When John the Baptist appeared preaching, he came preaching good news (evangelion). No doubt, for many who heard The Baptist, John’s news did not sound so good. After all, it was good news about repentance. John’s preaching was directed at the children of Abraham, Israel. He spoke within the narrative framework of a people who expected God to intervene, to make their history God’s own, a God who saves.
Our description of preaching as speech among and to the baptized thus fits the depiction of John the Baptist’s preaching at the beginning of the Gospels and Jesus’ preaching in Nazareth in Luke 4. We preach, like John or Jesus, among the family, bringing to speech that which has happened in our baptism.
Yet this depiction sketches the church-world distinction in too neat a dichotomy. The baptized who gather on Sunday are also creatures of the world. We speak (in my congregation) English. We are formed not only by baptism but by a host of other masters. Is not our talk about the distinctiveness of baptismal discourse called into question by the presence of so much of “the world” in the church on Sunday?
Biblical illiteracy, cultural pluralism, all of the linguistic and theological compromises we have made in our church’s interface with the world suggest to some that the best hope for Christian preachers is to find some sort of religious Esperanto, a culturally approved common mode of discourse, a meta-language that frees us from the linguistic bind imposed upon us by having to work with pre-second-century Hebrew and Greek texts.
For more sermons I hear, and too many that I preach, this is exactly what we have done. Biblical apocalyptic is existentialized, biblical prophecy is moralized, biblical narrative is psychologized, all in the interest of enabling our worldly hearers to take us seriously. We hope, we preachers, that there may be some place for us to stand that is not linguistically qualified by baptism, some way for our sermons to make sense apart from a church that makes them make sense.
Baptism makes our claims sound so parochial (literally, tied to the parish), so arrogant in the face of the fact of worldwide religious pluralism. In a dangerously divided world, wouldn’t our time as preachers be better spent in the search for some common universal, linguistic denominator rather than in renewed cultivation of the distinctiveness of Christian discourse? Doesn’t it seem a little bit odd that Christians should persist in defending the superiority of our truth claims in the face of a culture in which there are now more Moslems than Episcopalians? (A particularly devastating observation in a denomination like mine [United Methodist] in which truth appears to be determined by majority vote.)
Should we not at least try to make statements like, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” with a bit more humility, acknowledging that all truth is relative? And isn’t there some way to translate these tough texts so they don’t require our having to submit to conversion? Even to ask the question is to show that we have already been converted to a world that is not Christian.
On Refusing to Take the World as It Is
Behind all these universalizing proposals is the assumption that the “world” is more wide and more public than the church. Church talk is “in house” speech, whereas worldly talk is “public.” Our task as preachers, if we want to be heard by those in the world, is to adjust our parochial, “in house” ecclesial speech to the talk of the “wider world.”
Two Christian ethicists recently argued for a revival of “public theology” by first saying that “All politics and all economics must be conducted under the context-transcending principles of truth, justice, and love.” Then they urge Christians to “reach beyond confessional particularities, exclusive histories and privileged realms of discourse” or Christians will merely “preach to their choirs.” “This agenda for Christian thought requires a ‘public theology,’ a way of speaking about the reality of God and God’s will for the world that is intellectually valid in the market-place of ideas and morally effective in the marketplace of goods and services.”1
It is rather amazing that someone still thinks words like “truth, justice, and love” are “context-transcending principles.” Try talking with a Marxist, a Buddhist, or a Jew about “justice” and you will see what I mean. There is no privileged domain of “public” discourse that will save us from having to define our terms. When we do define them, we will discover that they are not terms that are not context (i.e., story) dependent.
Of course I doubt that these two ethicists really want to talk to Buddhists or to Jews. Their audience, the “public” they long for theology to address in an “intellectually valid” way, is secular, technological, national, economic. They want Christians, Jews, and Buddhists to lay aside our “confessional particularities” and “exclusive histories” in order to be culturally significant in the only valid culture, namely, the secular, nationally determined ones. They name their world as a “marketplace of ideas.” Forgive Christians for wanting to name the world as something other than K-Mart.
The greatest arrogance of contemporary liberal democracy is its arrogant presumption that its values and its language are unconditioned by stories, contexts, and cultures while everyone else’s language is parochial and contextualized. Reference to “truth, justice, and love” are, far from being a way to transcend our nasty particularities of being Christian, Jew, Moslem, or atheist, merely demands that we all submit to conversion into secular, godless, Western liberals before we are allowed to speak.
This theology has not gone public, it has merely capitulated and has been converted by another “theology.” No wonder that when this sort of “public theology” speaks to the “wider world” it is generally ignored. It has gone public in a desperate attempt to speak to a world that can hear what this “public theology” has to say from any number of other sources without having to bother itself with the baggage of residual Christianity. The “public” it addresses is confined to the liberal democracies of the industrialized West.
