A Lexicon of Stringfellow’s Theology

By Bill Wylie-Kellermann, the author of William Stringfellow: Essential Writings (2013)

*See below for a chronological list of Stringfellow’s works (corresponding to initials & page numbers at the end of each entry).

Babel…means the means the inversion of language, verbal inflation, libel, rumor, euphemism and coded phrases, rhetorical wantonness, redundancy, hyperbole, such profusion in speech and sound that comprehension is impaired, nonsense, sophistry, jargon, noise, incoherence, a chaos of voices and tongues, falsehood, blasphemy. And, in all of this, babel means violence…By the 1970s in America, successive regimes had been so captivated by babel that babel had become the means of ruling the nation, the principal form of coercion employed by the governing authorities against human beings. EC, p.106-7.

Baptism …is often profoundly misunderstood. It is widely thought to be the sacrament of the unity of the Church. But that is not what baptism is; just as it is not mere membership or initiation ritual. Baptism is the assurance – accepted, enacted, verified, and represented by Christians – of the unity of all humanity in Christ… The oneness of the Church is the example and guarantee of the reconciliation of all humankind to God and of the unity of all humanity and all creation in the life of God. The Church, the baptized society is asked to be the image of all humanity, the one and intimate community of God. ID, p.111.

Blasphemy. In Revelation it denotes wanton and contemptuous usurpation of the very vocation of God, vilification of the Word of God and persecution of life as life originates in the Word of God, preemptive attempt against the sovereignty of the Word of God in this world, brute aggression against human life which confesses or appeals to the Word of God. CO, p. 69.

Charismatic vs. Demonic. I am using these terms, let it be clear immediately, in a generic sense: demonic refers to any, and every, agency of death, in whatever guise or form, however subtle or ingenious, howsoever vested or manifested; charismatic refers to each and every gift, talent, capability and limitation of persons, within the whole body of humankind in this world, as these are bestowed and renewed in the Word of God. As shorthand, with all its imprecision, one might think of the demonic as anything whatever which dehumanizes life for human beings, while the charismatic is that which rehumanizes life for human beings within the context of the whole of fallen Creation.

Christian. A Christian is distinguished by radical esteem for the Incarnation – to use the traditional jargon – by a reverence for the life of God in the whole of Creation, even, and in a sense especially, Creation in the travail of sin. PPF, p.43.

Communion of Saints. I refer, when I use that curious and venerable title, to the entire company of human beings (inclusive of the Church, but transcending time and place and thereby far more ecumenical than the Church has ever been) who have, at any time, prayed and who will, at any time, pray; and whose occupation, for the time being, is intercession for each and every need of the life of this world. As the Communion of Saints anticipates, in its scope and constituency, the full assemblage of created life in the Kingdom of God at the end of time, so prayer emulates the fullness of worship when the Word of God is glorified eternally in the Kingdom. SF, p. 68.

Conscience, in the Gospel, as well as in the actual experiences of the early Christians, refers to the new or restored maturity of human life in Christ. A person who becomes a Christian…lives in a new, primary, and rudimentary relationship with others signifying the reconciliation of the whole of life vouchsafed in Jesus Christ. The discernment – about any matter whatever – which is given and exercised in that remarkable relationship is conscience…Put theologically, conscience is the access of the Holy Spirit to human beings in their decisions and actions in daily existence. ST, pp. 99, 102

Constantinian Comity. [The] Accommodation, which has shaped Christendom in the West since the Fourth Century, by which the Church, refuting precedent, acquired a radical vested interest in the established order and became culpably identified with the institutional status quo in culture and society, in economics and politics, in warfare and imperialism, in racism and sexism.(The Witness, September, 1975)… The Constantinian mentality which afflicts the church equivocates contemplation of the judgment of the Word of God. Within the Constantinian ethos, the church even seeks, in the name of the Word of God, to broker compromises of that judgment with princes and presidents, regimes and systems. The capacity of God for anger is gainsaid, though it be in the face of the chaos – the war and hunger and famine and disease and tyranny and injustice – over which the rulers of this age in truth preside. CO, p. 80.

