Volume 47 - Issue 3

“The Sanctification of Our Speech”: The Theological Function of Truth and Falsehood in John Webster’s “Sins of Speech”

By Robb Torseth


The contemporary debate concerning truth and falsehood has become distinctly conspicuous in light of recent global events. The increasing great divorce between diverging worldviews has resulted in what Susan Harding has coined the “repugnant cultural other,” where each group has retreated into itself, stigmatized the other, and thus neglects a genuine exchange of words and ideas. Here, the writings of the late John Webster help shed light on foundational conceptions of the purpose, use, and ethics of human language as primarily both theologically-oriented and theologically-originated. This article will consider Webster’s 2015 article “Sins of Speech,” first in relation to his broader thought, and second as it applies to the contemporary problem of speech, public or private, in the information age.

Within the contemporary arena of public discourse, the consensus on what constitutes appropriate speech, and even the nature of speech itself, has been a controverted subject. Contemporary issues surrounding the polarization of ideology and worldview abound; symptomatic of this is a September 2020 Gallup Poll that shows that half of those United States citizens polled trust the mainstream media either “not very much” or “none at all.”1 Likewise, where social media censorship and fact-checking over issues like conspiracy theory, misinformation, and hate speech abound, greater polarization seems to ensue as a result.2 This polarization of popular opinion and speech can be seen leading to various instances of ad hominem, such as the claim that those opposed to one’s own views are “liars,” or the assertion of a deceitful mass coordinated conspiracy.3 Such behaviors have, at their root, a common pathology that underscores a fundamental misunderstanding and misordering of how one social sphere views the other, not relegated simply to one or the other, but a universal phenomenon.4 This invokes the social dynamic of Susan Harding’s “repugnant cultural other.” In her 1991 article “Representing Fundamentalism: The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other,” Harding considers the case of American Christian fundamentalism, both the term itself—which has taken on a pejorative connotation over the last century—as well as the history behind it via the paradigmatic event of the 1925 Scopes trial, in order to better understand how this particular ideological subculture became stigmatized and thus shunned by those affixing the title of “modern” to their thought.5 For Harding, the point is not necessarily to endorse a fairer treatment of fundamentalists per se—that is too narrow an application of this principle for her purposes; rather, the point is to open up genuine engagement with cultural “others,” whatever form they might take, so that critical and authentic dialogue is produced between both parties as opposed to further marginalization based on false characterizations. This, in turn, is meant to help militate against the “us” versus “them” mentality present in assumptions about repugnant cultural others.

The point of this article is not to endorse or defend any one perspective or another, or even to get particularly political in general, but rather, to draw attention to the need for exactly what Harding is calling for: a genuine constructive dialogue between differing perspectives. In particular, what the present author would like to highlight is that, from a theological perspective, there is an element in the equation of holistic public discourse missing: the theological element of speech. Questions concerning the integrity of speech, truth and falsehood, bias, hate, and more all speak to the need for a reconciliation of our speech, what John Webster refers to as “the sanctification of our speech”—a reality that be afforded only by the activity of the gospel of Christ and its twofold ethic of loving God and loving neighbor. This was a part of the larger, life-long project on moral theology embarked on by John Webster, whose 2015 article “Sins of Speech,” published in the journal Studies in Christian Ethics, exemplifies his conviction that moral theology is a locus “distributed across the corpus of dogmatics,” animated and given life by the life-giving principles of the gospel.6 This article will first unpack Webster’s “Sins of Speech,” then weigh that against the bulk of his corpus and his broader concerns over the role of theology in the public sphere; finally, it will conclude with reflections on potential avenues of applications salient to the current schematic divide in the information age, avenues that aid in avoiding either isolationist and separationist behaviors characteristic of “repugnant cultural other” mentality on the one hand, and relativism of perspectives on the other.

