The Voice of the Good Shepherd: Communicating in the Electronic World with a Christian Voice, Chapter 2

Gregory Edward Reynolds

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . He [John the Baptist] was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (The Apostle John, John 1:1, 8, 14)

Inundated by perspectives, by lateral vistas of information that stretch endlessly in every direction, we no longer accept the possibility of assembling a complete picture . . . a big picture that refers to human endeavor sub specie aeternitatis, under the aspect of eternity. (Sven Birkerts, The Guttenberg Elegies [1])

The New Covenant biblical preacher’s task is embedded in the larger biblical doctrine of communication. A brief survey will help us as we seek to understand modern communication theory and its implementation in modern electronic culture. While brilliant secular theorists may “discover” many true and important things about communication and media, their theory of communication is always inadequate when it comes to foundational or ultimate things. The Christian theorist must begin with God himself. He is the original Communicator and the Creator of all human communication and all media of communication.

The Biblical Doctrine of Communication

The God of the Bible Is the Original Communicator

Before the beginning, that is the creation, the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were communicating in eternity. Thus, the three persons of the Trinity are the original communicators (opera ad intra). All reality, meaning, and communication originate in the triune God. John 5:20 “For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing.” The verb “shows” (deiknusin δείκνυσιν) means reveal or explain; the present tense indicates a continuous activity. John 17:4 refers to a covenant made in eternity between Father and Son to save God’s elect people: “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.” This is known as the Covenant of Redemption or Pactum Salutis. It is communication of the profoundest kind. Jesus says in John 17:8, “For I have given them the words (ta rēmata τὰ ῥήματα) that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.”

The doctrine of the Trinity is the only metaphysical basis for communication. “God cannot be self-contemplating, self-cognitive, and self-communing, unless he is trinal in his constitution.” [2] Inter-Trinitarian love and glory is shared through eternal communication in the mysterious interpenetration of the divine persons. Communication is of the essence of the Godhead and central to the opera ad intra of the Trinity. The whole creation reveals his name and thus his omnipresence.

In the beginning God created all things (opera ad extra) by his spoken word of command (fiat): “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). This was followed by a series of commands creating all things in the universe. The Bible describes God creating all things out of nothing by his word—his spoken word of command. Furthermore, God gave all created things meaning by naming them: “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night” (Gen. 1:5), an attribute that man made in his image would imitate in a profound but limited way.

God Created Humans to Communicate

The original communicator created humans in his own image as finite communicators. It is of the essence of our humanity that we communicate. God gave Adam and Eve recreative powers to guard, cultivate, and name all of creation, and to worship their Creator. Adam was a priest in the Garden-temple, not first of all a farmer or gardener. It was a sanctuary of communion with God—the exercise of lordship over the created order for the glory of God: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15); “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (Gen. 2:19). Adam asserted his God-given lordship over creation by naming the animals. We are called to imitate Trinitarian communication as social beings in both cult and culture.

The historic fall of Adam tragically distorted communication, perverting the gift of language. Instead of using language to reveal and glorify God, the serpent, and subsequently Adam and Eve, introduced falsehood into human speech, starting with distorting the content of the Covenant of Works, thus corrupting all human communication. Man thinks he can live without God and enjoy his world without honoring him. The visual seduction of fruit was made possible by the reinterpretation of its significance by the serpent.

So communication is not only essentially Trinitarian but also essentially covenantal. It is covenantal in nature because God spoke the terms of the Covenant of Life or Works to Adam in the Garden. This is the primary communication revealed in Genesis. The first human experience of communication was not social, but between God and man; God was the first to speak. His speech was always by way of the sovereignly initiated and defined arrangement of his relationship with man, which the Bible calls a covenant (OT berit בְּרִית; NT diathēkēs διαθήκης). Since the fall, language is used either in covenant keeping or covenant breaking activity.

Sinful man’s distortion of language is poignantly depicted in the Tower of Babel (Ziggurat) episode in Genesis 11. Fallen humanity sought solidarity through communication by defining (naming) itself above God, asserting human autonomy: “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. 11:4). Communication is rebellious man’s most important means of asserting his Tower of Babel agenda, which is the awful tendency of human culture.

