These are just words on a page: words with no life and meaning of their own. Nothing specific or unique to the shape of letters or sounds of speech controls the interaction between these words and the mind. Theological writing shares the same deficiency in meaning. The most powerful and commonly used theological language can become a tool for self assertion and a perversion of the gospel message. Correlation between written or spoken words and theological truth only occurs when human words participate in the Word.
Participation in the Word requires that the work of God form, inform, and transform communication. God’s creative action forms the world in such a way that we are able to experience that world and share our experience through words; by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, those words are informed with meaning and power; and by the redemptive act of Jesus Christ, words transform the life of the individual and the community. Thus, communicating the Word of God, the task of theology, is the work of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This paper will first consider the current theological situation of the church and then explore the meaning of this Trinitarian understanding of theology in relation to God’s creation of the world, the Spirit’s presence in the world, and Jesus Christ’s transformation of the world. I will then argue that the true task of theology is identifying ways to hear the Word of God in the world, rather than explicating a permanent expression of the Word. The liturgy of the church is the proper posture from which to hear God’s Word and not the sufficient formulation of that Word. The Word of God is the Work of God in the formation, in-formation, and transformation of the world.
Theology in the Church
The Christian church stands in need of theological and liturgical renewal. In a time marked by uncertainty and an inability to define core beliefs and convictions, little clearly separates the life of the church from the wider society. One significant, perhaps fundamental, factor in this reality is the misunderstanding and misappropriation of the Word of God in Christian thought. Those who have constructed theological statements and systematically explicated the Christian faith are often met with stark opposition or uncaring apathy. The majority of church members tend to treat theological works as either mutually exclusive ideas or irrelevant mind games. Rarely are theological arguments resolved between different church traditions and even fewer such arguments are viewed by parishioners as an explicit foundation for church life. Theologians cannot agree and parishioners cannot see the benefit of endless argumentation.
A significant factor in the theological impasse of church leaders is the variety of presuppositions and assumptions brought to the table regarding the nature of God and humanity. It is likely impossible, for instance, to agree upon an understanding of how Christ’s death on a cross is effective for salvation without a common understanding of what humanity is saved from. The simple answer is sin, but the theological nuances regarding the nature of sin brought by various traditions necessitate distinct understandings of how Christ removes or forgives sin. To disentangle the complex web of theological affirmations and determine exactly where all differences occur would require a critique of cultural and social rationality that is simply not possible.
Recent movements toward greater ecumenical awareness and recognition have proven fruitful on various levels, but the church certainly has far to go before the theological reality of a unified church can be seen in a practical institution. This paper is an attempt to refocus the conversations of the church around an understanding of the Word of God as the work of God. Any self contained system of articulated beliefs and practices carries an implicit social and cultural shape that cannot express the fullness of God’s Word. Just as the gospel message cannot be harmonized into a single narrative depiction, the theological expression of God’s Word cannot be contained within a single culture, treatise, or doctrinal statement. Theology begins and ends with God. Only by focusing the conversation of the church on the work of God and not the products of human rationality can the church hope to overcome its divisions and factions.
The Formation of Words
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” These opening words to the Gospel of John present three basic points to ground our inquiry into the Word of God: 1) the Word was in existence even before creation, 2) the Word has an integral part in creation, and 3) the Word continues to act after creation.
1) One of Christian theology’s first affirmations is that God does not exist as the product of human reason, but that all the earth is the creation of God. To claim that the Word of God was in existence before creation is to claim its “objective, external reality that is prior to the description or narration of that reality…” The Word of God, whether or not it can be accurately represented by human words or grasped by the intellect and imagination, is prior to any form of communication or argumentation regarding that Word. Christians do not, however, believe that the Word is wholly other than or inaccessible to the world.
