Carrying on the divine conversation

Summary and reflection on Nicholas Wolterstorff’s 4-part article series entitled: The God Who Speaks

The view that God is speaking as this has been somewhat of a contentious topic among the present theological landscape, in light of this I would like to tender a summary of four articles written by Nicholas Wolterstorff entitled: The God Who Speaks.

Using Augustine’s conversion story Wolterstorff, pushes forward a thesis that the God of the Bible is very much a speaking God[1]. By weaving Scripture with Augustine’s conversion, He argues that God spoke to people as reported in Scripture, he argues: God spoke to Augustine by way of a child’s sing-song; and God spoke by way of Scripture itself; lastly God spoke, above all, in and through Jesus Christ. The God of Scripture the God of Christian experience who spoke in diverse ways and on many occasions to human beings[2].

Being aware of his Reformed tradition’s view of the Bible as the Word of God he contends that there is more that Christian can learn about God from Scripture, but this is prominent: the God of Scripture is a God who speaks. If one’s God is a God who does not speak, or worse yet, a God who cannot speak, the one’s God is not the God of Scripture[3]. Here he strikes a controversial chord in contemporary Christian circles as he argues that, literally God speaks –not metaphysically but literally[4]. To which he differs in the current view of God speaking that are qualified in terms of inspiration and revelation[5].

Wolterstorff defines inspiration as the act that an individual says or writes something under the muse of someone as in the case of the biblical writers who were said be moved by the Spirit to write about God’s manifestation. While revelation is defined in terms of God ‘s initiative revealing himself by some form of act that does not warrant our interpretation as it is only an act that occurred. [6] Wolterstorff, asserts that much of what theologians assert about divine revelation and divine inspiration, as much of their argument is based on the assumption that when they were talking about revelation and inspiration they were in fact speaking of divine speech[7].

However, if we were to think more carefully speaking is different from revealing something and is likewise different from inspiring someone[8]. He avows that deep in the heart of Christianity is the claim that God indeed speaks: The Bible reports multiple examples of God speaking and says of Jesus Christ as the Word of God and many Christians have had the experience of God speaking to them personally[9].

Using John L. Austin’s speech-act Theory, he argues that God indeed does literally speak as in the case of reading and hearing Scripture we find that God in the biblical text is doing two distinct actions: that is to utter words and to give mandates. He describes the action of uttering as a locutionary action while the act of making a request (or issuing a command) an illocutionary action as its an action that compels the hearer/reader to act in accordance to the speaker’s assertion, question or command[10].

Based on the speech-act theory Wolterstorff distinguishes between a person’s action of uttering words and the actions of asserting, commanding and so forth which is performed in the uttering of words[11].Here he develops a hermeneutical principle that zeroes in on reading the Bible in terms of acts of deputation and appropritation. Deputation answers the question of who is speaking or who the person speaking, speaking in behalf of. While appropriation answers the why and how the hearer processes and responds to the speech that was heard.

Drawing from this model Wolterstorff, then places the value of conversation with Scriptures by virtue of our individual knowledge God in a life of piety and commitment as it is the context in which one prayerfully invokes the Spirit to which God would speak to us; and in the church and its conviction of being a people that appropriates the Bible as God’s Word to them thus rendering the work of faithful theologians and philosophers of the church who have reflected on it of all times and all places.[12]

Wolterstorff concludes his claim of God speaking literally by alluding our interpretative struggle to a spiral motion, upon which we resolve to interpret and live our lives in the confidence that our salvation does not depend on getting everything right. Moreover, our interpretative struggle is not one that we carry out by ourselves for the Scriptures is God’s Word for the community faith –the church, God’s body in the world and in history thus the arena to carry on the divine conversation[13].

The implication of Divine Conversation

In 2003 General Synod, the United Church of Christ (UCC), began a coordinated program of evangelism and hospitality training for congregations paired with national and local television “brand” advertising known as the “God is Still Speaking” campaign or “The Stillspeaking Initiative.” The initiative was themed around the quotation “Never place a period where God has placed a comma,” and campaign materials, including print and broadcast advertising as well as merchandise, featured the quote and a large “comma,” with a visual theme in red and black[14].

What I found interesting with the initiative that it stands divergent from the common conservative Christian understanding of God’s will having been fully revealed in the in the inspired Word of God –the Scripture. I would not go with the niceties of this campaign but instead would focus on the Wolterstorff’s argument of the God who speaks, as a guiding spirit behind the UCC, initiative that I believe poses a challenge to our complacent conservative stance of seeing Scriptures as the inspired Word of God that in function we construe in terms that we place the Bible as a sort of manual in living the Christian life rather than Scripture being the Word uttered that asserts, commands and questions the reader or the recipient of the Word.

