*Excerpts*, VOLUME 10

Willie Jennings – Word of God Against Word of God [Excerpt]

I recently finished reviewing this superb new book for our fall print magazine issue. 


ACTS: Belief Commentary Series
A Theological Commentary on the Bible

Willie James Jennings

Hardback: WJK Books, 2017
Buy Now: [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]
I’m excited to share the following excerpt from this book with you, which I take as one of Jennings’s central (and most timely) themes in this commentary. 

Reprinted from Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible
by Willie James Jennings.
Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press. All rights reserved.


Word of God against Word of God.
A Reflection on the Story of
Peter in the House of Cornelius
Acts 10-11

(Pages 118-121)


“You have heard that it was said, . . . but I say to you . . .” (Matt. 5). These often repeated words of Jesus set the stage for our interaction with the living God, whose words to us are living, because they are bound up with the source and giver of life itself. Acts 11 is a moment of reorientation where the Spirit is teaching us a crucial lesson that the church must constantly remember: God yet speaks and word of God always presses against word of God. What God has said in the past is pressed against by what God is saying now. Israel shows us that the human creature is always positioned between these two words and destined for yet more hearing from a God ever extended in grace toward us. This in-between position  has often been painful for us as we try to grasp clarity of thought and action on a walk of obedience to God on a well-lit path, albeit with multiple twists and turns. (Ps. 119:105) In this regard, the struggle of the church has been twofold: we struggle to hear the new word that God is constantly speaking, and we struggle to see the link between the new word and the word previously spoken.

The church from its beginning has rightly grounded its thinking in historical continuity with the word of God registered in, for example, the canon of Scripture, liturgical tradition, testimony, and dogma. Yet such historical grounding has been fraught with problems, because invoking the past (in terms of what Christians have thought, said, practiced, decided, affirmed, and denounced) has often been used in destructive ways in the present. For Christians, the past is extremely important, but what is far more important is how we deploy the past in order to prescribe present and future actions. To declare what God has said is tantamount to declaring what ought to be the case now, much like a lawyer or judge invoking
legal precedent to revoke or establish current laws. Such declaration presents incredible power and the potential to order a world. It also creates the temptation to fall into theological nostalgia for past forms of Christian life and practice that never really existed in the way we imagine them.


There is also the problem of living oblivious to the past and functioning without any historical consciousness. The church exists only because God has spoken in the past, and without a sense of that history we lack clarity about our current path and journey. Yet the history we must remember includes more than ecclesial discourse and deliberation: it also includes the shaping of the world and the formation of its most devastating operations and regimes that we Christians have sometimes collaborated with and helped create. This kind of full bodied memory work requires disciplined remembering that wants to learn from the past but does not fantasize or demonize it, but looks to discern the word of God in and through the past.


The past, though important, is never the point for the life of faith. The point is the present moment with the living God who is with us, beckoning us to communion. The God who speaks to us now calls us into the risk of hearing a new word, a word that orients us toward the unanticipated and the unprecedented where the reconciling God is active. Peter found himself in the midst of such a word in Acts 11, where what God was doing in and through him among the Gentiles pressed him body and soul up against the word God had spoken to his own people, Israel. The key for us, seen in this moment for Peter, is to refuse the binary of naming the past word false and the present word true or the present word false and the past word true, and to discern through the Spirit the line of continuity between past and present. We may do this because such discernment is not a burden but is the joy we have in participation with the ongoing life of Jesus, who has claimed this space between past and present word as his own and invites us to join him in it. “You have heard that it was said, . . . but I say to you”—Jesus’ words—point to the present and intimate speaking of the living God made flesh and one with us in the challenging task of hearing God’s new words pressed against the old ones.


What does a new word look like? We will know it by its fruit. That which builds life together, life abundant, and deepening life in God is truly a new word from God. That which speaks the community of Christ and echoes a desire for shared life, shared hope, and redemption from death and all its agents is always a new word from God. Indeed an old word registered in the canon of Scripture, liturgical tradition, testimony, and dogma can become a new word to us through the Spirit and a new word found in bodies and through experience, in places strange and alien to us, among peoples not our own, can also become a new word of God to us. Yet these words should never be understood to live antagonistically. They are bound together in the life of a speaking God who wills to bind us together through space and time, through borders and boundaries, from life through death and to the life anew and eternal found in Jesus Christ.

Reprinted from Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible
by Willie James Jennings.
Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press. All rights reserved.


C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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