Theological Reflections on Writing

Theology:  A Mysterious Vocation of Speaking

Writing, Reading, Speaking and Listening—those of us blessed with literacy do these tasks every day. Communication is integral to being human, and it is for this reason—the fact that speech is basic to our nature—that we take it for granted. But it did not have to be so. God created a host of illiterate beauties before he formed the first humans.

And then, having been made like God, in his image, we could not help but speak, and in our speech give further definition to the world God had made, naming animals and one another, composing songs and prayers, displaying the creativity and rationality of the God whose nature we reflect. Here, in God’s very good creation, is where we must begin to think about what it means for us to think, learn, speak, and write.

Human speech, like human knowledge, is a great mystery. Despite our exalted status, we are finite creatures with limited, fallible knowledge. Even before humanity fell into the darkness of sin—with all of its confounding and blinding effects upon our ability to know and speak rightly about God and the world—the words of Isaiah were profoundly true: “My thoughts are not your thoughts” (Is 55:8). Human thoughts and words, whether spoken or written, are therefore sub-ultimate, less than adequate to comprehend and describe creation or the Creator (cf. Deut 29:29). Yet God’s intention is that his thoughts Theological Reflections on Writingwould become our thoughts—that our minds, hearts, and words might be renewed according to his saving Word, that we might know something of the glorious things of God, “things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard and which have not entered into the heart of man,” but which God has nevertheless revealed to us  by the Spirit (1Cor 2:9-10).

With this revelation of the mysterious, God has spoken to us. A conversation has been initiated, and we, finite creatures before the infinite God, are called to respond, to approach him with the humble words of human speech: “Sing praises to the Lord who dwells in Zion; declare among the peoples his deeds” (Ps 9:11). We may rightly feel inadequate to speak about this God, and yet we are bound by our nature to bear witness. We can and must consider, speak, and write about the unsearchable and unspeakable God. And this is a great but wonderful mystery.  

Written Theology in God’s Plan

Clearly, therefore, speaking about God and his world is a task that is basic to humanity’s identity as the image of God. If this were all that could be said about human speech, it would be no small thing. But there is more to say.  God has chosen to elevate the humble faculty of human speech to a level of lasting significance by superintending the revelation of His plan for redemption, and the setting of the very words of salvation, in human language.

Through writing and preaching and oral tradition, the world has learned of Abraham and Israel, of David and Isaiah. And when the fullness of time had come, it was infulfillment of the writings of the Old Testament that Jesus of Nazareth disclosed his identity and mission (Matt 5:17; Lk 4:17-21, 24:44ff; Heb 10:7). As startling as it may be that Jesus himself left no writings—he simply is the Word (Jn 1:1)—Jesus promised that his gospel would be carried forward in the ministry of the apostolic church by the special power of the Holy Spirit (Lk 24:47-49; Acts 1:8; Jn 14:16-19, 26). Thus, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ words promise an ongoing reliability of the gospel message in the testimony of his church. As this authoritative testimony assumed written form in the writings of the New Testament, the church became a community whose identity, like that of Israel, was intimately bound to a written word from God.

But the story has not stopped with the writing of the New Testament. Since its inception, the church has been studying the “holy writings” (cf. Rom 1:2) in an attempt to understand difficult questions of faith (cf. 2Pet 3:16) and to sort out the treasures of the kingdom of God (Matt 13:52). Throughout this history the written word has been essential. From Irenaeus to Aquinas to Luther and Calvin and up to the present day, writing has been the principal means by which theologians have wrestled with the church’s understanding of its identity and its message.

Without writing, church history could not have developed as it has. Consider the significance of writing. The whole world depends on books! Consider also the potential impact of a single writer. Aristotle, Shakespeare, Newton, and Calvin were individuals who lived and died, and yet their writings have shaped history. Countless other names have made a lasting impact on the lives and thoughts of individuals and communities through the ages. The potential impact of a single writer should therefore not be underestimated, nor should a writer publish his thoughts without careful reflection.

The Responsibility of Christian Writers

Because of the great potential to influence others, a serious responsibility rests on the shoulders of those who write. All writers, whether they realize it or not, are speaking about God and his world. An untrue telling of a story or a misrepresentation of a person or idea amounts to a false witness about God’s world. Moreover, because of the static, lasting nature of written words, the potential for damage by untrue or malicious writing is as real as the possibility of liberation through the truth. Writers, like preachers, exercise tremendous influence over the imagination, conscience, thought, and hope of those who read their words. Through writing people are converted, faith is lost or strengthened, error is avoided or propounded, and the sheep of the church are fed, guarded, deceived, or abused. It is perhaps for these reasons that the New Testament gives such stern commands about careful, godly speech:

If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. (James 1:26)

But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matt 12:36-37)

Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God. (1Pet. 4:11)

Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person. (Col 4:6)

Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. (Eph 4:29)

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves (Phil 2:3)

Theological Reflections on WritingFor the Christian, writing must be an act of speaking truthfully about God and the world in service to the reader. It is a task to be taken up with reverence and sobriety, in humble recognition of the writer’s own limitations and in prayerful dependence upon the Holy Spirit.

And while the writer should strive for his or her work to be of the greatest service to readers in the church and the world, it is worth remembering that even the most inspired human cannot say everything (Jn 21:25). The final word on every subject is known and written by God alone:

And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds (Rev 20:12).