Christian Kettler, The Three-Fold Word of God

Christian KettlerChristian Kettler is professor of religion at Friends University in Kansas. He received his PhD in 1986 from Fuller Theological Seminary, working with the late Dr. Ray Anderson.

The Word of God is threefold: Jesus Christ is the living Word, the Bible is the written word, and preaching is the spoken word.

Edited transcript

JMF: You teach potential ministers. What would you like to see pastors giving more attention to in their sermons?

CK: Preaching is in a state of crisis. Our postmodern culture hates the word. We like the visual. We like the video image. We’re a visual culture, and we don’t like the word preaching. The great age of wonderful pulpit giants sending forth their message with their glorious intones, and people catching onto every little word, is gone. It’s a challenge for the church to continue to have preaching.

Many churches have abandoned preaching as an essential part of worship, but I don’t think the church should do that. Jesus Christ is the Word of God, the speech of God, and the preaching is the word of God, part of the word of God.

Karl Barth was famous for saying that there’s a three-fold word of God. Most of all, Jesus Christ is the Word of God, the living Word of God, but Scripture is also the written word of God, dependent upon Jesus Christ. Third, proclamation – preaching – is the word of God, again dependent upon Scripture and ultimately upon the living Jesus Christ, but to be taken seriously as the word of God as well. It’s the way in which the message of Scripture about Jesus Christ is made real today with that congregation.

We need to re-discover a place where preaching that takes seriously the tensions with the postmodern culture, that takes seriously the importance of the visual, perhaps, as well as the audible, but moreover sees preaching as not just sharing interesting stories or trying to be relevant, but a context in which God himself, through our fallibility, the great fallibility of preachers, nonetheless speaks his word that bears witness to Jesus Christ, and have confidence in that, and have joy in that.

I’ve been preaching regularly as a part of a preaching time of Church of the Savior, an independent church in Wichita. That’s been a great joy for me and essential for me as a theologian. Preaching was always a challenge for me.

What set me free in recent years has been to realize that first I need to realize the word of God to me, to Chris Kettler, that week, in the midst of all my struggles, whatever they might be. As simple as that may seem, it became very profound for me and changed my preaching, when I first addressed the text of scripture to me. I found that strangely enough, I’m not that different from other people. I may have a PhD, but beyond that, I struggle with the same things other people struggle with, and it really changed my preaching.

We need to encourage preachers to not be afraid to allow the word to speak to them first, and to self-disclose to some appropriate extent in their sermon. I often share things of my hobbies, my love for the Los Angeles Dodgers, or collecting old comic books from the ’40s, or Bob Dylan, and my congregation will say they know a lot about Bob Dylan now. But even if they’re not fans of Dylan or the Dodgers or whatever, they appreciate that human contact because they have their own passions.

I allow my passions to be met by the word of God and I share that with others. That’s been liberating for me, and has been a great boon to my preaching. The church as a whole has to take seriously that passion in the midst of the challenges of postmodern culture, and have the confidence that God is speaking, and see that as essential as the rest of the worship service.

JMF: A lot of preaching that isn’t effective tends to be full of platitudes and easy solutions and “you should be’s” and this sort of thing. It sounds like you’re talking more of an honest, a reality kind of preaching, about what we’re really like, and what God has to say to us and for us in that context.

CK: Exactly. One doesn’t need to leave the Bible to do that. In our church we go through a book of the Bible, expository preaching. We find that the Bible speaks to those existential personal needs and passions very strongly, and often becomes a critique of the platitudes, as you’ve mentioned, the moralisms, ethical exhortations that often people take out of the Bible apart from the larger context of the gospel story and the reality of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

In that context, there’s an exhortation, but it comes on the basis of grace, the gracious revelation of God in Christ. Preaching is to be that witness. It beats deeply into our own passions and needs, but ultimately it’s the witness of Jesus Christ to those passions and needs, and therefore not just interesting stories or cute comments on the week’s news events.

JMF: A lot of people today are finding Christianity and the church irrelevant. What do you see as some of the causes of that?

CK: The causes are profound. When you mentioned postmodern culture, I think in terms of the culture becoming much more skeptical of any claims of truth. That’s one aspect of it. But more often, the church’s desperate attempt to try to become relevant becomes phony and superficial to the world. When we try to be the best entertainer in town, we always fail, because Hollywood can always do it better.

When we fail to realize that there is a uniqueness of the church and of its calling and its worship, and that ultimately we are to bear witness to Jesus Christ and his love and grace, that brings a relevance that the world cannot meet. If we have confidence in that, that what we are saying and preaching and doing is not just trying to be relevant in our culture, so that the culture has a place for the church, but that it’s really the continuing ministry of Jesus Christ that we joyfully are involved in, that is something that makes itself relevant. We don’t need to make God relevant.

