Participation and Incarnation: A Review of Prodigal Christianity’s Third Signpost

This post is the third stop on a blog tour reviewing Prodigal Christianity, by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. You can (and should) read the first two reviews here and here.

The piece not to be missed in the third signpost of Prodigal Christianity (PC), Incarnation, is the subtitle: “On the Ground: The Journey into Everyday Life.” That qualifying description is vital to what Fitch and Holsclaw desire to accomplish in Prodigal Christianity not primarily because of its conceptual value but rather because it is in that sphere – everyday life and on the ground – that this entire work is made intelligible.

prodigal-christianityOnly by living these things while traversing the ecclesial landscape through the fog of post-Christendom do these signposts have teeth. Read as just another description or discussion on what church should be like, PC is just more noise. But read as field-guide – unearthed as a desperate traveler in need of fresh imagination – PC can offer a way through the fog. [Most of the quibbles erupting over this work (this one most recently), as far as I can tell, result from judgments that fail to recognize the on-the-ground quality of PC.] We must remember, as signpost three (albeit implicitly) reminds us, that “everyday life” is the space where the transformation enacted by the prodigal God occurs.

Incarnation, for Fitch and Holsclaw, “unrelentingly points us in the direction of joining the Son’s journey into the far country of our everyday lives” (33). It gives us the framework for understanding what our participation in God’s prodigal mission looks like. In short, our sent-ness into the world is an extension of God’s with-ness.

The chapter begins in typical fashion by charting a way beyond approaches that are not sufficiently prodigal, which is to say that these approaches lack the substance for faithful participation in God’s mission. Many critics are particularly agitated by this initial move the authors make with each signpost. While the characterization of the Neo-Reformed on one end or the Emergent on the other is often unhelpfully reductionistic and for this reason can be distracting, most responses fail to address the issue of substance.

So in signpost three the authors describe two approaches to incarnation that lack the substance to lead us into God’s mission into the far country. The first approach reduces incarnation to “a divine act in history that happened a long time ago.” Incarnation as primarily a past event that has only to do with procuring our salvation for the future tends to create in us a posture of defensiveness, the authors claim, against anyone who might challenge the proposition that God was made man in the Son. An overemphasis on the unique act of Jesus in the past actually sequesters Jesus from our present, daily living. The second approach to incarnation primarily emphasizes Jesus’ life as a preeminent example of obedience to God. It is profoundly sensitive to present imitation and daily following Jesus’ example, but in its overemphasis on Jesus’ humanity “it fails to take hold of the way in which Jesus himself has promised to be present in his authority and reign wherever we go and engage in the kingdom” (35).

But in the incarnation we see that God is continually with us – Jesus’ authority and power extends into our everyday lives in a way that demands not primarily intellectual assent and defense, but surrender and trust. Moreover, the humble journey of the Son is much more than a model we follow. In fact, inasmuch as the way of Jesus is only a model for imitation evacuated of the reality of God’s victory in Christ over sin and death, our participation in God’s kingdom will lead to burnout (or serve as a tool for guilt management) because that approach implies that the everyday, on-the-ground stuff is up to us.

But it is not up to us, the authors say. Using the Gospel of Mark as their grounding text, the authors describe that in the incarnation we see God’s power and presence set loose in the world, overcoming evil. We see that the incarnation is particularly a revelation of humility in Jesus’ journey to the cross. In the “tearing” of the heavens at Jesus’ baptism to the “tearing” of the temple curtain at his crucifixion, “God is getting out. Divine presence is no longer safely up in heaven. Neither is it securely in the temple. Instead, in Jesus’s death, God is set loose in the world for mission, fully as God and man” (38).

As we submit to the Spirit, we become instruments that extend Jesus’ authoritative presence into the world – witnessing to God’s reign. Our participation in God’s mission is an extension of the incarnation – more than merely following Jesus’ model. Jesus is truly with us when we engage in kingdom activities, the kingdom of God breaks loose among us. We do not go out among “the least of these,” for instance, like magicians conjuring flashes of the kingdom with spiritual slight of hand we learned from Jesus, nor is God a divine encourager rooting for us from heaven (or angrily peering over his spectacles waiting for us to get it right) as we try really hard to do the things he asks us to do.

