Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Symposium on the Incarnation

Here following, in chronological order, is an exchange of correspondence which began after Pastor Brian Hamer’s second installment of his essay, “Reflections on the Promenade Sermon,” was published in our Trinity 2010 issue. The concluding part of his essay will appear in our Michaelmas 2010 issue, which is soon to be published. What, you don't subscribe? You may take care of that little matter by clicking here.

Congratulations on another thought-provoking issue of Gottesdienst. I particularly enjoyed the spoof of Facebook and Pastor Fabrizius' very pastoral essay on global warming, which in my opinion would communicate well with laypeople.

I have a concern, however. Please bear with me. Understand up front that I write not as someone who pooh-poohs the liturgical heritage you so heroically defend, but as a sympathizer who has been knocked down and ground into the dust in the battle to uphold the holy ministry of Word and Sacrament. I write in brotherly concern over a couple of points where I think we need to be especially careful in order not to set ourselves back even further.

In Brian Hamer’s essay on the Second Article vs. preachers drifting around the sanctuary, I found that Pastor Hamer best understood the pastoral vocation when he referred to God speaking “through a human agent.” On the other hand, when he says “God chooses to reveal Himself incarnationally,” his language becomes dangerously misleading. The ministry is not “God made flesh” in the body of the pastor. For the sake of a clear confession, the Word “incarnation” must be set aside to describe the person of Christ. There is only one incarnation of God. I urge you not to describe the ministry as an “incarnational” event, but as a vocation in which God speaks (in Pastor Hamer’s own words) “through a human agent.”

In my perhaps solitary opinion, arguing over whether the ministry is ontological or functional is unproductive. Whatever “—ology” you file it under, it is a definite vocation, specifically ordained by God so that we may find Christ present in Word and Sacrament―not in the body of the pastor as such.

Rev. Robin Fish, Jr.
Exec. Asst., Good News Journal
Organist & Choir Director, Epiphany LCMS St. Louis, MO

Rev. Fish,
Greetings; thanks for your email and your kind compliments.

We always appreciate feedback, and especially when it indicates a reflective consideration of the material presented in the journal. Thank you kindly for taking the time to engage the important matter over which you have raised a question.

I will forward your concerns to Pastor Hamer, but I do have some thoughts of my own on the matter, and I appreciate having the opportunity to enter this conversation, if I may.

My understanding of your point is that you are concerned that by using the term “incarnational” in referring to the pastor one could be wading unintentionally close to a riptide of blasphemy, since of course only Christ is the Incarnate God. So your concern pertains to language rather than to theology. On the latter we are of course agreed.

As you are doubtless aware, the term ‘incarnational’ has certainly been subject to considerable abuse in recent years. I recall, for instance—I am not making this up—hearing a pastor defend his use of a dinosaur costume in a chapel message for children by saying it was incarnational. So I would agree that a certain circumspection is always helpful when we choose theological terms.

But as I read Pastor Hamer’s article, it seems to me that he has been careful to avoid such a misunderstanding, even in the very sentence you cite. Your concern over his assertion that “God chooses to reveal himself incarnationally” does not address the very next words in the essay, namely: “to prepare His people to understand the incarnation of Christ.” I take it you do not consider these words to be sufficient clarification.

For my part, I find Luther’s example of God's use of Adam as his agent, which is Pastor Hamer’s referent regarding the words in question, to be particularly helpful. Adam is no more the incarnate God than the pastor is, and yet there is something quite fitting about God’s use of Adam, and of the pastor, to speak. These men, created in the image of God, are themselves reflections of the Incarnate One who is the Image of God.

In addition, I’d say that the pastor is actually a bit more than simply “a human agent”; he is, rather, an agent who is human. He is an agent more fit than an angel to be an ambassador for Christ, because he is human. In fact, I might add, because he is a man, and we can even go so far as to see this as the reason for the biblical prohibition of women pastors. The pastor must be male because Christ is male, the Second Adam.

Those are my initial thoughts, for what they’re worth.

Again, many thanks.


Pastor Eckardt,

I appreciate your re-emphasizing that my concern about “incarnational” is an issue of language, not of theology. However, I don’t think it should be minimized thereby. One of the key principles in sacramental theology, as I see it, is that “words mean things” and their meaning is most important. I feel no need to quibble over whether we say pastors are “human agents” or “agents who happen to be human”; and anyway, in my first response I was simply citing Pastor Hamer’s language. What I do deem important is the sense of the word “incarnation.”

I’m not trying to accuse anyone of blasphemy, but we surely don’t need the static that might result from a needless misunderstanding over our choice of words. I don’t have a total aversion to the word “incarnational.” I agree that it can be a useful and meaningful term, if it is used advisedly. I don’t think, however, that Pastor Hamer used it so, even with the qualifying phrase that followed the bit I quoted. His essay got more mileage out of the concept of ministry as “incarnation” than just that one crass quote. And I don’t agree that such a use of “incarnation” can be defended based on his quotes from Luther.

The problem is what we are saying, or at least suggesting, when we import the term “incarnation” into a discussion of the ministry. Being creatures of flesh does not make us an incarnation. Being humans made in the image of God, and even specifically men in the image of Christ, does not make us an incarnation. Even being God’s mouthpiece does not make us an incarnation. Ambassador, yes. Instrument through whom God speaks, yes. You could go out on a limb (I have, risking charges of heresy;) and say that all Christians are a sort of “incarnation” to the extent that Christ is formed in us (Galatians 4:19), etc.

But there is a good reason we call Jesus the “Incarnate One.” In respect whereof we speak of His incarnation, He is unique. We are of the flesh from the moment of our origin; He is the Only-Begotten of the Father who became flesh. We are justified because of this mystery. Everything we believe about the sacraments, especially their saving and healing power, spins out of the incarnation mystery.

