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The Incarnation as Pattern for Missiology

by John A. Hardon, S.J.

The Imitation of Christ is more than the title of a book. It is a principle for those who believe in the Incarnation to use in every aspect of the Christian life, including the missionary enterprise.

Among the problems vexing modern Missiology is the urgent need for adaptation. Missionaries are told to adjust themselves to the people whom they labor, to acculturate Christianity to the mores and outlook of the nations they are seeking to evangelize, to adapt the faith to the circumstances in which they find those to whom they are preaching, to become all things to all men, and not try to shape Africans and Orientals to Western ways as though the Gospel was not universally flexible to meet every human contingency.

Fortunately, for our purpose, the same Vatican Council that so strongly urged this adaptation also gave the formula for its implementation. It is the imitation of Christ, where the manner in which the two natures are united in the Messiah is also the model that His disciples are to follow in extending the Messianic Kingdom to the farthest reaches of the globe.

Without attempting to do justice to an immense subject, let me touch concisely on these issues, with a view to facilitating the resolution of what some consider the principal crisis of today’s missions:

  1. How is the Incarnation a valid pattern for Christian missiology, with special reference to the need for adaptation?

  2. What are the two historical extremes, mistakenly explaining the Incarnation, and how are they relevant to the matter of adaptation?

  3. Authentic Christology as the only valid paradigm for apostolic acculturation.

I. — The Incarnation a Model for Missiology

The biblical question, “What think you of Christ?”, is deeper than most people realize. It is, in fact, the testing point of a man’s whole philosophy of life. What a person believes about Christ determines his concept of human existence. It affects his notion of God and of man’s relationship to God. It colors his idea of society and his attitude toward love. But, most pertinently, as a Christian it shapes his understanding of the Church which faith tells him is the mystical Christ extended into space and time.

Like Christ, the Church is seen to be a living reality, at once human and divine. Like Him, too, it is essentially one, although composed of a variety of members mysteriously united with their Head. Like Christ, the Church is generously loving, and. desirous to embrace to itself the whole of mankind. And like Christ, it is infinitely adjustable to a near infinity of people, seeking to give them a share in the fulness of the Godhead; for like Christ, the Church knows only one obstacle to its conferral of divine blessings — the wilful refusal to open one’s heart to God.

No less than Christ, therefore, the Church has a mission to the human race. “As the Father sent me, so I also send you,” [1] is a one sentence restatement of the inseparable role which the Church has been given to play in the unfolding of Christian history until the end of time.

It is the comparison between these two missions, of Christ and the Church, that deserves to be emphasized. “As” and “so” are divinely revealed correlatives. The one is to be like the other; that is, the Church’s mission to mankind is to be modelled after the Father’s mission of His Son in the person of Jesus Christ.

If we ask what the mission of Christ was like, we find that it answers to a series of single term questions: Who? How? To whom? Why? Each can be briefly answered and the response then applied to the mission of the Church which Christ founded to carry on the work in His name.

Who was sent by the heavenly Father? It was His only-begotten Son, one with the Father in divine nature, who together with the Father and the Spirit eternally constitute the Trinity.

How was the Son of God sent? He was sent in the form of a man, like us in all things, except sin. Like us He was born of a woman, lived a human life. He ate and drank, slept and wept, suffered and died like the rest of mankind.

To whom was He sent? He was sent to a sinful human race, enslaved by its passions and in need of deliverance.

Why was He sent? In the words of Isaiah, quoted by Christ and referred to Himself, “To bring good news to the poor He has sent me, to proclaim to the captives release, and sight to the blind; to set at liberty the oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of recompense.” [2]  In a word, He was sent to redeem fallen man and restore him to friendship with the Father.

The Church’s mission is patterned after that of Christ. Animated by His divine Spirit, the Church sends forth its missionaries as divinely authorized emissaries. Like Him, the Church can say in the person of the apostolic leaders it commissions that, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me.” [3]

Moreover, like Christ, the Church sends its missioners as individual human beings. They are of the same human stock as the people whom they wish to evangelize and redeem from the slavery of sin.

