956:186-7)

[21]. This portrait of a Christology – and an ethic – that has both a “with” and a “for” (rather than the tendency of some incarnational approaches to collapse “with” into “for”) has certain parallels in the concerns of Christian feminists about issues of power and vulnerability. In fact, there seems to be a possible gender subtext to the incarnational ministry discussion. Incarnational ministry approaches are a reaction to earlier, more colonial models of missions, which are said to commit the sin of “pride” by self-giving from the distance of a missionary compound, maintaining a condescending power over the receivers. Incarnational approaches, in contrast, focus on identifying with the poor but have trouble establishing a rationale that names and protests injustice while working for transformation. The former seems to have certain stereotypical masculine pitfalls, and the identifying model seems to have stereotypically feminine pitfalls (for a brief theological consideration of these stereotypes, see Patricia Wilson-Kastner, Faith, Feminism and the Christ [Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1983], p. 62-3). Faced with the dilemma of wanting empowerment but not wanting to return to oppressive models of power, Sarah Coakley recommends a “‘power-in vulnerability,'” complete with a christological base, through the practice of contemplative prayer. (1996: 110) This practice could be key for practitioners of incarnational ministry to regain empowerment about doing things “for” those who are poor and in unjust situations without becoming a reified colonialist – self-justifying and avoiding vulnerability.