This post first appeared in The Living Church (January 30, 2011), p. 23. It appears here as part of our ongoing TBT series and as a follow-up to Monday’s post “Things Episcopalians say (1): “Not literally.” Seriously?

Christian theology is — necessarily and at its heart — derivative, imitative; a kind of plagiarism, as Paul Griffiths has suggested. This, it turns out, is the source of its power. Our words about God, Christians believe, follow a divine precedent, on several counts. First and foremost, consider this historical sequence: “By the word of the LORD were the heavens made” (Ps. 33:6); “he sustains all things by his powerful word” (Heb. 1:3); “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14); “Follow me” (Mark 1:17). In every case, in creation and as incarnated, God’s Word precedes our own and is utterly effective thereby.

We only know this, however, as revealed in the Scriptures of the Church, as the form of the foregoing suggests. Here, then, is a second layer of discourse that also precedes and norms our own “theo-logia”: God’s inspired Word, reliably written, as the basis or rule of faith. Hence a familiar, yet remarkable, circularity appears: we know things about God on the say so of Scripture (authoritatively presented by the early Church), that is, on God’s say so.

Putting (1) and (2) together: God has acted in history by speaking, and we have a record of it. This is where Aquinas’s great Summa of theology begins, following a well-established theological tradition stretching back to the Bible itself: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).


Note a basic feature of the structure of things,
 in the Christian conception: that God is, eternally and in time, a communicating Word, which
 Word is echoed by creation — a universe of language. This is so even in the non-human world: “The heavens declare the glory of God,” after all (Ps. 19:1). But it is especially true for human beings: “When your word goes forth it gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. / I open my mouth and pant; I long for your commandments” (Ps. 119:130-31). We are made and redeemed by the Word of God, in whom we have heard “the word of truth, the gospel of our salvation” — given to us, spoken to us — which in turn calls forth our “belief,” that is, “praise” (Eph. 1:13, 6 and 12). To know God is to praise him, and vice versa. We are therefore baptized “in” his name by speaking it — “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” — and we say God’s name endlessly thereafter in worship and prayer: “Holy Trinity, one God”; “Jesus”; “Lord.”

We can observe here a second feature of divine discourse: that as we speak after the Word’s example, often repeating what he said, we curiously understand him still to be himself speaking as well — inviting, permitting, and even uttering our speech through us. Thus the Lord himself opens our lips for our mouth to proclaim his praise (as at the start of morning prayer; see Ps. 51:15), a paradoxical simultaneity of divine and human action. God’s word is our word is God’s word, as a feature of our design and redesign (in his image), two “causes” achieving a singular end. Again, from at least Augustine on, this is how the effective power of the sacraments has been understood — spoken at once by incarnate command and priestly instrumentality (as in baptism, quoting Jesus [Matt. 28:19], and again in the Eucharist [Matt. 26, Mark 14, Luke 22]).

In this tradition, following the example of Scripture itself (already in Deuteronomy!), theology proceeds by quotation, as the words of others are gathered together, reordered, and repeated anew — the words of Scripture above all, and then various interpretive authorities with respect to it. Centuries of commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences follow this pattern, and the exegetical methodologies of subsequent medievals and reformers similarly: “It is written …”; “Thus Paul …”; “For Augustine says … .” (Philosophical reason comes into play as well but “extrinsically,” not “proper” to the discipline, says Aquinas. By contrast, sacred Scripture and theology are identified: ST I 1, 2 ad 2 and 8 ad 2.)

How shall we understand this? The work is creative, in a sense, and certainly exhilarating: “How sweet are your words to my taste!” (Ps. 119:103). But it is not strictly original, since God is source in every important respect.

Ours is most basically a task of reverent assembling: putting together words and sentences not our own, in the conviction that with them come “spirit and life” (John 6:63). We are, in this respect, assuredly, with the whole tradition, scriptural literalists — “declaring,” in prayer and proclamation, “what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 John 1:1).

The featured image is “Brief” (2008) by Brett Jordan. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

Dr. Christopher Wells is Director of Unity, Faith, and Order for the Anglican Communion, and served for 13 years as executive director of the Living Church Foundation, Inc.

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