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From text to Word

So much depends, I believe, on the current theological milieu (or the little corner of it in which I tend to find myself) coming to see Scripture once again not merely as “text” or “script” but as Word, that is as the living and active witness to the one Word of God, Jesus Christ. This is to be further understood as a deep and pressing need to move from an immanentist vision of Scripture, as the sort of cultural product of the church by which it authorizes and codifies its own life and practices, to a transcendent view of Scripture; or rather simply a view in which God is taken seriously as the free, living, and speaking Lord of the church. For too long Scripture has been cast in contemporary theology as an inert text, there to be subjected to the cultural-linguistic meditation of the self-sufficient (or, more prettily put, Spirit-imbued and thus, immanently authoritative) church. That Scripture might be a field in which God (conceived not as the church’s cultural aura, but as the Triune Lord who loves and speaks in freedom to, in, and beyond the church) truly speaks, in ways we do not expect or anticipate, is simply a notion not taken with much seriousness. It is brushed aside casually as a sort of primitive fundamentalist past that we have all hopefully outgrown.

The great error of all of this is that it effectively reduces God to — at best — an immanent force animating the church’s culture. Some will think this overstates the problem. Perhaps (though I’m not convinced). But still, we are left to wonder why there is so much skittishness in these theological circles to actually giving serious weight to the notion that God might really be active among us and beyond us. That God might really speak in a way that lays us bare and before which our prior conceptions, processes, and status quos (even our ecclesial ones) must simply bow.

This is how I continue to feel more and more convicted the more I am asked to preach, and the more I find myself reading Scripture. It was also stirred anew in me recently when Jason posted this excellent and challenging quote from John Webster on the nature of Scripture, which puts the matter better than I can:

. . . Scripture is a transcendent moment in the life of the church. Scripture is not the church’s book, something internal to the community’s discursive practices; what the church hears in Scripture is not its own voice. It is not a store of common meanings or a Christian cultural code – and if it engenders those things, it is only because Scripture is that in which Jesus Christ through the Spirit is pleased to utter the viva vox Dei. Consecrated by God for the purpose of Christ’s self-manifestation, Holy Scripture is always intrusive, in a deep sense alien, to the life of the church. All this is to say that the church assembles around the revelatory self-presence of God in Christ through the Spirit, borne to the communion of saints by the writings of the prophets and apostles. This divine revelation is “isolated” – that is, it is a self-generating and self-completing event’.

~ John Webster, Confessing God, 189.

Would we dare affirm this? That God really speaks, with God’s own voice, a voice that is not ultimately reducible to our own? An if not, why not? Anymore I don’t know what other hope I could possibly have.

25 Comments

  1. Adam Nigh wrote:

    I with you, but since my own theological context is a fairly complicated one (I’m a university PhD systematic theology student who is and has since birth been a part of a “seeker sensitive” non-denom evangellyfish megachurch that is virtually incapable of taking Scripture as anything other than God’s “how to” guide to life) I see the need to maintain a distinction between the divine Word and the human words. I wouldn’t want to say that Scripture itself is living and active, but that the Word we hear speaking in Scripture is. We want to say that Scripture is human speech, not self-generated human speech but human speech called forth by God in his self-revelation and annexed to it as his own Word, but that it is still human speech and radically misunderstood if the living and active power is thought to be inherent in it on the level of textuality. That power must always be understood to be God’s own.

    I see Webster being pretty careful to keep that distinction running: “Scripture is that IN WHICH Jesus Christ through the Spirit is pleased to utter the viva vox Dei.” The difference between “in which” and “as which” is crucial for my context. I think T. F. Torrance makes the point well: “if the Scriptures are treated as having a light inherent in themselves, they are deprived of their true light which they have by reflecting the Light of Christ beyond themselves – and then the light that is in them is turned into a kind of darkness”.

    These comments aren’t meant to be corrective, but agreeing with the intention of stating the other side of the coin to point up the opposite danger, the bibliological docetism opposite of the bibliological ebionitism you’re worried about.

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 3:33 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I agree entirely Adam. I believe what you (and esp the Torrance quote) point out is the problem of a sort of textual immanence, a similar problem to the one of ecclesiastical immanence that I see Webster getting at.

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 8:02 am | Permalink
  3. Brad A. wrote:

    So how would you nuance this post to reflect Adam’s point? This is particularly interesting to me (being in a similar position to Adam’s), so I’m curious.

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Well, I don’t see how his point requires a change in what the post is getting at. It just gets at further issues, which I think is quite right.

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    To put it differently, I feel like what I meant to say was just further clarified in what Adam said. Certainly it is the voice of God speaking IN the Scriptures, not some inherent textual property that is latent within them. If that wasn’t clear, I certainly want it to be.

