Talking about “God” in a Protestant way

How can Protestants talk about God? I was confronted with this question in the context of a working group of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe, which dealt with the topic of "Christian speaking of God".

The results of our work have yet to be included in the General Assembly, but they give me the opportunity - at least for me - to clarify once again what this speech is all about and how Protestantism can reflect its contours.

The precondition

"God" is not a neutral word. It does not denote a general reality. Nor is it a word that Protestantism - or Christianity in general - has a monopoly on. When Protestants want to speak of "God", they are therefore confronted from the outset with ways of speaking that elude them. This begins with their own use of the word.

Within the spectrum of Christianity, Protestantism emphasizes certain aspects more than others: the centrality of the moment of faith in qualifying the relationship with God, the primacy of God's actions over the actions of believers, the privilege accorded to the Holy Scriptures as Medium for the articulation of the speech of "God", etc.

An important aspect of this tradition is the way in which it has staked out the space for the argument about "God": There are (i) what the Church, as an organized and visible form of the community of believers, says about "God" (e.g. in the form of texts such as the Apostolicum, dogmas, creeds, etc.). Today, this also takes place at the level of public and media communication); (ii) what theology - as a reflective instance of the church - says about "God"; (iii) what the person and the local community say about "God" from their own faith perspective (one could also say: from their faith experience). I adopt this distinction from Frank Mathwig(Spiegelgötter, § 2). What the church, theology and the person say about "God" can overlap, but does not necessarily have to. In other words, these different instances of expression must be able to disagree and remain at odds with each other about the way in which they think they should speak about "God" while continuing to participate legitimately in the Protestant discourse on "God".

Priority of performance

From a Protestant perspective, every communication about "God" is first and foremost an address to God: a prayer. This prayer can take an inarticulate form: that of a cry. The cry in which both God and the human person arise. "The beginning of the new humanity is not God, but the cry for God" (Gérard Siegwalt, La réinvention du nom de Dieu, p. 18 - in reference to Genesis 4:26). "God" is stammered, whispered, exclaimed - "My God!", as Jean-Luc Nancy meditates. In this prayer without words - apart from The Word - the divine service also begins, i.e. the struggle for the appearance of what this word signifies. This is the first theology: theologia prima. The real question is whether or not the person risking a theo-logy persists in this first out- and invocation. This risk is all the greater as they themselves (as a person) and God (in person?) are at stake, that the existence of both is - so to speak - being tested. "God proves himself by testing himself" (Siegwalt, p. 151).

For Protestantism - and Christianity in general (and it is not alone in this) - this insistence has turned into trust . The cry is answered in the form of a promise: "Jesus Christ" (Philippians 2:9), the consistent continuation of God's commitment to Israel. "I will be your God and you shall be my people" (Leviticus 26:12). The transformation of the primal scream into a trusting cry comes from the fact that in one way or another "Jesus Christ" was spoken and heard (Romans 10:17).

The Trinitarian doxology is the constantly renewed attempt to keep this promise open and to persevere in the trust that corresponds to it. "Who or in whom is believed in the Christian faith is the prerequisite for determining what is believed in the Christian faith. [...] The statement of God's identity cannot therefore be detached from the relationship that God creates by promising his identity and thus enabling believers to confess and address him in his identity." God, who responds to "God", is not alone, not without us, not without others, even if he therefore cannot be identified with us. The difference remains. But this sentence belongs to a second stage, a reflection that attempts to grasp under a semantic order what is initially a hopeful salutation: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all!" (2 Corinthians 13:13).

Critical reflexivity

The trust that comes from hearing the promise is a liberation that always threatens to become its reversal: Stifling of the cry and free prayer. There is a second-order theo-logy that tries to grasp in advance what has been said in "God", to assign it a place and an order, to reduce its shattering effect (if possible) to the point of its complete solidification. "Theology as ideology, i.e. a totalitarian construction of what is seen as 'The One and Only Theology' that does not allow for discussion or challenge from different perspectives." A construct in which "God" can become an instrument of torture: a name for the destruction of body and mind.

Every theo-logy is precarious. A theo-logy that immunizes itself against any questioning has silenced God from the outset and makes prayer and worship impossible. The Protestant tradition comes from there, has fought against this immunization and participated in it. Talking about "God" in a Protestant way means anchoring the questioning not only in theory - which sentences such as "God is beyond 'God'" or Karl Barth's famous formula of the impossible-necessary speech of God illustrate in their own way - but in practice: in agreeing to disempower and destabilize the discourse, in dealing with foreign languages and working with them, in listening to unauthorized, marginal, minoritarian perspectives, etc. "'God' is beyond God". The speech that could emanate from this place is neither predictable nor satisfying: it never has been. But it lives from the hope born of the promise.

Scripture remains the critical norm for the church here - not as a repository of God's words, but as a conflict-laden space for interpreting the gospel of "Jesus Christ". "Their function as norma normans is exercised by the fact that it does not normatively establish a certain understanding of faith and the Gospel, but rather presents the leeway in which it can come to a free, personal understanding that is solely appropriate to faith and that believers, like faith itself, confess as the work of the Holy Spirit."

God in battle

The God spoken of in the Christian faith endures the conflict about himself. He even creates conflict about himself (Matthew 10:34-36). He calls himself the God of peace, but not at the expense of conflict over his understanding or proper worship. Protestants can only speak of God if they expect God himself to take the floor and wrestle with them and against them in the prayer in which they meet.

Let me go, for the day has broken.

I will not let you go unless you bless me

What is your name?

Jacob.

Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel [...].

Please tell me your name.

Why is it that you ask my name?

He blessed Jacob in the same place. (Genesis 32:26-29).

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Elio Jaillet

Elio Jaillet

Docteur en théologie

Chargé des questions théologiques et éthiques

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