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the limits of incarnational models of mission part 2: embodiment and incarnation

Posted by Tim Chester on

In his book, The One, The Three and the Many, Colin Gunton argues that the culture of modernity has failed to manage the tension between the one and the many. This tension operates on a number of levels. It can be seen wherever the concept of diversity threatens unity or vice versa. For instance; the state versus local government; the rights of the individual verses society; the objective truth verses the variety of many subjective opinions. Gunton shows how modernity has ostensibly wanted to champion the many over forms of the transcendent one. It has tried to do this by overcoming the transcendent God in order to find meaning in the particular and embodied.

While embodiment is central to Gunton’s theology he shows that it is the wrong solution to the tension between the one and the many. This is because transcendence is not the enemy of the local and the particular. Gunton argues that the problem is a non-Trinitarian and non-relational conception of the ‘oneness’ of the transcendent God. This non-relational view of God and his will presents God as anti-diversity.

Following on from the first blog, I want to unpack the idea that the Christian doctrine of the transcendent becoming embodied – the incarnation – can not help us critique and engage with modern and post-modern culture on its own. Too often, the incarnation becomes our key principle without setting it within a framework of the Trinitarian story of redemption. When this happens we are in danger of simply attempting modernist embodiment with a Christian veneer to overcome a misdiagnosed problem with culture.

Foundations for Particularity: Unitary or Relational Will

Gunton’s argument is complex and nuanced. It is presented here in outline only. Gunton contrasts two models or paradigms of the relationship between creation and the will of God. These contrasting models shape a different view of God’s will and the nature of will in general. These differing views of God’s will, in turn, lead to differing understandings of the place of the particular. 

Unitary Will

The first model is seen in Augustine’s theology. Gunton argues that Augustine’s theology begins a tradition that obscures the relationship between particularity in creation and the will of God. God’s interaction with creation was conceived in distinctly non Trinitarian terms. God was understood to be one who willed creation into being without reference to Son and Spirit. The world was held together by a divine rational, unitary will. In time, universal principles (like platonic forms) came to be seen as the underlying, organising principles of creation in place of the role of the Son and the Spirit in sustaining the world. Son and Spirit were consigned to God’s agenda for redemption only, whilst God’s agenda and design for creation was founded on universal principles similar to those found in Greek philosophy. In other words, God’s creative agenda was separated from his redemptive agenda. Gunton argues, following Irenaeus, that if you leave Son and Sprit out of the equation the identity of the creator God is reduced to a unitary, arbitrary will. His will for creation follows universal principles of rationality and unity. The divine will comes to be seen as a force for bringing things to unity and sameness. Particularity and diversity run counter to the underlying principles that govern creation. Only moments of unity and force of will in creation reflect the creator. Diversity in creation has no direct origin in the nature of God’s will or his identity. It can not tell us anything about Him.


Relational Will

The alternative paradigm favoured by Gunton is found in Irenaeus’ Trinitarian theology. In Irenaeus’ theology God’s will toward creation is mediated by His Trinitarian nature. It is a relational, creative will which includes the work of the Spirit and Son as well as the Father. In Augustinian theology, creation is treated separately from redemption. The roles of the Spirit and the Son are seen as primarily active post-fall, bound up with God’s redemptive programme. Relationship in the Trinity is left out of an account of creation. In Gunton’s theology creation begins with the Trinity and only makes sense in terms of relationship with the Trinitarian God.

Pre-fall God had a plan for creation that was mediated through his Trinitarian nature. In the Genesis account we see shadows that find their definition and light in Jesus. Creation was always made for God’s image to rule over and to be developed in relationship with God through the Spirit. In Genesis chapters 1 and 2, we see God creating by adding order, complexity and diversity through his Spirit hovering over the waters. We see God establishing his image as a community (male and female) to rule over creation. They are to increase the diversity, creating culture, ordering, filling and subduing as they live out their image bearing nature under God’s word. For Irenaeus and Gunton, the creation was always meant to progress and develop through the relational work of Father, Son and Spirit. It is in these terms that the creation has its meaning.

Redemption is not a second project. It is about restoring creation to its Trinitarian purpose. The Father sends the Son, the true image bearer, to redeem a community for himself which will then be filled with the Spirit and restored to image bearing. Being restored to image bearing means being restored to fruitful interaction with creation to fill and subdue it. To be fully human means being culture creators, filled with the creation perfecting Spirit, in the image of the Son, in the presence of the Father. This is the Trinitarian design for creation in Genesis 1 and 2. The gospel restores this design.