Those to whom the Church comes are consequently one in humanity with their evangelizers. In fact, their kinship is the greater even as they are both sinners, albeit God’s mercy has already visited the one who preaches in a way that the one to whom he preaches has not yet experienced.

Finally, no less than Christ’s mission was to save and sanctify so the purpose of the Church’s outreach is to bring the revelation of God’s wisdom by preaching Christ, who is the Truth; to bring the sacraments of God’s love by offering people the Christ, who is Life; and bring them the means of serving God’s majesty by teaching the commandments of Christ, who is the Way to the Father.

II. — Heterodox Christologies

In the history of Christology, there have been two major extremes whose heterodoxy correspondingly influences Christian Missiology. A fair spokesman for the importance of these extremes is the Russian lay theologian, Vladimir Solovyev, who was addressing all believing Christians when he called them “true Orthodox,” as against those who had a mistaken concept of the Incarnation.

As true Orthodox, you have the royal road to follow between two opposite heresies, the false liberalism of Nestorius and the false pietism of the Monophysites.  The former would make a final separation between the sacred and the profane, as Nestorius separated the humanity from the divinity of Christ.  The latter would absorb the human soul in the contemplation of the Divine and would abandon the mundane world to [its] fate; this is the application to society of monophysitism which merges the human nature of Christ with His divinity. [4]

No option is left the true believer, and therefore the Christian missioner, on how he should view the twofold nature of Christ; truly human and truly divine, yet also united in one person and not two (as Nestorius urged), and this divine person not absorbing Christ’s human nature (as the Monophysites held).

Solovyev’s main concern, as might be expected of an Eastern Christian, was with the Church’s mission of divinizing the world through the mysteria of the liturgy and the seven sacraments.  But that is well for Westerners to keep in mind, since they are prone to so stress preaching of the Word (evangelization) as to undervalue the importance of Sacrament (sanctification) in the extension of Christ’s Kingdom.

As we approach the heart of our analogy between heterodox Christology and heterodox Missiology, it seems best to give each set of positions a name. In doing so, we wish to transmit the specific data surrounding what have come to be called heresies in the history of the Church and concentrate rather on each aberration as a tendency. As tendencies, they are perennial problems that must be dealt with in every age, that is, in our day as in the early centuries of Christianity.

Nestorianism and a Manichaean Split View of the Universe

Even a cursory analysis of the Nestorian concept of the Incarnation shows it was a split personality complex, in which the two natures of Christ were really juxtaposed individuals, not united substantially to form one being.

Behind this bifurcated idea of Christ stood such a low estimate of human nature that it was inconceivable for God to have joined Himself in consubstantial unity with anything so unworthy of His divinity.

For our purpose, we may call it a Manichaean view of the universe, similar to the Zoroastrian dualism which infected the stream of Christian thought as early as the second century of our era.

Applied to Missiology, the Manichaean dichotomy divides the sacred and the profane absolutely. If we substitute “Christianity” for sacred, and “the non-Christian world” for profane, we get some notion of how useful this comparison is for a theological appraisal of one attitude toward integrating the Gospel with the “pagan” cultures in which it is preached.

This attitude postulates that there is nothing substantially good in the “mythology and paganism” of Afro-Asia on which to build the Church of Christ; that the few strands of truth or goodness found in Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam are too insignificant to be taken seriously.  The only feasible approach is to erase whatever their adherents believe and start over again with preaching to them Christ and His unique message of salvation.

Karl Barth accurately voiced this position when he branded all non-Christian religions as foes of Christendom.  A true Christian’s response must be an intolerant No! “Does Christendom know,” he asked, “how near to her lies the temptation, by a slight betrayal of her proper business, to escape such an imminent conflict with those alien religions? Does she know that this must not happen? We can only ask: Does she know that under no circumstances must she howl with the wolves?”  There must be no suggestion of incorporating anything from outside the Gospels into the pure religion of Christ. “Christendom must advance right into the midst of these religions whatever their names may be, and let come what will, deliver her message of the one God and of His compassion for men forlorn, without yielding by a hairbreath to their demons.” [5]

This outlook has deeper ramifications than need detain us here. In fact, the whole gamut of metaphysical dualism, known to philosophy since ancient times, is implied. But even this brief reference of the Manichaean principle to one phase of the missions, namely, the exclusion of any substantative goodness in the non-Christian world, gives some idea of how valuable the principle can be for a better understanding of Missiology.