1. Reordering Disordered Speech

In “Sins of Speech,” Webster begins with what initially appears to be a digression on the knowledge of sin. Echoing both Calvin and Aquinas, he says that “Knowledge of sin is doubly derived, from knowledge of God and knowledge of created nature.”7 Sin itself is only a negation or “privation”: it preys on God’s revealed goodness in creation, deforms it, and diminishes its function.8 This applies to a theology of speech inasmuch as any other theological inquiry: just as human reasoning has become corrupted and depreciates with the fall and the entrance of sin and evil, so too does the human capacity of speech, where “an ethics of sinful speech is an integral part of hamartiology.”9 Such an inquiry thus fits within the created imperative to know and love God and serve him in a way consistent with created origins and ends—an inquiry of created finitude—as well as the humbling of the intellect in the operation of mortification and vivification, actualized by the Holy Spirit.10

As such, Webster fronts the dogmatic inquiry of speech before considering speech in its anthropological capacities, asking the question, “What might theology say about the speech of creatures?” He draws four sequential points: (1) “Humans are creatures.” We have given nature derived from the communication of God’s a se goodness, and in that nature, we are (a) teleological, (b) rational, (c) social, and (d) communicative, which itself has two aspects: the exchanging of goods that pertain to perfection and the verbal “communication of goods by which we are sustained in life,” which “takes place either through linguistic signs or with the accompaniment of such signs.” (2) “Human speech is creaturely and so not a se.” Speech itself is a quality of God’s creative speech, a “silent language” which is nonetheless generative: “Because God speaks, creatures speak.” (3) “Human speech is directed to God and to neighbors.” This invokes both the logic and the ethic of the first and foremost commandment: well-ordered speech is thus first “governed by the requirements of religion,” which Webster believes is a natural implication of the first commandment of the Decalogue, and second, “human speech is governed by the requirements of justice,” where it must further the good of human society. (4) The governing of human speech by justice calls attention to both “its causal power and its irrevocability.” Speech is effective and thus “potentially harmful,” exposing the inner affections, and “proposing a view of the world.” As such, it “establishes a ‘real’ relation between the speaker and the one addressed.” This means that words are, quite literally, irrevocable: even though one may recant of a statement, this cannot erase what is a product of the verbal “generative power”: “What is said may not be unsaid,” to which Webster adds Proverbs 18:21: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”11

This is all by way of table-dressing. From here, Webster, turns to address the positive question, “How is speech to be ordered so that created goods are fittingly communicated and common life caused to flourish?” He draws five characteristics of good human speech: it is characterized by (1) integrity and transparency, revealing genuinely good intentions (citing Prov 37:30–31; 15:2, 7); (2) “there is a right relation of sign to thing signified, which sets up truth in human communication,” i.e., it is “trustworthy” and “non-manipulative”; (3) governed by justice, it honors the hearer as a neighbor equally as valid as the speaker; (4) it is prudent, moderate, and takes into account circumstances and context; and (5) it conforms to a sense of justice that is “animated by religion.” This fifth characteristic ties the discussion back to his antecedent dogmatic by citing 1 Cor 10:31, Col 3:17, Isa 65:16, and Jer 5:3 to demonstrate the teleological orientation of all things to God’s glory and the relationship between God as truth and the pursuit of truth in speech.12

Here, Webster begins to consider sin as a disordering of human speech, quoting at length James 3:5–11 to demonstrate the biblical teaching on the severity and effect of the fallen tongue. Although sin cannot wholly eradicate the communicative nature and reality of speech—sin cannot uncreate nature—it nonetheless directs itself against every facet of the goodness of God manifest in the foremost commandment: against God, sins of commission in blasphemy and cursing, and sins of omission in neglecting to give God the praise due to him as God; and against neighbor, either in a legal/judicial context (“false accusations, bearing false witness or pronouncing an unjust judgment”) or in common speech, which itself can be divided into reputation (“defamation, detraction, gossip, ridicule”) or deceit (“lying, hypocrisy, boasting and flattery; and those which are quarrelsome and sow discord”).13