Communication always has reference to God, either explicitly or implicitly. The act and mental environment of speech is a revelation of God’s existence and omnipresence as Paul pointed out to the Athenians in Acts 17:27, “for in him we live and move and have our being.” Fallen man seeks to suppress this knowledge (Rom. 1:18–20). Language forms culture as its gatekeepers control access to information as well as its meaning. But God is the great Gatekeeper to heaven’s gate, with flaming angelic swords guarding the way to the Tree of Life. He guards and cultivates his kingdom through his covenantal Word.

Human communication has been in desperate need of redemption since Adam’s fall. The Bible refers to the coming of the eternal Son as the beginning of a new creation: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). Christ is the first of a new humanity: “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent” (Col. 1:18). He comes as the original communicator in human form, the Word made flesh.

In the beginning was the Word (λόγος), 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. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. (John 1:1–4)

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col. 1:16–17)

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high . . . (Heb. 1:1–3)

Jesus Christ came to redeem communication, to save our tongues. The incarnate Son is God’s ultimate communication. He came to restore fellowship, broken by the fall of Adam and sin, between God and his image-bearers, humanity.

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. . . . Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. . . . Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” (Eph. 4:25, 29; 5:4)

Preachers are heralds of the new creation in Christ via the preached Word of God: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).

Defining Communication

A Secular Definition

While we may learn much from secular scholars in the field of communication studies, it is also an area to which Scripture speaks directly. Thus, secular definitions of communication and language will always be deficient and reveal the scholar’s ultimate loyalty.

Scholar James Carey defines communication as: “a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed.”[3] For Carey, meaning originates in human consciousness and is thus anthropocentric. People seek to create their own reality with words and actions. Carey grounds reality in the existence of communication itself. He comments,

I want to suggest, to play on the Gospel of St. John, that in the beginning was the word . . . Reality is not given, not humanly existent, independent of language and toward which language stands as a pale refraction. Rather, reality is brought into existence, is produced, by communication—by, in short, the construction, apprehension, and utilization of symbolic forms.[4]

Carey simply suppresses his knowledge of the first Communicator: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18). For the Christian, meaning and created reality originate, as we have seen, in the triune God.

A Biblical Definition

Communication is first a divine reality, and only then may it be considered a human one as well. As Augustine demonstrated in his treatise On the Teacher (de Magistro),[5] the certainty of human knowledge is based on the fact that all truth is grounded in the ontological reality, or being of God. Man’s communicative ability then is recreative rather than original. Communication originates in the eternal intra-Trinitarian communion of thought and is imitated by his image-bearing creature man in the construction of verbal symbols and the means of propagating them. This in turn enables him to fulfill the cultural mandate before the fall, his cultural instinct after the fall, and, for the Christian, his cultural calling in the various spheres of human life and society. As Augustine says in De Magistro: “when signs are heard the attention is directed to the realities signified.”[6] The Christian then begins with God himself as the original Communicator and the Creator of all human communication and all human ability to create media of communication.

The discipline of media ecology was historically developed in the thought of Jacques Ellul, Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and more recently Neil Postman and Joshua Meyrowitz, along with many others. Each of these mentioned is part of a Judeo-Christian environment of thought in one way or another and so have high respect for the “word” or verbal communication, and in some cases, such as Ellul, McLuhan, and Ong, the Word of God itself. For my analysis of these and other figures please see chapters 4 and 5 of The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures.[7]

Ecology is from the Greek oikos (οἶκος) for house; it deals with management of households and other realms as interconnected environments or systems. What has developed as the academic discipline of media ecology involves two aspects: 1) the study of media as environments, how they affect human perception and the larger environment or cultural context; and 2) the management or stewardship which the analysis of these media environments warrants.

The Christian perspective on media ecology emphasizes the importance of media stewardship in the church or “house” of God, as well as in our personal, family, and cultural lives. It has to do with our relationship to God, his people, and the world for God’s glory. This quest is inherent in being the church. Biblical reflection on the specifics of our task is a mandate motivated by this larger purpose. Unlike most other areas of common culture, God has much to say about the use of language in his Word the Bible. Thus, theology has a direct impact on media ecology. It alerts us to ways in which electronic media tend to promote or eclipse the true and living God, and all other relationships. The naming or communication power the Triune God has given man is derivative, but powerful—with it comes awesome responsibility. An excellent example of Christian stewardship of media is seen in the Christian development of the codex (the book made up of leaves and signatures) in the third century. By 400 AD the codex had completely replaced the scroll, making the Bible and all literature more accessible.

