The Silence of Jesus–And Ours

Our age is an age of voice. Everyone has a voice that we want heard by others.

But the inevitable corollary to living in such an age is that many, many voices crying out in the Wilderness of Twitter means also that there will be a bewildering cacophony of voices are all striving to be heard at once.

That can mean only one thing: if some voices are to be heard at all, others will necessarily need to be silenced.

But as has been abundantly, and rightly, noted these days: Having a voice silenced is one of the signs of living under oppression of some sort.

But what if silence were golden, as the old saying goes? What if there is, as Scripture says, a time to speak and a time to be silent? (Interestingly, the verse I’m alluding to, Ecclesiastes 3:7 actually reverses the saying: “a time to be silent and a time to speak”–might silence logically precede speaking?)


I’m writing this in the midst of a massive social upheaval, which, by the way, I won’t name or describe, for fear that whatever I say about it, the main import of what I would want to say will be–silenced. Silenced either because what I say does not align with mainstream attitudes, or with the attitudes of my peers; silenced because I have no authority to speak on it; or silenced just because I haven’t simply said it loud or brash enough. So if you are reading this at some future date, you will have to look at the original posting date to piece together what I am referring to. For those reading right now as this is posted, it will be obvious.

As a public theologian, I often feel under tremendous pressure to say something to each and every issue that comes up. I’m feeling that pressure right now, to be sure. Especially because I see so many of my fellow theologians saying such important stuff. Good on them.

But whether it be fear, or simply a kind of intellectual paralysis that keeps me from speaking directly to the issues at hand, or more likely, a deep sense of spiritual inadequacy to speak to the issues, I’ve tended to view my silence in such times as a kind of fault, a sign of theological or professional or even personal weakness.

I’m reminded of a criticism that Karl Barth faced often in his life. Why don’t you address issue X or debate Y? For example, though Barth directly and often addressed the problem of German National Socialism head on, he was silent on the invasion of communism in the Eastern bloc countries. Why a scathing critique of Nazism, and yet silence on Soviet Communism, his critics demanded? To which Barth, for the most part, remained silent.

Perhaps Barth failed. (He certainly had his share of personal, moral and yes, theological failures). Perhaps I am failing right now. (That’s certainly a good possibility). Maybe Barth should have given as much effort to critique Stalin as he did Hitler. Maybe I should be putting more effort to speak to the current issues as some of the issues I’ve spoken to in the past. God will be the judge. However, I am instructed and inspired by Barth’s decision, and maybe even discipline, to remain silent, despite the harsh criticism, even condemnation, he subsequently received.

I’ve also, more importantly, been comforted deeply as of late by the words of Jesus who says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:38)

In the midst of the current crises (yes, I use the plural there), I admit that I am feeling weary and burdened by it all. And my burden just grows as I feel increasing pressure to say something profound, incisive, sharp, definitive, witty, even. So I find myself silent on today’s pressing issues dominating air and (a)ether(net). And so Jesus’ words have been a balm to my soul in these trying times. I’m a theologian, yes, charged to speak God’s Word to the situation we find ourselves in. But sometimes, I think, theologians, too, should be quiet. Sometimes I have to resign myself that it’s okay not to speak all of the time.

Notice, I didn’t say theologians should always be silent. I do not judge those who are seeking to speak a word into our current situation. God bless them, God bless you who read this and are labouring to speak God’s Word to our situation.

But for those who do speak: Be sure to protect your soul as you speak. And be sure you have to speak. Just because you can speak and have a platform and audience to whom to speak, don’t presume you are thereby bound to speak. Speak out of the well-spring of Spirit-filled prayer and Spirit-led biblical reflection, not just out of an intellectual guttural reaction.

This all comes to me as I’ve been reflecting lately, and deeply struck by, the places in the Gospels where we sometimes see Jesus in silence.

As I see it, there are three types of silence we can observe in Jesus. I think all of them can be instructive to us at this time.

The Silence of parable

The first type of silence that Jesus practiced was the silence of parable. Now this isn’t a direct kind of verbal silence but is a kind of verbal indirection and/or redirection. It’s speech that does not say something head on, but which expects that which is not said to have the impact.

Anyone familiar with the Gospel accounts knows that Jesus often spoke in parables as a way of indirectly saying something. It’s why he sometimes said, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” (e.g., Mark 4:9, 23).

The silence of parable is such that a story or analogy or even a personal account might have greater impact than speaking to an issue head on. Jesus spoke in parables very intentionally, knowing that there would be three types of responses.

Some, of course, would hear a parable from Jesus and with frustration, say, “What in the world is he talking about?”

This response might seem like a failure to communicate. But for these people, a parable is actually a grace to them because their hearts may not have been in a place either to accept or reject the truth to which the parable points.  To them the parable is simply verbal nonsense, a kind of encoded message for which they did not have the cipher.  Receiving the message doesn’t necessarily mean that they reject it. It may have been that they simply weren’t capable or equipped or in a place to hear it or understand it. Perhaps days and weeks later, as they mulled over that verbal nonsense in their head, the Spirit would enlighten them a with spiritual decoding Key such that they joyfully accept it. Others, tragically, harden their hearts even further in outright rejection, even once the key is given. (Cf. Heb 6:1-9)

Others would hear Jesus speak a parable and be offended, sometimes even to the point of responding in utter rage. I think of the time Jesus quoted the Proverb (a super-short parable, of sorts), “Physician, heal thyself” only to face an angry mob wanting to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4). These heard the parable and understood its meaning quite well, thank you very much. It wasn’t for lack of understanding, but refusal of will to bend their hearts and minds to it.

(I’m reminded of a friend in my McGill days who was doing his PhD in NT. He probably understood the meaning of Jesus’ parables at one level better than I ever will, but who outrightly confessed to me that he rejected them not because he couldn’t understand them, but because he could not commit himself to the life of discipleship that he knew Jesus demanded. Sad!)

And yet others, whose heart-soil was freshly cultivated by the Spirit to receive the seed of the Word, received the hidden truth of the parable with joy–and repented.

Today, I wonder: Who are the parable-theologians we ought to be listening to? And to what extent might we be called, not to face issues head on, but to work with story, with analogy, with testimony, not to solve an otherwise insoluble puzzle, but to throw something into the mix that the Spirit might choose to use, whether that be for the sake of repentance, comfort, or exhortation, or all.