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 8:56 am | Permalink
  6. mshedden wrote:

    It’s interesting you find Webster helpful here because seems to be very endorsing of Vanhoozer’s project (one who often uses the terms “text” or “script”). I wonder if the “untamed word” is kind of like theology failing to be properly apophatic. It’s really hard to do theology entirely from that spot but if your theology (or in this case doctrine of Scripture) neglects it entirely you end up with total immanence. I am guessing your going to take this notion further than I would but maybe this is helpful?

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Can you say more about what you mean about “failing to be properly apophatic”? I think I know what you mean but I’m not quite sure.

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink
  8. mshedden wrote:

    I think Coakley wrote something that convinced me of this but if I remember correctly she was answering a question about actually attempting a Systematic theology and the role that apophatic theology must properly play if you do attempt one. She thought that you couldn’t do a theology that was entirely apophatic but you need to make room for it or you would miss the forest for the trees.
    So I guess when I read someone like Vanhoozer the question is does he properly see that our engagement with the word must also leave room for or understand the way your using the term “word” here or does he collapse it all into immanence.

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink
  9. dan wrote:

    So much depends, I believe, on the current theological milieu (or the little corner of it in which I tend to find myself) coming to see Scripture once again not merely as “text” or “script” but as Word, that is as the living and active witness to the one Word of God, Jesus Christ…

    I’m not convinced. I reckon that so much more depends on Christians dropping the language games they like to play with the Bible so that they can go out and actually act as disciples of Jesus. Talk about the Bible should not remain a central preoccupation. At the end of the day, that topic is little more than Wittgenstein’s ladder, which we must climb and then kick away.

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    Fair point indeed. For me I suppose I feel that working towards hearing the prophetic witness of Scripture as an alien voice is important to engendering that sort of discipleship-action.

    And I totally agree that it is precisely this action that is of paramount importance.

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink
  11. Nate Kerr wrote:

    @dan
    Dan, this is a very important point it seems to me. And perhaps it is even “Wittgenstein’s ladder” that we can even finally do away with, insofar as it is indeed the Word the comes to us, and comes to us in such a way that, insofar as it is heard as Word, presses us into immediate action under the weight of its doxa. That is, perhaps hearing the Word calls us not to “description” but to “doxological action,” the former no longer having to be the condition of the possibility of the latter, as so many post-liberals presume.

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  12. dan wrote:

    Nate,

    That all sounds real nice, but unless I’m seeing how that is playing out in a person’s life — and unless the substance of that matches the substance of the language employed — I’m real tempted to call bullshit. I mean that with the utmost respect… the rhetoric is great and I want it to be true… I just don’t see it so much. I’m it scares me because beautiful rhetoric can then end up continuing to mask the same-old-same-old (I’ve said this to you before, so I apologize for repeating myself).

    When I think about the Word that “presses us into immediate action under the weight of its doxa” the closest example I can think of is the way in which the ranks of the revolution are swelled in North Africa and the Middle East every Friday after things conclude at the Mosque. I’m left a little more bereft when I look for this in Christian churches and am just as empty-handed when I consider Christian theological circles.

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Permalink
  13. Nate Kerr wrote:

    To be quite honest, Dan, I think the problem is in part that we do not actually believe in such a God who speaks such a Word. That we do not actually believe in a God that gives ears to hear, and in a God whose action cannot but make us doers of the Word. And so we are left either with ongoing methodological talk about (like “Wittgensteinian ladders” that we have to kick away) the linguistic, or cultic, or experiential prerequisites for such action, or with a kind of bare, self-justifying human action in-itself. Both of these are modes of unfaithfulness, as far as I’m concerned. The latter is no more prophetic than the former; the former is no less a mode spiritual posturing than is latter.

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 9:09 pm | Permalink
  14. dan wrote:

    Sure, I agree with your criticism of the “bare, self-justifying human action in-itself.” I’m not advocating for that (as I reckon you know).

    However, a further challenge to your position is that a lack of action would suggest that “the Word” you write about is not speaking/being spoken. As far as I can tell, that sort of Word is effective regardless of what we believe (sort of like the Event Saul experienced on the Damascus road — thus you mention “a God whose action cannot but make us doers of the Word”). Thus, the absence of any action on our part suggests the absence of the Word, which in turn suggests godforsakenness. This would mean the problem isn’t so much belief or the lack thereof but is, instead, the refusal of God to speak or be present.

    If that’s the case, then what is to be done? I would suggest that all we can do is act in a way that might prompt God to also act and that makes our well-being dependent upon that hoped for action. Some may call this “self-justifying human action in-itself” (which might be the privileged sort of criticism available to those who don’t acknowledge, or don’t really know, the context of godforsakenness) but it is the only sort of action that one is left with in that context. What else can one do? Continue to throw around swollen academic terms? Is that a speaking of “the Word”? Is it even a bearing witness to that Word? Is that the sort of doing prompted by the God whose action cannot but make us doers of the Word? Again, I don’t mean to be an ass by asking these questions, I’m just trying to figure out what y’all are on about and why you think this discourse as as significant as you obviously think that it is.