Conversion. The event of becoming a Christian is the event at which human beings utterly and unequivocally confronts the presence and power of death in and over their own existence…During conversion a person has total recall of their history. All that one is and has been, all that one has done, everything that one has said, all whom one has met, every place where one has been, every fragment and facet of one’s own awareness that one has been and is consigned to death, bonded to death, in fact dying. Conversion is the event during which a person finds themself radically and absolutely helpless. In becoming a Christian, a person sees that they are naked, exposed, and transparent in every respect – completely vulnerable…Conversion is an ultimate and radically personal exposure to death, but it is also the ultimate and immediately personal exposure to the power of God overcoming death. Conversion is death in Christ. ID, p. 107f

Death…is so great, so aggressive, so pervasive and so militant a power that the only fitting way to speak of death is similar to the way one speaks of God. Death is the living power and presence in this world which feigns to be God. CAJ,p. 52.

Eschatological…hope, biblically speaking, anticipates an end of time which is simultaneously time’s redemption. That hope neither abolishes nor repudiates time; on the contrary, the eschaton means the moral completion or perfection of time. Moreover, the biblical hope, eschatologically, is no disembodied abstraction, no ethereal notion, no antiworldly vision, but a hope recurrently foreshadowed and empirically witnessed in events taking place now, and all the time, in the common history of persons and nations in this world. EC, p. 44.

Evangelism…in the Gospel of Christ, means the affirmation of the Word of God in the life of each and every human being in relation to all of creation. Evangelism, in the Gospel is an enthusiastic expression of the love that Christ bears for the whole of the world, which is authorized by that same love which the evangelist has himself suffered. CAJ, p. 43. The evangelist merely calls upon the one addressed to recollect his or her own creation in the Word of God, to remember who he or she truly is, to recover one’s on life. Thus evangelism is an act of love by the Church, or by a member of the Church, for the world or some person. Evangelism is the act of proclaiming the presence of the Word of God in the life of another, the act of profoundly affirming that person’s essential identity and being. And such an affirmation given by one to another is love. ID, p. 106.

Fall refers to the profound disorientation, affecting all relationships in the totality of creation, concerning identity, place, connection, purpose, vocation. The subject of the fall is not only the personal realm, in the sense of you or me, but the whole of creation and each and every item of created life. The fall means the reign of chaos throughout creation now, so that even that which is ordained by the ruling powers as “order” is, in truth, chaotic. The fall means the remarkable confusion which all beings – principalities as well as persons – suffer as to who they are and why they exist. The fall means the consignment of all created life, and of the realm of time, to the power of death. PS, p. 38.

Gospel vs. Religion. this Gospel of Jesus Christ ends all religious speculation; demolishes all merely religious ceremonies and sacrifices appeasing unknown gods; destroys every exclusiveness which religion attaches to itself in God’s name; attests that the presence of God is not remote, distant, and probably out-of-reach – but here, now, and with us in this world, already. This Gospel means that the very life of God is evident in this world, in this life, because Jesus Christ once participated in the common life of humanity in the history of our world. The Christian faith is distinguished, diametrically, from mere religion, in that religion begins with the proposition that some god exists; Christianity, meanwhile, is rejoicing in God’s manifest presence among us…Religion is the attempt to satisfy the curiosity of human beings in this world about God; Jesus Christ is the answer to the human curiosity in this world about what it means to be truly human in this world which God created. PPF, p. 15.

