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A Theology of Big Words

My two year old son Zach has just entered that stage where he says a new word or phrase just about every day. It is wonderful to watch, listen, and laugh. The other day he said “Batman” perfectly. I was so excited. I assured my wife (even though I am the world’s biggest superhero fan) that I did not know where he got it from. He just picked it up somewhere—seriously. Tonight at the church while we were eating, he put his blanket over Will’s (my 5 year old) head and said “Where’s Will?” That was awesome. New word every day. No kidding.

Switch gears…

I remember when I first started teaching, fresh out of seminary, I was going to really shake things up. No matter where I taught or what I taught, I was determined not to dumb things down. If people did not understand the language of theology, they would just have to learn it. Like playing tennis with someone much better than you, just weather the storm and you will raise to new heights. This did not last long. While I am staying the course, determined not to dumb things down, I now know that I have to be more strategic.

One of the most difficult assignments I have as a teacher of theology is to convince people of the need to be familiar with and engage in theological discourse. People simply are not used to it. In all our ministries, from Parchment and Pen, Theology Unplugged, to The Theological Word of the Day, I am attempting to be intentional in the ways we bring a timid and intellectually insecure culture to a place where true learning can become a reality. I am still learning—a lot.

One of the most difficult things that I have to convince people of today is the need to learn a new language. No, it is not something other than English, but it is a sub-set of technical terminology that exists in Biblical and Theological studies. For the most part, people don’t expect nor (think they) desire to engage in such a learning experience. In church, we are told that people don’t understand this word or that phrase so you have to speak in such a way where all difficulty in comprehension is removed. When speaking about the “atonement,” don’t use that word. Replace it with “What Jesus did on the Cross.” When speaking about “redemption,” change it to “What Jesus accomplished.” When speaking about “predestination,” change the topic all together. No one is ready for that!

On and on I could go. We live in a time when people are “seeker-friendly” to such a degree that unless you dumb things down to the point where everyone can handle the serve, you are going to run them off. In this, we are saying a couple of things: 1) Even though my two year old boy can learn a new phrase in passing everyday, once people get out of college the have exhausted their ability to learn something new. 2) People don’t come to church or lessons to learn new concepts and ideas, but to take what they have already learned and have it restructured and/or be reminded of it. Therefore, we are limited in how we can communicate.

These presuppositions are completely unjustified and unfounded. I have never heard anyone defend this mentality outside of a desire not to offend people with “bid words.” But the problem is when we take this to its logical conclusion. Why stop at adults? Why not bow to the least common denominator. Let’s include Zach. Sometimes my wife brings him into the service and we don’t want to offend him, right? Therefore, let us preach “goo, goo” and “gaa, gaa” with an occasional “Batman” thrown in. That way we are sure not to offend anyone.

Here are reasons why I still use big words:

1. God created big words. Words are the basic building blocks of language. There is a reason why God created language. It was not so that people could communicate through a minimalistic paradigm, but so, as language is understood, concepts and truth can be further communicated.

2. Big words work. Have you ever had an abstract concept in your mind only to find out later that there was word associated with that concept? I have. In fact, I am continually searching for a verbal articulation of what I am thinking. I remember having an epiphany (i.e. a sudden realization) when I learned what the phase “irenic theology” (i.e. taking a peaceful approach to theological matters in order to stimulate learning in a non-threatening environment). I had this concept in my mind as I often thought about how much better I learn when opposing positions are presented in a persuasive yet peaceful manner. I just could not articulate it. But when the word “irenic” was applied to this, I could communicate it more tangibly to myself and others.

3. Big words legitimize. I often say that when you have a theological word or phrase that comes from the Reformers and you can say it in Latin, the concept that the word represents is de facto (i.e. as a matter of fact) true! In reality, there is a grain of truth to this. Not that the concept is true, but that words and phrases are legitimized to some degree because of longevity.