Maybe sometimes the stories being told are the theological words that need to be heard. Maybe the key to hearing them isn’t for me to come along and give a theological explanation. Maybe the Spirit can use those stories on their own to reveal the truths people need to absorb deep within their spirits and souls. Maybe we don’t always need a theologian to come alongside to clarify what is already clear. As in digital image manipulation, sometimes over-clarifying something actually leads to distortion.

We need more poet theologians. More novel (as in the book) theologians. More creative arts theologians. More story-tellers. More spoken-word artists. More painters. More musicians. More Christians who simply say, “I don’t have all the answers but here’s a little story about something that Jesus has done for me.” These parables of life, literature art, and story may well be used of God in sometimes more powerful ways than the “direct-speech” in which we theologians so often engage.

The Silence of Rest

If the silence of parable is a kind of indirect speech, a type of verbal Judo whereby we redirect speech away from direct speaking to a critical issue, the second is all-out bodily silence–a silence of rest.

In Mark 6, we read:

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. 31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

As I write this, I confess that this is the place from which I write. I am exhausted by a year filled with double-duty, with family crisis and distance, with personal health issues, with various global crises, and with the tiredness that comes just weeks before some slated time-off.

It’s perhaps a good reason why I need probably need to simply to shut up and not pretend to have the energy or words to say that I might otherwise wish I had.

As the apostles excitedly report to Jesus a résumé of their accomplishments, all the good things they had done and all the good stuff they had said, they turn around and–there are more people in need!

The response we might have expected from our Loving Lord is that of compassion. Based on his responses elsewhere in the Gospels, we might expect him to look at the multitudes in need with deep love and care. We expect his heart to break for them. We expect him to turn to the apostles and say, “You feed them.” (He did direct the apostles to do just that on other occasions).

What a mighty surprise it must have been when Jesus said, “You know what? Let’s go. You’re all tired and hungry–and so am I. Let’s find a quiet place where we can eat, and rest. Enough working, enough talking. Let’s take a personal day.”

As I wrote the previous paragraph, the image of a kindergarten or pre-school class came to mind. I think of the tremendous amount of energy expended by a class of pre-schoolers throughout the course of the day, and I’m not surprised that, in the midst of it all, both kids and teachers need “nap time.” (Maybe teachers more than kids, but kids for sure, need it, too!)

Humans are “soulish” creatures (Cf. Gen2:7) which means that who we are as humans is not simply the sum total of our words and actions. Far too often, we derive our worth precisely in that, as rewarding as it can be. The apostles, I’m sure, were thrilled beyond imagination to be on the Lord’s mission, speaking and doing and helping as they were. But Jesus knew them better than themselves. Humans cannot be sustained alone on the bread of their words and actions. Such bread will eventually lead to malnourishment of the soul.

I guess the rather simple but oft-overlooked point is this: Sometimes, even when the multitude of people and issues seem to be raising more urgent need than ever, the best thing is to pull away, to rest, to be silent, to have a snack and a nap. Elijah and Jesus did it. So, too, should we.

And so today, I covenant with the Lord, and maybe some of you, too, that today, and perhaps even for the next while, it’s okay that I have little reserve of words to say and actions to do in the face of the current crises.

I will rest in silence.

The Silence in the Face of Power

And sometimes The Word said–Nothing.

There are a few occasions in the Gospels where Jesus surprises us with nothing.

For example, sometimes he refuses to answer a question.

Luke 20 One day as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts and proclaiming the good news, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,” they said. “Who gave you this authority?”

He replied, “I will also ask you a question. Tell me: John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.”

So they answered, “We don’t know where it was from.”

Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Now granted, Jesus does speak here, but I’m awed by how here, at least, he answers a question with a question. And when the answer was not forthcoming, Jesus decided that therefore, he too, would not answer. I wish the editors of the text would have entitled this section, “When Christ clammed up!”

I think this little incident is instructive for us, especially in situations where, perhaps, we are being forced to take a side, fully knowing that whatever answer we give, we will be condemned from both sides.

Jesus saw through these power plays. And he simply refused to play along. How refreshing is that!

For me, at least, I am the kind of person who always wants to be on the right side. I’m not inherently a rebellious personality or a rhetorical provocateur. I want peace and quiet and order. That can, to be sure, good at times, but it can also be a bad thing. It can be a sign of complicity, duplicity, and cowardice.

So yes, sometimes we have to stand up for the right things, even if we are unpopular with our peers for doing so and even when it causes high level of stress and discomfort. I’ve been there and frankly, I don’t like it.

But sometimes, is there not an overwhelming sense of pressure to answer every question and respond to every critique? Maybe it’s just me but it seems to me that theologians and pastors and Bible teachers here are flooding the internet (“Hey, look at me as I post yet another blog post!” Smirk…) with an attempt to be heard, to provide answers, to guide the flock.

Again, I do not judge those who do this. May God bless you.

But for others, let me suggest that though Jesus often and regularly calls out injustice and hypocrisy and, yes, sin itself, other times, he knows that sometimes, anything he says will be condemned from every side and that sometimes, it is just better to be silent. It serves no purpose, ours or God’s, when we speak and it does nothing but create a deeper trench of division or even hatred. Sometimes we have to hang on to our pearls.

So Jesus is my exemplar here: If Jesus doesn’t have to answer every question thrown at him, I would hope he will be okay when I don’t answer every question either. May I simply have the grace and discernment to know when to speak and when to be silent. And it is in those times of silence when in fact, my actions will need to speak louder than my words.

But there’s another crucial moment of silence in Jesus’ ministry:

62 Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” 63 But Jesus remained silent. (Matt 26)

If you want to do a fascinating study, read through the various Gospel accounts and observe how Jesus responded, or didn’t, before the authorities leading up to his crucifixion. Whole books could be written on how Jesus responded, or didn’t, to various audiences.

Both before the high priest and Pilate, Jesus spoke. And was silent. Matthew records that Pilate was amazed that “Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge.” (Matt 27:14)

In the face of false accusation, in the face of power seeking to divide and conquer, Jesus is silent.

Now, I acknowledge that we have to be so very careful here. When Jesus was accused of wrongdoing, we know the charges were false. He is the man in whom no fault or deceit can be found. In that regard, he isn’t like us. Unlike Jesus, we have plenty of accusations that could be lodged against us for good and right reason. And if we are silent, it is because we know the accusations to be true. Such silence, in the face of a direct confrontation of grace (L. Gregory Jones) would be tantamount to a denial. When we’ve sinned, we ought to confess with our mouth.

Nevertheless, we need to be instructed here by Jesus: He is silent at a crucial moment, that is, when the rhetoric directed toward him is being used as means of exerting power over him.

