Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“And God said, Let there be light, 

and there was light.” (Gen 1:3)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Bible takes words seriously. God uses words to create the universe. The Apostle John equates those words with the pre-immanent Christ:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:1-3)

The original Greek of this passage uses the Logos, which translates into the noun  “word” in English, but in Latin and in modern Spanish Logos is translated as the “verb,” which emphasizes the action implied in the theology of this statement.

The seriousness of words is highlighted elsewhere in the Bible. In Genesis, Jacob tricks his father into giving him his brother’s blessing, but when his deception is discovered, his father refused to take back the blessing. (Gen 27:35) In Exodus, two of the Ten Commandments in the Mosaic covenant govern proper speech: taking the Lord’s name in vain and bearing false witness (Exod 20: 7, 16). Numerous times in the Gospels, Jesus heals and casts out demons with nothing other than verbal commands (e.g. Mark 5:13).

Pentecost Reverses the Curse of Babel

The importance of language in the formation of communities is highlighted in the Tower of Babel narrative, as we read:

“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:1-4)

A couple of points need to be stressed about this account. First, having a unified language is explicitly related to the formation of community, in this case the city of Babel. Second, these people are proud, wanting to make a name for themselves, and they rebel, lest we be dispersed, explicitly against the divine commandment to: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen 1:28) So God cursed them to be confused by language and thereby forced them to disperse as commanded earlier(Gen 11:7-9).

The giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost occurred in this way:

“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they [the disciples] were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues [languages] as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:1-4)

Pentecost is celebrated today as the birth of the Christian church. Whereas language differences divided people in the Tower of Babel narrative, the gift of understanding and speaking different languages unite people through the gift of the Holy Spirit and the formation of the church.

Christian Culture

Unlike other religions, Christianity does not assert that God prefers any particular language. The Bible is translated into more languages than you can name even though the Old Testament is written mostly in Hebrew and the New Testament is exclusively written in Greek. The “language of the church” is our understanding and worship of God, not the speaking of any particular language. This characteristic is a direct consequence of Pentecost and it is formative.

We know, for example, that many modern languages, such as English and German, evolved in response to translations of the Bible into local dialects and the support that the church has given to literacy and education over the centuries. Left to themselves, many languages fragment along class and ethnic lines leading to greater divisions and conflict. Likewise, national cultures fragment into sub-cultures and lose their cohesion as we have seen in recent years with the development of slang and music traditions more representative of generational and political divisions than of ethnic identities.

The idea that somehow postmodern culture is inherently superior to Christian culture because of new cultural insights suggests primarily a lack of insight into the history of the church. Because Christian culture is truly transnational, multicultural, multiethnic, and transracial, the Christian message need not be watered down or changed to accommodate a local culture so much as be expressed in culturally sensitive language. As at the original Pentecost, the church’s message should be heard by each in their own heart language.


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Value Of Life

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Beitler Takes Words Seriously, Part 2

James E. Beitler III.[1]2019. Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church. Downers Grove: IVP Academic. (goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most intimidating aspects of being a Christian for many people is talking about their faith and practicing evangelism. One of the joys of attending seminary came in learning the meaning of the many “churchy” words that I had heard all my life.[2] Learning new words helps express ideas that may previously have gone unexpressed. Rhetoric is even more helpful by making it possible to use words, even common words, more persuasively.

Seasoned Speech

In his book, Seasoned Speech, James Beitler organizes his presentation and case studies around the liturgical calendar and worship because he sees rhetoric necessary for the ordinary practice of Christian witness. He writes:

“My use of Paul’s metaphor of seasoned speech should not be taken to mean that I think rhetoric’s scope ought to be limited to matters of presentation … Practicing rhetoric is not simply about flavoring the truth with a dash of eloquence; it involves discovery, invention, analysis, interpretation, construction, recollection, arrangement, and presentation of information, knowledge, and wisdom.” (19)

Worship and the liturgical calendar assist in focusing on the seasons of witness which we find ourselves in. It is hard, for example, not to think of resurrection in the spring as trees gain their foliage and flowers are blooming.

In part one of this review, I give an overview of Beitler’s book. In part two, I look at each of the five leaders that he focuses on. The five leaders chosen are: C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, and Marilynne Robinson.

