Friday, January 25, 2008

Incarnational - What Does It Mean?

Is "incarnational" a true word in Christian usage? Recently I ran across an article and some discussion on this topic that was quite critical of its more recent use, a least within the Lutheran tradition. It is claimed that "incarnational" has no historic basis in the Lutheran tradition, although it can currently be found in wide use across a number of denominational lines. As I wrote this article the spell-check feature put a red line under the word. Obviously it is not a normal, or typical, form of the word "incarnate," at least in common use at the moment. To be fair, however, the word "incarnational" can be found in an unabridged version of Webster's Dictionary, and it means "of or relating to, or emphasizing incarnation or a doctrine of incarnation." That was from page 1141 of Webster's Third International Dictionary, Unabridged, 1961. Although this was 47 years ago, I am going to assume that the definition can still stand. It is interesting to note that one charge is that the use of the word is novel and faddish.

Part of the reaction stems from an article written by Dr. Arthur Just, entitled "The Incarnational Life" in the For the Life of the World magazine put out by Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne. A reading of this article seems to show that Dr. Just uses the term along the lines of the definition above. His point, if I understand correctly, is that the life of the church and the believer is derived from the incarnate life of Christ. Thus, our life "in Christ" by faith is "related to" the incarnation of Christ where God took on human flesh and dwelled among us. Unlike those who make much of the warm fuzzy feeling of Jesus in their heart, "incarnational" theology wishes to ground the Christian life with the true, tangible reality of the fleshly Christ as He comes to us in physical forms of water, bread and wine. Thus "incarnational" is somewhat synonymous with "sacramental."

To that end I believe that all the hullabaloo about this word is much ado about nothing. If the word can be found in a dictionary almost half a century old it is hardly novel or undefined, as some charge. The idea is really rather simple. There is no attempt to usurp the uniqueness of the only Incarnation of Jesus Christ, as is also charged. The point is merely to show that the incarnation is more than just an event - It is the defining truth that shapes the life of the church and every believer. That is it, as far as I can tell, unless someone else can see something I am missing.


Anonymous said...

Would you speak similarly of the word "missional"?

Rev. Don Engebretson said...

Probably not. My ancient Unabridged Dictionary does not know the word "missional" as opposed to "incarnational." It is a more recent term, and I have my reservations about how it is used. According to Wikipedia the Oxford Dictionary defines it adjectivally as "relating to, or connected with a religious mission; missionary." However, I sense that the term is often used to compare and contrast churches and church functions that are judged to be serving the mission of the church as defined by them. It is also a term being used in a selective way by certain groups outside of the specific definition. Again, Wikipedia notes the following:
"In contemporary usage "missional" is an adjectival alternative to "missionary." Although both words are related to "missio" (Latin: sending), some scholars, including Darrell Guder et al. in The Missional Church[citation needed] believe "missional" focuses on the church contextualizing its methods, morality, and message to fit its indigenous culture.

In this usage "missional" has rapidly entered the lexicon of the growing emerging church movement whose participants have popularized the term, enabling participants in this movement to recognize each other across denominational lines. Different "emergents" may use the term with different nuances and connotations, but the term persists as essentially a postmodern alternative to the ecclesiology and missiology of Evangelical Christians. The practical outworking of emergent "missional living" does not coincide with the emphases on propositional evangelism, teaching, and holiness found in historic Christianity.

In contemporary, postmodern usage "missional" has become more narrow in scope than traditional terms such as "mission" and "outreach" which infer the inclusion of propositional evangelism and instruction."

The above concerns me, and thus makes me suspect of the term missional....