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James K. A. Smith: Speech and Theology

Smith illustrates his complex thesis by retrieving the theological language of Augustine. This section also contains a number of images which help illustrate the intricate subject matter. Augustine grappled with language as an expression of the divine mystery and of his own self. In order to articulate that which is incommensurate with language, he found a literary and aesthetic basis in his confessions. The language of “confession” became the linguistic vehicle that allowed him to indicate the ineffable mystery of his own soul to others yet without full disclosure of himself. What Smith proposes is a language that bears witness without divulging the secret—a speaking which neither compromises nor obliterates the incommensurate. He finds the solution to the problem of speaking about God in God’s own solution to the problem in the Incarnation, which functions as a paradigm for the operation of theological language. The radical nature of Smith’s thesis is the argument that a Christian theology is possible only on the basis of a radically incarnational philosophy. In turn, the Christian theology of the Incarnation can then form the basis for a general philosophy of language.

The reader may wonder if contemporary phenomenology does not introduce a problem that is unknown to the theology of the Scriptures. A closer examination of the biblical texts concerning the question of language comes remarkably short in Smith’s treatise. Such a biblical theology might reveal that despite the incommensurable difference between God and humankind, the latter is never reduced to silence, even when the words spoken have nothing other to say than that little can be said that does justice to the mystery of God. Furthermore, the disciples of Jesus are compelled to speak of what they saw and heard (see Acts 4:20) not only because of their experience of the incarnate Son of God but, more directly, as a result of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In this sense, Smith’s remarkable treatise could be supplemented by an examination of the relationship between the logic of the Incarnation and the dynamic of the Holy Spirit. This pneumatological perspective would open up an important area of theology not yet accessed by the Radical Orthodoxy project.

Reviewed by Wolfgang Vondey

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Category: In Depth, Winter 2005

About the Author: Wolfgang Vondey, Ph.D. (Marquette University) and M.Div. (Church of God Theological Seminary), is Reader in Contemporary Christianity and Pentecostal Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK. He is an ordained minister with the Church of God (Cleveland, TN). His research focuses on ecclesiology, pneumatology, theological method, and the intersection of theology and science.

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