I Am an Incarnational Christian: The Theology

I Am an Incarnational Christian: The Theology August 12, 2011

Although, I confess, I liked the term “kerygmatic Christian” at first, I’ve come to see why “incarnational Christian” is the term that best suits us — those of us who would like to portray to the world something about the type of Christianity that we’re pursuing.  What I will write below has already been articulated by earlier commenters on numerous posts.

To use old categories, incarnational has both “vertical” and “horizontal” aspects to it.

First, the vertical (although, of course, I don’t think that God is “up” and we are “down”).

Incarnational emphasizes what many of us believe is the most significant act of God in the history of creation: that God incarnated Godself in the person, Jesus of Nazareth.  To hear Paul sing it in Philippians 2, even the crucifixion is a subset of the true miracle, incarnation:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Note well, the two active verbs in this hymn are “emptied” and “humbled,” not “crucified” or “died.”  The emptying of God is incarnation.

For a couple millennia now, the Christians in the East, known as the Orthodox, have considered the incarnation to be the most important work of God — just look at the works of John Chrysostom and other Eastern fathers.  So we are simply joining them when we identify ourselves as Christians who put our emphasis on the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus.

And second, the horizontal.  To be an incarnational Christian also means that we consider it our responsibility to enflesh the good news of the Jesus today, to work out our salvation with fear and trembling in acts of charity to our fellow human beings, to, in the words of Francis, “preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary.”

Elsewhere, Paul exhorts us to be ambassadors of the reconciliation that Christ accomplished — reconciliation between God and humans.  In other words, the very same work that Jesus did — incarnational work — is now our task.

So, to say that I am an incarnational Christian means that I 1) emphasize the miracle of the incarnation, and 2) attempt to incarnate the gospel in my own life every day.

Comments on these initial theological musings welcome.

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  • Sounds great to me, I’m happy to adopt this title. While of course the idea of being the hands and feet of Christ is nothing new, that central vocation of all Christians has been so muddled and diluted that I most definitely appreciate seeing it put front and center of a contemporary vision of what it means to be the people of God today. Looking forward to reading the Church is Flat!

  • bob c

    for me, it stresses only part of the story. it misses out on the transforming nature of the resurrection. Mary Karr’s poem captures some of this for me:

    it’s your limbs G_d comes to fill, as warm water
    shatters at birth, rivering every way.

  • The label aside I think this is an excellent picture of what Christ modeled and what being a resident in the kingdom of God on earth should look like for all Christians. If we are not living incarnationally then we’re really no different than any other person living a moral life.

  • Charles

    I’m sorry, I don’t get this exercise in self-id. Group think makes me jittery. My biggest problem with churchianity is its being stuck in its own history. Jesus was a teacher, a rabbi. Was he divine? The church wants you to think so. Jesus the person and the Christ of Faith are two different beings. But the church seems to blend the two and confuse them. And debates about atonement are absolutely meaningless. G_d incarnate is a very, very broad entity; Jesus of Nazareth is but a very small element of the divine incarnate.

    • LEWIS

      I see you don’t know very much about God nor incarnation at all. Jesus is the total embodiment of incarnation. He is the supreme authority by which all human conduct, creed and opinion shall be tried. Jesus Is God! Who is the second person in the Godhead. He’s God the son. He’s coequal with the Father and the Holy Ghost. So how could he be a small part of God’s incarnation when he is the incarnation of God in it’s fullest.

      Oh and I see that you’re also afraid to write all the letters that represent his name, it’s easy, it’s spelled GOD.

  • Chris

    I am probably way closer to evangelical than I am emergent.

    As I think of myself as a Christian I don’t think there is much of anything that I could disagree with in your description of “Incarnational”. Sorry to spoil your day.

    *note* emptied, humbled, and obedient.

  • Nick

    Love it.

  • I like the “label”, but I do agree with Bob C. The resurrection must somehow be included in the definition of an “incarnational Christian”, as part of the miracle of the incarnation itself, for without it, point 2 (attempt to incarnate the gospel in my own life every day) is at least much more difficult. It would be akin to celebrating Christmas and not Easter.

