The Historical Development of the Christian Understanding of the Word and Silence

Describe the historical development of a Christian understanding of the Word of God and Silence in the spiritual life, and how these spiritual realities are related.

Understanding the historical development of a Christian understanding of the Word of God and Silence in the spiritual life, requires one to reflect not only on the New Testament scriptures and the life of Christ, but the Old Testament scriptures and our understanding about who God is. Scripture teaches us the integral connection between God’s Word and His silence. To understand this connection, it is important to understand Him as a God of historical revelation who speaks to man in multiple ways. When moving historically through the story of God’s love for humanity, first we find the moment of creation. Yet, before creation, God is, in essence, Triune, meaning one God in three divine persons, therefore not solitary, but familial. In creation, we find the first speech of God and through creation God speaks to man and reveals Himself first as Creator. Creation is an image of God, though, as Balthasar notes, God is always other than the image the creature has of Him (p. 152). Creation as the first speech of God, communicates of God (to man) as creative word spoken in absolute freedom, and the glory of God’s uniqueness made visible (p. 153). Each individual creature reflects this uniqueness, and each has its own unique dignity and non-interchangeable worth. In Genesis, God creates by speaking in partial “utterances” or “the speech of things”, awaiting man to utter them. Creation is good in the light of the incarnation which will be “full” utterance of God’s speech. The Biblical view of creation was valuable for the preservation of historical man and the reality of being, as man can be tempted to turn to myth or let himself disappear in the self-destruction seen in much of the eastern religions. The truth of man can only be found by revelation, but creation is still only speech about God by God. In the second speech of God, He speaks to man directly.

In Scripture, the second speech of God, is His revelation via spoken and written speech. According to St. Ignatius of Antioch this second speech is primarily seen in God, to the prophets of Israel. Man is seen here as a fortiori to the speech of things, but before the Incarnation, God speaks to man in words via mans created spirit and his ability to receive and articulate communication. In Christianity, the precise nature of human speech is seen, by Balthasar, as reflected perfectly within the poetic (beyond that first speech of creation that naturally compels a response of “mystical silence”). Human speech in response to the second speech of God becomes an “echo” culminating in a “yes.” (p.157) God communicates Himself through historical events given to us via the work of the Holy Spirit in the form known to us as the Bible. God speaks, in and through the Prophets, a mission. The words which they spoke bore witness to the Word. The Bible is not the Word of God, but words about the Word.

Now we come to the Incarnation as the third speech of God. Within Scripture God reveals “full” utterance of His speech, in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Word of God made Flesh. This, His third speech, goes far beyond verbal speech. The Incarnation of the Word of God, now communicated via the New Testament scriptures and tradition, was the Word of salvation, which God had prepared the world for, via the prophets of old. He Himself is the Gospel, the good news that is to be preached to the world, not solely limited to verbal communication, but through the incarnation of the mission. Jesus himself is the mission. He is God’s word to man. Christ is the eternal accessible expression of God to us. The person of Christ, in flesh, was necessary for God’s triumph over sin and death. The goal of the Incarnation was the salvation of the world, so it culminates in the Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. The death of Christ on the cross moves us from the world of words to the world of silence. A Silence which calls “out loudly” (p.173). The blood of Christ poured out is the cry of the last word of Christ. God’s “Word becomes a cry and falls silent” (p. 171). For St. Ignatius of Antioch, the word and silence are interwoven in God, the Incarnation, and humanity as well. God could not only express Himself through things or words, but also through silence. This silence though, is seen as a “full” silence, in contrast to an “empty” silence. So, the Word does not emerge from silence, as is the view of the Gnostics, but is co-eternal with God. In the Gospel of St. John, we hear that in the beginning the Word (Logos) was with God and the Word was God. Balthasar describes the connection between word and silence as being inseparable. A God who could be completely defined or imagined by finite words, images, or deeds “would not be God anymore, but an idol” (p. 173). The silence will ever remain in God not because He is retaining something of His self for His self, but because in spite of mans best intentions, he will never be able to fully understand all. Jesus was the perfect image of the Father whose mission culminated in the silent, humble, obedient acceptance of death on the cross. This silence is where we are to meet God in the heart of the mystery. Using Balthasar’s favorite phrase of St. Irenaeus: “Better to be silent and to be, than to speak and not be.” I believe this is what God calls us to when the world is crashing in around us. “Be still and know that I AM God” (Psalm 46:10). The mystical silence according to St. Ignatius is the only possible response to the first speech of God (p. 57) and according to St. John of the Cross it is where we come to know God most intimately (Kavanaugh, p. 88). It is for me that space where the heart is lifted up and filled overflowing with His glory.

In the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts,


Categories Catholic Theology

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