Jerusalem vs. Babylon. What Babylon means theologically and, hence, existentially for all nations or other principalities in the dimensions of fallenness, doom, and death, Jerusalem means to each nation or power in the terms of holiness, redemption, and life. Babylon describes the apocalyptic while Jerusalem embodies the eschatological as these two realities become recognizable in the present, common history of the world…Babylon is concretely exemplified in the nations and the various other principalities – as in the Roman Empire, as in the U.S. A – but Jerusalem is the parable for the Church of Jesus Christ…visibly exemplified as an embassy among the principalities – sometimes secretly, sometimes openly – or as a pioneer community – sometimes latently, sometimes notoriously – or as a prophetic society – sometimes discreetly, sometimes audaciously. And the life of Jerusalem, institutionalized as Christ’s Church (which is never to be uncritically equated with ecclesiastical structures professing the name of the Church) is marvelously dynamic. Constantly changing in her appearance and forms, she is incessantly being rendered new, spontaneous, transcendent, paradoxical, improvisational, radical, ecumenical, free. EC, pp. 48, 50.

Heaven…is not a site in the galaxies any more than “hell” is located in the bowels of the earth. Rather, it is that estate of self-knowledge and reconciliation and hope – that vocation, really; that blessedness – to which every human being and the whole of creation is called to live here in this world, aspires to live here, and by virtue of Christ is enabled to enter upon here. EC, pp. 43-44.

Hell…The recital in the Apostles’ Creed, He descended into Hell, has a similar significance: Hell is the realm of death; Hell is when and where the power of death is complete, unconditional, maximum, undisguised, most awesome and awful, unbridled, most terrible, perfected. That Jesus Christ descends into Hell means that as we die (in any sense of the term die) our expectation in death is encounter with the Word of God, which is, so to speak, already there in the midst of death. SF,p. 110.

Hope vs. Optimism. Hope means something quite different from optimism – in fact, hope is virtually the opposite of optimism. That is to say, simply, that optimism refers to the capabilities of principalities and human beings, while hope bespeaks the effort of the Word of God in common history. Moreover, the distinctions signifies that hope includes realism, while realism undermines and refutes optimism. SF, p.95.

Holiness…does not mean that you are any better than anyone else; holiness is not the same as goodness; holiness is not common piety. Holiness is not about pleasing God, even less about appeasing God. Holiness is about enjoying God. Holiness is the integrity of greeting, confessing, honoring, and trusting God’s presence in all events and in any event, no matter what, no matter when, no matter where. ID, p.35

Holy Spirit… denotes the living, acting presence and power of the Word of God in the history of this world: the presence and power which lives and acts now in unity and integrity with the works of the Word of God in creation, redemption, and judgment, as well as in solidarity and identification with the advent, birth, ministry, death, descent, resurrection, and Lordship of Jesus Christ in this world. In plain language, the Holy Spirit is the power and presence of God’s Word seen and heard in the world. FO, p.100

OR [The Holy Spirit refers to the Word of God as that Word is hidden in very facet, aspect, event, person, and thing in the life of this world. In Jesus Christ, this indwelling of God’s Word by God’s mercy in God’s own creation which is named the Holy Spirit is exposed for all to behold not only as the promise and hope of salvation but as the unique, decisive, and universal accomplishment of salvation. Christ is possessed, in the whole drama of the work of God in him, of the Holy Spirit, of the power and presence of the Word of God in this world which God made for Godself. FO, p. 100-101.]

OR [names the faithfulness of God to God’s own creation. Biblically, the Holy Spirit means the militant presence of the Word of God inhering in the life of the whole of creation. Biblically, the Holy Spirit is the Word of God at work both historically and existentially, acting incessantly and pervasively to renew the integrity of life in this world… It was – it is – the biblical saga of the Word of God as Agitator, as the Holy Spirit, that assures me that wheresoever human conscience is alive and active, that is a sign of the saving vitality of the Word of God in history, here and now. PS, p.18]

Loneliness… is the specific apprehension of a person of his or her own death in relation to the impending death of all persons and all things… Loneliness does not deny or negate the existence of lives other that the life of the one who is lonely, but loneliness vividly anticipates the death of such other lives that they are of no sustenance or comfort to the life and being of the one who suffers loneliness. Loneliness is the most caustic, drastic, and fundamental repudiation of God. Loneliness is the most elementary expression of original sin. There is no one who does not know loneliness. Yet there is no one who is alone. ID, p. 24-25

Lordship of Christ. This is not, as is sometimes erroneously supposed, a title designating the divinity of Christ; it, rather, explicitly explains the humanity of Jesus as the one who epitomizes the restoration of dominion over the rest of creation vested in human life by the sovereignty of the Word of God during the epoch of the fall. Jesus Christ as Lord signifies the renewed vocation of human life in reconciliation with the rest of creation. CO, p. 31.