Growing up as an Evangelical I have been made to understand the Bible chiefly in terms of source and weight where issues of authority are solved on the basis of the Bible. Scripture functions as the primary witness to the self-communication of God as it is His written word from inspired authors. The revelation given in Scripture tells humanity everything that it needs to know about God and his plan. God’s Word to humankind is therefore both sufficient and complete –thus it is inerrant. As good as that seems however, it seems incomplete as it in a way enshrines the Bible as a collected piece of literature that we can use as a form of instruction manual because the stories contained in the Bible can be used as a source for life lessons rather than the agency of God’s self-disclosure.

Among of the most precarious tendencies of holding fast to such an understanding of Scriptural inerrancy is its unquestioning accommodation of any doctrine that is presented to them by anybody who holds fast to this position that the Bible is considered accurate and totally free of error, thus yielding their capacity to analyze the teachings put forward as the teacher’s adherence to inerrancy is already an affirmation that what they’re teaching is Biblical. Another tendency is that of prejudice, that is the extreme abandonment of fellowship even of civility with people who do not interpret inerrancy along the lines of their presuppositions –thus the abandonment of good relations among other expressions of the Christian faith. Furthermore, it leads to a misconstrued understanding of piety which takes form in terms of individuality rather than relational ethics. Lastly, it at times leads to the enshrinement of the Scriptures more than that of the God who has spoken, who is speaking and continues to speak in the Scriptures.

What is tragic about this stances is that the world at large continues to down spiral into hopelessness, because Christians chose to debate about the validity of their sacred text based on propositions rather than experiences in encounter with the sacred text because all options in that stance points towards non-engagement with the world.

Wolterstorff’s warrant for his argument of God literally speaking is based on the framework of conversation.  I believe this insight is indispensable for those who affirm the authority of Scripture if we really are dead serious in our intent to discern what God’s will is. As I believe that good theological judgement is developed in constant conversation with the past –the Bible as seen in its socio-cultural and historical context as well as the Bible as sacred Scripture of the Body of Christ.

Like Wolterstorff I affirm that God is indeed still speaking in and through Scriptures, because the Word is dynamic –meaning that the Bible is a record of human witness to the presence of God in people’s lives. The central focus is our experience of God’s self-communication. If we can trace our knowledge of God to the witness of Scripture then we have a warrant upon which we can form theological assessment[15]. Biblical wisdom helps us determine what we can say about God and His intent for us in the present.

Putting it in the standpoint of biblical interpretation Wolterstorff’s call for conversation is a call to unite two horizons: the horizon of the intended meaning in the past and the horizon of its sense for the present. Conversing with Scripture as God’s people implies that the Bible is written to a specific community upon which we claim to be heirs of those communities that the Bible authors wrote to, and as recipients of it we are also called to make sense about what God says in His Word to what is happening in our midst. Thus echoing the Reformation cry for: “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda,” that is, “The church reformed, always reforming,” according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit.

[1] Wolterstorff, Nicholas. The God Who Speaks from The Banner (Grand Rapids: Christian Reformed Church, Volume 135 September 25, 2000) p.1
[2] Ibid
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid p.2
[6] Ibid
[7] Ibid p. 4
[8] Wolterstorff, Nicholas. How Can God Speak? from The Banner (Grand Rapids: Christian Reformed Church, Volume 135 October 9, 2000) p.1
[9] Ibid
[10] Ibid
[11] Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Interpreting God’s Speech  from The Banner (Grand Rapids: Christian Reformed Church, Volume 135 October 23, 2000) p.1
[12] Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Knowing God and Interpreting God’s Word  from The Banner (Grand Rapids: Christian Reformed Church, Volume 135 November 6, 2000) p.4
[13] Ibid p.5
[14] The initiative was a denomination-wide effort to raise awareness of “the UCC identity” and “UCC theology” and to unify the visibility and “brand  recognition” for the United Church of Christ as a whole. The initiative also included training for churches in hospitality and evangelism as well as advertising in local and national US markets. This was an effort to invite and welcome unchurched persons to congregations of the United Church of Christ. []
[15] Matheny, Paul On the genealogies and geographies of philosophical and theological thinking: an introductory text (Quezon City: New Day, 2006) p. 61

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