Updated: Apr 23, 2020
A friend and colleague of mine recently went on a rant about “Christianese.” If you’re not familiar with the term, “Christianese” refers to the jargon and cliches often used by Christians which can be incomprehensible to outsiders. Phrases like “washed in the blood” or “travelling mercies” are examples of insider language that a person familiar with church life would probably understand immediately, but someone new to Christianity would find unfamiliar and potentially off-putting.
Effective communication requires that we use words and phrases that are meaningful to the hearer. In this I agree with my friend’s disdain of “Christianese.” Some, however, have gone further than I think is helpful. They have tried to rid Christian speech and thinking of anything that is unique to it. In so doing, I believe we are losing much of the depth and richness of what is true about God and the gospel.
When we were kids we spoke like kids. Our vocabulary focused on a limited number of primarily concrete words. As we matured, however, our vocabulary grew and we began using words that communicate about a much larger scope of issues, many of which are abstract.
In addition, most of us find ourselves working in specific fields of study. We are teachers, doctors, plumbers, musicians, police officers, and so on. Each field has its unique lexicon. Teachers speak of “andragogy,” which is the method of teaching adults. Musicians use words like “tessitura,” which refers to the comfortable range of a vocalist. These words mean nothing to outsiders and there’s really no reason to learn them unless you’re going into that particular field.
Theology, like other fields of study, has its own vocabulary. As part of the effort to eliminate “Christianese” many have tried to stop using distinctively theological terms. I think this goes too far, and is actually harmful to our ability to think and communicate within the Church.
Everyone is a theologian. The word theology simply means the study of God. Anyone who has wondered what God is really like, who has asked themselves why God doesn’t do away with all evil, who has thought about heaven and the afterlife, has been doing theology. Every time you open your Bible, or listen to a radio preacher, or attend Sunday School, you are doing the work of a theologian. Of course, I don’t mean we are all academics who spend our days reading dense tomes about how many angels can dance on the head of a needle (a popular theological dispute in the Middle Ages). I mean that we think deeply about what God is like, studying his person, character, and actions. And, like all fields of study, there are particular words that help us to accomplish this.
Learning these words gives us a vocabulary, a set of tools, for our thinking. A brick layer can’t lay bricks well without a trowel. A surgeon won’t be very helpful to his patient without a scalpel. In the same way, a believer in Christ will only go so far in understanding God and the gospel without the vocabulary needed to talk about them.
Words like justification, sanctification, regeneration, and propitiation are rich with theological meaning and have no one-to-one synonyms in English that convey their full depth. So rather than shy away from these words, let’s learn them. Let’s explain them to seekers and new believers. Let’s refuse to be spiritually lazy and do the hard work of gaining deep understanding about the God in whom we trust.
After all, if our 9th graders can learn words like absolve, connotation, hypothetical, and indolent, we can teach them redemption, atonement, sovereignty, and transcendence.