Webster then begins to measure these sins by origin and effect. In terms of origin, evil speech originates as an expression of the inner person and evil intentions, his proof text being the locus classicus that is Matthew 15:18, along with Proverbs 15:2. This is important for assessing the careful distinction between lying and error: quoting Augustine’s De Mendacio, he notes that lying implies will and thus necessitates an assessment of character, motive, and intent. In other words, “The principle here is that appraisal of acts of verbal communication must include inquiry into and assessment of the speaker’s intention.” Yet, in terms of effect, disordered speech produces disordered results: conflict and damages inflicted not only upon the hearer, but also the one speaking, instilling vicious habits and a skewed view of words and the relationship between the self and reality.14

To make things more concrete, Webster then considers two examples of sins of speech: blasphemy against God, which preys on the primary mode of language as intended for praise, and defamation of neighbor, wherein sin contends against the good of one’s neighbor’s reputation and thus against justice and a love of justice. The prescription, in Webster’s estimation, is the reorientation of human speech and the reinstitution of human vocation in moral service to God. This requires God’s grace, where “the first cause of good works is God the Holy Spirit.” As such, although even the speech of the regenerate falls prey to the present “‘mixed’ condition” (i.e., simul justus et peccator), this also means that any and all “good speech is ex gratia,” where, in the process of mortification and vivification, old forms of speech may be “put off” and new forms of speech “put on” (Col 3:5–10). Speech may be renewed in relation to God in the form of thanksgiving, reordered to the new reality of the saints in the redemptive work of Christ Jesus. In relation to neighbor, speech may be changed concurrent with the change of new social relations, i.e., “the social sphere of regeneration,” wherein each member is equal to the other in dignity and unity.15

What does this new mode of verbal communication look like in the Christian society? For Webster, this involves the two pillars of edification and moderation. Quoting Ephesians 4:29, Webster explains that reordered speech should communicate the character of the gospel and bring both speaker and hearer to partake in grace. Likewise, speech should be moderate in that it should be lucid and not “distorted by excess or defect.” In moderation of speech, the speaker should be “quick to hear, slow to speak” (Jas 1:19), inasmuch as attention should be given to the appropriateness of language in a given situation and to a particular hearer. This places the use of words below the needs and dignity of the hearer and thus militates again what he calls “the anxious need to assert ourselves over others by words.” Webster closes the section with a quotation from Gregory’s Pastoral Rule and ends the article with a quote from Calvin demonstrating the continual need to invoke God in pursuit of “the sanctification of our speech.”16

2. Reordered Speech in the Public Arena

In order to extend the implications of Webster’s “Sins of Speech” into the present perspectival divide in the information age, a helpful key will be Webster’s broader considerations of the role of theology in the realm of public discourse. Here, the most pertinent examples are Webster’s writings in The Culture of Theology—a seminal work on theological method, originally delivered as the Thomas Burns Memorial Lectures at the University of Otago in 1998 and published posthumously—as well as two articles, “God, Theology, Universities” (2014) and “Regina artium: Theology and the Humanities” (2011).17 Starting with the lattermost, Webster’s point is that theology imparts meaning to the humanities, which are otherwise variegated and directionless: whereas “contemporary higher education” is prone toward “flimsiness and ignobility of its understanding of what it is about,” often effervescent in the light of cultural shifts, theology provides an orientation of the humanities toward God, originally in regards to the motion of the mind, and teleologically as ordered toward God’s wisdom and glory.18 Although theology can flourish without the academy, the academy cannot flourish without theology.19 A similar focus on the origin and end of the movement of the mind is found in “God, Theology, Universities”: where theology is the queen of the sciences, this informs the university that “the primary end of study—all study—is contemplation of the creator of all.”20 This militates against attrition of meaning between the disciplines of the academy that concern itself with phenomenalism: once again, the university is not necessary for theology to flourish, but theology is necessary for the university to flourish.21

