William H. Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 122 pp., paper.
The majestic Gothic chapel of Duke University stands as a symbol of tradition, permanenence, and establishment. That said, it is an odd symbol for the Methodist movement, which overtook the American countryside with revivalistic fervor and circuit-riding innovation. The chapel has a distinctly Anglican flavor, though a visitor has the impression that the university community is hardly likely to notice the distinction. The Duke family rests in an adjacent chapel, keeping watch lest the serenity be broken.
In such a temple of aesthetic perfection, William Willimon must appear more an agent provocateur than the court preacher. Not that Duke’s minister to the university lacks the requisite urbanity, polish, or credentials. He comes complete with academic respectability, experience in academia and the parish, and a handful of notable books to his credit. But Willimon stands out because, as he mounts the carved pulpit of Duke Chapel, he actually has something to say.
Peculiar Speech is Willimon’s thirty-third book — a project he reveals “began as a suggestion that grew into an exposition.” It all started with a statement uttered by Walter Brueggemann to the effect that he was tired of sermons “that address no one in particular, least of all those who have been baptized.”
Willimon’s reflection on that complaint spawned Peculiar Speech, and it may just be his most important book to date. “What difference does it make to our preaching,” Willimon asks, “that all of us are there either preparing for baptism or else trying to figure out what happened when we were baptized?”
Modern preaching tends to address itself only to the “general human condition,” avoiding any scandal of particularity or claim to revelation. “Such speaking,” Willimon charges, “is an affront to the dignity of the baptized.”
The Christian congregation is not an assembly of those marked by the “general human condition,” but of those still wet behind the ears from the waters of baptism. That is the central clue to the identity of the church, Willimon insists, and baptism provides the Christian community with a distinctive discourse.
“To speak among the baptized, those who are dying and being raised, is to enter into a world of odd communication and peculiar speech,” Willimon insists, for the peculiar speech is essential to a peculiar people — the church.
At one level, Willimon sounds here like anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who insists that every culture and society is a unique “cultural-linguistic system.” Geertz’s work influenced George Lindbeck, the late Paul Holmer, and other figures at Yale Divinity School, whose “post-liberal” proposals are based in a recovery of a distinctively Christian “grammar” and language.
Willimon just happens to be a graduate of Yale Divinity School, but his proposals in Peculiar Speech are more ecclesially based than those of Holmer and Lindbeck. The roots of the present book can also be traced back to Willimon’s collaborative effort with Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens.
Preaching to the baptized, Willimon argues, means entering a domain of distinctive discourse. “No matter what our style of preaching, there is no way for us preachers to weasel out of the baptismal truth that we preach within a distinctive universe of discourse. We talk funny.”
Human society in general — whatever that is — cannot fathom this strange talk of dying, being buried, and rising with Christ through the waters of baptism. Some may see it as quaint, others as occultic or even dangerous.
Willimon acknowledges the unique context of his university-based pulpit (“We are even more susceptible to the temptation to believe that here at the university we actually know what is the ‘general human condition’.”). Given Duke’s participation in the controversy over “political correctness,” Willimon’s suspicion of his context is well-founded. With deconstructionists in the English department and marxists among the History faculty, one suspects that there are dozens of versions of the “general human condition” afoot. But the problem is hardly limited to the university.
Given the influence of the media culture and the reign of ideologies at every level, the problems are just as pronounced in the local church. The issue, Willimon asserts, is an attempt to justify pulpit language by some external criterion. “Lacking confidence in the power of our story to effect that of which it speaks, to evoke a new people out of nothing, our communication loses its nerve. Nothing is said that could not be heard elsewhere, nobody need die and be raised to assimilate the speech of the Empire or its universities.”
Where is this distinctive discourse rooted? Willimon points to the canon of Scripture as the “norm” of baptismal preaching. Baptismal preaching is, Willimon suggests, preaching what we have been told. “We make visible that our preaching is the result of our having borne the burden of the church’s book. We make clear our authority. This is great grace for us as preachers. Then, when they say they don’t like something we’ve said, we can say, ‘Don’t tell me. It’s not my book. I didn’t call you forth to listen. Don’t complain to me’.”
Willimon warns preachers against the temptation “to go searching for better texts, the canon of Freud, Adam Smith, or Alice Walker.” Lacking the authority of the canon, preaching is destined to founder. Furthermore, Willimon correctly roots the very temptation to find other texts in a “cultural context — usually the therapeutic — other than that of the counter-cultural community called church,” that is, the baptized.
Willimon acknowedges the epistemological biases each interpreter-preacher brings to the biblical text, but that acknowledgement does not lead him into hermeneutical nihilism or an arbitrary assertion of one ideological method’s superiority over others. Instead, he injects the baptism context. The preacher, and the baptized, are already believers and members of a sacred community of meaning. While this does not remove the hermeneutical challenge per se, it does refute the claims of those who reject the very notion of common meaning.
