Names and Honor: Thoughts on Performance and Sins of Speech
This past fall, I spent seven weeks with members of my local church thinking through the role virtues play in the Christian life. My approach was from the imagery of a tree, a rich biblical metaphor for the Christian. Each week, we considered a root, ring, and reward of the tree. The roots signify the work of God in Christ on our behalf, the rings signify the virtues we practice or habituate, and the rewards signify the fruit of the Spirit. Now, there is some overlap between the cardinal/theological virtues and list of fruits found in Galatians 5, but I think we can at least conceptually distinguish between them. Nothing new or novel was present in those seven weeks, only that which needed to be recalled and reaffirmed as we grow in our knowledge of God such that we walk in a manner worthy of Him.
During and after those weeks, I began to notice a refined kindling of the sin of speech all around me, including myself, through performance, platform, and what we’ve labeled now as virtue signaling. Now, I’m certain we’re well past the point in the social media age where our appearance online is too easily conflated and confused with our appearance offline; and vice versa. However, even among friends, I began to recoil at what was said to demonstrate (faux) humility or piety through separating oneself from a certain method of parenting, education, music, profession, and, of course, interacting online. And it’s not merely via separation, though it may be the main form; but it also is through plain performance. These comments didn’t take just one form; it was manifested through subtle scoffing, the ‘yeah, but’ niceties, or repetition to make sure everyone knew this was the type of person they were.
Prudence and Human Speech
One resource that I used throughout those seven weeks was John Webster’s God Without Measure, Vol. 2. Webster works through the relationship between dogmatics and ethics, the backward and forward references, and the proper sequence of the Christian life. Reading those essays simply felt like sitting under a learned traveler who had encountered the various vices and virtues on the pilgrim’s path. More to the point, Webster helped me recall the poignant place of the virtue of prudence in the Christian life. You see, “Christian practice is often marred by self-absorption, whether in the form of excessive confidence in human powers of self-realization, or in the form of restless anxiety about performance. The prudent person acts in accordance with their regenerate creatureliness and their true end in seeing Him as He is. Click To TweetBoth threaten the flourishing of the Christian life, because both manifest mistrust in the condition in which God’s grace has placed the believer, and are accompanied by the temptation to detach mortification and vivification from the original grace of regeneration.” In other words, the prudent person acts in accordance with their regenerate creatureliness and their true end in seeing Him as He is.
As Calvin noted, prudence “denotes skill in applying knowledge to some useful purpose.” But this skill to apply knowledge requires steady acquisition and reinforcement of the work of Christ that has been applied to our account. Borrowing from Augustine we may say that the skill takes place little by little and by minute degrees where the good so grows in and upon us by the smallest additions that rise into boundless strength might we resist the encroachments of this world and flesh.
A few notes on human speech from Webster. First, “human speech is creaturely and so not a se.” That is, we and our speech have our origin in another, God, who speaks by his own power created reality into existence (James 1:18). Because God is and God speaks, we are and we speak. Second, our “speech is directed to God and neighbor.” In speech to God, we are governed by the first commandment. In speech to neighbor, we are “governed by the requirements of justice.” That is, our speech to neighbors “must arise from and further establish good order in human common life so that goods are properly shared, and the community moved nearer to the perfection of its life.”There’s no room for self-posturing, promoting, or advancing at the expense of a neighbor or one’s soul. Click To Tweet
As Proverbs 18:21 says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Since this is true, how ought our speech be ordered such that what we communicate is fitting and true, and that common life flourishes? Webster gives five points of guidance. “First, good human speech is characterized by its integrity, by the transparency with which it manifests the good intentions of the speaker.” Fitting and true speech should flow out of the tongue. Fitting and true speech is a ‘dispensation of knowledge’ (Prov. 15:2, 7) ‘because the law of God is in the speaker’s heart and his tongue speaks justice’ (Psalm 37:30). “Second, good human speech is trustworthy, non-manipulative communication of truth.” There’s no room for self-posturing, promoting, or advancing at the expense of a neighbor or one’s soul. There’s no room for manipulating the good intentions of others at their expense or disregarding our benefit or honor.