Even more pointed is Webster’s language in the chapter “Conversations” in The Culture of Theology: theology must not compromise by “knocking off the rough edges” in order to make it respectable; it must, instead, keep its stance as one of “noncomformity,” where it “unanxiously” pursues its own subject and resists resigning to conflicting ideas of other faculties, providing a check for the conclusions of those disciplines in the process.22 Likewise, theology must function as a moral guide for conversation amongst the faculties in general, where it can offer a “better spirituality of intellectual exchange.” Interestingly, it is here that Webster cites Stanley Hauerwas on freedom of speech in the university and alludes to the necessity of theology for genuinely free speech, which will allow for “a better politics of intellectual conflict and a deeper and more self-aware inhabitation of specific moral and intellectual cultures”—but only if it retains its “doggedness in the face of those who would persuade it to” lose its distinctiveness and its independent focus.23

This last note provides something quite close to what is being aimed at in this article, concurrent with “Sins of Speech”: speech is truly free if it is working according to its original function and purpose, and thus it is most free when one can simply let theology be theological in relation to the public arena. This seems to be part of Webster’s contribution to the concept of the integrity of speech in public discourse: it is either oriented to a reality that reflects the nature and works of God, or it constitutes a sort of falsehood or error. Note that this conception of speech does not necessarily escape dichotomy—that was not the purpose of this article. The purpose was, in so considering Webster’s theological model for language, to shift the dichotomy from a polarization of ideologies and worldviews to a dichotomy, yes, between truth and falsehood, but a truth and falsehood more concretely defined theologically. In other words, it is to be rightly ordered in a way that considers its orientation toward God and toward neighbor, toward reality as constituted by God to glorify him, and toward neighbor as a creature with equal dignity and vocation to oneself.

3. Conclusion

Considering the above, this means that in navigating the contemporary issues of truth and falsehood there are two lessons that can be taken from Webster, both which require critical introspection. The first revolves around objective theological criterion for truth and falsehood. Within Webster’s exposition, truth in speech is correspondent to reality, yes, but a reality that finds its origin and telos in God the creator, with the implications that entails. Spoken language and truth claims must be weighed against the character of God and what is known about his presence and self-revelation in the world and in humanity.24 Undoubtedly, this is a deep dogmatic task that requires an equal amount dogmatic legwork, far beyond the extent of this article, but that isn’t the goal here; instead, what is being aimed at is the reordering the logic of inquiry toward God first, with conclusions reached only subsequent to this theological starting point. The second lesson involves character virtues and the role of charity toward neighbor in discourse: where Webster calls for edification and moderation, the latter avoiding certain extremes, one can see an easy application against the sort of ad hominem and facultative assumptions noted prior. One could say, part of moderation is giving the other the benefit of the doubt: this helps break down the barrier erected by the repugnant cultural other and may even have greater application to conspiratorial claims as well, although this is beyond the scope of this article.25 In the words of Rowan Williams, “Having integrity … is being able to speak in a way which allows of answers.”26 One could, perhaps, see this as a function of both law and gospel: the ninth commandment, i.e., against bearing false witness, in context of the Godward orientation of the Decalogue, calls for the appraisal of speech in this realist capacity, whereas the gospel imperative of love helps to understand the vast limitations of not only one’s neighbor’s speech and understanding, but of the self as well—a universal reality that must take into account the effects of both finitude and sinfulness. To borrow a turn of phrase from Calvin, the chief virtue needs to be threefold: humility, humility, and humility.27 In this way—to extend the concept from Webster—although theology may flourish without public discourse, public discourse cannot flourish without theology.

