A Missional Engagement with the Word of God

The church is invited to listen, discern, and follow, not decide, plan, and act

It is with these two models in mind that I would like to propose what a missional engagement with the Word of God might be. We encounter the Word of God in three ways: in scripture, in communication, and in the world. We are then invited to listen to this word, discern the voice of God from the voices that move contrary to God, tend to the community, and be ready to move when the Spirit moves.

The three forms in which the Word of God speaks are not distinctive, separate modes, but are interdependent media that are at once separate and definable while also entangled and interdependent.1 It is helpful, albeit somewhat artificial, to address them separately. We are called to Dwell in the Scripture, to Dwell in the Community, and to Dwell in the World.2

The Trinitarian Essence of the Word of God

I must present a preamble to the discussion of the three modes of dwelling by addressing the Trinitarian essence of the Word of God. The Trinity is a key frame to my research and to the posing of the question. I will elaborate on my Trinitarian perspective later. For now, I will name the three persons of the Trinity, in this discussion of the Word of God, as they relate to the communication of the Word.3 The three persons of the Trinity may be named as the Author, the Symbol, and the Medium. Inherent in communication is that there is a two-way process happening between conversation partners. As the saying goes, “it takes two to tango.” If we are receiving a message from God, then God is, at some level, other than us. God the Author is the source of the Word, the initiator of the message being communicated, and that which is other in the conversation.  However, any communication requires a symbolic system to convey meaning, and a medium of communication.4

The symbols of human communication are: language, non-verbal bodily gestures, and images which can all be variously communicated through sound and light waves. Communication is an embodied, physical process. God the Symbol is the Word of God embodied, primarily in the person of Jesus Christ, but also in the physicality of communication itself. The Word of the Author is communicated through various forms of physical media throughout scripture—the burning bush, direct audible speech, visions, dreams, the voice of the prophet, the written word, etc—and is still communicated in this way today. The purpose for the incarnation of God the Symbol was to articulate clearly the intent of the Author and the essence of God, which is the other-oriented love for the world and the mutual indwelling of all things with God.5 Without the articulation of God the Symbol we would be left with vague notions of the Author’s intent. Yet, we must acknowledge that every symbol is not the idea itself. There is room for interpretation within the perceiver of the symbol and the invisible idea will always remain shrouded in some form of mystery. To engage with the symbol is to encounter the nearness and the distance of the Author, yet, without the symbol we have no access to the author.6

The world is full of communication and the data being communicated are increasing at an exponential rate in our digital culture. The challenge to the one who would dwell in the Word of God is to discern which communication is from the Author and which is not. God the Medium—the Advocate, the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit—is God at work in, with, under, against, and for creation to assist us in discerning the Word of God from a word that is contrary to God’s ways. I believe this is what the apostle John meant in 1 John 2 when he said that many antichrists had gone out from among them. He identified the liars as those who denied that Jesus is the Christ and that Jesus—the Son—is in a mutually indwelling relationship with the Father, thus making Jesus God.7 John continued to encourage his readers that they had the anointing to teach them how to discern the false teaching from the message of the Author. (1John 2:18-29) In this passage we see how the Spirit is intrinsically connected to the Author and the Symbol. Without the Spirit to mediate the truth and empower us to see/know the risen Jesus, then we are not able to discern the message of God and follow God’s leading.

We must keep the three persons of the Trinity in mind as we investigate the three modes of Dwelling in the Word of God. The Author, Symbol, and Medium are each present in all three, but they are, perhaps experienced in slightly different ways within each mode.

Dwelling in the Scripture

I have already stated that the canon of scripture is the accurate and honest record of particular people making sense out of their particular encounters with the presence and movements of God within their own context. These stories, as they are retold throughout the generations, are formative and unitive for the gathered body of believers. The biblical narrative displays a panorama of God’s creative and liberative promise as it moves from the incarnation of the Word in the symbol of the Exodus story to the incarnation of the Word in the symbol of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. This panorama creates a substantive pattern of God’s creative, liberative movement throughout history. Each generation since the closing of the canon is invited to engage the narrative, meet the Word of God behind the text, in front of the text, within the text, and through the text, to discern and appropriate the Word and movement of the Spirit in its own context.