George Orwell, examining the political power of language, noted that many silly things are uttered in the speech of modern Western intellectuals. Silly things are uttered, to be sure, largely because we have foolish thoughts — “But the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Orwell complained that “as soon as certain topics are raised [like religion, economics, or politics?], the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think.”2 Most good preachers know the stifling smog that hovers over a congregation when abstractions like “truth, justice, and love” flow from the pulpit.
So Stackhouse and McCann urge us to “rediscover these resources” within “Protestant and Catholic communities of faith” or else be relegated to “irrelevance” (p. 47). I daresay that the gospel demands to be considerably more than a mere “resource” to keep Western culture afloat. Besides, if we Christians really do have something to offer for the good of the culture, why then must the culture silence us as Christians? Why cannot the gospel and its claims be every bit as “intellectually valid” as capitalism?
By speaking in terms of “public theology” and the “wider world,” we have set up the problem in such a way as to suggest that Christian communicators have two options: (1) content ourselves with “in house” speech among the baptized cognoscenti (“preaching to the choir”); or (2) find some new language that will enable us to be understood in the “marketplace of ideas” by the “wider” world. Yet the wider world, as John Yoder reminds us in The Priestly Kingdom, is still a small place which speaks only one language at a time.3
All language is “in house” speech. That which we privilege with the name “wider society” is not the universe. No language transcends its communal particularity, even though its particular community enables it to use words like “universal,” “humanity,” “justice,” and so on. When a preacher disposes of baptismal speech in favor of psychological speech (Robert Schuller’s “Be Happy Attitudes” or “Self-Esteem”), or secular politicized speech (mainline Protestantism’s “Peace with Justice”), the preacher has not thereby transcended the community-bound nature of language. The preacher has merely moved, in speech, from one community to another.
So back to our initial homiletical concern. How can the particular, narratively and ecclesially conditioned truths of the baptismal community be proclaimed in a public world that does not share those truths?
Fortunately, the question is an old one, at least as old as the New Testament. The church came into being as a message that had to be carried from one community to another. Born in tiny Aramaic communities, in less than two centuries after its birth in Judaea, the church’s peculiar brand of messianism was flourishing in Rome. Moving rapidly from the insular, persecuted, occupied culture of Judaea, the good news had caused enough havoc in pluralistic Rome to merit official persecution. Christians were persecuted by the otherwise tolerant and pluralistic Romans because Rome had the good sense to recognize in this new Judaean splinter group a threat to the religious status quo of the Empire. If these Christians could have been linguistically assimilated, then they would not have needed to be murdered.
Christian communicators readily used the Greek language that was available to them. Yet they did not accept the cosmology, the world which Greek language conventionally described. The language was seized and used for a very different message in order to construe for the hearers a very different world. I have no way of substantiating that claim other than through a story:
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to he there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religous you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, 1 found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him — though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’
Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.
When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed, but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. (Acts 17:16-34).
The paradigmatic instance of Christian speaking in public is Luke’s story of Paul on the Areopagus in Acts 17:16-34. By this point in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, we have seen the power of the gospel to reach rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. But can the gospel hold its own in the sophisticated intellectual environment of a university town? Luke takes Paul to Athens, to the heart of the very best of pagan culture, the town of Pericles and Plato.4
Frankly, Paul is unimpressed. The sculptures of Phidias move him not. Good Jew that he is, Paul sees Athens as little more than a wasteland “full of idols” (v. 17:16). He argues with Jews, Epicureans, and Stoics, even those who look down their academic noses at this “babbler” (v. 18). Here is obviously a very public communicator, this Paul, a preacher who is quite eager to argue with anyone in whatever world he finds himself. Others, after much research and careful investigation, come to the stunning discovery that “he seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities” (v. 18), perhaps thinking to absorb whatever new gods Paul brings into their polytheistic pantheon of exotic gods (crypto-pluralism!). After all, they are not closed minded.
Paul pursues their legendary Athenian curiosity into the Areopagus where the Athenians spent their days doing what intellectuals enjoy — relieving their boredom by searching for new ideas. Despite the fact that Luke spends much of his time in Luke/Acts demonstrating that Jesus, as the fulfillment of the promises made to Israel, is anything but new, for the Athenians Jesus’ noveltry attracts their attention more quickly than truth. The pluralism inherent in paganism appears to have a virtually limitless ability to absorb all ideas and conflicting belief systems into itself, baptizing all truth claims on the basis that all truth is new, relative, and therefore to be tolerated as personal opinion rather than fact.
The Athenian setting gives Luke an opportunity for a demonstration of the possibilities and pitfalls of an evangelistic appeal to Christianity’s cultured despisers, the alleged “wider world.” Here is the only speech in the book of Acts made to Gentiles by the missionary to the Gentiles (who seems otherwise to prefer debating texts with Jews). In a well-constructed piece of classical rhetoric, Paul, portrayed here by Luke as a virtual Christian Socrates, first flatters his audience (vv. 22-23). Idolaters they may be, but at least they are searching, at least their impulse to worship is right even if the objects of their worship are wrong. He has seen their altar to “an unknown god” (v. 23). Their religious yearning, even though a bit of a scandal to a monotheistic Jew, is the inarticulate and uninformed yearning of the pagan for the God that only the Scriptures can disclose.
