For December’s Sprachspielen, I’d like to deviate a bit from my normal pattern of the past few months, since starting this editorial series. Up to this time, I’ve tended to address terminology, vocabulary, or concepts, which are central to the missiology, vision, ethos, and practical outworking in missionary activity of Linguæ Christi. It has been my hope that in defining some of these key terms and concepts, it would give you, the reader, an ever clearer understanding of what exactly God has been calling and leading us to do, as our part in His plan for world missions.
Given the season, I’ve decided to address a term, which is a bit more theological in a more general way, than purely missiological; though, I hope to circle around to a more missiological understanding of the term by the end of this month’s instalment of Sprachspielen. The term that I’d like to address in this month’s article is “incarnation,” and I’d like to offer a linguistic take on the term, which has some definite missiological application.
The word “incarnation” comes to us from Latin through Old French, and it basically means “to be made flesh.” We see a hint related to this word in modern Romance languages such as Spanish or Italian, where “carne” means “flesh,” or more practically “meat” in its day-to-day usage. In Christian history and theology, the term “incarnation” refers essentially to our belief that God (the second person of the Trinity) appeared in human form (in the flesh) in the person of Jesus. This idea runs through the New Testament and even suggested especially by prophetic writing in the Old Testament. However, there are three passages, which present this doctrine very clearly and with which we might be most familiar. The first is John’s Prologue (John 1:1-18), which might be best encapsulated by verse 14:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.John 1:14
The second is Paul’s extraordinary Christological declaration in Colossians 1:15-20. And finally, a passage which is particularly appropriate for the season is the angel’s speaking with Joseph in a dream, which is found in Matthew 1:20-24, where the angel says:
All of this occurred to fulfil the Lord’s message through his prophet: “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.”Matthew 1:22–23
The “prophet” that the angel mentions is Isaiah (Isaiah 7:14), where you can find these very words that the angel shared with Joseph in his dream. This doctrine of the incarnation is central to our understanding of who Jesus is.
I would like to suggest, however, that there is a decidedly linguistic element to what we know as the “incarnation.” We can see how linguistics or “language” is tied closely to some very important Biblical and theological concepts. For example, in the creation account in Genesis, we see that God creates through speaking, “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” – Genesis 1:3. In C.S. Lewis’ “The Magician’s Nephew” from his allegorical works, “The Chronicles of Narnia,” Aslan (a Christ figure) creates through singing–again a form of language with creative power. We also see the act of speaking as a stamp of Divine authenticity and source in the oft repeated formula used by the Old Testament prophets, “thus says YHWH (the LORD).” We even see the power of language at work in the lives of people and their interactions with others. For example, in Genesis 27:1-40, we read about Isaac giving the blessing intended for his first-born, Esau, to his other son, Jacob, a blessing obtained by the most callous subterfuge. I remember as a boy and hearing this story in Sunday School, wondering “why doesn’t Isaac just ‘take it back’ and give his blessing to Esau?” However, such was the power of the spoken word, especially a blessing of this kind, that it was not possible to take it back, once spoken. Linguistics runs like a thread through these Biblical accounts, and our ability to understand and apply their lessons to our lives, as followers of Jesus today.
However, I would say that the linguistic connection to Biblical accounts and Christian theological understanding is nowhere more blatantly apparent than in the incarnation. God becoming flesh, so he could live among us as one of us, with all the limitations that are inherent in inhabiting a human body. It is not an accident that John describes this second person of the Trinity with the term “the Word,” which is a clearly linguistic term at even a cursory examination, but also one that bridges the Hellenistic philosophical concepts of λόγος (Logos) from the verb λέγω (“I say”) with the Hebraic understanding of the power of words, especially when God speaks and even more particularly, when God speaks as an act of creation. But the word “incarnation” seen through a linguistic lens might be understood as “translation” or “interpretation,” not so much as in a traditional example of say Bible translation, where we take the words of the Bible in their original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek) and “translate” or put them into another language. But I’m speaking more generally than that, in terms of communication and one party understanding what the other party is saying and more to the point meaning. Let me explain.
A whole category of theological exploration is tied to theological language. In other words, how can we truly or even adequately express in words or other communicative means the enormity of God, without in some way limiting Him by the inadequacies of human language, as extraordinary and expressive as it may be. In fact, this very issue gave rise in the early Church to things such as Apophatic theology, coming from Greek philosophy, where they believed that the only way we could refer to God, without limiting Him, is to refer to what God is not, rather than what He is. We see this disconnect very often in the Old Testament. Even though God is using the language of the people to communicate with them, primarily through the prophets but also through divine messengers (angels, for example) and through demonstrating His nature through His miraculous acts, we (if we may put ourselves in the same situation as the hearers in the Old Testament) simply could not understand the fullness and character of God with any sense of completeness or accuracy. It might be analogous to an English speaker’s trying to have a conversation with a speaker of a modern Romance language, like Spanish, Italian or French. About 40-50% of the vocabulary of Modern English comes from French or Latin. Consequently, in a conversation like this, the English speaker will probably be able to pick out words and even occasionally follow the gist of the conversation, but as a rule, there would be a clear problem with understanding fully what our French, Spanish, or Italian friend might be trying to say to us. Accordingly, and especially as we experience the Old Testament, if God were a language, we’re just not getting Him for the most part. Some kind of translation is needed.