It’s in those moments, Jesus refuses to play and meets the rhetoric with silence.

Isn’t it ironic? The crowds wanted Jesus to be quiet, and Pilate wanted him to speak.

To the crowds Jesus spoke, and to Pilate Jesus refused to speak. What’s the commonality?

In both cases, speech was being used as a power-play. The crowds demanded silence from Jesus because his words to them were uncomfortable. “We had better shut him up, then!” the crowds reasoned.

Pilate on the other hand, wanted answers from Jesus because he knew that Jesus was being unjustly accused. For Pilate to condemn and innocent man would call into question his own concern for justice.  “Answer me, dammit!” we can hear Pilate demand. “I have the power of life and death over you and you refuse to answer me?”

But again, Jesus knew the truth. As he says in John 10:17-18, “I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.”

So, when being threatened to speak lest we overpower you, the appropriate response seems to be silence. Not rolling over and cowering, but standing firm in silence. Sometimes those verbal power-plays come at us from without–from those outside the Church, outside the faith. But tragically, all too often those power plays are coming at us from within. Even Christians are being forced to line up on sides and say the right words. In such instances, I think we need to have the courage of silence.

Undoubtedly, we are in time when speech is being used in both good and wicked and yes, even in trivial ways. Speech is a gift of God and having a voice is part of what it means to be created as the ambassador image of God. We speak and preach and instruct and praise and worship with our mouths to the Glory of God.

But speech, we so well know, can divide and conquer as well. And so when demands are placed upon us, demands and pressures to speak so that the other side can be overwhelmed or silenced, we had better weigh our speech carefully and prayerfully. If we are being called upon to silence others, our speech is violence.

In that case, it is better, I believe, to be silent.







365 Days of Faithfulness?

If someone asked you, How many days in a row have you been faithful to the Lord?, what number would you give?

This morning I was reading in Genesis when I came across the Enoch account. It says, “Enoch walked faithfully with God 300 years.” It goes on: “Altogether, Enoch lived a total of 365 years. Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away” (Gen 5:22, 24).

500px-Figures_God_took_EnochNow interestingly, of his total life, Enoch is accounted with 300 years of faithfulness to God, which, incidentally, began at the age of 65 after he had fathered Methuselah. (Methuselah, you will recall, is the one who is credited as having the longest human life in the Bible—or ever!—of 969 years).

We don’t know what it was that sparked this “senior moment” of faithfulness for Enoch. Maybe becoming a father at age 65 causes one to reconsider one’s life and the legacy one will leave for one’s child! At any rate, the text is clear that God’s accounting of Enoch’s faithfulness started at age 65!

Now as interesting as the beginning marker of Enoch’s faithfulness is, that wasn’t what jumped out at me. It was the number 365—the total number of years Enoch lived. Why?

As perhaps many of you, I’ve been reflecting on my goals and habits and thinking about the 365 days ahead. But as I read about Enoch this morning, I asked myself: Could it even be said of me that I lived faithfully for 365 (or at least 300) days in a row?

This obviously begs the question of whether one can be counted faithful and yet fall into sin. Protestants and Catholics alike are generally convinced that few can make it through a day without sinning. And to be frank, I have to believe that even good ol’ Enoch gave into to temptation once, twice, thrice in those 300 years.

And yet Enoch is credited as having walked faithfully with God.

So what’s this mean for us?

1) It’s never too late to start living faithfully before God. We don’t know what happened in the first 65 years of his life, yet the the Bible indicates that Enoch, after 65, was faithful for 300 years. We may not have as long as Enoch to live out our faithfulness to God, but we are never too old to start. It doesn’t matter if you are 6, 60, or 600 (just covering my bases here), you can start a walk with God today.

2) Faithfulness to God isn’t necessarily defined by sinlessness. I’m convinced by the broad witness of the scriptural narratives of the great heroes of the faith, that the faithfulness they are credited with is not based on perfect records of sinlessness. Just take a look at the Hebrews 11 Hall of Fame to see the line-up of sinful characters there! They sinned, and so do we.

And of course, theologically, we can never be reminded enough that the faithfulness credited to us is only by the faithfulness and sinlessness of Jesus Christ on our behalf. And yet, we cannot ignore the fact that sinning humans are credited as faithful in the Bible.

Here the phrase in Genesis 5 is so important. Remember what it says? “Enoch walked faithfully with God.” Human faithfulness here, and almost everywhere in the Bible, isn’t a statement about sinless perfection, but about walking with God in Jesus Christ. Walking means taking one step at a time, and continuing on, day in and day out. It’s the same word the apostle John uses in his exposition on sin and fellowship with God in 1 John 1. As we walk in the light of Jesus (I John 1:7), it is impossible to say we are without sin or to deny that we have sinned (1:8,10). But as we walk in Jesus, our sins are forgiven and we are cleansed day by day (1:9).

You see, we don’t measure the veracity of journey as to how many missteps, slips, and falls we’ve made, but by how we refuse to stop walking. So if you’ve fallen, slipped up, taken a wrong turn—don’t let that stop your journey with God. Keep on walking. Get on the path, ask God’s forgiveness, and move on.

3) Faithfulness should, however, be marked by greater victory over sin. Faithfulness in walking in the light of Jesus means that our awareness of sin should become ever more acute and our tendency should be to deal with it more and more swiftly and with greater resolve to see it killed in our bodies.

These reflections all started when I asked myself, Could I, by the help and grace and mercy of Jesus, actually live 365 days without sin? I doubt I will, but that doesn’t mean it is worth setting as a perhaps a goal.

This morning I heard about a Saskatchewan man who last January was feeling despondent about his life and he decided to make an audacious goal: To walk across Canada–just because. He wasn’t doing it for charity, but just wanted to see if he could do it. And do it he did.

Now don’t get me wrong: It isn’t about justifying ourselves by our sinlessness before God, but it is asking: Can I, with the abiding Spirit’s help, resist that temptation one more day? Can I stay on the path just another hour? Just as the fellow who walked across Canada needed to take one more step—and do it repeatedly—it is worth asking ourselves why we are unable to get through a day, or an hour, without giving in to temptation.

I don’t want at all to set ourselves up for disappointment and guilt and shame in failure. However, I do wonder if we—I—tend to give up or given a little bit too quickly.