Or is Paul mocking the Athenians here? When Paul tells them that he perceives that they are “extremely religious,” does he mean this as compliment or as criticism? Through-out Acts, Gentiles are shown to be incurably religious. That is, a Gentile will worship anything — gold, silver, sex, wood, the military, money — if given half a chance to worship something. (When Cornelius meets Peter in Acts 10:25, he tries to worship Peter. When Paul and Barnabas heal a man at Lystra, the whole town names them as gods and tries to worship them [Acts 14:8-20]. Gentiles are very religious.) Good Jew that he is, Paul knows that our chief human problem is not atheism but idolatry. We are all “extremely religious.” Idolatry comes to us quite naturally.
We hear echoes at this point of Paul’s reflection upon the pilgrimage of pagans to the Christ that he records in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10. Appealing to the Athenians’ knowledge of creation (for he could not simply recite Scripture to pagans who were ignorant of Scripture) and to our common humanity, Paul asserts that his great God “made the world and everything in it” (v. 24). This great God cannot be captured in “shrines made by human hands” (v. 24) but exists over the face of the whole earth that we all might find our true purpose in his service alone (vv. 28-29). Until now, pagan ignorance was overlooked, but now is the time to turn toward the one true God who has not only created the in-habitants of the world but also shall judge them (v. 31). In this reasoning from the natural world toward faith in God, Luke’s Paul borders upon a “natural theology” — our observation of the natural world and its wonders is a forerunner of faith.
How can people look up at the stars, or ponder the mysteries of life in the world without imagining a real, though still unknown divine force behind it all? In citing the verses of a pagan poet (v. 28), in drawing upon the pagan’s experience of the world, Paul hopes to move them toward faith by way of the natural world. (Although elsewhere Paul used natural theology not to appeal to pagans, but to condemn pagan sinfulness — Romans 1:18).
Yet Paul cannot convert his audience through an appeal to their observation of the world. Paul’s claims are more confrontal and subversive than they first appear. Little in classical paganism (other than late Roman cynicism) justifies an assault upon the gods. Revelation takes us where observation alone cannot go. Too many people look at growing grass and see only cells dividing, or into the sky and see bits of matter and swirling balls of gas. Natural theology is no more than preliminary instruction. Something else is needed.
Paul asserts the resurrection — a fact completely contrary to our observation of the way the world works. In nature, things die, decay, decline. Death is death. What is done is done, over and finished, ended. Yet Paul concludes his speech with the assertion that, for Christians, the resurrection of Jesus is our “assurance.” Not grass growing in spring, the return of the robin, the opening of the cocoon, or any other naturalistic drivel; the resurrection, something beyond the natural, is the final assurance that this one is “Lord of heaven and earth” (17:24).
In mentioning the judgment and the resurrection, Paul risks rejection by his audience. They may agree to a created world and to our common humanity, but there is no possible “natural theology” evidence for an assertion of the resurrection. There is no evidence that our actions shall be judged by an authority higher than our own opinions. His assertion of judgment may even be a more radical claim than his assertion of the resurrection. Appeals to reason and to observation of the natural world are risky in the proclamation of the gospel. Eventually revelation must be invoked and the scandal of faith both to pagan reason and pagan experience must be made plain. Of course, it is not that Paul denies the value of both “reason” and “experience.” It is rather that Paul asserts some very un-pagan definitions of reason and experience.
The response to Paul’s address is much the same as he encountered elsewhere: some mocked (v. 32), others believed (v. 34), including two Athenian nobles and a woman (what kind of community is this that remembers a woman’s name?).
Christian proclamation is not to be judged merely by its success in winning an approving response. Where the Word is faithfully preached, some believe, some mock. Even Paul’s oratorical skill cannot remove the offense of the gospel — in fact, it accentuates it.
Calvin charged that “the human mind is a perpetual factory for idols.” Idolatry is not necessarily the pastime of the ignorant and the simple. Intellectuals play quite well at this game. Natural inquisitiveness and delights in the novel and the strange, so prevalent in the academy, can be little more than the itch for some new graven image.
The God whom Paul proclaims is not just another option for human devotion, not a pluralistic God content to be one among many. The God who sent the Christ is still the Holy One of Israel, a jealous deity without rivals, an exclusive lover who tolerates no competition — money, sex, philosophical ideals, institutions — who fiercely judges all idols made by human hands or minds. Christian speakers do not just massage the world as we find it. We create a new world.
This excerpt is taken from Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized by William H. Willimon. (c) 1992 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI. Used by permission.
1. Max L. Stackhouse and Dennis P. McCann, “Public Theology after the Collapse of Socialism.” The Christian Century, Jan. 16, 1991, p. 45.
2. George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” in Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1945), pp. 28, 29.
3. John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), chap. 2.
4. See my Acts in the series Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox, 1988), pp. 142-44.

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