In this last post on introductory matters, we might seem a bit defensive. The study of theology is often attacked, it seems to me, for its language, its use of technical terms. “Oh, I could never study theology!”, one might say. “The vocabulary is just too, uh, daunting!”
Well, daunting or not, here’s an essay I wrote a few years back on the need for theological language. I hope you find it helpful and maybe a bit entertaining!
Theologese: The Language of Theology
The language of doctrine is often perceived as indecipherable and confusing. But technical language is a part of everyday life. Whether one is getting one’s car repaired or playing a game of chess, technical language is used by those who care about their area of knowledge. This objection to the technical language used in the study of doctrine deserves an extended response.
I discovered that when I was in the market for a CD player, I became very interested in the words used to hawk one brand over the other. In fact, I even enjoyed my time of comparison-shopping. But first I had to learn to navigate my way through the verbal sea of CD language.
There were a number of questions I had to answer before laying down my hard-earned plastic to purchase what was to me new technology. Did I want “Introscan”? With or without “Cue and Review”? Was a “30 Track Memory” going to be enough, or more memory than I find myself (a number of years over 30) possessing these days? “Bitstream” sounds impressive – would I regret buying a model without it?
I’m sure I mixed up the ads for CD players with those for other technical equipment. If the CD player comes with a hard disk drive, how exactly does one go about softening it up? If it comes with “double azimuth,” will that mean that a single person can’t listen to it? If the model I buy has a “Video Accelerator Card,” what do I do if I don’t want the music to play that fast? “Mash 1 bit technology” sounds like the CD player is broken before I even get it home to take it out of the box. I know that I need “8X oversampling,” but don’t ask me what the value of “X” is, or exactly what it will do for me.
What I really wanted in a CD player were practical features, such as: Do they
make a model which will hopefully melt my son’s “Blind Melon” CD’s? Will a “Graphic equalizer” edit out the embarrassing lyrics of my
daughter’s friends’ CD’s which she might naively borrow? None of the advertisements answered my real question, a very practical one, which was, “How often do I have to replace the needle – and why doesn’t the manufacturer tell you whether it is a diamond stylus or one made out of Philippino bamboo?”
I finally bought a CD player, and let my son do the technical things with it, like turn it on. After all, he’s earned the right to push the buttons – he’s the one who programs our VCR.
The fact is, when we put our minds to it, we are able to learn the language necessary to make a reasonable decision. Interest and effort frequently provide sufficient motivation to learn the lingo. And terms are not always terminal; I actually enjoy explaining the features of my CD player to others.
The Usefulness of Technical Language
There are a number of benefits of technical language. The first is that it can aid communication. Imagine the following, admittedly improbable, scenario: A surgeon is in the middle of an operation, and, with perspiration beading up on his forehead, he says, “Nurse, quick! I need one of those metal things that works like a backwards sissors, because this patient’s tube thing is shooting out that red stuff pretty fast!” As the nurse ransacks the supply carts to find what the surgeon needs, the patient bleeds to death. Leaving the operating room, the doctor is met by the grieving – and very angry – nurse who demands, “Doctor, why in the world didn’t you simply bark out the order for a hemostat?”
Technical terminology is a kind of verbal shorthand that allows effective communication between parties who have the same understanding of the subject. But scholarly disciplines such as theology and medicine are not alone in their use of such language.
Occasionally, the highly sensitive side-line microphones used in the broadcasting of NFL football games pick up the quarterback’s instructions being given to the rest of the team in the huddle. Talk about technical language! “Slant- z-outlet six/eight, draw sneak – on three – break!” If I were in that huddle, I would grab the left half-back next to me, shake him, and have just enough time to panic and ask, “Huh? Whadda he say? Where do I go?” Time is at a premium in play-making, and communication needs to be precise. Those who belong in that huddle have spent long hours memorizing the plays. Such verbal shorthand communicates quickly and effectively. Those who don’t know the jargon have no business being on the playing field. In Christianity, however, every follower of Christ is on the team – and in the stadium. But being barely in the stadium isn’t enough; the plays need to be learned so that the Christian can leave the sidelines and get in the game!
For a number of summers I shed my professor’s jacket and tie for a completely different outfit. I served as a registered volunteer baseball umpire in Canada. Having grown up in North Carolina, I love the game of baseball and joined the umpiring ranks several years ago. There’s a correlation between theologizing and umpiring, for the expression “You’re outta here!” can be used equally well with heretics in the church or unsuccessful third-strike bunters at the plate.
