Theology and the English Language

by Virginia Owens

In the mid-1970’s Owens was a student at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 17, 1974, pp. 724-726. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Recent theological writing is imprecise and pretentious in the use of the language. More precision and clarity are needed in the writing of theology — along with a more careful examination of why and for whom it is being written.

For anyone surveying theology since the Reformation, English may seem the wrong language to examine. Surely German has been the language of theology for at least the past 400 years. But most theological work of note, in whatever language it is originally written, eventually gets translated into English, and it is through English that most of the world appropriates it, especially the theological students of North and South America and Asia. Since then the English language serves as a conveyor belt upon which ideas manufactured in Tübingen, Basel and Heidelberg -- or in Lyon, São Paulo and Uppsala -- are carried to the rest of the world, inspection of the machinery for possible faulty operation now and again might help to avert a breakdown along the way. I propose therefore to undertake at least a preliminary inspection, to offer a criticism of theology’s use of the English language.

Structures and Strictures

Language is one of those "visible and invisible" powers that we have to wrestle with. Language blesses us or enslaves us. It is a structure which makes chaos coherent, or it is a stricture which blocks the road to understanding. When the latter happens, language ceases to be the tool for transferring meaning from one person to others. No longer a basis for community, it becomes a barrier to understanding, a morass we must wade through to get to the other side. Even worse, it becomes not a tool but a weapon turned against ourselves. Such is the case of theology as presented in English today. I make no attempt to fix the blame for this situation, to say whether it lies with authors or with translators. Nor do I enter into the linguistic-analysis debate. My purpose is a much more homely one: to bring to the attention of writers and translators alike the bafflement in which their work leaves not only the American seminary student but also the besieged pastor in Bangkok or Bogotá.

This is not a call for a popularized version of theology, a Classic Comics series from Schleiermacher to James Cone. It is a call for more precision and clarity, whether in the initial work of composition or in the work of translation into English. And perhaps it is also a plea for more careful examination of why and for whom theology is currently written. As a service to the church, to the people of God? As a disguise for apologetics directed to an indifferent world? Or has theology fallen prey to the international beast that stalks all graduate schools: the desire to impress one’s colleagues and to develop a method of discourse so introverted that only the initiated can interpret it? There is more than one kind of speaking in tongues.

I take my cue from George Orwell’s "Politics and the English Language" (published in his Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays, 1945). The piece is a criticism of the way politics obscures meaning through slovenly use of words. In it Orwell lays down six basic rules for writers of English:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive when you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

To present-day theological writers these rules of Orwell’s, formulated in the 1940s, may seem somewhat simpleminded and even journalistic. There is about them a certain determined bustlingness that reminds one of the cleaning woman who turns you out in order to set your house to rights. His sleeves rolled up, a kerchief round his head and a feather duster in his hand, Orwell insists on whisking away all the filmy phrases you had draped with such studied negligence over the furniture. He throws out the flowers saved from the previous decade. He shakes the accumulated dust from the rugs and perhaps does not even put them back in the accustomed places. He opens the windows wide to let plenty of light and fresh air come in. And when he is through he stomps off stoically, knowing that the job will have to be endlessly repeated as long as humans continue to occupy the house.

Two Examples

Let me then take a few tentative swipes at the more obvious messes I have found around me as a student of theology. The two examples I choose, are from sources that will be easily accessible to both American and Third World pastors.

Such a problem would lead us to suggest that the only consistent alternatives would be either a radical, a historical translation as mentioned above, or -- if the historical framework of biblical thought were to be retained -- a systematic theology where the bridge between the centuries of biblical events and our own time was found in the actual history of the church as still ongoing history of God’s people. The blueprint of such a theology could be found in that self-understanding of Israel, both new and old, which descriptive biblical theology has laid bare as the common denominator of biblical thought. Such a theology would conceive of the Christian existence as a life by the fruits of God’s acts in Jesus Christ, rather than as a faith according to concepts deduced from the teaching of the prophets, Jesus, and Paul regarding God’s acts. It would exercise some of the same freedom which Paul’s and the other NT letters do when they refrain from any nostalgic attempts to play Galilee into their theology by transforming the teaching of Jesus’ earthly ministry into a system of theology and ethics [Krister Stendahl: "Biblical Theology, Contemporary," Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Abingdon, 1962), I, 428].

Modes of religious experience are . . . shaped by cultural patterns. When social change jars the patterns, conventional ways of experiencing the holy disappear. When the thickly clotted symbol system of a pre-urban society is replaced by a highly differentiated and individuated urban culture, modalities of religious experience shift. When this happens gradually, over a long time span, the religious symbols have a chance to become adapted to the new cultural patterns. The experience of the death of the gods, or of God, is a consequence of an abrupt transition which causes the traditional symbols to collapse since they no longer illuminate the shifting social reality [Harvey Cox, "The Death of God and the Future of Theology," New Theology No. 4 (Macmillan, 1967), p. 245].

Both these authors use a fair amount of metaphorical language -- an inevitability, since all language is in some way metaphorical. Even words that now signify the most abstract concept ("abstract" is a good example) once had quite concrete meanings. When one consciously uses concrete language to make the abstract visible or to interpret one concrete reality into another, then one is purposefully using metaphorical language. As Orwell says, "the sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image." But he goes on: "When these images clash -- as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot -- it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking."