I taught tonight on the problem of evil. Many of the students had never heard of the words or concepts that I was talking about. However, all of them had thought deeply about the subject as evil affects all of us. One concept that I chose to include and not dumb down in wording was “privatio boni.” This word describes the idea popularized by St. Augstine that evil is not a tangible thing, but a privation of righteousness. Like darkness is simply the absence of light, so evil is simply the absence of righteousness. The reason I chose to use this Latin phrase instead of its English translation was because I wanted it to be legitimized in people’s minds. In other words, using the technical term helped people to understand that this was a real concept that did not originate from me. You see this happening from your doctor all the time. For example, what if your doctor was scared that you would be offended by big words and therefore diagnosed your condition as “blood hurt” rather than “Leukemia”? You would not think too much of his or her diagnosis would you? The doctors use big words. They know that when they use the technical terms associated with your ailment, you will understand the accuracy and seriousness of the problem as well as the legitimacy of their diagnosis. This same principle holds true in every area, including theology.

(Ironically, today’s Theological Word of the Day is a word I made up because I have not found a better or more traditional way to communicate the concept.)

When and how to use “big words”

We have all been in situations where the speaker talks way over our head. He does not speak to where we are. This is simply bad teaching. You have to know your audience. However, this is not the same thing as what I am talking about. To use big words does not have to mean that you are speaking over people’s heads.

1. Be wise in what words you choose to use. Of course some people could get up to the pulpit and read the Bible in the original Hebrew or Greek. This may provide for a more accurate reading of the Scripture, but, unless you are teaching a bunch of seminary professors, you are going run everyone off as you are wasting their time. When you use big words, make sure that you do in a way that is expedient to your audiences learning. In other words, when there is a word that communicates a concept in a particular way, having a rich tradition or a unique nuance to the concept, use it.

2. Don’t use big words to show off. I was at a seminar where J.P. Moreland was speaking. He could have spoken in a philosophical language that would have wowed everyone, causing us all to say “Boy, this guy is really smart . . . but I don’t know what he is saying.” But he did not. He was very strategic in his use of words. However, there was one gentleman who stood up to ask a question which amounted to a very antagonistic challenge to J.P.’s authority of the subject. The questioner used big words to show off how much he knew, it was easy to tell. It was very interesting how J.P. handled it. For a thirty second period, J.P. joined this gentlemen on the turf he had presented, spoke in a very technical language that only the questioner (maybe) could understand, definitively made his case, and the antagonist was silenced. The reason why J.P. did this, I believe, was to answer the challenge and move on. It was for the audience, even though most the audience did not understand what was said. This was to regain his command of the subject in the eyes of the listener, but it was not to show off. We need to very careful and strategic with the way we speak.

3. Always define the words. When you follow the first two, this is not enough. You can’t assume that people will eventually just catch on. It is not like tennis. If the big word or phrase is significant enough for you to use, then make sure you define it every time you use it until people get adjusted. Even though we live in the age of computers and iPhones (sigh . . .), you can’t expect everyone to have a dictionary out and ready.

4. Don’t assume too much (related to the last). This is going to be audience oriented, but one of the biggest perils of teachers and preachers is the assumption of understanding. When I was teaching tonight, I used the word “apologetics.” This is simply a (wonderful) word that means “defending the faith.” I use it so often and in so many ways that I am continually assuming that my audience, no matter where I am, has to be acquainted with this. But this is simply not the case. There may be about half that are, but what about the other half? You will lose this with too many assumptions.

In short, words are a gift from God. We could not communicate without them. They help us to understand, articulate, and believe more deeply and accurately. I thank God for big words. Don’t get offended by people who use them in a stategic way. They are simply being faithful to the Gospel message and, by using them, are pushing you to stretch in your understanding and love of God. Yes, it is like a new language, but it is wonderful and life changing. Besides, we can at least keep up with Zach can’t we?

See part two

16 Responses to “A Theology of Big Words”

  1. Speaking as someone who normally hears big words used, rather than someone who uses them, I don’t mind so long as you do number (3): Define the words. In fact, in that case I appreciate it.

  2. Thanks for writing this up. Much of what you said echoes in my own mind and heart as well. I especially appreciate your suggestions in how to use language.

  3. rayner markley April 23, 2009 at 8:17 am

    I agree with your main point that it’s very important to be precise in terminology while paying attention to the audience. However, the reasons given are not valid.

    1) Our words, large and small, come to us following a long development within human cultures. Hebrew, Greek and Latin words had their own development. Jesus and the NT writers used existing words or in some cases may have made up new ones from existing elements. The words are not from God.