Communication is based on communion more than the mere transmission of information. The word is rooted in the Latin word communio, a sharing of something held in common. The intimate sharing of thought in language is a profound reality, which goes far beyond mere information. Data is formed into information, which in turn is organized into knowledge, which in turn is applied to life by wisdom. The latter is largely eclipsed in the modern world as poet Edna Saint Vincent Millay laments in a portion of Huntsman, What Quarry?

Upon this gifted age in its dark hour
Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts . . . they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leach us of our ill
Is daily spun, but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric.[8]

Speech is the incarnation of the inner lives of people. In turn we cannot think without language. A related word is conversation. Its origin in Middle English yields the idea of the intimacy of community. The King James Version of the Bible uses the word to communicate just that. Paul exhorts the Philippian Christians, “let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27). This involves one’s whole way of life, including, but not limited to, speech.

The Word of God Is a Multimedia Triad[9]

Media Balance

General and special revelation refer to God’s communication as non-verbal and verbal. The multimedia triad begins with God’s communication to his people and is thus also verbal and non-verbal. The fact that writing is a relatively recent mode of verbal communication (third millennium BC) means that essentially speaking and seeing are natural to man. However, since writing and reading represent an interface between speaking and seeing, I have chosen to refer to these as a triad of primary media.[10] While writing and printing favor sequential, linear, logical thought, I do not believe that rationality came about due to writing and print, however much they may accentuate that aspect of man’s consciousness, but rather that writing and print developed because man is a rational creature. Even in purely oral cultures, stories have a beginning and an end. Thus, the intuitive and rational aspects of man are both inherent in man as God’s image, and both are reflected in man’s creation, development, and use of communication media. Thus, the triad of oral, written, and visual are primary in the sense that they are fundamental to most of man’s pre-electronic situation, especially in the history of special revelation. Each of these reappear in the secondary forms of electronic communication, which are secondary media. Walter Ong and Eric Havelock were the first to identify pre-literate cultures in terms of primary orality. Radio, since it was developed in a literate culture, is referred to as secondary orality. So also is all orality in a literary context.

Joshua Meyrowitz observes:

Electronic media bring back a key aspect of oral societies: simultaneity of action, perception, and reaction. Sensory experience again becomes a prime form of communicating. Yet the orality of electronic media is far different from the orality of the past. Unlike spoken communication, electronic communication is not subject to the physical limitations of time and space.[11]

Primary orality was a time-biased medium, whereas secondary orality is space-biased. The dramatic shift changes the way we think and the questions we ask: “The major questions are no longer ‘Is it true?’ ‘Is it false?’ Instead, we ask ‘How does it look?’ ‘How does it feel?’ ”[12] Therein lies the real danger of the electronic environment. Its relativizing tendency is immense. Its potential for undermining stability of every institution is enormous. The epistemology of critical thought and the boundaries of all the essential mediating institutions of common grace are radically threatened. Since secondary orality is the only kind of orality we can experience in the electronic situation, the Christian, and especially the preacher, must distinguish between the mediated orality of the electronic media and unmediated orality of face-to-face personal encounter. The unmediated orality of the preacher in the local church brings a time-bias to the medium, as we shall see, which is no small matter in preserving the identity of the church itself.

In The Presence of the Word, Walter Ong sometimes denigrates the written word;[13] but Ong also shows some appreciation for the “endurance and stability” of the written Word.[14] In his later work Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982), written a decade and a half after The Presence of the Word, Ong goes so far as to state:

Orality is not an ideal, and never was. To approach it positively is not to advocate it as a permanent state for any culture. Literacy opens possibilities to the word and to human existence unimaginable without writing. . . . Both orality and the growth of literacy and the growth of literacy out of orality are necessary for the evolution of consciousness.[15]

Forging a dichotomy between written and spoken is contrary to what the Bible clearly teaches about the complementary relationship between the two. David’s meditation on the Word in Psalm 1, among dozens of other similar passages, demonstrates that private reading may also be a powerful vehicle for interiorizing, as Sven Birkerts has pointed out of reading in general. Furthermore, the public reading and preaching of the written Word seals what is written on the corporate consciousness and memory of the church, which has been entrusted with the deposit of the written Word of God, the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:15).