C.S. Lewis

Although I have read a number of Lewis’ books, I never thought of him as focused on rhetoric even though he is widely thought of as deeply philosophical. Beitler’s observation therefore surprises me writing:

“I contend that a primary way that Lewis establish ethos is by demonstrating what Aristotle referred to as eunoia, goodwill towards one’s audience. Lewis’ rhetoric of goodwill—which involves addressing audiences on their own terms, adopting a forthright yet humble stance, and cultivating communities of goodwill, helps him achieve one of his chief aims as a writer: ‘preparing the way’ for the coming of the Lord into people’s lives.” (30-31)

Thus, Beitler sees Lewis embodying a spirit of advent. He does this by keeping ‘his own Christian persona off-stage”, by practicing “self-abnegation”, by peppering his comments about Christianity with “expressions of the delight”, and, in general, by adopting a humble spirit in writing (30-34). During advent, like Mary, we long for the coming Christ and, like John the Baptist, we engage in self-examination and repentance (49).

 Dorothy Sayers

Sayers is known as a Christian playwright with an interest in the energy of Christmas and a passion for teaching Christian dogma.

In response to the widely held view that the creeds are irrelevant, Sayers blamed the clergy who failed to share it with their congregations, explain it poorly, and neglect to translate them into the vernacular (60-61). In our day the idea that having a personal relationship with Jesus is a substitute for the creeds and biblical literacy seems ridiculous because it is hard to have a relationship with someone that you know little or nothing about. Sayers work to marry calling and creed through her dramatic presentations (64).

Beitler highlights Sayer’s focus on energy relating her work to that of Quintilian. She writes:

 “Enargeia involves depicting an event so vividly that the one who speaks and, thus, one’s audience feel as they would if they were really there, experiencing the moment. Such vivid depiction is clearly connected to the emotional appeals of pathos, but it also is related to ethos.” (66)

Quintilian wrote about the need for attorneys to seize the attention of the judge (67). In my own homiletics class, one of the most effective speakers was a prosecuting attorney. In the Christian narrative, no story grabs one’s attention quite like the birthing stories of the baby Jesus at Christmas.

 Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In part one of this review, I shared Beitler’s assessment of the rhetorical conflict between Bonhoeffer and Adolf Hitler. Beitler’s writes:

“Finkenwalde [Bonhoeffer’s underground seminary] is a fitting ecclesiastical manifestation of the message of Epiphany: there the gospel was preached not with the backing of worldly power [in this case the Third Reich] but in the humiliation and hiddenness of the crucified Christ—‘A stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles’ (I Cor 1:23)”. (97)

In this context, the incognito of Christ arises because in his humiliation, the godhead is veiled only to be revealed in the resurrection. This is not the absence of Christ’s revelation or the unwillingness to share the gospel, but the willingness to let people come to God on their own terms, not through a prostration to obvious power.

Desmond Tutu

Beitler sees Desmond Tutu’s prophetic witness during Apartheid in South Africa as a call for sinners to repent, the theme of Lent Preaching during Lent in 1988,

Tutu says:

“Your cause is unjust. You are defending what is fundamentally indefensible because it is evil. It is evil without question. It is immoral. It is immoral without question. It is unchristian.” (129).

The congregation got up and started dancing. They danced out of the cathedral past the police and military forces waiting to arrest them. Can you image such a sight?

Rhetorically, Tutu preached a radical form of interdependence captured in the African word, ubuntu. I am who I am and my identity is wrapped up in relationship with you, with the community, and with God (139; 205). Apartheid hurts me and by tolerating it you also are hurt and diminished.

Marilynne Robinson

Beitler describes Marilynne Robinson’s writing as inviting “readers to dwell with characters for whom the Christian faith matters deeply.” (162). Citing Jennifer Holberg who describes Robinson’s writing as a “resurrection of the ordinary”, Beitler sees Robinson exemplifying the Easter season (163) where particular times and particular places have special beauty and theological significance. He describes her work as a liturgy of praise for creation (175).


James E. Beitler III’s Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church is an unusual book on rhetoric because it does not focus on how to write a persuasive speech. Rather he focuses on speech as a righteous, political act in the Christian tradition through five case studies of Christians in the twentieth century who redefined what it means to live in community as Christians. A Pentecostal awakening where diverse voices speak the gospel together (212).

What is perhaps surprising is that Beitler is a postmodern evangelical writing to an evangelical audience about social ministry, a topic frequently reserved for progressive authors. While this statement may set you to head scratching, you may want to put this book on your reading list.


[2] If you don’t believe me, what does it mean to ‘raise my ebenezer?”Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, Till now the LORD has helped us.” (1 Sam 7:12 ESV)

Beitler Takes Words Seriously, Part 2

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Prayer for the Holy Spirit

Almighty father,

Praise be to you, Oh Lord, for your infinite wisdom, mercy, and grace.

We praise you because our limits are ever more pressing and our strength too often fails.

For we are weak kneed and our hearts bleed for every vile manner of evil.

