Learning to Say “God”: Reflections on Ten Years of Preaching

 

 

At the end of this year I will have been preaching for 10 years. One might wonder why I did not wait until I had fulfilled my years to reflect on them. Ideally that’s what I would do, but as I have come to learn, life is never ideal. I am presently experiencing a shift in how I preach the Bible and I thought it expedient to describe the process while it is happening rather than to try and do it retrospectively after the angst and uncertainty has worn off.

Impossible Prayers
I have not forgotten that this is an article about preaching, but good preaching begins with good prayers, though in my case it began with bad ones. My early Christian life was characterized by almost no prayer at all and when I did pray I believed they were impossible. I believed “God” was unchangeable and that made prayer impossible. I could ask, but he could not change, so it’s easy to see why I rarely bothered asking. Whatever I meant by “God” it was not someone who changed.
It was certainly not someone who changed for me.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
I do not pretend to know what Pascal meant when he wrote the memorial he carried in the lining of his coat, nor do I remember how it came to me, but I do know what it meant to me when I heard it. “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and of the learned.” I realized that my idea of God had been shaped by the philosophers and not by scripture. Somewhere along the way I had heard, and accepted without question, that God was immutable, unchangeable, that whatever he purposed was done and there was no turning to the right or the left. So of course, when I had learned to say “God” from the philosophers, and not from the word of God, I cannot be expected to pray the prayers which only scripture makes intelligible. The “God” of my speech made prayer impossible. But when I went to scripture I saw Abraham pray to God and barter for the lives of those in Sodom and Gomorrah. I saw Moses pray for the lives of the rebellious Israelites. I read the burning passion of the psalms. All of these prayed as if they expected God to change … and he did.

I cannot explain how God changes. When I reason about him, or when I accept the reason of the philosophers, I find that I invent a God that cannot answer prayer. But when I read scripture I find a God who moves heaven and earth to answer the prayers of his children. The crucified Christ is the resurrected Christ who shakes heaven and earth so that only that which is eternal remains, and all that in answer to the petition of little children praying, “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” When I read scripture I find a God that I could not have guessed.

Inventing “God”
After graduating preaching school I was enamored with apologetics. It was my great dream to be an apologist and debater. In the apologetics I had learned, you cannot assume God. You cannot assume the thing to be proved. So, you begin with the “facts”, the things that are given. You begin with creation or with Man and ascend step by step until you have arrived at God. This sort of polemic “move” characterized by apologetics as well as my preaching. I would begin with the “neutral facts” and arrive at God.

Recently I have recognized a problem in this order. If God is God then there is no such thing as neutral facts.  The “fact” is that all that exists is created, Man is a creature, and to call Man a creature–which is to tell the truth about him–is not neutral.  If we begin with Man then Man becomes determinative, not God. We allow Man to define God instead of allowing God to define Man. Further, if we begin with Man, without reference to God, then we do not begin with Man at all but only a false idea of Man. There is no “Man” without God. To begin with a “neutral Man”, a Man without reference to God, is to begin with Man misunderstood. And when your premises are false your conclusions cannot help but be false also. To begin with Man or creation, apart from God, is to begin with false premises.

The God I Could Not Have Guessed
Whatever “God” we invent as a result of such faulty premises–such as “Man” apart from God–cannot be the God who is Trinity, the God revealed in the crucified Christ. Indeed, if the God we invent as a result of such natural theology is the true God then he is exactly the God we have guessed. Once again, as I did with my prayers, I had invented a “God” according to the philosophers, one who made the God of the Bible unintelligible. The witness of scripture is that the God revealed in Christ is the God we could never have guessed. The cadence of the Gospel According to Mark is measured by the chorus “They were all amazed.” While the “God” we invent is amazing, the amazement is not at “God” but at the ingenuity of Man. Who could be amazed at a “God” who fits inside the heads of men? One begins to wonder whether the men are greater than the “God.” This cannot be the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Learning to Say “God”
So I find that my preaching has all been a discipline in learning to say “God.”1 The god of the philosophers produced impossible prayers. The god of my natural theology produced a god at which I could not stand in the awe appropriate to Jesus, and it produced a Man which was more awful. Bit by bit I am learning to say “God.” Little by little I am learning that to say “God” at all, if I am to tell the truth, is to mean the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To say “God” is to name a God I could never have guessed.  He defines reality.  I must begin with him, and so must my preaching.  I have learned that if I am to tell the truth, and preaching must be true, I cannot know in order to believe. I can only believe in order to know. Credo ut intelligam.2


1. I have intentionally borrowed the phrase “learning to say ‘God'” from Stanley Hauerwas who increasingly influences the way that I think about God and the task of preaching. The phrase comes from his book, Working with Words: On Learning to Speak Christian, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).
2. “I believe in order to understand.” This comes from St. Anselm’s “Proslogium.” St. Anselm, Basic Writings, (La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing, 1992), 53.