2) The creative power of the Word elicits a connection to the creation stories of Genesis. In Genesis 1, God “spoke the world into being…” God’s power to create relies upon the existence of the Word. To be sure, we must not equate this statement with the idea that somehow God could not create without being able to properly enunciate syllables or group together letters. To do so would be to imply that the reality of God’s speech is somehow linked to or subsumed by the particular ways in which humans speak. As beings created through the Word, we must begin with the opposite supposition; our words are somehow subsumed by or subservient to the Word of God. Being created in the Word implies that humans have “a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself…though in limited degree…” In some way, the creative power of the Word enables humans to have some form of access to that Word.
3) That the Word continues to be active after creation is integral to the Christian message. The opening of John’s gospel provides a glimpse into the power of the Word to overcome the “darkness” of death. The Word of God is active in the world providing continuity between past and future: “the one Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.” In as much as the Word of God is responsible for creation, the Word also affects salvation by drawing creation back to God.
It must be noted here that the term “word” has several different, though related, meanings in Christian discourse. One might speak of the Word as the second person of the trinity, as the entire collection of canonical scriptures, as the gospel message, or even as the content of a sermon. Moreover, it is possible to convey the Word through each of the five senses and not only through spoken or written words. I have intentionally left vague the distinction between particular forms in which the Word might exist or be communicated. For the moment, I only intend to argue that the Word, as a member of the Trinity Who was “in the beginning,” is the precondition for “word” to have any meaning at all and, thus, any relationship between the different meanings of “word” is necessarily founded upon and representative of the Word “in the beginning.”
The Word of God is the preexistent foundation against which all our words relate. What God did, does, and will do forms our lives and our ability to relate to the world and each other in such a way that we are capable of “dialogue with our Maker, rational use and enjoyment of the world in which God has placed us, and a community of men and women where the truth is spoken in love.” This ability is often thought to derive from the image of God in which humanity was created. The point here is not to identify exactly how or to what extent human speech is related to God’s, but only to establish the Word of God as the concrete, stable foundation upon which human speech is built.
Treating Scripture, for instance, as the Word of God certainly doesn’t mean believing a collection of paper filled with ink spots and bound into a book is precisely the source of the created world. To hold this view would be to treat one particular narration of reality as reality itself. Scripture is the Word of God as far as it records what God did in creation, it reveals how God acts in the present, and it reshapes the future toward the telos of creation. Scripture is the Word of God because it narrates God’s formation of the world through human words in response to and enactment of the creative Word of God.
All other forms of “word” are similarly subservient to that which created the heavens and the earth. Only in so far as words relate to the creative act of God do words present a foundation for theological communication. The Word of God is the work of God in the formation of the world, from creation unto salvation. Having considered the foundation upon which words are formed to narrate God’s work, we must now consider how the meaning and truth of those words can be grasped and conveyed by and among humans.
The In-formation of Meaning
God’s action forms our past, present, and future. The past is formed by God’s creation of the world; the present is formed by the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit; and the eschatological future is formed by Christ’s redemption through the cross. As finite humans, we can only receive knowledge about our past and future by means presently available to us. Thus, the task of understanding the meaning and truth of God’s Word will first focus on how humans receive and share knowledge and experiences of the world and then upon the means by which knowledge and experience might be considered true.
Augustine identifies signs and things as the two aspects of human knowledge. A sign is “a thing, which besides the impression it conveys to the senses, also has the effect of making something else come to mind” and a thing is that which does not signify something else. The above section dealt particularly with understanding things in proper relationship to God; we must now consider the role of signs as the means of learning about things. Although signs may be natural, like smoke signifying fire, signs are also used by humans to show “as far as they can,…whatever it may be they have sensed and understood.” Non-natural signs, or conventional signs, are the means by which humans share knowledge. The most prevalent conventional signs are words, although other signs such as body language or music can fall under the same category.
Conventional signs facilitate the exchange of ideas within a cultural or social setting. One might, for instance, say or write the term “brother” to denote someone who shares the same set of parents as herself. However, the term only ensures some degree of correspondence between the experiences and ideas of one individual and those of another. Paul, throughout the New Testament, uses the term “brother” to denote members of the church family rather than biological relatives. Thus, the use of the word “brother” is at the same time a useful means to signify the relationship between two persons and an ambiguous or perhaps misleading term that has different meanings within different settings.