It is highly significant that the importance of God’s Word taking written form, as Scripture, appears in the history of redemption precisely at the time when the body of revelation became mnemonically impossible to handle. Since writing, or the codification of cultural realities, had been developed in common culture at least a millennium prior to Moses, it was, in the Providence of God, a perfect medium for the design and promotion of the typological kingdom of Israel, the nation. Written documents preserve oral realities, especially important for the infallible Word of God.

It is also an open question whether or not there are any purely oral cultures open to our historical inspection. One thing is certain, the Greeks were not the first literate culture as Havelock and Ong assert. Brandeis archeologist Cyrus Gordon has spent his career demonstrating the common origin of Greek and Hebrew cultures in a common Mediterranean civilization as well as the presence of phonetic literacy long before Greek civilization.[16]

Also, the presence of sin is entirely overlooked by the “oralist school.” Sin itself gives no small reason for the revelation of the Mosaic Covenant to be in written form. Thus, for the church awaiting the consummation of the kingdom, and in the midst of the development toward the apotheosis of the deification of human culture as the cult of man, it is critical to seek the proper balance between the written and the oral as well as the appropriate place of the visual in culture and the church.

The Incarnate Son Embodies the Perfect Balance among Media

The incarnate Son provides us with the model for media criticism. In this regard Jacque Ellul points in a helpful direction when he observes that in Christ the word and the creation are united. Space, time, sight, and sound would have always been united in perfect balance were it not for the historic Fall.[17] McLuhan maintained that the Medieval failure to understand the Gutenberg technology could have been avoided had they “created a new synthesis of oral and written education.”[18] A synthetic approach will avoid the Scylla of the Luddite and the Charybdis of the technophile.

The Word of God is at once a written/read, an oral/heard, and a visual/seen medium. Any one of these isolated from the others leads to idolatry. The threefold mediatorial office of the firstborn of the new humanity is replicated in his people. The richness of this threefold office can only be properly appreciated and implemented as the Word of God is understood as a multimedia triad. God’s world of space-time, created reality is all of these at once for creatures made in his image, but only a proper understanding of the means of grace will enable the Christian to maintain the necessary balance among the three, and hence in relationship to all other media in our culture.

The three media or modes of communication given to us in speaking/hearing, reading/writing, and seeing/touching/tasting are the primary media of communication. They are fundamental to our being created in or as God’s image. The media balance in the means of grace prepares us to deal with all of what we might call the cultural or technological media. Because of sin, even when the three aspects are held in harmonious relationship, there will still be cursing and blessing present. In the worship of the church, the primary media are set apart or sanctified to be a unique blessing to God’s people.

The visual, which is locked in space, demands the spoken and written words to give it meaning. The written, and especially the printed word, provides a transition between the visual and the oral. The written must be read by sight, but the meaning transcends sight. The spoken word gives special effect to the written and is prior to the written historically.

The incarnate Lord embodies this triad. Augustine understood that the eternal Second Person of the Trinity, the Word, is the “cause and pattern of all created truth and the light of all created intellects.”[19] He comes in history for all to see. He is seen dying on the cross and raised from the dead on the third day. He is the eternal Word made visible. His ministry is a teaching ministry. He preaches from the day of his baptism and installation as the Messiah until he breathes his seven last sayings on the cross. Then he preaches through his apostles, as he had spoken through his servants the prophets in the Old Covenant. All that he declares and accomplishes is a fulfillment of his inviolable written Word in the Old Testament: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). And all that he declares and accomplishes is written as his final revelation to mankind in the pages of the New Testament. In his incarnation the mediatorial Son “exegetes” (exēgēsato ἐξηγήσατο) the Father: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). In him we find visual, oral, and written communication in perfect harmony.

Literacy and Orality Are Friends

There is a certainty attached by God himself to the written Word which functions in perfect harmony with the power of the voice in catechizing the church. Luke begins his gospel by stating his purpose in writing to Theophilus: “that you may have certainty (epignōs ἐπιγνῷς) concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4, emphasis added). Instructed or taught is the word for catechize (katēchéō κατηχέω), or to sound in the ear. Thus, ink and voice are friends not enemies and combined they cultivate certitude.

