The ‘Grammar’ of the Church: Inventing Christian Language

This is not the first, and I am sure it won’t be the last, but I am stealing a whole post (quote) from the venerable Jason Goroncy. I am sure some of you don’t venture over to Jason’s (which you should), and so I will reproduce a councilquote about theology that he has offered over at his blog (awhile ago). Here is the quote and my reflection afterwords:

‘Liberals are right that the language we use as Christians is not “literally” true; rather, it is figurative, poetic, imaginative language. But the orthodox are right in a more profound way: for the language of imagination – which is to say, biblical language – is the only language we have for thinking and speaking of God, and we receive it as the gift of the Holy Spirit. Theology deceives itself if it conceives of its task as translating the figurative language of scripture and piety into some more nearly literal discourse about God. The theologian’s job is not to tell fellow believers what they really mean; rather, it is to help the church speak more faithfully the language of the Christian imagination. The theologian is not a translator but a grammarian’. – Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart, ‘The Shape of Time’ in The Future as God’s Gift: Explorations in Christian Eschatology (ed. David Fergusson and Marcel Sarot; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 86. [Quote stolen from here]

I first came to think about what happened, for example, at the ecumenical councils as simply a matter of providing a right and proximate grammar for the demands of scripture’s theo-logic and God’s Self-revelation in Christ by way of Thomas F. Torrance (maybe six years ago). There are many people out in the world (usually cults like: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitary-Oneness Apostolic Pentecostal churches, etc.) who argue or are prone to believe that doctrines like the Trinity, and Hypostatic Union of the Divine and Human in the person of Jesus Christ have come to be as a result of inventive violation of the pure text of Scripture; with the result being that these later articulations of the Patristic church ended up hybriding Scripture and God’s life by foisting fabricated and artificial concepts upon God in Christ that Scripture does not allow for.

What Bauckham and Hart helpfully highlight is that this is a misperception. The early church, and theologians even today, are not supposed to be creating doctrines and interpretations that supersede Scripture and its Reality; instead they are tasked with the privilege of inventing grammar to help the Church of Christ better think and talk about the Triune God who they worship, and in ways that make most sense as we grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. That is why the work of the theologian is never done, he or she is involved in the constant spiraling process of engendering grammar that is faithful to Scripture’s witness and Reality, Jesus Christ; and as the Church continues to grow into that knowledge the grammar needs to expand and build upon the faithful grammar provided in the yesteryears of our past.

I liked this quote, and I hope you find it encouraging as well.

*another repost.

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4 comments

  1. Bobby, sounds okay but theological grammar-inventing goes too far. Take, for example, David’s comments to you about theological language that is so difficult to work through (see your Q and A). Here is a Christian whom God has moved to seek Him out in a more complete way. So he turns to the doctors of the church and what does he find? – great thoughts clothed in language so complex that our brother may get frustrated and turn away. In addition, the words being used by these teachers are not always defined in the same way (e.g., atonement). How is it that the common/simple language of the Scriptures produced such a situation? Flesh or Spirit? But, of course, my thoughts are irrelevant, man almost never goes back and theologians are most certainly not going to change their approach. Consider your own use of Latinisms. The academy writes to an English speaking audience and uses Latinisms, many times without translating – is that really necessary and profitable? I guess it is just the way of the world – every discipline has its own lingo. But shouldn’t the most important language in the world, divine truth, be as accessible to all as much as possible? Thank you for your web site