The meaning of “brother” may be a trivial example, but, as one begins to search more broadly for how meaning is conveyed or defined, one finds that meaning, and even the ability to critique meaning, is culturally or socially conditioned. The intellectual ability to assess and critique presumptions about meaning and reality is only possible within particular traditions of rational inquiry. When concepts or ideas from two competing traditions clash, no self-contained rational argument will necessitate the adherence to one tradition over the other. The intellect’s ability to define something as ‘true’ is contingent upon a judgment of the correlation between the mind and the thing to which it refers. Such judgment is, however, only possible within a particular tradition and is subject to change or reinterpretation within other traditions and over the course of time.
To claim the truth of a word one must, therefore, refer to a standard outside the limits of human rationality. To speak of the true meaning of a word is to speak of its correlation with the Word of God. One might object that such correlation is only necessary or relevant in the case of theological language. Theological language is generally thought to be the particular group of words that in some way refer to God or the relationship between God and other things or creatures. However, such a distinction is insufficient to describe theological language because all language presupposes assumptions about the world which deny or necessitate some aspect or action of God. Even basic statements about the self or the world presume some stance on the existence (or nonexistence) of God and God’s part (or lack thereof) in creation. There is, therefore, no fundamental distinction between ‘secular’ and ‘theological’ language; all language is inherently theological.
The task remains to identify how to do good theology; or more specifically, to identify how words can be correlated with the Word. Augustine was hesitant to say that any words are “worthy of God.” Even in speaking about the relationships between the trinity, he writes that he only “wish[ed] to say something” and what he might have said “is not what [he] wished to say.” God has chosen to accept “the homage of human voices” but those voices cannot precisely express God’s Word. Aquinas writes that we can speak of things as being simple or subsistent, but “neither way of speaking measures up to [God’s] way of being, for in this life we do not know him as he is in himself.” Language, for Aquinas, can only imperfectly represent God because of our status as the imperfect creatures of the perfect Creator.
If it is not adequately possible to speak directly about God, one cannot assume that words will have a necessary correlation to the Word of God. Augustine warns against “bondage to … signs as though they were the ultimate realities.” Words such as Sabbath and sacrifice are intended to point to realities beyond themselves. To treat a word as though it only pointed to itself is to treat that word as an idol. Only the “substantive realities” to which such signs point set the worshipper free from bondage to the flesh. Thus, even words that are intended for a useful purpose do not necessarily relate to the Word of God by the ability of human rationality.
Correlation between our words and the Word of God is only possible by the work of the Holy Spirit. Many theologians have recognized the power of the Spirit in theology. Augustine believed that “the assistance of sound doctrine provided by a human teacher is only then any good to the soul when God is at work to make it any good.” John Wesley wrote that “Scripture can only be understood through the same Spirit whereby it was given.” Geoffrey Wainwright states that “without the divine assistance the message will not ‘come alive’ in the particular circumstances of the ever-changing present. With regard to both scriptures and sermon,…inspiration has been appropriately ascribed to the Holy Spirit.” Even Scripture itself attests to the Spirit’s role in teaching: “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.” Inspiration is the means by which the Spirit presently “breathes life” into the scriptures and gives content to the formation of human words. The Holy Spirit is crucial as the agent and meaning of God’s information.
That the Holy Spirit is necessary to understand the meaning of God’s Word can only be implied by the historical misuse and misappropriation of biblical texts. That the Holy Spirit does in fact reveal the Word of God can be seen most clearly in Acts 2. On the day of Pentecost, the disciples “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability…And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” The power and presence of the Holy Spirit enabled the disciples to speak in languages they did not know such that all who were gathered could hear about “God’s deeds of power.” Transmitting the Word of God between these persons was not restricted to or confined by human ability or rationality. Only the Spirit, moving into and through the disciples, was capable of informing persons about God’s deeds.