    2) Technical terms, whether big or not, are a shorthand for a concept, as you illustrate well with ‘irenic.’ (By the way, I learned this word at this website, and the irenic tone is a major attraction here.) True, technical usage brings precision and removes much emotion from a discussion. However, it also tends to confine. Sometimes, to advance in understanding we need to break out of our terminology. Jesus got along quite well with parables and simple talk. That’s where the real learning takes place.

    3) The notion that big words legitimate borders on superstition. Luckily, you hedge on this by saying ‘to some degree.’ You seem to contradict yourself here: ‘the concept that the word represents is de facto true’ and then ‘not that the concept is true.’

  4. CMP,
    I think using big words for simple people does not work, it turns most people off because the words don’t make sense to them. It works for people who study words. How many people will listen to their doctor explain big words that they don’t understand?

    Just to make my point…my husband was just in the hospital, so can you tell me his illness from the following words…without looking them up?

    “Pathophysiology
    The myocardium is abnormal with cellular and myofibrillar disarray, although this finding is not specific for HCM. In the most common form, upper interventricular septum below the aortia is markedly hypertrophied and thickened with or no hypertrophy of the left ventricular posterior wall; this pattern is called asymmetrical septal hypertrophy.”

    That was a printout the hospital gave me to which I had to translate for my husband. He is not a doctor therefore the big words did not legitimize the definition for him, I had to use words he understood. My husband has severe Congestive Heart Failure and this small paragraph was the first explanation of how it works.

    The use of big words only works if the person who uses them knows the definition and can translate it into concepts easy to be understood. I look at the theology word of the day. But to me it does not matter, I understand big words sometimes. When you speak about God, it is ok to use simple words. It does not lessen God.

  5. Using certain buzzwords like apologetics can be confusing, you are right. I used to think apologetics, for instance, meant the writers were apologizing for Christianity rather than defending the faith! Someone else recently asked me why they call it that.

    Words are a powerful medium of communication. They resonate with folks or turn them off. When used properly words can affect great change, as we see in the Bible. They can can also be used to confuse and confound, as well as inform, and to build up and tear down.

    I don’t think it’s so much about the length of the words we use as our judicious use of them.

  6. mbaker,
    I did also…what are we apologizing for?

  7. I don’t know if I would call the technical language of theology “big words”. But I think the most significant aspect of theological language is that they convey development and history, as Rayner alluded to. And its the development and history that further defines a Biblical truth that I think is meant to be and should be conveyed.

    I agree regarding not dumbing down. I recall this movie Stand to Deliver, based on a true story about a high school math teacher that wanted to teach kids from the barrio calculus. Everyone told him that he shouldn’t do that, they won’t understand it. Keep it simple. But his theory was that the kids would rise to the level of expectation. I think that theory is equally applicable to teaching and learning theology and what we’ve seen are very low expectations.

  8. Here is one common (mis-?)use of big words, specifically by theologians: they/we use big words, so we can talk over the heads of others. In this way, we can discuss controversial subjects … while avoiding people who aren’t prepared for such discussions, screaming at them. In effect, we are using ephemisms.

    But such usage is a double-edged sword. While this has the 1) advantage, of avoiding having to slug everything out with everday folks, matters already well known to experts … still, the habitual use of big words by theologians and others, means that 2) they eventually lose the knack of speaking in way people can understand.

    After all, it is in part, a deliberately exclusionary device. The advantage of engaging in that type of class warfare, is avoiding slug fests, and just hanging out with the elite; the disadvantage of such elitism, I’ve just stated.

    Unfortunately, being such a theologian would mean that you could not really … follow, emulate, Jesus, some would say. Notice that people followed Jesus because he seemed to speak to, understand, the common man. Jesus was successful, caught on with the masses, because he used the common language or mind set; through parables about famers, fishermen, and so forth. (Though to be sure, after Jesus, the editors of our Bibles, put in plenty of ambiguity too).

    To be sure, therefore, I see a case for both; “plain” talk, and academese. And will occasionally use both. Or try to form a bridge between the two. Still … it would be misleading to unequivocally endorse … the often deliberate obscurity of academic Theology. Much is gained, but much is lost, through such language.