Jesus’ incarnation made him the true image of God. Jesus’ death brought an end to the old humanity who failed to be image bearers. Jesus’ resurrection makes a new humanity who are being remade in his image and who are indwelt by the Spirit who hovered over the waters creating by diversifying and ordering. Jesus’ ascension brings us into the presence of the Father and sends the Spirit. This is what remakes humanity into the image of the second Adam. Creation can again look forward to the Image of God ruling over creation, developing it by the Spirit for the glory of the Father. Creation finds its meaning and purpose through redemption. In a mysterious sense it always had its meaning through God’s plan of redemption.

When we include the Son and the Spirit in the account of creation and the being of God, the creative and sustaining will of God is mediated through the salvation plan of God. Creation finds its meaning through redemption, as the Trinitarian God reconciles us to himself through his spirit and his son. Therefore instead of universal principles sustaining creation, the Father sustains creation through the work of the Son and the Spirit. This has two implications. Firstly, this means that creation is relationally rather than rationally organised, and secondly, that creation is undergoing change in terms of the relationship it has to the will of the Trinitarian God.

God is relational in his being. He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Gunton talks of perichoretic union to describe how the Trinity is relationally constituted. The three persons of the Trinity are unique because of their relationships with each other. Unity does not overcome diversity. The Father is one with the Son but their oneness does not collapse Father and Son into each other. Through their oneness or relational unity they have their being as Father and Son. Gunton describes the Trinity as otherness-in-relationship. The creation is also organised on these principles. God’s creative will is to produce otherness (as creation is not part of God) in relationship to himself (as creation is not independent of God). This makes sense of image bearing. The image of God is otherness in relationships; male and female in community image God. Adam’s very being is not found in universal principles of rationalism and will residing in a body. Adam’s being is as other in and through relationships with entities that are different to him: God, other people and creation.

Unlike the dominant Augustinian view that God’s will leads to unity over diversity, a Trinitarian, relational understanding of being shows God’s will to be a particularising will. He creates to make otherness-in-relationship; diversity through unity. This brings us to the other key principle underlying creation; redemptive history. Through the Son and the Spirit the Father brings creation back into relationship with himself in order that creation might flourish in its diversity and particularity.

The Son reconciles the creation to the Father through his birth, death, resurrection and ascension. The Spirit comes, as a result of the ascension and completed work of the Son, to perfect the creation. He does this by starting with the transformation of the hearts of believers. The Spirit, right from the beginning was the perfector of creation. But perfecting does not mean bringing the universal forms into unity. The Spirit hovered over the waters as God created by differentiating light from dark, land from water and sky etc. Father, Son and Holy Spirit together make it possible for creation to be readmitted into relationship with its creator for its flourishing into the particular and diverse.

In Gunton’s thought we cannot have particularity without relationality. Otherness requires relationship. When we try to find principles for the underlying organisation of creation outside of the Trinitarian program of redemption we end up trying to establish particularity on a universal, non-relational principle of rational will rather than on relationship. A non-relational will can only exert itself against otherness. It cannot create otherness. This is the paradox of modernity. It manages to raise particularity to a new form of oneness, destroying the possibility of diversity. In Gunton’s analysis this is the root cause of modernity’s failure to deliver true identity to people.

Embodiment and Identity


Modernity thought the enemy of particularity was the transcendence of the unitary will above the many and so God was replaced by the many, embodied, human, unitary wills. Here is modernity’s moment of celebrating the triumph of the many over the one. But this embodiment of rational wills in human form undermines diversity and identity in two ways.

Firstly, society becomes a competition of wills, a battle ground for radical individualism. Therefore difference is extinguished as one will wins over another will. Non-relational will exerts itself to destroy otherness, conforming otherness to its agenda. Secondly, relationship is no longer seen as constitutive of being human because we are independent rational wills. The paradox here is that while an affirmation of independently constituted rational wills looks like a move toward particularity its actual ends lies in identity through being part of the herd or mass.

Gunton shows how since William of Ockham, being has been determined through possessing universal characteristics, most notably will and rational mind. Difference between people is ultimately removed from an account of being. We are who we are by conformity to a new set of universal ‘forms.’ We are all reduced to mathematical equivalents; an alignment of universal characteristics. Any apparent difference is an illusion and not part of our fundamental being. This is can be seen in modernity’s attempt to reduce all humanity to a genetic code and then to work out difference from a different arrangement of the same basic universal categories.

