Interruptive Word

David Nelson’s The Interruptive Word is a lucid exploration of the difficult theology of Eberhard Jungel, stressing, as Nelson’s subtitle has it, “the sacramental structure of God’s relation to the world.”

At the center of Jungel’s theology is the claim that, in Nelson’s words, “God comes to the world by coming-to-speech” (11). This coming-to-speech is sacramental in the sense that “in the reality which surrounds us, God brings himself to speech through this reality. God’s being-as-objet as sacrament means: God speaks of himself in a world manner, that is, God speaks with us in a human way” (11, Jungel’s words).

This doesn’t mean that God’s coming-to-speech simply reaffirms the status quo of the world around us. Quite the contrary: He comes to speech as “interruptive” speech, upsetting all settled habits of thought and cultural patterns. God’s word comes to shatter the “narcissistic, self-actualizing, and self-justifying ‘I’ that must be liberated from its deadly, sinful, sham existence by the coming of God to the world in the event of his word” (55). The interruptive word comes as the word of justification, which unsettles any dependence on works.

In stressing the interruptive character of God’s word, Nelson takes a position on one of the central debates among interpreters of Jungel’s theology, which Nelson characterizes in terms of a debate about the relative priority of similarity and dissimilarity. Some interpret Jungel’s theology as basically analogical, in the sense that he subjects “the dissimilarity between God and the world beneath the even greater similarity between them” (55). Nelson thinks Jungel is more “apocalyptic” (my word, not his): “the dissimilarity . . . eclipses their similarity” (56).

He sees this in Jungel’s critique of Augustinian conceptions of signification. Once one distinguishes between a signum that points beyond itself to a res, one is in danger of losing the speaking God entirely. The ontological gap between sign and thing enlarges the gap between the speaking God and the spoken word and the world in which it is spoken. On Augustinian semiotic assumptions, God comes to be conceived as “wordless, dumb and perfectly abstract divine majesty,” who is “terrible and in his terribleness ultimately a boring God” (64-5, Jungel’s words). Rejecting the signum-res paradigm of signification, Jungel also rejects the form-content distinction, which treats the content “like the wine in the barrel or the foot in the shoe” (56, Jungel’s words). Form-content models suggest that we might receive the word’s form without encountering God, and this again leads to a loss of God, who becomes a “featureless Sabellian deity, aloof from history and human suffering” (56, Jungel’s words). God must be present “in and as his word” if we are going to be sure that we are dealing with the real God (57). Luther offers a superior semiotics of the divine word (cf. 74-76). So far, so analogical.

At the same time Jungel emphasizes that God is never exterior to His word, however, he equally emphasizes that God is exterior to the world, and thus to the hearer of the world. This opens up a Barthian sort of dialectic of presence and absence: “God is present as the one absent in the world” (57), and supports Nelson’s claim that for Jungel the word is a “sheer interruptive event” that is the crisis of everything familiar, historical, continuous (57). Like Barth, this seems to me to be rooted in a questionable notion of creation, and of God’s relation to it. How can the world be at all unless God is ever-present in and to it?

The interruptive element of Jungel’s theology appears in his Christology, which tends “to reduce the being of Jesus Christ . . . to the event of the word” (114), specifically the event of His parables. It also comes to the fore in his treatment of church structures, liturgy, and sacraments. Worship, he stresses, is an event, an “interruption of the continuities that compose the everyday, work-oriented existence of contemporary humanity” (169). Nelson affirms this but worries that Jungel’s stress on the interruptive character of worship restricts “the church to gaps in temporal actuality” (170). He doesn’t pay sufficient attention to the fact that, even in worship, the church stands in a continuity with the past – reciting creeds, singing hymns, performing actions that were established centuries before. This is not sheer interruption; it is also continuous.

Nelson’s book is, as I say, a very lucid and judicious examination of Jungel’s work. Nelson honors Jungel’s strengths but I think most of his criticisms are right on target, and suggest that Jungel (and perhaps Barth) are still guilty of the charge that Jenson lays against pagan theology and which has haunted much Christian theology – the instinct to escape what are supposed to be time’s continuities and confinements.

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