We yield to the slightest temptation and bow before idols that our minds churn out day after day.

But we thank you for the gift of your Holy Spirit to guide our thoughts and calm our hearts

and give us the strength needed to walk in your ways.

Be now our constant companion, a helper in our daily struggles.

Grant us peace in this turbulent world and peace in our hearts,

that we may grow to reflect your image more closely day by day.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Prayer for the Holy Spirit

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A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

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Christ and Culture

Christ_culture_110132013By Stephen W. Hiemstra

At Pentecost the Holy Spirit speaks Gospel into culture.   And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to peak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:4 ESV).  Here the Holy Spirit communicates the Gospel among all people groups through languages that previously separated us under the curse of Babel (Genesis 11:7).  Language marks culture.  Much like Pentecost is God’s antidote to Babel, the Gospel is an antidote to culture.

To see this, define culture as the history of our collective decisions[1].  If we consistently made rational decisions based on complete information and an objective decision process, then cultural differences would not exist because we would all act the same.  We are not the same because we make poor decisions and base those decisions on prior experiences.  Consequently, as time passes our societal laws, customs, values, and morals (the lessons learned from our collective history) grow more and more unique.  And this uniqueness separates us from one another.

Because resources are limited and contested, bad decisions, which are more costly than good decisions, leave a larger cultural imprint.  Bad habits trump good ones.  Because pain screams while God whispers, culture can seem like the history of collective mistakes, griefs, shame, injustices, and pain.  Cultural isolation temporarily eases our pain as we look inward, but wounds not cleaned fester.  When the church acts as an instrument of the Holy Spirit, it amplifies God’s voice and speaks Gospel into the context of cultural pain[2].

Culture is to groups what personality is to individuals.  Personality is defined in habitual behavior.  When we tell our personal stories, these stories consist mostly of recounting our wounds, obsessions, injustices, and learning experiences.  It is the rare individual blessed only to recount mountain top experiences.  The ministries of presence, fellowship, and care allow us to amplify God’s voice, like the church more generally, in personal reflection.

What does the Gospel have to do with culture?  If culture is primarily the history of our collective mistakes, griefs, shame, pains, and injustices—in a word, sin, then confession and forgiveness of sin are redemptive and transformative.  Christ redeems us from the guilt of sin and the Holy Spirit transforms our lives abating sin’s pollution.  Our worldly cultures are sanctified.  So Apostle Paul can write:  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).   When the church speaks Gospel into culture, it becomes an instrument of Pentecost.

What if we cling to worldly cultures rather than sanctify them?  In effect, we are arguing that our personal and collective mistakes, griefs, shame, injustices, and pain count for more than Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  We are relishing our wounds or hiding behind them rather than submitting them to Christ.  Alternatively, Christ is seen as only human, but not divine.  When Paul prays for relief from a personal affliction, God responds:  My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).  When we hold worldly cultures close to our hearts, we frustrate Christ’s work of sanctification, grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), and yield to the itchy ears rather than proclaim the Gospel (2 Timothy 4:3).

What if we become prodigals—insisting on our inheritance without God’s truth and substituting worldly cultures for Christ and His sacrifice?  Think here of overtly idolatrous cultures, such as atheism or hedonism[3].  This is what Paul is talking about in Romans 1:24 when he talks about God giving them over to their shameful desires.  In this context, Paul takes up the mantle of a covenant lawsuit prophet evoking covenantal curses.  Rejecting the new covenant in Christ evokes the curse of law—reaping what we sow[4].  The Good News is that in Jesus Christ prodigals who return home and repent can be forgiven—not getting what we deserve.  The Apostle John writes:  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

At Pentecost we remember that Christ, not culture, is our true shelter from the storm.

[1]Jonathan Edwards (Freedom of the Will (1754). Vancouver:  Eremitical Press, 2009, p. 38) employs a similar starting point (a recursive decision process) in setting up a discussion of free will.

[2]Contextualization is actively studied in missionary circles.  For example, see,: James E. Plueddemann.  Leading Across Cultures:  Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church.  Downers Grove:  IVP Academic, 2009.

[3]Some view modernism from this perspective.  Nikita Khrushchev once said:   Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any god there (  Khrushchev apparently believed that the USSR had constructed a Tower of Babel.

[4]This is more than just a Pauline rant. The hermeneutic of the prodigal in Romans allows Paul to create space for the redemption of Jews who have rejected Christ (Romans 11:11).  Pentecost redeems worldly cultures, even Jewish culture.  Luke (12:10) and Mark (3:29) are less gracious and consider blaspheming the Holy Spirit (rejecting salvation through Christ) unforgiveable.

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