And that caused me to wonder: What would 365 days of faithfulness look like this year? Each of us will answer that a bit differently and each of our circumstances will demand different disciplines. Some need to commit to being more faithful prayer. Others to curbing appetites. And others to accountability. And still others to finishing something that they’ve procrastinated finishing in 2018. Whatever it is, imagine the joy of being able to look back at the year, and for God to say, “And _________ [insert your name here] walked faithfully with God for 365 days…”


Christmas Longings—and the Desire of the Nations

Do you remember as a child anxiously and breathlessly waiting for Christmas to come?

In my childhood home, we followed the tradition of gathering as a family to read the Christmas story and open gifts on Christmas Eve (followed by stocking stuffers on Christmas morning!). I remember when I was about 8 years old that the wait was particularly difficult. I anticipated and dreamed of getting a Meccano set, though I wasn’t quite sure if I was getting it. So it seemed like torture waiting for gift opening time.

However, after Dad’s customary reading of the Christmas story, we were ready to open our presents. I tore into my present and was thrilled with the discovery of my Meccano set!


And even though that toy was the source of many hours of enjoyment and learning in months and years to come, I also distinctly remember that by the end of Christmas Day, I had these strange feelings of let-down, or mild disappointment.

It wasn’t disapppointment about the gifts—I loved what I had received. But it was that all the anticipation and euphoria was followed by a strange feeling of sadness and even a tinge of emptiness. I’m sure it had a lot to do with how much I worked myself up into an emotional frenzy that made coming down from the euphoria a bit more noticeable to my eight-year old self.

C.S. Lewis, Sehnsucht, and Christmas

C.S. Lewis adopted a German word for this feeling: Sehnsucht (ZANE-zookt). It was a word Lewis used often to describe the deep longings and desires of the soul that were often left unfulfilled. Oxford English Dictionary defines it simply as “yearning, or wistful longing.” It’s a difficult concept to put into words (though Lewis is one of the best to do so), but most of us get it because we’ve all felt it at one point or another. We’ve hoped, and despaired when hope did not play out, often enough in our life that we intuitively understand Sehnsucht. 

Christmas can be a dangerous and depressing time of year for many. We put so much stock into the season, anticipating that it will somehow be “magical” and deeply satisfying, only to find ourselves with that feeling of emptiness again. It probably doesn’t help either when we find ourselves wondering why many of us don’t have the same excitement or anticipation in the Christmas season as we once did when we were kids.

However, rather than seeing the unsatisfied longings that are sparked and dashed often at Christmas, it may be better to ask ourselves what that longing, that wistfulness, is itself pointing to.

Here Lewis comes to the rescue. In discussing Sehnsucht in his famous little book, Mere Christianity, he puts it this way:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

I’m a bit theologically nervous with Lewis’ last phrase which speaks of being made for another world, even though I do buy into what I think he intends to say. In saying that we were made for another world, we need to be careful not to read into Lewis here a kind of escapism or even a tinge of Gnosticism: Lewis is too careful a thinker to do that. He wasn’t saying that we need somehow to escape God’s creation or that only an escape from this world will satisfy our deepest longings.

Rather, I think Lewis’ sense here is more along the lines of Jesus’ own words when he said, “I am not of this world.”  (John 8:23). Here Jesus isn’t saying that he does not share our humanity—he most certainly did and does, and Christmas is that time when we affirm that God’s Son took on full and permanent humanity. Rather, he is saying is that the origin or source of his identity and person is not derived from the created world, but from his Father in heaven.

The true Desire of our Desires

Christmas is ironically a time when we hope to see our deepest longings and desires to be fulfilled, only to find ourselves over and over again deeply disappointed. The gifts and family times and turkey meals are all great, and I’m not critiquing those things which can serve up good moments of joy delight.

However, the strange paradox of Christmas is that so many hopes are placed in things that cannot ultimately satisfy, even though Christmas is the time to commemorate the coming of the One who truly is the “desire of the nations.” As the prophet Haggai foretold:

I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty.

Hard to believe that the babe in a manger is the one who will shake the nations, and yet he is indeed the one whom the nations truly desire—despite their, and our, unwillingness or failure to acknowledge him as the fulfilment of the deepest desires and longings of our hearts.


The Prophetic and Political Significance of Jesus’ Natal Announcement

We tend to be aware of the prophetic significance of the angelic announcement of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in Luke 2. As Christian readers we are likely to grasp how the announcement was directed to Jewish shepherds who (likely) would have seen it as a fulfilment of Hebrew prophecy.

But we may be less attuned to fact that the announcement would have also been heard by Gentile recipients reading Luke’s Gospel as a radical political statement. Both of these aspects are important to understand, so let’s look at them in order. How might a typical Jewish person hear the angelic announcement? And how might a typical Gentile or Greek hear it?

The Prophetic Significance of the Angelic Announcement

First, let’s recall what the angel told the shepherds:

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11).

Here I want to highlight four words or phrases from the angel of the Lord’s announcement: 1) Good News; 2) Saviour; 3) Messiah; and 4) the Lord. (2:10-11)

From a Jewish perspective, the four words would likely be received as an announcement of the fulfillment of the prophetic hope of the Hebrew Bible.

Good news – The prophet Isaiah (which has sometimes been called “The Fifth Gospel”) makes repeated mention of “good news.” (E.g., Isaiah 40:9, 41:27; 52:7). Thus, when the angel of the Lord announces that he is bringing “good news that will cause great joy for all the people,” Jewish shepherds are likely to have their minds drawn to these promises.For example, think of Isaiah 40:9 which says,

You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem, 
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”

What is the good news? “Here is your God!” It’s no wonder the shepherds went for a look!

Saviour – The word Saviour is derived from the Hebrew name “Joshua” which literally means, “Yahweh is salvation.” When the shepherds arrive at the manger side and find out his name is “Jesus” (the Greek version of Hebrew Joshua), the connection of this baby to Israel’s promises of deliverance embodied in Joshua would have been obvious.

Messiah – This word, of course, is at the heart of Jewish hopes. The Hebrew Scriptures long predicted the coming of the anointed one. And any Jewish person who was even minimally attentive knew that the Messiah would come from the line and house of King David. Of course, that the shepherds were directed to and found their way to Bethlehem, the city of David, well, that just was icing on the cake!

Lord – But just in case the shepherds missed it, the angel of the Lord declared that the baby is “the Messiah, the Lord.” The word “Lord” (Greek, kyrios) here is loaded with significance. As Larry Hurtado points out, the word Lord or kyrios, “had become a widely-used oral substitute for YHWH among Greek-speaking Jews.” I don’t know what language the angels spoke to the shepherds in, but for Luke, there is a clear connection of the identity of the Messiah with the YHWH of the Hebrew Bible.

