One of the most important, but often neglected, phrases in the Apostles’ Creed is the statement, “he suffered under Pontius Pilate.” Some have wondered why the early church would include the name of the very Roman Governor who presided over Jesus’ trial and ordered his crucifixion into this very ancient confession of faith. Upon reflection, however, it is clear that this phrase is a strategic, ongoing reminder that the gospel intersects real human history. This is the only phrase in the Apostles’ Creed which roots the gospel in a particular time and a particular place. As Andrew Walls has noted, “the incarnation is not just that God became a man, but that He became a particular man.” There is no generic incarnation. There is only the very specific one in which God in Jesus Christ took on particular flesh and lived in a particular culture and spoke a particular language. He didn’t just walk on the vague sands of time, he walked on the real sands by the Sea of Galilee. In the same way, there is no such thing as a generic gospel which safely inhabits some a-cultural space. The gospel is rooted in a particular history and, through cross-cultural transmission, must take form and shape in living cultural contexts. The church does not have merely an instrumental function of proclaiming the gospel as a static historical event which took place in the distant past, but the church is an ontological reality, established by God himself not only to proclaim and herald the gospel, but to embody the gospel in a potentially infinite number of new historical and cultural contexts.
Central to the theological reflection has always been the realization that the gospel is rooted in real history and the gospel has been received within particular historical cultural contexts through the ages. The gospel cannot be properly understood in a vacuum or in isolation from the history of those who have “welcomed the message with joy.”
Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith
. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 1996), 27. “The Translation Principle in Christian History”
Neill McGregor, the former director of the National Gallery of Art in London, noted a few years ago that roughly one-third of the greatest European paintings in the collection depict an explicitly biblical theme. This reflects the obvious historical impact which Christianity has had on western civilization. The irony emerges in that the vast majority of Europeans who daily file past these magnificent displays of art today have no idea what biblical scenes are being depicted. The once-familiar Biblical narrative which winds its way along the Grand Canal of creation, fall, redemption and new creation has receded into the background, leaving in its place only the vaguest notions of a distant, monadic God who has neither a name nor biography. In a post-Christendom world, we can no longer take for granted that the English word “God” has any necessary association with the God who has revealed Himself in the Bible.
It must, therefore, be an amazing experience for new readers of the Bible to encounter the Living God who has revealed himself in those sacred pages. From the opening chapters of Genesis, all of the vacuity of the generic ‘God’ which, even if tentatively, inhabits the consciousness of the contemporary world is powerfully swept aside. Instead, we are confronted with a personal God who is not silent, a God who acts, and a God who sends. God has engaged human history with a mission. This is why missions is ultimately not about what we do, but about who God is. Our actions only emerge as we are enabled to enter into and are called to participate in His grand, unfolding narrative.
Neill MacGregor, The Image of Christ
(London: National Gallery, 2000), 6 as quoted in David Smith, Mission After Christendom
(London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2003), 1.
Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, is one of the earliest writers to record the ancient myth of Narcissus. According to Ovid, after Narcissus’ encounter with Echo, he fled to a river where he knelt down to drink. However, as he was about to drink, he caught sight of his own reflection in the water and fell in love. Whenever he tried to drink from the river, the reflection was disturbed. So, Narcissus refused to drink and he gazed longingly at his own reflection until he died. The myth of Narcissus has been used by modern writers and artists as varied as Keats, Dostoevsky, Freud and even Bob Dylan to highlight the destructive nature of narcissism. Today, mirrors are among the most common objects in the world. Mirrors are used in telescopes to bring distant images closer. Sometimes mirrors are distorted and twisted and used in carnivals to make us laugh at our own caricatures. Mirrors are used every day by people all over the world to help with personal grooming.
According to Webster’s dictionary, a mirror is defined as a smooth surface with spectral qualities. In other words, a good mirror is one that is able to reflect an image with clarity and precision. From a theological perspective, the earliest and most important mirror is found in the original creation account. We are told that God created man and woman in his image. That is, we were designed to be a reflection or mirror of God in the created order. After the Fall, the mirror of God’s image in us became distorted and fuzzy. It is in the incarnation that God enters into our history in Jesus Christ. It is in Christ that we see God the Father perfectly imaged. Jesus represents the “perfect representation” of God in human flesh.
Just as God in Jesus Christ entered history in order to show us what God was like, so the church is to embody and reflect the very presence of God in the world. Missions is a reflection of the incarnation. The role of the church is not just to bring a particular message, but to embody the message as we image the incarnation and foreshadow the coming New Creation. Undoubtedly, numerous examples can be cited where we have distorted God’s intention for the church in the world. Like the distorted mirrors at carnivals, we have sometimes reflected only a crude caricature of Jesus Christ in the world. However, God in his providence has chosen and sent the church into the world to bear witness to his glory and the salvation which is found in Jesus Christ.