Linguistically, the Spirit’s transmission of the Word of God may be considered the Ursprache, or meta-language, which exists ‘between’ human languages and contains the full truth of the Word. The inability to speak this language, to speak by the power of the Spirit, renders one “a barbarian” in the life of the church. For humans to proclaim the Word of God in any manner, the Spirit must empower their speech; it is only possible to inform others of God’s Word in so far as the Spirit has inwardly formed one’s life. As God first breathed life into Adam, God also breathes life into the Word. The Holy Spirit represents God’s movement into the created world and the power through which God in-forms the meaning of God’s Word. The Word of God is the work of the Holy Spirit informing the world.
The Transformation of God’s Word
God’s movement into the world through the Holy Spirit necessarily elicits a movement back to God by the Son; that movement back toward God is the redemption of the world. Thus, the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, necessarily implies the transformative character of God’s Word. The transformation of God’s Word occurs on two levels: Christ transforms that which already exists and Christ transforms human language and institutions.
One of the unique aspects of the Christian faith is its ability to communicate its message through a variety of human languages. Contrary to the Muslim religion, words are believed to be a means of conveying the gospel and not the gospel itself. Thus, it is acceptable to translate the Scriptural texts into new languages in order to share the message with people. Even the oldest manuscripts of the Bible are composed in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic; Christianity “has no single revealed language.” The length of time over which the Bible was composed and compiled also means Christianity has no necessary link to a present cultural or social context; the Word of God is a transformation, rather than replacement, of the cultures in which it resides.
It may seem superfluous or arbitrary to make the claim that Christianity can be expressed in various cultures and languages, but this notion is embedded deep within Christian theology. The incarnation of God’s Word in the person of Jesus Christ implies a deep continuity, though certainly not equivalency, between who God is and what God created. Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully divine; a part and the agent of creation; the resurrected and resurrecting Savior. Jesus took on flesh and entered into the world in the form of humanity; if the Word of God could take on human flesh, we must affirm that the Word is capable of transforming our words into His Word.
The danger of denying that translation is both possible and indeed integral to the Christian faith is that it risks justifying cultural imperialism as necessary or sufficient in spreading the gospel. Translation is not a simple process of finding word equivalencies and transposing culture, but a dynamic process that reveals something “new and unexpected…about both the message and its new idiom.” Translation calls into question both the original and the new language or cultural context by making God “the rule and purpose of existence.” To be sure, the ability to overcome language barriers through the gospel does not guarantee that translation will unite distinct cultures. The crucial point here is that gospel translation works within the common language of discourse to transform human words and institutions into fitting worship of God. Translation is a reenactment of the incarnation wherein our words are transformed into the Word just as the flesh was transformed into the Word in Jesus Christ.
If the incarnation requires us to stress the continuity between God’s Word and our words, the resurrection highlights discontinuity. The redemptive act of Jesus Christ on the cross makes a real and fundamental transformation of creation and initiates a new reality that is beyond human rationality. Paul speaks of this change as the “wisdom of the cross” in 1st Corinthians; the cross is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Through the resurrection, the Word of God is the power of transformation.
The affirmation that Christ ushers in a new reality implies that the Word of God presents a distinct foundation on which to stand. The wisdom of the cross does not simply shift Christian values and elicit a change of heart; the cross breathes new life into the mortal body and ushers in a reality in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. To be transformed by hope in the resurrection of Christ is to see the world with new eyes and realize the abundance of God’s gifts.
The great danger in not realizing the depth of Christ’s transformative action is the human ability to use similar words and ideological constructions for entirely distinct purposes. Merely speaking a ‘scriptural language’ and calling a gathered people ‘the church’ does not necessarily imply that the Word of God is being spoken. An example of this can be found in certain ‘prosperity’ churches in which language of blessing is used exclusively in terms of health and financial gain. To use the gospel in support of such prosperity discounts the prevalent theme of transformation that radically shifts our hope and values upon the Word of God. Jesus does heal the sick and people are blessed with riches, but many of his teachings are particularly poignant reminders that the meaning of health and riches are necessarily transformed by the Word. The categories of a fallen human rationality cannot comprehend the radical discontinuity initiated by Christ through the cross.
