the weakness of the word :: the great task

“The Word’s power is veiled in weakness. If the Word came in full, unveiled power, that would be the final judgment day. The great task of recognizing the limits of their mission is given to the disciples. But when the Word is misused, it will turn against them.” [Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 173]

As the Body of Christ, the Church is called to speak God’s Word in its entirety (not verbatim scripture!) to the whole world. The Church is called and constituted by Word and sacrament as Christ’s body. This is a great mystery. But the one thing that it does not do, is transform the Church into an entity that in itself transcends the limits of earthly life. Christ’s body is a human body like yours and like mine. Just so, the Church’s proclamation is a human word, formed by human thought, and set loose by a human tongue. It is subject to the weakness of human words; it is ambiguous, it is subject to misuse and misunderstanding, it is subject to circumspection and ridicule. As those who speak of God, to God, and for God, Christians do well to remember two things: one, their place in a body larger than themselves; and two, their own doubt, insecurity, and weakness. The Word of God is spoken on earth within the limits of being human (simul iustus et peccator), not by transcending them.

For all that, by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church’s Word is no less than Christ’s Word, freely spoken. Lord, have mercy on us all.

2 Replies to “the weakness of the word :: the great task”

  1. nice word Eric. A bit of reading I’ve just done seems to collide quite well with your final comments here. So, (as not one to resist theoogical discussion of any variety, even the newfound virtual-blogo-realityI) I just wanted to make a bit of a case to argue how vital it is that God DOES call us and use us AS what John Webster calls ‘creaturely realities’. This is THE great mystery, which is “Christ in You” as Paul says…

    As you say, the Church does well to remember 2 things, it is part of a larger body, a body of which Christ is the head (pause and consider, in truth Christ is the head) AND, as you say, we are wise to remember it is through our own ‘doubt, insecurity, and weakness’ that Christ is made know to the world. It is a double-affirmation.

    Should we be surprised?

    That is, perhaps it is not simply ‘in spite of’ our fallen/’worldly’/’earthly’ condition (apply your favorite derogative term to describe the present condition we find ourselves in, or consider the oft-noted spiteful phrase “I’m only human”) that Christ ‘uses us’ (this phrase too becomes problematic, making one feel as though someone has slipped something in our drink.)

    Though God does call us to His service, ‘uses us’, as workers in his economy of grace, and though it is indeed in spite of the sin which so easily entangles, I think we do better to consider this positively.

    The very fact that God calls us and gives us a role in His body is reason to rejoice. As John Webster points out in “Holy Scipture, a dogmatic sketch” (2003, Cambridge.) this is the vital process of SANCTIFICATION, something which we desperately need, and which sets a guard on both sides of the double-affirmation.

    Webster defines it such,

    “sanctification refers to the work of the Spirit of Christ through which creaturely realities are elected, shaped, and preserved to undertake a role in the economy of salvation; creaturely realities are sanctified by divine use.” Note the double-affirmation; creaturely realities are elected, they undertake a role in the divine use. Yet, they are… creaturely realities, and to some extent (there is mystery here) they remain such even as they are given a role in the economy of grace.

    The point I am trying to make is put most succinctly here, and I think it ties up what you may have been saying…

    “Sanctification is thus not the extraction of creaturely reality from its creatureliness, but the annexing and ordering of its course so that it may fittingly assist in that work which is proper to God.” (pg27)

    It seems to me that our vision of God expands as we see the triune God who lovingly reveals Himself in and with us, calling us into His service, and hallowing us for this work, even as we, as it were, face the same doubt, struggle, and fallenness of this present state. The double-affirmation of sanctification – that God’s good-self-presence is made known in and through our still confused/crooked/somewhat unattractive lives – is an even greater affirmation, that God loves us.

    Thanks be to God for “Christ in us, the hope of glory.”

  2. Matt,

    Thanks for your additions. You were right, this bit hit it straight on:

    “Sanctification is thus not the extraction of creaturely reality from its creatureliness, but the annexing and ordering of its course so that it may fittingly assist in that work which is proper to God.” (pg27)

    Elsewhere, Bonhoeffer turns Athanasius’ famous statement on its head. Athanasius said, “God became human so that humans might become God.” And this, of course, is salvation-as-deification. I have a sympathy or two with this perspective, but ultimately, I think that it misplaces its emphasis. Bonhoeffer says, “Human beings become human because God became human.” [Ethics, 96].

    Even the “participation in the divine nature” spoken of in passages like 2 Peter 1:4 should certainly be read in light of the incarnation (and not necessarily with the trajectory that Athanasius gives it!). Participating in the divine nature does not mean becoming something other than human. In light of God’s presence as one of us, it means becoming more fully human—and that is measured in conformity to Christ. Far from obsequiously excusing our weaknesses, it means that our weakness must be put to work in God’s service, for God triumphs through weakness.

    In Evangelical parlance this often comes out when people speak of becoming spiritual, and by that imply a contrast with a former carnal or worldly state. We must be careful to encourage the truth here and dispel the problematic dualism. Turning to follow Christ’s call certainly results in enormous personal changes, ethical, spiritual, social, perhaps even political—we should not downplay sanctification in the least. But what sanctification does not accomplish is some transfer into another realm, it does not create a “spiritual nature” that was not there before, it does not separate Christians from other human beings. The life of God in which we live, is a life of love and service to others, not a spiritual march over their heads.

    It is a real challenge to articulate this in such a way as to take the changes wrought by God’s presence in a person’s life seriously without thereby providing a means of value-differentiating comparison. I suppose that it is a tension in which we must live.

    Miss you all out there, give Roxy a hug and a cup of tea for me… Take care of the poor girl.

    God’s peace,

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