Dwelling in the Community

I am playing with the word community. I mean it in three senses. First, it is the gathered body of believers that we call the church. Secondly, it is the broader community—the physical neighborhood and the relational networks that include all people with which the church is engaged in everyday life—in which the church finds itself. Third, I mean it in the philosophical sense of the communicative process itself. The Word of God is experienced in the communication of human beings with one another. Human communication is a difficult process wrought with equal parts intimacy and agony. The important point here is to, perhaps, expand the typical understanding of the church’s relationship to the Word. We often imagine that the Word of God only exists within the church and within certain “holy” forms of communication, e.g. liturgy, catechesis, the eucharist, etc. It is important for the missional church to imagine that the Author speaks everywhere, at all times, and that through the physical media of the Community (in the tri-fold meaning that I have presented) the Spirit can help to illuminate God’s Word in this medium.

Dwelling in the World

I have nuanced the use of the term World from Community. Some may argue that to dwell in the Community, as I expressed above, is the same as dwelling in the World. The World, they would argue, is simply the sum of all human Community. This is true, but my point for distinguishing the World from the Community has to do with power structures. It is one thing to have embodied communication with other human beings in the adjacent community. It is another thing to have a relationship with the powerful movements of sociological structures like economics and politics. We, as individuals and small communities, often watch in helpless awe as the events of the world unfold like gods and demigods wrestling in the cosmos. The power structures that rule this world—what the apostle Paul called the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12)—are spiritual forces that can either move with or against the movements of God. It is important for the church to be able to discern, through the illumination of the Spirit, what is from the Author and through the Medium and what is contrary to the rhythm of the Trinity.8 It is also important for the church to remember the apostle Paul’s words that these power struggles are not against flesh and blood. When we dwell in the Community we dwell with people. We love people and find the person of peace to listen and receive. When we dwell in the World we stand in solidarity with those being oppressed by the evil power structures that threaten the peaceful rhythm of God.9

Footnotes
  1. here, again, we see the relational ontology and the theory of superposition and entanglement providing a helpful metaphor to discuss how particular parts are not mutually exclusive and separate entities, but are interdependent particularities. []
  2. I am intentionally borrowing the term Dwelling from the practice of Dwelling in the Word used by Church Innovations. See Pat Taylor Ellison and Patrick Keifert, Dwelling in the Word (St. Paul: Church Innovations Institute, 2011), or Patrick Keifert, ed., Testing the Spirits (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009). []
  3. This taxonomy is not one that I have read anywhere, but I am not claiming to be the first to name it. It follows the pattern of Augustine who drew several analogies/metaphors from the human experience to discuss the relationality of the Triune persons. All of these metaphors fall painfully short, and are categorically unable, to describe or define the Triune Relationality. Here I am simply attempting to use the metaphor of human communication to frame the Triune relationality as the Word of God. []
  4. In my first attempt at this taxonomy I named the second person as the Medium and the third person as the Illuminator. Then I realized that the illuminator was not necessarily inherently present in the Word, but stood outside of the Word. I did this in recognition of our need for the Spirit’s illumination to discern the Word of God. However, upon further reflection, I realized that the incarnation was the symbol itself and that the Medium—that in which the symbol is conveyed, like linseed oil for pigment, or air for sound waves—is the work of the Spirit. []
  5. Perhaps this is what Paul meant in describing Jesus as the image of the invisible God. (Colossians 1:15ff). []
  6. John refers to the necessity of the Son to know the Father repeatedly. Jesus said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” (John 14:1-14; 1 John 2:18-29). []
  7. I intentionally try to minimize my use of gender specific terms for God. However, when referring to specific biblical texts I will be true to the textual witness. While I believe there has been great negative consequences to the masculinist genes language of the Father/Son relationship, it is also important that we not lose sight of the familial relationality inherent in the symbol and the message of faithfulness most probably intended by its use. []
  8. John encouraged his readers to “Test the Spirits” to discern which one are from God. (1 John 4:1) see Patrick R. Keifert, Testing the Spirits: How Theology Informs the Study of Congregations (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2009). []
  9. This is a bold statement that implies a certain flavor of liberation theology. The liberation hermeneutic reads all contexts through the assumption that God always stands with the oppressed to defy the destructive forces of the oppressor. The face of the Oppressor and the Oppressed changes with each context and each generation. Ironically, the face of the Oppressor in one generation can be the Oppressed in the next, or—even more complex—the face of the Oppressed in one context may be the face of the Oppressor in another cotemporal context. []