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 9:44 pm | Permalink
  15. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Dan:

    I’m not sure this discourse is all that obviously significant. There is a whole scheme of things, theologically, within which it is very insignificant. If there is an exigence to it on my part as a theologian, it lies in the fact that saying this is just one small way in which I have been given to act. It is not at all exhaustive of the act to which I have been given over to as a disciple of the crucified one, nor is this even the beginning of the whole of what needs saying, theologically. But it is one thing that I think has been given to be said as a way of speaking into and doing a work on precisely the kind of “swollen” theological discourse you are from all kinds of perspectives right to critique. I’d rather hope and pray for a time in which we might be given to live and to work and to love together as you are calling us to do. And we must always be on our way to doing so. If I cast aside these words along that way — well, it’s probably because I think there are different kinds of asses out there that need talking to in different kinds of ways, and also because not everyone is, as I so often wish they were, the kind of ass you are.

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 11:31 pm | Permalink
  16. Nate Kerr wrote:

    In other words, Dan, if what I am saying is not borne by faithfulness to the Gospel, if it is not spoken out of being borne along by a movement of God into solidarity with the godforsaken, if it is not spoken in a way that is given over to a living and loving and working with these godforsaken ones in the hope of resurrection and new creation, then may my words testify against themselves and fall on deaf ears.

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 11:48 pm | Permalink
  17. dan wrote:

    Amen to that.

    I don’t know if my words testify against themselves, but I know that they often testify against me and when that disconnect occurs between word and deed, I know that I am (quite literally) talking nonsense. So, hey, no claims of being “holier than thou” here. Far from it, given my convictions in this regard, I reckon I am the worst of sinners.

    Wednesday, March 9, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink
  18. Well, sure, you got your highfalooten thinkers coming up with fancy theories and reviewing each others books (and hopefully repenting of the the lust for tenure and lucrative publication). You got your ‘radicals,’ a smaller group of highfalooten thinkers coming up with theories questioning the first group of highfalooten thinkers. Then you got most other folks who don’t give a fig about much more than paying the mortgage or winning the battle against thigh-borne cellulite, or looking fwd to elk hunting season (for discussion purposes lets say folks like me?). Once and awhile the culture industry can get us lumpen-zombies worked up over ‘Muslim sleeper cells,’ or apocalyptic Mayan calendars, or ‘Bell’s’ hell, or abortion (one way or the other). But, sometimes something happens, I mean really happens, and usually it’s something bad, and then we change (and not usually for the better). It can be an ordinary thing too, like your house burning down, or your wife dumping you, or say, Neurologists finding an off-colored spot or shadow on your daughters CAT scan, and now your paying attention and really praying sister, not like when your praying for the elk-tag lottery or a better parking spot, but really praying in a way you never did before. If all goes well, you praise God and maybe you have learned something useful about God’s Being in the world, maybe you have even changed in ways even you don’t realize, you’ve become more understanding and compassionate towards others, put money in charity jars at stores for that bald kid with leukemia, Oprah type stuff, etc.. But, if things go bad, well, you may do all of the above anyway, and good for you. Or, your anger towards God (that you can’t even admit to yourself) works it’s way into your soul like a cancer. You come to hate not only that pakistani neurologist with the terrible accent but all those god-damn ‘foreigners.‘ Your depression leads to isolation and estrangement from the rest of your children. You will surely come to hate insurance company lackeys, and of course, you hate yourself most, for you know that all this misfortune is Gods punishment for your own secret sins, the bible tells us that much (at least in some places). But this too is a kind of transformation, another kind of being born-again, cause if you have never hated God you ain’t never loved God either. Anyway you look at it, circumstances change people more than theories. There’s a Townes Van Zandt song that helps make my point but I get a sense that folks taste here run different so I’ll spare you that. Now, of course, I know we gotta have those brilliant Paky doctors (God bless you Dr. Chakravorty) and Barth’s behemoths and Hans Urs von whats-his-names trilogy, and Nate’s great sermonizing, etc., I’m just musing if the better alternative to Vichy-Chrisendom is not Hay-bale communism and burning my starbucks gift card, but is experienced more often in places like rehab centers, with third-strikers chipping down from Oxy who come to realize Charlie Sheen don’t seem to make as much sense when your stone sober and sleepless in a sweat soaked bed in a locked room, than he did when you were buzzed on a bar stool. I mean really, no matter how much haranguing we get, were not going to sell all and follow Jesus, love our enemies, or leave our families to preach the gospel (though we might abandon them for lust or drunkenness or worst of all, forgetfullness) and probably, neither are you. What I am going to do is get a smudge of ash on my forehead tonight, and then later read a bunch of hifalooten blogs about it’s significance as either a transformative doxoloxical gesture towards…(insert something greek or latin here), or else it’s witness of my collaboration with the death dealing liturgical powers of compromise and quasi-christian yadda yadda…. Both may be true, but I keep lighting candles for my daughter anyway as a testimony to my ignorance and guilt. Obliged. (oh, and if we are going to have a contest of sinners i am sure I beat out either Nate or Dan, and forgive the rambling length and non-sense I am spouting, I am home sick again, t’s been a tough winter, Lord bless you all with good health).

