"Peculiar Speech" by William Willimon

Michael S. Horton
Monday, August 6th 2007
Mar/Apr 1997

"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."

Just to show you that a Calvinist can quote a Methodist with profit, I'm going one step further by recommending this excellent, eminently readable little book. Duke professor William Willimon wonders why we are so obsessed with "translating" the Christian message as if it were not capable of doing its job in its own right. While his own background is liberal Methodism, Willimon is convinced that evangelicals have "out-liberaled the liberals," substituting the language of politics, therapy, and other cultural dialects for Word and Sacrament ministry.

"Most people are under the impression that we preach what's on our mind," he writes. They say, 'Well, he's often a bag of hot air, but he visited Mama this week in the hospital, so we allow him thirty minutes to vent his political opinions each week in exchange for his being so nice.'" Hardly limited to liberal preaching, Willimon complains, "Most of the preaching I hear and too much that I do attempts to build upon 'common human experience.' 'Are you depressed? Everyone is depressed at one time or another. Down in the dumps. There is a story of someone who was down in the dumps, in the pit, so to speak. His name was Joseph. He was thrown into a pit. What did he do? That is the theme of my sermon.'"

But far from satisfying himself with critique, Willimon provides a clear alternative, suggesting that preaching is "baptismal speech" and "baptismal repentance." It is not primarily geared to the world, whether in terms of reaching "seekers" or "translating" the Bible into something that will actually be practical and helpful for the daily lives of believers. This is to subvert the text by demanding that our own experience judge Scripture rather than vice versa. If we really want to have a religious experience that will shake us up (and who really does?), we must recover our recognition that preaching Scripture is nothing less than God's radical confrontation with his baptized community, killing and making alive. Nothing in the Gospel comes to us naturally, Willimon insists. On the contrary, we naturally think the very opposite, of both ourselves and God, not to mention the world.

Unbelievers who hear this kind of preaching have more of a chance of actually becoming Christians than in services that seek to "translate" the Bible for them in ways that evade the subversive nature of divine speech. It is political preaching in the sense that through it God is creating his polis, his new society in Christ, not merely nodding to secular ideology, using God for essentially worldly aims.

Willimon's suggestions grew out of sermons that grew out of lectures. It can be read easily in a single sitting, but its simple wisdom is profound and practical in the best sense of the word. For those looking for a brief summons with practical suggestions in this matter, Peculiar Speech will be quite helpful. As Willimon says it, "Biblical language has shown, time and time again, that it has power, like the sacrament of baptism itself, to evoke that of which it speaks. The Bible is able to create, re-create the people it desires. The sacraments have 'the same office as the Word of God,' says Calvin, 'to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace.'"

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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Monday, August 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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