For most of us, the study of doctrine is best left toacademics and theologians. Termsused 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-daylives, especially as we struggle with terms we don't understand and principleswe find hard to practice. If we'rehonest, reading and studying theology is something most of us would like toavoid, just as we'd like to avoid a root canal.
Historically, of course, the formation of Christian doctrineserved to tell the story of the gospel. Doctrines are composed of the centraltenets of belief, so an understanding of doctrine shapes what Christians thinkabout our faith. But how many Christianshave 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 ourheads? Or is a belief something wedemonstrate in our lives? Moreimportant, if what we think in our heads has no bearing over the ways in whichwe live in this world, do we truly believe?
I was forced to think about these questions, as I studiedthe doctrine of the Incarnation. By its very nature, the doctrine of the Incarnation is application-orientedsince it deals with the belief that in Jesus Christ the whole fullness of Goddwelt 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 tothink about eating. Food sustainsour 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 intoour cells, tissue, and organs. Infact, being intentional about the implications of the Incarnation can help ourunderstanding of the true nature of doctrine—as lived belief.
Of course the preeminent example of incarnation is in theperson and ministry of Jesus Christ. But incarnational doctrine begins all the way back in the OldTestament. God comes to be withhis people in their wilderness wanderings as a pillar of fire and a cloud. God "dwells" among the peoplein the Ark of the Covenant, and then in the Tabernacle. Later, the Temple became theincarnational focal point of God’s presence with God’s people.
Other vivid and concrete images of incarnation occur in thelives of the Hebrew prophets. Inthe 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 anyscroll. It is the book of the Law,the Scriptures, the teachings and the doctrines of belief that guided thenation in its worship of God. RonaldRolheiser suggests a profound incarnational application for this image: "Theidea is that they should digest the word and turn it into their own flesh sothat people will be able to see the word of God in a living body rather than ona dead parchment....We have to digest something and turn it, physically, intothe flesh of our own bodies so it becomes part of what we look like. If we would do this with the word ofGod, 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 andthe beautiful teachings that come from God's word into our lives, that theywould radiate from our faces? Thatthe way we lived, spoke, acted—even our very countenance—would give witness tothe truth of God's word? This isincarnation application. We incarnateGod's word, God's truth and love, as our lives bear witness to Him. Doctrine is lived out, and our beliefsare enfleshed in our deeds and our actions, and even in our words. As St. Francis of Assisi said, "Preachthe word of God wherever you go, even use words, if necessary."(2)
Margaret Manning is amember of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministriesin Seattle, Washington.
(1) Ronald Rolheiser, TheHoly Longing: The Search for Christian Spirituality (New York: DoubledayBooks, 1999), 102.
(2) Ibid., 82.