Monophysitism and a Pelagian Estimate of Human Nature

Our second analogy starts from the premise of the Monophysites that the two natures of Christ, human and divine, were not so radically distinct they could not form one new third nature, or a blended mixture, or the humanity could not simply be absorbed by the divinity.

Historically we know that the founders of Monophysitism, Eutyches and his followers, reacted against the Nestorians and consequently their position may be considered the opposite extreme.  They concluded that Christ had not only one personality, but also one nature.

This heterodox concept of the Incarnation is closely akin to the Pelagian theory of human nature, which postulated that man had never been elevated to the supernatural order. Why not? Because there was only a unitary order of human existence. There had never been a conferral of grace, nor a “fall” from the state of grace, nor a restoration by Christ of what only God in His mercy could bestow on His creatures.

If Manichaean dualism underlay the split personality of the Nestorian Christ, Pelagian monism was in the same category as Monophysitism which erased the real distinction between the human and divine.

Consistent with the viewpoint we are taking, applied to the missions this means that a Pelagian attitude toward the non-Christian world sees it as not basically different from what Christianity has to offer. Why not? Because there is really a unitary order of human existence, in society as in individuals. There has never been a special conferral of grace on those who believe in Christ and are baptized in His name. Least of all does Pelagian monism accept the idea of a supernatural community, whose animating principle is the Spirit of Christ and whose function in the world is to be the universal sacrament of man’s salvation.

As a result, the Gospels become no better than the Vedas and Jesus of Nazareth no more significant than Buddha. Some, like Arnold Toynbee, tell Christians “to purge our Christianity of the traditional Christian belief that Christianity is unique.” [6]  They see so much similarity between the Upanishads and St. John, Confucius and Christ, and so little difference between the ideals of Buddhist and Christian charity, that they wish to settle for a missionless Christianity. They would blot out the name of St. Paul from Christian history and find it impossible to forgive him for insisting that “there is no other name under heaven” by which men are to be saved. [7]

III. — Authentic View of Christ and Missionary Integration

The Church’s apostolate has always been plagued by the temptation to both these heterodoxies. If some critics say that formerly the problem was how to avoid the Manichaean tendency of not seeing anything worthwhile in non-Christian cultures, the situation today’s seems to be just reverse.

Missiologists are now challenged to defend any kind of serious preaching of the Gospel among non-Christian peoples, and some are suggesting a complete re-assessment, if not reversal, of Christ’s injunction “to make disciples of all nations.” [8]

It is not quite correct to say that a balanced compromise is needed between seeing nothing and seeing only good in the cultures outside of Christianity. Both extremes are wrong, and you do not find the truth somewhere in the middle.

The answer lies in a correct understanding of the Incarnation as the only valid pattern for extending the fruits of the Incarnation through the missions. Three aspects are fundamental: 1) the incarnate Son of God became a true man, so that everything truly human may be assimilated by the Church; 2) He died on the cross for all mankind, so that everyone (including non-Christians) is already the object of His saving grace; and yet 3) the fulness of this grace is available only to those who have actually heard the Gospel and encounter Christ in the liturgy and the sacraments.

Each aspect of this triad carries some deep implications for the Church’s missionary posture of the future.

Modern scholarship makes it abundantly clear that the so-called “pagan” world is a remarkably great world in ways that we only dimly suspected before. The Hindu quest for being, the Buddhist search for deliverance from suffering, the Confucian sense of loyalty and filial piety, the Moslem devotion to Allah as the infinite Creator of heaven and earth, and the Animist awareness of the sacred immanent in all things — are values that Christianity can assimilate with profit.

When we look back to see how much of the Graeco-Roman culture had entered the Christian way of life in sub-apostolic times, we can look ahead with hope for similar integration with the African and Oriental cultures in our day.

But saying this does not exclude the need for discrimination. When we read that Christ became like us in all things except sin, this should give us pause. The great cultures of India and China, for example, are indeed assimilable in so far as they are human; but they are not meant to be integrated where they contradict what we know from Christ are the essential features of an authentic humanity.

