Incarnational Theology

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14 NRSV)


In Christian Theology the area of  study dealing with the coming of God to be with us in Christ Jesus is known as Incarnational Theology. Theologians enjoy tossing around great big words that have very simple meanings, and this is one of those words. The verb incarnate is formed from the Latin roots in, meaning “into,” and carn, meaning “flesh.” In other words, it literally means to “in-flesh” something … to make something in the form of a human being. It also has the figurative meaning of “to put an abstract concept or idea into concrete form.” In Christian Theology it is the word used to describe the coming of Jesus to be one of us. As the Nicene Creed states:

For us and for our salvation
He came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human. (UMH 880)

The doctrine of the incarnation states that Jesus of Nazareth, who walked the dusty roads of Galilee, taught in the Synagogue at Caperneum, cleansed the Temple of the money changers in Jerusalem, wept at the tomb of Lazarus, celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples in the Upper Room, and died on the cross for our sins — this same Jesus was also God, come to live with us and as one of us, in human flesh. As the opening sentences of John’s Gospel puts it: “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Jesus is the eternal Word, the creative agency through whom the Father created all that is or ever shall be. And, as John also affirms, this Word of God was God.

Incarnational Theology teaches us that God has always revealed Himself to us through the “normal,” the physical, the temporal, the mundane things of this life. The created order has always contained within it a window into the agency and genius of its Creator; it has always been true that one can know about God by looking at what God has created. Likewise, God’s ultimate and eternal self-revelation for us is in and through the form of a man: Jesus of Nazareth. In this man we see not only ourselves as God calls us to be, but we also see God Himself. The only begotten Son of the Father didn’t stop being God in order to become human but, rather, took upon Himself our human nature, almost as if He were putting on a garment, and in so doing He purified our humanity and made it possible for us to become one with Him. As Charles Wesley’s wonderful Christmas hymn proclaims:

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel! (UMH 240)

In the incarnation God veiled Himself in humanity, thus revealing his gracious, life-transforming nature to us. It also had the glorious side-effect of enabling us to interact with Him. Thanks to the veiling nature of the incarnation, the disciples were able to be with the God-man, Jesus, without fear, to learn from him, to enjoy time with him, and  to come to know God through him. We, too, have that same privilege; we, like the disciples, have the joy of coming to know God in and through Jesus. This is a critical point within Incarnational Theology: all that we need for our salvation can be experienced in and through our relationship with Christ Jesus, our Lord.

There isn’t an element of Christian dogma that isn’t impacted by understanding that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself. This is nowhere more evident than in the area of Sacramental Theology. The incarnational concept is so critical to the functioning of the means of grace that it is fair to say that they cannot be properly comprehended apart from it. To put this simply, every means of grace is incarnational. Apart from the real presence of God in Jesus Christ, each and every means of grace would be meaningless; but, because Jesus is truly the divine manifestation of God’s grace in our midst, each of the means is consequently a conduit for conveying that very grace of God to us.  In other words, it is precisely because God became man in Jesus Christ that we can come to know God and receive God’s gifts of love and presence through such material instrumentalities as the scriptures, prayer, worship, healing, Baptism, and Holy Communion. Jesus is the ultimate means of grace, the foundational conduit, the personal manifestation and supreme expression of the pure grace of God. Jesus, in and through His incarnation, is the Sacrament of all Sacraments.  And, it is because of this that all the means of grace have meaning – from the Scriptures, which are the Word of God incarnate in the written form, to Holy Communion, which is the Word of God incarnate in the consecrated bread and wine – all the means of grace depend upon the incarnation of Jesus for their efficacy. Far from being mere symbols, or lifeless reminders of that which they signify, by virtue of conveying the real presence of Jesus each spiritually becomes that which each re-presents.

It is in this sense that Eucharistic Theology is also Incarnational Theology. In and through the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ we, when we partake of the elements in the Holy Meal, are partaking of the very real, very divine, life transforming presence of God which became one with man in Jesus of Nazareth. God, incarnate in human flesh, becomes God typologically incarnate in bread and wine, so that we, when we partake in faith, might be sanctified into the very presence of Christ for others.

© 2006 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.