Skip to content

The blasphemy of the “incarnational church”

David Guretzki has posted a quote, with his own reflections, on Karl Barth’s provocative — but correct! — claim that to call the church an “extension of the incarnation” is ultimately blasphemous:

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)

Be sure to check out the rest of David’s post for his own reflections, which are, in my opinion, right on the money.


  1. Skip Newby wrote:

    it sounds like a reaction on this brother’s part to more of a high church mode of being “in the world” and the claims they make.
    It seems to me that if we are to understand scriptures like Phil.2; and, Gal. 2:20 in any way but as abstractons, the on-going narrative of the Incarnation is the conclusion we wold come to.
    Individually, as well as corporately.

    Thursday, November 11, 2010 at 7:22 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Skip I think the main point that Barth is making is that the church can never take the place of Christ or be considered a simple “extension” of Christ’s person. The church is called, gathered, and sent by Christ, follows Christ, and by the Spirit is conformed to the image of Christ, but it is Christ alone who acts to save us by becoming incarnate, dying, and rising from the dead.

    Certainly by faith we are brought into koinonia with Christ, but the point is that he is still Christ and we are not. I think that’s a point we need to never forget.

    Thursday, November 11, 2010 at 7:57 pm | Permalink
  3. Bobby Grow wrote:

    This is the kind of stuff that makes Barth a good Protestant (Reformed) contra Roman Catholic, eh.

    Thursday, November 11, 2010 at 10:53 pm | Permalink
  4. Catholics are baptized to become “alter Christus”. I don’t see a problem with the idea that the Church extends in time the work of Christ. The scriptures support the idea.

    Friday, November 12, 2010 at 6:44 am | Permalink
  5. This is pretty much what John Webster said about Peter Enns’ “Incarnation and Inspiration”. But aren’t they both not being too literal? No one is claiming that the church or the Bible be literal extension of the incarnation. People are just using the incarnation as a metaphor or as a model. Or maybe that’s blasphemous as well?

    Friday, November 12, 2010 at 7:56 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Well I think Barth is talking about is the fact that certain (predominately Catholic) ecclesiological formulations do indeed claim that the church is literally an extension of the incarnation.

    Friday, November 12, 2010 at 8:19 am | Permalink
  7. Mark Van Steenwyk wrote:

    I have to grapple with this a bit more…but I am finding it hard to agree with the claims of “incarnational” as being blasphemous. I’m not sure that is because I am an ecclesial triumphalist, have too low of a Christology, or a little of both! :)

    But, for me (and I realize it is kinda lame to just toss out bible verses), I wonder how we are to live in tension with what Barth advocates and the following from Paul (which I consider to be the most “incarnational” thing ever said in the New Testament about anyone other than Christ:

    “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the Word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints.” (Colossians 1:24-26)

    Friday, November 12, 2010 at 6:24 pm | Permalink
  8. Nate Kerr wrote:

    So, when did “incarnation” become such a simple theological terms as to be equated with “having a body”? I mean, really, to affirm the incarnation of God in Christ is to affirm a whole host of things — hypostatic union; Christ’s anhypostatic humanity; some form of the homoousion; the theotokos; the affirmation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and second person of the Trinity — theologically that it would be absolutely blasphemous to affirm of the church. Have we really come to such a simplistic and debased consideration and deployment of such theological terminology? Man, dogmatics really has gone on holiday, hasn’t it?

    Friday, November 12, 2010 at 7:57 pm | Permalink
  9. Emerson Fast wrote:

    Amen Nate! Amen Halden! Amen Bobby! Amen Karl Barth! Amen David!

    This is a timely word for all of us to hear. For Pentecostals who interpret the ‘granaries’ (to borrow Frankls term) of their experience and feelings as the immediate Act of God, for Bonhoefferolaters who see themselves as “mini Christ’s” who essentially embody all that Christ is and does, and for us Mennonites who proceeded Bonhoefferolatry centuries before the name could even be given.

    The church is the collective of those “impoverished spirits” to whom the kingdom of Heaven belongs, while they are still enemies of God according to the flesh, “stumbling in many ways” (so Jas 3:2). This is not incarnaton. Fie on the deplorable doctrine that would even place us near that word in its ecclesiology.

