For people of privilege such as myself, the notion of free speech is often something taken for granted, a constitutional factoid, the stuff of history tests and Jeopardy answers. But the reality is that while liberal society legally protects the right to free speech, the reality of systemic oppression severely limits the actual freedom afforded to those who differ from the social norm (white, Christian, male etc.). While those with privilege are capable of speaking with impunity on most topics, the speech of marginalized communities is hamstrung in a variety of ways. This ought to prompt those of us with privilege to intentionally rethink how to responsibly use our free expression. This essay is an attempt to think through this conundrum from a theological perspective. I begin by reflecting on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s dichotomy between cheap grace and costly grace and creatively appropriating his terminology to delineate two different ways of utilizing the privilege of free speech. I then engage with Robert Jenson in order to constructively articulate the form that costly speech ought to take, namely for those of with privilege to engage in kenotic speech through listening, dialogue and advocacy.

Cheap Speech

In the first chapter of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer famously makes the distinction between cheap grace and costly grace. This distinction has unfortunately been sloganized to the point of losing its significant theological meaning. In context, Bonhoeffer was responding to the present state of the dominant Lutheran church using Luther’s notion of Christian freedom as a blank check to “sin boldly” without existentially engaging the Christian faith.1 Cheap grace is “grace as doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God.”2 A Christian makes free grace into cheap grace by using grace’s freedom as an excuse from discipleship. Bonhoeffer contrasts this with costly grace, which is the last word in the life of the disciple, meaning that there is a difference between a Christian who encounters grace as they try and fail to follow Christ and one who uses grace as an excuse not to try at all.3  Precisely because this grace cannot be achieved by works, a Christian cannot claim inadequacy as a reason not to follow Christ.4 The costliness of a person’s discipleship is directly parallel to the cost experienced by God in Christ: “grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs the life of God’s Son…and because nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God.”5 Thus the freedom available to the Christian is not tawdry libertinism, rather it is freedom to be truly human. This is a freedom that binds the disciple to Christ in service of humanity. Bonhoeffer’s vision of responsible freedom can provide language by which we can interrogate our usage of speech. Within a liberal society, where freedom of speech is considered fundamental to civic life, there are responsible and irresponsible ways of using this freedom; there are ways of allowing free speech to become cheap speech.

Speech that becomes merely a way for the privileged class of a society to defend and propagate their own narrative turns free speech into cheap speech. This type of speech does not actually transform the world but begs for more of the same. Just as Bonhoeffer says of cheap grace: “The world remains the world and we remain sinners.”6 This is why the rhetoric that often hides behind the term “free speech” is so often couched in reclamationist language, calling for a return to certain fixed civic and ideological principles enshrined in some mythical golden age. Cheap speech treats freedom of speech as an end unto itself, since it is only used to maximize the freedom of the self. Costly speech recognizes that freedom of speech is not an end unto itself, but a means of caring for others. Conceiving of virtuous speech as “costly speech” provides a pregnant opportunity for theological reflection and construction regarding what such virtuous speech entails.

Costly Speech

In order to construct a theological vision of what costly speech entails, one must begin by inquiring what exactly speech is. Robert Jenson provides a compelling understanding of speech as fundamental to theological anthropology in his two volume Systematic Theology. His theology of speech begins with his Trinitarian model, which shifts the understanding from the historically popular model of God’s Logos as rationality toward a model rooted in the language of scripture that renders Logos as God’s speech.7 Thus the inner-Trinitarian life exists as a reciprocal conversation of three persons.8 His model of the divine life as conversation flows easily into the scriptural presentation of creation as God speaking the universe into being. He summarizes his doctrine of creation as it relates to the Trinity, saying “to be, as a creature, is to be mentioned in the triune moral conversation, as something other than those who conduct it.”9 Thus being a creation is to be an outworking of the inner-Trinitarian life; “insofar as to be a creature is to be other than God, we may say that the Father’s love for the Son as other than himself is the possibility of creation’s otherness from God.”10 In this Trinitarian-conversational structure of the cosmos, humanity emerges as the fullness of the conversational nature of created reality.

Human beings are presented by Jenson as the fullness of creation’s conversational nature because “the Creator does not merely create them (humans) by his word but turns to address that word directly to them.”11 This direct address commissions humanity as God’s representatives to the rest of creation. They are to be the mediators of his Word to created reality and this vocation is fully actualized in humanity’s ability to redress God in prayer.12 Jenson connects the divine address to the formation of the first human community: “They (the first humans) were the first community…for whom the word they had for others- if only for each other- was the word that ‘came’ to them.”13 Thus the cultural project of humanity is predicated on their ability to properly steward the address given to them by God in creation.

