Incarnational Church: Blasphemy!

Those who know me, who have taken any ecclesiology from me,  or who have spent even a few minutes talking ecclesiology with me, will know my serious reservations with the idea of “incarnational church.” For me, there is only one Incarnation–the Word of God made flesh (John 1:14). Adding an “-al” to the word “incarnation” may help to indicate some kind of qualitative difference, but even that semantic tactic is sure to introduce serious confusion.

As I was preparing for my Barth reading group tomorrow, I came across this little “small print” section in Barth which reveals what I think he would have said about much that goes by the name “incarnational church” these days:

Thus to speak of a continuation or extension of the incarnation in the Church is not only out of place but even blasphemous. Its distinction from the world is not the same as His; it is not that of the Creator from His creature. Its superiority to the world is not the same as His; it is not that of the Lord seated at the right hand of the Father. Hence it must guard as if from the plague against any posturing or acting as if in relation to world-occurrence it were an alter Chrisus [another Christ], or a vicarius Christi [vicar of Christ], or a corredemptrix [co-redemptress] , or a mediatrix omnium gratiarum [mediator of all graces], not only out of fear of God, but also because in any such behaviour, far from really exalting itself or discharging such functions, it can only betray, surrender, hazard and lose its true invisible being, and therefore its true distinction from the world and superiority to world-occurrence. CD IV.3.2, 729.


Blasphemy?? Yes, indeed. I think Barth is right. For when we confuse Christ and Church and make the church an extension of the incarnation, we end up confusing the Creator with the created. Not to mention that we end up with seriously misleading sayings, as one well known evangelical leader put it: “The local church is the hope of the world and its future rests primarily in the hands of its leaders.”
Since when is the Local church the hope of the world? And since when did its leaders think that they can take up the mantle of the Messiah’s hope?
No, it is not too strong an indictment to call “blasphemy” any form of ecclesiology that portrays the Church as an extension of Christ. No! The poetic extension of the “body of Christ” metaphor–which all too often fails to remember that the body is NOT the head–is neither theologically correct nor helpful. It is harmful.
The church must not fail to remember the One who gave it birth. Only in this remembrance of its invisible origin in Christ is the Church the Church. And only as it gives witness to its Head, whether in Word and Deed, is its visible reality most clearly seen, even if in seeing it, the world so clearly misunderstands and miscontrues it.


Thus, if there is any analogy between Church and Incarnation, it is that just as the Word made flesh was unrecognized to the world to which it appeared (John 1:10), so too the church, in its visible reality as one that witnesses to her invisible origin, is surely to be misunderstood precisely for it visibility. To paraphrase Barth (esp. as seen in §72 of CD IV.3.2), the world can no more accept the “visible, bodily presence of the Church” than it can the visible bodily presence of the invisible eternal Word!

13 thoughts on “Incarnational Church: Blasphemy!

  1. David, I’ve wondered if Barth’s Christocentrism, while it’s funded by the Scriptures, pushes him out past what the biblical authors would say, and, indeed, a constructs theology that ‘out-ordothoxes’ NT authors themselves in Christology and ecclesiology. For instance, doesn’t the Pauline and Johannine (maybe Petrine as well?) temple christology/ecclesiology cross the line that you’ve drawn?

    Of course, your second last paragraph rightly takes issue with a missional overextension of this theology. But even there, Jesus’ commission to his disciples in John 20 (cf. 14-17) seems at least to toe the line of the blasphemy circle, doesn’t it?

  2. David,
    Thanks for this great post. I have recently been evaluating the use of the title “incarnational” myself, and the topic has recently come up in a seminar I am in on political theology. I have a lot of friends who work for churches and various organizations that often speak about the incarnational church and incarnational ministry, and I certainly applaud what they are doing, but, I, at the same time have reservations about the theological implications of the language they are using. I guess my question is: Is there an alternative language that can be used to identify the type of minsitry that they want to continue to do?

    1. I would really love to hear more from David on this question. I suppose the harm is not on the people who are being ministered to but probably on the ones who are ministering since they are taking upon themselves a role that only Christ can really make happen in the heart of the people.