Inept Metaphors

Stendahl begins by using architectural metaphors (framework, bridge, blueprint) and ends with a few miscellaneous figures (ongoing, laid bare, common denominator, the fruits, play Galilee into). In the first sentence, the main clause states that "the bridge between the centuries . . . was found [to be] ongoing." How interpret this image logically? Either the bridge has not yet been completed (which conflicts with the rest of the passage) or it is some sort of portable pontoon bridge. In the second sentence, descriptive biblical theology has "laid bare [a] blueprint [as a] common denominator." There seems to be no way of unscrambling such an image this side of Alice’s Wonderland. The next sentence contains only one clearly identifiable metaphor: "a life by the fruits of God’s acts in Jesus Christ." But just how are the fruits and the life related? Do the fruits sustain life? Are they to be cultivated? I find myself groping for meaning, especially when that phrase is juxtaposed with "a faith deduced according to concepts." Obviously (by the use of "rather than") these are meant to be polarities of Christian existence, but how and in what way?

"People who write in this manner," says Orwell, "usually have a general emotional meaning -- they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another -- but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying." Stendahl’s emotional meaning first peeps through with the phrase "refrain from any nostalgic attempts to play Galilee into their theology." The reader has little trouble discerning that Stendahl intends to express solidarity with the exercise of freedom represented by Paul’s letters and that he dislikes the other side. But what it is he dislikes: is obscured by its inept metaphorical presentation. "Play" in what sense? Pretend ? Reproduce electronically? Toy with? Since there is in the rest of the sentence no corresponding image to make clear which he means. we are left with only the vague feeling that Stendahl does not approve of such goings on.

Harvey Cox’s use of images suffers from the same malaise. He has social change jarring the patterns of experience. That is quite conceivable -- until we come upon the verb "disappear." Things don’t disappear because they are jarred; they get off center, perhaps they even shatter, but they don’t simply evaporate. Of course, being true to the metaphor here would mean an entire re-evaluation of the premise. Next we have a "thickly clotted symbol system," which at first seems to hold interesting possibilities. But it is being replaced by "a highly differentiated and individuated urban culture," which is not described in images at all and which completely drains the initial image of meaning. Finally, we have symbols "collapsing" because they do not "illuminate" "shifting" reality. One can imagine symbols as searchlights seeking out a fugitive reality lurking in the shadows. But if the searchlight fails, does it collapse? Again, as with the patterns disappearing because they are jarred, a desire to overstate the case lies behind the myopic use of images.

False Limbs

Orwell next attacks what he calls "operators or false limbs" -- the shoddy phrases that slip so easily from the tongue (or the typewriter) and fill such embarrassingly large blanks both in the thought processes and on paper that we actually grow rather fond of them. "Render inoperative," "militate against," "have the effect of" -- these replace the simple verb (break, stop, change) with a phrase that further dilutes the already weak, all-purpose verb it contains. Thus one avoids being labeled polemical.

Take for example Stendahl’s opening phrase, "would lead us to suggest that." This makes his assumption seem simultaneously tentative and incontrovertible. Observe also how heavily Stendahl leans on the passive voice and the subjunctive mood: was found, could be found, would conceive of, would exercise. Cox too leans on the passive: shaped by, is replaced by, become adapted. And noun groups like "religious experience," "social change," "conventional ways," "cultural patterns" have become verbal counters that can no longer be redeemed for much in the way of hard meaning.

The most obvious flaw of any specialized writing is the jargon it uses -- the insiders’ language. In certain cases jargon is necessary for the sake of precision. This is especially true in the sciences, which must coin words to describe phenomena not previously observed. DNA, for example, is most succinctly called DNA. In fact when a scientist writes for other scientists his language becomes practically incomprehensible to outsiders. But when he writes for interested nonscientists, he goes to a great deal of trouble to explain himself graphically, sometimes even picturesquely. Thus we have "the biological soup" as a description of DNA. Look now at theologians and biblical scholars. They rarely deal with new discoveries that require them to invent a specialized language. Yet they are attached to certain words and phrases, such as "timeless kerygma," that can only be explained as elitisms. Probably the worst thing about the Cox paragraph is its truckling imitation of scientific jargon. The "modes" of the first sentence become "modalities" by the middle of the paragraph. And the "modalities" shift in response to "highly differentiated and individuated urban culture." Suppose you are a black minister who does not care to swathe himself in the trappings of white theology’s pretensions to scientific clubbishness. What are you. to make of such a bloodless corpse of a phrase? What is anyone to make of it?

One problem that afflicts us Orwell was spared. Unaware of the imminent television age, he had only to worry about the degradation of the English language by newspapers, pamphlets and radio. Even in 1984 he did not foresee the sensory free-for-all that we are the battered victims of. We, however, must cope with a new type of jargon whose aim is not to demonstrate superiority but to make a splash in Media City. How do you compete with a television film showing the slaughter of villagers? You proclaim the death of God. How do you avoid being shoved into the background, or indeed off-camera, by black power? You write black theology. How do you meet the charge of the human potential movement that Christianity is all a head-trip? You "do" theology (Doing theology is not to be confused with taking up one’s cross.)

A Theological Responsibility

Lest we think that theology is absolved from responsibility for guarding the powers of language, lest we suppose that there exists no tradition we can draw upon to instruct us in this task, let us listen again to Orwell, certainly no spokesman for the church or Christianity. He translates into modern scholarly English a familiar passage:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

Then he quotes the original:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.