The work of transformation can be found on both levels in the story of Christ’s appearance after the resurrection. When Jesus appears to the disciples, his body carries the marks of the crucifixion. His hands and feet are scarred by the nails and his side by the spear. Feeling the scars helps Thomas to see and believe Christ has been resurrected. The Word of God took on the mundane flesh of a man and transformed the very concepts of life and death. A few verses later, the disciples are told to cast their nets on the other side of their fishing boat by a man standing on the shore. Although this is the third time that Jesus appears to the disciples after the resurrection, the disciples fail to recognize Jesus until their nets are filled with fish. The Word of God is only seen after an abundance of fish is provided to God’s followers, transforming their expectations of what is possible in the world. The Word of God enters our world in the recognizable and mundane form of a human and ushers in a new reality that exceeds our wildest imagination.
When our thoughts and ideas are anchored by God’s formation of the world and informed by the power of the Spirit, it is possible to find blessing in all aspects of life; it is possible to see with eyes of faith. The Word of God enters the structures of this world and transforms those structures into fitting worship of God. The Word of God transforms the world beyond the limits of human rationality and can only be fully identified in the Spirit. The Word of God is the work of God in the transformation of the world.
The Liturgical Enactment of the Word
The liturgy of the church is the enactment of God’s Word. This means both that the church should regularly engage the recognizable forms of God’s Word as experienced in the tradition of the church and recorded in Scripture, and that the church must engage the imagination to enact the liturgy in ways beyond the recognizable forms of the historical and institutional church. The church must live in a “dialectical relationship” in which the church both forms and is formed by the liturgical enactment of the Word.
Recognizable forms of God’s Word are crucial in the life of the church because they facilitate communal participation in worship. While the ability to communicate the Word is certainly not contained within specific orders of worship or common prayers, the repetition and common use of certain words and acts construct a space in which the church might hear the Word. Scripture is the primary form of the church’s liturgy because it records the historical church’s interaction with the Word. The particular shape of the church’s liturgy is designed to faithfully reinterpret biblical history for the present situation of the church. Thus, both scripture itself and the regular liturgical practices of the church are types of anamnesis in which God’s formation of the world is made present in the life of the church.
The scriptural record of the church is a necessary component of liturgical enactment because it provides continuity between past and present. Scripture provides the authoritative account of God’s action in the world and basis for common representation of the Word. Humanity’s “share in the reasonable image of the very Word Himself” links our present with the Word’s part in creation and salvation, with the past and future life of the church in community. The reading of scriptures makes present the reality of the Body of Christ.
Other practices of the church, such as prayer, accountability, preaching, and teaching, are subsequent expressions of and participation in that original record. The distinction between such practices ought to be considered temporal or logical rather than fundamental. Each practice is only possible in response to God’s formation of the world; each practice is only meaningful by the power of the Holy Spirit; each practice is only effective through the transformation of the Son. The Word of God is enacted in church through the anamnesis of liturgy.
However, the recognizable forms of God’s Word are not sufficient to the life of the church. The work of the Spirit is not confined within the established structures of our worship and praise and to think otherwise is to deny the possibility of gospel translation. The ritual life of the church provides an important avenue for growth and understanding, but the imagination of the church is just as crucial in spreading the gospel throughout the world. The eschatological glimpse of a redeemed creation is the sufficient character of the liturgical enactment of God’s Word; not the continuity of action and word. In the epiclesis of the Spirit, even the most mundane aspects of life are potentially liturgical forms of worship.
