The Gospel as Personal Encounter: The Incarnation of Christ and the Mission of the Church (Reformission Monday)

As I continue to explore the theology of T. F. Torrance, I discover more resources for developing a faithful and fruitful understanding of the church’s mission. Contrary to the popular adage that “the message does not change, but methods do”, Torrance is adamant that the church’s message and its methodology are inextricably intertwined, the former being determinative of the latter. As the apostle Paul attested in the beginning verses of 1 Corinthians 2, it is quite possible to communicate the gospel in a way that stands in direct opposition to it. Torrance, likewise, would exhort us to align our practice of mission with the content of the message that we proclaim.

One particularly critical element of this message is the incarnation of the Son of God. To explain the significance of this to the saving work of Christ (and by implication to the disciple-making mission of the church), Torrance retrieves the late patristic concept of anhypostasia and enhypostasia which he describes in the following manner:

In the doctrine of anhypostasia, we state that the Son did not join himself to an independent personality existing on its own as an individual. That is, he so took possession of human nature, as to set aside that which divides us human beings from one another, our independent centres of personality, and to assume that which unites us with one another, the possession of the same or common human nature. 6d6b06a99d0ecb402264eec3143909dbBut apart from the doctrine of enhypostasia in addition to it, anhypostasia could only mean a solidarity between Christ and all mankind which was, so to speak, only ontological and therefore physical and mechanical — a causal and necessitarian solidarity.

The doctrine of enhypostasia insists here that within the anhypostatic solidarity of Christ with our common human nature, he came also as an individual human being in our humanity, seeking in addition a solidarity in terms of the interaction of persons within our human and social life, in personal relations of love, commitment, responsibility, decision, etc. Thus his birth within a human family, his growing up among others, his increasing relations with people, and his public entry into a ministry of vicarious suffering and service as Son of Man, the one man for all mankind, the one man in whom all men and women are encountered in love and met by the person of God — all that ministers enhypostatically to his solidarity with our human life by acutely personal modes of existence, and encounter, and communion.[1]

Despite the technical language, Torrance’s meaning should be fairly simple to understand. Basically, the anhypostasia/enhypostasia terminology holds in balance two important truths: 1) the Son of God became truly human like all of us, and 2) he did so as a specific person. On the basis of and corresponding to this, we must say that 1) Christ carried out his saving work for all people, yet 2) those people must each be personally confronted by and believe in Christ in order to benefit from his work, even as they were during the three years of his public ministry. Athough Christ is no longer physically present on the earth as he was then, he nevertheless continues to personally encounter people as his church preaches his gospel in the power of his Spirit.

Torrance explains this as he exposits the role of John the Baptist in the gospel of John:

Immediately after John the Baptist spoke of Jesus as the Lamb of God who bears away the sin of the world, two of John’s disciples detached themselves from the crowd and went to look for Jesus. Before long they found Him, and He spoke with them. Surely the Evangelist has recorded that to teach us that it is not enough for some preacher like John the Baptist to point us to Jesus as the Lamb of God. There must be a personal encounter with Him, a real meeting between us and Jesus. That is still possible, for Jesus Christ did not only die for us; He rose again and is alive and waits for us to come to Him in order to be forgiven and healed.

Indeed that is the only way we can meet with Jesus Christ. When the Son of God came into the world He became a particular man, the Son of Mary, the cousin of John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth. That is the only way in which He could become Man, by becoming a Man among men. We can only know a man if we are introduced to him and meet him face to face; and we can  only know about him from others who have met him and known him and then spoken to others about him. All knowledge of persons is derived from direct personal contact, and therefore has to be communicated directly from man to man and person to person.

When we know Jesus Christ today our knowledge is not different from that: it derives from direct personal contact with Him and is based on personal witness about Him. We can have personal knowledge about Jesus Christ, but can we have direct personal encounter with Him and know Him personally for ourselves? Yes we can, and that is the perpetual miracle of the knowledge of Jesus Christ. But this direct personal knowledge of Jesus Christ comes when two things happen; when other people communicate to us a knowledge of Christ, and when at the same time He Himself alive comes to us, using their communication about Him as the means to reveal Himself directly and personally to us….