In short, for Jewish readers of Luke’s account, it is clear that Jesus is to be understood as the fulfillment of Jewish hopes as testified to in Hebrew Scripture. The long awaited Messiah had come, and the shepherd’s did not delay in going to see him. And when they did, they went out, witnessing to what they’d heard the angels tell them about the child (Lk. 2:17). (Notice here that their witness consisted primarily in what they heard. Although they speak both of what they heard and saw (v.20), it is the angelic message which gives content to their witness, not so much what they saw.)

The Political Significance of the Angelic Announcement

But what about for Gentiles or Greek speaking readers? How would Luke’s record of the angelic announcement resonate with them?

Here we need to run through these four words once again, but this time I want to argue that for our Gentile author, Luke, and for what we assume would be in the first instance a predominantly Gentile audience, the words elicit a radical political announcement.

Here we must not miss the connection between the opening line (“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree . . .”) and the proclamation of the angel of the Lord in Luke 2:10-12. It is easier to see, as above, how this announcement aligns with Hebrew expectation because we are more likely to be familiar with the Old Testament. But it is a bit less obvious to see the radical political implications of the angelic announcement apart from some extra-biblical information that most readers of the Gospel today do not have immediately at their fingertips. Remember that for most Gentiles reading or hearing the Gospel of Luke for the first time, they would have far less familiarity with the Hebrew Bible than, say, Matthew’s readers and hearers. Thus, when Luke provides his account, it is in the context of the historic figure of Caesar Augustus. Thus, the political allusions would have more likely resonated with Greek/Gentile hearers.

In short, everything that is said about Jesus by the angel as recorded by Luke was previously directly or indirectly attributed to Caesar Augustus himself. So let’s go through these four words again,but this time from the perspective of how Caesar Augustus would have been understood.

Good News – In his book, Divine Honours for the Caesars, Bruce W. Winter draws attention to a decree written by the Proconsul of the League of Asia around 8 BC which extols the virtues of Caesar Augustus—the very same Caesar spoken of in Luke 2:1. At one point, the Augustan decree says, “with his appearance Caesar [Augustus] exceeded hopes of all those who anticipated good tidings [‘euangelia’ – Gospel, good news] before us, not only surpassing those who had been benefactors before him, but not even leaving those to come any hope of surpassing him the future.” (Winter, 37).Historians generally agree that the birth of Jesus took place around 4 BC, which means that the Augustan decree spoken of by Winter had been written just four years earlier. It isn’t hard to see the radical nature, then, of the angelic announcement which declared that the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was “good news” for “all the people.”We shouldn’t underestimate how this account is a direct  “poking the bear” of none other than the mighty Caesar Augustus which just four years previously had been declared to have been the greatest leader ever and with no hope of any coming after who would surpass him. And yet, here came Jesus on the scene, announced as “good news for all the people.”All this to say: The angelic announcement as “good news” isn’t political subtlety, but a forthright declaration of challenge to the Augustan decree! One simply has to say that this was a statement of political boldness at its best!

Saviour – A year prior to the Proconsul’s 8 BC decree, there is also evidence that this same Caesar August was declared publicly to be a saviour to the people.  On a Priene calendar inscription we find this:“Whereas the Providence which has guided our whole existence and which has shown such care and liberality, has brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving to us Augustus Caesar, whom it filled with virtue for the welfare of mankind, and who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order” (Emphasis added).

Moreover, an inscription from the city of Halicarnassus declared Augustus to be “saviour of the common race of man” (Cited in Winter, 72) and scholars have commonly noted how he was repeatedly called “the savior of the world” and “the savior of the inhabited earth.”The fact that Augustus was issuing a decree, according to Luke, to the “entire Roman world” (Lk 2:1) and that Luke’s genealogy of Jesus in chapter 3 traces Jesus all the way back to Adam (unlike Matthew who traces all the way back to Abraham) indicates that when Jesus is declared to be “saviour”, in a first century Gentile familiar with the honours accorded Augustus as “saviour of the common race of man,” it is beyond doubt the counter narrative Luke is providing for us. No, Luke’s Gospel says, it is not Augustus who is the Saviour of humanity, but Jesus, the man for all people.

Messiah – English translations of Luke 2:11 (such as the NIV I’m citing from) translate the last clause as “he is the Messiah, the Lord.” The word Messiah is the English transliteration of Hebrew word “Mashiach.” However, Luke, writing in Greek, records that the baby is the Christos Kurios, more directly translated in English as “Christ the Lord.” (I think English translations should opt to translate the word as “Christ” here, given Luke’s Gentile orientation, but I digress.) At any rate, both Messiah and Christ mean “anointed one.”

In Judaism, of course, the anointed one, the Messiah, is clearly associated with the prophetic anticipation of the one to come from the house of David, as noted above. Its noteworthy, then, that Jews were predisposed to be awaiting and looking for the Messiah to come, and in their looking, they were aware that the Messiah was going to be born in “Bethlehem in Judea” (Matt 2:5).

So, when Luke then goes on to begin his account of Jesus (right before the genealogy) by recording a birth announcement, the parallel to imperial power cannot be ignored. Jesus cames as Messiah and saviour for all, including all right back to the time of Adam! But Jesus also comes as the one who will be Messiah and Saviour of all to come.Here Winter points to a lengthy resolution passed by the members of the Koinon of the province of Asia. In that resolution, the birth of Caesar Augustus is viewed as the beginning of a new Golden Age and they declared that Augustus’ birthday should mark the beginning of a new calendar year to represent how with the appearance of Augustus, a new world age had begun. Indeed, an inscription to Augustus read: “the birthday of our god marked for the world the beginning of good news through his coming.” (Winter 37).

An anointing is a marking, a designating, so here again, it is not difficult to see how Luke’s portrayal of Jesus birth is so closely tied to the decree of Caesar Augustus who himself was portrayed as the harbinger of a new age. And yet it is Jesus, the angels announce, who is the anointed one, and the one who “Today” (2:11) (usually a word used in the Bible connected to the announcement of the present day arrival of the kingdom of God) has come as one bringing joy to all people.

Lord – It is as if the best is saved til last with this word. As noted above, the word Lord (kyrios) was clearly associated in Jewish thought with Yahweh, but what about in the Gentile mind?