Mourning vs. Grief. I understand grief to be the total experience of loss, anger, outrage, fear, regret, melancholy, abandonment, temptation, bereftness, helplessness suffered privately, within one’s self, in response to the happening of death. By distinction and contrast, I comprehend mourning as the liturgies of recollection, memorial, affection, honor, gratitude, confession, empathy, intercession, meditation, anticipation for the life of the one who is dead. Empirically, in the reality of someone’s death, and in the aftermath of it, grief and mourning are, of course, jumbled. It is, I think, part of the healing of mourning to sort out and identify the one from the other. SF, p.22.

Prayer…is nothing you do, prayer is someone you are. Prayer is not about doing, but being. Prayer is about being alone in God’s presence. Prayer is being so alone that God is the only witness to your existence. The secret of prayer is God affirming your life. ID, p. 31….More definitively, prayer is not personal in the sense of a private transaction occurring in a void, disconnected with everyone and everything else, but it is so personal that it reveals (I have chosen this verb conscientiously) every connection with everyone and everything else in the whole of Creation throughout time. A person in the estate of prayer is identified in relation to Alpha and Omega – in relationship to the inception of everything and to the fulfillment of everything (cf. Romans 1:20, I Corinthians 12:12-13, Revelations 22:12). In prayer, the initiative belongs to the Word of God, acting to identify, or to reiterate the identity of, the one who prays. SF, pp. 67-8.

Preaching vs.Prophetism. [The preacher’s] task is the responsible utterance of the Word of God within the congregation – so that the Word may be acknowledged and admired there, and so that those who gather as the congregation may be identified by the Word of God in their corporate life as the body of Christ, and so that they may be so enlightened by the Word of God in the congregation that they will become sensitive to and perceptive of the …Word in the common life of the world in which their various ministries as lay people take place. But it is out in the world, not within the congregation, that the prophetic task is exercised. The prophet is characteristically not priest and preacher, but lay person. The task is to represent and expose the word of God in the world, and particularly in the posture of the Word which stands over against the world’s existence and the world’s disregard of and arrogance toward the Word of God. And sometimes this task is to declare and convey the Word of God as it stands against the worldliness of the Church. PPF, p. 52.

Principalities. The realities to which the biblical terms “principalities and powers” refer are quite familiar to modern society, though they may be called by different names. What the Bible calls “principalities and powers” are called in contemporary language “ideologies”, “institutions,” and “images.” A principality, whatever its particular form and variety, is a living reality, distinguishable from human and other organic life. It is not made or instituted by human beings, but, as with humans and all creation, made by God for God’s own pleasure… Like all people and all things, the angelic powers and principalities are fallen and are become demonic powers. “Demonic” does not mean evil; the word refers rather to death, to fallenness…To put it another way, that dominion which human beings receive from God over the rest of creation (including their dominion over the principalities) is lost to them in the fall and, as it were, reversed, so that now the principalities exercise dominion over human beings and claim in their own names and for themselves idolatrous worship from human beings. FO, pp. 52, 62, 63.

Providence. Perhaps that is the clue to the biblical context of providence: grace. Perhaps we err or become confused about what providence means because we dwell upon only some particular event, an occasional occurrence that seems outstanding; we tend to think of the providential as rare and exceptional; we make selections, among all the things that happen to us,calling some matters of providence and treating the rest as having nothing to do with providence. Perhaps there just is no discrimination at all, in the concern of God for this life in this world, beyond one happening and another. Perhaps everything is providential. If everything is providential, then providence means the constant and continual renewal of God’s grace in all situations for everyone throughout time…If everthing is providential, then the issue in living is the patience and ingenuity of God’s grace, and human beings need never live bereft of hope. SB, 121.