Because God has become man in one particular person in history, we can only know of Him through personal and historical contact with that person—our knowledge of God in Christ must be personally and historically communicated to us through a human chain of witnesses beginning with the recorded witness of the original disciples. But Jesus uses that historical witness to bring us to Him, and to convey Himself to us directly. In this very Gospel, for example, it is John who is speaking and bearing witness to Jesus, and I am expounding what John has said, not simply in the light of what I think he said but in the light of what I have learned together with others in the Church of the meaning of the Gospel. I am influenced in my witness by the witness of others in the history of the Church, so that as we meditate upon this passage and seek to listen to its message, we do that “with all saints,” in the communion of the Spirit. But in that very communion it is Jesus Christ Himself alive, acutely and personally near, who speaks to us, and we hear and know Him face to face, invisibly as Mathis_Gothart_Grünewald_024yet, but nonetheless directly and intimately. That is the perpetual miracle of the Gospel wherever it is preached. It is preached by very fallible human beings, but through their witness and in spite of their mistakes, Christ Himself comes and meets with sinners directly and enters into conversation with them just as He entered into conversation with these disciples at the very beginnning of the Gospel….

This also the Gospel has to tell us, therefore: it is not enough that we should encounter Jesus personally for ourselves, meet and know Him and receive from Him all that He has to offer us; it is imperative that we go and find our brothers, our neighbours and our friends, and introduce them to Jesus as well, so that they may believe not because they have heard us speak about Him but because God uses our witness for His supernatural revelation, and as the means whereby there is direct personal encounter with the living Christ.[2]

For Torrance, the dialectic of universality and particularly inherent, respectively, in the anhypostasia/enhypostasia couplet has significant implications for missiology. The fact that the incarnation means, on the one hand, that the Son of God entered into solidarity with all humanity (anhypostasia) drives the church ever farther and wider to reach the ends of the earth with the gospel. The church can never rest from its mission to evangelize all tribes and tongues and peoples and nations until all have been reached, and this is necessitated not only by Christ’s explicit commandment, but also by the theo-logic of the incarnation itself.

On the other hand, the fact that the Son of God became a particular person in a specific time and place (enhypostasia) requires the church to bring the gospel message to the ends of the earth by means of personal encounter. Missional philosophies and methodologies that are developed according to criteria or considerations arising apart from the gospel (something that, properly understood, does not exclude contextual sensitivity), especially in an age of highly impersonal technologies of communication, can easily cede to the temptation to exchange the relatively “inefficient” and labor-intensive personal encounter for more economical means of mass dissemination (such as Internet, television, literature distribution, etc.).

In other words, technological advances seem to provide more “bang for the buck” in terms of a cost-benefit analysis. It will always be possible to reach greater numbers of people using methods that remove the necessity of a face-to-face encounter. While I do not want to imply that the church should totally eschew such methods (as they no doubt can have a place), the church should always view them as auxiliary and secondary to the primary mode of evangelism imposed on it by the theo-logic of the incarnation. For his definitive self-revelation, God did not simply thunder from heaven as he did at Sinai; rather he came in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, born of the virgin Mary during the reign of Caesar Augustus, and he ministered to specific individuals through personal encounter. He looked at them, spoke to them, touched them, ate with them, wept alongside them, suffered among them, then died as one of them. Certainly Christ could have utilized more “efficient” means of proclaiming the kingdom than by expending energy walking from village to village and spending most of his public ministry in what was considered a back-water corner of the Roman Empire. Yet this is what he did, for this is what his incarnation entailed.

Inasmuch as Christ sent his church into the world as he had been sent by the Father, we should do no less. (This is in no way to say that we somehow extend Christ’s incarnation or engage in “incarnational ministry”; rather it is to let the message that we proclaim shape the way that we proclaim it.) We cannot content ourselves with the missionary progress that we have made so far (for many peoples of the world remain unreached), but neither can we sacrifice the power of personal encounter with those people for the increased efficiency of other, more impersonal means of communication. As Paul urged in Romans 10, they will hear and believe only as others are sent to them. Doubtless evangelism through personal encounter requires greater sacrifices of time, money, and energy — to say nothing of suffering, persecution, and sometimes even martyrdom — yet such is the way imposed on us by the gospel that proclaims the good news of Emmanuel, God with us.

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[1] T. F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 231.

[2] T. F. Torrance, When Christ Comes and Comes Again (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 55-58.

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This entry was posted in Christology, Gospel, Incarnation, Missiology, Mission & evangelism, Patristic theology, Preaching, Reformission, Soteriology, T.F. Torrance. Bookmark the permalink.

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