Ministry as the Cultivation of Language
The church is given the task of continually speaking the gospel anew though with continual reliance upon the normative and formative pressure of the Bible. Church ministers have a particular obligation in fulfilling this task. Their speech guides the speech of the congregation. Preaching, teaching, counseling, writing – all these things ministers do play a part in cultivating the language in which the people in that community will learn to think and speak about the Word.
Ministry of the Word is often thought to have the job of making the truths of Christ relevant to the audience, translating inert concepts into vibrant language that will gain an audience. There is a serious danger here, however, that Christ isn’t being given his whole place as an active minister of his own gospel by his Spirit. Christ is already inherently relevant; he is God having made himself relevant to humanity by becoming human. Ministers do not make Christ relevant but rather testify to his relevance for all of us. And God has already translated his own truth into human language in the speaking ministry of Christ. Ministers testify to Christ using language reflective of and in fact derived from Christ’s own self testimony.
Christ spoke of himself in terms of God’s covenant with Israel, of himself as their Messiah, their Savior, as a sacrifice for sin in keeping with their liturgy, accomplishing justification, sanctification, reconciliation, resurrection and glorification on our behalf, calling for repentance from sin and obedience to and reliance on the Father. He spoke of himself as the Son of the Father and making us sons and daughters of the Father along with him by sharing with us his Spirit. These are the ways Christ spoke of himself and so these ways of speaking are important.
Christ’s use of these terms in communicating himself and training his apostles to extend that communication sanctifies this language, setting it apart as anointed creaturely means of mediating knowledge of God to us. These words and the larger linguistic connections they are a part of are therefore indispensable for Christian faith, for thinking about the God Christ mediates to us in ways appropriate to him. They hold a permanent place in the thinking and speaking of the church; the church would not be the church without them. In their use in communicating the substance of Christian faith they apply pressure on our minds that gives our thinking a particular shape.
The minister’s job then is to cultivate the church’s language so that these sanctified forms of speech continue to exert their influence. This task must navigate between two polar dangers. On the one side, overuse and lack of concentrated attention to certain terms and phrases (“salvation”, “grace”, “repentance”, “sin”, “God”, etc) can empty them of their power to shape our thinking. They become mere sounds that we make, passwords to sanctimony. This is usually called “Christianese”.
On the other pole, the danger is that in an effort to protect against the danger of Christianese a pastor will seek to minimize as far as they can all use of the kinds of words and phrases found only in Scripture or Christian culture. There is something commendable here, the desire to “meet people where they’re at” and “engage culture” – in fact, lets call this approach “EngagingCulturese” – but something quite important is often missing here as well.
The question of the relationship between words and the things words speak of has occupied philosophers since at least the time of Plato (I just read his dialogue Cratylus this past week and could see how it has led to so much further reflection). EngagingCulturese assumes that the relationship between words and things is merely conventional – it doesn’t matter what you call something as long as those you are communicating with know what you’re talking about – and therefore we are free to translate the truths of gospel into language our surrounding culture is comfortable with. The problem here is that this approach will necessarily leave that culture unchanged. If the criterion for engaging with culture well is that you speak in ways that culture easily understands, then you eliminate the possibility of introducing anything new into that culture.
Christ came into his own culture speaking in a way that engaged his culture precisely because it challenged it. He spoke a new word, the Word he is, one that his hearers could understand but at the same time challenged and stretched their understanding. The words he used and his peculiar use of them was a part of that challenge and a part of the deposit of faith he handed on to his apostles.
Part of the minister’s job then is to intentionally use the set of words, phrases and larger patterns of language the gospel comes to us through in such a way that they preserve their power to shape our thinking. We shouldn’t be embarrassed of the strangeness of biblical and theological language; we should seek to preserve that strangeness so that the perpetual strangeness of the gospel itself, of Jesus himself as the righteous man and incarnate God, is perpetually present in the minds of the flock.