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Do We Speak Well of God?

Do We Speak Well of God? July 9, 2021

In a recent lecture, theologian Kevin Vanhoozer described the task of theology very simply. Theology is “speaking well of God.” To my mind this phrase gets at the heart of the theological enterprise. On the one hand it is vague enough to leave needed wiggle-room. Yet it also has enough meat to give us a sense of where and how to begin. At the same time, it implicitly constrains the task of theologizing, since we understand what it means to speak badly of something, or someone.

For example, clearly one can say too much about a thing. One can overstep one’s bounds or “put one’s foot in one’s mouth” by blathering on. Conversely, one can also fail to say enough about something, not speaking up when one should. In the first case, we can go beyond our knowledge base. We speculate too much about an object of inquiry. In the second, we deflate the base of knowledge we do have and not say something we should. Therefore, to speak well of God, as Vanhoozer encourages, we should avoid going beyond or marginalizing what we know.

One Preliminary Concern: The Bible and Theology

Before looking at these two errors, we need to address one preliminary concern. That is the relationship between the Bible and theology. This is a critical dynamic to understand, especially for the historical Protestant. On the one hand, to do theology in a biblically inadequate way can lead to over-speculation and even fantasy about God. However, to do “the Bible” without theology will be little more than to repeat by rote the bare text of Scripture. The late John Webster clarifies this issue for us:

“Prophetic” and “apostolic” pick out the canon of biblical writings as a unified set of human communicative acts having their origin in God’s calling and authorizing certain persons in the communion of the saints. In the assembly which is brought into being by the divine summons and promise there have been those whose words are caused to bear a distinctive relation to the divine Word. Their words are not wholly identical with the divine Word, but they are the subject of a special mission, they are “sent from God.” This sending is definitive of its subjects: the prophets and apostles are those sent by God, and therefore those whose speech is for the sake of the divine Word. “Prophetic” and “apostolic” are ontological, not evaluative, qualifiers, indicating what these persons and their acts most basically are. (This is shown by the call narratives of the prophets and apostles, which record drastic separation for a task in relation to God’s self-utterance.)

John Webster, “Biblical Reasoning” in Anglican Theological Review, 740.

In short, the words of the Bible, the “prophetic” and “apostolic” communicative acts, are unique. They are picked out and set aside from all other reasoning about God. As such, all other reasoning about God, i.e., “speaking about God,” must be in right relation to those anointed utterances. At the same time, those anointed utterances are not God Himself. The Bible is not Divinity. Rather, the Bible speaks properly of the Divine because the Divinity has authorized its authors to do so.

C.S. Lewis put this same idea in layman’s terms. In his brief description of how to think about the Trinity, Lewis speaks of the need to go beyond the words of Scripture but never too far beyond them:

That is what always happens when you go away from the words of the Bible. It is quite right to go away from them for a moment in order to make some special point clear. But you must always go back. Naturally God knows how to describe Himself much better than we know how to describe Him. He knows that Father and Son is more like the relation between the First and Second Persons than anything else we can think of. Much the most important thing to know is that it is a relation of love.

Excerpt From: C. S. Lewis. “Mere Christianity.” Apple Books.

In sum, the two errors we can make we make because of an improper relationship of our words to the words of Scripture. Either we go too far and surpass the words of God, or we do not go far enough to do them justice.

Error 1: Speaking Too Much Of God

In Against Heresies Book II, the church father Irenaeus exhaustively describes the madness of the Gnostics. The extravagant claims of the Gnostics demonstrate just how wild the human imagination can be and show how far it can take us beyond what the Word of God says about who God is and what God is like. The hyper-ontology of the Gnostics is well known. Here, for example, is just one, almost randomly selected, description of their metaphysical lunacy:

Next, with respect to the first production Ennoea, whom they also term Sige, from whom again they describe Nous and Aletheia as having been sent forth, they err in both particulars. For it is impossible that the thought (Ennoea) of any one, or his silence (Sige), should be understood apart from himself; and that, being sent forth beyond him, it should possess a special figure of its own. But if they assert that the (Ennoea) was not sent forth beyond Him, but continued one with the Propator, why then do they reckon her with the other Aeons-with those who were not one [with the Father], and are on this account ignorant of His greatness? If, however, she was so united (let us take this also into consideration), there is then an absolute necessity, that from this united and inseparable conjunction, which constitutes but one being, there should proceed an unseparated and united production, so that it should not be dissimilar to Him who sent it forth. But if this be so, then just as Bythus and Sige, so also Nous and Aletheia will form one and the same being, ever cleaving mutually together.