The general revelation of God in the visible world is the situation in which all knowledge and communication takes place. Created to reveal the invisible glory of the Creator in his “eternal power and divine nature” (Rom. 1:20), the visible world is both a medium of God’s communication to man and a medium of man’s communication to man. Used as a primary medium of culture building, when the visual is used as a tool to assert autonomy, it becomes a medium of idolatry. This covenant-breaking mode of existence is reversed by the counter environment of the visible revelation of the Covenant of Grace. Redemptive recreation of the visible world is central to the tabernacle and temple of the Old Covenant and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the New Covenant. Closely related to the visual is the tactile and olfactory perception of the created world. Thus, the visible world is restored to its original intention in the eyes of the believer.

Existentially, man is addressed by the oral Word of God. God conversed with Adam in the Garden of Eden and has spoken directly to his people throughout the history of special revelation after the fall. The immediacy of the oral affects people existentially. The power of the oral is revealed throughout Scripture. Gossip is like a deadly sword, and words of encouragement and truth are like nourishing ripe fruit. In sin the oral has enormous destructive potential. Preaching is the primary medium for restoring speech to its original intention: to express God’s thoughts after him.

In Jesus Christ we find the perfect balance of communication media. In Jesus Christ we find the perfect model for the preacher and the media critic. The media triad provides a structural reminder of the importance of a balanced sensorium in the service of God. Walter Ong observes: “Christian revelation has survived vast changes in the sensoria of the cultures in which Christians have lived.”[20] He further opines:

Indeed, the fact that the focal point of Hebrew and, even more, of Christian belief is found in a culture which for historical reasons makes so much of the word should be thoroughly reassuring for the believer: God entered into human history in a special fashion at the precise time when psychological structures assured that his entrance would have greatest opportunity to endure and flower. To assure maximum presence through history, the Word came in the ripeness of time, when a sense of the oral was still dominant and when at the same time the alphabet could give divine revelation among men a new kind of endurance and stability. The believer finds it providential that divine revelation let down its roots into human culture and consciousness after the alphabet was devised but before print had overgrown major oral structures and before our electronic culture further obscured the basic nature of the word.[21]

Is it not the threefold balance among written, oral, and visual that accounts for this resiliency?

The Written Word

The written word is the incarnation of thought, an imitation of the Trinity and the incarnation of the Word. It is, as we have seen, an exercise of lordship. The fact of God’s writing the Ten Words with his own finger in Hebrew at Sinai (Exod. 31:18) and that he wrote words of judgment on the wall of Belshazzar’s royal dining hall in the diplomatic language of Aramaic (Dan. 5:5ff), demonstrates that writing is not an evolutionary cultural development. In support of the primacy of the oral, it is often asserted that Jesus taught but never wrote a book or even a word, as far as we know. What is missing in this simplistic observation is the place of the written Word in the ministry of Jesus. All the events of his birth fulfilled what was written by the Old Covenant prophets. He battled the Devil in the temptation in the wilderness with what was written in Moses and the Prophets (Matt. 4:1–10). He viewed his entire life and ministry as a fulfillment of what is written: “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him” (Matt. 26:24, emphasis added)

Most important of all, the Word incarnate is the author of all that is written in both testaments of the Bible.

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (1 Pet. 1:10–12)

Furthermore, Jesus told the Apostles in the upper room that they would be the instruments of written revelation after the resurrection. Peter received Paul’s letters as Scripture during Paul’s lifetime.

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Pet. 3:15–16)

For David, the written Word of God was fundamental, as he demonstrated in giving the plans and specifications for the Temple to Solomon, as David turned the throne over to him: “All this he made clear to me in writing from the hand of the LORD, all the work to be done according to the plan.” (1 Chron. 28:19).

What is written is also always both oral and visual. We are to think of them separately only to understand their interrelationship. In reality they are never separate. The first written portion of Scripture is an account of the most astounding oral event in history, the creation out of nothing by the spoken commands of God. The preacher is always preaching to readers of the Word. When he reads the Word publicly, he speaks and is heard. When readers read privately, they hear the voice of the preacher. This why it is dangerous to forsake the church and the means of grace, living in isolation from the public ministry of the Word.

