My 9-year-old son loves electric cars, especially Teslas. I read an article in The Washington Post, however, arguing that electric cars are all hype, and I knew my son would be interested. So in a rare moment of privilege for him, I handed him my iPad and said, “Take and read.”
My son is the kind of reader for whom they invented the word “avid.” But he couldn’t read the article. He said, “Dad, I don’t understand this.” I took another look. Here was the first line:
With a new decade starting, it’s time for conscientious columnists to undergo self-administered decennial performance reviews.
For the past 10 years, I’ve waged a quixotic counteroffensive against electric-car boosterism, raining skepticism on the vehicles’ potential to cure climate change, much less to be the clean green wave of the transportation future.
Clearly, this isn’t for 9-year-olds.
I suddenly realized I hadn’t read the article through his eyes. I knew he’d be interested in its overall ideas; I forgot that his 9-year-old experience just didn’t extend to things like “columnists,” and that he’d never been through anything “decennial.”
This experience led me to ask, What makes reading some things difficult sometimes for some people?
This is a helpful question for Bible teachers to ask, because if we don’t use intelligible words, we will fail to edify. What Paul said of (untranslated) tongues surely applies, with most audiences, to words like “decennial”:
If with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. (1 Cor. 14:9)
Why, Paul? Tongues are so fun! Because, he says:
The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. (1 Cor. 14:5)
Edification requires intelligibility. You won’t build people up if they don’t understand what you’re saying. Paul repeats this principle no less than nine times in 1 Corinthians 14.
How does this principle apply to Bible teaching? I have two pieces of advice.
1. Know Your Audience
I’ve leaned hard enough on 1 Corinthians 14 in recent writing about Bible translation that I’ve started to get little comments from readers every time I use a difficult word. They say it’s “ironic” that I would use artful, difficult, or recondite (!) language. I’m the all-reading-ought-to-be-easy guy, right?
Not exactly. I try to suit my words to my audience. When I write stuff, it’s often for seminary-educated Bible nerds who read a lot. I have the freedom to stretch English as far or high as I can take it. My readers understand decennial, quixotic performance reviews, and I get a green wave of them rained on me on a regular basis.
But one of the great privileges of my life was to lay aside every weighty word, and the syntax that doth so easily beset me, for the souls I preached to every week for five and a half years in an urban mission work.
Edification requires intelligibility; you won’t build people up if they don’t understand what you’re saying.
I loved whittling away words that weren’t simple and clear; I loved working to find the words that were appropriate to the ears in front of me. I had my own Master’s example to follow.
It isn’t wrong for Don Carson to use “variegated nomism” in the title of a book; it’s good for Kevin Vanhoozer to utilize Balthasar’s “theodrama.” These are educated men speaking to a particular audience. Demanding vocabulary can be both efficient and beautiful in that setting. But both men can also speak more simply, and to great effect. And they either won’t use those words, or they’ll explain them as the situation—or audience—demands.
2. Distinguish Between Words and Things
Also helpful here is distinguishing words from the things they point to. Obviously, tree (English) and arbol (Spanish) point to the same “thing,” the same concept. There is no necessary relationship between sign and signified. Each language has different conventions for relating particular signs to particular things in the real world.
Keeping this distinction in mind will help you suit your words to your audience.
The word “decennial” provides a good example. The thing—the concept—isn’t hard to understand: it means something that happens every 10 years. Decennial is just a highfalutin way of saying it. It’s in a higher social register of English; understanding it gives you membership at a certain level of the “educated” club. If someone doesn’t understand “decennial,” it’s the word and not the concept that’s causing the difficulty.
Biblical-theological words like propitiation and justification are the same. I don’t think it’s hard to understand appeasing or satisfying the wrath of a deity, or receiving a not-guilty verdict from a judge. Just toss a good word picture into your Bible teaching and people will get the concept. I always think of God’s wrath “abiding” over the wicked (John 3:36) like the dark cloud above the head of a cartoon character. Every sin increases the size and darkness of the cloud, and one day it’ll burst. Christ propitiated the Father’s wrath by standing for me in the courtroom and letting that cloud burst on his own shoulders. The concepts are accessible; it’s the words that are hard, because they are rare.
Gifted Bible teachers who love the truth and love their neighbors find ways to connect people’s knowledge of things with their conventional biblical labels.
Gifted Bible teachers who love the truth and love their neighbors will find ways to connect people’s knowledge of certain things with their conventional biblical labels.
The word quixotic, by contrast, provides an example of a thing, a concept that isn’t commonly known among plowboys. Quixotic means “naively idealistic and impractical like Don Quixote.” But Quixote isn’t well known to the average American. Teachers using the word “quixotic” will have to explain the thing it points to, or they will fail to edify.
“Mandrakes” is a biblical word. Like “quixotic,” it’s a word that points to a thing your hearers likely won’t know. Mandrakes show up in the biblical story twice: once during the story of Rachel and Leah in Genesis 30 and once in the love poetry of Song of Songs (Song 7:13). American suburbanites will know neither what mandrakes are nor what role they played in the Ancient Near East.
Good Bible teachers illuminate the word by explaining the thing.
Some of this can be picked up from context. Mandrakes were clearly considered to be promoters of fertility. (And Songs of Songs adds that they’re “fragrant.”) But in order to teach Genesis 30 to others, good Bible teachers will have to illuminate the word by explaining the thing.
What’s a Sheol? Same problem. In fact, the word Sheol—used in multiple other English Bible translations—is possibly a bit of a cop-out, indicating that translators themselves aren’t confident about what the thing called a Sheol is. So they don’t translate—they transliterate (the Hebrew word is שְׁאוֹל [sheol]). Good Bible teachers will pick up on this and explain the thing so people can be edified by the word.
Is Your Language for God’s Glory or Yours?
There are sins and temptations available in the parts of the dictionary that the man on the street—Tyndale’s plowboy—doesn’t frequent.
One is arrogance. I was that kid, the annoying and pretentious spelling-bee champion who purposefully read the dictionary to learn words that would make other people feel dumb. Don’t do that. The tongue is a “world of iniquity,” and linguistic ostentation is a sin of which it’s well capable.
Our words are supposed to be an offering to others. They’re a service.
Another is eloquence, or rather trusting it. Paul addresses this problem in his first letter to the troubled Corinthian church: “I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:1).
But as many have pointed out, the Bible is full of eloquence, and so are the Pauline letters. Biblical poetry is deep; biblical narrative art is subtle; there are literary devices galore on Scripture’s every page. The problem isn’t using literary art but trusting it—and, I’d add, using it with the wrong audience.
Our words are an offering to others, or at least they’re supposed to be. They’re a service. We must ask ourselves repeatedly: Will my audience know this word? Will they know this thing?
It might’ve been 10 years since you last asked yourself (or a discerning friend) if your language is truly suited to your audience. Maybe now’s a good time for a decennial performance review.