  • Bob

    Interesting correspondence with my denomination’s (ELCA) tagline: “God’s work, our hands”. It would seem we too are incarnational Christians.

  • So, someone commented on the previous post that Incarnational would be less Evangelical (not forcing truth down anyone’s throat). Does the word Incarnational imply broadly, “not Evangelical”? I hope there’s a hint of that.

  • Matt Hamilton

    Love the horizontal and vertical aspects of this new “label”, little Ken Wilberesque, which makes it even more wonderful (transcend and include). The thing that bugs me is the need to have a comfortable label. Doesn’t scripture show that the term “Christian” did not come from those inside this new way of life, but it came from those looking from the outside, saying “look at those people, they are actually living like little Christ.” If we were to all live with the thought of giving up what we have in order to allow our neighbors a little more comfort those people looking from the outside would be saying “look at those people…..” Why dont we let others label us and not really worry about what we “need” to be called. I cant be pinned down and put in any “labeled” box.

  • This is the one that I voted for. I actually love it. It makes a ton of sense and emphasizes that contextual nature that combats that horrendous a-historical construction that continues to plague us.

    I’m in.

  • lol well played.

  • I still call my self “evangelical” and, like Jim Wallis, refuse to surrender the label to the conservatives. Having been on InterVarsity staff for over a dozen years, I still have credibility to do that.

    As for a new label, there is an inherent problem in the process. The “rest of us” are trying to find one more new label. What we really need is to continue pressing for dialog between groups. Otherwise, we are left with the problem “I am for Paul!”, “I am for Peter!”, “I am for Christ!” In the modern day version, we are all just trying to find ways to say “But I am really for Christ!”

    I like the term “incarnational” if we are really looking to make a contribution to theology. One of my favorite quotes is from Richard Halverson, former Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, “In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centering on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome, where it became an institution. Next, it moved to Europe, where it became a culture. And, finally, it moved to America, where it became an enterprise.”

    May we return to being that fellowship on men and women centered on the living Christ.

    • bob c

      completely agree, Michael

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  • Thanks, Tony, for returning to this subject.

    I agree that “Incarnational” is a better term to use.

    In my book “Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them” (http://www.practicingparad​oxy.com/), I suggested “Incarnational Orthodoxy” as way to describe a theological orientation that transcends the doctrine-driven “Propositional Orthodoxy” of conservative Christianity and the praxis-driven “Ethical Orthodoxy” of liberal Christianity in a way that incorporates (there’s that “enfleshing” root again) the strengths of each without turning them into idols.

    Incarnational Orthodoxy returns the term “orthodoxy” to its literal roots (ortho=right/appropriate, doxy=praise/worshipful response), so that our experience of the all encompassing love of the incarnate Christ drives both what we are, what we are becoming, what we believe, and what we do.

    In Christ’s love,

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  • I guess labels are a necessary evil, though no single label will have sufficient connotations to cover everything (re: resurrection comments) or conversely be specific enough to differentiate oneself from “others”. Added to that, for effective brand identity you can’t have more than one adjective! So here is a totally impractical, but theologically sound (in trinitarian terms) suggestion:
    Creational, Incarnational, Inhabitational Christian.

  • Dan

    I recall hearing Brian McLaren talk about incarnational Chrsitianity about 25 years ago, and being struck by how powerful that idea was. Also like this notion that ‘the emptying of God is incarnation’. Hawthorne’s commentary on Philippians makes the point that when Jesus ’emptied’ Himself, he wasn’t losing something as much as filling something. Another great insight. Thanks for the stress on incarnating the gospel through a commitment to reconciliation, too.

  • I just ran across this from the blog for our denominational newspaper, the “Mennonite Weekly Review”. Clearly the word “incarnate” stuck out to me because of this discussion. Just thought I’d offer it as evidence that other Christians might be swimming in the same direction on this one.


  • Just finished listening to the Homebrewed Christianity podcast in response to this post, and I wonder if Charles Taylor’s term “excarnation”: “a transfer out of embodied ‘enfleshed’ forms of religious life, to those which are more ‘in the head’” might be a helpful launching point for reflecting on what it might mean to be an Incarnational Christian. (“A Secular Age”, 554).

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