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  2. Steve,

    It is the reality, sorry, it is just how it is. Are you a Trinitarian? Trinity is the language used by Tertullian that I am referencing. The concern is not primarily the language, but the conceptual matter that the language signifies or symbolizes. The grammar is necessary in order to syntactically hang theological concepts that the Scripture’s trade upon (unstated and presupposed as it is occasionally) constantly. Whether or not the so called ‘Father’s disagreed on certain things is not the point; the point is, is that a Christian grammar was produced for the Christian church that the Christian church has identified as Christian language for centuries—and its point is not to create new concepts but to capture and convey old concepts made new in Jesus Christ. It is not wrong to have to spend the time to learn some new language as a Christian; that’s what being a Christian is about in many ways—growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ (in fact this is eternal life Jn 17.3). Whether or not the authors of such grammar use it in the some way is the burden that the student must bear if they want to actually spend the time to wrestle through what they wrestled through. I can understand your sentiment couched in the microwave kind of culture we currently inhabit, and its dumbing down. But I’m obviously not interested in that kind of culture. That said, I don’t want to be cryptic or incomprehensible for folk, but at the same time, my blog is not primarily intended as a teaching place; it is—as I have noted multiple multiple times—but a place where I work out my own raw thoughts. If my point was primarily intended to teach, my blog would look much differently. As far as reference to Latinisms, you would be hard pressed, on my blog, to find any usages of those where I don’t also define what those are (and so when I do that I am intending to teach others what these theological precisionism’s of language or Latinisms mean).

    I could try to teach more with my blog, but I don’t have the time, and I have a full time job. So I just write what I write the way I write it for better or worse; and hopefully for the benefit of at least some.

    Can you imagine actually writing a blog that is accessible for all audiences? Have you reflected upon the breadth of audience that the internet encompasses; that would be totally impossible! I have tried in the past to start blogs where I was intending to teach at like a undergrad 101 level. But again, I ran out of time, and it turned out to be too much work, and so no go, unfortunately.

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  3. Bobby,
    1. Yes, I would be considered a Trinitarian. However, I am a bit skeptical of derivative truths (however true they may be). Many years ago I set my mind to think of God the way He wants me to think of Him. To that end, it seemed to me that His thoughts about Himself will either come through Scripture or direct revelation. Since the latter is pretty rare(!), I concentrated on Scripture. In Scripture, I learned that God uses men to teach others about Himself and so I determined that any Spirit-possessing person could teach me but I must always critique the lessons with Scripture. My concern with the doctrine of the Trinity is not the truth of the doctrine but the use to which the doctrine is put and whether it fits the Scriptural way God wants me to think of Him. Scripture seems to want me to think of God in four ways: Father, Son, Holy Spirit and God as God – depending on the issue/context. Misuse of the doctrine of the Trinity can confuse this fourfold direction. For example, a brother was asked to lead us in prayer prior to Communion, so he says “Father, thank you for dying for us…” this was clearly a Trinitarian confused statement, however well intentioned. I also grow weary of the endless speculations/controversies concerning the deep mysteries surrounding Trinitarian thought and relations – no matter how interesting. There is much more I could say, but for now, a short answer to a big question.
    2. Regarding the rest of your comments, every article I’ve read by you is didactic in nature and tone – you are always teaching! Plus, if you critique others, and you do, then you are placing yourself in “Moses’ seat” and directing theological traffic – another kind of teaching. I find this all good when taken in the right spirit (“collegial” I think you called it). You are right about having to target your audience and communicate on that level. As one who has taught much, to audiences of varying degrees of sophistication, I understand how difficult that can be. I tried to aim for a little above middle ground and that seemed to work. Your new Accessible seems to be just right, as the responses have shown. Take care. Steve

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  4. Steve,

    I don’t obviously have the same kind of skepticism about the Trinity and its fundamental reality as you seem to, and how far we can think it relative to its revelation in Christ as the Son of the Father–and this is why I take the Trinity to be so fundamental, because it is at the core of who God has revealed Himself to be ‘when you see Me you see the Father’ etc. I think the fact that there is confusion–like your story illustrates–invites even more intensely, for us to think the Trinity for all its worth (as far as we can in doxological mode).

    Yes, I know my posts are didactic, but my point is that they are usually given their didactic shape by way of my own context of thinking at that moment. In other words, I am trying to teach myself, usually, through my blogging. Anyway, Steve, I’ll do both on my blog. I guess if people started paying me to teach them through my blogging, then I would definitely make an effort to reach whatever audience was paying me to do so. But since this effort of mine, for some odd reason, remains a labor of love (usually), I will blog how I see fit. Why don’t you start a blog, and you can reach people at the level you deem fitting? Peace.

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