What does this mean for the average Christian in the pew, the pastor in the pulpit, or the theologian in the academy? The applications in this instance are broad and cover the wide range of speech-based interactions held between image-bearers. When dealing with those with whom there is profound disagreement, truth should be sought, but in a loving manner: this means holding fast to convictions, while still giving one another the benefit of the doubt, not assuming the worst about their intent, but extending charity and humility in genuinely engaging with what they have to say. This is important for building credibility and allowing healthy dialogue, as opposed to alienating one person or group as a “repugnant cultural other.” This, in turn, will allow for all truth claims in a discussion to be heard and considered. Likewise, if the perspective is kept Godward first, this process will help reorient speech toward God in a way that is genuine to his character as truth (Isa 65:16), aiding in dialogue focused on weeding through truth and error in a world that corresponds to its Creator. Again, such a process, with its twofold emphasis on truth and love, is applicable not only between believer and unbeliever, but in disagreements between believers over the various ideological matters that arise in the church’s perpetual process of articulating sound theological speech to problems societal, spiritual, and anthropological. In this sense, the speech of the church is further sanctified in accordance with the nature of its Creator, and the character of the gospel of Christ is better clarified and vindicated before God and neighbor.

[1] Megan Brenan, “Americans Remain Distrustful of Mass Media,” Gallup, 30 September 2020,

[2] See the article, “The Social Media Fact-Check Farce,” The Wall Street Journal, 27 November 2020,, which points to a study that suggested social media’s fact-checking efforts during the 2020 US Presidential election simply drove more conservative voters to further believe the claims in question. In particular, the role of so-called “confirmation bias” is present on either side of these debates, where critics of online fact-checking often believe the fact-checkers themselves to be biased (Neal Conan, “Political Fact-Checking Under Fire,” Talk of the Nation, National Public Radio, 10 January 2012, This brings to mind conversations in epistemology regarding the role of schematic biases in content interpretation: “Since concepts are subject to our manipulation while the evidential given is not, it becomes imperative to anchor scheme in content. Without the sort of justification which arises when scheme is confronted by content, our whole system of belief will end up losing its tie to the world, and we will no longer be able to tell the difference between true belief and mere invention” (Bruce D. Marshall, Trinity and Truth [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000], 83). For social media censorship, see Peter Suciu, “Do Social Media Companies Have the Right to Silence the Masses—And Is This Censoring the Government?” Forbes, 11 January 2021,

[3] Jon Henley and Niamh McIntyre, “Survey Uncovers Widespread Belief in ‘Dangerous’ Covid Conspiracy Theories,” The Guardian, 26 October 2020, The fallacy of the ad hominem charge of lying has been seen irrespective of ideology or perspective. See Sina Blassnig, Florin Büchel, Nicole Ernst, and Sven Engesser, “Populism and Informal Fallacies: An Analysis of Right-Wing Populist Rhetoric in Election Campaigns,” Argumentation 33 (2019): 107–36; David Leonhardt and Stuart A. Thompson, “Trump’s Lies,” The New York Times, 14 December 2017, Douglas Walton notes that, although an ad hominem attack on integrity of speech might prove pragmatically effective, in many instances it is “a weak kind of argument based on plausible presumptions that cannot be too strongly transferred to another area” (Douglas Walton, Informal Logic: A Pragmatic Approach [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008], 173).

[4] See the fascinating article by Myles Lennon, “Revisiting ‘the Repugnant Other’ in the Era of Trump,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 8 (2018): 439–54.

[5] In particular, Harding notes the role the mainstream media played in this false characterization, often resorting to ad hominem attacks against fundamentalists. Susan Harding, “Representing Fundamentalism,” Social Research 58 (1991): 373–93 (see esp. 382–85).

[6] See John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology. (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 2:2 (hereafter abbreviated GWM). Note that the present author holds the distinction between Christian ethics and moral theology; in this sense, Webster was primarily a “moral theologian,” i.e., one who “focuses on the practical living out of Christian doctrine” and who “addresses primarily the church” (Duane Stephen Long, “Moral Theology,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, ed. John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007], 456–57).

[7] GWM 2:123.