N.T. Wright makes the claim that at the time of Jesus’ birth, “as far as most of the Roman world was concerned, the ‘divinity’ of the emperor was obvious and uncontroversial” (Wright, Paul in Fresh Perspective, 65)Here the full significance of Luke’s record of the angelic announcement comes into focus. Indeed, Caesar Augustus declared his father a deity, thus making Augustus a “son of deity (or as inscriptions put it, “a son of a god” (Cf. the title ascribed to Jesus: the son of God!).

It is widely known that the Emperors were commonly acknowledged and honoured as nothing less than deities themselves. In fact, it was because of their divine status as deities that eventually Christians found themselves in trouble whenever they found themselves declaring, “Jesus is Lord!”–but that’s for another post some day!

So, the natal announcement plays a dual role for both Jewish and Gentile hearers. For the Jew reading Luke’s account, the angelic announcement encourages them to see Jesus as the fulfillment of all Hebrew prophetic anticipation and as the one to come, the Messiah, the Son of David.

But for Gentile hearers, the natal announcement is shot through with political significance and challenge. Indeed, for many of Luke’s readers, the natal announcement is nothing less than a political counter challenge to the highest political authority of their day, namely, the Emperor himself.

And so Jesus Christ is to us today: the hope of Israel (Jeremiah 17:13) and the desire of the nations (Haggai 2:7).

Stock up on Summer books

I just got notice that Christian Book Distributors has a summer clearance sale on many books, including some up to 99% (yes, you read that right–99%!) off. Take a look, you might find something.


Here’s a few examples:

Oliver Crisp’s Retrieving Doctrine: Essays in Reformed Theology. – $1.99 (US)

Catherine Kelsey’s, Thinking about Christ with Scheiermacher. – $0.99 (US)

Gregory Alan Thornbury’s,  Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry,  – $1.99

Rupert Shortt, Rowan’s Rule: The Biography of the Archbishop of Canterbury, – $1.99 (US)

And of course, Karl Barth’s entire Church Dogmatics! – $179 (US)!



Three Reasons to Give Bultmann Another Chance

When Stanley Hauerwas was informed that he had been named by Time magazine as one of America’s “best” theologians, he responded as he ought to have responded:  “best is not a theological category.”

Similarly, the word “successful” is not a theological category. So when I say that David Congdon’s little book on Bultmann is successful, I hope I’m not making a categorical mistake.

Nevertheless, I will persist.

There are at least three reasons why Congdon’s book, Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology (Cascade, 2015) should be rightly designated a “successful” theological book–successful because it gives good reason for those who have either given up, or never even looked at him in the first place, to give Bultmann a(nother) chance.



1. Congdon successfully casts into serious doubt, if not demolishes, many of the (mis)perceptions that many have held and taught about Bultmann’s thought. 

I don’t know which friend it was that Congdon is speaking about who “upon finishing the famous programmatic essay on demythologizing for the first time, told me he kept waiting for the sinister demythologizing he had heard so much about but which never arrived” (xv), but I, too, had a similar experience a year or two ago after reading Jesus Christ and Mythology. Clearly, not everything I had been taught or read about Bultmann is true.

That said, let me also say that Congdon’s book will not necessarily transform readers into devoted Bultmannians.That is because defending Bultmann isn’t so much what this eminently readable book is all about–even if Congdon is clearly sympathetic to much of what Bultmann was saying. Rather, the success of Congdon’s book is that he portrays, with great clarity and with excellent primary evidence, a portrait of Bultmann not as one who was seeking to destroy faith–as some conservative critics are still apt to assume–as much as he was seeking to preserve faith in God in the increasingly secularized and scientifically-oriented modern world. Congdon helped me to realize that I need to be much more cautious in teaching others what Bultmann’s program represents.

Most important in re-orienting me to Bultmann were the three chapters respectively entitled “Eschatology” (chapter 1), “Dialectic” (chapter 2), and “Self-Understanding” (chapter 4, which in my opinion, was one of the most clarifying chapters of the whole book). For it was in these three chapters that I discovered how Bultmann was locating himself in the 20th century debate about the nature of the kingdom of God (ch. 1); was seeing himself as a faithful participant, together with the early Karl Barth, in the project of dialectical theology (ch. 2); and was seeking to show that “faith understands God only by simultaneously understanding oneself, because the God [we] encounter in revelation is the God who justifies [us]”(60 – ch. 4).

Here I have to ask: Does this latter statement not sound a whole lot like Calvin in the opening pages of his Institutes?

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. (Calvin, Institutes, I.1)

2. Congdon successfully makes the case that Bultmann should not be interpreted only through the lens of his associations and disagreements with Karl Barth.

One of the most clarifying moments I had in reading Congdon’s account was in his chapter on “dialectic” where he highlights, in line with Bruce McCormack, that it is Bultmann, not Barth, who most consistently works out the existential theology first discovered in Barth’s commentary on Romans. In other words, the true “heir” of the early dialectical theological programme inaugurated by Barth is none other than Rudolf Bultmann! As Congdon explains,

Barth would eventually change his mind [after his Romans commentary] about . . . eschatology. In his later dogmatic writings, he grounds the eschaton, and so theology, in the historical person of Jesus, and thus replaces existential theology with a certain kind of christocentric theology. Bultmann, however, consistently develops the theology of Barth’s Romans. . . . If Bultmann remains faithful to the theological position of the early Barth, then it follows that he remains a dialectical theologian, even in his later work.

In other words, in as much as the roots of dialectical theology  can be traced to Barth, Bultmann is more properly the one who seeks to “conserve” these roots. Thus, when Barth later broke publicly and adamantly with Bultmann, it wasn’t because Bultmann had changed, but because Barth had changed! (If you want to get a sense of my own interpretation of Barth’s mature understanding of dialectic, take a look here.)

Of course, the question remains whether one is persuaded to follow Barth’s christocentric vs. Bultmann’s existential theological center. But after this, I will follow Congdon in pointing out that Bultmann is actually more consistent in carrying out Barth’s earliest form of dialectical theology than Barth himself. It also illustrates yet another place where there was more change in Barth than he often was willing to admit.

3.  Congdon successfully demonstrates that Bultmann, whether one agrees with his approach or not, was not trying to destroy faith, but to understand faith under the conditions of modernity.