I did not become wealthy umpiring baseball games during the summer. At $10 a game, it took me seven years to pay off my expensive uniform (umpire’s mask: $60; chest protector: $55; plastic ball/strike counter: $5; shin guards: $45; miscellaneous, uh, protective equipment: $8; etc.).
Are you aware of the technical language in the game of baseball? (I mean words that are more than four letters long). A “foul tip” is not the same as a “foul ball.” A “balk” is an illegal act by the pitcher attempting to purposely deceive a base-runner. Other terms include “appeal on half-swing,” “double touch on a fair ball,” “interference of B-R to interfere with double play,” “minimal presence” (I’m sure this is true of some of my theology students), and my all-time favorite expression, the infamous “infield fly rule.” This rule is not a statement about a superior class of flying bugs, but rather an attempt to prevent the defensive team from purposely dropping a pop fly in the infield to initiate a double-play. But listen to the official rule-book:
“An infield fly is a fair fly ball (not including a line drive nor an attempted bunt) which can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort, when first and second, or first, second and third bases are occupied, before two are out. When it seems apparent that a batted ball will be an Infield Fly, the umpire shall immediately declare “Infield Fly” for the benefit of the runner. If the ball is near the baselines, the umpire shall declare “Infield Fly, If Fair.” The ball is alive and runners may advance at the risk of the ball being caught, or retouch and advance after the ball is touched, the same as on any fly ball. If the hit becomes a foul ball, it is treated the same as any foul. When an infield fly rule is called, runners may advance at their own risk. If on an infield fly rule, the infielder intentionally drops a fair ball, the ball remains in play despite the provisions of Rule 6.05 (L). The infield fly rule takes precedence.”
Clear? I personally think the infield fly rule was actually dreamed up by an infielder who always dropped infield flies to make it appear that he was doing so intentionally.
The fact is all of us learn the technical language necessary for coping with a variety of issues – and adventures. Let’s say that you are visiting the Carlsbad Caverns in southeastern New Mexico. As the guide leads you around a sharp and fairly dim underground bend, she suddenly shouts, “There’s a stalactite around this corner. Watch out!” The question is, do you duck – or do you jump? Knowing that a stalactite is a projecting downward formation of calcite from the roof of a cavern and that a stalagmite is a projecting upward formation of calcite from the floor of a cavern, you have enough sense to duck as you go around the bend. As others in the tour party get smacked on the head, you pat yourself on the back because you learned your high school teacher’s memory device that a stalactite is a formation which holds tight to the ceiling, while a stalagmite juts mightily up from the floor!
By the way, language which aids communication doesn’t have to be elaborate to be effective. Imagine that you are in a crowded theater. The play has just begun when all of a sudden a man in the third row stands to his feet, turns to face the audience, and cries out, “My olfactory organ is registering a vaporous essence which indicates the presence of noxious, pyrogenic activity in the approximate vicinity of this domicile!” Some would tell him to sit down and be quiet, some would not know how to react, and others would exit the theatre as quickly as they could. It would have been far better for him to have simply stood to his feet and shouted, “FIRE!”
Technical language facilitates discussion between those who have mastered common words in their area of discussion. For outsiders, those terms may seem like secret passwords that they do not know. But passwords (if not kept secret) can be learned, and a learned password admits one into what we might call the communication clubhouse, so that real discussion can begin. In theology, the terms are more than passwords; they are frequently a vital part of the discussion itself.
Technical language not only aids discussion, but secondly, it develops precision in dealing with concepts. One writer said that “If it takes a lot of words to say what you have in mind, give it more thought.” Theological terms (such as the term “Trinity”) have been coined by dedicated scholars not to obscure the truth for the uninitiated, but to encapsulate the truth for those who take it seriously. In a discipline such as doctrine, where the subject matter (God and the things of God) could not be greater, it is logical that exact expressions would develop to aid students of Scripture in grasping its concepts.
Imprecision is occasionally found in laymen who misuse technical language. An older man recently told me that his friend had to enter the hospital for prostrate problems. I did not correct his language (he really meant prostate); but I was reminded that most Christians I know, including myself, have prostrate problems (we find it awfully difficult to prostrate ourselves before the Lord). Our confidence in a medical doctor, however, would be somewhat lessened if he or she used the wrong term to describe that particular condition. Precision in medical language is a prerequisite for those who have the awesome task of practicing the cure of the human body.
But why are our expectations different for those who are charged with the “cure of souls”? The spiritual ills which plague Christians necessitate precise language if theological therapy is going to be effective. Theological exactness is simply one evidence of taking the discipline and its truths seriously.