The two central liturgical acts of the Christian church are Baptism and Eucharist. Baptism is the initiation into that new reality made present by the Spirit. The cleansing waters “mark the passing over from a narrative bound by birth and death to a narrative bounded by creation and eschaton.” Baptism is the mark of new discipleship in response to Christ’s baptism in the river Jordan. Eucharist is the telos of the church, which affirms its existence through the sustenance of God. The Eucharist marks a turn from the well to the water of life; it marks the desire to receive God’s manna in the wilderness of life. The Body of Christ is consumed as the community is reformed toward the eschatological reality of that Body. Between these two liturgical acts lies the entirety of the Christian life.
The Baptism of Jesus Christ is the definitive act of Christian initiation; apart from that act, no one has access to the Father or the redemption that Christ’s brings. Baptism reveals the truth about humanity’s fallen nature and establishes an entirely new identity that is formed by the cross of Christ. To live into the reality initiated by Christ is to see every moment as a chance for the Spirit to descend like a dove and empower transformation. Every opportunity and challenge, from receiving financial gifts and expanding church ministries to resolving internal conflicts and closing church doors, can be a chance for the church to renew its baptismal identity as Christ transforms the world.
The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary is the definitive act of the Eucharist. Without Christ’s body being broken and his blood being shed, no one receives the bread of heaven or his cleansing blood. To live ‘eucharistically’ is to find the abundance of God’s gifts in the mundane regularity of life. The purpose of the church is not to stockpile or seek after the gifts of God, but to recognize and respond to the abundance of what God has already given. Through a transformed imagination, the church might realize God’s abundance in the sharing of a meal with friends; or in the kind gesture of a stranger; or the challenge of sacrifice. The cruciform imagination enables the church, by the Spirit’s power, to see daily God’s abundant gifts.
To this point, the term ‘church’ has been left intentionally vague because the church is often defined by only the former type of liturgical enactment. To define the church only in terms of a recognizable liturgy would be to deny the Holy Spirit’s role in constituting the Body of Christ. However, by focusing on the role of God’s work in the revelation of God’s Word, the church is found incarnate through both recognizable and imaginative liturgy, through anamnesis and epiclesis. These two complementary forms of God’s presence constitute the life of the church in the liturgical enactment of the Word of God.
One cannot attempt to define or understand the Word of God without humbly submitting to the entire work of God. Theological truths are not simply recorded and related through stories and statements of faith; theology is only given life and meaning through the past, present, and future action of God. It is possible to share the Word of God as creatures formed through the Word, but human rationality and desire are not sufficient to ensure that the Word of God is communicated. The Holy Spirit is the necessary bearer of meaning as the Spirit informs the world with its power and presence. But the Word of God cannot be defined or understood apart from what the Word does; the radical transformation of all creation is an intrinsic part of God’s Word. Theology is not an academic field of inquiry or a static explanation of God and humanity. Theology is the dynamic action of God constantly pressing in to creation and drawing creation back to God. Only God is capable of speaking God’s own Word and breathing life into the words of scripture, doctrine, and preaching.
To live as people of the Word, the church is called upon to live out the liturgical enactment of the Word. In continuity with past tradition and in recognition of a transformed identity, the church enacts the Word of God within the narrative portrait of scripture and re-imagines the liturgical potential of all creation. By submitting to the power of God and rotating around these two liturgical axes, the church may be better equipped to envision the theological and institutional unity that are attempted by ecumenical movements.
To be sure, treating the Word of God as the work of God is not a systematic or definitive statement of the church’s theological task, but a posture of humility from which the church might operate, deferring the bulk of theology to the action of God rather than the mind of a person. While we are called to action by the Word of God, theology begins and ends with God; we must affirm our Baptism into what God has already done and our continual need for the Eucharistic sustenance and support that only God can provide.
May God continue to form the church in the midst of His good creation; may the power and presence of the Holy Spirit inform all its thoughts and words; and may our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ transform the world into His perfect image, now and forevermore. Amen.
*Note: footnotes failed to copy over from the original paper and I have no idea how to add them in now. Original paper with footnotes intact can be viewed here.