It is the case that to this day, Bultmann’s concept of “demythologization” is still commonly understood as simply seeking to” de-supernaturalize” the teaching of the Bible. Take Bultmann’s following oft-quoted statement:

We cannot use electric lights and radios, and in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament. (quoted in Congdon, p. 105)

This statement has been regularly used as a key piece of evidence that Bultmann didn’t believe in miracles or that he somehow thought that everything in the Bible needed to be explained in naturalistic terms. However, as Congdon argues,

Bultmann does not think that belief in the wonder world of the NT can be isolated from the cultural context in which that belief comes to express, just as the use of the radio and modern medicine presupposes a distinct cultural context, as missionaries to remote tribes today understand well. Indeed, he would say this spirit and wonder world is not even an element of the NT kerygma, since it was a world-picture shared by everyone in that cultural context. It was as natural to them as our belief today in the capacity of scientists to discover the biological cause of a person’s illness. The early Christian apostles necessarily made use of their world-picture in bearing witness to what God had done in Jesus of Nazareth, but that can be no more essential to the kerygma than the use of Greek or Aramaic. (105-6)

So what, then, is Bultmann trying to do? Congdon convincingly argues that Bultmann was trying to take seriously the fact that we live in a “radically different–even incommensurable–cultural context from the authors of scripture, though this does not preclude intercultural communication since . . . we are not reducible to our cultural situation” (107)

Once again, we may or may not agree with how Bultmann sought to carry out what is essentially the missionary task of translating the Gospel into various 21st century contexts and cultures, but few would disagree that the task nevertheless needs to be done. Few, if any, believe that we can simply read the pages of the Bible in original Greek or Hebrew to a modern audience and expect them to hear and respond to the Gospel. Yet this is what Bultmann, Congdon argues, was simply trying to find a way of doing. In other words, Bultmann wasn’t trying to desacralize an “other-worldly” Bible into a “worldly” Bible, but was actually trying to highlight the dangers of pretending that we can bring the “other-worldliness” of the Bible into our world without risking the loss of its essential other-wordliness altogether! 

Let me conclude simply by commending Congdon’s “little book on Bultmann” to you, especially if you aren’t quite ready to delve into his “big book on Bultmann” quite yet. That is my next task…!

Karl Barth Conference 2016 – Follow up and Announcement

I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to keep up with the conference postings. We had a number of great lectures and good discussion both yesterday and this morning. However, evening commitments last night and getting back to the airport today prevented me from getting to the summaries. Unfortunately, I don’t foresee having time to finish these up, as I have heavy commitments in the next two weeks. My apologies for those who were waiting for these.

Announcement: It was exciting to hear the announcement for the Karl Barth conference in 2017. Prof. Bruce McCormack informed us that in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (Luther’s 95 theses were written in 1517), next year’s conference will focus specifically on “Luther, Barth, and Movements of Theological Renewal, 1918-1933.” In attendance will be 12 invited scholars from around the world, including three Jewish scholars. The conference will seek to produce original research giving historical, theological, and cultural context of these pivotal “dialectical” years for Barth in his conversations with both Lutheran and Jewish scholars. This conference will undoubtedly be a “big deal” so save the date: June 18-21, 2017.


Karl Barth Conference 2016 – Dr. John Flett – Evil, Demons and Exorcism

Dr. John Flett, author of a newly released book on Apostolicity,  began his lecture (June 20, 2016) by noting that the practices of exorcism and healing are “key missional activities and issues in today’s world.” With over 25% of world Christianity self-identifying within the Pentecostal tradition, and with the practices of exorcism and healing taking place in regular and daily occurences in the Asian, African, and Latin American context (i.e., the churches in the global south), to avoid these issues is “theologically irresponsible.”


Karl Barth on the Demonic and the Lordless Powers

Flett approached the topic by expounding first on Karl Barth’s account of evil and the demonic. In this, Flett paid special attention to Barth’s concept of the Nothingness (Das Nichtige) and his account of the “lordless powers.” In short, Flett argued that Barth refused to accept the binary situation in which we find ourselves when speaking of the demonic. That is, it is often assumed that one can only either deny the demonic on the one hand, or to pay too much attention to the demonic on the other hand. But to think about the demonic in either of these ways is to pose false alternatives, both of which give the demonic the “power” is does not merit. To ignore the demonic is to leave it unfettered in its opposition to God’s ways; to pay too much attention to it is to give it the power it does note merit. In this regard, Barth counsels that Christians accept the biblical realism of the demonic, to give the demonic a theological account, but to give an account which does not place emphasis on the demonic itself, but only as understood under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Whatever the case, Barth is  concerned that too wrong thinking about the demonic is to fundamentally to misunderstand the essential nature of the demonic as “falsehood.” Nevertheless, Barth feels need to give account, even with “just a glance”!

Flett summarized the main points of Barth’s demonology as follows:

  • The demonic has a form of existence, but not in the form of personal agents of evil.
  • The demonic exists as “Nothingness” and “falsehood”; it is anything which sets itself up against the “Yes” of God. 
  • The demonic is the “false mimicry” of the truth of God; therefore the demonic is not “real” in the sense of participating in the truth of God, but the “demonic is not nothing.”
  • Barth differentiates between the demonic and the “lordless powers” spoken of in the NT–powers which are “real and efficacious” in a way that demonic Nothingness is not.
  • Because Barth believes that the demonic and lordless powers work in the created order, he believes that demonic possession (in the sense that one can be “demonized” and fall under the illusions of falsehood) is possible, but that exorcism (which Barth assumed to require only under a concept of demons as agents) is not possible. 


    Amos Yong on Healing and Exorcism in Pentecostalism and the Churches of the Global South

    Flett turned secondly to examine Amos Yong’ account of healing and exorcism as one working from a Pentecostal perspective. Yong believes that demonology is a central factor of how the Gospel is proclaimed and received in most of the non-western cultures in the world. In this regard, Pentecostalism, as a world movement is received as a religion of salvation (read: liberation, though not liberation in a neo-Marxist sense, but in the sense of real release from demonic oppresssion) in a world inhabited by spirits and demons in largely non-western cultures (i.e., the Global South). Indeed, Yong asserts:

    Human experience exclusive of the demonic remains impoverished.

    That is to say, those who have not come to grips with the reality of the demonic have not yet understood the salvation and liberation which Christ came to give.

    Yong seeks to develop an “ontology of the demonic”. For Yong, the demonic arises out of the natural evolutionary processes of the world, but they are also not merely “material” in nature. Yong also acknowledges that demons are real, but with Barth, is somewhat hesitant, but certainly more open, to seeing them necessarily as personal agents. 