To be sure, the church needs a refresher course on what Christ says of preachers: “He who receives you receives me” (St. Matthew 10:40; St. John 13:20). But this happens not when you shake the pastor’s hand, but when you listen to his kerygma. The people need to be directed, in the clearest terms, to where Christ is bodily present for them: the preached message and the sacraments.

In my opinion, Gottesdienst’s great value to the church lies in unambiguously and uncompromisingly pointing this out. The trap to avoid is, as Pastor Hamer himself argues in his essay, letting people think (either by telling them so, or by failing to tell them otherwise) that their encounter with the incarnate God occurs through the person of their pastor (or through human charisma, or feelings, or ecstatic experiences, or flights of pious imagination, etc.). God's mouthpiece may walk a cross-shadowed way and even “bear in [his] body the marks of Jesus” (Gal. 6:17), and so share in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings (Phil. 3:10), just as Hamer (pace Luther) points out regarding Methuselah. But this matters chiefly because our infirmities bear witness that our ministry is established not on human power, but on the power of Christ manifested in Word and Sacrament.

Peace in Him,
Rev. Robin Fish, Jr.

Dr. Eckardt,

Greetings and thanks for the feedback.

I think you have answered his concerns sufficiently. Thanks for taking the lead in that matter. Indeed, I did not intend to communicate that Christ is incarnate in the body of the pastor, nor do I think I said such a thing. Rather, I believe that Christ is still incarnate in the preaching of the Gospel and the giving of the sacraments. In that sense, I think it is safe to say that Christ is incarnate through the pastoral office as He dispenses the gifts of the Gospel through His ordained ministers.

An interesting sidebar conversation for your stellar journal would be on the appropriate use of the word “incarnation.” I know some confessional Lutherans use the term to refer to the work of Christ through the life of the believer (third article). Others prefer to reserve it strictly for the second article. There might be a case for appropriate theological nomenclature on the use of “incarnation” vs. “incarnational,” to wit, that the former (as a noun or as a verb) usually refers to the et incarnatus est of the Creed, and the latter (as an adjective) to the entire scope of His person and work, past or present. I would have to check the dogmatics books on this one before going any further.

Thanks again for the feedback and keep up the great work with Gottesdienst.

Rev. Brian Hamer
Pastor, Redeemer Lutheran Church,
Bayside, NY


Your usage seems appropriate to me. “Incarnation” need not only refer to our Lord. It is used commonly to mean “take shape” or “form,” and it has a profitable use to describe the tangibility of the Lord’s gifts in the ministry and the means of grace. I wonder if substituting the term “fleshly” or “tangible” would help to assuage concerns.

+Rev. Christopher S. Esget
Immanuel Ev.-Lutheran Church and School (LCMS)
Alexandria, Virginia


  1. I have noticed an emphasis in materials coming from Saddleback Church (Rick Warren) on "Jesus in Flesh and Blood." However, it is strictly limited to the "third article." Essentially, Jesus is present in the flesh (we would use "incarnate") when Christians are showing love to other people. This emphasis comes, I expect, from a lack of any other real flesh & blood presence of Christ in their view (i.e. the Sacrament). Certainly it is Christ who lives in us, His good works being done as prepared in advance by the Holy Spirit etc. I found the notion that Christ's fleshly presence on earth is limited to our good works a bit troubling.

    The incarnation certainly has to do with the ascension. If Jesus is stuck in "heaven," he can only be present "incarnationally" through someone else's flesh (ours). If He has ascended to fill all things, He can be present in His own Flesh (the flesh that profits something, indeed, everything). Now which of those presences sounds more "real" to you? :)

  2. I have witnessed first-hand the dangers of sloppy "incarnational" terminology. "Incarnational preaching" is a phrase being used to denote certain ethic styles of preaching and translations of Holy Scripture. On more than one occasion I was told that I need to "incarnate" during my preaching. I have no idea what that even means.

    The use of the term incarnational is something I have been pondering for a few years. I was taken to task by Jack Casione for an essay I wrote for a seminary paper during my second year for use of this word. While I still defend my position, in retrospect, I think the use of this word was not helpful. While the term maybe be helpful in making certain connections between the person and work of Christ now in His Church and Amt, it appears that it becomes an umbrella term under which much poor theology is given shelter. Rather than using this term as a word to describe the work of Christ in his Predigtamt, let us do the hard work of actually describing and defining what this work is.

    While we do have similarities with the teaching of Rome regarding ordination, we also have differences through which one could drive a host of 18-wheelers. The term "incarnational" is of no aid in describing these differences.

    A question I have is: What do we seek to confess by the use of this the word "incarnational"? What are we teaching? Are we intimating that the Second Person of the Trinity takes on the flesh and blood of the man in the Office? Surely not. Rather we are stating that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, speaks, absolves, distributes, and is present in the work administered by this Amt (Luke 10:16). Right? But the word "incarnational" intimates more than this. It confesses an actual taking on of flesh and blood, as in the incarnation. This is after all, what the word means in theological terminology. This is not what we seek to teach here. There is no hypostatic union between the Son of God and the man put under orders. Then why should we use a term that allows itself to be understood in such a manner? I am sympathetic to the desire to use it (especially after the disaster raged in our beloved Church following the likes of Hoefling and Feucht et al) but we should not adopt terminology that, on the one hand, avoids those errors, but simultaneously, brings us into equally troubling waters. We can do much to elevate the work of the Amt, while, simultaneously, avoiding potential erroneous positions. Perhaps I am wrong here. But what are we salvaging by the maintenance of a word that (1) has specific and central usage (2nd Article); and (2) has already been dragged in the mud and feces of contemporary theology?


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