Since all of creation attains its being from the speech of God and humans in particular receive their being from dialogue with God, this ontology of creation forms the basis for Jenson’s Christology. In Jenson’s model the Word expressed in ‘Christ is risen’ is the culmination of what is expressed by ‘let there be.’14 This is true because the resurrection opens up the future unto creation.15 The fact that humanity receives its being from the Word of God and is commissioned to respond to this ontological address forms the foundation for human self-transcendence.16 Jenson explicitly connects this ability for humans to transcend themselves to ethics:  “To receive myself from God and be directed toward him is therefore to receive myself from and be directed toward another human person … For Jesus as the Son is the man whose whole existence is his life for others.”17 If this model is correct, then human speech should be understood as self-transcendence for the sake of the legitimization of the other as is modeled in Christ’s incarnation. Thus in order for a vision of costly speech to be coherent with Jenson’s theological model of speech, it must be characterized by self-transcendence for the sake of the other.

The most obvious scriptural point of departure for a model of costly speech that mimics Christological self-transcendence is the Carmen Christi found in Philippians 2:6-11. This passage describes Christ’s self-emptying in the incarnation and crucifixion. In the preceding pericope, Paul explicitly connects this passage to the manner in which Christian individuals ought to forsake self-interest for the sake of the other. This passage is the scriptural warrant for the doctrine of kenosis, the self-emptying of Christ. Applying this doctrine to the model of speech provided by Jenson necessitates that truly christoform speech must genuinely cost the self on behalf of the other. This self-emptying, however, cannot be a simple evacuation of the self that results in self-annihilation.

A truly kenotic use of speech involves an ascetic self-renunciation actualized in listening. This notion is articulated by Chris Green, who presents human vocation as a task of mediating the humanizing word of God to others. This mediation requires attention to the context of others, which is only possible through listening.18 In addition to listening, costly speech requires that the speaker be aware of the other who is affected by their speech. In some of Jenson’s earlier political essays he speaks of language as opening up the future. He explicitly connects language’s participation in the future to its function as correspondence with the other. Thus every genuine act of speech “is the breaking into my life of someone other than me, and that means of something new and different from me.”19 This means language that is genuine dialogue participates in the past as well as the future. It participates in the past because it relies on established conventions and norms to make the other intelligible; it participates in the future because genuine speech requires a mutual acknowledgement that opens up the possibility of a future with the other.20 The future posed in a genuine conversation between two or more others is the possibility of the participants in the dialogue becoming something other than they currently are.21 The dialogue partners’ pasts are concretely instantiated in their bodies. Thus the possible future created by a dialogue naturally elicits a bodily response.22 Jenson presents the positive side of this bodily participation in the future as the essence of liturgy, saying: “Liturgy is the free, celebrating turning of ourselves toward a future that opens, toward a promise that is made.”24 

Monolectic speech, which subsists only in self-expression, cannot ever truly be ‘free’ because it is bound by the appetites and imagination of the speaker. Only in dialogue with the other can one speak creatively of the future because the other forces a reevaluation of one’s own ideological interests and presuppositions. The other opens up language to speak of things other than the self-enclosed thought world of a single person or group, thus creating the possibility for free speech. Only costly speech, speech which is used to dialogue with the other in imitation of Christ’s self-giving, can be “free” in any meaningful sense. This is the Christian program for responsible use of civic freedom of speech, to not cheapen such on opportunity by merely making it about self-expression, but rather to use it as an opportunity for responsible dialogue, replete with listening.


Those of us with the privilege to speak as we like who also claim to be disciples are required by the very structure of our faith to discipline the way in which we use our privilege. If Jenson is correct about genuine dialogue opening up a future with the other, then those of us who are overrepresented in the public discourse have a unique responsibility within that dialogue. Those of us with privilege must practice kenotic speech, which often will mean fasting from speaking ourselves. Our part in the building of a more just future will be listening in solidarity with those whom our voices have drowned out. Only by listening can we hope to join into a genuine dialogue that models God’s liberating speech to creation. When we do speak, we ought to speak in such a way that the fruits of that dialogue are apparent and our words do not drown out others, but open up the possibility of polyphony where different voices all join in the capacious triune conversation that first gave life to the world.

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 52.
  2. Ibid., 43.
  3. Ibid., 52.
  4. Ibid., 49.
  5. Ibid., 45.
  6. Ibid., 43.
  7. Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology: The Triune God, vol. 1 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 168.
  8. Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology: The Works of God, vol. 2 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), 35.
  9. Ibid., 35.
  10. Ibid., 48.
  11. Ibid., 15.
  12. Ibid., 16; 58.
  13. Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, 63.
  14. Ibid., 27.
  15. Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, 167, 171.
  16. Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, 73.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Chris E. W. Green, Sanctifying Interpretation: Vocation, Holiness, and Scripture (Cleveland, TN: CPT Press, 2015), 47.
  19. Robert W. Jenson, “Language and Time,” Essays in Theology of Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 2.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Robert W. Jenson, “Violence as a Mode of Language,” Essays in Theology of Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 41.
  22. Ibid., 42.
  23. Ibid.

Michael Austin Kamenicky holds an MA in theological studies from Lee University. His currentresearch examines the intersections of Pentecostalism, aesthetics, and constructive theology.