When it comes to fighting theological famine around the world many consider English resources to be only temporary tools. To be sure, there is no substitute for hearing the great things of God in one’s own heart language. So we often defend English resources by way of their availability and efficiency while waiting for translation projects to faze them out. However, the availability of English resources presents opportunity not often acknowledged. English resources enable two-way exchange in which Christians across the globe study common sources and offer their unique insights to the worldwide theological dialogue. English dominance complicates issues, of course. So we must proceed with sensitivity as we explore the precedents, problems, and possibilities of English as a common theological language.

Need for Global Dialogue

A global church demands dialogue that spans all cultures. However, in addressing this need, we must begin by setting a course that navigates between two extremes. On one end some deny the ways culture shapes their theology. On the other end some react harshly to anything that appears Western in its theological character. We might call the first problem didacticism and the second one diatribe. Neither is dialogue. However, theologian Kevin Vanhoozer provides us a helpful and hopeful middle path between these two poles. He writes:

Theology must not hearken to Western voices only. Nor should theologians attend to voices that come only from their century or social class. All cultural scenes are equally valid (and equally limited) in the drama of redemption. By contrast, theology should not be anti-Western either. The West has had a considerable head start when thinking about how to apply and contextualize the gospel. . . . Ideally, theologians in one culture will dialogue and learn from theologians in others. [1]

Common language fosters such global dialogue. And theology is not the only discipline that benefits from widespread English usage. Understandably, many do not welcome this trend. For instance, a recent study investigated the perceptions of Spanish scientists toward the prevalence of English in scientific discourse. [2] Participants responded with resignation. As the researchers explain, “A surprisingly high proportion of subjects (83 percent) believe there is a need for one international language of science.” At the same time, 96 percent of participants said the current system privileges native English speakers. Historically speaking, English is not the first language to function in this role as a common language that transcends borders and cultures. For instance, Persian, Sanskrit, and Arabic have also done so in certain times and places. Likewise, much of the church developed and communicated its theology through Greek and Latin. And today’s theology students must study still more languages in their work, such as Hebrew, German, and French. In every case the language shaped the discourse in ways we cannot always comprehend.

English and Local Languages

Contrastive rhetoric has examined some effects of this interaction between language and culture, especially as it relates to reading and writing. In particular, Robert Kaplan’s pioneering research in this field, although initially overstated, demonstrated that different cultures operate with different “cultural thought patterns.”  For instance, English writing tends to favor linear organization, while other languages often take a less direct form. For example, Arabic favors a parallel structure, and many East Asian languages prefer spiral organization that gradually brings the reader from the general to the specific. In practice, these patterns can significantly affect cross-cultural reading. Common English patterns may even offend certain readers. This perspective may sound like an exaggeration, but many around the world blush at the directness of English communication. They regard it as rude. Likewise, we in the English-speaking world tend to consider the writings of other cultures as “not to the point” and much too “flowery.” These differences need not battle it out with each other for a kind of cultural supremacy. Kaplan stresses that contrastive rhetoric has always aimed at “contributing to the resources available for discourse-building among bilingual populations.” [3] Different patterns can be learned by different cultures without obliterating local norms. In fact, this process of adding patterns, as Kaplan indicates, supplies us with more resources for global dialogue. However, if English forms replace other cultural thought patterns, we confront a twofold danger. First, we limit the effectiveness of non-native English speakers in communicating theological truths in their local settings, and perhaps even in their own local languages. Second, we deprive the rest of the world of learning from their unique cultural perspectives.

What Is English?

If a common language frames worldwide dialogue, the culture of origin for that language will enjoy a privileged status. Maybe English isn’t such a bad fit, with its varied origin and habit of sampling vocabulary from languages the world over. But what exactly is English anyway? Does it refer to British English or American English? And if so, which regional dialect? And what about Australian, Indian, or Singaporean English? International English curriculums often look to Received Pronunciation, the prescribed British dialect, as the proper form. But if we judge media prevalence to be the deciding factor, American English tends to be the standard. Ultimately, English has no “pure” form. As a result we now see many World Englishes. As different cultural groups use English to express their unique social settings, they infuse English with aspects of their local languages. For example, if two theologians from different East Asian countries interact, they will most likely communicate in English, even if their cultures have more in common with each other than either does with British or American culture. Yet they will use English in an “East Asian” way. This trend challenges the assumption that English aims only to connect other cultures to us. And World Englishes grant non-native English speakers a voice in the continued development of English as a truly international language. This voice helps preserve the diversity of cultural thought patterns even as it adds lushness to English expression that only a choir of culturally varied voices could provide. As one Southeast Asian student writes of her English graduate school experience in Australia:

I have now realised more consciously how useful and valuable writing in two tongues is to my creation and choice making. If the English norms give me the privilege to assert myself with the use of constant “I” and spell out my intentions in “maps,” then [my local language] norms legitimise my employment of poetic language and create a subtle flow in writing. As the English norms require me to explain everything explicitly, why do I have to hide my emotional feelings as well as show my engagement with the topic? [4]

Though not originating in a theological context, this quotation speaks volumes about the possibilities of English in global theological dialogue. Theology articulates the deepest truths of our being, the most foundational truths of our entire worldview. This reality demands a church that reaches across all cultures in effort to understand and thereby worship God more fully. As the ancient Augustine amazes us with his elated eloquence and penchant for sudden doxologies, so might the Western church need its rhetorical standards stirred by brothers and sisters of more exuberant, and maybe even exultant, expression. There are certainly dangers in English as a common theological language, but the dialogue it enables will ensure that theological famine relief is a two-way exchange. [5]

[1] Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Westminster John Knox Press: 2005), 323.
[2] G. Ferguson, C. Pérez-Llantada, C., and Plo, R. “English as an International Language of Scientific Publication: A Study of Attitudes.” World Englishes 30, no. 1 (2011), 41-59.
[3] “Foreword: What in the World is Contrastive Rhetoric?” In Contrastive Rhetoric Revisited and RedefinedEdited by Clayann Gilliam Panetta, vii-xx. (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001), xv.
[4] R. Viete and P.  Ha, “The Growth of Voice: Expanding Possibilities for Representing Self in Research Writing.” English Teaching: Practice and Critique 6, no. 2 (2007), 50-51.
[5] For further exploration of this topic see Cheri Pierson and Will Bankston, “English for Bible and Theology: Understanding and Communicating Theology Across Cultural and Linguistic Barriers.” Teaching Theology and Religion 16, no. 1 (2013), 33-49.