    Wednesday, March 9, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    Boom. You have now achieved InhabD tagline status, Daniel.

    Wednesday, March 9, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Permalink
  20. dan wrote:

    I just fell in love with you all over again, Daniel.

    Wednesday, March 9, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Permalink
  21. Thanks Halden, although i don’t really know what “tagline status” means, It makes any tribulation worth it. Obliged. (p.s. when are y’all there in Portland going to get around to sponsoring that N.W. conference on something interesting. Maybe put out a call for suggestions on a conference title? These theo-conferences seem like a good racket to get into and a good launching platform for y’alls new books–I’m thinking of you, Dan up in Vancouver and Nate? Maybe mix it up with a home brew and cooking and recipe get-to-gether?).

    Friday, March 11, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Permalink
  22. Halden wrote:

    It means now you’re being quoted in the epigraph on the blog. Congrats. Its an honor you share with Roger Flyer.

    We should be putting on another Northwest EP conference next year (we do em every two years generally). And I usually do throw down some bbq, so yeah, I’ll make sure to make an announcement when the time comes.

    Monday, March 14, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink
  23. ‘On cannibals and child brides.’ I came across this related essay over at “philosophy Now” that seemed somewhat relevant to a bunch of recent posts by halden: “In summary, moral judgments are based on emotions, and reasoning normally contributes only by helping us extrapolate from our basic values to novel cases. Reasoning can also lead us to discover that our basic values are culturally inculcated, and that might impel us to search for alternative values, but reason alone cannot tell us which values to adopt, nor can it instill new values.” Hmmmn… the link is:

    http://www.philosophynow.org/issue82/Morality_is_a_Culturally_Conditioned_Response

    Peggy Reeves Sanday found historical evidence for cannibalism in 34% of cultures in one cross-historical sample. Even a greater percentage with blood-sport games, decapitation, and genital mutilation. Could this account for some of our ecumenical challenges? Obliged.

    Saturday, March 26, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink
  24. Hill wrote:

    An editorial remark: the proper construction is actually “If you’ve never hated God, you ain’t never loved God neither.”

    Saturday, March 26, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink
  25. Thanks Hill, but you better take up any editorial decisions with Halden, i was just riffing and scatting, I ain’t sure it’s even ‘true’! (that is ‘truth’ engaged not like the Greek ‘alethiea,’ or latin ‘verit,’ but the Russian ‘istina,’ that blessed Father Florensky wrote so much about. Those Russians knew something about loving and hating God–and themselves– that we’all could learn from). I mean, I don’t think Saint Gemma Galgani or my personal favorite, Saint Rose of Lima, ever hated God. St. Rose went so far as to disfigure her face with acid and thorns to make herself ugly and escape the clutches of licentious suitors so she could spend more time with Jesus! I realize I am undermining my own ‘tagline’ status but even a relative ‘truth’ is more important than the praise of men.
    From St. Gemma: “… Oh love, oh infinite love! Your love, oh Lord, Your love penetrates even to my body, with too much fury. When, when will I unite with You, oh Lord, Who with such force of love keeps me in union here on earth? … Do it, do it! … Let me die, and die of love! …..What a beautiful death, oh Lord, to die a victim of love ……a victim for You! Calm down, calm down oh Jesus; if not, Your love will end up burning me to ashes! … Oh love, oh infinite love! …..Oh love of my Jesus! ….Let Your love penetrate my all; from You I want nothing else. My God, my God, I love You! But, per­haps I love You too little, oh Jesus? … Are You not happy? …But this needs to come from You, if You want me to love You more. Yes, I should love You with a unique love. Oh! I have told you so many times, oh Lord: if my life does not end in seeing the suffering of Someone who loves me so much, what other pain do You think could bring about my death? …I told you it is enough, oh Lord, what you have suffered for me and for sinners. Yes, enough! … My shoulders shall replace Yours in bearing the cross!” (she could go on like this for days on end, but her prayers were answered and she died at 24). Obliged.

    Saturday, March 26, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

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