Individuality is worked out in terms of ‘herd’ characteristics rather than being a unique set of relationships with God, people and creation. Instead of my ‘being’ and uniqueness rooted and defined by being a child of God, father, son, husband, colleague etc., I am understood as a rational, psychological system with gender, age, personality traits etc. Of course I do have these characteristics but my ‘being’ is more than the sum of their parts. If I describe myself as a 33 year old rational, thinking male with extrovert tendencies, I could have described a thousand other 33 year males.  This is a non-relational view of my otherness or identity. It tries to make difference and particularity out of a non-relational, mathematical unity. A relational framework reworks unity in relational terms. Through my relational unity with friends, family, God and creation, I find my otherness. I am not someone else because I inhabit a different set of relationships. Relational unity feeds otherness. The one and the many find their proper relationship.

But modernity has retained the non relational unity of antiquity. Thinking that transcendence was the problem it kept non relational will and rationality as the categories of being and embedded them in human experience. The transcendent one was embedded in the embodied many and the result has been new forms of radical individualism or collectivism. Neither delivers true being or identity.

The logic of this is that when the one is replaced by the many, the displacement happens in two ways: either the many become an aggregate of ones, each attempting to dominate the world, the outcome being those regimes now labeled fascist, in which the strongest survives and dominates; or the many become homogenized, contrary to their true being into the mass. (33)

Embodiment in order to overcome transcendence simply leads to radical individualism on the one hand or to society conceived as a collective or aggregate of ones rather than as a community. But both individualism and collectivism are devoid of relationship. Far from solving the tension, modernity introduces a new form of the old problem. Politically modern societies swing between the individual (the one) and the collective (the many).

Incarnation and Transcendence

Embodiment is not the solution to rightly relating the one and the many. In the missional church movement we have become suspicious of transcendence in much the same way as the modernists and postmodernists. We worry that an emphasis on the transcendence of God will lead to a kind of cultural imperialism which fails to take culture seriously. The incarnation seems like the answer to the problem. But if by incarnation we mean the divine arbitrary, non relational will becoming human in order to affirm creation and cultural diversity, then we too have only made a modernist move with a Christian veneer. Even if we talk in detail about the life of Christ as the model for us all we may have simply collapsed God as arbitrary divine will into humanity by making him man. It appears that God in his Son came to affirm the aggregate of ones attempting to dominate the world. One symptom of such a view is that the gospel simply becomes about God becoming man so that we can reach our own individual or collective potential in our cultural setting. Another symptom is the lack of chapters in missional theology books on the Trinity and the Ascension.

If we follow Gunton’s argument then it becomes clear that the otherness and the transcendence of God are not a threat to culture. The problem is a non Trinitarian approach to creation and redemption. When we try to hang a theology of cultural engagement on the incarnation alone we join in with modernity’s misdiagnosis of the problem of cultural diversity.

Gunton’s solution requires a paradigm shift in the way we understand the problem of cultural diversity. His Trinitarian approach reveals relationality as key to being and particularity. Modernity saw the problem of diversity as transcendent unity competing with otherness. The solution to this problem was incarnation. Incarnation for many in the missional movement has become the good news of the gospel and the primary move of God to allow creation to flourish. Christians are then asked to become ‘incarnational’. But if Gunton is correct this solution adds to the problem. If we make incarnation the key moment that underpins cultural diversity, we inadvertently change the Biblical understanding of God’s relationship to creation. We switch from a Trinitarian theology to a new form of Greek dualism which favours the many over the transcendent one. If, on the other hand, we rediscover that the problem of modernity is a denial of the relational basis of being by insisting on non-relational particularity, then God’s primary solution to the problem is relational not incarnational. For Gunton the trinity as otherness-in-relationship provides the mediating principle between the one and the many. Embodiment fails to come to terms with otherness in relationship and tries to collapse the one into the many. It seems to me that relationality rather than the incarnation shapes the good news categories of the gospel. They include reconciliation, union with Christ, adoption, community etc. This means that reconciliation between God and creation through the whole Jesus story is God’s primary move to re-establish the purpose, direction and cultural diversity of culture. Incarnation is one important moment in the process of reconciliation, but it is not the whole show.

Click here to or here to purchase Gunton's The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity

Tags: cross-cultural mission, incarnation, contextualization, trinity


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