A Theology of Language image

A Theology of Language

I don’t think I’ve ever done this before, but I wanted to post today based on something I read in a comments thread on someone else’s blog. I was writing the post last week about Thabiti Anyabwile and Doug Wilson, and I noticed some extremely insightful remarks about the theology of language in the comments section after one of Doug’s articles. Now: in my experience, blog comments are not always the most edifying or enlightening parts of the internet (present company excepted, of course). But on this occasion, they were spot on.

The discussion was over the way in which we use language, particularly language which is potentially (or even deliberately) offensive, sarcastic, satirical, barbed or colourful. At one end of the spectrum, you have those who would argue that loving your neighbour involves doing nothing that might possibly offend them. At the other, you have those who urge that being biblical involves speaking extremely bluntly, provocatively, and sometimes offensively, because that’s what Jesus, the prophets and the apostles did. For instance:

Satire is a kind of preaching. Satire pervades Scripture. Satire treats the foibles of sinners with a less than perfect tenderness. But if a Christian employs satire today, he is almost immediately called to account for his ‘unbiblical’ behavior. Yet Scripture shows that the central point of some religious controversies is to give offense. When Christ was confronted with ecclesiastical obstinacy and other forms of arrogance, he showed us a godly pattern for giving offense. In every controversy, godliness and wisdom (or the lack of them) are to be determined by careful appeal to the Scriptures and not to the fact of people having taken offense. Perhaps they ought to have taken offense, and perhaps someone ought to have endeavored to give it.

This first hit me when I was on a Leadership Training course some years ago, and my friend Phil Moore suggested that there were some methods that Jesus used in his preaching that we neglect today. The course tutor asked him for an example, and Phil immediately replied, “name-calling.” Since then, I’ve noticed it more and more, both in obvious people (Doug Wilson, Mark Driscoll, et al) and less obvious ones (Nate Wilson’s Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl has an interesting section on how shocking the language of Ezekiel was, and how we should be unashamed of doing the same ourselves). At the same time, of course, there are many who have not only avoided using language that offends like this, but reacted with extreme vehemence to those who have (as Rachel Held Evans did to Jared Wilson last year). And yes, the number of Wilsons I’m citing is strange, but reflects no authorial bias that I’m aware of.

The biblical reality is indisputable – the prophets and the apostles, and particularly Jesus, regularly used sarcastic or insulting language for the purpose of ridicule and rebuke:

Neh 13:25: And I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair.

Psa 94:8: Understand, O dullest of the people! Fools, when will you be wise?

Isa 3:16-17: The LORD said: Because the daughters of Zion are haughty and walk with outstretched necks, glancing wantonly with their eyes, mincing along as they go, tinkling with their feet, therefore the Lord will strike with a scab the heads of the daughters of Zion, and the LORD will lay bare their secret parts.

Eze 23:19-20: Yet she increased her whoring, remembering the days of her youth, when she played the whore in the land of Egypt and lusted after her lovers there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose issue was like that of horses.

Amos 4:1: “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan!”

Mat 3:7: But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

Mat 23:17: “You blind fools!”

Mat 23:24: “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!”

Mat 23:27: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.”

Mat 23:33: “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”

1Co 4:8: “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you!”

Gal 3:1: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?”

Gal 5:12: “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!”

Php 3:2: “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.”

Heb 5:11: “About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.”

That’s quite a catalogue (and it’s by no means exhaustive). Yet at the same time, there are biblical imperatives against insulting our brothers and sisters – most of which are from the same people. What are we to make of Matthew 5:22, for example, in the light of that list? “I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” Were Isaiah, Ezekiel, Amos, John the Baptist, Paul and Jesus himself liable to the Sanhedrin, or even to hell itself? Assuming the answer is no, what makes the difference?

A surface reading of those “insult” texts reveals one thing in common: they are all responding to sin. In some cases it is ungodliness and idolatry, in some cases the oppression of the poor and sexual promiscuity, in some cases hypocrisy and pride, in some cases ethnocentric legalism, in some cases hard-heartedness – but in all cases, it is sin. Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, by contrast, are about situations in which the one insulting is the sinner, rather than the one insulted. So, from what I can tell, are the similar warnings about use of language in James 3 and elsewhere.

Which makes me think that using language which is sarcastic, barbed or downright insulting can (and should) be used by Christians, if the intention is to confront and expose sin. If it comes from sin in our own hearts, then there is no excuse for insulting others, and consequently we have to be very careful when using language that could offend people. But if its purpose is to reveal sin in others, and to encourage them towards repentance, it would seem that being biblical does, with Wilsons one and all, permit (and even necessitate) being offensive sometimes. The trick, of course, is to tell which is which.

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