Sunday, October 12, 2008

Oswald Bayer and the Performative Word


The performative word must lie at the heart and center of theology and of what transpires in the Divine Service. Oswald Bayer highlights Luther’s genius regarding his approach to the logos of God and how it functions as “effective word” (129). Bayer writes, “Everything depends on God’s performative word for the enactment of the promise of the forgiveness of sins and healing of our ingratitude towards the creator” (88). This performative word is the word of the Lord who comes to us by gracious promise and invitation. He speaks by his holy word and we respond by singing, praying, and turning toward our neighbor in faith. The word of the Lord is not communicated but addressed through Scripture, Water, Body, and Blood. A beautiful saying such as “I absolve you of your sins” are declared acts. In this way the verbal speech act is a declaration of a certain state of affairs that God has indeed performed. These means of grace are performed through the logos. The object of theology should therefore be seen linguistically or “related to those elementary speech acts in which law and gospel are concretely enacted” (101). God therefore has his way with us through the word made flesh.


This is a repulsive idea for the old man. He can no longer “know” or “do” to improve his lot before God. That the word of God performs faithfully without the knowledge or action of the man robs him of pride and his internalized point of reference in the universe. Truth and all reference are external and the man is indeed defined, shaped, and named. He is in fact named orally and publicly in worship. The truth and will of the Lord are not abstract principles which are enacted with the interdepence of the man. Truth and our standing before the Lord is only dependent upon his word and his sure faithfulness to it. God verifies himself and us without our own internal psychological babbling. In this way we can be sure of Baptism and the performing word of the Lord.


The neo-Protestantism we inherit from Schleiermacher is evident in his representation of the word. Bayer credits Schleiermacher with transforming the doctrine of the word of God (once held by Protestants) into a doctrine of faith (148). This faith however, is a matter of “communication” and “meditation” with the external word which is evaluated by the affects of religious emotions of the self-consciousness (185). The word therefore does not declare a certain state of affairs such as the forgiveness of sins like Luther, but merely provides a stimulus for an inward “self communication.” This inward looking existential communication finds its summit in the affective notion of absolute dependence. This understanding of faith is similarly put forth by Bultmann who sees self realization as a precondition to the effectiveness of the word. Hegel’s understanding of the performative word is that it must be gobbled up and transformed into knowledge. The external word and speech acts of God must be turned into a principled theory whereby the logos becomes mere philosophical concept.


Theology is the oratio, meditation, tentatio of performative statements of Christian proclamation. Means of grace flow forth from the word of the Lord. They are not dependent upon the inward digestion of men to decipher their mysteries through rationalization or theorization. The object of theology is perverted and destroyed by Schleiermacher’s hermeneutical directive to “self-actualize” as a precondition to the enactment of the word. God set forth a precedent in Scripture when he says “Let there be light.” In similar fashion, when the Lord says that holy baptism saves, his word holds complete authority over the ravenous will of men. In confession and absolution the Lord declares the forgiveness of sins. The word always does what it says and creates faith.
Oswald Beyer in Theology the Lutheran Way breifly summarizes Martin Luther's view of theology as follows: "a theologian is a person who is interpreted by Holy Scripture, who lets himself or herself be interpreted by it and who, having been intrepreted by it, interprets it for other troubled and afflicted people" (Beyer 36). This sets out the most fundamental philosophical axiom to begin to discern the work set out for a theologian. This of course is predicated upon an unassailable faith in the authority of scripture. This relationship however, between Holy Scripture and man, stands in direct contrast to the view held by the University system and reformed theologians who attempt to stand over God as if to interpret and define him. In truth, God continually defines men and establishes the the central reality in the relationship: the sinful human and the God who justifies through Christ Jesus. Christ's victory for us on the cross is where He overcame, sin, death, and the devil for all humanity. Bayer describes the way by which this reality presents itself as follows: "The saving communicative relationship between God and humans is an exchange of words" (19). The theolgian takes a passive and receptive posture toward the Scriptures and both suffers and rejoices in them. In this relationship God is who He says He is, and He has done what He says He has done. Furthermore, our "creaturliness" is established in that we exist as he defines us. We are lost, condemned, and disobedient in every way apart the Cross.

A theologian must also find a balance between scholastic and monastic theology. The scholarly knowledge which comes from the lofty ivory towers of academia is severely limited in that it makes absolute the theological knowledge which is seperate from faith, meditation, and liturgy. On the other hand, an overindulgence on the monastic side insists on the preeminence of experience; namely an inward focussed imagination, which in turn leads to an adverse cultivation of the ego. Furthermore, the imagination begins to define God on its own terms which is a natural consequence of a separation from the universal and concrete word of God. Plainly put, it is not a theologians job to feverishly interpret God in either the scholarly or monastic realm. Beyer writes, "What makes the theologian a theologian is not experience as such, but the experience of scripture" (63). Rather, the theologian stands under God's word and rightly assumes the passive and receptive life.

Bayer highlights Luther's three rules for the study of theology: prayer, meditation, and spiritual attack (oratio, meditatio, tentatio). It is through this method of study that the scholastic and monastic realms are effectively incorporated. Faithful teaching, meditation and prayer, and suffering are all products of the external word of God. In this way, the theologian is best equipped to avoid many pitfalls including the seduction of pietism, mysticism, and reform theology. Oratio, meditatio, and tentatio ground the faithful theologian in the assurances of God's eternal word, which is not subject to the wrecklessness and fanaticism of the individual.
(Citations from Oswald Bayer's Theology the Lutheran Way)

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