Recently i briefly explored a common pitfall i see in much theological work (especially in evangelicalism): using the doctrine of the incarnation as epistemological window-dressing.
As i have thought more about this, it seems fitting to me to describe this trend as “instrumentalizing the incarnation.” Basically, the incarnation is one’s tool of choice to justify a larger (or more foundational) theological commitment in a theologian’s work. The key word often associated with this tendency is “embodiment.” Simply stated, in this view the incarnation serves as more of a moral imperative to value the physical world.
It is likely evangelical theology has to some degree realized the lack of a robust theology undergirding their conceptions. Since incarnational/trinitarian discourse is in vogue at the moment, it seems expedient to show how the incarnation provides a rationale for one’s real agenda to be furthered, & since all hobby horses can be construed as connected to the physical realm somehow, the way is paved for the incarnation to be used to justify the “embodiment” of the theologian’s real agenda.
This may not be done with malicious intent. In fact, i would guess that such efforts are meant to recover a robust Christology, but if the incarnation is merely instrumentalized, then Christ’s humanity merely provides a moral impetus to value anything “embodied.” But this actually cheapens the incarnation by ripping the moral imperative from the substitutionary nature of the incarnation. Thus, despite good intentions, the incarnation is merely ethical; it is not a belief with ontological implications for one’s doctrine of God or theological anthropology. We often, to use a former professor’s language, enjoy the “embrace” of the incarnation, but resist being “displaced.” One must value physical realities while simultaneously displacing the central role our deeper agendas play in understanding these realities. Christ, in his incarnation, does both.
To reduce the incarnation to the ethical imperative of valuing physicality is to do violence to the humanity of Jesus, who is still alive. He is not merely a doctrinal corpse who we can perform an autopsy on in search of justification for our agendas, no matter how noble. In his humanity he does more than merely affirm true embodiment; he also judges all false understandings and the “alien principles” the misunderstandings are born out of. This substitutionary dimension moves us beyond mere instrumentalizing into the ontological depths of being, a necessity for a robust Christology.