Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, has written of the theological formation which is necessary if our lives are to be shaped by seeking discipline and consistency in relation to God, and in forming a reflectively consistent speech for God.
He notes this activity, which engages all Christians and not just theologians or pastors, requires a self – awareness that asks if our language is truly integral to what it says it is talking about – or is serving other ends or purposes1.
These comments by Williams urge us to consider the manner in which our language about God, including the language of preaching, is kept honest to the degree that it turns on itself in the name of God and so surrenders itself to God. He writes,
Speaking of God is speaking to God; in prayer our language is surrendered to God in repentance, in exposure to the judgment of God, by confronting and naming its own temptations to self – deception and self – love; of its own falsehoods and self – interests: in other words, we must study the workings of our own speech, not with a sense of our own self – importance but in penitence, as a sacrifice of praise that acknowledges that we are answering to a reality, the living God, who is neither possessed nor controlled by our words, and that our speech is dependent upon the generative power of something irreducibly other than ourselves (9).
Thinking of how Christian speech can avoid becoming empty and power – obsessed is both necessary and difficult. Williams concludes this will make the discourse of faith and worship both harder, wiser, and thus, more authoritative – that is, more transparent to its source (10-11).
The work of Arthur McGill provides a helpful way of reflecting on the vision of the Trinity and human creatures revealed in the person and work of Christ2. Following the wisdom of Scripture and the Creeds, McGill affirms that service, defined as the power of God, is a “shockingly impractical creed.” Discussing the character of God and the Christian life, he writes,
Self-expenditure is self fulfillment. He who loses his life is thereby finding it. Loving is itself life, and not just a means to life. He who expends himself for his neighbor, even to death, truly lives. But he who lives for himself and avoids death truly dies: “He who does not love remains in death” (57).
McGill calls attention to the need for congruence between who we are; what we believe, and how we speak, since it is the gospel, as embodied by Christ, which unites message and messenger. If we aim to expand ourselves and our influence over others by speaking to produce results – rather than expending ourselves in relation to the Word, in the form of Christ’s self – emptying – we are dead, and no matter how popular or successful our method of speaking, our words will lack the truth and reality of God. For this reason, the spirit of Jesus’ ministry, which was to serve by communicating himself to others, cannot be understood as a strategy which was chosen to produce results or effects by gaining mastery and control.
In Jesus, self-expending, therefore, was not a form he put on himself to see how well it would work. It was not a technique that he was testing to see how nicely it would help him manage his career or improve his relation with people or God. He did not stand in the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth surveying his human possibilities and perhaps consulting the local library until he came to the decision to adopt service as his style. He was solely because of what God is, for he was the presence of God in the midst of men … It is God’s own love that stands forth in and as Jesus Christ and that informs loving self-expenditure for one another (59).
In Jesus, the Word made flesh, divine power is vindicated in that it does not dominate, manipulate, or impose itself by force or violence, but rather serves by sharing itself. The distinctive mark of God’s power that works in the weakness of human beings is service, “the self-giving love which dwells with the poor and not the rich, with the sinful and not the righteous, with the weak and not the strong, with the dying and not those full of life” (62).
1Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000). All references will appear in the body of the text.
2Arthur C. McGill, Suffering: A Test of Theological Method (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982) References will be included in the body of the text.
This article is a revision of material taken from his forthcoming book, We Speak Because We Have First Been Spoken: A “Grammar” of the Preaching Life (Eerdmans, 2009).