Thursday, March 10, 2011

Theological jargon and the Church

Kevin Vanhoozer's The Drama of Doctrine attempts to address "the strange disappearance of doctrine in the church." He attempts in many long, drawn out sentences to illustrate how doctrine can be the "stuff of life," related to everything we do. Yet his own tendency to say everything in more words than necessary gives us all the evidence we need to understand the disconnect between theology and the Church.

Let me pick a typical paragraph from this book, and then I'll translate it for you.
It is tempting to reduce the communicative act to its proposition content alone. Yet such an identification of divine discourse with propositional content is too hasty and reductionist, for it omits two other important aspects of the communicative action, namely, the illocutionary (what is done) and perlocutionary (what is effected). To repeat: what is authoritative about the Bible is what God says and does in and with its words. To equate God's word with the content it conveys is to work with an abbreviated Scripture principles that reduces revelation to the propositional residue of it's locutions [!]. Such an abbreviated Scripture principle, in overlooking the illocutionary and perlocutionary dimensions, is both christologically and pneumatologically deficient. It fails to see that what Scripture is doing is witnessing to and hence mediating Christ, and it fails to do justice to the role of the Holy Spirit in making sure that this witness is effective.
Translation: "the authority of the Bible isn't just about ideas; it's about knowing Christ through the Holy Spirit." There, now I think everyone in our congregation gets it. If someone translated the whole book in this way, I might be done with it in one sitting.

There is nothing wrong with technical language where absolutely necessary to convey meaning. As a mathematician, I very comfortably use highly technical language which is packed with meaning. In other words, any other possible way to say the same thing in a mathematical argument would be longer, not shorter. As an off-the-cuff example, there simply is no shorter way to say, "Every bounded linear operator is continuous." In theology (or at least in this book) it appears just the opposite. It reminds me of a sign on one of my college professors' office doors: "Think! There has to be a harder way to do it." We are doing the Church a terrible disservice if theologians continue to endorse language which, though translatable into simple terms which any layman could understand, is meant solely for the purposes of conversation between theologians.

Such convoluted language is generally symptomatic of ideas which cannot be defended in the face of current evidence. The fact that I am 70 pages into Vanhoozer's book and he has yet to actually begin to defend his main thesis is deeply worrisome. I am more satisfied by two blog posts from my brother than I am with 70 pages of flowery reinterpretation of doctrine as "theo-drama."

1 comment:

  1. Aww, thanks. I'm working up the courage to try another one.

    I think you're very much right on this count - everybody wants to sound like what they think a theologian sounds like rather than communicate clearly the reasons why all this terminology was formulated.

    But hey, it could be worse - he could be a sociologist [shudder].


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