    Furthermore, Yong insists that the notion of exorcism, while certainly possible, has tended to highlight the activity of the demonic only as “individual and episodic” to the exclusion of demonic activity as  “ongoing and communal.” In this regard, Yong argues that true “exorcism” is the process of carving out space both individually and communally to renounce the powers of evil in both cosmos and in intergenerational communities. This is accomplished as the Church gathers in public worship and liturgy, confession, baptism, etc., but also in the working of the church in the sphere of political, ethical, legal and social contexts where the demonic still holds sway. In short, Yong accepts the possiblity and need for exorcism and that this is entirely possible at an individual level, but that individual exorcism must not be allowed to overshadow the larger communal context in which the lordless powers need to be exorcised from the community.

    Barth and Yong in Conversation

    Flett concluded his paper by highlighting some of the similarities and differences between Barth and Yong.

    For both Barth and Yong:

    • Too much focus on the demonic can itself become a demonic form of activity itself
    • The demonic powers are overcome only through participation in Jesus’ kingly victory, not through personal or ecclesial efforts or rites
    • The demonic has real/efficacious effects in the world and a cosmology that overlooks the demonic has fallen either to a form of reductionism or naturalism

    However, Barth and Yong differ in the following:

    • Barth refuses to give the demonic personal (agential) status; Yong is more open to the “personal” nature of the demonic, as is evident in the practices of world Pentecostalism
    • Barth refuses to allow for exorcism precisely because it presumes the demon as a personal agent (though Barth appears also to ignore scriptural evidence that seems to point plainly in this direction; Yong allows for exorcism, but with Barth is nervous about focusing too much on exorcism as an individual practice in favor of more corporate practices of ongoing renunciation of the demonic in corporate life of prayer, confession, baptism, etc. 

    Karl Barth Conference 2016 – Dr. Nimi Wariboko – “Spirit & Ethics: Barbarians at the Barthian Gates”

    Dr. Nimi Wariboko is Walter G. Muelder Professor of Social Ethics at Boston University School of Theology. 

    Dr. Nimi Wariboko, Princeton Seminary, 2016
    Dr. Wariboko delivered a rich paper in which he sought to bring Barth into conversation with Pentecostals (i.e., the theological barbarians outside the Reformed theologian’s gate!) and their theology of tongues (glossalalia). Throughout, Wariboko noted that the attempt is not so much to show that Pentecostals and Barth would agreed on the topic of speaking in tongues as much as he is seeking points of commonality upon which further conversation and dialogue could occur. In this regard, speaking as one from within the Pentecostal movement, Wariboko noted, 

    You don’t have to understand tongues speech to understand Barth; but you must understand Barth in order to understand tongues.

    Wariboko highlighted three important features of Barth’s theology of language:

    • God’s Word is essentially understand to be in the form of “Divine command” to humans; humans are thus called upon to respond in and through correspondent forms of speech. These divine and human forms of speech are aligned in a way that George Hunsinger calls “asymmetry” (God’s speech takes priority over human), “intimacy” (that the speech actually goes together in history and are inherently connected), and “integrity” (divine and human speech, even though connected, retain their respective divine or human reality–God’s word remains God’s word, and human word remains human). 
    • God’s Word is full of grace, but it is also shattering and disruptive to human speech. God’s Word upsets our basic expectations of how it is that God works and speaks.
    • God’s Word remains ec-sistent to the human, i.e., it remains “outside of us” yet is constitutive of our being; it is not “inside and constitutive” (ex-istent) of our being as humans.

    These three features, according to Wariboko, are useful parallels in Barth to a Pentecostal understanding of tongues. In short: 1) tongues comes from God in response to God’s Spirit; 2) they are disruptive to normal patterns of human and social interaction, and 3) they constitute the humans from outside rather than from within the human speaker.

    Barth, the Spirit and Ethics

    In order to bring Barth’s theology of language into conversation with a Pentecostal doctrine of tongues, Wariboko appealed to Lacan’s triad: the imaginary, the symbolic and the real. In this regard, there are three forms of tongues spoken of in Scripture, each corresponding to a leg of Lacan’s triad. 


    1. Xenolalia  (speaking in many recognized languages – cf. Acts 2) corresponds to the “imaginary” in Lacan. Here the coming together of the disciples to speak glory to God through many existing languages highlighted the “separateness” of the nations, whether Jew or Gentile. However, by speaking in these known languages in the context of  single event (Pentecost), a new–separate–community identity (i.e., a community not limited to linguistic barriers) is formed which transcends the limits otherwise imposed by different langugages.
    2. Interpreted Glossalalia (speaking in speech which is unintelligble but translated – cf. tongues and interpretation of tongues in 1 Cor 12:10) corresponds to Lacan’s “symbolic” category. Regardless of what the words or sounds of the “language” being spoken is of less relevance than the fact that God himself gives interpretation of what the words/sounds mean. By so doing, both the speaker and hearer are incorporated in the larger community of faith in their speaking and hearing.
    3. Non-interpreted Glossolalia (sounds or languages which are unintelligble and unable to be interpreted through regular means, i.e., they cannot by definition be translated into a discernible human message) corresponds to Lacan’s category of the “real.” In this sense, such speaking points to the freedom of the human speaker to respond to God’s speaking in such a way that it represents the “real” inbreaking and enigma of divine speech. Such speech may be unintelligible  from a human perspective but is no less “real”. It represents that human who is compelled by God to speak but who does not conform to human expectations or systems of “acceptable” speech. It represents the ability fo those who otherwise have no voice but are enabled by God to “speak up.” (Here especially we think of those under political, social, or other forms of oppression who are normally “silenced by the system” but under God’s authority are enabled to “speak up” in a prophetically disruptive way.)

    Barth’s Theology of Language and Modern Pentecostal Theologies of Tongues

    Wariboko completed his paper by drawing out the common ethical assumptions underlying both Barth and many forms of Pentecostal theologies of tongues in the Western tradition. Here he pointed out that common to Barth and Pentecostal theologies is the notion of the “nakedness” of the ethical subjectivity. For Barth, it is assumed that the human speaks in obedience to God’s command but cannot be based on any external factors. This is because such speaking is entirely by grace. Likewise, the Pentecostal assumes that anyone, regardless of gender, culture, or back ground, can speak in tongues by the free working of the Spirit. However, Wariboko sees a philosophical parallel to Kant’s categorical imperative, which assumes that doing the “right thing” ethically is assumed to be true universally of every individual, regardless of culture, language, or location.

    So, though Warikobo sees Pentecostal theologies of tongues and Barth being aligned at many levels, not least of which is seeing it as the disruptive, free working of the Spirit in humans, he also sees both in need of further supplementation with an attention to the cultural and historical location of the exercise of that human freedom under the Spirit.