Audience and Language
When I first began teaching in Bible college, I remember the great statesman of American Evangelicalism, Carl F.H. Henry, coming to our campus to deliver a series of lectures on theology. He began the first of his four addresses to our students and faculty with the words, “Good morning.” I didn’t understand a thing he said after that, and I was the theology professor! As a scholar, Dr. Henry has in his long life left us an impressive legacy of important writing in defense of biblical orthodoxy, but as a communicator to undergraduate Bible college students, he left us at the station!
Dr. Henry’s presentation is an example of an important principle: one’s audience determines one’s language. A truly educated person is one who can put into words understandable by his audience the truths which he wishes to communicate. Norman Cousins is right when he says, “It makes little difference how many university courses or degrees a person may own. If he cannot use words to move an idea from one point to another, his education is incomplete.” It is the communicator’s task to use language which communicates rather than confuses.
I am told about a sign which was posted in a government office which read, “The man who knows what he is talking about can afford to use words everyone understands.” The assumption in that statement is that the speaker is talking to everyone, and sometimes that is simply not the case. A contractor discussing the construction of your new kitchen with the finishing carpenter is going to use language, probably fairly technical, which communicates quickly and effectively. That contractor will likely not use the same language with you, the customer.
Perhaps the best example of someone proficient in the use of audience-sensitive language was C.S. Lewis. He could write children’s fiction (The Chronicles of Narnia) which anyone can understand, but he could also engage in vigorous debate over theological, philosophical, and philological* issues, demonstrating his expertise as a literary critic. He practiced what he preached, and his challenge to Christians needs to be heeded:
“You must translate every bit of your Theology into the vernacular. This is very troublesome and it means you can say very little in half an hour, but it is essential. It is also of the greatest service to your own thought. I have come to the conviction that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood one’s own meaning.” (C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Eerdmans, 1970), “Christian Apologetics,” p. 98.).
Lewis is right regarding the double benefit of translation. Using language understandable by one’s audience presupposes both an interest in its response and an effort not to confuse.
We have seen that technical language can assist communication and develop precision. It can, thirdly, increase confidence (both in the listener as well as the speaker). Mr. Brown brings in his 1973 Datsun for service. The mechanic looks under the hood, and says, “Mr. Brown, I know exactly what your car’s problem is. You see that thingamabob next to that whatchamacallit? It’s all clogged up with that slippery stuff that comes out of that other doohickey next to it. Barnie,” he calls out to the other mechanic, “what do we call that part, anyway?” Such a discussion would not build your confidence in that mechanic. And if you want to fix your `73 Datsun, or become a mechanic yourself, you’d better be prepared to learn some technical language.
Granted, some technical language (especially that used in advertising) instills not confidence, but cynicism, in an audience. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen about all the television ads I can handle hawking Dristan “with Ammonia-D.”) There is probably a “believability threshhold” which determines when technical language ceases to be a help, and becomes a hindrance.
Fourthly, I would argue that a certain mastery of technical language increases one’s enjoyment of a subject. I am an avid chess player. Notice I did not say a successful one. Bobby Fisher can remain in seclusion, but I do enjoy playing. Mostly I have a chess game going on my office computer while I am grading students’ papers. I refuse to buy any wise-cracking chess program which hurls abuse on novice players like myself who take a whooping twenty seconds to make their chess moves. I am sure my computer thinks I have some dastardly plan up my sleeve whenever I make such a quick move. Because I don’t think very far ahead in chess, I make many silly mistakes, and I usually lose to my computer. Sometimes my only consolation is that I can always turn off the computer before it beeps that annoying beep to inform me that I have been checkmated.
On a recent church retreat, I played chess with one of the men who attended. I had my pawn on the fifth rank when he moved out his pawn two spaces, landing beside my pawn in the process. I then initiated the move known as an en passant. That is a perfectly legal move in which one can take one’s opponent’s pawn by moving behind it (rather than taking it in a diagonal fashion as is customary). The fellow I was playing looked at me as if I didn’t know which pieces went where on the board!
He knew that I was a theologian (which probably explained his suspicious look), but I assured him that I had performed a textbook chess move. After I explained en passant, he surrendered his pawn to me (reluctantly, I might add), then proceeded to look for opportunities to subject me to the same move! Needless to say, he never succeeded, although he did unfortunately win the game as I studiously guarded my beleaguered pawns. I believe he will enjoy chess more since he has learned the manoeuvre known as en passant. By the way, I don’t ever want to play him again. But the point is that terminology can increase one’s enjoyment of an activity or subject.
All of this is meant to say that the objection to doctrine’s terminology is greatly exaggerated. No matter whether one is engaged in scuba-diving, needlepointing, or volleyball, technical language exists and is learned by those who care the most about the particular activity or discipline.