      1. Oops I just discovered David’s reply a little lower. Should read the whole string first I suppose. I’ll get used to it guys.

  3. Hi, I am from Australia.

    But all of that was inevitable when the early church was co-opted by the Roman state and thus became an integral and key player in the Western drive for total power and control over everything.

    It was also inevitable in how the Bible was fabricated to serve and extend the worldly power of the church fathers who fabricated it.

    The rest inevitably became the bloodsoaked his-story of Christian-ISM

    This one stark image tells us what thus happened

    That having been said please final a radical Spiritual Understanding of the fabrication of the Bible, and its political purposes via these two references. The Secret Identity of the Holy Spirit of God

  4. Pingback: World Spinner
  5. Yeah, well said. This is a telling passage for Barth’s ecclesiology and it comes to bear quite squarely on some of the more triumphalistic of churchly trends in recent years. Of course, as you indicate here, it must also be emphasized that Barth is not interested in a merely invisible church, but wants to say that its invisibility seeks visibility: “What it is from within is what it is to become outwards” (p. 728).

    Like you say, and what I think the people who perhaps carelessly throw around the word ‘incarnational church’ mean to say, is that the church is not invisible to the world by way of some removed aloofness but precisely in the nature of its visibility. It is in among the people as Jesus was, but in an orientation that is not of this world. It is Body to a Head that is enthroned in heaven, but who Himself had a body and who Himself gathers and builds and sends a community of people as His ‘earthly-historical presence’ in the world. How it is that this is so is I think the key to his ecclesiology and his ethics, so that behind our concern for this loose and blasphemous terminology needs to be a real attempt in our time to get right what it means to be and act as this community today.

  6. That was all a review of what you’d already said, of course, but my point being that last sentence which is to agree and prod us to the real dilemma of our time which is to rediscover protestant ecclesiology and reclaim it from the strategy and spin of business models that has so dominated the ‘church leadership’ bookshelves of pop-Christianity.

  7. Great insight here and one which needs pressing in the church today! I was going to ask how this squares with Barth’s language about the Church being the “earthly-historical form” of Christ’s existence, but I looked up the passage you quoted and saw that he brings that language into the discussion in the immediately preceding paragraph:

    “Even in its invisible essence it is not Christ, nor a second Christ, nor a kind of extension of the one Christ. The supreme and final thing to be said of it—and this brings us back in another context to a familiar theme—is quite simply that it is His body, His earthly-historical form of existence. It is indeed in the flesh, but it is not, as He is, the Word of God in the flesh, the incarnate Son of God.” (CD IV.3.2, 729.)

    Can we summarize this as simply as saying that the Church is not another incarnation or an extension of the incarnation because it does not have the Word in itself but is simply flesh through which the Word makes itself present in space and time?

  8. Nate, I wasn’t sure which passage you were specifically referring to in John 20 (14-17 didn’t seem to be the one you were meaning). Whatever the case, the NT imagery is lost if it is isolated from its complement. E.g., The body of Christ cannot be isolated from the fact that Christ is the HEAD of the Church. To say that the Church is the continued incarnation of Christ is akin to saying that the Body is a continued incarnation of the Head. To say that the body is the continued incarnation is to make the body headless!

    Andrew: What is the alternative? Even though it too has become a plastic term, at least “missional” captures the sense of the “sentness” of the Church. I do know that many “incarnational” writers mean to use the term to mean that the Church is supposed to be “present” to their communities. But even here, they forget that the Church’s task is to be a witness to her “head” and not to “stand in” for the head itself. A re-reading of Barth’s use of the reworking of the classical terms “visible” and “invisible” can be helpful here. For Barth says that it is essential for the Church to recognize her “visibility” but to know that her visibility will never be the means by which the world recognizes her in her essential “invisible” nature as one sent, called, and elected. A problem with incarnational language is that it assumes that somehow “visibility” will ensure the recognition by the world of the Church’s unique status as the people of God. But here Barth simply says, “Nein!” (See also Jon Coutt’s comment)

    Adam, I think they way you put it is helpful. The Church is the earthly-historical form of existence of Jesus in that he inhabits it, rules it, and guides it by the presence of his Spirit, the Spirit of the Father and of the Son!

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