‘as it really is’

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This is the second post in a series on the theology of proclamation. Having established its possibility and urgency in the first post, this time I want to address the question of the nature — or ‘ontology’ (if you want to get fancy) — of proclamation.

I want to ask: What is really happening when the gospel is spoken? What’s going on ‘behind the scenes’ in the thoroughly human act of opening our mouths to utter gospel words?

In a very real sense the answer to this question cannot be isolated from the topic of the next post in this series (‘that you may be transformed’, on the aims of proclamation), because proclamation is a dynamic thing, an event, a transaction involving at least two parties — a speaker and a listener…

Nevertheless, the most decisive aspect of this question is not the ‘horizontal’ dimension of the communicative act but its ‘vertical’, Godward dimension. The part it plays in God’s action in and towards the world. If this is so, then the fundamental question is: What part do human words play in the economy of salvation? In the whole of what God the Father is doing in the creation, redemption and perfection of the world in Christ and by the Spirit?

Are they, as Barth would have it, its witnesses? Since the site at which God is definitively revealed is in person, in the person of his Son — the Word made flesh — do our words simply testify to him? Ultimately I don’t think so. Although I have real sympathy for this view. There’s lots to commend about it. Our words never replace the unique, unsubstitutably concrete Lord Jesus. While they may present him to us — and normatively so in the Scriptures, where Christ meets us ‘clothed in his promises’ — they are not to be worshipped. He is. Our proclamation, assuming it’s true proclamation truly presenting Christ to us in the Spirit, is NOT divine. Let’s not make that mistake.

But, astoundingly, when Paul commends the Thessalonians for their initial reception of his gospel proclamation, he comes dangerously close to suggesting this — doesn’t he?

We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. (2 Thess 2.13 — NRSV)

What are we to make of this?

Now, the gospel tells us that God can and has acted and revealed himself in thoroughly human ways — think of the Lord Jesus, and before that of Israel. This is not so much alien or impossible for God as quite natural and appropriate: we’re not only part of the same world he hand-crafted to display his glory, we’re specifically created in his image (as his conversation partners and with a view to the incarnation — all things were created through and for Christ).

All the same, I feel it would be a mistake to say that our human proclamation — even the prophetic and apostolic proclamation that constitutes Holy Scripture — somehow becomes divine, e.g., through a transformation of its substance but not its accidents (if you catch my drift).

And yet, in so far as God is the author of all true proclamation — which, I suggest, might best be defined as any human speaking that truly presents Christ* — they are truly his words. As we see above all in Scripture, true proclamation is divine utterance, originated and superintended by God’s own Spirit (cf. 1 Peter 1.10-12 & 2 Peter 1.20-21) — yet in such a way as not to violate the humanness of the words. It even preserving the distinctive style and idiosyncracies of the human speaker. What an astonishing privilege!

*I was tempted to say ‘savingly presents Christ’. But just as in his earthly ministry Jesus’ presence had a polarising effect, so his ongoing presence among us in ‘Spirit-filled’ proclamation polarises, hardening some even as others have their hearts softened to believe — surely this is at least part of the message of Acts!
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