Speech comes naturally to us. When we want to communicate something we piece words together to convey our intent to others. Generally, we don’t give our everyday speech much thought, because we don’t need to. We often approach speaking of God in the same way; we string words together in prayer or discussion, often with little thought about the words themselves. This is not, however, because we do not need to give our speech about God careful thought.
Speaking about God is a serious theological issue that many of us do not even consider. We assume that it’s possible to speak accurately of God because, well, just because. However, when we consider that God is entirely other and transcendent, a problem arises. Can human language even begin to speak of the divine, of God, with any degree of accuracy? Or is it just wild grasping that continually fails to reach His heights?
The problem is a serious one and has huge ramifications for the Church and its people. However to answer it, I think it’s helpful to consider the way we come to understand our own, everyday speech.
While we could explore the formation of abstract concepts like “happiness” let’s stick with something like “red.” How do you define or understand red? Certainly, you could go to the dictionary and find something like this: ” a color at the end of the spectrum next to orange and opposite violet, as of blood, fire, or rubies.” Frankly, the first part of the definition seems of little help. “A color at the end of the spectrum” simply points us to further words that we have to seek to define such as orange, violet, spectrum, etc. But the second half is what we ultimately resort to. We define red by pointing to something and saying, “that is red.” Blood is red. Fire is red. Rubies are red. We point to something and say “there, that’s it.”
Returning now to our question: can we speak of God? Clearly we can see God’s effects in the world and we can describe them, but can we speak of God himself? No one can see God, so we are at an impasse. There is nothing to point to and say “there, that’s it.”
But then, in the midst of our struggle comes God’s wondrous grace, manifested in Christ. I imagine human speech struggling with speaking of God, looking upon Christ, and heaving a huge sigh of relief. Not only does Christ come and deal with sin, but the Incarnation itself radically confronts our inability to speak of God.
No longer is our speech wildly grasping in an attempt to speak of God. Christ comes and we can say, “there, that’s it.” We speak of God’s compassion, and when wondering what it looks like look to Christ taking the hand of the little girl and raising her to life (Mark 5:41). We speak of God’s power, and look to Christ calming a seething storm (Mark 4:35-41). We speak of God’s love and look to Christ hanging on a cross, body broken for our sake. And we say, “there, that’s it.”
All is grace. The Incarnation reminds us that even being able to speak of God is grace. Christ offers us a means of speaking about God as He is. No power of our own enables us to speak of God apart from Christ and God’s wonderful mercy.
May our speech not be thoughtless, but may it be full of gratitude and wonder at the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
To Him be the glory, forever and ever.