[8] GWM 2:123–24. The language of privation invokes Augustine and Aquinas (e.g., Augustine, City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson [London: Penguin, 2003], 12.7; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, eds. John Martensen and Enrique Alarcon, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote [Landers, WY: The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2012], Ia–IIae, Q. 71, 75, 82).

[9] GWM 2:124.

[10] GWM 2:124–25.

[11] GWM 2:125–27. The discussion of speech in its causal capacity is drawn from Aquinas, Webster citing the respondeo of Summa Theologiae IIae Q. 72 A. 2.

[12] GWM 2:127–28. For the first characteristic Webster directly quotes Augustine, Contra Mendacium 7.17.

[13] GWM 2:128–29.

[14] GWM 2:130–31. He has alluded to the nature of false representation in speech as revolving around an assertion of a false reality earlier (p. 127). He further explains the psychology of lies in a sermon on Matt 21:33–39: “Why do we tell lies? We lie to evade reality; we lie because the truth is too painful or too shameful for us to face, or because the truth is simply inconvenient and has to be suppressed before it’s allowed to disturb us. We invent lies because, for whatever reason, we want to invent reality” (John Webster, Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian [Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014], 5).

[15] GWM 2:131–38.

[16] GWM 2:138–40.

[17] Spatial limitations inhibit a broader and more detailed inquiry into Webster’s view of theology and the university. See instead Martin Westerholm, “Webster on the Theology of the University,” in A Companion to the Theology of John Webster, ed. Michael Allen and R. David Nelson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021), 88–101. For the significance of The Culture of Theology as “a magisterial short treatment of what Christian theology is all about,” see Ivor J. Davidson, “Introduction,” in John Webster, The Culture of Theology, ed. Ivor J. Davidson (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 2.

[18] John Webster, “Regina artium: Theology and the Humanities,” in Domain of the Word (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013), 171–92. Here, his sources include a lengthy exposition of Bonaventure’s Reduction along with Bonaventure’s other works, as well as various works from Augustine; likewise, he cites Abraham Kuyper, Thomas Aquinas, and Karl Barth, among others.

[19] Webster, Domain of the Word, 192.

[20] GWM 2:163–64.

[21] GWM 2:166.

[22] Webster, The Culture of Theology, 103.

[23] Webster, The Culture of Theology, 112–13.

[24] Similarly, see the expansive treatment of Trinitarian worldview in relation to epistemology by Bruce D. Marshall, Trinity and Truth, passim. The theme is also explored ubiquitously by Herman Bavinck, “The Trinity,” Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 2:256–334, and elsewhere throughout the work.

[25] The topic of conspiracy theory is itself controversial. Contemporarily, news media has been prone to throw the claim of conspiracy theory toward opinions it deems illegitimate (e.g., Henley and McIntyre, “Survey Uncovers Widespread Belief in ‘Dangerous’ Covid Conspiracy Theories”), but, by definition, this does not seem a consistent application of the term, especially considering its pejorative nature. Hayward advocates the role of a critical reception and appraisal of conspiracy theories in order to better address and determine justifiable versus unjustifiable beliefs: “to discern whether a ‘conspiracy theory’ is worth taking seriously one has to be critically receptive to the possibility of its being so” (Tim Hayward, “‘Conspiracy Theory’: The Case for Being Critically Receptive,” Journal of Social Philosophy [2021]: 1–20).

[26] Rowan Williams, “Theological Integrity,” On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 5. This essay has many helpful overlaps with Webster’s thought, including a call for language to “surrender” to God and a desire to avoid ‘totalizing’ assumptions about perspective. Language, its relationship to environment, and its broader relationship to communication of God was the subject of Williams’s 2013 Gifford Lectures, published in 2014 as Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014). A more formal and constructive comparison between Webster and Williams would be otherwise helpful, due to both their affinities as well as Williams’s influence on Webster as his undergraduate dissertation supervisor at Cambridge.

[27] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, reprint ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 2.2.11.

Robb Torseth

Robb Torseth is a PhD student in systematic theology at the University of Edinburgh in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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