Not only are these cultures very human and therefore contain much that is good. They have been under the saving influence of Christ’s redemptive grace for generations. This has led some writers to conclude that non-Christians are anonymous Christians, i.e., “Christians who do not know they are Christians.” The task of missionaries, then, is merely to bring it about “that the grace through which God operates their salvation should take on, in the eyes of the world, an official expression in the Church,” or of “manifesting externally the grace by which Christ saved them and which palpitates in the depths of their souls,” that is of “setting on their way to the visible profession of their Christianity men whom grace has made Christians without knowing it,” [9]

It is no secret that ideas like this have gravely affected (and injured) the missionary motivation of people who took them literally; as though it was left to latter-day theologians to discover that two millenia of Christian evangelization had been misplaced.

If these theories were correct, there was no logical reason for Christ, after His death and resurrection, to have commissioned even the first disciples to go into the whole world, baptizing people, and teaching them to observe “all that I have commanded you.” [10]  Much less could He have warned that “he who believes and is baptized shall be saved: but he who does not believe shall be condemned.” [11]

Again, therefore, the need for careful discrimination, which leads us to the third fundamental aspect in this matter of integration, Terms like “adaptation” or “acculturation” or “integration” are essentially relative. In context, the correlatives are Christianity and the non-Christian cultures which the missioner is presumably trying to Christianize.

As commonly understood, the focus is on adapting the Gospel to the culture which is being evangelized, whereas actually the adaptation is a two-way street. No doubt, and with emphasis, the culture must be respected and its deeply human (and grace-laden) qualities recognized. No doubt, also, one of the reasons why nineteen centuries of mission effort in the Far East have borne so little fruit has been the failure of so many zealous, but ill-informed, preachers of the Gospel to see the presence of God at work naturally and supernaturally among the non-Christian peoples of the Orient. But having confessed that, we must also look to the other side of the relationship.

Properly defined, integration means to bring together various parts in order to form a new complete whole. The two parts in question are what we call “non-Christian cultures” and “the faith and sacraments of Christianity.”  If the two are to be rightly integrated, each must contribute its distinctive features to the other and the two, analogous to the two natures in Christ, are to form one personality. If this implies adaptation on the part of Christianity, with respect to human culture — comparable to the kenosis of the Son of God when He became man; it also implies (and demands) adaptation on the part of the human culture, with respect to Christianity.

Why must this be so, no matter how generously we interpret the already existing truth and goodness in the non-Christian world? The ultimate reason must remain a mystery, hidden behind the mandate of Christ to “Go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature.” [12] The mandate was evidently meant for all times, surely up to the present, and no amount of learned speculation can minimize this divine imperative.

Proximately, however, we can trace numerous benefits offered the non-Christian world when it adapts to (or adopts) the spiritual riches of Christianity. It is given access to the plenitude of God’s revealed wisdom and the sacramental channels of His grace, certitude of objective religious conviction and sure guidelines in the moral order, realization of God’s incarnate presence in the Eucharist and the prospect of easy intimacy with Him in prayer, uncommon strength to meet the trials of life and the sufferings of a war-torn world, ability to discern with calm assurance truth from error in today’s propagandist civilization, and the peaceful serenity (denied most of the Orient) that the almighty Creator of the universe became man out of love for mankind and promises those who love Him a share (in body and spirit) in His own beatitude for eternity.

[1] John 20:21.

[2] Luke 4:18-19.

[3] Luke 4:18.

[4] Vladimir Solovyev, Russia and the Universal Church, London, 1948, p. 207.

[5] Karl Barth, quoted by Nicol Macnicol, Is Christianity Unique? London, 1936, pp. 168-69.

[6] Arnold Toynbee, Christianity Among the Religions of the World, New York, 1957, pp. 95-96

[7] Acts 4:12

[8] Matthew 28:19

[9] Karl Rahner, Mission et Grâce, Paris, 1962, pp. 213-15, 223-24

[10] Matthew 28:20

[11] Mark 16:16

[12] Mark 16:15

Vol. 18, 1972, pp. 24-34

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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