JMF: There’s something you wrote that I wanted to read and ask you to comment on. You said,

Christocentric theology demands that we take existential issues in humanity seriously. [Which is what we’ve just been talking about.] Too often the concern of theology has been about the precise relationship between the deity and the humanity of Christ without delving deeply into the radical implications of the Word that became flesh for the world of despair, guilt, shame, weakness, loneliness, anxiety, and doubt, which is where most of us live a good deal of the time. Popular theology such as in the Left Behind novels still reflect the kind of theological mindset that obsesses over the time of the great tribulation at the end of the world and ignores our own personal tribulations of loneliness, despair, and doubt.

Could you talk about that a little bit in terms of the vicarious humanity of Christ?

CK: To be Christo-centric, to be centered in Christ, all Christians want that. But often the church fails at being Christo-centric, in that often it doesn’t remember that the Word became flesh. That is the flesh of doubt, despair, loneliness, anxiety, those things you mentioned, the place that we live.

JMF: We don’t think of Christ that way, though.

CK: No. It’s because we are heretics, in a sense, that we may say, Christ is God, and he’s human, but we often pay attention simply to his deity, which we should, but it’s wrong. We’re heretics when we don’t equally pay attention to his humanity. Deity and humanity. Often, the humanity is not seen in terms of a humanity that takes our place and is on our behalf. It’s seen only as, well, we should be like Jesus in his humanity.

JMF: As a role model.

CK: Yeah. What would Jesus do? That ultimately leads to frustration, because we’re not like Jesus. We try to be like Jesus, and we’re not like Jesus, rather than seeing that in the New Testament the humanity of Christ is presented as living a life vicariously, that is, in our place, on our behalf, the life that we’ve been unable to live. He goes before us and invites us through the Spirit to join with him.

That is a different way of looking at the humanity of Christ and it is an invitation to look at the humanity of Christ in a vicarious sense. It has tremendous implications for issues like doubt and despair and loneliness and anxiety, in which often we feel guilty as Christians that we feel any doubt or despair or anxiety. We think we shouldn’t be feeling these things as Christians.

We felt the doubt and the guilt in the first place, and we don’t want to ’fess up to them. Theologically, we might end up dealing with side issues, like when the tribulation’s going to take place, rather than allowing the word to address us deeply where we are at. Often, the church doesn’t allow you to be honest with those feelings. You’re not supposed to have those doubts, despair, anxiety, if you’re a Christian, and particularly a leader.

That’s because of our inadequate Christology, our view of Christ. We don’t take the vicarious humanity of Christ seriously – that Christ has taken upon himself that despair, he’s taken upon that doubt, he’s taken upon that anxiety. That’s what we hear from the cross, when Jesus says in those cryptic words, a prayer to God, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I think Jesus is praying that on our behalf. He is taking our despair and bringing it to the Father, and in doing so, healing it. We are not alone in that despair. We are not alone in our aloneness. We may still be lonely, but we’re not lonely alone. Jesus is lonely with us.

That’s extremely important for us to see, how close the humanity of Christ relates to our humanity. That’s why this, what seems to be abstract talk about vicarious humanity, is really very personal talk. Christ’s humanity is so close to us. We’re in union with him. We hear him crying out for us, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” when we’ve gone through a loss of a loved one, or other travails in life in which we’ve questioned the presence or even existence of God. Jesus cries that prayer on the cross, praying from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But he prays, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” There’s despair on the cross, but there’s also joy.

JMF: That’s the way Psalm 22 ends up as well.

CK: Exactly. Some scholars suggest that perhaps Jesus recited the rest of Psalm 22. In effect, with “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” he’s saying that.

JMF: Let’s shift gears to the Old Testament for a minute. Sometimes it is thought that grace gets invented in the New Testament, but then there’s the idea that in order to read the Old Testament, we should reinterpret it in the light of Christ. But the Old Testament is the word that emerges out of who Christ is from the very beginning in its very roots. It isn’t just a prequel or a tack-on to the New Testament.

CK: Karl Barth used to say that in the Bible, Old and New Testaments, you have one covenant of grace from Genesis to Revelation. It isn’t that there are two covenants, the Old Testament is a covenant of works, as some people say, and then in the New Testament you finally get to grace.

No, just think of Genesis chapter 1. The very act of creation is by God’s work. It’s an act of grace. The very fact that you and I exist at this moment, is simply because of grace. God didn’t need to create us; he simply did so out of love. Genesis is written by the people who experienced the exodus, the act of grace that the people of Israel experienced in being liberated from Egypt. It’s that grace that happened first in Exodus chapter 3. The law, the 10 commandments, wasn’t given until Exodus 20.

Grace always comes before law throughout the Bible. There is a place for law, that is, God’s commands, but they’re always seen in terms of the prior reality of grace and should never be separated from grace. That’s when legalism comes in, when Christians say, I’ve been saved by grace, but now they live in a life of legalism. That’s because they’ve left grace behind as they pursued law.