Racism… is not an evil in human hearts or minds, racism is a principality, a demonic power, a representative image, an embodiment of death, over which human beings have little or no control, but which works its awful influence over their lives. This is the power with which Jesus Christ was confronted and which, at great and sufficient cost, he overcame. The Witness, February 21, 1963, p.14

Resurrection. To become and be a beneficiary of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ means to live here and now in a way that upholds and honors the sovereignty of the Word of God in this life in this world, and that trusts the Judgment of the Word of God in history. That means freedom now from all conformities to death, freedom now from fear of the power of death, freedom now from the bondage of idolatry to death, freedom now to live in hope while awaiting the Judgment. SF,p.113.

Resurrection v. Immortality. The most radical confusion about afterdeath, however, has to do with the transliteration of the resurrection as some idea of immortality… In my view, immortality, essentially, is no more than an elaborate synonym for remembrance of the dead, though there are attached to it multifarious notions of spiritual and/or material survival of death. Resurrection, however, refers to the transcendence of the power of death, and of the fear or thrall of the power of death, here and now, in this life, in this world. Resurrection, thus, has to do with life, and indeed, the fulfillment of life, before death… Where confusion reigns and the distinction between resurrection and immortality is lost or suppressed, it is common to find people, frantic in their embrace of one or another versions of survival after death, rejecting life in this world, including, typically, the gift of their own lives. SF, pp.138-39.

Sanctification. I mean the endeavor by which a person is sanctified or rendered holy. The endeavor is not one of the person so affected but, quite the contrary, is an effort of the Word of God, which elects the one made holy and which, I believe, offers similar election freely to every person… Thus sanctification refers to the activity of the historic Word of God renewing human life (and all of created life) in the midst of the era of the fall, or during the present darkness, in which the power of death apparently reigns. [It] designates the essential condition of a person who confesses that he or she has suffered the renewal of his or her being, or selfhood, in the Word of God and is restored to wholeness as a human being. While there is an implication, in being holy, of incessant repentance, there is no implication of perfection or of any superior moral status. Among humans, holiness may involve a relatively more profound experience of being human, but it does not indicate as such the exceptional or the extraordinary. To the contrary, holy connotes the holistic in human life and, in that connection, the normal, the typical, the ordinary, the generic, the exemplary. PS, p. 30.

Sin…is not essentially the mistaken, inadvertent, or deliberate choice of evil by human beings, but the pride into which they fall in associating their own self-interests with the will of God. Sin is the denunciation of the freedom of God to judge humans as it pleases God to judge them. Sin is the displacement of God’s will with one’s own will. Sin is the radical confusion as to whether God or the human being is morally sovereign in history. ID, p. 20

State… names the functional paraphernalia of political authority in a nation, which claims and exercises violence, within a nation. The precedence of the State hierarchically among the principalities is related to the jurisdiction asserted by the State over other institutions and powers within a nation. Practically it is symbolized by the police power, taxation, licensing, regulation of corporate organization and activity, the military forces, and the like. The paramountcy of the State among the demonic powers is probably most readily recognized in tyrannical regimes, ancient or modern. EC, p. 109.

State vs. Nation. In the Bible where the State is designated as a principality of particular dignity or apparent superiority, the historical realities to which allusions are made are authoritarian or totalitarian (Rev. 13:18). In such a regime any substantive distinctions between the principality of the nation and the principality of the State are lost. The ethos of the nation is absorbed into the apparatus of authority. Or, to put it a bit differently, the spirit and tradition of the nation are abolished by the administration of the State or displaced by a fabricated version of tradition furnished by the State. For all practical purposes, in a totalitarianism, the nation and the State become merged. By contrast (though, from a human point of view, it be a very relative matter) in nonauthoritarian societies, the distinguishable but related principalities of the nation and the State remain separated to the extent that the identity and character of the nation are embodied in tradition and inheritance, sometimes expressed constitutionally, or sometimes as common law. This represents and attempts some restraint or discipline upon the exercise of authority and the functioning of the State. EC, pp. 109-10.