What is written is also always visual. The reader of Scripture always brings his eyes to the text, not only as he sees the letters, but also as he brings his visual memory to the text. Genesis 1 is a feast for the eyes as the reader is confronted with the majestic power of ex nihilo creation. The created world is the context of Adam’s viceregency as the image of God. Scripture is filled with metaphors which are rooted in our experience of God’s world and the history and culture developed by his image bearers. Revelation 12 is a striking example of how all the history of redemption is viewed through several powerful and evocative visual images. Archeology is always pushing the date of writing back further and further. Languages such as Proto-Sumerian and Egyptian hieroglyphics use pictographs, which picture the visual reality or a symbol of it.

Written words are an incarnation of speech, just as spoken words are an incarnation of thought. The invention of the phonetic alphabet simply drew out the implications of language, i.e., that each distinct set of sounds has meaning. Phonetics codifies this meaning in an efficient storage and transmission system. This is part of cultural development for which man was created in God’s image.

I would argue that the written is foundational to the life and worship of the church and informs the other two media. The oral and visual found in preaching, teaching, and the sacraments ingraft and seal the Word to the church in public worship. The fixity of print is essential to the covenant document of Scripture in a fallen world. This comports well with the aseity and eternity of God. Fixity and permanence communicate the faithfulness and immutability of God and his inviolable promises—“Writing is fixed in space, confined, bound, unvarying, subject to inspection and reinspection, and thus firm, controlled. . . . Scripta manent.”[22] Furthermore, the written Scripture liberates the church from the possible tyranny of the oral, what we might call the “heard” mentality seen in tribal cultures.

The nature of second millennium BC suzerainty treaties placed a strong emphasis on written documents (tablets).

The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, that I may give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” (Exod. 24:12)

when you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deut. 30:10)

This list could be a very long one since the entire Bible exemplifies this balance of oral and written. Especially interesting in this last quotation is the juxtapositioning of the Lord’s “voice” and what is “written.”

It is eschatologically significant that the first written revelation established the typological kingdom of the Mosaic Covenant. The completed writings of the canonical Scriptures now foreshadow and assure the arrival of the consummated kingdom at the end of history.

The medium of the Word . . . relates to eschatology. Inscripturation marks the Word with a permanence and constancy that reflects eternity. In fact, the transition from the oral to the written Word proclaims the transition from this age to the age to come. In this regard it would be well to take exception to the “historicistic” claim for the primacy of the oral tradition. Not that the Scripture itself ever divides the speaking and writing of God’s Word in the manner some critics do. Still, the written Word bears a distinct eschatological stamp that grants it an elevated and even incomparable position for the people of God.[23]

In God’s providence, printing, as the “first mass medium,” ushered in a new era of gospel preaching which has spread throughout the world, as the church sojourns toward the promised eschatological consummation of history.

The immediacy of the oral is fixed and bounded by the written Word of God. Scripture as a medium promotes the concept of history. It is linear, moving from beginning to end. It is also essentially a narrative, the historical genre being primary. The poetry, wisdom literature, and epistolary literature are all rooted in the narrative of redemption. “In the beginning” signals the primacy of the historical perspective. The linear approach to history, the very idea of history itself, is rooted in the book. The linear nature of the written/printed word is appropriate to the historical movement of redemptive history.

The de-historicizing tendency of postmodernism idealizes the right-brain intuitive function. While it is certainly true that the institutionalizing and privatizing, or isolating tendency of print can be a monumental problem in an idolatrous world, it is patently unbalanced to declare as Ong does that writing and print are “permanently decadent” compared with the oral medium. Quoting 2 Corinthians 3:6, “The letter kills but the spirit gives life,” only exacerbates the imbalance. Paul is distinguishing between the Mosaic and the new covenants, not the contrast between oral and written communication. Linearity and logic need not lead to Cartesian rationalism or its child, scientific materialism. If in fact the human brain reflects a polarity between linear and intuitive thought, it would seem wise to see the two, at best, as working in harmony to perceive and communicate the truth of God’s Word and the meaning of his world. This is clear in what Jesus tells his disciples about God’s gracious revelation of the truth to them.

Then turning to the disciples he said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” (Luke 10:23–24)

The disciples saw the miracles that Jesus performed in fulfillment of Isaiah 61 but could only understand them based on what they heard—the Word of God. Of course, this is a basic pattern in the history of redemption: The Lord performs mighty acts and then interprets them by giving his Word. Because we have not witnessed these mighty acts, which culminated in the ministry, death, and resurrection of our Lord, they come to us through the Word, read publicly and preached.

