October 3, 2022

The Limits of Excarnational Truth

Is the truth ever fully communicated apart from our embodiment of it?

Shawn Brace

Christians have long debated the tension between right belief and right action. Protestants, since the Reformation, have largely emphasized the former to a greater degree, rightly pushing back against a Catholicism that focused primarily on ritual and superstitious action. For Protestants, who have spilled much ink creating various confessions of faith (and then persecuted those who’ve disagreed), correct doctrine has arguably bordered on an obsession, prioritizing faith over works. 

Of course, we shouldn’t have to choose between right belief and right action. Both are critically important. But during the past decade or so, some Protestant voices—justifiably, in my opinion—have started raising the alarm about the seeming imbalance. They’ve pointed out that in the words of philosopher Charles Taylor, many Christians are guilty of promoting “excarnational” theology. 

Though Taylor has a broader meaning in mind when he uses the term, for my purposes here I’m focusing on the type of religious experience with which we emphasize a truth that’s not lived out—where we’re more concerned about preaching truth than embodying it, implicitly believing that as long as people have heard propositional ideas, then they’ve fully encountered “truth.” 

We as Seventh-day Adventists are particularly susceptible to this approach. Since we’re blessed to understand some very beautiful biblical ideas that most other Christians don’t know or emphasize, we’re prone to make much of the rightness of our beliefs. We then implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—think our mission is to simply proclaim our teachings, believing that’s the extent of our mission (or, as former General Conference president George Irwin declared in 1901, we’re called to pursue the “rapid dissemination of the third angel’s message”).1 But is the truth ever fully communicated apart from our embodiment of it? Have we fully communicated the truth of Sabbath rest to others, for example, if we’re not persons who have “Sabbathy” dispositions— people whose demeanor reflects restfulness, peace, and patience? Or have we fully communicated the truth about hell if we live hellish lives, holding never-ending resentments against people and refusing to forgive them (in other words, communicating by the way we live that wrath is actually never-ending and eternal)? 

Jesus, of course, is our example in this. As the Word, He had to become flesh in order for us to fully encounter the truth about God. This is what we call the “incarnation,” or, literally, the “enfleshment,” of God. It wasn’t enough for the Word to remain an abstract Word. He couldn’t simply announce truth via a handbill, a sermon, or a Bible study; He became flesh and, in the words of The Message, “moved into the neighborhood” (see John 1:14).2 Indeed, Christ didn’t—and couldn’t— save us merely by speaking; it was His actions at the cross that secured our salvation. 

So, too, I’m not sure we as Adventists will ever fulfill our divine mission until we fully embrace this high calling—until we not only proclaim truth but live it out, becoming people who embody integrity, kindness, graciousness, and love.

1 See General Conference Bulletin 1901, No. 1, Extra no. 1, p. 20. This phrase was first called to my attention by Tihomir Lazić, “Remnant in Koinonia: Towards an Adventist Version of Communion Ecclesiology” (Ph.D. diss., University of Oxford, 2016), p. 82. 

2 From The Message, copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.