    Friday, November 12, 2010 at 11:31 pm | Permalink
  10. Chris Grataski wrote:

    and we must even be careful to say that we are those to whom heaven belongs. i agree. but to quote John Flett, quoting Karl Barth,

    “Easter is the hope of the whole world, and it is precisely as such that the community is commissioned to live as witnesses to this promise. In other words, the differentiating element between the church and the world is that as the Spirit awakens human beings to faith “they do not merely live under the promise, which could be said of all humanity, but in and with and by the promise. They seize, apprehend, relate themselves appropriately to it, and therefore in their present life already live as future humans.” The holy distinction of this life is the result, not of the prolonged conferment of a habitus, but of the particular missionary determination of Christian hope. As Christian calling is being seized by the promise of God, any failure to live according to this commission is to live as one who does not belong to this future, as one who has no hope.
    Pg. 256 The Witness of God

    Saturday, November 13, 2010 at 5:38 am | Permalink
  11. Mark Van Steenwyk wrote:

    Throwing around the charge of blasphemy is pretty serious. I don’t hear anyone equating the Church with Christ. But, since we participate in the divine nature and, through our own afflictions complete the sufferings of Christ, it is foolish to simply reject outright any sort of exploration of the way in which the Church might be considered a continuation of the Incarnation. We are the Embodiment of Christ who is filled with the Same Spirit. We have the Mind of Christ. These things, while not exactly the SAME as being the Incarnation ourselves, certainly gives us freedom to say we are Incarnational.

    Saturday, November 13, 2010 at 6:33 am | Permalink
  12. Tim Y wrote:

    I think it is always good to think about the ways in which we are not Christ. Obviously, it is always a temptation for human reasoning to lift ourselves up to godlike status, instead of being lifted up by the redemption of Jesus.

    But, I think this issue is a symptom of the larger issue of the analogy of being. Barth wants a sharper division between human and divine exactly because there is a fear that we will create false gods for ourselves. I guess it really depends on what we think the term “incarnational” means. If the meaning is that we are little christs or that the church on its own merits conveys salvation to others, then yes, it is idolatry. But, if we participate mysteriously through baptism in Christ’s life, death and resurrection, then there should be a qualified sense in which our lives could be called incarnational, don’t you think?

    I still have to think about this as it seems to be a very deep issue with lots of implications.

    Saturday, November 13, 2010 at 7:39 am | Permalink
  13. Chris Grataski wrote:

    i think that’s a helpful comment, mark. I would want to acknowledge, though, that what it appears Halden and Nate, among others, are “up to”, has much to do with participation, suffering, embodying Christ and so on. in fact, sometimes it sounds almost like theosis, for them, is necessarily bound up with the option for the poor (is this right Halden?).

    And the charge of blasphemy seems also to be part of a wider critique of ideologies prevalent in the church which often tend to, on the ground, sneak the preferential option out the back door.

    Whether or not the charge should stand, i think this makes it more palatable. It could be seen as an attempt to show the ideological and possibly idolatrous roots of certain ways of conceiving church.

    what do you think?

    Saturday, November 13, 2010 at 7:39 am | Permalink
  14. Highanddry wrote:

    This conversation reminds me of a quote from Calvin (please forgive the otherworldlyness it is not what is resonating for me):

    “To us is given the promise of eternal life – but to us, the dead. A blessed resurrection is proclaimed to us – meantime we are surrounded by decay. We are called righteous – and yet sin lives in us. We hear of ineffable blessedness – but meantime we are here oppressed by infinite misery. We are promised abundance of all good things – yet we are rich only in hunger and thirst. What would become of us if we did not take our stand on hope, and if our heart did not hasten beyond this world through the midst of the darkness upon the path illumined by the Word and Spirit of God!” (on Heb. 11.1)

    It makes me think that if we can be called ‘incarnational’ at all, it is not in our bodies so much as our faithfulness/hopefulness. Without wanting to descend into dualistic notions that I find unhelpful, it is our faith/hope in Christ that connects us to him at all (and to God I would argue) and because our faith is a broken faith, we can never wholly/truly be the incarnation. Any ecclesiology which asserts our connection to Christ comes through a nominal association with Christ is wrong and needs to be corrected (remembering always that the outworking of faith is love).

    However, I do still think it is appropriate, as others have argued, to think of the church as an ‘incarnational reality’. That is, when we are being the church (and not just calling ourselves the church) Christ is present in a way that is real and palpable – He comes and dwells among us. Let me try to awkwardly articulate what I’m getting at – Christ is the incarnate one who dwells among us through faith and thus our bodies become his body. Okay, that’s inelegant but you get what I mean. Perhaps someone with more game then me can help me say this better.

    Sunday, November 14, 2010 at 3:17 pm | Permalink
  15. Brad Brisco wrote:

    Its “blasphemous”? I think that accusation is ridiculous. I would highly recommend the short (85 pages) yet profound/excellent “Incarnation and the Church’s Witness” by Darrell Guder.

    Sunday, November 14, 2010 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site