The privacy of print is important for the deep, meditative reading of God’s Word by his people in personal imitation of David (Ps. 1). This kind of reading cultivates reflection and thus expansion of the soul in relation to God, his church, and one’s culture. Ultimately God seeks residence in the hearts of his people, and thus he communicates inwardly. Private reading helps foster this. But this privacy is not meant to function to isolate the individual or to be used in isolation from the other media or the church.

The reading of Scripture aloud publicly forms a kind of covenantal juncture between private reading and preaching. The text of Scripture is a corporate or community document. Thus, the negatives of print, such as its privatizing and democratizing effect, are corrected by a biblical place for the preaching and public reading of God’s Word among the people. The written Word links the oral and the visual.

The Oral Word

The oral Word, bounded by the foundational written Word, is central to the life and worship of the church. The primary means of grace is not the Word alone, but the preached Word. It applies the written Word as the living voice of God with all the immediacy and power unique to the spoken word. God is the God of the living and not the dead. On the Lord’s Day the living and true God addresses his people directly through his chosen servant the minister of the Word. While the prophetic voice is silent in the sense of providing fresh revelation, it is not silent in terms of God speaking to his people. McLuhan went so far as to say that orality “insures fixity” more than writing.[24] Surely writing tends to be easily forgotten if it is not read and reread, and especially read aloud. That we cannot do without the oral Word is the assumption of every preacher who takes his calling seriously. I will explore this more fully in subsequent chapters.

The Visual Word

The visual, which is locked in space, demands the spoken and written words to give it meaning. The written, and especially the printed word, provides a transition between the visual and the oral. The written must be read by sight, but the meaning transcends sight. As noted above, Ong often pits the oral against the visual. A Jesuit disciple of Ong, who is also a leading Ong scholar, Thomas Farrell, asserts,

Now, what did the visual analogues for intellection contrast with? For Ong, they contrasted with biblical expressions about “hearing” the word of God. Because of the visual analogues in Greek philosophy, Ong inferred that Greek philosophic thought manifested the impact of the written word (more so than biblical thought did). Ong worked all of this out before the publication of Havelock’s Preface to Plato.[25]

The Bible, however, is full of visual analogues for intellection: “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (Gen. 2:19). “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (Ps. 34:8). “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light” (Ps. 36:9). “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” (John 3:3). “But I see in my members another law” (Rom. 7:23). The Bible reflects a perfect balance among the God-given media of visual, oral, and written.

The sacraments are the visual Word which are signs and seals of the written and oral Word in the life and worship of the church. They are informed by the written and preached Word. The presence of the preached Word along with the sacraments was a hallmark of the Reformation as over against the Roman Catholic tendency to place the visible at the center of public worship. The tendency toward idolatry is exacerbated by isolation of the visible Word.

The sacraments remind the church that it is redeemed in history, in space and time, through the incarnation, and presence of the Spirit of the risen Lord. After his resurrection Jesus ate fish with the twelve, reminding them that he, who had eaten the last supper with them, was the same person who was now resurrected as the heavenly Lord in his glorious body. He was not an apparition but the Lord of history and the first born from among the dead. The Apostle John testified:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1–3)

So participants in the Lord’s Supper see, smell, taste, and handle the elements of bread and wine. They see and feel the waters of baptism. Protestants have often been too hesitant to affirm the importance of the sacraments as sentient, historical experience. As visual, the sacraments represent a critical dimension of the environment which counters idolatry. The “neglect of the Lord’s Supper may be responsible for a dangerous individualism that weakens its [the church’s] witness.”[26]

The visual element in the sacrament does not imply the use of other visual elements, such as drama, dance, or overhead projectors. The elements of worship, according to the Regulative Principle, are only those prescribed by express warrant in the written Word. As in the Mosaic Covenant, the visual means of worship are clearly prescribed by God in opposition to the idolatry of surrounding nations. The preaching of the Word is the medium prescribed for communicating the Word in public worship. While it may be debated whether or not bulletins, hymnals, and over-head projectors are elements or circumstances of worship, at least the Second Commandment calls us to consider the effect of the medium upon each element of worship. If we learn nothing from McLuhan and Postman, we should affirm their insight that the media of communication form a vital aspect of the messages they bear. Thus, the importance of the Second Commandment in the life of the worshipping community.

