Category Archives: Word of God Frames

These are the key biblical passages that frame the research.

Our Story of Dwelling in the Word

The Word of God, as I have described it, and dwelling in every aspect of the Word, was central to the DITB project. Each of the first six RT meetings began with a Dwelling in the Word exercise.[1] We dwelt in John 14:15-24 for the first three sessions, and then dwelt in John 15:1-17 for the last three sessions. One male and one female would read the passage out loud and then we would break into dyads to discuss what we heard in the text. After that we would gather as a large group and everyone would report to the large group what their conversation partner had said. Finally, we would have a large group discussion about what we had heard. This process took at least forty-five minutes of our two-hour session. It was a struggle for some of the team members to see the relevance of the exercise, because (1) it took up almost half of our meeting time, and (2) it did not explicitly contribute anything tangible to the described goals of the group. This was part of our learning process and I will report on that in later sections.

Chapters two and three have provided a theoretical and theological framework for the DITB project. It has become evident that participatory action research was a necessary methodology to pursue the question of how an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity might impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in suburban ELCA congregations. I will now turn my attention, in the next chapter, to the specific methodology and design of this project.

Footnotes

[1] Dwelling in the Word is a specific exercise developed and utilized by Church Innovations. I will describe it more fully in the next section. See Keifert, Testing the Spirits: How Theology Informs the Study of Congregations; Ellison and Keifert, Dwelling in the Word.

The Church is Invited to Listen, Discern, and Follow

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[2] in the Scripture, to dwell in the community, and to dwell in the world.[3]

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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

Footnotes

[1] I introduce the term entangled here as a foreshadowing for a central theme that I will develop more fully in the Trinity Frame. For now, understand entangled as a metaphor borrowed from Quantum Physics. Ernest L. Simmons, The Entangled Trinity: Quantum Physics and Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014); J. C. Polkinghorne, The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub., 2010).

[2] I am intentionally borrowing the term dwelling from the practice of Dwelling in the Word used by Church Innovations. See Keifert, Testing the Spirits: How Theology Informs the Study of Congregations; Pat Taylor Ellison and Patrick Keifert, Dwelling in the Word (St. Paul: Church Innovations Institute, 2011).

[3] See the distinction of community and world below.

[4] See Scharer/Hilberath’s discussion of We and the Globe. The group has its own culture, but the group also exists in the larger culture that shapes it. Scharer, The Practice of Communicative Theology: Introduction to a New Theological Culture.

[5] John encouraged his readers to “test the spirits” to discern which ones are from God (1 John 4:1).

[6] 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 in order 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.

Two Biblical Models for Encountering the Word of God

What is the mission of the church and how does the Word of God relate to that mission? This is an important set of questions for the missional church. A dominant theme in the modern, American church has been one of strategic action. The scripture, according to this framework, is the guide/law book that provides a constitution-like set of principles for how to live life, and demonstrates the plan of salvation (the Gospel) through Jesus. The church is called to take the Gospel to the world by adopting marketing strategies and adopting culturally relevant modes of worship. The leadership style required for this mission is one of courageous vision and strategic action.[1]

I would like to propose that scripture itself offers a different model for the nature and calling of the church. This can be seen in, but not limited to, two examples that can serve as biblical models for our mission today.

The Children of Israel and the Pillar of Cloud and Fire

Moses did not have the written word of God. Moses encountered the Word of God from within the burning bush. God sent Moses to be a prophetic presence before Pharaoh and simply declare, “Let my people go!” This was a declaration of freedom, not a strategic plan of action. Moses waited, listened for God’s voice, then acted as directed, not knowing where it would end up. Eventually the Red Sea parted and the people walked into freedom. Then God led the people with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God did not reveal the plan to Moses, rather God invited Moses and the people to follow.

The key element that propelled the people was the promise that God had made to Abraham centuries before. God had committed to being faithful to this promise and invited the people to follow and trust. Moses’ leadership was one of expectant listening, discerning, facilitating the needs of the people, and being ready to move whenever the cloud lifted.

The Apostle Paul and the Leading of the Holy Spirit

The apostle Paul did have the Scriptures—The Law and the Prophets. Yet, he encountered the Word of God in the person of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. This encounter began a two-fold process of Paul’s interaction with the Word. On one hand, he was challenged to reframe the written word as the Holy Spirit was recontextualizing the Law of Moses and expanding the boundaries of God’s people to include the uncircumcised Jew.[2] On the other hand, Paul encountered the word of God in the direct leading of the Holy Spirit to do and say things that contradicted his received understanding of the written word of God and most-likely contradicted his own plan. This is best exemplified in Acts 16:6-10 when Paul planned to travel to Ephesus but was kept from going there by the Holy Spirit. He traveled, instead, to Troas where he received a vision in a dream to expand his boundaries and go to Macedonia.

Paul was constantly wrestling with the Holy Spirit. He prayed that the thorn would be removed from his side. He was relentlessly pursued by his enemies and often beaten and left for dead. He struggled with his own pride, as demonstrated in his schism with Barnabas. Yet, I believe, this brokenness was necessary for Paul to be able to listen to the Word of God as Paul was invited to listen, discern, facilitate the needs of the people around him, and be ready to move when the Spirit prompted.

Footnotes

[1] It is important to note that this strategic model is the dominant mode of American thinking and the opposite of the model proposed in the missional church conversation. Here I am offering a critique of the strategic action and proposing a listening-following model instead.

[2] David Lose, during a dinner conversation, proposed a compelling thought about Jesus’ use of scripture in his teaching. First of all, Jesus rarely preached from scripture. Secondly, when Jesus did refer to scripture, he almost always challenged it and reframed it. “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” David Lose in a group discussion with the author, July 2014.

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. ((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.)) 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. (( 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).))

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. ((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.)) 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. ((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.))

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. ((Perhaps this is what Paul meant in describing Jesus as the image of the invisible God. (Colossians 1:15ff).)) 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. ((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).))

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. ((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.)) 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. ((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).)) 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. ((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.))