Instrumentalizing the Incarnation

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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.

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8 responses to “Instrumentalizing the Incarnation

  1. Would you agree that if one wants to justify ’embodiment’ from the scriptures, they should look no further than Gen 1-2 for a complete affirmation of our happy embodiment prior to the fall? I generally agree with your sentiment (re that the logical move from incarnation to embodiment may be gross), but I believe the move toward ’embodiment’ in epistemology is wholly proper.

    There simply must be a backlash to the vapid nature of epistemologies posing as ‘Christian’ that are floating around today. Sadly, what epistemology has come to mean is something akin to ‘mental’, ‘propositional’ or at the very least ‘articulable’. I would hazard to guess that the inadequacy of such epistemological window dressing (of the propositional variety) has spurred much of this talk about ’embodiment’. But abuse does not mitigate proper use. Again, we cannot ground embodiment in the incarnation (although the incarnation does logically lend support to the idea), but there is no need to wait until Matthew to find such a ground. I prefer the borrowed term ‘creatureliness’ that captures our Edenic and perspectival (i.e. finite) createdness that necessarily entails an embodiment epistemology.

    Would that suit your critique?

  2. dru,

    Thanks for stopping by. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious intellectual, it is not that “embodiment” cannot be grounded in the incarnation, but that instrumental models don’t do so rigorously enough. In my thinking, following T.F. Torrance, to really understand embodiment through the incarnation we must not only claim it’s points of consonance with our systems, but go further & see how our ideals for an embodied epistemology are critiqued by the incarnation of the Son. Hence the need to hold together both the “embraced” & the “displaced” nature of the incarnation.

    What i am arguing is that the incarnation of the Son IS our epistemology, but to really take that seriously we have to move beyond mere ethical blessing for our understandings of physical existence to how Jesus judges those understandings.

    This is why, methodologically, Gen 1-2 is a risky place to begin thinking through these issues, since Jesus is our hermeneutical key to understanding true creaturliness (although i think Ray Anderson provides a helpul way of thinking through Gen 1-2 that alleviates most of my concerns. You should check him out.). It isn’t that we have to “wait until Matthew,” but that prior understandings are provisional in the light of the Incarnation. Prior knowledge that comports with what is revealed in the incarnation is true knowledge, but only in the Word made flesh do we receive definitive knowledge.

  3. I know and ‘get’ this tack you are taking (as my Ph.D. supervisor is a Torrance) and I agree that the incarnation will get us some traction we don’t have in Gen 1-2. However, I would argue that starting anywhere except for Gen 1 and working forward is methodologically risky. This is something I am methodologically having to convince my supervisor of as well.

    If you have not looked into TF Torrance’s epistemological underwriter (M. Polanyi), he is well worth your time. I haven’t yet read Ray Anderson, but I will look him up at your suggestion. My diss. is on epistemology native to the Pentateuch and synoptic Gospels, so it’s not fair for me to beat that drum here, other than to say that there are patent incidences the people of God encouraged toward true knowledge strewn throughout the Pentateuch.

    The first and paradigmatic case for epistemology in the entirety of scripture is found in Genesis 2 (so I would argue). And the methodological rhetoric of the synoptic Gospels finds their own grounding in that Pentateuchal story in terms of lexicography, narrative, and rhetoric. More pointedly, they find their ultimate meaning directly in the Gen 1-3 narratives as they are aggadically expounded in the Pentateuch (as Fishbane says) and this has only marginally to do with the cultural mandate. I’m presenting this argument on the epistemology of Genesis 1-3 at a conference in October and after that, I would be happy to share it (or beforehand if you would like to critique it).

    So when I read what appears to be a Barthian tone on anthropological embeddedness, I think the Torrancian bent does better to lean toward his Polanyian intuitions than the general Barthian tendency to put all theological primacy on the Incarnation. Now that is a loaded and pregnant assertion! In other words, all epistemology is ‘from below’ and is therefore provisional even in light of the Incarnation. This does not mean knowing cannot be real or true, but is dependent on many aspects in order to be faithful knowing, all of which are found in the Tanakh and then repeated by the Incarnated Christ in the NT.

    So I would put the question to Torrance’s notion of Incarnational epistemology as you have described it here: Who knows what and how in this post-Incarnational world? And more importantly, is that who, what and how different after the Incarnation than Edenic knowing? If so, is that knowing due to the Incarnation itself, or the sending of the HS, which is not necessarily entailed in the idea of the Incarnation?

    I think my point is that the Incarnation finds its significance to us in a post-Gen 2 world, not vice versa. Because Jesus was not breathed to life from dust, the human story from Eden forward takes primacy in order to exhibit the full significance of something like the Philippian hymn. You are probably not trying to make this point, but the grander point is that the structure of the world and human story (including the story of redemption) is the nest within which the Incarnation occurs and helps to explain to humanity who and what it is (re John’s ‘illuminating light’ 1:9). Methodologically, I would advocate we start at the point of Redemption (i.e. Gen 3), which can only be understood in light of Creation (Gen 1-2), not in light of Incarnation.

    I feel like I should stop writing before any denominational courts would abuse these words against my ordination. Good post and response. Apologies in advance for the length, where I am confused, and/or where I misunderstood your grander point.

  4. I meant to add that I would not expect a response to the questions posed, but rather to see this as the very beginning of a justification for beginning epistemology at the beginning of redemptive history.

  5. dru,

    Thanks for your thoughtful & detailed response. i hope to engage it in detail, but i probably should stick to the task at hand until this evening. 2 quick notes:

    1. The Anderson book is called “On Being Human: Essays in Theological Anthropology.” It is worth your time.

    2. How is Gen 3 the point f redemption? I am not sure i am following you here.

    Thanks again for the interaction; hopefully a fuller response is forthcoming.

  6. Taking the Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consumation model of scripture, the ‘Redemption’ bit is usually seen as beginning at the protoeuangelion (Gen 3:15) and coming to fruition in the crucifixion/resurrection.

  7. Pingback: Narcissism & Evangelical Piety « A Thinker’s Progress

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