As Willimon told the 1992 National Conference on Preaching, “We have become hermeneutically suspicious about everything but the hermeneutic of suspicion.”
But what makes the baptized community distinct from the notion of “humanity in general”? It is redemption through Jesus Christ and entry into His community. Central to this is repentance, which Willimon takes to be detoxification. “Whatever signing on with Jesus means, it means that we will not do just as we are, that change is demanded, daily, sometimes painful turning and detoxification that does not come naturally.”
That quality of detoxification characterizes those who have been converted; that is, “Preaching is a baptismal act when it asserts that the Christian life is available only to those who submit to dismantling and rebirth, to conversion.” But, Willimon concedes, “Submission is a dirty word in a culture of democratic individualities.”
The preacher is possessed of and possessed by authority, Willimon asserts. In an interesting section, Willimon debunks the assumptions behind Fred Craddock’s proposals in As One Without Authority. The problem, says Willimon, is the notion of freedom explicit in the proposal. This is “freedom of the individual, apart from Scripture or community, to draw his or her own democratic conclusions.”
The fact that Craddock identifies this assumption as “fundamental to the American way of life” hardly solves the problem. “American culture now determines the boundaries of the church’s speech,” Willimon charges. “Indeed, there seems to be no interest here in the power of language to shape culture — all of the traffic is moving in the other direction.”
Willimon does acknowledge that As One Without Authority was one of Craddock’s early books, “an overstated thesis” which moved the homiletical discussion forward.
Baptismal preaching also requires careful attention to the act of baptism. The danger of triviality lurks ever in the baptistry. “Here is power, in water and the word. But what we have up in the chancel is triviality, an affair of cooing babies, grinning parents, droplets from rosebuds, rosey-faced preachers pecking the little darling on the cheek rather than slapping the defiant pagan on the rear.”
Infant baptism, Willimon laments, “led, almost inevitably, to a reduction of rite so that the visible word of washing virtually disappeared from the ritual.” Sprinkling, he adds, “virtually silenced the visible word of the bath.”
Well, we soon wonder, has Willimon joined Karl Barth in a turn away from infant baptism? The answer follows in Willimon’s argument that “it is not so much infant baptism that debilitates the church as indiscriminate baptism.” The church “must not baptize persons, infants or adult, who do not show a willingness (or a potential willingness) to submit to change.”
But what, we may ask, would a “potential willingness” look like? This reviewer is, caveat lector, a Baptist, and therefore prone to find any argument suspect which is founded in a willingness to change, potential or otherwise, on the part of an infant.
Infant baptism is proper, Willimon argues, “if the church is confident that it is able to be the agent of baptismal regeneration in this person’s life.” How can this confidence be achieved, especially in a mobile society with such transitory patterns of church membership and participation?
This “willingness to change” is an inherently Arminian concept, which is to be expected of a churchman in the Wesleyan tradition. But Willimon’s critique of “so-called believer’s baptism” reverses the logic. “Those who baptize only adults sometimes say that they wait until the person ‘knows what it means.’ This rationale owes more to the rationalism of the Enlightenment than to anything biblical.”
Those in the Baptist tradition who wince at this statement have only themselves to blame. Willimon’s critique hurts because his arrow hits the target. Assertions that baptismal candidates are “ready” for baptism by virtue of their understanding are awkward because they are so inherently subjective — thus Willimon’s finger points to the Enlightenment. Baptism is properly reserved for adults as a witness of what God through Christ has done in the life of the believer. Thus, those who practice believer’s baptism and refrain from baptizing infants should properly agree with Willimon that “Images of adoption ought to replace images of decision in the way we talk about baptism.”
Peculiar Speech also includes worthy sections on the church in the world and the political life of the church. Throughout, Willimon lays out his call for the church as a unique community with a distinctive discourse. He rejects the easy refuge of pluralism and the moral relativism of secular society — especially the knowledge class. In a penetrating critique of H. Richard Niebuhr, Willimon rejects the categories made famous in Christ and Culture in favor of a more ecclesial conception.
Three sermons are also included, serving as worthy examples of baptismal preaching.
Peculiar Speech presents a much-needed corrective — a strong dose of gospel as a striking critique of the contemporary church. It may be Willimon’s most important book to date, his jeremiad against the secularization of the church and call to faith for those who have been claimed by the Redeemer.
“We must learn Christianity,” Willimon asserts, “as we learn a foreign language. The task of the Christian preacher is not so much to evoke what is already there, incipient in every human being. The task of preaching is to teach what would not be known before it is announced, to cultivate those insights, means of describing, and vocabulary with which Christians describe the world.”
Willimon’s call is prophetic and timely. This short but significant volume should serve to remind all preachers that they are servants of the church — the baptized ones — and that they, with their congregations, remain within the company of the perpetually damp.

Share This On: