Preaching as Subversive Activity

by Barry A. Woodbridge

Dr. Woodbridge is engaged in postdoctoral work at the Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 6, 1974, pp. 142-150. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The greatest power of preaching is when it becomes a subversive language event and announces in familiar context of secular language something that is utterly hidden: the fugitive God of the Christian tradition. When this event occurs, the fragmenting, destructive power of inauthentic language is smashed and subverted.

Every interpreter of the Christian faith is called to be a Hermes, one who brings a message of destiny, and to practice the science of Hermes, hermeneutics. He may not use the word, but his task is that of interpretation just the same. A question plaguing those who attempt to interpret the Christian faith in these times’ is, Which hermeneutic?

In a recent article in The Christian Century ("How Jacques Ellul Reads the Bible, November 29, 1972) Vernard Eller said that "regnant methods of interpretation simply are not communicating biblical-truth in a way that is moving or meaningful to most believers" and called for a new hermeneutic. Apparently he overlooks the comparatively new movement which goes by that very name. The new hermeneutic movement is a recent offshoot of the post-Bultmannian and Heideggerian heritage. Gerhard Ebeling and Ernst Fuchs gave life to it on the Continent, and James M. Robinson and Robert W. Funk announced its nativity to the American theological family back in 1964.

Dealing with this school of biblical interpretation through the analogy of a living organism, we recall Erik Erikson’s stages of growth, in which the crisis of middle age is one of generativity versus stagnation. How does the new (now middle-aged) hermeneutic fare? Has it generated a viable method of Christian interpretation, or has it stagnated into theoretical introspection and theological navel gazing?


The formal program of the new hermeneutic is for proclamation that has taken place -- i.e., Scripture -- to become proclamation that takes place (Ebeling). It is precisely a discussion of the route between text and sermon, if "sermon" means a situation in which the truth of human existence (its present state and essential possibilities) is disclosed. The type of sermon the new hermeneutic has in mind, however, does not begin with "eternal truths’’ that lead to answers to perennial religious questions. No, the new hermeneutic sermon begins instead with the human situation and results in a "word-event." A word-event is a rather surprising situation in which the very people who thought they were interpreting the text or hearing it interpreted get interpreted themselves -- the text interprets them (Funk)! This dialectic interaction between anticipated understanding and the kind of understanding that actually occurs is called ‘‘the hermeneutical circle." In a sense it represents a "fusing of horizons" (Gadamer); that is, the text’s horizon or view of life and that of the interpreter merge and overcome their subject-object separation. When the text thus interprets its interpreter, it does so not through re-engaging belief in ancient religious categories but by raising questions about the would-be interpreter’s existence -- his estrangement from himself and others, his experienced "fulfillment gap" between what he is and what be could be. As the one who represents the reunion of this separation, the Christ challenges the interpreter to decide between fragmentary, estranged existence and the possibility of "homecoming" (personal, societal and spiritual reunion).

In all this, language (including speech, sign, gesture and silence) plays a central role. For the new hermeneutic, language is one’s means of organizing the world; in fact, language creates the human world. Without language, one would not be able to make individual entities or forms stand apart and present themselves as distinguishable from the whole panorama of perceptual awareness (as is the case for certain tribes which, lacking the language for photography, cannot distinguish the images on a photograph). It is one’s use of language, then, that constitutes his world as either estranged and fragmented (inauthentic) or interrelated and united (authentic). Authentic words challenge one to consider another, more satisfying way of constituting his world. Language that is true to the potential for unity in existence (and unity is a condition in which love prevails) is, for the new hermeneutic, the Word of God.


Since the new hermeneutic made its debut in the United States around 1964, some significant conceptual progress has taken place. Much of this came between 1964 and 1968. Subsequently there was a period of silence (which in the Heideggerian view is a prerequisite to any meaningful talk). Now we are beginning to see some new work, which we shall call the "middle-age" contribution of the new hermeneutic.

One frequent criticism of the new hermeneutic’s "word-event" concept is that it is empty and contentless, something like the "blik" of language analysis. How can such a nebulous concept be linked to the Christ event of the Christian kerygma? Ten years ago Ebeling wrote "Towards a Christology" (in his Theology and Proclamation). In 1971 Peter Hodgson of Vanderbilt picked up this concern and issued Jesus -- Word and Presence, a programmatic essay on Christology from the new hermeneutic perspective. He argues that God is the one who has the world-creating power of language completely; that language is that which makes one present; that Jesus’ authentically liberating and authoritative word constitutes a fulfillment of human presence (in terms of decisive presence to self, world and God); that therefore Jesus is the Word of God. Hodgson goes on to say that Jesus’ continuing presence (for which the resurrection is the prototype) is the basis of the word-event today:

Wherever and whenever an authoritative, true, and faithful word comes to speech -- within the church or beyond its domain, in the form of preaching and the language of piety or in the parlance of the world -- there the one who was the word of faith is present and active [op. cit., p. 277].

This line of argument may remain unconvincing to the pragmatic demands of the American mind. Nevertheless, it represents an attempt on the part of the new hermeneutic movement to deal with the christological problem.

Another means of dealing with the problem of the content of the word event was recently proposed: a marriage between linguistic analysis and the Heideggerian language tradition found in the new hermeneutic. From the homeland of that hermeneutic, a Continental voice (Ebeling’s) cautions against this mixed marriage (in his Introduction to a Theological Theory of Language), while out of American independency another voice (Robinson’s) counsels that compatibility may be possible (cf. his "Language in a New World"). Such a union, he seems to feel, might move beyond Heidegger’s clairvoyant speculation that language functions to create world and so might lend a scientific parallel to Heidegger’s idea. Privately, Robinson has suggested that such a merger might well catapult the new hermeneutic movement into a more "scientific" theology.


A further conceptual problem within the new hermeneutic -- one which seems to have received the least of recent attention -- is the God problem. The God of the new hermeneutic appears to be so immanent that, were the human race and language to disappear, no God would be left. There is an insistence that the event of the word of God does not imply a being (God) who stands behind the event itself. Such is the existentialist position. Many can applaud this as a statement about the radical and irrevocable incarnation. Others find that it leaves an underdeveloped, religiously unsatisfying concept of God. Part of this problem grows originally out of Heidegger’s avoidance of God within his philosophical framework. He demonstrated that God could not be conceived of as a being (which would make him subordinate to the category of Being per se and merely one being among other beings), and he cautioned against identifying the traditional God with Being (for Being could have none of the attributes -- beneficence, love, omniscience, etc. -- that are applied to the God who is a being). Heidegger is correct; these are mistakes we should not repeat. But how are we to speak of God as somehow capable of relating (to all creation), present in his word, not self-identical with humanity, yet free from those inadequate conceptions of a personal being, etc.? This task remains before the new hermeneutic. Peter Hodgson has made some attempt at resolving it in the volume cited above, but much of the work lies ahead of us.

The concept of "world" is another category that has received recent development, notably at the hands of James Robinson. In his essay "Hermeneutic of Hope," Robinson declares that humankind’s linguistically constituted world is a point of optimism and hope in the midst of its tragedies, for such a world is relative and possibly subject to positive change. Indeed, the thrust of much Christian language (as authentic word) is toward a new world that is breaking in upon the present one. Robinson reminds us that even though an authentic word may seem out of joint with the inauthenticity and fragmentation of the times, it has a latent potential which continues to shape humanity’s present situation:

God’s word is not some doctrine God reveals, but God giving his word. When a person gives his word, he commits himself to a future; giving one’s word in the present does something in the present about the future, namely, it commits a future, if the person keeps his word [op. cit., p.528].

This process of word-shaping-the-future can be seen in many of the new idioms that first appeared in our language as a radical challenge to the present states of "world" and later came into popular usage as our world shifted under their influence. Consider the language and rhetoric of recent protest movements. "Power to the people" was originally a rather provocative phrase with what sonic considered anarchistic or socialistic overtones; today it predicates a middleclass, in-the-system attitude acceptable to 200,000 members of the citizens’ lobby Common Cause. Again, "socialized medicine" or "population control" would have created national hysteria in the early 50’s. Today these phrases are widely used as indicators of significant options for our future. Our perception of the world adjusts to our use of language, and language has the power to alter our world, for better or worse. Hence the word of God, as authentic language, has the potential for restructuring a world reconciled from estrangement, liberated from the language of bondage, and saved (as in salvus, to make whole) from the demonic threats of violent fragmentation.


If indulged in isolation from the church, the American tendency to nurse the new hermeneutic into conceptual maturity is a dangerous introversion. In Germany, proponents of this hermeneutic speak more boldly and declare that its sole purpose is to be the advocate of the church’s decisive word-event, its representation of Jesus the Christ. If this purpose is forgotten in the American rush for conceptual consistency, the movement will veer toward middle-age stagnation.

But if the new hermeneutic is to make its contributions to the life of the church., a self-hermeneuting needs first to be undertaken. Decades ago Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911 ) argued that hermeneutics is understanding gained by reconstructing and reliving the material being interpreted. This reconstruction, while following many of the paths taken by the original author of the material, would also open up new paths. Were today’s "new hermeneuts" to reconstruct the thought of Martin Heidegger, whose philosophy largely undergirds the new hermeneutic, they could "retrieve" (wiederholen is the Heideggerian term) much that is immediately applicable to the task of the church. (Of course a thorough theological critique of what in Heidegger is usable and what is not is prerequisite. Omission of this precaution too often, leads to confusion of existential philosophical categories with those of Christian theology.)

For instance, Heidegger offers a basis for coping with the meaningless God-talk heard from so many pulpits today. Preachers informed by the new hermeneutic are in a position to speak convincingly to those for whom "God" is an empty word. New hermeneuts take the experienced absence of God seriously. However, they understand that the blame for God’s absence rests not on the death of God but on the death of language. The Christian tradition knows of a God who is present in his Word (in creation -- "And God said . . ." in redemption -- "the Word became flesh": in continuing reconciliation -- "our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit" [1 Thess. 1:5]).

Where language fails, the medium of God’s presence fails. It takes no theological analysis to discern the failure of language in these times. The oppressed groups in our society -- women, racial minorities, the poor -- know well that current language is enslaving and insensitive to them as persons. Such language -- the kind that blocks and blurs humanity’s true identity and freedom -- is precisely what Heidegger calls inauthentic language. If Gods presence is to be experienced again, authentic language must be reborn.


Heidegger warns the would-be user of authentic language that it is not a matter of careful composition or clever rhetorical construction. No one can will to speak authentically, for he does not own his language. Perhaps Heidegger’s greatest contribution has been his demonstration that we do not invent language to name our world but that, on the contrary, language which discloses our world is given to us. The preacher who understands this assumes a more humble posture toward his important task. He can only look to a truly authentic word spoken in the past and attempt to retrieve it. If he understands the Christ as the Word, truly liberating and victorious over the powers that separate and estrange persons from each other and from God, he has a source to retrieve.

What is this "retrieval"? Heidegger offers a general suggestion about it -- one that we need to adapt to biblical hermeneutics: "By the re-trieving of a fundamental problem we understand the disclosure of its original potentialities that have long lain hidden" (translated by William Richardson: Heidegger Through Phenomenology to Thought, p. 93).

To retrieve a biblical text (or any other "text" which speaks an authentic word) we must find out how its original language cut across the world of its time. What new point did it make? What experience (word-event) did it evoke in its hearers? Biblical criticism of form, source, redaction, and cultural influences will help the preacher-retriever in answering these questions. Once the "hidden potential" of the text has been discovered, the retriever must discover the language that will express that potential again. Often that language will sound quite different from the original. It may be regarded as profane (secular) or offensive -- but that is precisely why the original language was a skandalon! Sometimes there may be no language capable of expressing the original potential of the text -- a situation that reminds the retriever of his dependency on the language given him. Theologian John Cobb and other participants in the new hermeneutic discussion have asked whether, considering the radical difference between first century and 20th century structures of thought and belief, this lack of language is not a constant problem. However, the retriever who lacks the language to express the point his text wants to score must witness to it in silence (which itself can be one mode of authentic language). Whether by silence, gesture or speech, the retriever functions an a poet who must assist the subtextual potential of his material to "language" itself once again.

In adopting this mode of ministry, the preacher becomes Heidegger’s "tracer of fugitive gods." Christ is not immediately accessible; he too is rendered hidden and fugitive by one’s inauthentic use of language. In hiddenness the fugitive Christ "hails" a retriever to trace his fugitive path and prepare for a new epiphany brought about by the renewal of language. Christian preaching, then, is not the denial of God’s or Christ’s hiddenness but the means by which God functions from his hiddenness to call people into responsible, authentic existence. When the preacher cooperates in this activity, he and his congregation participate in a word-event, an event of authentic language that speaks with authority. He begins with the godless presupposition of the estranged human world and the failure of language (a failure that even the greatest skeptic recognizes), but his speaking becomes a "God-ing," the making present of the fugitive God.


Here the new hermeneutic leads to preaching as a subversive activity! Christian preaching demands subversive language-events that overthrow the present structures of language. Again, we are indebted to Heidegger for the analysis that supports this claim. His synonym for inauthentic language is "everyday" language. And subversive language, he says, is language that overthrows everyday language from underneath. This means that preaching cannot use "superversive" language: religious concepts from a world above everyday language. No, successful communication of the preacher’s message depends on "secular" language, which is underneath everyday, careless language and is attuned to the ground -- the ground of being (i.e., the disclosedness of humanity’s true nature).

Herein lies the greatest power of preaching. As subversive language-event it announces in the familiar context of secular language something that is utterly hidden: the fugitive God of the Christian tradition. When this event occurs, the fragmenting, destructive power of inauthentic language is smashed and subverted. The old is turned under, the new is turned up, and one is called to make a decision. Should he decide for the new, its authenticity (i.e., its sensitivity to the presence and distinctiveness of being) gives rise to a fourfold revolution in him. Heidegger said that authentic language brings together the quadrant of earth and sky, mortals and divinities. Hence authentic language restructures ones perceptions in such a way that he simultaneously experiences an ecological revolution, a cosmological revolution, a racial-sexual revolution and a spiritual revolution. And since language creates the human world, these are not just Inner revolutions"; they can be expected to express themselves in human social structuring and institutioning. No less than this is the potential for preaching as a subversive activity!


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_______________ : Theology and Proclamation. Fortress, 1966.

Funk. Robert W.: Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God. Harper & Row, 1966.

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_______________: Poetry, Language, Thought. Harper & Row, 1971.

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Robinson, James M.: "Hermeneutic of Hope." Continuum, VII (1970), 525-533.

_____________: "Language in a New World." Projections: Shaping an American Theology for the Future, edited by Thomas F. O’Meara and Donald M. Weisser. Doubleday, 1970.

_____________: and John B. Cobb, Jr., eds.: The New Hermeneutic. New Frontiers in Theology series. Vol. II. Harper & Row. i964.