For most of us, the study of doctrine is best left to academics and theologians. Terms used in doctrinal formulations like supralapsarian, infralapsarian, incompatiblism, predestination, or compatibalism either leave us tongue-tied, confused, or totally disinterested. If we wonder at all, we wonder what doctrine has to do with our day-to-day lives, especially as we struggle with terms we don’t understand and principles we find hard to practice. If we’re honest, reading and studying theology is something most of us would like to avoid, just as we’d like to avoid a root canal.
Historically, of course, the formation of Christian doctrine served to tell the story of the gospel. Doctrines are composed of the central tenets of belief, so an understanding of doctrine shapes what Christians think about our faith. But how many Christians have really taken the time to think through the implication(s) or application(s) of doctrine to the living out of our lives? In other words, is a belief something we only think in our heads? Or is a belief something we demonstrate in our lives? More important, if what we think in our heads has no bearing over the ways in which we live in this world, do we truly believe?
I was forced to think about these questions, as I studied the doctrine of the Incarnation. By its very nature, the doctrine of the Incarnation is application-oriented since it deals with the belief that in Jesus Christ the whole fullness of God dwelt bodily. The more I thought about the Incarnation,the more I realized that doctrine needs to be similarly incarnational. Doctrine must be “enfleshed” in our very beings, just as our skin encases our bones and organs.
Another way of thinking about incarnational doctrine is to think about eating. Food sustains our very being and fuels us for living. In the same way, as we digest ideas, they should emerge as a part of ourvery being, just as food nourishes and sustains us by being incorporated into our cells, tissue, and organs. Infact, being intentional about the implications of the Incarnation can help our understanding of the true nature of doctrine—as lived belief.
Of course the preeminent example of incarnation is in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ. But incarnational doctrine begins all the way back in the Old Testament. God comes to be with his people in their wilderness wanderings as a pillar of fire and a cloud. God “dwells” among the people in the Ark of the Covenant, and then in the Tabernacle. Later, the Temple became the incarnational focal point of God’s presence with God’s people.
Other vivid and concrete images of incarnation occur in the lives of the Hebrew prophets. In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet is told “Son of man, eat what you find; eat this scroll and go, speak to the house of Israel” (cf. Ezekiel 2:9-3:3). This scroll is not just any scroll. It is the book of the Law,the Scriptures, the teachings and the doctrines of belief that guided the nation in its worship of God. Ronald Rolheiser suggests a profound incarnational application for this image: “The idea is that they should digest the word and turn it into their own flesh so that people will be able to see the word of God in a living body rather than on a dead parchment….We have to digest something and turn it, physically, into the flesh of our own bodies so it becomes part of what we look like. If we would do this with the word of God, others would not have to [only] read the Bible to see what God is like,they would need only to look at our faces and our lives to see God.”(1)
Could it be that we could so imbibe and ingest doctrine a the beautiful teachings that come from God’s word into our lives, that they would radiate from our faces? That the way we lived, spoke, acted—even our very countenance—would give witness to the truth of God’s word? This is incarnation application. We incarnate God’s word, God’s truth and love, as our lives bear witness to Him. Doctrine is lived out, and our beliefs are enfleshed in our deeds and our actions, and even in our words. As St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the word of God wherever you go, even use words, if necessary.”(2)
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for Christian Spirituality (New York: DoubledayBooks, 1999), 102.
(2) Ibid., 82.