And inasmuch as the one cannot be conceived of without the other, just as water cannot [be conceived of] without [the thought of] moisture, or fire without [the thought of] heat, or a stone without [the thought] of hardness (for these things are mutually bound together, and the one cannot be separated from the other, but always co-exists with it), so it behoves Bythus to be united in the same way with Ennoea, and Nous with Aletheia. Logos and Zoe again, as being sent forth by those that are thus united, ought themselves to be united, and to constitute only one being. But, according to such a process of reasoning, Homo and Ecclesia too, and indeed all the remaining conjunctions of the Aeons produced, ought to be united, and always to coexist, the one with the other. For there is a necessity in their opinion, that a female Aeon should exist side by side with a male one, inasmuch as she is, so to speak, [the forthputting of] his affection.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book II.XII.2

If you took the time to read all that, I apologize. However, Irenaeus penned thousand upon thousands of words explaining how descendants of Simon Magus (Acts 8), men like Basilides and Valentinus, failed to speak well of God. It was not because they spoke too little, however, but because they chose to speak far too much. In fact Gnostic speculation seemed to have known no bounds, as the number of divine entities posited in the passage demonstrates.

In the end, the hyper-ontologizing of the Gnostics was little more than a return to polytheism. Moreover, regarding biblical interpretation, the radical eisegesis of the Gnostics is simply beyond compare. For sake of brevity, however, I will not reproduce those errors here. You can read Against Heresies Book II for yourself.

Error 2: Not Speaking Enough of God

Of course, the radical metaphysics of the Gnostics is hardly a concern in most theological reflection today. Reeling from 300 years of metaphysical skepticism, contemporary theologians are hardly willing to accept the ontology the Bible does speak clearly about, let alone a Pleroma of Aeons. Instead, the modern “post-metaphysical” theologian falls into the error at the opposite end of the spectrum, not saying enough about God.

Consider, for example, these suggestions on the proper use of language from Wake Forrest divinity school:

Theologians, ministers, and worship leaders have an opportunity to give voice to the variety and richness of God’s presence with God’s people. Language used in preaching and worship as well as in academic writing acknowledges and cultivates this richness when it explores  diverse ways to write, speak, pray, and sing about and to God.

Examples:

  1. Our language choices can reflect the richness of the divine.  Varied metaphors can be used to speak to and about God.  We can name God’s attributes. Examples: Rock of Salvation, Fountain of Life, the First and the Last, Refuge and Strength, Shelter from the Storm. We can address God out of our experience of God. Examples: Creator, Mother, Giver of All Good Things, Teacher, Father, Guardian, Redeemer, Friend, Healer.

  2. Writers and speakers are encouraged to seek balance when using pronouns to refer to God, for example, alternating between gendered pronouns.

The intent of this linguistic control is to keep our thoughts and references to God explicitly vague. Noticeably absent are terms like: Yahweh, God the Father (even though Father is mentioned), God the Son, Jesus Christ and God the Holy Spirit.

Instead, the school suggests only the more abstract terms for God. These could either be God’s properties (First and the Last) or words born out of “our experience” of God. Terms like “Mother” or pronouns like “she/her” are kosher because we might personally feel God is that way. More therapeutic terms like “Shelter in the Storm” or “Guardian” are not wrong but again quite vague. This vagueness allows the mind to fill in the blanks in whichever way the will and emotions see fit. But, why would we want to fill in the blanks if the Scriptures have told us more about God than is suggested here?

One obvious answer is that it allows us to fill in the blanks based on our own desires. As such, we can gradually allow ourselves to slip out from underneath the weight and authority of the Bible. Of course, what this speaking too little further implies is that any speech about God is merely a social and historical construct, not an annointed communication by God Himself (as Webster warned us). If left unchecked, this approach undermines the entire dogma of the Bible as special revelation.

Teach us How To Speak About You

Conclusion: Let’s Speak Well of God

To speak too little of God is not only irresponsible, it could wind up heretical. However, it is harder to claim heresy about saying too little of God than about saying too much. The Church justly condemned the Gnostics for their manipulation of the Scriptures and bending of God’s words to the fanciful imagination of men. The Gnostics went down a metaphysical rabbit hole that few theologians would want to go down today. However, to leave God vague still opens us up to imagining Him as we would like Him to be and not as He has revealed Himself through his authorized messengers.

At the same time, even the biblical language itself cannot exhaust our knowledge of God. We know that we do not know fully, and the Scriptures themselves tell us as much. But, how we speak about God not only matters this side of eternity. It may also have implications in the everlasting.

About Anthony Costello
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design-- a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since. You can read more about the author here.

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