Technocracy. The political development of technology has produced a form of government which virtually abolished that familiar tension by its destruction of human rights, its coercion of human life, its domination of human beings; in short, by its undoing of that part of the constitutional fabric which values human life in society. Technology has installed a counter-revolutionary regime- a technocratic totalitarianism- which has set aside, if not literally overturned, the inherited constitutional institutions thereby creating a vested ruling authority outside the law and beyond accountability to people. ID, p. 90.

Theology is dissimilar from both philosophy and religion: theology is not speculative, on the one hand, theology is not self-justifying, on the other, and theology is not so eminent as to be aloof from life as it is, as are those other two exercises. Theology is concerned with the implication of the Word of God in the world’s common life. In this context, it must be recognized and affirmed that everyone, if they reflect upon the event of their own life in this world, is a theologian. It is only in this sense that I tolerate being sometimes called a theologian myself…SB, p. 21.

Vocation… is the name of the awareness of [the] significance of one’s own biography. To have a vocation or to be called in Christ means to discern the coincidence of the Word of God with one’s own selfhood, in one’s own being, in its most specific, thorough, unique, and conscientious sense. SF, p. 21. Persons and principalities, all the creatures, all realities or elements of creation are named by the Word of God. Each is beneficiary of an identity, capacity, purpose, and place in conjunction with that of everyone and everything else. In other words, in creation, vocation issues from the Word of God. Still more precisely, in the biblical description of creation, the vocation of God becomes definitive of the vocation of human life and that of institutions and nations and other creatures and of all things whatever. CO, p. 29.

Word of God. I intend this to be understood as a name. Thereby, I refer not only to the Bible as the Word of God, but, simultaneously to the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, and, also, to the Word of God militant in the life of the world as the Holy Spirit, and, further, to the Word of God inhering in the whole of creation. CO, p. 14.


1962 A Private and Public Faith (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans). PPF

1963 Instead of Death (New York City: Seabury Press). (see 1967)

1964 My People is the Enemy (New York City: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.). MPE

1964 Free in Obedience (New York City: Seabury Press). FO

1966 Dissenter in a Great Society (New York City: Holt, Rinehart and Winston). DGS

1967 The Bishop Pike Affair (New York City: Harper & Row, Publishers). BPA

1967 Count It All Joy (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company). CAJ

1969 Imposters of God: Inquiries into Favorite Idols (Washington, D.C.: Witness Books). IG

1970 A Second Birthday (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc.). SB

1971 Suspect Tenderness: The Ethics of the Berrigan Witness (NYC: Holt, Rinehart and Winston). ST

1973 An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Waco, TX: Word, Inc.). EC

1976 The Death and Life of Bishop Pike (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc.). DL

1976 Instead of Death – 2nd edition (New York City: The Seabury Press). ID

1977 Conscience and Obedience (Waco, TX: Word Books, Publisher). CO

1982 A Simplicity of Faith: My Experience in Mourning (Nashville: Abingdon). SF

1984 The Politics of Spirituality (Louisville:The Westminster Press). PS

2 thoughts on “A Lexicon of Stringfellow’s Theology

  1. A truly prophetic spirit lived in Stringfellow. A bold, courageous man. With his partner in life Anthony he offered sanctuary to Daniel Berrigan when the FBI were looking for him, and he wrote some of the most extraordinary statements of prophetic Christianity this side of the first century. Thank you for posting this today. More people need to become familiar with this great Christian. Thank God all his books are back in print thanks to Wipf & Stock.

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