A Primer on Missional Theology §3.3: Christology
3.3. Christology: hypostatic union as mission
I have spent most of my time on the doctrine of God only because I think some of the most radical and lesser known implications of missional theology are found in that doctrinal locus. That said, if God is indeed a missionary God, then no dimension of theology will be untouched by having a missional starting-point. Certainly, christology is no exception. We could spend a great deal of time examining the nature of Christ’s life of ministry as the actualization of both the divine and human dimensions of mission: as true God and true human, Jesus actualizes God’s mission of reconciling the world to Godself as well as the corresponding human mission of faithful obedience. We could also investigate how the atonement should be understood as the fulfillment of God’s mission, standing as it does within the larger framework of God’s covenant relationship with humanity. These and other topics are all worthy avenues of theological inquiry which demand further exploration.
In this brief section, I only wish to demonstrate the way the incarnation itself is redefined within the context of missional theology. Towards this end, it is worth highlighting a much overlooked comment by T. F. Torrance, who wrote back in 1954 that it is “one of the most pressing needs of theology to have the hypostatic union restated much more in terms of the mission of Christ” (“The Atonement and the Oneness of the Church,” Scottish Journal of Theology 7, no. 3 : 246). Torrance suggests that we connect the actualism of Barth’s theology with missiology. The actualism is well attested by Barth himself, and has been explored by numerous scholars of Barth, most notably by McCormack. As Barth states in Church Dogmatics IV/2: “We have ‘actualised’ the incarnation” (105). Barth posits an historical event in which divinity and humanity can only be understood in the light of the mission of reconciliation accomplished in this unique, concrete history. According to Barth, “In the existence of Jesus Christ it is a matter of the common actualisation of divine and human essence” (CD IV/2, 115). The hypostatic union is not a static reality fixed at conception, as the traditional formulations portray it; on the contrary, the union of divinity and humanity is a dynamic event realized in the history of Jesus Christ. Again we encounter the split between being and act. Against the notion that Christ’s being is prior to his active existence, Barth’s mature christology—which is a thoroughly missional christology—understands the unio hypostatica as an event in which Christ’s being is in act. In the context of a truly actualistic ontology, there can be no gap between the reality of Christ’s two natures and his personal life history. For this reason, McCormack argues that “we would do better to think of the hypostatic union in actualistic terms as a uniting, rather than as a completed action, a union” (“Participation in God, Yes, Deification, No,” 355).
Already we have the basis for a missional redefinition of the incarnation. While an actualistic ontology is certainly right to note the way being is constituted in act, we must go further and define this act concretely as mission. Actualistic thinking is right as far as it goes, but we must remember that we are concerned with a particular kind of act, viz., the act in which God goes into the far country, in which Jesus ministers to the poor and sinful, the sick and needy. We must define act in missional terms. And this will mean that we not only have an actualistic ontology, but a missional ontology in which divine and human being is a being-in-mission. Consequently, in our dogmatic thinking, we must not only actualize being, but missionize it as well. And this applies as much to the hypostatic union as it does to the being of the church or the being of God.