Can we sit with the reality that the kingdom is not something that we merely think about or simply go out and accomplish? As we humbly submit to God’s reign in the on-the-ground realities of our life, his kingdom breaks loose because he is already with us and at work among us.  The implication is that, in Christ by the Spirit, God is really with us, for instance, in the argument we had with our spouse before work, and his authority and power can break loose in our marriage (and maybe spill into the rest of our lives) as we practice reconciliation and forgiveness in the midst of that tension.

There is substance for daily life in the reality that “Christ’s presence is extended into the world by his disciples participating in his in-breaking authority” (45), but I wonder, is this articulation of incarnation prodigal enough? Is there more going on in the incarnation that might invite us more fully into God’s mission? For all that is substantive in this exploration of incarnation, this signpost is strangely absent of the implications of incarnation on our humanity – on the extent to which, in the incarnation, Christ participates first in us, so that we can participate in him.

If emphasizing how the incarnation involves cosmic lordship refocuses the theological emphasis, what then refills the impetus for participatory response to the lordship? This language still feels out there – outside of what God is doing in us, in humanity. In the logic of their argument, the authors jump straight to exaltation (Jesus reigning as cosmic Lord) and completely bypass the significance of the embodiment of the Son as part of his journey into the far country, which means that while we may know that we can follow God’s kingdom breaking in through Jesus into the far country, we are still left without the means to make that journey.

Our participation in God’s drama of salvation is predicated on, made possible by, Christ’s prior participation in us. Because of the incarnation – Christ participating in humanity – and the public, earthiness of that participation – our participatory obedience takes place in this realm in these bodies. Is it not true that outside of this reality, the language of “extending the incarnation” fails to deal with how that extension is fully possible in us?


15 thoughts on “Participation and Incarnation: A Review of Prodigal Christianity’s Third Signpost

  1. Seth, thanks for the great post. I loved it. I think you are right that we don’t more fully speak of the “Incarnation” as God taking on flesh and what that might mean for humanity. We generally ignore the two-natures debates as its has split into an either/or as we noted between conservatives and progressives.

    We generally stayed away from “participation” language as too keep the book from becoming too academic (we “tried” to write for a popular audience, not sure if we succeeded). But it is interesting that we fault us for elevating “Christ’s Lordship” too much to the exclusion of human significance, when just last week someone accused us of too closely identifying Christ and humanity (i.e. the church).

    Thanks again.

    • Thanks, Geoff. I understand why dipping into the two-natures debate could be unhelpful for the work you’re trying to do. I don’t want to pull you into it either. But I still wonder if “participation as extension of incarnation” does not ultimately fall into the same cycle of burnout as “mere imitation” without unfurling the reality that in the incarnation Christ “humbles himself” and participates in us. You guys emphasize the significance of humility in incarnation, but what does that humbling do? You say, “We are being invited into God’s very own life through the Son” (33), but what does that imply? We participate (or whatever non-technical language you want to use here) in God’s mission and extend his authority, but how is that even possible?

      I don’t think you elevate Christ’s Lordship “too much” – while not saying anything LESS about exaltation, I wonder why you don’t say MORE about the implication of the humbling incarnation – the taking on the form of humanity (which is evident just as much in Jesus’ birth as in his death)? Right after you quote Phil. 2, you write, “This is the incarnation. This is the way we must learn if we are to follow Jesus.” But doesn’t that last sentence short-circuit how dependent our following this way is on the reality that Christ did it first as human? To me this question isn’t simply stirring up the two-natures debate – my question is reaching in the same direction you guys are reaching – how does the divine Son’s participation in our humanity have fundamental implications for the way we extend his exalted power/authority on the ground?

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