Chatty Theology (or Linguistic Idolatry)

A week ago, I ran across a sentence in Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places.  I can’t stop thinking about it.  Here it is.

“We cannot be too careful about the words we use; we start out using them and then they end up using us.”

Concerning words and theology, it is easy for us to overemphasize things, which shows up in our speech.  Some people in the Reformed tradition never stop talking about election, which leads down the road of hyper-calvinism (their terms start “using” them).  Some in the baptistic tradition talk about baptism so much it drives all their theology.  In still a different strain, Federal Vision teachers talk about covenant so much that “federal” swallows everything (like Aaron’s rod): federal husband/wife, federal headship, federal children, federal schooling, federal politics, and whatever federal else.  Peterson is right: we have to be super careful with our use of words.

This quote by Peterson also goes another direction: it chastens excessive theological chatter.  I was reading a book on Genesis 1-3 and creation – the thing was hundreds of pages long.  I couldn’t finish it because it seemed like a vacuum that just sucked the mystery and wonder out of the creation account.  The author was trying to explain everything, and in doing so, he explained everything away.  Diarrhea of the pen or mouth pretty much kills doxology in the heart!  Furthermore, sometimes we try to show off our theological or biblical knowledge by the sheer amount of words we use, which is a form of idolatry.  All these observations lead us to the scriptural emphasis.

“God is in heaven, you are on earth, so let your words be few” (Ecc. 5.2).

“Be silent and know that I am God!” (Ps 46.10).

“Be quick to listen and slow to speak” (Jas 1.19).

“Whoever restrains his words has knowledge” (Prov 17.27).

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking” (Prov 10.19).

I think everyone who writes a commentary on a book of the Bible should follow these biblical principles.  Also, seminary students (in essay writing) and preachers (in preaching/teaching) should memorize these verses!   Side note: as I look forward to getting Barth’s massive Church Dogmatics this winter, I wrestle with his [over]use of words.   I’m not sure what to make of that.  Well, enough chatter….

shane lems

1 thought on “Chatty Theology (or Linguistic Idolatry)”

  1. One needs to separate the theological wheat from the chaff…. When you look at volumes like Barth’s CD, Berkhof’s ST, Bavinck’s RD, Calvin’s Commentaries, or any of the theological heavy weights, one word describes them all- MASSIVE. Yet when paging through these works can you find a sentence with wasted words? Can any paragraphs be removed without affecting the overall meaning? Which chapters can you find that are superfluous?

    Even though these guys used more than there share of ink, they still pack more value into one paragraph than most hacks do in an entire book.


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