Insider Language and the Mission of God

Whatever else we do, we must be unashamed to teach the language of God from Scripture.

I still feel a tension between using insider language and methodically bringing others along in the language of God and the church. On one hand, theological and historical terminology can become Shibboleths that keep others uninformed and disengaged. On the other hand, the language of the church gives us the opportunity to share the language of God in thoughtful, educated and engaging ways. We need to labor to ask ourselves how we are employing terminology that is unique to the worlds of theology, philosophy and sociology as we seek to bring the Gospel to outsiders who don’t speak the language of the church. 

 

Through much of middle and high school, I woke up every morning and had my quiet time watching Craig Kilborn on ESPN’s Sportscenter. I could tell you every stat about every baseball, basketball and football player. I knew the language of just about every major sport. When I would watch sports with friends who weren’t that interested in whatever sport was being played, I would seek to explain the language of the sport to them (i.e. the rules, the terminology and the strategies). In my late teens, I lost interest with much of that–turning my attention to girls, music and drugs. I learned to speak the language of the world regarding those things. When I wanted to indoctrinate someone in any of those things, I taught them the language associated with those things.

After I was converted, a seminarian welcomed me into his home and mentored me. He used the language of the academy and the church–language with which I was unfamiliar (words like epistemologydialectichermeneuticseschatology and homiletics). He spoke about the Westminster Assembly, the Auburn affirmation and Mercersburg theology. When he prayed he used biblical language with which I was not familiar (e.g. “Oh that you would rend the heavens,” “put a hedge of protection around,” etc). This was a strange new world for me and one with which I was not entirely comfortable. I felt like I was treading water to stay afloat miles out in an ocean of unfamiliar language. I went to a theological conference not long after I was converted and everything I heard flew 30,000 feet over my head because of the dialect. I left feeling discouraged–wondering why those I was around now weren’t speaking language that my unbelieving friends could understand. I was zealous to see my old friends come to know Christ and I concluded that this was not the way it would happen.

Over the next two years, I grew in my appreciation for biblical and theological language because I was studying God’s word and reading the great works of church history. I realized that there was a rich spiritual heritage to so much of the vocabulary of the church. Still, I wondered why there was a reticence on the part of some of those from whom I was learning to modernize the archaic language of older theological works and to break down theological concepts. I came to love the historic doctrinal statements of faith (e.g. The Westminster Confession of Faith, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Canons of Dort, etc.) but couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t modernize some of the language in order to make it understandable to new converts. I sensed something of a reverse chronological snobbery. For many of those with whom I was surrounded, older was better, historical was more spiritual.

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