That’s not true in terms of how God revealed law to be and how grace is seen throughout the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Israel is seen as the preparation, the way in which we are prepared to interpret the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.

Thomas Torrance has a wonderful book entitled The Mediation of Christ, and the point of that book is that Israel gives us tools to understand Christ, and God’s gracious relationship with Israel is a way in which language is developed, through the sacrificial system and other ways in Israel’s experience, to understand grace.

Grace is there in the Old Testament, and we cannot understand the Incarnation apart from Israel, apart from the Old Testament. Otherwise we end up interpreting Jesus according to what we want Jesus to be. We are tempted to do that all the time, and church history is filled with examples of that. We need to interpret Jesus in light of Old Testament, in light of Israel, in light of the Jews. Again, it’s one covenant of grace from Genesis to Revelation, including God’s grace toward Israel.

JMF: In that light, I’m always struck by Jesus’ conversation with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and it says he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and then it says, “This is what the Scriptures say, that on the third day…” And yet, the Scriptures don’t say that. But he says that that’s what they really say, that’s what they’re really about, is a testimony to him.

CK: Right. What happens then with the Incarnation, with the coming of Christ, he interprets the Old Testament. He helps us see the Old Testament. Israel is preparing us for Christ, but then Christ goes back and helps us see him in that preparation. That’s what the early church, the early followers, were able to see in their reading of the Old Testament. They could never give up on the Old Testament.

There was a heresy when a man named Marcion said, “the Old Testament is the book of the angry God, but the New Testament is about the God of grace and love.” The church saw the terrible error in that. Unfortunately, there have been practical Marcionites throughout the history of the church, in which we may say we believe the Old Testament is the word of God, but we really don’t give it much attention. Or when we do, we end up separating it from Christ. Or just like you say, interpret it as a prequel, but not really as connected with Christ.

But when you read the New Testament, you see the early church gathering together, huddling together. What are they doing? They’re reading the Old Testament and seeing Jesus Christ in there. They see how essential it is for them to go back to the Scriptures and to understand Christ. We should do that today in the church, and not be afraid of the Old Testament as this book of law and the wrath of God, but to see the grace of God, particularly the grace of God extended toward an Israel that is constantly rebelling against God throughout the Old Testament. God is continually pursuing Israel. Even when they have to go into exile in Babylon, God is still there with them. That’s a story of love and grace that’s there in the Old Testament and helps prepare us for the supreme act of God’s love in the Incarnation.

JMF: Isn’t the story of Israel my story, and your story?

CK: Exactly.

JMF: We’re constantly running away from God, and he’s constantly pursing us. We’re constantly rebelling in one way or another or falling fall short in one way or another of what he would like us to be, and yet he never gives up.

CK: He never lets us go. He never let Israel go. That’s Paul’s point in Romans: Israel’s rebellion did not invalidate the promises of God. Paul makes that point, and we often forget that and seem to just to see the Old Testament as cute stories that teach children in Sunday school. No. They’re absolutely essential for us in understanding Christ. We need to constantly go back to school with Israel, as Thomas Torrance used to say.

JMF: Hosea 11, “How can I give you up?”

CK: Hosea is a wonderful picture of God’s covenant love, of love that doesn’t give up. Sometimes Hosea is said to be the gospel in the Old Testament.

JMF: Going all the way back to Genesis 1, we have the creation, and Christ is involved right there from the very beginning. We spend our time spinning the wheels on whether there’s a creation or whether there’s evolution and never the twain shall meet, rather than seeing a theology of creation rooted in the vicarious humanity of Christ.

CK: Yeah. Again, the creation story is told by the Hebrews who experienced the Exodus, who experienced redemption and salvation. They saw the integral relationship of salvation and creation. When you get to the New Testament, Paul and John and New Testament writers see this very strongly, that the same God who created is the God who redeemed, and there’s a dynamic relationship between Christ and creation. Paul in Colossians is profound on this, “Through him all things were created.”

Redemption and salvation is not just an afterthought of God’s. It’s not just an emergency thing, because grace is in the very act of creation; creation is an act of grace. We need to see God’s covenant there, as Karl Barth used to say, a covenant very much integrated with creation. The covenant is the basis of creation, and that covenant is God’s pledge with us. That is in the very being of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from all eternity. There is that covenant love between the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit.

Covenant is not just a new thing God thought up one day, “we’ve got to do this to save these people.” No. It’s an essential part of his being in this relationship between the Father and the Son through the Spirit. The Son is incarnate in Jesus Christ, and it’s in him that we see the restoration of creation.