An important consideration for us to remember is that God, who is Omnipotent, Omnipresent, and Omniscient (just to name a very few of His extraordinary attributes) actually wants to be known and understood by us, because He desires a relationship with us, His beloved creation, albeit marred and broken by the residual and ongoing effects of sin, introduced into our reality through the fall of humanity. Through His love, mercy and grace, God provided the means by which we could really know and understand Him. Jesus, the “Word” (John 1), the one in Whom “all the fullness of the Father would dwell” (Colossians 1:19), THE incarnation of God became the translation of “God” into “human,” to think in terms of communicating from one language to another. Having seen Jesus, we have seen the Father (John 14:9-11). There is no better “translation” of God into human, than His Son, our Lord, Jesus.
If you’re still with me, you might also be thinking that there is a clear tension here. On the one hand, God wants to be known by us; so, He sent His Son, Jesus, through the Incarnation to be like us and to live among us, and this Incarnation or “translation” of God into human is to be Good News for all the people of the earth, or as the familiar Christmas passage says, “I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people” (Luke 2:10). But, on the other hand, we see Jesus, the Second person of the Trinity, in bodily form. You see, when God decided to become flesh, He did not do so in half measures, but He really “went for it” to use a more modern colloquialism. He was bound by the same laws of physics that bind all of us, who have a human body. In other words, Jesus, God in the flesh, was not born into a vacuum. For example, as a human, Jesus could not be in two different times at the same time, i.e., time travel. Rather, He was born in a specific time, the first part of the first century, A.D., and He lived in human form for a finite period of about 33 years. Jesus, as a human, could not be in two different places at the same time. Rather, He was born in a specific place, the Roman Province of Judea, and He lived and ministered in Judea, Galilee, Samaria, etc. He was also born into a specific religious, cultural, socio-political, and linguistic context. Jesus was Jewish and born into a turbulent time of Empires and occupation, as well as religious factions and parties within His own faith of Judaism. He was born into a world that was probably more multilingual than most of the contexts of those reading this article today. He would have dealt with at least four language: Aramaic, the typical everyday language of the inhabitants of Judea and surrounding areas; Hebrew, which was the liturgical language of Judaism and also still spoken in very small pockets in Judea; Koine Greek, which was the common language of commerce and diplomacy; and finally, though probably to a much lesser extent, Latin, as the native language of Rome, the occupying power of the area, where Jesus was born, lived and ministered. Again, the tension is clear: if Jesus was born in a specific time/place/context and with all the physical limitations of anyone with a “body,” but His incarnation is important to ALL people, how does that become a reality? It is at this point, that we must add the missiological lens to the linguistic one.
In God’s great generosity and extraordinary plan of reaching the nations of the world, He has called upon us, His people, His Church to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Himself by continuing the work of incarnation. God has given us this holy charge in His Great Commission to us, His people, where He informs us that we will be going to all the people groups of the world (“all nations” in Matthew 28:19 = πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, which is not a geo-political understanding of the word, but perhaps more accurately understood as “all the ethnolinguistic people groups”). We are to follow the example of Jesus in this regard. Like Jesus, THE incarnation of God, we are to incarnate Him among all people and people groups. Like Jesus, we too must CHOOSE obedience in leaving our home and all that we cherish and find familiar. We are to incarnate Jesus among people, by living not just with them, but as one of them. We are to learn and speak THEIR language, We are to learn what it means to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep among these peoples in their language and culture. We must learn how to become the living translation/incarnation of Jesus among them, embracing our calling and mandate to be His hands, feet, and mouth. As His people and followers of the Lord Jesus, our perpetual continuation of incarnating Jesus’ own incarnation is God’s way of making the Christmas declaration of “good news of great joy” a reality to “all people.” Or, as Paul puts it most eloquently and powerfully:
“For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.”1 Corinthians 9:19-23
It is my earnest prayer and hope for each of us, and I include myself in this prayer, that even as we celebrate THE incarnation at this Christmas time, we would embrace fully the call to incarnate the Incarnated One among all the language and people groups of the world, so that we might partake in the angel’s proclamation of “good news of great joy,” which will truly be for “all people.”
I wish you all a very Joyous Christmas and every blessing for the New Year. Lord willing, I’ll see you again in January.