There is also a visual dimension to preaching. The appearance and gestures of the preacher are an aspect of the medium. A picture is worth a thousand words only if the Word is primary, prescribing, and defining the image.

As we step back from this discussion, it would seem that the task of Media Ecology was defined by Marshall McLuhan in terms of man’s unique ability to reflect on his involvement with every medium and in so reflecting, taking responsibility for that involvement. We are not ultimately determined by media. Only when we fail to understand the environmental power of media do we become victims.

By keeping the primary media in balance through worship, we will be habitually reminded to duplicate that balance in the use of all other artificial media, especially the electronic media. By keeping the focus of communication on the communion of persons, both divine and human, we will be alert to the ways in which each medium either promotes or undermines our personal relationships with God and others and our commitments to the church, the family, and the community. The written, preached, and visible Word is the antidote to idolatry and cultivates the atmosphere of thought and life, which is the only anti-environment capable of withstanding the onslaught of our idolatrous culture.


[1] Sven Birkerts, The Guttenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Winchester, MA: Faber and Faber, Inc., 1994), 75.

[2] William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, vol. 1 (Repr., 1888, 2nd ed., Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1980), 251.

[3] James W. Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society (Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 23.

[4] Carey, Communication as Culture, 25.

[5] Saint Augustine, The Greatness of the Soul; The Teacher, in Ancient Christian Writers, trans. and ed. Joseph M. Colleran (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1964), 122.

[6] Augustine, The Greatness of the Soul, 115.

[7] Gregory Edward Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2001), 101–203.

[8] Edna Saint Vincent Millay, Huntsman, What Quarry? (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1939), Cited by Neil Postman in “Science and the Story We Need,” in First Things (January 2007): 29.

[9] This section is an abbreviated version of Gregory E. Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 191–203.

[10] For the distinction between primary and secondary orality cf. Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York: Methuen, 1982); Eric Havelock, The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).

[11] Joshua Meyrowitz, “Taking McLuhan and ‘Medium Theory’ Seriously: Technological Change and the Evolution of Education.” Chapter 4 in Technology and the Future of Schooling: Ninety-Fifth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, edited by Stephen T. Kerr. Part II. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996): 96.

[12] Meyrowitz, “Taking McLuhan and ‘Medium Theory’ Seriously,” 97.

[13] Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures, 192–93.

[14] Ong, The Presence of the Word (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967. repr, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1981), 191.

[15] Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York: Methuen, 1982), 175.

[16] Cyrus H. Gordon, Ugarit and Minoan Crete; The Bearing of Their Texts on the Origins of Western Culture (New York: W. W. Norton, 1966); Homer and Bible: The Origin and Character Of East Mediterranean Literature (Ventnor, NJ: Ventnor Publishers, 1967); Before the Bible; The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations (Plainview, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1973).

[17] Walter Ong, Review: The Humiliation of the Word (Jacques Ellul) in the Journal of Communication (1986): vol. 36, no. 1, 156–58.

[18] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964), 51.

[19] Augustine, The Greatness of the Soul; The Teacher, 120.

[20] Ong, The Presence of the Word, 11.

[21] Ong, The Presence of the Word, 190–191.

[22] Ong, The Presence of the Word, 94.

[23] Charles G. Dennison, “Thoughts on the Covenant,” in Pressing toward the Mark, eds., Charles G. Dennison and Richard C. Gamble (Philadelphia: The Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church), 12.

[24] McLuhan, Counterblast, 81.

[25] Thomas Farrell, “Visual Epistemologies?” Personal E-mail (18 March 2000).

[26] R. William Franklin and Joseph M. Shaw, The Case for Christian Humanism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) 174.

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, March, 2023.

Publication Information

Contact the Editor: Gregory Edward Reynolds

Editorial address: Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds,
827 Chestnut St.
Manchester, NH 03104-2522
Telephone: 603-668-3069

Electronic mail: reynolds.1@opc.org

Submissions, Style Guide, and Citations


Editorial Policies

Copyright information

Ordained Servant: March 2023


Also in this issue


Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 4A

Ambiguities in Book of Discipline 9.1, Standing Revisited

Letters to a Younger Ruling Elder, No. 3: The Importance of the Devotional Life

Jazz and the Gospel: A Review Article

What Do We Do with Modern Art? A Review Article


Download PDFDownload ePubArchive


+1 215 830 0900

Contact Form

Find a Church