  9. Expanding on Rayner’s point 2, it’s common to see technical jargon used as a way to compartmentalize. Even with the formidable array of theological jargon available to us, it’s rarely possible to capture all of the nuances of a person’s individual beliefs with a single descriptor. Arguing against me as “an Arminian” (for example) rather than letting me fully expound on exactly what my position on election is is almost certainly going to lead to burning a strawman, and in this way, jargon can actually hinder rather than promote exchange of ideas. Even worse is when a particular word holds a pejorative connotation for someone; then, when I call you an “OV’er”, or “emergent”, or “charismatic”, or whatever, I’m not just describing the position you hold, I’m telling you what I think about you. These two phenomena are all too common.

    I think that jargon is helpful in that it helps us to locate ourselves in an ongoing conversation and to identify touchpoints of similarity between the positions we hold and the positions that others have held in the past. But it can also become a crutch that can lead discussions down unproductive rabbit trails whereby the jargon must be unpackaged and the point of disagreement in the way it is being used uncovered. This is actually a much more convoluted process than simply stating clearly what one means at the outset. So maybe, then, the issue in such situations isn’t so much the use of jargon as the assumption that everyone in the discussion has the same understanding of what a particular term means and implies.

  10. Not to disagree with the owner of the blog too much, of course! :) Who has been so kind as to give space, even to those who disagree with him.

    But the way, I do actually like to play with big words; and they do have some use. But just to have a debate, and oppose the first position offered? I offer the other side of the story, here.

  11. I love the defenses of unpopular techniques on this blog; thank you for articulating the benefits of such words. Regarding the first number 3, Felix Culpa (that the fall was a deliberate means to the glory of God through redemption) has been for me what Privatio Boni was for you. The idea is so foreign to so many people, so I can definitely relate that it’s great to be able to say that this is in fact a very old and well-weathered idea.

  12. Dr. G,
    For once you and I agree with each other on a small point…lol.

    You used the word academese…my spell check does not like it…

    Lisa,
    I saw that movie. It was very good. The only thing we must remember is that those kids were not stupid in math to begin with. They were just studying college level calculus. I cannot do simple math to save my life. I have severe dyscalculia (only mild dyslexia) so to understand math concepts are almost impossible. Dyscalcilics also have trouble with directions, music, and playing strategy games like chess. It does not mean we are less intelligent. So you can see that using math jargon in my case would be totally ineffective. So it would work with theology as well. If someone cannot get a basic understanding, the more difficult the concept or word will never be understood.

    But I have a brother who worked at NASA, Space Camp and The National Laboratory at Oak Ridge. He helped design missile guidance systems in the Air Force. He is very intelligent in his way. But he is not a believer. He does not approach theology at all. So we can use big words instead of dumbing down…it depends on we are dumbing down for.

    (my spell check does not like dumbing either…hmmm)

  13. Interesting . . . two things come to mind – what Paul said about becoming like those who he was talking to so that he would “reach” them.

    And second and more importantly, I think man has become much too dependent on man to teach them and that is the problem. If each were to abide in the Word as the Spirit as the teacher then each would learn what God desires and it would be truth not someone’s interpretation. People assume they can’t understand the Word so they rely on a preacher. However, it doesn’t matter your IQ when it comes to the Word of God. Without the Spirit you can’t know the Word, but with Him, you can understand great truths. God desires intimacy with each one of us and He wants each one of us to draw near to Him through His Word. He says He will write His truth on our hearts, but the sad fact is most don’t trust Him, but trust man and therefore issues like this, the words we use, become an issue when it should never be.

    I believe teachers are to teach others to feed themselves, not feed them.

    Rachel

  14. One of the great things about homeschooling my children these past six years is that I can influence their love of words. Modern childrens novels and textbooks simplify the language to the peril of our vocabulary. When we read classics together I pause to explain an unknown word. But I do not replace the word automatically with a simple one. We are losing the beauty!

  15. As someone who is over educated and uses lots of big words – I agree, but sometimes …….

    I am glad for your caveats – especially the “define” part – if you bring people into the conversation, big words work. Too often (in many professions, not just theolgians) that gets missed

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