“Third, good human speech arises from, contributes to, and so confirms due order to relation of neighbor.” Good human speech “is an act of justice which honors the neighbor more worthy than the speaker and his desires…Fourth, good human speech is moderated in accordance with the place and vocation of the speaker and the needs and capacities of the hearers. It involves prudent attention to circumstance and occasion. Moderation is the governance of the expressive impulse so that the speaker’s pleasure in speaking is not allowed to become inordinate, and goods are not dispensed wastefully and indiscriminately, without loving attention to their recipients, but shared in such a way as to be of benefit to them. Fifth, in good human speech, justice to others” is grounded in the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. “Whatever you do, do all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10.31; cf. Col. 3.17).
Names and Honor
It would seem as if personalities or platforms that are built on so-called courage and truth could really just be platforms of imprudent, sins of speech. It would seem as if personalities or platforms that are built on so-called courage and truth could really just be platforms of imprudent, sins of speech. Click To TweetIt would also seem as if personalities or platforms built on so-called humility and kindness could really just be platforms of imprudent, sins of speech. In both of these scenarios, the content of the platform isn’t necessarily the rub. It could be, but it is more likely a number of things: the motivation of appearing as a particular type of person, the disposition of self-postulating toward a certain path (& against another) to gain notoriety or honor, or the inclination to subtly build a name for oneself through performance or platform.
Writing to ministers, Baxter says this in Reformed Pastor: “Is it names and honor, or the work and end, that they desire? Oh! if they would faithfully, humbly, and self-denyingly lay out themselves for Christ and his Church, and never think of titles and reputation, they should then have honor whether they would or not; but by gaping after it, they lose it: for, this is the case of virtue’s shadow, ‘What follows I fly; what flies, the same I follow.’”
In my number one suggested pastoral ministry book, The Book of Pastoral Rule, Gregory connects what Baxter labels as ‘names and honor’ with the vice of impatience and the sin of arrogance: “Furthermore, through the vice of impatience, the sin of arrogance typically pierces the mind…while he is unable to bear contempt, he glories ostentatiously in showing himself. Thus it [Eccl. 7:9] is written: “It is better to be patient than arrogant?” For clearly, a man who is truly patient chooses to suffer evil rather than allow the hidden goodness of his life to be known through an ostentatious display.”
Of course, there is irony in writing and posting this piece, but I don’t know that I’m suggesting a particular set of remedies; I’m only writing out what I’m seeing take place more and more in the subtlest and slyest ways. You might say that this is legalistic or conflating the weak & stronger brothers. By our objective station of ‘in Christ’ and all the powers therein, we can act and speak in fortuitous courage because Christ is making all things new—including you and me. Click To TweetI’ve even thought that maybe I’m uncomfortable because I’m an introvert who often sits deliberating what to say and when to say it. But I’m not convinced that is the case (at least yet) because not only do I see these tendencies in myself, but I receive confessions of this sort from others. Significantly, we should pray Psalm 19:14 every day: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”
And to be clear, I’m not advocating for an isolated, non-social life. With God as Love and Creator, made in his image, we are lovely creatures whose existence finds fulfillment in loving God by loving neighbor. Nevertheless, I do believe that putting to death these ways of the old man, and putting on the new life in Christ is possible because Christ’s death and resurrection make it certain. So, maybe one of the ways forward is to gladly accept our creatureliness as lovely and good such that we habituate that which was gifted to us in Christ by the Spirit. By our objective station ‘in Christ’ and all the powers therein, we can act and speak in fortuitous courage because Christ is making all things new—including you and me.
 Webster, “Mortification and Vivification,” in God Without Measure, Vol. 2, 105.
 Calvin’s Comm. 1 Corinthians 12:8
 Augustine, Contra mendacium XVIII.37.
 These are from Webster’s essay “Sins of Speech” in God Without Measure, Vol. 2.
 Augustine, Contra mendacium VII.17.
 Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule, 120-103.