Creation is not simply to be destroyed or ignored for the sake of some spiritual reality. No. Jesus Christ is the Word who became flesh. What he wants to do is have a new creation. It’s new! But it’s still a creation. There is that continuity between salvation and creation. Therefore, when we consider Jesus Christ, he is not the one who simply is to rescue us from creation, as in some theologies, but he’s the one who brings us into a new creation.

We are new creations in Christ, Paul says, and Jesus Christ is now the true image of God. Human beings were created in the image of God; he has taken our place. We find our true being reflecting the image of God in our participation in Christ. That very strong teaching in Genesis 1 about humans being made in the image of God is now fulfilled in Jesus Christ. We can’t understand being made in the image of God apart from Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, some theologies say, first we put together a doctrine of creation, the image of God and so forth, that everyone shares, and then we bring in “the fall,” and that’s why we then need redemption. Christ just becomes the answer to our predicament. He certainly is that, but that’s inadequate to understand the place of Christ before creation as a reflection of the eternal being of God as love, this relationship between the Father and Son and the Spirit.

This is something that Paul solved profoundly in the letter to the Colossians. The first chapter of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and through him all things were made.” That integration of Christ and creation was extremely important. We need to recover that in the church for practical issues, in how we relate to nature, how we relate to the world as a whole, and not just to see the world as something that is evil. “For God so loved the world,” John says. John is very cognizant of that world as the world that Christ embraces and doesn’t discourage.

JMF: Christ is both Creator and Redeemer of the creation, also the judge and the advocate, the defense attorney, all at once and identified with him. He draws us into himself. So from the very beginning, it sounds like you’re saying, we are wrapped up in the creation, and therefore in the love relationship with the Father, Son, and Spirit. That’s our very purpose for being.

CK: Right. Christ becomes not simply an answer or a band-aid, but the fulfillment of what it means to be human. The early church fathers saw this very early in the second century and Karl Barth, in the more recent years, has seen that it’s through Christ that we understand Adam. It’s not that Christ is the solution to Adam’s problem. That is not seeing that the covenant of grace really extends from the beginning of the Bible to the end. Christ is there.

JMF: In the few minutes we have left, you mentioned you are a Bob Dylan fan, and you know a lot about Bob Dylan. I’ve only in the last 10 years or so began to really get into Bob Dylan, but I’m a neophyte compared to what you were telling me. There’s a reason that you are drawn to him, and there are certain theological implications and gospel implications of some of Bob Dylan’s lyrics and so on. Could you spend a minute or two on that?

CK: I’ve written this book called The God Who Rejoices: Joy, Despair, and the Vicarious Humanity of Christ Looking at this basic existential issue, can we have joy. How do we have joy in the midst of despair that all of us feel? I began the book by relating the story of myself as a very lonely alienated teenager in the Wichita Southeast High School library. Almost every day when I could get away from class, I would go in the library, put on the earphones, and I had my copy of Bob Dylan’s album Blonde on Blonde, put it on… What he was saying through his music was a music of pathos. The song, “stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again,” I’d play it over and over again because that’s how I felt as a teenager.

Dylan was able to be honest about the pathos, the suffering that we feel as human beings. “How does it feel to be on your own, no direction home” is a famous song, Like a Rolling Stone. In dealing with relationships, he would cut to the quick, and there would be no monkey business. In Dylan’s gravelly voice, he would say things that I was unable to say as a lonely teenager.

Even as a much older adult, that’s still the case. He’s still able to say those things. To me, it’s the cry for God, ultimately. Dylan realized that at one point in his life, in the early ’80s, with the Slow Train album, and he still does, to some extent. In a recent interview, somebody asked him how he felt about all these musicians who always give praise to God on their records, and Dylan said, “Well, you’ve got to give credit where credit is due.”

The rest of his songs are that identification with our pain, and that’s the first movement of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, his solidarity with us. That’s what I think I see in Dylan the most. Then through that solidarity, to that first step, there’s an openness for that second step of being lifted up, to be conformed to the image of his Son. That’s when you get some sense of hope and joy in Dylan.

In his latest album, Together Through Life, he has a wonderful song called Feel Like a Change Is Coming On, in which, here’s the 67-year-old Bob Dylan in his gravelly coarse voice still having a wistful hope… He talks about having “the blood of the land in my voice.” Some people suggested, maybe he’s really saying blood of the lamb. That brings us back to the gospel, and the nature of the gospel is it’s crying to people who need to be loved, to realize that the most basic need in life is to be loved, and to realize our problems in loving relationships. We need help in that. Dylan has always sensed that.

With all the accolades and praise he gets and hero-worship, he doesn’t buy into that. There’s always a sense in which, you better be careful, love can turn on you, even the closest relationships or human relationships, they can fail. He’s very aware of that, and that makes him humble, a humble singer and writer in my opinion, but also an honest one. He gets to the core of being human.

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Last modified: Wednesday, January 30, 2019, 10:21 PM